The theme of this contest was "Little Words". The stories had to contain the following four words: "plant"; "button", "trick", and "fly". It was a terrific exercise and I submitted my story just under the deadline.
My story, "Lucia", was an amalgam of themes and recent images from my life: dogs, opera, old men, Italian, shelters; all blended to produce a strange and humorous narrative, as in a dream.
It is a fun story, nothing profound or achingly beautiful, but it made me happy to write it, and to read it.
Entries are being read and sorted by students at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, and the selected stories are then sent to the final judge, author Ann Patchett (whose "Bel Canto" was an outstanding award-winning novel). Winners and runners-up are announced in June. I waited before posting this in order not to disqualify my story as having been previously "published". But now, as entries are being read, and "favorites" are being posted on the NPR site (see link above), I felt comfortable in sharing it with you.
And so, if you have three minutes to spare...Enjoy!!
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Lucy, a small, melancholy Basset Hound, belonged to Luigi, the Old Italian who ran the produce stand. Soon after Luigi died quietly in his sleep, his neighbor brought Lucy to the animal shelter where I volunteered, and explained that the poor dog now needed our care. Luigi left no will, and had no heirs outside of Italy.
For several days I watched Lucy languish in her cage. She lay with her face on her large paws, and did not understand why she was there; she only wanted to go home. She missed Luigi, and barely responded to the volunteers who fed her, walked her, and tried to comfort her.
I was ready again for a canine companion. A week before my ex-partner left me, the Beagle we raised together passed away. Now, a year later, it was summer, I was on vacation from teaching school, and I had more free time. While I took some comfort in caring for the shelter dogs, my life felt empty.
After I signed the adoption agreement and paid the fees, I led Lucy out of the shelter, knelt down to plant a soft kiss on the top of her smooth round head, and said, “Come on girl, you’re going home”.
All Lucy would do, for the first few days in her new surroundings, was rest, sullenly, on a blanket in my kitchen. Although she ate well and resigned herself to daily walks, she would not play, follow a scent, or make any noise. She waited for Luigi.
“My sad little girl” I said, “what can I do to help you forget, to make you feel at home?” I had no article of Luigi’s clothing to give her, to make her believe the Old Man was still near. I talked to her, called her name, but she hardly responded.
Our lives changed that Saturday when, out of habit, I pressed the radio’s “on” button. The Metropolitan Opera was broadcasting “La Boehme”, one of my sentimental favorites. As the character Mimi began one of the famous, popular arias that I loved, it happened. Lucy stood up, wagged her tail, and walked toward the direction of the music. She sat, waved her tail happily, and pointed her nose to the ceiling as her long velvet ears fell back, and howled in her clearest baritone.
I grinned with happiness. Was Lucy performing a trick Luigi had taught her? Was she ready for her final goodbye to him, ready to declare her loyalty to me? Her mellow song was a sound of pure joy, and a welcome beginning. Here we were, a human and a dog, each who needed each other, and we were finally a pair.
I began to use phrases I studied from a newly-purchased Italian phrasebook. To my pleasant surprise, when I said “siediti”, she sat, when I said “venite” she came to me, and when I told her “che buon cane”, what a good dog, she wagged her tail proudly. It all made sense now; having heard it all of her life, my opera-loving Bassett Hound “spoke” Italian!
Now, at the dog park, Lucy bounces and romps and draws sympathetic smiles with her sad eyes. She is smitten with a handsome Schnauzer. (I have developed an interest in the Schnauzer’s owner, a solid, friendly young man who loves dogs, hates opera, and likes me.)
When I call venite! Lucia bounds toward me, her ears flapping. My heart soars, as this gentle, loving hound, sad no longer, looks like she is ready to fly.