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In The Company of Newfies by Rhoda Lerman


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In the company of Newfoundlands, nothing is hidden. I slip the halter of what I’ve become. They slip the halter of what they’ve been, and we live together, passionately, changed. We share our lives, my Newfoundlands and I. This is a book about what is possible between humans and dogs, a book about communion, commitment, and intimacy. This is a book about the dogs who look steadfastly into my eyes and move their lips in vowel shapes, speaking to me as I speak to them, because they want to be like me, because their life’s work is not to be dog, but to be human. They observe me more carefully than I them. They are alert to every stirring of my body, every change of breath. They don’t dream of running in traffic, of eating puppies, of digging a tunnel in the backyard in a return to the feral, the wild, and the distant. They dream of being with me, like me, lying with me, curved into me, each vertebra pressed into me, their great heads over my feet so I can’t leave without them. They work to be human, to be other than what they are, something other than dog. And I work to be other than what I am. We stretch our limits and change our lives.

My Newfoundlands live my life as passionately as I live their lives. I sit in their kennel at a picnic bench and write. They climb on my bed and rest. We share space, food, blue skies, icy waters, snowstorms. When I am without them I feel amputated; a part is missing. The empty place it is missing from feels the pain. My dogs act as if they feel that way also, amputated without me, for we are parts of one another now.

In the rosy, unrippled dawn of the first day, I sit at the edge of my makeshift bed overlooking the whelping box and watch six newborn pups nursing on Molly’s nipples. Molly is a Landseer: a white dog with black markings. The namesake of the breed’s variety is the artist Sir Edwin Landseer, who immortalized Queen Victoria’s black-and-white Newfoundlands in portraits. She wears a black hood, a black saddle blanket over her entire back. She is very elegant and handsome, with deep dark eyes and a sculpted large head. Her neck is slightly short for perfection. She has always moved beautifully, muscularly, on strong, balanced bone. As a pup she was saucy and charming. As a bitch she is powerful, commanding, confident, apologetic when corrected. She runs her family with a strong personality. Tonight she is a mother. I feed her vanilla ice cream by the tablespoon and she licks the cold, sweet wetness to regain strength.

I’ve crocheted six differently colored wool necklaces to identify the Landseer puppies until we learn who has what markings. But already we can tell the male with the ring around the tail, the female with Molly’s saddle blanket back, the female with the three spots, the male with the shape of Africa on his back. In a few weeks we’ll be able to make guesses about their personalities; at seven weeks we’ll give them personality tests before they are sold so that they go to proper homes.

I will be up watching the puppies all this night and many, many more. The pups are unutterably vulnerable, pink in the red cast of the heat lamps secured above the whelping box. On late-night TV, news of the California earthquake is breaking. I see bodies, live and dead, pulled from wreckage. The heat lamps give off an emergency glow, mirror the flashing red lights of ambulances and rescue trucks in Los Angeles. I watch the temperature, adjust the heat. Molly, unable to complete natural delivery, had a C-section; four puppies were born dead. Each one is a tragedy, and if I were to dwell on the deaths, I could not go on breeding. I continue to remind myself to dwell on the lives of the six we have, for one is now dying, its head weak on the nipple.

Molly weighs one hundred and twenty pounds; her pups weigh a pound. They are mole like, velvet sleek, blind, their faces folded, ears closed. They know temperature, touch, taste, survival. Their lives are fragile. Molly and her pups will be watched around the clock for the next three weeks. Whelping tales are replete with disasters. Pups dehydrate, chill, fade for no reason. Molly might roll over on them, step on them. The goat’s milk in the bottle might be too hot, too cold; the heat lamps above the whelping box too hot, burn out. The pups might suffocate under the corner of a blanket, drown on the goat’s milk when I bottle-feed them. Sometimes their systems just don’t turn on, can’t connect. Or there is an accident at birth. I offer Molly water. I can’t leave a bucket in the whelping box because puppies have been known to drown. There are too many horror stories. Visitors, the few I allow, will have to wash their hands and remove their shoes. No one may pick up the puppies. They sleep on polar fleece throws and fake sheepskin blankets. Outside, the snow rises to the windowsills of this, the warmest room in our house. The temperatures are below zero, the winds bitter. The temperature in the whelping room is kept at seventy-five, the whelping box itself at eighty-five, both of which are too hot for Molly. Her tongue hangs out. She pants.

The dying one climbs back on. “Don’t give them names,” the vet warned, “until you know who lives.” Even so, I name him Billy to give him the bit of existence I can. A rabbi told me once that the only power of prediction left to humans is in naming their children. “Billy,” I whisper to him as I hold him against my breast, his head in the crook of my elbow. “Billy.” Billy was eviscerated at birth, sutured, revived, but he has a thin chance. He is very beautiful and sad, already. Billy tries to suckle. His head drops off the nipple of the baby bottle. He struggles to return to it. I fix the bellyband covering his wound. He seems to have fattened, filled out. He is the size of my hand. I feed him drops of Pediolite, of goat’s milk. I try Veta-Lac, a formula designed for orphan animals. He has no interest. His ears are soft and velvety, like the petals of anemones. He is deaf, blind, dying. I hope he doesn’t know. The struggle for existence, the gorgeousness and terror it is, is before me. There are analogy and metaphor in the drama of the earthquake news unfolding and crackling as it is on the all-night news programs. Somehow, in the face of the gargantuan blindness of that earth-cracking act, to wrest these small and precious lives from the fist of the universe becomes sacred.

Billy has stopped suckling the nipple of the baby bottle I’ve offered him. His body is long and elegant, well proportioned. His markings are perfect. He would be a wonderful and noble male. I draw little circles in his fur to relieve stress. It works on larger dogs. The household sleeps, the snow silences everything. I pray for him. I want no one to hear me pray for this unimportant life. There are so many other human lives at risk. Even so, tears well. It’s foolish, useless, sentimental, but his is the life that has been put into my hands at this moment. Molly watched as I lifted Billy from the whelping box. She watched me feeding him, threatening, watching, judging. She no longer watches. Perhaps she already knows it’s useless. “Our Father who art. . .” I had never before thought so keenly of the words. Our Father who art, our Father who makes, who crafts, who creates. The word art means more than “is.” It means makes. I am part of this sacred act, this sacred breeding, this art. Like a priest, I watch over the sacred herd in the small hours, watch them struggle to life, to fullness, their bodies rounding as Molly’s milk fills them, their breaths light, their tiny parts perfect and fragile as crystal. I am part of Molly’s art, of a universal deed, a penultimate creative act that is sacred, that Molly shares with me. The name of our kennel is Blue Heaven. The name comes from the song: “Just Molly and me and baby makes three. / We’re happy in our blue heaven.”

When Molly came into season, Champion Topmast’s Checkers, the sire of these puppies, was flown down from Saskatchewan. They met in Buffalo. Molly comes from a noble line of Newfoundlands, stringently bred, internationally honored. It is Checkers’ line as well. Canadian and American Champion Topmast’s Pied Piper – Molly’s great-grandfather – and International, World, Danish, Italian, American, Austrian, Champion Topmast’s Blackberry Blossom – her great-grandmother – are legends of the Newf world. Piper, who is listed on Molly’s pedigree nine times, is spoken of in the worshipful tones normal people use for movie stars. Blackberry Blossom, was, I’ve heard, one of the most beautiful bitches in Newf history. I flew to their kennel on a ranch in Saskatchewan, on six hundred acres of brittle winter prairie, to choose Molly’s husband for this litter. Over the dining room sideboard of John and Margaret Willmott’s home, where an ancestor’s portrait would be, Pied Piper’s portrait hung. Margaret is as much a legend as her Topmast champions. Checkers is a sound and handsome Piper grandson who, it happens, was born on my birthday. Champion Walden Corbett Jorgensen – Molly’s grandfather – was a grandson of Champion Topmast’s Pied Piper. There is enormous potential for greatness in this litter, from many ancestors. But now, in their first few days, there is potential for loss.

The pups sleep at Molly’s nipples. She shakes gently, stands very cautiously. I hold my breath. If I direct her out of the whelping box, over the wood slabs, I might steer her incorrectly. I have to trust that she knows precisely what she’s doing, that she won’t hurt her puppies. Fastidiously she cleans the whelping box, eats the excrement, licks the urine, then herself. Molly steps out delicately; she knows where each one is without looking, but she looks behind her once as if she can count – and perhaps she can. Then she climbs up beside me, licks my face for permission to sit on my bed, licks my face with the same tongue she licked afterbirth, shit, urine. (I am the pack leader. In the pack, she is the alpha bitch.) It isn’t easy for me to let her lick my face, but it is her language and I must listen or she will stop speaking to me. Because I’ve learned to listen, my Newfies have continued to speak. That is the difference between my Newfies and the legions of other dogs I’ve owned. The Newfies have patiently insisted that I listen. I lie down. Molly lies down with me, curves every weary vertebra into my chest, belly, groin, presses as tightly against me, into me, as she can, sighs, shudders with exhaustion, and falls asleep. She snores. We will be awake again in an hour. We are mothers together. She smells of life. It is not clean.
In the whelping room at the veterinarian’s office, when Molly first went into heavy labor, a young vet suggested I leave her alone, let her do her thing. There was no way to explain to him that we are intimate; that we have done everything together. That we have pierced each other’s worlds. That I am – what? – her other half. She is not only dog and I am not only human. We are other than that. Newf owners struggle to explain this. A simple man who had come to breed his bitch with my stud said, “She took me through my divorce. She’s a human in a fur coat.” A breeder said, jokingly because he was embarrassed by his emotions: “We used to have dogs. Now we have Newfoundlands.” There is some intrinsic difference that we all understand but cannot bring to words without sounding foolish. I think it is their commitment to us, their deep and abiding friendship. I sat with Molly at the vet’s office. I dropped Rescue Remedy – a homeopathic stabilizer – on her tongue, offered her water, honey, yogurt. She leaned her head on my knee, looked in my eyes, and then, looking somewhere inside herself, pushed out her first puppy. It is the one that is dying now. Her placenta didn’t come loose as it ought to have, and Billy was born eviscerated. The vet, holding him in his palms, blood leaking through his fingers, dashed past me to the operating room. If Billy had a chance, it was given to him. We do not take these lives lightly. “Billy,” I say the word softly. “Billy. Next time, Billy.”

The puppies whimper, sound like seagulls. It’s time for Molly to return to the whelping box. I push her off the bed. She groans, climbs back on the bed, presses hard against me. “Go, Molly. You’ve got to.” She climbs into the whelping box, lies on her belly, snores. “Roll over, Molly,” I whisper. She rolls over. The puppies feed voraciously. I pick up Billy, hold him to the warmth of my chest, feed him goat’s milk. We do our sacred work together in the strange light, the California earthquake flickering in the drift and sift of news and soft news repeated again and again as the night turns. I watch. Survivors are pulled from the wreckage as Molly’s pups were pulled from the womb.

The rest of the pack, five of them, sleep or keep watch in the hallway just beyond the whelping room. Three – Celeste, Ishtar, and Pippa – are Molly’s daughters. Celeste had a crippling disease when she was two weeks old, but she has, through the finest medicine and homeopathy available, survived. Her sister Ishtar will very likely be a champion. She is beautiful and gracious. Ben is their father, Molly’s husband, even though Molly has bred her second and third litter with other males. Ben is her emotional husband. We call them Mr. and Mrs. Dog. They are very good friends. Pippa is a huge and gorgeous female, already having won points toward her championship, just beginning her career. She is a year and a half and does not yet have her mother’s or Ishtar’s bitch elegance. Toby is an enormous and handsome stud dog from another line. Together they listen to the whimpers, the suckling sounds, Molly’s snores, mine, I’m certain. They know each twitch and scent of my body, of one another’s. They sniff at the air, at the smell of placenta, blood, afterbirth, dog milk, goat’s milk, the frozen colostrums I brought home from the goat farm for emergencies. Certainly they smell Billy, his infection, his death. I don’t know what they can smell, what they can know. When Molly was in labor with her second litter, I smelled the same smell I had when my mother was dying. I knew Molly had dead puppies. My dogs can know without experiencing things. I suppose one could call it instinct. I would call it brilliant efficiency. That’s why I listen to them.

Molly’s daughter Celeste approaches, licks my toes for permission to climb the bed. Celeste has always been sickly, and Molly has favored her with privileges that her other daughters – Ishtar and Pippa, lusty, strong bitches – have not been granted. But tonight even Celeste receives a red-eyed glare from Molly, some arrow of heat, of threat. Celeste slumps, drops her head, turns away, and lies down in the line of dogs in the hallway. Molly turns them away from the door. She has made no sounds, no moves. There are rules that are unthinkably dangerous to break. Bitches, unlike males, fight to the finish. Molly, I know, would kill to protect her puppies, but there is no need. Everyone understands. When Molly had her first litter, on the first night like this, she gave me that red-eyed, direct, defiant animal challenge, that glare: Get out. It was terrifying. She had been a silly, amusing thing, a puppy, and young female. I hadn’t taken her very seriously. Suddenly she was all-powerful. She could kill me. She always could have killed me. She gave me that glare and I left the room. This is her third litter. We are friends now, perhaps sisters, certainly family. Molly and I know each other now. We trust each other. We’ve come a long way together. We know each other’s limits, habits, quirks, needs, fears, furies. I know what Molly wants most of the time because she knows I listen, so she tells me. Nothing is hidden in the company of Newfoundlands. I can have no secrets. They want none. Molly snores. I climb over her, sit in the easy chair, and watch the news repeat itself over and over and wait for the puppies’ first day.

Copyright © 1996 Rhoda Lerman

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Robert Lerman
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