However, when I first met the English setter during a stroll in the woods, she didn’t smile. She leaped like a doe in distress, making sure that the distance between us was too big for anything I might throw at her to hit her. From that safe place, she stared at me.
I tried to lure her, but no matter how sweet my voice, it didn’t convince her to reduce the space between us.
The next day, I took some dog food with me, wondering if I’d see her again. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed her—white with orange flecks skittering among the trees. I stopped and called to her. She froze. While she scrutinized my every movement, I put the food on the ground, walked backwards a few steps, and squatted.
Her hunger was stronger than her fear. Slowly, she approached the food, took a big gulp, and pulled back. She was young, maybe six months old. A fearful, skinny puppy.
“Ciao bella.” Not wanting to scare her, I almost whispered. “What are you doing all by yourself in the forest? Did somebody chase you away?”
While she repeated the sequence of coming, swallowing, and withdrawing, she never lost sight of me. She didn’t look at my face though; she watched my hands. I could only imagine the abuse she had received.
After she’d eaten the last bite, she retreated into the woods.
The day after, she seemed to be waiting for me. This time, she lingered after I fed her. As I spoke softly, she shifted her gaze from my hands to my face. Was she trying to figure out if I deserved her trust? The open hand I offered her provoked panic though, and she shot away.
Back home, I took up the chores of the day. While watering the plants, I saw her–tense like an arrow in a bow; she stood on the drive and observed me.
That evening I left dog food on the porch, which was gone the next morning. Bella, where are you?
As I started out for my daily walk, a sudden nudge against my leg startled me. It was her, ready for an outing. And she smiled.
Over the next few weeks, Bella became my faithful hiking buddy. Wherever I walked, she ran. Climbing up rocks, jumping off slopes, following tracks that only she could smell. Disappearing in the woods and reappearing when I thought I’d lost her. At times she stood motionless, one front paw raised, her eyes fixed on a spot in the grass. Her tiny body got fuller, and the space between us diminished. When she allowed me to caress her for the first time, I almost cried.
Then, one morning, something was wrong. Bella stood on the porch as usual, yet she didn’t smile. I was able to touch her, but she refused food. The lack of appetite of her otherwise famished body prompted me to take her to the vet immediately.
Her symptoms indicated poisoning. Several tests confirmed the vet’s initial diagnosis: Bella had been bitten by a viper.
I cringed. “Will she be well again?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. We must administer the antidote; otherwise she’ll die of internal hemorrhages. If she’s still alive tomorrow night, she’ll make it. However, the tissue damage may be too great for her to ever run again.”
Thank God, she survived. However, the vet recommended that I allow her to walk as little as possible, and on a leash only. “Bring her back in a fortnight so that I can perform some more tests.”
Bella, my little bouncing dog, on a leash? Set free from abuse and fear, would she now be imprisoned by a venomous snake?
The first days she was too tired to protest, but after a week she zigzagged ahead of me, pulling, obviously frustrated by the restriction.
The day we were to see the vet finally arrived. Relief filled me at the vet’s solemn words. “The snake is defeated.”
The first time I let Bella outside without the leash, she ran off and out of sight. With mixed feelings, I headed for the woods. Would the thrill of regained freedom make her flee from me?
A rustle in the sun-spotted greenery… and there she lunged forward. She overtook me, stopped, and turned around, watching me, panting. And then I saw it–she was smiling again.
Those among you who recognize “Bella” know that in real life her name is “Stella”. I submitted the above short story to the weekly Writing Challenge of my favorite writers community, the FaithWriters. The topic was “Bouncebackability”. As it is written for a US audience and the maximum number of words is 750, I had to change and leave out some non-consequential details.