Sorry to be so late with your Saturday Morning short story. After being up a lot of the night, spending part of it in our tornado shelter, I had meetings that took most of the day,(I was waiting for my husband to finish with his meetings so we only had to drive one car.) We’re expecting supercell tornados all night long. The good news is that we get to spend some quality time with our nextdoor neighbors! Tornadoes have a way of focusing my attention on what’s really important to me. What would you grab when it’s time to run?
Fu’s tail wagged him all the way to the shoulders. His owners had chosen him from a backyard breeder’s litter of puppies because his playmates could not distract him from the longing, eager adoration he gave to the Marquette family when they came to look. His round, melted chocolate eyes promised to love, honor and obey them, as long as they both should live.
And Fu had chosen well. There was perhaps nowhere a family more ready to enjoy canine worship than the six Marquettes. They named him ‘Fu Man Choo’ because of the little reddish beard he wore as testimony that though he was a papered golden retriever, an Irish setter had left his stain on Fu’s mother’s character. A DNA test would have revealed that the culprit lived through the fence in an entirely different neighborhood, as far as the humans were concerned. But inbreeding dogs causes congenital defects to become more prominent in each generation. And though Fu never knew it, his litter mates were so defective that they would serve to put the breeder out of business. Fu escaped with nothing worse than a small, red beard, by virtue of his mongrel blood.
Like a child snatched from the iron jaws of foster care, Fu was grateful for his family. He would have quickly become obese via his habit of resting his soft, bearded little chin on the knees of each of the family in turn during dinner. Each thought him/herself favored, and each rewarded Fu’s special love with a tasty people-food tidbit. He didn’t grow fat, however, because he also charmed his family by bringing them each his leash, carried in his mouth and laid at their feet. He set his mileage record one Saturday when each of the family members walked him, and five of six decided to take him out again when he asked so charmingly.
But Fu had duties, too. When the doorbell rang, Fu ran with skidding toenails on the tile floor to sit beside the front door. He would release one bark in his deep, muscular throat. Solicitors seemed to think he implied something sinister in his singular bark and would most often retreat, glancing over their shoulders as they went.
But when friends rang the bell, he sat, he barked and when the door was opened he nearly wagged himself in half for the joy of company.
Lest you begin to look at your own pet with sorry, regretful eyes, I must honestly tell you that Fu was not without fault. As long as he was indoors or in his own yards, he was indeed a virtual canine Adonis. But outside those property lines he was as yellow a coward as his coat suggested. If a stray ran out to meet him, he wound his leash around his owner, trying to get himself as far behind their legs as possible. At the beach, he yelped and darted away when a blue crab raised on his back legs and waved at him. Even cats, walking disdainfully along a fence rail sent him to the far side of the street in a panic.
This was not really Fu’s fault. Mrs. Marquette, wishing to be a model citizen, bought a sort of hobble for Fu, so that when he walked the neighborhood, he smelled the markings of other dogs on fire hydrants and the trees, but he could not lift own leg to make his residence in the area official. He lived as a perpetual guest, hobbled by his owner’s good manners. This uneasiness made him fearful of offending and uncertain in his ambiguous social position.
But all six of the Marquettes agreed that they would much rather have an overly gentle dog than a fighter, and they forgave him of his shortcomings as a protector.
Fu had long outgrown his puppyhood when the Marquettes decided to spend a week of family time camping in the mountains. Mr. Marquette bought a large family tent and six sleeping bags, a camp stove, a folding shovel and an axe. Mrs. Marquette ordered everything off a one week survival list from an online site. A week later, a great volume of dehydrated potatoes, soups and prepackaged oatmeal were delivered to their front porch with a $1000. receipt.
The boys each bought themselves a fishing pole with adequate tackle and checked out a fishing book from the library. The girls bought romance novels, bug spray, disinfectant and beads for elaborate hair braids.
The family set out in the minivan with their lodgings and trappings strapped to the roof like a melting scoop of ice cream. Fu sat proudly on the back seat where he could push his nose out the open window.
After ten hours of easterly driving, they left the freeway for a highway that wound gently into the high elevations of Tennessee. They turned from that highway onto another highway, whose curves were sharper and its inclines steeper. At last they found a narrow, gravel turnoff almost hidden by the undergrowth. Mr. Marquette double checked the map and forged the minivan bravely ahead. They drove fifteen miles on an ever fainter track before the road ended altogether in a little glade beside a stream.
The Marquettes poured from the van to explore the campsite. Some earlier pioneers had cleared a spot of stones big enough for their brand new tent, and beside that spot was a ring of rocks with some grayish tone to the earth that showed between tufts of tall, green grass.
“Nobody’s been here in a long time,” Mrs. Marquette said as she cut the netting off of the firewood she’d purchased and laid it log cabin-wise in the ring. She set up the camp stove according to the instructions inside and set some bottled water to boiling. The menu called for boiling water poured into a zip lock bag filled with powdered gravy, noodles and chives. (Mr. Marquette had looked over the survival delivery and packed five pounds of trail mix under the front seats of the van.)
Mr. Marquette’s instinct served him well enough to direct him to start building the tent immediately, as there were only three hours of daylight left.
The boys set up their fishing poles and went to look for a “slow, sheltered spot in the stream,” teeming with trophy-sized trout. The girls went for a walk around the area to see what they could see. Fu went with the girls. They quickly found that they were in a narrow band of trees and a wide open meadow stretched almost to the shore of a shining pond.
After a full day of riding, the expanse of the meadow tempted Fu beyond his formidable self control. He launched himself into the grass, smelling an exotic stew of odors, hearing a cacophony of unidentifiable tones and sensing no danger at all. Indeed, his breeding had tended so long to the suburban pastures, his ancestral knowledge, (including that of Ireland) had been very nearly extinguished. All he knew was that it was strange and delicious and his well fed muscles rejoiced as they stretched and reached. He plunged through the tall grass, leaving a path like a wake behind him. His family had found him a doggy Paradise.
The girls turned back toward camp when Fu was only halfway through his romp. The boys returned to camp with two aqueous creatures of unknown species that had swallowed their hooks. They wanted Mrs. Marquette to retrieve the hooks, which she did, using a pair of pliers from the minivan toolbox. Mr. Marquette was still occupied with ‘pole A’ to be inserted into rivet B and fastened with lynch pin A-1.
Fu came back to camp when the sun had retreated so far that Mr. Marquette decided that since there was no sign of rain, they’d sleep under the stars and he’d set up the tent by daylight. The family had each tasted they boys’foil-wrapped finned creatures and found them highly preferable to the gluey wad of noodles and gravy with green specks of paper the company called chives. Fu finished the wad of noodles gratefully and drank long and deep directly from the stream. His beard dripped on the younger girl and for the first time in his life, she pushed him away saying, “Don’t slobber on me, Fu!”
In the morning, Fu saw that his adorable family was baggy eyed and irritable. Humans apparently found it as difficult as he had to ignore the strange, wild rustlings and howlings, to say nothing of the dew that settled on their heads.
Mr. Marquette made the children stay in camp until the tent was up. Each read the directions and found different meanings in the poor Chinese translation. They argued and struggled and finally used the picture on the package to figure out what the thing was supposed to look like.
Fu revisited his wide meadow. He recognized a gopher scent and nobody scolded when he began to dig. Dirt flew behind him and his nose explored the deepening den rapturously. At last a mother gopher rushed at him and he killed her in his wolfish jaws. She tasted much better than noodle glue.
Fu found a pond and saw something splash. He knew from the odor that it was not another dog, nor was it a house cat, so he plunged into the water and swam toward the center of the widening rings. He moved more swiftly than he’d expected to, keeping his nose up and his churning paws stroking toward his goal. Of course the splasher didn’t wait around for him, and he found nothing but the joy of the cold water swishing through his coat, and the exhilaration of buoyancy.
The Marquettes ate grainy mashed potatoes made with powdered milk and powdered butter, and trail mix for lunch. Fu wasn’t hungry. He wanted to show them the pond, but nobody seemed to know where his leash was and they all wanted to nap. Sleep was anathema to Fu, in that supercharged life center.
On the third day, Fu realized that he had seen at least a thousand trees in his new kingdom and not one of them had been marked. The courteous hobble was forgotten with the leash. He began the arduous undertaking of marking. He drank deeply all day and at its end, had a fair start on his kingdom’s perimeter. In the twilight, the Marquettes’ voices calling him carried over the wide valley to where he snuffled in an abandoned badger’s den. He hesitated to leave the intriguing puzzle of odors, but on the third whistle, he ran.
When he rocketed into the sorry campsite, Mrs. Marquette ran a hand over him and then squealed. “He’s covered in gray bumps! They’re like giant moles!”
“Dog ticks,” one of the boys said. “You pull them off and then step on them to squirt out the blood.”
The girls acted like they would be sick. Mr. Marquette was palpitating a ziplock bag of pancake mix with artificial blueberries in it. “You boys pull all the ticks off of Fu. He can get sick from them.” Just then the ziplock bag ruptured and Mr. Marquette was drenched in pancake mix. He said a word that Fu didn’t know. But it wasn’t a nice word, he could tell. And the girls wouldn’t let him come near them. At least the boys seemed to enjoy the task and he sat still for them.
The next day, Fu rose very early and found a black and white creature eating the congealed pancake mix out of the dirt. The old Fu would have whimpered and rushed behind a child, but the new Fu remembered that he had clearly marked this as his territory, and he growled. The cat-like creature raised a sullen head for one sneering moment. Fu growled again and it turned its back. Fu wondered what sort of rebel came into his territory and then behaved so rudely.
The creature sprayed something acrid and chemical in his face. It stung his eyes but the odor was so strange and interesting, Fu stepped closer, sniffing and growling. He must not allow his authority to be defied! The creature waddled away irritably.
But when he took his place at breakfast, the Marquettes howled and scolded him. They ate watery oatmeal with raisins for breakfast and shivered themselves blue as they bathed in the stream. If Fu came near for a friendly lick, they screwed up their faces and ordered him away. They said he reeked and said he must ‘keep away.’ Fu barked once, in his deep, throaty, voice, and Mrs. Marquette threw a rock at him. At last he understood. He was free. He ran to the meadow and rolled in some unseen creature’s dung that pleased him with its muddy coolness. When he paid the honorary visit to the Marquettes, Mr. Marquette himself threw another rock at him. “Keep away, Fu. You’ve fouled yourself too much to come near.” They left some hard nugget dogfood at the edge of camp, but Fu found an aqueous creature in the stream and devoured it alone in the woods.
The next day, Fu caught himself another gopher and he swam in the pond and he let the sun dry his long, yellow coat to a high gloss. He slept on a ledge overlooking the valley. He watched the Marquettes roast marshmallows and heard them bicker like he had never heard them before. It was then that the great truth came to him. They loved him so much that they came to his own dog kingdom where he was to rule them instead of the other way around. They offered him horrid food so that he would recognize the superiority of his dog heaven. They scowled and howled and scolded him to show him that the human world is not the place for him. He was born to be king of this wilderness.
Fu wanted to make it easier for the Marquettes. After all, they had raised him and loved him and he had loved them. They had sacrificed to bring him here, where they could not live. But now he understood their message. He could not live anywhere else. So in the morning when they dismantled their shelter and packed their dirty pots and pans into the van, he watched from his ledge. He saw the grass wave out of rhythm with the wind and new he must regulate that movement later. The Marquettes called him by his former name, “Fu, Fu, Fu, Fu! Here boy!” But that was no longer him. He didn’t pronounce his new identity in his canine brain, but he understood that it was much more than ‘Fu’. It meant, “Ruler of the “Grass and Gopher Field, Master of the Stink Cat and Swimmer in the Pond, He Who Sleeps Overlooking His Kingdom and Does not Like Noodle Glue.”
The Marquette’s did not know his name. They had not learned it as he had. So all morning long they cried “Fu! Fu! Fu! Fu!” and all morning long he wagged his tail sedately, letting the tangled feathers of his coat move in the breeze.
At last they got in their human conveyance and drove away, leaving an incongruous cloud of dust over their way. As long as he lived, nothing would raise the dust like that again.
And He-Who-Ruled-The-Grass-and-Gophers watched them from his high place and was grateful. He missed them sometimes when the snows came and game huddled deep, but it never crossed his mind to return to the distant life where he had been a hobbled stranger in the land of humans.