February 07, 2009

Why God Gives Us Dogs

Pensi just always was. I was three when Dad carried her into the Haney house, looking more dead than alive, a shaggy black and white sheep dog just out of the vet’s office.

“You have her bed ready, Betty?” he called to Mum, backswing of his boot to the door.

“In the girls’ room, Roy!”

Linda, Tresa, and I, three little girls, two, three, and four years old, me in the middle, traipsed along behind him, trying not to get in the way as he entered our perfectly square room and eased Pensi down onto a collection of clean towels Mum had fluffed up in the corner.

“Daddy,” I said, “I think she’s dead.”

“She’s just sick. She’ll feel better soon.”

Mum arrived with another towel, this one warmed in the oven.

“She looks dead, Mummy,” I said, alarmed at how Mum had to lift each paw to tuck her in.

“It’ll take a couple of days. Remember, she had an operation—”

She’d been spayed, and the reasons explained—but I couldn’t spell and so imagined a man in a white coat setting the sharp tip of a shovel against Pensi’s belly, heel to the blade, and giving a sudden lunge. That’d stop a dog from having puppies all right. “Are you sure she’s not going to die?” I asked.

“She’ll be fine.” Dad was squatting, carefully gauging her condition. When he gave her a comforting pat, Pensi opened her eyes, too weak to do much more than stare at us through pain-laced eyes, but full of gratitude for the lovely warmth and soft scratching behind her ears.

In the morning I found Pensi gone. “She died!” I shrieked. “She died!”

Mum popped her head into the room. “She’s in the kitchen. Eating her breakfast.”

I jumped up and down in joy to see her lapping up a thin gruel. By the day’s end she was tearing all over the place, trying Mum’s patience, licking our noses, and whining to go out.

At the time, my father was building our new house in the next town over, deep in the forest and assessable only by an abandoned logging road. Whenever he loaded up Betsy, our ’52 Chev, with his tools, Pensi was right there, good company for him while he hammered and sawed and she stalked the surrounding woods for skunks and smelled out raccoons, and sniffed the trails of an old bear. The days we went along for the ride, Pensi was our companion—sliding with us down the labyrinth of cement chutes, playing in the gravel, barking happy barks.

I was four when we moved in, the house incomplete but boasting outside walls, partial flooring, and a roof. Each night Dad tucked us into three army cots. He zipped us into snug “mummy” bags, and we said our prayers while starlight fell through the gaping holes that would one day be windows. There were no interior walls to speak of, and before I closed my eyes I could hear, and catch flickering glimpses of, my parents talking quietly before a fire on the other end of the house—Pensi curled at their feet, one ear up, listening for danger we might need to fear. I was four years old, the nights alive with starlight and fresh forest smells, and never in my life have I felt so safe. Pensi was on watch.

Our Auntie Vi was our mother’s aunt. She often visited from Victoria, a ferry ride away. She wasn’t a dog lover. Whenever Pensi licked our noses—or we licked hers, she’d squeal in mock horror; and I, at least, lived to make her squeal, for Auntie did such a fine job. “Ick! How can you?” she’d cry, throwing up her hands, rolling her eyes, the three of us girls giggling and laughing and rolling around on the sofa, begging Pensi to “do it again!”

“Don’t you know where that dog’s nose has been?”

We knew. Did we care?

“What about her breath?” insisted Auntie.

What about it?

Winter coming on, windows in, Dad installed the furnace. A huge thing, four by four and floor to ceiling, taking up a corner of the utility room. I was scared to death of it. At night I could hear it kick in, the flames ignite with a swoosh. What if it burst into fire and we all burned to death? But then I remembered Pensi. She’d bark and wake us up.

We had no running water. Mum sometimes called on one of us to take a pot out to the rain barrel. When it snowed? A whole new job! My grandfather used to say that dogs and children know what snow is for. We did. Out we tumbled in our snowsuits, with pots, pans, and Pensi. We discovered that if we packed a snowball and raised our arms, she’d set out pell-mell, snow flying, yelping for joy as we launched the missiles—only to stop dead in her tracks dismayed. Where’d they go? A small poof, and they were gone, a dimple in the snow.

That Christmas, Christmas Eve morning, Grandma and Grandpa and our Uncle Stan arrived from Vancouver to help Dad get his new water line hooked up to the newly installed city main. They suited up and grabbed their shovels. Grandma, Pensi, and us girls went out to get our last snow for morning tea. Grandma taught us how to make snow angels; Pensi taught us how to wreck them; and in the afternoon we all played on the iced-over swamp, prickled through with bulrushes and skunk cabbages. The men hauled the three of us around on brooms, swooshing us through the rushes and reeds and around in circles while Pensi slithered and slid from one to the another and on to the third, barking and dancing, her body twisting in glee so contagious we kept spilling off in fits of laughter. I tried to pull her on with me but we both went flying. I abandoned her; I needed my hands to hang onto the broomstick. She retaliated by yapping at my coattails and pretending to growl. That hallowed night the grownups got ready for Christmas Eve, getting out the ginger ale and finding safety pins so we could hang our socks, and Mum poured us a bath—our first since moving in. Pensi, remembering such things, slunk away and hid.

The house slowly went up around us. Next door, trees started to come down in preparation for a subdivision; and the old bear, hungry or curious or both, began making appearances. This made Dad and some of the other men nervous. More and more kids were walking the logging trail to school, civilization slowly making inroads into the forest. Dogs, I suppose, were insufficient protection and one day Dad and Pensi, along with some men with guns, went out to stop trouble before it could happen.

I was nervous—not for Dad. Dad could take care of himself. But one swipe and that bear could send Pensi flying, smack her up against a tree, and that’d be the end of her. No need to worry. The bear was shot and Dad, who’d done some taxidermy as a teenager, skinned it and began tanning the skin to make a rug. Each day after school, I came skipping around the back corner of the house and hopped onto the patio. I’d lift the heavy ceramic lid of the tanning vat sitting right by the back door and peer in with plugged nose, reset the lid, and bounce on into the house. “Is it ready?” I’d badger, finding Dad.

“Not yet.”

When it was finally done, he gave it to the LaRues in Haney. “But that’s our bear rug!” I was inconsolable. He tried to explain that he hadn’t done a good job, and that Mrs. LaRue wanted it, holes and all. But I wanted it! And hadn’t I kept an eye on it? Checked it every day? To satisfy me, Mum took me over to the LaRue’s, and Mrs. LaRue let me wallow in the cool lush fur. I’m not sure seeing the holes helped because for a long time I grieved the loss of that rug. Only Pensi’s cool, lush fur could comfort me.

Once she and Dad went for a walk and next thing we knew we could hear him hollering out by the swamp. Pensi had startled a skunk. Must have stuck her nose right up against its rump and gotten it full in the face, for she was banging her head against the ground, pawing her ears, whining and crying, groveling all over the ground and rubbing herself in the mud. Linda, Tresa, and I watched through the big plate glass window in the family room while Mum carried out some clean duds and a shovel—going as far as she dared. “Here! I’ll get a tub going for you and Pensi!” she hollered.

To our amazement, she seemed to know exactly what to do. She set the hose into the tub outdoors, came in, started the electric kettle, dug around for what tins of tomato juice she could find—and took it all outside, along with the big bar of Fels Naptha soap.

I thought for sure Dad would have to drag Pensi bawling to the tub, but she came willingly enough. Her misery was palpable. Baths over, Dad went back to the swamp to bury his clothes.

“Why can’t we just wash them?” Tresa asked Mum, our noses pressed against the glass.

“They’d stink up the house for weeks.”

“Why not hang them on the line?” I asked.

“That kind of smell you have to bury.”

She didn’t let Pensi inside for days. The tomato juice supposedly cut the smell, but it was in her fur so badly it took a week of rolling around in the dirt before she got it all out.

She did hate to get her bangs cut. It took all three of us to hold her down while Mum went at the shag with determination; me scared the whole time she’d poke Pensi’s eyes out, Tresa crying over Pensi’s distress. On the other end of the scale, she loved chasing cars, which brought equal anxiety. At first it wasn’t much of a problem. Cars were few and far between on the old logging road. It was more of a problem when we went to the river park or into Vancouver to visit Grandma and Grandpa. On such occasions Dad’s uncharacteristically cross commands went unheeded, and Mum, afterward whapping Pensi’s bum with a rolled up newspaper, only managed to send her skulking off. Next car that came along? Off she shot.

Sometimes I grew dizzy watching her race alongside the back wheel of a car. A sheep dog, she had lightning speed, and she nosed right in while I held my breath and teetered on my feet and Mum and Dad hollered. Eventually the car outdistanced her and she’d trot back, shying away from Mum and looking guiltily at Dad.

We’d probably been living in our forest house a couple of years, interior walls up and doors at least installed in the bathrooms, when Dad began spending his Saturdays working with a few of the men erecting Southside Baptist Church. He always took Pensi. One night he came home early, without her. She’d been hit by a car while he and Jack Bariff stuccoed the exterior walls.

That night, after Dad tucked us in, helping us with our prayers and giving us each a kiss, Linda whispered in the dark, “He put her in the living room. She’s under a tarp.”

Our living room was Dad’s workroom—full of sawdust and saw horses, saws and tables. It’s where he hauled in the trees he felled and debarked them, and where he measured and cut the kitchen cabinet doors.

“He’s going to bury her early in the morning,” whispered Linda, who always knew such things.

I got out of bed and tiptoed down the long, cold hallway and cracked the fancy door Dad had made, leading into the living room. Moonlight fell through the bank of windows, casting an eerie glow and there, at the far end, a heap. An hour later I woke up crying.

Dad climbed into my bed and let me cry it out. When I came up for air, blubbering and tasting the salt of my tears, I said, “Daddy? Can you make a rug out of her? Like you did the bear?”

I often wonder what went through his head. I’m surprised he didn’t laugh out loud. That he understood my loss, though, is clear. “You’ll always have Pensi. Close your eyes, think of a special day you shared. Can you see her? Can you see you?”

I could. We were playing at Grandpa’s beach house, running through the waves, a crowd of seagulls cawing above like noisy hankies headed for heaven on a wind.

“Whenever you’re sad or lonely, or whenever you’re happy and just want to play, go there, go inside your head where Pensi will always live.”

“But she can’t make me happy, in my head.”

“You’d be surprised. It’s why God gives us dogs.”

Years have passed, decades in fact, and Dad was right. A thousand times I’ve gone there, a thousand times more, inside my head where Pensi lives, racing along the water’s edge, waves lapping, the ever-present gulls raising a ruckus. Sad or lonely, happy or scared, or simply skiing down a mountain slope in the pristine beauty and clear skies of our world, I find Pensi unbidden kicking up her heels, snow flying. She barks, and licks my nose.