I am working on a book tht will be a collection of short stories and a novella on the theme of the intereaction between people and animals. The stories are fiction, but derived from life as much fiction is. I'm hoping that some Kos rfeaders will be interested in giving me feedback as I prepare to publish. Yesterday I posted "The Christmas Rats" and I am thankful to the readers who sent me comments. This story is harsher and longer. It's not a free-standing story; it's actually a chapter from the novella, but I think it can be read as a free-standing story and gives much of the flavor of the novella. The novella is titled "The Dog Thief" and concerns a series of dog rescues that play out over a year. The One-eyed Woman of this chapter lives about a mile down a dirt road from a neighbor whose dogs are the focus of the rescue efforts. Again I am very grateful for any comments.
The One-Eyed Woman
It was Ojibway Bob who made the discovery. But first the compound folks got some dogs of their own.
A pregnant stray wandered out of the woods and came sniffing and snuffling up the dirt track one cold, soggy afternoon just as the winter was turning to spring. She entered the compound through the gap in the wall, attracted by the smell of garbage in Blacksnake’s dumpster. All of the crew members dump their trash there, but no one is too persnickety about missed tosses; often an exploded bag or two lies splattered in the frozen mud. Momma Dog found some pieces of white bread and some potato chips. She was licking a half-frozen pile of moldy hamburger when the One-Eyed Woman staggered out of her cabin dragging a big black garbage bag full of kitty litter behind her.
The One-Eyed Woman stopped abruptly at the sight of a dog near the dumpster. Momma Dog had arrived with an empty stomach and a full uterus, managing to be both skinny and fat at the same time. She was a homely dog, with a small pointed head at one end of her stocky body and a broken rat tail at the other. Multiple pregnancies had ruined her figure. The One-Eyed Woman dropped her bag and stared in dismay.
She immediately thought of Elizabeth, of course. That is to say, she immediately thought of that woman Blacksnake knew, the one who was always driving up the road to Donald’s, the one who one of these days would not drive back if she provoked that in-bred cretin into shooting her. Someone, she thought, has to phone that woman.
She couldn’t do it because she didn’t have a phone. She wasn’t from the generation that could adapt to cell phones. For one thing, she couldn’t see the numbers. Besides new stuff like that just didn’t work for her. Bob had a cell phone and for some reason you turned it on by pushing a button marked “End”. What kind of sense did that make? And to make the call you had to push another button marked “Send”. What was wrong with having an “On” and an “Off” button? Besides she’d seen Bob trying to make calls, and he had to go stand on top of the wood box at the end of his deck to get a signal or whatever he was doing and half the time he’d be shouting “What? What? You’re breaking up!” Thirty bucks a month for a phone that didn’t work. She was a lot of things, but she wasn’t stupid, so no, she did not have one of those damned phones.
So she couldn’t just call that woman and tell her to come and get the dog. The One-Eyed Woman and Momma Dog stared at each other. Big, sad, brown eyes gazed hopelessly into one squinty eye blurred by alcohol and a cataract.
“Jesus, someone sure knocked you up,” muttered the One-Eyed Woman. She’d had kids herself many years ago, and she remembered dragging herself around swollen nearly to the point of explosion. That was back when she was married. Not something she wanted to think about too much. The kids were all gone, too. Her daughter was married to a Navy man and lived in Hawaii, and her son was down in Texas. He used to work on the oil rigs, but she wasn’t sure what he was doing now. Her kids had kids, too. She was a grandmother, and damned if one of the granddaughters hadn’t got knocked up at sixteen and made her a great grandmother! The dog looked about ready to pop. The One-Eyed Woman had grown up on a farm, and she could tell when an animal was near her time.
“We got to get you inside,” she told the dog.
Momma Dog crouched humbly by the dumpster, wagging her tail to show that her intentions were good. She did not want to be hit or yelled at. To her relief the human turned abruptly and walked away.
The One-Eyed Woman abandoned her garbage sack full of kitty litter and headed for her cabin. She assumed that men would be no good in this situation and so did not bother to bang on Bob’s door or shout for Blacksnake. The other residents of the compound were hunkered down inside by their woodstoves drinking to keep the chill away, which is what the One-Eyed Woman wanted to do, and would be doing, if the smell of dirty cat box had not driven her out of her house.
She lived in a two room plywood box on the edge of the ravine. Of all the cabins in the compound, hers was the simplest. Blacksnake’s was the most elaborate and had a covered deck overlooking the creek. Bob’s was next door and sported a vaulted ceiling and a wall of windows. The windows didn’t match since they were foraged from various abandoned buildings, but put together they provided a wall of light and a view of the woods.
Bob and Snake had put up the cabins one summer after they came back from the war. The land belonged to Snake’s granddad, but Snake stood to inherit. At first there was nothing on the land but an old hunter’s shack. Bob and Snake had a truck which was all they needed to get started. They gathered materials and tools, not always legally, built their homes, put in a crop, and went into business. After awhile they were joined by women and children. Years went by. The One-Eyed Woman arrived about the time the women decamped with the kids.
She moved into what had originally been a storage shed. Blacksnake put in a couple of windows and a wood stove. She accumulated a bed, a couple of chairs, a battery operated radio, some flashlights, a kerosene lantern, and a campstove. She had her own honey bucket in the house and hitch hiked to the state park every now and then for a shower. Some pots and pans, a table, a TV run off a car battery, and she was set.
She spent most of her time in the chair by the window. She kept the radio on but did not really listen to it. By light of the kerosene lantern she liked to color in coloring books or read magazines or knit. Sometimes she just sat with a cat in her lap and gazed out the window. She had been very active in her youth but found that these days that it didn’t take much to entertain her and took even less to tire her out. Mostly she just cared for her cats. She didn’t know how many she had. All she knew was they had pooped up the cat boxes to the point that they weren’t willing to use them any more and had started pooping in the corner of the room on a stack of newspaper she kept for firestarter. So: time to clean the cat boxes. Hence the trip to the dumpster.
But now she had a different task: get some food for that dog. She knew about dogs; they had always figured in her life. The dog she missed the most was her old Wolfie, her guardian angel, a big black wolf hybrid that never let anyone on the property without barking a warning. A cop shot him years ago. It was Four’s fault. That’s what she called her ex-husband: “Four” because every word she had for him was four-lettered. The cop, out at her place on a domestic violence call, had found her standing in the front yard with Wolfie. Four had thrown her out of the house. The cop opened his car door and stood shielding himself behind it. He was afraid of the dog and she had wondered how a man who was afraid of a dog could protect her from a man like Four.
Then the cop asked her, “Does that dog bite?”
Standing there with his gun drawn. She could still picture it after all these years. Her husband in the house drunk and shouting, her out in the yard in a nightgown. “Does that dog bite?” She thought it was a stupid question.
So she answered, being all tough, showing how little she respected the cop, “I don’t know. Why don’t you just ask the dog?” And then she laughed.
And Wolfie, poor Wolfie, barked and lunged forward. Getting shot was the price Wolfie paid for her being such a smart ass. She never could learn to keep her mouth shut.
The One-eyed Woman’s vision blurred. She had to stop and wipe her eye. No point in tripping on something. She had to get this dog, this pregnant dog, into the house. She stumbled through her front door.
Muttering to herself, she scanned her larder: a wall of shelves stocked with can goods. Most of her food came from the Food Bank so she was well provided with Top Ramen and mushroom soup. Neither seemed appropriate for feeding a pregnant dog. Maybe the ravioli? Except it seemed like someone told her once that tomatoes weren’t good for dogs. In her experience, a dog would eat just about anything. Wolfie once ate an entire mincemeat pie. Of course that was back when she lived with Four and she cooked. She had been a great cook once, everything from scratch. That pie had been made the old fashioned way with beef stock and the very last scraps from a roast. Now she didn’t hardly cook, just opened a can. Corned beef!
“That’s what I’ll give her,” she told the cats. The cats stared back with disapproval. They could tell that she was up to something.
The One-Eyed Woman gathered up several cans of corned beef and a bowl, clasped them to her skinny chest, and limped across the dirty courtyard toward the dumpster.
The dog was still there. She lifted her head and watched the One-eyed Woman’s lopsided progress. Her tail sank between her legs. She turned and scuttled to the far side of the dumpster.
The One-eyed Woman approached cautiously. For all she knew the dog would suddenly get scared and run off down the road in the slush and ice, to be lost and homeless forever. So she whispered friendly nonsense and shuffled closer, hunched over to make herself small and unthreatening.
The dog cowered down and peeked around the corner of the dumpster. The One-Eyed Woman hunkered down and set her bowl on the ground. Very noisily and ostentatiously she dumped the contents of one can into the bowl. Yes, she had the dog’s attention.
Momma Dog could smell the food, but for all she knew the human might suddenly attack her. Still the food smelled so good. And she was so hungry and cold. And it had been so long since someone had fed her. There used to be a human who fed her, not every day, but often enough for her to live in hope. That human had disappeared out of her life, but maybe this new human would be the new giver of food. She stretched her nose toward the bowl and sniffed. Oh, it smelled so good. With one eye on the human, she bellycrawled up to the bowl and took a cautious bite. The human just watched. Momma Dog lost all caution and dug in, gobbling voraciously. When the food was gone, she licked the bowl, desperate for more.
The One-Eyed Woman showed her the second opened can.
“Come on up to the house and have some more,” said the human. Momma Dog’s ears pricked forward and her eyes brightened.
“Come on, then,” The One-Eyed Woman dumped the second can into the bowl and started back toward her house. She held the bowl out behind her and walked slowly, making sure dog was following.
Momma Dog followed the smell of food to the One-Eyed Woman’s house. The human went inside, still holding out the bowl, calling to her, smiling at her. Momma Dog hesitated outside the open door; no human had ever invited her into a house before. But that’s where the food was. She cautiously peered inside. It was warm in there, too. Warmth. Food. The human set the bowl down on the floor and moved away. Momma Dog stepped inside the house. Cats scampered and disappeared amongst the shabby furniture and piles of old newspapers. Momma Dog didn’t care one way or the other about cats, just noted their departure, and inched forward, stretching out her nose to reach the bowl. Behind her the door closed. Momma Dog jumped, startled, and for an instant she hung poised between hunger and fear.
Hunger won. She gobbled and gobbled until the corned beef was gone. The human opened another can, and she gobbled some more. Done, Momma Dog looked up and smiled. A heart full of gratitude beamed out of her face. She could hardly believe her luck.
“Well, that’ll get you started,” said the One-Eyed Woman. “Now you need a bed.”
She bumbled around her tiny house assembling stuff: one of her blankets for a bed, a bowl of water. She cleared the wood out of the box by the stove and tucked the blanket in, making a nest. She set the two bowls by the nest and stood back, panting from her exertions.
“There’s your bed,” she told the dog. The dog had watched all this activity silently, wondering what it was all for, but now she understood. Carefully she stepped into the box, dragging her sagging breasts along. She turned and turned again before flopping over with a big sigh. She lay with her chin on the edge of the box, her body relaxed, and her grateful gaze fixed on her savior.
The One-Eyed Woman went back to her chair by the window, sat down, and picked up her pencil. She liked to color cartoon characters, partly because they made her laugh, but mostly because the designs were simple and easy to see. She aimed a turquoise pencil at Snow White, but hesitated because she could feel the dog’s eyes staring a hole into her back. Reluctantly she turned in her chair. Yes, the dog was staring at her: the big, brown eyes watched her every move. The One-Eyed Woman stared back. In her chest she felt an odd sensation, a shortness of breath, as if she was lifting a heavy but precious object.
“I guess I got to get a name for you,” she said at last. She wondered what Blacksnake would say when he found out. She’d tell him next time she saw him. He could call that woman who cared about dogs. That woman could find homes for the pups. Maybe one of the pups could stay and keep the momma dog company.
So that’s how Blacksnake’s compound became a home for dogs.