In the Australian outback, an Aboriginal custom is to sleep with one dog for warmth on a chilly night. A two-dog night signifies a night that's colder than usual, but a three-dog night is really frigid, a thermometer-buster of a night, when humans and canines all pile into one bed to keep each other warm.
Last night, with temperatures plummeting into the single digits, was definitely a three-dog night around here, but it ended up being much more literal than we'd ever figured.
Aisling and I both grumpily got up yesterday morning for our first week of religious education -- she in Confirmation class, me teaching 7th/8th grades -- since before Christmas. With the outside temperature hovering at a balmy SEVEN DEGREES, it was not my favorite sort of morning for getting into the cold van and driving, even though we took the sensible precaution of heating up many microwave heating bags and taking them along with us. Also by stopping and getting very large cups of coffee at our favorite mini-mart.
"Do you think the people arriving for 10:30 Mass would find it odd if I went into the coffee room after religious ed and warmed up a few of these bags for the ride home?" I asked Aisling, whose teeth were chattering.
"Yes, they will think you are weird," she shivered from behind her scarf. "But I will think you are weird too, and that's what really matters."
We drove on, sipping our coffee and luxuriating in our heating bags and faithful Anne was pumping out hot air at a steady pace not too far into our journey. After class, we climbed back in, disconsolately noting that not only did no heat remain, but also that we had no hot coffee and no microwave heating bags.
"I could just slip right in there-..." I began hopefully.
"No," said Aisling firmly interrupted. "No, you cannot use the church's microwave for heating up these dumb bags. Just suck it up and drive, Mom."
So we set off, noting that the country roads and lanes around the church weren't plowed nearly as efficiently as our in-town roads. The snow is deep and the ice is treacherous, and all in all, I was looking terribly forward to getting home to the warm house and having a nourishing bowl of soup while wearing my fuzziest slippers. It was truly not a morning outside for man or beast.
We found this out for certain approximately three seconds later when we turned onto a small road, a snowy country shortcut that lops a few minutes off our time. As we rounded the corner, Aisling and I simultaneously caught sight of a small, curly puppy struggling in the deep snow of a large front lawn, headed for the road where the going wasn't as difficult.
"MOMMY, THERE'S A PUPPY!" Aisling shrieked.
"AISLING, THERE'S A PUPPY!" I yelled.
I brought the van to a halt and said, "Aisling, get out and grab that puppy. It can't stay out in the snow in this kind of weather. It's going to freeze to death."
Aisling hopped out and the puppy floundered through the last few remaining yards separating it from the road. It was a friendly little thing and wagged its way up to Aisling, who scooped it into her arms and received a thorough face-kissing that was very endearing.
As she climbed back into the van with the dog, we heard a volley of outraged barking. Looking out, we saw a mother dog: thin, so horribly thin that I could see her ribs beneath her ragged coat even from a distance. Her fur was dirty and matted and there was a dark spot on her left side that looked like a wound, as if she'd been hit a glancing blow from a car or tangled with a coyote. The mother barked and barked as Aisling and I sat uncertainly there in the van, cuddling the pup.
"I don't think they could possibly belong to the people in one of these houses," I said, indicating the two four-acre properties on our right, each gorgeous house set well back from the road with sweeping drives approaching gracious entrances.
"That mother dog looks so skinny and filthy," Aisling said as the puppy relaxed in the warmth of her arms. The poor baby's bony little body was literally encrusted in snow, big matted balls of ice tangling the curly fur. We warmed my big scarf at the vent as we sat there and wrapped her in it (I did a quick underneath check to determine the gender); Aisling warmed our gloves on her hands and then used her body heat to melt the ice off the sturdy little legs and tail. Through all this, the puppy vibrated with chills like she was running on batteries, her golden eyes anxious in spite of her placating demeanor.
I looked out at the mother, who retreated to a greater distance, still barking loudly. Her frailty was even more apparent as we watched her shaking from the cold. All of a sudden, I knew the explanation for the presence of these two dogs on this lonely road: they'd been abandoned there by their former owners in the hopes that some kind, animal-loving family in one of the beautiful homes in the area would take them in. Obviously, that plan hadn't worked.
I've seen this kind of wretched treatment doled out to dogs before: Every dog Ma and Grandad ever had in their house out in the boondocks of Henry County came to them as an abandoned stray. Ma couldn't resist a hungry dog -- truth be told, neither could Grandad, although he did his share of grumbling about the hundred-pound bags of Purina Dog Chow that sometimes tipped over and scattered nuggets all over the garage floor.
Strangely enough, I'd just heard a local news report on Friday commenting on the enormous numbers of abandoned pets in the area; due to the horrible economy, people are having to move out of their houses and either can't take their pets with them to a new place, or can't afford to feed them. Maybe both. The humane society and animal rescue agencies in the area are full to overflowing, with far more pets being dropped off than being adopted. But better to leave a dog to the mercies of an animal shelter than to just open the car door and leave house pets to the miseries of a cold snap in an Indiana January.
"We can't save the mother," I said, tears in my eyes. "She's too timid to approach us and she could be so sick and hurt and hungry that she'd be a danger if we tried to catch her." The mother dog was a bit bigger than Hershey, maybe a fifty to fifty-five pound dog when in health. With the instinct of a mother to protect her young plus the other factors, I knew it just wasn't possible, but it just about killed me. I put the van in drive and pulled away.
"We can save this one, though," Aisling murmured, tucking the puppy under her chin.
We did take the step of calling my husband and alerting him to the fact that we were coming home WITH OUR NEW DOG, giving him about twenty minutes to process that information. Predictably, he spluttered, "Huh? What? A new WHAT? Where did you- ...oh, crap. Do you know how much it's going to- .....oh, crap. Puppies are a complete pain in the- ......ohhhhh, crap...."
Meelyn, who officially graduated from mandatory religious education classes last year with her confirmation, met us at the back door. "Oooohhh," she breathed, taking one look at the damp, bedraggled baby in Aisling's arms. "Look how sweet she is!"
Hershey and Wimzie were entranced by the new arrival, circling around us and sniffing with interest.
Hershey: "What the heck is this thing??"
Wimzie: "Oh. One of those things."
The puppy stared down from the shelter of Aisling's grasp and went, "Squeak!! Squeak-squeak!"
Hershey and Wimzie were both struck dumb with amazement. They looked at each other. They looked at the puppy. Then they both turned and looked at me.
"You brought me a new baby sister!" Hershey wagged, prancing up a bit on his back legs like a circus dog to smell the puppy.
"What fresh hell have you visited upon me now?" Wimzie asked dourly and plopped down on the floor to lick her nether regions.
Following the advice of Cesar Milan, we let the three dogs get to know one another in their own way. The puppy was scared to death at first, but Hershey and Wimzie lazily sniffed her and then wandered off to take naps. Within an hour, the puppy was snoring blissfully on my left, wearing one of Wimzie's old fleece jackets and enjoying the comfort of a microwave heating bag and a swaddling blanket and Wimzie was on my right, snoring blissfully and covered from nose to tail with the same throw blanket that was covering me. Hershey was stretched out between Meelyn and Aisling, his head on Meelyn's lap and his back feet on Aisling's.
"Now all we need is one more dog so that you can have one to cuddle too," I said slyly to my husband.
"All we need is one more hole in the head," my husband opined gloomily. "Or maybe I should make that one more hole in my wallet, to make it easier for the money to pour out."
I know. I know. It's going to be expensive. But I honestly don't know what else we could have done. I don't really believe in coincidences, so my thought is that we happened along that country road at exactly the right time to rescue that puppy. Jesus knows us, and he knows that we are not the kind of people who could leave a defenseless puppy there to freeze to death in the cold and snow. It was already bad enough leaving the mother behind, but we were given the chance to save that little dog, so we took it and I guess we'll have to hope that blessings will come from it and that this baby will be a sweet addition to our family.
We named her Zuzu, after George Bailey's youngest daughter in It's a Wonderful Life. Zuzu was George and Mary's little girl who came walking home from school with her coat unbuttoned and caught a cold; George visited her upstairs in her bed and put Zuzu's ruined flower petals in his pocket. Zuzu knew that whenever you hear bells, that means an angel has won his wings. Long live Zuzu!
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