I once lived in a valley between two hills, so that everyday my departure was a climb, but I always coasted coming home. One evening, as I crested the homebound hill, foot hovering over the breaks, left turn signal blinking, day nearly done – I saw a car, a poor woman and two children, stranded on the roadside. I pulled in behind and climbed out to see how I might be of assistance. Change a flat, call a tow, loan a phone. Something quick and easy, I assumed. I hoped. I was tired.
“Oh, thank you, sir!” She came running and shuffled the children into her car with urgency. “I don’t know what to do, but we can’t just leave him there. You’ll take care of it, right.” She pointed to the blond and brown homeless creature whimpering a few feet in front of her car, in the grass just beyond the shoulder. I passed her without speaking, crouched over the wounded dog.
The back half of his body was limp, crushed and disfigured. When I first approached, he was frightened and tried to drag himself away, but this effort caused pain and he squealed a little before he crumpled, exhausted. I scratched gently above his ear and when he realized I wasn’t an enemy, he calmed, and his chest heaved with each wheezing breathe.
There was kindness in his dark eyes.
He had no collar – no home. And now he would never walk.
“Thank you, again. You know what to do, right?” Before I could respond the lady jogged away, climbed in her car, and raced from the scene. I have since wondered if she was the culprit. Was she changing the radio station, talking on her phone, reaching back to settle or break up her two children? I’ll never know. I was too shocked to think to look at her car for signs of an accident. And in an instant she was gone, and I was alone with the injured animal.
I’m no vet, but it was pretty clear what needed to be done. The lady had known it too, but who wants to kill an animal in front of children. I scooped the poor beast into my arms and carried him like a babe to the passenger’s side of my car. When I sat him on the cushion, he almost seemed to smile. He thought he was safe. I had never seen this dog before, but already I felt like a traitor.
My key turned, the engine hummed, I turned for home, and parked in the dirt driveway. As tenderly as I could, I carried the wounded stranger into the back yard and laid him in the soft grass. The sun was still up, shining brightly, and the evening was warm. I went to my shed, pulled out my largest shovel.
He watched me with what looked like adoration while I dug. He was panting, happy, thought he was home, and I guess that was true. I was sweating, learning to pray mercy for gravediggers of all eras. It is no trivial task to be watched by the dead yet living, with their eyes full of hope.
When the labor was done, I would have to kill.
But I was unable to follow through. Gingerly lowering the animal into the earth, I said a prayer. Then I raised my loaded pistol, just below the gleaming black pupils. He was waiting. But what if he could be saved? Maybe he didn’t have to die? I lowered the barrel and pretended to hope, even though I knew the verdict.
I called upon a neighbor, a friend who was expert and experienced in the use of firearms. Would he come to my house and contemplate the fate of another creature, and, if necessary, complete the work? Yes, he would share this burden.
Soon we stood beside the pit and looked down on the doomed creature. It would be quick and easy, he said – a mercy killing. The animal had no future, would never run, jump or play. He was in terrible pain, and no surgery could repair his shattered bones or shredded limbs. I had done the right thing, digging that hole. And now he would bring an end to the suffering.
The pistol boomed loudly and I thought that would be horror enough to haunt my memory. We both thought a headshot would bring instantaneous, almost painless (of course there would be that millisecond before) death. Instead, the dog lurched toward me, and I saw the confusion and fear in his sad brown eyes. His jowls were open and unearthly sounds filled the air as his body convulsed. Two more loud pops followed and his neck jerked and stiffened, the screeching simmered to a whimper and a long, gasping final breathe. But his eyes were open at the end and they were filled with pain.
Even when there is no hope, life is a flame.
I thanked my friend and he departed. When he was gone, I took up my shovel and filled the grave, prayed another prayer for those burdened by fate, the ones who have to make the cold decisions. Then I smoothed the loosened earth to make it level, so grass could grow again.