Saturday, February 28, 2009

Comparative Affection Studies

You suddenly spy them through the trees: the bent and broken pens, small dark houses with snow-caved roofs within, where once the family pet was exiled from life. Over days, over nights, he went slowly mad from sensory deprivation. The sight of these abandoned places--thank god, I think, that at least this one is no longer used--makes me involuntarily avert my eyes; as if I'd chanced upon a decaying crime scene. The original sense of horror is amplified by the sense that it happened here long ago. That ghost howls may be heard upon the wind, if one is unlucky enough to stand and stare. It was unheard when it occurred; now it must be heard forever more into the future, the cry of tormented souls without cease.

It is no easier, just different, to confront the dog of today in his lonely pen, or tied on a short rope that holds him back from getting near the house, or anyone to touch. There are still plenty of such solitary confinement cells here in this suburbanizing, formerly rural place. And now I am putting myself in the direct path of ten of them.

Every Friday afternoon, in a sort of return to the labors and convictions of my youth, when I walked dogs at the holding pens of the Akron, Ohio, humane society, I am now doing the same at Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption. This is a state-of-the-art facility, run by a woman who travels the country to lecture on the subject of the wellbeing of shelter dogs, but it still amounts to dogs kept alone in a box, no matter that the runs are clean and bright. The dogs are still desperate. The dogs still make me feel desperate. They lead me at the end of the leash, pulling me through the doors, and they are looking for something.

When someone close to you dies, your life stops too. Fluids refuse to move, frozen in the stems of your veins. The power source to the record player has been pulled, and the needle in the groove makes the sound of a sudden awkward decrescendo: BWOOooom. Then the music is gone.

If the someone is a dog, you might find yourself unable to go for a walk in the woods anymore; what would be the bloody point? The woods enter your senses through those of another, so that in effect you are joined together in one being, one being with two noses, four eyes. Your dog's happiness is so much yours that it alone makes the world spring into existence. Without her, no happiness or beauties are really there.

If a tree falls in the woods and there's no one to hear it, does it make a sound? If you walk in the woods and have no genie of a dog appearing and reappearing in the distance ahead of you, does the woods actually exist?

Look at the back of her head as she alerts. This vision draws you closer to her: it is the heart of tenderness, though nothing you could ever tell anyone else. Her ears are pricked up, reaching. The two tufts of hair on the inside quiver ever so slightly, and this is the split second of love.

As I stand in the kitchen this morning, shoveling cereal at high velocity into my mouth--no time to sit down, for it's a busy life--I watch two squirrels outside the sliding glass doors. They are linked together with invisible thread, moving like a single drop of mercury that occasionally breaks into two, then rejoins. Up, down, over the shrubbery. They draw sinuous lines; when one speeds up, the other does too. They search, combine, and react as if one, pixilated.

And I have seen a squirrel mourning the death of his other half, lying curled and partly smashed in the road. This loss: just before the dark hole of winter, when you need another half, badly. He stood up on his hind legs, as if needing to be closer to heaven to ask something; then crouched, turned, and ran. Just as quickly he turned back, ran over and sniffed her. What? But tell me: I don't understand. He was dancing alone now, the dance of disbelief. What has happened here? Oh, god, no.

Somehow, the absence of any possibility of telling him what has transpired (who has expired) was to me most painful. Confusion is more horrible than death; it is like seeing death come, and come, and come.

The dogs howl on the other side of their closed dutch doors. I can see them briefly through the bars on the window, leaping, throwing themselves at the portal which might, just might, open. When I do, they cannot be contained. I drop one leash, get the other on, pick up the first, fumble with a clip while this rotating madness hurls itself at all corners--this, now this is desperation. This fifteen-minute walk is an exercise in management only. They cannot "hear" the words of give and take, of the imagined positive-reinforcement training I was thinking I would give. Ha! No way in hell. Instead we go careening out over the icy snowbanks. I get dragged through muddy puddles on the driveway. They are searching, searching, madly. Then they pull me back to the door. There was something in there, wasn't there? At least there is something familiar there, in the face of the older woman who volunteers and serves them dinner, calling out to the sound of thuds on the other side of a door, "Hush now, there, Zee! You know, I'm coming. I can only move so fast."

I commit a terrible crime when I put them away. They suddenly see they're in front of the door of their cells, and then they pull back. No--no! Not in there! I don't want to go back in there, alone. And I pull them in. I throw a treat to the opposite corner, in a bid for a few seconds where I can close the door without them slipping back through at a run. Evil. I am a jailer, the one thing I never wanted to be in this life. But I have to be one, in order that they can have fifteen minutes of freedom at least.

I close the door, and the wails begin. They follow me out to the car. I want to get home and have a drink and not think about them again for a week, because it is like pain. It is like being left back there with them, alone and confused.

"Bye, sweet dog," I say. "Lovely dog." I have loved, and they have hoped, for a few minutes on Friday afternoon. The nights are long, and dark.


Dave Pollard said...

Astonishing, heart-wrenching, exquisite writing. Thanks for this, Melissa.

Beth P. said...

Brought here through Dave's post--
Thank you for this amazing piece, and for your gracious, broken heart.

I have one of 'those' dogs sleeping beside me right now. I don't think I could do what you do, I would go mad myself.

Many thanks--

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Thank you both for reading this.

My only hope, every time I return to the shelter, is that a dog has been taken in the meanwhile. (By people like us!) A dog from a shelter is a gift, no a double gift, no a triple gift. No. Priceless.

dagnygromer said...

We have 2 of those dogs in our family. Yes, they are priceless. We are also taking care of a dog whose person is seriously ill and in a care facility. His dog was alone in his home, another friend was going over to provide food and water. This had been going on several weeks. When we took the dog into our home, after a couple of days around people and other dogs, she just "came back to life". Right in front of our eyes.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Goodness, what a story! One hates to think about where the outside limit for such endurance is. Your image of the dog blooming back to life gives me chills--and is the sort of thing that leads people to speculate on whether or not dogs have the same apprehension of time that we do. Or whether they wisely live only in the present. Thank you for providing this happy ending. Whew.

JackPDB said...

It is remarkable how dogs will "come to life," how deeply ingrained in them is the understanding of human affection and company.

There was a story in the news couple of months ago about a North Carolina research lab that had gone bankrupt and abandoned their premises, leaving 200 test animals—beagles, in fact—behind. I saw some footage of the rescue volunteers moving in, checking out the dogs before shipping them out to various adoption agencies.

The dogs were in a jerry-rigged system of outdoor runs for the processing. These dogs had been raised in cages, many with no human contact at all; most of them had never touched the grass, nor seen the sun.

And yet they responded with calm to the human touch; even after all the trauma of their short lives, they understood love and gentleness. They will be damaged forever, but the means to their recovery is ever-present in their instincts, like an ancestral memory.
- - - - - - - - -
dog beds and more

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Jack, you've put your finger on it: dogs--like humans--are hardwired to respond to touch. (We are all pack animals.) In fact, we die without it, just as if we had no water, or no food.

The saddest thing, to me, is the animal (any animal, including the human one), left *alone*. I think it is also the saddest thing to them.