Mamma taught me that every day is a new dream. And I woke each mornin’ curious to see what the dream would bring. Mamma what dream is it today? And her answer seemed to depend on the weather, or the messiness of the house, or the flakiness of her crust. Sometimes the dream would be of butterflies and numbers and running late. And others would be of butter and mixing and berries picked fresh or piles of laundry and dirty plates. It didn’t really matter much which dream it was ‘cuz they were all wonderful thanks to our old hound dog — Bertie. Bertie was in every one of them.
But today’s dream was different. It was dark and spooky, and alone. When I opened my eyes I could almost hear the house moan, the way it did in the darkest nights. There was no sense of alive in today’s dream, no pretend boat in which to set sail, no morning noises floating up the stairs — no colors and sounds and the thudding of Bertie’s tail. I looked at my window, the curtains stretched open wide, but not a single ray of sun came in to say “HI”. Outside the sky was grey and flat like the inside of my locker at school and the air was thick with wet, like it was about to cry.
I stepped tentatively…Aunt Betty taught me that word. She’d taught me lots of words before she left…I have been told when it comes to words I’m a regular “virtuoso”…I stepped tentatively from my bed, using my big toe as bait. When it hit the ground, nothing grabbed it. So I let the whole weight of my foot fall soft against the worn wood floor. I waited a minute for Bertie’s wet nose, for his warm tongue kisses, for today’s dream to begin. But Bertie never came.
From downstairs came an unfamiliar smell. In the usual dreams, morning was bacon and syrup and at especially lucky times, muffins filled with blueberries and cream. Maybe I was in the wrong house? I tiptoed to my bedroom door and pushed it a bit further than the crack mama left at night for the trail of monster eating light. I stuck out my nose, then let the rest of my face follow. I turned my head left then right. Still no Bertie. Still no life. Just the smell of empty and strange.
Sensin’ this was a time for Mr. Bun, I grabbed him by an ear before I ventured down the hall in search of answers and, with any luck, muffins. I stopped at the top of the stairs and peered down listenin’ carefully for Bertie or mamma, or any sound. Nothing. The house felt cold and my nose began to run. I wiped at it with Mr. Bun and nearly forgot to apologize, then went slowly down the stairs. I tried to keep my shoulders back and my head held high the way papa had taught me before he left, but my steps felt heavy and my flannel nightie was all weighed down with caution. I kept havin’ to look down, so I wouldn’t fall down the stairs like Aunt Betty and end up all bent and re-arranged in the head. Poor Aunt Betty had to move to some new town, a place called Certifiable or somethin’ like that. And people was now always goin’ around sayin’ Aunt Betty’s half-baked, which I know aint’ true. I’d had her cupcakes many times and they were always lovely and fully cooked. Mamma said that things changed after the fall. I hated to think of Aunt Betty sittin’ all alone on her porch in Certifiable with half baked goods.
“Careful, Mr. Bun.”
With each step I felt hotter and I was itchy all over, like the time I’d had the hives. By the time I finally arrived at the bottom of the staircase I was all sweaty and needin’ water bad.
Voices floated to me and fluttered around my head like the soft beating of fairy wings. I strained to hear what the whispers said, but the kitchen door was closed. Careful to avoid the piece of floor that got to complain’n whenever you stepped on it, I skirted along the side, pushin’ myself and Mr. Bun as close to the purple velvet of the wallpaper as I could. I stopped just outside the door and pressed my ear against it, hard.
I could hear mamma. “…to a tiny child?” There was no reply, but there were sniffles, like the ones mamma made when papa left. The sound of scrapin’ chairs came next and I stumbled back just as the swinging door swung my way. Mama came through and when she saw me she jumped and grabbed at her heart, a thing I’d seen her do before, both when papa left and when Aunt Betty nearly kilt herself.
“Lily girl, you done scared me near to death!”
“Sorry, mamma.” I stared down at my feet. Papa said there were times to keep your head down too. I sensed this was one of ‘em.
A strange man came out behind mamma and knelt down to shake my hand.
“Well, aren’t you the sweetest lil’ thing. You must be Lily?”
He smiled at me and I liked the way his eyebrows looked like two giant fluffy caterpillars kissing. “Why, y’sir I am. And you are?”
Laughing, he stood up and patted me on the head, like a dog — where was that dog?
“I’m Dr. Young.”
“You don’t look very young.”
He smiled and said, “Your mamma needs to talk to you now, so I’ll be off,” he turned toward the door, “I’ll be in touch with you ma’am.”
“Thank you Dr.”
“Mamma, where’s Bertie? He didn’t come in my room when I got up. And there is no sun. I thought we were gonna take him to the park today, but it looks like it’s gonna rain, and I ain’t seen my galoshes since Aunt Betty moved. And, hey have you talked to her lately? I was jus’ thinkin’ about her and missing her bakin’…”
“Lily darlin’, why don’t you and Mr. Bun come sit with me on the couch. We have somethin’ to discuss.”
“Is everything alright? I thought I heard sniffles. You sick?”
Mamma took my hand and led me to the violet couch and sat me down on one of the soft wrinkly cushions. Mamma loved purple, the whole house was done up in it, like it was the only color home furnishings came in, which I knew wasn’t the case ‘cuz I’d seen the inside of Mrs. Finch’s place next door, and there were lots of colors. Reds and greens and…
“Lily sweetie, I’m jus’ gonna come right out and tell you…” Mamma didn’t look at me as she talked, instead she looked over my head and toward the door like she was expectin’ company.
I let mamma sit there and look for a while, but my stomach was growlin’ and I was still thirsty. “Mamma I’m thirsty.”
“Hmmm? Oh, yes. We’ll get you some water in a jus’ a minute. Darlin’, the thing is, everything that’s livin’ will someday have to die…”
I didn’t like the sound of this. “Yes, mamma I learned that a long time ago.”
“Lily, even animals have to die someday…”
I imagined that’d be true, seein’ as how they’s livin’, but I didn’t want to interrupt and explain that to mamma.
“Lily, even animals that you know and love will someday have to die…”
“NOOOOOOO! Bertie!” I sprang off the couch, “Bertie! Bertie! Heeeerrrrreeee Bertie!”
Mamma was fast for a fat lady and caught me real quick. She pulled down on my shoulders and made my body still, but my mind and heart were still racin’ through the house lookin’ for the ol’ hound I loved more than all the world, even more than Mr. Bun, and Aunt Betty too…though I don’t suppose you’re allowed to say things like that out loud. I couldn’t see mamma too well because I was cryin’ harder than I had since papa left and our world had gone from three people to two and an old hound.
Bertie showed up on the back porch the day papa left. Bertie had fleas on his ears and snot dripped from his nose like taffy, but I loved him the moment I first saw him and I knew he felt the same ‘bout me. He had big brown eyes like papas and a skinny body like Mrs. Finch next door. Mrs. Finch was always generous with her licorice, her smiles and her stories. And even though Bertie didn’t tell stories like people did, he communicated better than any person I’d ever met. He was warm and solid and always there when you needed a landing spot for your tears. Which was more than I could say about some folks.
When I started school, and I walked away from the house, Bertie trailed behind till mamma made him stay. I’d never seen disappointment like that, not to this day. He made you feel special, like you were the hero of his world. Like if you didn’t come back from school he’d just die.
When Bertie came to live with us, he just fit. We never knew where he came from, he didn’t have any tags, and we never saw any signs for a missin’ dog that looked like him. Mamma said someone must’ve just abandoned the poor thing.
But I knew different. I couldn’t prove it, but I knew he was sent to us. I had finally figured it out one day when he jumped up on my bed and snuggled up and he was just so…warm. He came to us, on the very morning papa left. The sky was watching. It saw papa walkin’ away and knew he wasn’t comin’ back to us. And it decided to take a piece of the sun just for us. It broke off the warmest part and dropped it on our street, where it turned into an old hound. Because everyone knows a hound dog is the most loyal, and loving of all God’s creatures. Bertie came to warm our spirits and our bodies on the day we needed it most.
And for every day after that Bertie filled our home with tail wags, and howls that could send the whole neighborhood into an up-roar and the love around our house grew and grew, till if someone was standin’ on the sidewalk out front, and starin’ at it real hard, it was almost hard to tell it was missin’ a papa.
We buried Bertie out back. Mamma wanted to do it under the apple tree, but I put my foot down, somethin’ I don’t regularly do, but I held my head up as tall as I could and I said, “We have to bury him where I first saw him, in the exact spot we fell in love.”
And mamma wasn’t even mad at me for crossin’ my arms and tappin’ my foot while I said it. She just grabbed me and held me tight and started in on her snifflin’. And we buried our ol’ hound dog right here under the backyard porch.
As long as I live, and I’m hopin’ that’s for a good long time to come yet, I will never forget Bertie and how he grew love out of a house without soil, how he taught us that we didn’t need papa to grow, that we could make up our own dreams — that we could be our own kind of seeds. And that we could bloom.
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