Books

Body Sharers

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My first novel, Body Sharers (Rutgers University Press, 1993), took third in the 1991 Washington Prize for Fiction and was a top-five finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for Best First Novel. An excerpt from Body Sharers was a finalist for the 1990 AWP Intro Awards.

Body Sharers is an extraordinary first novel of sexual, psychic, spiritual, and artistic obsession, entrapment, and quest. Rose writes like a young Joyce Carol Oates–with malice toward none and charity to all of her damaged, cruel, intensely alive characters.”–Alicia Ostriker, award-winning poet and author of Feminist Revision and the Bible.

For the Love of a Dog

 

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For the Love of a Dog charts one woman’s journey into the joyous, complicated, and mysterious communion people can have with animals. From her first dog, a mischievous fox terrier named Patches, to the thuggish finch, Pavarotti, who rooms with her in grad school and the haughty horse, Shannon, whom she coaxes into docility, Elisabeth Rose’s account reveals her special sensitivity to the inner voice of creatures and their particular needs.

Most especially, For the Love of a Dog is the story of Rose’s relationship to her border collie, Kierney, a “brooding poet” — intelligent, exuberant, remarkably conversant, but also anxiety-ridden and difficult — who is misdiagnosed as insane. Told with power and deep insight, Rose chronicles the life of this extraordinary dog in a narrative infused with keen perceptions on fable and myth, spirituality, and the ways in which consciousness and language interact.

From Publisher’s Weekly: “Yet seldom has the intensity of a dog-human bond been expressed so clearly.”

From Library Journal: “Fans of the border collie will find considerable validation of Stanley Coren’s (The Intelligence of Dogs, LJ 3/15/94) ranking of the breed as first in intelligence in this stunning memoir of the author’s beloved Kierney.”

Original Opening:

A Mortal in my House

Today it’s mid-summer, dry, the grass brown and prickly where I sit atop the hill of Penn State’s Hetzel Union Building lawn. The hillside’s broad and sloped–the top sheltered by the Hetzel Union Building, broken midway by an oversized gazebo, a stand of mature trees, and a classroom building. Up on the ridge I sit, still and silent, part of a small band of commotion. My husband, daughter, two Border Collies, and I are here to play Frisbee.

Chewing gum and squinting into the late afternoon glare, my husband Joe calls, “Casey, you catch,” and flicks the Frisbee. Our dog Casey scrabbles after it. In response to Joe’s implicit order to stay put, our other dog Pip freezes flat and almost invisible in the grass. The Frisbee shoots past him, perpendicularly like a skeet, then turns parallel to the ground, floats up, up, as the ground drops beneath it. Then the red disk slows, begins its descent, down, down, smaller and smaller in the distance, lower, nearer to a group of college students playing touch football so far away we barely hear their shouts. The kids pause in their game to point. Streaking down the slope with the speed of a kingfisher, our Casey races, the blaze on her face like a white torpedo, her body lean and black, her feathered tail a plume of rocket smoke. With a dainty turn of her head, she takes the Frisbee out of the air as if Joe had handed it to her. The students clap and two of them squat and call to her, but she skids and finishes her outrun at an easy lope, makes a modest turn-about, glances at them without breaking stride, and heads back to us.

Breathing hard, pink tongue obscenely long, she stops before us, eyes fixed on Joe, and tosses the Frisbee back to him. It lands two feet away. “I can’t reach that,” Joe says. With a snarl, she picks it up and pitches it into his lap. “Good girl,” he says, and we hear chuckles behind us, amazed murmurs. Casey has drawn another crowd.

Casey is our glory girl, our dazzler, our delight and our grief. We ask her to rest, we give her a cup of water to lap from, we drag her to shade and admire her for refusing rest. When she plays Frisbee, passers-by always stop to watch, the way they would if they’d happened upon a falconer, a sword-swallower, or an Olympic gymnast turning back flips. Casey has brought us some small local fame–every once in a while when we’re out dog-less someone accosts us, “You’re the ones with those two Frisbee dogs on campus!” Not only is Casey worth watching, she needs to be watched: before she was two years old she had broken her shoulder, torn her ear, and once tried to go visit our neighbor by leaping from a second-story window. I heard the neighbor out in her yard, and I saw Casey wag her tail, claw at the screen, press her forehead against it, then grow studious, as if examining strength of the screen, the height of the windowsill, and the twenty-foot drop to the ground below. I saw her decide she could make it–she closed her mouth, steadied herself, backed up . . . Part of me would’ve liked to see her try that stunt, but I dove across the room and slammed the window shut.

It’s better for everyone, even for Casey’s fans, that we have an ensemble–another dog and our little daughter–to offer contrast, bread to her hot pepper. Casey is our second high-strung border collie, and we learned from our first, Kierney, that such a dog needs to be diluted by another dog, a cat, or a kid. Tempering Casey’s slick performance, our six-year-old daughter Delaney has a piece of mulching bark propped against one shoulder–a miniature baseball bat. “Throw it here, Dad!” He tosses the Frisbee at her, she swings, misses, and Joe hollers, “Home run!”

About ten yards out, our male border collie Pip lies motionless except for the compass of his eyes homing to the Frisbee. The product of selective breeding, a chilling distillation of pack hunting behavior, Pip is pure border collie, determined, focused, muscular, more sanguinary than his sleek black elegance would suggest. Nothing is innocent about Frisbee to him; these are killing exercises. Having had enough of Delaney’s “baseball” game, he lifts his head just long enough to box us all in the ears with one sharp bark. To appease him, Joe snaps his wrist and the Frisbee’s launched. “Pip’s getting old,” Joe says. I counter that he’s only four, but Joe insists he’s slowing down. Deferring to Pip, her Alpha male, Casey won’t catch the Frisbee no matter how slow he is, but she roars, actually roars as she whirls, swiftly gaining on him and snapping at his rear end.

“Are they twins?” someone asks.

The question always surprises us, and not just because the word “twins” seems redundant when discussing dogs, a species that normally has multiple births and whose bloodlines have been curried into breeds, individuals of which appear identical even though their common relative may have died a thousand years before. “Same breed,” we say. “Different litters.” Maybe what really startles us is that few people can see at a glance how different they are: Casey has long fur, Pip short, Casey is a tri-color, Pip a bi-color, Casey has white front legs, Pip has only white toes, Pip is much larger.

“What kind are they?” the person asks and we answer.

“The kind that herd sheep?” Border Collies have been on the big screen lately.

“Yes,” we say.

Eyes still on the dogs, nodding, committing the term “Border Collies” to memory, the person walks off, and I realize how much Joe and I have changed since the days when we were caring for Kierney, who was a fear-biter, a menace, a tortured lunatic. She cozened people with her athleticism, her intelligence, her beauty and her quirkiness, and when they asked what breed she was, we were afraid they might be dog shopping, so we used to add a warning, “Border Collies make bad pets.” We weren’t unusual; it’s common for Border Collie owners to try to protect Border Collies and prospective pet owners from each other. I know of one who printed up cautionary leaflets to hand to anyone hoaxed by his dog into thinking that Border Collies are all wonder and no work. Now that I have two spectacular but sane and healthy dogs, I don’t worry so much anymore–people are just curious, and all dogs, like all kids, are a lot of trouble.

The Frisbee’s out far against the sky, the dogs thunder under it, and the touch football players and passers-by all pause to watch two black beasts gallop like thoroughbreds and attack like hyenas. A few more throws and Joe will give us what we’re waiting for: another chance to see Casey catch it alone. “Casey, you catch.”

Casey bursts away, launched as if on fast-motion film, an optical illusion. Watching her run feels like a skip in heartbeat. Implicitly ordered to sit this one out, Pip does, glad for the rest. He lifts his head, just a spectator like the rest of us. For loving, he’s a better investment, smart enough to get a drink and go rest in the shade. Pip doesn’t dazzle me, but neither does he batter my heart.

The wind shifts, and Casey changes course like something unreal and relentless, a pygmy bull with the snort of Satan himself in her nose. Immobile, we charge with her, breath held, lifting her and being lifted. Too far, too fast, it’s an impossible stunt but she’ll do it . . . no, the Frisbee strikes the ground and rolls zigzagging. Our coyote overruns her rabbit.

“I wish Kierney were here,” Joe says.

“Really?” I say, surprised because Kierney has been dead four years. I loved her fiercely, but I never wish she were here.

“She is here,” Delaney corrects, because Delaney, who was barely two when Kierney died, believes that her guardian angel is a legendary Border Collie named Kierney.

“Kierney would’ve caught that,” Joe says. Yes. For a moment, like Joe I see the HUB lawn differently; it’s much smaller, because Kierney was faster and stronger. She loved and lived for the game and she seemed to know that she’d have few chances to play it. For a moment, as I think of her, something runs black and boxy, faster than my eye can track, just beyond my vision and out of sight.

The truth is that Kierney wasn’t a great dog in the tradition of canine legend–she didn’t leap any flaming bush to save a fawn, paddle a white river to whisk a child to shore, or take a bullet meant for me. I have no trophies to point to. In the one obedience match we entered, she lagged at heel, sat on my foot, and, quivering with anxiety, broke her down-stay. There’s little classic charm to her story, no Rockwellian nostalgia, no crooked ear, no patch of brown fur over one eye, no soup bone or cardboard clubhouse. Our life with her never called to mind the noble tradition of Scottish sheep dog stories: tales of a Border Collie finding a lamb who’d fallen off a truck fifty miles away, or, in one afternoon, rounding up every sheep in the county because her master unwittingly told her to. No, Kierney never stared down a sheep. The one time I saw a field of untended sheep, I pulled over, lifted my four-month-old puppy from the car, and set her outside the wire fence, expecting her to race back and forth the way her mother would’ve, outraged by the sight of sheep out of line, or freeze and try to hypnotize them with her laser-beam gaze. “Sheep,” I said, pointing. “Kierney, look. Sheep. Get sheep.” She regarded their bowed heads and manure-drizzled rumps, and then, glancing sideways at me, pressed her nose to the ground and sniffed. “They’re not ours,” she seemed to say, and I, once again chastened by her, put her back in the car and drove off.

Missing Kierney, Joe fires off the Frisbee with a little less flare this time, the white in his beard standing out. We’ve been aged by her bright and desperate conversations. She was one of my greatest loves, because she caused me my darkest, most urgent reflections: what is faith, what is fear, what is death? Sometimes, when I remember her, I feel that tightening when the soul cries, “Oh, if only!” which is what we are all destined to cry if we dare keep a mortal in our house.

 

 

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