“TO RUFFIAN WITH LOVE ”
A Short Story by Ron Mercer
By about 8:30 on the Saturday evening after Thanksgiving the errands were completed and we started home. Me at the wheel, She, as had become her habit, sitting stoically beside me. We drove slowly, each enjoying the company of the other, each engrossed in their own thought. As we drove, my thoughts turned to her and how our time together was drawing to an end.
The house had been sold, the kids had moved on to lives of their own and I had become involved in an enterprise which required extensive travel. With all this change there was no place for her. Oh, we'd tried to find her a new home. Throughout the summer friends had expressed their love and desire for her, "If ever you must give her up, we'll take her", they'd proclaim. But, as the moment drew near, each of these promises evaporated — as such heady promises are prone to evaporating in the stark face of reality. Many landlords don't allow dogs and her age, she was 3 or so, along with her Pit Bull breeding, raised concern for her ability to adapt to new surroundings. True, she seemed gentle — gentle to the point of timidity. But there was a side to her personality, a side which while surfacing only occasionally was sufficient to remind one of the reputation of her breed. They scared me, these occasional outbursts did. They made me cautious when bringing her into contact with strangers — particularly young strangers. So a new home was very doubtful and ours no longer a viable option.
As we drove home, I knew that this next week I'd have no choice but to take her to an animal shelter. "Next week I'll take care of it — next week for sure" — I promised myself.
At a traffic light, I patted her head and, in the childish dialect men often resort to when dealing with painful issues, I spoke to her: "Won't be many more rides Ruffian." "Not many more at all."
Not understanding, of course, she just licked my hand, wagged her tail and stared at me. The wide-eyed innocence of that stare, the silent gratitude it represented, upset me and I had to look the other way.
"Little does she know" I thought. "Little indeed does she know. Thanksgiving! What does she have to be thankful for?"
I've often heard how the Lord works in strange ways; but strange indeed was the way in which this little creature of God's creation, whose entry into to my life had been so unsolicited, so unwelcome, had grown to be such a part of me.
She'd come home with my daughter from college more than a year and a half earlier. Ruffian, my daughter had named her. When first they arrived, I wanted no part of her; no part of any dog. Had it been up to me, to me alone, I'd have banished her immediately. But they loved one another — my daughter and this little dog. They loved one another and daughters have a way with fathers. So Ruffian stayed. Not totally welcome, but she stayed.
This past year has been difficult for many — me included. Most everything I've ever deemed important has just slipped away. A business, a beautiful home, friendships aplenty, all just vaporized. At times, it seemed, the only news I ever got was bad news — day after day after day.
Through all of this anguish, even in the darkest hours, Ruffian was there. In the beginning I was indifferent toward her. But she was undaunted by my self-indulgent attitude. As dogs are given to doing, she poured out love — without question, without qualification until, in time, her persistence melted my indifference and I grew to accept her, to like her, to love her.
Yes, gradually she taught me to love her and she became my friend — my ever-present, ever-loving friend. At times she seemed to sense that my burden had become too heavy, too painful to bear and she'd nudge me with her nose, wag her tail, lick my hand and we'd "go for a ride." Often, with nowhere to go, we'd just ride around and I'd talk to her in foolish baby-talk until I felt better. So many rides we'd taken, Ruffian and I. Lord how those rides helped me through difficult days. But now, now that things were getting a little better, there was no place for her. Sad I thought. strange and sad.
But there was no room for sadness that night. It was Saturday, Thanksgiving Saturday and we'd had a wonderful day together. Raking leaves, running through the leaf piles, chasing sticks and routing in parts of the garden from which, absent the leaf raking exercise, she would have been excluded. Perhaps fittingly, here we were, closing out the day with a ride. No, there was no room for sadness that night!
Home again, she bounded through our front door—tail wagging, full of exuberance, full of love, full of life. She inspected each room and, satisfied that all was in order, she curled up on her favorite sofa to lapse into contented sleep.
I guess the TV bored me, or maybe the day's activity had made me sleepy. In any event I too soon dozed off to sleep. But not for long. In about an hour I was awakened by loud thumping noises from the next room. Frightened, I ran to the sofa where Ruffian had been sleeping.
And there she was! Engulfed by some horrible sort of seizure she lay on the floor writhing in obvious agony. Legs flailing at the air, mouth snapping as if attacking some invisible demon, body thumping the floor so it sounded like a drum. My little friend was hurting, hurting badly. Instinctively, I reached down to comfort her. But with a snarl, more vicious than any I could remember, she forced me back. There I stood; helpless; horror-struck and helpless!
After several minutes the thrashing subsided a little. Back on her feet, she sipped from the dish of water I gingerly pushed in front her. "Maybe," I prayed. "Maybe she's over it."
But in another minute her legs again buckled under her and as she lay on her side the thrashing returned with renewed fury. She'd try to regain her footing — desperately she'd try; but the legs just refused to support her. Snapping and flailing she slid tight against the wall and white foam began oozing from her mouth. My daughter arrived and we called the police. "Not much we can do" they responded — "try to slip a pillowcase over her head so she can't bite and take her to the emergency clinic." Knowing they were right, I copied the address and stripped a pillowcase from the bed. But the thrashing was so violent that I was afraid to try slipping it over her head. So I just stood there. Helpless, mystified and terrified I stood there — trying to comfort her with talk. "It'll be OK Ruffian — easy girl, you'll be OK." But as I watched I knew that she was getting worse — much worse.
We stood there together, my daughter and I. We stood and sobbed and wreaked our brains trying to understand what was wrong, trying to think of something to do. Try though we did, we could think of nothing. Nothing but to be there; to be there lest she be left to suffer alone. And I couldn't help but thinking, Ruffian never let me suffer alone.
As we stood, frozen in horror, my mind drifted back to my childhood and an ancient Ojibway Indian legend my Grandmother told me a long time ago. As best I can remember, the legend went like this:
In the beginning, all animals were part of a Great Law which governed the universe but none had unique characteristics or special powers. Each species was called to approach Kitche Manitou , Ojibway for "Great Spirit," to receive the gifts and power which made them unique:
Nahhak, "the bear," was given great strength and a talent for leadership. Megeesee, "the eagle," received strong wings, keen sight and responsibility to maintain vigil over all beings. To "the vulture," Kaikaik, Kitche Manitou gave patience and the chore of keeping the earth clean. Maheengun, "the wolf," received the gift of unbending fidelity and, to this day, wolves are greatly revered for their tendency to mate for life. Ahmik, "the beaver" received strong sharp teeth and the job of dam building to provide a habitat for the swimming creatures. The cardinal received great beauty to uplift the spirit of all who saw him, the robin, the ability to foretell the coming of winter; Wuzhushk, "the muskrat," fur which would repel frost and thus could be used to trim parka hoods; and so on, with each creature receiving a gift of unique ability and matching responsibility with a time and place to meet that responsibility.
Toward the end of the line, after most had been granted their gifts, fretted Shunka, "the dog," — "What gift can I possibly hope for. I'll never be as strong as Nahhak, the bear, or as graceful as the deer, Wawaushka she; and I'll certainly never be able to soar like Megeesee, the eagle. What indeed can Kitche Manitou grant to the likes of me."
Then Kitche Manitou approached saying: "Do not fear! For you I have reserved a most wonderful gift; the gift of love. And it shall be your responsibility to share this gift with all creatures; but above all, you are to share this love with mankind. For you alone among the animals shall be capable of sharing human love."
Now, in the earliest times, mankind and all animals spoke a common language and all could communicate directly. Animals were dedicated to serving mankind. But people became lazy and indifferent to the needs of the animals. Instead of working, people imposed the burden on animals. When fish was wanted they would dispatch an otter to catch fish for them; instead of hunting, they ordered the wolves and fox to hunt and return the spoils of the hunt to the lodges of man; when a new lodge was required, man would command the beaver to cut and haul the saplings. The animals did all the work, people did none. And, worst of all, the people turned animal against animal. Mankind became self-centered and neglected to provide for the animals so that in the long, cold winters, the animals suffered while the people led an easy life.
For a long time the animals served in this way without complaining. Eventually, however, they grew weary. All the animals gathered together to discuss and put an end to the injustice. Many suggestions were put forth — some quite violent. But finally, a seemingly workable idea developed: The animals would distance themselves from mankind. No longer would they sacrifice themselves for mankind's good. No longer would they make their unique attributes freely available. The animals would live for themselves leaving mankind to fend for themselves. Moreover, to make it difficult for mankind to enslave them again, the animals agreed to speak in different languages which man could not understand. All animals agreed with the plan. All, that is, except the dog!" "I am for mercy" said the dog. "While it is true that people have been unkind, they deserve to live and to have our support."
The other animals were furious and branded the dog a traitor. Speaking on behalf of the other animals, Nahhak, the bear turned to the dog and said: "For your betrayal, you shall no longer be regarded as a brother among us. From now on you shall live in the company of men, eating whatever man leaves for you, thankful for such scraps as are thrown you. You shall sleep wherever man allows you to sleep and you shall provide such service as man demands of you. As reward for your dedication, your role shall be to endure mankind's injustice; his indifference; his selfish carelessness and neglect."
The gathering then dispersed with each animal returning to their separate ways. From that day forward, dogs were dedicated to mankind and mankind was dependent on dogs for knowledge of the natural world.
"That's why," my Grandmother said, "Your Grandfather feeds and cares for the dogs even before taking care of himself. For we can't allow carelessness, neglect or our selfish nature to destroy this one friendship left with the creatures who share in the Great Law — which includes the gift of precognition of events."
The memory of my Grandmother's words ebbed from my mind and I turned again to my little friend struggling there on our floor. Gradually, her struggle subsided. The thrashing, the thumping, the terror subsided and as they subsided so also did my fear. Less fearful, I reached down to try slipping the pillowcase over her head. Her little body was hot to my touch. Full of fever and hotter than any living thing I can ever remember touching. But she let me touch her. As I started to move the pillowcase over her she lifted her head and,with what seemed to be her last ounce of strength, she licked my hand. . .
Limp and shapeless was the hooded little body that I carried to the car. As limp as the bread dough I'd watched bakers lift from kneading machine to rising table. Limp and shapeless. And hot — her tiny body was flaming hot.
We started toward the emergency veterinarian clinic the police had recommended. But before we'd gone two blocks the struggle was over. The thrashing, the thumping, the breathing all stopped and it was over.
"We don't really know why this happens. We had another just last night. Some sort of seizure, but we don't know why. We could do an autopsy, of course. But short of that there's no way to know; And even an autopsy may not tell us much." The vet consoled.
"No, there would be no purpose to that. We'd like to treat her with respect, with the respect she earned. So we'd prefer you to cremate her remains. Please cremate them with respect." With this tearful instruction we left the Vet and started home; and a long, lonesome ride home it was.
Two weeks have now passed since that terror filled Saturday night. Two busy weeks and yet, never was I so busy that Ruffian was completely off my mind. No, I thought of her often. And each time she entered my thoughts I'd ask myself why. Why did this happen? What caused it? Was it something she ate? Something I'd given her? And why then — on Thanksgiving Weekend?
Ruffian was on my mind earlier today too when, for the first time in two weeks, I was able to return to the leaf raking at which we'd spent our last day together. I needed to get the leaves finished before the really cold weather set in and rain was predicted for later in the day. So I raked with a purpose; not because it was fun, as it had been two weeks earlier, but simply because it needed to be done. As I raked I thought about Ruffian, her death and how mysterious it was — at least how mysterious it had been until that moment!!
I was raking right in front of the garage doors when first it caught my eye. A spot of cherry red liquid, visible only when my rake removed the upper layer of leaves and even then in a spot so small I don't know how it caught my eye. But catch my eye it did and I wondered what it was. Curiosity aroused, I probed into the leaves until my rake touched upon a plastic container. Across the bottom of the container were a dozen tooth marks — and from the tooth marks oozed the red liquid — and from the label on the container came the explanation for Ruffian's agony on that Saturday night two weeks earlier — Transmission fluid!
Some six weeks ago I'd added fluid to my car's leaking transmission. Misjudging the distance, I'd tossed the empty container toward the garbage can causing it to bounce from the can's rim to the ground. "Must pick that up when I'm finished" I thought. And I intended to. I truly intended to!
Standing there, with the container still dripping in my hand, the closing lines of my Grandmother's legend echoed in my mind: "And, as reward for your loving dedication, your role shall be to endure mankind's injustice; his indifference; His selfish carelessness and neglect."
How true, I thought. How tragically true. Ruffian's role had been just that. She gave me love; and devotion; and loyalty beyond human comprehension. In spite of all that she was forced to endure my careless neglect. To be sure, she died as a result of that carelessness. But I don't believe she died in vain. No, Ruffian did not die in vain. For, in those last terrifying hours, this little creature without pedigree or obvious distinguishing characteristic, whose love, dedication and simple presence had so aided me through difficult days, awakened my senses to what is surely the most important of truths. And that truth is this:
In every life setting, even the most troubled life at its most difficult moment, we are never alone. For regardless of the name we give to it, there is within each of us a spirit, a force, a higher power which is with us always. Through even the most terrible difficulties, this higher power provides support. And this presence, this support, may take a form which is difficult to recognize or understand. But each live form has a purpose and a time and place to enact that purpose.
So, at future Thanksgivings, regardless of other circumstances, I'll need not ask what I should be thankful for. For love, for guidance, for ever-present support and for all the good with which live is enriched — I'll remember to be thankful. But above all, I'll be thankful for life. For life itself, in all the forms in which it has been provided, thank God for life, for life such as Ruffian's.
Author's Footnote: The Ojibway legend portion of this story has been reconstructed from the author's memory of its original telling more than 60 years ago. As a consequence, certain inaccuracies may have entered the retelling. Of particular concern are the attempts at transliterating animal names from the original Anishnabeg language. The author apologizes for any error or inaccuracy which may be obvious to members of the Ojibway community who have maintained closer contact with their history. Furthermore, in the hope that more accurate versions of this as well as other legends may be recorded lest they be forever lost, the author would encourage comments and dialogue with all who have an interest in the subject.