Wednesday, October 20, 2010


When I found the following short story in some old records, I initially thought it was true. But then I realized it was one of Mother's works of fiction, with elements of reality. There indeed was a parade of odd pets through her childhood and there were four children in the family at the time the story was written, probably about 1949. But, to the best of my knowledge, the family never lived in a two-story house and they never suffered a fire. From the looks of the paper, this story was turned in as a class assignment, possibly during Mother's Freshman year in college.

My childhood was generously populated with pets ranging from flying squirrels to mice and even a meadowlark, who, after carrying a broken wing in an improvised sling for two weeks, refused to leave. There was an unbelievably awkward rooster who came racing to me when I whistled. There was a cat--tawny, mysterious Tiger--whom I will never forget.

But the pet that will always hold first place in my memory is a dog. Rusty wasn't just a plain dog. To us children, he was the most beautiful animal in the world. We showered affection upon him, and often denied our childish longing for the last piece of pie so that we could give it to Rusty, and watch his big, dark eyes shine as he ate. We shared our candy with him, and spent hours brushing his rust colored coat until it glinted gold as he ran in the sun.

We loved the big shepherd with all our hearts, and he returned our affection impartially, although it sometimes seemed that my baby brother held the biggest place in his heart. Rusty guarded the year-old toddler with anxious care. It was his favorite trick, and one that made our neighbors marvel, to lift the child by his shirt, and carry him, kicking and laughing, to my mother.

There came a day when we were grateful for Rusty's intelligence and faithfulness.

It was only a few days after Christmas of 1942 when disaster struck us. I woke at 2:30 in the morning, and sat up in bed, staring sleepily at the dim outlines of the window. The house was still and quiet. But outside Rusty was barking and howling insanely. I jumped from the bed and ran to the window to investigate. The floor was queerly hot beneath my bare feet. Outside Rusty yelped as if in agony. Sick with dread, I threw up the window. By leaning far out, I could see the bottom floor of the house. The windows framed and held the orange glow of fire. Flames crawled sickeningly swift up the vine on the kitchen wall.

Screaming hoarsely, I ran down the hall toward my parents' bedroom. As I reached the door, they met me, and Dad swung me up in his arms as he shouted to wake the three younger children. Smoke, thick and choking, welled up the stairway. Outside neighbors gathered and shouted frantic instructions. Fire crackled and roared as portions of the floor began to melt away near us. Huddled together, coughing from the smoke and heat, we made our way down the stairs. The west and north walls of the living room were sheets of flame as we ran through into the cold wind outside.

Neighbors sobbed with relief as we stumbled into view. Rusty whined anxiously and pressed against me as I stood shivering and crying. The house was almost completely devoured.

"Where's little Bobby?" a woman suddenly cried. She had failed to see my father carrying my brother to safety. "Bobby's still in there!" she screamed, and Rusty pressed closer to me. Spying him, she dragged at his collar. I fought at her hands, trying to tell her over the roar of the flames that he was safe.

"Go get Bobby, Rusty," she shrieked, "get little Bobby!"

Rusty bristled and howled wildly as he broke away from my restraining grasp.

"Come back, Rusty!" I sobbed, but he was gone. Back into that raging inferno he plunged, driven by love for his little companion.

I ran closer to the house, and heard Rusty scream in agony. There was a glimpse of the faithful dog near the door, his coat in flames, just before a section of the ceiling fell and trapped him inside. This seemed a signal, for almost immediately, the entire second floor crashed through and I turned away, crying bitterly.

We finally forgave the poor neighbor who was responsible for Rusty's death, and even accepted the puppy she gave us to replace him. We didn't tell her it couldn't be done. Rusty has been gone for seven years, but his memory will always live in the hearts of the children he loved.

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