My father’s dog taught me the most important lesson about love: Mitchell’s story

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The pig’s screams guide my father and I through the scrub.

Once the wild beast has unleashed the sound of a thousand murders, everything happens too fast: my father speeds ahead and I rush to keep up with him. He’s running with excitement because his hunting dogs have caught a feral pig; I’m running with fear, fear of being lost and left behind in the bush which is suddenly menacing.

The faster I run, the louder the scream grows. When I arrive, the pig has been splayed to the ground by our two dogs, Beau and Bouncer.

Beau, the youngest of the pair, stands proud. He has learned the skill of killing quickly, but as I stare at the pools of crimson blood pouring from the dead pig, I remember a time before all this.

You see, Beau wasn’t born a killer, though his entry into our world was far from harmonious. “If you bring home one more dog,” my mother warned my father, threatening to leave. We were so poor back then that the cost of feeding another animal was akin to raising a child.

But my father’s ears were blunted to such a threat. He’d always had dogs and saw the appeal of Beau as another potential hunter and father for Bouncer’s future pups.

For weeks after Beau arrived, my mother retreated into a stony silence, her anger growing grey as a storm cloud that I knew would burst eventually.

One Saturday morning, my father called me into the laundry.

“Let’s wash him,” he said, pointing to Beau, who stood in the tub, a bundle of brindle. He wagged his tail lamely, as if even he were unsure of whether he belonged here, could sense he was at least partly unwanted.

And I, old enough to know the distress he had caused, wondered if it was an act of betrayal to even pat him. For as much as I loved dogs and dreamed of Dalmatians, basset hounds and Jack Russell terriers, Beau’s presence in our house seemed a gossamer thing that might fray at any moment.

“He’s not allowed inside,” my mother said later, unable to speak Beau’s name.

But I guess when you love someone, there are things you learn to live with, like one’s smoking habit or snoring at night.

“I told him,” my mother laughed to friends for years to come, “one more dog and I’m leaving. I’m still here!”

We all grew to like Beau – if you are a dog-person, it isn’t so hard – but those rocky few weeks had cemented in him a devotion to my father. He answered to no one else.

Still, Beau was fiercely protective of all our family. From his turret-like cage on top of the hill where our house by the bush rested, his bark skyrocketed, warning anyone who was even on the periphery of our home, which – thanks to his vigilance – now seemed as impenetrable as Gormenghast.

There were some advantages to this. I was such a nervous child who could never sleep at night, terrified of kidnappers, monsters under the bed, natural disasters – Beau’s watchful eyes made me feel safe. Our loyal protector. But not even he could see the danger that was approaching all of us.

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Yes, I remember now. It was author Sonya Hartnett who said: “People will die for love, kill for love and in fact draw the line nowhere for love.”

She was right.

When my father’s affair with another woman was no longer a secret, he began the slow process of packing his belongings. The longer the red and white-striped bags stayed slumped in the hallway, the more we all thought he might change his mind.

“I’m leaving you the gun,” he told my mother finally.

The gun was rarely glimpsed, bought only for the purposes of hunting, but three years earlier my father had let me fire it when we were out in the paddock.

My fingers, which couldn’t do much more than hold a pen or pencil, had failed to pull back the trigger, my eyes unable to focus on the wavering line that would enable a perfect shot at the tree in the distance.

I didn’t want to shoot anything; I longed to run through the field, to the dried up river bed with rabbit holes and the carcuses of eucalypt trees that I hoped might become a portal to all the other worlds I’d read of.

So if the gun was now in my mother’s possession, that meant Beau must be going, too – he was my father’s dog.

But for one week after my father left, Beau stayed in his cage, only let out occasionally by my mother, whose health was rapidly declining from a nervous breakdown that saw her already-slender frame begin to wither into a vine.

Sometimes, my father would return late at night and I’d hear my parents screaming well into morning, saying things like slut and mother fucker ­– words I’d never heard them speak before.

“What about Beau?” my mother asked.

“He’s going,” my father said. “I’ll take him up to the tip and shoot him.”

The tip was a garbage deposit on the outskirts of town whose stinking stomach stretched into the centre of the earth.

And soon Beau would join it, his bones smothered by shit, broken furniture, mounds of mutinous rubbish – all the things no one wants anymore.

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I cried over Beau’s death as I cried for a lot of things that year. War with Saddam Hussein was imminent, according to the media – we were all five minutes off being bombed to bits. And I cried, one summer night, when I realised I was feeling attracted to another boy my age. Maybe a world war wasn’t such a bad thing.

I told myself that, if the earth wasn’t blown apart, then all I had to do to avoid being gay was write a letter to my family apologising for the malfunctioning of my brain and board a plane for overseas.

Instead, my parents divorced and my mother, younger sibling and I moved to a rundown home on a farm with a river running through it.

On the other side of the river, gay men met and fucked in the public toilet, barely bothering to disguise what was going on.

“Stay away from the river,” my nanna warned me, but my sexuality and even being sexual barely mattered to me anymore; I just wanted to be invisible.

That was, until my thirties, when I went vegan and threw myself into animal rights protests where every day felt like an act of defiance.

This probably wasn’t the sort of fighter my father hoped I’d become when he made me attend his karate classes, but I loved stare offs with the police; I loved it when men I would have once been terrified of spat abuse and I didn’t run away; I loved how us activists fractured our way into public spaces with our wide screen TVs playing footage of slaughterhouses, a truth that could not be denied.

I put myself on the line for the animals, and that’s the part of me that is still there: the boy who loves dogs.

By now, different dogs have entered my life, dogs that have all been showered with kindness, and it doesn’t seem right that Beau, who was so devoted to his owner, received nothing but a bullet.

His final moments will always haunt me. I imagine him hearing the footsteps of my father, wagging his tail, then …

She might not have wanted him originally, but I think that, in the end, my mother knew her and Beau both had something in common.

Their only fault – if indeed you can call it that – was to believe that love lasts forever.

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