I’d rather be thirsty

(First published in Voiceworks #88: Translate, 2012)

My whole life I’ve known about love. My mother spent nearly six years of her life pregnant and even more years baking us biscuits, in between driving us to school slash swimming practice slash dance recitals slash birthday parties slash doctor appointments. She was swollen with love and still us six weren’t enough. We lived with turtles, axolotls, cats, chickens, mice, giant cockroaches but never birds in a cage. She collected animals like a game hunter shoots them. But we all knew what really drew her gaze were dogs.

Our dogs were nothing like the ones I met at friends’ houses – well-mannered critters who lived outside and sat while waiting to be fed. Ours were tyrants. They got birthday presents and stockings at Christmas. On my birthday I received cards from them with miniature paw prints penciled in the corners. Even today I will sometimes sit on the floor rather than move a dog from the couch.

Growing up, I knew that you naturally let people down when they loved you, but if you loved an animal they would love you forever.

*

On my tenth birthday I was given a dog. He was tan and white, with slippery ears. I named him Elmo and three weeks later he slipped between the gaps in our pool fence, where the wire had come apart, and drowned. My mother found him. I don’t know how she took Elmo from the water. I wondered if she’d used the net for skimming dead leaves from the pool surface or if she’d climbed in to the shallows to retrieve the corpse. We repaired the fence after this.

I was used to dogs dying around the house. My whole life we lived with at least two, sometimes with a litter of puppies as well. One time, a puppy was born down in the bottom of the garden and we didn’t find him until he was already dead. We buried him near the others. After we filled in the holes my mother placed a framed picture of each dog on the green desk in the lounge. In Elmo’s picture he was asleep.

*

About a week after Elmo’s picture appeared on the green desk my mother sold our video camera to bring me home a new dog. This new dog was not sleepy; her tail thumped the floorboards like how Sylvia Plath described the old brag of her heart: I am. I am. I am. Each thump making her bony legs shiver. I named her Samantha because I wasn’t very good at naming dogs. Mostly, we called her Sammy.

I taught her to swim by throwing her into the pool and coaxing her back to the step with a biscuit. She slept on my bed, under the covers, and beside my feet. For a few years I brushed her teeth every week and then stopped, so it was probably my fault when they started falling out. Once I went away for a few weeks and returned home to find my brother had shaved her head and dyed her tail green and she loved me anyway. Even when I left home and she stayed.

*

Last year my mother rang to say Sammy was ill and I felt an old fear from my childhood. In those years after the divorce, and as my siblings left home one by one, I worried my mother was going to die while I was at school. I thought maybe I would come home and find her body, slipped in the shower or floating in our pool. When I was away on long trips I thought that if it happened nobody would tell me until I was home. When I heard Sammy was ill, my boyfriend at the time told me not to worry. He told me he was sure she would be okay. I believed him because I didn’t want to let him down.

She had a tumor; the water was in her lungs. I imagined tiny droplets trickling down the inside of her flesh, slowly pooling into a stagnant puddle. I wanted to reach inside, tuck my hands under the sternum, and pull out these pink petals. I wanted to wring them dry like a dishcloth. But instead I pressed my ear to her ribcage where I could hear a distant rattle, like someone blowing bubbles in a milkshake. I am. I am. Her chest rose and fell while Sammy breathed down air in tiny, wet swallows.

The vet said it would take two needles to kill her. Only she didn’t use the word kill. I messaged my boyfriend at work. He asked if he should come over when he finished and I said it was okay because I knew he had other plans. The vet said I might not want to hold her on my lap because Sammy was probably going to shit when it happened. She didn’t use that word either.

When the first needle went in Sammy jerked and then was still. I’d never seen anything dead so close before and my first thought was that she looked like a fish at the market stalls. Her eyes were glassy. We wrapped the blanket around her and I felt like a murderer. I didn’t know if I’d done the right thing, only that I couldn’t keep watching her drown from the inside out.

*

Later that night, when my boyfriend came over after drinks with friends, I thought about how much Sammy loved the ocean. When we visited the beach she would swim out, far past the swell, and then paddle around to catch waves back to shore in a white crash at my feet. She would run up to me and rub her eyes, neck, ribs across my calves, leaving the salt to dry and tighten. I remembered this and I knew nobody would ever love me that much again.