The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (2008)
by David Wroblewski
This will be his earliest memory.
Red light, morning light. High ceiling canted overhead. Lazy click of toenails on wood. Between the honey-colored slats of the crib a whiskery muzzle slides forward until its cheeks pull back and a row of dainty front teeth bare themselves in a ridiculous grin.
The nose quivers. The velvet snout dimples.
All the house is quiet. Be still. Stay still.
Fine, dark muzzle fur. Black nose, leather of lacework creases, comma of nostrils flexing with each breath. A breeze shushes up the field and pillows the curtains inward. The apple tree near the kitchen window caresses the house with a tick-tickety-tick-tick. As slowly as he can, he exhales, feigning sleep, but despite himself his breath hitches. At once the muzzle knows he is awake. It snorts. Angles right and left. Withdraws. Outside the crib, Almondine's forequarters appear. Her head is reared back, her ears cocked forward.
A cherry-brindled eye peers back at him.
Whoosh of her tail.
Be still. Stay still.
The muzzle comes hunting again, tunnels beneath his blanket, below the farmers and pigs and chicks and cows dyed into that cotton world. His hand rises on fingers and spider-walks across the surprised farmyard residents to challenge the intruder. It becomes a bird, hovering before their eyes. Thumb and index finger squeeze the crinkled black nose. The pink of her tongue darts out but the bird flies away before Almondine can lick it. Her tail is switching harder now. Her body sways, her breath envelops him. He tugs the blackest whisker on her chin and this time her tongue catches the palm of his hand ever so slightly. He pitches to his side, rubs his hand across the blanket, blows a breath in her face. Her ears flick back. She stomps a foot. He blows again and she withdraws and bows and woofs, low in her chest, quiet and deep, the boom of an uncontainable heartbeat. Hearing it, he forgets and presses his face against the rails to see her, all of her, take her inside him with his eyes, and before he can move, she smears her tongue across his nose and forehead! He claps a hand to his face but it's too late - she's away, spinning, biting her tail, dancing in the moted sunlight that spills through the window glass.
This is the book I'm currently reading and it's passages like this one that I'm devouring with eager anticipation of the next. This moment in the book made me gasp with the beauty of its language and imagery and I immediately went back and read it again (and I think I may have revisited it a few times since then).
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet set in rural Wisconsin. In this passage, Edgar as an infant (he is also mute ... the words "Be still. Stay still." are signed, not spoken) makes his first tender and tentative connection with his dog, Almondine. The author has a wonderful understanding of dogs and their behavior, and any dog lover is sure to smile in delight at the dog's probing investigation of the crib. I also love the imagery of the child's hand crawling "spider-like" across the farmyard printed on his cotton blanket. It's a simple, beautifully-told, quiet moment ...