Karen Malpede

There she is, barely visible, tucked under her mother’s back leg, next to her black and gray brother, with whom she would spend the rest of her life in our house.

Her mother’s name was Glory and she was a pretty girl. The breeders were religious folk. When the runt was mauled by a larger Springer, jealous of the cocker mom, yet survived the shock, which looked to them like death, very slowly coming back to consciousness, they decided she’d been born again.

“Can’t you see, she is not a dog but an angel,” they wrote to me when they agreed I could have their only girl dog, too, “sent here to get you through this.” She was undersize, too small to breed.

She would survive many shocks in her long life, 16 ½ years, and now that she’s no longer here I wonder however am I supposed to get through remaining years of “this” without her looking so intent at me. Angels are not supposed to abandon one mid-course. They are not supposed to leave.

 I found them on the internet and got them for what now seems like a bargain price, $500 per dog. This was my first internet purchase, in fact. The pups arrived by Delta Airlines from South Carolina. I had named the black and gray guy, Hermes, the trickster god, messenger from the underworld. He was “pick of the litter” and I had dibs.

“How do you know the pick?” I asked. “It’s just like a person, you just like being around him.” This was so. A kinder, nobler, more gentlemanly dog would be impossible to find. Yes, he liked to eat the butter, parmigiana or Godiva, or anything else, left unattended on the dining table, with one grand leap from floor to chair to table. Sated, he stood triumphant in the middle of the uncleared plates. He ate many sandwiches I packed for lunch, digging through the books in my big bag, leaving bits of foil, or waxed paper scattered on the floor. Finally commenting, “Kahwren, I has trwied to trwain you not to leave sandwiches in your bag, but you peoples is so impwossible to trwain!” For Hermes spoke, always, in my ear, with that slight cocker accent I have sought to reproduce. Hermes and I would later write a published and produced Dogologue together, “Hermes in the Anthropocene.” But Hermes’ sister never spoke.

I have no idea of her voice. Angels are silent guardians, I suppose, and we were connected in another way, spiritually is how I, an unbeliever, would have to say.

She had been named Clemson by the breeders, in honor of the local college football team. After the attack, the breeder’s husband, a lanky woodsman, carried her in the crook under his shoulder, slept with her, too, until slowly she learned to trust. All her life she carried a longing for a tall, lanky man and took a shine to our friend, tall and lanky, a sailor and a Federal judge, into whose lap she often climbed.

I renamed her, Cleis, close enough that she would recognize the sounds. The ancient poet Sappho’s daughter. “I have a small daughter/named Cleis/ who is like a golden flower. I wouldn’t take/ all Croesus’ kingdom/ with love thrown in/for her.”

I, also, had a golden daughter, named Carrie Sophia, after her two great-great grandmothers. Her great-grandmother, Myrtle, was still alive when she was born. She was already living on her own when Clee arrived, though she went with me to pick the pups up at the airport. So tiny, they fit into the palms of our hands. She held them while I drove us home. First, we stopped in a Brooklyn park to let them sniff out city life and pee. Then, my daughter went back to her work. My partner, an actor, was away in a regional theater. I was alone, a bewildered adoptive mother of two young things.

Cleis didn’t seem to like me much. Short and dark, not male. I’m sure I smelled most unfamiliar. Hermes acted like a regular pup, slobberingly friendly, but Cleis kept her distance in an eerie way. 

That’s it, I thought. I’m going to have to work for this one’s love.

She was a dog who liked to look forward, always to be in the lead. Tiny and determined.

“She’s a bright one,” a woman who grew up with farm animals noted as I walked the two pups on our Brooklyn street.

Smaller and smarter than the average. Quite a bit smaller and much smarter. She kept to herself.

Yet, once she gave her heart… “Look at how she looks at you. How much she loves you,” a dogwalking friend said to me one morning in the park.

I’m a twin to a brother, just as Hermes and Cleis were litter mates. It is a fact of my life that I have a hard time believing I am loved.

“You never needed anything,” my mother told me late in her life. I kept to myself, living in a richly populated fantasy world. My fractious parents begged me to come watch television with them. Instead, I would tell myself stories that had chapters and recurring characters. When the story ran itself out, I would lie fallow for a while. I told myself, I mustn’t hold on. All addictive fantasies run their course. Soon enough, I’d create another cast of characters. The stories I told myself were not, I knew even then, the ones I would want someday to tell to others. They were sappy, sentimental tales of being found and being loved and held, usually in a large family, always one that had horses. I was a rider then.

It happened slowly that Cleis as a pup would come to me and lie between my breasts, falling asleep as I lay on the daybed in the late afternoon sun in our then big kitchen. We lived for many years in a rented Victorian mansion, with a garden. She was not a lapdog, not a bed dog, but in the final months of her life, she again took to falling asleep between my breasts.

She would also, in those final months, put her body between my legs, her nose to my sex, when I squatted on the floor to begin my morning 26 frogs, as if she wanted to climb back inside the motherwomb, to stay.

She had blue eyes, rare among spaniels, and a mottled head with ears of browns and grays.

She was high strung, nervy, unlike her well-adjusted brother who observed her antics with disdain. She had a fit one day as a pup. I cannot remember what set her off, but she was screaming, when Hermes came and placed his big paw firmly in the middle of her chest, pinning her down until she calmed.

Cleis was a target. Perhaps because she was mainly white the other dogs could see her. Perhaps because she had been hurt and like predatory people other dogs could tell.

The first time she went off leash in Fort Greene Park, still a pup, a pack of park-savvy grown-up dogs suddenly lit after her. She ran from them and me straight toward the end of the park and leapt off the eight-foot wall, sailing for a moment, ears out like wings before dropping to the cement walk beneath and heading toward the street. I thought she was gone, but a group of young neighbors stopped her at the corner returning her to my arms, intact.

When she was six, we were walking with a friend and her Rottweiler and the friend’s daughter, a cowgirl from Colorado when a pit bull charged without warning from across the meadow and clamped Cleis in his jowls. She screamed. The daughter wearing Western boots began to kick the pit. Slowly his owner ambled over and pried open his dog’s mouth. Completely unprovoked. My girl trembling in my arms. Three operations to remove the fetid flesh. It’s the scream you never forget. The shock and terror of violent assault.

I started going early to the park, before that pit and others, and keeping to the hill where most dogs did not go. And still, one day, just entering the park, a dog, again from nowhere lit out after her. I picked her up just as the big dog leapt into the air. I turned my back so his teeth would land in my shoulder. The dog’s owner made a flying leap just in time to knock his angry mutt off course.

She was tiny enough to get through the fence. She ran into the street one early morning, just as a car was coming and she rolled underneath that car, between its four wheels, while we stood and watched aghast.  She ran onto the ice of a just frozen small lake and fell through. “Cleis, I’m coming,” I screamed but she managed to climb out, a good thing as the ice would hardly have held my weight. I kept her warm underneath my winter coat while we shared lunch of hot Chinese tofu and broccoli.

A traumatized animal will keep reinjuring. I understood because I had been that child, girl, then woman. We recognized one another. She followed me with her eyes; she would hold, even instigate, my gaze. “She never takes her eyes off you,” my partner said.

She spoke with a black bear. I let her out of the cabin to pee in the middle of the night and when she did not knock on the door to be let in, I got up, standing naked on the porch, the porch lights switched on, I saw the little dog and a large black bear in some sort of communion. They stood quietly a few feet apart, looking intently at one another. “Cleis,” I whispered, not wishing to create disturbance. She came trotting up the stairs. The bear ambled on.

We hosted an Oriental rug sale in our big Victorian parlors as a fundraiser. The rooms were piled high with lovely rugs, and Clee perched on the top, rolling, lolling about as if she knew how the intricate patterns on her ears and head complimented the rugs.

Not surprisingly, I suppose, she developed high blood pressure as she aged. She had her own cardiologist and got her own EKGs. She was on meds.

She had bad teeth. Half of which were removed before the heart diagnosis. When she was 13, the vet wanted to remove the rest. But by then her heart condition presented a danger. The operation would be necessitate a well-trained anesthesiologist and would have to be done at the specialized animal hospital uptown.

“Would you ever forgive yourself if she died on the operating table,” her vet asked. “No, I would never forgive myself. She is going to die in my arms.”

The rotting teeth remained and so did Clee for three and a half more years.

Because she was so small, she had to tilt her head up, off-kilter, to see what I was doing, mainly in the kitchen, where she came until the last day of her life the moment she detected rustling. Head raised and cocked to the right, her blue eyes sparkled and the mind behind seemed particularly alert. It was hard to think that Cleis did not have an opinion on everything, and her own rich inner-life. For I never knew a dog more strangely independent who kept more to herself and at the same time a dog more devoted, more aware of what was going on in me.  

We moved house three times. We were evicted from our Victorian rental and took up residence with a neighbor whose mother had recently died.  Cleis and Hermes howled aria-like whenever a firetruck went by. “That’s what I’ll remember,” said our landlady when she heard they’d died. “How funny they were.”

They got too old to go the park or to the farmer’s market where they were well known. Still, we went everywhere in the neighborhood together, Cleis always in the lead.  

Dogs give a rhythm to one’s days. Bring us into the weather. I’m as absent-minded a dog walker as I was a mother, my mind always on something else, images come in epiphanal flashes on the go, twists and turns of character or plot. They got me out, the dogs (I just typed gods as I do so frequently), and getting out with them centered me more deeply in the work I’d interrupted for their sakes. But, with Cleis, absent-mindedness, or deeper-mindedness, had a price. She was never at ease around other dogs whose human companions she knew I did not know. It was wrong to believe I’d cured her. She’d been mauled twice in her life. I’d be woken from my walking trance by her growls, her snaps, the snarls of the other dog, and would have to snatch her quickly from the trouble she was already in.

If we are smarter than they, we should be able to keep them safe. But this is not so. We fail to feel what they feel and miss cues we ought to have understood. We don’t anticipate and can’t catch up. We do damage control with our dogs as with our children. Dogs hold out the promise, as do children, because we love them so, that we might grow wise: be able to foresee, protect, never have to face our failings in hindsight. But, the truth is that dogs keep us humble. We are not wise enough, not ever. We need companions who do not judge.

Shortly after we moved again, to the old shoe factory, now Coop down the block, for we never left the neighborhood we loved, she started needing to be carried up and down the five hallway stairs. She had arthritis.

My husband was diagnosed with a serious disease after surviving three sepsis attacks, and was in and out of hospital, medical appointments, chemo infusions. Always, the dogs where there for me when I came home from hospital visits and for him when he came home. I just did it again; typed gods when I meant dogs, my fingers regularly make the same “mistake” which is itself the deeper truth. Hermes was named for the trickster god of the underworld, and she for the ancient poet’s golden child.

In their final summer, I directed a play of mine outside on an organic farm about a horse, in the midst of the pandemic on a Memorial Day weekend of torrential rains. I had both dogs with me the entire time. Outside the guest house where we stayed was a sloping hill. I took them out early morning and immediately saw the little dog running toward then tumbling all the way down the hill. I was barefoot and had to fetch her, pushing her by her rump, as I climbed up on branch and stone. That night, she fell down the steep back “servants” stairs of the old house, when my husband let her out of our bedroom by mistake. Making a terrible clatter, taking the sharp turn, ending on the tiled kitchen floor. We were terrified, but she popped right up.

She was on gas-x, cbd oil, probiotics and heart meds. I was often up with her late in the night, as she paced. Often, I would cry, feeling her discomfort, crawling by her side.

She was brilliant and attentive to the end. Our bond intensified. She was not the dog who sat in my office as I wrote, or lay down near me while I practiced yoga. That was Hermes. She disdained those sorts of displays of doggie doting. She kept her own counsel. And, yet. She was my heart.

On the 4th of July weekend, she lost the use of her left hind leg. I spent the holiday crouching behind her holding her up by the flesh on her hip, for she was too restless to sleep; she had to pace. I filled the floors with blankets so she would not slip on the polished wood. I gave her antihistamines. Then, in the morning of July 6, I took her out in my arms and set her gingerly on the cement. She stood, then walked, recovered.

We went to a memorial for our friend Olympia Dukakis at the Delacourt Theater in Central Park. It rained the entire time, as story after story about Olympia was told often by people we also knew. There were no cabs. We came home by subway, but my husband has terrible trouble with subway stairs and he was desperately short of breath. We entered the quiet apartment. Cleis let out one furious and horrifying scream. She had lodged herself beneath a chair and could not get out. How long she had been there. I sat with her as she fell asleep in her soft bed.

We were going to have to put them down. Herm had become dull; a sort of dementia had set in. Clee as alert as ever suffered from myriad internal illness They were 16 ½. She had been incontinent for months. I was always cleaning up. My husband was begging me to set a date.

I did not know how I could continue without Cleis at my side. I felt my heart too bound to hers. She lay in bed with me, now, sleeping between my naked breasts and yes, she put her head between my naked, squatting legs and if I could, I would have taken her in, a spinning golden girl inside my womb. I did not know how I could continue to breathe once her breath stopped. We walked together, she and I. I met a friend for lunch. “That dog is not ready to die,” she said.

Why is it so important to be there, to be present when loss comes. The worst part of the pandemic always feels to me the deaths alone in ICUs, deaths over cell phone, deaths in quarantine.

My father died of a terrible cancer when I was nineteen. A nurse told my mother to send me out of the room. “You don’t want her to see this,” the nurse said. And I dutifully, numbly obeyed. I felt like a coward. I felt like a fool. I felt like a criminal for leaving that room. And I did the same to a dog I had once. I let him die alone at the vet. Still numbed from my father’s death, I knew no other way. It was several decades before I could bring myself to have another dog. That dog died in my arms at the emergency vet. She wagged her tail when I came into the operating room. My mother died while I sat with her. My brother, her favorite, had just gone for a walk.

The deaths one witnesses are easier to mourn.  And if we do not mourn we’re confined in a netherworld, neither alive nor dead, but wandering, affectless, malcontent.

And so, we called a vet who came to the home to euthanize. We set a time. Friday at 11:30 am, September 24. About 10:30, I took her for a final walk. She could not go far. She stopped and looked at me.  Clearly, she said, “I cannot any more. I cannot go on.”  We walked slowly home; she was never a dog who liked to be carried. I put her into her furry bed. She was asleep when the vet came. She died in my lap. I felt her heart slow then stop. Her spirit fled. “She’s dead,” I said.  

Since the dogs died, I rarely speak out-loud. I used to keep up a running dogologue with them, saying whatever came to mind, much as once I rattled on to my preverbal child. I made up a song for Cleis just as I had for Carrie Sophia. “Baby songs,” I called them, repetitive ditties that could go on and on.  I sang: “I’ll put Cleis in my pocket and wear her like a locket and take her with me everywhere I go. And when I’m feeling sad or when I’m feeling bad, I’ll take her out and look at her pink nose. ‘Cause I’ve got Cleis in my pocket,” and on and on. She did have a pink spot on her nose when she was young.

I’ve grown silent to myself, I realize because I’m no longer speaking with them. I’ve not been writing much, either, only desultory diary notes. Nothing of worth.

She will not return. No one will. When I squat down to do my yoga frogs, I miss her nose gently there between my legs. If I could have taken her in and born her again. If I could become a woman who rebirths: The unique spirit of each animal that lives. Nearly a year has passed. I have a new puppy, a red and white cocker spaniel named Percy Bysshe Shelley II.

Karen Malpede is an ecofeminist author/director of 22 plays, co-founder of Theater Three Collaborative. Her most recent play, “Blue Valiant” starring Kathleen Chalfant, George Bartenieff, and a horse played on piano, was filmed on an organic farm and is available to be watched: Published plays include Plays in Time: The Beekeeper’s Daughter, Prophecy, Another Life, Extreme Whether; Other Than We; Blue Valiant, she is editor of Acts of War: Iraq & Afghanistan in Seven Plays. Her essays have been published in The Kenyon Review, Typescript, Torture Magazine, Truthout and elsewhere.

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