How it was that anyone in the house heard the scratching at the door will always remain the biggest mystery of all.
It was about 1 am, and he was halfway through his routine ear-splitting lament. Long ago, Mom and Dad had long abandoned any attempts to console the child. His longing lay in a place far beyond the belly or the heart, and hence outside their jurisdiction of influence. The couple had no choice but to try to tuck his hoarse bellows into their repertoire of their everyday ambient noises; somewhere between the roaring swish of passing cars out front and the wanton interchange of the screech owls back in the yard.
Nonetheless, the boy’s cries were anything but quiet. And this sound was. A single stroke gently calling out along the grain of the lacquered solid oak.
And yet, it managed to summon all three inhabitants, who reared up in bed, palpating the following silence for clues about its origin. When the night continued on, stubbornly unresponsive, everyone kicked the covers off their torsos and crept downstairs.
At a mere four years of age, he would never have been permitted to answer the door on his own, especially this late. But they had no choice in the matter. Their son had arrived first. Honeyed moonlight reached into the entryway, softening the sharp edges around his scrawny frame. For a moment the parents stood to behold the scene, stunned by the unfamiliar air of peacefulness that the byzantine hue had lent to their home.
It wasn’t until the boy turned around that they noticed the dog standing in front of him.
The creature’s fifty or sixty-pound frame was overcome by a luminescent mass of white fur that stood in piercing points around the paws, the jaw, at the ears and the end of the tail. Its eyes carried a hue so similar that the parents were startled when they finally discovered the animal’s gaze buried among all the hair, intently fixed upon theirs. They were soon overcome with the otherworldly glow of those eyes, and found their own stares involuntarily retreating down the canine’s shoulder, seeking refuge in the place where a familiar little hand had taken hold of a tuft and gripped it with all its might.
Then, unceremoniously, the boy and the dog began to ascend the staircase, leaving the parents utterly agape, snared like hapless fish by this latest interrogative hooking into their cheeks. Before the strange pair reached the third step, Father managed to emit some gurgles of protest and lurched forward. He was determined to produce the first voice of reason in a scenario that had been nothing but shamelessly absurd from the very beginning. More so even than the past four years of their lives together. He was instantly thwarted by the straight-arm of Mother, who had heard what he had not: the very first giggle of their son.
They resumed their state of idle wonder a few moments more, until the child’s bedroom shut with an obliging click, clearing the hallway of the dog’s spell.
In the ensuing silence, a repressed avalanche of protracted insomnia finally tumbled out upon Mom’s shoulders. It was all she could do to drag her body to bed, and as soon as she had flopped onto the mattress on her side, knees hiked up towards her chest and hands tucked under the pillow, she was sound asleep.
For Dad, it was another case altogether.
He still could not accept this turn of events, however promising it seemed to be. Palpating the dark, he traversed the hallway three times that night before giving in to the weary pressing on his brow, sure that he was going to find his child mauled or worse. But the scene was always the same: two soft mounds pressed together on the shag rug, rising and falling in a hypnotic tempo.
The following day, Sunday, began with a bang. And a clang. Then a crash. The adults scurried and stumbled into the kitchen, one whacking an elbow on the banister and the other losing a slipper along the way. The frosted glass of the pantry door depicted two silhouettes hovering close to the ground, heads intermittently bobbing up and down. They were diving into the sea of nutty o’s that had been strewn along the tile. The boy, just like the dog, was snaring the pieces of cereal with his tongue and furiously reducing them to dust between his teeth before swallowing and ducking for another round.
“Wow, sweetie, you two sure are hungry! Why don’t I make a big breakfast for everyone? Eggs? Bacon? Toast?”
Was he actually nodding? Yes, it was hard to believe, but his head was clearly swinging up and down, and from behind dark, snarled strands of hair, those aloof eyes had made an unprecedented lift to meet hers.
“Great! I’ll get started then!”
She abruptly spun around towards the wall and reached for her polka dot apron, trying to conceal the emotion welling up and rolling down her face. Dad had rushed to her side, his thumb dabbing soft arcs along the high points in her profile. She savored the lingering warmth on her skin where his hand had reached out to her.
That same hand then reached up to one of the hooks above the countertop and freed a cast iron griddle. He held it hoisted high into the air, like a picket sign.
“You know, It’s been years since I’ve made my scrambler specialty. Today’s as good a day as any to bring it back, don’t you think?”
Nodding, she turned around once more to admire the boy and the dog peering out from their same spot in the pantry, attentively following the flurry of activity that was unfolding around the stove.
After about 20 minutes, Dad had brought all four steaming plates to the floor. They had initially tried to lift their boy into his booster seat, but his terrifying high-pitched wail immediately sounded in protest, this time accompanied by an equally unsettling howl from the dog. A tablecloth with frolicking cherubs had been yanked out of the bottom drawer and draped upon the tile.
As they ate, half-heartedly engaging in routine banter, mother and father reveled in the sight of their son eating a meal with vim and vigor. Mirroring the animal to his left, he kept his eyes closed as he chewed, as if to recruit the sense of sight into the endeavor of savoring the food. Even the fact that he was doing so on all fours, without the aid of silverware or even his own hands, could not dampen their satisfaction. Soon only scant crumbs and stains remained on the dishes.
As Mom and Dad stood up to wash up, both wincing a bit from the strain of sitting cross-legged, the hound set about performing a meticulous grooming of the face and hands of his newfound partner. Each area seemed to require a different treatment. The child’s hands received a rigorous scrubbing, the tongue’s coarseness maximized with long, firm strokes. But only very sparing licks were reserved for the youth’s cheeks, chin, and forehead. The dog’s jaw trembled under the strain to deliver with such delicacy.
The boy’s eyes remained shut still, his lips now sprouting a semicircle of gratification.
The grandfather clock in the den chimed once, calling for action. As they dried their hands at the sink, the parents watched their son stand up alongside the dog and make way to the sliding glass door. He was going outside.
The boy had never wanted to go to the back yard before now.
Oh, how he had screamed when, as a baby, they had tried to sit him on the cool, deep green patch of grass just beyond the patio. And when, at two years, they took a quick visit to the magnolia in full bloom at the corner of their lot (him being held, of course). And so on. The last time they tried, almost exactly six months ago, he had finally begun to walk and they thought, surely he’ll want to explore there now.
A whine had already begun to build up from behind his pale lips as the door slid on its track –honey it’s okay, nothing is going to hurt you- but the moment the sun made contact with his arms, he unraveled. So did the fragile promise that had been built up by countless sessions with behaviorists, therapists, and specialists alike. Writhing limbs, the trademark shrill wailing, his torso violently rocking back and forth. Things had never been worse.
And now, here he was, not walking in his usual stiff and halting manner, but actually running, that new chuckle bouncing in tow, following the lead of the canine to leap gracefully over the threshold and down the brick steps from the patio to the grass. A shudder passed through Dad, momentarily rooting him to the spot. But soon Mom was tugging at his arm. They had to jog out the door and chase this dream, with the hope it would hold up under the daylight.
And it did.
Despite the chilly air, the rest of the morning was spent exploring every inch of the yard. Boy and dog began by delving into the entire olfactory palette of the area, occasionally contributing by marking their territory. Then they turned to some hearty digging in the dirt. When the dog unearthed a ball, most likely from the previous owners, they began to play fetch. Mom couldn’t resist joining in. While Dad savored the rare sight, all three took turns launching or retrieving the ratty toy. Until early afternoon, all remained utterly absorbed in a bubble of play.
A picnic lunch on the grass followed. After that came a nap, the child’s head buried into the fuzzy expanse of the dog’s chest. Then more time out back. Finally, an early dinner-on the floor yet again.
A deliciously carefree day.
As dusk began to sift into the mid-February horizon, boy and dog planted themselves in front of the house’s largest picture window. The adults occasionally cast endearing glances in their direction as they scurried back and forth, arms clutching writhing piles of dirty laundry or satchels with odd papers dangling from the outside pockets. Tomorrow Dad had to be at work by 7:30 sharp and once he returned, Mom would pop out to teach a
5 o’ clock seminar.
On one of these comings and goings, Father stopped dead in his tracks in the family room. The boy was sitting alone.
“Where’s the pooch?”
Out of habit, this was uttered purely as a rhetorical question. Ensuing silences had become the expected response.
“There, Daddy. Look.”
The man involuntarily winced upon hearing the debut of his son’s voice, soft but sturdy, flooding the room. He was ashamed to flinch yet again when the boy made an unprecedented reach for his hand. But he quickly recovered, submitting to the gentle pressure of diminutive fingers wrapping around about one-third of his palm and knuckles, lifting his index finger upwards to meet the brightest spot right in the center of the sky.
Within the frame of the glass their two faces shone, overcome with the light that had reached out to them from above.