She had been staying with them for several days at their beach house, with a tightening of the shoulders each time the three small dogs barked at a passing bike or car, which was quite often, as the house was not far from a path to the water. Only on the third day did the shrill yapping reach such a feverish intensity that she broke: “What is wrong with those dogs?” Her host turned to her over her afternoon spritzer and said, “But my dear, that is exactly what you are here to find out.”
She started back. Her first feeling was one of disappointment. The friendship had been uncertain, still settling into place, when she accepted the invitation. Her misgivings as to its sincerity, its being as her hosts said, in the hopes of getting to know her better, away from the bustle and distractions, had only left her on the second evening during a later round of balderdash, when rather than leave the game for spent, they had produced a second bottle of wine (was it the third?).
But the feeling of disappointment lasted no time at all. Within seconds, it was displaced by one of exhaustion. The burden of responsibility falling on her shoulders, the expectations of success and the potential for failure: these were dizzying to contemplate. She gathered herself enough to ask to be excused, walked to her car, sat in the stifling heat without running the engine, and cried. The mirror revealed the damage done to her mascara, and by her mascara to her skin, and she grabbed a half-used tissue to repair and restore.
When she returned to the veranda, her friend took her by the hand and apologized: for asking so much, for having so little to offer in return, and for needing her so much. But need her she did, as well as trusting her and believing in her powers to diagnose.
She stared blankly at her friend and then, after a few seconds of silence, slowly nodded. At which point, the dogs scampered over, their large fluffy heads bearing soft scraps of tongue dangling at odd angles. They licked her hands, her feet, her shins, and even her forearms, as she stood, and calling them after her, guided them inside, where their leashes were hanging. Then, one after another, she clipped a leash to each collar, careful to move delicately as she reached around their throats. Thus bound to her, she led them, with mildest pressure, away from the house.
Along the path, one stopped to chew at clumps of weeds, another relieved himself on several occasions, and the last stood idly in the breeze rising off the sea, which sparkled ahead. As they crossed the threshold, path becoming beach, sand deepening and expanse widening, she undid each clip of each leash. For a moment, uncertain, they stood still, and then, unbounded by self-consciousness, consciousness, or mind, they ran out in three arcs. Almost stupefied by her satisfaction in seeing the moral of freedom at work on the animal orders, she basked in the sun and gazed on the dogs gradually converging on a dark mass piled ahead where the waves were crashing.
“But no, you mustn’t,” she gasped out, each stride longer than the one before, her thighs jostling, rubbing uncomfortably against one another, the weight of her flesh returning to her thoughts with increasing force each step she took, “but no, no, no, that’s not for you, that’s not for anybody to touch,” and she reached them nearly, arms now akimbo, bracelets jangling a warning, her fingernails flashing red warning paints, and her skin flailing along the bones. “Bad, bad, bad doggy” she cried to one, and then to another. Catching her breath, the blood resumed its natural lethargic circulation and her vision regained focus, and she choked on the words as she realized that the body of the dead gull had been divided between the three beasts, one merrily claiming as a prize the head, and the others more sullenly frolicking with the wings and legs. The feathers were matted, almost congealed, as if becoming the flesh that they had graced; no charming dot of pink was apparent any longer on the grayed beak; the head was not much larger than a chestnut, but the dog, rather than exerting his jaws to break through its shell, was maintaining his hold with only the slightest pressure.
“You expect,” she spoke to him, staring him directly in the eyes, “You expect me to reward you for this! For this…this…” and she faltered, falling to the ground, her hand planting in a wet pile of seaweed. Reaching out, she called to the dog nearest to her, the jubilant victor with the bird’s head in its mouth. It approached and her fingers fumbled to grab hold of its collar, and to pull its slathering face nearer to hers.
Delicately, wincing away, she slipped her fingers between the teeth and felt around the head of the bird. She pulled once and it came loose, and she whimpered as she threw it desperately out into the waves. She followed suit with the next two dogs, removing first one wing, and then another, holding each by the tip and tossing it pathetically nearby. The first dog she detained between the heft of her thighs, the second beneath one perfumed arm bit, bare beneath her halter top, and the third she held tight by the collar in her hand. She drew it near to her, kissing it voraciously, up and down its struggling face, and then she fumbled against the collar, unclasping it slowly, removing it, and letting the dog walk unencumbered. Maneuvering the dog out from beneath her arm, she once again caressed it beneath her kisses, and slid the collar off. And finally, hoisting the third dog from between her legs, she offered it the same devotions, this time whispering, almost under her breath, “I understand, I understand.”
She stood and brushed the sand from her knees. The collars, red, green, and blue, lay near her feet. She picked up one after another, and walking some steps down the beach, stared out to sea and, with what strength she had left, threw them out. Steps heavy, with uncertainty, with understanding, with pride, she turned towards the house, setting her back against the three small figures jousting with the spray from waves.