| 3 MINUTE READ | Being humbled by a Beagle
During early March, much against my advice, my wife decided to squeeze a second dog into her heart and our apartment. A Beagle named Lila.
While she was small enough to cuddle unlike our retriever Zoe, she grew rigid at the lightest touch. An instinct from her time at the lab that she was recently released from. The only event she could associate with the touch of a human hand was the piercing of a needle followed by a disruption in her digestion. From years of associating only pure love with Zoe, it was strange to see so much quiet fear in a dog.
I was never much of a dog lover but had grown to notice their benign influence on the humans around them. As the lockdown began, I was responsible to walk Lila and clean her accidental excretions around the house. While Zoe needed to be walked twice a day, with Lila it was more often. When I mistimed it, I had to follow the cleaning protocol.
Scan the area of impact. Shut the windows. Turn off the fan. Lay newspapers to soak it in. Wait for a while. Then place the marinated newspaper in a garbage bag. Use dry newspaper to wipe the area further. Fill a small amount of water in a bucket and spike it with Lizol. Immerse the mop in it. Then squeeze it down until it is moist but not dripping. Scrub the area clean. Wash the mop in the bathroom. Open the windows, turn on the fan and allow the area to dry.
While I began this exercise without much fuss, as the days progressed into weeks and months, a resistance to how frequently it was being called into action began to accumulate. It grew like a mold around my heart. Lila picked up my steadily darkening mood. My mornings began with an edgy inspection as she anxiously watched me from below the dining table. The rising satisfaction of a ‘clean’ start to the day perversely sharpened the disappointment at the sight of yellow and brown patterns on our white living room floor. My attempts to train Lila slowly imploded from gentle persuasion to frustrated hostility.
Our walks together grew longer and loveless. I would cage her or leave her tied in the foyer outside to draw clear lines between her crime and my punishment. This would engulf her in confusion and grief. As her soft howling cries filtered through the corridors of our home – she would be released by others – isolating me with the unreasonableness of my actions.
Despite all this, she grew in confidence as she settled into her new home. An excited enthusiasm before mealtimes would leave her dancing at the kitchen door, in tune with the aromas that wafted through and exploded her senses. We even heard her briefly growl once to discourage the friendly overtures of a neighbor’s dog.
One early morning as we walked down a new route, a pack of six stray dogs barked menacingly from the other side of the road. I was told later that this was the wrong time to take that route, as they were waiting for their morning feed and therefore aggressively territorial. I immediately turned around to retreat, with Lila trailing me on a long leash. A pulse of fear filled me as I heard a sudden shrieking cry from Lila. Two larger dogs had streaked across the street and pounced on her. As she struggled to escape their grip, the leash slipped out of my hands and Lila charged towards the middle of the road with the strays in hot pursuit. They caught up with her and she seemed to be drowning into their shadows, wailing with a raw urgency as they sank their rabid teeth into her. She was looking straight into my eyes and it felt like I was watching her die.
I charged forward, retrieved her leash and shooed the strays away. All this happened is less than a few seconds. But shock stretches and slows time down as it etches its impressions onto us.
Lila and I walked home together. Sad and defeated.
My wife and daughter dressed her wounds, fed her and held her for a while to calm her down. Once they were done she came to me and curled up near my feet. For the next few days she sought me out and stayed close to wherever I was. I had been a cold and unkind master over the last few months. Completely let her down that morning. And yet she was acknowledging our shared moment of terror and the little scrap of protection that I had extended towards her.
It will take me a lifetime to emulate her unconditional heart.
(This post was also published in ‘The Hindu’)