It started with a sorcerer.
Don’t tune me out, please—I get it. I didn’t believe in them either. Until one cast a spell on me.
I’d lived selfishly, exceptionally so. Affairs, betrayed friendships, and a decades-long history of littering. It’s a boring story, really, and not the one I’m here to tell.
I was lying in bed in a public hospital after eighty-four years of narcissism that had left me quite alone, when a nurse with curly, black hair and green eyes showed up. “Hello, Mr. Lewis. I’m a sorcerer.”
“Not a sorceress?” I’m not sure why that’s the question that pushed itself through my dry lips, but there’s a lot about the man I was that I’ll never understand.
“We’ve gone to gender-neutral titles.” She proceeded to inform me that, due to my supreme selfishness, I would spend my next life as a dog.
She lifted her hands and spoke several words I’d never heard.
And then I died.
I don’t remember being born. I came to awareness while drinking warm, sweet milk from the teat of a tired dog.
All at once, I knew who I was, what I’d done, and the punishment I’d been sentenced to. I stopped eating and looked around.
That woman hadn’t just made me a dog, she’d made me one of a litter of nine mutts, all with stubby legs, boring brown fur, and ridiculously floppy ears. And she hadn’t sent me to live with a family. I was surrounded by chain link, barks, and stink. An animal shelter.
I shoved one of my siblings to the side and latched on to my mother, my puppy instincts warring with my very human fury.
Once I was no longer hungry, my mind cleared. The sorcerer might’ve set me up for failure, but I was in control of my own life now. I’d go for what I wanted. The way I always had.
The next day, when people came to look for pets, I sat up straight, wagged my whip-like tail and let my tongue hang out of the side of my mouth.
A young woman and her husband fell in love with my soft belly and lolling tongue. I listened as they discussed me with the staff. Weeks later, Ed and Sheila brought me to live at their little house in the city. They named me Moby, after the whale. (My belly was quite round.)
I expected to live a life of ease in my new home. Quickly, I realized my error.
A dog has little control over his existence. Ed taught me to ring a little bell with my nose when I wanted to go outside. All his high-pitched praise couldn’t take away the humiliation of ringing a bell to ask permission to piss.
And the food—how to describe it? Dog food is like greasy, meat-based dry cereal. It tasted better than I expected, but eating it day after day was torture. I wanted to growl at Sheila, “Do you have any idea how many five-star meals I’ve eaten? And you give me this?”
Anxiety slithered into my little gut. Would they ever forget to feed me? What if I ventured into the bathroom, accidentally bumped the door closed, and got stuck? And the big birds I occasionally saw outside—would one snatch me from the yard and make me its breakfast?
As I became daily more aware of my lack of agency, I swear my sensitive canine ears heard the sorcerer’s high-pitched cackle.
I responded the same way I would’ve when I was human. I took what I wanted instead of waiting for someone to give it to me. If the front door opened, I darted out to mark as many neighbors’ mailboxes as I could. I jumped on the one chair that was off limits. Its upholstery was rough on my skin, but I still napped on it for hours when my owners were at work. I chewed on leather shoes (a surprisingly delicious habit).
Sheila and Ed became more and more frustrated. “Why, Moby?” they’d ask as they chased me through the neighborhood or held up another ruined shoe.
If I were capable of laughing, I would’ve. However, their sighs and chiding words affected me, despite myself. Sometimes I caught my ears drooping, and my tail tucked itself between my legs. I never would’ve admitted it, but I missed their smiles and cooing words.
Then, one day, I smelled it—my very favorite scent. Sheila was cooking chicken.
You don’t realize, you can’t understand, how meat smells to a dog. I don’t care how many incredible restaurants you’ve been to, with French-trained chefs and creamy sauces and buttery desserts. I don’t care what delectable odors wafted from your grandmother’s Thanksgiving table. Nothing you’ve smelled as a human can compare to the scent of sizzling chicken when you’re a dog. Drool collected in my mouth as soon as I caught a whiff.
I stood there, tongue darting out repeatedly, eyes wide, tail twitching, silently begging Sheila for a bite.
She was in a hurry, ingredients and pans scattered over the kitchen as she worked on the chicken and a variety of less interesting dishes. “When do your parents get here?” she called as she swept the back of her hand over her flushed forehead.
“Fifteen minutes!” Ed replied from where he was frantically dusting the living-room furniture.
Sheila cursed, then muttered under her breath, her fears emerging in short phrases—“They won’t like it.” “They don’t like me.” “I’ll mess this up.” Not once did she look at me, sitting there with hope written all over my little body.
She finished the chicken and set it on the dining table in the next room. When she went to the entryway to welcome her in-laws, a quick hop brought me onto a chair. Another jump, and I was on the table.
Then I was in heaven, tearing into the chicken, gulping down huge bites of it. It was savory and moist and altogether perfect. I got through a breast and two thighs before Sheila and Ed appeared, leading his parents into the room. I froze. My traitorous tail slipped between my legs.
Ed’s mother let out a soft gasp.
A sob burst from Sheila’s mouth, echoing off the walls, followed by the pounding of her feet as she ran into the kitchen.
My gaze met Ed’s. He’d never laid a violent hand on me, but I truly believed I could smell his fury. A single leap, and I hit the floor, my feet skidding in four directions on the slick wood. I recovered and followed Sheila into the kitchen.
I’m not sure why I didn’t run straight through the room and find a quiet corner to sit in. I saw Sheila sitting on the tile floor, muffling her cries with her hands, and found myself walking to her and sitting in front of her. The tile was cold on my little rump, but I stayed there, waiting.
Sheila looked up. “Oh, Moby,” she choked out. “Why?”
Something squeezed at my heart, something I didn’t remember ever feeling.
The chicken got heavy in my belly. More than ever, I wished I could talk. Since I couldn’t, I leaped onto Sheila’s lap. I nuzzled her neck, and my tongue found her cheeks and kissed away her salty tears.
She held me close to her soft chest for a long time, then pulled back and met my gaze. “I forgive you,” she whispered.
No one had ever told me that before. I guess it was a day for firsts.
Things changed after that. I changed. I didn’t run out the door or sit on the forbidden chair. I didn’t steal leather shoes or food. (Not often, anyway.)
Ed and Sheila frequently scratched behind my ears and called me a good boy, and I could tell they meant it.
At last, I truly settled into my role as a pet. In many ways it remained uncomfortable, being totally dependent on others and having such limited communication skills. But there was a certain beauty to the simplicity: playing and eating, walking and napping.
I stopped growing and was pleased to find my head had reached the level of my owners’ knees. Not too long after that, Sheila began to grow. She and Ed had one baby, then another two years later. I got less attention from the adults and sometimes too much from the toddlers in the house.
Months passed, then years, full of the crunch of boring dog food and the petting of hands big and little and the divine smell of cooking chicken (and, when I was lucky, the taste of it).
One day, when the kids were at school and Sheila and Ed were at work, I lay in a band of warm sunlight on the wooden floor of the living room, watching dust motes and listening to the gentle whoosh of the fish-tank pump. I’d learned to appreciate those times of relative quiet, even though my ears perked up at every small noise as I waited for someone to return home. In that lazy space between sleep and alertness, I considered my unique role in this house.
When Ed, Sheila, and the kids left for work and school, I remained. In those times, I was the only one to hear the thunk of packages on the front porch. When the family went out to dinner, I alone admired the purple-and-salmon sunset through our back window.
Being canine, I detected scents that the humans in the house were unaware of. A home, especially one with children, is a wonderful place for a dog’s nose. The house was full of the odors of dropped food and dirty laundry, along with the intriguing, slightly jealousy-inducing scents brought back by anyone who’d been socializing with other dogs.
And in becoming a dog, I’d lost my human inhibitions. If something smelled amazing, I’d taste it, at least once. I was the only one in the home to know the flavors of dirty socks and crumpled tissues and that one sticky spot on the kitchen tile that sat for weeks before getting mopped up. (Don’t knock any of it until you try it.)
Most importantly, the members of the household felt safe around me. I heard the parents’ quiet conversations about their kids, and I heard the scheming of the kids planning to pull something over on their parents. When someone was angry and didn’t want to be touched by human family members, their hands found me, burying in my fur, scratching that wonderful spot on my neck. I was party to more interactions in this place than anyone—I was the quiet observer, the secret keeper, the comforter.
A home, I thought as I lay in the sunlight, belongs more to a pet than to their humans. The honor of that, the wonder of it, made my eyes heavy with something that would’ve been tears if I could produce them.
This was my home. It was full of the scent of cooking chicken and the taste of dropped crumbs. It featured beaming faces and the click of my toenails. It was lush with the promise of warm hands reaching out for soft fur.
The kids are in elementary and middle school now. Ed’s going bald, and Sheila’s embracing her first strands of gray hair. I suspect this canine life is coming to an end before long.
Sheila told Ed this morning that my vet retired, and the new one will do house calls for an extra fee. She kneels next to me. “Wanna get your checkup here or at the office?”
I used to love occasional rides in the car. But now, the area rug on the floor feels cozier than ever. I roll on my back, and Sheila laughs and pets my belly. “I’ll ask her to come here.”
When the doorbell rings, I don’t run to it like I used to. My ears perk up and my tail thumps as I wait. There are murmurs in the entryway, and as they come closer, I make out a few of the visitor’s words: “Sounds like he’s earned these restful days.” The voice is vaguely familiar.
“He’s a good boy,” Sheila says.
They enter the living room, where I’m lounging. All at once, my entire body stiffens.
The smiling vet has curly, black hair and green eyes.
She kneels and says, “It’s okay, Moby. I’m not here to hurt you.”
For some reason, I believe her. I relax and let her examine me.
When she’s done, she speaks to Sheila, but she’s still looking at me. “I think you’ve still got some time with him.” Her voice is gentle. “And I think this life with you is just what he needed.”
I give her a little nod. Her lips twitch with a half-smile, and for the first time, I consider what it will mean to leave my home. To find rest at last.
I think I’m almost ready.