Man’s Best Friend
There is a Dutch word, “doordringend” which means through-piercing. That was the sound of the dog barking on a July afternoon when I was twelve. The windows were open because it was hot and we had no air conditioning. My mother, who told us frequently that she was a great poet, was trying to write in her bedroom, which looked onto the back yard. From the far end of the yard, but out of sight, came the dog’s persistent bark. It had reached that hysterical high pitch, only matched by a baby’s cry, that makes the hearer think, “Surely they will wear themselves out soon, and we will get some peace.” Meanwhile, the dog, or baby, is feeling, “I will go on making this hopeless, unhappy cry for all eternity. Misery at top pitch is all I can utter.”
First it is important to know that my mother hated dogs. A few individual animals she met were not totally despised, but in general, her dog descriptors were “loathsome,” “vile,” “craven.” Three years earlier, as she drove through Little Rock, Arkansas, we children were sure she had hit a dog in the road. Not only did she refuse to turn back and check, but claimed there was no dog, and if there was, it shouldn’t have been loose, and so deserved any glancing blow it might have received. In later years, when we accused her of killing a dog in Little Rock, she would roll her eyes and say, “Oh, you children always exaggerate so.”
Another time my mother and I went to a folk festival in England. We sat in a tent, in the front row and were enjoying the first of the storytellers when a dog strolled up and settled itself near my mother’s feet. “Go away!” she hissed at it, but instead it raised its hind leg and started that doggy personal grooming. The sound effects were incredible. “TOK, TOK, TOK,” slurped his tongue against his privates. My mother pushed at him with her foot, trying to roll him over and send him on his way. He only looked at her reproachfully, and went back to his toilette. The storyteller was distracted by this competition. His eyes slewed toward her and away again. By now, my mother was kicking the dog vigorously with her foot while watching the speaker with a courteous, interested look. Her disconnect was total. The storyteller dropped the thread of his narrative, slowed, started up again like an old windup phonograph. The more his eyes were drawn to the combatants, the more ragged his tale became, until finally he stopped dead. At that point, my mother struck out so vigorously at the dog, she unbalanced and fell off her chair, sprawling next to her nemesis as if they were littermates. The dog, which had borne her attentions quite patiently, clearly found this development distressing, for he started to bark great hoarse barks.
Well, I have leapt way ahead of that July day I started on, but you now have a clearer sense of my mother’s relationship to dogs.
So the barking was disturbing my mother’s writing time, and, somewhat like Henry II speaking of Thomas a Beckett, she cried out, “Who will rid me of this nightmare hound? I’ll give them ten bucks.” I went out to the end of the yard, looked through the fence and greenery between our yard and the dog’s. I could see that he was tied up and had wound himself so thoroughly around the tree that he couldn’t reach shade or his water. I didn’t free him immediately, but went back to the house and called up the stairs to my mother, “Where do we keep the ax?” I was feeling that it would be too simple to merely free the dog; my mother deserved more for her money. “In the garage,” she answered. “Why?” “Don’t ask,” was my reply.
Next I walked around the block to the neighbor’s property, and made my way to their back yard. Speaking kindly to the dog, I unwound him, though leaving him tied up. He drank, lay down in the shade, and gave a great sigh. The silence was bliss.
At home again, I went to collect my fee. “What did you do?” asked my mother, who had finally made a connection between the dog’s silence and my ax question. “You don’t want to know. Never ask me again,” I answered sternly. Every few years after that she looked at me a bit nervously and asked, “Did you really kill that dog?” For her seventy-fifth birthday present I told her the true story.