Is there anything in this world more precious than human love? Of course there is, you bet there is, and it’s called the devotion of a dog. Since I was a teenager I had dreamed about Caucasian mountain dogs and longed for one, but because I was stuck like a caged bird in one room of a cramped communal apartment building with my parents, all I could do back then was dream on. Still, my love for dogs, those creatures who speak without words, stayed warm inside me as the years went by.
One day a couple of dog catchers, those noble hunters of animals with nowhere to go, had captured two strays and were cramming them, pitiful whimpers and all, into their death wagon. I was on my way somewhere, so I just drove by. Not even half a mile on, I swung the car around, caught up with the wagon, slipped the guys some money, and rescued those dogs from the silence of eternity. You should have seen how scared and happy they were. The poor things took off like a shot and vanished under a gate.
I was getting back into the car when I heard a plaintive yelping. Hopping onto the wagon, I caught sight of a little mutt with a pretty face looking back at me, her doom-laden eyes full of reproach, as if she was saying, you’re leaving me here? Why me?
The dog-catchers had put two and two together, and they knew an income stream when they saw one. I could have dragged it out, but instead I tossed them a ten-spot and motioned them to open their death wagon. One of them pulled the puppy dog out and set her on the ground. I was wondering if she would do what the others had and just scoot, but, to my surprise, she stood stock-still. She seemed to have turned to stone. Afraid that those SOBs would shove this innocent scrap of God’s creation back into their wagon if I left, I didn’t budge either. So they bade me a fond farewell and went off in search of other prey. Once the wagon was out of sight, I headed back to my car with the dog padding behind and getting under my feet. “Go on, girl, go on!” I told her and got into the car.
I drove away, watching in the rear-view mirror to see what she would do. She started trotting after the car but, realizing that she would never catch it, she stopped and just stood there in a kind of despair. My mind went back, remembering when I was a kid, and a sidekick and I decided we wanted to sneak into a soccer match. My father had been arrested, and my friend’s mother was dead. His father had abandoned him, so he was growing up motherless and fatherless, with his older brother and sister. He wasn’t much in the looks department, either.
By that point, I had a working plan that got me into all the matches without a ticket. I would spot a presentable-looking man with ticket in hand, go up to him, and say, with all the respect I could manage, “Mister, please take me into the stadium. Make like I’m your son.” I don’t remember anyone ever turning me down, so I put my friend up to doing the same. First I picked out my own gray-haired guy. He answered by wrapping a friendly arm around my shoulders, and in the blink of an eye, I was in the stadium. Once safely inside, I egged my friend on, sort of. “Come on, don’t be a wimp. Go up to someone and ask them. They’ll get you in, sure they will.” He was shy by nature and just couldn’t do it. I kept needling him, and he finally found a long, skinny guy and asked him for help getting in. “Tell them I’m your son, mister,” he said. Skinny guy gave him a scornful look up and down, apparently not wanting, not even for a minute, to pose as the father of this unsightly, badly dressed kid. Off he went, muttering something under his breath. My poor buddy, embarrassed and bewildered, leaned against the nearest pillar. I rushed outside, grabbed him by the shoulders, and told him that the guy was no good and we’d find someone else. He gave a bitter smile and asked who would ever want to be his dad, if his own dad would have nothing to do with him. I was so sorry for him, I couldn’t stand it. I said, “Well, it’s all for the best that we didn’t get in. The other team isn’t worth the time of day anyway.”
We were about to go back home when a tall, powerfully built man started yelling into the crowd, “Spare ticket! Anybody want a spare ticket?” I took a step forward, but pulled up sharp, because he was already being mobbed by older boys and there was no chance that the ticket would ever come my way, then I heard his voice, and it was saying, “No, this ticket’s for that little squirt over there.” Pushing his way through the ring of people, he held out the ticket to me, in a kindly, compassionate way. I thanked him and gave it to my friend. That caught the man by surprise; he wanted to know why I hadn’t kept it. “You see, mister,” I said, “it’s better if my friend gets in with the ticket, and I’ll go in with somebody grown up. I’ll be his son.”
“What do you mean, ‘somebody’? I’ll take you in. You can be my son,” he said, throwing an arm around my shoulders and letting me go ahead. That’s how we both ended up at the match that day—me as the son of some anonymous soccer fan and my friend doing it the right way, with a ticket.
Shaking off those thoughts, I stamped on the brakes and backed up. The distance between me and the dog gradually shrank, then she was running toward me. I stopped the car and got out, and she jumped right in. By the time I was back behind the wheel, she was sitting next to me, snuggled into the front seat and looking at me with sad, grateful eyes.
That was how we made it home, my defenseless little pal and I. My parents bathed her, and when they brought her back in, she was so pretty I couldn’t resist giving her a smacking kiss on her sparkling clean little muzzle. So our friendship began. Someone who knew about dogs figured that she must have been about five years old.
When the job offer came from abroad, it was hardest of all to leave my parents, of course. Beside my attachment to them that asked for nothing in return, there was my love for that little puppy dog, too. The crunch time, when I’d have to go, was creeping closer, and I was in a foul mood. My little buddy was feeling the pain of the coming separation in every fiber of her being, but there was still a spark of hope in her eyes. I could see what she was thinking, what if he takes me with him? Too bad for both of us, that spark had to stay there and smolder and never be fanned into a flame.
In bed that night, she lay at my feet. Neither of us slept a wink; the parting was so close, we could taste it. The next morning, I held her tight, hugged my parents, and left. I didn’t look back.
My second year abroad was almost over when my friend phoned to tell me that my father was in bad shape, and I had to come home. My heart lurched, and I flew out the very next day.
All became clear as soon as I got near the house. I don’t remember running up a staircase jammed with people to see my mother, all in black, sitting by my father’s body. I threw myself at her, buried my head in her lap, and sobbed like a child.
I got hold of myself and asked about the dog. My good friend motioned me to follow him. We went down the stairs, and I heard a dog howling pitifully. I bent down, looked under the staircase, and saw my dog. She was a dreadful mess, with bloody wounds on her muzzle and head. “What’s wrong with her? Who beat her like this?” I yelled, terribly upset. Hearing my voice, she crawled from her hiding place, struggling just to move, and trustingly laid her head on my knees. She was trembling all over.
My knees were damp. Blood, I thought, but when I gently lifted her muzzle, I saw it wasn’t blood, but tears streaming from her dim eyes—tears of sympathy for me. My heart snapped right in two.
“What happened?” I asked.
“After your father passed, she wouldn’t leave him. We couldn’t get her away from the coffin and out of the room, so we decided to leave her there. At about five in the morning, we heard a banging noise. We ran in and got the kind of surprise that nails you to the spot. The miserable little thing was beating her head against the coffin as hard as she could. We grabbed her and dragged her away, which wasn’t easy, then she cowered under the staircase and wouldn’t let anyone near her. It broke your heart to see how fast she went downhill.”
We stayed under the staircase together all night long, my head against hers. People I cared for tried to talk me out of it, but I wouldn’t leave her. I knew then that this creature had been sent to me from above, to share my sorrow and comfort me in my grief. I was happy that in this world of rank stupidity, heartlessness, evil, and shabby behavior, fate had granted me this selfless love. For the first time in my life, it came to me that a homeless dog found wandering the streets could be more loving and devoted than any human being could ever be.
When the funeral was over, we came home together, three beings awash with sadness, my mother, me, and my dog. No one said a word all evening long; even the dog never yipped nor whined, not once. We dedicated that evening to each other, in the mysterious silence of mourning.
The next day, I took my dog, all worn down with sorrow, with me to the airport ticket desk, where I handed in my return ticket. I looked at her and saw how well she understood it all. She gently pressed her head against my leg and stood there without moving, which was her way of showing me how grateful she was. I could feel it; there was nothing to be said, so I dropped on to one knee and silently shared that gratitude with her. Our relationship had begun with ordinary human love and had ended with the incomparable, priceless devotion of a dog.