Just about every afternoon of her life—the part she’s lived with me, anyway—Roo gets a good walk. Lately, because she has expunged the entire rat population of east Oklahoma and parts of west Arkansas, she has taken to hunting the mud banks of Long Lake. She detected some kind of mysterious amphibious rodent in a labyrinth of burrows down there. They’re probably an undiscovered remnant of prehistory, untouched over the eons because of the impenetrable brambles where they hide. I’ve never seen them and even experienced woodsmen here have no idea what they might be. Even the cows are curious about it and gather on the bank in the hope of finding out what Roo is going to catch. Whether any real victim is tucked deep in the mud and roots awaiting Roo’s pleasure is unknown, but it doesn’t matter to Roo: hunting them is a special pleasure for her, because even she—at some point on any given day the dirtiest dog in a hundred miles—has rarely been able to get as filthy as this makes her. This Oklahoma muck fills her coat with thousands of minuscule, sticky particles, as if every tadpole in the lake was a habitual gum chewer and didn’t care where they spat it. Perhaps this place is on the brink of condensing into something like the La Brea Tar Pits, where sabertooth tigers and wooly mammoths sank in and have been preserved to this day on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles as if they were pickled in Bell jars. These gums and slimes get glued deep into Roo's coat. A hose does nothing until the water pressure is increased to levels meant to quiet schizophrenics.
Once she air-dries and has undergone a thorough brushing, Roo is restored from her preferred condition of being the the filthiest mutt in the country to looking again like one of the lustrous show dogs in the travel brochures for tuberculosis sanitariums high in the Swiss Alps that ocean line companies used to send prospective consumptives.
A couple of days ago, after Roo’s walk and restoration process, we had to go the the market. It was just before sunset, and a mix of fair weather cumulus and wildfire smoke made the last of the light shine pink and gold on Roo as she slept with her head on the arm rest.
I looked at her and thought, What the hell is this? There were brown spots on the top of her head, on the thick fur covering the part of the skull that makes a sound like two coconut halves clopping together when a puppy skids out of control into a wall, as they all do once or twice as part of their general education. After that, that thickness is, for most dogs, extraneous.
At first I thought I had neglected to flush some of the tadpole gum out of the top of her head, but when one of the spots disappeared in the fur while I was looking at it I knew what they were: no one but a flea—those picayune spawn of the first hellfires of creation—can move like that.
There were about half a dozen of them crawling around, but you could tell they were reeling, clutching their throats and coughing and gasping for air. Roo was 10 weeks into the 12 weeks dose her flea meds were supposed to last. This squad of fleas had stormed the wrong dog. They were sluggish and unsteady on their feet. I almost felt a little sorry for the pathetic way they seemed to call to each other, desperate for the warmth of a comrade by their side, not such big shots now that they were facing alone whatever it was they would have to atone for in the beyond. One or two seemed to yield to a small measure of serenity—probably those whose houses were in order or the more philosophical ones who had thought it through and reckoned that lives as full as theirs were overdue for an ending. But they all understood equally that they were returning to the dust from which they came and would now merge with all the other dust of the Earth, breaking down into molecules and atoms and each of those in turn to a trillion electrons and entire universes of quarks and gluons, breaking down endlessly until the Earth itself died and froze and this collapsing galaxy collided with another and the remnants of it all were sucked into a black hole and rendered either eternal or eternally meaningless. Every one of them was thinking that same thing. You could see it written on their faces.
I pulled over to the side of the road and plucked them out of Roo’s head. They were easy to catch and after a minute it looked like the last of them had been flung onto Highway 59, where, who knows, uncrushed between the thumbnails of a less magnanimous victor, the fresh air might revive them.
But that they were there at all was alarming. Usually, when fleas get to a dog, you see one or two. That was when I remembered that the day before I had noticed one on Roo, but as it had been a loner, and as the Bravecto had never stopped working before a full three months had elapsed, I had forgotten about it.
But—here they were. True to their sneaky character. I should have known.
Now, I’m the kind of person who spends half an hour trying to catch a crane bug in the camper without hurting those spindly legs to return them to the outside. One by one I move worms off the road after they wash up in a rainfall. Today a tiny fly landed on my leg—it was a regular fly, but I’d never seen one that small; it appeared to be very young, tricked into a premature birth by the late winter heat wave we’ve been experiencing. It was cold and the fly couldn’t get his wings unstuck. I cupped him in a hand and tried warming him up with my breath. It worked and off it buzzed. The point being, I don’t like to harm so much as a flea. But fleas, unfortunately, started it, as our Dear Leader or any three-year-old would remind us. So, in their case I make an exception. I removed the last of them and prepared to unleash a new round of chemical weapons on them.
But the problem was that Roo’s last dose of Bravecto was ten weeks ago. It’s supposed to last 12. Did it run out? Was it still working properly? Had the fleas developed new countermeasures against these munitions? Or had Roo somehow come into contact with some monster so flea-infested that an unhappy few just happened to be knocked overboard onto her during a skirmish?
The sight of fleas on Roo instantly brought back the memory of the horrible flea infestation she had on the first night she came to me as a foster dog. Among her many wounds were cuts on the top of her snout where they had tortured her so much that she had tried to scratch the skin off. She still has the scars there. They’re the only visible scars of her troubled puppyhood, and they’ll never go away. And, being scars from flea torture, I’ve always been determined to keep them at bay. Back then, if you ever read the original Roo story you might remember, hours after I applied a topical flea med to her, the fleas panicked once they realized the party was over and, like any gang of riled-up meth heads started rioting and buzzing around her and digging in for one big last hit and sending her into a frenzy. That night it was hundreds of them. Now it was only a few, but what they meant and what they could do to a dog came back to me in force.
I looked it up online and made a call or two. Another dose ten weeks after the last wasn’t going to hurt her.
Now, Bravecto is made in France, where considerable culinary arts have supposedly been dedicated to disguising pesticides as the liver of some delicious animal who all dogs know from their happiest dreams. Bravecto is supposed to be such a delicacy. But, to Roo, there is nothing more disgusting in the world. This is a dog who will outroll any dog in the rotting carcass of maggoty dead fish or in piles of feces left behind by evidently gangrenous forest animals, a dog who will squash the skulls of rats in her mouth the way you might a liquor-filled bonbon. This is a dog who buries a bone and religiously checks it every day and won’t consume it until it has achieved a degree of stench that would kill an oak tree. But Bravecto? She hates it. You’ve never seen a dog go to the lengths she does to spit it out. Even if I grate it into powder and bury one tiny grain inside a piece of cheese, she licks at the cheese until she isolates the offending particle and flaps her tongue around until it flies off. Now that all fat has been removed from Roo’s diet after her pancreatitis scare, I had to slice it into little pieces that I sandwiched between beef strips. It didn’t matter. She ferreted them out and I ended up having to jam the slobbered pieces down her throat anyway. Next time, I’m just going to stick it in her gullet to begin with.
Over the next couple of hours three or four more fleas struggled back up to the surface, but that was that. They’re gone.
I’m not sure what’s next. Water moccasins? They’ll be coming out soon. Screaming pterodactyls? One of those might swoop down grab Roo in her claws to fly her up to eat her in full view up on a neighboring cliff. Who knows. The whole damned country is filled with hazard. There’s danger at every turn. Anywhere there aren’t snakes, there’s someone with a poodle whose toenail polish they don’t want to scuff yelling at you to put your dog on a leash. Anyplace a dog can run free, they risk everything from pit vipers to grizzly bears, from beavers to badgers, all of whom Roo has encountered and, so far, survived. And I have to admit, now that she’s back in the pink, Roo does not look like a dog whose luck is going to run out any time soon.
Still. The best thing would be a year or so up at one of those sanatoriums in the Swiss Alps. If any of you has a room booked that you can’t use, you know where to send the tickets. Don’t tell Roo, though. She thinks she’s already there.
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