With Comet’s Tale Algonquin Books, 2012), author Steven D. Wolf (with Lynette Padwa) shows the benefits of animal therapy, as his visit to a greyhound rescue offered him just the lifeline he needed, and just when he needed it. This book is the story of friendship between two former winners as they attempt to make a remarkable comeback. In this excerpt from the introduction, Comet chooses Wolf to be his family, and both their lives are changed.
It was just past 8:00 a.m. and the road winding through the foothills north of Flagstaff was deserted. The spring air was chilly, but I rolled down the window anyway, letting the fragrant scent of Ponderosa pine rush through the car. Every so often a vista would open up and the snowy peaks of Mount Elden would appear, etched and highlighted in the sharp morning sun like a woodblock print. Then the road would curve away, the view would close, and I’d lean forward, searching for the turnoff to the foster family’s ranch.
Finally I saw it—a weather-beaten two-story house with a high-pitched roof and covered porch. It sat on a parcel of flat, grassy land the size of a football field, entirely surrounded by a high post-and-wire fence. I parked outside the gate and slowly got out, gripping my canes and bracing for the pain in my spine. Breathing hard, I leaned against the car. The air was still. At the far end of the field I glimpsed a spot of movement. In the same instant I noticed a faint rhythmic beat, like distant drumming. The spot moved closer, my eyes adjusted, and a pack of greyhounds materialized, jetting around the inside perimeter of the fence. The drumbeat deepened to thunder. A few seconds later they streaked past me, thigh muscles bunched, hindpaws stretching toward shoulders, mud flying in their wake, individual dogs blurring into a mass of muscle that flowed like mercury.
Thrilled, I watched them rocket away, racing for the sheer exhilaration of it. Just like children, I thought. Kids set loose on the first spring day after a long winter. I could almost detect laughter.
“We never grow tired of watching,” a woman’s voice called from across the muddy field. I had been so focused on the greyhounds that I hadn’t noticed the young foster mom ambling toward me, her hands shoved in the pockets of faded blue jeans. “So glad you decided to drive up after all,” she said when she reached me. “I’m Kathy. Come on, I’ll introduce you to the pack.”
As soon as we turned back to the house, the dogs veered in our direction. Within seconds I was surrounded by panting, jostling greyhounds. The group seemed to contain every shade in the animal kingdom—soft fawns, striking brindles, deep reds, bold black-and-whites, and the famous steel gray, often referred to as blue. Their only common marking was the white patch on each dog’s chest. The hounds nudged and bumped each other as they vied for my attention, but the competition was friendly, no growling or biting. It reminded me of my yearly reunion with my own pack of cousins.
After weeks of hemming and hawing about it, I had come here prepared to adopt, but I hadn’t realized what a pack of greyhounds really meant—the number and variety, each dog an individual with its own full-grown personality. It wasn’t like choosing a puppy. Kathy and I stood in the yard watching them for a half hour, but no single animal stood out as “mine.” At last, with some hesitation, I pointed out a fawn-colored hound who flitted on the fringe of the group. “What about that one?” I asked. The dog’s caramel eyes were lively, and she struck me as a feisty yet refined lady who might be easy to live with and also play well with others. It was just me here in Arizona, in exile from my family back in Nebraska, where the winters were too cold for my degenerative back condition. Still, any dog would have to interact with our rowdy pair of golden retrievers when I returned home for the summers.
“Let’s see how she does indoors,” said Kathy.
It was warm and snug inside the house. A sofa and a few comfortable chairs were pushed back against the living room walls, leaving plenty of space for the greyhounds to romp. In a far corner stood a black wood-burning stove, heat shimmering around it. I made my way to the sofa and awkwardly settled in, letting my canes drop to the floor in front of me.
The fawn-colored racer pranced over to me, ready to play. She executed a short jump, landed directly in front of me, and lowered her head, inviting me to pet her. I stroked her gently, surprised at the wiriness of her sleek fur. She wagged her tail and I scratched between her ears.
“What would I need to do if I were going to take a dog home today?” I asked. While Kathy talked about adoption fees and vet care, I wondered what treats I could buy for my new pet. Did greyhounds like liver or did they prefer lamb?
“Then you just write a check and the hound is yours,” Kathy finished.
I hesitated again. A little voice inside my head—my wife Freddie’s voice, to be exact—protested, Are you out of your mind? You cannot seriously be considering adopting a greyhound. You can barely walk. How are you going to walk a dog? A racing dog?
As I struggled to bury Freddie’s questions, a flicker of movement behind the woodstove caught my eye. I turned for a more direct look and saw a lanky figure tucked on top of a thick blanket. The shape was partly camouflaged, blending in with the black stove, but I could make out a slender head resting on two front paws. The glint of reflected light in the dog’s eyes let me know she was watching me.
“Is that greyhound yours?” I asked.
“No, she’s part of the rescued group,” Kathy replied. “But she doesn’t want to socialize with the others. She’s sort of withdrawn. It’s like she’s depressed. We haven’t been able to coax her out of her shell.”
“Is she ill?”
“Not ill, but she was abandoned and left in a crate with her muzzle still on. She tried to scrape it off to get food and water, so her mouth got infected. Her teeth were in terrible shape. We had to have several of them removed.”
I felt a genuine ache. While the other dogs celebrated their new freedom, this poor animal sat alone, unwilling to join in. What a shame.
With a shake of my head, I returned to the task at hand. “I have one question before I announce a coming-home party,” I said, stroking the neck of the fawn-colored girl in front of me. “What’s her name?”
Before Kathy could respond, a weight plopped into my lap. My eyes snapped down in surprise. A greyhound had leaped onto the couch beside me and laid her head on my thighs, focusing her gaze on my face. The cinnamon and black striped markings on her sculpted, muscular form made her look like half tiger, half dog.
“I can’t believe she just did that!” whispered Kathy.
“Who is this?” I asked.
Kathy stepped toward us but stopped a couple of paces away and softly said, “We call her Comet. This is the one from over by the fire.”
My skin popped with goose bumps. A buzzing tickled my ears, and my fingers tingled as I stroked the dog’s head. She nestled deeper into my lap but otherwise didn’t move.
I was not a novice to the world of dogs. I grew up spending summers on a farm where I worked and played with all sorts of dogs, from shepherds to terriers to the typical Heinz 57 farm mix. Most of my adult life I had kept dogs as pets, and I knew that unless canines were angry or scared, they approached humans in various stages of doggy excitement—sniffing, wagging, smiling, curious and eager to please, always alert to the possibility of a treat. Dog body language was a cinch to read.
Except this time. This dog simply lay still, her eyes focused on mine. She alone knew her reasons. She had analyzed the variables, drawn her own conclusions, and decided to cross the room and quietly place her head in my lap. But in that quiet, a message reverberated: Hello. I am Comet. I choose you.
Reprinted with permission from Comet’s Tale: How the Dog I Rescued Saved My Life by Steven D. Wolf with Lynette Padwa and published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012.