“Nothing we do is inevitable, but everything we do is irreversible. How do you propose to remember that in time?
Which would you prefer to have your life compared to, wind or dust?
The Quick and the Dead
“Heaven goes by favour. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”
“There is no faith that has never yet been broken, except that of a truly faithful dog.”
Moonlight. The drive through our woods is lined with lumpy gray gravel and I can hear the Big Dog’s footsteps on the stones and then the leaf, and then the stones again, and then a pause—I could walk with him even if I were blinded, though we are far from any true and full darkness in the glow of this near winter moon. It is a light that is supposed to be a stark light according to the poets and the lovelorn but I find it a refreshing luminosity, all pallor and ambivalence. Clear and cold inside the blacks and blues, I don’t imagine wolves or fear them. I have one with me. And he is off the leash. A risky business only if a deer peers from the darkness. They do that here, the deer, eyes glinting with our house lights just inside the hickory boundaries. Our home is the strange new glow of brick and stone in the forest, an obstacle that the world has been trying to work around. Big Dog has still yet to see an actual deer with his own eyes. And I fear the moment he does. For it will be a long and hardy chase through woodland for all of us.
The Speckle-bellied dog has tasted some freedom at this new mountain home where we have recently taken all the dogs. Tasted some real freedom I mean. The kind she thinks she wants. The kind we all think we want, I guess. She slipped out through a gate and vanished while my wife and I were flying back from over the ocean where strange birds live. My daughter wept on the phone to tell us. We fretted. And once we were home I spent long, cold hours pacing the neighborhoods beyond our woods looking for signs of her—calling her name, flashing my light, turning quickly at shadows and other lost dogs. To the west of us the land just goes and goes in woods. Normally this is a gift, a good thing. But in the dark, as a searcher, I could not go there. The next day I tracked out that way and made big circles on foot through the briers and leaf fall and then came back and went even farther out in the car. I made over 135 miles in the truck. And I found so many deadish things beside the road. Armadillos, Opossums, rumpled white sheets, glinting branches that curled into doggy shapes. One real white dog was dead on her side with a bullet wound. So close to the speckle-bellied dog I gasped as I stopped the truck before I could see the patches on the face that were wrongly arrayed. Who shoots a dog on the side of the road? I stood and looked at her in this isolated place and thought how hard it would have been to lift Molly’s body into the car and be finished with that white and black dog forever. Finished forever with a dog you love. Damn, sometimes the world just hurts.
I saw this week a young boy on the news that had his dachshund accosted by a hawk. A story to amaze your friends, the child was walking his puppy. This warrior boy said the Red-tail actually lifted the animal into the air slightly, you know, before the boy ‘kicked the hawk in the head’. Kicked a damn hawk in the head? I love hawks. But I am afraid I was with the child here. And it is no slight thing to take on a preying hawk. They can be dangerous in the face and the eyes. Like angry owls. (If I had a band, this would be their name.) The dachshund truly scored some talon tears on the muzzle. Had his face right there on CNN. Had some proud stitches and likely some winged doggy nightmares for several days and long nights. What he must think of his alpha boy. The pack must stick together.
The Red Dog understands freedom. And he does not want it now other than an occasional romp in the front yard or a venture into the bordering trees. He appreciates fine things—beds and goose down comforters, a well-filled bowl of kibble. The woods he knows are dark and deep. Knowledge like Mister Frost, he may have read the poem in my library when I was away. I’m convinced he paws down the titles and examines our world when I am at work. But he knows that in real freedom beds are far and few between. Miles to go and all that. It is in his eyes. He won’t go far. It is a dog understanding that puppies don’t have. The Red Dog is grizzled. He is nine years old. His muzzle is frosted. His patience shorter than it used to be. He knows who rules. Alpha man my ass, he thinks.
On the warm days in the back of the house in December the red wasps come. They alert the Big Dog to attention. I have no idea what he has against them. Though I must say all flying insects get his wrath. He relates them all to some piercing horse fly bite from the past or something. But the wasps come to the peak of the house and slice down in their lazy flights onto the deck where the Big Dog flies into the air and snaps at them with his teeth. I notice he really retracts the gums and grins in his short flights. Some extra knowledge there of wasps. I am not sure he does that same grimace for flies. But it is something to see: one hundred and ten pounds of shepherd askew and aloft around your deck chair with a toothy grin, spitting dead wasps. He seems annoyed that I don’t get up and take a few out myself. The other two dogs laze in the sun and frankly think he has lost his mind. He is an expert catch though. And it is odd that he will take a live wasp so wildly in his mouth when he approaches an offered piece of toast with utmost care, pulling it ever so gently to the ground and giving it the textural analysis, the highly tuned doggy nostril go-over before deigning to eat it. We give him odd foods sometimes just to see the act, to find out what he will reject. If you toss him a mulberry he will catch it like a master juggler and lay it softly on the ground unruptured, its purple berriness intact. Toss a small round of meat and it is swallowed in the air. Nose or tongue, I don’t know the details of the method, but I wish I could do it.
Molly was at the vet’s office on the Monday after the weekend of her wild freedom. Someone took her into their home just a short two hundred yards from our own house through the woods beyond the water tower. She may have spent all of two hours out in the weather. One tenth of the time I spent driving and calling and looking for her. “She was the friendliest dog.” The kind man said when he dropped her at the vet’s address that was displayed on her collar. When I brought her back into our care at the office early that morning my wife choked and fell on her like her soul was reforming. She pounded on her and hugged her until they both squeaked.
A friend brought his new dog to my office today to show her to me. His last dog died of old age recently. And this is the kind of human that considers life without any dogs as a deficiency to be quickly remedied. This was a rescue animal as all mine are. As all his are. She failed in her training as a handicapped helper dog. Not the seeing-eye kind but the fetch-and-fully assist variety. Supposedly these dogs must learn over eighty commands to function as companions for the disabled. She could only take in about sixty. I think my own dogs know about three commands. Mine know many, many important words (chewy, bed, bad, bowl, water) but out-and-out commands are another thing altogether. Anyway, Murphy was a sweetheart, soft and golden colored. I would have taken her home myself. I want them all. But one must be careful. The lady who turned her over refused to use the term ‘failed’ to describe what happened to her. She told her new owner she was ‘making a career change.’ And she was certainly correct. Though they all help the handicapped to one degree or another.
Molly watches the squirrels in the trees outside her fence like she is planning on publishing a paper on them. She scans the tall tree trunks and has superb eyesight. I don’t think the Red Dog can see them. Cataracts or something. But if Molly bounds down the stairs with the ‘squirrrrelllllll’ battle cry then he barrels after her along with the Big Dog in a stair stomping frenzy. They all go to look. Every time, over and over. I think some of them are false alarms but I always look over and up if I am sitting outside with the gang. (I don’t run down into the leaves, but it is tempting.) So far the Fox Squirrels have never ventured into the boundaries of the fence since we moved here. I assume all squirrels have some inherent dog knowledge after all these thousands of years of coexistence. Certainly they understand boundaries. The locals at my mountain definitely do. This is fortunate, because Molly will take on anything. On a dark night before we moved to the mountain my wife took her out into a rainstorm as I sat comfortably inside with my excuse (I forget what it was that time). I heard a scream—a true Hollywood scream. Not something I hear from my wife that often. It got me up. She was already back to the door as I came to open it.
“She killed a possum.”
“A possum. I think it is dead. I tried to stop her.”
I looked out in the stormy darkness of the yard.
“It is over there by the fence corner. Go see if it is a goner.”
I walked over to where I could see some lumpen shadow on the grass. It was truly laid out. Its eye glistened, wide open. It’s tongue lolled. I thought I could see just a trace of blood around its rattish muzzle. Its fur was all rain-soaked and it looked really bedraggled. Though, I admit, possums rarely look perky and groomed on any given day. Poor guy, I thought, and I worked around to the tail end and gently reached down to take its scaly tail tip in my fingers.
I jumped. The tongue was still lolling. But it did not move otherwise. I touched the flank again.
Hmm. The rain kept falling on us both. I walked back to the kitchen.
“Is it dead?” she asked, holding her face in her hands. Her voice broke. “Oh, I tried to stop her, she is just so strong. And then she had it and it was over, just like that.” She almost cried for the thing.
I looked at her, sympathetic. “I don’t think it is dead.”
“I don’t think it is even hurt much.”
“I think it is playing possum.”
When I went back out it was gone. Molly whined at the windows for hours.
She chases beetles and bees. Molly has never seen a snake that I know of. Birds are fair game though she is mystified by the flight of the things. She understands a miracle when she sees one. The Red Dog has deciphered the bird miracle. He accepts it. He still will chase a meadowlark or a lingering crow at full speed, though he knows the disappointing ending. Again, the benefits of experience, tinted with lingering hope. In his next life, he knows, he will be a raven or a hawk.
Found a small mutt outside the front door recently, waiting right next to my truck like a little hitcher. I was headed to work. His collar was intact. He let me lift him up and examine it. He was shivering in the cold. We phoned the number and his owner came over to get him. She didn’t seem as relieved as I was to find Molly. I don’t know if all dogs have the same life as mine do. I don’t quite understand it if they don’t.
In the bedroom, the warm house, they fall around like cards. There is something significantly soothing about this decoration of sleeping beasts. The catch of breath and deep sighs of the Big Dog. The Red Dog racing rabbits in that dream again and again. Oh, for my electro-encepholographic videoscope of the future world that attaches to the sleeping doggy head. I could watch the goings on, the rabbit chases, the crows that don’t make it quite in time, black feathers flying, the dog food of the netherworld. I might be surprised to see my ownself collared and catching kibble in the videoscopic dreamworld. But no, that is just me projecting. He loves me. They all love me. It seems a given.
Supposedly the bigger dogs don’t live as long. A patient recently came in after losing his one hundred and twenty pound Doberman suddenly and without warning and told me this sad fact. His dog was ten years old. The Big Dog is five. I know I need more than five more years from him. Though being Big is one of his endearing qualities. He was only nine pounds in weight when I found him under that bridge so seemingly long ago. Malnourished and hairless as I have said, one or two days from death. It is all gravy I suppose when puppyhood is like that. He looks just tremendous now in the winter moonlight. He cocks his head when I ask where we are headed to. When we moved to the mountain recently he came back from my parents home where he had to live for two years. He had accepted my father as the new way of the world. Life goes on, he thought, these other humans just did not want me. He slept near my father and they kept each other company outside in the yard. Big Dog never forgot us. And when we came over to visit and then left again and again, my father told us afterward, each time, Big Dog would look for us in the house for days. When we took him back permanently he had a short depression and spent most of his time looking for my father outside the window. He stopped eating for about a week. He rested his head on his paws near the front door and frequently raised his head to listen. When I know my father is coming now to visit, I can just tell him in a normal voice that ‘Papa is coming’ and he will go wait by the door for his next best buddy. I think one of his great puzzlements is why we two legged alphas must break up the packs all over the world. Can’t we all just get along?
The Red Dog has some discernible slowing in the joints. Like me. He creaks some days and truly ponders the stairs before going up them for any old minor reason. He will follow a human up. He will come up with me. I am always grateful. He also has to ponder the great jump up onto the bed now and he tries to position himself carefully so he can launch from a rug with a good run. Sometimes he misses and slips back pitifully to the unquilted earth. Generally I try to foresee these things, these geriatric moments and lift him carefully up. He will only stay in the bed if I or my wife is in the room. Otherwise he will lie where he must in the orbital range of one of us, the electron to our needy nuclei.
I am not sure now that the Red Dog did not open the gate that weekend of freedom for Molly. “Go on fool, go see the big world. You’ll be back. Don’t worry. Oh, and I’ll watch your food for you while you’re gone.” I think Molly would go again anyway. It takes a few trips, I suppose. She has no map in her head. She just chases the joy off the end of her nose. And so far she just understands that you go until you can and then some other human brings you to the place where you get your teeth cleaned and then you go back to your warm home. I suppose that some dog could learn cynicism but not the ones I own.
In my chair in the darkened room I drowse. Scotch in a wine glass, the stars in the window shifting like God’s vertigo, slight breezes moving the lights around behind the shadows of the tall oaks. A nose presses up into my chest and the eyes stare from beneath my arm. It is a head wanting attention. A life without dogs is not a life. A shame the world does not understand this. I want to give those children in Darfur puppies. Hand delivered. Though I know they need food more than new animals to feed. In the starving and dark world dogs are food. Those children need security more. A roof more. A puppy seems like a start toward happiness here in my pampered world where I always sleep with my belly full. Could I be more of a fool? The sheltered and delusional alpha dog? The world comes at you wherever you are. We are sometimes bad at taking it into the head.
Another friend’s mother has three dogs. She has two shepherds that survived the long hours of storm wind that was Hurricane Katrina. She went down to get a small lap dog and came back with two full grown herding dogs. (God love her.) I saw them over the holidays. I went out to the garage to give them some nose rubs. It was quiet there and cold. What the dogs wanted most in the world was to go inside and run wild through all the humans milling about. They could hear the great gathering of the pack and they were not invited. I felt for them. Almost unleashed them myself. But life was looking up overall despite this. Despite the setback of that evening. They wanted in and I wanted out. We pacified each other in our crossed purposes.
In my next life I will have a fine coat and shining eyes. Come on, let’s give it to the Buddhists. Let’s let them be right. At least let them have one of the parallel universes. In one great slash of all those galaxies Buddha can be the man (if he isn’t anyway) and reincarnation can be the way of the world. I can be a home bound dog in the arms of some lovely homeowner. I can be a wolf, a fox, a wild hyena. On many days this seems like the right course of things, me wailing out there in the black African night. Ten years as a wild dog. How many years is that worth in the urban world of get-what-you-can humans? The market fluctuates wildly on this equation. Today I’ll take the dog years. Tomorrow I will sleep in the room with the Big Dog’s head rubbing me awake. The day after, I will be the head being rubbed. Let me be large and fleet. Let me be well tuned to the world. I want to chase deer and rabbits. I want to be the thing that squirrels tremble at. Let me search through the varied episodes of freedom for the flavor I love. With a black nose, large paws and a woo that wakes the neighbors over and over from the soft delusions of their dreams. Let me run like the Big Dog and never recover from the running. Let me stand in the moonlight and know the difference between the dream and the dark. And let me howl it all out whenever I want like the big news of the newborn who sings that ragged, raucous truth that just can't seem to stay.