Scene from Dog

  You never know how things are going to turn

out….  (Mendel)

You never know how things are going to turn out.

Especially when something truly amazing intervenes.

For instance, I didn’t know that I was going to be reincarnated as a dog when I was tending my garden back in Pennsylvania, or writing letters to Benjamin Franklin.

Yet, as luck would have it, I became a black Lab mix. The general consensus seems to be that I have a little terrier in me as well.

*

I was found in an old house in the lake region of New Hampshire. According to the vet, I was about six months old at the time, but I don’t remember anything earlier than that as far as my canine experiences go.

I have no puppy memories whatsoever.

But the fact is, I didn’t become just a dog. I became a human being trapped inside a dog’s body. Moreover, I was a human being with some memories from my two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old past.

One might say that I was the past trapped inside the present. Once a renowned botanist—now a black Lab terrier mix—thrust into a brand new world where I could witness events with heightened levels of acuity.

For instance, dogs have better hearing than humans and can gain easy access to even the most private conversations. No one pays attention to a dog when it’s around, except to pat it on the head or remark on how cute it is. Or complain about its odor if it farts. So people say whatever they want in front of you if you’re a dog.

On the other hand, it’s a world where your communications with people are pretty much constrained to expressions of affection and distemper.

In this most peculiar way I became the ultimate witness, sometimes seeing and hearing what others did not, but never able to become an articulate actor upon the human stage. Always on the sidelines, never the main event. A chimerical Greek Chorus member wailing incoherently to an invisible audience while civilizations are destroyed and gods wreak havoc upon the world.

Or at least that’s how it seemed to me back then.

And to a large degree, that’s how it turned out.

*

I can’t say much about my ‘birth.’ When I opened my eyes from the darkness that held me I was sitting on the floor trembling, with a collar and a chain around my neck. At the other end of the chain was a book.

In that horrific moment I fell into a cellular panic in which mind and body raced to seek out each other’s boundaries, all to no avail. I quivered not from the chill, but from the sheer terror I felt for my newfound creature existence.

It was in the middle of an August thunderstorm.

Everything shook. The lightning was blinding.

Whenever I tried to move I was slowed by my collar and chain—a thin, neck-choking chain with a heavy, leather-bound book attached to it!

*

Yet just when I believed I might perish from my fears, I felt a soothing vibration surround me and a heartening voice from within myself inviting me to rise to the occasion.

As if touched by a magic wand, I calmed down and waited patiently, believing that I might soon be rescued from my desperation. For some reason, at that same moment, I also understood that the book belonged to me. That it was a tangible link to my past.

I viewed it as a clue both to my identity and to something even larger.

An indication that I belonged to a much bigger plan.

Then I observed a $100 dollar bill lying open on the floor with the face of my old friend, Benjamin Franklin staring back at me. It was my first ever look at American currency since in my prior life I had died before the Revolution.

Ben seemed cheerful, which was still more than I could say.

As I studied his smiling face, I wondered what he was thinking. No doubt he would have been curious to find out what had happened to America more than two-and-a-half centuries after its independence was won. Only now he was in heaven, while I was sitting in a room with mold swelling the walls, an old, tattered fireplace, and the fragments of a few torn rugs.

*

When Sunny Morris came in she was soaking wet from the storm. She had been out taking a walk when the weather worsened, so she ducked into this old, abandoned manor where she spotted me shaking in the corner.

She examined my collar for my name and found nothing.

I was as nameless as the manor that held me.

Nonetheless, she came over to me and took me in her arms for a moment of great comfort even if she was still wet. “You’re someone’s dog!” she proclaimed.

The idea, as logical though it was, seemed to be out of place and even a touch offensive.

Then for a while she retreated to the other side of the room, watching me with caring anticipation. “Let’s wait for your owner!” she announced. The term I would have preferred was “caretaker” or “attendant.” But I had no vehicle to express my opinion.

This limitation came most emphatically to my attention when, aside from still marveling over my new situation, I experienced a terrible urge to urinate. I tried to communicate this in a symbolic way, crouching on the floor to suggest the correct position for animals of my persuasion. Then I dragged the book and the chain to the door and began to whine—sullenly at first, but soon with a fast building fervor.

After a few torturous minutes in which I only managed to frighten my new companion, Sunny finally understood my request. She bent over me and undid the green cord that held my chain together, as if to affirm that it was a gift and not a punishment. I could feel her fingers and watch her smile, informed by a nascent love and an abounding curiosity. I responded by licking her face impulsively. Something I’d never done as a man, not even to my dearest kin.

Soon the chain was collected in a neat pile and the book was free so she could hold it comfortably in both hands.

As she petted me, she progressed from her role as ‘friendly observer,’ to the role of ‘friend,’ and began to inhabit her most caring role of owner or “Mistress” as I call her today. We became a pair, and I knew that she loved me in her way, while I embraced her as my best friend and family. In the surge of emotions I felt I wished to protect her, even if I knew that in reality I was the one most in need of care.

When she opened the door she laughed and said that I “looked worried.”

When I came back soaking wet from the rain, I still looked worried and Mistress decided that I was a “worried dog”—pointing to the persistent furrowing around my eyes. While I shook myself off from the rain she began to sing, choosing a refrain she remembered from church.

What does the Lord require of you?

What does the Lord require of you?

To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your dog.

To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your dog.

 

The song was like a lullaby. Her exquisite voice was reassuring, all the more because she had substituted dog for god and laughed afterward.

It was precisely then that I realized we would never part.

She likes to say that I was brought to her “by an angel.But she is the one everyone calls “angelic.”

*

We spent several hours in that house together, still waiting for my past owner to show up.

No one came.

During that time I had to go out to urinate two more times.

Finally she took me to where she lived at Sarras College, and gave me my own rug where I could curl up and spend the night.

The next day she advertised in the papers with a picture of me. The picture ran for a few weeks, but no one claimed me. She concluded that my first family must have abandoned me because I had a bladder problem and left the $100 dollars with Ben Franklin’s picture on it for anticipated veterinarian bills.

After a third week had passed she decided to stop advertising and gave me the name ‘Mendel.’ She had the vet place a miniature identity chip inside my neck and christened me Mendel after Gregor Mendel, the great nineteenth century scientist whom many call “the Father of Genetics.”

For this prestigious choice I remain forever grateful.

*

People say that Sunny looks young for her age of thirty-five.

Her real name is Megan, Megan Morris, but everyone except me calls her “Sunny” because of her patient smile and sparkly blue eyes.

She teaches genetics at Sarras College on New Hampshire’s largest lake. In her work, she is helping to liberate the production of corn, or maize from monopolistic industrialization—something I found praiseworthy and joyful as an echo of my past life.

And yet for my first few months I still wondered if I were being punished.

If in some still inexplicable way I was being taught a lesson.

First of all, I had come back to earth as a dog.

But I wasn’t really a dog, or just a dog, so associating with other dogs wasn’t often much fun. Occasionally it was actually embarrassing when pack behaviors and ‘sniffing expeditions’ got out of hand.

Secondly I was discovered chained to a book that I believed I had written in my prior life. Or at least I had contributed to it in my prior life. So I had to revisit all those things I might have done differently in style or meaning.

When I tried to connect the dots—what had happened in those 250 plus years that might have led to me becoming a dog?—nothing came to mind.

I had no insights whatsoever into the afterlife.

And this left me feeling cheated.

*

Nevertheless, during those first two months my book gradually became more of a diversion than a burden. I came to see it as a way of reaching back into my past so that I might better orient myself in the present.

Very few people have this luxury.

In fact I can think of no one else.

While we have the writings of many deceased authors across the great libraries, bookstores and on-line repositories of the world, in all probability no one outside of sanitariums for the mentally disturbed can claim even one of these voices as being his or her own.

So although I still fretted over the frequent inadequacies of my earlier prose, I relished in the fact that I had such a magical fount to reconsider who I once was, and what I might now become.

These readings were all the richer (but also all the more perplexing) because this unique indulgence was multiplied by a factor of two, as there seemed to be two voices at work in the texts, not just one. One was better educated than the other, although both wrote with highly personalized spellings typical of the 18th century.

Here are a few paragraphs reflective of the Thinker.

We acquired a Modest house twelve miles outside of Philadelphia. It was just Two stories, with only one room on each floor, but I believed then that we might eXpand it over Time. And with hard work and much Luck, this Came to pass.

Now our house is an Estate.

In parallel, our garden began as a Mere few Flowers. Today the house has more than a Hundred acres of garden and farmland. In our Fields, we Celebrate yields of oats, flax and corn and Long Cucumbers. In Fruits, I have grafted Pears to apples, and Watched our apple Trees bear both apples & Pears within the Same season. The Natural Universe has opened Her arms to us with Beauty and Affection.

 

Clearly this speaks of a charmed, educated and successful life.

Now here is the other voice. One whose writing is rough and unpolished by comparison.

Like a Bird I Dreamed often of Flying from ye top of one Mountain to Another. And this Was as I Lived my Liffe. For I so Often Ventured over Peaks and Valleys, And have witnessed Many of the most Desolate, craggy Dismal places Where no Mortal before or After me had Trod.

Yet I do not Adore solitude for Itself.

Only In these Places can I Explore Nature’s Wondrous productions. I observe the Dances of ye Night Hawk and ye Bumblebees and Ye Wasps and Locusts and Tumble Turds.

 

This author, on the other hand, appears driven and perhaps even a little haunted.

So it seemed to me that this could not be the same person as the one with his fine gardens and more elegant mind. Not only was I divided between dog and man, but I also appeared to be divided between man and man in memory.

I assumed that the Thinker was the owner of enterprise, and the second voice, the Adventurer, was the owner’s right-hand man. His duties included traveling to rough spots where he might bring back samples of plant and animal life from the dangerous wilds. Both of these were fluent and successful writers, each in his own way, with what seemed to be to be two very distinct manners of speaking.

Exactly which of these I had been in the past, I couldn’t be sure.

At times I dreamed of being the owner, the Thinker, with his more lofty and elegant mind. While at others, I fancied myself as the Adventurer exploring and documenting parts of the New World never seen before by any English-speaking gentleman.