We Needed a Smile

By Neva Bryan, February 2021, Updated June 2021
dog smile

My brother died in December 2019. In January 2020, the word “coronavirus” popped up in the news. The world faced a severe health crisis. In March, my husband and I started working from home with no return-to-work date in sight. It was clear that 2020 would be a year like no other, and not in a good way. We needed a smile.

Enter Smiley Syrus.

The previous fall, we had seen her walking the roadside, dirty and scrawny. She appeared to be mostly Redbone. It was apparent that she had mothered a litter of pups at some point, but no little ones ever accompanied her. If we approached the dog, she tilted her head and smiled, her lip curling up in a way Elvis could appreciate. It seemed her way of ingratiating herself to strangers, as if a toothy grin might keep her from being mistreated.

By winter, she lost the lean, hungry look. She was pregnant.

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When it was time to give birth, she found the worst possible spot to do it. She climbed underneath our 60-year-old storage building set low to the ground, a structure that we had started tearing down earlier that month. There, beneath piles of junk and rotten wood, Smiley had seven puppies.

We couldn’t leave the dogs there. The building was coming down fast, and its detritus was dangerous: tin, broken glass, splintered wood, rusty nails. My husband and our neighbor crawled on their bellies to retrieve Smiley and her pups. We made a safe space for them on our porch.

The puppies were cute—all bellies and bark, with red and white spots—but we couldn’t keep them. We posted a few photos on social media, and each pup found its forever home. We gave away the last one in late May.

When the last pup left with its new owners, Smiley searched the property for her babies. She even stood on her back legs and looked in our truck bed. She cried when she couldn’t find them. It was devastating for her and us.

We thought it might be humane to have her spayed. It would be good for the neighborhood, too. When we brought her back from the animal clinic, we kept her in the house. “Just temporarily,” I said. “Until she recovers.”

I had never had a dog in the house before. I worried that she might have an accident or chew on the furniture. She did neither. She was housebroken already.

She didn’t bark. She didn’t jump up on people. What she wanted most was to be petted. That was it. We fell in love with her.

She helped us forget our woes. When I grew despondent over the loss of my brother, she cheered me up with her signature smile. When the world and our country appeared to be imploding, she made us laugh with the wag of a tail. In a terrible year, Smiley brought us what we needed most: joy.

Photo: Neva Bryan

Neva Bryan is published widely in literary journals, anthologies, and online magazines, including Minding Nature, Rust+Moth, and the Anthology of Appalachian Writers. She lives in the mountain coalfields of Virginia with her husband and two dogs. Neva enjoys taking nature photographs and pictures of her pets.