Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 38

  Dad said, “I thought he was—”

  “He was dead!” Dr. Lezander wore an expression of utter shock, white circles ringing his eyes. “Mein…my God! That dog was dead!”

  “He’s alive,” I said. I sniffled and grinned. “See? I told you!”

  “Impossible!” Dr. Lezander had almost shouted it. “His heart wasn’t beating! His heart had stopped beating, and he was dead!”

  Rebel tried to stand, but he didn’t have the strength. He burped. I went to him and touched the warm curve of his back. Rebel started hiccuping, and he laid his head down and began to lick the cool steel. “He won’t die,” I said confidently. My crying was done. “I prayed Death away from him.”

  “I don’t… I can’t…” Dr. Lezander said, and that’s all he could say.

  Case #3432 went unsigned.

  Rebel slept and woke up, slept and woke up. Dr. Lezander kept checking his heartbeat and temperature and writing everything down in a notebook. Mrs. Lezander came down and asked Dad and me if we would like some tea and apple cake, and we went upstairs with her. I was secure in the knowledge that Rebel would not die while I was gone. Mrs. Lezander poured Dad a cup of tea, while I got a glass of Tang to go with my cake. As Dad called Mom to tell her it looked like Rebel was going to pull through and we’d be home after a while, I wandered into the den next to the kitchen. In that room, four bird cages hung from ceiling hooks and a hamster ran furiously on a treadmill in his own cage. Two of the bird cages were empty, but the other two held a canary and a parakeet. The canary began to sing in a soft, sweet voice, and Mrs. Lezander walked in with a bag of birdseed.

  “Would you like to feed our patients?” she asked me, and I said yes. “Just a little bit now,” she instructed. “They haven’t been feeling well, but they’ll be better soon.”

  “Who do they belong to?”

  “The parakeet belongs to Mr. Grover Dean. The canary there—isn’t she a pretty lady—belongs to Mrs. Judith Harper.”

  “Mrs. Harper? The teacher?”

  “Yes, that’s right.” Mrs. Lezander leaned forward and made tiny smacking noises to the canary. That noise was strange, coming from such a horsey mouth. The bird picked delicately at the seed I’d poured into its feedtray. “Her name is Tinkerbell. Hello there, Tinkerbell, you angel you!”

  Leatherlungs had a canary named Tinkerbell. I couldn’t imagine it.

  “Birds are my favorite,” Mrs. Lezander said. “So trusting, so full of God and goodness. Look over here, at my aviary.”

  Mrs. Lezander showed me her set of twelve hand-painted ceramic birds, which rested atop a piano. “They came with us all the way from Holland,” she told me. “I’ve had them since I was a little girl.”

  “They’re nice.”

  “Oh, much better than nice! When I look at them, I have such pleasant memories: Amsterdam, the canals, the tulips bursting forth in spring by the thousands.” She picked up a ceramic robin and stroked the crimson breast with her forefinger. “They were broken in my suitcase when we had to pack up quickly and get out. Broken all to pieces. But I put them all together again, each and every one. You can hardly see the cracks.” She showed me, but she’d done a good job of repairing them. “I miss Holland,” she said. “So much.”

  “Are you ever goin’ back?”

  “Someday, maybe. Frans and I talk about it. We’ve even gotten the travel brochures. Still…what happened to us…the Nazis and all that terrible…” She frowned and returned the robin to its place between an oriole and a hummingbird. “Well, some broken things are not so easily mended,” she said.

  I heard a dog barking. It was Rebel’s bark, hoarse but strong. The sound was coming up from the basement through an air vent. Then I heard Dr. Lezander call, “Tom! Cory! Will both of you come down here, please?”

  We found Dr. Lezander taking Rebel’s temperature again, by the bottom route. Rebel was still listless and sleepy, but he showed no signs of dying. Dr. Lezander had applied a white ointment to Rebel’s wounded muzzle and had him connected now to two needles and bottles of dripping clear liquid. “I wanted you to see this animal’s temperature,” he said. “I’ve taken it four times in the last hour.” He picked up his notebook and wrote down the thermometer’s reading. “This is unheard of! Absolutely unheard of!”

  “What is it?” Dad asked.

  “Rebel’s body temperature has been dropping. It seems to have stabilized now, but half an hour ago I thought he was going to be dead.” Dr. Lezander showed Dad the readings. “See for yourself.”

  “My God.” Dad’s voice was stunned. “It’s that low?”

  “Yes. Tom, no animal can live with a body temperature of sixty-six degrees. It’s just…absolutely impossible!”

  I touched Rebel. My dog was no longer warm. His white hair felt hard and coarse. His head turned, and the single eye found me. His tail began to wag, with obvious effort. And then the tongue slid from between the teeth in that awful, flesh-ripped grin and licked my palm. His tongue was as cold as a tombstone.

  But he was alive.

  Rebel stayed at Dr. Lezander’s house. Over the following days, Dr. Lezander stitched his torn muzzle, filled him full of antibiotics, and was planning on amputating the crushed leg but then it began to wither. The white hair fell away, exposing dead gray flesh. Intrigued by this new development, Dr. Lezander postponed the amputation and instead wrapped the withering leg to monitor its progress. On the fourth day in Dr. Lezander’s care, Rebel had a coughing fit and vomited up a mass of dead tissue the size of a man’s fist. Dr. Lezander put it in alcohol in a bottle and showed it to Dad and me. It was Rebel’s punctured lung.

  But he was alive.

  I began riding Rocket over to Dr. Lezander’s every day after school to check on my dog. Each afternoon, the doctor wore a freshly puzzled expression and had something new to show me: pieces of vomited-up bones that could only be broken ribs, teeth that had fallen out, the blinded eye that had popped from its socket like a white pebble. For a while Rebel picked at strained meat and slurped a few tonguefuls of water, and the newspapers at the bottom of his cage were clotted and soaked with blood. Then Rebel stopped eating and drinking, wouldn’t touch food or water no matter how much I urged him. He curled up in a corner, and stared with his one eye at something behind my shoulder, but I couldn’t figure out what had his attention. He would sit like that for an hour or more, as if he’d gone to sleep with his eye open, or he was lost in a dream. I couldn’t get him to respond even when I snapped my fingers in front of his muzzle. Then he would come out of it, all of a sudden, and he would lick my hand with his tombstone tongue and whine a little bit. Then he might sleep, shivering, or he might slide off into the haze again.

  But he was alive.

  “Listen to his heart, Cory,” Dr. Lezander told me one afternoon. I did, using the stethoscope. I heard a slow, labored thud. Rebel’s breathing was like the sound of a creaking door in an old deserted house. He was neither warm nor cold; he just was. Then Dr. Lezander took a toy mouse and wound it up, and he set it loose to twist and turn right in front of Rebel, while I listened to his heartbeat through the stethoscope. Rebel’s tail wagged sluggishly. The sound of his heart never changed an iota from its slow, slow beating. It was like the working of an engine set to run at a steady speed, day and night, with no increase or decrease in power no matter what the engine’s job required. It was the sound of a machine beating in the darkness without purpose or joy or understanding. I loved Rebel, but I hated the hollow sound of that heartbeat.

  Dr. Lezander and I sat on his front porch in the warm October afternoon light. I drank a glass of Tang and ate a slice of Mrs. Lezander’s apple cake. Dr. Lezander wore a dark blue cardigan sweater with gold buttons; the mornings had taken a chilly turn. He sat in a rocking chair, facing the golden hills, and he said, “This is beyond me. Never in my life have I seen anything like this. Never. I should write it up and send it to a journal, but I don’t think anyone would believe me.” He folded his hands togethe
r, a tawny spill of sunlight on his face. “Rebel is dead, Cory.”

  I just stared at him, an orange mustache on my upper lip.

  “Dead,” he repeated. “I don’t expect you to understand this, when I don’t. Rebel doesn’t eat. He doesn’t drink. He voids nothing. His body is not warm enough to sustain his organs. His heartbeat is…a drum, played over and over in the same tattoo without the least variation. His blood—when I can squeeze any out—is full of poisons. He is wasting away to nothing, and still he lives. Can you explain that to me, Cory?”

  Yes, I thought. I prayed Death away from him.

  But I didn’t say anything.

  “Ah, well. Mysteries, mysteries,” he said. “We come from darkness, and to darkness we must return.” He spoke this almost to himself as he rocked back and forth in his chair with his fingers interwoven. “True of men, and animals, too.”

  I didn’t like this line of thought and conversation. I didn’t like thinking about the fact that Rebel was getting skinny and his hair was falling out and he didn’t eat or drink but he lived on. I didn’t like the empty sound of his heartbeat, like a clock working in a house where no one lived anymore. To get my mind off these thoughts, I said, “My dad told me you killed a Nazi.”

  “What?” He looked at me, startled.

  “You killed a Nazi,” I repeated. “In Holland. My dad said you were close enough to see his face.”

  Dr. Lezander didn’t reply for a moment. I remembered Dad telling me not to ask the doctor about this subject, because most men who’d been in the war didn’t like to talk about killing. I had feasted on the exploits of Sgt. Rock, Sgt. Saunders, and the Gallant Men, and in my visions of heroes war was a television show adapted from a comic book.

  “Yes,” he answered. “I was that close to him.”

  “Gosh!” I said. “You must’ve been scared! I mean… I would’ve been.”

  “Oh, I was scared, all right. Very scared. He broke into our house. He had a rifle. I had a pistol. He was a young man. A teenager, actually. One of those blond, blue-eyed teenaged boys who love a parade. I shot him. He fell.” Dr. Lezander kept rocking in his chair. “I had never fired a gun before. But the Nazis were in the streets, and they were breaking into our houses, and what could I do?”

  “Were you a hero?” I asked.

  He smiled thinly; there was some pain in it. “No, not a hero. Just a survivor.” I watched his hands grip and relax on the armrests. His fingers were short and blunt, like powerful instruments. “We were all terrified of the Nazis, you know. Blitzkrieg. Brownshirt. Waffen SS. Luftwaffe. Those words struck us with pure terror. But I met a German a few years after the war was over. He had been a Nazi. He had been one of the monsters.” Dr. Lezander lifted his chin and watched a flock of birds winging south across the horizon. “He was just a man, after all. With bad teeth, body odor, and dandruff. Not a superman, only one man. I told him I’d been in Holland in 1940, when the Nazis had invaded us. He said he wasn’t there, but he asked me…for forgiveness.”

  “Did you forgive him?”

  “I did. Though I had many friends who were crushed under that boot, I forgave one of the men who wore it. Because he was a soldier, and he was following orders. That is the steel of the German character, Cory. They follow orders, even if it means walking into fire. Oh, I could have struck that man across the face. I could’ve spat on him and cursed him. I could’ve found a way to hound him until the day he died, but I am not the beast. The past is the past, and sleeping dogs should be left alone. Yes?”

  “Yes sir.”

  “And speaking of sleeping dogs, we ought to go have a look at Rebel.” He stood up, his knees creaking, and I followed him into the house.

  The day came when Dr. Lezander said he had done all he could and there was no use to keep Rebel at his house anymore. He gave Rebel back to us, and we took him home in the pickup truck.

  I loved my dog, though the gray flesh showed through his thin white hair, his skull was scarred and misshapen, and his withered gray leg was as thin as a warped stick. Mom couldn’t be around him. Dad brought up the subject of putting Rebel to sleep, but I wouldn’t hear it. Rebel was my dog, and he was alive.

  He never ate. Never drank a drop. He stayed in his pen, because he could hardly walk on his withered leg. I could count his ribs, and through his papery skin you could see their broken edges. When I got home from school in the afternoons, he would look at me and his tail would wag a few times. I would pet him—though I have to be honest here and say that the feel of his flesh made my skin crawl—then he would stare off into space and I would be as good as alone until he came back, however long that might be. My buddies said he was sick, that I ought to have him put to sleep. I asked them if they’d like to be put to sleep when they got sick, and that shut them up.

  The season of ghosts came upon us.

  It was not just that Halloween loomed close at hand, and that the cardboard boxes of silky costumes and plastic masks appeared on the shelves at Woolworth’s along with glittery magic wands, rubber pumpkin heads, witches’ hats, and spiders jiggling on black webs. It was a feeling in the crisp twilight air; it was a hush across the hills. The ghosts were gathering themselves, building up their strength to wander the fields of October and speak to those who would listen. Because of my interest in monsters, my buddies and even my parents concluded that Halloween was my favorite time of year. They were right, but for the wrong reasons. They thought I relished the skeleton in the closet, the bump in the night, the sheet-wrapped spook in the house on the haunted hill. I did not. What I felt in the hushed October air, as Halloween came nearer, was not the dime-store variety of hobgoblin, but titanic and mysterious forces at work. These forces could not be named; not headless horseman, not howling werewolf or grinning vampire. These forces were as old as the world and as pure in their good or evil as the elements themselves. Instead of seeing gremlins under my bed, I saw the armies of the night sharpening swords and axes for a clash in the swirling mist. I saw in my imagination the tumult on Bald Mountain in all its wild and frantic frenzy, and at the crowing of a rooster to announce the dawn all the thousands of capering demons turning their hideous faces toward the east in sadness and disgust and marching away to their fetid dens in step with the “Anvil Chorus.” I saw, as well, the broken-hearted lover pined away to a shade, the lost and sobbing translucent child, the woman in white who wants only kindness from a stranger.

  It was thus on one of these still, cool nights approaching All Hallow’s Eve that I went out to see Rebel in his pen and found someone standing there with him.

  Rebel was sitting on his haunches, his scarred head cocked to one side. He was staring at a figure who stood on the opposite side of the mesh fence. The figure—a little boy, I could tell it was—seemed to be talking to Rebel. I could hear the murmur of his voice. As soon as the back door closed behind me, the little boy jumped, startled, and took off running into the woods like a scalded cat. “Hey!” I shouted. “Wait!”

  He didn’t stop. He ran over the fallen leaves without making any noise at all. The woods swallowed him up.

  The wind blew, and the trees whispered. Rebel circled around and around in his pen, dragging his withered leg. He licked my hand with his chilly tongue, his nose as cold as a lump of ice. I sat with him for a while. He tried to lick my cheek, but I turned my face away because his breath smelled like something dead. Then Rebel went into one of his fixed stares again, his muzzle aimed at the woods. His tail wagged a few times, and he whimpered.

  I left him staring at nothing and I went inside because it was getting cold.

  Sometime during the night, I woke up in agony because I had refused Rebel my cheek to lick. It was one of those things that grew and grew, until you couldn’t stand to live with it inside you. I had rejected my dog, pure and simple. I had prayed Death away from him, and my selfishness had caused him to exist in this state of betwixt and between. I had rejected him, when all he’d wanted to do was lick my cheek. I got up in t
he dark, put on a sweater, and went to the back door. I was about to turn the back porch light on when I heard Rebel give a single bark that made my hand stop short of the switch.

  After years of having a dog, you know him. You know the meaning of his snuffs and grunts and barks. Every twitch of the ears is a question or statement, every wag of the tail is an exclamation. I knew this bark: it spoke of excited happiness, and I hadn’t heard it since before Rebel had died and come back to life.

  Slowly and carefully, I nudged the back door open. I stood in the dark and listened through the screen. I heard the wind. I heard the last of summer’s crickets, a hardy tribe. I heard Rebel bark again, happily.

  I heard the voice of a little boy say, “Would you like to be my dog?”

  My heart squeezed. Whoever he was, he was trying to be very quiet. “I sure would like for you to be my dog,” he said. “You sure are a pretty dog.”

  I couldn’t see Rebel or the little boy from where I stood. I heard the clatter of the fence, and I knew Rebel had jumped up and planted his paws in its mesh just as he used to do when I went out to be with him.

  The little boy began to whisper to Rebel. I couldn’t make out what was being said.

  But I knew now who he was, and why he was here.

  I opened the door. I tried to be careful, but a hinge chirped. It was no louder than one of the crickets. As I walked out onto the porch, I saw the little boy running for the forest and the moonlight shone silver on his curly, sandy-colored hair.

  He was eight years old. He would be eight years old forever.

  “Carl!” I shouted. “Carl Bellwood!”

  It was the little boy who had lived down the street, and who had come to play with Rebel because his mother would not let him have a dog of his own. It was the little boy who had burned up in his bed when a bad electrical connection had thrown a spark, and who now slept on Poulter Hill under a stone that read Our Loving Son.

  “Carl, don’t go!” I shouted.