His name was Harry Riehl, a good name for a detective, but he seemed more shaman than detective. He would sit, in all weathers, in the dry patch in front of his slightly tilted house, with black shingles that made it look two-dimensional. He sat next to painted orange crates and sold bait, mostly minnows and worms. I never saw him anywhere else and only saw him get up once and enter his black shape of a shack and seemingly disappear.
His wife had died in 1947 and he buried her in their yard. This seemed to me an ultimate expression of being free; to be able to choose where to bury someone you love. I imagined he was sitting there, not only to sell bait, but as her guardian. He watched over her and because she was near to him, he was also near to her.
I always looked forward to catching a glimpse of him, holy as he was. I wasn't supposed to go into town alone but my mother would occasionally take me to Woodbury to get the Broad Street bus to Camden. We would pass him and he would give me a nod. Sometimes it might be no more than a wrinkle of an eye, but I knew it was for me.
In the summer of 1957 my youngest sibling Kimberly was born. She came ten years aft er me and was a surprise to everyone, including my mother. I remember my parents leaving for the hospital. There was a commercial for paper towels on TV from the Kimberly-Clark Company, and that is what my mother named her. My mother said when she saw her face, she knew she had seen that face before, but couldn't place it. Then she realized it was her own face. Kimberly was a sunny child, though she had severe asthma and a host of allergies.
In our little house, we were now eight, including my mother's cat Mittens and my dog Bambi. My mother loved her cat, and I loved Bambi as myself. My dog was a good companion, intelligent, quiet, and obedient. We had brought her with us when we left Germantown to start a new life in southern New Jersey.
My father used to go to the barbershop, when he had some extra change, to get a haircut. His barber sometimes let me sit in the big chair and he'd trim my bangs. Somehow they were never even. One day he brought a basket of puppies into the barbershop. His miniature Collie had mated with a German Shepard. All the pups were longhaired, except for the runt of the litter. She had the coat of a Shepard but the markings of a Collie. She resembled a small deer, so sweet and vulnerable in the basket, and I called her Bambi.
My father said we couldn't afford to have another dog. I said she could eat some of my food. But he was also worried about my mother, still grieving for her dog Sambo, a lively black Cocker Spaniel that was killed on the railroad tracks while we were gathering coal that fell from the passing railroad cars. Enough pieces would fall to fi ll our pockets for the coal stove. Sambo never listened and ran in front of the train. My mother was devastated by the loss and my father didn't think she would want another dog. But Bambi was so meek and loving that he relented. After a small flutter of protests and the fact that Mittens took a liking to her, she was given entrance to our family.
I had never wanted to leave the city. Germantown was just a short trolley ride to Philadelphia, where there were lots of big libraries with an infinite amount of books. But nonetheless, we moved to a little starter house in Woodbury Gardens, with a pig farm and swamp to the right, and an unkempt field with an old barn across the road. It was a comfort having my dog in this unknown territory.
We spent long hours together as I explored the small forest lining the edge of our neighborhood. I named all I saw. Red Clay Mountain. Rainbow Creek. Punk Swamp. There was life everywhere, mysterious and energetic. In time I came to cherish our surroundings. We led our Peter Pan existence — Bambi my spirit dog with the deep sad eyes.
Kimberly was often ill. The doctor ordered the house to be stripped of every allergen, including our precious animals. This was a terrible blow, yet I was not without understanding. I had no resentment against the baby or the doctor. We all knew it was our duty to help Kimberly, but the thought of giving up Mittens and Bambi was heartbreaking. I thought of running away with her. But where would we go? I could sleep in the fields shrouded at night with the invisible cloth of the woolgatherers. I could hide in the forest and build a hut in the trees and live like one of the Lost Boys. But I knew I could never run away and leave my siblings. I could never leave Kimberly. Who would rock her when my parents were working? Who would watch her sleep making certain she did not hold her breath and leave us forever?
The day was fast coming when the family offering to take Bambi would arrive. I vaguely knew one of them from school. The idea sickened me. In my heart I felt a possessiveness I had never experienced. I couldn't bear the thought of someone else having my dog.
I got up quite early and left the house with her. It was in my mind to take her to all the places we loved. We would take one last walk to Red Clay Mountain and stop awhile by Rainbow Creek. I had a peanut butter sandwich wrapped in wax paper and some dog biscuits. I sat with Bambi at my feet and surveyed my domain. She would not eat her treats. She knows, I thought. She knows. I stopped trying to hide what was going to happen and I told her everything, without words. I told her through my eyes from my heart. She licked my face and I knew she understood.
Bambi rarely barked. There was only the silence of her sad deer eyes. Soon it was time to go back home. But first I took her to Thomas's Field and we lay in the grass and looked up at the clouds. The sun was warm on my face and I dozed. Bambi slept with her head and paw resting on my chest.
I awoke and knew we had to hurry home. I could feel my mother searching me out. I ran across the fi eld towards home, just across the road. Bambi darted ahead of me. I called her. She stopped suddenly in the middle of the road. I called her again but she stayed still, looking right into my eyes. Even from a distance it was as if I could see my own reflection. I froze. I just stood there as a fire truck came racing from nowhere and struck her.
The fireman stopped and got out. My father rushed from the house and scooped her up, laying her near the bushes. The sacred bushes of God. No one said anything. No one asked what happened. The fireman felt terrible for killing her, but I knew it wasn't his fault.
I knelt down and looked at my dog. She was still warm. There was not a mark on her, not even a drop of blood. It was if she was sleeping, but she was dead. My mother was crying. My sister Linda's astonished blue eyes dominated her compassionate face. I got an old woolen blanket and wrapped her in it. My father buried her by the side of the house as we said our prayers.
I did not cry. The complexity of my feeling so profound that it lifted me above the realm of tears. I ruminated on this day for a long time. Did I wish her dead? Or was it her? Surely she knew. Neither of us wanted her to belong to someone else.
It was Indian summer and the trees were already red and gold. As the days passed I disobeyed my mother and bicycled across the forbidden perimeter to Woodbury to find Harry Riehl. I thought he could solve the riddle that weighed on me so heavily. The riddle of Bambi's death. Harry was the one who had identified the spirits of the field, and I believed he knew the answer to everything. But for the first time he was not at his station guarding his widow. He wasn't there the next time either and I never saw him again.
Sometime later I was holding Kimberly in my arms. She'd had an asthma attack while my parents were out. I tended to her as I was taught then was able to rock her to sleep. I heard some shouting from across the road. The sun was going down and I stepped outside. The old black barn was in flames. I heard a terrible screeching. Someone said it was bats burning alive. I stood there cradling the baby. The sky was purple with golden streaks. I could see the planets and the evening star.
Hovering above the field were swarms of gnats and fireflies. Pale lunar moths circled the night lights, with a life of their own. My brother raced across the road; nothing is more exciting for a young boy than a fire. Yet I knew the flames wouldn't spread. The barn would burn and leave its mark but the field was safe, for the woolgatherers would protect it. Just as Harry Riehl had protected his wife and I was protecting Kimberly. The baby awoke and smiled at me. It occurred to me that nothing was more beautiful than a newborn smile.
From 'Woolgathering' by Patti Smith, published by Bloomsbury (£10). Copyright Patti SmithReuse content