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Adventures, even the never-ending ones, always have a start. Even the oldest redwood tree, that’s a hundred feet high and wide enough to be a horse’s stall, has a beginning. And the ancient, pale-eyed tortoise that sits in the sun like a lazy wrinkled dinosaur also has a beginning. And, more often than not, the beginning is small, like a redwood seed, or a delicate, leathery-shelled tortoise egg, or the first step in a thousand-mile path. Well, I have an adventure, and it all started in a place where everything is small, including the way farm puppies think.
I mean, for the average pup, life was just fine, with warm milk and crunchy brown kibble, hares to chase and cows to annoy, and the big bull that I wouldn’t se surprised if he was older than the farmer. Oreo had once told me that a few years back, a puppy had driven him so over the edge that the bull flattened him into a pancake. But with Oreo being the aficionado of all tall tales, that story slipped out of my mind as soon as it has entered.
However, I was in no way an average pup. While my brothers and sisters, five fluffy balls of black and white energy just like me were annoying the barn cats, I’d sit on top of the smooth, sun-warmed tractor seat and watch as the farmer, at his ripe old age, fed the cows, gave the horses a good sudsing on the washrack, or brush the long, burr-ridden fur of the barn cats. I had always been fascinated with the humans and their world, but I don’t think that the farmer even remembered my name.
However, I always remembered my name, which set me apart from Oreo, Butch, Rita, Bella, and Chase. While they all had rather ordinary names, which would never make them stand out, I was different. I was Malina.
And this, my friend, is my complete, uncut story, from fluffy, youthful pup to an old, gray-nosed granny, from happiness to heartbreak, start to finish.
* * * * *
“Ready or not, here I come!”
And, unfortunately, I wasn’t ready. In the smack dab center of the dry yellow field, I couldn’t have stuck out any more if I had a billboard posted to my head. But that didn’t stop me from running to a rather lame hiding spot; a tree.
But when Oliver says ‘here I come’, he means ‘here I come at top speed, ready to pin you down to the ground if you’re not hiding’. And that puppy is usually me.
Sure enough, just twenty feet from my refuge, I could hear the crinkly snapping of the bone-dry grass, the color of wheat, right behind me. I didn’t even dare bother to look back, and just pounced full speed onto the tree.
However, I was not a barn cat, and barn cats can scale up a maple in half a second. And, at three months old, that was my first lesson; dogs can’t climb trees.
My claws did nothing to stop me from sliding down the scratchy bark, which burned on the tips of my soft little puppy pads. Oliver took advantage of me at that point, and before I knew it, I had both my paws pinned down with a blue merle border collie hovering over me, bragging about his victory.
“Found you!” he shouted, full of himself. Oliver was always like that, but unlike the other pups, who had lost interest in any attempted friendship, I saw right through him, but he was yet to pick up on that.
“Okay, I get it, you win again,” I panted. All my puppy energy, which was a lot, was worn out. “Just get off of me please.”
Oliver took his paws off my chest, and shook himself off to rid his short coat of the starchy grass. He was a border collie, like me, but his coat was a blue merle, dotted with spots like a black snowfall, and his ears a solid charcoal.
My coat was longer and shinier, as opposed to him being a fuzz ball, and I was your typical black-and-white beauty. Oliver was also from another litter, a gift from the farmer’s daughter, who lived in Blue Ridge, and he was about a month older than me.
“Can we go do something else now, pleeeeease?” I whined in my little puppy voice. That’s the one plus about being a pup; you get anything you want, well, at least from the humans. The farmer adored all his puppies.
The farmer’s name was a mystery to me, and I think names were a mystery to the farmer. He has more puppies on the farm than he could count on one hand, and most of them all looked alike. I studied Oliver. He was the only blue merle, and proud of it. My siblings and I were stuck looking like identical sextuplets.
The farmer was rather old, with a big, crescent-moon shaped bald path on his sunburned head.. He had big hairy arms with a lot of muscle, and always wore clothes that were damaged in some way.
But still, I didn’t know much from my young puppy’s eye, except for the fact that my hometown, if you could even call it a town, was dirt-poor, and everything in it was dirt-cheap. I don’t even think the farmer even used his car, which was getting rusty behind the pasture. The town had a name, too; Sablerock.
“Well, what do you want to do?” Oliver finally brought me back down to Earth. He was jumping from one paw to the other, like he was antsy to run off his energy, which he still had yet to burn.
Oliver was the only puppy on the whole farm that accepted me because of my smallish size. He was like my favorite dog treat; hard and tough on the outside, but soft as butter on the inside. In reality, he was no braver than the chickens that pecked at the ground like they were trying to dig their own grave with their beaks, which a lot of the time, because of their stupidity, seemed like they were trying to do.
And speaking of chickens, a scrawny little rooster with almost no feathers and a cracked beak shuffled by, cockling his ugly little head off. Oliver’s eyes widened.
“Well, I know what I want to do,” an evil grin found its way onto Oliver’s face, and he set himself up, ready to sprint. As every bone in body tensed, the chicken stopped and started pecking for worms again.
“I want to chase… THE CHICKEN!” as Oliver shouted, he took off like a mad cat, as the distressed rooster cockled and made a beeline for the chicken coop, getting closer with each wobbly step. But Oliver was way ahead of him, and he soon had the ugly little prune of a rooster backed into a corner. Fear showed in his beady little rabbit eyes.
I had now decided to join in on the chase, and slowly, stealthily, crept up from behind the squabbling duo. But it wasn’t the walnut-brained rooster that I had my eye on.
“Attack!” I shouted, as I sprang up like a kangaroo, landing on Oliver’s back. The impact caused him to completely lose all focus and topple over, giving the rooster a window of opportunity to escape, and he was actually smart enough to use it.
As the lanky bird hobbled off, Oliver reared like a horse and threw me off of him. I landed on my back in the sea of scratchy grass, my paws held defensively in front of my face. Oliver again pinned me down with his paws.
“Thanks, Mali, you let my dinner get away!” Oliver yelled. I just smiled, trying hard not to burst into laughter. I was having so much fun, all the energy was building up inside my bones like a coiled spring.
As the wobbly-kneed old farmer shuffled over to the front porch using a pitchfork as a walking stick, he grabbed a rope in his other hand and jerked it until the rusty brass bell rang, chiming it’s dull rhythm all throughout the farm.
“Actually, no I didn’t,” a sly grin crept onto my face. I waited a few seconds, a pause where the tension loosened, and then bolted out from underneath Oliver’s heavy paws, calling, “Last one to the kitchen is a rotten egg!” behind me.
There were nine dogs on the farm; and the adults had beaten us puppies to the dinner table. One of them was Katrina, my own mother, a slim beauty of a border collie like me, and the other was Roscoe, a gray-nosed German Shepard with a big appetite and a sluggish appearance.
“Okay, okay, you little mongrels,” the farmer chuckled as he fended off the ravenous pack of puppies that were fighting their way to the food bowls. “Here you go.”
As I stared at the bowls of bone-dry kibble, my hopes vanished. The farmer still hadn’t gotten another food bowl, which meant battling with my brothers and sisters to eat again.
As the noisy barking was quickly replaced with crunching and chewing, I scampered from bowl to bowl, trying to get some supper off my siblings.
“Whoa, whoa, Mal, go find your own food!” Oreo herded me away with her nose. With her being taller than me, I trotted over to Butch and Chase. Unfortunately, they weren’t in a sharing mood either.
“Hey, out of my bowl!” Butch bared his teeth. The big-boned bully scared me so much that I ran away with a whine. I didn’t get a much different reaction from Chase, so I slunked into a corner, my stomach growling like an angry bear.
“Relax, Malina, I’ve got you covered,” I looked up to see Oliver pushing half a bowl of food towards me with his nose. I knew my best friend would come through for me.
“Thanks, Ollie,” I said quickly before my nose and mouth disappeared into the kibble. It had never tasted so good.
“But seriously, Mali, you’ve got to toughen up a bit,” Oliver frowned, as if he was trying to make me feel guilty. “Every time it’s a musical chairs with the food bowls, you’re the one that ends up out.”
There was no use arguing. Oliver was right. As I licked the crumbs off of the blue plastic dog dish, as dry and tasteless as sawdust, I couldn’t help but feel guilty.
I was the smallest puppy; what the farmer called a runt, and had been pushed around ever since my siblings could speak. Bella was the pretty one; she was adored by everyone and with Rita and Oreo at her side like a posse, I was stuck without a defense.
As the rest of the puppies cleared out of the kitchen to go back to their troublemaking agendas, I decided to ask Oliver a question that had been burning inside of me for quite some time now.
“Hey, Ollie?” I stared right into my friend’s watery blue eyes. “Why, out of all the puppies on the farm, am I your best friend?”
Oliver smiled and placed his big puppy paw on my shoulder. “You think you’re the exclusive one, don’t you? Look at me,” he took a few steps back, and turned to his side so I had a good view of him. “Don’t you think I stand out a bit too?”
I didn’t say so, but I was actually jealous of him. His confident, carefree nature, the never-fading smile on his face, those pale aqua eyes that always seemed to shine, and his blue-gray coat, sprinkled with the dots of a black frost.
But at the same time, he was thin and lanky, a sorry excuse for what should be a big-boned Border. His frizz ball fur seemed to grow in all directions. Like I said before, I had seen his soft side, but everyone else saw him as he acted.
“Stop being so paranoid, Malina. You’re so worried about what all the other puppies think of you,” his words hurt. He couldn’t have seen better through me if I had been made of glass, although it already felt like I was.
“Anyway, I’ve got to back and track down that rascally chicken,” Oliver stood up as tall and proud as Rin-Tin-Tin. “You coming or what?”
“Eh, no thanks,” I waved my paw, as if to urge him to go run off. “I’m gonna go take a nap. Have fun though.”
“You?” Oliver widened his eyes and laughed, as if I was joking. This only made me mad, as I put my pouty face on. “Take a nap? Well, whatever you’re up to, I don’t want to know,” he held a paw up in the air.
I rolled my eyes. “Go catch your rooster.” I shooed him away. But before he scampered out the front door, he peered at me behind his shoulder. “You’re really not coming?”
“No thanks,” I didn’t even bother to give him a glance as I padded over to the farmer’s bedroom, my tiny toenails clicking on the cracked linoleum.
The bedroom was certainly the coziest spot on the entire farm. The farmer liked to keep the door closed, so the temperature was always a degree or so warmer. The soft green curtains fluttered in the gentle puffs of wind, and aging photos of rarely-seen family framed in wood lined the cream-colored walls.
But in the corner, just for the puppies, was a sand-colored wicker basket with a soft blue blanket, hand-crocheted by the farmer’s deceased wife. It was a deep royal color, fit for a king. Unfortunately, it was already inhabited by one.
Snoring loudly with his head on his paws, Butch seemed in no mood to offer me any sleeping space. I didn’t dare argue with the oversized beast either, and, despite my knowledge that the bed was strictly puppy-free, I hopped up onto the inviting beige comforter. And trust me, it was very comforting.
The dim color television was on some cheesy old western movie, and the volume had been muted. Not like it mattered anyway, for human speech was far beyond my understanding. However, the leather-adorned cowboy swinging his lasso above his head like some big-shot was awfully entertaining to watch.
But as I went to sit down and relax, I felt something rough underneath me, almost like alligator skin. Shivering, I sat back up to find that the object was not of any danger, and was simply a book. Yes, an almond-brown, scaly-covered book.
I didn’t understand human writing either, so I just traced my paw around the strange symbols. The 100 Wonders of the USA was etched in big green font. What this meant I had no clue, except for the big picture of a giant, horseshoe-shaped waterfall, which must’ve been hundreds of feet tall, the bottom lost in whitewash. And all the other puppies thought that the two-foot plunge in the stream was big.
This too, had a name, I learned as I flipped to the next page; Niagara Falls. As I read on, I was immediately trust into a world so unlike my own that I thought this was another planet. I couldn’t understand the writing, but the pictures said it all.
A giant white palace with a red, white, and blue flag dancing in the wind, snowcapped mountains with towering pines surrounding the base, even a colossal red canyon the carved it’s way deep into the face of the Earth. These all had names too; The White House, Mount McKinley, The Grand Canyon. I was so wrapped up in my reading that I didn’t hear the farmer come inside.
“Oh, I must’ve left my book open while I was out and about,” he chuckled as he snapped the book shut right in front of my eyes, and put it on the top shelf of a big wooden bookcase covered with a layer of dust. “No point in reading it, though. No way I’ll ever see hide nor hair of any of those faraway places. Never.”
My hopes faded. I didn’t know much human speech, except for one word, because the farmer used it so often. Never, it was the word that shattered all hope, hit the hearts of many people all around the world. My small mind had been exposed to the outside world. I had to burst the bubble somehow.
As the farmer got himself lunch and went back out to feed the cows, I pondered my limited options. I had to learn more about this magical world, and somehow, someday, find myself sitting in front of the roaring rapids or sunny Floridian beaches.
* * * * *
I spent the next few days in that very same spot; on top of the farmer’s big cozy bed, bundled up with my favorite book. The farmer always read it at night, and I’d be right next to him, curled up in a tiny black-and-white ball as he read, his leathery fingers turning the pages. He thought I was there to keep him company, but my mind ran far differently than his.
My mind wandered so frequently that I would never finish more than two or three pages in an hour, which was all the time I could take before Oliver got suspicious and came knocking on the door. He still thought I was taking afternoon naps, not sticking my nose in human books.
I still played with him; we’d hang out in the field by the cow pastures, playing hide-and-seek in the wheat grass, using an old piece of rope for tug-of-war, chasing walnut-headed roosters across the stableyard. But while Oliver’s head was in the game, mine was as far from it as puppily possible. As far from this little town as could be.
One sunny September afternoon, I found myself to already be six months old and gaining at least half an inch a day. I was at my usual place; at my usual time; with my usual book, contently reading about Mount Rushmore and laughing at the four men’s heads that were carved into the gray stone.
But then, as I went to hook my claw under the page and turn it as usual, I found myself face to face with the back cover. That was the last page. I was done with the book.
I shivered. No, no, there had to be more! I frantically knocked the book around, staring at the back of it, dumbfounded. But all those weeks of pictures and faraway lands were etched in my mind forever. There was no going back to normal.. Nada.
As I closed the book with my paw still shaking, I had no idea where to go from here. I knew that nobody ever really came or went from Sablerock, and the farmer was no exception. But all these faraway lands, so extraordinary, so magical…
“Hey Malina? Malina? You up?” I heard a thud at the door.. I immediately dashed over to the farmer’s big pillow and, curling up tight in a ball, pretended to be asleep.
I couldn’t see Oliver, but I heard the creaking of the door as it opened on its squeaky, rusted hinges. Butch was still snoring like a bulldog, and Oliver didn’t ever bother with him, and I felt a thud on the bed as the Border collie hopped up.
“Malina, c’mon, wake up!” he shook me with his damp paw. I opened one amber eye lazily, as if I had really been sleeping, and stared at that curious, smiling puppy face that was much like my own.
“Ugh, oh, hi there Oliver,” I smiled, my head sunk between my paws. “I was just taking my nap. Thanks for waking me up though.”
“No problem,” Oliver waved his paw. “But you know you’re really not supposed to be up on the bed, Mali.”
A smile broke out onto my face. “I could say the same to you,” I replied, shoving him off the bed. He tried to grip on with his oversized puppy paws, but the shiny blanket wasn’t rough enough for him to keep his hold.
“Get down, and let’s go see what the big bull’s up to,” Oliver called from below the bed. I couldn’t see his face, only the tip of his black-spotted head. “Well, I already know he’ll be lazing around like a slug, but let’s go!”
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I sighed and dragged myself off the bed. As I did, however, I ended up bringing the book down with me, as it fell on the floor with a thud, spread out like a scaly brown bat.
“What’s that?” Oliver sniffed the still object. I quickly picked it up in my teeth and hurled it back up on the bed.
“Oh, it’s just a book,” I replied, the prickly heat of embarrassment rushing to my face. “The farmer was reading it last night.”
“Books are boring,” Oliver stated, as if it was the one golden rule of being a dog. “All that you do is sit there and stare at pieces of paper. It’s such a waste of time.”
As much as I wanted to hurl Oliver against the wall and scream how fantastic the book was, I kept my calm, and simply nodded, hiding my red face. Like I said before, around here in Sablerock, the way puppies think is small.
“Yeah, well, let’s go see that bull,” I stuttered. Oliver gave me a funny look, but he shrugged it off and trotted out of the bedroom with wagging tail held high.
Once he was gone, I put both my front paws up on top of the bed so I stood up almost like a human, and peered at my dim shadowy reflection on the shiny cover of the book.
I was certainly plain, no doubt about that, but my mother had always said that plain was beautiful, but mothers were always supposed to say stuff like that.
“You coming, Malina?!” Oliver shouted. He was already downstairs, and getting impatient. My old self would’ve been down in a flash, but my new self had put Oliver in the back of my mind, and now thought of him as childish.
I padded out of the bedroom, hearing the clicking of my toenails on the wood as I made my way down the stairs, being careful not to slip on the shiny maple. Once I was at the bottom, my paw pads were cold under the old linoleum.
“Hey Malina, I’m just curious, are you feeling okay?” Oliver looked back at me over his shoulder. “You just don’t seem to be yourself at all.”
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine,” I replied, although my tone certainly didn’t should that way. It sounded like I was fed up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional. The first one was certainly true though. I was fed up with my stupid little bubble of a farm.
At the screen door, Oliver walked right on through as usual, but I was halted halfway through by Bella the Border collie, with Rita and Oreo at her side.
“Aw, look, its Malina the bookworm,” Bella’s musical laughter hurt to the core. Rita and Oreo only sounded like an echo. Oliver peered at me over his shoulder, confused, as if to ask if this was true.
“Why won’t you go hang out with your human pal, the farmer?” Oreo joined in. As soon as the words were out of Oreo’s mouth, Rita’s mouth turned into a twisted smile like barbed wire; crooked and wrong in every way.
“Or does he even remember your name?” Rita rolled over, hysterical. Everyone on the farm knew how bad the farmer was with the puppies and their names. So bad, even, that at five months he fixed collars in different colors all of us, and attached a tag with our names on it, but nothing else. With Sablerock being so small, everybody knew everybody else, anyways.
Malina peered down at her red collar, which was the exact same color of her burning face. Oliver just shook his head at the three giggly girls.
“C’mon, Mali,” he grabbed my collar with his paw and jerked me out the screen door, making a face over his shoulder at the posse.
“Aw, the scrawny little mutt is going to fend for the big baby,” Bella pretended to cry. As I watched, I noticed that all of them were almost exactly the same color; black all the way down like a coat, with white only on their bellies and a thin strip running down their necks. Rita had white paws like little socks.
I, on the other hand, had a big patch of white on my back and down my sides with white legs and chest, and my face had the regular black Border collie mask.
Once we were far away enough so their echoing laugh wasn’t heard, Oliver let go of my collar and turned to me. “A bookworm? What are they talking about?”
“Nothing, just, nothing,” I stared right into Oliver’s eyes, pale and clear as the water in the stream. I wanted to cry. I don’t know why, but there was just something about the curious look on his face, standing there like the stickly Border collie he was. They were right about him being scrawny.
“I, I, I have to go,” and with that, I made a mad dash for the woods, my fur flying over the wheat grass, my paws tingling with the feel of being slapped against the ground like a horse at full gallop, all the while Oliver calling my name, “Malina! Malina!”
At that moment, I wished I could change my name so I wouldn’t have it ringing in my head. And as I ran for the shelter of the thick fiery forest, tears streamed down my face.
Once I finally reached the first towering oak, with think burly roots that stuck out of the ground, forming little crooks for squirrels and such, I hunkered down in the largest one, curling myself up so my fluffy tail touched my nose. I couldn’t live like this. I had to see the world.
“I’ll run away,” my voice was choked with tears. “I’ll run away and never come back. I’ll go see the world on my own. I’m a dog. I can take care of myself.”
As much as I wanted to believe that last sentence, I couldn’t. I was barely six months old, new to even my little hometown. I wouldn’t last a night. I had trouble just securing my right to eat from the food bowl.
“When I turn a year old,” I talked to myself. “I’ll be big enough to fend for myself. I’ll take some food and other stuff in one of those little sacks that the farmer always carries around and run away to go see the world. Lots of people love dogs. They’ll give me a warm place to sleep at night.”
But then Oliver crept back into my mind. The big chicken in disguise may not have been as headstrong as I was, not as self-disciplined, but he still had to come.. He just had to. We could see the world together, and nobody would ever call me a bookworm again.
“They’ll see,” I whispered as my mind drifted off to sleep. “They’ll all see. Just you wait. Oliver and I together. You’ll see.”
Virginia Beach, Virginia
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