“You’re a madman,” I said to the dog on the day Billy Kelly married his second wife. “Come sit with me.”
Topsy and I were hunkered down in the cemetery, the netting between us. I had brought along a lunch for us to share, but neither of us was hungry and I tossed the crumbs to the birds. Topsy twitched whenever flies circled above his head. He had little marks on his nose and paws from the irritations they caused. Our house was currently decorated with pink ribbons for the wedding supper. Pink was Annie’s favorite color. Clove pink, china pink, snow pink. I thought of how when Sara wrapped presents she used string instead of ribbons because she hated waste. “Oh, it’s just as good,” she would insist when our mother would say her work seemed too homemade. “It’s better.” My sister hated pink; she preferred the deepest darkest shades of red. Thinking of the roses she had once planted, I sat there in the tent of netting and cried. Maybe Topsy felt some pity for me because later he trotted beside me when I walked to the gate.
By then most people in Blackwell knew that Sara’s dog had taken up residence in the cemetery and that he refused to leave. The school had a class trip to visit him, and the pastor came out on Sundays after his sermon and brought biscuits. The grass where Topsy lay was worn away. There was nothing but bare earth. He always went into the woods to do his business, then ran back to his spot. He accepted treats, but only if they were placed directly before him. He ducked his head if anyone tried to pet him. He wasn’t interested in their affections. In early fall, when Sara had been gone a year, Annie Kelly had a baby she named Beth Ann. Hannah often minded the baby—she took great pleasure in her—but I wasn’t one for children. When the baby reached up to me, I avoided her touch. I said I was clumsy, unable to help out with one so small. I began to take my school-books out to the cemetery so I could read in peace. I was there when an art class from Lenox arrived one afternoon. They set up their easels and made studies of Topsy. The teacher had been an admirer of Sara’s work and he gave me one of his drawings on that day. I showed it to Topsy and he gazed at it disdainfully. I laughed and agreed it wasn’t a very good likeness. Not so long ago my sister babied him and let him sleep in her bed and Topsy had been as fat as a frog. Now he was skin and bones, even though I brought him his supper each day. There was a white film over his eyes.
I didn’t think Topsy would last through another winter, but he did. He always stood to greet me, and when I left, he politely walked me to the gate. Other than those two rituals, he didn’t seem to notice my existence. I talked to him sometimes, but he never even tilted his head. He ignored me. I still had the bite mark on my wrist from the day my sister died. The bite had faded, but when I ran my hand over my skin, I could feel it. That following spring I turned twelve. I learned how to make rhubarb pie with a fine crust and how to read Latin. I cut my hair short, and it was a scandal. Everyone was talking about it, but by summer most of the girls in town had followed my lead. Now when I went to the cemetery, Topsy was there by the gate, waiting for me at four o’clock. He could tell time it seemed, and when I was late, he always looked put out. As we walked to my sister’s grave I told him what was going on in town, bits of gossip and news. Not that he cared. I told him I couldn’t sleep at night, and that I had started swimming in the Eel River, even though I knew I would never be as strong a swimmer as Sara.
One afternoon when there was so much pollen the air itself seemed yellow, Billy Kelly came down the path. I was reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which thrilled me, not only the story but the fact that a woman had been daring enough to write it. We had a new library in town and I was there nearly every week, stopping on my way to visit Sara. The librarian had hesitated when I checked out Frankenstein. I said, “Don’t worry. I’m not afraid of words.” Sometimes I read aloud. Now I looked up from my book and there was Billy. He was staring at Topsy. Topsy stared back at him.
“You’d think he’d have died out in the cold,” Billy remarked.
As far as I knew Billy had never come out here before. Perhaps his mother had filled his head with some nonsense about disease reaching out from beyond the grave. Perhaps he simply didn’t have the heart for such visits.
“He’s stubborn,” I said. When Topsy gave me a baleful look, I added, “All pugs are. It’s the nature of the breed.”
“Do you think it’s in your best interest to spend so much time out here?” Billy asked me. It was then I realized that people in town were talking about me, thinking I was odd.