The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary. The same animal may well look at other species in the same way. He does not reserve a special look for man. But by no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognized as familiar. Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look.
—John Berger, “Why Look at Animals”
I do not consider myself an animal lover. I don’t want to be sniffed or licked by cute puppies and have no desire to pat kittens. I don’t want a baby elephant or a giraffe or a chimpanzee. Snakes and mice and marsupials make me cringe. And don’t get me started on aquatic life. On insects. On. Birds.
Yet, my heart of hearts knows that animals are mirrors and balance beams sent to remind us of our own potential. We fail them time and time again because their voices are in their eyes. And still, we are never beyond redemption when it comes to these glorious harbingers of beasts to come, these messiahs that eat our sin. They are the root of King Solomon’s splendor. Carriers of the burden of us. They needn’t be told who and what they are. In the midst of our project of decimation, they love hearty and in order. Maybe they are our ancestors. The mothers of our mothers. And maybe they are God.
The dog we had when my children were young was a runner. I used to tell myself that it was because the dog hated the tiny, cramped apartment we lived in. She had no yard and was afforded none of the luxuries that a bourgeois Pomeranian likely needed to feel at home. I convinced myself that the dog hated being stuck there with us. That she knew how little we had and that’s why she was a runner.
One New Year’s Eve, the runner darted out the front door and I told my little brother, who was living with us then, that he shouldn’t chase her this time. That he should let her return on her own. That I wanted to teach her this lesson. She never came back. When I went out to search for her an hour later, she was on the side of road of a nearby thoroughfare. She was dead.
Our next dog—the do-over dog—was not a runner, but for years I considered him my arch nemesis because he broke the cardinal rules: 1) The dogs were not allowed in the kitchen or dining area. 2) The dogs were not allowed in my bedroom. 3) The dogs were not allowed on the furniture in the common rooms. The do-over dog loved to roll his body around in my bed whenever I left home. I never saw him do it in-person, but every time I left the house, I’d receive a video from a family member and there he’d be ruffling my covers, wiggling on his back, like he was having the time of his life.
We kept that dog for fourteen years, and with the exception of the bed thing, he was a good pet. He’s the dog that humbled me. The winter after I became a grandmother, I brought the new year in with the do-over dog at my feet and my grandson in my arms. It was a cold and rainy night and as soon as the fireworks and shooting died out, I opened the front door so that the dog could relieve himself. It wasn’t a usual thing, letting him out front, but it was raining and I was sure our troublesome backyard dip was pooled with so much water it resembled a lake.
My heart of hearts knows that animals are mirrors and balance beams sent to remind us of our own potential.
He’d fell in before and I’d had to muddy myself to rescue him. I couldn’t do that this time, not with the baby in my arms, and besides, he wasn’t a runner; the front yard had worked before. I watched him do his business and when he began to walk away and not toward me, I called out to him. His trot was slow and deliberate, but he didn’t change his direction.
Instead, he paused and turned his face to look at me and I knew. I knew he wasn’t coming back this time. That he didn’t want to come back at all. And I understood that he was an old dog and he was tired and he was ready to give up on us because we wouldn’t give up on him. When I mouthed to him, I’m not chasing you and nodded saying, I see. I understand, I swear he nodded back at me before turning and walking away.
I never saw the do-over dog again, but I appreciate what he taught me that night. I was so small and lost in a world that he understood. He’d always known himself in a way that I’d never know anyone, not even myself. Imagine being born with no secrets and knowing exactly what you need to do to survive. To thrive. Or to die. Imagine understanding that you are in your final moments before they become your final moments and letting go of all you know and love and needing no one to tell you it’s time.
My grandmother had a dog when I was a girl. I’m not sure what breed he was, but he had a beautiful white coat and looked like a powerful wolf. His name was Cocaine, and I imagine one of my uncles or older cousins named him that because it was the 80s. My grandmother didn’t allow dogs in her house, so Cocaine would walk the streets of East Lubbock, looking for shelter from the cold in the winter and the shade of leafy trees in the summer. He had this incredible instinct when it came to us grandchildren. Whenever we went out to play, he would return home from wherever he was in the neighborhood.
One day Cocaine failed to return; we all called out to him and waited. Days passed and he didn’t show up. When we took our concerns to my grandmother, she said, He’ll come back when he’s hungry. Just keep saving his scraps.
About five houses down from my grandmother’s house, there was a family that our family considered rowdy and unclean. We were warned to stay away from that house, as everyone agreed they were nastiest people on the block. Of course, as kids this only drew us closer to them and we’d sneak into their backyard whenever we could. The backyard was as filthy as rumored, littered with thrown out food and trash and undisturbed by mowers and basic upkeep.
About a week after Cocaine went missing, the children from that house, our friends, invited us to their backyard to play, and there, in the midst of hide-and-seek, we discovered the rotting carcass of my grandmother’s dog. I’ll never quite be rid of the memory of Cocaine lying there with his mouth wide up and his stomach disappeared, eaten away by rats or maybe even vultures. I don’t remember what happened to the dog’s body after that and I don’t remember my family ever mentioning him again, but I’ll never forget how much Cocaine loved us, how he’d run home and push his body into our tiny legs, as if he wanted us to see him, to rub him, to love him back.
When I twelve, I bought my first dog. Brandy was a white miniature poodle and he loved me to death. Before Brandy, I never had a dog of my own. I come from a place where dogs don’t live in houses; they are tied to trees. They don’t go to vets; they die from automobile accidents and other “natural” causes.
In the beginning, the gender of my dog was a significant factor. I figured I was a girl so I wanted girl dog to match, but when the breeder explained to us that female dogs were more expensive because of their potential to reproduce and that they also menstruated, Momma crinkled her forehead and told me a boy would have to do. He was a tiny white ball of fur when the lady handed him over and he was pretty enough that I thought of him as her. I gave him what I considered a girl’s name and convinced my momma, as much as our finances would allow, to help me keep his nails polished and frilly bows in his hair.
And I don’t know how I got it in my head that I was a dog person back then. I think maybe it was my father’s untimely death when I seven. I started to forget who he was almost immediately. This was confusing and jarring in a way that frightened me, in a way that was teaching me about my own power to remember. To create. My sisters were both younger than I was, and I felt like I’d gotten so much more of his time than they had; it was my duty to help them remember who he was.
He had been teaching me Mr. Miyagi-type lessons on how to take care of them, how to lead them, like he was anticipating, prophesying, his own death. Sometimes I think the parts of him I recreated were lies I told myself and my sisters because it was easier than admitting that I was forgetting him altogether. Dogs, I believe, were one of those lies. I told myself that a dog was always his desire for me, for all his girls.
Brandy was a handful in my working-class family. There were no financial allowances for dog sitters, daycare, kennel boarding, or even vet visits. About the only thing there was room for was grooming, and that was only because grooming, looking good, is just as important as food to my people. Brandy bit a little boy once. One of my siblings was playing out front with the dog and the little boy came into our yard and tried to rub his fur. Brandy bit that child and his parents called the police. Animal control ended up getting involved and we had to surrender the dog for a ten-day quarantine.
It disturbed me that this animal I loved had actually hurt someone, but I was even more disturbed by the dog’s absence from our home those ten days. I thought I might never see my dog again. Convinced myself that the fees attached to his release were too much of a burden for my parents. On the tenth day, Momma stopped and got him on her way home from work, and the kindness of that sacrifice has never been lost on me.
Brandy lasted in our home for a little over two years. When we moved to an apartment, my parents couldn’t afford the pet fees or any of the damage that Brandy inflicted on the place. One day, I came home from school and found that my dog had been given or sold to one of my parents’ friends, and I never saw Brandy again. I was devastated. I vowed that as an adult, I would always have a dog in my life; that if I ever had children, they would always have them too. And I made good on that promise.
My relationship with animals has always felt ambivalent. When I was eight years old, my mother bought me and my sisters a little yellow duckling for Easter. He was the cutest thing, but in my memory, he went from cute yellow duckling to massive mean drake overnight. I have no idea what my mother’s original plan was. What she was thinking, bringing a duck to live in our duplex? He was such an ornery animal. Chased and pecked at us incessantly.
We ended up giving him to my grandparents, who had land and animals outside of town. I don’t remember what we called the duck, but I believe he’s where my bird phobia originated. After the duck, we had a hamster named Shirley. My cousin accidently murdered her with a typewriter. I was unmoved by her death, relieved by it even. I was always afraid her because, in my mind then and in my mind now, a hamster is a guinea pig is a mouse is a rat.
My grandparents had hogs, which my grandfather told us to be leery of because they’ll gobble you up if you fall in the pen with them. These old hogs will eat anybody, anything. They also had a mean goat, a stubborn bull (they cautioned us against wearing red out to feed), and chasing chickens. And then there was my youngest uncle, who died in childhood, from complications rooted in injuries he sustained from being trampled by his horse. I don’t remember him; I was just a toddler when he died, but I grew up hearing stories about his love for horses and how that love was the death of him.
I delight in the knowledge that when we are gone from this place, when we have sucked her dry, the ocean and the land and the animals, they will find a way.
There was the cotton mouth that stood up and came for me while I smiled beside my son the first time he rode his grandfather’s blind horse back in 1999, the raccoons I battled for my home in 2014, the roof rats that came for my deck garden in 2018, and the ever present wild turkeys at the most wonderful writing residency on earth.
I’ve always trusted animals to live by their design. Why wouldn’t our drake attack us? Why would a dog not go off when it’s time for him to die? Why would a rat not come for my peppers, scale my deck to my roof, and build a nest there? It all makes sense when I consider the nature of beasts, the nature of me. And I’ve always known that I needed these creatures to remind me of my finite place in this infinite world..
Still, I tell myself I’m not one of those dog people. I’m not an animal person at all. I’m afraid of most animals, of all the things they know about living and of all the things I’ll never know. Or maybe I’m not afraid. I’m full of respect and admiration. Intrigued and awed by what they communicate without words. The majesty of an animal’s mind, the confident footing they have in this world. The unboastful manner in which they watch time run out on us.
And place, they always know their place. And ours. We can plot cages and coups for dominion, but they know. They always do. I worry about how we forget to remember what was first. I delight in the knowledge that when we are gone from this place, when we have sucked her dry, the ocean and the land and the animals, they will find a way.
For now, I bask in the blessing of this companionship. The grace of a god my dog has for me. Every now and then, I catch his stare on me; see my image in his beady eyes, and it startles me to see myself as he does. Without head coverings or makeup and sometimes full of tears. He places no value in my physical appearance or the name by which I’m called. I marvel at his choice to stay with me, to love me, to please me, despite how in his eyes, I’m small and lost in a world that has always been more his than mine.
Holler, Child by LaToya Watkins is available via Tiny Reparations Books.