As she exits the car and looks across the shelter grounds, fifty yards away she sees him. He turns his head in her direction and speaks to her through his stare. A smile breaks across her face as she cranes her neck to reach him with her trustworthy eyes. Everything stops in that moment that they connect.
He barks as she moves toward the entrance door and runs along the upper fence to get a better look at her. She turns just before pulling the glass door open and throws him a huge, knowing smile. He’s the one.
She learns that he was left tied to a bench at a local animal hospital on a Sunday night. The poor boy must have been terrified and confused all night long, abandoned by the man who kept him some 10 or 11 years. Betrayed.
She, too, had been betrayed, but unlike dogs who are loyal and could easily forgive wrongs done to them, she found no need to forgive her ex. They had built on a fragile foundation of doubt for over a decade, but perhaps he thought he would get away with an illicit affair. Her keen sense of intuition and sleuth-like gathering of hard evidence, however, helped her to expose his double-life of deceit. With no desire to discuss it or hear his pathetic excuses, she packed up and left with little fanfare.
Today, though, she is one year and four months removed from that raw wound and working on healing. She rents a little bungalow on a quiet street only paces away from the harbor. Salt air drifts her way – good for her senses, good for her soul -- and now she is ready to share her life again.
She gets approved to adopt and Keiko goes to his new home, an end-of-summer adoption, tongue dripping on his black and white coat as he hangs his head out the car window. One blue eye, one brown. The folded tips of his ears bounce in the wind and he smiles.
Now Keiko was not a “new model” pup and came with some preexisting conditions. He seemed to drop his right rear hip a bit when he would trot. Twin balding patches on the dog’s hind quarters along with a few scattered scabs and a growth on the bottom lid of the right brown eye deem a trip to the veterinarian for an overall checkup as necessary.
The homeopathic vet determines that these bleeding blemishes might be caused by something internal, perhaps a liver disease, but those tests could wait. The immediate fix was to see if the symptoms could be tamed with a dose of graphite.
Within a month or so, fur begins growing back, scabs disintegrate, and one day the growth on the eye vanishes. The slight limp in his back leg disappears, too, and there is more pep in his step during his twice daily walk to the park. The treatment seems to be a cure.
They are gentle and patient, perfectly complementing each other on their walks. Keiko stops seemingly every 15-20 feet to sniff a good spot where another dog had relieved himself previously, and she glances the area, taking in the scenery. Alternately, she pauses in certain spots to capture an ideal shot through the still lens of her camera while he pauses until he receives the signal to continue.
People on the pathway at the park comment on how youthful Keiko behaves, many surprised to hear of his approximate age, many say he acts like a two-year old pup. A more careful look at the whitening of his snout is a better clue to guessing nearer his actual age, but it doesn’t matter. He is a happy dog and it shows, and his person is happy with her new dog companion.
In the front yard, he lazes in the grass on sunny days and captures a seasonal breeze across his fur. She sits quietly and soaks in the same weather, leaning back in the patio chair, legs outstretched, stiff as a fallen wooden soldier. No rush, no place to go, they live in the moment. They live with an inner peace backed by their sensualities of the outdoors. They are kindred spirits.
In all these day-to-day happy-go-lucky times, a nagging question always sits in the back of her mind, though she knows it will never be answered. What kind of life did Keiko live with his former owner? He still flinches on occasion when her hand comes to touch him, but she feels certain that Keiko has never been cared for so much in all his years. Brushings, caresses, and massages, all done with a loving, gentle touch, and the corners of his mouth turn up as he proudly lifts his chin for more of this kingly treatment.
He greets her each day she returns home from work, pulling back his lips to bare his teeth in an understandable expression of happiness while his tail sets the pace of their reunion like a metronome. “Hi, baby! How are you? I’m so happy to see you! Did you have a good day?” She drops her keys, her canvas messenger bag, the mail, and ruffles the scruff of his neck while kissing the top of his head. He sits and lifts his paw, always the left one, and lands it on her forearm. The greeting must continue, the petting, the sharing of love and gratefulness to see each other again. “I’m so happy you came to live here. You belong here.” Her sincerity expressed, and he soaks it in, responding with a direct look in her eyes.
As the seasons change, Keiko’s love for the cooler days is obvious. He barks in preparation for a walk, telling her in his canine language that she has come to understand: “Hurry up!” Even on the coldest nights, Keiko pulls the makeshift draft stopper, a rolled-up beach towel, away from the door and lies down. Old Man Winter’s breath seeps under the heavy oak door and whispers cool comfort through his heavy coat. He sleeps comfortably through those nights.
The winter gets pleasantly active, spinning a few snowstorms in this coastal town, appealing to Keiko’s inner energy and spirit. When an occasional snow falls, he munches on the white piles with fervor, the husky in him radiating.
But as change rolls into change and one season becomes another, soon enough the warmer, humid days return. Keiko signals a growing discomfort, displayed in more continuous scratching. Shedding commences, and the scaly scabs return. A morning yellow mucous begins to cloud the beautiful brown eye every day, begging to be wiped clean with a warm, wet washcloth. And lo and behold, the eye growth returns, too.
At the next vet visit, blood is drawn because the physical seems to indicate a growing tenderness in the liver area, just beneath his ribs. Surgical treatment, if that is the only cure, really would be a risk because of his age, but that will be determined once the lab results are in. For now, antibiotics and a mild pain med will sustain him.
The walks become less peppy, giving in to slower, more labored paces. More frequently, the walks end with open-mouthed panting. On the porch, he waits for her to open the door, but first she must execute her “back home” routine, and she does it as though she were an air traveler being processed at the metal detector. First, she empties her jacket pockets and drops the unused poop bags into the box on the floor. Then she peels off her jacket, tosses it on the chair, and pulls her feet out of her laceless sneakers. Her phone comes out of her back jeans pocket and is placed on the bookshelf along with a piece of sea glass and two red stones from her front pocket. Lastly, she tosses her hat atop her jacket before she reaches for the doorknob. Keiko struts in and then she follows, one giant step across the threshold, cautiously through the portal, and no alarms alert airport security.
She continues to care for her buddy with unconditional love. Soothing rubs, soft kisses on his head. Continued brushings as his fur keeps shedding. Fur, more and more fur, and scabs of skin brushed away nearly every other day. She wonders if her allergies are more related to him than to the blossoms and pollens of the changing season. She sneezes and sneezes, sleep the only relief. He scratches and scratches, and he, too, seeks relief in slumbering.
On the cooler spring mornings or overcast days, Keiko has a little more verve for his walk. He gladly walks along the beach and encourages her to keep going all the way down to the water treatment plant. She notices a tinge of pain in her left groin, right where her leg meets her torso. It is accompanied with a sort of Charlie-horse pain in her left butt cheek. It had been a while since she felt something like that; probably at least 5 years ago when she used to jog regularly. But she pinches her hip, extending her fingers to give a quick deep rub to the pain that caught her unaware. With that, she marches on down the beach to keep up with Keiko’s trot.
Her mission along the way is to find the still-living washed up horseshoe crabs from the previous evening’s high tide. She eyeballs a long trail in the sand which, at points, veers off in a loop like a lower-case cursive “e”. The tracks continue in the wet sand, foot after foot of little claw scratchings until she arrives at a dark lump looking like a prehistoric motorcycle helmet. Towering over it and looking down, she draws in a breath of hope. She squats to rub the top of the shell to greet the creature first; then gently lifts a corner to detect movement.
“Hey, buddy!” she gently begins talking when she sees the claws waving beneath. “We’re gonna get you home, back to safety. You gotta help me though.” At this point, she turns to Keiko and unleashes him. “Okay, Keiko. We gotta help this guy. Be a good boy. Don’t go anywhere. Wait for mommy.” He walks a few steps on the sand to sniff a piece of driftwood.
Carefully, she grabs the two ends of the shell, tail away from her, and she lifts only a few inches off the sand. The crab senses the movement and bends his shell in defense, spike-tail shooting straight out. She moves the crab a few feet behind her through her straddled legs, heading toward the water. She tries again, this time scuttling backwards with the crab in front of her and makes progress quicker, gaining about 10 feet at a time.
With each break, she looks up and says, “Good boy, Keiko. Thanks for waiting for mommy.” There he stands, her voice reinforcing his patience. After several backward shuffles to the water, eventually she reaches the lightly lapping waves. She extends her reach to get the horseshoe crab into the water without getting her sneakers too wet. Its shell digging in the sand, she lifts the corner on each of the next few waves. The water catches under the weight and the crab begins forward swimming motion into the bay. “Good-bye, buddy. Good luck! Have a beautiful day!” She snaps a photo or two as he swims free.
The good days are good. Keiko pushes onward, a warrior of life. Even so, she senses the discomfort below the surface. She could almost see the change in his face at times and when he hits the floor to rest, he just seems to exhale all the pent-up struggle.
She keeps the air conditioning and a fan on for him, knowing his discomfort in his own skin. He idles between rooms hoping for relief yet is restless through the long nights. He gets up and circles in search of a comfortable spot, but the enlarging unhealthy organ makes it difficult. He was always known to drink a lot of water since he came to live with her, but now it seems like he is always lapping away in his bowl and emptying it. She constantly refills it.
He is shedding because of the season, but he is also losing more fur than usual. The evidence can be brushed off the carpet by the handful. There was even a clump under the occasional chair in front of the fan, moving like tumbleweed in the hot desert.
His eyes no longer hold the curiosity of a toddler; instead, they sit more heavily-lidded, shading the jaundicing whites. And when they are closed, she swears she sees a furrowing of his brow, an indication to her that pain may even be filtering in to his dreams. If not in sleep, she worries, where else can he find peace and relief?
The small sores grow back, oozing and crusting on the top of his skin like lava expelled from miniature slow-motion volcanoes. She soaks a clean scrap of monk’s cloth in diluted apple cider vinegar, gently rings it out, and places the sopping rag across his back, holding it still for a few moments to allow the remedy to sink in. Then she repeats the process on another sore-ridden area, and another. Then she gets him to lay down and works this process on his chest, on his belly, down his legs, until she has wet most of his ailing skin. He remains patient throughout, feeling the soothing temporary relief from itchy scabs.
Then she gets a voice message from the vet. The lab results are in. She needs to call back during office hours to set a follow up appointment to go over everything.
True to science, the outcome of the tests supports the clairvoyant vet’s diagnosis: liver disease, advanced stages. She just wants him to be comfortable, pain free. The vet prescribes lab-concocted remedies, ones which she’ll administer along with even larger doses of love. Most of all, she vows to not let him feel alone through this voyage of illness.
She is forewarned that this is a particularly debilitating illness. The road ahead promises to be long and arduous, and additionally, she should expect for it to take a toll on her emotions. Any time you are ready, she is told, we can put an end to the struggle. Put him down is what is meant, and she gets somewhat insulted that they think she can’t handle it, when in fact, they are looking to keep Keiko from extended suffering. But how is a life so easily expendable? How can one determine the right time when this should be no one’s decision but a god’s? She couldn’t give up on him; she wouldn’t give up on him. Long and weary the passage through the pain might be, but she would not give up on him.
Walks become shorter, more purposeful. No longer walking for recreation, a drive to the park replaces the leisurely stroll. Destination reached, they walk just enough steps to allow Keiko to expel the toxins from his bowel and excrete his liquid waste in a few select spots. Then they circle around and return to the car. He pants and his legs quiver a bit from the exertion of the walk. He tires more easily now. Just as well because her hip pain has grown more intense and moved down into her thigh, and she would describe it as the bone itself, her femur, actually aching.
So the goal becomes simple repose, peaceful resting in each other’s company whenever they could. The small porch becomes a favorite spot, a magnet for summer sun early in the day, made more comfortable by the shade of the large maple in the front yard, but in the balmy evenings, a mild celestial breeze finds its way in the uncurtained jalousy windows along with a silvery glow from the moon as it rises in the eastern sky. Many a night she sets up a sheet on the carpet for Keiko and grabs a pillow and a sheet for the couch for herself. She sleeps lightly, like a mom with a newborn, and listens for any changes in his shallow breaths.
One morning when she wakes, she finds a small irritation near her left elbow. Rather dry, the skin in the area is cracking. The ailment extends a bit down the back of her forearm, giving notice to a patchy redness. She pampers this with Benadryl lotion and covers it up with some gauze. Then she tends to Keiko’s skin ailments as usual, soothing his itches and aches as best as she could.
Before long, even rides to the park become impossible as Keiko can no longer jump into the car and certainly there is no way for her to lift and maneuver his 55-lb. body into the back seat. A walk past a few houses on the block has to suffice. Along the route there is a fire hydrant and a telephone pole upon which he relieves himself, but as time goes on, he can no longer hold his leg up in a male stance; instead he squats, and not even a full squat at that as his joints pain him, just as the vet predicted.
It was a cold, dreary day in late November when Keiko breathed his last breath. He was laying on the floor on his favorite comforter; she was lying right beside him, petting his chin and neck, telling him it was okay. He lifted his left paw and dropped it on top of her forearm. Silent tears were streaming down her face when she heard the death rattle. She sucked in and filled her lungs, held the air to stop moving forward in time, and then defeated, she suddenly exhaled in a flurry of sobs.
Her boy was gone.
The timing was right in her mind, just heading into the season of darkness, and so she spent many mornings in bed huddled up under the blankets, not wanting to move. She had no motivation to walk to the beach, no motivation to take photos of morning horizons. She thoughtlessly rubbed her scaly arm raw in her grief and had to peel a blood-blotched set of sheets off her bed on several occasions as the season of long-sleeves held secret her new habit resulting from her despondency.
But every morning when she left the house for work, she took the long route to her driveway via the backyard memorial she set up for Keiko. Goodbyes, love-and-kisses, and I-miss-you’s always fell from her lips like a soft summer rain, accompanied by a rolling tear down her cheek. A quick pat on the frozen mound garbed with an evergreen blanket and she was off.
As daylight begins coming earlier each morning after the winter solstice, she tries shaking off the grief hibernation she fell into after Keiko died, and begins, once again, taking early morning walks down to the harbor with her camera. She bundles up, pulls on boots, and walks a steady pace, unhindered by frequent pee stops. She beelines to the bridge before sunrise, the bridge that Keiko always trotted over ahead of her steps, the bridge where his paws often made the first imprints after an evening snow, the bridge where she now stands with a familiar hip and thigh pain pointing her camera toward the tangerine glow in the eastern sky.
There are at least two more snow events that year despite the fact that Punxsutawney Phil failed to see his shadow on the legendary day that year in Gobbler’s Knob, PA, but soon enough the warmer days return. The horseshoe crabs reappear to mate, and so beach rescues move back in the flow of her early morning walks. She looks up mid-rescue one time and, glancing the area of the near-by moorings, and with the heaven-like rays of the sun shooting from behind a passing cloud, she smiles to envision his black and white coat, floppy ear tips, brown and blue eyes, and proud stance, patiently waiting for her. “Good boy, Keiko,” she whispers, tears brimming.
She takes notice of a foggy smear in the camera lens and thinks about how she has been ignoring it for a while because it never seemed to materialize in the photos. But at work as she glances from one computer screen to another, she realizes that the impediment is not likely in the camera lens after all, that it is actually in her left eye. She notices a blur that clouds her vision and moves as her eyes moves, so she cleanses her eye with drops and continues on with her tasks.
Over the next year, she develops an obvious limp. The scales and bumps of her left arm spread to her shoulder and begin creeping up her neck, and at the same time, creep down her arm, across the back of her hand, and lodge in the spaces between her fingers. The blur in her eye develops into a milky cataract, yet her right eye remains clear.
She finds herself slowing in motion and catches herself panting as she returns to her front porch from her morning walks. She uses the door frame for leverage to breathe in, hoping to attain the 13 pints a minute that regulate the human body. Breathe in for two seconds, out for three, but she is tired. Weary. Her muscles even ache all over.
One autumn morning after a full Beaver Moon, high tide waves still lapping at the cool sands, she stands in the doorway upon the return from her walk at the beach. She eyes the couch on the porch with longing. Just a few moments, she thinks. She lies down in the horizontal golden rays reaching through the front window, rests her head on the pillow, and feels a momentary soothing breeze seeping under the storm door. She rolls on her side, pulling the sheet over her shoulders and looks at the spot on the floor where her buddy used to rest. She lets out an exhausted breath, but the corners of her mouth curl up, ever so slightly, as she closes her eyes.
“Keiko! Keiko, baby!” her voice echoes as her boy runs across the sand toward her. She kneels with ease, no pain in her hip, and meets him with a hug and a ruffling of his gruff. His lips pull back and bare a canine smile as he whimpers a sound of recognition. His tail wags furiously, and he almost knocks her off balance. “I missed you, baby, so, so much! Come on!”
She gets to her feet and begins a light jog down the beach toward the water treatment plan. He prances along beside her, occasionally stopping to sniff some driftwood, and then runs to catch back up.
She looks at the eastern sky filled with hues of pinks and oranges growing in their glow as the sunrise nears. It is like an announcement, like the opening curtains in a play, like the first notes of a favorite song.
She never makes it to work that day. Her coworkers think it a little odd that she doesn’t contact anyone, but nevertheless give her the benefit of the doubt. A little later that afternoon, they send a text and receive no response by 5 o’clock office closing. I hope she’s all right, they mutter, and go home to their families.
Three days later she is found.
She died of natural causes, it was decided, as there was no trauma to her body. The medical examiner didn’t even mention the nasty scaly and crusty skin running up and down her left arm. Perhaps it wasn’t there. It certainly didn’t show as she lay in repose at the funeral home, hands woven in prayer with a rosary between her fingers and a photo of her and Keiko atop the casket. And there was no mention of cataracts, either, but what exactly does happen to eyes after death? There was a mistake on the report, an anomaly really, a discrepancy compared with the information she held for years on her license, compared with what others knew or remembered of her and her deep emerald green eyes. The official coroner’s report stated: right eye brown, left eye blue.
Nancy currently works in a basement waterproofing sales department, daydreaming about retirement. Some of Nancy’s poems have been published in print or on-line journals such as Bacopa, Califragile, Sunflower Collective, and Scarlet Leaf Review. What Nancy doesn’t capture in words will often be photographed, sketched, or painted. Recently, she has participated in the August Postcard Poetry Fest (2019), creating 30+ watercolor postcards and poems to send to the participants in her group.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.