The Old Dog's River

Once upon a time, there was a mountain. At the top of that mountain was a beautiful lake, with water so clear that you could see every rock at its bottom. From that lake flowed a very small stream, which ran down the mountainside and into the forests below. It weaved through trees and flowed over rocks. It ran alongside a small town, past the houses and animals, and people who threw sticks to watch them float away. It traveled beside one particular house with one large waterwheel, and one very old dog.

The dog was very old, indeed. Sonya was well past her time, as most German Shepherds are expected to live ten to thirteen years. Sonya was seventeen and a half. Her owner knew she was too old to be of any use, but could not bring himself to put her to sleep forever. Instead, he took her outside every day, keeping her from falling over on weak legs, and let her lie next to the river as he worked. She would do nothing but gaze at the clear waters and soak in the sunlight, until it became dark. Then, her owner would carry her back inside, where she would collapse onto her pillow in the kitchen. Every day they would do this, and every day her condition grew worse.

The hurting in Sonya's legs was only the start of her problems. Her lungs and stomach felt like were being moved around, rearranged. Her breathing was labored, and she immediately threw up everything she ate. The top of her head hurt terribly, as if someone were drilling a hole into it. Small bumps had formed on her rear legs and back, which the doctor called malignant tumors. Most of her beautiful coat had fallen away, and her wrinkled, graying skin could be seen underneath the thin tufts of hair.

Yes, Sonya was a very old dog indeed, but she would not give up. She continued to nap along the river's banks, week after week, not moving or eating or drinking, only to fall onto her bed after dark. Her owner would sit in a chair next to her, and watch her struggle in her sleep, trying to convince himself that he should end her suffering. He could never do it, even though he knew it was the right thing. He couldn't help but believe that Sonya would go when she was ready, when she was done waiting. Then, he would gently pet her swollen back and leave her in peace.

The next day, as always, Sonya struggled to rise and visit her river, and collapsed the instant she reached the edge of the earth. She felt even heavier than yesterday. A painful sigh wheezed through her nostrils, as if her nose might collapse from her unbearable weight. She stared longingly into the flowing waters, dreaming of a time when she could still swim.

Then, another dog floated by, paddling contently with the current. Sonya barely noticed it at first, her eyebrows furrowing in puzzlement, but as the second dog swam by, she lifted her head to get a better look. She realized the dog was as old as she, for his hair was also falling off, and his body was even more misshapen than her own. The dog gave her a quick sideways glance, then faced ahead again, focused on his odd journey.

Sonya lifted her body off the grass and stumbled to the bank of the river. She continued to watch as a third, then a fourth dog swam past. She looked nervously at the water, her eyes wandering back and forth along the lapping edge, and feebly wagged her tail for the first time in months.

Her owner came out of the house, a small bowl of ground-beef stew in his hand. He saw his dog wobbling near the bank's edge, and he cried out to her in alarm. Sonya turned to give him those forlorn puppy eyes – the one thing that dogs never grow out of – and her owner sighed softly in surrender. He knew what that look meant. Sonya was done waiting.

The old dog turned back to the river and let herself fall in. For a moment, the man tensed, but he was quickly relieved when her head broke the water, a comical look of surprise on her dripping face. She turned to her owner one last time, and then began to paddle after the other dogs. He watched until she disappeared around the bend, a sad smile on his face. As much as he would miss her, he knew deep down that she was traveling to a better place.

Swimming felt strange to Sonya. It was relaxing, and for once, her body didn't feel so heavy. The paddling did not hurt the bones that ached so painfully when she walked. In fact, after a few hours, her legs loosened up, and she barely felt any pain at all. She kicked her hind legs together, and pushed her forelegs around in circles to the side.

The current carried her for hours upon hours. She never knew the river went on for so long, but it didn't frighten her. Even when she began to tire and slide beneath the surface, she was not scared. As Sonya sank, she was surprised to find didn't need to breathe as much, and continued on her way. She curiously noticed that almost all of her hair had fallen off, washed away by the waters, leaving her covered in gray skin.

After many more hours, Sonya caught sight of the other dogs ahead. Their bodies were undergoing the same changes as hers. They were hairless, and their paws had reshaped themselves as well. After hours and hours of kicking, their hind legs had become one. Their skin was swollen and blubbery, kind of like her tumors, except all over their body. In fact, her own tumors had faded as her hide puffed up, and her wrinkles disappeared. It was amusing to discover, but at the same time, it felt natural. She gave it little thought and followed her new companions.

It was almost four days before they sighted their journeys end. The river opened up into a wide mouth, which flowed into the largest body of water Sonya had ever seen. She felt slightly intimidated, but let the current carry her with the others. Together, they swam from the mouth of the river and into a strangely new kind of water. It stung for a moment, but soon soaked into their skin, making it swell firmly. Their necks had grown bigger than their head, and their paws had shrunk into triangular flaps.

After a few moments of discomfort, the dogs found the new waters were enjoyable. They tasted the saltiness of their new home, and began to shout underwater barks of joy. They surprised themselves when the normal ruff came out as a skipping giggle, but as each heard their happiness, they let it be. Together they streaked through the waters with a freedom of movement they had never imagined, and soared past all sorts of diamond shaped creatures that renewed Sonya's lost appetite.

She felt so alive again. She could not resist leaping out of the water to test the freedom of her new self. That moment froze as she bathed in the warm sun, and Sonya heard that skipping giggle escape her throat again. Then, the waters swallowed her up, and she was at peace.

A sailor leapt up from his boat as a dolphin breached the ocean. It shouted in a joyous trill before diving back in, and its radiant bliss astounded him. He pointed to the splash and asked his attentive companion, "See that, Tucker? That was crazy!"

The young German Shepherd gave an enthusiastic bark, and the fisherman scratched his soaking wet mane. "You said it, buddy. Being a dolphin would be pretty awesome."