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Manhattan is not the center of the universe. It only feels that way. But outside of the immense gravitational pull of that small island, there are whole other realms of existence.
For the past year, I’ve been living in the town of Northside, which is two hours from the city but subscribes to an alternate reality. Winter arrives earlier and tests your resourcefulness. The moon is more of a presence. Your regular waitress not only knows exactly what you’re going to order, she also knows how much money you have in the local bank, the status of your divorce negotiations, and your entire medical history, down to the name of the prescription cream you just called in to the pharmacy.
Yet there are also secrets that are easier to conceal here, buffered by trees and mountains and distance. The city may offer a kind of intimate anonymity, but the country permits other freedoms.
The freedom to run around naked in the woods, for example. Which I do about three days a month, when the moon is at its fullest. Having lycanthropy, like having children, forces you to reevaluate the advantages and disadvantages of apartment living. Of course, I’m not talking from personal experience here—I don’t have children.
But even though I accept that I’m better off in the country, it’s been a bit of an adjustment. Before I moved out here, trying to save my doomed marriage, I’d had a coveted slot as a veterinary intern at the Animal Medical Institute on the Upper East Side. And while the education I got there was top of the line, I’ve had to unlearn a fair chunk of it.
In the city, people don’t purchase pets, they adopt substitute children to carry around in big handbags, or rescue surrogate soul mates who will wait uncomplainingly at home all day, then greet each homecoming with frenzied affection. If Basil the basset hound gets cancer, nobody blinks an eyelash at spending thousands of dollars on medical care, physical therapy, a specially designed prosthesis.
Around here, it’s a different story.
Northside dogs are considered animals, and they spend much of their day outside and unattended, having adventures that their humans know nothing about. There are exceptions, of course, but in general, country people love their dogs, though they don’t regard them as quasi-humans covered in fur. Northsiders acknowledge the wolf that resides within the breast of every canine, no matter how outwardly domesticated. “It’s no kind of life for a dog” is the verdict for most serious illness.
Looking at the massive, gore-spattered rottweiler stinking up my examining room, I had to wonder who had it better: the beloved city pets who received constant attention and care, or their country counterparts, who had the freedom to follow their instincts and roll in decomposing deer entrails.
“I don’t see or feel any cuts or abrasions,” I told the dog’s owner, a lean woman with work-roughened hands, leathery skin, and brittle, teased black hair. Her name was Marlene Krauss and she ran a hair salon out of her home. I could feel her sizing up my long brown braid the way a lumberjack sizes up a redwood.
“In fact,” I said, double checking the pads of the rott- weiler’s large paws, “I don’t think this is her blood at all. Queenie’s probably just been frolicking in something dead.”
“Oh, I don’t care about that,” said Marlene. “She’s always getting into something.” When she moved, I caught a whiff of stale cigarette smoke and some drugstore version of Chanel No. 5. If I’d been completely human, the combination would have been strong enough to mask the usual vet’s office odors of cat urine, bleach, rubbing alcohol, and frightened dog. If I’d been completely wolf, I wouldn’t have made any olfactory value judgments. As it was, I was smack in the middle of my monthly cycle, which meant that the scent of Marlene was getting up my nose and on my nerves.
“So what was the reason you brought Queenie in today?”
Marlene tapped her manicured fingers impatiently on the steel operating table. “Because I think she’s pregnant.”
“Oh,” I said, momentarily nonplussed. There I was again, making urban assumptions. In Manhattan, most people didn’t know that most dogs’ dearest wish is to roll in a putrid corpse. The experts theorize that dogs do it to disguise their own predator’s scent from potential prey, but watching dogs, you can see that there’s a wild, abandoned joy to be had from rolling around in something truly rank.
Of course, I knew this from personal experience as well. But I try not to think about that part of my life during my working day. Compartmentalize, that’s the trick.
“Well? Aren’t you going to check her?” Her voice sounded like it had been fed a steady diet of cigarettes and broken glass.
“Of course.” Crouching back down, I looked at Queenie, who instantly licked me on the lips. Maneuvering my face so it was out of tongue range, I put my hand on the dog’s abdomen and palpated. Her mammary glands were swollen. “Were you trying to breed her?”
“Not to a damn coyote.”
“You think she was bred by a coyote?”
“I could hear them howling, and when I went out to bring Queenie in, I found her rope had been bitten clear through.” Marlene went on to explain how she had just shelled out good money to fix Queenie up with a pure-blood rotty male, and the stud fee wasn’t refundable just because Queenie had hooked up with a no-good-thieving lowlife who wasn’t even from the same subspecies. I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing, because I wasn’t sure whether Marlene was talking to me or her dog, or both.
And then it wasn’t amusing anymore, because Queenie started to whimper. She gave Marlene a particularly pathetic look, equal parts hurt and confusion. It probably affected me more than it should have, because I’d worn that look myself for the better part of a year, while my ex-husband criticized and cheated and infected me with a little something he’d picked up in the Carpathian mountains.
I suppose I hadn’t been much savvier than Queenie, who didn’t understand what she’d done wrong by following her instincts, and certainly couldn’t make the connection between that long-forgotten afternoon with Mr. Wile E. Coyote and her owner’s current cold disapproval. I ran my hand over the short, filthy black fur on Queenie’s thick neck. It struck me that a woman who had time to apply little flower decals to the back of each nail ought to be able to hose off her dog before bringing her into the vet. I wondered if Marlene had been neglecting her dog in other ways as well.
I was still crouched down next to Queenie, but I’d stopped petting her for a moment. She nudged me with her tan and black muzzle, then pressed her full weight against my shoulder and arm, knocking me back on my heels. Like a lot of big dogs, rottweilers have an inbred desire to lean on the unwary. “You’re a good girl,” I told her.
Then, before Marlene could disagree with this diagnosis, I added my medical opinion: “She feels like she’s about two months along.”
“Damn. I’d meant to come by a few weeks ago, but I just couldn’t find the time. Well, nothing else for it. How long will it take for you to clean her out?”
I straightened up so that I could look Marlene in the eye, trying to decide how to respond. I had terminated animal pregnancies before, usually with a morning-after pill or hormone injection. Sometimes the mother is too small or too young to whelp a litter successfully. At other times, I had performed the procedure because there were too many unwanted puppies and kittens in the world, and the world isn’t kind to the unwanted. Nobody picketed the clinic or called me a killer: When it comes to veterinary medicine, the controversial is commonplace.
But like most vets, I have my own moral code. I don’t believe in performing euthanasia on animals that aren’t incurable and in pain. I’m sorry you’re moving and can’t find a good home for Captain, but that’s not really sufficient cause to kill a perfectly good young dog whose only crime is being too big for your new apartment.
I don’t dock the ears or tails of puppies, because I consider it mutilation, pure and simple. I don’t declaw cats until I explain that I’m basically amputating finger bones. And I do not abort puppies that are already viable outside the womb.
“The problem here,” I said, “is that a dog’s gestational period is usually around sixty-three days . . .” I trailed off, managing not to add as you should know, since you were planning on breeding Queenie.
“Well, it’s just a bit late to do it now. Queenie’s due in about a week.”
Marlene gave an exasperated huff. “Damn it.”
“I’m sorry, but if you need help with the whelping or placing the puppies in good homes . . .”
“That won’t be necessary.” Marlene snapped a leash onto Queenie’s collar. “How much do I owe you?”
I looked back over at Queenie, who had the kind of broad, large-muzzled face that a lot of people consider frightening, but who struck me as a big, genial barmaid of a girl. “What are you planning on doing with the litter?”
Marlene gave me a cold, hard look. “Since you won’t help, I’ll have to deal with it on my own, won’t I?”
Queenie gave two quick thumps with her blunt stub of a tail, probably eager to be on her way outside, where the air was cool and the newly melted snow had left the ground covered with a smorgasbord of fascinating scents. I imagined the good-natured rottweiler giving birth, then lying back trustingly as her pups were taken from her one by one. Marlene would probably worry more about damaging her nails than any possible suffering as she dropped the pups into a sack and then deposited them in a Dumpster.
I took a deep breath. “Wait a second, Marlene.” She paused in the act of rummaging through her purse, looking up with fake eyelashes and real animosity. But then I didn’t know how to continue.