Once upon a brief time there was a young dog stealer named Nell. She detached the carelessly looped leashes of shivering puppies from urban parking meters while owners dashed into shops, desperate for coffee or a pack of smokes. She scooped panting grizzle-snouted oldsters from overheated minivans parked in suburban lots. She tiptoed through rural farmland and lured scrawny mongrels with tidbits of meat pinched between her fingertips.
Nell did not consider herself a thief. All sixteen lovely pups were better off in her care. She kept them in a large house with a sprawling yard, surrounded by a sturdy fence. The dogs frolicked freely, no leashes, no collars, no electric shocks. They pooped and peed wherever they wanted. They swam in, and drank copiously from the swimming pool which was replenished daily with fresh water from Nell’s garden hose. Freed from the bondage of family petdom, watch dogism, pocketbook canine arm candyness, all the dogs got along famously. At night they hunkered together in a giant slobbering heap and slumbered on the cool basement floor. Nell slept among her charges, forsaking an upstairs bedroom with absurd canopy bed and childhood reminders; Nell’s math awards, debate club trophies, dusty china dolls, faded posters of floppy-haired teen boy idols from the 90‘s. Instead Nell nestled her body against fur and muscle, inhaled dog farts and cellar mold, perfumed herself with canine breath.
How is it that Nell became a savior of misunderstood mutts? As a child Nell had longed for a puppy, but don’t all little kids? She’d only ever been allowed a pet turtle, Jumbo, who developed large milky cataracts after three months. Poor Jumbo lumbered blindly around his terrarium, knocking into the plastic walls until another month passed and the bewildered creature died, much to Nell’s relief.
Nell was a well educated young woman not too fresh out of university. She’d had dreams of a brilliant career in vaguely literary or possibly cinematic direction, but no such career ever crystalized. Nell worked as a barista. She made terrible, milky cappuccinos. She spilled chai on aspiring writers’ manuscripts. She was fired. Next she tried her hand at babysitting, but as an only child and therefore the de facto baby in her own family, Nell found young children tiresome and boring. And they found her the same.
She moved back home, filed papers for her cranky father, a quasi-famous legal scholar, and kneaded clay for her artistic, annoyingly upbeat mom. Her parents fed her. Provided shelter. They loved her and had been proud of her, once upon a time. They never mentioned her at cocktail parties.
Her father’s year-long fellowship in Spain provided them all a break in tense cohabitation. Nell was left with a three page list of home maintenance instructions and a small sum to tide her over frugally until her parents returned a year hence.
Does it matter why Nell took the dogs? Does there need to be some deep, underlying reason? Couldn’t a young woman who seemed like every other benignly self-involved, overeducated youngster, who spent too much time staring at her phone, who gravitated towards sullen reticence and away from productive generosity suddenly shock and surprise herself with a uncharacteristic compulsion to do a good deed? To do sixteen good deeds?
It began with Gus, a pit bull abandoned in front of a trendy bar, his leash double knotted to her parking meter. She tripped over Gus as she wandered aimlessly down the sidewalk. Gus barely flinched. He gazed up at Nell with beady but friendly eyes and cocked his head in a curious askew. Nell had never felt more interesting in her life. She patted his blocky head. Gus smiled. She scratched him behind the ears and he leaned in to her hand like a pat of butter melting on to toast.
Nell wondered what kind of evil person would leave a precious, defenseless creature alone on a dark street, the poor dear barking his throat raw? Nell scraped her knuckles bloody untangling the knot of Gus’s leash. Once loosened, she tugged it gently and whispered,
“Come on, Boy. Come with me.”
And so it began.
Nell became a seer, a savior. She was overwhelmed with deep understanding of dogs and their imprisonment, keenly aware at how shackled they were by human expectations. Each domesticated pet an indentured servant forced to serve purposes they would never choose themselves. Sit. Lay down. Look cute. Kiss children. Kill rats. Don’t bark. Well, bark at intruders. Never jump on Aunt Tessa, but prance about like a happy fool when Daddy comes home. Stop scratching. Don’t eat that. Stay. Paw. Come. Play dead. If they didn’t do as expected there were swift swipes on their snouts. They were threatened, berated, admonished, shamed. Dogs were banished to splintery houses, ratty floor mats, barren room corners. The dogs hadn’t chosen any of it, any of it at all. Nell knew in her heart of hearts, her visions told her so, the inner voices said the same; Though born and bred to please, dogs—all dogs—were deeply, profoundly miserable.
Saint Nell removed choke collars and dog tags. She let floppy, curly, or bristly fur grow. She rechristened new arrivals with gentle, ceremonial taps on their noggins with a gymnastics baton left over from middle school. She had her favorites. Boris, a runty Jack Russell, whip smart and a natural leader, abandoned outside a Post Office, barking himself hoarse. Natasha, a faded yellow Lab, Boris’ sultry comrade, chained to a fence post outside a nasty farm. What a pair. What a perfect union. Boris would lay spread eagle in the shade of a weeping willow at the edge of the lawn while Natasha licked his balls.
There was Mimi, the sweet tempered, fat dachshund Nell found dozing in the back of a Volvo station wagon at a suburban train station. On first arrival, Mimi was so bloated her callused stomach grazed the floor and picked up burrs from the grass. Thanks to Nell’s careful monitoring Mimi grew trimmer. She waddled along with the pack as best she could on stumpy little legs, jolly and no longer scraping bottom.
Nell had sweet spots too for Georgina, the shaggy mutt with the amputated tail, Rudolph, the ever alert poodle, Bingo the dopey, eager beagle. And of course, Gus. For always and forever, Gus. Her stalwart companion. But really, each and every one of the sixteen were special. Nell would’ve taken in more if she could, she would’ve searched out and saved all the enslaved. But even saints have their limits.
Nell returned to the scene of each rescue and made sure to swipe all “LOST DOG” posters she could find. She kept them in a folder tucked behind a bottle of Sentry Flea and Tick Shampoo. Every now and then she would browse through them to reminder herself of the good she’d done. She marveled at the arbitrary value placed on each dog’s life, the absurdity of their slave names, monikers that had nothing to do with each dog’s true nature, whereas the names she’d bestowed were perfect and pure.
While in her care, life was a blissful puppy party. Even old timers bounded about Nell’s compound as if they’d just been nursed and napped, tummies full of sloshy mother dog milk. For months every creature thrived, and Nell thrived with them, purposeful and contented as she’d never been before. She fed them, groomed them, kissed them. She scratched bellies revealed in supine stretches. She ran and tumbled and tussled. “Fetch” was as natural to Nell as breathing.
All was well and good during the lovely spring months of April and May. But in June Nell’s funds began to dwindle. She pinched pennies at PetSmart, she shoplifted the occasional can of Alpo. The dogs grew a wee bit hungry. The few that still had hunting instincts fared better than the others, supplementing with a bird here, a squirrel there.
By July there was very little frolicking. The dogs weakened and drooped. There was much more sleeping.
August arrived and the dogs became shaggy shadows of their former selves. Nell was destitute, barely able to feed her brood. She stopped buying human food for herself, so wasteful and expensive. She found she could subsist on very little. She jumped fences in the dead of night to steal apples from neighborhood trees, tomatoes and squash from flimsily enclosed vegetable gardens. She ate greedily, cores and seeds and rubbery stems. She rode her old stingray bicycle with its pink banana seat and handlebar streamers to the town gas station. While the attendant was pumping gas, she slipped in to his office and filled her pockets with the nutrition bars and tiny bottled energy shots in easy reach by the cash register.
But still Nell grew weak. By September her hair fell out in mangy clumps. Her skin bruised at the slightest nudge. Her nails were soft and pliable as orange peels. She slept for long spells in the swampy summer afternoons, under the weeping willow with Boris and Natasha who were too tired and malnourished for frisky genital washing. Other dogs lay nearby, inert, panting, lumps of dusty fur under any tree providing a semblance of shelter.
By October, only one option remained. Nell chose Pepe, a wire-haired terrier, who occasionally nipped at the others when seemingly unprovoked. While Pepe was still a lovable pooch to all-loving Nell, he would be the least missed by the other dogs. Most importantly, his poster offered the highest reward.
Pepe, or rather Balthazar, was returned to Lucinda and Bart Cogen, on a crisp Autumn afternoon. It was a choice so painful Nell could feel the walls of her heart rip in deep, muscular misery. At first the dog was undone, running in frantic circles between Nell and his former enslavers. He was caught in a whirlpool of sense memories—new senses, old senses, good memories and bad. Eventually the Balthazar memories won out, and the dog settled contentedly by Lucinda Cogen’s meaty calf. There wasn’t a whiff of suspicion. Nell was a sweet looking young woman with angelic features and delicate hands. Her recent weight loss only heightened her waif-like believability. She feigned ambivalence towards the Cogens’ $500 cash reward just long enough before pocketing the five crisp $100 bills and walking away at a feverish clip.
It was blood money. A betrayal. Poor Pepe. Nell sobbed for a full day. But the reward meant the rest of the pack had food and comfort for another two months.
By January, Nell and the dogs huddled in a furry heap by the fireplace in her father’s study, sleeping away most of the grey, chilly days. Sticks that would normally be tossed for games were now collected for kindling. The hatcheted kitchen chairs provided warmth for a day, a brightly painted armoire burned with quease-inducing toxicity for another two.
Eventually Nell had to make another gut-wrenching choice. And then another. And then another. Some returns brought cash rewards, some only grateful hugs. Some dogs weren’t wanted back as their owners no longer had room in their callous hearts or their homes. Nell kept four, Pandora, Ziggy, Willy and Dash as long as she could, but with no food or hope left, she was eventually forced to give them up for adoption. WoofWorld, a sketchy organization that asked no questions, sent an unmarked van in the dead of night to collect the last of Nell’s beloveds, taking them away to uncertain fates.
Nell cleaned for days. All traces of her rich, furry life were scrubbed from the floors, washed from the down pillows, vacuumed from the upholstered furniture. When Nell’s parents returned from their year abroad they found their emaciated daughter barely conscious, in a sleepy drift on the cold linoleum tiles of the kitchen floor, her head resting on the belly of a scrawny but congenial and forever loyal pit bull.