It was the third week of October 2009, a Monday. Smoke billowed from the tin roofs of the tobacco barns, infusing the air with its spicy scent. Red, orange, and yellow leaves glimmered like jewels in the sky, some raining downwards from the branch-draped ceiling. Autumn was my favorite season in Cedar Hill, Tennessee.
We were driving home from our afternoon walk on the Springfield Greenway. Joe Poop and Goose stood on the folded down backseat of my husband’s Honda Accord Station Wagon, pushing their snouts out opposite windows. They were wind riders, ears flattened against their heads, noses slick and working overtime to investigate the cacophony of scents rushing past.
The potholed pavement on Flewellyn Road snaked like a slinky, forcing Mace to slow down, so when we passed two puppies crouched at the road’s lip, I got a good, long look. The copper dog caught my attention first. Then I saw the tinier black puppy leaning against the red one, as though it didn’t have the strength to sit up on its own. They were both in bad shape, but the smaller one looked as pathetic as a medieval creature with leprosy.
“Did you see?” Mason asked.
“Keep driving,” I said.
“They were puppies,” he said.
“We can’t afford it.”
“Dr. Dan-,” he started, but I cut him off.
“Those dogs are going to need more than Dr. Dan,” I said.
“If we don’t do something, who will?”
That was the crux of the problem. Animal overpopulation is an epidemic in the rural south, and four years ago rescue agencies like ICHBA were nonexistent in Springfield, TN. By the time we saw Sara and Floyd on Flewellyn Road, Mason and I had been independently rescuing dogs for eight years. If we kept it up, we’d go broke.
We drove the rest of the way in an uncomfortable silence. Lucy a.k.a. Goose, a freakishly intuitive German shepherd, smelled the tension, sticking her muzzle in between the blue bucket seats. Mason brooded, pulled the brim of his Nashville Predators hat over his hazel eyes. He was pissed off. He marched in the house, grabbed a beer and a smoke, strode out on the deck. Thirty minutes later he walked inside the living room.
“I’m going back,” he said.
I raised my eyes over the pale brown cover of Dave Eggers What is the What. I’d known this was coming from the moment we saw the puppies, but I couldn’t argue with him anymore. The financial strain of rehabilitating those dogs was going to hurt (in the end it cost six thousand dollars) but we’d find a way to pay for it. We had to. The memory of the smaller puppy weakly propped against the copper one, as though her legs couldn’t support her malnourished frame, convinced me. If we did nothing, it would be too late.
By the time Mason returned, a thousand stars twinkled over the Farnival. He only carried the copper dog. I shuddered when I saw it. The pup was male, maybe six months old, fifteen pounds stretched over a skeleton that should have held twenty-five. Mange had eaten patches of fur on his floppy ears and hind legs. He smelled like road kill and shit.
“The black one?” I asked.
“I couldn’t find it.” Mason averted his eyes, ashamed. “It’s too dark.”
After a bath, twenty-four hours of sleep, and a dozen small cups of food, the recently named Floyd regained a dog’s insatiable curiosity, investigating the fence line, the dogwood trees, and the rusting swing set no one used. Because mange is contagious to humans and animals, Floyd needed medicinal dips for six weeks before we could socialize him with our pack. But he had free reign of our warm, cluttered basement during the day and slept in a crate at night or when we left.
Two days after we named Floyd, Mason found his sister by the access gate where I first saw her leaning against her brother. Mace said that when he reached for her, she feebly tried to bite him. That image haunts me: a tiny mound of bones and mangy fur, making one last attempt to survive. Would I have given up by then?
When it was all said and done, like her brother, Sara suffered from starvation and mange, but her injuries also included a fractured pelvis and broken tail – Dr. Dan speculates she was hit by a car – and a coyote or maybe a buzzard had taken chunks from her paw and stomach, which hung like a pasty, plastic sack from the weight of her infected wounds.
I named her Sweet Sara Puff II, even though Dr. Dan warned me to keep my emotions in check. “There’s no use naming her before we know if she’s going to live,” he said.
Sara’s survival became my personal mission, the only way I could shift the world back to the proper angle that finding her made all cockeyed. I would never know who deserted her. Even if I did, I couldn’t do anything about it, but this dog would live.
So help me.
Several times a day I carried her to the front yard to go to the bathroom. When I would set her on the grass, she screamed like a human child from the pain in her cracked pelvis. Dr. Dan showed me the fracture on an X-ray and promised it would heal on it’s own. I piled my favorite books on top of her cage, surrounded her with stuffed animals Johnny Moto had given me, and lit lavender candles. I didn’t write. Not one word. I was too angry. For hours I sat next to her crate and came as close as I’ve been to praying in twenty-four years.
One afternoon, exactly three weeks after Sara arrived at the Farnival, I walked into my writing room to check on her. She slept in her unlocked crate nested on the towels and blankets I changed daily because she wet them. I bent close, heard her soft, wheezy breathing.
As I stood the sun streamed through the window, glinting off a urine puddle wavering on the hard wood floor. For me, that pool of pee glimmered like the colorful autumn leaves on Flewellyn Road. She peed on the floor! She’d been strong enough to crawl out on her own. Quietly, I did the happy jig, while giving a giant fuck you to whoever had ditched her to die. Fuck you, motherfucker! Sara was going to live!
Four years later, I watch through the window of my writing room as Sara and Floyd wrestle in the backyard. Lucy passed away in March 2012, but Joe Poop’s still around, perched on the deck, governing the behavior of our youngest pack members. If Sara and Floyd even try to tear up a toy or a plastic bottle from the recycling bin, I’ll hear Joe’s growl. He trained them both. Sara nips at Floyd’s ankle, coaxing him. They dash across the vibrant green grass, deliriously alive.
(Coming next Monday: A short video about Sara and Floyd’s recovery edited by J2. To read the story of Sweet Sara Puff II’s namesake, click here)