Sled Team

A version of this excerpt from MUSH first published in Oh Comely ~

All ten sled dog puppies sleeping huddled together against their mom's belly

I declared a red alert for puppy arrival to all my colleagues and supervisors. Tracy looked like she had swallowed a beach ball. I’d worked at the publishing company for more than a year. Based on my eyewitness accounts of the owners fawning all over the kittens and critters other staff brought in by the basketful, I assumed they’d respect the significance of my first litter of puppies. This was the second position I’d held since Nick and I had moved from Pennsylvania to Utah almost two years prior in pursuit of his passion for sled-dog racing. When he called the office on a Friday afternoon to tell me Tracy was in labor and had already given birth to her third puppy, I leapt out of my chair and ran in circles repeating “The puppies are coming!” before sprinting to the time clock and yelling in the direction of the raised eyebrows behind me as I flew out the door, “I have to go! The puppies are coming!”

I arrived at the kennel as Tracy gave birth to her fifth puppy, and she showed no signs of slowing down. Nick, who had been monitoring the proceedings for several hours, relinquished his post to look for a cardboard box, so he could transport the puppies across the street. They’d live in the shelter of our garage with Tracy until they were weaned and old enough to move into the kennel. He’d purchased a plastic kiddie pool for their enclosure and lined it with blankets for warmth. The pool awaited their arrival in the garage that day as I sat before Tracy, mesmerized by the surprisingly gory show. Tracy’s instincts served her well as puppies continued to emerge. When Nick returned with the box, she was up to number eight.

“Isn’t she done yet?” he asked.

“Apparently not,” I said.

“Oh my god!” he laughed, and I realized he’d just gained an entire team of sled dogs.

“Poor Tracy,” I said. Her eyes had assumed a wild cast, desperate as she was to finish this job. With her snout saturated in blood, she struggled to clean the puppies that pushed forth with each contraction. Nick and I stared at the untouched sac beside her, trying to determine if it was a puppy or afterbirth. When she got around to working on it, the sac revealed a puppy.

“Do you think they’ll all survive?” I asked, worried for the first time since Nick had told me about the pregnancy.

“I doubt it,” Nick said. “I’ve never seen a dog have this many puppies. She probably won’t have enough nipples to feed them all.”

The words unlatched a portal to the past, and I saw myself at eight years old, standing beside my mother at the porcelain sink in our kitchen. “I’m going to have puppies instead of babies when I grow up,” I told her.

An “old soul” is how my mother sometimes referred to me, saying I knew things I shouldn’t have known at my age. It’s possible, at the time, she believed me. In the twenty years that followed, my conviction receded, pushing the prognostic declaration into the pits of my subconscious until this moment. Sitting 2,000 miles across the country from my mother, I now watched as that childhood prediction unfolded in the form of my boyfriend’s dog mushing dream come true.

“You can do it, Tracy,” I said quietly. She looked at me with a vacant gaze and continued her work. Tiny wet puppies of various colors squirmed around her. At last, she hit the magic number and was finished. We sat in silence as she stretched out to feed all ten of her offspring. They looked like piglets with their eyes sealed shut and their ears barely perceptible on their heads. They inched forward on round bellies with rubbery legs paddling toward their mother.

“Nick,” I said, craning my neck toward the puppies, “it looks like they’re all feeding.” He leaned above Tracy, and reached in to separate the puppies.

“Wow,” he said. “She’s got that crazy long torso.”

“Do you think she can do it?” I looked at him.

“We’ll have to wait and see, sweetie.” Tracy lifted her head at the sounds of our voices, her eyes now steady and clear. She shifted her gaze from Nick to me then lay her head back down with a sigh. Nick put his arm around me, and we watched his sled team continue to nurse.

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