The dog appeared at dusk, trotting up the grass track through the pasture — nose low, tail 45 degrees, ears half-mast. She had the economical gait of the professional vagabond, the switchblade alertness of an assassin. Her coat was short, a muddy African bronze with stripes that looked scraped on with the burnt end of a torch.
When she reached the metal cattle gap that separated pasture from yard, our porch mutts bounded out barking and wagging, putting on a good show but fully expecting to be won over. She gave them a faint, preoccupied wag, her eyes scanning the house like a messenger checking an address.
In the bay window, my Dad puffed out his cheeks and let the air out like a deflating balloon. My Mom said “Go home dog”, under her breath and without hope. When you live on a red dirt road in Alabama, people dump things on you — dogs, both dead and alive, washing machines, Crown Royal bottles.
A succession of dogs arrived year after year, like arrows shot from a great distance and with maddening accuracy. They brought with them their mites, their indecipherable tragedy, their pluck. What happened next was anyone’s guess. Some stories ended with a lonely gunshot and a tamping down of the life of the house, like the red clover where the deer have slept. Some stories progressed from yard to porch, acquired a name, and are now napping eternally under the gardenia hedge.
A dog coming down the road is like a sound in the night. Could be blessing or curse. Could be everything or nothing. They are, all of them, plot twists.
The first encounter with a stray is telling. Most of them cower. Some hide under the truck and won’t come out, even for food. This dog was different. She bowed deeply, tail in the air, eyes fixed on us, full of laughter and challenge. She wanted to play, or she wanted to keep us at a distance while reassuring us that her reasons weren’t personal. She was smart enough to keep her options open.
When we tried to touch her, she feinted and dodged, keeping eye contact, just out of reach. If we persisted, she would launch into gleeful figure eights and death spirals, tail tucked, hind legs driving like pistons. She had oversized and murderously sharp dew claws couched in fatty mounds that jiggled when she ran. They were repulsive and fascinating, like a third nipple, like anything intimate and vestigial.
After a few days, my Mom, a realist and veteran of a thousand strays, began to talk about the dog at the supper table. One afternoon soon after, my Dad came around the side of the house and interrupted my Mom and the dog playing a game. “You come here, girl” my Mom said, in a playful-gruff voice. This set the dog racing around her, dewclaws bouncing deliriously. After exactly three revolutions, the dog stopped and stood stock still, not even panting, eyes locked on my Mom’s, listening for the magic words again. Caught in the act, my Mom sighed and said “I know, I know” to my Dad’s raised eyebrows. But, by then, the generic “girl” had begun to acquire a capital “G”, and there would be no going back. The name was how my Dad knew he was beaten.
After a few more adoption days had come and gone without capture or comment, Girl got down to business. And that business was squirrel killing.
Girl was a terror and a scourge to squirreldom. It was as if the squirrels’ greed and complacency, their entitled, oily sleekness, had offended the sensibilities of Nature, and Girl was its chosen avenger. But she was no thrill killer. She did not maul, torture, or trophy hunt. Her killings were the canine equivalent of a double tap to the back of the head. She was the consummate professional.
Her method was invariable and effective. She waited until the afternoon, when the big pecan trees in the yard cast dappled shade on the grass and her tiger stripes were the most advantageous. Then, she would saunter casually from the porch to a spot between the bird feeder and the azalea bushes and compose herself into a rigid sphinx pose. She looked positively Egyptian. Had she been dipped in gold, she could’ve glided down the Nile as the bowsprit of Cleopatra’s own barge.
This posture marked the start of a long waiting game. Girl would watch the squirrels for hours, motionless except for the flick of an ear to dislodge a fly. Sometimes, my Dad commentated from the bay window in the style of David Attenborough — “And so, the daily drama of the Serengeti unfolds once again, predator and prey in their eternal dance . . .” We put off collecting eggs or checking mail during Girl’s vigil. She had so much invested.
The squirrels would avoid the bird feeders for a while, but their minds couldn’t long contain both their lust for birdseed and their fear of death. The birdseed always won out. Girl waited until they were belly down and gorging, then exploded from the shadows like a missile, snatched a squirrel with a balletic flourish, and gave it a vigorous double death shake. This was mercifully effective. We never had to dispatch any lingerers.
Girl cleaned up after herself, too, consuming every part of the squirrel except the tail. These we found lying around the yard from time to time, clean and fluffy as ever, as if the squirrels had lost them in a bet.
Girl died last summer and is buried in her favorite hunting spot by the azaleas. She had no successor. The squirrels are fatter, sleeker, and more insufferable than ever.