The hardest part was getting their owners to leave the bookstore. They didn’t trust their dogs to behave. As they leaned over to say good-bye a few capsized books with their heads or disarranged bowls of kibble. The dogs licked their owners and waited. In the previous hour they’d been allowed to sniff all the books and their excitement made them tired. The only dog that lifted his leg was a mournful Irish wolfhound, now placed nearest the door.
The reader, a woman in her mid-thirties, was in back of the store, impatient for owners to leave. It had always been her passion to read to dogs–dogs of all shapes and sizes, dogs assembled together. A few people to whom she’d expressed this passion had misunderstood and suggested readings about dogs at special events in pet stores. But she didn’t want to read to owners. She wanted to read to dogs. And this wouldn’t just be about dogs anymore than a reading to a group of women would be just about women.
The story she planned to read, though, did involve one dog—and it happened to be a wolfhound. Thankfully, when the real Irish wolfhound raised his legs, someone with foresight placed a bowl between him and the book and this relieved her because a camera-man from a TV station had gotten a clear shot of the dog’s legs over the book and if the dog had peed it would have have eclipsed her quiet reading.
She’d chosen a story called Boudica the Enchanted Princess--something short so she could read slowly and pay attention to the dogs. She wanted to see if they listened. And she wanted to be sure it was the story they were interested in as a story, having nothing to do with dogs. Please don’t use the word dog in your introduction, she said to the bookstore owner. Some of the dogs know that word and it could make them over-excited. He looked startled but agreed, although she knew the introduction didn’t really matter because he wouldn’t mention the red shoes pinching her feet, or the Citizens for Humanity jeans pinching her ass or her passionate desire to read to dogs.
After the introduction, in which the word dog wasn’t used, she stepped to the podium and made eye contact with each dog. They looked at her with eyes that were moist, a little wolfish, and wagged their tails. They waited.
And so she began to read about Boudica, a beautiful princess, who had been made into a furry calico cat by an evil stepmother. Boudica grew small, had whiskers, and a sad enchanted face, marked by an M between her eyes. After becoming a cat, she was exiled from her kingdom and adopted by a couple who fought. One day, after an argument, the man flopped on the bed and saw Boudica in her gorgeous fur. Their eyes locked, he kissed her and Boudica turned back into a person. The dogs were attentive and quiet. When Boudica was exiled they put their noses between their paws. When she became a person, they wagged their tails.
Now it gets a little complicated, she said to the dogs apologetically. The man left his wife and asked Boudica to marry him, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to. She joined a gym with co-ed exercise rooms, fell in love with men and women, and eventually decided to go back to the man, who was angry and made Boudica sit on the steps until he proposed again.
The dogs wagged their tails and a few howled. She waited until they were finished and went on: In homage to her life as a cat Boudica wore an enormous cat suit to her wedding. But when she walked down the aisle, the cat costume crumpled and a small calico cat jumped out. The flower girls cried and ran to their mothers and all at once, without warning, the groom turned into an Irish wolfhound. For a moment it was a horror show while they barked and hissed and ran around the church, until the minister had the presence of mind to roar, and this brought them to their senses and they became people again.
At the altar, the minister said to them: ”What are your original faces–to yourselves and to each other? This is a question you will ask again and again for the rest of your lives.”
They kissed and had a reception with an enormous buttercream cake.
When Boudica and the man turned into animals the dogs put their noses between their paws and whimpered. When the buttercream cake appeared they wagged their tails. But they still looked expectant, because, for dogs, the prospect of excitement is infinite. So she looked at them quietly and said: That’s the end.
The dogs understood! They raised their noses and howled. Their heads went far back and their snouts touched the books behind them and book after book tumbled to the floor. The bookstore owner let her shake their paws and each dog licked her hands so by the time the TV-man appeared her fingers were sticky . He put a microphone under her chin and asked what it was like to read to dogs. She told him about their wagging tails, their whimpering, their howling and the way they watched her—all signs they followed the story.
Why do you think they followed the story? the interviewer wanted to know. She said it was because the dogs knew she was reading to them, not at them.
He thought about this for a moment, then asked how her own dogs had enjoyed the reading. She said she didn’t have any dogs.
Then you must have had a dog when you were little, said the man. A dog that listened to your first stories, a dog you trusted.
No, she said. We lived in an apartment and the landlord wouldn’t let us have pets.
The man stared at his notes. They were all questions about her dogs–their names, what they ate, whether they slept on her bed, if they did tricks. After a moment, he gave her a strange look and interviewed the bookstore owner.
Later, with her cats, she watched the news so she could see the interview. There she was, microphone under her chin– but only for a moment. It was amazing, said the interviewer. The dogs sat still and listened. He didn’t mention their howling or wagging tails or waiting to be told the end. Nor did he say she didn’t have dogs. Instead he said she hadn’t talked about her dogs out of respect for their privacy.
And now the bookstore owner appeared and said reading to dogs was a high-concept event, one that would catch on everywhere.
A boon, he said, a boon for all of us.
She’d agreed to the interview because it was the only way the bookstore owner would let her read to dogs and now the event was a travesty. She poured a huge glass of scotch and went to turn off the television. Yet, as the camera panned around the store, she saw all the dogs–a vast carpet of differently colored furs. She saw their ears, their noses, their wagging tails and their sense of outrageous, exuberant radiance. It spilled into the room, filling the air with boundless joy. She raised her glass and drank to them.