I used to go to dog shows a lot, decades before I considered myself anything close to being a dog show person. Admission was free, the coliseum was ten minutes away, and I liked dogs. I'd go and watch the Dobermans, because I loved how strong and brave they appeared, and I'd watch the German Shorthaired Pointers because I grew up with one as a kid. I'd watch the people fervently grooming and brushing and I never once thought I'd be one of those people.
Couldn't tell you now what ring I was watching, but I was watching some breed or other when I felt a very long, very hard something slip tightly between my legs. Now, in my sum total experience that's something I do, not have done unto me. I turned and watched a small lady with a very long, very tall dog with the longest nose I've ever seen walk off. I'm sure she said something apologetic but I don't even remember. I knew I'd never seen that kind of dog before, but I dismissed it from my mind and went on watching the breed ring.
Later that day I saw that same dog and lady again. They were in a quiet part of the coliseum, and she was moving at a very fast jog alongside her dog. Now, ordinarily a jogging woman is enough to make me stop and look but it was the dog that caught my attention. It wasn't that he was tall (he was, exceedingly so) or that he had a coat of beautiful flowing curls that ranged from black to russet to white. It wasn't even his long, elegant face with small, tucked-back ears that looked like it had been designed for cutting through the wind. It was the way he moved. He moved like he was floating, like his feet weren't quite touching the ground and he was in fact flying, and all the leg movements were just a smoke screen to hide the fact that he was disobeying gravity's immutable law.
I stood and watched for a while, and when they stopped I walked over and said nine fateful words. "Excuse me ma'am. What kind of dog is that?"
Perhaps someone with sharper ears than mine would have heard the switch being thrown, might have noticed the change in the air as the train of my life slipped onto a new track entirely, but not me. Maybe Jesse noticed, but if so he never told me. He won't be able to tell me now, if he'd ever planned to. He died about a week ago. I won't get into how, suffice to say it was too early, and it wasn't fair, but then again Death never stops to ask how you'd like it to happen, it just does.
He changed my life, though. For a year I learned about Borzoi. The wife and I continued to talk about going in the show ring but instead of with Bedlington Terriers like we'd planned the talk turned to Russian Wolfhounds. I kept up loose contact with Rita, and the next year I saw her again at the same AKC show. This time she handed me his leash and said "Here, go walk him around." She smiled then, a little secret smile whose meaning I missed entirely. She knew. She knew how she felt when she walked her first Borzoi around. She knew full well how it felt to have someone ask about that rare breed, how it feels to walk beside such an elegant creature.
I made one circuit of the building with him, then a second. I felt like someone had given me the keys to a sports car, felt like the kid who asked for a Breyer horse for Xmas and got a real pony instead. I was so proud, smiling like I'd been given candy from a well-meaning stranger, and I ate up every moment with gusto.
You guys know the rest of the story. We brought Belle home not long after that, and it's been a whirlwind ever since. Coursing. Show ring. Learning the ins and outs of traveling with a 75 pound dog, learning new cities, seeing new faces and familiar ones too. Learning how political the dog show world can be, and learning how heart-breakingly exhilarating it can be to watch your dog run after a white plastic bag with every ounce of their body poured into the effort. Knowing that the same dog that trotted off the field to stand ribs-deep in the cow pond after the race just won Best In Field, and the judge hands you a ribbon, a huge rosette of red, white and blue. Learning how proud you can be when she finishes her ring championship and you can put that magical "Ch" in front of her name. Not to mention the best part: spending years with an extraordinary breed of dog. Bonding. Learning together. Forming that connection that you can only form with a dog.
Jesse was in my life too, during those years. We'd travel to Fort Worth and visit, and there he'd be--three feet tall, three inches wide and every gram of him comprised of power and grace and a consuming desire to be with friends, with people who love him as unconditionally as he loves them. He even spent some time here with us, lounging around one January in the cool air in our back yard, lying in the piles of pecan leaves we were trying so fastidiously to rake up. I wanted to keep him, Rita wanted to give him a good home after he retired, but we simply didn't have the space for him, as much as I regretted it.
So now here we are. Sheba and Remy are just passed their first birthdays, their entire careers as runners and show dogs ahead of them. Growing from pups that you could comfortably hold in your lap to dogs who command half the couch when they sit with you. Belle pregnant, growing wider by the day, moving slower, her body crowded by seven new bodies. Sitting up one evening with her, hurting each time her whole body clenched, pushed. Wanting to cry with her every time she cried out, not understanding why it hurt to push but her body overriding her brain and pushing anyway. Holding a placenta in your hand, still fever-hot and dripping with blood while your wife carefully attaches hemostats to the newborn puppy's umbilical cord, cuts it, towels the tiny thing until it squeaks with outrage, then hands the tiny puppy to Belle to lick, to clean. Watching the tiny blind thing find a nipple and latch on with fervent need while her brothers and sisters each come into the world the same way. Bloody, covered in slick fluids, squealing and thrashing legs that refuse to obey, eyes and ears closed, filled with a hunger for mother and milk and warmth.
It hasn't been a week yet and already they've grown, rapidly. The biggest is already two pounds, and they're all healthy and sleek and show tiny glints of the graceful, elegant hounds they'll become in a few short months. They're developing personalities: Luna the fifth to be born, the smallest, talkative and feisty. Poe, marked with a huge black heart on his white side who likes to sleep on the outside of the puppy pile. Einar, the biggest so far, who loves to bury himself right into the middle of the pile, disturbing his litter mates. Vincent with his tiny black pencil-thin moustache across his upper lip just like Jesse had.
Rita, when she called to deliver the news that Jesse had died, said that maybe he'd be reborn into one of our puppies, one of our seven who arrived just two short days after he left our lives. Perhaps she was right--there are two tri-coloured pups in there, and one a male. Maybe that old soul, that light foot and that unstoppably cheerful spirit found a new outlet, a new way to burn bright in the world. I certainly like to think so.
Bilbo said it best: you never know where the road is going to take you. Thank you, Jesse, for setting my feet on this one.
The Classic Horror Litter:
"Shadow Over Innsmouth" -- Barnabas
"Sleepy Hollow" -- Punkin'
"October Country" -- Einar
"The Telltale Heart" -- Poe
"What The Moon Brings" -- Luna
"Fall Of The House Of Usher" -- Vincent
"Old Black Magic" -- Salem