by Kaye George
Mystery writer Kaye George shares about an animal rescue after Katrina in 2005-this is a fictional short story.
I wasn’t sure how much longer I could stand the smell. Sure, I was used to a lot of bad odors that came with working at the animal shelter but this, this was worse than any animal shelter could ever be. This was Mississippi mud, mixed with sewage, dead animals and nameless other filth.
Darkness would fall soon. It came early this far south; not what I was used to. Back home in Minnesota I would be able to read on the patio for another hour, this time of day, but here in Louisiana dusk gathered, thickening the air, darkening the water, the sludge below us.
Guillaume rowed our craft around the corner of a house, every stroke of his oar cautious. There was no way to tell what was under us. I peered over the side of the skiff and thought I saw a pickup truck, probably bright red, but it appeared dull through the murk of the twilit floodwaters.
The organization warned us every day about the dangers of the filthy water, cautioned us not to touch it with our bare skin, but what could we do? There was no way to avoid getting splashed. I’d even swallowed a couple of mouthfuls yesterday while I groped through two feet of silty liquid on the floor of an abandoned house. I was searching for a scared puppy that had squirmed out of my grasp. I found him and brought him back to our central location. And hoped he would be reunited with his owner.
Tonight, I tried to breathe through my mouth as I listened to the deceptive, restful sound of that water. It lapped against the sides of the boat then spread behind us in two V-shaped ridges. The peacefulness of those small gurgles contrasted with the tense vigil the three of us kept.
The swaying of the boat lulled me almost to the point of sleep. After three straight days of searching, the only thing that kept me awake was the tension of knowing how dangerous these waters were. I had eagerly responded to the nationwide call for help with rescue efforts, though, so I wouldn’t complain, and didn’t want to, really.
“There.” Angelique squinted and pointed ahead. “There’s something. About four or five houses down. Do you see it?” She switched on the searchlight and tried to adjust it to shine upward, but it stayed frozen, pointing straight ahead. She smacked it, trying to get it to move. I peered up, not able to spot anything. Then, a slight movement. The shape became visible. “It’s a dog, I think. A big one.”
She nodded. “That’s what it looks like to me, too. But how would a dog get up there?”
The dark form perched on the limb of a tree two-stories tall that grew halfway between a couple of small, clapboard houses. I thought I could make out a head and torso, two ears spiking up in silhouette. The figure moved again and the ears resolved themselves into braids. Then I could see the little girl’s legs, drawn up to her chest, one arm wrapped around them, the other clinging tightly to the tree trunk.
Angelique and Guillaume agreed and turned their attention ahead. The closer we rowed, the larger her eyes became. Soon I could see shiny tears washing down her pinched, dirt-caked face. She wore a pair of shorts and a sleeveless knit top, a pair of sneakers, sockless, on her small feet.
We drew our craft up next to the bole of the live oak. “Here you go, darlin’, just reach down and I’ll catch your hands,” said Angelique in her best coaxing voice, the one she been using on kittens and puppies. She stood, using a practiced boater’s caution and raised her arms.
The girl shook her head and gave a loud sob followed by a hiccup. Had she been in this tree all this time?
“What’s the matter, cher?” asked Guillaume, his voice as soft as the twilight. “You want me to catch you? You can jump.”
She wasn’t far above us. Although she sat high in the tree, the floodwaters reached a third of the way up the length of it, carrying us within a couple of yards of her small feet. She continued to cry quietly and to shake her head at us, hiccuping and refusing to budge.
“Are you scared, ma petite?” asked Guillaume.
The child shook her head at this, too. We looked at each other and shrugged, puzzled by her behavior.
“I’ll go,” I said. I stood, got my balance, then stepped to the end of the boat where I could grab the lowest limb above the water. As the smallest of the three, and the only experienced animal handler, it was logical for me to do the climbing. I was also the one usually sent through attic windows and jagged holes that had been chopped in roofs in the course of our quest. Officially, since we believed everyone was gone from this area, we were gathering pets that had been left behind. But we couldn’t ignore a person, of course. It occurred to me we should call someone else, someone more suitable, but we lacked cell phones, even if we’d been able to get reception.
I swung onto the limb and perched just below the girl.“What’s your name, honey?”I asked, keeping my tone low, trying not to frighten her further.
“Tanisha,”she whispered. “I’m hungry.”
“Sure, I know you are. We have something for you to eat.” At last she’d said something. That was a start. I pointed to the boat below me.“You need to go down there. None of us will hurt you. We’re here to help.”
An odd odor wafted past to mingle with the stench of the stagnant water below. I smelled a distressed, dirty little girl, but something else, too.
She made no move toward me, but pushed her cheek against the gnarly tree trunk.
I reached my hand up. Still no movement toward me. “Are you afraid?” I asked again.
She gave a slight shrug. She let go of the tree trunk but put her hand next to her other one, both now wrapped around her thin legs, flexed tight. Her fingers pressed into her skin, leaving deep dents. The searchlight, still aimed ahead rather than into the tree, cast shadows on her troubled face. We both looked at the dark water below, its ripples throwing dull glints into the evening.
“You can’t stay up here, you know. And we’ll bring you to a safe place.”
She shook her head again. Her knuckles tightened their grip on her legs.
Maybe a direct approach would be best. “Why don’t you want to come down, Tanisha?”
“Boppy,” she said, looking away from me. Her tears had stopped flowing, but her cheeks still glistened. It was growing darker quickly in the shade of this huge tree. The smell of hot fetid water was a ceaseless assault.
“Who is Boppy?” I asked. No answer.
I looked down at my partners, their faces eerie masks lit from below. I raised my eyebrows in question. They answered with shrugs of their own. We were stumped by this stubborn little girl.
“Tanisha,” I coaxed. “You need some food and water. And a nice dry place to sleep tonight.”
She gave no answer to that either.
“I’m sure I can find you some clean clothes.” Maybe she had soiled her pants, I thought, and was embarrassed. “If your clothes are dirty, that’s not a problem.”
Still, silence from Tanisha. Another thought came to me. Maybe Boppy was her grandfather, or some other relative. Could someone be trapped, or even dead, in one of these houses?
Would she tell me if they were? Only one way to find out. “Where is Boppy?”
“He’s right here.”
That’s all we needed. An imaginary friend. I sighed. “Well, Boppy can come, too.”
“That’s not what those other people said.” Her voiced pitched higher, an edge of panic coming through.“They told me Boppy had to stay behind. That’s why I ran away and hid till everybody l-l-left.” Her face squeezed inward on her memories, her thin shoulders shook and she hiccuped again.“But now we’re so hungry. And thirsty.”
“Of course you are. We’re not those other people, sweetheart. We’ll take Boppy with us. It’s no problem.”
She looked straight at me for the first time. Her eyes, too serious for her years, and small wonder considering what she’d been through; her eyes gave me a steady, appraising look. After a few heartbeats she dipped her head. “All right.”
Relief came out in the breath I hadn’t known I was holding. I smiled and extended my hand toward her.
She shook her head again, pressed her lips together. Now what? “Take Boppy first.”
She drew from her lap a tiny gray kitten, its fur matted and damp. She’d been cradling it next to her tummy. The cat hissed once as I took it, one-handed, holding myself against the tree with the other. Its tiny claws gripped my skin, but more in fear of falling, it seemed, than from intent to scratch me.
Guillaume let out a whoop.
“Okay, now would one of you take Boppy while I get Tanisha?” I said.
Angelique, laughing for the first time in three days, took the kitten from me and I climbed up next to the girl so I could hand her down.
The end of a day here in the Ninth Ward. We had rescued nine dogs, three cats counting Boppy, and one determined little girl. Tomorrow we would get into the boat again and start over. And what would happen to Tanisha? I didn’t know.