Mary knelt, pushed up the rusted metal latch on the kennel door and crawled inside, a leash hanging around her neck, pockets bulging with small plastic bags and treats. The cement floor was still damp from the morning’s spray down, a half-hearted attempt to wash away the sweat and soil of a twelve hour night spent in solitary confinement. The space smelled of bleach, and her eyes began to burn at the edges from the residual fumes. Her pants were already darkening at the knees from the moisture as she secured the kennel door and squatted quietly in the far right corner of the enclosure, eyes downcast and non-threatening, body turned to the side, just as she had learned in her classes on how to interact with a new dog.
The muddy brown bitch cowered in the run, only four feet away, visibly shaking and occasionally whining. Soft, puffing spurts of air caused the flaps of her mouth to rise and fall. Mary sensed this girl was simply scared, not aggressive as the florescent yellow card on her cage indicated, the word WARNING imprinted in large, block letters; however, after a year volunteering at the city animal shelter, Mary had learned that a scared dog could act in surprising ways, abandoning its normal responses to locate something more primal. A frightened dog was unmoored, no longer knew itself: sometimes docile, sometimes barring its teeth to warn whatever it feared and sometimes, albeit rare, to lunge and bite. Mary knew this and respected the small mass of fur crouched in the corner, trying its best to shrink, to disappear, its curved black nails scraping along the slippery linoleum, eyes darting about searching for an escape.
Mary sat in the far corner of the run, patiently, lead in hand, ready to accept and assist the bitch whenever she felt able. “Little Mama”. The intake staff had named her Little Mama. She was tagged and numbered on a slip of dingy white paper that encircled her lean neck. It was the dog’s third day at the shelter, and she was still adjusting – as if one could ever adjust – to the yelps, barks and growls of countless other dogs caged alongside her; to the slam and bang of the kennel door as staff, volunteers and prospective adopters moved and shopped up and down the aisles; to the rumble of buckets, sloshing dirty water and carrying frightening mops, inched into each run several times a day to try and clean the feces and urine. A never ending battle. Little Mama hung her head and curved her body into a question mark, a makeshift fuzzy ball that seemed to ask, “Now what?”
She finally looked at Mary, her nose quivering, her weight shifting a bit on her haunches, but she did not move closer, offered no other signs of welcome. So Mary sat some more, cooing soft words of encouragement: “It’s ok, sweetheart. It’ll be ok…Don’t be afraid.” She sang these words over and over, forming a soft mantra to envelope the dog, to begin to build a bond and a sense of trust. She pushed small bits of dog biscuits out onto the floor, a small crumb-trail leading ever closer to Little Mama. When all else failed, an empty stomach usually beat out terror; even the most fearful still had to eat.
Mary liked working with the scared dogs the best. She connected with them, their fear, their sense of bewilderment. She imagined each lolling tongue and dark eye asking her, “How did I end up here?” Mary knew that it took days for a new animal to settle, to understand the routines of the shelter, to comprehend that it was no longer free. Many found their way there via the city’s animal control force, picked up as they roamed the streets. The sight of a stray dog awoke some kind of primitive panic or latent disgust in the hearts of many city residences fearful that the animal might attack or wreck havoc on trash cans and gardens. Still others pets were dropped off, deposited like a sack of recycling or clothes for Goodwill, by owners who no longer had use for their pet. Moving….can’t take it. Pregnant…can’t handle a dog and a baby. This dog just got too big. It chewed my sofa….It sheds. The excuses never dried up and neither did the stream of animals being left at the shelter’s door. People always justify their actions, no matter how absurd or barbaric.
Three days earlier, a kennel attendant who arrived early for his morning shift, found the abandoned dog outside. Tied to the shelter’s fence with a bit of rope, she was still bleeding from giving birth to a litter, her teats swollen, her eyes glassy; she had laid in the dirt and weeds, surrounded by bits of broken bottles and cigarette butts, tethered to a fence. The tired dog seemed to no longer care. Her body ached, her heart beat only to feed her puppies and smell their feet, lick the sleepy goo from their eyes. The kennel attendant took her in, named and processed her, and started some antibiotics. He placed her in an empty run and was kind enough to add extra bedding to comfort the dog. The puppies were no where to be found. Little Mama, milk-swollen teats hanging heavy between her legs, accepted her fate.
Now, she sat now in a stupor, shaking and exhausted, buried in the back of a run while Mary tried to approach her and take her outdoors. Mary saw Little Mama’s engorged teats and could tell the bitch had born many litters. She felt a pain shoot through her chest thinking of the puppies, of their mother being pulled from them and left on a fence line. Sometimes the horror of humans repulsed Mary. She now found she preferred the company of animals, the quiet conversations held while she walked the shelter dogs, scratched behind their ears and rubbed the smooth place in the hallow of their throat.. So much more truthful, thought Mary, to simply stroke a dog’s chest and to know that a heart beat inside it, pure and strong. No pretense. No guile. No ego or games. She bent her head and inched a wee bit closer to Little Mama, still leading with pieces of liver treats and speaking in a steady, soft voice. “I’m so sorry, little one. So sorry for your loss.” She felt her voice waver and blinked her eyes repeatedly to combat the tears waiting just behind the surface. She stared at the bitch’s breasts, so ready to give life to others, and then, unconsciously, raised a hand to her own, touching it through her thick sweatshirt, PURDUE emblazoned on the front.
“Abnormal density in right breast. Test results inconclusive. Please reschedule.” The letter had stated it all so simply, black text on white paper. Frank and clinical. Mary’s stomach had dropped when she read the words. Dutifully she had gone back to the clinic again and again, and each mammogram gave the same murky reading. She had undressed, shrugged on the flimsy cotton gown, closing it in the front – as instructed -, and had stepped countless times into the cool depths of the radiologist’s office where the machines dwarfed the technicians and emitted strange humming noises that made Mary‘s toes curl. Mary had offered her breast to the machine, allowing this tender part of herself to lay on the plastic slab and to be pressed flat, pictured, scanned and fingered. Each time she chose to focus on a spot on the wall, a spot where water had once stained the perfect skim of white paint. A spot that was shaped like Japan.
She removed her hand from her breast and was now just inches from Little Mama, who was still shaking but did not seem further upset by Mary’s presence. Head bowed, she ate the small bits of kibble gingerly and once looked up at Mary, her watery brown eyes filled with something unreadable. She returned her gaze to the floor. Mary smiled and continued to make small, subtle movements toward the dog, holding out her hand to allow a good sniff. Palm open, she waited minutes for Little Mama to be curious, to drop her cool wet nose to the fingertips offered her. A small lick ensued and Mary felt her heart leap. Carefully she stroked the brown dog’s side and sat herself next to her, who was all fur and bones. “We’re gonna be ok, Little Mama. I promise you.”
Mary rhythmically ran her hands along the dog’s knotty spine and spoke quietly to her, telling her about the world outside, the letters from the doctor’s office, the way the sunlight filtered through her bedroom window in the morning, lighting up a comfortable patch of bed and the photo on the dresser of her mom, who died from cancer when Mary was ten. Mary talked and Little Mama listened. There was no hurry. And to Mary this was the beauty of the dog. All ears and heart and boundless dedication when given the proper care.
The kennel door banged open and both winced at the violence of the sound. An attendant sauntered by, pushing a cart of cleaning supplies and fresh towels, and glanced in the run, at Mary seated in the corner with the scrawny new dog. He did a double-take but kept going, earbuds in and a white cord dangling into a pocket where his IPOD shouted garage-band music to drown out the current reality. Mary knew it was odd to sit inside a run. Most volunteers grabbed a dog, quickly slipped on a Martingale collar, and took off out of the building, eager to get the animal running, to let it relish the feel of sunshine and fresh air. But Mary liked to sit for a bit, to get to know the dog she was going to walk, especially with the scared ones. It would be wrong to force them to leave the safety of their run, as bad as it could be, before the dog was ready. Mary wanted the dog to know it had a choice and she would respect it. Choices were important.
And the doctors had told her, after the ultrasound and the hour in the MRI machine that went CHA-CHUNK-CHUNK-CHING, CHA-CHUNK-CHUNK-CHING while she lay face down in the plastic tunnel, that she, Mary, had choices. She could have radiation therapy. Chemotherapy. A mastectomy. She had choices for how to treat this cancer that ate away at her breast. But she must decide soon because no one knew how quickly it would spread. No one knew what was happening inside the cells of her body, at what rate they were turning against the flesh that had created and homed them.
Mary felt the ribs beneath the dirty fur, brushed off bits of dander and dust, and looked into Little Mama’s eyes for the first time. She felt the tears threatening again so she carefully placed the collar over the dog’s head, hooked the lead, and prepared her to take a walk outside. A walk always made things seem better. The girl did not resist and allowed Mary to coax her outside the run, to begin the long walk down the shiny floors that provided little traction. They hurried past cage after cage of impounded dogs, some bouncing off the walls of their run, others sitting patiently, looking outward with raised eyes, waiting for someone to walk by and notice them, and still others sleeping in perfect circles, noses tucked under tails, somehow able to escape the deafening cacophony of the shelter through unconsciousness.
Little Mama scurried along, pendulous teats swinging to and fro as she dashed past the other dogs, uncertain of her destination but deciding that this human, who offered her treats and soft pats, was the best thing she had experienced in a long, long time. Why not take a chance? Little Mama had a choice and she took it. She trotted at Mary’s heels toward something unknown, urged faster down the corridor by the braying of the ones still locked inside their cells, trying to ignore the ache in her chest, the heaviness of her teats that burned for the mouths of her pups.
Mary knew what to do. She’d been at this for a year now, and she moved Little Mama down the thirty feet of hallway, making sure to place her body between her escort and the rest of the runs. She kept the lead taught and tried to be gentle, but firm. She made it to the kennel door, pulled it open and yelled, “Coming Out!” It was critical to alert other walkers and staff to an exit. Little Mama poked her head outside the door and caught her first whiff of life outside the run. The hallway from the kennels to the large metal door that lead outside, to the bits of grass and fenced pens that served as playgrounds for those lucky dogs marked as suitable for off-leash romps, was long and narrow. The cinder-block walls boasted pictures of animal success stories and thank-you notes from happy adopters. But there were also the bulletin boards where dozens of faces gazed out from Xeroxed signs…the lost ones, the pets who had gone missing, those that had jumped a fence or wandered off a trail. Mary glanced at dozens of images and bold-face type: LOST, REWARD, HELP. Suddenly she felt resistance at the end of the leash and tried to reassure Little Mama. “Not much further. C’mon. That’s a good girl.” Now used to her small, fenced space, and the battery of noises around her, Little Mama felt perplexed. Maybe this adventure wasn’t such a good idea. What did she know about this human anyway besides the fact that she smelled faintly of mud and offered liver treats in the palm of her hand? Little Mama had been wrong before.
But then Mary pushed open the final door and pulled Little Mama outside, the bright sunlight causing her eyes to blink and her senses to quiver. Mary slowly walked the tentative girl toward the grass. “C’mon, Mama…That’s good. Need to pee-pee? Need to poop? It’s ok…Take your time.” And Little Mama relaxed. Mary watched as the dog dug in her paws, obviously relishing the feel of earth between her toes. She turned her old face to the wind to fill her nose with the smells of the day. Ah, how she had missed the trees and bushes and the stories a good, deep breath can tell. She squatted down and relieved herself, lifting one paw daintily and balancing on three, then squared her legs and body and dug her muzzle into the base of well-marked shrub, picking up the tales of all the others who had passed before her today. She raised her eyes to Mary as if to ask, “What’s next?“ and they moved toward the road. Cars whizzed by, a train whistle cried in the distance, the asphalt tingled, gritty and alive, beneath the dog’s paws. Uncertain about what came next, the dog waited, content to feel this moment, her chest rising and falling, her senses adjusting to the outside world again.
“Let’s rock and roll, Mama. Lemme show you how a walk is supposed to feel.” Mary smiled and tugged on the leash. The pair headed south, away from the city shelter, across a grimy parking lot and toward a line of scraggly pines that rimmed the Chesapeake Bay. The girl hurried behind Mary, pleased by the pace and the sighting of water, of a trail that promised all kinds of adventure. Once across the empty parking lot, Mary dodged between an old chain-link fence, and they were on a beaten dirt track than ran parallel to the water‘s edge. It was uneven and littered with beer cans, fast food wrappers and assorted debris. Mary decided to pick up the pace and soon had Mama at a light trot as they bounced along the trail head, weaving in and out of patches of sunlight.
Mary felt her heart lighten, as it usually did when she was with a dog or moving farther away from the noise of a city. She looked back at the small brown girl at the end of the lead, her tongue lolling and her short, strong legs pumping, and marveled at the resiliency of a dog, of an animal that could be thrown out, beaten down, broken and still meet the world with a lust for the most minute of experiences. The utter happiness of a belly rub. The sheer joy in a bowl of kibble. The giddiness of a romp in the daylight with nothing to think about except the input of sensory information. Mary could almost forget about her own problems out here, push the thoughts of doctors and dying cells to the corners of her consciousness. Nothing really mattered in this moment and she focused on the feel of the leash in her palms and the sound of Mama’s panting.
The cyclist appeared out of no where, peddling way too fast on the uneven and narrow path. He descended on the pair without warning, bumping his mountain bike into Little Mama, who yelped more in fear than in pain. She fell to the right, careening into Mary thus causing a chain reaction as first dog stumbled and then human. The biker pushed on, cursing under his breath, “God damn dogs. Crapping up the trail.” Mary hit the ground hard, first her elbow then her hip. The lead slipped from her wrist and lay like a live wire on the ground. Dazed, she lay in a heap and tried to catch her breath. It came in short, quick gasps and the right side of her body was already starting to burn.
“God damn it! Share the road, asshole!” Her voice erupted into the blue of the sky, shook the fragile leaves clinging to the trees, and caused Mama’s ears to prick, her ruff to stand on edge. This was not the voice she knew. She got up and backed away from the woman on the ground, looking for a safe place to rest, to lick her paws that felt warm and tingly from the run. “Shit. Why is this happening?” Mary rocked herself into a seated position and then saw that she had lost the leash. The dog was now about five feet away, inching toward the embankment that dropped off into the water.
Immediately, Mary crawled to a kneeling position and struggled to calm herself, to steady her breath and voice as she called to the dog. “Mama. Mama. It’s ok…C’mon back. Just a jerk on the trail and he’s gone, he‘s gone…C’mon sweetie, come back to Mary.” She crooned and swayed, her hip and arm still stinging and now her ankle was bleeding. She inched her way toward Mama, who sat passively near a bush, an empty bottle of Colt 45 near its trunk. Mary reached out and grabbed the leash, reeling in Little Mama slowly. She rose on unsteady feet and limped toward a clearing in the pathway further ahead. Little Mama plodding behind her, somehow the joy of just moments before had passed.
In the clearing, crunchy brown grass grew in meager patches. Tall yellow rag weeds moved in rhythm with the wind gusting off the bay. “I’m hurt, Mama,” Mary said to the dog who now sat near her. “Not certain I can walk it back.” She surveyed the ugly purple bruise rising on her forearm and the scrape along her ankle which was now oozing more blood. Her bones throbbed as she laid down in the stiff and unyielding grass, gazing upwards toward the sun and the cloudless sky. The muddy brown girl, as if on cue, sat back on her haunches, shifted her baggy teats to the side and stretched out too. Panting, mouth wide open, she waited.
Staring at the immense and boundless sky, Mary felt the tears she’d been fighting all day begin to win. Water trickled from her eyes and soon she was crying full force, her chest heaving. She rolled onto her side, tucked her knees and continued to sob, all the fear and grief of the past months falling out of her in waves of emotion she could not control. Sucking in fragmented breaths, she threw the leash toward Little Mama, who startled a bit and then simply looked at it as it lay curled by her feet. “God, Mama. Just go. Go now. You don’t want to go back there. That place is a shit-hole. A stinking pit. You might not make it out.” She struggled to draw more air into her lungs. “Those people can kill you, girl. Run. Go. Get outta here while you can!” Mary raised her voice at the dog who still sat, statuesque and calm, several feet away. Little Mama heard the woman’s tone but for some reason, Mary’s crying and shouting didn’t bother her now. Mama felt the blades of grass beneath her skin, the heat of the sun on her back, and cocked her head to listen to the faint shriek of gulls swooping over the filthy bay.
Mary stayed curled into a tight ball, letting thoughts flood her body and mind. She raised her hands to her chest, cradling her breasts in her palms, feeling their round fullness beneath the density of the sweatshirt. She cried even harder, recalling the scars and oddly flat spaces on her mother’s chest after her double mastectomy. An operation that still didn’t stop the insidious attack on her body, moving from the soft breast tissue to the lymph nodes with surgical swiftness. She saw the light that fell on her father’s face when he told her of her mother’s death, the way his hair fell across his forehead in greasy strands, the dark circles that threatened to swallow his grey eyes. She heard the songs of her childhood, the church hymns engraved into her young bones from countless hours at service, the laughter of her best friend as they ran, hand in hand, to jump into a swimming pool. Her mind traveled. The first man to ever kiss her lips, touch her nipples, be inside her, tell her she was beautiful. The way her grandmother folded laundry off the line, crisp, white and bright, snapping in the southern breeze. A trip to the seaside, her mom’s dying wish, where they spent a week trying to act normal, Mary digging endless holes in the sand that immediately disappeared once a wave came in, and her father pretending to read paperback novels. Her mother sat wrapped in towels, a massive straw hat on her head, as she studied the horizon and watched Mary dig. The CHA-CHUNK-CHUNK-CHING, CHA-CHUNK-CHINK-CHING of the machine that felt like it was infiltrating her marrow, a medical jackhammer shaking her very core. The thoughts rolled in and out, circled and returned, filled her mind in a barrage of images. Then Little Mama snuffled loudly and stood up, shaking her body which caused her old teats to swing in an almost comical manner.
Mary opened her eyes and stared at the dog. “Damn it, Little Mama. I thought I told you to go….Get out now. Go you stupid dog.” Mary hiccupped between words, her face red and sweaty. She shook her free hand at the girl, which made her cry a little harder. Little Mama stretched lazily, head down, tail up, and continued to examine Mary, prostrate in the grass. Mama felt the looseness of the lead, smelled the call of the dirt and the shivering trees. Overhead a bird circled and sang; a stray squirrel pranced about the base of an old pine tree and scurried up it. Little Mama looked and listened, the fur on her neck pricked as she felt the pull of the open path, a road that might lead her back to her pups. She blinked twice, yawned so wide that a small squeak escaped from her throat and then plodded over to Mary.
Cautiously, she sniffed at Mary’s hand, moving up to her flushed and salty face, which she licked with swift darts of her tongue. She smelled the woman’s hair and pushed her wet nose deeper into the base of her shaking neck. Satisfied, Mama circled once, then again, and sat down heavily in the crook of Mary’s body, pushing her boney back into Mary’s still heaving stomach. Mama then dropped her head and rolled a bit to the side, offering her belly and chest to Mary. Tears still running down her cheeks, Mary instinctually wrapped her raised arm around the little body, the feel of fur and warm pink tummy flesh filling her hands.
Mary’s thoughts still racing, she closed her eyes and focused on the darkness and the certainty that blood moved faithfully about in her body. Her hands felt full and warm and rhythmically petted Mama’s belly. Mary envisioned Little Mama asleep in the warm slip of sunshine that crossed her bed every morning, under the loving gaze of her mother in the photo nearby. Maybe, she thought, this is enough. For now, it’s enough. She buried her face into the scruff of Mama’s neck and inhaled deeply, feeling her mind begin to quiet. The two lay in the burned yellow grass, under a warm blue sky, and Mary stopped crying as her breath and Little Mama’s steadily became one.