Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Big White Dog

This is a dog story, strangely enough. I haven't had a pet for years. But three big white dogs have been significant in my life, the first when I was a little girl. This is the story of the first one. It's scary, so hold on tight.

When my family visited relatives in middle Tennessee, we stopped first at my paternal grandmother's house in town. My brother and father always stayed there. After a visit, my mother, sister and I would head deep into the countryside, down a narrow dirt road, to stay with the other side of the family.

In town, I had a routine. I would scramble up trees in the front yard to see whether the pennies and other small treasures I'd left in hollowed out pockets were still there. Then I'd scoot out onto a limb, hold on with both hands, ease my seat into space and roll backwards. Hanging on by my legs, crooked at the knee, I would swing back and forth. Hands and arms relaxed and dangling, sometimes I hung on with only one leg.

My grandmother fussed. "I wish you wouldn't do that," she would call in a high-pitched, agitated voice. "I just know you'll fall and break your neck," So eventually, a parent would order me to stop. "You are are worrying your grandmother half to death," my mother would say.

Eventually, I found another pasttime. A risky venture that no one knew I was pursuing -- a sheer rock bluff, a straight drop from a cliff behind my grandmother's house down to rocks, gravel and a highway.

Pleased with myself, I would wait quietly for the grownups to be distracted, then slip off, climb the barb-wire topped fence and push through trees and bushes. I would look around to make sure I was alone, turn my back to the bluff and crouch. Then I would start down, one foot first, then another, holding onto grass with fists to keep steady.

I was wary at first, but grew more confident each time. When I ran into obstacles I could not negotiate, I would climb back up and go at it from another angle.

I enjoyed the challenge of the climb. But I was more attracted to the thrill of hanging from the bluff, buffeted by the wind, watching cars go by below. I tried not to glimpse the sharp rocks that would surely be the last thing I would see if I slipped. Because I loved the feeling I got from that bluff, my body plastered on rock and dirt, embraced by the wind and the sun, suspended in a secret place.

Then one day, hanging from the bluff, it happened. A rock glanced off the cliff next to me and ricocheted to the bottom. Then another, this one larger and much closer to me. I remember being angry, thinking my older brother had found me and was pretending to try to hit me with rocks.

But the face I saw watching me from above wasn't my brother's. It was a boy about my age, someone I had never seen. The bone-thin face, slits for eyes, close-cropped hair, was grinning maniacally, and he held a huge rock in both hands over his head. He threw that at me. I ducked, it missed. He didn't have the best aim, an outcropping of rock was protecting me. I yelled at him to stop, but he laughed, a shrill, nasty laugh. Then he started moving to another position on the top of the cliff, one allowing him a better aim.

I went cold. This is it, I thought. I'm not going to lose my balance and fall on my own, this awful boy is going to kill me for fun. I pressed myself as flat as I could into the cliff face. My mind went blank. Until I heard a commotion from above. Some muted scuffling in the grass, the boy's angry voice, then finally footfalls, running.

Someone has saved me, I thought.

But still, I heard nothing from above. When I finally could force my shaky limbs to move, I climbed back up the cliff. No one was there. Nothing.

I lunged over the fence, head darting, looking out for the boy. Something had intervened and stopped him. But I couldn't see anyone.

Then I saw the white dog. He was alert, ears high, watching me from the back of my grandmother's neighbor's house, near the back porch. She didn't have a dog that I knew of, neither did my grandmother. I'd never seen this one.

He ran toward the front yard, ducked onto the porch of the big white house. So I ran after him. I got to the porch and he was gone. Nothing, no one was there.

The door opened. And Mrs. N. bid me a very warm hello. "I'm looking for a big white dog, have you seen one?" I asked, or something along those lines. She had not. No, she did not recall such a dog in the neighborhood. She knew who I was, though, had watched my siblings and me playing in the yard. She asked me in, and I accepted.

The house was full of carpets and antiques, mirrors, lace, lush curtains. She had me sit down in the front parlor and gathered up refreshments in the kitchen. These she served from a silver tray, on china, with silver cutlery.

She started asking questions, about me. Freed from certain death only minutes earlier, I talked, and talked and talked. She listened intently. A grownup listening! Interested! I was enamored, my cliff horror ebbed away.

I never told my parents about what happened on the cliff. I would have been punished and severely restricted for my foolishness. I also never saw the boy or the white dog again. I couldn't imagine the dog stopped the evil boy from throwing rocks. It seems unlikely, although someone or something did. There was one place in the fence that had been torn away and the dog could have easily maneuvered through that.

But whatever happened, the dog led me to Mrs. N., and that established a new pasttime for the visits to my grandmother's. Instead of running to the cliff, I made my way to her. After telling her my news -- silly stories about other children, teachers, fights with siblings -- she would talk. Her stories were those of a lonely old woman who needed a friend too. And she found a willing listener in the middle child from Alabama who so obviously irritated the grandmother next door with too much energy and exuberance, especially compared to the quieter siblings whose company she preferred.

Mrs. N. did not treat me as a child. She would stare into the distance, her face twisted in grief, and talk about her husband's long, agonizing death from pneumonia during a time when medicine could not save him. She could not get over this, her inability to keep death at bay, her tortured nights trying to ease his suffering. I remember her voice, specific details of his death, as though we talked only last week.

Even as a young child, I was honored to bear witness to her pain. She had granted me entrance into the carefully locked and barred world of grownup suffering. And, I am convinced, she kept me from causing more with my wild forays on the cliffs, an adventure that was certain, in time, to end in tragedy.

Mrs. N. and the white dog. The first of three big white dogs. The one who made it possible to recognize the ones who came after.

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