A puppy. A German Shepherd, young enough that his ears are still flopped over. He has parvovirus. Liquid, bloody diarrhea squirts out of him, splattering everywhere, like the last bits of ketchup from an almost empty bottle. I hook up an IV, give him fluids, anti-emetics, antibiotics, but he dies anyway. That night at a party I drink too much tequila. I cry, in a quiet, messy way, in a corner of the kitchen, wedged in beside the stove, where a giant pot of ratatouille is simmering, spattering bright red spots of sauce onto the stovetop. A woman with grey eyes and confident hands pulls me out of the corner. She wipes away my tears, feeds me spoonfuls of ratatouille straight from the pot. I burn the roof of my mouth, but it feels good, raw and blistering. We kiss, dip hunks of crusty bread into the ratatouille, eat, kiss some more.
A dog. A lab-pitbull mix rescued from Louisiana, where there are hurricanes. He’s so skinny—just fur, black as midnight, and sharp, jutting bones. He licks me happily, obsessively, unaware of his tragic circumstances: homeless and infested with heartworm, transmitted to him by bloodsucking mosquitoes. He seems able to love, even with a heart filled with foot-long parasites. When I examine his blood smear under the microscope, I can see the threadlike baby worms. They make me think about all the things a body can hide, makes me think about what one body can give to another. She’s not a very honest person, my charming, grey-eyed lover. She had an affair, and I forgave her; she had another, and gave me an STD. We break up. I bring the rescue dog home and he curls up, coughing and exhausted, on my futon. I nestle beside him; he licks the tears from my cheeks. I call him Dog during his weeks of recovery, finally name him Orpheus, once all the worms are dead and gone.
Three kittens. Five weeks old, with wispy, white fur, like milkweed fluff. The guy who found them at a construction site brings them into the clinic in his hardhat. He hands it over with reverence, like an offering bowl. Fleas, small and reddish-brown, scurry through the kittens’ fur. When we bathe them the fleas take flight: they move into the kittens’ ears, burrow their way into the conjunctiva of their eyes, jump onto our arms. The kittens are so anemic from the fleas feasting on their blood that their gums are white, like bone. It makes them seem like ghost kittens. Fleas don’t look like killers, but one of them dies later that day. The construction worker comes back as we are closing up. He has come to check on the kittens. That’s what he says. But the way he looks at me, as he twirls his yellow hard hat around in his hands, says something else. He smells lovely, like fresh air, like springtime. His name is Kamal; he is named after his maternal grandmother, Kamala, an Indian freedom-fighter. He has dark eyes that look as black as my midnight dog, an MFA in writing, a ukulele. I fall in love fast.
A dog. A Rottweiler, black and tan, with pus oozing from her vulva. She has pyometra, an infection in her uterus. During the emergency spay surgery, the ligature holding the ovarian blood vessels slips, and the dog starts to haemorrhage. Fuck, I think, this is bad. The abdomen starts to pool with blood. I extend the incision cranially and caudally, picturing the enormous scar it’s going to leave. Rivulets of sweat start trickling down my back. I insert a retractor to open up the abdomen, but I can’t see the bleeder, just the blood, which soaks one sponge after another. There’s not enough air in the room; I’m hyperventilating inside my surgical mask. Don’t panic, I tell myself; don’t start clamping blindly, or you’ll do something stupid, clamp a ureter by mistake. Fuck, I think again, fuck, fuck, fuck. I don’t want to lose this dog. And I don’t. There’s nothing sweeter than the pinkness of the dog’s gums, eight hours post-surgery. You’re a friggin’ superhero Kamal tells me. We take Orpheus down to the beach that night, run barefoot with him across the cold sand to the water’s edge. Afterwards we go out dancing. I jump up and down, pump my fist, let my hair fly, scream along to a song that I don’t know the words to. We have sex in the washroom of the club, dance some more. We are unstoppable.
A cat. An old, orange tabby with brilliant green eyes. He has been losing weight, drinking and peeing more than usual. I take blood and collect urine, run some tests, diagnose him with chronic kidney disease. His kidneys are failing at their job of filtering the waste from his blood. I start treatment and he does well for a few months, but then he stops eating and the owners decide to euthanize him. I insert a butterfly catheter into his cephalic vein, check for a flash of blood, then inject the pentobarbital. His head slumps, his green eyes stay open. It seems too quick, this transition from the living to the dead. The owners leave but I stay in the exam room with the cat, petting his unkempt orange fur, telling him about cat gods and tender mice. I repeat a story that Kamal told me, about Dawon, a sacred tigress, ridden into battle by the warrior mother goddess Durga. You have the fierce claws and fangs of Dawon, I tell him, tugging gently on his white whiskers. I love Kamal, I tell the cat, I would ride into battle with him, fight demons for him, travel to the land of the dead for him.
A pigeon. A hit-by-car, side-of-the-road pigeon. A woman brings her to the clinic in a low wooden box, marked Darling Clementines. The bird is wrapped in a beautiful gossamer scarf, burnt-orange, with threads of gold running through it. I unwrap it carefully: a small, round eye, the same colour as the scarf, a shimmer of green feathers, a few drops of blood, glistening like rubies, a broken wing. The woman runs a finger delicately across the pigeon’s head. This bird is not a piece of garbage, she says, so we give to her a powerful name—Xochiquetzal. You have not heard of her? She is the goddess of sex and babies, named for flowers, for beautiful feathers. The woman embraces me tightly before leaving, kisses both my cheeks. I clean the pigeon’s wound and apply a figure-eight bandage to the wing. On my lunch break I go to the pharmacy and buy a pregnancy test. When I see the positive line, I laugh out loud. Kamal is ecstatic about the baby. He comes home from work each day with poems he’s written for her on yellow sticky notes, presses them onto my belly; rubs my feet with coconut oil, which Orpheus tries to lick off; makes me mango lassis with a pinch of cardamom every morning. Hey Baby Sparrow, he whispers into my belly, you gonna be my little freedom-fighter, you gonna sing songs of freedom?
A rat. A hooded one, with blue-grey fur and beady, red eyes. She’s crying blood, the owner tells me. She does have red tears, but it’s porphyrin, a pigment released from a gland behind the eye, not blood. She has bloody urine though, and x-rays show she has bladder stones. The surgery is delicate and delightful, and the rat recovers well. I keep the stones, which look like a handful of small, smooth pebbles from the beach, in a clear specimen cup for urine and bring them home to show Kamal. They rattle musically when I shake the cup and Kamal laughs and grabs his ukulele, plays a little song for me and the baby, a song that sounds like sparrows chirping in the spring sunshine. Orpheus joins in, howling in delight. Later that night, a sudden pain grabs me, like talons clutching hold, and I feel wetness between my legs. I am bleeding, bleeding a river of blood, and the baby is washed away. I cry for days afterwards. I didn’t know, I keep telling Kamal, I didn’t know that I loved her so much already, didn’t know that losing her would hurt so much. At night I wake up because I hear Orpheus whimpering in his sleep, but it’s me, it’s me, whimpering for what I’ve lost, whimpering in the darkness of the night.
A cat. A talkative, lilac-point Siamese. He eats things he shouldn’t. Once, a rubber band, another time, a handful of change, mostly nickels. This time he has eaten Tylenol. He is depressed and drooling, having trouble breathing. I take blood: it’s muddy brown instead of red. It is the first time I’ve seen methemoglobinemia and even though the cat is ill, I’m kind of excited. I call Kamal on my lunch break to tell him about the cat. He’s in Vancouver on a book tour; his first novel has just been published. How are you, he asks, in that quiet way that he has. He knows though, how I am. I have miscarried again, a few weeks ago. Now I have three ghost babies. The doctor says I have a heart-shaped uterus, which sounds lovely, but isn’t really, not for growing a baby. But it’s spring and thin-petalled, purple crocuses are blooming in our backyard; it’s spring and Orpheus gallops through muddy ravines and laughs with his tongue hanging long and pink from his mouth; it’s spring and the sun is getting stronger and it warms my heart.
A dog. A midnight black dog from Louisiana, where the hurricanes live. A dog that I love, my good dog Orpheus, whose black muzzle is flecked with grey, and whose hips are stiff with arthritis. A dog who has hemangiosarcoma, a tumour of the blood vessel cells, and collapses from internal bleeding when his cancerous spleen ruptures. A dog who gets a blood transfusion and an emergency splenectomy and four more months to live. A dog that dies, dies when I am nine months pregnant. And I think: all this grief and all this wonder, it makes up a life, a good, good life. Ahh, but I loved him, my dog Orpheus, I loved him, and now my heart has broken open again.
A baby. A boy with eyes as black as my midnight dog. There is a moment, a terrible, still moment when he doesn’t breath and I hear Kamal whisper to him, you’re a fighter, it’s in your blood, and then he breathes and we are soaring, all three of us, bound together and soaring skyward. Fifteen minutes later I’m in labour again, and deliver the placenta. It is dark maroon and circular, like a meaty pancake, like a blood moon. Looking at it disconcerts me; it makes me feel dismembered to lose one of my organs. I don’t want to abandon it, so we take it with us. We drive up north to Oro-Medonte where my dad lives, so he can meet his grandson. He holds the baby awkwardly for a brief moment, then turns back to his dogs, a pair of old coonhounds, and rubs his weathered hands over their coarse fur. The dogs sniff the baby all over, lick his tiny feet. We all take a walk together through the old apple orchard behind my dad’s place. It’s spring, and the trees are flowering; the dogs romp together under them, and pale pink petals fall and scatter around them. Later, while the baby sleeps, Kamal and I go back to the apple orchard and dig a hole. I bury my old dog there, bury my placenta too, bury my sorrow, bury my joy, hope that they will grow, that they will nourish some small, sweet, red apples.