THE SPOOKY MOMENT central to this story comes on an evening more than ten years ago.
Trixie, a three-year-old golden retriever of singular beauty and splendid form, adopted the previous September, is in her fourth month with my wife, Gerda, and me. She is joyful, affectionate, comical, intelligent, remarkably well behaved. She is also more self-possessed and dignified than I had ever realized a dog could be.
Already and unexpectedly, she has changed me as a person and as a writer. I am only beginning to understand the nature of those changes and where they will lead me.
Our first house in Newport Beach, in the neighborhood known as Harbor Ridge, had an exceptionally long upstairs hallway, actually a gallery open to the foyer below. Because this hall was carpeted and thus provided good traction for paws and because nothing breakable stood along its walls, I often played there with Trixie on days when the weather turned foul and on cool winter evenings when the sun set early.
Initially, I tossed a ball and sometimes a Kong toy down the hall. The Kong was about six inches long, made of hard rubber with an inch-wide hole through the middle. You could stuff a mixture of peanut butter and kibble in the hole, to keep your dog occupied for an hour or longer. I tried this twice, but Trixie managed to extract the tasty mixture from the Kong in five minutes, which was less time than I took to prepare it.
One evening the rubber Kong bounced wildly and smashed into a small oil painting, splitting the canvas. The painting was very old, and it was one of Gerda's favorites.
When she noticed the damage a few days later, I fessed up at once: "The dog did it."
"Even standing on her hind feet," Gerda said, "the dog isn't tall enough to do it."
Confident that my logic was unassailable, I said, "The dog was here in the hall when the damage occurred. The Kong toy was here. The Kong belongs to the dog. The dog wanted to play. If the dog wasn't so cute, I wouldn't have wanted to play with her. Hall, dog, Kong, cute, play-the damage to the painting was inevitable."
"So you're saying the dog is responsible because she's cute."
I refused to allow my well- reasoned position to be nitpicked. I resorted to my backup explanation: "Besides, maybe she isn't tall enough, but she knows where we keep the stepstool."
So, because the dog had damaged the painting, in subsequent play sessions in the hall, we could not use the rubber Kong. Furthermore, I would not throw the tennis ball anymore, but would only roll it.
I explained the new rules to Trixie, whose expression was somber. "This is a valuable teaching moment," I concluded. "You see, I'm sure, that if you had gone to your mother immediately after you damaged the painting and had taken responsibility, you would not now have this blemish on your reputation."
Following the new rules, I always released the tennis ball with a snap of the wrist that gave it the velocity to roll the length of the hall. Trixie thundered after the ball, either snaring it near the end of its journey or snatching it out of the air if it ricocheted off the leg of a console and took flight. She returned it to me with dispatch, and at once I fired it off again. After twenty minutes, her flanks heaved, her tongue lolled, and though she still considered the tennis ball to be a priceless treasure, she was prepared to entrust it to me for a while.
Lying on the floor, facing each other, Trixie panted and I stroked her luxurious golden coat as she caught her breath.
From the week she came into our lives, Trixie and I had spent some time most days lying on the floor together. I found it relaxing for the obvious reason that a cuddle with a loving dog is always calming. I also found it strange, because she would stare into my eyes as long as I wanted to meet hers-ten minutes, twenty, thirty-and she would rarely be the first to look away.
These sessions were meditation but also communication, though I can't explain what she communicated other than love. I can say that I frequently saw in her eyes a yearning to make herself understood in a complex way that only speech could facilitate.
Staring into Trixie's eyes, I was sometimes silent but at other times talked to her about my day, my problems, my hopes, what ever came into my head. Those who love dogs know well this kind of rap. The dog does not react-and is not expected to react-to any of this, but listens and wonders. Dogs swim through a sea of human speech, listening attentively for words they recognize, patiently striving to interpret what we say, although most of it is and always will be incomprehensible to them. No human being would have such patience. Counting the many commands she had been taught when in training to be an assistance dog and all that she had learned on her own-cookie, chicken, walk, duck, stepstool, oil, painting, restoration, electromagnetism-her vocabulary was at least a hundred words. It would more than double over the years. This got me thinking.... The recognition that words have meaning, the desire to remember them, the intention to act on those that are understood-does all of this lead to the conclusion that the dog also yearns to speak?
On that January night, because Trixie had been an undiluted joy during the previous four months and had already been a force for positive change in me, I said, "You're not just a dog. You can't fool me. I know what you really are."
As if in response, she raised her head, eased back slightly, and regarded me with what might have been concern. Golden retrievers have versatile brow muscles that allow them a wide range of facial expressions. She never before responded to me in this fashion, and I was amused to interpret her look as meaning, Uh-oh, somehow I've blown my cover.
"You're really an angel," I continued.
To my surprise, she scrambled to her feet as if in alarm, ran down the hall, turned, and stared back at me. Muscles tensed, legs spread for maximum balance, head lifted, ears raised as much as a golden can raise them, she seemed to be waiting for what I might say next.
I'm seldom speechless. Trixie's behavior, which seemed to be a reaction to my words, as if she understood every one of them, raised the fine hairs on the nape of my neck and left me mute.
Intrigued, I got to my knees, wondering what she would do next, but she continued to watch me intently when I rose to my feet.
For a minute or two we studied each other from a distance of twenty feet, as though we both expected something of consequence to happen. Her tail did not wag. It wasn't lowered as it would have been if she had been the least fearful. It was a perfect plume, as still as if she had stepped outside of time, where nothing could move her or even one hair upon her, nothing except her own will.
"Trixie?" I finally asked, and when I spoke, she retreat ed another ten or fifteen feet and turned again to face me in the same expectant stance as before.
This was not a dog who wanted solitude or even distance. The closer she could be to us, the happier she appeared. When I was writing, she would sometimes slink under my desk and curl herself into the shape of an ottoman, and she sighed with plea sure when I rested my stockinged feet on her. With Gerda even more than with me, this sixty-plus-pound creature behaved like a lapdog, most content when embraced.
This was the first and last time she wanted distance from me. As we stared at each other, I began to realize that regardless of what Trixie's behavior implied, if it implied anything at all, I should not pursue this matter further if only because it disturbed her. Besides, I was dealing here with the ineffable, the pursuit of which offers endless frustration but no reward other than the thrill of the chase.
I sat on the hallway floor, my back to the wall, legs straight in front of me, and I closed my eyes. The nape of my neck tingled for a while, but when the fine hairs stopped quivering, Trixie returned to me. She snuggled against my side. Putting her head in my lap, she allowed me to rub gently behind her ears and stroke her face.
Later, I told Gerda about the incident, but of course she could make no more of it than I could. We don't have paranormal experiences or go to psychics. We don't even read our daily horoscopes.
I write fiction for a living. I could spin a score of intriguing scenarios out of this one spooky moment with Trixie, but none would be as strange as the truth, if it could be known in this instance. Truth is always stranger than fiction. We craft fiction to match our sense of how things ought to be, but truth cannot be crafted. Truth is, and truth has a way of astonishing us to our knees, reminding us that the universe does not exist to fulfill our expectations.
Because we are imperfect beings who are self-blinded to the truth of the world's stunning complexity, we shave reality into paper-thin theories and ideologies that we can easily grasp, and we call them truths. But the truth of a sea, in all its immensity, cannot be embodied in one tide-washed pebble.
When we write a novel, concoct a new political system, devise a theory to explain the workings of the human mind or the evolution of the universe-we are fictioneers, bleaching the rich narrative of reality into a pale story that we can better comprehend. We go wrong when we don't admit the unknowable complexity of reality, but we go dangerously wrong when we claim that one pale story-or an anthology of them-is truth. We arrive at the paleness to avoid consideration of the daunting truth in all its fierce color and infinite detail.
I can never know the truth of that spooky moment with Trixie, but what I do know is that throughout the years she was ours to cherish, she continually surprised us, as truth will. She made us laugh every day, and at times we wept in anguish because of her. She weighed only sixty-something pounds, I occasionally called her Short Stuff, and she lived less than twelve years. In this big world, she was a little thing, but in all the ways that mattered, including the effect she had on those who loved her, she lived a big life.
In each little life, we can see great truth and beauty, and in each little life we glimpse the way of all things in the universe. If we allow ourselves to be enchanted by the beauty of the ordinary, we begin to see that all things are extraordinary. If we allow ourselves to be humbled by what we do not and cannot know, in our humility we are exalted. If we allow ourselves to recognize the mystery and the wonder of existence, our fogged minds clear. Thinking clearly, we follow wonder to awe, and in a state of awe, we are as close to true wisdom as we will ever be.
Trixie was innocent and joyful, but also at times enigmatic and solemn. I learned as much from this good dog as from all my years in school.
Excerpted from A Big Little Life by Dean Koontz Copyright © 2009 by Dean Koontz. Excerpted by permission.
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