nathan alling long
The puppy was the runt of the litter, which is why Caroline wanted her, a small furry softball of a creature that sometimes uncurled itself to reveal legs and head but otherwise slept curled in the old airline blanket we tucked into the corner by the radiator.
While Caroline ogled it and fed it drops of warm milk, I wondered about its will to live, sensing that it might pull itself into an ever diminishing knot, until it slipped into itself and disappeared.
You might say this was the silent wager between us: would the runt survive or not? I had been born prematurely and had complications at birth, so I was not unsympathetic to the puppy’s circumstance. But I had screamed and fought, so my mother often told me, and even when my body reacted to the medications I ‘d been given, she saw in me an unwillingness to let go, which in the end, carried me through the thin hours until I grew strong.
Though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, I’ve always felt that experience allowed me to see within people—within all living things--how great their will to live is.
I thought of all this as Caroline held the pup, which she’d named Ava, short for Avatar. The little creature seemed far from an avatar, but I knew not to say anything. I chose Caroline as a partner, in part, because of her own fierce sense of self, her willingness to fight for what she wanted. It would be futile to suggest a more modest, realistic name.
But about Ava’s fate, I was certain. It barely opened its eyes, and when it did, it gazed at the world as though all its light was too bright, as though it only wanted to retreat into the dark fur of its body.
I would not have to fight with Caroline. I knew I only had to remain quiet, and, when the creature passed away, to comfort her, to not gloat.
Only, the creature did not die. It held on, by a thread, day after day. I thought at times of simply holding my hand over its mouth to extinguish the weak flame, but then I would not be predicting its fate but causing it. And I’d be left with the guilt. Also, I was certain that Caroline would be able to sense what I had done, even if she wasn’t there when it happened.
The only thing was to wait, to watch Ava suffer through each hour of its pale life. A week passed like this, then another. It grew slightly, but still rarely opened its eyes. How much longer would Caroline watch this misery? Of course, I could not ask her this outright. And so I waited, as the silent, still ball of fur in the corner of our kitchen grew, teetering as always on the edge of death.
It was nearly a month after we got Ava that I came home one day and found the blanket by the radiator empty. I was alone. Caroline had gone to work at noon, hours after me, so she was the last to be with Ava. I imagined the situation: her holding Ava while drinking coffee and then gradually noticing the body grow cold. How difficult it would be for her, after these weeks of nursing the runt. I imagined, though she was heartbroken, she’d be too embarrassed or proud to call me, or even send a text.
But then I wondered, what did she do with the body? I first thought she might have buried it outside, but it was winter, a high of a low twenties that day; the ground would have been impossible to chip away. I don’t know why, but I next thought of the toilet, but Ava had grown too large to flush. And so I concluded she must be in the trash, either outside or here in the kitchen.
I’d like to point out here that at least on one account I was right. I walked to the trash can, which rested by the sink, on the opposite side of the kitchen from Ava’s blanket, and that is when I heard the noise. Ava was in the trash, but she was still alive. She was in fact digging through the garbage, eating whatever she came across. It was only later after examining the claw marks on the drawers beneath the counter that I realized she had climbed up into the trash can herself, then fallen in.
I stood there a moment watching her writhe among the food scraps and plastic. A part of me considered again covering her with one of the plastic bags until she stopped moved, then claiming I found her that way. It’s not that I didn’t like her, or, as I said, have sympathy for her situation. It was the thought of being wrong, about her will to live--that left me feeling hollow and shaken.
If I was wrong about this little creature, what intuition did I have about anything?
Anyway, I did the right thing. I pulled her out, wiped her off, and held her against me as I warmed milk for her. It was the first time I had had to feed her, and I could see how the act of holding her and caring for her excited something in her. It was then that it struck me that I had not been wrong about her: she had not had much will to live, but Caroline’s own desire for her had carried her over, had gotten into her.
As I fed her drops of warm milk from a baby bottle Caroline had borrowed from a neighbor, I wondered about my own birth, about how much my survival was really my own doing, and how much of it was my mother’s.
Nathan Alling Long grew up in a log cabin in rural Maryland, traveled for six months through Southeast Asia, and now lives in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in Tin House, Glimmer Train, Story Quarterly, and other journals. His collection of fifty short fictions, The Origin of Doubt, was release in March by Press 53.