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The International Writers Magazine:Dog

Fifth Girl
Duncan Shaw
Cave Canem: inscription in Latin, from the 2000-year-old ruins of Pompeii, found in the House of the Tragic Poet, translated as “beware of the dog”.


Sighted (often): a runner ripping through the streets of Hillsborough, undulating, waving with its hills with a sidekick in tow, who’s black, name’s Lucy, a dog.

For five years Lucy’s been tied-tethered-leashed to me on my runs around Hillsborough, North Carolina, USA, her four legs clicking in time with my two like a metronome – a perfect running aid and companion.

She hasn’t always been so willing. Her maiden run, when she was one, ended after two slow miles with her dropping her load of muscle and bone onto the sidewalk – a clear canine message of “no mas”.

It took me months to train Lucy to do a fast 5K, a proud feat in this town aptly named. She and I race up the stacked hills of West Queen, cresting at Queen and Occaneechi, then glide down using gravity to hit the flats at Turnip Patch, then rise again around the old slave cemetery, and down and up Margaret Lane, then to the homestretch and home again on East Queen. It’s a picturesque circuit of the many handsome homes and lawns of historic Hillsborough, a few of which put me in mind of The Great Gatsby, “with lawns that run toward front doors for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun dials and brick walks and burning gardens”.

Who is this high-strung pooch, who’ll growl at certain other dogs and their owners unless in the throes of a fast run, showing her deep desire to keep pace with and please her running mate? A friend found Lucy when she was three months old, living out of a golf course dumpster. She’s been ours ever since: Jenny and my four girls’ fifth family girl.

Lucy’s linked now not just to us but still to this friend who first found her. She stays with him at his house in the woods when we go out of town. There she spends her days indulging her lupine wildness: swimming the pond and chasing deer and smearing her body with spoor.

In this town full of writers and runners, there’s always room for one more. Over the years I must have logged a few thousand miles, mile after waving mile with just one mishap. On our way up West Queen one weekend day, a small yappy dog darted into our path, spooking 90-pound Lucy and causing her to bolt; and our tethered state sent me tumbling to the pavement, leaving me sprawled and scraped and bruised. Lucy whimpered on adjacent grass for a few seconds, then came over to me with a how-you-doing nuzzle. Yes, despite her menacing bulk and crazy ways, she’s a gentle, sweet dog.

And she’s come to my aid in a much bigger way. For the need to keep her exercised and healthy has kept me the same. I had never been a distance runner, was not racing before she came along. She’s a big part of the reason I started and still am. The last five years she’s helped me to stay motivated, focused – on track and on road – her metronomic steadiness a simple pleasure to follow.

Some scientists believe our species may owe its very survival to the dog. They say humankind’s connection to domesticated dogs goes back many thousands of years, when we were hunters having to rely on them: a deep and crucial alliance in a life-and-death daily search for food. Sounds plausible to me.

This makes me think of more recent times, a mere 2000 years ago in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, when the volcano Vesuvius erupted mayhem, and fleeing people and animals, including dogs, were molten cast at their demise. Contorted forms cast in writhe, frozen in time, together.

Quadruped Lucy shows her bipedal skills when she wants to go out for a walk. She'll jump up on Jenny, standing on hind legs and resting her paws. Lucy loves not only running with me but also going with Jenny on strolls. Jenny's an inveterate walker, a fast strider when she's by herself. She and I started walking together, literally and figuratively, almost 25 years ago.

She has to give only the barest intimation that she’s going on a walk, and Lucy will discern the hints and decipher the clues. Then she'll jump up and implore Jenny with pleading eyes, sweet but wild gleams that seem to say please, please take me with you don't leave me behind please take me I'll do anything you want, anything . . . .

There are times on cold days when I push Lucy to the place all distance runners know – the knife-edge of exhaustion – and she always comes through it, often startlingly so. At such times, the sun lodged in blue ice, I’ll give her a jockey’s lash and exhort her with the cry: “home, Lucy; let’s see the girls, home to the girls!” If we happen to be in the homestretch of our run she’ll start galloping – this fifth girl, spurred by thoughts of her human sisters.

They dote on her: doll-her-up with holiday scarves, a big pink collar, scented shampoos. She’s a big powerful dog, and a foul-smelling one after her spoor-smearing weekends away. But Sophie, Helena, Fiona and Violet pamper her to keep her in the feminine fold.

There will come a time, I know, when Lucy won’t want to run any more. Jenny and our daughters will pamper her the way they do, the opposite of her dumpster days. And I will hold her black velvet face and look into her eyes – and at these moments in the winter of her life, see her at her shimmering physical peak: those ice-sun winter days when she startled me with her strength, racing home to greet the other girls.

© Duncan Shaw October 2011

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