In Retrograde

Meagan Ciesla

I wasn’t alone on that long walk when the dog came around the hedge, snarling. My friend was pushing her two-year-old in a stroller, and when she screamed, I thought she was joking because her scream sounded like one you make when you’re just startled, not frightened. Her elbows were bent, and her hands were up towards her face, and that’s when I started yelling at the dog, telling him to knock it off, to get. If I had to tell you what he looked like, I couldn’t. I remember flashes of black and tan, pointed ears. But beyond that, all I saw was meanness. My friend turned the stroller away from the beast so the two of us formed a yelling, screaming, kicking human wall between her child and the dog. 

He bit me when my back was turned. I spun to face him. I told him to get, to go away, and then I turned back and felt pressure again on my calf. When I turned once more, there was a woman chasing him, trying to get him back inside. Then it was over, and we were in the aftermath of quiet. A loud quiet, as if we could still hear everything that’d happened echoing far away, us both dripping blood. I felt a buzz, an armor of alertness, and that awoke something in me.

My pulse was 153 beats per minute. It made the bleeding fast, and I apologized for it several times. First to the dog’s kind neighbor, who helped patch us up with hydrogen peroxide and cotton balls before driving us home. In her car, I made nervous jokes about how it was impolite to bleed on a stranger’s leather seats. Then I apologized in the urgent care waiting room as the gauze soaked through and blood dripped down my leg and into the edge of my flip flop. A young girl around six years old stared at me and then up at her father with nervous eyes. I nodded to him sheepishly and shrugged.

I didn’t feel much when it happened. The only time I really felt something was when I was registering at the front desk and the nurse asked if my recently deceased boyfriend, Paul, was still my emergency contact. Then I felt something.

Since the dog who’d bitten us had no vaccination history, animal control took him into quarantine for a ten-day observation. The medical advice I received about rabies from the urgent care doctor and then the epidemiologist at the Spokane Regional Health District was to take a “wait and see” approach. There is some wiggle room with rabies, a window averaging two weeks before symptoms appear, and if an infected person gets the vaccine before then, all is well. However, if the patient waits too long and neurological symptoms begin, the vaccine is useless and death is certain. The epidemiologist explained to me that, due to its exorbitant cost, the rabies vaccine was typically reserved for those who were surely infected, or in cases where the attacking animal could not be held for observation. The shots could run anywhere from three to ten thousand dollars. In my case, if the dog exhibited symptoms by the end of its tenth day in lockup, I should find the money for the vaccine, which I would likely have four days to receive. However, if the dog was asymptomatic after ten days, I should be fine. The question they couldn’t answer was how I was supposed to spend the next ten days with a deadly virus potentially wandering around inside me.

The doctors told me that the possibility of the dog being rabid was very slim, that most cases in Washington involved bats, and that only two cases of human rabies had occurred in the state in the past twenty-five years. The numbers were on my side, but I still thought about those two people, and of their families, who must have witnessed the virus’s demonic unfolding: twitching limbs, screams of rage, desperate hydrophobic slobbering. I have seen the statistics we cling to as proof of our safety betray the people I love most. Paul and his brother were diagnosed with different kinds of brain cancer three months apart; they each died before reaching forty. So the chances of me not having rabies, though numerically in my favor, didn’t do much to soothe me.

I worried the virus was working its way through me in peripatetic fashion, and I spent the next week and a half googling everything I could. The doctors’ laissez-faire approach contradicted the information I found from the Center for Disease Control: Was the bite from a provoked or an unprovoked attack? Bites inflicted on a person attempting to feed or handle an apparently healthy animal should generally be regarded as provoked. If it was an unprovoked attack, that’s more likely to indicate that the animal is rabid. My friend and I were walking down the sidewalk with a two-year-old in a stroller. I heard the snarling before I saw it, and then the dog was biting. It bounded from its yard out to us on public property. No feeding or handling was involved.

Rabies is the deadliest virus in the world. The name comes from the Latin word rabere, meaning madness or rage, due to the deranged symptoms of those infected. However spasmodic its presentation, the virus itself is methodical and cunning. Rabies uses the host’s body as its hardware just like any other virus, but unlike most, it moves in retrograde. Rabies begins at the origin site—a bite or scratch somewhere—then travels in reverse axonal transport up the peripheral nervous system. Once it reaches the body’s main machinery, the central nervous system that houses the spinal cord and brain, the virus filters into the body’s glands and secretions. These are the pools of saliva we tend to imagine when thinking of Old Yeller’s last days, his frothy-mouthed snarl. But there are days before these end-stage symptoms of foam and terror when the virus’s main job is simply to travel, to pass along from neuron to neuron, to trek through the body’s caves and tunnels. “Take me to your leader,” it says. And for a while after initial exposure, the host can feel just fine. For weeks even, she can live her normal life not knowing she’s on the brink of a violent, raging, horrifying death. 

The farther the site of infection is from the brain, the longer it takes, theoretically, to climb upwards and reach the central nervous system. My bites were on the backside of my knee and my calf, meaning they weren’t the farthest destinations from the brain—like a pinky toe or the bottom of my foot—but I had some time to make a plan.

Every itch or pulse around the puncture wounds felt like the beginning of the virus’s onset. I looked up physician-assisted suicide, but I ruled it out because I would have had to be in my right mind just fourteen days before and on the day of injection, and from what I knew about rabies, sanity was not a near-death symptom. I considered alternatives that would relieve my parents of having to witness my demise. I had watched Paul’s parents watch him die slowly, and that nightmarish fate was something I refused to repeat. I even considered taking matters into my own hands: there were several bottles of liquid Ativan in my refrigerator left over from Paul’s long months in hospice care. I’d held onto the bottles primarily for grief-stricken sleepless nights but found that falling asleep wasn’t as much a problem as the vivid nightmares I had once I was in REM. Using the Ativan might be a suitable conclusion to this most difficult year. The solution didn’t feel extreme. It felt practical. It would be, almost, a relief.

I tried to go about my life, but it was early summer, and I had time to wonder and wander and rummage the depths of the Internet. During one search, I learned that Edgar Allan Poe may have actually died of rabies instead of alcoholism. I’d grown up in Baltimore hearing local lore that Poe had died penniless from booze in the gutters of downtown, but I found out that he actually died in a hospital after a four-day stay. According to his medical records, Poe’s final days were filled with hallucinations, excessive perspiration, belligerence, and quiet. When given Poe’s medical file without identifying information in 1996, researcher Dr. R. Michael Benitez diagnosed the patient’s death as one typically demonstrative of rabies, not of cirrhosis or other complications from alcoholism. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that Poe was bitten or scratched by an infected rat due to his living conditions, but other doctors refuse the rabies conclusion and instead theorize that Poe died of the flu, carbon monoxide poisoning, or a brain tumor. The only official declaration after his death in 1849 was made by the Baltimore Clipper, which declared that Poe had died of “congestion on the brain.” Whatever the pathology, it is safe to say that something was eviscerating Poe from the inside and that his death, just like so many others, entailed a mixture of frenzy and boredom.

Poe’s grave is located in the courtyard of Westminster Church, the chosen venue for my senior prom. On the night of the dance, I left to find Poe’s grave. It was dark out by the time I wandered the courtyard, but even as I saw the monument in shadow, I remember thinking how the marble and granite tribute seemed small and sad in the dark. 

I felt the same when I looked out at the Grand Canyon next to Paul nearly two decades later. My atheistic best friend had told me that seeing the Grand Canyon was the only time she’d considered the existence of God, so I’d expected awe. We leaned against the rail overlooking the rift, and even though I could recognize that the landscape before me was immense, even unfathomably so, it felt insignificant to the depths of our feelings for each other. The triviality of my existence beside such geological enormity held little mystique; it was dwarfed by the mystery of how I could go on living knowing our time together would be counted in months, not years. Or the question of how I would continue to live on without him.

I called animal control on day nine to check on the dog’s condition in quarantine, but there was no one in the office who could take my call, and on day ten, the office was closed for the weekend. Day eleven would be Sunday, so I asked the receptionist if they’d call first thing Monday, day twelve, but was told they usually didn’t call unless there was something bad to report; if I didn’t receive a call I should assume everything was fine. I couldn’t fathom what happened in cases of negligence, or downright busyness or forgetfulness, when a phone call slipped through the cracks, or when a sticky note reminder fell behind a desk or into a trashcan. This is local government, after all. A forgotten call, in this case, meant certain death. This must be the hypochondriac’s frustration, the anxiety that makes him an obnoxious self-advocate. I could be dying and nobody cares. 

When I spoke with the friend who was with me in the attack, neither of us could believe the nonchalance of the city’s follow-up. We’d hoped that some authority would worry about our mortality, but besides having each other—both bitten and bruised—our purgatorial existences were of no consequence to anyone else. What did we matter if we mattered to no one besides ourselves? With Paul gone, it felt like there was no one left to care about my life.

Fifteen minutes before the dog attack, we’d seen a small pig and two goats wearing bow ties in a neighbor’s yard. We were delighted by the sight of them. There was nothing unusual about this yard except for the barn animals within it, and there was a dog in the corner that didn’t even raise his head from his front paws when we stopped to stare. The goats waddled to the chain link and rubbed their behinds up to it so we’d scratch them. The dog didn’t seem bothered—if anything, he was pouting in his corner because the pigs received all the attention. I mused over the image. Dogs are predictable in backyards, practical, even. After all, they were domesticated for the strict purpose of protecting our other animals and loved ones. We took them in so they could keep out dangers, and it is easy to forget they were once dangers to us too. My heart rate proved that, as did the wall my friend and I built with our bodies between baby and beast.

My dog wouldn’t come near me when I went back to my house the night of the attack. She skulked away with her head down and her tail between her legs. All I wanted was her comfort. But she must’ve smelled the fight pheromones on me. She looked at me like I was about to kick her, and she moved into whatever room I was not in. Once I showered and slept, she came around, but for months afterwards, I kept my distance from her too. I no longer nuzzled my chin to the top of her head as I’d done nearly every day for nine years. I nursed a subterranean fear that she would turn without cause, snap, and rip out my throat.

I called animal control again on day twelve, which left forty-eight hours to get the vaccine if the dog was infected. The woman on the other end of the line put me on hold while she looked up my case number. Everyone I’d called about the matter seemed annoyed by me. I imagined them hanging up and laughing while they shook powdered creamer into their coffees. 

When she got back on the line, she reported that there had been no signs of abnormal behavior. I was in the clear. But my terror didn’t dissolve when I hung up the phone. Since the attack, I’d started jumping at the sound of barking, flushing with adrenaline when passing neighbors’ hedges if I couldn’t see to the other side. My body had kept up its instinctual defenses as if the dog had tracked and stalked me home; I carried pepper spray with me on walks with my thumb hovering over the button. Even after I called animal control and verified that the dog had been put down, that feeling didn’t cease.

In 2015, a Wyoming woman woke up in her home to a bat on her neck. When her husband consulted invasive species experts, he was not advised to seek treatment for possible rabies exposure. Just under six weeks later, the woman died. The virus took one month to show its symptoms. In 2011, an American soldier stationed in Afghanistan was diagnosed with rabies seven months after contact, and in 2017, a fifteen-year-old boy in Turkey died a year after being exposed by his grandfather’s rabid horse. Though rare, there have been documented cases where the rabies virus incubated for decades. Although symptoms typically present themselves within two weeks, it is possible to live a normal life for months, even years without knowing it, while the virus hides out dormant in its host’s tissues until it is time to dislodge for its ultimate expedition to the brain.

The dog attack had awoken the state of high alert I’d lived in the year before when I waited with Paul as he died. In the end, it took five months, but we were told it could happen anytime, so I took each apneic breath or ring of the phone or new symptom as the heralding of his death. I ate what food people dropped off without tasting it. I went to work, but my mind was always at his bedside. His parents and I set up a baby monitor in his bedroom and took turns on surveillance. I started doing origami to pass the time. I worried when I went to the bathroom or headed to work that I would miss that single dreaded moment of his departure. I lived in this anticipatory terror for grindingly slow months; there were several false alarms when his parents and I surrounded his bed in hours-long vigils, our pulses racing, but then he would rebound and we would go back to the waiting. There was a high hum in my head all the time, a clamor of vigilance. My dog acts this way when she stalks a squirrel—her hindlegs go rigid and her eyes fixate as she becomes singularly devoted to her pursuit. In the short term, the preparation for battle serves her well, but after a while, the body exhausts itself.

The first question my friends asked when I told them about the attack: what kind of dog was it? I knew they wanted me to say it was a pit bull to make them feel better about the mutts and Labs they had at home. I found out later from the neighbors that most days, the dog had been tied to a tree in his fenceless front yard. It had made them nervous—they had a toddler, and the tie-up was long enough that the dog could have nearly reached the driveway that separated their properties. It was a mean dog, I told my friends. It was a dog that had been treated with meanness and had turned mean. The documentation said he was a Shepard mix, the kind of dog I was raised with. But I couldn’t pin his behavior on a breed or a mix of breeds. And if he’d had rabies, we wouldn’t call it meanness, we’d call it disease. Maybe that sound I heard as the dog came around the hedge and onto the sidewalk was a snarl of pleasure, a sliver of delight in his small life after being tethered and tied down for years. If so, I hope he relished the sinking of teeth into flesh. The scars that remain on the back of my leg are an artifact of his last efforts to enjoy something. It’s the way I have to think about him, anyway. I have to let myself believe, after the part I played in his euthanasia—the reports to animal control and the incessant follow-ups—that he would have preferred that quick pleasure and swift death over a slow but grinding demise tethered to that tree.

I didn’t look at the pictures of my leg until after the dog was dead, when the lawyer asked for documentation of the attack. I’d long ago thrown out my blood-soaked pants, and my wounds were healing nicely. They never hurt much—the damage was mostly existential—but the pictures rattled me. I’m not squeamish; when I go to donate blood, though the phlebotomist says I don’t have to watch the needle enter the arm, I always do. The insertion looks more painful than it feels, and it’s difficult for me to match up the sight with its sensation. That’s the dissonance I felt when I looked at the photographs of my leg. My blood-soaked yoga pants were rolled up past my knee so my friend could get a good frame of the bite marks. The back of the leg was covered in tracks of blood. Four clear bites tore into the meat of my calf muscle, then three more at the crease of my knee. If the dog needed a dental plate for a retainer, perhaps, or a new crown, the back of my leg could have served as an accurate mold. He bit in deep enough to hit the posterior blood vessels, but I can’t make sense of how all seven puncture wounds dodged the sciatic nerve branches that run down the back of the leg. Any nick would have affected my muscle and motor function. But besides pressure and a dull throbbing, I felt nothing. I could walk and run just as I could before, but I swear. I swear there is something that the dog awoke within me.

Meagan Ciesla

’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Kenyon Review, Copper Nickel, The Long Story and various other publications. She is an associate professor at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.

ART: Jupiter Cat by Cierra Rowe

CIERRA G. ROWE is a fine artist from rural Kentucky. Her zest for painting flourished during adolescence and continues to act as her candle through the shadows.

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