Sunday, May 14, 2006

Dogs and Fish

A Sunday long ago.
When I was a kid sometimes on a weekend I used to let our dogs out late at night to roam the swath of vacant lots and abandoned houses in our neighborhood. One Sunday I went out into the delicate, sense quickening chill and stillness of early morning to collect them. I didn't realize at the time how much I loved that dawn period of respite, when the day has yet to lose its virtue and might still become anything. Brilliant sunlight illuminates everything but its heat has yet to vanquish the night's chill, and the air is still uncluttered with the sound and movement of human activity. This is when it almost seems the madness of nature might be held still; as if you might find a seam in time’s inexorable drawing-down and hide, preserving your own dawn. But this day the moment would have to give way to a pair who had no patience for such thoughts.

I turned to see the two of them, overjoyed to have discovered me, charging across a broad, sunny expanse; Oly, our German Shepard, a big handsome purebred, galloping with unrestrained glee, his mouth open in a broad, ungainly grin, his tongue trailing off to the side, all propriety lost; our small dog, the mutt, a black-coated, part collie with a face like a small bear with sharpened features and a bit of a regal mane, running out ahead. That is the moving-picture that remains sharp in my memory, as clear as the morning air in which it was captured.
That would be the one memory of them that stands out from every other, framed and frozen by that mysterious convergence of moment and eye. It serves on behalf of every other moment lost in the haze of the countless moments, mundane and meaningful, that have intervened since. A better, more worthy pair of creatures you could never find.

My father stopped by out of the blue one weekend to discard Oly onto us. He had named him after a brand of beer, Olympia. Oly was son of Bud, yes, a similarly derived namesake (imagine the biblical genealogy: …Budweiser, who begat Michelob, who begat Lowenbrau…). Oly’s lodging was to be a temporary situation that somehow my mother knew from the start wasn’t; she was nonplussed. Five kids, a full time job, and now a large dog. One of my earliest memories is of that day, running the good natured beast up and down the sidewalk in front of our house. We had no business keeping him; there was no chance we wouldn’t.
He had a golden tan coat with distinct black panels on his side, a classic German Shepard. His posture was dignified whether he was resting on his side with his upper torso propped on his elbows, sitting, or standing; his chin always remained at attention; proud but loyal. He would sit on our front porch and jealously guard his home.

Babe (the unfortunate name given her by my little sister), the brains to Oly’s brawn, was the fastest dog I ever saw. There wasn’t a cat she couldn’t catch; though when she did manage to corner one she was likely to find herself more in peril than her would-be prey. She just wanted to play, it seems. The houses in our neighborhood all had five foot tall brick walls separating their backyards that were about ten inches wide on top. A natural jumper, sometimes in pursuit of a cat Babe would effortlessly leap onto one of these walls and skitter along the top.

She too had an alert, soldier at attention posture; whether standing still or at a full run her neck remained in its forward-leaning carriage, thrusting forward her inquisitive face, all held perfectly still in relation to the churning prow of her torso that propelled her forward on legs moving so fast they seemed to spin underneath her. When she came upon you in the open she would gradually increase her speed as she approached so that when she came close she was going full tilt, and rather than pull up before you she would pass, running so fast and hard you might think she was trying to blow your hat off with her wake. Turning wide like a banking aircraft she would come at you again, for another taunting pass, within arm’s reach. If you reached or leapt out she put on a graceful move worthy of any running back, shifting out of range effortlessly and not only keeping stride but accelerating.
Her look was curious, intelligent, and friendly all at once. She was forever engaging the world in play.
Sometimes the two would spar, Oly lowering himself on wide spaced forelegs and inviting the attack, as Babe would play the lighter, quicker boxer, endlessly parrying and retreating to attempt one angle after another as Oly howled and thrashed his head about trying to lure her in for the big punch.
Great dogs.

Now we have a cat, my daughter and I. He has a skittish, paranoid personality, seeming to react to specters and phantoms that we humans can’t see. He’s aggressive and playful; sometimes if you refuse to pay attention to him he will attack your feet, running alongside you as you walk down the hall, timing your steps to pounce on a foot as it makes landfall. If you engage him in a spur of the moment scuffle, for which he seems always game, and walk away before he's sated he will pursue you, as if to chase off his vanquished foe. Several times I’ve left him on the floor in the middle of battle only to be assailed by him crashing into the back of an ankle as I walk away. Once, after I rebuffed his challenge for a good natured brawl, he positioned himself on the back of a chair and surprised me by leaping squarely into my midsection. You’ve got to admire that level of cunning and spirit.
Great cat.

A few years ago my daughter got a Siamese fighting fish; what they now more often call, perhaps out of political politeness, a Betta (from Betta Splendens). They’re common in pet shops but still amazing little creatures; ours was a blue to purple color with large, graceful fan-like fins that trailed along and beneath him like banners, and a dorsal that was like the sail on a Chinese junk. It’s amazing how much they remind one of Asian art and architecture. The males are highly aggressive, hence the name, and if you put two in a tank together they will likely fight to the death. The remarkable thing about them is their threatening and mating ritual, one and the same: the male will flare out his prodigious fins and his gills to affect a remardable transformation into a much larger, fiercer looking creature.
I would put my finger to the glass of his fish bowl and he would challenge it with this impressive stare-down. I always marveled at how unmistakable and universal is the presentation of aggressive male will; this tiny creature with a “mind” that was barely more than a reflexive sensor, yet it so resembled the same impulse manifesting itself in a human being. There was no mistaking its movements for anything other than what they intended.
After a couple of years the fish began showing signs of decline; his great fins hanging limp and withering away ever so slightly, his challenging ritual less and less impressive; his movements more lethargic. I was surprised that it affected me. I found his encroaching dotage moving; I took more care than ever to clean his tank, thinking he might rebound. Of course it was no use; he had lived a long life for one of his species, nearly three years I think. One day I found him there, lying on the bottom of his tank. Well, there you have it, I thought; life’s arc in a little bowl of water on my daughter’s desk.
Yes, even this was a magnificent creature, no less due to scale; his demise no less the same tragedy of a too fleeting peak giving way too soon to a bitterly final decline.

I was eighteen when we put Oly down. His hip went out; a problem with German Shepards. He spent a miserable last few weeks immobilized, looking up at me every time I came near with that heartbreaking total and unquestioning trust, trapped in a failing body and wanting only to draw a little more succor from the kindness of his masters. Old dogs retain their childishness to the end; their dying days are that much more pathetic to witness because of it. Dogs don’t give up; they don’t grow bitter; they don’t rage against mortality; they just continue to look to us for comfort. They trust us to the end.

When the time came to take him to the vet I deserted him; I couldn’t do it, refusing my mother’s pleas to take him in. It had to be done, so she and my sisters did it. It remains as bitter a recollection as any of the countless shameful, irreconcilable moments from my past. I should have been there, for my mother, for him. My betrayal of Oly was no less for the fact that he was merely a dog; perhaps all the more so.

We become like God to these animals. We love them because they reflect back on us human characteristics; joy, humor, love, fellowship, kindness. These universal values seem to come from somewhere supernatural when they manifest themselves in the behavior of an animal. To me it explains much; about religion, about man’s eternal struggle to break free of his bestial impulses.
If these universal, unquestionably good things—these things that comprise good itself—can express themselves in the being of a dog or a cat; if an emotionally detached man can glimpse a universal will to life in a tiny fish; it’s as if there really is an almighty, but he isn’t looking down on us but through us and at us at the same time by way of every sentient creature. Maybe then there is hope.

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