For almost a week, I've been feeding a stray dog that I'm calling Cleo. I first saw Cleo from the bedroom window. She was standing in the middle of a patchy sunlit clearing, an empty lot beside my parents' condo. White with large brown spots, she reminded me of a skinny, lost calf. She looked around, taking a step first in one direction and then another, as if she wasn't sure how she'd ended up here or where she should go next.
Immediately, I slipped on flip flops and went to see if she was wearing a collar. She was no longer on the empty lot but lying on my parents' back porch. The moment she saw me, she jumped to her feet and bolted toward the side fence. The yard is only fenced on two sides: the back is a thick tangle of mesquite and oak trees, and the right side opens up to that empty lot, and then a road and a hotel beyond. At first, she stood near the fence and we stared at each other, frozen. I thought her teeth might be bared, but I couldn't be sure. Then she disappeared among the bramble, and no amount of calling or whistling brought her back out.
She was medium-sized, a bit bigger than a Jack Russell, maybe. Skinny and scraggly, with dirty paws, leaves caught in her fur, and one eye--the one on the white side of her face--that looked pink. Feral was the word that came to mind. But the two glimpses of her when she was alone--once in the empty lot, sniffing the air, and the other curled up on the cement porch--also showed a sweetness. She struck me as afraid and tired, mistrustful and hungry.
That night, I filled a bowl with water and draped a thick cut of ham along the side. I kept checking on them, but by the time I went to bed, they remained untouched.
The next morning, the bowl was empty, the ham gone.
My parents were up for a couple of days, and they were as pleased as I that she had eaten. My dad walked over to my brother's, next door, and brought back a container of dog food that my brother kept for his golden retriever, Stella. He poured some in the bowl, then ripped up another cut of ham. Finally, he sprayed around the perimeter of the bowl with antkiller (something I'd neglected to think of the night before).
"She'll have a good meal if she comes back," my dad said.
Later, the bowl was empty, but we'd missed her again. She was a phantom, appearing only when she knew she would not be seen.
On the day my parents left, my dad suggested we look for her along the fenceline. We walked together, quiet, straining to see through the overgrowth of dry south Texas foliage.
"There she is," my dad breathed. "See her?"
I squinted. I could barely make out a splash of white through branches and leaves, but the moment I focused on her face, she ran. The brush rustled with her movements, but we weren't able to find her again before my parents left.
I left more food for her that night, and the next morning it was gone. Twice that day she ate the food I left, drank the water I poured, but I never saw her.
I'd never before met a dog so skittish, so achingly terrified of human contact. I wondered how old she was--she still looked fairly young, in the glimpses I'd caught. I wondered if she'd been abused, if that was why she couldn't bear to be less than twenty feet away from us without running, or if she'd been born on the street, a lifetime stray, guarded and lonely and driven by hunger. I thought of Lola, who drapes herself over our laps and necks and even faces, supremely sure of her safety with us, our love for her. I wished Cleo could know what that felt like.
On Friday morning, I went outside to refill Cleo's bowl, and stopped mid-step. She was partially hidden behind a small tree, and we stared at each other as if one of us had been caught doing something forbidden. Slowly, I sank down and sat on the cement, cool and wet from a thunderstorm the night before. I called to her softly and tossed a kibbel in her direction. Her face, split evenly between brown and white, was a mask of indecision. She didn't trust me, wasn't sure this wasn't a trick. But she was hungry and this was food, so she took a step closer and ate the kibbel. For the next ten minutes, I tossed food to her, bringing her closer and closer until finally she was standing on the porch. Her long tail was shoved so far between her legs that at first I thought the fur on her stomach was particularly long and matted. Up close, I saw that her eyes were a warm brown. The left one, indeed, was pink, possibly infected.
"It's okay," I murmured. "I'm not going to hurt you."
I felt like any number of fairy tale characters as I drew her nearer to me via a trail of food. Finally she was close enough to touch, but I didn't dare. Instead, I scooped out a handful of kibbel and held out my hand. She looked from my face to my palm, shaking, ready to bolt at any sudden movement. Then she lowered her snout and gently began eating the food I held. The warmth of her tongue made me smile, thinking of Lola's indiscriminate kisses.
I fed her this way for another ten minutes, and when the food was gone, she ran back to the safety of the fenceline, where she again disappeared.
I was heading out of town for the weekend, and I'd run out of food. I was already running late, but I couldn't bear the thought of Cleo coming by for two days and finding nothing, so I sped to the store to buy her a new bag. I left the bowl full, sheltered from the heat by the kennel I dragged outside from the garage. I refilled the dish full of water and left that for her, too.
When I got home yesterday, the first thing I did was check on the bowls. Empty.
"Cleo!" I called. She appeared within moments, as if she'd been waiting nearby for just this. "There you are," I said, delighted. I sat down and poured some food into my palm. She trotted up to me after only a moment's hesitation.
She ate hungrily, but when I tried to stroke her side, she flinched and took a few steps away, staring at me as if I'd broken our covenant. As an apology, I poured food into her bowl and gently nudged it toward her, leaving her to eat in peace. We repeated the routine for dinner.
This morning, she was waiting for me in the backyard. She looked healthier, still thin and lanky but not so rib-skinny anymore. One of her upright ears flopped endearingly toward her eye. I fed her by hand again, and this time, she let me gently stroke her side as she ate. She was still trembling, tail still between her legs, but it was a far cry from a week ago, when fear made even the sight of me unbearable. After she ate, she sniffed around her bowl for a bit. Then, so quickly I thought she must have just missed the cement, she licked my big toe. She looked at my face, and then she left.
I've been thinking a lot about trust this week. How easily we take it for granted when we have it, and how painful and slow the process of regaining it is once it's been lost. I feel a certain kinship with Cleo. I understand her wariness, her unease, her fear. I understand that her trust will come in pieces, if it comes at all. But there is something rewarding, maybe even redeeming, about each time we both try.