You’re a hunter-gatherer. Despite the wild beasts stalking in the dark and the harsh weather, you cling to life as fiercely as muscle clings to bone. You are sinew and ligament, rough hands and dirt-caked fingernails. And you have a dog who runs with you, sniffing, hunting, guarding.
You’re a farmer, putting down roots in an agricultural lifestyle. You are earth and seeds, grains and harvests; you are at the mercy of sun and rain and wind. And you, too, have a dog. Your dog runs among your livestock—cattle, sheep, goats—herding them, guarding them from wild animals.
You’re a girl in a suburban town in the middle of nowhere. You are a stack of library books you won’t be able to get through and a heavy Dell laptop, laughing-crying emojis and scrawled to-do lists that never get done. And you, too, have a dog. Only for a week, but still, you have a dog, who lounges on the sofa or your bed, who sits under the table at mealtime and constantly wants your company.
Rosie has velveteen ears and a big fluffy tail. No one is quite sure what breed or mix she is, but there’s definitely some shepherd in her. Almost wolf-like, save for the round black eyes that give her a gentle, docile look, Rosie is light brown with a white snout and white paws. She’s undergone surgery for an arthritic hip and sometimes won’t use her problem leg. She will lie down as soon as you start to pet her, sprawling on the floor so that you’ll give her a belly rub. When you return home after a few hours away, she’ll come greet you, ears flattened back happily, whining at a high-pitch, and she’ll have to bite a shoe like it’s a pacifier.
Rosie is actually my friend’s dog. Rosie stayed with us while her family went to New Hampshire for Christmas because she hates “doggy jail,” known more commonly as the dog boarding center.
I watched Rosie sniff-sniff-sniff her way around the yard. I wondered what she smelled with that wet black nose of hers—perhaps dirt and dead grass and the deer that always left their round droppings in the backyard, and the hundred thousand other odors I could never detect myself. Maybe the stunted runt of an oak tree in the yard had its own smell. Maybe the wind carried the scent of pine or the bushes from across the street.
My prior exposure to dogs was limited. A family friend once had an old black dog named Pee Wee and later a high-energy Scottish terrier puppy named Hannah. In the park near our apartment complex, I ran with a dog named Baby who loved to play chase.
Mostly, I encountered dogs in books and movies. For some reason, stories that feature animals are often tragic. When I was little, I watched an animated version of The Dog of Flanders. The boy and his dog both die at the end, outside in the cold, winter night. I cried for about an hour afterwards. Meanwhile, my younger brother, about four or five at the time, threw a tantrum about my incessant sobbing, insisting that the boy and the dog had not, in fact, died because they had been shown prancing about in the stars during the credits. They couldn’t be dead, so I should just stop crying already.
When we were little, my brother and I both wanted a dog for the longest time. It would be so fun, we thought—playing fetch every day, walking the dog after school. We checked out books from the public library about taking care of dogs and different dog breeds. Our parents both had dogs when they were children. I asked once if we could at least rent one.
And then, and then, and then—we got Rosie, a childhood dream come true.
What no one tells you about having a dog for a week is that you’ll feel almost embarrassed when the dog pees in your neighbor’s yard. You dart your eyes around here and there and pray that no one’s watching from the windows because there are almost no Asians in this town, and everyone will know you were the one who let the dog pee on the nice pine straw piled neatly around the mailbox.
What no one tells you about having a dog for a week is that the dog will ask to go outside at 10:30 at night, in the cold and the dark, and because you don’t have a fence, you’ll have to put her on a leash and stand there shivering, hoping she’ll just pee already. What no one tells you is that you’ll find yourself trying to speed up the process by saying, “Shhhh,” like a mom potty-training her toddler.
What no one tells you about having a dog for a week is that you won’t get anything done. The first thing anyone does in the morning will be petting the dog, and of course she’ll sprawl herself out, and you’ll end up petting her for a lot longer than you thought you were going to. You and your brother will just lie on the floor beside the dog, rubbing her belly and complimenting her ceaselessly. Your ears are so soft, Rosie. You’re so nice, Rosie. You’re so cute, Rosie, you fur baby, you.
What did you smell in the yard, Rosie? If you could talk, what would you say? That early this morning, three deer with white tails raised high ran lightly through the yard and stopped there—right here, no, not there, here—to nibble at the dry grass? That two days ago, one of our neighbors grilled hamburgers over hickory charcoal? Could you smell December itself? The fragrance of a year ending, the faint burning smell that lingers after a candle goes out and gray tendrils of smoke curl through the air. Maybe you could smell the year turning over, the newness of it. Maybe you caught a whiff of a memory forming in my head and my heart. A dog-shaped memory. What did it smell like, Rosie?