It was the day before Christmas, and my mom and I were driving down the rural road away from our house to run some last-minute Christmas errand. I was 10, or maybe 11. We passed the tilled remains of that year’s corn crop and paddocks full of horses whose coats had grown thick and furry for winter. Back then there were tobacco fields still, though the crop would have been harvested and hanging in barns or sold by this time of year. We noticed a pony loose along the road and my mom pulled the car over.
Maryland is horse country. Most of the farms near the development in which we lived (indeed, that our development was carved out of) kept horses. My mom and I both rode, and we owned a horse we kept at a barn nearby. There was no question that we’d stop, round up the pony, and return her to whoever she belonged to. There were always animals getting loose nearby — horses, dogs, once even a huge bull trotted down our street — and getting them home safely was just what you did.
We noticed a few boards down on a nearby pasture that belonged to a woman my dad worked with. Her daughter went to my school and we knew them a little from various school events. There were no cars in the driveway and we figured if no one was home, we’d just lock the pony safely in the barn and be on our way. I don’t remember how we caught the pony — we may have had a lead rope in the car, or carrots (we often did) — but my mom began to lead her up the gravel driveway that led to the family’s house. I followed, just a few paces behind.
Just then the family’s German Shepherd came barreling out from behind the house, barking ferociously. I was around all manner of dogs daily at the barn and we had a sweet cockapoo at home. I had never been afraid of dogs, and I remember not understanding what was happening. Dogs were, quite literally, my friends. Why would a dog charge at me like this? I heard my mom yelling at the dog, who paid her no attention at all. He came straight for me. He seemed as tall as I was and I saw a flash of sharp teeth. I felt him snap at me and didn’t quite comprehend when I felt pain on my backside, and then my calf. I sunk to the ground and screamed. I heard him snarling above me. I heard my mom yelling at me to get up; to stand up and yell at the dog. But I couldn’t. I was in pain and I was confused. I couldn’t understand why a dog would act this way? (Later I would identify my feelings as betrayal. For the next several days I asked over and over: “But why did he bite me?” In retrospect I think that dog’s bite was my first understanding that even a friend can betray you. )
In the end my mom had to let go of the pony and chase off the dog. I suppose she put me back in the car, and then managed to tie up the dog and catch the pony again while I waited. I think she left a note on the door. I vaguely remember her talking on the phone to the dog’s owner later, her protective anger seeping into the conversation despite her attempt to remain polite.
Instead of, or at least in addition to, whatever Christmas errand we’d been planning to do, we drove to the doctor’s office. The German Shepherd had broken the skin, and I was, apparently, due for a tetanus shot.
It hurt to sit down and that — the whole incident, really — seemed all the more unfair because it was Christmas. I remember repeating to everyone I saw on Christmas Day the injustice of it all. Being bitten by a dog! The day before Christmas! And then having to get a shot!
It wasn’t a bad bite, really, and for the most part the lingering effect of the whole thing was that I was (and still am, a little) afraid of German Shepherds. There’s one in my neighborhood here in San Francisco that our dog Howie doesn’t like. He reacts violently every time we see the dog, snarling and barking and pulling against his leash with his tail raised aggressively in the air. I wonder if I’ve conveyed my childhood fear to Howie, if his leash conducts wordless caution and distrust like a lightning rod.