german shepherds & me: an addendum

I dreamt last night that I was walking (or biking?) down a residential road and a German Shepherd bolted out from behind a house up ahead of me. That was it. The dream ended as my heart flipped.

My dreams about German Shepherds used to be more frequent. In fact, I think part of my dream was a kind of metadream where I reflected on how I seldom dream about shepherds anymore.

I don’t have a great history with these dogs. I wrote about that history and my efforts to overcome my resulting PTSD in the essay, “Fear Circuitry,” published in Blue Mesa Review.

One essay can only hold so much drama, and so “Fear Circuitry” by necessity omits a major episode in my life experiences with the foreboding Alsatian. Consider this an addendum, something I woke up thinking about this morning after last night’s flash dream.

When I was in elementary school we lived on a serene little country road in Connecticut that was surrounded by cow fields and filled with friendly neighbors. I spent my days after school running through the woods or playing stick ball in the street with a gaggle of other kids. But every idyllic scene must also have it’s dark side, right? Ours was Pepper: the neighbor’s oversized German Shepherd. His owner said he was part wolf, and even my parents believed him.

Pepper spent most of his days tied to a chain in his back yard, barking menacingly at us when we passed. As far as I know, he never actually bit anyone, but maybe that was simply because we took such pains to avoid him. Nobody ever went in his house or yard. When he occasionally got loose, we all scattered from our ball game and climbed the nearest tree.

One day, I ran into Pepper by myself. I’d been caring for the neighbor’s outdoor cats while they were away. One of the cats was still a kitten, so I’d kept it in our garage overnight to protect it from Hurricane Belle, a storm that passed by the Connecticut shore that year. The storm had frightened me, so when I walked with the kitten through the debris of leaves and scattered branches that morning, I felt as if we’d survived something. I held the tiny fur ball under my chin as I walked, feeling it purr against my neck.

Then Pepper appeared from behind his house, unchained. He stopped when he saw me, his head and ears up in a curious way. He knew I had that cat. When he approached, pressing against me with his head just higher than my elbow, I twisted away, holding the kitten up by my ear; it’s splayed claws digging into my neck and shoulder.

As an adult who’s had years to think about it, I know I should have held onto the kitten and perhaps knocked on a neighbor’s door for help. But as a kid who had to make a flash decision, I could only imagine some horrifying tug of war, so I turned and tossed the kitten away toward a tree, hoping I could give it a head start.

The kitten actually made it to the huge maple in Pepper’s front yard, and there was a moment when I even thought it would make it. I could hear its little claws scrabbling on the bark as it started up. But Pepper was too fast and too tall. He plucked the kitten off the tree and shook it while growling ferociously. The kitten screeched for its life. By then, my own screams had beckoned the neighbors, including Pepper’s owner, who shot out his front door and retrieved the kitten from his dog.

It was too late, of course. The kitten lived for a few more hours before the decision was made to put it to sleep. I sobbed into my mother’s arms when she told me.

Forty years later, I randomly woke up thinking about this event.

Except I know why I dreamt about a German Shepherd last night. I rode my bike in the countryside yesterday. The ways this reignites old fears is detailed in “Fear Circuitry.” I’m much better than I was when I wrote that essay, and I ride often now without incident, but the fear is still there. I’m fascinated by these moments when it pokes it’s head up to remind me of the murky soup that swirls just beneath our consciousness, waiting to stand up and be noticed should the occasion present itself.

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