by Shannon Derby
Part One: The Beginning
I never knew my father. And my mother was a tired old bitch by the time she gave birth to me. After years of breeding, her womb was exhausted and she barely had time for me. My litter was a small one: only my brother, Newton, and myself. And yet I never knew the joys of my mother’s milk. My name, back then, was Mr. Peabody – a moniker than never quite fit my persona. But I will get to that in due time. We were allowed to sleep next to our mother only one day before we were taken away to another part of the puppy farm. Even now, I suffer from separation anxiety and a deep filial attachment to my human mommies.
The farm was a large expanse of green space located in northern Pennsylvania. It is important to note, however, that the only thing grown there was puppies. We were never allowed inside the big house, but rather relegated to our dank, cold quarters in the barn. Our beds were piles of damp straw and water dripped on our noses from the leaks in the ceiling as we slept. I was born in September and so mosquitoes and horseflies were abundant on the farm and I often woke up with large welts covering my paw pads. To this day, I still have no desire to return to that awful, land-locked state.
Newton and I never fit in with the other puppies on the farm. Our mother was a poodle, but we never knew what our father was or where he came from and we felt a hereditary absence within ourselves. But none of the puppies seemed to know their fathers and I’ve often wondered whether or not we all perhaps shared the same father or same few fathers. Studs whose only purpose was virility. No matter, it was made clear that Newton and I were the only two puppies on the farm without papers; that is, we were not purebred. Nobody liked us. The other puppies, the purebred Bichon Frises, or “white devils” as Newton named them, would steal our food, hide our only luxury at the farm – one Milk-bone biscuit per week – from us and run circles around us, yelling degrading taunts like “poo-poo poodle” and “half-breed bastard.” I never understood this last insult.
We were all bastards at that farm.
There were other puppies on the farm – a small litter of three golden retrievers – who never hurt us directly. Rather, they would watch from the sidelines as the Bichon puppies tormented us, silent, complicit.
Needless to say, Newton and I were relieved to learn that we were not only leaving the puppy farm, but leaving together.
Part Two: I Lose a Part of Myself
The drive to upstate New York was long and tiresome. Newton and I were caged in separate crates in the back of a large sports utility vehicle. I could hear Newton whimpering and vomiting in the corner of his crate – long car rides did not agree with him – and I was powerless to help him.
“Hang in there, baby brother,” I whispered to him, making sure to keep my voice low so that the driver, a teenage young man with greasy hair and spots all over his face, would not yell at us to hush. Our first vision of him quickly smote any hope of a better life in New York.
“I’m scared,” Newton whispered back to me, shifting around in his crate to avoid having to sleep in his own filth.
When we finally arrived at yet another farm, a small blond woman greeted us, yelling at what I presume to be her son for not cleaning up after Newton. We were picked up, still in our crates, and carried to a garage behind her house. She set the crates down on a table, let us out and held us up in front of her face. “Hello Newton.” “Hello, Mr. Peabody.” Her voice was raspy but not without tenderness. She smelled liked aged cheese and lavender. Then she set us down on the floor in a pen – a larger space, but another cage nonetheless. There were two other puppies in the pen, miniscule terriers whose white fur reminded us of our violent past. They were sisters, huddled around their bowl of raw meat, and they left us alone. The blond woman then gave Newton and I our own bowl of raw meat and we ate ravenously, caring little for how impolite we might have seemed to our new neighbors. She left the garage, turning off the light as she walked out. And thus Newton and I were alone again (the terriers slept together in a crate on the opposite side of the pen), our bellies full of raw hamburger and our bodies and minds exhausted from the long trip. The garage was cold and the concrete floor sent shivers through my body.
The next morning, one of the terriers took tentative steps toward Newton and I and then sat down. In a hushed voice, she said, “It’s going to happen to you too.” We asked her what she was talking about and she snapped at us, demanding that we keep our voices down. “She’ll hear you,” she warned us. When we asked the terrier what her name was, she told us that it didn’t matter, that no one stayed here for long. Her voice was ominous, her words cryptic, and Newton began to cry. The terrier then rolled over onto her back and showed us her lower abdomen – a long pink scar and a black tattoo of numbers and letters decorated her haunches.
“What is that?” I asked her.
“Neither my sister nor I know,” she said. “The blond woman came in and took us, her first and then me, to another room where we got a shot. Then all went black. When I woke up, I was back in this pen with no memory – only these marks on my body and an empty feeling in my tummy.”
I was determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. A few hours later, the blond woman came back with a clipboard and another woman.
“Those two,” she said, pointing at Newton and myself. The other woman, who was wearing blue latex gloves, walked over and picked my brother and I up. We were then carried to another building behind the house and put in yet another pen.
“What is happening to us?” Newton asked, visibly shaking.
In the room adjacent to where we were being held captive, I heard the blond woman say, “We’ll do the little one first.” Newton also heard this and began to cry. Before I could console him, the women came to our pen and took him away from me. I jumped up on top of my crate so that I could see what they were doing to Newton.
For a long time, I couldn’t talk about what I witnessed in that brightly lit room in upstate New York. But now I am here to tell you, to warn you, so that you may never go through the tragedy that was my young life.
Just like the terrier had said, they pulled out a syringe filled with a clear liquid and stuck a very long needle into Newton’s shoulder blades. He yelped when the needle penetrated his skin, but then he grew very woozy and laid down, as though to take a nap. The blond woman then took out a black, metallic object that made a buzzing sound. An electric razor! They were shaving Newton’s haunches, moving dangerously close to his penis. I was next, I kept thinking, and fought the urge to close my eyes. There were knives and scalpels and all sorts of other surgical tools arranged on a cloth next to Newton’s lifeless body. There was also another needle, though this one buzzed just like the razor, and a pot of black ink. I understood that this was for the tattoo that the terrier had shown us. Why would they want to mark us, I wondered? And couldn’t they mark us with something more aesthetically pleasing than a row of letters and numbers? I took a deep breath and fought the urge to vomit; I was so scared. The woman in the blue gloves then made an incision right below Newton’s penis and took something wet and pink out of his body. I strained my eyes so that I could figure out what was going on. And then it hit me. They had removed Newton’s balls! They took Newton’s balls and they were going to take mine.
Before I could devise my escape plan, the blond woman walked into the pen and picked me up. I tried to move away from her, but I was paralyzed with fear. The next thing I remember is getting pricked with the needle and then a black cloud blurring my vision.
When I woke up, my belly hurt and the skin around my tattoo was sore. I could barely stand, let alone walk or run away. I was back in the first pen with Newton. The two white terriers were gone and the one sister’s words echoed inside of my head: “No one stayed here for long.”
I felt empty. I am not a man, I kept repeating to myself. I am not a man. Never would I know the joys of sex. Never would I know the joys of fatherhood. To this very day, I still spend long hours licking myself, trying to undo wounds that are permanent.
Part Three: I Have Two Mommies
Newton and I spent another three weeks with the blond woman. Other puppies came and went and one day, I realized what was happening. They were getting adopted – by families with children, by couples and sometimes just by individuals who looked so full of love. So there was hope for Newton and I after all. We were not going to spend the rest of our lives in a cold garage in upstate New York, but rather were just waiting for someone to choose us. Newton was so enthralled when I told him this and every Sunday, “adoption day” as the blond woman called it, we made sure to be very well behaved and sit up very straight in the hopes that someone would pick us. We understood that without papers to prove our canine heritage, we would have to sell ourselves on our appearances alone. We awaited every Sunday with anticipation and, when the end of the day came and we were inevitably left behind, we would strategize about how we would look even cuter to potential families the next week. I tried not to lose hope, but it was difficult to watch the other puppies come and go while Newton and I remained stagnant.
And then one adoption day I found myself at the bottom of the wheel of fortune. Newton and I were minding our own business, waiting for our daily serving of raw meat, when the blond woman came into the garage with two young men. They stood before Newton and I, making baby talk and cooing about how adorable we were, when all of a sudden one of them exclaimed, “He’s just adorable. We must have him!”
I could not help but notice the singular pronoun usage and, since Newton and I were the only puppies there, began to worry. We are just adorable, I thought. You must have us! I had never been separated from my brother and could not imagine a world that breaks up families.
That was the last time I saw my brother. I miss him and not a day goes by where I don’t think of him and hope that he is okay and well provided for. Perhaps finding him was always my goal in writing and publishing this memoir.
Life, though, has a way of righting itself. Ah, Fortuna – you have not forsaken me and your wheel continues to spin!
Later that very day, two young women – sisters – came to the garage late in the evening, long past adoption hours, and proclaimed that they weren’t going home without Mr. Peabody. You see, the blond woman was very strict and almost always enforced the rule that all adoptions must take place by 2 p.m. on Sundays. But these women were very determined and cried that they had driven all the way from Boston, through freezing rain and fog, for the sole purpose of adopting Mr. Peabody. I could barely contain my excitement and hoped that the blond woman would let them take me home. They were very beautiful, one had curly hair like mine and the other had pale hair like mine, and one of them smelled like dry-roasted peanuts, a scent that I will always associate with love and protection. They gave the blond woman some money and the one with curly hair picked me up and gave me a kiss. My very first kiss.
So you see, dear readers, my life has taken a turn for the better. I have two mommies that I love so much they should have named me Rex. Instead, they named me Oliver, a name most befitting to my regal and delicate nature. Yes, delicate. Gone are the days of strife. Gone are the days of sleeping on wet straw, the days of needles, the days of taunts from fluffy white dogs.
I spend my days now lounging in the sun, having my belly scratched by my mommies, playing with the man who comes over to see curly-haired Mommy, and chewing on the finest rawhide and I am happy. So happy.
SHANNON DERBY received her MFA from Emerson College in 2007 and first performed this piece at Literary Firsts, a Cambridge-based reading series. Her work has previously appeared in apt: a literary journal, STORYGLOSSIA, The Molotov Cocktail and Anomalous Press. She has just completed an MPhil in Irish Writing at Trinity College and is packing up her life in Dublin in preparation to return to her loved ones, both human and canine, in Boston.