It was really, really not fair notfairnotFAIRnotFAIR
Lelly’s yellow boots smacked the wet sidewalk, half-frozen water sending a satisfying spray-punctuated NOT followed by a slushy spray of FAIR. Not fair that Daddy wouldn’t stop to listen this morning when she tried to tell him something was wrong with Lassie. Not fair that no one listened when she tried to tell them that Lassie had puppies growing inside her. Daddy got mad and told her to drop the subject. He said he knew he’d hauled the damn dog up the hay mow before any dog could’a got to her. He hollered at her that he knew a breeding dog, and Lassie was fat from the treats Lelly gave her.
She had to go to school today like there was nothing wrong. Daddy thought if he says there’s nothing wrong, then there is nothing wrong. Lelly pulled her sweatshirt sleeve down over her hand and wiped her nose. She could see the barn behind her house now, on the other side of the field that began where the sidewalk ended, the last leg of her walk home. The world was etched white with the pellets of snow thrown from an iron grey sky. The dips and curves of dead grass and weeds ahead were white in every crevice. Lelly pulled her hat down over her face, turning the world fuzzy and bisected in a haze of red and purple, and cut head-first across the open field. Her eyes were streaming from the cold, angry wind that shot across the fields. She pressed her hands to her face and breathed hard into her wool mittens, holding the moist warmth until it cooled, then again, and again.
It always felt far across the field in the cold, or the rain, or when she knew she was in trouble. Now it felt far because in the hollow rush of wind in her ears, she could hear Lassie. Lelly ran into the wind, toward the back of the barn where Lassie was chained.
Lassie was running a half circle back and forth, barking and lunging. Lelly laughed and clapped her hands, happy to be wrong. Then she began sniffing at small somethings on the ground. Lelly jogged to a stop just inside the curve of dirt marking the reach of Lassie’s chain. Lassie sat. Lelly stooped down and Lassie whimpered and shivered down onto her belly.
Lelly knelt and whispered, “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
The dog whimpered and scuttled into Lelly’s arms, shivering. Lelly buried her nose in the dog’s neck, drawing in the smell of earth and dog and hay and something else. She lifted her head and saw the first little lump of fur, a brown so close to the brown of the dog yard, it was its coal black nose that caught Lelly’s eye. And once she saw that one, it was like the hidden pictures that pop out when you let your eyes look past them. She counted seven.
Lelly took Lassie into the barn and scratched deep into her plush fur, rubbing until the dog lay down and sighed one long moaning breath.
“Stay” Lelly whispered. Lassie whumphed out another breath.
Lelly looked out at the dog yard, at seven little lumps waiting for her, then curled up with Lassie on the hay. The rattle of wind and snow and bare branches wove a spell just for a moment, and the world was Lelly and Lassie and the cold wind crying and warm, prickly hay.
Then the world was Daddy’s boots and his voice, and his blue work shirt. He stomped his foot next to her head.
“You were right. Don’t think on it. Lots of dogs don’t make good mommas the first go round.”
He spat a tea brown stream of juice, precisely striking a shovel blade huddled against the wall with the implements of summer.
“She’s your dog. This is your work.”
Lelly watched his boots walk away. He stooped by a black little smudge on the brown and white ground, nudged it with his finger. Lelly held her breath. He looked back at her.
“Too bad someone didn’t get home sooner. Ain’t been long.”
Lelly watched him stride across the yard, large, sure foot prints opening up in the snow behind him. She picked her way across the rusted mower parts, dead car batteries and forgotten toys, the shovel banging along behind her. Around the corner of the barn was an unplowed patch of dirt where the family’s lost pets were buried. The sparse weeds reminded Lelly of the sprouts of hair on her Granny’s nearly bald head, when Granny could still walk and talk and make jokes about cancer. She speared the shovel at a damp spot, stood on it and jumped down on the blade with both feet until she could lift out a stiff chunk of dirt streaked with veins of red clay.
Stab, jump, jump, lift. Lelly bent to the work, the sharp snow snapping at her face. The world narrowed. The chore was all there was, purposeless, nothing to do with seven lumps rimed with hard, mean snow. She had shoveled since the stars were flung to the heavens. She would shovel when the sun blinked out. Nothing to do with a tired dog on a pile of dirty hay. Just stab, jump, jump, lift. The hole grew, deepened, and became a rectangle. Lelly used a stone to dig out square corners, flatten the floor, and smooth the sides. When she sat back on her heels to examine her work, she saw it was the most perfect hole ever dug. An award winning hole. It could be a deep ocean for tiny, tiny people or a swimming hole for a very small frog, or an underground doll house. She stacked rocks for furniture along the walls, and made a carpet out of brown grass.
Then Lucy was yelling out the back door, “DADDY SAYS YOU BETTER HURRY UP!”
Lelly fell back into the significance of the grass-carpeted hole she’d dug. She pushed herself to her feet, pulled her hat off and trudged around the corner of the barn to the dog yard and seven lumps. She pushed her fist into her hat, stretching it into a makeshift bag. She tried to pick up the nearest lump with her mittened hands, and with her head turned away, looking out of the corner of her eye, trying not to see the damage a chain can do to small things.
But in the end she had to look directly at the task at hand, and use the dexterity of her bare hands. The puppy was soft. Tiny ears flapped shut, eyes just commas on either side of the smooshed nose. Tiny perfect claws. Soft, plush fur. Lelly stuffed it in the hat. Forgetting her dread, she gathered the remaining pups, examining each. The hat grew quickly fat, but seven puppies weren’t as heavy as she’d thought they’d be.
Lelly tried not to think “dead weight,” which made her think of it. She wondered if dead things weighed more; if the stuff that makes things be alive was like gas in a balloon, making them lighter. She knelt by the perfect hole and reached into her hat. She pressed her nose to the puppy’s back and inhaled the carrion scent of dead meat lurking behind the detritus of the dog yard. Her knees pressed into the earth. Every breath was full of earth and dog and death. She held the body to her chest and remembered summer. Moist earth smells, soft, moist and growing. She remembered discovering a green carpet of newly alive praying mantises exploring an abandoned bike frame.
She placed the puppy on its side in the hole, and reached back into the hat.
Winter was desolate. Desolate was a good word; Lelly had just gotten to it in the dictionary she was reading. Everything grew smaller in the winter, and whatever didn’t die was forced underground, into close quarters where every breath was second-hand. She thought of the praying mantises as she worked, their alien crooked arms and green predator eyes. She imagined all those regal green bodies, brown and broken. Lelly wished a silly wish, she knew it was silly, and she wished it anyway, wished for summer with a wish that soaked up through her cold knees and empty belly. She wished for the hot, damp scent of living things. She smelled it now, faint, hanging over the fresh cut earth, and she pulled it in on her wish.
She reached into the hat. Room in the perfect hole for one more puppy, and one puppy left to go in the hole. With her nose to its brown and pink belly, she breathed in cold and snow.
She blew into the tiny face. A sound so thin it was almost not a sound answered her. She pressed her ear to its belly and listened. She heard nothing, but she smelled puppy. Lelly held it to her face, close enough to feel the heat of her own breath reflected back. She smelled earth, and felt the cold of it under her knees. Lelly breathed on the puppy, and thought of all the living things she’d seen in this spot. The hundreds of praying mantises, the roly polies, spiders, toads, and many legged creatures. She breathed until there was nothing in the world but her breath and the smell of puppy and earth.
She heard the clink of Daddy’s belt buckel unfastening before she realized he was behind her.
“What’s the hold up here, girl?”
Lelly stiffened. “This one ain’t dead, Daddy,” she replied, not looking up.
“Get those dogs buried and get in that house.” He started to slowly snake his belt out of its loops.
Now Lelly moved, scuttling back, clutching the puppy to her chest.
“Daddy, it ain’t dead!”
The belt doubled in his hand, forming a familiar loop.
“Do what you’re told, and do it now. Those puppies are dead as this morning’s bacon. Get ‘em in the ground and get in the house.”
Lelly scrambled to her feet. “It ain’t dead and I’m not a’gonna bury it and you can’t make me.”
Lelly cupped the puppy against her chest, her feet planted wide, her eyes wider. Daddy cracked the belt and she flinched. He snatched her chin, pinched hard, and forced her to look up at him.
“It’s dead. Bury it.” His tobacco-coffee breath covered her face.
Her mouth tightened. She felt that look on her face, the one Daddy always wanted to wipe off. She didn’t know how to not have that look. The wind blew an angry tear into her ear. The backs of her hands stung from the cold, but the insides were warm and full of puppy. She pretended she could see right through Daddy’s scowling face.
He released her with a little push. “Well, I recon you already got somethin’ to cry about. I won’t give you more. Cover the others.” He turned toward the house.
“What about this one?” Lelly held out the puppy, cupped in her hands.
“Bring it in. It’s dead, but bring it in.”
Lelly tucked the last puppy back into her hat. She covered the six puppies spooned together in their perfect grave. She tried to be gentle, but she wanted to be fast. She whispered to them as she worked, and tried to not see the dirt falling on their plush bellies and miniature faces. Told them they were good puppies. She promised to make them a marker and give them names. But right now the last puppy needed to be warm and full of milk.
Lelly checked on Lassie, still curled into a tight ball on the hay. She stooped down and scratched between the tufted ears. The dog uncurled into a long stretch, rolled onto her back and licked Lelly under her chin. Lelly rolled down her hat to show Lassie the puppy nesting inside, but she nudged the hat away with her nose and tried to lick Lelly’s chin again. Lelly wrapped the puppy back up and left the barn with Lassie wriggling beside her. She took care to side step the chain as the dog darted around her, asking her to play. Lassie used to be an inside dog, but the day she bit Daddy after he swatted Lelly was the last day Lassie lived inside. She hated the chain and the barn, Lelly knew, but it was either chained at the barn, or gone. And gone meant gone.
“Go back, Lassie! I can’t play! I have to rescue your baby that you almost killed. I know you didn’t mean to, but now I can’t play ‘cause you did!”
Lelly’s voice cracked a little, and she stopped long enough to give Lassie a quick, hard scratch right at the base of her tail, then ran as fast as she dared to the house with the puppy-filled hat tucked under her chin to shield it from the worst of the wind. Lelly shed her coat and boots in the back room, gathered the puppy, still tucked in the hat, and slipped through the kitchen doorway. Lucy was at the counter, stacking this morning’s dirty dishes. She grimaced at Lelly.
“You in ter-ou-ble!” she whispered, drawing the word out into three syllables.
Lelly shrugged and kept moving toward the warmest spot in the house, a corner by the chimney where a register blasted hot air up her nightgown on cold mornings. She stopped in the doorway. Mommy and Daddy were sitting on the couch together. They almost never did that. Daddy sat in the big chair, and Mommy sat on the couch with Lucy and Lelly. When they sat together on the couch, it meant they had something awful to say, like that Granny died while she was at school.
“Lelly, come over here and sit down.” Momma patted the cushion beside her, but also beside Daddy. Lelly checked Daddy’s belt. It was still in its loops and buckled.
She turned toward the corner where the furnace blew warm air, the warmest place in the house. She heard Daddy shift in his seat, and mumbled, “I’m coming” as she arranged the puppy hat in the corner where the chimney jutted out from the wall.
The couch sank in the back, which was fine for cuddling, but not for sitting, so everyone sat on the edge. Lelly stared at the hat in the corner, and imagined the puppy squirming out all on its own. Daddy half-smacked, half-patted the back of her head.
“Listen. That puppy can stay in here for one hour. If it’s still dead, you’ll go bury it.”
He tapped her head with his finger. When Lelly shook her head away from his hand, it snaked out and wrapped around the base of her skull, forcing her face toward his. She felt her features drop into that look again, and waited for what comes next. He tipped his head as if to get a better look in her eyes. Lelly pretended he was invisible.
“When an hour’s up, you’ll bury that damned dead dog. You hear me?”
She nodded stiffly.
“Alright then. Go take care of your dead dog.” He pushed her up off the couch. She took two running steps and was in the corner, sitting with the puppy hat between her sprawled legs, reaching in, when Mommy spoke.
“Lelly, what do you say?”
Lelly breathed in a deep, deep breath. It wasn’t fair to have to say it for not having to bury a live puppy, she thought, but she said, “Thank you, Daddy.”
“Alright, then, you got an hour,” he said, standing up and taking Mommy’s hands to pull her up. “Linda, let’s us go get supper around.”
Lelly curled around the register with her back to the room, and arranged the hat into a nest with the brown ball of puppy covered so that only a sliver of its face peeked out. She pulled the nest close to her chest and added her breath to the heat from the furnace. Lucy came up behind her.
“Can I see?” She whispered.
Lelly showed her the puppy’s head without looking at her. Lucy bent down and whisper in Lelly’s ear.
“I hope it’s not dead. I’m glad you ain’t in trouble.” She stroked between the puppy’s eyes with one finger. “It’s so cute.”
Lelly nodded, and a tear dripped onto the hat. Lucy kissed the top of her head.
“You’ll drown it if you cry.”
Lelly sniffed and shrugged.
“Okay, well, I just wanted you to know, that’s all,”
Lucy gave the puppy another stroke. When her finger touched the black dot of a nose, the tiny mouth popped open. Lelly and Lucy froze as the little mouth bobbed about. Then a scratchy little squeak came out, followed by a stream of high pitched squeals.
“DADDY!! MOMMY!!” Lelly and Lucy shrieked as the puppy abandoned its squeals in favor of suckling at Lucy’s finger.
Daddy took one look, shook his head and walked away, mumbling, “Well, I’ll be damned. I’ll be damned.”
That night Lelly slept in a nest of blankets on the floor in the warmest room. She had to feed the puppy, and keep it warm. Still nestled in the fuzzy wool hat, he was all round tight belly, full of goat’s milk from the Gretze’s down the road. Lelly lay with one hand wrapped around the ball of puppy, keeping him warm. Daddy said to give him a throw away name, because he probably wouldn’t live. Lelly named him Homer, for the blind poet from the Greeks, and not a throw away name at all. Homer the Blind Poet Puppy. She knew his eyes would open, but right now he was blind, so it could be his right now name, and that was okay. He needed a big name to hang on to, Lelly thought, a substantial name. A name that would weight him into his body and keep him there.
Her parents’ sleeping breath, and her sister’s, and the puppy’s, too, drifted through the dark. Lelly fell into a dream of praying mantises being chased by puppies, who tried to eat the pious bugs, but spit them out instead.
I love this story so much. The bleakness of the winter seemed to seep into my bones, and somehow the childhood chimed all sorts of bells of recognition despite being different to my own. We did have a semi-rural life, and I remember trudges through freezing dark evenings of wet and mud, and the warm scent of horses and dogs, but a very different situation.
The story had such a building sense of dread I was braced for tragedy, or unending misery, so the end seemed miraculous, and the whole has stayed in my mind more vividly than I expected.
(I follow you on Twitter, btw – I’m Darth Bambi’s ‘mum’ 😊)
Thank you! The bones of this story are true, but my daddy was never that gruff.