I don’t know about you, but I love this title. It suggests poignancy that overcomes the obvious question of what it actually means. As it happens, the title is not only literally true, it encapsulates the mood of the piece.
The receptionist had feathers where her eyebrows should have been. They were blue, green, and black, iridescent as a peacock’s, and they trembled gently in the silent breath of the air conditioner. “Did you have a question, sir?”
“No,” Jason replied, and raised his magazine, but after reading the same paragraph three times without remembering a word he set it down again. “Actually, yes. Um, I wanted to ask you… ah… are you… transitioning?” The word landed on the soft tailored-grass carpet of the waiting room, and Jason wished he could pick it up again, stuff it into his pocket, and leave. Just leave, and never come back.
“Oh, you mean the eyebrows? No, sir, that’s just fashion. I enjoy being human.” She smiled gently at him. “You haven’t been in San Francisco very long, have you?”
Jason’s father left home when he was nine, twenty years ago. There’s been no communication since, not even when his mother died, and Jason had long stopped thinking about him. But at an airport he runs into an old friend of his father’s, who tells him that his father’s in the process of transitioning at a hospital in San Francisco. So Jason rushes over to see him.
When he arrives his father’s already in the operating room. Jason speaks to a doctor, one his father knows well, who says that in all this time he’s never mentioned Jason once. He suggests that Jason should leave without seeing his father, and it’s only when his father grants permission that the two see each other again.
His father’s face is similar to how he remembers it, both younger and older than his expectations. But beneath his chin his skin is covered by grey-white fur, and his legs and body are that of a large shaggy dog.
The trajectory of the story that follows is not an unfamiliar one; an estranged father and son, one wanting to reconcile their differences, the other disconcerted by the changes made in his absence, tempted to part ways again. A classic strength of SF literature is the ability to magnify human concerns by making them more literal. In this case the transition the father is going through is more tangible than a person changing their ideology or outlook on life, more extreme even than changing their gender or their face. And by having the father wanting to remake himself into a dog you get all the themes connected to them, their companionship and faithfulness and unconditional love, that make the ending more effective than you could achieve with any other animal.
I Hold My Father’s Paws by David D. Levine
Availability: free online, free audio, print
Word count: 4,900
First published: Albedo One #31, May 2006
Where to find it: It is available at Infinity Plus here
The Year’s Best SF: Twenty-Fourth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois, 2007, St Martin’s Griffin
Space Magic, collection, 2008, Wheatland Press
Telling Tales: The Clarion West 30th Anniversary Anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow, 2013, Hydra House
A reading of this story is available free from the podcast Beam Me Up #60 (direct link to mp3 download here)