The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.1Hal Borland
The Dog Who Came to Stay
The one woman in Pat’s life and in mine
THE DOGS CAME ON Christmas night and were even more unwelcome than the weather, which had turned windy and wild with sleety snow riding the gale. We expect snow up here in the hills by Christmas, but we don’t expect strange dogs to drop in, especially in the winter.
It was our first winter on the farm in this part of the upper Housatonic Valley called Weatogue. It lies in the edge of the Berkshires, in the extreme northwest corner of Connecticut; the Massachusetts line is only a little more than a mile up the road, and New York State is only a couple of hills and valleys to the west. Both north and south of us are summer vacation areas but, thanks to Yankee stubbornness, this remains a rural valley of working farms. Albert, our nearest neighbor, is a dairy farmer who lives a long half-mile down the road. Charley, another dairyman and our neighbor up the road, lives a mile away. From where we live, there isn’t another house in sight. But just over the hills to the east, five miles by winding road but close enough by crowflight that we can often hear its church bells, is the old village of Canaan. Salisbury village, equally old, is five miles to the south of us.
So we live here in the privacy of pastureland, mountainside, and river. The Housatonic flows just beyond the dooryard, and Tom’s Mountain, a rugged, rocky knob on a long ridge of timbered ledges, rises abruptly a few hundred yards behind the house, just beyond the strip of pastureland.
We own a hundred acres “more or less,” as the deed says cautiously. Its boundaries are stated in terms of stone walls, big oak trees and certain large rocks, all of which may or may not still be there, for the terms of the deed date back to the eighteenth century. I have been able to identify only a few of the landmarks, and at least a dozen are listed. The outlines of this property seem to resemble the random scissor work of a five-year-old trying to cut a five-point star from a sheet of paper with dull scissors. But it really doesn’t matter, to us. We came here to live with the land, not off it, and such boundaries are not too important.
We came here in July, and we had little more than settled in before fall was upon us. Fall was long and mild, as New England autumns so often are. It came with frosty nights in September, it flamed into the October glory of the woodlands, and it eased into the blue skies and wide horizons of November. Two light, fluffy snows fell, barely enough to whiten the grass and hold for a few hours the tracks of cottontails, gray squirrels, a fox or two, and a herd of deer. Thanksgiving was shirt-sleeve mild. Early December was like a dividend from November and Christmas week arrived green, as we say. Actually it was brown and tan and gray, the brown and bare cornfields, the tan of sere pastures, the silvery gray of naked maples. The only green was in the pines and hemlocks that clothe the upper half of the mountain.
The day before Christmas Barbara said we should have some green in the house. “Our own greenery.” So we went part way up the mountain and brought back a small white pine, an armload of hemlock boughs, and a few handfuls of ground cedar and partridge berry.
Christmas morning we sat in front of the open fire in the Franklin stove and opened the gifts that had come by mail. The little tree in the corner of the living room winked with lights and tinsel balls. Hemlock boughs with big red bows hung in the windows. The bookcases were festooned with ground cedar and strands of partridge berry. Just outside the house, making the whole place look like a Christmas card, stood the giant Norway spruce, bigger than any municipal tree ever hauled in from the far hills.
We opened the gifts and had toast and coffee in front of the fire, and we felt snug and content. We were two writers who had been wanderers and had now begun to put down roots. Barbara, a native New Englander, had been a city girl much of her life. I was a native Westerner who grew up in the country but had worked in city offices for years before I quit a daily desk job. We had come here from two suburban acres and a house with neighbors just beyond the dooryard.
I said I wished there were a lot of pretties for Barbara that Christmas, and I promised that there would be next Christmas. She said she wished there were boots and guns and fishing tackle for me, and made promises too. Then we looked around us and she said, “We’ve got the important gifts, both of us, right now. The river, the mountainside—this whole place! And we’re almost well again.”
That was the best gift of all, health. Earlier that year I had several months of critical illness, and the strain of that time almost put Barbara in the hospital too. But it wasn’t a “carrying-off disease,” as we said, and when I began to recover we decided to simplify our lives and get back to enduring things, to the land. So we bought this place, packed up our typewriters and moved.
I sat on the floor, that morning, feeding the Christmas wrappings into the fire, and Barbara salvaged gay ribbons, and we laughed at the memory of the warnings of our urban friends. They had said this place was as isolated as Patagonia, practically a primitive area, and that we would get cabin-fever in the winter, if we survived. They had their wry amusement, but we had our own answers. The place is a hundred-odd miles from New York City; but even in the suburbs we went to the city only occasionally. We wouldn’t miss the city. The house is snug and equipped with all essential utilities, most of them stormproof; it is in no sense primitive living. As for isolation, a writer needs privacy. And winter can get tiresome anywhere, but there is both beauty and excitement in a rural winter. We saw few hazards and many advantages. I grew up in the country, far more primitive country than this, so we weren’t exactly babes in the New England woods.
We were reviewing all this and telling ourselves that we had chosen wisely in making the move, when a car drew up and a big man in dungarees, denim jacket and red winter cap came to the door. It was Charley, our neighbor from up the road. I went to the door and he shouted, “Merry Christmas!” and came in and looked around. “Well!” he exclaimed. “You went up on the hill and got yourself a tree.”
“We went up as far as the pines,” I said. “Both of us.”
“You couldn’t have got that far when you first came here,” Charley said as he sat down. “By next fall you’ll be out getting your own venison. I got me a fat doe yesterday. You like venison?”
I said, “Yes. But it’s been a long time.”
“I’ll bring you a couple of steaks.” He turned to Barbara. “Venison’s a dry meat. Fry it in plenty of butter and don’t cook it too long. That makes it tough.” He turned back to me. “If we had a good rabbit dog we’d go out after rabbits. My Poochy’s a good coon dog, but no good on rabbits. Maybe you’ll get a rabbit dog.”
“Maybe.” A dog didn’t fit into our plans. We had begun to put down roots, but no telling when an editor would ask us to go to some far place on an assignment. Then what would we do with a dog, if we had one? No need to go into that with Charley, though.
“I’ve got a dog up at the house,” Charley was saying, “that used to be one of the best rabbit dogs around. But he’s old and half blind now. Just lies in back of the kitchen stove and sleeps. Frank Snyder’s old dog.” He paused for a moment. “We buried Frank day before yesterday. He asked us to look
Frank Snyder once owned this farm, but I never met him. He sold the place some years back and was only a name to me. I had heard that he was old and sick but I didn’t know that he had died. Charley’s wife, Elitha, was related to the Snyders and had been raised by Frank and his wife.
Charley talked about him, about the years when the Snyders lived here and about the transient marks any man leaves on the land. The stone walls in the pastures and on the mountain were laid up long before Frank Snyder was born, since the white man’s taming of this valley began in 1738; but he stripped one pasture wall for stones to make a foundation for the big chicken house. He kept open several roads up the mountain and farmed a few fields up there; but now the roads were gullied and overgrown and the old mountainside fields were thickets of gray birch, white ash and sumac. Like others before him, he tapped the big maples just across the road from the house and made syrup and sugar; but the holes he bored for the spiles had long ago healed to faint scars on the rough gray bark.
“He used to fish,” Charley finally said, “and he used to hunt foxes up on the hill. But I guess the pickerel and the foxes have forgotten him by now. That’s the way it goes.”
He stood up to leave, but he paused long enough to ask, “Do you think a man’s dog knows when he dies?”
I hesitated, thinking of the white collie.
Charley didn’t wait for an answer. “The day Frank Snyder died,” he said, “his dog howled. Twice. Right there in the kitchen. Even before we got word. Hasn’t been a yelp out of him since.” He shook his head, puzzled.
We went out onto the porch. “Warm for this time of year,” I said.
“Too warm. And we need snow.” He glanced at the sky. “But weather’s breeding. If the wind shifts, we’ll get a storm tonight.”
The wind shifted early that afternoon. We went for our daily walk up the road about three o’clock, and before we turned back the wind had a bite. It gusted up the valley and stung our faces, and before we reached the house there was a spit of sleety snow in the air. By dusk pellet snow rattled at the windowpanes. We ate supper and sat by the fire and read for a time and went to bed early, thankful for a warm house. The storm was still building up.
It was around midnight when I wakened. I lay listening to the beat of the storm, which rattled the windows, swished in the maples and moaned in the giant spruce. Then I heard the sound that had awakened me. A dog howled, close beside the house.
A dog howling in the night, any night but particularly a stormy winter night, can raise my hackles. It’s a primitive sound, a wail right out of the wilderness. I lay and listened, and hoped it wouldn’t waken Barbara. Then I heard her sharp intake of breath and she asked in a tense whisper, “What’s that?”
“The wind,” I suggested, hoping the dog wouldn’t howl again. But it did.
“It’s a dog!” Then, “Or a wolf?”
“A dog. Just a dog.”
“I don’t know. Some dog going down the road.”
Silence for a long moment. Then she whispered, “It’s Mr. Snyder’s dog.”
“No. Charley wouldn’t let a dog out on a night like this.”
But, to reassure her, I got out of bed and went to the window. I couldn’t see a thing. The wind wailed in the maples and the air was icy. But I stood there at the window for a minute or two, thinking of Frank Snyder. A man and his dog. The dog didn’t howl again and I went back to bed.
“Whatever it was,” I said, “it’s gone now.”
“It was his dog,” Barbara murmured, already drifting back to sleep. I listened to her regular breathing, but I lay awake. And I remembered the white collie.
As a boy I had a cross-bred sable collie named Fritz. I brought him home in my hat, he a puppy only a few weeks old, and he and I grew up together on the Colorado plains. Then I went away to college and I went to work and Fritz became my father’s dog. They were companions for five or six years, and the collie’s death was a deeper blow to my father than it was to me, for I was far away at the time.
Fritz had been dead almost twenty years when my mother sent word that my father was mortally ill. Barbara and I hurried half across the continent to the little Colorado plains town, and Father seemed to rally new strength for us though it was obvious that he didn’t have a chance. But we had an afternoon and evening with him, a happy time. Father was full of reminiscence and he spoke with special fondness of Fritz, the collie. About three o’clock the next morning my father died.
A little later, at the first streaks of dawn, Barbara and I set out on foot for the railroad depot to send telegrams. At the first corner of the sleeping town we were joined by a pure white collie. He came trotting up to us and licked my hand and walked beside me, just as Fritz had walked in my boyhood. He went to the depot with us and waited while we sent the messages and walked back to the house with us. At the front steps he hesitated, and when I looked again he was gone. I never saw him again.
Later that day I asked who in town had a white collie. My question met blank looks. There wasn’t a white collie in town, or any other pure white dog. And I asked no more questions. There are some things you don’t pursue too far.
I lay there, that Christmas night after the howling dog had wakened me, and I thought of Frank Snyder and his old dog, and I thought of my father and the white collie, and I listened to the storm. And finally I, too, went back to sleep.
At breakfast the next morning Barbara and I both asked the same question: “Was it a dream, or did a howling dog wake you up last night?”
No, it wasn’t a dream. We had both heard it. But in full daylight we could laugh about it, even as we wondered. You hear strange things in the night, and the darkness sometimes invests them with strange meaning. We spoke of Frank Snyder’s dog, and we dismissed it. Then I spoke of the white collie. Barbara remembered. And finally, to make sure, to clarify our minds and rule out imagination, I phoned Charley’s house. Elitha answered. “No,” she said, “it couldn’t have been the old dog. He was in the house all night. He’s here right now, sleeping behind the stove. … No, it couldn’t have been Poochy either. He’s been in all night too. It wasn’t a fit night out for man or dog. Today’s nothing to brag about either. I wish it would quit blowing and settle down and snow, if it’s going to.”
We hung up and I told Barbara what Elitha had said. Then, out of curiosity, I went to the front door. There was less than an inch of snow, and it was still blowing a gale, but maybe if I looked I could find tracks in some sheltered place around the house.
I stepped out onto the porch and there was a scurry in a corner. Two dogs scrambled past me and dashed down the steps. They fled around the house. All I saw was that one was black and the other was black and white.
I came back inside and Barbara and I watched from a window as the dogs skirted the woodshed and started across the pasture. The black one turned, looked at the house, lifted its head and howled. Then they went on across the pasture and into the brushy margin at the foot of the mountain.
“There,” I said, “is our night-howler.” And I went back to the porch and found the bare spot in the corner where they had lain, somewhat shielded from the storm, most of the night. Two strays who had wandered in from somewhere, found temporary shelter, and now had gone on.
Later in the morning Charley stopped in with a packet of venison chops. I described the dogs to him, one a long-haired black pup, apparently, the other a black and white spotted hound. “Both,” I said, “were rib-thin, starved.”
Charley shook his head. “No dogs like that around here. They must be strays. I hope they aren’t deer-chasers.”
The spitting snow stopped by mid-morning, but the wind continued raw and gusty. We bundled up for our afternoon walk, but we could face that wire-edged wind only about ten minutes. We turned back, and before we reached the house the snow was falling again, this time big, soft flakes
We came up the steps and there were the two dogs again. They had been huddled in the sheltered corner, as before, but when they heard us they leaped to their feet, stood shivering for a moment, then dashed past us, down the steps, around the house and across the pasture into the brush once more.
We came inside, and Barbara asked, “What are we going to do about them?”
“Do?” I said. “There’s nothing to do. They don’t belong to us.”
“They are hungry. And cold.”
“If we feed them they’ll settle down here and we’ll have a couple of dogs.”
“Someone should feed them. They must belong somewhere.”
“I thought you didn’t like dogs. Remember the big white ones?”
“Bears!” she exclaimed. “They were big as bears! These are—they’re just dogs. Dog-size dogs.”
Six weeks earlier I had left the car in the driveway till after dark one evening. When I went out to put it away in the garage two huge, shadowy creatures lumbered up to me, startling me in the darkness. They were Great Pyrenees, big as Newfoundlands and friendly as puppies. Their cream-colored coats were ghostly in the darkness. They came to me and I patted them, and I put the car away.
When I returned to the house they padded along with me, one on each side, and when I opened the door one of them pushed in ahead of me and went down the hallway and into the kitchen before I could get there. I shouted a warning, but too late. I give Barbara credit. She didn’t scream. But after I caught up with that great, shaggy creature and threw him out she said she thought it was a polar bear and didn’t know whether to stab it with a cooking fork or turn and run. I chased the big fellow out and he and his companion must have gone back to their owner in the village five miles away. We didn’t see them around here again.
“These,” she said now, “are just dogs.” And she went to the phone and called every house in the valley. Nobody had lost a dog. Nobody had ever seen the dogs she described.
The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes