Her tail is up and there is a spring to her step as my Labrador non-retriever mix heads out on her morning walk through the manicured landscape of our gated, cookie-cutter community. The Saint Augustine grass is thick and coarse and while she is not fond of the feel of it on her paw pads, she does love a leisurely sniff of the secrets hidden deep inside the nearly impenetrable mat.
There went Barnum, the lumbering old English Lab she so wants to romp with, but who makes the hair on her back stand up like she must have a touch of Rhodesian Ridgeback somewhere in her DNA. Barnum’s scent is fresh— he must have been here already this morning. And here, here is the scent of little Raven, the sweet and timid Schnauzer with the lovely silky beard who shakes and trembles even as she approaches, trying to make friends.
After a short time, we come to the special place. This deeply shaded area is a scene straight out of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and Sugar approaches with not-quite-unbridled curiosity and more than a bit of trepidation. The sniffing becomes more intense and her ears are now lying back like the fins on a ‘57 Chevy. What’s that? A scaly armadillo? Or perhaps it’s an otter or a bobcat. These scents are still unfamiliar. It’s not the rabbit or squirrel or even the fox she knew from our Northern home. This reeks of something deliciously feral and, though she is cautious, she wants to know more.
This small oasis in the middle of a beautiful but homogenous plant palette is a thicket of saw palmetto, Sabal palm, prickly Bidens alba, and grand live oaks heavy with tillandsia. Hundreds of ball moss cling like gnarled claws to knobby branches while the Spanish Moss hangs like flowing tresses, making me think of fairy tale witches and their spells. The damp fetid earth, the mosses and lichens, the decomposing bodies of snakes and grubs, all sustaining so much life. Even as the plant and animal carcasses pile up, millions of creatures are living and breeding in this bio-soup of steamy bog. Towering old Slash pines welcome nesting herons, owls, and hook-beaked ibis. By the grace of all that is sacred, the landscape crew with Roundup tanks on their backs do not bother to come here. Maybe the witch has scared them off.
If I would let her, this dog would dig here in the deep pile of dropped fronds from the cabbage palms, unearthing ants and beetles, anoles, and God knows what else. She would dive in and roll about with abandon, loving the feel and the smell of it all on her coat. How she would love to get her teeth on a real scrap of bone and sinew, with maybe even a bit of fur left behind to tickle her palate
A small ringneck snake catches her attention and I pull her away before she can pounce on it. I keep her a safe distance from the hefty toxic Bufo toad who looks stern and judgmental and the two-striped walking stick that can shoot its stinging venom straight into your eye from quite a distance, and won’t hesitate to do so as my little fluffy dog who waits at home for her walk will tell you.
The rescue people said Sugar had one puppy, maybe there were more, but only one that they knew of. The details were sketchy, but it looked as though it hadn’t been too long ago that she’d nursed her pup.
Who knows what stories Sugar would tell if she could? Why did she cower that night early on as my husband took off his belt preparing for bed? Why does she timidly approach, yet still shrink back when a man reaches out to pet her?
Sometimes Sugar romps and frolics and acts like a puppy as though she’s fully recovered from the bad times. She’ll wag her tail and smile, and it seems that all is right in her world. There are times though, that she is very sorrowful. She’ll plod along with her head down or curl up in a corner with a loud sigh. It’s these times that I find it so hard to comprehend how people can believe that animals don’t have memory and feelings of sadness and despair.
Sugar and I have gone gray together over these past ten years. I do my best to give her happy moments and give her space to have her lamentations. I hope that our walks on the wild side will take her out of the sad place she goes to when she’s too long confined in the house. But wait! That’s me. It’s me that needs to get outside – to see and smell the wild things, to dig in the dirt, to stir the soup and explore the bog.
Maybe it’s really Sugar that’s doing her best to give me happy moments and space for mylamentations. We’ve learned a lot from one another, and although we talk long and often, there are secrets so terrible that neither of us will ever be able to share. It would break our hearts.
Satisfied for now that all is well in our jungle, we are silent on the short walk back to civilization.
These small wild places, these exquisite gifts tucked away in our urban landscape, offer respite from the safety of our air-conditioned fortress. Sugar will lie on the cool tile, feet racing as she chases the wild prey of her dreams. I will sit nearby, reading of adventure.
The story behind the story:
While looking for a home, my husband and I found the unusual HOA in Florida that would allow Sugar, our 70-pound lab mix and Sophie, our 14-pound Bichon. We could, if we wished, even add a third dog to our family. We rented with an option to buy. I wrote Wild Thing in my head while on a morning walk with Sugar. It was one of the first essays I ever published. I was not yet comfortable writing about my daughter’s suicide. So afraid of judgment, so mindful of the stigma, I allude to that grief in the essay, but leave it to the reader to gauge. Melancholy or Madness?
One day I counted 13 vultures roosting in a dead tree and thought it an omen. Although my
husband and I made some lasting friendships and there were some great things about the
community (a poetry slam with guitars and steel drum!), we soon decided the gated oasis was not for us.
I read most of my work to Sugar before submitting. Little Sophie recently crossed the rainbow bridge, but I still talk to her too.
Eileen Vorbach Collins is an essayist from Baltimore. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, The Columbia Journal, Reed Magazine, the Brevity Blog, Shondaland, and elsewhere. Her essays, have received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction, the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award, and two Pushcart Prize nominations. Her essay collection, Love in the Archives, is forthcoming in 2023 from Apprentice House Press, Loyola University. Find her on Twitter here.
“Wild Thing” was first published in In Parentheses Magazine.