My runs lately have me in more rural areas than I’m used to.
I’m still deep in the suburbs, mind you, but the suburbs here are a little more “trees and dirt roads” and a little less “convenience store on every corner.” Zoom out a little bit from my house on the old Google Maps and you quickly find yourself in a sea of green: sprawling forests and rolling hills all around.
So I have a lot of encounters with wildlife, especially when I’m hoofing it before the sun is up (which is almost always). Usually it’s squirrels and rabbits — I could basically feed my family bunny meat indefinitely if I had a hankerin’ — but I’ve seen more than a few deer, too, and there are almost certainly coyotes out here. Which is why I carry a big stick with me when I’m pounding the pavement these days: I don’t want to be caught defenseless if I come up against a crazed or frightened critter out there. (Sure, my dog is usually with me, but something tells me she’d be even more useless than I in an unarmed tussle with local wildlife.)
I should have started carrying that stick a week earlier, though.
I’m out for a pretty routine jaunt, not even a mile from the house, when I hear the unmistakable sound of padding footsteps and panting breath. I look toward the trees, and sure enough, here comes a sizable shape out of the dark, beelining right for me and my dog.
If I were hooked up to an FMRI, my head would light up like a christmas tree. Every fight-or-flight response I have goes off all at once. I can’t quite make out the shape of the thing. It’s coming on too quick to be just checking us out, but too slowly to be on the attack.
I start doing math. I don’t hear anything but its feet, so it’s not collared. Which means it may or may not be domesticated. Home is over a half mile away; no chance I can outrun the thing if it decides to chase. Nothing around me that I can even see, let alone grab, to use as a weapon. I’m on that stretch of no-man’s-land where there’s not even a streetlight in sight to help me see by, just the soft, useless glow of the stars. Meanwhile, my idiot dog is losing her mind at the approach of another animal: tugging at the leash, dodging this way and that in an attempt to sniff the intruder’s butt, or whatever dogs think about.
I’m stranded and screwed, in short, if this thing turns out to be hostile. I shout at the thing — sometimes that’ll scare a stray away — but no avail. It’s close enough now that I can see it’s a big, dark dog, a little bit bigger than my golden retriever.
I should detour to say that my warm feelings toward dogs are tenuous — generally I like them but I’m wary as hell about them, because once I saw a neighbor of mine reach down to pet a friendly-looking stray and it latched onto her arm and started thrashing around like it was tearing the throat out of a deer. Not an image you forget, as much as I love my dumb mutt.
It pulls up just short of my dog — I’ve slowed to a brisk walk, to avoid my own dog tripping me — and begins sniffing at her. My dog sniffs back. I yank her away and shout at the dog again to get lost. I stomp in the thing’s direction. It backs up a few steps but keeps pacing us, trotting along in the grass while we stick to the pavement.
Last thing I want is for something bizarre to happen, so I turn it around and walk back home. The dog falls right in with us, haunting us every step of the way, sometimes a little in front, sometimes a little behind — I try to feint it off down a side street here and there, but it always wanders back.
I get home. Stray dog follows us up onto the porch. I open the door; it tries to follow us inside. I slam the door to keep it out, go to put my dog in her crate because she’s well and truly losing her mind by now. I go back upstairs — the dog has opened the door and pushed into my foyer. In my mind, this thing is Cujo. I shout at it and shove it back outdoors with sweeping feet, then close and lock the door. It sits there staring at me through the side window, its breath fogging the glass. Thank goodness that’s over, I think, and begin the slow process of decelerating my heartbeat and preparing to go to work.
WHAM. The house veritably shakes, I drop my glass of water. SCRATCHSCRATCHSCRATCH WHAM.
I run to the front door. The dog is almost hurling itself against the door trying to get in. It starts barking. My own dog starts barking in response. I feel sweat beading on my forehead, and it’s nothing to do with my interrupted workout. It’s five in the morning. Do I call animal control? 911? I can’t ignore it; this thing is about to wake the house, to say nothing of the panic attack I’m about to have.
I run downstairs. Grab the broom. Back upstairs where the critter is furiously scratching at the door. Take a deep breath — open the door.
Its muzzle flashes in through the gap in the door and I whack it good with the butt of the broom. It yelps and skitters backwards, leaps down the steps to the sidewalk, and turns to stare at me. I follow it, waving the broom for good measure. It takes the hint and crosses the street.
Then we go to work, and I try not to think about the dog for the rest of the day.
I come to learn later that the dog then went and harassed my neighbor across the street a bit later, when the sun was up. She (being the sort of person who has the time and, dare I say it, the good heart required for such things) collared the dog and took it over to a veterinarian and checked it for a chip. The dog belonged to a house on the other side of our neighborhood. She drove over to return the dog — and found the house vacant. She asked around the neighbors of that house; they had moved away about a week ago. Sure, that’s their dog. Guess they didn’t take it with them.
Further, what I couldn’t see in the dark of the morning is that the dog did have a collar. It didn’t make any noise because the collar was too tight and it had actually grafted itself to the poor creature’s skin in some places.
So a neglected animal saw me out with my dog, followed me thinking I’d be a fair source of attention and, possibly, care, and I smacked it in the nose for its trouble.
I have my own moral indigestion over what happened (my neighbor has now taken the poor thing in, which is a little balm to my conscience), but this really demonstrates to me the power of prejudice. I saw this animal in a certain light (or lack of light), made a few snap decisions, and was unable to distance myself from the perceptions that followed. As soon as the fear started boiling in my bloodstream, the capacity to think and make a rational decision went right out the window. It wasn’t a helpless, harmless stray looking for a home; it was Cujo trying to force its way into the house.
As it turns out, it first approached my neighbor by — you guessed it! — jumping into her vehicle as she was loading up her kids to take them to school. (Imagining it gives me the shivers. I probably would have done a lot worse than bop it in the nose, at that point.) The difference? It was daylight by then. She could see the dog clearly, get a sense of its demeanor. She’s taken it in, now, and is giving it a measure of care it may never have known in its life.
Long story, that, so the writer’s tie-in will be short.
Ideas can come out of nowhere, and it’s not easy to see them clearly at first. Maybe they follow you around at the edge of thinking for weeks, months, years without ever coming into the light. And maybe you hesitate to engage, because it’s impossible to tell if these ideas are the good kind that will love you and bring you your slippers and turn into bestsellers or if they’re the bad kind that will bite you and leave you bleeding and on the waiting list at the ER for a series of rabies injections. (Did I mix up my metaphors there? Or am I writing the wrong kinds of stories? You decide!) But if you’ve got an idea sitting there on your porch, staring you down through the windows, chucking itself against the door, demanding to be acknowledged? That just might be an idea worth entertaining.
All the same, I’m carrying my stick when I go out running by moonlight from now on. After all, if I had known I could defend myself if things went south, I might not have turned the pitiful little abandoned dog into a bloodthirsty monster in my mind.