“Here! Meet Prince. Make friends with him!”

A hand between my shoulder blades firmly shoved me forward. I dug in my heels, afraid. I didn’t want to see him. I didn’t want to make friends with Prince. I was terrified of him. I could see what he did to kids. Around me the other kids were crying. Some had deep gouges on their chests and shoulders, some were oozing blood.

The hand shoved again. I was trembling inside; there was no way around it. Prince stared eagerly at me, his eyes bright as drool dribbled down his chin.

We had arrived in the ‘hood perhaps a few months before. We were in our neighbor’s backyard – the one across the street. Everyone envied them their house. It was a long brick ‘ranch’ with a big front and even bigger back yard peppered with those large scaly pines that grow in the South. In the back stood the remains of an old well house; its broken block walls staggered like an old man’s teeth. Another shed stood further behind; its walls narrow and high.  That shed was kept lock most of the time, and for some reason that one still scares me – I can see it in mind’s eyes, the planked door all a cant . . .

Prince stood, tongue lolling from his mouth as he rolled his eyes, watching me.  Waiting.  Waiting for me to come.  The hand pushed me forward again.  It was my mom.  I tried backpedaling but it was futile. Her hands clamped my shoulders and shoved me forward.

“Make friends!” Mom commanded. I could hear the disgust and irritation at my cowardice beneath her cheery tone.  I knew she was covering her irritation at me for our neighbor’s benefit.

“He won’t hurt you!” the other mom cheerfully chirped. Behind her stood her children. Several were still crying, heads down, looking at the long red streaks marking their chests, thighs, and stomachs.  They were still sniffling.

I looked at Prince.  He was chained up good I reckon – I could see a big loop banding the pine’s wide base – but he had a six foot lead. There was a wide circle where he stayed, the chain keeping the ground swept clean.  A battered pine straw rim surrounded it, showing the limits of his range like a boxing ring. Deep scars marked the ground, and you could see where his nails had raked the edge along the ring. Soon they would be raking me.

Taking a firm breath and holding it, I forced myself to step forward. Prince was huge compared to me – a mere six year old. Standing up he could put his chin on top of my mom’s head. She hadn’t any big problem with him; just a little. The grownups were big enough to handle him.  I wasn’t.  None of us kids were.  And he was friendly.

The hand shoved me again as I faltered to a stop.  My mom bent and breathed a curse in my ear.  “Go on and step forward, you little bastard!”  She straightened back up again.

“Go on! He’s friendly enough.” Gone was the anger, again the waiting audience heard cheer.  Mom shoved me again. Her neighbor stood, smiling encouragingly and chirping advice. She’d put Prince out just a few days before and she wanted everyone in the neighborhood to get to know him. After all, he was handsome in his own way. But he was too friendly. That was the problem – he was too friendly and unabashed about his greetings.  If you could count on anything, it was that they were wholehearted. I could see it in his eyes: he could hardly wait.  ‘They’, the grownups, were trying to break him by using us children on him – teaching us how to handle him while teaching him not to hurt us – too much. Either way, it didn’t matter. We were getting torn up.  Prince didn’t care.  He was just confused because they’d pull the last child out from under him just as he’d begun to ‘play’ . . .

The children’s mother alternated between cheering us on and scolding her kids. She wanted them to lead by example, including the ‘not crying’ thing. They were still crying because their scratches hurt. This wasn’t the first time they’d been through this ordeal. They had gone through it a few days earlier, when Prince had first arrived to the neighborhood. I had noticed when we first entered the back yard that they kept their distance from that ring, staying just a few feet outside that ring of dusty sand, looking in. Sometimes they would reach towards him, or he would think they had gotten too close and he would lung, mouth gaping and claws snatching. And he had long claws. Yes, he certainly did.

I had watched ever since my mom had brought me over here, into this green backyard with it’s circle of dirt – watched the kids greeting him one by one – the grownups beating him down when it finally got too much for the kid in question to bear – beating him back with a stick or a broom handle – and then another kid would be asked, or forced to go forward. Each one had gotten a mauling; all except for the older kids. They were almost able to handle him. But even given their size, he was quite a bit bigger than them when he would stand, his back arced against the chain that was binding him to the tree so he would go running away and cause some sort of trouble somewhere else like he had done already. I guess that’s why they were keeping him there; later on, after he had learned this lesson, they were going to let him go roaming and rambling through the neighborhood . . .

And I guess that’s why, in a way, they wanted everyone – especially all of us kids – to meet him. Introducing us to him; letting him sniff us over his his own way and fashion. While also teaching him some manners. There again at our own expense.

I stepped forward; I was now almost in the circle-ring. I took another step or perhaps I was shoved again. I kept getting thrust forward despite all the backpedaling I could do. Gritting my teeth –

He lunged forward, his huge claws raking me down my shoulders; cheeks, chest and chin. Slobber dripped down all over me. I was thrown backward, but those hands kept on supporting me, urging me forward again; those claws came down again, a drool covered tongue licked my cheek; hot breath huffing me in the face . . .

Like burning daggers they are, those claws; raking me down the face.  I remember one kid with a dangling eyelid . . . drooping because he’d gotten hurt in that way . . .

Beating him with sticks the grownups drove him down again; by now I was crying, my scratches were hurting, and I stumbled away while the grownups started laughing. Some of the kids were playing by now, wandering off to do their own thing.

Welcome, Prince, to the neighborhood, welcome to the game . . .

He never was quite human.

After all, he was a dog. A large one. A big black and tan German Shepard who’d been chained to a tree. And his ‘mother’, the owner, wanted everyone to get to know him – and break him of this habit he had of jumping on everyone he met – including us children. Which meant ‘feeding’ us children to him one-by-one and then beating him off of us.

It was a hell of a way to learn. Not just for him, but us children.

And I learned something that day. I learned that sometimes you have to step into the fire, knowing you are going to feel some pain. Maybe a lot of pain. And that sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about it.

And I resolved not to cry. Ever again. Not that I succeeded. I was always trying to toughen up. Even as a toddler I had resolved not to cry – not when I was beaten, nor threatened with death, nor sitting by the door waiting for the “Bad Men” from the “Bad Boys Home” to come get me and take me away from home. It just strengthened my resolve. I was learning. I was learning to disassociate, put fear from my mind. I was learning to ignore pain; putting it away somewhere in my mind. Every punishment taught me a little more about how not to cry and how to bear more pain. And I had learned – once again – and that there’s no escaping from it. I was going to be hurt. I recognized that walking in. But I had not choice. And that was something I was learning: that sometimes you have no choice – that sometimes Fate (or mothers) will shove you and you’ve got to gather up your courage, or at least your resolve and force yourself to step forward, as if it were a firm and guiding hand.