In the days when the sun burns hot and the air stands still, the seas boil, wine turns sour, man and beast become languid, and dogs grow mad. The Greeks and ancient Romans viewed these days, early July through early September, as an evil time. They called them "days of the dogs." As a young child in Kentucky, I grew to fear the approach of July, when the air between land and sky trembled with heat, and the hay in the fields shriveled into itself to hide from it. "Dog days is here," my grandmother would warn, "stay away from bats, skunks, and dogs what foams at the mouth. They'll bite ye and turn ye into one of 'em. Ye'll beg fer water and scream at the sight of it."
Late in the afternoon one stifling August day in 1950 when I was ten and my brother twelve, we were outside playing tag around a rambling rose bush when a large black and white dog wandered into the yard. We both saw it and stopped what we were doing. From a distance of several yards, the dog looked normal, but as it moved toward us, it began to behave strangely and move stealthily toward my brother, white foam dripping from its mouth. Horrified, neither of us said anything, but we knew. We began to ease away, slowly, hoping we could make a run for the safety of the house. But the dog made a tremendous leap toward my brother. I saw the fear in his eyes as he flung up his arm to shield his face. The dog's teeth closed around his forearm, then the animal let loose, fell to the ground as if stunned and lay there.
Both of us ran around to the kitchen door. My father must have been watching from the window, because he shot past us, the .22 rifle in his hand. I knew where he was going and why he had the gun. He would shoot the dog and cut off its head to be sent away for a test to see if the dog was mad. I had no doubt that it was, so shooting it was all right with me.
Mom hurried us inside and sat my brother down at the table, examining the teeth marks while blood dripped onto the linoleum. I felt in a daze. Not knowing what to do, I just stood there wiping sweat and tears from my face and visualizing my brother weeks down the road, foaming at the mouth and snarling at us all. I had no idea how long that behavior would last before he would die. Florence, our neighbor, knew of a surefire cure, the mad stone, but we didn't have one and didn't know anybody who did or anybody who had ever owned one.
She and Andy, her husband, lived down the lane and across the fields, and my brother and I often spent the night at their house, falling to sleep while listening to stories Florence told that had been handed down to her from family and acquaintances from near and far. The story that had a bearing on my fears about my brother dying a mad dog was the one about Abraham Lincoln's boy, Robert.
On a hot day in September 1859, a mad dog bit Robert, and Mr. Lincoln grabbed him up and took him to Terre Haute, Indiana, where he knew a family who owned a mad stone. It wasn't really a stone at all, but something found in a deer's stomach that was usually smaller than a woman's fist and was hard and porous like a stone. This stone would be put on the bite and left there until it fell off by itself, then it would be boiled in sweet milk and put back on the wound. If it fell off right away, then all the poison was gone and the person who had been bitten would live and not go mad. Florence said that Robert lived to be a real old man.
I watched my mother dip a cloth into a pot of hot water on the cookstove and scrub it across a bar of Ivory soap, then wash my brother's arm. Her face pale as cold milk, she washed and washed it. My brother sat silent, but I knew all the things that had been running through my mind had been running through his.
The light finally left the kitchen and Mom lit a lamp. She made some supper and we ate, then were put to bed. About midnight, my father returned. He had killed the dog and taken the head to the vet to be sent away. And he had gone to see Doctor Baker, who advised him not to wait for results to begin treatment. The next day, my brother began a series of shots in his stomach, one each day for fourteen days. Fortunately, he never suffered any of the possible paralyzing side effects.
Like Robert Lincoln, my brother also survived, although the treatment had been a world apart; one mystical, a mad stone from the stomach of a deer, and the other scientific, a crude nerve tissue vaccine developed by Louis Pasteur in 1885.
The ancient dog days of summer were not days of evil, but the days when Sirius, the Dog Star, rose just before or at the same time as sunrise. Sometimes, at the end of one of those long and hot days in July, I look into the sky, aware that the heat is not due to that far-away star but is a direct result of the earth's tilt, and that dogs do not grow mad because of it.