One day about 15 years ago, I walked into the central office of the humanities department of San Juan College, where I am the program director of KSJE FM, public radio. The head of humanities wife, Laura, sat with a beautiful little dog on her lap. Falling instantly in love with its huge eyes, I asked if I could hold it. She said yes and I gathered the little ball of golden fur into my arms.
Laura told me she had taken the dog away from a drunk who was beating her at a gas station. I looked at the dog’s black muzzle, exquisite pointed ears, her delicate white feet, and her sassy, stub of a tail and wondered how anybody could be so cruel to a creature with such a sweet face. It resembled a fox’s. The little body I was holding felt sturdy like a Red Heeler’s. The thought of anyone desecrating it brought tears to my eyes. I asked Laura why she had brought the dog into the office. She her household had too many pets, and this one needed a home. I said I’d take her.
The dog was sweet and shy when Laura’s husband Chris brought her to me. I named her after a very gentle opera singer I once interviewed, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Dame Kiri had come to New Mexico to sing with the New Mexico Symphony. She who could have sung in any opera house she wished said, “I hope the Albuquerque audiences like me.” It takes a lot to shut a reporter up, and that comment did the trick to this one. The wistful pleading gaze the little dog turned on me after Chris put her in my living room and walked out the door brought the incident with Dame Kiri to mind. The dog could have no other name.
Kiri slowly explored my house over the next few days. At first, she barely let me touch her, but eventually she learned to trust me. When friends came over, she’d hide from the women and snarl at tall men. I would gather her in my arms, pet her and tell her everything would be okay. Gradually she learned to trust the people around me. Soon she was a regular puppy, chewing stuff, escaping the yard, not making it outside. But I only had to tell her once after she did something wrong and she never did it again.
She learned to sit, stay, and come very fast. I taught her to roll over for a dog cookie. One day I had just measured her food into its bowl when the phone rang. Getting involved in the conversation, I set her bowl on the counter and turned away from her. Next thing, I heard clunk, clunk, clunk. I turned to discover her rolling over and over all the way to the entrance to the living room. When she got there, she rolled back. Naturally, I interrupted the phone call to feed her. Later that evening, I was engrossed in a TV program. She pawed me, and when I only half responded, that little squirt rolled over to get my attention. Don’t tell me dogs can’t think.
I got her a companion, a setter Lab cross named Ben. They communicated with each other in ways I could never figure out. Ben loved to be outside and would spend hours romping in the yard. Kiri always knew when he wanted to come in, but I didn’t always. Sometimes they had doggie arguments, standing nose to nose growling. After a while, they’d step back, shake themselves and wag their tails. They often touched each other on the nose, as if they were kissing.
Reel forward a few years. I gradually had worked my way into the creative writing community in my little town of Farmington. A sturdy fireplug of a woman with iron gray hair named Gwynne Spencer lived just over the Colorado border from us. She wrote for kids and did art therapy projects with trouble youngsters. If a sick animal existed in the universe, she’d find it, nurse it, and seek a home for it. I told her about Kiri and Ben.
She said, “You know, Kiri’s story would be a great one for abused kids who aren’t ready to read about humans who have been abused, but need something to help them get their feelings out. Write a story from Kiri’s point of view.”
Fascinated by the idea of understanding life as a dog, I read about their keen senses of hearing and smell; their abilities as service, police, therapy, and companions, and set to work. “Belle’s Star,” with Kiri as the central character and Ben in a supporting role, came out in August 2009. The story empowers youngsters 8-12 to cope with life’s tough stuff. It tries to teach them that while they may not be able to help what the world does to them, they can choose how to respond to it. Belle was nominated for a New Mexico Book Award in 2009 and it won a Mom’s Choice Award for 2010. With “Belle’s Star’ comes an activity book written by retired school counselor, and award winning journalist, Margaret Cheasebro, who lives in Farmington. Parents, teachers, counselors, and youth organizations to use to discuss issues important to becoming a responsible adult. “Bell’s Star” is illustrated by nationally known artist, John Cogan. www.johncogan.com
My publisher, Artemesia Publishing (apbooks.net) has asked for a sequel, to “Belle’s Star” so “Belle’s Trial,” which stresses self-discipline, will come out next summer. Later, Belle will encounter show dogs, police and or rescue dogs, service dogs, and therapy dogs. In each book, she will learn something. Each volume will come with an activity book.
Ben has gone whenever good dogs go when they finish their lives here, but Kiri is still very much with me. Through all the writing and editing of Belle, Kiri has come and laid her head on my lap wile I sit at the computer. She attends book signings with me. Because of her, I am having a wonderful adventure I never would been able to enjoy had I not walked into the humanities office at San Juan College one particular day. I hope I am helping some kids who need guidance, and providing a fun story for others. Kiri and I have a special relationship. I give her shelter and love; she returns love and inspiration. I have never felt like I owned Dame Kiri. Laura entrusted her to me. Someone Up There made her do that for a purpose. I will always cherish my little fox faced girl. When she joins Ben, I shall always have her memory.