Sitting on the verandah with our morning cuppa, a light breeze ruffled the trees making everything cooler. Something caught the corner of my eye. I’ve been told that this is a glimpse of the afterlife but a large brown dog trotted over our meadow, very much still with us.
“Sam? Do you see that?”
“It’s a bloody dog! Where did it come from?”
I felt nervous, you never know with dogs. And this was a big one. But Sam got up and walked slowly towards it, talking all the time, some nonsense about being a good dog. The dog responded happily, wagging its tail and panting. Sam threw it a few sticks and then it followed him around all morning, breathing on the back of his knees while he worked on the property. He pretended to be irritated. I know because when he wasn’t aware I watched he made a big fuss of it. Sam’s big hands looked so gentle, stroking the dog. I’d almost forgotten what those hands felt like. I set out a bowl of water.
“What do you think her name is?”
“Oh, you’re so sure she’s a girl are you?”
“Apart from the fact that she’s in love with you, I checked. No dingle.”
Sam snorted. “Dingle?”
“I’m going to call her Barbara.”
Sam cast a sidelong look in my direction, eyes narrowed. “Ridiculous name for a big country dog like this one”
“We have to call her something. And I like it.”
“How about Felicity?”
“After your mother! She’d love that.”
“She won’t answer to any name we give her anyway.” Sam ruffled my hair and went back to fixing the mower. After lunch he went into town in the ute. He took Barbara with him. She sat up front, next to Sam, like a queen. I would make up some posters and put them up around town. I’d take her photo when she came home. Meanwhile I had work to do.
I took a spade out to the veggie patch. I had already marked the area with rocks. I wanted to dig it over to plant seedlings. Bending over in the sun wearing my work hat from which stubborn locks of red hair refused to be restrained. Pushing my boots onto the spade over and over, turning the soil. Tough work when we hadn’t had rain for a while. It felt great when I had finished, although I couldn’t stand upright. I hoped I’d applied enough sunscreen, I was prone to freckle.
It was the spring holidays but I’d only been back at work a term. I taught at the local high school. I’d been off work for a while. Our baby had died. Almost a year ago.
Still covered in dirt and with my muscles aching I poured myself a generous glass of wine and sat on the verandah, waiting for Sam and the Queen of Sheba’s return. We had bought the property the previous March with big plans for a veggie garden. We both managed to get teaching jobs locally. Sam worked with special needs kids and I taught drama. The house needed work, as did the land. We began weeding and digging, even picked out vibrant colours to cover up the browns and beiges of the inside of the house. Then life slowed down, joyfully and almost without noticing, I fell pregnant.
I could hear the sound of a motor at the top of the drive. A slight misfiring, throaty. The ute drove around the bend and stopped under the cluster of trees where we usually parked. A frangipani, various gums and a bottle brush jostled together in the breeze like tall men at a footy game.
“You were ages! I dug over the veggie patch.”
Sam walked towards me. “Oh, sorry Jen. I meant to help you.”
“I’m not made of glass, Sam.” As I held my glass in my hand frowning at him. I didn’t want to be treated like something fragile. I was strong.
“I know. I asked around town to see if anyone recognised the dog.”
“I thought I’d take a photo of her and make some posters. Stick them up around, here and there.”
Sam rubbed his hands over Barbara’s back. “I guess so. You don’t want to keep her then?”
“No. She’s not ours.” I took a sip from the glass.
“Okay. Got one of those for me?” He nodded at my wine.
“Sure. Did you pick up the compost I ordered?”
Sam swore. “Damn, I forgot.”
We sat either side of the small round table on the verandah, overlooking the land we had bought, quite spontaneously, being city dwellers for so long. Sam kept the grass short but the weeds were taking over. I had tackled them the year before but they grow back fast if you don’t plant something in their place. When I should have been planting I lay in a hospital bed, praying hard that everything would be okay. And the seedlings didn’t get put in the ground so their roots could grow like invisible veins in mother earth. Like the veins in the body of my child, who had stopped growing inside me. My dream of cooking up batches of pumpkin soup in the winter, with a baby on my hip became just that. A dream.
Too tired to make the posters I made a bed for Barbara, like a four legged house guest, using towels in place of white Sheridan sheets. I put her bed next to Sam on the verandah and a couple of large potatoes in the oven. I poured us both a glass of wine and we sat to watch the first star appear. In silence, listening to Barbara’s panting, watching the sky change from lilac to indigo, looking up until our necks ached.
“I see it! Star light, star bright, the first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” I smiled the smug smile of a winner.
“Damn! You’re good at this.” Sam smiled.
What would I do without Sam? How would I be defined? He’s solid, real and sometimes reliable. A lucky girl and yet the cloak of my life was being gently nibbled at, tiny pieces lost almost without noticing. I noticed. What would I use my wish for? An end to all wars, rain for the garden or a box of child’s toys in the corner of the room? I broke the silence.
“We can go into town in the morning. I’ll make up the posters after breakfast. How does that sound?”
Sam and his lopsided smile. “Can we take Barbara?” Just then she appeared, stick between her jaws, ready to play.
“Yes, you wuss. What breed do you think she is?”
“I don’t know. A Great Dane crossed with a horse by the look of her.”
We ate our supper out front under an observatory of stars. Later in bed we lay side by side on our backs. Not touching, my skin tingling with neglect. With nothing to swerve our thoughts away from what lay at the centre of us both. Barbara in her new bed outside, watched by the stars. And we lay there with darkness draped over us like gossamer cloth, neither of us spoke as we fell silently into sleep.
She had been so small. Everything about her had been perfect; rose bud lips, tiny limbs and toes like cotton bud tips. She took one, maybe two, breaths then she went.
Barbara stood at the door when I opened it, almost sending her flying. I refilled her bowl and laid out the breakfast things. I poached a couple of eggs at the stove and wondered if we should feed her. I wasn’t sure how long a dog could go without food. It had only been a day. I put bread in the toaster, took the butter from the fridge to soften and called for Sam.
Tucking into our breakfast I asked, “Should we feed her?” Sam thought for a minute as he swirled his toast in runny yolk.
“Let’s leave it until we get back from town. I’ll take the photo. You’ll cut her head off.”
I took a terrible photo. Later I listened to Sam trying to get Barbara still. In the end the photo showed the dog with a stick between her jaws with large chocolate eyes of hope.
Soon we three were bumping along the forest road, like a family of misfits. But aren’t all families a little odd? Cobbled together with the occasional resemblance to one another. Roman noses and widows peaks. We try so hard and so long to make sense of it but does it really matter? Who says it has to make sense?
We named her Flora, such a delicate flower. She had been planted in me and then ripped away too soon. I didn’t want her to be in eternal darkness, never having seen light. She deserved to see the sun, and to grow, the loveliest flower in the garden. I wanted her to help me in our garden, chubby fingers smeared with dirt. A pair of small boots next to ours on the back step. Instead, a tiny plot in the local cemetery with a service, just Sam and I. I don’t go there any more but Sam, he takes her brightly coloured flowers and puts them in a stone jug. A white cross marks her grave. It says simply ‘Flora’.
Sam nailed a couple of the plastic covered posters we had made to some trees along the forest road. In town we asked the friendly fruit sellers, Glen and Gladys. We put one on the notice board outside the chicken shop, chatting with everyone about our visitor. No one knew her.
Last stop was the Mountain View café. I climbed the steps to the counter and asked Melanie.
“My dog goes missing all the time. He wanders off. The RSPCA know me by name now. By all means stick the poster up but you should call the RSPCA.
“Someone has reported a Rhodesian Ridgeback missing.” Sam came into the kitchen where I sat at the table, planning the vegetable garden on large pieces of paper with Barbara lapping at a bowl of oats and milk noisily.
“You called them. How do you know Barbara is a Rhodesian Ridgeback?”
“I looked it up on the internet. Jen, you’re not getting too attached to her are you?”
Hot tears came from nowhere. I turned and escaped to the bedroom, lay down on the bed where we had given life to our daughter and I wept loudly. Ugly sobs, my chest in a staccato rhythm. So consumed that for a while I didn’t feel Sam’s gentle hand stroking my head, pushing strands of hair wet with tears from my face. I looked up. My face felt inside out.
“I failed. I couldn’t keep Flora alive. I gave her life but I couldn’t keep her here.”
“That’s not your fault.” Sam struggled to say the right thing. His big, brown face frowning, hair pushed back from his forehead.
I asked a question that had formed in my head some time ago. “How do you go on? How do you deal with the pain?”
“Jen, I just let it run through me.” He reached for my face, takes it in his hands. “Maybe Flora is a star in the sky, the one that twinkles the most.”
I sat up slowly fearing I had come undone. I took his hands from my face and held them. “Do you talk to her when you take the flowers?”
“Yes. But I talk to her everywhere. I say good morning quietly as if I might have slipped into her bedroom not wanting to wake her. I wish her goodnight.” Sam looked sheepish and his cheeks coloured slightly. “Don’t laugh but sometimes I tell her fairy stories at the grave.”
“The ‘Princess and the Pea’, ‘The Little Mermaid.’ But her favourite is ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. You see, she takes after her mother who loves to laugh.”
The thought of Sam telling stories for Flora was magical. It lifted me, ever so slightly. The cloak of grief loosened at the front. Perhaps I will laugh again.
I make tea for us. We sit at the kitchen table. Sam hands me a scrap of paper with a local telephone number scrawled across it.
“A lady called Sally. She’s Barbara’s owner. Shall I call?”
“Okay. But first can we spend some time with her? Throwing sticks.”
Barbara’s owner picked her up later that afternoon. She was lying on the verandah, exhausted after our games. Sally a young woman with facial piercings lived around the corner but still a good trek for a dog. Barbara jumped in the back of the car. Just before Sally turned to go I put a hand on her arm.
“What’s her name?”
“I was calling her Barbara.”
Sally laughed. “Did she answer to Barbara?”
“No.” I smiled and watched them drive off. Sam walked up behind me and held me in his arms.
“You’re going to miss her?”
“I preferred Barbara to Maiden.”
As we stepped back into the house holding hands, our thoughts were far from stray dogs and vegetable patches.