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I Believe
By Jean Keating

    I don’t know why grown people have so much trouble believing in Santa Claus. I’ve met him twice, and I can assure you that he does exist. 

    All right! So the first time I just thought he was a fat little old man dressed in a Santa suit. He’d offered his time, and the time of his wife to support the local humane society. The fund raiser allowed people with dogs to have their pictures taken with Santa and his wife. 

    The early December day was cold and characteristically Christmas-like. Santa and his wife were decked out in the prerequisite red-and-white suits, sitting in front of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. They showed the dewy signs of too much clothing for the heat generated by bright camera lights trained on their persons. I arrived with five generations of my Papillons for the annual Christmas picture. I hoped it benefited the Humane Society a fraction as much as it did my self-gratification.

    Santa never batted a thick white eyelash or raised either of his bushy brows at the sight of five small dogs entangled about the legs of their inept handler. Maaca was calm and self-assured as always. Her son Mischief was fretting and trying to boss the other four, also as usual. Mischief’s son Bear was poised to push his position if an opportunity presented itself. Bear’s son Ivory was bounding from one direction to another, trying to go somewhere, anywhere. Ivory’s little daughter Jingles was too intimidated by being out with the older pack members to do more than flatten herself against my shoulder and try to hide under my chin.

    “Do you want five separate pictures,” Santa asked.

    “Oh, no,” I stammered as I tried to pry Jingles off my shoulder. “I want them all together in just one picture. 

    Maybe you could hold some, and Mrs. Santa could hold the rest.”

    Only one of the five dogs wore anything resembling a Christmas outfit. The second generation—not just called but usually engaged in Mischief—was wearing a short sleeved cotton tee with Christmas decorations and words emblazoned across the back proclaiming his usual motto about life, “I want EVERYTHING”. My Christmas-picture Santa possibly thought this little shirt had been donned for the picture; it really covered the scars of Mischief’s battle with a Shar-Pei some five months before. 

    “Well, we can’t have the rest of the family slighted for Christmas finery,” said my picture Santa. “Let’s see, who would like this little hat?” The conjurer pulled a tiny red hat with a white puff at the tip and a small chin strap out of his fat sleeves. He offered it to the first generation. With all her 6.5 pounds of regal disdain, Maaca ducked her head and flatly refused the headgear. She did consent to settle comfortably against Santa’s right hand. 

    “Maybe Bear will wear it,” I suggested with a nervous laugh, as I handed him Mischief in his Christmas tee-shirt. 

    So far, things had been going smoothly, so I cautiously placed the third generation into Santa’s left hand after first taking the offered hat. As hoped, Bear allowed me to affix the hat to his head and tie the straps under his chin. Though he was as proud and regal as his grandmother, he fortunately stopped short of patterning his behavior after Queen Victoria.

    The trouble was that Mischief and Bear hated each other. Don’t ask me why. It was a father and son thing! Both wanted to be the alpha-dog of the pack; they each wanted to rule, and father wouldn’t step down and let son rule, something son has been trying to achieve since he was 10 months old. But this day, for a while, they behaved and I continued to line them up for the picture.

    I quickly accepted another piece of Christmas apparel offered by Mrs. Santa, a bright red and green striped scarf, put it around the neck of the Ivory, the fourth generation, and handed him into Mrs. Santa’s right hand. Grateful for the continuing calm, I placed the final dog, Ivory’s little daughter Jingles into Ms. Santa’s left hand and stepped back.

    Before my bulk could clear the view of the Christmas setting, the third generation growled at the second, and the second generation reached over and snapped at the third generation. So much for family harmony. 
“Don’t do that, son.” Santa’s voice was gentle and smooth as his gloved hand reached to reinforce his words by patting Mischief on the head.

    At which point Mischief bit Santa’s hand.

    Smoothly but firmly, the gloved hand picked up the little red-and-white hellion, passed him to Mrs. Santa and said, “Just put this little gentleman on the end, Dear. He’s not getting anything in his stocking but coals this year.”

    The camera and lighting crew and the helping elves [generally known as SPCA volunteers] cracked up. Amid soft laughter, Santa reshuffled the line-up of five small dogs. The Christmas picture, when developed, showed an unruffled Santa and Mrs. Santa with four small dogs across their two laps who faced the camera nicely and a fifth one who sat on the end and refused to face the camera—or the music.

    I quickly offered my apologies for my children-in-fur’s behavior, thanked the Clauses and the helpers, and departed with my brood, little expecting to ever see my Christmas-picture Santa again.

    Fourteen months later, the freakish Williamsburg weather coughed up a snow storm with five inches of snow followed by another inch of ice to keep the fluffy stuff in place. I arrived home from work after dark, and failed to notice that the gate of my fenced yard was standing open, the ice having counteracted the heavy iron ball on the chain designed to pull it closed.

    By the time I shed work suit and heels, donned comfortable clothes, and called the dogs to come back inside, two puppies and three older dogs were missing. Six hours later, I’d managed to retrieve all but one, a seven pound female named Happy. In the icy stillness past midnight, I could only hope that she’d found a warm haven. This little Papillon had never spent more than an hour outdoors at one time in her whole life, except at an outdoor dog show when she was protected from sun and rain and the elements by woven mats and shade tarps.

    For the next three and a half weeks, I posted flyers advertising a reward for my missing dog. I haunted dog pounds, humane societies, ran ads in the newspaper. To no avail. The continuing frigid winter weather dimmed and finally killed my hopes of finding my Happy alive. Freezing temperatures protected the original snow and ice accumulation, and two more snow storms added another five inches to the blanket of dirty white which had become a seemingly constant characteristic of my world.

    I grieved. The optimist in me hoped that this gregarious little girl, who’d never met a human she didn’t like or trust, had found a caring place with someone else. The pessimist in me still searched for a small black-and-white body. 

    Twenty-six days after Happy’s disappearance, a deep male voice on the phone asked if I’d lost a little dog. 

    “Yes,” I choked, trying not to shout.

    “Well, my wife and I have been putting out feed and water for this little black and white dog that is loose in the woods across from the Cracker Barrel. She won’t come to us, but does eat the food we put out.”

    “When did you see her? Was she okay?” By this time, I was almost screaming with excitement. “How big is she?” I injected, before he could answer my first two questions, conscious that the dog he described might not be my Happy.

    “Very small. She just came out of the woods about fifteen minutes ago and went up to a little dish of food we’d set out,” replied the voice. “If you can drive over to the parking lot of the Cracker Barrel I’ll show you where she went back into the woods.”

    I ran one stop light, cut off two other cars, and arrived with only a bit less elapsed time that could have been achieved by teleporting. I found an elderly couple standing beside their car waiting for me.  

    Kindly eyes beneath white brows focused on my strained face as I threw open my car door. I noted without assimilating it that the couples’ car tag said ‘CLAUS 2' and that the faces of the waiting couple looked familiar. The woman smiled and waved to me before getting back into their car to escape the icy wind. The white haired and white bearded man came to meet me.

    “You’re Jean.” It was a statement rather than a question. Directing my gaze across the street, the gentle voice continued, “See that little blue bowl over there?”

    “Yes.” I nodded agreement.

    “That’s a dish of food we put out about thirty minutes ago. She’s already been out and eaten some of the food, but each time we try to get any closer she goes back into the break between the trees and disappears. Perhaps if you were to go over and call her... ” he began.

    I was half way across the street before he could finish his sentence, but he wasn’t far behind me. I walked into the woods about three steps, and began to call, “Here, Happy. DinDin!”

    A flash of black-and-white popped up out of the ground and flung herself in the direction of my face, jumping upward with the spring that is so characteristic of Paps. After 3.5 weeks of cold and loneliness, she leaped aloft in front of me, still confident that I would reach out and catch her in mid-air. I hugged her tightly and buried my face in her snow-drenched coat to cover the tears that I could not stop.

    “I offered a reward, but I never heard a word until now.” It was difficult to talk coherently with the precious wiggling body in my arms raining doggie kisses on my face. “You don’t know how grateful I am that you called, or how much I appreciate what you and your wife have done in feeding and caring for her.” I was shaking with joy that my little Happy was alive and capable of jumping.

    The man reached to pat the dainty head of the dog in my arms. I realized that his hand shivered a little, and that my own face was icy from the cold wind and wet kisses. “Let’s get her back in my car, and I’ll give you a check for the reward,” I said.

    “Oh, my wife and I won’t take any reward,” he responded , as we turned and recrossed the road to our respective cars. “We have two dogs of our own, and would hope that anyone who found them would help as we’ve tried to do.” With the twinkle in his eye of an adoring parent, he added, “Would you like to see their pictures?”

    “Of course,” I nodded and reached for the picture he’d pulled from his billfold. Against a background of a magnificent Christmas tree, Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus, my Christmas-picture Santa and his wife, sat and held two fluffy Shih Tzus. The same background, the same couple as those who held my five darling Paps some fourteen months before, the same couple who’d just reunited my darling Happy and me. Suddenly my brain realized what the car tag meant and why the couple had looked so familiar.

    “Oh, how wonderful,” I stammered. “You and your wife! You’re the ones who helped me with a Christmas picture of five generations of my Papillons. I can’t believe this. How wonderful to meet you again.”

    “And how is the little rascal that bit my thumb?” Santa chuckled. No hesitation. He’d known from the start just where he’d met me before.

    “Feisty as ever,” I replied, trying to hold on to the small body in my arms and keep my belated recognition from showing in my face. “Can’t I at least take you and your wife to dinner or something?”

    “No,” he responded with finality. “Donate what you wish to the humane society.” He collected his picture of his own two fluffy Shih Tzus, waved goodbye and drove away.

    Later that afternoon, my vet’s exam could find little wrong with my precious Happy. She’d lost two of her seven pounds, but was not dehydrated nor did she show any signs of hypothermia on paws or ear tips. Except for the weight loss and a reluctance to go outside for some weeks she showed no sign of wear.

    The vet visit was my second stop of the afternoon after getting my Happy dog back. My first stop was the humane society where I gave them a check for the promised reward. I didn’t want to get in bad with Santa. I knew he’d be watching. I don’t want coals in my stocking! 

© 2002 Jean Keating All rights reserved.


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