I don’t know if Mom instinctively chose a puppy that was like her, or if the puppy chose her for the same reasons, or if it was all a coincidence. What I do know is that the tiny mixed breed puppy Mom named “Simba” looked much like a lion cub with reddish-gold fur and a black face and had pride and personality to match. She was a formidable lady, benevolent but alpha, exactly like my rock of a mother. My family had moved from a Massachusetts suburb to the wild Vermont countryside, settling on a long defunct farm complete with old wooden wagons and spiked metal tines hidden in tall field grasses, a decaying barn full of mysteries, and woods full of once lively logging trails. There were endless opportunities to run and explore. I stayed outside for hours on end, my mother knowing I was in good hands with Simba.
Although we found Simba at a shelter, she was a queen without any question in her mind, and at four years old, I was already clear who was the wiser one of the two of us. There was something almost magical to me about the dog’s confidence, and I can recall thinking of her as an older sister. By the time I was five and she was just over a year old, I was following her about and learning valuable lessons with her guidance. I trusted her wisdom because no one had taught me not to. No one had said, “She’s only a dog”. No one filled my head with ideas of animals being any less than me, lacking intelligence and running through life as near robots, functioning on rude instinct alone. I only saw the wise sister’s confident dog grin, and saw her always looking back to make sure I wasn’t lost. I knew if she told me something, it was true.
Dogs can’t speak like we can, but I knew what Simba said to me. She put her nose to the ground and moved with purpose, telling me there was an interesting animal ahead, and I must be quiet. Sometimes it was a woodchuck we’d spy in a field. Other times she led me to partridge and flushed them, leaving eggs by a tree base to investigate. Once, it was a skunk, but the way Simba barked from a distance, I knew it wasn’t anything I wanted to be close to. By watching her and learning, I became crafty in my own right, approaching or watching snakes, frogs, and birds with stealth until I could grab them with a quick move. I let them go after looking at them awhile. When I caught something, Simba would sit back and look at me with a wide dog-smile and squinted eyes as if I’d learned my lesson well and she was satisfied. I lived for that look.
She gave me sharp stares if I did something she wanted me to stop, and she refused to go where there was danger. On the second winter at the farm, snow pelted our rural north country and built up in record levels. It was days before I could look out and see more than a few feet ahead of me, but when the sun finally came out again, the world was a wondrous vanilla-milkshake-coated land. Simba said snow like this was marvelous to play in, and asked me outside by jumping and snapping at snow, then play-bowing before me with the mischievous twinkle in her eyes. I always listened to Simba’s good ideas, so we raced out together, my human sister, Simba and I, bundled against the cold, holding sleds, and laughing wildly when we plummeted down fresh drifts with Simba running alongside grabbing my boots and pulling them off as she could. It made me furious in a way when I was left with stocking feet in the snow while she raced away, tail waving and thoroughly pleased with her catch, but I never thought of punishing her. She held rank, after all.
Later, after retrieving the boots, my human sister and I thought we would spend some time exploring the barn. There seemed to always be a new discovery in there—stalls and mangers where horses once fed, bits of metal that had unknown purposes, leather straps, piles of hay, dark corners and places you feared to walk because the boards creaked and groaned even under small feet. We had explored the barn many times with Simba leading the way and telling us where we should step and where we shouldn’t. Mom always said, “If Simba won’t go there, then don’t go.” Wisely, she picked the best paths and enjoyed the forays as much as we did even though she had to be the responsible one at all times.
This snowy day was different. We approached the barn doors, my human sister and I encrusted with balls of ice and Simba’s leg feathers similarly encumbered. Suddenly, there was a flurry of angry barking, and we turned to see Simba facing the doors, hackles raised and practically frothing at the mouth with fury. When my human sister moved to open the door, Simba snarled and snapped at the door again, and we both stepped back from whatever was agitating her so. Our parents were on the house roof, shoveling snow piled at least two feet deep. “There must be an animal or something in there!” Our mother called down to us. “Stay out.” She didn’t have to say a word. We knew better than to disobey Simba’s directives.
The moment we turned from the barn doors, Simba stopped barking, but she continued to pace and behave like she was worried. I didn’t know what awful creature could be inside the barn, but I knew it was nothing I cared to face. Were there mountain lions here? “Maybe it’s a rabid raccoon.” My father suggested. My human sister and I had carefully climbed the ladder to be closer to our parents on the roof, and there was only the sound of the shovels “phloofing” into the snow, scraping along shingles, and then the snow floating and landing almost silently on a growing pile in front of the house.
The view was incredible, and I almost forgot about Simba pacing at the foot of the ladder when an ear-splitting, thundering crack pierced the air and then rumbled, vibrating throughout my chest. Our heads snapped up just as the sound faded, and we watched in awe as the roof of the barn collapsed, the sound first, and then the fall, caving in with almost slow motion with some of the walls following until what was once a majestic old building was nothing but a crumpled heap and a milk house standing alone.
No one said a word for the longest time; at least that’s how I remember it. There was no way for us to know the barn would collapse, but Simba had known. If we hadn’t listened to what she told us, my human sister and I would have been inside at the very moment the beams gave out, and there wouldn’t have been a chance to get out in time. I can’t recall what we did for Simba that night, but I know we would have recognized her deed. You see, my parents were never the kind of people who thought animals were less than we are. Simba was part of our family. She was my wise Sister, and I’m thankful with my very life I didn’t grow up with the message that she was anything else.
Tanya Sousa Bio:
Creating and connecting people with the idea that all living things deserve respect and kindness are the two most important threads running through author Tanya Sousa’s life. “I love Einstein’s quote, …if you judge a fish by how well it climbs a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid, ‘ she said, ‘because that quote not only speaks to different forms of human intelligence, but different forms of intelligence overall. All living things are amazing — just differently gifted.’
Tanya has written children’s picture books (find her work at www.RadiantHen.com), magazine articles, and has also published a number of creative non-fiction pieces and essays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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