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Stay Keepers Story, Page 1

Lois Lowry

Page 1

  Chapter 1

  I WAS BORN IN THE GUTTER and grew up in poverty, abandoned by my parents, stealing and begging in order to survive. Then, through chance and circumstance, combined with (forgive my immodesty) a keen wit and a glorious appearance, I rose to grand heights of fame and affluence. Finally I retired to a quiet life in the country, surrounded by loved ones.

  My story sounds familiar. Perhaps I remind the reader of someone who might once have run successfully for high public office.

  But no; politics was not an avenue open to me, despite my gift for language and my affection for humanity. I am not human myself. I am of the family Canidae, a species depicted on the walls of the earliest caves and an accompaniment to history throughout the ages. You know me by my more common name, dog.

  However, let me be clear about this. I do not like being referred to as The Dog.

  I have a name.

  The truth is, I have had several names. I hang my head a bit, recounting this history, because my beginnings could be called . . . well, sordid. But this is true of many dogs. Unlike the human population, dogs tend to be born in less than antiseptic places: under garages, surrounded by rusted tricycles and discarded two-by-fours slick with blue-green lichen; or behind a forgotten, moldy heap of outgrown clothing in a spiderwebbed corner of a damp cellar.

  I was born, the second of four, between a board fence at the end of an alley and a set of trash cans beside the back door of a French restaurant named Toujours Cuisine. My mother had selected the location because of its proximity to food at a time when she, heavy with puppy, no longer felt like roaming the streets and back yards in search of morsels and handouts. She was exhausted and needed a resting place. The corner between the fence and the trash cans was quiet, dark, private, and unclaimed. A cat had lived there for a while; my mother, sniffing, could identify the former occupant as Cat, Male, No Longer Nearby.

  So she squatted carefully and marked the place several times around its perimeter. Then she circled, pawing at the small bits of trash, smoothing the crumpled papers, and arranging the space. I was not there to observe, of course, prior to my own arrival, but I look back now and can visualize the ritual, since it is always the same in the world of the dog: the careful arrangement, the meticulous preparation of the birthing place.

  A week, or perhaps ten days, later, I was born, one of three brothers and followed by a small and fragile sister.

  Only one of my littermates is by my side today, and after a long and difficult separation. Where are the others? I wish I knew. But it is the way of the dog that we separate from our kin and make our own way in the world. I remember only that we played and fought as infants, practicing our growls, learning our various postures and ear placements, each with its own coded meaning, and chewing each other's still undeveloped tails. I recall our nudging each other aside in our quest for the perfect nipple, the one with the best footing, the most abundant and dependable flow of lunch. We yipped and quarreled and our mother watched us with weary fondness, reaching out with one large paw from time to time to drag us back when we wandered on our wobbly legs too far from the curve of her belly.

  We slept in a pile, warm against each other and all of us encircled by our mother, comforted by the deep rhythm of her heartbeat and rocked by the gentle heave of her body as she breathed.

  Now and then she stood, stretched, and shook us loose. One brother in particular had such a strong, determined mouth that he dangled, feet waving, in the air, still attached, until Mom reached around impatiently, pried him away, and let him drop.

  Then she would leave us alone. It is one of my first memories: the little chorus of whimpers, the squirming frenzy of our group as we sought to be cozy without her and cried with fear that she might not return.

  As the days passed and I was able to open my eyes and focus clearly, I watched my mother's route when she abandoned us there briefly and set out on her own.

  She went first to the door of the restaurant. It was not the front door (which later, when I was old enough to explore on my own, I found to be elaborately carved wood adorned with a brass plaque, very pretentious), but an unobtrusive back door, often left open so that kitchen employees could emerge and stand beside it, puffing on cigarettes and complaining about the head chef.

  Sometimes the head chef himself emerged alone for a breath of air, a respite from the clatter of pans and the noisy quarrels of dishwashers and salad chefs. He would slump against the wall in despair, take a deep breath, and mutter in French.

  "Mon dieu," I would hear him say. Or "Sacrebleu," thinking himself quite alone, unaware that an attentive and, if I do say so myself, intelligent puppy was listening and absorbing the nuances of human speech. Then the chef would stand up straight, pull himself together, sigh, and return to the kitchen to right whatever cooking disaster had occurred.

  If the door was closed, Mother would arrange herself in a sitting position beside it. Sometimes she tapped on it in a scratching gesture with her right front paw. But more often she had only to sit, in a pretty and appealing way, looking both worthy and in need. (It is a look that all dogs perfect, over the years, but I have to say that I have never seen it performed better than by my mother. )

  She was, in fact, a handsome bitch. There was probably some collie in her past. She had the aristocratic nose of a fine collie—not mentioning any names, but you all know who comes to mind—but unlike collies, Mother had an attractive curl to her amber fur. I was born with the same natural and copious curl. My two brothers, less favored in looks, had straight hair, and my sister—we called her Wispy—had a coat that was unfortunately sparse, with a mottled patch on one shoulder. Her personality was lively and appealing, but for much of her life, until fate changed her luck, potential suitors, human and dog, never seemed to see beyond what I once heard referred to as a "mangy" (forgive me; it is not a word I like to repeat) look.

  Stay!: Keeper's Story

  But Mother was, as I have said, a magnificent bitch. Her manners were impeccable. And she had perfected the posture (chin up, tail at rest, head cocked) and expression (solemn, luminous eyes) that combined disdain and necessity. Invariably someone smiled, said "Just a minute, I'll get you something," and brought an unscraped plate: morsels of poulet roti, crisp with buttery skin (quite good for the glisten of one's fur), an occasional tournedo still sporting coagulated béarnaise. I watched from my place, nestled against my littermates, amazed to see how daintily Mother licked the sauce away before nibbling the chicken or beef with fastidious little bites. I knew how famished she was. I could hear, from my spot against her belly, how her insides grumbled with hunger. But she was a dignified dog; and she was a clever one, as well. She knew that manners defined her future, and that tearing at the leftovers with ravenous greed would have prevented her from receiving the respect that a fine crossbreed mostly collie deserves. So she concealed her hunger with an utmost effort of will and toyed with the leftovers from a fifty-dollar French meal. Then finally, with a resigned sigh that said, "An adequate dinner, though I've had better in my day," she would swallow the last herbed morsel, toss her tail prettily from one side to the other, and stroll away.

  My mother knew how to play to an audience.

  From the fine dinner at the restaurant kitchen's door she would wander on, alert, to the main street, where one could scavenge occasional dropped treasures: a melting ice cream cone on the pavement, not a bad dessert for a dog, or greasy paper once wrapped around a hamburger, not a bad thing to lick.

  Then she would return to our hidden dwelling, circle carefully so as not to flatten us, and lie down. We would toddle over and lick her face, tasting the remains of her meal. Wispy and I savored the different tastes attached
to Mother's chin and whiskers, but our brothers pushed us aside, growling, scolding Mother for not saving larger portions for her children.

  The differences between us began to be clear. My two brothers had from birth been relentlessly energetic and quarrelsome. They nipped at each other endlessly, shoving and pushing, making life into an exhausting contest. Inevitably they extended playful wrestling matches into real battles, until Wispy and I scampered whimpering to our mother to be licked and calmed.

  My mother gave them pet names that reflected their contentious personalities. Tug and Tussle, she called them.

  One day, as the boys were quarreling in a corner near the trash cans while I lay quietly with Wispy, enjoying a patch of sunshine that had worked its way around the side of the building, I said casually to my sister, "Listen to Thug and Muscle. "

  Wispy, who had been half asleep, opened her eyes. She giggled. "Thug and Muscle?"

  I had surprised myself. "It just came out that way," I told her.

  "Cute," Wispy said, and closed her eyes again.

  I said it to myself several times, liking the sound of it, the way Tug turned into Thug and Tussle into Muscle. It was cute. Stretching there in the sun, listening to the boys fight, I tried a few more experiments with human words.

  "Yip," I whispered to myself, as one of my brothers punctuated the morning with a small half-bark.

  "Nip," I added, identifying the reason for his little pained sound.

  "Grr," I said to myself thoughtfully. Then, after pondering for a moment, I added, with satisfaction, "Fur. "

  "Wake up, Wispy!" I urged my sister. "Listen to what I can do!"

  She opened her eyes, yawned patiently, and listened while I explained to her how I was putting words together into rhymes. "What rhymes with cheese?" she asked me, and her little tail thumped against the ground. Wispy loved cheese more than anything.

  I thought long and hard. Finally I whispered a hideous word to her, a word that Mother preferred us not to use. "Fleas," I said in a very low voice. Wispy shuddered.

  "Sorry," I said quickly. "Peas would rhyme," I added after a moment. Wispy sighed. Neither of us was very fond of peas—or pois, as they were called in French. I don't think Mother was either. She usually nosed them around on the plate, as if she were looking for something better.

  As we grew, we began to yearn for more than milk and occasional licks of buttery smears on Mother's face. The sporadic tidbits that she brought us were tantalizing hints that a greater world of food lay somewhere just beyond our reach.

  One morning my first-born brother, the one we called Tug, decided to leave our hiding place and go out to forage on his own. We were alone at the time. Mother had gone on one of her own food-finding forays. Now that we were no longer babies, Mother was gone more and more, and for longer and longer periods.

  I watched apprehensively as Tug ventured forth. He was not my favorite of my siblings. I much preferred to play with gentle Wispy, or even with Tussle, who was boisterous but good-natured and meant no harm. But Tug was my brother, after all, so I wished him well.

  He trotted over to the restaurant door, sat in the place where Mother always sat, assumed the pose that Mother used, and woofed lightly. Mother never barked; eloquent silence was her way. But impatience was part of Tug's nature.

  His bark was small, since he was young, but it did bring one of the dishwashers to the door. He was a heavyset man called Pete; I had seen him often, wiping his hands on the dirty white apron he wore, reaching into a pocket for a crumpled pack of cigarettes. He had an interesting decoration, a dagger entwined with flowers, all in purple, extending from his wrist halfway up his arm. He had a loud laugh.