By Sarah Schweitzer
We saw nothing. But the dogs did. A wave, a ripple. Something like that. Because they were off like a shot, Buster first, little Maggie behind, pulsing through the field. We didn’t think to call them off because we were distracted. My husband had had a day, and we’d been out trying to walk it off. We were almost to the house, the new spring light fading to crushed violet, when the dogs came trotting back—Buster’s face broken into a tongue-lolling, triumphant smile, Maggie behind, eyes big and scared, pleading, as if to ask: How could a world so wonderful have done this?
My husband cursed the whole way up the driveway, railing about how he wasn’t going to hand over more goddamned money to the emergency vet clinic. I carried Maggie. Her whole body trembled, like it was one heartbeat. The movement made it difficult not to touch the porcupine quills. They were dozens sticking out of her cheeks, her lips, her gums, one in her right nostril. They were slender things, twiggy. They went in smooth, I knew. Once in soft tissue, their tips splayed into barbed hooks, like medieval torture devices, embedding deeper if the dog pawed at them to try to help itself. I knew this because Buster twice had been quilled. Twice he’d been to the vet to have the quills removed while under anesthetic. His quill-free face suggested he’d learned his lesson. Now it was one-year-old Maggie’s turn.
In the house, my husband shouted for me to keep Maggie in the living room. I led her to the carpet. I was smoothing the downy fur between her ears when he reappeared with a pair of blunt-jawed pliers.
“Okay, now hold her.”
I bent over her body and gripped her chest. She let me, but as my husband came close with the pliers, she flinched. I repositioned my arms closer to her shoulder blades so I could also hold her snout. Again, with the nearing of the pliers, she flinched. We tried this over and over, my greater size no match for Maggie’s surging fear. She was trembling violently now, her body emitting waves of clotted heat and sweat. I repositioned myself, leaned more over Maggie’s body. I could feel everything Maggie had in her pushing against me, resisting what was coming, intuiting somehow that the pain she felt now would be a thousand times worse if the pliers clamped on one of the black tipped quills.
“Could you fucking hold her?”
I hadn’t been a careless kid. Every night, I combed my dolls’ hair, laid out their clothes for the next day, put them in their shoebox beds. I liked order. But there had been a night when my older sister and I got to splashing in the bathtub. We had decided the water was a waterfall in the jungle, and we were fish swimming against its tide, failing, and traveling with the currents in freefall. We were so raucous, having so much fun, I only heard the shouting as it crashed into the bathroom. Later I would come to understand my sister heard it before me and scrambled out of the tub to huddle wet in her closet. Which left me alone to endure the smacks of my father’s hand on my back as he yelled about water we’d sent over the tub’s edge that was dripping into the living room. My pain was made worse by wet skin, of course, and I began crying uncontrollably. My father told me to get a grip, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t understand how love could turn like that.
Maggie was whining now. High-pitched cries that cut through the room. I lifted a hand to smooth the fur between her ears. Maggie took the opportunity to bolt to a corner.
“Damnit!” my husband yelled.
I made my way over to Maggie. She didn’t try to run. She looked up at me. Mucous was beading beside the quill in her nostril, a perfect liquid pearl. I knew then I wouldn’t hold Maggie tightly enough for the pliers to do their work. My husband wouldn’t have the idea to try to hold her himself. We would take her to the vet, who would send a sedative through her veins while I whispered into her ear that everything was OK, everything was fine, the world was wonderful.