Our lovely dog Athena died this year after a long illness. Here is a short piece featuring Athena in her prime, the fastest, fiercest, most intelligent creature ever.
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“You must do the thing you think you cannot do,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote. On the other hand, as Blanche Wiesen Cooke pointed out in the first volume of her excellent biography, Eleanor Roosevelt ran households with 17 servants. Something tells me that when it came time to picking up dead rodents by the tail, Eleanor Roosevelt had help.
I thought of Eleanor last week when I opened the back door to let the dogs in, and Athena tried to bring a dead squirrel into the house. “No, no, no!” I screamed and slammed the door. Although my husband had warned me about this on his way to work, I will never not be shocked at the sight of a rodent, dead or alive. “It doesn’t look like Athena’s handiwork,” he observed. “There’s no blood.”
Athena is a 4-year-old Shepherd-Collie who has the aptitude to run her own business but, because she is a dog, keeps herself very busy in our backyard. When she ravaged her first rabbit, my husband was so proud he took a video of the shredded kill. As repellent as I find her achievements (mangled groundhogs, birds, opossum, mice), I’m a city girl at heart: it cheers me to open the back door and see varmints from all sides scattering into the trees as she bounds into the yard. Our second dog, Apollo, is a stocky fellow of mixed ancestry with the face of a Rottweiler, the body of a Labrador, the size of a Beagle and the hunting skills of Mary’s little lamb. He plays a sidekick in the backyard.
When I opened the door again, Apollo was in possession of the stiff brushy corpse. I remembered the command “LEAVE IT!” After a long moment, he allowed the rigid animal to drop from his jaws, and I let the two savages into the house. Athena watched me attentively as I examined the dead animal from afar. I decided that my husband was right: Athena had nothing to do with this squirrel’s demise; it probably died of frost, fright, or old age. In any event, it was dead. The following day was Garbage Pick Up: I would have to deal with it. All afternoon, the squirrel lay stiffly on its back on the flagstone, thawing slightly in the sunshine.
I can trace the phobia back to a rat the size of a Dachshund that I saw rooting through a garbage can in Central Park, NYC when I was about 5 years old. I avoid situations (neighborhoods, countries) that might put me in contact with rodents, but many movies toss in a pro-forma rodent sequence for no apparent reason, and I often find myself cringing like a child at the cinema. Forget Ratatouille — I couldn’t finish the book 1984.
At 5:30, I put on my thickest pair of gardening gloves. I’d used a trowel and a plastic bag for the last dead rabbit, and that had been a big mistake, requiring much handling. For a good 10 minutes, I stood paralyzed. Deal with it, I said. It’s not a rat, it’s a squirrel. It’s not alive, it’s dead. And it’s not bloody — it clearly froze to death or died of fright. Still: a squirrel is just a rat with a hairdo. Dead rodents bring up other fears.
I reached forward to scoop the corpse with the lid of a garbage can into an empty shoebox and heard myself emitting“Eeeeewwww!” a sound coming directly from my middle-school guts. God, I hope my neighbors aren’t listening to this, I thought. But no one was there to witness my lack of character. Just me.
An idea: Perhaps I could wait for my husband. Not to do it, but to bear witness to me overcoming my fear. I stood in the cold, clutching my weapons as my breath turned to smoke in the dark. I decided that I would enjoy feeling like a spineless, prissy coward even less than I would enjoy disposing of this dead rodent. And so, looking sideways, I picked the thing up directly by its tail and dropped it into the can. I tossed the shoebox in afterwards in case it suddenly sprang to life and came back to get me. The tail was narrower and the body was heavier than I would have imagined.
I dragged the container to the curb with a light step — not proud, no, but relieved that I hadn’t let myself down. No doubt many will be appalled by my lack of tenderness, that I didn’t dig a grave or say a prayer for the squirrel, that I treated this like a revolting chore instead of a moment to meditate on the fragility of life. Perhaps these people have fears and limitations of their own they’re trying to conquer.