Hi,

Final campaign calls made, one more contribution mailed, and an early absentee ballot cast in the 2008 election, I decamped for our place in Las Galeras a couple of weeks ago.

The episode recounted below is not a proud moment for me. I share it in the same hope with which I offered the tale of the head-on collision with a cow last Christmas: that I will remember and that others may derive such allegorical benefit as the story may provide.

It began innocently enough last Sunday with a casual glance over my shoulder while crapping in the bathroom. I looked back just in time to see a skinny furry shank slip soundlessly out the front door.

“Odd,” I thought, “I don’t believe there are ocelots in the Dominican Republic,” and I returned to the classified ads in the Listin Diario, which for me offer a practical course in Spanish comprehension.

Some things, like learning a new language, are apparently not to be hurried. I showered, shaved, brushed and pulled on a pair of shorts before going to investigate the mysterious hindquarter which turns out to be attached to a young and intelligent-looking dog. Apart from his face–which was unusually dignified for a two or three year old Dominican dog, his most distinguishing characteristic was a six or eight-inch patch of missing flesh and fur on his right shoulder. I could actually see the shoulder bone and socket. He seemed accustomed to his infirmity and accepting of his state. The wound appeared surprisingly clean. The dog and I looked wordlessly at each other.

Having presented himself, he seemed content to wait for my response.

There was a Rottweiler somewhere in his past. His forehead was broader and his snout shorter than those of a typical Dominican stray and his face and fur had the coloring and texture of a Rottweiler. His eyes held the luminous calm present in the best of that breed, tempered with a canine shrewdness so necessary for a dog in the DR. He was narrow-chested and very thin and he smelled as a wet and dirty dog several times his size might. It was the sort of hot steamy smell that three or four wetly panting dogs generate when they’ve got a cat cornered on a damp morning after a nasty chase. I wondered if the heavy note in his smell came from the wound which seemed the sort a machete might make.

He didn’t ask for anything, beyond my awareness, as we stood looking at each other. Then he lowered his gaze, stepped surely around me and took himself into the house, up the several stairs and into the bedroom where he lay on the floor in front of the window. That was OK with me. He wasn’t wild; he didn’t appear to be rabid or otherwise diseased and while he was obviously distressed he looked as though he might actually belong to someone who had cared. I thought that I’d let him lay up for a few hours while I looked into his provenance with the neighbors and so I gave him water and walked away, leaving the front door open in case he decided to wander off.

It had been on my list to check in with the neighbors and share cellular numbers since learning of an invasion and a couple of pilferings that occurred during our absence. (809 840-4150 is my Dominican cell number, by the way. Sometimes it works from the States and Europe, sometimes it does not. I don’t know why.)

Neighbors Armelle and Cyril knew nothing of the dog, as we discussed in English. The same result with Ronald and Karin, who incidentally had a younger and Black-Labbish pup looking for a home. In Spanish, Tati averred no knowledge of the mystery dog, as did Uwe’s wife in her beautiful urban Spanish and later Uwe himself in English. The long-resident American Katie had seen the dog a few days earlier; it had scared the hell out of her when it popped out from the bathroom of their rental bungalow. She’d done some checking with others at that time, to no avail and the dog later wandered off.

In a polyglot of French and Spanish, Jean-Pierre suggested that the dog had deliberately chosen our house because it was a place of no violence. Then he promised to come running with his gun if ever we called for help in the night. In Spanish, but communicating mostly with her presence and demeanor, Jean-Pierre’s wife Nuris gave me to understand that my quest for the dog’s owner was unlikely to conclude with a happy reunion between animal and owner. The word we settled on in describing the dog was “vagabond,” a term which seemed as apt as any although I’m not actually sure which of the three languages contributed the word to the conversation.

My last big hope in tracking the origin of the dog was the farm of Quinengo at the bottom of the hill. Quinengo is a Big Man in Las Galeras. He is the local Holy Roller Christian preacher and at one time owned all of the land occupied by everyone I’d visited that morning and more. I’d already been in town for more than a week and it was time to pay my respects to Quinengo and his family anyway.

In Spanish with Quinengo and with his wife Vitalina I got nothing on dog ownership but affirmed a clear understanding of the importance of cooperative communities and mutual assistance between neighbors. Speaking quite good English with his grandson, Rudy, I repeated my litany and questions about the injured dog. Rudy allowed that he had noticed a young dog “with the bad burn on his shoulder,” but could offer no clue as to the dog’s home. He reminded me that dogs often run free in Las Galeras with no responsible person to care for them. “…children too, they are the same.”

I was given to understand that, left to his own devices, the dog would at some time pose a risk to the other animals on the farm. It was not the time to ask what becomes of vagabond children over time, those not taken in by Quinengo and Vitalina or some other kindly person, or otherwise. Rudy advised that I load the dog up and drive far away before dropping him off.

Sure now that the problem of this dog would be claimed by no one in the nearby community, I understood that any problem was solely mine if I chose to make it so. Burdened by this enlightenment, I returned home.

At the least, I’d plugged Denise and myself into the neighborhood watch network, had shared our telephone numbers and collected those we did not previously have.

The dog was where I’d left him in the bedroom but now against a cooler interior wall. He raised his head as I entered. Our eyes met and we each found no threat, only perhaps a measure of acceptance. He put his head down and exhaled deeply.

I stepped out of the room and to the porch to contemplate my next move. I was thinking only a single step ahead: I had a dog in my bedroom who seemed content to be there, no matter how discomfiting I might find that fact. My single focus was on resolving this immediate conflict, even if it meant ruthlessly cutting through the inchoate mess of thought churning through my head rather than patiently isolating and untangling strands of rationality and feeling and information in the hope of finding a pattern or somehow conceiving a plan. I now understand that this rush to a quick solution was to prove the problem.

I heard the dog lick and scratch occasionally, along with the occasional vigorous ear-flapping sound of a wet shake, as if he’d just come in out of the rain, but he didn’t move from his new spot in the bedroom. A heavy moist funk filled the house. I knew that whatever happened, the dog and I would not share the space. Certainly not before I got close enough to clean him and to clean him up considerably.

And so I rousted him.

At first he raised only his head to give me a look as if to say “are you quite sure?” And so I nudged him with my bare toe. Once, twice–it didn’t take three times or a single harsh word. He just got up and left. Neither did he seem to favor his shoulder as he turned the corner, leapt to and over the stone wall and disappeared. He was dignified. Not a beggar but a fellow traveler, now departed.

I applied soap and bleach and water to the two immediate areas where he’d lain, wiping the spatter from the walls and swabbing the floor all the while wondering how in God’s name I could keep a dog in one country while living in another. It was a clear and practical impossibility.

Perhaps he’d make it easy for me, if not for himself, and simply not come back.

At dinner that night a friend opened the possibility of caring for “my” dog “for three months or so,” while we were in the States. Actually, we plan to be in the US for considerably more than three months each year–which my friend well knows–but his offer opened my eyes to a new possibility and also to a new vein of feeling in my hard yet sympathetic heart.

I went to sleep thinking of the dog and thinking about myself, mentally snarled in the smelly and intertwining strands of compassion and commitment mixed with the sad emptiness of my inaction. Strands of depression hung like a gloomy mist in the room. I turned the fan on but the miasma remained, along with the still pervasive smell of the dog. Eventually I slept, awakening once in the middle of the night to a vivid dream of two weird simian beings engaged in some sort of fierce ritual posturing in a room or cage on high while I strangled to say “what are you doing up there?”

The dog rematerialized the following morning, looking hungry and even skinnier than the day before. He still seemed intelligent and self-possessed and he made a good feint to the right before attempting to dodge around me to the left and gain entry through the front door. A single stern word from me put an end to that. The dog made a small whimper, the first sound I’d heard him make. It wasn’t a plaintive or even slightly pitiful. It was more an expression of minor frustration or annoyance than anything else. I liked that about him.

He purposefully turned and moved away from me, towards the front of the house. Inside, I saw him up on his hind legs, looking in the bedroom window to the sanctuary that had been his the day before. He seemed to gauge the width between the iron bars in the wall outside the window and appeared to conclude that he might improbably but effortlessly slip in.

I closed the window.

He dropped down and turned the corner to the other window. I closed that window too and, without hesitating, the dog turned, mounted the wall, and disappeared through Gerard’s garden and down the lane.

Once again, my response had been narrowed by a limited range of imagination. In this world I had observed this phenomenon before, but usually in others.

In this case “No dog in the house” was as far as I could get in his presence and that was not much help to me, and none at all to the dog. I wondered about other instances in life where the same sort of deficit of imagination had operated, for me as well as for others.

Now that the dog was gone I had all sorts of time to reflect and consider different scenarios, alternate behaviors, and their possible combinations and consequences.

But mostly I dwelled on my failure to render assistance to the animal, who would most certainly benefit from help and would probably have appreciated food–even though he hadn’t asked for anything more than a safe place to lie down.

Unbidden words came to me. “No one ever said it was going to be easy.” I don’t know where they came from or exactly why those particular words were relevant but they did motivate me and inspired both reflection and action.

I recalled instances of trauma and crisis in my past, tearing shirts and staunching bloody wounds, soothing others while pressing slippery guts back into the sodden and warm sack of a living body, cleaning piss and shit and vomit–including my own. And I recalled the stink. I can conjure the smells nearly to the point of nausea if I make the effort. Really, this present dog situation is much less urgent. The not-as-compelling circumstance of this injured visitor has afforded me the time to feel rather than channel a mere but solid impulse to necessary action.

But the real difference, I think, is that patching up a person is essentially getting them ready to hand off to others: to medical personnel, to family, or even only to their own rational devices. Tending a wounded dog is in a sense a bigger deal, there is an implied but enduring commitment that transcends the time and place of immediate aid. Lending a helping hand to an irrational being, no matter how intelligent, portends a natural future together. Unless perhaps that hand is later raised as a fist, signaling an end to the relationship and the beginning of a new and unrooted existence for both.

I am now provided with an impulse to action, if not the moral and philosophical underpinning of logical reason. I went off in search of chow and sulfa powder (“antibiotic dust” in my tortured Spanish). I brought back ointment and salve, and food. I made a crate-like bed in the shelter of the gazebo outside and put fresh water nearby. I found anti-bacterial soap and readied the garden hose and I was ready. And I waited for the dog to come back.

I’m waiting still.

Bill

Bed for a vagabond.

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