Iris Garr rose at four every day before school to feed and water the dogs in the barn. They weren’t hers. They would never be hers. She used to beg—how old had she been then? She didn’t remember it,…
I’m not allowed to watch the ASPCA ads on TV. Whenever one comes on, at the very least, my husband says I have to mute it and look away, if not turn the channel or turn the whole damn television off. He’s right. I just can’t handle seeing the shivering dogs, the mangy dogs, the dogs with green, puss-filled eyes, the dogs with embedded collars, the dogs chained up outside in the snow and ice, the dogs dying of heatstroke with no water, the dogs, the dogs, the dogs.
I tend to spiral down into animals’ suffering, reduced to a quivering puddle of tears, and that is especially true for dogs. So when I streamed the British-Canadian series Tin Star, and saw the wall of breeding dogs in tiny cages in the barn at the mobile home property where Jack Devlin, a cop deep undercover, was living with a strung out junkie and her sweet son (who desperately loved one of those dogs but lost the dog to the violence his mother, father, and Jack sowed all around him), the image of that wall of pitiful dogs in cages has haunted me ever since. Dogs in cages in a barn, never taken out. Dogs as money.
And so was born “Origami Dogs” a year and change later. Like the boy Simon, Iris loves her mother’s dogs. And like in Tin Star, the dogs are relegated to their enclosures in the barn, never taken out except to breed. Gloria considers them money and is now cutting costs by inbreeding the dogs, something I’m fairly certain Simon’s mother would have done in Tin Star. But there the similarities end. Iris is older than Simon and better equipped and experienced to take care of the dogs, and she does.
It’s a fine line but I wanted my story’s dogs both well cared for and loved as well as neglected. Iris adores the dogs and spends almost every free minute she has with them. She puts in far more time than her mother, yet it’s Gloria’s business and Gloria sets the rules, such as no naming the dogs and, though it doesn’t occur to Iris until the end of the story, not taking the dogs out for exercise. It’s something so obvious to anyone with a dog. We take the dog for a walk in the morning, a walk in the evening or, if we have a fenced yard, maybe let the dog out in the yard or play fetch a couple of times a day. Dogs need exercise. And they’re not hamsters; they don’t pee and poo in pine shavings. But Iris has grown up with her mother’s dogs in this barn and so this is the setup she knows until it finally occurs to her that it could be something else. Walking that line of Iris loving the dogs while also failing them was heartbreaking to me, though as a mother, I am certainly familiar with the phenomenon.
What matters most in the wake of failure is always the realization and change that follow. Iris tells the dogs they are her family. She arranges the origami animals in parade then calls each dog and puppy by name, believing the very act of doing so to be a gift and a blessing to each one of them. I just couldn’t leave the dogs without her covenant for better care.
Can Iris watch the ASPCA ads? Yes, I believe she is strong enough to face all those hurting, starving, tortured dogs. And I think one of these days, she may just go out into the world and save them all.
NOLEY REID is author of the recent novel Pretend We Are Lovely, which O, The Oprah Magazine called “scrumptious.” Her previous books are the short story collection So There! and the novel In the Breeze of Passing Things. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Southern Review, Split Lip Magazine, Arts & Letters, Meridian, The Rumpus, The Lily, Bustle, Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, Publishers Weekly, and Other Voices. She serves as the nonfiction editor of Capable Magazine, a new literary journal on illness and disability. She lives in southwest Indiana with her two best boys. Learn more at NoleyReid.com.