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The Pecking Order

Miss Annie Daisy

Mason and I took Miss Annie Daisy canoeing on the Red River shortly after we moved to Robertson County, TN. Miss Annie, a six-pound Yorkshire terrier, was my first dog, my soulmate. I took Annie everywhere, and if that meant doing it illegally, then I broke the law. Over the years, I zippered Annie into my backpack and carried her into stores, restaurants, parties, office buildings, libraries, classrooms, movie theaters, and television studios without anyone even knowing. And she never made a peep because Miss Annie felt the same way about me as I did about her. As long as we were together, we were happy.

The Red River derives its name from the color, a reddish-brown mixture with mud as thick as clay. Our research said the slow-moving currents were perfect for a lazy day of floating. We packed sandwiches and a six-pack of beer in a cooler, stuffed towels, books, and clean clothes in a dry bag. We rented canoes from Red River Valley Canoe Rentals in Adams, Tennessee. They said the trip took four to five hours, loaded us in a bus painted like tie-dyed shirts, and dropped us off eight miles upstream. We’d land at the same place we parked.

The afternoon started exactly as planned. We occasionally paddled but mostly just drifted. We saw a herd of deer grazing in a pasture, snapping turtles sunbathing on half-sunken snags, a groundhog standing outside his cave. A red tail hawk swooped above the river’s surface, hunting for a rodent in the greenery lining each bank. We passed farms with cows drinking from the water’s edge, glided under a bridge with an arching trellis. Honeysuckle filled the air with its sweet fragrance.

Miss Annie curled up in a pile of towels I’d arranged on the dry bag. She occasionally stretched or licked my hand. She was perfectly content because Annie loved sunbathing, laid in the sun all year around. When it was too cold outside, she napped in squares of sunshine on the wood floor. But Annie wasn’t a swimmer. I introduced her to water when she was a puppy. We’d been hiking along the Potomac River in Virginia on an August afternoon. At some point, I flipped off my hiking boots and stood ankle-deep in the river. I held Annie where she could feel the water lapping against her undercarriage. She spent thirty seconds in the river before she lurched out. She despised water for the rest of her life.

A few times, I slid over the gunwale and floated for a few hundred yards, but I was the only one. Mason grew up up flipping burgers at the neighborhood pool, and chlorinated water was the extent of his experience. In time he got over his fears, eventually snorkeled off the coast of Culebra, Puerto Rico, but back then he wasn’t a confident swimmer. He always worried about what lurked underneath him.

Mason paddled from the stern. He worked outside and sported a farmer’s tan. His chest was pale while his arms were brown, lean, and muscled from running cable up and down a quarter-mile racetrack. His chest never tanned. It didn’t burn either, just stayed winter white. I liked that Mason worked outside, that he came home covered in dirt and sweat. I liked his callused hands and pale chest. Men who work at desks or wear suits never appeal to me.

We snacked on apples and nuts, had a beer, then two more. By the third hour, I could tell Mason had a buzz, but so did I. His hazel eyes, normally so clear, glowed red and glassy. The river forked around a small island. The water merged on the other side, then funneled through a narrow straightaway. The currents in the fork were calm, almost tranquil, but they drastically changed in the straightaway. We weren’t prepared for it. Sun and beer drunk, bordering on drowsy, we hit rough water.

Ripples were the only sign of the river’s strength, but I noticed them much, much too late. The water yanked the canoe and we capsized. The current’s force felt as powerful as an ocean’s riptide. The canoe’s bright red keel scooted past me, but it barely registered. I didn’t consider that we were losing our only mode of transportation. I wasn’t thinking about the clothes, books, cooler, beer cans, and sandwich bags lost somewhere at the bottom of the river. And I wasn’t thinking about Mason either. My only concern was Miss Annie. For a few frantic seconds, raw terror vibrated through every maternal particle in my body.

Mason emerged first, twenty feet downstream. Annie’s tiny head popped up in the opposite direction, right in the heart of the rough water. I can’t think of a better way to define the term split-second decision than that exact moment. I was faced with the choice of helping my husband or helping Annie. Sure, I thought about it, but in retrospect my reasoning was biased. In less than a second, I rationalized Mason was taller, had a chance of touching the river’s bottom. He wasn’t a strong swimmer, but he could swim. But, even if my logic could have more objective, I can’t deny that my gut reaction disregarded my husband for my dog. It was though I didn’t have a choice. I silently told Mason I loved him and turned towards Annie.

Miss Annie’s black eyes were wide with fear. She wildly kicked her little paws, but she didn’t have enough physical strength for fighting the currents. I positioned myself behind her and created a breakwater. Annie acted as though she’d been swimming her whole life in the calm water between my arms. Once she stood all four paws on dry land, I started searching for Mason. He reached us first. He came slogging through the foliage, barefoot but baseball cap still on his head.

The first thing he asked, “Is Annie all right?”

Annie stood by my feet shivering so hard she seemed as though she might crumble. With her hair soaking wet and hanging flat, she looked like an overgrown rat, but she never looked more beautiful to me. I didn’t know what to expect when I found my husband, maybe anger, at least annoyance, but Mason acted as though it never crossed his mind I’d do anything but help Annie first. The pecking order was always clear.

***

Recently, I was shopping for dog food. I passed several racks displaying collars, training leashes, vitamins for joints, brushes for long or short hair, shampoo for hot spots, and life jackets. I paused, backed up. The dog market has exploded over the past decade. Stores now sell items specifically for canines, such as life jackets, that weren’t popular or available when I first met Annie. The yellow, orange, and red vests ranged in size from extra-small to extra-large. The larger ones looked suspiciously like the human version. I picked up the tiniest one, examined the buckles, read the tag. A picture of a Yorkshire terrier was modeling it. Annie passed away four years ago, but I bought it anyway.