A True Story
Dear reader, simply know that I write these words with a heavy heart.
My name is Celestin, and as I write this it's late February of 2019 and I am a 23-year-old cooking chef in a student residence for adult education in the northern Quebec village of Inukjuak. I came here for two weeks before the Christmas break of 2018 to get trained and see if the job was right for me, and it is, so I came back in January of 2019 to start work for good. I arrived about ten days later than scheduled because of an elbow injury that happened to me on Christmas Eve.
I am fortunate to have been easily able to bring my two-and-a-half years old cat, Kisa, with me on the plane and in my new home in Inukjuak. Kisa is great company, as always, and makes the long weeks less lonely. Taking care of something else sort of makes me want to take more care of myself, if it makes sense to anyone.
I work quite a lot here, over forty hours a week, but I still enjoy every moment of my stay here. The landscapes visible from almost anywhere are breathtaking; sunsets and rises most of all. There are only three general stores and no restaurants or bars or even hair salons, so when a social opportunity presents itself, I very rarely decline. My personal projects can always be put on hold for a couple hours. So, I started going to volleyball nights and yoga sessions, because why the hell not?
Sidenote: those who say yoga is for women have definitely never tried it. My body was not ready to stretch to those limits, and I left my first session sweating like a pig, but was glad to do so, nonetheless.
So it was on a Tuesday yoga night around 7 PM that I head out on my ten-minute walk to the house where the sessions happen. As soon as I got outside I felt the usual glacial winds of the north. It whips your face and any inch of skin that you let uncovered. Even with my full-on winter armour, as I like to call it, it can be difficult to be outside for too long.
Hell, a couple of weeks ago a 14-year-old girl in a neighbouring village got too drunk and passed out in the snow between two houses. She was found frozen to death the next morning.
You don't mess around with the cold, here.
As I was walking in the freezing temperatures, I could hear the common barking of the many local dogs that are attached to poles outside, hungry. In the winter, these dogs are usually not fed well and complain a lot. They become more dangerous as they scavenge for anything that they can get their paws on. A few of them are lose in the village, mostly the younger ones, but I'm not much afraid of even the bigger ones; I always enter in play-mode when I see one.
That night I also heard the distinctive cries of a small dog, surely a puppy, having a hard time in the cold. When I passed in front of the source of those cries, it was indeed a small, fluffy, mostly black-haired puppy that was alone and very cold.
He was at the bottom of the steps leading to the front porch of an apartment building.
I guess you could say fate put him on the path I was already taking to go to yoga.
He was screaming and whining his cold heart out, so naturally I went to pet the little guy. I mean, my heart melted at the pure cuteness and innocence of this tiny creature. I took him and said the classic who's-a-good-boy's and oh-what-a-cute-wittle-baybee's as its shivering body slowly warmed up in my arms. He was licking my nose and eyes, which wasn't completely unpleasant in this cold weather.
Love at first sight, you could say.
I put him down and headed back to yoga, but sure enough the puppy was following me and did not want to go back to the steps. I thought maybe if I went far enough he'd want to turn back, but he just kept on following. He sometimes fell in my deep boot prints in a hilarious manner and yipped for a couple seconds when he thought he was trapped.
I didn't feel like missing out on a social activity, but I couldn't let this little creature freeze there or struggle the whole way up the fairly steep hill, either.
So I took him in my arms again and brought the young beast with me to yoga, hoping the people there wouldn't mind the surprise company too much. In any case, he could always stay in the closet space between the front door and the main door, not exactly inside but definitely a lot warmer than outside at this time of year.
The folks there that night had no problem at all with the adorable intruder. A girl there even thought that it was her puppy at first because he resembled the one she just got. She said hers was about seven weeks old, so I guessed this puppy would be about the same age. Not even two months old. We tried to make him stay in a cardboard box with towels but the little guy always tried to get out in a clumsy fashion. After about twenty minutes of running around the place, sniffing this and nibbling that while everyone else was in their calm bubble of muscle stretching, the puppy eventually tired out and fell asleep next to me for the rest of the session. I was honestly impressed. Afterwards, snacking and talking, they asked me what I'd do if I never found the owner, and I said I kind of hoped to be able to keep him. I mean, I already had a lot of affection for the cute hairball. He didn't even do his dirty business until after we left the yoga house. What a sport! I was already thinking of some names for my new friend; Inuk? Doga? Mix dog-yoga... Then I thought, well the Inuit word for “thank you” is "Nakurmiik," so if this dog ends up to be mine, I'll call him Naku. Thank you life for this gift.
I carried Naku in my arms most of the way back, it just seemed simpler that way. When I got to the stairs where I found him, I climbed them and knocked on the doors. No answer. The puppy was too small to climb the steps and barked because he couldn't. I took the puppy and put him on the porch, thinking that he was still too small to come down those steps—plus his screaming would surely make someone come out of there and maybe know whose dog it was. The bastard already had some powerful barking lungs!
No one came. After a few moments, I left the pup there and slowly started to head back home, because I won't just steal someone's dog I thought, but Naku desperately stumbled down the stairs and came running after me.
What the hell, it was freezing, I just wanted to go inside, but my heart wouldn't let me leave the poor thing outside. ''Come on lil' buddy, you're sleepin' at my place tonight," I said to his cute, shivering face.
So, he followed me home, sometimes running too fast and bumping in the back of my boots in a very comical fashion. Every couple seconds I looked down and around to see how he was doing. One time I looked down and didn't see him, because Naku stopped about fifteen feet away to release a micro-dump on the snow covered street. When he finished, he ran back towards me, happily barking away. Who's-a-good-boy!
When we got home, I put Naku down to unlock the apartment building door. He followed me the twelve feet between the building door and my apartment door, and then sat on his tushy and stared at me with a look that seemed to say: well, what now?
Kisa, my cat, is always waiting patiently for me on the other side of the door when I get back home, so she was a bit startled to see the newcomer, but didn't run away. She dealt with dogs and puppies before, but this one was still smaller than her! Naku was chubbier, he had the fat of a puppy who had eaten his share of local meats like seal or caribou, but he was still smaller than the already petite Kisa. They shyly smelled each other, Naku less shyly than Kisa naturally, but remained remarkably calm for a puppy and a cat meeting for the first time. Sadly I had no milk to give Naku, so I filled up a bowl of water and took some pieces of meat from the freezer to feed him. He drank his bowl and chewed his meat with appetite and enthusiasm. I placed a piece of cardboard on the floor near the door, hoping he would do his business on it during the night. It was roughly ten o'clock in the evening, and I started work at six in the morning the following day, so I was thinking on going to bed pretty soon.
I tried putting the dog in the staircase for a couple of minutes with his water, food, towels, and blankets, but the little guy shortly started barking when he realised he was alone. I was slightly worried that Naku would bark loudly during the night, waking up the upstairs neighbors, so I took him back in my apartment and tried to go to sleep. A couple of times he yipped after Kisa, so eventually I just took him and put him on my bed. ''I'll pick up the mess tomorrow, when I'm less tired,'' I thought. He was too small and afraid to jump off, so he stayed on the bed and ran up and down, sometimes nibbling at my toes, sometimes licking my nose. I woke up many times during the night because of his movements or his light yipping noises; he would immediately stop when I'd say: "Shhhhh!"
Something about little Naku made him seem smart and understanding. I could do without the occasional loud barks, but anyway I didn't choose the guy, he chose me. His needs were pretty basic: food, liquid, shelter, and love. I had plenty of all those things to go around, so I was glad to share them with Naku, at least until his real master would come and get him, I thought.
When I woke up early Wednesday morning, Naku was sound asleep at my feet, with no mess to pick up. Awesome. I went about my morning routine, with the new features of feeding and playing with the cutest puppy i've ever seen, and eventually found a small yellow puddle near the door, right next to the cardboard. ''Oh well, I'll just have to train him and take him out more often," I thought. Cleaning up urine is never a fun task, but my past experience doing janitorial work in a nursing home prepared me for such.
When I came to Inukjuak for two weeks before Christmas, one of the students at the residence had a dog tied at the back of the building, near the back door of the kitchen. We'd always give some leftovers of the meals to the happy dog. When I came back in January the dog was gone, as well as the student, so I thought it could be a good spot for Naku for the not-so-cold day ahead. Remember these are northern dogs raised in cruel, harsh winter conditions, so their tolerance level to cold is very high. As we were walking towards the residence where I work, Naku and I passed by a house with at least six big white northern dogs attached here-and-there on the lawn. There were a few younger, smaller dogs that were loose in the bunch, but they seemed asleep this early in the day. The big dogs slowly got up at the sight of the human and the puppy but their chains prevented them from coming at us. They simply stared at us passing by, not even barking. Looking hungry. When I got to the residence, I tied Naku near the backdoor of the kitchen with the leash I brought to Inukjuak for Kisa, who never needs it anyways, and brought him some leftover chicken à-la-king.
This little guy will eat like a king indeed, I said to myself.
Throughout the day I kept checking up on him, feeling sorry for him when I heard his high-pitched barks and that I couldn't bring him inside the residence for the day. Thus, are the rules. During the day I saw my upstairs neighbor and asked if she had heard anything during the night before—she hadn't, and was delighted to hear the short story of little Naku. She even said she'd be glad to help with anything, if needed. She seemed pleased to have such a cute presence in the building.
My work day was over around two in the afternoon. When I finished, I left by the back door, letting Naku free from the leash. He instantly started following me home again, of course.
Now you have to understand that at this point I still didn't want to be the guy who “stole” someone else's pup, so walking back from work, I stopped at the building where I found him and did the same dance as the night before; knocking on the doors, leaving the dog on the porch, and slowly walking away towards home. Again, Naku barked and screamed as he watched me go away and once more he tumbled down the steps and came running after me.
What the hell—at that moment I knew I was going to be taking care of him. I felt it. I wanted to raise him and feed him and love him, so that's exactly what I started doing. So, I came back home on Wednesday afternoon and Naku and Kisa seemed almost happy to be reunited. Naku happier than the cat, of coarse. I played with the animals, took a couple pictures and videos of my fluffy new friend, and watched with admiration as Naku ran around the living room floor, sometimes tripping himself and falling on his pink belly because he was still too young and clumsy to run well.
After an hour or so of playing around, I head out to the local store to get some groceries and something for Naku to sink his little teeth in, a bone or a toy or something. Since he spent the whole morning attached outside while I was working, I thought it best to leave Naku at the bottom of the heated staircase while I did my errands. I left him with some of Kisa's toys, his water and food, towels, and the cage that Kisa was in during the flight here, should Naku want to be in a more cozy, closed environment. I could hear him bark when I left him, but the neighbors had not finished their day of work yet so I wasn't worried. Let him get used to being alone for a couple hours—life is tough sometimes.
I came back about an hour later with a bone-shaped rope that he could chew on, expecting his barks and screams, but there was only silence in the staircase, and I couldn't see Naku at first.
He was peacefully sleeping in his comfy nest in the cage. He opened his eyes when I put my face at the mouth of the cage, but didn't bother to get up; he looked too tuckered out. I let him rest there until I heard him barking lightly in the staircase and opened the door to see him come strutting his tiny booty inside my apartment. I cleaned up a yellow puddle or two that evening, but it was fine, really. What was I to expect with a toddler dog, anyways?
Naku was truly a gift, "I say thankya," and I was getting to love the little bastard more than I thought I would. Who could say no to such a cute face? Before going to bed on Wednesday I went to walk Naku for a couple minutes to see if he'd do his business again, but outside this time. Before heading out, I just had to go introduce Naku to my two neighbors, two women who had recently moved here as well to start a new job and a new life in the village. They were awed by Naku's cuteness and spirit, even if he seemed sleepy that evening. As soon as I put him down when we were outside, he lit up with energy and started following me as I walked the empty frozen streets. Once again, when I looked back to see how he was doing and making sure I wouldn't accidentally step on the poor thing, he wasn't there. He stayed back, left a brown present on the ground, and came running back to me.
While walking around, I eventually passed in front of the place where I found him, and didn't bother knocking or anything when I saw there were no lights turned on.
So, we simply head back home, him excited to get back inside and me, excited to start a new chapter of my life with such a cool friend. That night he slept in my bed again, and I was just laying there, petting his pink belly and thinking of the journey ahead. Naku could be a great sled dog! He'd be very well fed at the residence and I'd make time to walk him and play with him every single day. I slept well that night, and Naku was as calm as ever.
No yellow stains in the bed the next morning, either.
Thursday morning, I was well rested and ready for the day's work. I played with Naku and Kisa, throwing random objects anywhere to see who would get there first. I put a towel over a small yellow puddle under the table this time. I had two busy days ahead of me before the weekend, so my mind was mostly on the job and what meals I would serve and whatnot.
I headed out to work earlier than I usually would that morning because I knew I had a lot on my plate. Naku was running behind me as always, blindly following my every step.
It takes me less than ten minutes to walk to work. A fairly short walking distance, some would say.
But the next part simply happened way too fast.
I was thinking of the day ahead when we passed by the house with the many big white dogs attached on the front lawn to my left. I was between Naku and the tied dogs passing them, so I didn't bother to constantly check on Naku. I walked for maybe ten steps and then looked down to see my new puppy following me.
Before I even got a chance to turn my head and look back, I heard him bark frantically. I jerked my head in his direction and saw him on the side of the road, with two of the younger louse dogs circling him and closing in on him. I immediately started running towards Naku, but the dogs got there faster and started roughing him up quite violently for only a few short seconds. If I were to give these young dogs the benefit of doubt that they wanted to play, their play-style was way too rough for a puppy as young as Naku. My puppy was screaming very loudly even if the dogs only got a bite or two before I was close enough to scare them off. I took him in my arms and headed up the hill towards the residence. At the middle of the hill, Naku was still screaming wildly and howling, clearly in pain and agony. I set him down and knew that the situation might be worse than I thought.
I don't believe these dogs were trying to play with Naku.
I think those bastards were starving, and jumped on a fresh meal when they had the chance. When I saw the drops of blood on the clear white snow, I knew something was very, very wrong. The dogs had sunken their teeth in his legs and belly and blood was coming out of the holes. I was quite freaked out, and decided in that moment to bring him back home, holding him in my arms while he slowly calmed down and whined a little less. Passing by the house with the dogs again to my right this time, I managed a “fucking animals” directed at the two dogs who were maybe even thinking I was bringing their breakfast back.
I was in a hurry, the kitchen can be a tough work environment, trust me. I figured the best thing to do was to leave Naku in the heated staircase with all his doodas and his cage. I wrapped him in a towel to prevent the bleeding from starting again, since the cold had already frozen the wounds and turned the blood to a slush-like texture. I found the staircase to be a better choice than my apartment, because he wouldn't have to deal with a curious Kisa and also my neighbors could check on him when they woke up and left for work. They'd wonder what in the hell happened, naturally, but I was confident that they would comfort him and come give me an update at work. Even after what I had just witnessed, I believed Naku was going to pull through. He would have it rough (ruff), the recovery process would be long, but I had too much faith and love in him to believe he wasn't going to make it. I hoped to God I wasn't in denial. So, I left him next to his bowl of water and a piece of meat, hoping it would give him some energy to get through the day. He already seemed much calmer once inside.
My upstairs neighbor came to see me that morning and told me Naku was at the foot of the lobby door when she left, hurt and lying on the floor but still looking like a puppy who wanted to go outside.
Or go after his master.
I should have been more worried than I already was, but what my brain heard was “Naku is alive,” so I was relieved.
I managed to get off work earlier than usual and had a small container full of leftover chicken pieces that I knew Naku would enjoy. I ran to get home on Thursday afternoon, preparing myself to comfort one sad and hurt puppy who needed love and care.
When I entered the building, I expected to hear cries of some sort, but I was greeted only by deathly silence. I opened the door and saw bloody paw-prints coming back and forth from my apartment door and the staircase door. There were some paintbrush-like blood stripes near my door. Naku was nowhere to be seen at first, which made my head race—especially when I spotted the piece of meat untouched from the morning. Then I peeped in the cage and found him in a sleeping position, on the side with the tiny arms and legs stretched out in front of him. The blankets and towels were drenched in blood.
For a moment there, I really believed he was still alive, calling his name again and again, but never an answer from Naku.
He never opened his eyes.
I touched his paws, and instantly felt the dreadful stiffness in them. I tried to open his mouth but his tiny jaw was shut tight. All I could say was, “No, no, no, no, Naku, why? No, no, no, no.”
My brain knew it was over, that Naku was never going to scream again, but I still foolishly splashed a bit of water in his face, secretly hoping he'd magically come back to life.
He didn't, of course, because this isn't a movie.
This is real life and when when your body's that stiff, you're gone.
If I may reference the Dark Tower novels, Naku entered the clearing at the end of his path.
The tears did not come yet, no, there was still much to do before that part began. I gently took him out of the cage and wrapped his body in a—appropriately colored—red towel and head out to the frozen river nearby holding Naku like he loved to be held, in the safety of my arms. As I walked I was in disbelief of what I just witnessed. Wondering what to do with his cadaver, I thought it would be best to give Naku back to the village of Inukjuak. Give his body back to the land, but I did not have the strength or the shovel to dig a proper burial site in the ice. In the north, it's not as easy as it sounds to dig a hole in the frozen ground in February. Burying him in a snow bank would just preserve him for a gruesome Spring surprise. So, I walked on the frozen river until I couldn't bare anymore and let him down behind a pile of snow. Might as well let some lucky wandering animal have a good meal. Still, I foolishly thought the cold air or my wishes might bring him back to life, but I had no such luck. That last realisation, that it was really over, hit me much harder than I anticipated.
I thought of myself as a rather emotionless being, so I was a bit surprised to find myself crying so many tears.
Now, I'm no psychiatrist, but if I had to self-diagnose, I'd say maybe I was bottling deeper, unknown feelings and Naku's death released them all at once. Plus, I had never really dealt with the loss of a close loved one, so I was experiencing some new feelings, aswell.
It hurts, folks.
I was, and still am, heartbroken.
All I could do on the walk back home was cry and cry and cry some more.
When I finally got back inside, seeing those bloody pawprints on the floor and on the walls again made my heart sink.
I could too easily imagine poor Naku struggling from one door to another, hoping his new master would open one of those damn doors and come take care of him. I could imagine him giving up hope and getting into the cage, maybe even getting ready to die.
I'll never know these things for sure, and I think that hurt me even more.
I cleaned up the blood spots while I cried my pain out, and remember clearly thinking I would've preferred to clean a million yellow puddles than this crimson-red one. When I was done, all I could physically do was crumble on the couch and cry my heart out, but before I got to the couch, I saw the bone-shaped toy rope that I had just purchased for him, lying ever lonely on the living room floor. That did nothing to ease my pain.
When I couldn't bear my own tears anymore, I put on an episode of The Simpsons to distract my too heavy head. I think I even managed a few laughs before my upstairs neighbor—a women who, in some small, weird ways, reminds me of my own mother; roughly the same age, kindness and even career choice—came back from work and came knocking at my door before going up to her place.
The pain was back full force, because I knew I had a tough moment ahead. I opened the door and she said hi and asked “how is everybody?” with a glimpse of hope in her eyes. It hurts to have to be the bearer of such grime news, to kill that glimpse of hope with just a few words, and all I could manage was:
Naku didn't make it.
She dropped her bags, and I saw the tears in her eyes before she gave me a hug, and I don't recall ever being so weak in someone's arms before. We cried together for awhile, coping with the loss of an adorable presence in the building. I tried to tell her the last part of Naku's journey, but crying and talking at the same time is hard work. She gave me a candle to light in his memory and left me mourn my loss with my baby Kisa, who's no baby anymore at over two years old, but she'll always be my baby. Back to the center of attention.
That was a deeply sad Thursday night for me. I'll let you imagine my state of sadness by telling you I was in bed sleeping by seven that evening. Friday was especially rough, because every time I'd find myself thinking of him my eyes would tear up.
I remember thinking: Man up, Cel.
Wait, Man up?
You mean I have to live through this real pain in my heart and my head and go about my day like nothing happened? This Man thing kind of sucks, if you ask me.
But still, I did my best to hold my tears in and act normally with my coworkers.
Speaking with my mother on distance call that night did me a lot of good.
That Friday night, I started writing his story, this story, because that's what I felt I needed to do. Maybe to make peace with myself, maybe because this way I know I'll never forget him, maybe a mix of both, but reliving those memories was incredibly hard and surprisingly easy at the same time, because the wound was still fresh.
Naku's hours with me were so short it's cruel, but they were some of the best moments of my life, no doubt.
I find little comfort in telling myself I did everything I could for Naku, and with the purest and best intentions there is, but if I'm being honest, I still feel like shit. I simply can't help myself from thinking about what I could and should have done to prevent his death, even if I know that's not healthy thinking.
Also, the act of writing this honestly freed my head a lot. As if, after writing, all those thoughts physically left my clouded brain.
I can only encourage anyone who is struggling with dark thoughts, to pick up a piece of paper or open a blank page on a computer or even a cell phone notepad, and let those thoughts flow from your head, through your fingers. Get em' out.
All I can do now is focus on the good times we had, and try to, not forget, but put aside the memory of his lifeless corpse in my arms.
If there ever was a creature who deserved to go to Puppy Heaven, it was good ol' Naku.
Adieu, Naku, and may your young soul rest in peace.