Pete laughed now, looking down at my brother.
"Hey, look here!" he called back through the open doorway into the kitchen. "She's got a puppy!"
Stay!: Keeper's Story
The other dishwashers appeared, each wiping his damp hands. They all looked down at Tug, who was trying to maintain his jaunty appearance, though I could tell, because I knew him well, that he was nervous. His tail was quivering slightly, and his ears—still puppy ears and therefore not completely under his command—were not entirely erect.
Pete squatted and picked him up. For a human with such large hands and such a loud voice, he was surprisingly gentle, and he knew to cradle Tug's bottom in the palm of his hand. I could tell, though, how frightened my brother must be, suddenly for the first time ascending into the air with his thin legs dangling. I could see his brown eyes peering down in panic.
Then I heard a roar of human laughter.
"Gotcha, Pete!" one of the dishwashers called.
"Look at that," Pete said. "Peed right into my hand!"
It confirmed what I had guessed: that Tug was frightened. No self-confident dog would have lost control that way.
"Lemme see it," one of them, a thin black man, said. He took Tug from Pete, who rubbed his damp hand on his apron. "I've been promising my kid a puppy. Is this male or female?" I could see him lift my brother's little tail and peer at his bottom.
The four men all leaned over and peered. There is an amazing lack of privacy in a dog's life.
"Female," one said finally.
"Yeah, female," the others agreed.
Oh, the humiliation I felt on Tug's behalf.
"If you don't want her for your kid, I'll take her home. My girlfriend wants a dog," the tallest man said. "And she said she wants a female."
"Females are gentler. Females never bite," Pete announced, as if he were the voice of wisdom. I realized then what a fool he was. There was no truth at all to what he said.
"I want her," the thin black man decided.
I don't know if Tug understood this conversation and knew that his fate was being determined. It takes a while for a dog to learn the language of humans, and Tug was not the most intelligent of our litter. I am not inclined to vanity. But I will explain that my sister, Wispy, was not much interested in study or education. She had listened politely to my delighted discovery of rhyme and had asked a few cordial questions, but Wispy was hardly a scholar. And of my two brothers, Tug, the elder and braver, was ... well, all right, I'll say it—not at all bright. Tussle, the playful one, had an endearing love of a good romp and a more congenial personality than Tug, but no intellectual curiosity at all.
No, it was I alone among my litter who had paid attention to the nuances of human speech. It was I who understood exactly what the dishwashers were saying as they passed Tug around and planned his future.
And I knew what the words meant when I heard Pete say, "If there's one puppy, there'll be more! Let's take a look!"
I had just a few seconds to hide under the corner of a nearby flattened cardboard carton, but there was no time to waken and warn my remaining brother or my sister as the quartet of aproned men approached our secret home in search of pets.
Stay!: Keeper's Story
Stay!: Keeper's Story
I LAY TREMBLING UNDER THE DAMP, warped cardboard, trying to make myself small. I was small, of course, still a partially grown pup. Though we were clearly descended from distinguished members of herding and hunting breeds (none of those miniatures or toys designed only for laps were in our background, I am certain), I was still of a size that could be held in one large human hand. And I was frighteningly aware that several sets of such hands were approaching my hiding place. I tried to make myself invisible by stretching my body and legs out as flat as possible. Suddenly I experienced once again an impulse toward poetry, born of panic.
Flee! Flee! Flee! were the words that came to my mind as I cringed there in terror. Then, unbidden, they were followed by Gotta pee! Gotta pee! and though it was true enough, my physical urge brought on by fear, what caught my attention was the sound of the rhyme. For a brief second I almost forgot my precarious position as I felt a desire to play more with the words, to rearrange them in a more pleasing way. But the danger that confronted me won out, and I postponed any poetic yearnings in order to concentrate on remaining hidden. I thought nervously about my tail.
I was not certain whether my tail was exposed. Surprisingly, a dog does not have much awareness of his own tail. Pride in it, certainly; my own, though still young and incomplete, was beginning to show signs of developing into a particularly magnificent tail, fringed and straight. But awareness of its minute-to-minute placement was difficult to achieve without actually turning around to look and assess.
"Here they are!" It was the voice of Pete.
"Looky there. I thought she was eating a lot." The thin black man was speaking. His voice was not at all cruel, just concerned.
I did not dare to peek. They were quite near. I hoped my tail, if it was exposed, would not move and betray me. Considering its importance as an appendage, the sad lack of control over one's tail is astounding.
I could hear the men talking. "Counting the one Pete's got, three of them little buggers. They're cute, aren't they?"
"Maybe I'll take two home instead of just the one. Whaddaya think? Will my girlfriend kill me if I take two?"
"Nah. Women like puppies. She'll start talking babytalk to them the minute you walk through the door."
"Find me another female, would you?"
I waited, shivering and listening, as they picked up Tussle and Wispy. I pictured the embarrassing scrutiny taking place.
Then I cringed, crouching there under the cardboard; and probably my tail, unwilled by my brain, wiggled in humiliation for my brothers (and I was glad that they had not learned the nuances of human speech, and so would not know) as once again the dishwashers, almost in unison, pronounced each puppy to be female.
I heard the men gather them up. I heard the frightened whimpers. I did nothing. What could I do? I stayed hidden.
I have carried that guilt with me all my life.
"This one don't look too good," someone said. I knew he must be referring to Wispy. Her fur was so discolored and sparse. I would like to think there was compassion in his voice.
"Ah, bring it along. If nobody wants it, we'll drop it off at the animal shelter."
My heart leaped. I knew the word shelter and that it meant, for humans at least, food and clothing and a bed. Sometimes, on rainy nights, several human occupants of the alley where I had lived since my birth decided to go to "the shelter." It was crowded, I had heard them say, noisier than they liked, and lacking in privacy, but in times of stress and need, it was a place of comfort and respite.
I had not known that there was an animal shelter, too.
"Yeah," I heard Pete say as they headed toward the restaurant door, their aprons weighted with puppies. "They'll put it to sleep at the shelter."
I was relieved. Maybe, I thought, I should have revealed myself and gone along. To be put to sleep—after some food and perhaps warm milk and some playtime—sounded like an appealing thing, and would no doubt involve some nice ragged blankets, free of fleas.
I wriggled free of my cardboard and scampered toward the restaurant door.
"Wait!" I yipped. "I was here all along! I'm part of the group! Can I go? Can I be put to sleep?"
But the door had closed.
Night was coming, I noticed.
Sadly I plodded back to the corner behind the trash cans. I curled up, my tail all the way around to my chin, and tried to get comfy. I began to play with rhyming words again. All alone! What to do?
Brothers gone! Sister, also!
Very quickly, thinking it over, I realized my mistake and corrected it to Sister, too! How pleasant it sounded, with the words in order, and in rhyme. What a comfort poetry could be in one's life. At that point, cold and lonely, I needed what comfort I could find.
Stay!: Keeper's Story
Mother had been away for hours. She had never left us for such a long time before. As much as I longed for her, and her warm belly to sleep against, and the supply of milk that it always provided, I dreaded seeing her face when she returned and found her babies gone.
Finally, still waiting, I dozed off.
I woke again, chilly, sometime in the night. I wiggled my nose and sniffed Essence of Mother, that particularly reassuring smell that said she was nearby. But the familiar scent seemed slightly different. It was mingled with Essence of Other Dog, Male. Puzzled, I yawned, sneezed once, and raised my head to look around.
There she was, at the end of the alley. I stretched, tiptoed over to the side of the trash can, and peered around to get a good look. My mother was standing there with a tall, dark, and handsome Doberman. She was ... well, I guess the only word would he flirting. Her tail was moving with a very contrived swish, and she arched her neck to rub against the Doberman's sleek shoulders. It was cheap, trashy behavior, in my opinion, and I was shocked to see it.
I whimpered and she glanced my way. I am quite certain she saw me. Her left ear twitched.
I tried a small bark. Now her escort, the Doberman, looked over at me with bored eyes. Impatiently he turned back to her, and she sighed. They nuzzled each other for a moment more; then he turned and trotted away while Mother watched.
Quickly I scampered back to the hidden place, flopped down, and pretended to be asleep. I waited. I could hear her approaching, but her steps were slow and reluctant. In the past she had always hurried back to us, checked out our well-being with an affectionate nose, and arranged herself protectively around our little group.
Now, though, she sighed and pawed restlessly at the ground, barely seeming to notice me. I had thought I would comfort her in her grief at the loss of the other puppies. But she seemed not to be aware that they were gone. She looked longingly at the corner behind which the Doberman had disappeared.
I whimpered again slightly, but she paid no attention, and I did not want to seem like a whiner. Finally she settled restlessly beside me, acknowledging that her evening on the town was over.
I sensed that she was bored with motherhood and eager to resume life as a party girl. I didn't blame her, really; she was young yet—only three, I think—and in the way of dogs still had ahead of her a lifetime of flirtations, love affairs, and no doubt (though I did not want to think about it) other puppies yet to come.
I licked one paw, pretending to be very concerned about a small bit of damp newsprint stuck to my fur, and glanced at her to see if she was interested in my grooming, as she once would have been. She tended to me in a businesslike way, but her thoughts were clearly elsewhere.
Did she not notice that her puppies were gone? I think she did, in truth. She pawed a bit at the sleeping place, puzzled by the change. Then she seemed to accept things as they were. She sighed, sat tensely for a moment, then relaxed into a sleeping position, and finally closed her eyes and slept. I did the same, but my dreams were anxious and uncertain: dreams about finding my own way in the world; dreams about being all alone.
When morning came, I knew that my dream had been more than that. It had been an omen. My mother's sleeping place was empty. In the intuitive way of dogs, I realized that she would not be back.