We poked and prodded her, we threw her up in the air, rolled her over and over, and swung her by her front legs. I felt such overwhelming love for Tapka that sometimes when hugging her, I had to restrain myself from squeezing too hard and crushing her little bones.
* * *
It was April when we began to care for Tapka. Snow melted in the ravine; sometimes it rained. April became May. Grass absorbed the thaw, turned green; dandelions and wildflowers sprouted yellow and blue; birds and insects flew, crawled, and made their characteristic noises. Faithfully and reliably, Jana and I attended to Tapka. We walked her across the parking lot and down into the ravine. We threw Clonchik and said "Tapka get Clonchik." Tapka always got Clonchik. Everyone was proud of us. My mother and my aunt wiped tears from their eyes while talking about how responsible we were. Rita and Misha rewarded us with praise and chocolates. Jana was seven and I was six; much had been asked of us, but we had risen to the challenge.
Inspired by everyone's confidence, we grew confident. Whereas at first we made sure to walk thirty paces into the ravine before releasing Tapka, we gradually reduced that requirement to ten paces, then five paces, until finally we released her at the grassy border between the parking lot and ravine. We did this not out of laziness or recklessness but because we wanted proof of Tapka's love. That she came when we called was evidence of her love, that she didn't piss in the elevator was evidence of her love, that she offered up her belly for scratching was evidence of her love, all of this was evidence, but it wasn't proof. Proof could come only in one form. We had intuited an elemental truth: love needs no leash.
* * *
That first spring, even though most of what was said around me remained a mystery, a thin rivulet of meaning trickled into my cerebral catch basin and collected into a little pool of knowledge. By the end of May I could sing the ABC song. Television taught me to say "What's up, Doc?" and "superduper." The playground introduced me to "shithead," "mental case," and "gaylord," and I sought every opportunity to apply my new knowledge.
One afternoon, after spending nearly an hour in the ravine throwing Clonchik in a thousand different directions, Jana and I lolled in the sunlit pollen. I called her "shithead," "mental case," and "gaylord," and she responded by calling me "gaylord," "shithead," and "mental case."
- Mental case.
- Tapka, get Clonchik.
- Come, Tapka-lapka.
- Mental case.
We went on like this, over and over, until Jana threw the clown and said, "Shithead, get Clonchik." Initially, I couldn't tell if she had said this on purpose or if it had merely been a blip in her rhythm. But when I looked at Jana, her smile was triumphant.
- Mental case, get Clonchik.
For the first time, as I watched Tapka bounding happily after Clonchik, the profanity sounded profane.
- Don't say that to the dog.
- Why not?
- It's not right.
- But she doesn't understand.
- You shouldn't say it.
- Don't be a baby. Come, shithead, come, my dear one. Her tail wagging with accomplishment, Tapka dropped Clonchik at my feet.
- You see, she likes it.
I held Clonchik as Tapka pawed frantically at my shins.
- Call her shithead. Throw the clown.
- I'm not calling her shithead.
- What are you afraid of, shithead?
I aimed the clown at Jana's head and missed.
- Shithead, get Clonchik.
As the clown left my hand, Tapka, a white shining blur, oblivious to insult, was already cutting through the grass. I wanted to believe that I had intended the "shithead" exclusively for Jana, but I knew it wasn't true.
- I told you, gaylord, she doesn't care.
I couldn't help thinking, "Poor Tapka," and looked around for some sign of recrimination. The day, however, persisted in unimpeachable brilliance: sparrows winged overhead; bumblebees levitated above flowers; beside a lilac shrub, Tapka clamped down on Clonchik. I was amazed at the absence of consequences.
Jana said, "I'm going home."
As she started for home I saw that she was still holding Tapka's leash. It swung insouciantly from her hand. I called after her just as, once again, Tapka deposited Clonchik at my feet.
- I need the leash.
- Don't be stupid. I need the leash.
- No you don't. She comes when we call her. Even shithead. She won't run away.
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