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Wheat Field Portal to Africa by Carol Daniels

I never listen.

A virtue?

Or a sin?

Depends on your point of view.

But it is the start of a story about how a dog saved my life.

He’s a skinny, little mutt, the first time I see him.

Vanilla-coloured, about a year old and with a playful spirit. We are drawn to each other immediately.

“Hi puppy.”

I speak my first words to him with a slight lisp, brought on because my two front teeth are missing. I’m five.

“What’s your name?”

He snorts with excitement as fragrant purple irises dance in the breeze. The flower spirits are happy we’ve met.

Puppy licks my hand to say hello with a tail wagging tail so vigorously that his whole body shakes. I touch his soft fur and notice there is no fat on his small body. His rib cage sticks out like the pictures of a skeleton I saw in a school book.

“You’re hungry, aren’t you?”

I know I’m not supposed to feed him. Mommy always tells me I’m not allowed to have a puppy. It’s something I ask about every single day.

“But, surely, it can’t be wrong to give him just a little sandwich?”

I remember hearing something in Church about God and showing charity. “My new friend needs food.”

Mommy’s words fade.

“Shhh. I’ll be right back.” I promise, sneaking towards the back of our house. I quietly open the screen door. It’s green and makes a screeching sound, like a fat mouse, if it’s yanked too quickly.

“Shhh.” Tip toe, tip toe into the kitchen.

“Good. There’s no one here.” I can hear Mommy humming in the boys room. She’s probably making the bed.

I’m standing in front of our old Frigidaire, wondering why the people who make them puff out their tummy like that? It looks like an indoor snowman. Maybe it’s fat and round to remind us that spending too much time with the fridge door open means we’ll be fat and round too. But my concern is quite the opposite right now. That puppy is too skinny and he needs to eat. His ribs remind me of the ones I ate with BBQ sauce last night. “Hmmm. Maybe there are still some left. And, what about the bones?” I think Mommy threw them in the garbage can outside. I’ll check that later. Right now I have to open this fridge door.

It’s as creaky as the screen door. But, Mommy clears her throat and that provides a split second of distraction to yank the fridge door open without her hearing and asking questions.

I grab as much as my little hands can carry. No left-over ribs but there is some bologna, some cheese and a couple of buns that she baked yesterday. I love it when she bakes. It makes the house smell like home. Alright. Now close the fridge door quietly and retrace my steps back outdoors. My new friend is waiting.

My eyes are as large as a cat’s in the darkness, with a smile to match, as I watch the young pup scarf down the bounty. He washes it down with rain water that’s collected inside a Frisbee left upside-down on the lawn.

Last night’s deluge also filled with ditch near the railroad tracks, that’s where me and my new friend head next.

The culverts that run underneath the roadway make for a newly-formed canal. Perfect for boat-launching. They aren’t the most sturdy of vessels. Old plastic margarine tubs and scraps of wooden shingles tied together with baler twine.

While the sailboat shakily makes its way under the roadway, a sea of grain waves to me and my new pup on an ever-windy Prairie landscape.

Kids and dogs. A magical combination shrouded in mystical mischief.

My birthday was just two weeks ago, and I asked for, and received, Paddington Bear boots. They are my first pair of bright yellow gumboots. I wear them even when it isn’t raining.

But today, only the rims are visible on my gumboots. The rest of the boot is covered in the thick, gray muck bordering the edge of the giant puddle. It feels like wet cement.

Every time I take a step, I sink and get stuck. With each step, it is harder and harder to pull my boot out. It’s because of the Earth Fairies. They hold on to my boot. “Oh my and now they won’t let go!” My boot stays stuck while I balance, trying to stay erect. Mom is sure going to be mad if I come home caked with mud. “Steady now.” I reach down to pull the yellow boot. “Finally, it’s coming loose.” I smile. So does the pup, just before grabbing the boot from my hand, shaking it like some sort of kill then running away, laughing. He must be part coyote.

I limp home, knowing that a small hole in my now dirty sock is getting bigger with each step over small pellets of gravel.

My Mom is aghast.

“Young lady!” She only calls me young lady when she is upset. The wording is usually a precursor to some type of discipline. “Where have you been? And, what happened to your new boots?”

I can’t tell her the whole truth because that means admitting to befriending the pup, which I am not allowed to do. So I give her half the story. “Uh. I was playing by the ditch and my boot got stuck in the mud and I couldn’t get it out, so I just left it and walked home.”

She isn’t upset with me. These things happen. She tells me to take off my dirty socks, change my pants and put on my old gumboots,

“Then go back to the ditch to try and pull your new boot out. Do you want your brother to help?”

I give a nod, indicating ‘no’, all the while wondering where puppy has run off to with my boot.

I didn’t have to go far.

Creeping back out through our old screen door, I see him and he’s chewing on my boot. The top rim is now ragged. He’s made a hole in front and it looks like a strappy sandal.

That’s when my Mom also comes outdoors. She is carrying a laundry basket. It’s nice to sleep on sheets that smell of the warm Saskatchewan breeze.

“Oh my God!” She is shocked to see a vanilla-colored dog eating my yellow boot. Mom drops the basket and grabs the broom. “Shoo! Shoo! You little mutt!”

But, puppy thinks it a game and starts jumping from side to side, like it’s a game of tag.

Dodging the broomstick, Mom is no match for his quick-footedness. A cat’s meow from the alley is the only thing to stop him. He hears the feline and runs in that direction, leaving us both to inspect the damage. My new boot is ruined. Mom feels worse than me.

“Oh, Sweetie. He’s wrecked your new boot. Who’s dog is that anyway? They shouldn’t just let him run loose like that.”

I don’t answer, handing her wooden laundry pins for the sheets. I follow her in to the house when everything is hung. The remainder of the afternoon is spent inside, playing with dolls.

When supper is called, I help set the table.

We are having pork roast.

It’one of my favorites and it’s because of the way Mom prepares the meal. She slathers the meat with gobs of home-made apricot jam, adds a bit of water, then sets it in a slow oven most of the afternoon. The smell is glorious. The meat is so tender and sweet.

Tonight, I ask for a second helping, even though I’m full. I need to sneak some food for the naughty pup. “Mommy, can I have some more milk?” In the seconds that it takes to fill the glass, I fill a tissue with some pork and hide it on my lap.

“Mommy, can I go outside?” Everyone is finished so she says yes, “Just make sure to stay in the yard.”

Puppy greets me, wagging his tail and smiling. He smells the meat.

This goes on for months.

I sneak him food.

He hangs around.

Mom keeps complaining, “Someone’s dog keeps hanging around.” I keep bombarding her with appeals. “Please Mommy. He doesn’t have an owner. Can he stay with us.” She is consistent in her response. “No, no and no!”

But my Mom is beautiful woman with a heart of gold and eventually, it isn’t me, it is Old Man Winter who convinces her that puppy, indeed, is a part of our family now.

After the summer months turn to Autumn and then winter arrives, I worry about puppy. “He’s going to freeze someday, Mommy. Please, can I let him in?”

“No, no and no.”It’s a blizzard, and not me, that forces her to change her mind.

The blizzards back then are legendary. They go on for days, closing down roads as four foot drifts collect and the temperatures plummet beyond anyone’s level of comfort.

My puppy’s included.

One night the wind howls so loud it scares me. Puppy has been sleeping under the stairs but tonight’s wind makes that impossible. There’s no shelter against swirling snow that hits like pellets. I cry and cry, watching him from our kitchen window. He’s standing there, covered in snow, hoar frost on his eyelashes and on the fur around his mouth. And, for the first time it is him, and not me, asking to be allowed in. I am terrified that he will freeze to death. Tears stream down my pink cheeks.

That’s when Mom does something so beautifully out of character for her.

She sighs.

Slowly walks to the back porch.

Opens the door and lets the dog in.

Shivering, but safe now, he finds a spot in the corner on the bare linoleum floor which must feel like a feather quilt, considering where he’s just come from. “He can stay for only one night. Until this storm passes.”

As far as I am concerned, we can skip Christmas this year.

Mom just gave me the best gift of all.

Love and friendship.

Time passes.

One night turns into two and puppy is still inside at night.

A week passes then a month; seasons turn into years.

He’s allowed to stay and be part of the family.

It’s a good thing too. That dog saves my life.

It happens on a day that my friend Kathy and I decide to take a trip to Africa.

We never watch a lot of television. Our old black and white set is only available to us kids on Friday night. I call it popcorn night.

Everybody gathers to watch The Tommy Hunter Show on CBC.

So, there isn’t a lot of TV but Kathy and I do read a lot.

My Dad has these great magazines called National Geographic.

We have a fascination with the stories from Africa. Maybe it’s because the people there all look different than the ones I know here in my small village.

The people from Africa have very dark skin. I have dark skin. They wear different clothing or none at all. Some pictures show a bone piercing through the flesh of their nose, lips or ears. It fills us with wonderment, feeding our imaginations.

The animals, in those pictures from Africa, are amazing to us.

Some have long-necks with spots. Others are fat, gray giants with trunks. There are large, sleek cats with curious spots and horses with stripes. The magazine stories prompt us to get out the atlas and find this strange land on a map.

“There it is!”

Four whole fingers away from where we live.

There is lots of water in between, but my Mom says that pond is way bigger than the water that’s collected in the ditch.

“These are called oceans.” She points and says.

What a nice sounding word. “Oceans.” It sparks a longing to visit this place called Africa. So one day we decide to do just that.

It prompts a worried phone call from our next door neighbour.

“Hi Dorothy, it’s Marie. I don’t know if you should worry or not, but I just saw your daughter and her friend carrying a back pack and walking across the highway. I don’t know if they are planning to run away, or if they are just playing a game. But, I thought you should know.”

Well, of course she knows. She’s the one who helped us pack our containers of orange kool-aid and peanut butter and jam sandwiches, all of it going into my small back pack.

“We’re going on safari in the wheat field!” Mommy laughs hard, sending us off.

It’s amazing how big a child’s small world can be.

Mature crops of wheat stand about three feet high. We pretend they are grand oak trees. But we don’t have machetes. We use small sticks to help us blaze a trail.

It doesn’t take long to come across impending, albeit imaginary, danger.

“Oh my God! Run! I see a wild boar!” I saw a photo of one of those potbellied, horned, black pigs, with teeth so large it tears flesh in moments. But today’s little boar doesn’t gnash at us.

He pops his small, brown head out of his prairie hole in the ground, squeals and retreats just as quickly. It’s now up to his gopher cousins to play the role of alligators, lions and anacondas, in our imaginations, as we continue on safari.

Now, this type of work works up a hunger. So, when we find a clearing in the wheat field, we stop. This is a great spot to take out our red, woolen blanket and sit on it, getting ready for the picnic lunch that we packed. Old habits die hard and I have also snuck some cheese and bologna for our dogs, who come with us on each and every trip to Africa.

Kathy has a dog too. And, like she and I, our dogs are friends as well.

There isn’t a lot of dangerous wildlife on the Saskatchewan plains. We see the usual gophers, field mice and once in a while a small fox or rabbit runs off in the distance. If we don’t scare them, our dogs do. So our parents never worry about our safety.

Today, they should have.

I’m not sure how it happens, but we manage to enrage a badger. My Daddy calls them “flat-headed bastards”.

“Hissss! Hissss!” He is brandishing his teeth and slinking along the hard ground in the clearing, as though he’s part snake. He growls in a voice that’s probably the same as a real lion. I’m sure he is going to kill us.

We freeze. Thankfully my dog doesn’t.

Puppy had run off earlier, rooting around for gophers, but because of our deep bond, where ever he is, puppy can sense I am horrified.

I am unable to scream as the flat-headed bastard scopes us with his beady, evil eyes. He’s almost close enough to cut me with his sharp claws, which leave deep marks in the earth as he passes over it. The badger’s focus on me means he’s paying no attention to other surroundings in that field. Good thing too. It allows my dog to take him by surprise, flying in from out of nowhere and grabbing the badger by the neck. Another horrible sound! Hiisss. The distraction gives Kathy and I the courage to run. Run as fast as we can and never look back.

Once we reach the safety of our village, the moments pass like hours and I cry hard for puppy’s well-being, just as I did watching him suffer outside during our first Saskatchewan blizzard together.

“Where is he?” If he emerges from the field at all, I expect my four-legged friend to be battered and bloodied. Everyone knows that a badger is capable of killing a dog. I cry harder and now it is getting hard to breathe. “Where is he?” The thought of having to ask my Dad to go and find my dog’s dead body is torture. It is the first time that I understand that praying to God is more than just a concept. I fall to the ground, a little pile of despair, and I sob uncontrollably.

Then, just as quickly as the trauma is allowed to well, it disappears.

I feel a familiar lick on my hand. Through tear-filled eyes, I see the warm, brown eyes of my dog. He is alive, perfectly in tact and wagging his tail as if to say, “It’s okay. Everything’s been taken care of.” I know that meant that puppy hung around that badger just long enough to distract him, until we reached safety, but there was no real battle.

He sacrificed himself and came out without a scratch.

We never travel to Africa again but we do go to as many magical places as possible during time that God gives us together.

Puppy looks after me for decades, from pre-school until high school graduation. I never want to say goodbye but have to admit

that sad day will come.

There is no way to prepare heartbreak.

It’s a bitterly cold, Saskatchewan, winter night when that happens.

It’s fitting that, just as he’d come into my home years earlier, he leaves the same way – during a Saskatchewan snow storm. I shall never forget the moment; holding him in my arms as he licks my face then closes his eyes for the last time.

Puppy – who begins life as a stray, leaves as a cherished member of my family and my best friend. It’s how I will forever remember him.

FOR LYLE FOREVER

He never joins the chorus of woe

making me forget

regret

stumble.

If he has only one ounce of energy

he gives it to me.

On a stormy day

he tucks me under his wing

exposing himself to the elements

for my safety.

If I am hungry

he gives me his bread

if I am tired

he takes me to bed.

And there he recites

words of love

I know that his

come from above.

He answered my prayers

with his first kiss

and now God’s blessing

I shall never miss.

It begins each day

when I look into his eyes.

My husband

my love

my beginning

my end

forevermore

you are my best friend.

BLESSINGS

I thank Creator for giving me

the ability to recognize the miracle

of everyday things

a quiltwork of memory

of beauty in the moment

dandelion rubs in the summer

snow face-wash in winter

joyous squeals of laughter

I watch my children do this

each time it happens these days

the more precious

the passage of time

happens too quickly

it won’t be long before that playful honesty matures

childhood is so short
my heart is warmed by their imagination

which includes a cat dressed in doll clothes
ours is a musical, a comedy, a drama, a love story

yes, definitely a love story

with pronouncements of truth, like

I love bake sales

makes me wonder

can life have a deeper meaning

than a really good peanut butter cookie?

so for today, I thank Creator for allowing me

to be a part of their world

watching beauty, joy and splendor unfold

with a sweet lump in my throat