How My Husky Made a Man Out of Me
by Julia Smuts Louw
I’ve been told many times that I am intimidating. Enough times to make me mull over how differently this word is meant when applied to women rather than men.
As the by-now totemic Margaret Atwood quote elucidates, the threat implicit in the word “intimidating” when applied by men to woman, is not that we will kill them, but that we might laugh at them.
At the last account, my type of intimidating has done me very little good. It certainly doesn’t help me much when I am jogging alone in Cape Town after dark.
I used to be upbeat about the risk. Sunset is when I like to run, and it’s just human nature to find a livable ratio of cortisol to hope. Besides, I had my survival strategies. There is the “second slowest impala” strategy, which involves jogging on the same route as someone else who is a little less fit. There is the “confuse the lion” strategy, loosely based on something a game ranger told me, which involves running towards potential threats, while —this is key— screaming loudly. Predators, the theory goes, will be so unnerved by my confident approach, and the bigger predator presumably on my tail, that they will abandon any plans of attack.
But something happened to my confidence in these strategies; in my right to enjoy the view from the overpass at sunset; in the basic propensity of things to turn out well, after my mother died suddenly on April 21, 2016, the same day as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. That afternoon, she phoned to ask if I could take her to the emergency room. Only if it’s convenient, she said. Chest pains, but it’s probably nothing. Then I heard her breath hitching, and a moment later, a thud. I went home to fetch my keys to her house and drove around the mountain to Kenilworth. These things took an agonizing amount of time. When I found her by her bed, I tried to do CPR half-remembered from a high-school first aid course. But it was too long ago, and in any case, I was too late.
I am advised by a doctor (my father) not to think about The Incident too much, lest it reinforce the neural path already dedicated to replaying my multiple bad decisions on that day on a loop. I must remain positive. This is key to mental health. Exercise, fresh air and sunlight are also key to mental health. But now I am too scared that exercise, fresh air, and sunlight will result in grievous bodily harm.
I have also started waking up in the middle of the night, convinced our house is being broken into. It’s not that I am suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. To me it seems rather more like I’ve been suddenly cured from Delusions of Invincibility Disorder, or Everything Turns Out All Right Fallacy Syndrome, and it’s everyone else who has a problem.
“Don’t you think you’re being paranoid?” says my husband.
“I’m on the Woodstock Facebook group,” I tell him. Woodstock is our suburb: trendy but currently in that dangerous adolescent period of gentrification where streets on which you don’t need Mace intersect streets on which you do.
“I am not being paranoid. There’s something, like, every other night.”
“So get off the Facebook group.”
“Daniel,” I say, “that does not solve the problem.”
I do not feel paranoid. I feel scared. This is South Africa. Our murder rates per day, as a country, are comparable to many other countries’ murder rates per year. We live in a violent society, and even though my mother’s death was not violent in that sense, any illusion that I am somehow immune to its caprices has been peeled away.
“This is your way of asking me if we can get a puppy, isn’t it,” says Daniel.
“A puppy? No.”
“What then? You want to move to Australia?”
“No. I want to foster an adult dog.”
“Ok. So I was right the first time.”
“You were not far off, it’s true.”
“We don’t have a garden,” he objects.
“We will soon.”
I have inherited my mother’s house in Kenilworth, and we have decided to move there. At least for a while. See how it goes. “It’s not just about safety,” I say. “I want to do something good for animals. I think it will help me feel better.”
I know this is the clincher. Daniel doesn’t believe, in his heart of hearts, that physical harm will ever come to us. He’s an extraordinarily optimistic person because he has been extraordinarily lucky. He still suffers from Everything Turns Out All Right Fallacy Syndrome, and part of me wants to protect that in him. But he knows that I’ve been struggling with depression since my mother died, and that moving into the house where I failed to save her life is complicated, and that fostering a dog is something that can make it positive for me.
“What kind of dog would you want to get?” he says.
As if he doesn’t know. I want a wolfy dog. I’ve had a love affair with wolves since I was about ten. It started with Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Jean Craighead George: plastic bound paperbacks from the school library with largely virgin library slips inside. My schoolmates were more into Sweet Valley High. In search of kindred spirits, I indoctrinated my half-sister, Katie, my younger by eleven years, and together we lolloped across wall-to-wall carpeting, howling at ceilings. So was born a desire for a pair of alert ears by my hip; a trail of paw prints to follow through hushed boreal forests.
Daniel says we can talk about it. He’s been counting the days until I asked for some kind of new animal, he admits.
“Well,” I say. “At least I didn’t say, ‘Can we get a baby.’”
I begin trawling rescue sites for a husky or a German Shepherd, or some combination of the two. I come across the perfect dog: a beautiful, if undernourished, white husky-cross called Storm.
“Do you love him?” says Daniel.
“I want to help him.”
I’ve already been in touch with the rescue organization. Storm is a teddy bear, says Rina, the rescue lady. A darling. His spirit is sound. He is now living on a plot in Fisantekraal, with a laborer who took him on, if not actually in, after he was abandoned by his first owners. “Neglected but not abused” is Rina’s assessment. She is persuading the man to surrender him.
“He’s not abused?” says Daniel.
“No. Not technically.”
“And the owner doesn’t want to give him away.”
“Why are we rescuing him again?
“He is tied to a tree.”
“Always. That’s how he is kept. That’s his life.”
Amazingly, this does not qualify as abuse. Under our law, a pet must have enough food to survive and it must be able to turn around on its long axis. That is all. An animal has not many more rights than something from Ikea.
Those that are merely miserable are lost in the cracks, just like their keepers. They are lucky, very lucky, if someone like Rina takes up their cause. They are lucky twice over if they are good-looking like Storm. Although, she says, huskies are hard to home, and mature ones, more so. They need high walls— not only to stop them escaping, something at which they excel— but to make them less vulnerable to theft for the dog-fighting trade.
“Also, I am sick of being too scared to jog,” I say. “The rescue lady says he’s good on a leash.”
“Ok,” Daniel sighs. “But the boys come first.” He’s referring to our two cats. I concur.
I invite Rina to come and inspect my mother’s property.
“So, you have experience with dogs?” she asks me.
“My mom had a corgi.”
She looks dubious. But whatever I may lack in experience, I make up for in walls. She loves my walls.
We’ll be moving here in a month. Rina agrees that if she hasn’t managed to get him adopted by August, he’ll come to us.
While I wait, I buy him things. A mattress. Food. Treats. A little fox chew toy with a squeaker heart.
Winter comes and with it the last howling Woodstock winds I will ever endure. I’ve always hated the wind on this side of Table Mountain.
Do you think he’ll be ok in this weather? I text Rina.
He’s half arctic husky. He’ll be fine.
Even so, I lie awake during July’s most spectacular storm, wondering if Storm is scared of thunder.
At month’s end, we move to the charming Herbert Baker semi-detached stone house where I did most of my growing up, after my parents got divorced. The promise of the white dog buoys me, warding off any black dogs lurking in corners as I pack our stuff out on top of my mother’s stuff and try and make the place feel like our own. For now we sleep in my childhood bedroom. The master bedroom is more spacious, but it’s also the room where she died and the room where I lay under her blankets, watching while she fought with her hair in the mornings, high-heels clocking on the hardwood floor, and it will be a while before I can think of it as anything other than hers.
On the first Sunday of August, Storm arrives, emerging from Rina’s boot like a genie from a lamp. He ignores me, except to twitch away when I try to stroke him.
I’m not sure that I agree with Rina’s assessment that he is a “teddy-bear” but he is certainly beautiful. Even his aloofness has a beauty to it.
“Um…I need to go now,” says Rina, who is hovering to one side while I trail behind Storm, grinning like an idiot. Besides being a rescue lady, Rina is a TV producer, and has actual shit to do. I am a writer and have only pretend shit to do.
“Ok. I got this,” I say. I’ve been preparing for this my whole life. He is my unicorn, my ballet slippers, my unobtanium. He is my Thundercat sword and my Spider-Man suit. I have dreamed of owning (fostering, just fostering) such an animal for so long that I hardly know what to do with him now that he is here. Aside, of course, from immediately sending a picture of him to Katie in the UK.
OMG. Does he have any wolf in him? she texts.
I mean, it’s possible. He’s half German Shepherd, and it’s said that during apartheid the South African Police Service bred wolves into their working-dog lines in an effort to make them more aggressive. I have not mentioned this to Daniel.
“Just be clear that you’re the alpha. And don’t let him off the leash, whatever you do,” Rina warns. “He will run. He will run forever.”
I lock him behind our security gate so she can pull her car out. Wave her off.
When I return to him, I stop in my tracks, wondering if I have thought this through. In the twenty seconds or so that I’ve been away, the dog has ripped apart the wire mesh that keeps the cats in. His gums are bleeding.
Cage fright, Rina texts. Don’t confine him.
I let him into the garden. Though he’s just been fed, I give him the huge bone I bought. He smashes it to pieces in his jaws and then he chews the pieces into little bits and swallows them.
I give him the fox chew-toy. He shreds it into strips and silences its squeaker heart and looks at me for more.
I’m sort of out of things to give him now.
I can’t help but imagine one of my cats between those jaws. As I no doubt should have done before volunteering them to be his new foster siblings.
The truth is, I am scared of him, too. Just a little. But I have faith in the basic good nature of dogs. In the evening I sit with him in the laundry room where I’ve made a bed for him and he lets me stroke him. His thick coat has hidden what my hands now find – his extreme emaciation. Every rib is stark. His back is no wider than a cat’s. Starved as he is, he takes biltong with gentle lips. He puts his ears down and huffs gently at me and it’s plain that he longs for a friend. I want the things any woman wants: access to his issues, hints that only I can fix him. It’s a fair start.
When Dan comes home, the dog cringes away from the hand raised to pat him, his legs splaying like a foal’s across the kitchen tiles.
“Are you going to sleep down here with him?” Dan asks.
“No. But I love you for asking.”
At midnight, he wakes us with mournful howling. How thrilling, I think.
“How creepy,” says Dan.
RECORD IT NEXT TIME!!! texts Katie.
“Where is he?” Dan asks.
“The laundry room. Should I bring him inside?”
“He could kill the cats. He could kill us, for that matter. Put him in the garden.”
In the starlight he is otherworldly; even taller and thinner and whiter. Were it full moon, I would have expected him to shapeshift into the ghost of David Bowie.
He paces a circuit around our modest yard, walking off every kilojoule we’ve given him. He is starving for free movement even more than he is starving for food. A strip of lawn is already flattened. By Monday it’s a muddy trench.
The week begins. As we’ve decided to keep him to the kitchen for now, I do my work there. He lies a few feet from me, farting peaceably as his bowels adjust to their sudden change in fortunes. When he has nightmares, I tell him, “It’s ok. You are safe,” until he sighs and settles again. I feel sad that I cannot tell him, you are home.
Charles Darwin famously said that the eye was the only organ that evinced some role for a God, too perfectly suited to its purpose to be the product of evolutionary trial and error. It’s now accepted that he was paying lip service to the dominant paradigm and the Powers that Be (or may not Be). But for my money, Darwin need have looked no further than the dog. Recent research shows that dogs have what scientists call a “slippery genome,” meaning that their DNA allows for mutations at a much faster rate than other species. Any trait you selectively breed is compounded. In effect, they are designed to be designable. That’s why, having started with nature’s perfect land predator, the wolf, we have succeeded in creating everything from little Pokémon-size ones whose core competency is nervous trembling, to stonking great pony-size ones that are formidable enough to kill lions. No other domestic animal exhibits so much astonishing diversity in its basic conformation.
What are the odds that evolution just left this pliable DNA lying around, adaptable to any purpose Man could conceive for a four-legged thing? We treated that genome like a balloon animal, creating dogs for every purpose, and some with none. The purpose of the corgi is to nip the heels of cows as they run through gates. The purpose of the Pekingese is to be tucked into the sleeve of the Emperor’s robe in winter.
The purpose of the husky is, of course, to pull—and pull Storm does. His core demographic is teenage girls. We cannot pass within ten meters of one of those gangly knots of jean-shorted females without their dissolving into moans and drifting towards us like the worshippers of Imhotep. I call these girls “Team Jacob.” There are also those men who dart out of their trajectory to pat him, until they realize he doesn’t like to be patted. I call these men Jon Snow. (For those who don’t get either of these references: kudos. You probably have a productive and fulfilling life.)
He earns a nickname: Chick Magnet. It’s almost a sin not to give him to someone who needs his powers more than I do. But I am far from immune to his charms.
“Oh boy, you are going to be a foster fail,” says my friend Jenna, who works with rescue dogs. A foster fail is someone who intended to foster a dog but ended up keeping it.
“No, no,” I say. “I have a deal with Dan.”
I do my bit to make him more adoptable. Through painstaking Pavlov, I teach him to respect our cats, to pee outdoors, to lie under furniture and not on top of it. We agree to disagree about whether he should raid the municipal bin.
As far as his original brief goes—getting me outdoors again— it’s been a rocky start. At first, he is so flabbergasted by the notion of being attached to a person instead of a tree that he doesn’t even attempt to get anywhere. Instead he does something that looks like the Prancercise lady caught on a deep-sea line, while I do something that looks like waterskiing without skis or water. Whenever a man comes close, he panics.
It dawns on me that I made a miscalculation in hoping for a wolf-type dog to provide me protection, something the police could have told me long ago. Wolves are extremely shy. The notorious breeding experiment did nothing but introduce top notes of anxiety into our woefully inbred, slopey spined, tragically hipped German Shepherd lines. Storm has a sound back, thankfully, but absolutely no backbone.
To avoid people and cars, I take him to the mountain. Out here, he pulls like a freight train, but at least we are going forward. I compose a compendium of great comebacks for the deathless cries of, “Is he taking YOU for a walk?”
At some point, like magic, it happens: I become his alpha. The change is gradual but clear. When I am nearby, courage unfolds within him like a banner. His tail emerges from between his legs to fan over his back. He barks at visitors. He bristles at strangers on the street. I am the wind beneath his wings. I am Gaga to his freak, I am the yellow sun to his Clark Kent. And because he thinks I make him safe, he makes me safe.
Once we are a team in this way, we are off to the Iditarod. Finally, I am jogging in the outdoors again. Sunlight. Fresh Air. Mental health. The whole bit. These beautiful landscapes that have seemed to me like the mocking jaws of an anglerfish are rendered toothless by my companion. I am the woman who runs with the freaking wolf. I am not merely safe; I am intimidating.
Men—big men—cross to the other side of the street when they see me coming. The instinct to give us a wide berth is Paleolithic. I get used to distributing the sheepish smile of the formidable but benign.
Storm’s change of heart casts a light on some differences between Daniel and myself. Pets throw up weird stuff. And I don’t just mean that literally.
“Should you be indulging his anti-social behavior?” says Dan, when I decline a request from a passerby to pet him.
“Doggo has rights,” I say. I avoid calling him “Storm” because if we do keep him, I kind of maybe have a new name picked out for him already: Haku, after the white dragon in Spirited Away. So it’s Doggo for now. “How would you like it if someone forced you to be touched when you don’t want to be touched?”
“I thought our job was to socialize him.”
“Yes, but it’s his job to protect me. That’s the most important thing.”
“Well, then we must teach him to differentiate between the people that are a threat and the people that aren’t.”
“Oh, really! Must ‘we!’ Have you ever trained a dog, Dan? Do you know how hard it’s been to get him this far?”
There is a silence as we walk the rest of the way to the train tracks where the other day someone was mugged in front of our eyes.
“So how long is this fostering thing going to go on for?” says Daniel.
“I can’t say. Huskies are hard to home.” I am not particularly advertising his availability, to be fair.
“Doggo mustn’t come between us, hey,” says Dan. “Or we are sending him back.”
“Oh, come on,” I say. “It’s not as if this argument is really about the dog.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about parenting styles.”
“We don’t have a kid.”
The truth is, Dan has a point. In terms of Storm or Doggo or Haku’s chances at a “forever home,” I’m not sure I’m doing him much good anymore. As he creeps up Maslow’s hierarchy, he is revealing urges that bother me. Firstly, he’s now giving me a window into yet another facet of the masculine experience: to wit, what it’s like to have something attached to you that has a mind of its own when it comes to, you know, the bitches. But worse, he’s possessive over me, and will lunge not only at male dogs, but men too, if they get too close. I have to face the truth that he is becoming less rather than more sociable in my care.
“I’ll ask Rina if she’s had any leads,” I say vaguely. “So. Can we get a kid?”
Dan laughs. “You think we should get pregnort?”
“I think we should get pratnort.”
We are quoting a Youtube supercut of internet misspellings of the word “pregnant.” Maybe you had to be there.
“We can talk about it.”
It’s not so easy to betray him, though. I wonder how many foster fails are motivated by guilt.
To get back to that slippery genome for a moment. There is one trait that has been selectively bred more than any other, and that is love of humans.
In the late fifties, Russian scientists began a long-term study aimed at replicating the great Canis familiaris experiment on a crunch timeline, using foxes instead of wolves. The results were astounding. Within just a few generations of interbreeding the friendliest cubs, their ears started flopping over; their tails started wagging. Compound the effect over millennia and you see how we ended up with man’s best friend. A dog is love doubled down; love folded on love like fine steel. A dog is a katana of love. A tsunami of love. A masterpiece of love. A dog will repay punishment with love and neglect with love and betrayal with love. Within the humble dog lies the means to make heaven on earth. This is why I think they are the best proof we have of God. (There’s a little clue there if you spell it backwards.)
It is also why I think it is very rude to eat them. But that’s a different story.
Storm has filled his doggo-heart with this love for me. I have encouraged him. How can I now spill his cup?
How’s it going? Rina texts. Can you send some photos and a testimonial for the site?
Soon, I reply.
I knew it. You’re in love with him.
I’m not sure about that. But I think he may be in love with me. I tell her about his bad behavior.
Try more exercise, she says.
I decide there’s nothing for it. Surely, now that I am his alpha, it will be ok to let him run free. I take him to a nearby sports field and bring some biltong to bribe him back just in case. I take off his leash. “Mush,” I say.
He whips away across the vivid field like a flag torn loose. I video record it with my phone. I video him ignoring my whistles, diminishing to a pixel as he speeds towards the open road. I stop videoing and start running.
You bastard. You traitor. You Judas, I think, following him onto the road at a sprint, waving at traffic. Two kilometers later, a soccer mom takes pity on us and hazes him back towards me with her SUV.
“Here, Doggo,” I shout frantically, proffering biltong.
He comes closer. Smells a trap. Feints left and dodges right. I make a desperate grab for his ruff. Something goes snap.
Son of a bitch.
“Your dog did this?” says my GP, examining my swollen little finger a day later. “What kind of a dog is it?
“A bad dog.”
“You need an X-ray.”
“I don’t know if I should get an X-ray,” I say.
“I might be pragnart.”
“You might be pregnant? Do you want to take a test?”
“I think it’s a bit early.”
She tells me to wear the lead pad over my tummy, just in case. Chances are I am being overcautious anyway. It’s only our first month of trying.
There’s a saying about rescue animals: you get the one you need, not the one you want. I am no longer so sure about that.
At first I am angry with him, to say nothing of how Daniel feels. Have I not put everything into him? I wanted White Fang and I got Wile E Coyote. I believed in perfect love, and instead I got a broken pinkie and possible radiation damage to my unborn child.
Then I check myself. This is all a product of my own fantasy. I have been guilty of projecting the Eternal Canine onto Storm. He was the object of my idealizing Gaze. This is the kind of thinking that ends with entitled madwomen walking into SPCA with submachine guns.
It’s not your fault, Doggo, I tell him. You were bred to run. You ran.
Even so, when it turns out that I am indeed preganate, I have to think practically. I am slow, nauseous and emotional. My adductors ache. I cannot run. I am what I most loathe: weak.
Some ancient instinct tells me that my only course is to lean into it. “You have a whole new warm mommy vibe now,” one of my male friends says to me. I’ve noticed it myself. Maybe it’s just the oxytocin. But I have realized that for now, the only strength available to me is the strength that lies in vulnerability. The quintessentially feminine strength of warmth, softness, kindness offered with a free hand, that hitherto I thought of as a compromise.
I have to say goodbye to being Intimidating. Any kind of intimidating. And perhaps it’s time. In re-approaching myself, I have started to understand that my attachment to the idea of being ‘intimidating’ was inextricably wrapped up in my mother’s legacy. She was a renowned politician and legislator – as women go, about as intimidating as they come. To say goodbye to that old self is in a small way, another parting from her. Difficult and sad, but at the last account, healthy. I must find my own way, now.
I also have to say goodbye to the idea that I can handle this dog.
There comes a day when we go walking in Tokai forest and Storm pulls me into a bush in pursuit of what I assume to be a rodent. By the time I realize it is an adult puff-adder, he is on top of it. I wrestle him to heel. In the car, we look him over for bites. Good Lord, I think, I was wearing pumps. Perhaps I should take the grace and the hint.
I tell Rina I don’t think it’s going to work out.
I finally take those photos for his before-and-after profile. I am proud of his muscled flanks, his bright eye. Storm is a great dog, I write. I can’t think what else to say. How do I explain that he has been my talisman in the dark spots of this house and on these streets that hold so much memory?
Not long after, we go for our 13-week scan. We watch as the doctor navigates through layers of tissue, nerve-wracking greyscale miracles of valves and vertebrae. This is my son, these cells daring to proliferate and cohere in open revolt against the unacceptable risks of existence: the muggers and heart attacks and puff-adders and greenhouse gas emissions lurking outside his chamber. I wonder if Darwin had children.
“I feel like doing something profound,” says Dan as we arrive back home, weepy and giddy. His eyes land on the dog. “Let’s keep him,” he says. “Let’s do it.”
I did not cry at the scan, but I cry now.
Ironically, having waged a subliminal charm offensive on his behalf all this time, hiding his peccadilloes, emphasizing his strengths, now it is me who hesitates. My world has turned on a dime, as it does, with the existence of the two-bit life I am harboring.
I put Rina on ice again. During his reprieve, Storm’s behavior only becomes worse. Finally he is unwalkable, and Daniel takes over exercise duties. I don’t even want to say it out loud. What if he poses a risk to the baby?
“I mean, unless it’s because you’re pregnant,” says Daniel. Maybe he’s protective of the baby.”
I like this idea. It would be fair to say that I cling to it. I decide to put my faith in him. Even though I am now more vulnerable than ever before, hope burgeons easily these days.
I try to explain to Storm that I made a mistake.
“Doggo,” I tell him. “I am going to have a pupper. You are going to be a family dog. You don’t have to protect me. It is not your job to keep me safe. It is my job to keep you safe.” The truth is, I cannot promise protection. Not to him, not to my son. But I can promise kindness. I can promise love. I hope he understands.
In the end, we call him Seth, after the no-account varmint in Red Dead Redemption. It suits him. Haku is too grand for someone who still voids his bowels in the kitchen when male guests arrive, and as for “Storm”, it turns out that he is indeed scared of those. When he hides under the table, shivering through thundershowers, I tell him it’s ok, you’re home.
The baby is called Frank, after my mother’s father.
About Julia Smuts Louw
Julia Smuts Louw is a South-African screenwriter, primarily working in animation. Her work has appeared on Cartoon Network, Disney XD, Nickelodeon and elsewhere. She is also a published poet. She studied Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town, and prose is her first love. You can find her animation podcast, Animation South Africa, on iTunes and at www.animationsa.org.