Six-month-old Finnegan is a handful of soft fur. He’s an affectionate, gung-ho little guy who eats my shorts on the laundry room floor and looks up with earnest eyes as if thinking he’s got lucky again until I catch him. And Ruby, nearing four years, has eyes already wise to the ways of the screwed-up human world. Every day these two West Highland Terriers prove what their veterinarian says matter-of-factly: “Dogs are better than we are.”
Every day two scoops of the same food are received like manna from heaven, tails mad with gratitude, never a grumble like the children of Israel nor hint of a turned-up nose. Every day inside the condo a ball stays put at the end of the hall in case some human wants to play; and outdoors, these dear creatures prove they love snow the way cats love catnip, plowing and rolling in it, the winter air like jet fuel at their nostrils.
Then “Tweedledum and Tweedledee agree to have a battle.” They go at it tooth and nail and no one’s hurt, only once in awhile a conk on a noggin and a little yelp, then it’s back to the playfight — Ruby shows Finney who’s who and he shows her what’s what (or the other way around), sometimes so vigorously that I push my arm into the tussle to keep the play from becoming a fray. If Larraine and I get into a verbal spar, Finney jumps and licks at us until we break down in laughter, while Ruby observes and no doubt remembers having done just the same, and willing now to let Finney deal with us as he may.
Think of the gaps they fill in from our human blabbering.
No duplicity in the canine language, and very little ambiguity. They talk much with their tails (tail-tales, you might say). And with their arresting eyes! Sometimes Ruby’s eyes especially say, Loht die wehte — a Mennonite term of dismissal I heard as a kid, “Let yourself know,” go and become wise. And Finney’s eyes from his tilted head seem often to be inquiring whether we’re too busy to play. A trip to the countryside with these puppies easily cures my daily urban dreads. Back where I grew up, they sniff around the cemetery, leave deposits between graves, and happily head for the car to wait — plainly as finished with my ancestors as I remain attached to them.
By evening we’re back in the city, in our condo. Larraine’s out teaching an ESL class, the jazz channel plays Chet Baker’s “What’ll I Do” as I play with my own lines. Ruby lies slumbering on the floor at my feet, Finney up near my head on the back of the couch — one pup below, one above.
If I am in any sense a god to these dogs, I grant them free indulgence. How I tower over them and their beseeching eyes, yet to me they’re bearers of gifts as wonderful as any the wise men brought to Christ. What if they towered over me on their hind legs — would they say “Good boy”? or “Good god, boy, will you never learn”?
Who is it that forgives seventy-times-seven? It’s Ruby and Finney! (how I wish it were me too). They triumph non-combatively over me, I am disarmed, they make me repent of my human ways. I had expected pets, and was given divinities instead.
They are better than I. So I have named them 1-A and A-1, the best and the best.
Ratzlaff is a former minister, counsellor, and university lecturer. He has authored three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press, and edited an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. He has been short-listed for three Saskatchewan Books Awards, won two Saskatchewan Writers Guild literary non-fiction awards, and served on local, provincial, and national writing organization boards.