Once a famous 18th Century naturalist and friend to Ben Franklin, Mendel wakes up to discover he’s a black-Lab-Terrier mix in this comic dystopian drama where the excesses of American politics provoke a divine act of retribution from ancient Greece.
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 exploring the wilderness, or tending my gardens back in Pennsylvania, or writing letters to Benjamin Franklin. Yet, as luck would have it, I became a black Lab mix—there’s a little terrier in me as well.
I began this life in an old house in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. According to my vet, I must have been six months old at the time, but I have no puppy memories whatsoever. The torrent of odors around me were more confusing than helpful, both overwhelming and indecipherable. It was in the middle of an August thunderstorm. Everything shook including me.
When I first opened my eyes, I was trembling on the floor with a chain around my neck. At the other end of the chain was a heavy, leather-bound journal, slowing my every movement. At first, I felt like a prisoner in so many ways that I wished to disappear. Yet just when I was about to dissolve into a host of fears, a heartening voice from within invited me to rise to the occasion. In that same moment, I understood that the book belonged to me as a tangible link to my past.
As if to reinforce this revelation, I noticed a hundred-dollar bill lying on the floor with the face of my old friend Benjamin Franklin staring back. Ben seemed to have a great deal on his mind with his raised eyebrows and his pursed lips. Maybe he was wondering why he was here, along with me, in this furniture-less place.
I was still shaking when Sunny Madison came in seeking refuge from the storm. Her long hair was dripping, and her cheeks carried raindrops. She walked across the room and examined my neck for a tag with my name. But I was as nameless as the farmhouse that held me.
She stood back for a few seconds with a look of concern—no doubt asking herself many questions to which neither I nor anything around me could provide an answer. But while I gazed up at her, she took me into her arms for a magical moment of comfort, and her mouth opened with a smile.
“You must be someone’s dog!”
The idea, logical though it was, struck me as dismissive.
“Let’s wait for your owner.”
The term I would have preferred was “caretaker” or “attendant.” But I had no vehicle to express my opinion.
This sad limitation came yet more emphatically to my attention when, after shivering anew from the cold, I experienced the urge to urinate. I tried to communicate my need in a symbolic way, crouching on the oakwood floor to suggest what I believed to be the correct position for a Lab eager to go outside. My new canine instincts helped, but nonetheless I feared that I was performing as if I were a dog, rather than simply being a dog, exaggerating my postures like a dancer trying to dramatize a narrative beyond his abilities.
I dragged the book and the chain to the door and began to whimper—sullenly at first, but then with a fast-building fervor until I could barely tolerate the sound of my own voice. The timber was wild, belonging to the womb of nature and the outdoors. A sad, rippling whine, like a child being tickled and possessed at the same time.
I must have frightened my new companion for a few embarrassing seconds. But soon enough Sunny understood my request. “Oh, you poor thing!” She began to undo my chain with its journal. As her fingers moved against my neck, I watched her smile again. Instinctively, I licked her face and she laughed. Soon the chain was collected in a neat pile, and I was freed from my book.
She opened the door and laughed again. “It would seem that you’re a most well-educated dog. So don’t look so worried!”
Once outside, I urinated into the storm, superfluously adding my own liquid to the abundant precipitation. And yet it felt good. My first successful bodily function in my new form. After I came back soaking wet from the rain, Sunny told me, “You still look worried.” While I shook the water off my back, she began to sing. Her voice was strong and clear, and I wondered if she’d ever been in a church choir.
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…
She had substituted dog for God. Then she winked at me. “Right now at least, you’re my dog, and I’ll do my best to do you justice.”
When she knelt down to give me a hug, I hoped we would never part.
Sunny didn’t say why she was taking a walk, and why, when the storm hit, she decided to visit that house. Maybe because it looked abandoned, and the door was unlocked. In any case, we spent more than an hour there, waiting for the rain to let up and my presumed ‘owner’ to appear.
The storm abated, but no one came.
After a twenty-minute walk, Sunny brought me into her apartment. A welcoming place with an expansive living room that opened onto a generous kitchen and a bedroom with an ample bed. She pulled a knit, wool rug out from her bedroom, laid it beside the couch, and pointed down to the floor. “You can spend the night here, if you like.”
I looked up longingly at the couch with its seven pillows.
“Whichever.” Sunny conceded.
The next day we went back to the house to look for any signs of my ‘owner.’ We found none, but Sunny left a note. When we returned to her apartment, she spoke to me as if I could listen and understand.
Which of course, I could.
“That house once belonged to a farmer who lived on the edge of our Sarras College Campus. Someone who raised corn, cattle, and sheep. It was an old form of farming that needs to find its way back into our overindustrialized world.”
At noon, Sunny posted a picture of me on the internet. The advertisement stayed up for more than a week, but no one responded, at which point she decided that she was my ‘owner.’ She gave me the name Mendel to honor Gregor Mendel, the great nineteenth-century scientist whom many call “the Father of Genetics.” It’s a name I still cherish.
Out of respect for her new role, which required some level of governance and care, I gave her the name Mistress. Her real name is Megan Madison, but everyone calls her Sunny, no doubt because of her patient smile and sparkly blue eyes. She is also a brilliant researcher in the field of agriculture and the genealogy of corn, which she pursues at Sarras College beside New Hampshire’s largest lake.
Despite her intimacies, Sunny remains all too literally a different species. It is for this reason that I have taken a unique approach to metaphor. I have re-imagined all the disconnected human beings that now surround me as dogs with unique breeds and temperaments. Given my name, you might say these are my own Laws of Mendelian Inheritance.
One month after my arrival, The Illustrated Guide to Dog Breeds: How to Choose a Dog appeared on Mistress’s coffee table. After perusing the book, I decided she was a poodle of the medium persuasion. A size that isn’t recognized by the American Kennel Club, though it is by the French. Her medium size is correct, for even as she stretches out upon the sofa and presides over our living room, she is still of modest dimensions although in no way miniature or toy.
But why a poodle? I will insist that it is not a casual linkage. Poodles are gifted with extreme intelligence and will attempt to solve problems independently. They are also highly sociable and require both intellectual and physical activities. The relevance of this last I shall explain later. Moreover, in the way she talks to me, Mistress is intimate, sincere, and seeking. All attributes of her breed. Finally, Sunny is very dedicated to her work—fully obedient to her assumed obligations—as are the most perfect examples of her class.
Despite Mistress’s ongoing attention and care, during my first few weeks I often wondered if I were being taught a lesson—paying for past sins. 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 much fun. Their curiosities rarely converged with mine. They often treated me as an outcast, barking like I was a stranger or a mailman. Reading up on dogs didn’t help. I learned their breeds. I learned their behaviors. But they were still too fixed in character for me to happily engage with them.
This was unlike my human counterparts, whose canine metaphors carried with them a nearly infinite variety of expressions. And when I tried to connect the dots—what had happened in the nearly three hundred years that might have led to me becoming a dog?—nothing came to mind. Which left me feeling cheated. Adding to my chagrin, I was critical of the leather-bound journal that was joined with me at birth, a book that I came to believe I had written, or at least largely written, in my former life.
At first, all I could see were its failings, revisiting the many things I might have done differently in manner and meaning. But after several weeks had passed, I began to settle into my old book and my new life with more comfort. Once I accepted its stylistic vagaries, my journal became a way of reaching back into the past so 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 voices of many deceased authors in bookstores, libraries, and online repositories, no one outside of sanitariums for the mentally disturbed can claim any one of those voices as being his or her own.
These readings were all the richer, but also more perplexing, because my unique indulgence appeared to be multiplied by a factor of two. There seemed to be two voices at work in the texts, not just one. Which one was me, and which was not?
Here is a paragraph, written in easy, gliding letters, by the author I termed 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. Our garden began as a Mere few Flowers. Now our house is an Estate with more than a Hundred acres of garden and farmland.
Clearly this speaks of a charmed, educated, and successful life.
Now here is the other voice—the Adventurer.
Like a Bird I often Dreamed of Flying from ye top of one Mountain to Another. And this Was as I Lived my Liffe. For I Often Ventured over Peaks and Valleys, And witnessed Many Desolate, craggy Dismal places Where no Mortal before or After me has Trod. I do not Adore solitude for Itself. Yet 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, with his far more broken script, appears to be rough and strong and even a little haunted. After several readings I decided that he could not be the same person as the one with his fine gardens, his comfortable estate, and his more elegant style.
I concluded that the Thinker was the owner of enterprise, and the Adventurer was the owner’s right-hand man—traveling to untamed regions where he might bring back samples of plant and animal life from the wilds.
At times, I dreamed of being the owner, the Thinker, with his estate and thoughtful style, as he logically examined questions of living in nature and society. While at others, I fancied myself as the Adventurer exploring parts of the New World never seen before by any English-speaking gentleman. And yet I knew I was also a black Lab with a little bit of terrier. I was Mendel, trying to create a new life, merging the best of my past with the vagaries of my present to make the most of my lot as both man and dog. A life fully my own whatever were its rewards, its mysteries, its embarrassments, and its perils.
One morning in late February, seven months after my arrival, Mistress took me for a walk. After a cold night, it was surprisingly temperate. I could feel the seasons changing in a brand-new way, for our planet had warmed considerably since I last remembered it. The weather often shifted as if we were adrift on the ocean, changing course on whim—sometimes minute-to-minute—from sun to cloud, from stillness to storm.
That morning I could also feel the earth moving beneath me. I looked up at Sunny, but she appeared to be quite at ease. Then I heard machinery from far off construction, fighting with the earth. I remembered Sunny saying that all the buildings, mostly cabins, were finished at the camp next door, and now they were leveling the ground for parking lots.
The camp, Arcadian Grove, was soon to be the East Coast residence of Jack Marvel, a figure I had come to loathe. I pictured him as a maniacal creature whose breed was wolfdog—hybrids less predictable in their behavior than either a wolf or a dog. Forty states forbid their ownership.
That morning Sunny was smiling, so I tried to tell myself that there was nothing to worry about. Soon the machines stopped, there was a silence, and the earth calmed beneath my paws.
Minutes later we reached a bend in the trail near the edge of Arcadian Grove where two dead trees were fixed in an ancient dance. One moved up from the ground like a giant serpent with its huge, fat trunk. The other leaned over with its branches touching in the shape of a mouth, trembling as if to speak.
Almost instantly a mist surrounded both trees, shaped by the wind into two hands—one poised to reach out for understanding, the other a fist seeking to inflict pain. I felt a force from inside the earth pulling me yet again. Pulling through my heart. Begging me to stand outside myself and try to decipher what I couldn’t possibly be expected to comprehend.
Suddenly I knew there was message in all of this.
That we were standing at the border between good and evil.
And we were in danger.