When I was a youngster growing up in Oklahoma, my family lived in a log house built from the foundation up by my father on a spacious twenty acre lot in the middle of nowehere. One winter afternoon many years ago, my younger brother and I, bundled up tightly in our snowsuits, waddled out the front door to play in the bitter cold. We bounded awkwardly down the hill in too many layers of warmth for comfort and across the little stream towards the flat expanse of long, wild grasses we knew lay up the other slope. Winter's arctic charm had embraced each blade with ice over night, leaving behind a great glimmering field of fragile spires pointing skyward like the spear tips of a tiny pixie army.
We mounted the narrow path upwards through the trees, the boyish joy of razing winter's troop already ringing loud in our ears with its promise of crunch, crunch. The ground frozen solid and hard made the climb all the more treacherous for the smooth soles of our little shoes so we clung to each other for support. And then we heard a whimper.
Winter in Oklahoma sends all signs of life on wing to the warmer south or deep into burrows to wait out the brutality. Several feet of snow fall every year without fail, sometimes leaving six inches or more behind from a single night's passing. The long denuded branches of shedding trees hang heavy with ice for much of the season. Electric lines weigh heavy under the burden, too, and power outages during the winter are not uncommon because cables simply snap from carrying too much load. This time of year is far from hospitable to life and yet here we were, clearly detecting vulnerable signs of it.
My brother and I scrambled a little further up the hill, our stomachs churning that intoxicaing elixir of curiousity and fear which spurs so many wild adventures in the life of a young boy. What we found surprised both of us.
Normally a dog pups during the warmer spring or summer months, Mother Nature having deigned it milder and more conducive to bringing new life gently into the world. But lo, standing before us, gaunt from starvation and trembling from weakness and cold, was a dog with a patchwork coat that looked like a ratty, discarded quilt. Her clutch of half-frozen puppies, newborn and still blind, lay in a little cavity of bare earth, shaking violently and crying out of hunger. Their mother didn't growl or bark but simply moved between us and her babies. I could see it in her big brown eyes. She knew she didn't have the strength to fight us and continue to nurse her young. She waited to see what we would do; I swear by the way she bowed her head, she was begging us two bipeds for help.
I approached this pathetic beast slowly, holding out my mittened hand for her to smell. She approached, sniffed. I rubbed her as best I could with penguin flippers and whispered softly to her. Once she was comfortable around us, my brother and I returned up the hill to our house, a warm wisp of smoke curling from the chimney, to fetch our parents for help.
My mother dragged out the dog house and stuffed it with sheets and rags and an electric blanket whilst my father followed us back to the dog with a cardboard box. Carefully we placed the entire litter in the box for transport . Bounding along side us, Sheba (as I would come to call her) with the triangles of her ears puffed up panted happily back to our house.
None of the pups survived through the spring. Many died during the coldest months either from malnutrition or illness or the effects of long exposure. But my dog Sheba stayed around to become one of my most loyal and protective companions over the years. She may have been nothing but a mutt, but she was my mutt.