Manhattan is not the center of the universe. It only feels
that way. But outside of the immense gravitational pull of
that small island, there are whole other realms of existence.
For the past year, Iâ€™ve been living in the town of
Northside, which is two hours from the city but subscribes
to an alternate reality. Winter arrives earlier and tests
your resourcefulness. The moon is more of a presence. Your
regular waitress not only knows exactly what youâ€™re going to
order, she also knows how much money you have in the local
bank, the status of your divorce negotiations, and your
entire medical history, down to the name of the prescription
cream you just called in to the pharmacy.
Yet there are also secrets that are easier to conceal here,
buffered by trees and mountains and distance. The city may
offer a kind of intimate anonymity, but the country permits
The freedom to run around naked in the woods, for example.
Which I do about three days a month, when the moon is at its
fullest. Having lycanthropy, like having children, forces
you to reevaluate the advantages and disadvantages of
apartment living. Of course, Iâ€™m not talking from personal
experience hereâ€”I donâ€™t have children.
But even though I accept that Iâ€™m better off in the country,
itâ€™s been a bit of an adjustment. Before I moved out here,
trying to save my doomed marriage, Iâ€™d had a coveted slot as
a veterinary intern at the Animal Medical Institute on the
Upper East Side. And while the education I got there was top
of the line, Iâ€™ve had to unlearn a fair chunk of it.
In the city, people donâ€™t purchase pets, they adopt
substitute children to carry around in big handbags, or
rescue surrogate soul mates who will wait uncomplainingly at
home all day, then greet each homecoming with frenzied
affection. If Basil the basset hound gets cancer, nobody
blinks an eyelash at spending thousands of dollars on
medical care, physical therapy, a specially designed prosthesis.
Around here, itâ€™s a different story.
Northside dogs are considered animals, and they spend much
of their day outside and unattended, having adventures that
their humans know nothing about. There are exceptions, of
course, but in general, country people love their dogs,
though they donâ€™t regard them as quasi-humans covered in
fur. Northsiders acknowledge the wolf that resides within
the breast of every canine, no matter how outwardly
domesticated. â€śItâ€™s no kind of life for a dogâ€ť is the
verdict for most serious illness.
Looking at the massive, gore-spattered rottweiler stinking
up my examining room, I had to wonder who had it better: the
beloved city pets who received constant attention and care,
or their country counterparts, who had the freedom to follow
their instincts and roll in decomposing deer entrails.
â€śI donâ€™t see or feel any cuts or abrasions,â€ť I told the
dogâ€™s owner, a lean woman with work-roughened hands,
leathery skin, and brittle, teased black hair. Her name was
Marlene Krauss and she ran a hair salon out of her home. I
could feel her sizing up my long brown braid the way a
lumberjack sizes up a redwood.
â€śIn fact,â€ť I said, double checking the pads of the rott-
weilerâ€™s large paws, â€śI donâ€™t think this is her blood at
all. Queenieâ€™s probably just been frolicking in something dead.â€ť
â€śOh, I donâ€™t care about that,â€ť said Marlene. â€śSheâ€™s always
getting into something.â€ť When she moved, I caught a whiff of
stale cigarette smoke and some drugstore version of Chanel
No. 5. If Iâ€™d been completely human, the combination would
have been strong enough to mask the usual vetâ€™s office odors
of cat urine, bleach, rubbing alcohol, and frightened dog.
If Iâ€™d been completely wolf, I wouldnâ€™t have made any
olfactory value judgments. As it was, I was smack in the
middle of my monthly cycle, which meant that the scent of
Marlene was getting up my nose and on my nerves.
â€śSo what was the reason you brought Queenie in today?â€ť
Marlene tapped her manicured fingers impatiently on the
steel operating table. â€śBecause I think sheâ€™s pregnant.â€ť
â€śOh,â€ť I said, momentarily nonplussed. There I was again,
making urban assumptions. In Manhattan, most people didnâ€™t
know that most dogsâ€™ dearest wish is to roll in a putrid
corpse. The experts theorize that dogs do it to disguise
their own predatorâ€™s scent from potential prey, but watching
dogs, you can see that thereâ€™s a wild, abandoned joy to be
had from rolling around in something truly rank.
Of course, I knew this from personal experience as well. But
I try not to think about that part of my life during my
working day. Compartmentalize, thatâ€™s the trick.
â€śWell? Arenâ€™t you going to check her?â€ť Her voice sounded
like it had been fed a steady diet of cigarettes and broken
â€śOf course.â€ť Crouching back down, I looked at Queenie, who
instantly licked me on the lips. Maneuvering my face so it
was out of tongue range, I put my hand on the dogâ€™s abdomen
and palpated. Her mammary glands were swollen. â€śWere you
trying to breed her?â€ť
â€śNot to a damn coyote.â€ť
â€śYou think she was bred by a coyote?â€ť
â€śI could hear them howling, and when I went out to bring
Queenie in, I found her rope had been bitten clear through.â€ť
Marlene went on to explain how she had just shelled out good
money to fix Queenie up with a pure-blood rotty male, and
the stud fee wasnâ€™t refundable just because Queenie had
hooked up with a no-good-thieving lowlife who wasnâ€™t even
from the same subspecies. I had to bite the inside of my
cheek to keep from laughing, because I wasnâ€™t sure whether
Marlene was talking to me or her dog, or both.
And then it wasnâ€™t amusing anymore, because Queenie started
to whimper. She gave Marlene a particularly pathetic look,
equal parts hurt and confusion. It probably affected me more
than it should have, because Iâ€™d worn that look myself for
the better part of a year, while my ex-husband criticized
and cheated and infected me with a little something heâ€™d
picked up in the Carpathian mountains.
I suppose I hadnâ€™t been much savvier than Queenie, who
didnâ€™t understand what sheâ€™d done wrong by following her
instincts, and certainly couldnâ€™t make the connection
between that long-forgotten afternoon with Mr. Wile E.
Coyote and her ownerâ€™s current cold disapproval. I ran my
hand over the short, filthy black fur on Queenieâ€™s thick
neck. It struck me that a woman who had time to apply little
flower decals to the back of each nail ought to be able to
hose off her dog before bringing her into the vet. I
wondered if Marlene had been neglecting her dog in other
ways as well.
I was still crouched down next to Queenie, but Iâ€™d stopped
petting her for a moment. She nudged me with her tan and
black muzzle, then pressed her full weight against my
shoulder and arm, knocking me back on my heels. Like a lot
of big dogs, rottweilers have an inbred desire to lean on
the unwary. â€śYouâ€™re a good girl,â€ť I told her.
Then, before Marlene could disagree with this diagnosis, I
added my medical opinion: â€śShe feels like sheâ€™s about two
â€śDamn. Iâ€™d meant to come by a few weeks ago, but I just
couldnâ€™t find the time. Well, nothing else for it. How long
will it take for you to clean her out?â€ť
I straightened up so that I could look Marlene in the eye,
trying to decide how to respond. I had terminated animal
pregnancies before, usually with a morning-after pill or
hormone injection. Sometimes the mother is too small or too
young to whelp a litter successfully. At other times, I had
performed the procedure because there were too many unwanted
puppies and kittens in the world, and the world isnâ€™t kind
to the unwanted. Nobody picketed the clinic or called me a
killer: When it comes to veterinary medicine, the
controversial is commonplace.
But like most vets, I have my own moral code. I donâ€™t
believe in performing euthanasia on animals that arenâ€™t
incurable and in pain. Iâ€™m sorry youâ€™re moving and canâ€™t
find a good home for Captain, but thatâ€™s not really
sufficient cause to kill a perfectly good young dog whose
only crime is being too big for your new apartment.
I donâ€™t dock the ears or tails of puppies, because I
consider it mutilation, pure and simple. I donâ€™t declaw cats
until I explain that Iâ€™m basically amputating finger bones.
And I do not abort puppies that are already viable outside
â€śThe problem here,â€ť I said, â€śis that a dogâ€™s gestational
period is usually around sixty-three days . . .â€ť I trailed
off, managing not to add as you should know, since you were
planning on breeding Queenie.
â€śWell, itâ€™s just a bit late to do it now. Queenieâ€™s due in
about a week.â€ť
Marlene gave an exasperated huff. â€śDamn it.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m sorry, but if you need help with the whelping or
placing the puppies in good homes . . .â€ť
â€śThat wonâ€™t be necessary.â€ť Marlene snapped a leash onto
Queenieâ€™s collar. â€śHow much do I owe you?â€ť
I looked back over at Queenie, who had the kind of broad,
large-muzzled face that a lot of people consider
frightening, but who struck me as a big, genial barmaid of a
girl. â€śWhat are you planning on doing with the litter?â€ť
Marlene gave me a cold, hard look. â€śSince you wonâ€™t help,
Iâ€™ll have to deal with it on my own, wonâ€™t I?â€ť
Queenie gave two quick thumps with her blunt stub of a tail,
probably eager to be on her way outside, where the air was
cool and the newly melted snow had left the ground covered
with a smorgasbord of fascinating scents. I imagined the
good-natured rottweiler giving birth, then lying back
trustingly as her pups were taken from her one by one.
Marlene would probably worry more about damaging her nails
than any possible suffering as she dropped the pups into a
sack and then deposited them in a Dumpster.
I took a deep breath. â€śWait a second, Marlene.â€ť She paused
in the act of rummaging through her purse, looking up with
fake eyelashes and real animosity. But then I didnâ€™t know
how to continue.