Many years ago, in a kingdom far away and across the sea, there lived a girl who had a way with dogs. For as far back as anyone could remember, any dogs the girl encountered would come to her side unbidden and, if spoken to, would obey her every command.
The girl had been born to an older farming couple who had despaired of ever having a child. At her birth, they fawned over her; inviting everyone they knew to her naming party, sure that she was the most beautiful child who had ever graced the earth. She was a docile baby, cooing and smiling. They asked an elderly cousin, an eccentric woman renowned for her connections to the fairy world, to be the child’s godmother and to give her a special name. “Alas, I have no gold or silver to give you, my child,” she whispered over her cradle. “I will name you Gula, which means healer. You have healed your aging parents’ hearts, and shall continue to heal whomsoever you meet.”
Not long after the babe’s birth, however, her mother again found herself with child. When the second child was born a boy, the parents were ecstatic. This would be their heir, the person who would care for them in their old age. They held an even greater naming party, and they almost forgot all about their quiet little girl. Thus, as she grew through toddlerhood, they didn’t notice, at first, little Gula’s odd ways. For even as a child of two, still unable to speak clearly, she had only to nod or point, and the family’s sheepdog would fetch a toy, push a door open for her, or whatever was in her heart. And the girl would giggle and hug the beast close to her. She and the dog became inseparable.
Entranced with their boy, the parents barely noticed the girl’s existence. Since no one paid attention to her, Gula became like a mute, playing quietly by herself on the hillside. One day, when she was four, she dropped a favorite toy, a rag doll, over a steep hillside and could not call for help. Tottering at the edge, the child was considering scaling the hill to retrieve the toy and wished silently that someone would help her. Just then, the sheepdog nudged her away from the edge, bounded down the hill, and returned moments later with the doll.
On Gula’s sixth birthday, her godmother reminded her parents that the girl should start school soon and that she would need some new clothes. Thus it was that her mother took little Gula into town, and was amazed when pandemonium ensued. Those fuzzy, friendly mutts who by their nature bark joyously to greet any human, fell into near delirium in her presence. Wherever Gula and her mother went, with only a whiff of the girl’s scent, dogs were soon rolling and writhing on their backs or sitting at attention, tails thumping, wet tongues at the ready, in that unmistakable grin of a happy dog. Gula and her mother walked past one of those little yappy dogs who sometimes run out barking and nipping at the heels of passers-by, and the dog stopped in its tracks and fell silent. Little Gula smiled and whistled, and the indulged, disobedient darling lost its air of entitlement and turned toward her, paws outstretched, anxious to obey her.
Over the next few days, the farmer and his wife saw such actions repeat themselves. Those wolf-like creatures that sometimes circle strangers’ homes, growling and baring their sharp teeth, those canines one step removed from the demon-clawed beasts who roamed the forests and had once terrorized her ancestors – even if one had just lunged viciously at a passer-by, or if a pack had cornered some poor soul and were growling and hissing at him, with just one look from the girl’s piercing violet eyes, their barks would wither to a whimper, and they would slink away like startled lizards returning to their rocky dens.
Her parents were amazed by their daughter’s prowess. She had been such a quiet little baby, her very existence eclipsed by her male younger sibling. Now that they noticed her skills, they called attention to her feats. Shortly after her seventh birthday, her little brother fell into a crevasse by the cliffs. Their mother cried; the sheepherder said, “There’s no way I can crawl down to him and not be killed.” Gula hugged the sheepherder’s collie and whispered in its ear, and within minutes the dog had carried the boy out on his back. Soon, everyone in town knew of the feat. “It’s a miracle,” they all said.
But as the years passed, even though the girl’s way with dogs had never brought harm to anyone, the townspeople began to fear her, suspecting her of witchcraft. “There she is, the dog girl,” they would call as she passed. At school, the other children whispered about her and ostracized her from their games. And although Gula could speak if she tried, most times, she chose to be silent.
The girl came to love her time on the hillside, away from the taunts and jeers of her classmates. She sometimes watched hungrily as other girls giggled and walked arm in arm through town, but she knew of no way to assuage their fears, nor how to convince them to accept her, dogs and all. As she grew older, none of the other girls invited her to their homes to talk of clothes and young men, and none of the young men in town came to court her. But as the young maiden matured, she scorned the silly prattle of the girls who shunned her and considered herself lucky to have the hillsides to herself. Her brother sometimes played with her, and he often defended her to his friends, but still, Gula was content to be left on her own.
She especially came to love the company of a tiny, white dog, from the island of Malta, that her godmother had given her for her tenth birthday. She taught the toy dog to roll and fetch and walk on her hind legs and sing when the maiden played the harp, and Gula named her, Ashira, for when Gula saw her, she felt like singing.
And so it continued, with the young maiden growing into adulthood. And then one day a nearby shepherd lost two of his prize ewes to wolves. He was sure Gula had something to do with it. When he took his case to the king, the king called the girl to the royal court to answer charges. “When she walks near my flocks, my dogs leave my sheep,” the sheepherder claimed. “Last night a wolf took two of my prize ewes! Banish her! Her ways will bring us all to ruin.”
“Have you never lost a sheep to a wolf before?” the young woman answered. “Is it solely because I strayed near your fields that those ewes were lost?” She turned toward the king and begged, “Please, your majesty, don’t banish me from my home.”
The king thought about the petition and the defense, feeling sympathy for both the sheepherder and the young woman, and announced his decision.
“I have decided that the woman shall not be banished, but rather that she should reside in town, where she will cause no harm to the shepherd. She must leave any dogs with her parents in the countryside, for the townspeople would fear their presence.”
The woman cried at the sentence. “But may I not bring one dog with me? A small dog, whom no adult or child could fear?”
The king wavered. The sheepherder and his friends were insistent that she not be allowed to keep any animals. But seeing her distress, the king relented, allowing her to keep her toy dog, so small no one would fear it.
The woman was sad but resigned to her fate. And so, she took a job in the library, where no dogs were allowed, and took pleasure in the company of the great writers of the kingdom. And in the mornings and evenings, she took comfort in the company of her little Ashira, who clung to her like a kindred spirit.
Many months passed, with Gula maturing into womanhood in the dusty shadows of the library, until one day the king was again petitioned that she be banished. This time it was a group of merchants who wanted her banned from town. “Our storerooms have been robbed! She distracts my guard dogs as she passes on her way to work or the markets,” they each said. “Look at my prized Rottweilers, who used to bare their fangs and bark viciously at anyone who came near my storeroom. She has turned them into useless groveling pets!” The dogs wagged their tails happily, and all could see that this was so.
Then Gula spoke up. “They may be friendly in my presence, but I have not directed them to abandon their guard posts,” she said. “Let me instruct the dogs to obey their masters. Let them hear me say out loud that they must defend their masters’ belongings,” she said.
The king thought about the petition and the defense, feeling sympathy for both the merchants and the young woman, and announced his decision.
“I have decided that the woman shall not be banished, but rather first, that she direct the dogs to defend their masters’ property. She shall remain in town. But when she leaves her home, she will be required to wear a shroud and walk without speaking. In this way, the dogs will not notice her presence and with time will return to their more vicious nature.”
And so the woman could no longer leave her home without wearing a shroud from head to toe, and walked silently, lest her voice distracts some working dog nearby. She cried quietly into her pillow some nights, and the townspeople the next day would complain that their dogs had been uneasy all night, whimpering in their sleep and waking their households. For the woman had a way with dogs, and the creatures felt sympathy for some unknown force that called to them. Gradually, however, the guard dogs went back to being good guard dogs, and the townspeople were happy.
Gula traveled one day to her godmother’s home. “O Godmother,” she cried. “You have always said that I would be a healer, that I would have special ways to heal the world. But I have been rejected by my people.”
And her godmother soothed the maiden, assuring her that all would be well. “Return to town. It will all be settled soon,” she insisted.
It was nearing the midwinter holidays, some weeks after Gula had been sentenced to wear the shroud when a group of neighbors came to her door. “Do you know? Have you heard?” one, then another, then another interrupted and cried out. “The king has announced all dogs may soon be banished from the kingdom. Any dog found in town will be killed.”
First one, then another gave her the story.
The king’s son was dying. The young lad could not be persuaded to eat or leave his bed, for he was filled with grief. A dog had run in front of the royal carriage some days earlier. Startled, their horse had reared, and his wife, the queen, and the boy had somehow been crushed beneath the wheels of their carriage. The queen was killed and the boy, though still alive, had fallen into a coma. The doctors could do nothing to return the child to good health, and all had begun to lose hope. Day and night the king sat by his young son’s side, but the boy did not awake. “If my son dies, I will send out a decree that all dogs in the kingdom must be killed,” the grief-stricken king declared.
The woman found it difficult to believe that the king, who had seemed so fair and deliberate, could do such a terrible thing. Even though dogs had inadvertently caused her much grief, she couldn’t bear to think of her friends being put to death, couldn’t imagine a world without dogs. Forgetting her robes, she scooped her little Ashira into her arms, rushed from her home, and hurried toward the palace, talking excitedly with the neighbors who accompanied her. And although she didn’t realize it at first, with every house that she passed, its dogs came out and followed her.
Little dogs, big dogs, fierce dogs, silly dogs. Soon, she was followed by nearly every dog in town. The rich lady’s toy poodles, the old man’s yappy terrier, the little boy’s lumbering yellow retriever, the big family’s happy mutt, pointy-eared guard dogs with stumpy tails, enormous furry herding dogs, dogs the size of horses and dogs the size of chipmunks… Although they did a great deal of sniffing and snuffling at the bushes and each other, the dogs didn’t fight or growl or bark or snap at one another. They knew something was wrong with their woman, and they followed her determinedly.
When Gula had reached the King’s palace, she walked up to the guards at the entrance and said, “Please tell the King that I must speak with him.”
The guards replied that no one might see the King this day, and looked around uneasily at the dozens of dogs surrounding the woman. “Do you not know, woman, that the prince, his only child, is gravely ill? The king is distraught. You must leave at once, and remove those dogs from the King’s sight. For it is a dog who caused this misery.”
The woman persisted. “It is because the prince is ill that I must see him. Please beg him to speak to me,” she argued.
But in response, one guard grabbed her by the arm and said, “If you don’t leave immediately, we will have you thrown in the dungeon. No one may disturb the king.”
Gula cried out in pain, and before the guards could brandish their weapons, they had been overwhelmed by a mob of dogs who had leapt forward to protect their woman. The sleek black, pointy-eared guard dogs leaped on the first guard, knocking his weapon to the ground, and stood over him, growling. The sheepdogs rushed the others and barked and nipped at their heels until they had herded them into a corner. The mutts barked and ran in circles. The woman rushed past, with the remaining dogs—all shapes and sizes—following her.
She hurried through the palace, and dogs—fancy or messy, furry or sleek—clicked and slid on the slippery marble floors. She spent no time looking around at the sparkling chandeliers, or the marble fireplaces, the cabinets filled with jewels and glassware, or the boughs of pine and holly decorated with sparkling lights that filled every corner and mantle, but searched only for the king. Through room after empty room, she hurried, encountering no one, as all were hiding from the king’s grief. Finally, she spied a servant run from a room crying, and she entered, thinking to find the king there.
But it was the prince she saw, lying in a huge pillowed bed, a nurse by his side. A group of courtiers stood murmuring in hushed tones at the far end of the enormous room. Gula approached softly, and his nurse looked up at her. “You have no business here,” the nurse said. “You must leave immediately. The boy is dying.” She sniffed and wiped her nose. “The boy has not eaten or moved for days. We have given up hope.”
The woman nodded sadly and moved closer to the young prince’s bed, gazing down at the feverish small face on the pillows. “I wish I could heal you, young prince,” she thought. “I am no healer; my name is a sham.” Just then she felt the retriever pass by her, inching forward, pushing his shaggy head under the prince’s pale hand and saw it begin to lick the hand gently.
The boy stirred.
A tan mutt joined the retriever at the boy’s side, and he, too, licked the boy’s hand.
The boy stirred again.
With that Gula called on a tiny, bug-eyed tan dog, who at her command began to play tiny cymbals with his tiny brown front paws.
Then Gula beckoned to twin toy poodles, who stood on their hind legs and sang, “A woo-woo-woo,” and “Auw-auw-auw,” in rhythm with the clanging of the cymbals.
And then she called on her little white Maltese, Ashira, who danced on her little white feet, her pink bows bobbing, her long hair swaying like a dress.
The room was filled with noise. The courtiers began to laugh and the rest of the dogs barked excitedly.
With that, the king burst into the room. “What is going on in here? And who are you? Why are these animals in my child’s room? Be gone from here, immediately! Have you no respect for the dying?”
But when he looked over at his son’s bed, he saw that it was empty. And there, on the floor sat his son, clapping his hands, the retriever and mutt next to him, laughing at the antics of the miniature performers.
“It’s a miracle!” the courtiers said.
“How have you done this?” the king cried as he raced to embrace his son, now laughing weakly. Tears of joy in his eyes, the king turned to Gula. “I owe you my very life. How can I ever repay you? Gold? Silver? Jewels?” And he offered even, when he was out of mourning, to make her his queen. For she was a rare and talented woman, indeed.
But the woman answered, “I need no jewels or rooms of gold. But I ask three favors of the king.”
“Anything,” the king said.
“I ask that you promise not to banish dogs from the kingdom.”
The king nodded his assent.
“And that I be allowed to roam the hills or the town whenever I want and without the shroud.
And third, I need a different job, one where I can be outdoors with living creatures.”
And the king, holding his recovering young son in his lap, cried and said yes to her requests. She was able to come and go as she pleased from that day forward, without the shroud, and she became head equerry, responsible for all the horses and other animals in the royal palace.
Some say that a year later the king offered the woman to make her his bride. Statues of furry white dogs became de regur winter holiday decorations. And they say that a small white dog for many years graced the royal family’s coat of arms.
But that is just talk, and as it happened so long ago in a land so far away and over the seas, we may never know the truth of the matter.
Katherine Flannery Dering received an MFA in 2013 from Manhattanville College. Her memoir, Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir a Brother’s Struggle was published in 2014 by Bridgeross. A mixed-genre book of poetry, prose, photos, and emails, it deals with caring for her schizophrenic brother, and she is an advocate for better care for the mentally ill. Her poetry chapbook is titled Aftermath (2018, Finishing Line Press.) Her work has also appeared recently in Inkwell, RiverRiver, Tilde, Cordella, and Adanna, among other literary journals. She serves on the executive committee of the Katonah Poetry Series and lately divides her writing time between poetry, essays, and a book of short, feminist fables, of which Gula, the Dog Girl, is one.
You can find her on Facebook as Katherine Flannery Dering, author. Her website is www.katherineflannerydering.com, and it includes links to other publications.