Everything For A Dog
By Ann M. Martin
Feiwel and Friends Copyright © 2009 Ann M. Martin
All rights reserved.
My tale begins with a tail. It is my earliest memory, this tail. I was twelve days old and my eyes had opened for the first time. I tried to focus them and I became aware of something moving, something black and white, something so intriguing that I bit it. It was a tail and it belonged to my sister, who yelped. I didn't have any teeth yet so I hadn't hurt her, but I had surprised her, my timid sister, Squirrel. Next I bit my mother, and she swatted me with her great brown paw. Then she drew me to her belly, and I curled into it, Squirrel pressed against my side.
Squirrel and I were the only surviving puppies in our litter. My mother, whose dog name was Stream, had given birth to three others, but only my sister and I had lived. Mother had waited until she saw that we were strong and then she had given us our names — Bone and Squirrel, two things of vital importance to her.
I am Bone.
Mother gave birth to Squirrel and me in a wheelbarrow in a shed on the property belonging to a family named Merrion. We lived there in secret. Mother, who was a stray dog her entire short life, had roamed the countryside around Lindenfield for a long time searching for just the right spot in which to give birth to her puppies. She had started her search at the end of a winter that had been bitterly cold, but short. By the time the early spring arrived, bringing with it mild days and the scent of sunshine, the ice in the ponds was melting and the hibernating creatures were waking from their long sleeps, and Mother had selected the Merrions' land as the place on which to settle down for a while.
In truth, Mother selected well, but not perfectly. The Merrions, who visited their large house in the country only on the weekends, at least during the cooler weather, did not like animals — not wild animals, and not pets. Only Matthias, the middle Merrion child, wanted a pet, and he wanted one very badly. Mother and Squirrel and I and the stray cats that lived on the property took great care to remain out of sight of the Merrions. The other animals — the possums and squirrels and chipmunks, the deer and groundhogs and raccoons, the birds of all kinds, and the mother fox and her kits — did not attempt to hide, and occasionally they paid dearly for this.
But we had our shed and it was safe and cozy. The Merrions rarely went inside it. Also, two of the walls had been insulated at one time, so the shed was warm. And it was well ventilated since one window had been removed and the door remained permanently ajar. Mother had found a shelter that protected us from humans, rain, and predators, and was dry and warm but not too hot.
Mother wasn't the only creature who had discovered the shed. It was also populated by a number of stray cats and a great quantity of mice. The cats had taken up residence in the old nesting boxes for chickens that lined one wall. They crept through the holes into the little dark cubbies, still filled with straw, and gave birth to their kittens there. Mother kept clear of the nesting boxes, but the cats had to walk by her and the wheelbarrow and Squirrel and me on their way to and from the door. They tolerated us and we tolerated them.
For the first eleven days of my life I lived in darkness and silence, neither my eyes nor my ears open. My world was Mother's soft belly, her milk, and the wiggling presence of my sister. Squirrel and I squirmed and drank and dozed and jumped in our sleep. And then the next day dawned — the last dawn that I wouldn't be able to see for myself — and my eyes opened and there was that tail. I bit it and my sister yelped and for as long as we were together I was known as the brave one, the leader, and Squirrel was the timid one, the follower.
The day after my eyes opened, my ears opened too. Squirrel and I weren't very good at seeing and hearing at first. That took some time. But we grew bigger and fatter and stronger, and eventually the world of the shed became clear to us. I took notice of the cats and the mice and then of the bees and other flying insects. The mice and the insects were interesting. They could slip into places too small for Squirrel and me, and they could zip straight up walls and beams. I sat in our wheelbarrow and followed them with my eyes, wishing I could slip and zip and fly.
One day a pair of barn swallows dipped into the shed through the open window. With much chittering and cheeping and calling to each other, they then swooped in and out and in and out of that window for several days. Each time they returned to the shed they carried bits of straw or long pieces of grass in their beaks, and they began to fashion a muddy nest on the side of the beam directly above the wheelbarrow. Squirrel and I watched the nest building with interest. So did the cats. The nest had reached the height of half a small flowerpot, the roof beam forming its back wall, when one of the swallows zoomed through the window one afternoon and was caught in midair between the jaws of a yellow cat that had been waiting with great patience on an upper beam. The other swallow returned to the nest several more times before he realized his mate was missing. Then he stopped coming into the shed, and the nest remained unfinished.
Our shed was interesting, but as the weather grew warmer I became curious about what was outside the walls. I especially wanted to know more about the mother fox, whose name, I think, was Mine. My mother spent a lot of time watching Mine, and I wondered why. She wasn't afraid of her, but I believe she felt threatened by her. Mother watched her especially closely when the Merrions were at home. When the Merrions were away, Mother paid less attention to her. I noticed that of all the animals that made their homes on the Merrions' property, Mine seemed least concerned with keeping herself hidden. I watched her walk haughtily through the yard at all hours of day and night, whether the Merrions were away or at home.
As the dramas of the swallows and Mine unfolded, and as a thousand smaller daily dramas occurred, Squirrel and I grew bigger and stronger, and one afternoon, Mother surprised us. Without any warning she nudged me over the edge of the wheelbarrow and I tumbled to the floor of the shed, landing on a pile of burlap sacks. Then she nudged Squirrel over the edge. Squirrel whimpered. She was afraid. But I was thrilled. Now I could see everything up close — the cats, the mice, the insects, and the big world outside, the one inhabited by Mine.
Life seemed to speed up after this. Mother taught Squirrel and me how to protect ourselves, when to hide and when to attack and, most important, how to find food and how to catch food. Finding food, I discovered, was easierthan catching it — if there was a good garbage heap nearby. And the garbage heap at the edge of the Merrions' property was very good indeed. A dog never knew what he might discover there. All sorts of things for which I didn't have names then. But now I know what I was eating: bits of scrambled eggs, oatmeal, lettuce, crusts of bread, some things that did not taste very good and that upset my stomach, such as onions, and some things that tasted wonderful, such as cake and biscuits. One day when Squirrel and I were nosing through the garbage I found a whole chicken leg. I ate it without sharing.
By the time Mother introduced Squirrel and me to the garbage heap, the days were longer and much warmer, and the Merrions had returned to their house one morning and had not left it again for more than a few hours. Day after day they were there. They were interesting to watch, especially the young Merrions who shrieked and ran about, but Mother made Squirrel and me stay out of sight of the house, so exploring the yard became difficult.
The only creature on the property that seemed unconcerned by the Merrions was Mine. She crossed their yard by moonlight and by daylight, and finally one afternoon the Merrion child who was a girl saw her and let out a screech. Two days later, while Squirrel was following me on our out-of-sight route to the garbage heap, we were frightened by a blast so loud that it seemed I could feel the woods shake. We bolted toward the shed, but before we reached it we saw one of the Merrions' gardeners carrying a rifle, and nearby we saw Mine lying very still in a garden. Mother found us then and hustled us, unseen, into the shed where we spent the rest of the day.
Early the next morning Mother left the shed. I watched her trot away in the direction of the garbage. The day was very hot and very still and very quiet. We didn't hear any more blasts or see the man with the gun.
But Mother never came back.
At first we didn't know that Mother wouldn't return. Because Squirrel and I were bigger by then and could go off on our own, our mother sometimes left us for long periods of time. That day, the one that started when Mother trotted off, my sister and I hunted and played in the woods out of view of the Merrions. We visited the garbage heap too, and I tasted my first smoked turkey. The day grew hot; it was one of the hottest of the summer, and when the sun was at the highest point in the sky the Merrions went indoors and stayed there, in the big cool rooms. The woods became still, as if all the creatures that usually swooped and stalked and scurried and snuffled for food were hiding from the heat, like the Merrions. Even Squirrel and I stopped our playing, and we lay in the shade in the woods, waiting for Mother. At the end of the day, when the heat was starting to fade, we returned to the shed and waited some more.
Then we waited all night.
At the time when Squirrel and I were still too little to leave the wheelbarrow, but after the time my eyes and ears had opened, I had learned from watching the other shed creatures that things can change in an instant — SNAP! The swallow flew through the window and — SNAP! — the cat caught her in his jaws. A green insect perched on the window ledge and — SNAP! — a sparrow swallowed it. A snake slithered into the shed and — SNAP! — a mouse became lunch. Later, the Merrions' gardener took aim at Mine and — SNAP! — she was gone.
Something had happened to Mother. I don't know what it was, but I think she encountered a predator or a fast-moving car or an enemy — something that prevented her from returning to the shed. Otherwise, she wouldn't have left Squirrel and me when we were so young.
But, snap, Mother was gone and Squirrel and I were on our own.
At first I was like the surviving barn swallow. I looked for Mother and I waited for her. Then I looked less and less and waited less and less, and soon Mother simply was not part of my life. It was during this time — this time after Mother had disappeared, and when Squirrel and I realized that we had learned enough of Mother's lessons to be able to fill our bellies with food and water and to stay away from dangerous creatures — that my sister and I were discovered.
Matthias Merrion found us.
It wasn't our fault. We were being careful as Mother had taught us to be, napping one afternoon in a good hiding place in the woods, and — SNAP! — suddenly there was Matthias, the middle Merrion child, the one who wanted a pet. He didn't see us at first, and we held as still as we possibly could. This was our mistake, though, because Matthias almost stepped on us. And then he cried, "Hey! I found puppies!"
Squirrel and I didn't waste a second. We leaped to our feet and ran directly to the shed where we huddled in our nest. But our legs weren't very long yet, and Matthias followed us easily. He opened the shed door and sat on the floor next to us. He talked to us. He said he wanted to be our friend.
And he did try very hard to be our friend. For many, many days we were his secret pets, and he brought us toys and chicken and tried to stroke our backs. Mother had taught us to fear humans, so we didn't like his hands much. But we liked his chicken. And sometimes, if our bellies weren't as full as they might have been, we allowed him to pet us in order to get the chicken reward. Eventually, when the days of summer were starting to grow shorter and the nights a bit cooler, Squirrel and I even allowed Matthias to pull us into his lap and to stroke our paws and whisper in our ears. Matthias was always gentle. And he almost always had chicken.
Our days on the Merrions' property were pleasant. We got along with the cats. We felt safer now that Mine was gone. (Her kits were gone too. They left after their mother was killed, and never came back.) And Matthias was nice to us.
But I never felt completely comfortable. At night I could hear coyotes in the hills. During the day I sometimes watched the Merrions from hidden places, watched them kill insects and set out traps for raccoons and put up fences to keep the deer out of their gardens. And then one afternoon I saw the man with the gun again. He walked all around the Merrions' yard and Mrs. Merrion trailed after him, saying, "They're nuisances. They're unsanitary and they don't belong here."
I didn't know what she was talking about, but I nudged Squirrel into the shed and made her spend the rest of the day there with me. The next morning, there was no sign of the man or the gun, so eventually Squirrel and I made our way to the garbage heap. Our bellies were rumbling. We hadn't eaten since the previous morning and Squirrel wanted to linger over the scraps of meat and pie and scrambled eggs, but we returned quickly to the safety of the shed. Maybe Matthias would visit us with fresh chicken. It was going to be a stay-in-the-shed day again.
That night, drowsing in our nest as darkness was falling, we heard a blast from the gun. Squirrel, half asleep, jerked to her feet with a loud yip and ran to a corner of the shed, braving the cats. We waited, motionless.
Nothing further happened that night. Squirrel came back to our nest and I stayed awake until dawn, watching and listening. At the first pink glow of the sun's rays, I stood and touched my nose to Squirrel's. This place was no longer safe for us.
It was time to leave.
The day of RJ Elliot's eighth-grade graduation is hot, beastly hot. Every window in the gym is open wide, and flies and bees circle the families seated stickily on the metal folding chairs that have been arranged in rows on the varnished floor. Yesterday, Charlie Elliot was shooting hoops on this floor with three of his friends. Now he's sitting between his parents in the third row of seats, watching a fly ascend the back of Melinda Delroy's head. The girls who were in his fourth-grade class this year — those who have brothers or sisters in the eighth grade and are therefore attending the graduation ceremony — have made accordion fans out of their programs, which they're waving back and forth, back and forth in front of their faces, their necks, their arms. The boys pull their shirttails out, the women pat their faces with lavender-scented handkerchiefs, and some of the men remove their jackets, which they drape over the backs of the chairs.
The program hasn't started yet, so people keep approaching the Elliots, hands extended, faces grim.
"We're so sorry for your loss," they say. "Is there anything we can do? This must bring everything back for you."
Each kind word, each concerned face, causes Charlie's mother to weep again. She has wept and wept and wept these last seven months, wept so much that sties regularly bloom on her eyelids.
Charlie kicks at the back of Melinda's chair. He doesn't want to look at his father whose face is damp, even after wiping it with his big graying handkerchief. He wipes his entire face, from top to bottom, as if he's mopping away sweat. But everyone can see that Charlie's father is crying.
It's like the funeral all over again.
From the fourth row, Mrs. Hutchins, the mother of Charlie's friend Danny, leans forward and touches Charlie's mother on her shoulder. Mrs. Elliot dabs at her eyes, says nothing, but turns around just far enough to clasp Mrs. Hutchins's hands in feverish silence. Charlie looks away from the women toward the open door of the gym, the door leading to the playground. He can see Sunny sitting outside the doorway, can see her tail anyway. Faithful Sunny will wait until the ceremony is over, as long as it takes, in order to join her family and ride back to the farm in the bed of the pickup. This is her favorite way to ride — facing into the wind, ears blowing straight back, paying strict attention to whatever is ahead. RJ called her the Navigator. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Everything For A Dog by Ann M. Martin. Copyright © 2009 Ann M. Martin. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.