by Nancy Shattuck
“Dogs howl during monsoons?” Dr. Shelly Walker jabbed the syringe needle into the serum to inject the dog for rabies. Before he could answer, Anil, who volunteered at the Kalimpong Veterinary Clinic, bolted out of the room to answer the phone.
Shelly, also a volunteer, swept a hank of fine brown hair off her forehead as she watched him go. Though slight, she was tall and had to bend as she examined the anesthetized dog on the stainless-steel table. A black saddle marking a mottled gray coat and a nervous bark: this one was “Yak.” A talker, she thought. Though Asian street dogs all stood within inches of the same height, a triumph of natural selection, they retained more identifying marks and distinctive personalities than breed dogs did. Recognizing that, Shelly named each stray that came into the clinic.
She adjusted her wire-frame glasses, but as she began to prepare the castration site, Anil returned. The native of Kalimpong bustled to the operating table. “A dog’s been injured,” he said.
“They will bring the dog here?”
He shook his head. “He said, he can’t move it . . .”
Shelly cut him off. “Did you tell him we only treat large animals at an injury site?”
Anil lifted both hands, wagged them, signaling his distress. “I did,” he said. “But it’s N.J.”
She groaned. Everyone in Kalimpong knew N.J. so well they referred to him by his initials. Head of the Darjeeling Health Ministry, he could shut the clinic down if they refused him. Usually, there were two vets on duty, but her partner, the resident veterinary, Dr. Suddha Shivaji, was in nearby Darjeeling for the week. “Where’s the dog?” She hoped it was not a long jeep ride through the Himalayas.
“It’s at his house, Mountain View, the one at the top. You haven’t started operating yet. I can get this dog back in its cage.”
“That’s Yak!” she snapped. “He has a name.”
“Yak’s cage, then,” Anil responded.
Shelly removed her rubber gloves. Relenting, she said, “I’m sorry, I haven’t been sleeping.”
Anil scooped up the limp dog in his arms, talking over his shoulder as he moved toward the cages. “The howling?” he asked.
“They’ve woken me every night for the last week!” Shelly assembled her medicine bag. More gauze and tape, she thought, turning to the supply cabinet.
“It’s the monsoons,” Anil said. “But for one month only.”
“Does anyone sleep?” she asked. Anil, intent on securing the anesthetized dog in the cage, grunted for an answer.
Shelly was proud of the clinic’s mission to rescue street dogs where most communities exterminated them. Despite the monotony of her work—testing, rabies vaccination, neutering, ear notch and tattoo—she believed in what she did. Released back to the streets, the stray dogs posed no hazard to humans; in fact, the packs that roamed were a benefit, as they controlled the rat population. The Indian government had outfitted this clinic as a test site to see if the process could control both rabies and plague diseases. She had fought with her fiancé, Mark, over volunteering for the six-month position as veterinarian on graduating from the university. She’d tried to explain to him that she was interested in this experimental clinic because it researched disease control. Mark, a veterinarian too, had finally relented and she had come to Kalimpong, an isolated Himalayan town of only forty thousand residents.
Small animals were not her favorite work. Mark loved working with pets, but her joy was working with large animals or, barring that, farm and community programs that benefited large populations. Her interests were more academic than Mark’s, who sought the security of a sure income from his small animal hospital.
Shelly’s only concession to pets in Kalimpong had been to accept free board and room at the charming Himalaya Hotel in exchange for care of the owner’s two Pekingese dogs. The compromise comprised a love of air conditioning and a latent romantic streak. The hotel was over-the-top romantic.
Leaving the clinic, she didn’t stop to say hello to Shiva, a tan street dog that adopted the sidewalk in front of the clinic as home. Shiva raised an eyelid, but didn’t lift his head from his paws as she passed. Probably sleeping off his night, she thought. Too bad I can’t.
* * *
It was dark when Shelly returned to the clinic. The dog, Orchid, had been seriously injured by a car, and she had treated broken ribs, chest lacerations and a compound fracture of its leg. She would check on her in the morning, but the prognosis was not good. If the chest wound became infected, Orchid wouldn’t survive. Often, small animals drowned in their own chest fluids in such cases.
The clinic was just half a mile below the Himalaya Hotel, and she walked home through streets lined by gated estates. Hungrier than usual because she had worked through lunch, she realized it would be more than an hour before the hotel served dinner. She considered going to the Fresh Bite restaurant, but decided she was too tired. On days when she was homesick, she walked down to Fresh Bite, where the owner had a passion for American music and his prodigious collection of pop music spanned more than fifty years.
Shelly always felt a calm spread through her when she walked under the arched gateway into the gardens of the Himalaya Hotel. She was convinced that the gardener, a dark, silent wraith, communed with nature spirits to create such harmony. His established gardens were a glory of color and forms tucked in bamboo, rhododendron, and azalea groves. She so wanted Mark to visit her here, but he remained unresolved on joining her for two weeks.
She climbed the stone path in the dark, following the sound of the water trickling from a bamboo pipe to a stone basin below it. At her door, the cascade of bougainvillea brushed her hands as she entered the modern wing. There, she took a hot shower and, swathed in a sheet towel, napped before dinner.
* * *
She and Mark had met in an anatomy class. Both struggled with the class and, soon after meeting, decided two heads were better than one. Mark was just two inches taller than she was, with dark brown hair and hazel eyes. His build hinted that he might someday battle his weight, though his active occupation ruled out the probability. Oddly, long, thick eyelashes made his eyes his most prominent feature. Shelly was smitten when they faced each other across a library table where they studied for the first exam.
From the beginning, she had not doubted Mark. Intensely romantic, she assumed his feelings were mutual. When their initial passion cooled during their years in school, neither felt that anything was missing. Their studies and career filled the blank with a profoundly close friendship. They worked well together, and Shelly never questioned they would marry.
She admired Mark because he knew exactly what he wanted in life. After he finished school, he planned to marry and start a family. Having been an only child, he wanted three children, maybe more. He knew by the time he was eighteen what Shelly did not. Her plans were vague, and often, life rolled out before her like a yellow brick road. Her admiration for Mark spilled over to acceptance of his plans as reasonable for her own, with very few exceptions.
When she and Mark had argued, Shelly’s desire to travel was often the cause. When she first voiced her strong desire to travel to the Potala Palace and Machu Pichu, Mark reacted with alarm. It became clear that he associated traveling women with unsavory character. He joked about hippies and hiker girls. She retorted that “woman” plus “travel” does not equal “tramp.” Maybe men traveled for sexual adventure, but women do not, she assured him. She wanted to marry, have a home and family, and travel. In the end, Mark said he was willing to compromise on vacations. He agreed that two weeks each year, they would travel to any place that she wanted to go.
* * *
Though Shelly’s room was spotless and tastefully decorated with modern platform bed and chairs, it lacked the charm of the main house where she ate her meals most nights. She loved the English chintz of the furnishings there: wide, long verandas, dark plank flooring, and cozy cushioned reading nooks resplendent with Chinese and Tibetan rugs and tapestries.
At dinner, she nodded to the young couple who sat at the next table in the near-empty dining room. She loved to talk to travelers, but with the start of monsoons, very few came now.
“Are you American?” the young man asked. In his twenties, he wore blue jeans and a t-shirt.
“Good guess. I’m from Kansas,” Shelly said. “You are from?”
“I’m Greg, from Michigan. Lila’s from Wisconsin.”
Lila, dressed in Indian clothes, draped her dupatta on the chair next to her, revealing the salwar kameez beneath. “We just got here today,” Lila said.
“I love this hotel, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Shelly agreed. “I’m fortunate to live here.”
“You live here!” Lila said. “Do you mean Kalimpong? Or this hotel?”
Shelly laughed. “Both. I am volunteering at a veterinarian clinic, and I get room and board for taking care of the owner’s dogs.”
“Those Pekingese?” Greg asked. “They’re always growling?”
She laughed again. “Yes, they are very naughty dogs. Where have you traveled?”
“We started six months ago,” Greg said. “Where to begin!”
“Nice trip!” Shelly said. Six months, she agonized. It was the equivalent of twelve years of two-weeks-with-Mark trips. “What was your favorite?”
The young man looked at his companion, who returned an identical expression: wonderment. “Not possible. There’s so much here.”
“If you want the usual,” Lila offered, “you go to Ajanta or the Taj.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “But, if you’ve got the time . . .” Greg tore a hunk of chapatti off and dipped it in his dahl. “Well, my favorite was Bhimbetka. There are seven-hundred caves in this Teak forest, cave paintings dating back fifteen thousand years.”
“Really,” Shelly said. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“No one has,” he said. “We saw five people. Only fifteen of the caves are excavated now, but it’s going to be amazing.”
The night passed quickly talking with the new guests. The pair shared the same enthusiasm for their adventures. The old longing that she never quite had words to voice struck Shelly. She had made a deal with Mark that if she could take this volunteer position for six months, she’d marry him when she got back, and they could run the pet hospital together. Maybe he’ll change his mind. I know he will if I can just get him to come once.
On the way back to her room, she reveled in the breeze that dispersed the steamy air of the Monsoons. Once in her room, she turned off the air conditioner, threw open the windows and dressed for bed. The curtains flapped as she sat in the dark looking out on the lights of the city below. Her restlessness grew the longer she stayed in India, but a deal was a deal and she couldn’t let Mark down.
Shelly fumbled in the bed stand for her cell phone, and pressed the send button. Their usual time to talk was midnight for her, noon for him.
“Mark?” she asked.
“Hi honey,” he said.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Well, there’re six people in the waiting room,” he said. “Four dogs and a couple of cats. I need you!”
“I think of you all the time.” Shelly wrapped her finger in her hair.
“What’re you doing?” he asked.
“There’s a breeze tonight, so I opened the windows. I’m watching the lights below. I wish you were here.” When she heard no answer, she gripped the phone. It’s bad enough we’re having trouble without the phone going out too. “Mark? Are you still there?”
“Yes, I’m here,” he said. “Sounds romantic. Anyone there with you?”
Shelly detected sarcasm. “Mark!” She stood, picked up the phone and paced. “Low blow. Please, stop.”
“Sorry, Shell,” he said. He expelled a long sigh. “I thought about it.”
“You promised,” she said. “Two weeks every year, anywhere I want to go.”
“I will,” he said, “but don’t be unreasonable. Shell, the clinic is a success. I need you here.”
“Then, when?” Her voice quavered. “What if I don’t come back right away?” The phone signal faded, then filled with static. “Mark? Mark?”
“What?” he asked. “What are you saying?”
The signal cleared and Shelly, too afraid to repeat herself, answered, “I want to see more of India. Will you come with me?”
“So . . . you’ll take two more weeks?” he asked.
He had heard her and there was no turning back; she cradled the phone in both hands, as if praying. “No, Mark,” she said. “If you don’t come, I’ll be back in two months, or three, or six. What does it matter?”
“Shell,” he said, “what are you doing to me?”
“Nothing,” she snapped, “nothing, nothing! All I’m asking is that you spend some time with me. If you can’t, then what have we got? A pet clinic? A harnessed team ‘til death do us part?”
“Is that what you think?” he said.
Shelly paused, sat on the back of the chair and slid into the seat. Now I’ve done it, she thought.
“Shelly? You there?”
“Yes, still here.”
“You know I love you; please come home.”
“Then, take the time,” she said.
“You’re so, so militant! This isn’t like you.”
“Let’s talk more anther time,” she said wearily.
“You’re just going to leave me with an ultimatum?”
Mercifully, the phone began to fade again. After several attempts at talking above the static, she managed to tell him, “We need to talk tomorrow. I love you.” Mark signed off.
He’s not coming, she thought. Where does that leave me? I compromise my life away for him. I can’t bear to leave him. We’re right for each other! Who am I? She dropped her robe on the floor and crept into bed, hugging the pillow close to her chest.
* * *
Late that night, Shelly woke again. The dogs began to howl, not just one dog or even four dogs. Hundreds of dogs in Kalimpong, every stray, every pet--was that Shiva? Was that Yak?—every dog began to howl. The city straddled the saddle of a mountain pass, with a farming valley spread between it and the next populated ridge. Shelly heard dogs from both ridges, all the way up the peak above her and down to the pass below. She heard high pitches and low pitches, yips, yaps, barks, howls, bays, whines and growls. Each dog had a song of its own, and she could distinguish each one, near and far. Somewhere between one and two o’clock, it occurred to her that she was responsible to the forty thousand residents of Kalimpong for this. Through her work, these dogs survived.
In the next hour—when they did not let up or tire out—she began to hear what they said. Do you remember what life used to be like? Yeah, all I do is sleep anymore! What happened to us? Where are my puppies? Didn’t I used to nurse? I never had a summer without puppies! Where are my balls? I won that fight! Why are you still hanging around? Why is he still hanging around? Didn’t we used to get it on? What happened to joy?
By four o’clock, she understood that through her work, these street dogs would die out altogether. There would be rats. Shelly didn’t sleep until the last dog whimpered to sleep near dawn.
* * *
Anil finished sweeping up the hair Shelly had shaved from the last dog she had spayed. “The last one today,” he said.
“Good.” Shelly removed her gown, walking to the row of cages. Yak was still unconscious from the morning’s operation and Lakshmi slept curled around the stitches in her abdomen. “After you get Kali in a cage, take a break.”
Anil set down the broom. “Got it,” he said.
“We can collect more dogs after lunch.”
He paused at the operating table, stroking Kali’s ears. “Don’t you go back to America next week?”
Shelly looked at him thoughtfully and said, “I don’t know.” Then she offered sarcastically, “Maybe I’ll volunteer at a breeding program next.”
“You cannot let the dogs bother you,” he said. “You name them and get too attached.”
Shelly threw her surgery coat in the laundry bin. “I can’t decide. I’ll be at lunch.” She headed for the Fresh Bite restaurant, thinking that little bit of home might smooth the edginess she suffered from sleep deprivation.
At the door to the Fresh Bite restaurant, she stooped to pat Diva on the head and slipped the stray female a stale chapatti from the stash she always carried in her shoulder bag. Diva always slept near the newsstand next door to the restaurant, sharing her space with her two grown puppies. Without rising, Diva thumped her tail enthusiastically, capturing the chapatti between her paws, cocking her head and one notched ear to eat it.
Shelly climbed the narrow steep stairs to the second floor. It was quiet, so she knew that school was still in session. After school, the teens—boys and girls, too—changed their prim British school uniforms for blue jeans, t-shirts and baseball caps. Free until they came of age, they spent their afternoons in a fantasy world, drinking Cokes, listening to American music and smoking. Today, after another sleepless night, Shelly felt disoriented and needed the lift her private little America would provide.
“Good afternoon, Doctor Shelly,” the owner sang out. The young portly man with shining black hair grinned. “You do not come for so long time.”
“Much too long!” Shelly followed the bustling man down the narrow aisle to the best seat in the cafe. The corner table—situated at an open-shuttered window that looked down on the narrow main shopping street—was directly between the stereo speakers.
“Doctor Shelly, I have a special CD just for you.”
“Special, for me?” she said.
He wagged his head, excited. “You will have hamburger today? Same?”
“Same, same,” she said. “But Indian Chai this time.”
“Yes, I have,” he said. “You wait now.” He disappeared into the next room.
Shelly played with the yellow torn menu he had left on the table, but abruptly put it down. A brand-new song blasted from the speakers. He was right. It was just for her. She heard, Who let the dogs out? WHO – WHO who – who WHO?! Who let the dogs out? She began to feel silly and sad all at once. She let them out. She most certainly had let the dogs out. She struggled to keep the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes hidden from the owner, who beamed from his entertainment corner. Sharp pangs of remorse for the phone conversation the night before would not let go. Did Mark know? She ached—heart, stomach and limb—with the consequence of her choice. The dogs ran pell-mell down the new road stretching boundlessly ahead.