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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Amaru and Chickens (p. 53)

From chapter "Cultural Eyeglasses"

The dog who used to eat eggs suddenly died. One day we walked to get the mail, both dogs dashing in circles around me and chasing me sometimes to stumble or slow, and always to smile. When we got home, I noticed that Goldmund, the large one, was wobbly on his feet. I went to the barn to collect eggs. By the time I came out, he couldn’t stand. I ran inside to phone the vet, then to phone my mother to come help. When I returned he could not sit up. I held him while he screamed, not so much out of pain, it seemed, as out of confusion and frustration that his body—which until moments before had served him well—was no longer familiar. My mother arrived. We drove to the vet. Goldmund moaned on the way, and screamed on the table as they tranquilized him. They took his blood. He died that afternoon, of a stroke, caused by a congenital condition that turned his blood to sludge.

The other dog, Narcissus—a black lab/spaniel mix who somehow ended up smaller than either—was disconsolate. The dogs had been inseparable from the moment I brought them together a couple of years before from two ads for free pups in the newspaper. Narcissus wouldn’t eat, and barely left the barn.

I went to the Humane Society, and got another puppy. I knew that dogs are often territorial, having frequently heard Narcissus keen a battle cry as he chased away strays or tangled with the coyotes. It took him less than a minute to warm up to the new one, a border collie cross I named Tupac Amaru.

Amaru is as smart as Narcissus is courageous. I asked him only once to stop biting tires, and only once to stop eating eggs. After the latter I continued to see footprints in the mud or snow near the pfitzers, but instead of eating the eggs, he brought them for me to find: Each day I picked them up from where he gingerly placed them in front of the bushes. I asked him to stop bringing the neighbor’s garbage bags into my yard and scattering the trash about. He stopped. Only later did I discover he was now hauling the bags into a thicket, where I couldn’t see him, and scattering the garbage there. When I found that spot he took the bags to another. Like Narcissus and Goldmund before, the two walk with me to get the mail. Amaru knows which mailbox is mine; he stands on hind legs to put his paws on the box. He has yet to figure out that mail isn’t delivered on Sundays or national holidays.

Soon after I got him, Amaru began to kill birds. Once every two weeks, or three, or four, I would find a chicken in the yard, uneaten and generally unbruised, with some feathers missing from its neck, but dead. I tried telling Amaru, again and again in that stentorian voice, “No! Don’t kill the chickens.” Each time he would roll on his back, and each time I would think the problem was solved. Then a couple weeks later I’d find another dead chicken, unbruised and missing feathers from the neck. I asked him to stop, but this time it did no good. The killings continued.

I caught him in the act several times. It was never so frenetic as I would have imagined, nor even as frenzied as it usually was when I killed a bird. Amaru would be lying calm in the driveway, the chicken’s neck in his mouth. He held it, not chewing or biting hard enough to break skin. On seeing him I would yell, “Cut it out.” He would turn his face to me, startled, then he would stand and slink away, shooting me a sidelong glance. The chicken, unharmed, would look startled, too, and a bit befuddled. She, or occasionally he, would eventually stand, stretch, and walk sedately away as though nothing had happened.

Time and again I witnessed these scenes, and time and again I yelled at him to stop. I don’t consider myself stupid, and I’m not always such a slow learner. It dawned on me that Amaru might be trying to teach me something.

I had not yet repeated the experience where I killed the willing duck, and although some animals had seemed to approach their deaths with nearly that level of grace, quite often they scrapped with me for their lives. I remember a big white muscovy who’d been especially rough with females and some of the other males who gave me a sound thrubbing with his wings as I carried him to the block. I have three circular scars where a rooster dug his spurs a half-inch into my forearm as I tried to kill one of his sons.

Was it possible that the dog was attempting to show me which animals were okay to kill? Or maybe it had nothing to do with me. Perhaps the animals were frightened into passivity by the gaping maw of a creature twenty times their size. This might be possible, but I still thought of the willing duck, and of others almost like him. I have read tales, many of them contemporary, of elk or deer giving themselves willingly to feed traditional indigenous peoples. Is it possible that Amaru was attuned to something I only picked up rarely?

The coyotes returned about this time, and took a chicken. It was the first they had taken for more than a year, and I must admit that they had kept their end of the bargain better than I had, with my dislike of killing. The day before, I had been writing, and heard a squawk. I looked outside, and saw Amaru chasing a young red rooster. Forgetting any possibility of learning from him, I yelled for him to stop, then continued work. The next day I was again writing, and again heard a squawk. I looked outside to see a coyote trotting away. A quick check of the chickens revealed that the coyote had taken the same rooster Amaru chased the day before.

At what point do the lenses fall out of your cultural eyeglasses? At what point do mechanistic explanations wear thin? I had twenty-five birds at the time, which means even if we throw away the coincidence of coyotes appearing on that day, we still have only a one-in-twenty-five chance they would take the same bird Amaru had chosen. Four percent. The bird had not strayed particularly far from the house—the coyote came right up outside my window. Nor was he weak. He was young, firm, and healthy.

Pushing this further, let’s see what we can make of this: mornings when I wake up from a dream about chickens, I know that one has died or disappeared. Am I seeing a pattern where there isn’t one? It could be a coincidence. It could also be that there is a mechanistic explanation. I wondered if I might have heard their struggles—if they indeed struggled—in my sleep, and incorporated that knowledge into my dreams. But it has happened, too, that I have dreamt of chickens, then found a dead chick—as happens now and then—in the duck pool, which is far from my bedroom window. Does this mean that I heard the thrashing of chicks no larger than a plum? Once I dreamt of chickens when I was five hundred miles from home. The next day I called my mother, who was taking care of the animals for me, and she said that a chick was missing, and that another was dead. What is the mechanistic explanation for this? There isn’t one. Oh, no, here we go again! Crazy Derrick insisting that there are other modes of communication to which we don’t pay close attention. It seems possible that Amaru does hear something, and so do the coyotes. Whatever they are hearing tells them it is acceptable, even proper, to kill this particular bird and not another. I hear the same language when I dream.

I asked Jeannette once where dreams come from and she said, “Oh, everyone knows the animals give them to us.” I don’t know if I would agree with her, but I do know that her explanation makes more sense than that given by a physicist friend of mine, who states emphatically that they are the meaningless firings of random neurons.

Amaru finally quit chewing on chickens. The last two times he did it, he left them on the front porch, alive, unbruised, although a little worse for wear. Each time I carried them straight to the chopping block and killed them. I do not know why he quit after this. He may have given up trying to teach me how to listen, or he may have decided I now understood enough to learn on my own. It is also possible that he simply outgrew his puppyish enthusiasm for killing chickens.