by Coral Staley
We hadn’t seen my father in 7 years when he showed up on our doorstep that hot summer day. All I felt was fear. I was the oldest, at 15. My sisters were 12 and 9. I told him he would have to return when my mother was home from work. I don’t think this went over well with my sisters, who were, without shame, excited to have their father back. And I admit, I wanted a father too. But not this one. I wanted a different father, a big strong man who would protect us from this one, the one I had no doubt would be beating on my mother again in no time. And maybe us too.
I knew for a short time there would be gifts and sweet talking, so I set upon my mission. I had wanted a dog for a long while, mainly for protection from him. I had a fantasy of a dog attacking my father, risking its own life to protect us. I expected my dad to object to my getting a dog for this reason, but he surprised me when, after showing him a picture of the Rottweiler puppy I wanted, he said he knew about a guy in the Ozarks who was selling wolf pups, and wouldn’t I rather have a wolf? Well, of course I would! The only problem was that I would have to sit in close proximity to my dad for over 8 hours, in the cab of his truck, the same damn green GMC I remembered him pushing my mother out of all those years ago without even slowing down.
I don’t remember what took place during that long ride from Cape Girardeau to the Ozarks and back. I remember the man breeding the wolves was also breeding pythons — in his trailer, which he explained was the reason it was close to 85 degrees in there. He had a box with 4-week-old wolf pups he was bottle-feeding. They were dark brown, almost black, and already mewling little howls, which I found terribly cute. My pup, which was 10 weeks old, was the last one left of his litter and in a cage outside all by himself. He let us see all of his wolves, then the Malamutes, Huskies and German Shepherds he used for cross-breeding. He said in order for it to be legal to have a pet wolf, they couldn’t be more than 85% wolf. But he confided to us that mine was likely even more wolf than that. I didn’t know if this was true, or how someone could even verify this, but I wanted it to be true.
I had just finished reading The Omen. So naturally I named him Damien. It was one of those strong names, like Madonna, that stands by itself. He had lost that first dark coat and was light blonde. He had some of the wolf markings already; his tail had a prominent V of dark hair about three-quarters up, and a similar V up on his forehead. His ears were already standing up and filled with downy white hair, like he was ready for the Arctic.
We were in no condition to have a dog. For one, I knew nothing about obedience training a dog. And dog food was expensive. Our poor cat, Applejack, was forced to live on birds, rabbits and squirrels or else be served stale bread, cereal, or whatever we could come up with once the generic cat food ran out. Food stamps didn’t cover cat food. And we couldn’t afford getting her spayed, so we always had gooey-eyed kittens we were trying to figure out what to do with.
The landlord only said yes to the dog as long as the dog stayed outside. So he was kept on a chain in our backyard for the first couple years of his life. It wasn’t long before my mom and dad were fighting again, and eventually he moved to St. Louis, claiming he was getting his life in order and buying a house for us. Life pretty much resumed to normal. Mom got a new boyfriend.
Damien grew into a beautiful animal that stopped traffic when we went for walks, “Is that a wolf??” I often snuck Damien inside the house and let him sleep in my bed, and I taught him tricks, which back then I equated to obedience training. To teach him to sit, I pushed his butt down into the sitting position and said, “Sit.” After that, I said “Sit,” and he sat down. It was that easy to teach him things. I taught him to lie down, stay, roll over, speak and give kisses. I don’t think he ever went to the bathroom in the house. And really he was like a dog for the first few years. It wasn’t until around three or four years old that he “turned to breed.”
One day, Damien decided he wasn’t going to take orders from us anymore. And that was that. You could tell him to sit, but he’d just look at you, with those piercing wolf eyes. We moved into a house in what was considered the bad part of town, where white folks were the minority. And almost right away my sisters and I became targets for bullying, especially my youngest sister, who was routinely followed home from school by several kids. On one occasion, she was hit in the back of the head by a basketball. She thought if she brought Damien out on a leash that he would be intimidating enough that they would leave her alone. What she didn’t expect is that the minute he was let out, he went right for them, breaking free from his leash, and pinning the girl who had thrown the basketball at my sister up against a wall and biting her back. When my sister recounts the story to me, what amazes her most is that the bullying had taken place long before this point, but somehow he knew what had happened, who had done it, and what he needed to do. What’s also amazing is that he did not draw blood from this girl. The bite was simply a warning to leave my sister alone. Still, there were threats about putting him down and this or that, but ultimately, my sister wasn’t bullied anymore. And this is also when Damien became her dog.
The neighbors showed their reverence for him by throwing a whole pig into his enclosure. Alive or dead, we don’t know. It was my sister who cleaned up the mess of intestines and guts strewn all over the yard. She remembers him playing with the four pig’s feet. He would throw them into the air, then, not knowing where they had landed in the deep snow, sniff them out and dig them back up. Rosie says: Almost all the neighbors regularly threw treats and toys to Damien. (All but the home of the girl he attacked and her family anyway.) He had something about him that made people love him. Even though he looked wolf and could be intimidating, something about him made the people of that neighborhood really love him. You mentioned that he was revered by the neighbors but it doesn’t really convey completely the way they felt about him. I also wonder if they felt like they had to take care of him because we couldn’t always.
When I was 18, I joined the Air Force, and like so many irresponsible teenagers do, I left Damien for my mother to figure out what to do with. It was also around this time that my mother was left a small inheritance from her aunt and put down a deposit on a house a couple miles away. The problem was, we had no idea that wolves mate for life, and unbeknownst to us, Damien had chosen his mate back in that other neighborhood: a dog across the alleyway that I’d hardly even noticed before, chained to a doghouse. Every opportunity he got, he was escaping from the new house and returning to her.
It’s almost a sweet story, except, he was very protective of this other dog. He wouldn’t even let her owners feed her, snarling and snapping and causing quite a stir. There were times that my mother was able to get him into the car herself. But other times Animal Control was called, and every time it got harder to catch him. He became even more possessive and vicious. They tranquilized him after the third time and told my mother if it happened again, the Conservation Department would be called, and he would be taken into their custody.
Eventually, on one of these treks back to our old house, he was hit by a car and came home with a pin in his leg. It was then that he became a house dog, and as my sister says, he slowed down. Another reason I believe that he became a house dog is that he simply stopped taking orders to go outside. He’d taken up growling, as if daring my mother or sisters to even try forcing him. Rosie says: I don’t think Patty was around. She moved to California with Dad shortly after we moved to this house. I remember him always darting in the house but never being aggressive to stay in. When he had the pin put in his leg they discovered that he had heartworms pretty bad. At that point in time they were just discovering how to treat them with strychnine. It was 50/50 if he would even survive. It was really expensive for Mom too. Somehow Mom would always take care of the animals when it counted. Once at home, the treatments gave him life-threatening diarrhea. He hid in the basement for the most part. The vet told my mother and sisters to try to get Pepto Bismol into him. It didn’t take long for Damien to only just see that pink bottle and become the scariest thing you’d ever seen, like having Cujo in your basement Rosie says: I remember he seemed a little crazy right after his treatment. I wondered if he was having a bad trip like being on acid. While he was in the basement he was having an episode and scratched the door at the top of the stairs as he was desperately trying to come upstairs for whatever thing that spooked him. The door looked torn up as if a bear had done it. It is still that way today. I came home for a visit and thought I’d just waltz on down there and he’d know who was boss. But Damien quickly let me know that our dynamic was no longer. He was now the alpha, and I better back off. I was worried about my family after that, and knew I’d blame myself if something happened. And I felt like it was just a matter of time.
My mother for whatever reason was sleeping on the couch (Rosie says: Mom slept on the couch because I was always getting into trouble and juvenile detention was calling her so much) and he’d even claimed her spot on the couch as his. And she submitted to this arrangement. Mom says: Actually we ended up sharing the couch. I wasn’t about to give up the couch. I liked the couch because it was close to the door and phone, but also because it was easiest on my back. It’s the little things that count sometimes.
Always a spiritual person, my mother was heavy into astrology, and it was around this time that she developed a deep spiritual bond with Damien, a relationship I don’t think she ever had before or after with a pet. While stationed in England, I found a book called Women Who Run with the Wolves and sent it to her. It was about women learning to embrace their wild, instinctual selves. I connected my mother’s kinship to Damien as her way of embracing her own wildness, a wildness continually being stamped out–by men, by being a single mom to three unruly girls, and by the hard manual labor of working at a saw mill for twelve hours a day. I believe she saw Damien, 85% wolf or not, driven by instincts, refusing to be domesticated, and it fanned the embers of her own stubborn soul, and maybe even vindicated the path she had taken so far, raising us on her own, as hard as it was.
The day finally came that he somehow sneaked out the front door and ended up back at that house, which brought the Conservation Agency into things. Rosie says: Damien became so docile that we would trust him to be outside off a leash. Mom left his gate open after doing some yard work or something and he wandered off. That’s where her guilt stems from. The conservation authorities said the laws had changed. Damien would be released to my mother only if an enclosure was built that met the requirements for housing an exotic species. He would no longer be allowed on walks. While my mother set about having this enclosure built, he was kept at Animal Control in a small cell and not taken out for six weeks. My sister visited him on a regular basis, and one day she walked in and was simply told, “The animal went crazy and was euthanized.” What broke my heart was my mother, hearing her sob as she told me about the last visit to see him, when he jumped up whining, wagging his tail, expecting her to take him home as usual. Twenty years later, my mother still finds it too painful to even recall her memories of Damien.
About the author
Coral Staley has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction but is too busy with her two boys to give writing much thought these days. She does, however, find time to paint and considers it another form of creative nonfiction.