That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval

It’s an understatement to say that 2020 has not gone according to plan, for any of us. In today’s That Thing With Feathers, Torrey House author Jonathan P. Thompson’s plans go to the dogs—one dog, in particular.

The Strays of the Pandemic

I’m not even a dog person, I thought, as I stared into the murk on a cold, late-autumn night. But right then, I had no choice but to do my best imitation of one. Somewhere down the dimly lit dirt road a gravely wounded canine shivered in pain and fear. This neighborhood, on the dilapidated fringe of Sofia, Bulgaria, was as foreign to her as it was to us. Leaving her would be to abandon her to a slow and miserable death from her injury, or a more violent one at the teeth of other feral dogs surely lurking nearby. Yet if we tried to catch her she might lash out, possibly exposing us to rabies.

“I’ll go get the car,” Wendy, my wife, who is a dog person, said. “You walk back there and see if you can find her and catch her.”

“But I…” I’m not even a dog person!

Just short of four years before that night, Wendy had called me from a job fair for international teaching gigs to tell me that we were moving to Bulgaria.

“Bulgaria? What the hell’s in Bulgaria?”

“A job.”

“Oh. Okay.”

We were living in Durango at the time, my hometown. Life there was way out of our price range, but it was pretty good. I had a great job. Our friends are there. The climate’s good, and I could go trail-running right out my back door. When Wendy had suggested trading it in for life abroad, I had assumed she meant southern Italy, maybe, or Provence. But Bulgaria? After hanging up I tried to imagine the country, and all I could conjure were visions of drab, gray buildings, drab, gray skies, and drab, gray cooked cabbage. I googled: “Where is Bulgaria?” “Typical Bulgarian cuisine.” “Trail running in Sofia.” “Wine in Bulgaria.”

Initially, the search results brought relief. Bulgaria wasn’t in the cold north, but in the temperate south, bordered by Greece and Turkey. Bulgarians didn’t eat boiled potatoes and cabbage and gray, rubbery sausages, but grilled meat and fish, fried potatoes with cheese on top, and tomato-cucumber salads accompanied by high-octane brandy called rakia. Sofia wasn’t surrounded by dreary plains at all, as I had imagined, but sat at the foot of a trail-addled forested mountain. It sounded great.

But there was a hitch. Lurking in nearly every rosy account of the rich history, the thriving trail-running scene, the delicious Mediterranean cuisine, the affordable wine, was a warning: watch out for the dogs. Bulgaria, it turns out—at least according to the always-reliable internet—is stray-dog central. Packs of feral canines roamed every corner of the city, hungrily eyeing humans. Nearly every Bulgarian’s been bit at least once, resulting in the requisite round of painful rabies shots (I’m not a needle person, either). In 2012 a pack attacked an elderly academic and author, ultimately killing him, the second fatal mauling in the city that year.

I comforted myself with the knowledge that I could always give up running and going outdoors in general, and simply stay inside and become the world’s expert on rakia, instead. Besides, it’s not like we were going to be there for very long—a year or two, tops. Or so I thought.

If you’d told me then that I’d be riding out a gnarly pandemic in an Eastern European country, I would have scoffed.

If you’d told me then that I’d still be here four years later, I would have laughed. If you’d told me then that I’d be riding out a gnarly pandemic in an Eastern European country, I would have scoffed. And if you had told me that one of those vicious Sofia stray dogs would steal my heart, I would have whacked you in the head for your preposterousness.

And yet. Here I am.

In August of 2016 we arrived at our apartment in a house on the campus of the school where Wendy teaches. The school was built a century ago on a gentle hill that at the time sat in the countryside between the city of Sofia and Vitosha Mountain. Urban sprawl has since metastasized its way up to the foot of the mountain, and the campus is now a part of the city’s outer neighborhoods. Yet it remains a sanctuary from the outside world, grassy at its center, rife with trees, including pears and apples and wild plums, a few towering redwoods, and several elegant old oaks with sweeping limbs reaching gracefully into the blue, their skyward hands filled with fire-hued leaves in the autumn.

A few minutes into my first neighborhood run I encountered a pack of four feral-looking dogs lounging around on a quiet street. As I approached, they rose to their feet. I slowed, but refused to be cowed, knowing that they can smell fear, and continued moving forward, ready to leap over a wall or throw a rock or just run like hell in the other direction. But without a growl or bark they skittered to the side, looking at me curiously. I saw more strays that day—one on the walk to the grocery store, and two well-fed mutts lying outside the market’s sliding doors—and they all treated me with the same aloofness. Even the school had an official stray, Mama, an ancient longhair who had been taken in by a teacher years before and then left behind.

The internet, in other words, was correct: feral canines are ubiquitous here, cruising down alleyways, lounging in front of shops, and hanging out in in the common spaces at the foot of the towering, brutalist panelkis, built en masse during the communist era. Sometimes they do attack. A friend got bit in the leg while running, and had to go through the rabies rigmarole. A few of the dogs are aggressively affectionate: I once had a gangly tail-wagger follow me on a run and demand frequent pets. Mostly, though, the Strays of Sofia are gentle, skittish, and scared of humans.

Wendy, who finds it difficult to pass an animal in distress without doing something to help, has a hard time with it. Once, while driving along an empty highway in California, she came across a very young, lost calf, coaxed it into her car’s backseat, and delivered it to the nearest high school’s Future Farmers of America. She tries to do the same with the Sofia Strays. But I remind her that most of Sofia’s ъездомни кучета, or “homeless dogs,” are not full-blooded strays or even completely homeless because they have people who feed and even put out dog houses and cozy, warm beds for them.

Mama, for example, had the campus community to keep her fed and sheltered (she died of old age not long after we arrived), and a steady stream of hot-dog-dispensing customers cared for the supermarket dogs. The two campus dogs who arrived after Mama’s death, however, had no one. One was a large, mangy, dreadlocked creature that lurked near the dumpsters, darting off at the sight of a human, the other a frisky, black and white, bushy-tailed mutt with a hefty dose of border collie in her genes. The old pensioners who guard the campus had named them Mecho (Bear) and Liska (Fox), respectively. Wendy started taking them table scraps, then dry dog food, then a gourmet stew that included chicken broth and olive oil. We had “adopted” a couple of strays, Sofia-style.

I have found that human love can be bought with good food. The same is not so with skittish strays. The dogs were quite taken with Wendy’s stew and soon grew comfortable enough that they’d eat jerky from our hands. But neither would let us pet them, and when we did manage to sneak in a touch, they’d yelp as if in pain. At least they were reliable, showing up every single night at stew time, waiting patiently if we were late.

So we were worried when Liska skipped dinner for two chilly nights in late October of 2019, and even more so when she reappeared, moving slowly and with a limp. Without any of her old temerity, she approached me and allowed me to pat her head and get a better look at what was wrong. A large flap of fur and skin had been sliced loose on her chest, leaving a gaping wound revealing blood and bone and muscle and cartilage underneath.

I fell backward in horror—I am not a blood and bone and muscle person—and, quivering and on the verge of tears, ran to the house and summoned Wendy. Without a plan we went in pursuit, and Liska darted into the night, presumably to die alone. We watched her go, helpless and heartbroken. When she returned two days later, this time clearly ill, her glassy brown eyes looking imploringly at us, we were able to cajole her into the backseat of our old Fiat Panda, and we rushed her to the twenty-four-hour veterinary hospital in a semi-rural area on the city’s outskirts.

After we put a muzzle on Liska, Wendy wrapped her in a blanket and lifted her out of the car. At first Liska was calm, but her internal vet-alarm must have sounded, because as Wendy approached the hospital doors, the dog shook the muzzle off, squirmed out of Wendy’s arms like a fish, and dashed across a busy road and down an unlit dead-end lane.