But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee.
Even in April, Tucson can be chilly in the middle of the night. Shivering in my Blue Space Monkey pajamas, I shifted into first and steered Hanna down Ajo Way toward Leda’s housing development, streetlights casting a smoky pink hue over the desert. In the glare of my headlights, a coyote crossed the road. Bad sign in the Navajo tradition. “I’m not Navajo, so it doesn’t count,” I said, but kissed my fingers and then touched Hanna’s dashboard three times just in case.
I’d ignored signs before and been sorry for it—Eddie’s thick down-turned brows and sideways look when I went on a coffee date with a girlfriend, and just a few months after we’d started dating, the late-night appearances at my apartment to make sure I wasn’t out with another man. “Sorry for waking you,” he’d say, the shadow of his Indiana Jones hat large in the porch light. “It’s just that I love you so much.”
I’d only navigated Leda’s subdivision during daylight hours, and now, at 1:30 in the morning, all the houses looked the same. I tried streets named after faraway Tennessee, Virginia, Iowa, and Ohio. “Better get over here,” Leda had said on the phone. “They’re coming.” By the time I found her house and poked my head into the bathroom, one pup, a female, had already been born, and she sucked at a teat. Loop, Leda’s wolfdog, lay on rags near a pile of towels and a heating pad, and Leda beckoned me to sit close and watch. Out came another pup, ash gray like her sister. The pups wriggled and squeaked, their flat faces dashed with dark fur under each eye. Like domestic dog puppies, they wouldn’t open their eyes for another two weeks, but those black smudges made them appear ready to battle the glare and surprise of the world.
Wolfdog puppies weigh a pound at birth, about the same as dog puppies. Born deaf and blind, and with an undeveloped sense of smell, they rely entirely on touch and taste. The first two pups found their mother’s nipples by lifting their heads and moving them side to side. When a teat brushed their tiny black noses, they grabbed and sucked. Leda handed me a dark gray male pup just born, and showed me how to cut and tie the umbilical cord with dental floss. The knot would eventually dry and fall off, she said, placing the pup on a teat.
The fourth and last sac slid out and Loop moaned. This pup had been born fully enclosed. I pinched the amniotic sac with my fingernails, opening it first around the pup’s face and then peeling away the rest of the membrane. It was another little female, but she wasn’t breathing. Handing me a washcloth, Leda told me to dry the pup to stimulate crying, which was supposed to clear the fluid from her mouth and airway. She still didn’t breathe. Leda showed me how to lay the pup flat on her belly in my palm, fingertips supporting her chin. Cupping my other hand over her back, I raised the pup over my head, and with a quick jerking motion, brought my hands toward the floor. The sudden movement cleared out the last of the fluid and allowed air to flow into her lungs. She cried as I stroked her belly and tied off the umbilical cord.
Although this last pup looked just like the others who went about their newborn business, feeding contentedly, she didn’t behave like them. She strained against Leda and me as we held her, as if human skin burned to the touch. I placed her on a teat. She skidded down Loop’s belly to the floor. I lifted her to another nipple. Again she slid off. The third time I placed my palm under her bum until she got a good grip. Her cries muted as she drank, her face disappearing into Loop’s thick belly fur.
I have always loved the creature that struggles. I whispered, “I think she’s the one.”