In Lakeview there is the legend of a dog. Many argue that the legend is nothing more than a children’s story. I know different. The story goes that in the 1920s a little girl, Mary Anderson, had a shaggy sheepdog named Maggie. The dog grew fond of the girl and took care of her, as any nanny or mother would. She helped teach the girl to walk, to swim, and even joined her at mid-afternoon tea.
When Mary turned seven she was diagnosed with polio. They ushered her away, quarantined in a ward of the Haymarket General Hospital, where children afflicted with the disease were kept from the general population. The hospital was built on the site of Lakeview’s old Haymarket neighborhood. Alone and afraid, Mary cried out in the night for days on end. But, after a week, the doctors were stunned when she stopped crying and found Maggie the sheepdog resting across the legs of the little girl. Security came to remove the dog from the hospital, but it growled, baring its white teeth, not allowing anyone near Mary unless she gave them permission. There the dog stayed, across her feet, for eight months, until one fateful winter’s night the girl passed in her sleep.
It was two days before Maggie would allow anyone near Mary’s body. At night, through the halls, the dog could be heard whimpering as she licked Mary’s face.
Mary was buried in the graveyard on the hillside of the small hamlet just outside the city known as Timber Ridge. There, Maggie made her way through the city, following the scent of her young master. The day after they buried the girl, the caretaker awoke for his morning rounds. Amazed, he found Maggie sleeping atop the tiny grave. The caretaker did all that he could to coax the dog out of the cemetery, bribing it with bones and balls and even a T-bone steak. Nothing worked, as Maggie stayed put, undeterred and loyal to her girl. For six years Maggie slept on top of Mary’s grave, sometimes so still passersby thought her to be a statue, until they heard the whimpers coming from the scraggly pile of hair. Maggie stayed in spite of snow and rain and gale force winds. She remained upon the grave until she died, at the age of fifteen, still waiting for her little girl to return to her. Her remains were buried next to Mary’s grave with a small headstone.
That’s not the part that people try to contest, though some details are thought to have been added for dramatic effect. No, the part that people dispute is this: a year after the dog’s passing, it was spotted at the hospital, howling up at the room the girl once occupied. When orderlies went to engage the dog, it had disappeared. People chalked it up to a coincidence, arguing that it was a different dog altogether. But sure enough, the following year the dog visited the hospital again. This time the security guard on duty followed it for three blocks, until he lost it in the shadows. Every year, on the anniversary of the dog’s death, Maggie reappears, a gaggle of ghost story enthusiasts in tow. They say you can sometimes see her clear as day, and other times you can only hear her weeping. But always, she leads the people in the direction of the graveyard, where it is believed she goes to rest up for the coming year.
The story, whether true or not, has attracted quite a bit of attention over the years. In 1974, a plaque was erected outside the door of the room little Mary Anderson once stayed in. That’s how I came upon the story. In truth, I thought the idea of a ghost dog was as absurd as the legends of Ya’hootie, the terrible Sasquatch that roamed the hills, whose photo was printed in the Gazette plain as day.Yet, in my reluctance to believe such a far fetched tale of love and devotion, I set out one year with the group of true believers. By night’s end, I had devoutly joined their fray. I not only saw the bushy dog with my own eyes, but I felt it as it passed by my leg. Upon its touch I felt a shiver grow inside of me, crawling up my back as if my spine had frozen from the inside out.
For years I followed Maggie and her cries through the streets of Lakeview, always losing her along the way. One year I decided to change my approach. While everyone was so focused on following her path from the beginning, I decided to go to the supposed destination: the little girl’s grave. All night I waited as the cold wind blew hard, cutting straight to the bone. I found a spot across from Mary’s grave and leaned myself up against a tombstone. Soon the darkness of night faded, giving way to the light of the sun just beyond the valley ridge. I found myself exhausted and on the verge of sleep when, at that moment, I heard a jingling chime. I lifted my sleepy eyes to find a sheepdog sitting right in front of me. It licked my face, and I felt its cold, wet tongue slide as a shiver erupted through my body. It barked at me once, a happy bark, as if to say thank you. But for what? I did not know. I looked closer and around its singing collar I read the name: Maggie. A great sensation of joy and fear and absolute sadness fell upon my body. Staring into those black eyes, I suddenly understood—no, felt—all the desperation and loneliness that Maggie had endured for so many years. And with that, she passed her burden on to me. The dog walked over to the girl’s grave, laid down, and at first light, she disappeared into the ground. As I got up to leave, I swear I heard, somewhere in the distance, the laughter of a little girl. I’ve been back since, bringing with me witnesses to see the amazing truth of the dog that never left. Yet, in all my visits since, I’ve never heard more than a faint tinkle on the wind.
J. Ryan Sommers has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago. He hopes to continue his writing while teaching. This story is from his thesis, a novel in stories, entitled Conduits.