We the dogs once had longer names: Commission Chairman Apple of My Eye, Sweets and Candy King’s Stunner, Velvet Princess Who’s The Boss. Once, we ran. We were dressed, muzzled, and we ran wild and around, always around, always around, our teeth behind the leather forever reaching. We ran. We were born fast and we were made faster. Our lives were dark, then. The days were bright and the dirt firm beneath us but we did not know: we only knew to run, chase, catch, kill. Run. Run, and never stop running.
Now we are older and many and our land has grown. We ride in cars now, not stacked in the dark. Thin, we sit haunch to haunch and tail to tail. Though we are fast, we have never known speed such as this, and as the river passes black beside us we smell the electricity churning in the dam, as the leaves crinkle and accumulate we smell death and the nascent lives of the leaves to come. We smell frost and stone and the origin of the timbers of our house. We smell canyons and mesas and saguaro and prickly pear. We smell ovulation and exhaustion in one another’s bodies; we smell our own bones.
Currently we are five in number including Bernard: Winthrop, Jessup, One-Ear, and Goose. These are the new names given to us by those we live with, the tall ones with the stars at the end of their arms, stars that deliver our mush meat breakfast and dinners, stars that stroke our slim skulls. Stars that harness clips to our necks and escort us down sidewalks where we trot, our knees stiff with age, and sniff at mailboxes and rain drains and the spiny succulents that grow in the dry dirt.
But once we had truer names, names only we knew, names unspoken and unspeakable. Names without letters, names of pure sound, names that could never be written or explained. Names we knew, inherently, as we know the approach of thunderous storms in summertime. We know many things, but our knowledge is impossible to share. We have no way of telling those who tend to us beyond wagging our tails and nudging our muzzles beneath those wondrous stars of hands that stroke our ears and scratch beneath our jaw.
Bernard predates us. Ancient, even by our standards: our lives are brief and bright. We are trained to pursue and entrap, and even when our jaws meet nothing but air, we revel in the blood of our legs as we fly. Bernard is unlike us, made for nothing besides docility and companionship, and even then, he has such an amalgamation of habits and traits in his genes, he is a dog only in name. We ask his lineage and he grumbles at us: a field, a box, a bright light and awful noise. Maybe. Bernard cannot remember, nor does he care to.
We do not know our mothers, but we know our heritage and stock. We know why our spots are blue-gray on some of us, why we are brindled or fawn. We are ancient; we have seen battlefields at general’s sides, we have been buried in tombs with pharaohs.
Bernard is a muddy sort of brown, shaggy, and we are fascinated by his fur. Why is it so dense? Why does it need trimming? What function and purpose do these attributes have? Bernard ignores us, snoring in the sun. His teeth are worn to nubs, his eyes milky with cataracts. While the rest of us, ginger as our joints are, still run pell-mell after any squirrel that dares enter our kingdom, Bernard is content to huff and bluster on the deck.
We are machines. We are hunters. We are lithe and slim and we were put upon the earth to run. So we all said when we came here, confused by the high slats of this perimeter, the expanse of it. Where was the path? Where were our muzzles? Who was this woman and the small ones with her, where were the leads, where would we run? When would we be whipped? When would be caged? Where was our clothing with the numbers, the wires for our teeth?
Bernard says we are always the same, always the same. The ones before you were the same, he says, and the ones to come. We ask their names, remembering those we ran with, the others we were never allowed to acknowledge, but Bernard doesn’t recall. You’re all too skinny, he tells us. Just watching you wears me out.
When the day is hottest and our tongues hang long from our jaws, we are allowed entrance to the house. The splendor astounds us daily: the air itself, cooled, though we can smell its false origins. The carpets dense beneath our feet, the tiles smooth and the couch—what heaven, we think, that we are allowed on such a magnificent thing as the couch, with its plush cushions enveloping us, the pillows we lay our chins upon. Sometimes one of the two-legged joins us, turns on the noisy box and watches, and we lay our heads upon her warm thighs.
Bernard scoffs at our enthusiasm, but he cannot know how this is our only consolation, this luxurious furniture and its softness. Because we do not miss it—we do not miss the cramped railings and the bad food, the pain and snap of a whip against our hide, the incredible heat and the unending circles, never resting. We do not miss our brothers and their bloodied skulls, bodies falling limp and dead, the smell of their fur as it burned. We do not miss the life we once had.
We do not, except when we wish that we could run.
Rachel Richardson was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She now lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina and online at rachel-richardson.com . “We the Dogs” is one of 50 short pieces that comprise her book STATE, currently seeking a home. She has one large dog, one small dog, and one midsized man.