Every year at this time I use a luminescent-ink marker to highlight the kitchen calendar in memory of a miniature, copper-tinged Pekingese that was thrust into the arms of my partner one gusting, sleety night by a battered woman we barely knew who hastened backward, shrieking that her husband had beaten her and now vowed to kill her dog.
Liz buttoned the trembling puppy inside her coat to ward off quitclaim and cold, later presenting him to me as having “followed” her home.
“Uh-huh. He just tagged along after you,” I supposed before learning the dire details.
“How utterly desperate that woman was,” Liz sighed.
“Dear little earth-angel,” I whispered and kissed as tears welled up in my eyes. “From now on, you’ll be our Tagalong.”
We shared a fast affinity, Tag and I. Liz could feed, bathe and walk him – but most of his time was spent moored to me.
Besides being irresistible, three particulars made Tag precious. First, he’d been born on Liz’s birthday, ensuring endearment. Second, he adored me. Enough said. Third, he could talk.
Yes. Talk. And, I could understand him. Perfectly.
Whatever he said came into my head. And whatever entered my head came out of my mouth as what he wanted known, done, or felt. A kind of oratory by osmosis.
The talk was just between the two of us at first, but eventually we let Liz in on it. Then my mom. Then my sisters, and so forth. As word spread, we gained a following, albeit essentially esoteric. Family, friends and neighbors were ever eager to hear Tag talk. Most were mesmerized. A few were dubious. But only skeptics dismissed us as a slick trick.
Initially, even Liz vacillated, since I never struggled to decipher the dog’s din. The warble of his words would emerge clear from my mouth, almost simultaneously.
Then one wee hour of a mid-March morning as the wind whipped at the windows and thunder menaced, Tag began to whine, chant, and drone, mouth waggling, head bobbing, paws pawing.
“What’s happening?” Liz growled, preferring coziness of covers to dealing with predawn disasters.
“He says the upstairs porch is leaking. Rain’s coming in through the sunroom ceiling.”
“Dogwash, ” she spat, adamant.
But Tag persisted.
So, Liz donned a robe and snarled her way down the stairs, words burning blue behind her. Defiantly, she flung open the French doors to the sunroom where – sure enough – water showered the floor.
“Now!” she conceded as we mopped up the mess, “I’m a believer.”
Tag’s primary requests centered on the mundane: meal preferences, walking routes, water refills. He’d warn us of impending storms and unexpected visitors, strays needing assistance and strangers in the neighborhood.
But his forte was in caring for me.
Years earlier, I’d been hit by a drunken driver. It left me with chronic disabilities, the worst being a brain blow that oddly augmented my faculties. These new, acute sensitivities to smell, sound, taste and touch often-triggered abrupt, agonizing seizures.
Tag could foretell an attack. In hastening me to lie down, he’d cover my forehead with his chin, creating a tranquility that somehow tempered the intensity of the spasm’s fury. As if a godsend.
In the spring of 1990, Tag turned 13. That’s particularly old for a Peke. He endured heart problems, arthritic flare-ups, and had gradually lost his eyesight and hearing. Still, Tag assured us the meds our vet prescribed kept him comfortable.
I began chauffeuring him around the neighborhood in my bike-basket so he could whisker the breeze and savor the fragrances of friends. He’d have me stop to study clouds, observe birds, or chat with cats and passersby, always intuiting those who harbored treats. We’d become a color-coordinated spectacle to behold by then, with matching bandanas and a cache of news to share. Neighbors were known and greeted by the names of their dogs and cats, earning Tag wags and purrs along the way.
One late October afternoon as we lounged on reclining deck chairs beneath the backyard oaks, Tag inched up from where he reigned on my lap to tender my attention by gently placing his paw on my lips before softly caroling.
Liz asked, “What?”
“He says he loves us. But he has to go now. He says, don’t fret. He’ll be back. Tomorrow.”
The tiny, pale pink tip of his tongue tasted my face one final time before he died. And in that instant, I damn-near did, too.
Make no mistake. My love for animals is immeasurable. They’re my dear friends, with each loss scarring a part of my heart.
But losing Tagalong crushed it.
The next night, as I crouched in a corner of our upstairs porch, still sobbing and swearing that I’d never go through such soul-wrenching sorrow again, the screech of brakes and sound of doors slamming brought me to my feet in time to see two miscreants drag an old and crippled Irish setter from the trunk of their car, dumping it in our drainage ditch before speeding off.
Instinctively, I rushed to the dog – so ruthlessly betrayed. We named him Blue. He’d be our comrade for three more years, when aiding abandoned animals became our sacred-something-to-do forevermore.
All this was ruminating in my mind when I got a sweet feeling just before the phone rang this morning.
“You might not remember me,” the voice quavered, “but I was the woman whose Pekingese you rescued, once.” A crony from our distant past had traced us and coaxed her to call.
“Did anyone ever rescue you?” I’d wondered it for 30 years.
“It took that dog to get me to go, ” she confessed, wounded. Still. “But I never looked back. Except for feeling grateful to you.”
It begged the question: “How did you know he’d be safe with us?”
“You’ll probably think I’m crazy, but…” She hesitated. “He told me.”
I just glowed.
# # #
(This is a freshly edited version of an essay © by Marguerite Quantaine, first published in the St. Petersburg Times seven years ago.)
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I’m all heart and eyes.