Three Days in the Belly of a Poodle

Robert V.S. Redick studied literature and Russian at the University of Virginia, tropical conservation and development at the University of Florida, and fiction writing in the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He has worked as the editor for the Spanish and French websites of the antipoverty organization Oxfam America, and as an instructor in the International Development, Community & Environment (IDCE) Department at Clark University in Worcester, MA. The River of Shadows, Book III of The Chathrand Voyage Quartet, was published April 19, 2011. The final volume, The Night of the Swarm, will be published February 5, 2013.

Oh, dogs. What on earth can one say? The subject is both too small and too large. Small, because in my clan the dogs have rarely taken center stage, haven’t rescued children or been found baying in the oak trees after tornadoes. Large, because they have always been there, for generations, watching, waiting, needing things, urging us on. They are family, but also witnesses, rarely silent and never impartial. They’ve served as guards, babysitters, fellow hunters, timekeepers, clowns. They’ve been our incorruptible friends and our impossible children. We take them to births, weddings, reunions, dances, sit-ins, pig roasts, river floats, funerals. Too often, we’ve taken them for granted.

I am the child of yarn-spinners, Virginians with drinks in hand, doors and mouths wide open, hungry for jokes, gossip, scandal, sentiment. We guild our memories, wrap them in our particular, gleaming spider-silk, a silk made of sighs and laughter. There was Old Ned, the bane of my grandfather’s boyhood. Ned was a huge, scrofulous, hunting hound, long since retired to a life of scraps and memories beneath the porch steps of his aunt’s careworn West Virginia farmhouse. My grandfather (“Pa”) was only five during the height of Ned’s reign, and the dog harbored a deep resentment of his visits. He growled and nipped, and Pa lived in terror of the beast. There were no ill consequences for Ned, who retreated to his cave when the child wailed, and stayed there until the adults forgot about his crimes.

But one day Pa took his courage in hand. More decisively, he took he took up the ball-peen hammer someone had left in the kitchen, and crept on hands and knees out into the enemy territory of the porch. With infinite care he lowered himself onto the topmost step, lying flat on his stomach with head and shoulders extending just beyond the step’s edge, the hammer raised above him to strike. There he waited. More than an hour passed. The adults either overlooked or ignored his vigil, and his ostensible guardian, an ancient grandmother shelling peas a few feet away, had not spoken in years.

Such stories have a narrow range of endings. Ned emerged, the child bonked him squarely; Ned ran howling into the woods; the mute grandmother shrieked with laughter and spilled her peas, and Pa never feared the poor animal again.

Our history of animal abuse extends no further, I’m glad to say. But the lore is inexhaustible. There were Truffle and Amber, the standard poodles of my father’s childhood, who ran like cyclones through the Piedmont countryside, and whose campaign of goofy terror ended when they chased the local pig farmer’s $5000 breeder boar and nipped off its tail (money changed hands; the dogs’ freedom was only slightly restrained).

There was my beloved Suzette, another poodle, who growled at me when I was a newborn, only to repent of her jealousy and adopt me with such ferocious love that not a morning passed in my first decade without her muzzle nudging me awake. Suzette, who was blind for two-thirds of her life, who chased balls and found them by their rubber scent, who did so even after the cyst in her legs made her struggle to walk. Suzette, who one freezing winter night when she was thirteen slipped away in a freezing blizzard, and wandered blind and lame and tiny through the woods and ravines in snow as deep as she was tall—and whom Dad found, still walking, still hoping, about an hour before dawn. She was unharmed; she greeted me each morning for a last happy year.

There was Henry, a dog so white my father decided one day to try painting his flanks with pokeberry juice. Alas, the word he chose to write was “Dumbo”, and the juice proved indelible. His owner, one of Dad’s best friends, has remained angry for almost fifty years.

There was Tana, the Afghan hound, possessed of such dignity that she passed her whole life without deigning to use her vocal cords. Tana, whose dreams of ancestral glory in Baluchistan were interrupted one evening by my young sister’s Jack-in-the-box, which fell and disgorged its leering, motley Jack with a frightening bleat. Tana sprang straight up five or six feet, impala-like, came down on my sister’s spring-mounted hobby horse, was flung skyward again, landed on my mother on the couch, ran the length of her torso (my mother’s vocal cords very much in use), flung herself off the end of the couch, slid helplessly across the newly-waxed floor, struck the kitchen wall near the sink, and brought down the remains of a meatloaf.

There was Truffle II (another huge poodle) who never stopped teething. He minced my clothes, my cassette tapes, my first computer, the right side of a couch, two legs off a wooden stool. Calmly, methodically, with great thoroughness and sense of mission. One almost hoped for another display; his execution made the sacrifice worthwhile. Truffle II also ended my brief career as a clarinetist—not by eating the instrument, but by offering a loud and soulful accompaniment the moment I began to warm up.

There was Truffle III (yep, same breed), who lived a quiet life until age eight, and then resolved one day never again to be alone, and fought to escape the house whenever my parents turned their backs. She gnawed through doors. She hurled herself through plate glass. She bashed her way through a second-story window, crossed the porch roof and flung herself into the boxwoods below. After this my parents took her nearly everywhere. She also ate mulch. And poison ivy. And the neighbor’s son’s cherished beanie-baby, whole. The latter passed three days in the poodle’s belly, the only place no one thought to look. At last Truffle III returned it, with ample stomach bile, in the middle of our kitchen floor. My mother washed it thoroughly and returned it to the boy.

You will run out of patience before I run out of dogs. But there is a point to these anecdotes. We Redicks make a cult of decorum, and we feel a deep and solemn obligation to entertain. The latter duty always came down to words. No silence could be left unfilled. We had to tell our stories, mostly to each other but often enough to dates, dinner guests, colleagues, visitors from abroad: anyone unlucky enough to tumble into our web. It wasn’t celebrity we were after but a state of grace. Our words had to give delight, move our listeners to a zone of greater comfort and sympathy, make them see us in the best and most benevolent light. In this one regard we were idealists, if not outright fanatics. I’m not saying that we were the Brave Speakers of Our People–far from it. Truth was a lesser ideal. Our first mission was not veracity but vividness. I believe I learned this lesson well.

It goes way back, this compulsive wordplay, this gilding of reality with whatever handsome language our middle-class minds can proffer. This is Jefferson country, after all. The house I was born in stood eight miles from Monticello, until it collapsed.

You can lose your bearing in all these words, and the codes they subtly transmit. Of course, you don’t have to learn the codes. You don’t even have to acknowledge their existence. Some of us rarely visit the family any more, couldn’t care less about the loss of farmland to sprawl, or artisans’ jobs to Ikea, or the Blue Ridge itself to tree pathogens and weather extremes. That’s another way to lose your bearings. Forget the language of your family or your region, and you may indeed escape their limitations. You may also miss their embrace.

Twin chasms, then: babbling tradition on my left, cold and lonely liberty on my right. In darker moments this has felt like the sum of my options. But in lighter moments I know that this is bunk. Identity is not an either/or proposition. For every instance of estrangement, there’s an opportunity for reconnection. And there are aspects of life that are both deeply intimate and quite nearly universal. Of the latter, I know of no better example than dogs.

They are, of course, emblems of identity, like the scraggly cedars along the driveway, the shotgun tucked behind the pantry door. But for a writer—for this writer—they were also a way out of the quicksand of words. I say again: the dogs you love are beyond fooling. They must be reached with empathy and careful solicitude. You won’t bamboozle them with rhetoric.

Have they shaped my writing? I am certain that they have. Witnesses alter what they see; dogs change the humans who adopt them. We perform for them. They’re the first readers of the story we tell of ourselves, and I like to think that they’re impossible to fool. Grandstanding, flattery and other falsehoods can hurt but not deceive them. The dog you love sees you too clearly. Only honesty stands a chance.

All this is to say that they make us better people. Better because more genuine, better because more true. This work of theirs, expressed in neediness and loyalty and naughtiness and contrition and suffering and early death, is ceaseless, from the first opening of puppy-eyelids to the last closing over milky cataracts. It’s a job from which they never retire. It’s a gift they live to bestow.

There’s more to say, but Chloe (the poodle) is waiting for her walk. I could share her stories, before I go… but she doesn’t need that. She needs me out of this chair and by her side. And I owe her that, so goodbye.