When I clock in at the animal shelter, I sign up to walk 2021. She’s curled up on a cot behind the bars of her kennel. A single blanket twists along her belly and through her hind legs. Of average size, 2021 wears a mottled coat of dark brown spots on soiled gray fur. Her flanks look like sepia-stained world maps. The gray fur thins into irritated pink skin, in obsessively touched places like behind the ears, around the paws, and down the abdomen. No drooping skin on her face and body, just enough to cover the muscle and bone.

Already, early
winter distresses 2021,
already shabby
from walks in clumping
snow and icy rain.

let her miss a walk.
it’s good for her.

Without raising her head, 2021 looks up at me through the kennel bars. She stays curled up when I say hello in a campy falsetto. She stays curled up when I crouch next to the bars. She only rises when I reveal a bit of cheese in my right hand. I toss it to her through the bars. Even then, she moves slow and careful, eyeballing my posture. 2021 is hesitant, ill at ease and suffering from irritated bowels. Plus, there’s a new quiet next door to mystify her.

Recently, 2020’s kennel fell silent.
To 2021, the growls and clangs
always felt like danger lurking,
the piss odor of an angry alpha
flung her way with each bark,
saved only by the wall we placed
between them.
2021’s eyes shiver out, “Why?”
The new silence
makes her more nervous. Coming
as it does on clean air curling
around the wall, invading through
the bars, wafting the leaden scent
of puddling city water on concrete.

When I open the door and step into her space, 2021 approaches slowly and sniffs. When I try to pet her, she flinches epileptically but stays close. No running away. No jumping or mouthing me. She locks her eyes on mine. Asking.

I offer 2021 another bit of cheese. She takes it gently from my hand. I slowly pull the leash out of my coat, reach over, and clip it to her cloth collar. In the act of chewing her treat, she has taken her eyes off me and is looking toward the door.

2021 is mild fuss so far. We’ve fed
her a robust diet of expectations,
protein-enriched don’ts and do’s.
Her bowels are rejecting them all.
We give her awful love: animated,
billowing baby talk, and sharpened
consonants of certainty. It can’t
sound much different to her
than discipline.

I open the kennel door. No fuss.
2021 steps outside ahead of me.
We pass along a half-occupied row.
Every time, going or coming, she
must traverse a corridor of growling,
jealous others. She looks ahead
to a snowy hill, to a chain-link fence.
2021 trots gingerly off the concrete,
onto grass buried shallow under
blankets of paw-thrashed snow
and pasty clumps of tawny slush.
No fuss, but in the open she tugs
a bit. She turns away from the trail,
seeks instead the hill.

2021 climbs what to me is a small frozen knoll. She skates with bare paws on what I crush with boots. When she reaches the fence on the crest, she turns parallel to it. Then she hunches over, haunches cheating toward the ground. What comes out is brown slurry veined with a ribbon of blood. While this is leaving her, she glances up at me. They always do, always seeming embarrassed. I stay silent, sparing her my gibberish. I feel pain in my belly too. I wish for my young faith to return, that I might pray away my pain by putting 2021 in God’s hands. Can she read my concern? Is she smarting from the hopes I harness to her?

As best I can, I bag up her
past. 2021 is already trotting
down the hill, back toward
her kennel, toward warmth.
So far, she’s avoided 2020’s
mistake of lusting beyond
the fence, sniffing eagerly
into the mystery woods.
There’s no gallop in her
and barely a trot.

When 2021 steps back onto the concrete, she feels the freeze turn manmade beneath her paws. She lifts up one hind leg like it’s cramped, tucking it against her belly. She slouches and stops. I’m ahead of her now, closer to the building. She pulls on the leash when I urge her toward the kennel. They do this sometimes, march one direction, realize where they are headed, and think better of it. But now I’ve made up my mind. We’re going in.

I see her shiver, and not
from cold. She looks up,
sees me wanting forward
motion. Her breath
quickens. She whimpers.
Then she cries, a sort of
howl half

I try to be kind. I crouch beside
2021. I kneel quietly beside her,
patient beside her. I listen
to her working out the shiver—
the tremors of inevitability.
I offer her a treat. She takes it.
Her tensed leg relaxes, lowers.
I stand and walk. She follows me
back along the row of growling
others, past 2020’s absence,
back into her kennel.

I am fortunate. 2021 forgives
my impulsive reach, my needy
hand stroking her forehead,
my baby talk like sudden
bursts of vomit. We
touch noses through
my mask, gesture
of our aching.

Poet’s Notes:

Comments are welcome below. This prose poem is loosely based on my experiences volunteering with shelter dogs. For another dog-themed post, try Like Pit Bulls on the Mount. The photo is licensed from iStock.