Back to the garden

This is not really another story of my dogs, although they are in it, every step of the way, tripping me, aggravating me, all the while helping make me whole.

It is a story about how I got back to the garden. It is a story of finding someone who could love me and my dogs. It is about moving forward. It is a story of Mark.

I wasn’t looking for love when I went searching for my Ruby; but if I had had a t-shirt to sum up my emotional state at the time it would have said, “Love don’t live here any more.” I don’t know that I wanted a dog so much as I wanted to be normal. In 2003, I was left picking through the ashes and patching the ruins of my life. In that spirit, I had bought my own little 1920s house in Vicksburg. The big house and backyard seemed huge for just me and two cats. Standing in front of a pen at the Vicksburg-Warren Humane Society, I stared for the second time at a litter of four black-and-tan puppies. One jumped up and reached for me through the fence. Within the hour, the soon-to-be-christened Ruby was riding shotgun in my Saturn.

A house and a dog seemed normal. But I had no experience living a normal life.

I drank a lot for a while. And then one day, I drove to the last house on the block before you get to the river, and I stepped inside.

I moved forward.

A bigger city held all kinds of promise for me. Without knowing a soul except the name of a first cousin once removed, I packed as much stuff as I could into my Saturn, and I headed to Baton Rouge with Ruby and my two cats, Chick P. and Calypso.

It was the right move, but there were rocky, lonely moments.

There was this pivotal moment in the first few months I was in Baton Rouge. I sat in my little Garden District apartment where I was afraid to light the gas wall heater. So I was cold, and I was feeling more alone and pathetic than I ever had in my life. It terrified me, and I got down on my knees and prayed out loud to God, sobbing, begging him to relieve my loneliness.

Ruby was by my side in an instant, licking my face.

It calmed me down, and after that night, I slowly started to reach out, to make friends and to make a life.

I moved forward.

Restlessness plagued me still, and I bounced around from apartment to apartment – mostly in the same zip code– before I finally landed, dug in and started working on the root causes and conditions that plagued me. Along the way, I acquired another dog – Daisy May – and held Chick P. for the last 12 hours of her life. Through it all, my animals were the quiet mainstay as my life has changed slowly, but definitely. I left newspapers in 2009 and became a high school English teacher. And, after years of being not-so-happily single, I found Mark, a fellow Mississippian who has taught me how to work a garden. I don’t think much about those dark days in Vicksburg. My t-shirt life slogan these days would be, sickeningly, “Life is good.”

Not that there wasn’t drama.

Ruby walks with a limp in her hind end.

But we move forward.

It is a Saturday in mid-August 2011, and I put Ruby and Daisy back in their weekend digs – a 5×8 kennel on Mark’s rural acres north of Baton Rouge. This is where most Saturdays found us those days. By then, I loaded the dogs into a Mazda instead of a Saturn.

On this Saturday, it was the last day they would spend in this little kennel. We had finally bitten the bullet and bought materials to build a proper dog yard complete with a doghouse.

I walk away, grab a towel and take off my clothes. In the country, when there was no company, before there were children, we skinny dipped. We lounged by the pool debating supper. Do we have chicken spaghetti and company or chili cheese dogs and a movie? In the middle of this, I’m not sure exactly what happened, but we knew something was wrong in the dog pen. I grabbed a towel but didn’t bother with shoes and head toward the pen at fast clip for someone naked and barefoot. Mark, for some reason that my brain couldn’t comprehend, went the opposite direction toward the house. He knew. I did not.

As I reached the pen, my still-uncomprehending brain thought for a second there was an injured bird in the pen next to the water bucket, flapping its wings. But this odd buzzing sound was like electroshock, and it was only then that it registered that there was a rattlesnake barely four feet from my dogs.

And although Daisy had backed as far away from the snake as she could, Ruby was making moves toward it.

I started screaming. I screamed for Mark. I screamed at Ruby. I screamed to God.

I look up to see Mark running toward us – still naked – with a 12-gauge shotgun.

After the first shot, I got to the backside of the pen, and this time it was me reaching through a fence to Ruby and to Daisy to hold them back while Mark took a second shot.

I had stopped screaming but I was still crying, down on my knees, naked and clearly more terrified than the dogs at being four feet away from a half-dead snake and a loaded shotgun.

Ruby turned and licked my face through the fence. Comforting me once more..

Still crying as Mark lifted the three-foot long dead snake out the cage, I remember hearing him say, “It’s okay, girl,” and I don’t know if he was talking to Ruby, Daisy or me.

And, there, behind two shotgun blasts and a dead snake, I sit naked holding onto my dogs’ collars – and the moment – for a little while longer, because in the moment all I could feel is love.

And then I brush off my knees, Mark put up his gun, dogs eat their dinner, and we move forward.

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