In Mongolia, when a dog dies, he is buried high in the hills so people cannot walk on his grave. The dog’s master whispers in the dog’s ear his wishes that the dog will return as a man in his next life. Then his tail is cut off and put beneath his head, and a piece of meat of fat is cut off and placed in his mouth to sustain his soul for its journey; before he is reincarnated, the dog’s soul is freed to travel the land, to run across the high desert plains for as long as it would like.
I learned that from a program on the National Geographic Channel, so I believe it is true. Not all dogs return as men, they say; only those who are ready.
I am ready.
We had a dog once, it was my mother’s dog, Justin. I remember Mom playing with her in the open garage, Justin too excited, Mom and her running after each other. I was young then, and I was jealous, because Mom, too, looked so young. I almost wanted her to throw a ball my way, scratch behind my ears, just smile widely. It was high afternoon, my mother was wearing a ratty shirt that used to be white. You could see the outline of her body when the sun hit her just so. It was a weekend, and I couldn’t tell when I last saw her, I only knew it was a child’s very long time.
I had a goldfish once, Bubbles. I loved her because ten-year-olds were supposed to love their pets. I named it Bubbles because that’s what you were supposed to name a fat goldfish that could nonetheless still fit the palm of your hand. It had a lumpy head, and every day I feared it would burst. That’s what kept me running to the aquarium everyday: Bubbles, be whole. When it died, I was at school. I don’t know who found it floating. I suppose it was me. I wheedled my father into arranging an elaborate funeral. We must have wrapped the fish in tissue. I know we buried it in someone else’s backyard.
There’s this dog named Short, and he lives with my family, miles and miles from where I am. I don’t see him much, but I know he’s a happy dog. Vibrating on his leash. Just so damned happy to be alive. With people! And food! And sunshine! And that cat! I went to Short when I got news that an aunt of mine died. My mother was crying in the bathroom. My dad, I don’t know where he was. I looked at Short, and he was happy to see me. And I couldn’t go near him — I tried, I did. But I looked at him, so blessedly ignorant, so willfully joyful: I can’t even let myself like you a little. I am susceptible to the charms of furry little things. And furry little things almost always die when you love them most.
. . . How difficult it must be to be a person. To constantly subvert your desires. To worry about doing the right thing, rather than doing what is most expedient. At that moment, honestly, I had grave doubts as to my ability to interact on such a level. I wondered if I could ever become the human I hoped to be.
There’s a conceit to this, a selfishness: Looking at other people, bent over their pets. Smug — I won’t hurt like you do. One less pain to avoid, I suppose. I take care of plants now. Or would like to. I borrowed my mother’s cactus years ago. A small thing, I watered it too much. I’ll learn eventually.
#107 of 2010 • The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.