FH and I, early in our marriage, visited an SPCA in Calgary. I stood in front of a kennel in which was an odd looking dog. Sitting in the middle of his enclosure the animal steadily returned my gaze. Around us other dogs were showing emotion by whining or barking. I found this dog’s unwavering stare unnerving, so I moved on to the next kennel. FH on the other hand, was taking more time to observe the dogs. He stood at the same cage for long minutes and then called to me. “Come look at this one, again.”
I was apprehensive. “He might be mean.”
“I don’t think so.” He said. “He’s wagging his tail.” Sure enough. The long, black, brown, and tan feathers of fur on the dog’s tail were barely moving on the floor behind him as he sat, in the same spot, with the same unreadable expression.
FH called out, “Open the door please. We want to see this one.” The door was unlocked. The dog still sat, but the tail stopped moving, and the expression became even more intense. I hesitated as the door swung open, but when FH took the first step forward, the dog jumped to its feet and on short legs, joyfully bounded towards him. Never was there a more grateful dog. He rode home in the truck on the front seat between us, leaning against my leg, like he belonged there.
“Barney.” I said.
“What?” asked FH.
“Barney. Let’s call him Barney.”
“What does he think of that?” replied FH.
Barney, watching the landscape move past as we headed north, back home to Olds, and who, we would learn, saved his energy for when it really counted, barely moved his tail.
“He likes it.” I said.
The year we moved back to BC, while I hoped for employment with the school district as a bus driver, I worked a little business of selling lingerie at home parties. I had been doing this already in Alberta to fatten my contribution to the family coffer.
One evening about five o’clock, I walked out of the house to my car. I had loaded it with my boxes of women’s frilly things and was dressed in heels and a skirt, ready to give my little presentation at a house party in town. Walking around the trunk of the car I heard a weird noise. It was a cry but I couldn’t tell if it was human or animal. My breath caught as I ran over in my mind where my boys were. Both Nick and Frankie were in the kitchen with FH, as he was getting their supper onto the table.
I stood listening a little longer, and was just about to open the door to the car when I heard the noise again. It was a mournful, strangled sound. Quickly I headed to the horse corral and went through the gate. Avoiding the piles of horse manure, a coating of dust settled on my high heeled shoes and began to creep up the nylons on my legs.
Uncertain of which way to turn I again stopped to listen. After a few seconds I heard the sound, now more like a strangled crow. I needed to go behind the horse shelter, which butted up to the next property. There was no gate so I parted the barbed wire and gingerly squeezed my body through, unhooking the hem of my skirt from a sharp spike.
The grass was waist high and out of control. The husks of ancient fruit trees dotted the area between the back of our horse shelter and a ramshackle mobile home about 40 feet away. Its windows were empty and bits of forgotten car parts were cast aside on the remnants of a lawn next to it.
I stopped, trying to hear past the blood rushing in my head, unsure of my direction. Left or right? Time seemed really important – the seconds passing without any sound was not a good thing.
There it was again! Urgent and desperate. Heading toward the road at the front of the property I pushed through the coarse weeds and grass, my heels digging into the soft dirt. Passing the back of the horse enclosure on the other side of the fence I stumbled along, my stockings in shreds, burrs sticking to my clothing, and dust covering me.
I smelled the stink before I saw it. The tall grass parted and a hole opened up in front of me. The ground sunk down to reveal the smooth sides of a cement tube about four feet across. A few inches below the rim rotting bits of wood floated on top of a brown frothy liquid and in the middle of it, unable to get his paws above the smooth walls was the filthy face of Barney, his eyes imploring me before he slipped under the surface. I threw myself onto my belly in front of the cistern and plunged my arm almost to my shoulder into the muck where I saw him go down. Feeling something I grabbed and pulled. Barney’s face surfaced, I had him by the neck and he weighed a ton.
Lying flat on the ground and using both hands I gripped his collar, then behind his front legs as I dragged my sopping dog out of the sludge. He was exhausted and couldn’t help me. Wrapped around both of his hind legs was human hair. And hanging in between them was a large hair ball soaked with human excrement. He had been swimming around in circles as the hair gathered and attached itself like an anchor.
The neighbor across the road told me later that she had opened her front door to check the mail box and heard a strange noise, but only once, and after listening for a minute had gone back into the house. By her estimate she heard the sound almost a half an hour before I found poor Barney swimming in the old septic tank.
What if it had been Frankie who had fallen through the rotting wooden lid?
The owners of the forgotten property were contacted and in a couple of days work was done to empty and remove the old tank and the hole filled in. Barney and I both required a bath (Barney two or three) before we smelled presentable. And I had to rush, with a hell of a story about why I was late for my lingerie party.
You might be wondering why I chose, on January one, two thousand and thirteen, to share the story of Barney and the septic tank. I’m pondering that as well. For a few days now my mind has gone back, pulling the memory off a dusty shelf, and I’m feeling enormously grateful that Barney was saved because he went on to bring years of beauty into many lives.
All over again I’m in awe of that dog’s determination to keep swimming, to keep calling for help, the timing of my departure from the house, and the hand that led me through the grass to find him. My life sometimes feels insignificant and I get lost trying to figure out where I fit in the passage of time. And then I’m reminded of my necessary participation and the importance of my ordinary days.
Is this the musing of a crazy woman? What do you think?