He hurt all over. The small cut on his back had grown into a large wound, tantalizingly out of reach of his tongue and his paws. All he could do when the itch got maddening was roll on the ground. But more painful than the wound on his back was the agony in his heart. A hundred times a day he asked himself what he’d done or not done to deserve a fate like this. Why had his gods, his humans done this to him?
Sometimes his mind wandered, slipping in and out of the past, so that he was never sure what was reality and what dream. Of all the memories he had, the one that pleased him most was remembering the feel of his mother’s body against his and being lovingly licked all over by her, and also the small warm bodies of his brothers and sisters.
The first indication he had that life was not all sweetness and warmth was when he was plucked rudely away from his mother’s swollen teat. His squeals and whimpers were in vain. A rough hand grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and shoved him into something that blocked out the light. And then came a bumpy, bone-jarring movement that terrified him into silence. And the awful smell! He’d regurgitated all the milk he’d drunk.
Mercifully, just when he thought that he would die, the heaving movement stopped. Another pair of hands, smaller, gentler ones, drew him out of the bag into bright sunlight. He heard strange human voices. One of them was higher and sweeter than the rest. He liked the sound of it. His tail wagged tentatively and the humans laughed. He wagged harder and yapped. The little human picked him up and stroked him. Ooh! The feel of those soft hands was nice and he wriggled in bliss. It was almost as nice as being with Mama again. Then something that smelt very mouth-watering was placed before him. First he sniffed at it and when it didn’t react, he gobbled it down.
The memory of the food he’d eaten that day long ago brought him back to the present.. He was hungry. There was nothing here to eat. It was just bare ground overgrown with weeds and stunted bushes. He lifted his head and barked. A minute later some food came over the wall, also a bucket of fresh water.
The food was not really to his liking but he tried to eat it anyway. Lately he’d found it difficult to open his jaws, and it seemed to take forever to eat even a little piece. He was tired long before the food was finished.
He focused his clouded, nearly sightless eyes at the wall and gave a small bark. As always, a head popped up over the wall and the human it belonged to began to talk to him. He knew it was a female human from the sound of her voice and her scent. He couldn’t understand anything she was saying but it sounded kind and comforting, and fell pleasantly on his ears. Whenever she spoke to him he would lie quietly down and listen.
He wished she’d come over the wall, but she never did. Perhaps she’s afraid I’ll bite her, he thought dismally. How can I blame her? That’s all I ever did to other humans.
Very early in his puppyhood he’d learnt that his humans expected him to be unfriendly to other humans. He was encouraged to bark, bite and drive away anything on two feet or four that came into their property. Wanting to please his humans, he quickly became a super-efficient watchdog, willing and ready to show his fangs and sink them into yielding flesh if necessary.
His naturally friendly nature turned to ferocity without much effort. He was regularly beaten for minor infringements, and the short chain he was kept on all day and most of the night made him bad-tempered.
He was fed only once, in the middle of the day, usually of left-overs from the family lunch. He was set free during this time and he relished his freedom. Not to feel the chain dragging at his neck was a glorious thing! He would tear about madly and roll over and over on the ground, barking with joy. After working off the stiffness in his body, he would set off on a leisurely tour of the local smells. If he was very lucky he’d manage to find a fish-head or a meaty bone.
On one such scrounging expedition, he’d fallen in with an old lady dog. She was a bit of a personality in his neighbourhood, but he had thus far escaped her notice. Grandma Sophie was what they called her. She was old, she smelt to high heaven and she had a vitriolic tongue, enough qualities to ensure that everyone gave her a wide berth.
He hoped to sidle past her but that day was not his lucky day. “Where are you slinking off to, young fellow?” she snapped.
“Oh…….uh…..,’ he fumbled and stuttered, then pulled himself together and delivered a snappy canine salute.”Good-day, Grandma Sophie.”
She inclined her head graciously.”Good-day, laddie. Aren’t you the merry skylark!”
She was making fun of him. “Why shouldn’t I be happy, ma’am? As you can see my belly’s full. My humans are kind to me.” He would have gone on had he not seen a strange look come into the old dog’s before she turned away. What’s eating her, he wondered, as he watched her limp off.
He saw her a few times after that, but only from a distance. Then one day he came across her lying by the side of a ditch. She looked terrible; grey and skeletally thin. Feeling sorry for her, he offered her the fish-head he’d wrested from the neighbourhood dogs. She looked gratefully at him before crunching up the gift. It was not a big fish-head but it took her a considerable while to finish eating it. And then she talked.
“I know what you young dogs think of me. But I wasn’t always like this. Once I lived in a nice home with what I thought were kind, caring humans. I served them night and day. And what did I get in return?” She paused and an anguished look came into her rheumy eyes. “They took away my babies. Some they gave away and some they drowned!” A huge sob wracked her thin body. “And when I grew old and could no longer hear or see very well, they took me in one of their smelly travelling-machines and dumped me here, far away from home. Here I’ve lived these many years,eating when I could but mostly going hungry. And trying to elude the Dog-Catcher.
A shiver ran down his spine. Dog-Catcher! The most terrifying of all images to a dog; the bogeyman of the canine world.
Grandma Sophie raised her tired old head.”I’ll be going to the Big Kennel in the Sky soon. Death beckons; I can feel it. I wanted you to know all this, young one, because you’re so innocent and trusting. Thinking that your humans will look after you forever. They won’t. Mark my words, when your muzzle starts going white and your sight fails, or even if you fall seriously ill, your nice, kind humans will throw you away like so much rubbish.” She heaved a big sigh and put her head down.”Now go, lad. I’m tired. We may not meet again. Go with an old grandmother’s blessing. And thank you for the food.”
He never saw her again but her words haunted him for a long time. But death and decrepitude are no match for youth and vigour. Several young females came into season just then and drove the memory of the old dog clean out of his mind.
The realization that he was growing older and slower came suddenly and brutally when he lost a young female he’d had his eye on to a younger male. The humiliation rankled. Was he growing old, losing his touch? No, he assured himself, he could still run and bound with the best of them. His bark was still ferocious and it was a foolhardy human who dared to enter his humans’ property without permission.
Nevertheless, he couldn’t stop the relentless march of time. For a dog a year was a long time. Creeping old age began to gallop.The first signs were a stiffness of the joints on waking, and a catch in his breathing after a fast run.
He began to tire easily and preferred lying in the sun to chasing the pretty girl-dogs. Remembering the old grandmother’s words, he acted energetic whenever his humans were around. But he couldn’t hide the graying of his muzzle or the glazing of his eyes.
The blow fell suddenly. Late one evening, the Man put a rope round his neck and took him for a walk. He was surprised; the Man had never done that before. They walked and walked. Just when he thought they were going to walk till the sun came up, the Man stopped. They were in a part of the town absolutely unfamiliar to him. The Man looked around for a minute and then led him to a lamp-post and tied him to it. Then, without a backward glance he walked away.
The dog barked. And barked. And barked. “Stop, Master!” was what he was saying. “Come back! Take me with you!”
He sent up a volley of ear-splitting barks. A door opened in one of the houses and an angry voice yelled threats at him.He didn’t care. Panic was beginning to set in. He barked again. A stone came whizzing by and struck him hard on the side of his head. He yelped and cowered down, whimpering in pain.
Panic swelled in him, threatening to overwhelm his senses. The alienness of the place, the unfamiliar sounds and scents all combined to give him a sense of doom. In abject misery he recalled Grandma Sophie’s words. Did his humans get rid of him. He didn’t believe that. He COULD NOT believe that. The Man would return and untie him and take him home. Thus reassuring himself, he lay down and fell into a fitful sleep.
A raindrop falling on his nose woke him. The Man hadn’t come. He was still tied to the lamp-post. He pulled and tugged but the rope was securely knotted. He’d almost given up in despair when he thought about gnawing though the rope.
It took a good while to do it with his old jaws, and the sun was well up when he finally bit through the last strand. The town was already a-bustle but no one spared him a glance.
He sniffed the ground. His Master’s scent was still strong. He could follow it even with his diminished sense of smell.
Late that afternoon a tired, foot-sore old dog turned into the drive-way of his home, and barked. The Woman came out and looked at him critically. She said something that didn’t sound like “Welcome Home.” But he was too tired to care. In any case, of the humans in the house she’d always been the coldest and least friendly. He was relieved when she put him back on the chain; the hated chain now gave him a sense a security and belonging. But he didn’t eat the food she grudgingly placed before him although he drank copiously of the water. And then he slept.
A couple of days after his return he received a very pleasant surprise. The Man set down a dish full of rice and meat. He had never seen so much meat before. Just looking at it made his mouth water.
Drooling, he approached the food and sniffed in its heady aroma. He couldn’t believe it. All this lovely meat for him? Maybe it was the Man’s way of apologizing for abandoning him the other night..
“I wouldn’t eat it if I were you.”
He spun around. Sitting on the wall, daintily washing his face was the arch-enemy of his younger days, the neighbour’s cat. They were both old now and the old hostility had mellowed into an extended truce.
“What do you mean?” he asked the cat suspiciously.
“Just that. Don’t eat the food if you value your life,” the cat told him. At the dog’s disbelieving look he gave an irritated hiss. “Oh, you dogs, the stupidest creatures on earth. You lick the hand that slaps you.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” the bewildered canine asked.
“Stupido! There’s poison in the food. Your humans put it in. I saw them. They don’t want you any more. They tried to get rid of you but you came back anyway. More fool you!” The feline made an exasperated sound.”Well, don’t believe me if you don’t want to.”
The old dog stood stricken. His world lay in ruins around him. It must be true. The cat had nothing to gain by lying to him. His humans didn’t want him any more! They wanted to kill him!
“What should I do?” he asked dully.
“Do? Run away! I would, if I were you. Run as far away as you can from these cruel, ungrateful people.”
He had taken the cat’s advice and had fled from his execution-site, the home he had faithfully guarded for nine years. At first he’d just run without any thought or plan. It soon occurred to him,however, that he had to go where there was food available. He found places where the dumpsters were full but there were other other creatures besides dogs competing for food. He was no match for the armies of street-dogs that roamed the town at night. He went hungry most of the the time.
At last hungry, dirty and weak he reached a place of worship. He could smell the remains of food everywhere. I’ll stay here for a bit, he thought. But his timing was badly off. He couldn’t have chosen a worse day for scrounging in the temple premises.
When the dazzling lights and thunderous sounds started later that night he was scared witless. He looked in bewilderment at the sky, and the deafening noise caused him to cringe and cower into the ground. Then a long sustained volley of thunderous explosions addled his wits completely. Screaming, he fled headlong into the night.
Day broke to find him in the outskirts of the town. It was full of big houses set in large gardens with high walls. And he was trapped in one such high-walled garden, minus the house. He couldn’t remember how he’d got in and now he couldn’t find a way out.
That night he’d cried to the moon, the only thing sharing his loneliness. His high keening wail had brought a human head over the wall.The scent told him it was a female human. That was his first acquaintance with kindness that didn’t ask for anything in return. That night, late as it was, the Woman had sent down food as well as a bucket of fresh water. And best of all, she had talked to him, using sounds that were unfamiliar to him. But they fell pleasantly on his affection-starved ears.
After that she had fed and watered him three times a day. She would stay a while each time, talking to him and calling him “Blackie”. Once he’d given a short bark to tell her that he was Jimmy, not Blackie. But she hadn’t understood. To her he was Blackie because he was a black dog.
He should’ve been content but he wasn’t. He wasn’t used to a life without humans, however unkind they were. The loneliness often drove him to tears; his plaintive cries ululating into the night sky.
His body didn’t feel so good either. One of the wounds he’d suffered in a scrap with the street-dogs began to fester. Very soon a plague of flies began to bother his every waking moment. They buzzed around the open wound, laying their eggs. He had some respite in the night but it drizzled off and on, turning the ground slushy and uncomfortable for lying down.
His physical decay increased dramatically, exacerbated by the suppurating wound on his back. He staggered about trying to get away from the maddening buzz of the flies. Very shortly the eggs the flies had laid hatched into tiny little maggots with voracious appetites. As they bore into the living flesh the old dog went from throbbing pain into excruciating agony. He couldn’t sleep nor eat. No longer did he hear the Woman’s loving calls.
He had brief spells when the pain was bearable and during one moment of lucidity he thought, I should have eaten the poisoned food. O Great Spirit, let me die, he began to pray. Let me die. Please let me die.
He was agony and prayer, each waking moment a plea for merciful death.
The first big raindrops fell that night. As the rain grew heavier, the sick old dog stood in the downpour. The clean cold water falling on his wound fell wonderful. He lay down in a puddle and closed his eyes.
The sun rose the next morning on a world washed clean and smelling of green grass and fresh earth. Birds sang and chirruped on the tree-tops. A solitary voice could be heard calling, “Blackie! Blackie!”
No Blackie answered. He had gone to the Big Kennel in the Sky where it was always summer and no unkind words were ever spoken.
“The greatness of a nation and its spiritual progress can be judged by the way it treats its animals” – M.K. Gandhi