Beyond Fear

SPCA MELAKA, read the faded scrawl of white paint on the green metal signboard. I slowed down my car as I drove past it, pulling into a large grassy area. There was a huge tree by the front gate of the building on my right. I parked in its shade, but remained inside the vehicle after turning off the ignition, allowing myself a moment of hesitation.

“Connect,” I recalled my therapist saying at the end of our session from a few days ago. “That’s your homework for this week. Learn to connect, be it through talking or just spending some quality time with others. It can be someone in the family, a friend you know well, or even a pet, if you’re not ready for people just yet.”

“And if I’m not ready even for a pet, what then?” I’d asked.

“We’ll get there if you’re meant to. For now, just try – regardless of the outcome. That’s how you learn to be vulnerable.”

Just try, echoed a voice in my head.

With that, I exited the car and walked towards the entrance, my eyes drifting beyond the gates to the building again and only then noticing that it was actually a double storey house converted into a makeshift shelter home for animals. The words ‘SPCA MELAKA’ welcomed me again from the pair of blue round pillars that flanked the concrete front walk. Beyond it, I saw the front door of the house wide open, although there was no one anywhere in sight. Only a few puppies could be seen sleeping in crates along the front walk as I approached the rusty iron gates, bracing myself. Then the roaring barks of some hundred dogs erupted in greeting upon my arrival, making my ears protest at the high noise level.

The paint on the gates seemed to have been flaking for years. I gingerly opened the gate latch, let myself in and closed it again, the whole time trying not to let the peeling white paint stain my fingers. But as soon as my hand fell to my side, something warm pressed against the tip of my fingers and slid across the back of my hand all the way up to my wrist, leaving behind a cold, wet trail across my skin. I turned my head, and my gaze fell upon a large, brown-furred dog gawking up at me, its tongue hanging out the side of its mouth, its tail wagging furiously. I lifted my saliva-covered hand out of its reach.

“Don’t worry. He doesn’t bite,” said an unfamiliar voice.

At the sound of it, the dog whirled around and trotted away from me. Letting my hand fall back to my side, I lifted my gaze following his direction and found a woman in her mid-forties walking out the front door towards me, wiping her hands on her worn-looking jeans, with the dog trailing after her in his same enthusiastic manner. A pleasant grin shone on her sweaty face, crinkling her eyes.

I managed a smile. By then, my ears had adapted to the constant barking. “I’m not scared,” I blurted. “Just surprised.” As I spoke, my voice caught the dog’s attention again, and he trotted back to me, nudging my thigh with his nose.

The woman stopped and stood by one of the pillars, keeping a comfortable distance between us. “He likes you,” she observed, laughing, before introducing herself as one of the workers here.

I didn’t reply, but kept my smile polite. He poked me again – this time, on my knee.

The worker watched the dog, her grin fading. “Poor thing was brought here a few months ago. ‘Will come back for him in a week or so,’ the family told us, but they never showed up after that.” She sighed, and then her tone lightened. “But still, he’s very affectionate – as you can see. Doesn’t even know when to stop sometimes.”

Suddenly, there was a loud crashing noise coming from the back of the shelter home, followed by a string of dogs barking and cats screeching. Looking alarmed, the worker hastily excused herself and rushed back into the house.

I blinked at her retreating figure, contemplating a moment, before turning away to survey the side of the house, taking in for the first time the other homeless puppies and kittens in their crates. A few were sleeping, some pacing about restlessly, some mewing or yipping at me, and others jumping around excitedly as I entered the maze of crates. Then came another nudge on my thigh. I conceded and dropped my gaze to meet his. The brown dog stared back at me, mouth hanging open slightly – as if wearing a smile. I withheld a frown.

“You really don’t know when to stop, do you?” What did he see in me anyway?

I shook my head, dismissing that train of thought, and returned to studying my surroundings. As I advanced further towards the back of the house, the cages increased in size and were arranged in neater rows on either side of me. There were more adult and aging dogs, but fewer cats in this area. Most of the dogs were barking at me either excitedly or aggressively. Many were scarred with bald spots, scabs or burn marks on their bodies and faces; a few were with a bandaged paw; and one had a strip of gauze wrapped around its ears and head. Then I halted as my eyes zeroed in on a white puppy and a teenage boy at the end of a row.

The puppy was kept inside a large dog kennel connecting directly to the rear wall, and was crouched down in a corner facing the wall, letting out strangled howls from time to time. Long scar marks seared its left shoulders, crisscrossing its small trembling body. The boy squatted right outside the open kennel door, oblivious to my presence, as he tried to hush the puppy’s anxiety. Then the sound of approaching footsteps diverted my attention away from them for a moment.

It was the worker from before. She came and stood beside me, apologising again for her absence and asking, “Are you looking for anything in particular?”

I shook my head with a smile. “Just browsing.” Then my eyes returned to the boy who was still attempting to offer consolation to the puppy to no avail.

The worker probably read my curiosity about the peculiar scene, for she proceeded to explain that the boy was a frequent visitor here. “He drops by almost every day for that puppy, trying to befriend it. It’s been almost two weeks now. I’ve told him to give up after the first two tries – this puppy is too traumatised by past abuse – but he’s a stubborn one. Just smiled at me and said that it’s not time to give up yet.”

“Why doesn’t he just adopt it then?” I asked.

“He wants to wait until it’s ready to trust and accept him.” The worker sighed in resignation. “By the looks of things, that seems quite unlikely-”

I silently agreed as the puppy fearfully whined on.

“-but I do hope that he can prove me wrong.”

Unlikely, I thought, repeating her word, but that track of thought was cut short when the boy suddenly advanced into the kennel and closed the door behind him, crawling towards the puppy before sitting down cross-legged behind it. The puppy heard him closing in and began howling louder, cowering further into the corner of the wall. Some of the neighbouring dogs barked in response to the puppy’s expression of distress, and its fearful wails grew even louder, piercing my ears.

The boy reached out his hand to try to caress the puppy while whispering comfort to it, but the puppy jerked away from his fingers as if being beaten by him. Watching this, my heart thudded unevenly in my chest. He tried again. Once more, it jerked away violently at his gentle touch, releasing a string of haggard howls. He reached out again with both hands this time. I averted my gaze and felt my breath being sucked away by the painful protests that followed.

I was about to leave, but then a sudden exclamation from the worker caused me to look back involuntarily. My heart skipped a beat at the scene before me, all else fading into the background.

The crying puppy had sunk its teeth into the boy’s right hand while he sat there hugging it to his torso with the other hand, his fingers supporting its chest where the ribcage was. With spasms of fear still shaking its frail little body, the puppy panted piercing whines through its tightening jaws, as if pleading for him to stop. As its teeth dug deeper into his flesh, the boy’s eyebrows furrowed in apparent pain, but his tearing eyes reflected only the tenderness of his soothing whispers.

“He’s still not giving up.” The worker mumbled, her voice laced with confusion, worry and the slightest hint of awe.

He will, I wanted to reply, but my breath hitched in my throat, so the words only echoed in my mind until doubt seeped in. Will he?

The worker spoke again, but this time, her words were muffled by the voice of my own thoughts. Then I heard the sound of her footsteps shuffling away from me. I wanted to turn and follow her, but the familiar feeling of fear gripped me then, rendering me helpless and paralysed that I could only stand and stare.

The boy refused to let go, awkwardly rocking his body back and forth while cradling the puppy to calm it down. The puppy’s cries grew louder and more desperate, its muzzle still attached to his hand.

Time to stop, I thought. Why wasn’t he stopping? Why wasn’t the worker stopping him?

I feared for the boy, knowing the pain and disappointment that would come with rejection. Yet, I feared even more for the puppy, for I knew its fear too well; it wouldn’t accept his reaching out to it, because it couldn’t – it was too trapped by fear, too broken to fight it. The fear was too much to bear.

Meanwhile, the stubborn voice in my mind grew louder until it was all I could hear. Couldn’t they see that it was a hopeless case at this point? Why wouldn’t he stop trying? It was time to stop. Stop. Please. Stop. Stop!

I gasped, trying to catch my breath, my eyes squeezed shut. Then came a moment of ringing silence. I opened my eyes, blinking. The crying had stopped.

I blinked again, and my blurry vision immediately refocused on the boy and, curled up into a ball in his embrace, the meek, quiet puppy. I caught sight of the bite-mark on the boy’s right hand resting in his lap; it was swelling dark red with tiny puncture marks where the puppy’s teeth had broken his skin. I looked to his face. There was no sign of pain or regret. His damp eyes shone with pride as he beamed triumphantly down at the puppy, still cradling it with his other hand and stroking its fur with his thumb. The puppy lay limp in his arm, exhausted after the great struggle.

I inhaled deeply, drawing fresh air into my empty lungs, and the numbness in my chest subsided as I exhaled a long tired sigh. Still in a daze, I watched on as the worker returned to the scene with a first aid kit, entering the kennel and giving calm but firm orders to the boy about his injured hand. He began to protest, but quieted down when she allowed him to hold the puppy while she treated his wound.

I felt a nudge on the back of my thigh and turned around. As expected, standing before me was the brown dog again. He was staring up at me expectantly with that same simple-minded smile as before. I stared back for a moment before sighing.

“Still not stopping?”

As if understanding my words, he came forward and slipped his muzzle under my hand, rubbing the top of his head against my palm. Then having answered my question, he pulled back and resumed his open-mouthed grin. The corners of my mouth twitched.

Just try, echoed the voice in my head again.

So I knelt down to his eye level on one knee, smiling and slowly patting him on his shoulder. He licked my hand before leaning in, resting his head on my lap.

“Thank you,” I whispered, knowing then that I was ready for him.

Photo by Jmawork (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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