The next morning, I stood out on the porch and called for Pony. Her food bowl was untouched. I looked north and south and east and west. No Pony. “For God’s sake,” I thought. Later that day, while in the television room changing the channel to “Hoarders,” I spotted her running around under the cedar trees, sniffing around in the way she does when she’s either looking for her ball or seeking a place to poop. I dropped the remote and ran outside. She stared at me while she finished her business. Somebody on the internet said that this is a trust-building exercise between us, as in she thinks I’m watching her back while she’s vulnerable. When she finished, she galloped over. Her full teets bobbed hither and yon. This time, I didn’t leash her. I simply followed her wherever she went for an hour. A map of our route would look like a child’s first drawing with a permanent marker. Loop-de-looped in some areas and concentrated stars, circles, and jagged peaks and valleys in others. Finally, she started down the driveway, toward the mailbox, and stopped half way. She turned back at me to see if I was following. I was. Then, she turned left and disappeared into the jewelweed.
Disappeared, just like Youngest had said.
Jewelweed, or Touch-Me-Not as some call it, is a magnificent plant. Our variety has a tall, 3- to 4-foot-tall hollow stalk, topped with pale green oval leaves and tiny orange flowers that burst open and spit seeds if you touch them. Both the leaves and stalk, when crushed, excrete a salve that is akin to aloe. We pull the leaves and break the stalk and crush them in our palms until there’s a sticky, greasy balm. That balm is good to treat the itchiness of bug bites or the sting of sunburn. The jewelweed grows in a natural crevice, obviously the remnant of a gully made by water draining from the higher ground into Seven Mile Creek before the man-made drainage systems mazed the watershed dry for farmland. However, when it rains hard, as it had the past few nights, water pours down this cranny.
Hidden in our lush patch of jewelweed is a fallen tree, nothing more than a rotting stump now. I waded into the jewelweed and descended toward this log. Pony stood there, waiting for me. Gnats lazily goosed me. At Pony’s backside, was a lump of freshly dug dirt. At her forepaws, which I now noticed were nearly depleted of nails, was a small hole, the size of a dinner plate, right at the base of the log. I listened. I heard the squeaky cries of a tiny animal. “Holy cow,” I said to Pony. “You dug a den.”
I dropped to my knees in the mud and put my head on the ground with my ear open to the hole. I heard squirming. I sat back. One gnat bit me, then another. Pony sat down, too. I leaned over and reached down into the blackness of the hole, only slightly worried that I was maybe reaching into a coyote lair and might get my arm gnawed off. With the end of my longest fingertip, I touched the body of an animal wet and warm. I recoiled. But then stretched and reached again. Definitely a puppy. I sat back up, took a breath, and thought while the gnats had at me. “You dug a den,” I said again to Pony. She was silent. Pony rarely barks. It is common for her to go five or six days without purposely making one sound.
“You are a weirdo.” I talked to her like I would a sentient being with the critical thinking capacity of a human of more than 3 years. “Why would you do that? It’s soaking wet out here. You had a nice place in the kitchen or on the porch to have these babies.”
She tilted her head and swept her tail in the jewelweed, which aroused more of the gnats. “You’re an idiot.” I stroked her nose and between her ears. “OK. Let’s get them out.” I climbed out of the jewelweed patch, ascended the gully, and instantly felt the oppressive heat and humidity. I went into the house, which was sweltering. We don’t have air conditioning. I gathered a clothes basket, a towel, a flashlight, and a trowel. I sprayed myself with Off even though I’ve never known it to work on gnats.
Back in the jewelweed, I got down and dug, first opening up the hole wider so I could slither my upper body in. How in the world had she squeezed in here, I wondered. Once I removed several pounds of mud, I got on my belly. The wet, cool earth instantly soaked my shirt. I shined the flashlight into the depths. The den went down and back narrowly 3 or 4 feet and opened up into a wider nest at its end. Urine and blood mixed with smells of rotten wood and soil. There were no gnats that deep. A bundle of bodies writhed. I couldn’t tell how many. I shimmied into the hole under the log. I held the flashlight in my mouth and reached toward the puppies, scooped up the first. The puppy squealed to be pulled away from the warmth of its siblings. Because there wasn’t even enough room to reach my arm alongside my body and simply place the pup at the top of the hole, I inched my body back up and out of the hole holding the puppy in my hand. Once out, I put the pup on my lap and took a look at it. Black, wet, muddy, about the size of pop can. Eyes and ears closed. Yowling like the devil. Healthy. I put it on the towel in the clothes basket. Pony didn’t smell her puppy or otherwise regard it. She just sat there, flicking gnats off her ears, watching me.
Puppies two, three, four, five, and six went about the same way. Nothing remarkable. So far, I had pulled out four black babies and two yellow. All soaked and muddy. On the seventh try, I put my hand around the puppy, which felt the same as the rest except noticeably bigger. When we emerged out of the dark, I could see how bright his fur was. I set him into the basket with the rest. “There you go, little Polar Bear.” One more time, I went down. This time, deep in the back and trying to climb up the den wall, I discovered the last puppy. Tiny. Itty-bitty. Half the size of Polar Bear. The runt. I went back down a last time to see if there were any more. The only thing left in the den was Pony’s tennis ball.
The extent of her nesting had been to dig a den. The extent of her gathering comfort items was her tennis ball. I grabbed it.