She’s lost her bark. It not immediately apparent when I first turn the corner of Aisle K and head towards cage Five-Sixteen. It’s not obvious because of all the barking going on all around me, all sorts of barking, high pitched and low pitched, panicked and the sort of bark given in warning. The cacophon, the barking-choir, makes it impossible to distinguish any single bark, and she’s seen me, wagged her tail, once, twice, before standing on her rear-legs in the corner of her wire kennel, angled herself toward my approach, and her mouth is moving, open and closing, and it’s not until I’m right in front of the cage, unhooking one end of the brass double-clip that holds the chain-link of the kennel front to the door, that I realize things are all Milli-Vanilli, that none of the yips or woofs are coming from her, but I can make out her whine, scratchy, but hers, as I swing the door wide, and she swivels from the mesh toward me, still standing, placing her two front paws on my chest. I’d be more impressed if I weren’t so worried.
It’s Wednesday, she’s been here five days. One hundred seventy-five to go.
This is all my fault. I should never have planned to leave without her, left her at Amber’s and went ahead. I should have kept her paperwork current, but Hannah and I only lasted ten days the last time we moved to Hawaii, and after Ray didn’t get that job last year, I gave up. After his brother died, I decided maybe family was more important than steady barometric pressure, that maybe Ray’s happiness was what mattered. I could live with the constant roaring in my head; I’d been doing it for years, but Hannah needed her Daddy. Now I think how much Sophie needs me.
“Hey Soph,” I say, backing her up with my body, trying to keep apology out of my voice so I don’t ruin our visit.
For a moment, between her turn and the two steps she takes backwards, it’s like we’re dancing.
“How ya doin’, girl?” I ask.
I clip my tote bag to the inside of the cage beside the whiteboard with the writing on the opposite side, her name in red print with a description “Gold/Pyr, female, buff.” Underneath that, written smaller is “2cxx” indicating she gets two cups of food twice a day. The whiteboard reminds me of the ones in hospitals where nurses write their names, the patient’s name, attending physician’s name, the date and ward: ICU, GenSurg, whatever. I sit on the steel bench that lines the right, sunny side of the kennel. There is some sort of green mesh blocking most of the rays, but the mesh stops just above bench level so I can see Soph’s shadow, the shadow of my legs, broken up by the diamond-shaped shadows of the fencing. Sophie stands in front of me, tail wagging like crazy for a moment, the shadow of the tail an extension of it, so that it looks like her tail is six feet long. Then, she noses my knee and heads for the door, noses my knee and heads for the door. She does it three times.
“C’mon, Mom, let’s go,” she’s telling me.
I show her the end of a Milkbone in my pocket, push it back in. She looks at the door again but stays, pushes her body London-Bridges under my knees. She is a beautiful dog, buff with a triangle of white in the middle of her chest, her eyes semi-sweet brown, black outlining her eyes and mouth like clown make-up can make her look silly. She’s a rescue.
She circles around, back to the side with the bone, pulls it gently from my pocket and lowers herself to the concrete to chew, anchoring it between a paw and my left foot which she has anchored with her other paw. Half Great Pyranees, this is her way, to anchor and protect, to lean into us when we sit on the couch, to follow tighter than a heel when we walk. She takes a bite, looks up at me at me while she crunches it to crumbs, takes another bite. I rub behind her ears, fluff the rough of her main, put my hand in her mouth between bites. She licks me, resumes munching. In cage Five-Fifteen is a golden retriever, darker than Tucker, who we did leave behind because he was just too big to fly safely, too old. On the other side of the retriever is a husky/lab mix. They are both barking. If one is barking, the other always barks. They belong to the same woman, who says she comes daily, who told me our first visit, the day Ray and I followed the white van from the airport to the quarantine station, about the Bully who died.
The golden stands directly across from us and barks, the mix, its cage on the corner, runs from one end of the kennel to the next, barking all the time. I stay very still, waiting for them to stop. I pull out a pair of orange earplugs and screw them into my ears, dulling the noise, muffling it until it sounds like everything’s underwater, as Sophie rubs back and forth, cat-like, against my knees. I sweet-talk her. I call her my crush with eyeliner. I think about how hard it was to leave her before, still a pup, a puff, how much she had to do with me going back to Texas, to Ray. It’s hot, very hot, hotter than I remember, but there’s a breeze, a saving grace. I take out a brush and alternate long and short strokes to thin out her coat. The only time the dogs are allowed out of their cages is to go to the grooming station, but that’s only after the first week. According to the pamphlet, the first week is key to the quarantine process, to keeping Hawaii “Rabies Free,” but the sign is very old, the red print pinked out from the elements. Half of the kennels are empty, and half of those are falling apart rusted.
As I brush, I check Soph for injuries. Some hair is matted behind one ear. I take out my good hair-cutting scissors, the ones I’ve had for twenty-five years, from my first marriage, my first time in Hawaii, and I snip. She doesn’t care. She trusts me. The kennel quiets. The snips sound like birds. I let the hair fall, take the brush back up. It’s all in the wrist. Soph closes her eyes. I pull wads of hair from the brush again and again. They pile up like tribbles until I have a whole new puppy’s worth. I set the brush down, push the hair together, give it form. I’ve brought a book. I read to Sophie, to all the dogs in the kennel. I hold the book in one hand and pluck at my fur puppy with the other, dismantling it like cotton candy, pushing bites of it through the open-mouth mesh behind me. I read until my words run dry in my throat, keepinig my voice level, home-calm, as the wind takes my offerings, escapes them across the aisles and down the mountain.
Tiff Holland is the author of the novella-in-flash “Betty Superman.” Her poetry and prose have appeared in The Mississippi Review, Frigg, Karamu and many other journals.