The day the dogs left town began as an ordinary day: Despots threatened neighboring nations with annihilation, politicians were caught with their pants down, and an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico devastated three thousand miles of pristine beaches and three score species. An ordinary day . . . .
The banks of Midwestern rivers overflowed, the earth trembled along the Pacific coast, tornados roared along the Kansas plains and carried away a girl in sparkling red shoes, while oranges shriveled like frozen warts in Floridian orchards. A slow news day . . . .
But no such catastrophes were occurring that morning in the little town in upstate New York, a hamlet nestled between the Adirondack Mountains to the west and the Green Mountains of Vermont to the east. There, the rivers flowed gently, the earth held firm beneath the fawn’s hooves, the breeze blew gentle and balmy, and apples reddened in the warm August sunshine.
The beagle rose up as the dawn breeze wafted in to flutter his master’s curtains; the Labrador was alerted by the cock-a-doodle of the rooster; the Boston terrier blinked when a shaft of sunlight pierced the bedroom gloom; the scattering of mice in the closet wall crept through the dachshund’s dreams, the rodent musk overwhelming his slumber. One by one each canine left its night-nest at the foot of its master’s bed, or arose off the cool kitchen tile. Others waited at their sentry posts on the oval rug by the front door, where in the dark, with one eye opened and nose alert, a dog might luxuriate in the sweet fecundity arising from the loamy garden soil beyond the welcome mat. Each dog stood transfixed by an unspoken call, a silent signal, and the whiff of something in the air that washed over the little town to send them stirring. Something out of the ordinary floated in with the morning mist, something unusual that raised the dogs from their sleeping places to stand pointing toward the locked and bolted doors while their owners slept on.
They waited . . . .
They waited for the alarm clocks to jangle, the clock radios to break the peace, the aroma of water dripping over grinds in the automatic coffee machines, and the call of nature to awaken the people with whom they lived. They waited for the doors to open, revealing the great expanse of sky, and the open spaces where one might run without ever hitting a wall or breaking a lamp or being yelled at for sending a stream to mark one’s place: The great uncovered place is where they each knew they had to go to, because the moment was at hand.
And when the palm hit the knob on the alarm clock, and the snooze setting had finally exhausted its whining impatience, and the hot pungent liquid filled the cup, and the call of nature had finally been answered, each dog, whether young or old, assumed the spritely spirit of the pup with a wild and almost carnal anticipation of what was to be. What had to be.
Nervous little dogs, like the Chihuahua and the Jack Russell, whined and circled and bit at heels, causing their owners to throw on sneakers and sweaters and to raise their arms in gestures of reaching for leashes, while others, the lumbering four-year-old Lab and Shepherd and Great Dane, assumed the hypnotic stance of the show-dog as they pointed at the ready, facing the back door.
Finally, the moment had arrived; doors were flung open. The dogs led their owners down the sidewalks and footpaths and wood trails.
Suddenly, nostrils quivering, sniffing at the air, they stopped; leashes slackened. As their humans stood waiting for the usual morning business to be done, scratching their heads and yawning and admiring Mr. Trumble’s Turf Builder lawn and Mary Casey’s Miracle Gro dahlias, the signal sounded.
The Labrador retriever, the beagle, and the Shepherd yanked their leashes taut, causing unsuspecting rumps to crash down to the ground, crushing flower beds, while the fashionably coiffed Mrs. Chenoweth was thrown, ungracefully and head first, into the holly bushes in front of the Hendersons’ bungalow.
The Great Dane and the powerful mastiff broke free of their masters’ stronghold, leaving a dislocated shoulder, a sprained wrist, and an air of general bewilderment in their wake as they galloped down the street to the chant, “Bad dog! Bad dog!”
The Chihuahua wrestled out of her mistress’s arms; a Chow snapped its lead, splashing designer-brand coffee onto the Arts & Leisure section of Mr. Robinson’s Morning Register. The Jack Russell, whose teenage boy had kept him waiting, squeezed out of the narrowly opened bedroom window and onto the porch roof, where he slithered down the drainpipe like a trapeze act. The nursing pups were led out through the kitchen door flap and rolled like furry tumbleweeds along the roadside. The dachshund circled her Karate master’s sturdy ankles, tying him up and taking him down to topple onto his face. Ears flapped as the little red critter scattered away to join the flight.
The Doberman couple, Fred and Ethel, leaped the gate like jumpers at a horse show. The aged Rottweiler dug out between the fence-posts, along the way discovering a long-buried soup bone from ten years past. Brave little dogs breached invisible fencing and, shocked, trotted off with carefree delight to join the exodus through the vast forest.
When it all was over, when the yells and frantic cries were spent, when the scrapes and bruises were assessed, when the mulch was brushed from hair and hands, not a dog was left in sight. The incident was duly reported to the authorities.
As the people went about their daily business—the grownups to the office, the children off to school—there was presented a new and exciting prospect for the feline population of the little town. And cats will always have their way.
No longer resigned to lounging the afternoon away on a sunny window seat—for no longer was the big brown eye of the hairy beast around to keep one in check—with tails high and legs outstretched they strutted around the rooms of their lairs with newfound confidence. Alone at home, and safe from marauders who might send them leaping atop refrigerators, they set to play. There were, after all, curtains to shred, aquariums to fish in, walls to spray, and birdcages to swing from. And so, the cats, they had their way.
And as the sun was setting and the blue of evening settled over the little town, the children and the grownups returned to their cozy homes. They were not greeted by panting and leaping and circling excitement—no, not this first night of the day the dogs left town. But, rather, as the humans entered through the front doors they unwittingly stepped into the terrible paths of feline destruction. After much hair-pulling, hand-wringing, and chest-thumping, after the gaping and screeching and stomping had subsided, the cats flew from off the chandeliers, the countertops, the stacks of books, the etageres, and, racing through the still opened doors, put themselves out for the night.
It was a terrible night.
Televisions blasted loudly throughout the little town—and even with the windows closed you couldn’t hear the Evening News over the din of the racket outside. Later, after everybody was tucked into bed, one needed earplugs to get any sleep. Cats were prowling the dark streets, alone or in gangs, hunting down the rodent population. For sport the cats terrorized the raccoon family who’d moved in down the street, and blatantly dared the nocturnal skunks to spray them. Some felines partied in backyards, crooned old tunes on fence-posts, or bayed at the moon with longing for lovers long gone. Tough tomcats brazenly had their ways with the more gentle females; catfights broke out and the injured retreated to lick their wounds. In the general chaos of four o’clock in the morning, the rooster shivered in his cage; he dared not utter his wakeup call for fear of disclosing his location to the dangerous mob hungry for a chicken dinner.
People irritably abandoned their tumbled bed sheets. They went about their morning rituals like bad actors in a zombie movie. Cats were scratching the window glass, clinging like big Xs on the door screens and caterwauling to be let back in. There was much hissing and whining accompanied by rather frightening stares.
“What to do? What to do?” thought their people. The cats had gone feral, they couldn’t be let in, but they couldn’t be kept out. Prissy, the once-affectionate Persian, was viciously digging up the catmint plant by its roots, dragging it over to her confederate, the herb-drugged Siamese, Soy Sauce, who had chosen a Big Boy tomato hanging from a vine for a punching bag. Boozer, the big Maine Coon, was gaily taking down the wash from the line, dragging the Ralph Lauren sheet along the dirt path, while wearing Ms. Joanna Merkle’s Victoria’s Secret panties as a headdress during the foray. It was all that people could do to get out of their houses, dashing to the safety of their cars and shooting out of their driveways in a getaway. Cats cursed their exhaust fumes.
The birds, who had been quietly observing the events of the past day, were directed by the scholarly owl to find refuge in the massive chestnut tree that stood regally in the middle of the big woods at the edge of town. There, they might discuss what best to do. No cat could venture up the great shaft of the tree’s trunk, so the gentle birds, the gray doves, the sparrows, the chickadees, the cardinals, and the pigeons, took refuge in its wide-sprawling canopy. Only the squawking blue jays and the bossy black crows and the scheming hawks couldn’t be bothered to attend the conference. It would be hours of pointless chatter with the pompous old owl holding court, delivering his hollow sermon, and action against the mobs had to be taken at once. They had a plan of their own for a strategic air strike, a plan to put into action what they had perfected millennia ago, a maneuver observed and learned by the humans and that the birds would now employ to protect their more vulnerable friends. The blue jays, the crows, and the hawks flew in through the gash in the slate roof of the fire-gutted Dutch Reform Church at the far end of Main Street to confer on the rafters.
During this second night after the day the dogs left town, the townspeople gathered in the community room of Town Hall to discuss the alarming changes to their little hamlet. While armed guards patrolled the parking lot with orders to shoot any offending feline, the mayor and councilmen considered how best to proceed. The townspeople could not come to any sort of an agreement about how to handle the wildcats, and there was a lot of yelling and screaming, some spitball firing, name calling, and gavel smacking before slaps and punches were thrown about. People who had once gladly lent cups of sugar to their neighbors, brought over casseroles at births and deaths, helped carry groceries, or called the police during domestic disputes became violent enemies. Slingshots were unpocketed. The mayor stormed out, the councilmen quit, and everybody else just got up, walked out, loaded their guns, and scurried off to their homes, their car windows rolled up against each other and the tide of cats. Safe behind locked doors, parents and children huddled together in front of their televisions, watching the Evening News to hear about the strange events happening around the world.
“Things have gone to hell in a hand-basket,” yelled the frustrated anchorman, whose Pan-stick makeup barely covered the cat-claw stripe running down his left cheek. “People armed with automatic weapons are taking to the streets in their vigilante patrol of their neighborhoods against the frenzied felines. Some counties are paying as much as twenty-two dollars a head for cats. In a little village in Vermont, forty-six people who got in the way of the quarry are dead from gunshot wounds. The images about to be shown are not pleasant, and might be disturbing to the young, the sick, or the addle-minded.” Parents were warned to ask their children to leave the room. The editorial asked the question, “What to do? What to do?”
After the second night of destruction, as the sun rose in the south, people peeked out through window curtains to see trees stripped of their bark, flowerbeds upturned, and fence-posts scarred like scratching posts. Cats, spent from a night of wild partying, lay sleeping atop claw-frayed canvas convertible tops, dozed curled up in the opened mailboxes, or lay dazed in cabbage patches.
It was at this time, at the brink of dawn, that the birds of the little town roosted in the treetops, perched in the cupolas, towers, and widow walks, and balanced agilely on the weathervanes. They were at the ready for the signal that was to come at the moment the sun flashed green light in the sky as it dawned on the horizon. And when it came, that flash, the crickets fell silent, the little night creatures ceased their scurrying, and the bats were safe deep within their caves. There rumbled a low, foreboding gurgle of the pigeons and doves, before a throbbing racket erupted: the flapping of a million wings that darkened the sky and eclipsed the rising sun.
The hawks spiraled down upon their marks. A murder of crows cawed and swooped down upon their prey; the blue-jays squawked as they beaked their enemies with saber-like precision; the smaller birds—the sparrows, the chickadees, and the peaceful gray doves—bravely provided diversion for the fighter pilots zipping through the sky. The cats, who had been dozing after their night of folly, were taken in surprise ambush and, drunk from sleep, lost their advantage to the birds. The felines scattered under crawlspaces, into sewers, or under lawn chairs.
Now the birds became a powerful force in their own right. No more the stealthy, four-footed dominatrix lurking behind the bird feeder, sneaking up to the birdbath, disrupting the early morning dig for worms on the lawn, or leaping into the nests to terrorize their chicks. Now, those bully cats who had found sport in slapping around the songsmiths cowered in their hiding places, and the birds chattered sweet victory!
The birds became fearless as they descended upon the berry bushes, the vegetable gardens, and the fig trees, striping all of their sweet, bulbous fruits. The crows battled the jays for the dogwood berries, and the hawks and owls fought viciously over the squirrels’ nests. The racket of wings and chirps and screeches was deafening, like the sound of a thousand doors slamming over and over again in rapid succession, and it only got worse as the morning wore on. But, by noon, the frenzy had abated; the gardens, trees, bushes, and cornfields had been stripped clean, and the greedy birds, inebriated from bellies so full of fruit as to make them top-heavy on their stick-like legs, began to fall from their perches.
The people were shuttered in their houses, waiting for the frogs to fall from the sky. Some prayed; some did naughty things. What else could happen? The whole world had tumbled upside-down. Nothing made sense anymore. As they tuned in their battery-operated radios—for there was no more television or electricity or telephone or high-speed Internet service since the birds had snapped the cables with the weight of their numbers—the people listened to the philosophers and statesmen and pundits, while Judge Judy expounded on the new phenomenon that had swept across the globe, rendering a new world order. “Blame Global Warming,” said one; “Blame the EPA,” said another. A spokesman for the Humane Society blamed human beings for their lack of humanity, and PETA put out a statement that amoebas had rights, too. A professor of classics at Oxford University blamed Socrates, who had failed to warn us. Dr. Phil blamed an overbearing mother. Reporters converged on the little town in Hummers and dressed in body armor and hard hats for protection against the dive-bombing birds. The President called in the National Guard.
When did this all begin, asked the politicians? The last administration was to blame! No, it started when the new administration came into office.
“No,” said little Mary Robinson, the eight-year-old Wunderkind now in her third year at Harvard. “It began the day the dogs left town.”
“Could it be? The dogs had left town, that’s right! The dogs knew enough to get out of town before the madness began,” said the Speaker of the House of Representatives. “How could they have known?”
“Don’t be a fool,” said little Mary to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Mary didn’t suffer fools easily, and this man was certainly a fool, one of many sent to Congress by millions of other fools. “It was because the dogs left town that the world has gone awry.”
“Well,” said the Big Man, “get them to come back home.”
“Would that it were that easy,” remarked the President’s press secretary, bringing tears to the eyes of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. “It may take negotiations, a lot of ego stroking, and a full benefits package, including Beggin’ Strips, to save the planet.”
Six days had passed since the dogs had left town, and the casualties were rising. There seemed to be little hope left for a return to a world of harmony.
“Harmony?” asked Mary the Wunderkind. “Was there ever harmony?”
At dusk on the seventh day there appeared, on the summit of the mountain overlooking the little town, a mutt—part Papillion with a dash of terrier. He stood looking down upon the little town, at the wreckage caused by man and beasts since his departure the week before. He looked at the scene long and hard, and considered the apparent imperfection of the scheme of things before the departure. He turned his head to look at the pack, watching from their hiding places among the tall pines, awaiting his decision. He weighed the wisdom of whether it was time for them to return, and for the world to go back to the dogs once again.