The morning of, it was brisk. The white fluff in the sky was moving very fast.
Shaking felt so good now that the collar was off. I'm sure she thought something was wrong with me. It was a way of stretching, prepping for the day to come.
I ate a lot, but not all of it. She put more into my bowl than usual. Wet. Beef and turkey. She'd changed the food recently and I liked this stuff better.
And what if I was hungry when I came back? She'd figured out I could get the door open. But she might not be here.
No point in waiting. I started down the alley head low, tail high.
Today marks the third year. I'd only had him for two.
Last year he came back near one in the morning with a gash in his side. I was very thankful that was all the damage done. For a half-shepherd-half-retriever, he's big enough to either start a fight or get himself out of one. I always thought he was too smart for the former.
Dog Day fulfilled a need: to keep the population low after the massive "super-rabies" outbreak, and to provide low-cost foodstuffs for the city's outrageous amounts of underclassed poor.
As if invoking some severe Darwinian simplicity a week before school was to begin, the city decreed August 15th, from dawn to dusk, all domesticated canines be untagged and released, forcibly if need be, from quarters and let to roam free. Wagons and trucks would be dispatched in the late evening to retrieve dead and truant animals, and submit them to a massive state-of-the-art processing plant.
If your dog(s), or any dogs for that matter, managed to return to you, you could keep it/them.
A lot of people stopped going hungry, and it created about a thousand jobs once a year.
The mayor loved it. Animal ethics board could not stand it. The city got a lot of press and the program caught on quickly.
Perhaps your dog was too loyal and wouldn't venture out on her own? You were to drop her off at designated facilities that would release her in a different area on the day of. Or you could drive her out yourself—but you had to surrender your pet. The fine for non-compliance was enormous.
Your neighbors could report you for a monetary reward if they heard barking or tipped the authorities that you may be harboring.
There are ways to get around all of this. But surprisingly, most don't bother.
Me, I think I'd thought of everything. And somehow, he chose for me. It was as if he wanted to go. Just had to.
I thought of the gash again. The colors in his fur.
The vet had said it was most likely a battle with something other than another dog. I could only imagine from there.
In the week following Dog Day, all vets were swamped. She'd looked exhausted, as if she wasn't sure she'd seen the worst of it yet.
I looked at the calendar. Sunday.
Then the clock. 8:50 a.m.
Sitting down at the kitchen table, I picked up his collar and tags, and began to weep.
In a wide backyard snuffing at the ground when I heard the screech nearby. A man-made sound followed by that of my brethren calling back and forth, frantic.
I didn't want to investigate. But I smelled blood, and blood could not be ignored.
A few corners away, two from the pack lay at the curb. A Sheltie with her rear legs smashed, attempting to crawl pathetically away on her front limbs, and a Dalmatian—dead and covered in blood.
The humans were inspecting their car from where they clipped a tree. Soon, they got back in it and drove slowly away, and the remaining pack dispersed also, save for some who sniffed greedily at the Dalmatian. I had gotten close enough to smell him and recognize... he was a dog I'd been walked with before. Belonged to an older human who cared very much for us in the way my young human did.
I let them have him and went to the Sheltie.
She panted and whimpered by a large oak. I knelt and bit her—quick and deep—at her throat. The blood came fast and she was asleep in no time. I licked at the dark grey pool that smelled so good. It made me thirsty.
When I looked up, the street was empty in all directions. The wise humans knew better and stayed off the road in their speed machines.
The scent of squirrel bloomed on the air going past my wet, black nostrils, and I trotted away.
I had fallen asleep on the couch, and woke up hungry.
I almost stepped on his collar getting up. It made me sad again to think I'd carried it over to the living room where I'd passed out.
The sun was bright and high, but I could tell it was still quite cold as I passed the front door and peeked out the side window. I opened the door, knowing the air would wake me up.
There on the top step was a dead squirrel.
Surprise and repulsion simultaneously made me smile. I stepped out over the carcass and looked both ways up the street. Nothing. Still, I wanted it to be a good sign.
I scooped it up with the salt shovel propped on the side of the porch and put it in the backyard.
If the squirrel wasn't his doing, maybe it would lure another dog back.
But that same thought again made my heart sink. Dog Day was easier last year. Somehow, this year was a lot harder...
Right on time, I heard the bells toll a call to mass and heaved a sigh.
I don't want another dog. I want him.
I passed a Dane and a Bichon Fraise banging and barking. The sun was high but it was cold as ever. My paws felt stiff as I trotted across a net of roads and toward the graveyard, still feeling thirsty. I knew the pond was there, and remembering last Dog Day's swim pulled me toward it.
Noon bells rang in the tallest tower making me jump. Not used to hearing them so close.
Then I thought of her. Most Sundays around this time she wasn't home. She'd be gone to the sound of the bells. She'd dress and dot on a scent that stung my nose like so much spicy rose-powder.
It felt good to jog. So I picked it up into a run and chased my breath headfirst into a flock of pigeons, dusting them up out of the grassy embankment rising beyond the graveyard parking lot.
Lazy dogs, skinny dogs, just waking from their mid-morning naps among stones and mausoleum doorways, trotted about. It was the closest thing to the park. Here, there were more trees and plenty of fresh territory to mark. I kept running. Taking the long way to the pond.
I liked the quiet when she walked me here. But she could never keep up with me off the leash like this. I was free to try my muscles under my own fur. To push my paws fast into the dew-sodden ground. Free to get dirty.
And speaking of dirty, I found the three sisters again.
A trio of Pugs who came to the pond last year when I was here. Tan, tan and black, and black. The Black one, the youngest, liked to roll in just about every manner of shitpile to be found. Although I, myself, didn't get into this sort of behavior, she smelled delicious.
The two elders had wobblier orbs for eyes and were tubbier. Their asses smelled the same and they were good swimmers. They were also very territorial. They barked and chased almost anything their size or smaller. They didn't mind me, tho'.
I got into the water almost immediately and they followed. We splashed and played to the sound of the tower bells and distant barking. It was freezing, but we still caught fish. A few more dogs joined us.
Soon I heard the rapid bangs. Two humans with shotguns were taking out any dog in sight. The elder Pug sisters went rabidly straight for them as they reloaded. We were surrounded by the sound of our brethren howling and yelping. I snatched the Black one by the neck scruff and took off with her in the opposite direction as fast as I could go while she wriggled and howled. More bangs and she yowled helplessly, going limp. We both knew her sisters had made their last stand.
The phone rang and it was Mrs. Sevenney.
"Please, call me Delane."
Normally she'd be walking Grayson, her Dalmatian, around now, but wanted to know if I wanted to take a walk instead. I was flattered she'd thought of me, and the fact that she was calling right when mass was starting. She certainly wasn't out to shame me for not being there. She was probably too preoccupied with the idea that if she did go out, she might run into her dog, or at least see a few running about. Even with the temptation to bring them home, it might give her some comfort. I felt the same.
"Let's go to the bakery on the far side of the cemetery boundary. I'm in the mood for a cheese blintz."
I thought perhaps her articulating a far away destination that had nothing to do with worship adequately hid her intentions from herself by showing them off to me. I wondered what sort of games I would play on myself when I, too, got to be so much older.
I grabbed a shower, a banana for the walk (happy that my appetite had come back, too), and headed for her house.
When I put Black down by a set of those big boxes humans throw food into all the time, she tried to run back in the direction we'd come. I scooped her again and brought her back to the spot. I knew there would be something I could scrounge for her here, if only she'd let herself rest.
She barked wildly, scaring off some other dogs who had come near. Her warning, me panting. I licked where I thought I had bitten into her neck scruff. Not tasting blood but flesh. Everything going across my nose was thick and blissful.
She whined a moment and sat, giving in. We lay and watched and waited. I put my head on my paws and started to dream.
We read the sign on the cafe door at the same time "CLOSED For DOG DAY." Police cars rocketed past us toward the church, and a dark feeling came over me. I felt distracted and lonely. Imagination plagued by the phantom jingle of Raf's collar.
Delane saw my face. She gave me a long look and a half-smile as she stood square to the front of me.
"Oh my, Lourdis. Dog Day is hard for all of us, but I sense you're having a rough time with this one. Why don't you say what's on your mind?"
She was right. I realized just then that I'd been having crying jags the whole week leading up to this. Was I preparing for the trauma of a loss or just generally rocked by the uncertainty of it all? The deep-seated existential drama had been overwhelming me. When I had gone to the book for guidance, I realized the last passage I read was about faith. So very much relied on this. Somehow it left me feeling further unmoored. I asked a question I didn't even know had been considering:
"Why do we avoid mass when we are at our lowest? Do we think God won't understand our lack of faith? Why do we hide right when we need God the most?"
Her smile grew wistful. She looked thoughtfully at the sky. "The reasons for that are bound to change. We change. Change inside, especially when we're not looking. It seems the only place God is all the time, is out in the whole wide world. Most answers are found there in any case."
Effortlessly, she took my arm and we kept walking.
I felt a bit foolish with this wise woman—all wrinkles, white hair and clear blue eyes next to me—simplifying all these questions down to their most essential parts. Under the pressure of my turn to speak, I made a face.
"I feel caught up in something I just don't understand. I mean, come on, how will I feel next year?"
Delane gave me a look. "My dear, don't think of that."
A moment passed. She sighed into the air that made a lazy cloud at her mouth. "I know Grayson isn't going to make it back." She said.
I burst into tears right then. "No. Oh no." I bawled. I was falling apart. We stopped and she put her arms around me.
"Lourdis… Grayson was a good dog. You know, ever since Jeffrey I've learned to let go. Loss has a way of returning. Gain and abundance were always unexpected gifts anyhow."
We walked and walked, ignoring the unseasonable cold. Letting the tears come. The afternoon slipped away into a dusk where you notice the streetlights coming on. The day was moving on just like all the days before it, and for just this reason a wave of gratitude came over me.
In the dream I was chasing birds and catching some. Every time I went to eat one, it disappeared. There was no blood, and no other dogs but me around. The birds started talking like humans do. Louder and louder…
Black barked and sent a nearby cloud of pigeons into the air, which startled me awake. She was already halfway down the alley, being carted off by a group of young humans. One with a strong wooden stick. One with two other dogs, exhausted but willing, on strings for leashes. Two more young humans swinging branches. She was writhing, trying to get out of the grip of the scrawniest, filthy boy-runt.
I didn't bark at first as I stalked after them toward the avenue. When Black saw me she yelped and I turned on the loudest, angriest call I could. I snarled and jumped after the tallest one and I felt a smack on my hind quarters before they all went running in separate directions. The small boy dropping Black after a few strides.
They called after us as we lost them running. Running and running across a schoolyard.
When we finally stopped, I sniffed the air between pants. We weren't lost, only very far away from the shapes and scents I remembered.
But I did remember them.
Watching Delane sip tea and recross her legs at my kitchen table, I leaned against the backdoor and managed a smile. She was a picture, smiling back. The lights were on—challenging the dark beyond the door—and for the moment, the feeling that civilization was about to yawn open into a pit of snakes beneath me had passed.
I looked back, deep into the night dotted with other lights that seemed far away. The breeze changed then and something felt oddly electric.
Delane quietly gasped my name, and I watched her leave the table and come toward me as if led on by her own gaze. When she pushed past to open the screen door, there it was. A pair of eyes and nose dressed in black on black. She had only spotted it by its red-eye reflex from where she'd been sitting. A pug. Tired and panting. Delane was absolutely elated.
Looking the animal over for bites and injuries, she made noises of glee. I was just as interested, but instead found myself turning away—out the door and into the yard.
"Raphael!" I couldn't help myself from calling. Hating the twinge of desperation in the tone of my voice. My breath caught in my throat along with my heartbeat.
If I were a dog, I'd have smelled him already on the warm changing air. This panic would be different. It would be simply an alertness and a desire to run and maybe to howl, and that running would be freedom and that howl would be faith.
Faith. In the face of the storm of life.
Then, as if out of the endless pause hanging like a mist, padding thru the yard and up to me he came. A kind of angel. My dog.
I dropped to my knees and instinctively gave him the same once-over for battle damage while he slobbered languidly over my face, licking up streaming tears. "God, you need a bath." I laughed aloud to him and to myself, not really caring that he smelled.
Delane appeared at my side, holding the pug like it had always been hers. She reached over and patted Raf gently at the ears.
"Thank you. Thank you, angel," she said.