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Four Boxes


Mason brought Dessie’s ashes home from the crematorium. I placed her box next to the others. When Des died last month, an era ended. Mason calls Annie, Joe, Des, and Lucy our “starter pack.” We made every mistake possible raising those dogs, and from our mistakes we learned how to be leaders.

Now, four boxes sit side- by- side on the bookshelf. Annie’s box is so light it’s hard to imagine more than air fills it. Lucy’s container is heavy enough to hold rocks. They are high enough so the young mutts living here can’t disturb them, but not too high. I like them level with my eye. Those four unremarkable containers hold the only physical evidence I have of a family I loved for sixteen years.

They died with the same frequency that we adopted them, one after the other, three in the last thirteen months. I don’t know if losing them so quickly made saying goodbye easier or harder. There are separate losses to each one. I know I’ve learned what grief really means. It means permanent absence. It means there are four hollow spaces in me that will never be full again. And sometimes those empty places ache.

Every morning before I sit at my desk and start working, I glance at those boxes, reassurances I didn’t imagine the life we shared. Now, it all seems so unreal. Is it possible to love as unconditionally as we loved each other? Sometimes, during the day, when I need a dose of inspiration I’ll take a second look at those four boxes. I’ve thought about spreading their ashes somewhere in the yard or the woods. But as much as they loved being in the outdoors, they loved being with us more.

Dawn’s Red Vest: Dawn Update 2

Dawn star(Dawn)

On Friday morning Dawn sat next to the kitchen door and patiently waited for me to reach around her neck, attach her training collar and leash. She acted a little jittery when I pulled out a red vest, put it around her flank and closed the plastic buckle, but it’s the first time she’s worn “working” gear.

I grabbed her lead, and she followed me with a wagging tail, effortlessly hopping in the Honda’s backseat, finding a spot between Meadow and Adriana. They sniffed the red vest for a second, acknowledging her new attire, before sticking their noses against the window, adding to the slobbery art already smearing the glass.

We were going to the Springfield Greenway for a four-mile walk; Dawn knew the drill. It’s hard to believe that two months ago she’d been feral. I thought about her first ride in a car, when she’d been thrashing in Donna’s van on that Christmas Eve morning, bleeding from biting her own tongue in fear. It wasn’t that long ago.

The only reason we’ve been able to socialize her in two short months is because of our pack. As I’ve said before, our dogs did all the hard work, teaching Dawn everything – from how to get into a car to where to go to the bathroom. They had even taught her leash etiquette.

At the greenway she jumped out of the car onto the sidewalk and walked the next several miles using perfect manners. Once in a while, Adriana, our eight-month-old mutt, would find a stick or chestnut and egg her on, tempting her to play. Inevitably, Dawn would cave and I’d let a half-assed, tethered wrestling match break out, but the game rarely lasted longer than a minute before Dawn was back to walking in formation, leash slack, right beside the rest of her pack.

Dawn’s not perfect. She still chews shoes. She’ll bark at other dogs on the greenway, not aggressively but enough, and she’ll bark for her food bowl, but these are minor concerns and easily changed with consistent correction. Her biggest problem is that she’s still timid around humans.

When we got home from Friday’s walk, I unhooked Dawn’s nylon vest, and she seemed extraordinarily happy to have it off, but I told myself there’s no way she knows what it says. Besides, she’ll have to get used to it.

I brush the fur off the bright, meant-to-be-seen vest, hang it in the dog’s closet – filled with leashes, food, treats, brushes, clippers, medicine, shampoo, and paper towels – and shut the door behind me.

Dawn’s red vest reads Adopt Me. It’s time for a happy ending.

The Farnival’s Feline Posse by Melissa

Creepy boo

After Cozette La Cerva came and went from our lives, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own three black cats, Boo, Goo, and Fuzz, all male. I don’t talk about them much. I don’t write about them at all. They seem to know this. Every once in a while, I swear they eye my computer, wondering when I’m going to give them a little space because, of course, they deserve it. Since they are very much a part of our lives at the Farnival, they shouldn’t feel excluded.

I’ve never considered myself a cat person, and even though I’ve lived with at least one for eleven years, I still don’t consider myself a cat person. Please don’t mistake me; I take my responsibility to my felines very seriously. I may not exactly like them, but I unconditionally love them. They will have food, shelter, and medical care until the day they or we pass.

Speaking of which, I have absolutely no idea what happens when we die, but the irony of my feline distaste is that if reincarnation is the answer, then I want to return as one of my cats, who are the happiest, most self-satisfied creatures I’ve ever met in my life. But sometimes, the reality of our relationship hits home, and I understand with reluctant acceptance that I don’t like them because they are also inherently evil. Murder, it seems, is in their nature.

Let me explain: Boo, Goo, and Fuzz have free reign of the house and eight wooded acres that make up the Farnival. Freakishly intelligent creatures, they started using the doggie doors as kittens, which means they can come and go as they please. The fence – that is so effective at keeping the dogs contained – is useless at restricting our cats. They‘ll sit, sometimes one, two, or all three, on top of separate six-foot fence posts, poised like stone gargoyles at a medieval castle, for several long minutes before they pounce to the ground, throw an amused glance back at my writing room window, then creep into the tree line.

I’ve caught flashes of them beyond our borders, roaming as far as our closest neighbors, Miss Pat five hundred yards east and Greg about the same distance west, but they don’t do that often. Why bother, they seem to say with their exotic triangular snouts, green opal-like eyes twinkling with chilling confidence.

In our rural southern wilderness, the game is bountiful, meaning it’s easy for my three heartless assassins to satisfy their instinctual urge to murder on a daily basis. They don’t need to travel more than a hundred yards in any direction to find the mice, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, snakes, moles, lizards, and birds they capture, torture, and eliminate.

In the beginning, when a beheaded chipmunk still made me cringe, I considered closing the doggie doors permanently in order to save the lives of countless innocent souls. But now, I’m a desensitized pro at discarding carnage and keep a “special” glove hanging in the basement to pick up the remains they scatter around the house.

But, and this is the important part, as much as their viciousness repels me, it also fascinates me. I observe their acrobatic, patient hunt with horror and awe. Like Spiderman’s minions, they leap, lunge, pose, balance, climb, and attack with the kind of ruthless skills that I’ve only ever seen in a Marvel movie. Because of their extraordinary prowess as executioners, I’ve accepted my posse for what they are and keeping them inside now seems like repression in its worst form. It would be like asking a bird not to fly or a writer not to write.

Killing must take up a lot of energy because they spend most days on top of the dresser in the bedroom, nestled together like three evil dragons reenergizing in their lair, needle-sharp paws, pointy ears, whip-like tails, and luminescent eyes disappearing into each other’s fur and parts until there’s just a black mass, purring in the warmth of each other.

Although I’ve seen them butcher during the day, their ideal hunting time is at night. As dusk descends they rise, Boo first, separating from his two brothers, a shadow elongating then splitting from its source, like it never belonged with them in the first place. Boo is the boss of this deadly posse, slinking around the house with a conceited look on his sleek face. I don’t know if appearance has anything to do with how a cat gains status, but Boo is by far the most handsome, well-groomed feline in our pack. He exudes elegance, even when he licks his nether regions, he manages a dancer’s form, leg rod straight, neck bowed, pink tongue flicking over his perceived dirty spots.

Boo and Goo’s past is a mystery. I adopted them together from Noah’s Ark in a bordering agrarian town called White House, Tennessee in 2003. As bad as dogs have it in Robertson County, cats have it a hundred times worse. One female and one male cat, plus their litter can produce 420,000 kittens in seven years. That’s an astounding rate of reproduction.

A brash-talking, big breasted, like-minded animal activist I met a few years ago told me she lures her neighbor’s cats into a trap with sardines, gets them fixed, then releases them without anyone even noticing. She said it’s reduced the cat population in her neighborhood by 80%. I asked her about what happened to all the litters of kittens that came before her valiant efforts. “I don’t know, girl. Most just disappear.” That’s the fate of thousands of kittens in Robertson County in a nutshell. They just disappear. Like they never mattered in the first place.

Goo will rouse shortly after Boo, stretching in his own yoga-inspired pose, then perch at the dresser’s edge, evaluating the dog situation on the bedroom floor. Although Boo swipes at any dog that annoys him, Goo chooses to avoid the situation all together, saving his energy for the kill. He’s the muscle behind the posse, weighing about ten pounds. He’s the only one with any white in his coat, a diamond patch on his chest, like a medallion. His pet peeve is the water bowl. If I’m late refilling it because I’m writing, vacuuming, or studying (in that order,) Goo will pee in it, clearly signaling that I need to get my shit together because waiting for water isn’t on his agenda. But for the most part, Goo sports a contented, patient look. His primary passion is hunting, and I’ve seen him swat his prey with joyful cruelty.

Fuzz, our enigma, rises last. Fuzz retains a wariness that he’s never been able to shake in the five years he’s lived here. It makes getting to know him a challenge. There’s nothing graceful about Fuzz, he scampers down the hallway with his saggy belly jostling from side to side. If a dog tries to chase him, he refuses to engage and hunkers, waiting to outlive a canine’s short attention span. Fuzz spent the first eight months of his life as a feral barn cat on my neighbor’s hundred-acre tobacco farm down Sandy Hill Road. Every week or so, Greg would dump a bag of Cat Chow on the barn’s dirt floor. One night, a scavenging coyote killed the mother and every kitten, except for Fuzz, who is blacker than nighttime.

My feline posse often presents their gruesome gifts in every room in the house, but they particularly like leaving it in my bathroom, directly in front of my baby blue throne. I’ve seen more brains, intestines, livers, and hearts first thing in the morning than I care to remember. Besides organs, I’ve received a mouse’s head, a rabbit’s tail, and a de-feathered bird. And they have no scruples about their prey either. They once cornered a six -foot rat snake in the rafters of the basement. And last fall I watched Fuzz tiptoeing after a bearded turkey across our front yard.

Recently, my friend Nancy and I were walking on the trails behind the Farnival. Boo, Goo, and Fuzz followed us at a distance, but once in a while Boo would sprint forward to catch up. Nancy carried a stick, and when we stopped to look at how the recent rains had gorged a new valley in the dry creek that splits our land, Boo dashed beside her. He started rubbing against her walking stick, moving back and forth the length of the branch in an erotic tango-like dance. His manner was aggressive yet contained, tail erect and swaying. Nancy watched his behavior for a few seconds, realized how weird it was, and jerked back the stick. Boo looked up, surprised, a glistening drip of drool fell from his fangs, and the slits of his pupils seemed to contract with annoyance, as though he couldn’t believe she had the nerve to interrupt his pleasure.

“Look at that cat. What’s wrong with him?” she asked.

I just shrugged my shoulders. How could I answer? I have no idea what’s wrong with any of my cats. I didn’t raise them to be freaky, sadistic killers, but that’s what they are. And being their companion means accepting both the good and the bad about the nature of this oddly endearing feline posse.