The Wild Dogs of Romania
Life is brief and the moment is all they have.
Each step she took up the steep street stuck her paw to the ground with tar and exhaustion. Her head bowed toward the gravel, pushed down by years of roaming the city. This Romanian summer seemed crueler than any she recalled, but then each passing year made everything crueler. The blacktop scorched the pads remaining on her paws, and her panting failed to stave off summer’s sweltering chokehold. Waves boiled up from below her belly, roasting her pendulous teats, the remnants of her many past litters.
So much life passed through her body. Her litters were healthy, often with two or three sturdy pups living past the milk. She was strong and that bore out in her bloodline, but now she knew she would have no more pups. Time mercifully took away that gift.
The street crept up a hill peppered with houses and empty lots full of wooden debris and mounds of trash. Some houses along the street were newly built with bricks and steel and some were rickety wooden shacks with colorful shutters, waiting to topple. To her, all the houses were the same. They were all human, smelling of human life.
She had a human once — a tiny, old woman who called her Lolica. That was long ago, and the only time in her life she didn’t put most of her hours into prowling. The old woman rarely left the house and had no visitors, though she seemed kind, especially to Lolica. Each morning the woman came outside sipping a sharp smelling drink she called cafea. The old woman laughed when Lolica sniffed her cafea and twitched her nose in disgust. The woman was tiny and kept her silver-white hair tucked under a bright blue headscarf, her hazel eyes shimmering below, wrapped in sympathetic wrinkles. She walked with a hunched back, making it easy for Lolica to see her eyes when she emptied scraps of food into her bowl. Then the woman would sit in a chair near the front door and talk. She would talk nonstop, interspersing Lolica’s name into the conversation. Lolica would allow the woman to pet her head, but she moved away if the woman’s hand strayed past her ears.
All relationships with humans have limits.
The routine of her morning feeding and the old woman’s talks carried on for some time. Most days, Lolica slept beneath a sprawling walnut tree in front of the house, only breaking her napping to eat or drink. In the evenings, Lolica would sometimes seek companionship, especially in season. She found fleeting contentment with her own kind. It was a good exchange — a nuzzle and some play, a brief mount, and then a warm sleep with the pack. But Lolica always returned to the woman in the morning. She had no desire to join the pack, a choice she knew would one day carry consequences.
One cloudy, cool morning as she trotted up the dirt path leading from the street to the front door, Lolica sensed the end of her stay. Death’s scent oozed out of the closed windows, forming a sticky shroud over the house’s white, wooden exterior. Lolica walked up to the front door and pushed against it with her nose. This was closer to the house than she had ever ventured. She loosed a soft whimper, but nothing stirred inside. She lay down at the threshold and only ventured away to her bowl for water. She stood guard for two days before any other humans came.
A small group of strangers arrived one morning and shooed Lolica away. They beat on the door and yelled into the windows. One of them opened the door and the stench of overripe death stormed into the yard, forcing Lolica into hiding behind her tree.
More humans came and took the old woman’s body away. Some strangers would point to Lolica and say things she didn’t understand. These humans smelled of sadness, fear, and greed. One of them refilled her water bowl and put some cold mamaliga next to it on the ground. The golden coagulated grains were hardened in some places with white-green mold in others, but still a meal. Lolica ate it all while keeping her eyes on the strangers. Soon more strangers came and began taking away the old woman’s belongings. When they passed with a chair or a box, Lolica could smell the old woman and once again see her tiny frame and sympathetic eyes. She watched as they loaded the last of the woman’s possessions into an old truck and drove down the path to the road, disappearing from view. That was the last of Lolica’s only friend.
From the corner of her eye, a short, round man with a shiny head approached, screaming at her. She growled. He emptied her water bowl and tossed it into an unkempt patch of dying yellow grass. He walked toward her, flailing his arms and yelling. Lolica trotted down to the safety of the road and stopped to look back at the house. It was the last time she would see it, although some nights her sleep brought dreams of the old woman. In her dreams, she could once more smell her friend, a scent of sweet flowers, and hear her calling out in a crackling voice, “Pui! Pui, Lolica!.” Then the old woman would feed her chicken and mamaliga. She would wake from these dreams salivating with a pang of emptiness beyond hunger. The woman and the name Lolica were dead now. She was alone.
She is one of Romania’s wild dogs, living close to but not with people. It’s the way her ancestors first came to know humankind. Some people feed the dogs and some generous people provide a blanket or invite a dog to sleep on their doorstep. Other people kick them, throw rocks, or try to poison them. The dogs maintain constant wariness, tolerating but not trusting humankind. Humans are unpredictable.
These dogs live short, hard lives of freedom. It’s the freedom that many house dogs think about while staring out the window at the world beyond the glass. Occasionally, one of these house dogs sprints from an open door in a mad rush to the street. It is the briefest taste of liberation, followed by a human running after the dog and yelling its name. They will catch the house dog after a few glorious moments of untethered air fills its nose. Then the house dog returns home, safely packed in with the humans. These house dogs have no genuine desire for the vagabond life. They are tourists.
Hunger reversed her direction and sent her trotting back down the hill. She walked until the burden of the sun overwhelmed her, and she stopped in the middle of the road, allowing her hindquarters to fall to the ground in a pile of yellowish fur. Once, she was golden-white, but now she wore a dirty cream coat. She licked at her left paw, then her right. They maintained patches of white beneath the dirt. She gazed off into the distance toward the part of the city where the old woman’s house sat, then she blinked and collapsed onto her side. She gently lay her head against the roasting blacktop. Weariness swallowed her whole, and she fell asleep immediately in the center of the street, a deep slumber immune to wild dog dreams.
An old car honking at her startled her awake. She lifted her head to see the cause of the noise and gathered her legs beneath her. She walked to the side of the road. The driver turned his head toward her as he passed, and she locked eyes with him. She looked all humans in the eyes as long as she could. Maybe they would offer her something to eat, or maybe they had something sinister in mind. She could only be sure by staring into their eyes. The bearded man looked agitated, but his eyes didn’t house any malice, so she looked away. He had nothing to give her, good or bad.
The nap on the hot street loosened her joints but also made her thirsty. The street snaked downhill to a larger throughway, cutting the city in half. She trotted onto a wide cobblestone pavement alongside the street. There were several places over the next hill where humans placed water bowls for dogs and cats. The closest one was near a place where humans gathered to drink the cafea the old woman drank in the mornings. She would see the place once she reached the hilltop.
The cobblestones were cooler against her paws than the street had been. Walking wasn’t usually so painful, but a pad had fallen off her right paw the day before and the heat seared the exposed flesh with each step. She was fighting through a limp when she passed a human woman walking with her children. The woman’s dark, wavy hair frizzed out at the sides and her sun-worn face bore lines far too deep for her youth. She wore a raggedy t-shirt and carried a baby in her arms, who clutched her collar and stretched her shirt as he slept. A string of drool pooled beneath the baby’s chin, forming a tiny, damp spot on the woman’s shirt. A young girl walking to the right of the woman was trying to hold her mother’s leg, forcing both into an awkward gait. An older girl followed behind, dragging a dead tree branch. The woman looked at the old dog; her face frozen into the grimace of endurance. The dog recognized the weariness welling in the woman’s eyes. Motherhood bears many sympathies. Their eyes remained fixed on one another’s until the woman and children passed. In the distance, the baby began crying.
She continued on, not yet seeing her destination but getting the scent of cafea wafting up the hill. She knew this place to have fresh water. A young man with dark hair and a lavish dark brown beard would fill the water bowls several times a day.
The young man was from the nearby countryside. His name was Alex and his grandparents had been gypsies. He had joyful childhood memories of riding with his grandfather into town in a simple horse-drawn wagon. Even as a tiny boy he could sense he and his grandfather were not always welcome by the city people, but they made their way to the city regardless — to shop, to trade, and to see what they might find among the things no one else wanted. This was his grandfather’s way of life, a way passed down for generations and between continents.
When Alex and his grandfather returned home, his father met them on the road, his fist and voice raised. The two grown men argued, screaming at one another, adding exaggerated gesticulations, until his grandfather, tired of the fight, dismissed his son with a wave of his hand. Grandfather helped Alex to the ground and rode away. Alex’s father then turned his anger on Alex, barking out his fury with spittle and flared nostrils.
“Alex! I have told you I do not allow you to go with your grandfather to the city! Why do you ignore my wishes? Why must you embarrass me and your mother this way?” His red-faced father continued the spittle-laced tirade while his mother stood silently to the side, looking at Alex with concern.
Alex loved riding into town with his grandfather and didn’t understand his father’s agitation. There were other boys he would see riding in wagons with their father or grandfather. The boys didn’t wear clothes as nice as Alex, but they smiled and their fathers smiled and their grandfathers smiled. Alex loved the stories his grandfather would tell as they rode along and the songs he would sing in his deep, gravelly voice. He sang ancient songs about clever gypsies and beautiful women. These trips were the most exciting part of Alex’s childhood. They were what he loved best until he grew a little older and some other village boys began teasing him about his grandfather.
They would make jokes about stupid, filthy gypsies and call Alex a peasant, even though he was no more peasant than any of them. Around the age of twelve, he finally stopped taking these trips with his grandfather and he would see less of him. By the time his grandfather died, he had not seen the old man in over a year. Alex was twenty-two at the time and he cried himself to sleep the night he heard the news. He cried for sadness, for regret, and for shame. Alex now owns a popular coffee shop, and the reason fresh water is always outside his shop is because of his memories of his kindly grandfather and how he loved the wild dogs of Romania.
She found the bowl brimming with cool water and lapped away. She looked off to her left at the empty plaza while water dripped from the fur around her mouth. Where were all the people? She walked away from the bowl toward the entrance of the shop with its empty chairs and benches. With her thirst sated, her belly began rumbling. She looked through the door, hoping someone might offer her a bite, but the boy was busy and the few people inside did not notice her. Instinctively, her nose lowered to the ground to seek crumbs, but there was nothing for her. The boy had been meticulous with his broom.
She wandered through the park behind the shop, hoping to find something to eat. She went to each garbage can, looking for anything, but she didn’t even a piece of a pretzel or a crumb of pastry. The heat pushed the people out of the city and they took all the food with them. She knew of a place on the edge of town where there was food, but it would be a long, hot walk through the city and hillside. There was an old man there, who was kind to dogs. If she would eat, she would have to make the trip.
She returned to the coffee shop and the cooler shade near its front door. She lay down underneath a bench against the wall and rested. Within her bony frame, her stomach gurgled its empty discontent. She blinked her eyes as she decided to walk to the home of the old man.
As she stood to go, she heard the dark-haired boy’s voice calling to her. She turned and paused. She knew this boy, but she also knew to be wary. He held bread in his hands, carrying it over to the water bowl.
She could live on bread today, at least for now. Streetlife taught her to eat whatever she could, whenever she could. She waited for the boy to place the bread next to the bowl before she approached. He didn’t pet her, but stepped away and allowed her to eat.
She gulped down the pile of bread, lifting her head as she chewed to swallow it all in four bites. She looked around, but the boy had gone back inside and there was no more bread. It was enough for the moment. Moments were her only concern. The life of a wild dog doesn’t provide for tomorrow, not even for today. For the wild dogs of Romania, there is only the moment, and that moment might lead to another if you make the right choice. It’s the culmination of these moments we see when they shy away, when they growl, when they carry desperation in their eyes.
For now, she would find for a cool place to rest. That would be her moment until the world pressed another one onto her, and she takes to the streets once again.