He lay in the shelter of the cantilevered deck of a large house perched on top of a dune and watched the pelting rain pockmark the sand. With a practiced paw, he scratched at the fleas who had made his shabby coat their home this past week —the week that found him alone and hungry. The beach was deserted, as were most of the houses along this strip of golden coast. He remembered a time when he had all the food he could eat and a bed next to a fireplace whose dying embers gave him warmth. Someone had always combed his fur, which made him ripple with pleasure. A strange-smelling collar, gently fitted around his neck with love, seemed to him both protection and a sign that he belonged.
He rose stiffly and tried to shake the unwanted tenants from his yellow coat as he yawned mightily. A gnawing in the pit of his stomach drove him to seek sustenance. Two houses away, the tiny woman sometimes gave him leftovers if he moaned piteously by the back door; it was worth a try, but today that tactic failed. The place had been sealed for the winter. His sometime-benefactor was gone.
He trekked the long empty road to town and searched for alleys with overflowing trash cans in which he could forage for something to eat. That was a last resort, for, as he had found, other dogs had laid claim to the garbage and he had learned not to mess with them. They traveled in packs, slinking around corners in the darkened streets and showing him their sharp teeth when they found him in their territory. One of them, the leader, Whippet-thin and short-haired, as they all were, had chased him from his domain, snapping at his tail as he ran. At a safe distance, he turned his head and saw them in a tight cluster—sentinels of scraps, who made sure he had gotten the message before they turned their attention to the remnants of gourmet meals on which they subsisted.
When the rain let up, he trotted to the narrow blacktop road, stopping at a pothole to slake his thirst in a rainwater puddle. His eyes then moved to the distant highway where he watched the occasional car speed by. Wearily, he moved ahead, head hanging low.
A squat, boxy station wagon pulled into a nearby driveway. He crept along the tall, untrimmed hedge, lay down, and watched as four people emerged and pulled boxes and suitcases from the back of the vehicle. The faint smell of food drifted from the boxes they carried to the house and made him salivate.
A small boy spotted him hiding near the hedge and bent down, regarding him solemnly. Shaking his coat once again, he stood and wagged his tail to show he was friendly. The boy reached out a tentative hand and he licked the fingers ever so gently. The child’s face crinkled with delight. He ran to the man and tugged at his sleeve. The dog watched the man turn, frown at him and shake his head. The child pleaded and was soon joined by the little girl, who clapped her hands and made cooing noises. Both ran to the woman, who smiled at the dog and touched the man’s arm. She nodded, and he snapped his fingers. Obediently, the dog trotted forward, sat and waited.
His coat was now raked with little fingers, which brought back memories of other scratchings, warm beds and food. Suddenly, the man once again shook his head. The dog heard the people talking,words he could not understand, but he had a bad feeling about this. The children started to cry and the woman whispered something to the man; he shrugged, picked up a box and walked toward the house. The dog waited. The woman squatted, looked into the dog’s eyes and ran a cool hand over his rough golden coat. She clicked her fingers and he followed her to the back door, where she pointed to a fiber doormat, upon which he lay down.
The woman entered the house and returned moments later with a bowl of water that she placed by his head. She said something in a pleasing tone and re-entered the house.
All afternoon, the children played with the dog. They led him to the beach and he showed them his prowess in retrieving a thrown stick, wading far out into the surf to return with the object clamped in his mouth.He deposited it at the foot of one child, then the other, giving each equal time. Barking with delight, he did this over and over until the children grew tired of the game. He ignored the rumbling in his stomach; surely food would be his payment for all his hard work.
Finally, when the sky grew darker, the family gathered at the house, and the dog followed. He sat on his mat and waited. The man lit a barbeque on the deck and the woman brought great platters of meat and vegetables. As the aroma of charred beef rose in the air, the dog fought to control himself. In a little while, a plate was placed next to him and, although he was so hungry he could easily have eaten a shoe, he showed great restraint by gently nibbling at the food while the woman watched. She smiled and moved away. Before she had returned to the table, the dog’s reserve had disappeared, as had the meat. He licked the dish so vigorously, it moved from the side of the mat some three feet on the grass.When nothing else could be gleaned from the empty plate, he lapped at his water and stretched out on his mat. A nap was called for on this wondrous day.
Exhausted, the dog closed his eyes but remained wary. It felt good to be with people again, to belong. Sleep was out of the question, for if he dozed off, the people might not be here when he woke up.
Illustration by Heather Horton