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       Penny, p.10

           Hal Borland
 
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Then it was nine o’clock, and we got in the car and came home to the farm. Just to be coming home. And not have to chase a dog that was chasing cows. Not have to put a leash on a dog to take her out to the little brooder house for the night. Not have to get up at midnight and try to quiet her down after some idiot drove past with his radio blatting.

  We came home and put the car away, and as we were walking across the lawn toward the front steps Barbara caught my hand and gripped it very hard. She didn’t say a word. We stopped at the foot of the steps, and still she didn’t say anything. Then she let go of my hand and reached into her pocket for a face tissue.

  We went up onto the porch and I held the screen door for her. But she didn’t go in. She turned and looked at the starlight in the sky to the east, and at the river beyond the road, and at the winking starlight in the river. She reached for my hand again and said, “She did come for my birthday. The day before my birthday.”

  “Six months ago tomorrow.”

  We came into the house, into the living room. I flicked on the lights and she looked at the bench against the wall. “Oh, the rug! Would you put it in the dryer? It’ll be dry by morning.”

  When I came back we went upstairs and to bed. Lights out, I said, “You miss her, don’t you?”

  “Umm, yes. Don’t you?”

  “Nuts to Penny.”

  She laughed.

  “What’s funny?”

  “You.”

  She was silent several minutes, then asked, “You don’t suppose she can find her way back, do you?”

  “Back here?”

  “Yes.”

  “Of course she can, if she wants to. Penny can go anywhere she wants to, blindfolded. She has a built-in radar, or something.”

  “There are ways to jam radar, aren’t there?”

  “Not the kind she has. Hers is more like ESP.”

  “All women,” she said, “have that, to some degree.”

  And we let it go at that.

  Eleven

  Penny didn’t come back here the next day, or the next week. We began to relax. But I still found myself listening for her out at the watering trough or in the pasture every afternoon, and in the morning I had to check myself from going out to open the brooder house while the coffee was perking. I noticed, too, that Barbara went to the front door from time to time, glanced out at the porch, then turned away almost guiltily. And when she crossed the living room she stayed far enough away from the bench against the wall so she wouldn’t step on the foot or tail that wasn’t there. Down at the lake we would sit on the deck and she would stare off into space, then turn to me with a quick smile and ask, “Don’t you want to go for a sail?” Then catch herself and laugh. “You have been out, haven’t you? I must have been daydreaming.”

  Toward the end of the second week, when we came home from the lake she stood in the dooryard and turned and looked across the road at the river. “Isn’t it peaceful? I’d almost forgotten how peaceful it really is here.”

  We came up onto the porch. “Some people,” she said, “can’t stand the quiet, I guess. They have to shout and create an uproar.”

  “People?”

  “Well, people too.” Then she asked, “Why couldn’t she have settled down and enjoyed it here? Was she bored, or what?”

  I hadn’t any answer, but after a moment’s silence I said, “Why don’t you call Sybil?”

  “I don’t want to be a softie, but—”

  “I’d like to know, too. Go ahead and call her.”

  She made the call while I went out to the garden and picked ripe tomatoes and late lettuce for a salad supper. She had just hung up when I came back in.

  “Penny’s all right,” she announced. “She hasn’t run away once. They still haven’t found a home for her, but I’m not at all sure they really tried. Sybil kept saying what a good dog she is and how much her husband likes her. Sybil said she admires Penny. Maybe you can admire a show dog, but does anyone admire a house dog? Well, anyway, she is eating well and gets along with the other dogs. She and Abby haven’t chewed each other up, at least. Sybil says Penny is very much the individual and doesn’t need the other dogs.”

  “But she’s still there,” I said. “And Sybil didn’t ask us to come take her back?”

  “No. But there’s something about it that I don’t understand. I can’t put my finger on it and I don’t think Sybil can. Penny doesn’t fit into the pattern up there, either, and I think Sybil is just as baffled as we were.”

  “Penny,” I said, reaching for something I didn’t really understand either, “is one of those dogs who are very amusing in retrospect, but hell on wheels while it is happening, if you know what I mean. Take the time she chased the ball in the living room. It seems very funny now.”

  “Not to me.”

  “I agree it wasn’t funny at the time, though any young dog probably would have done the same thing. But I can laugh at it now. I wonder if some of the other impossible things she did won’t seem funny in time.”

  “Chasing the cows?”

  “Well, no. But it was funny when she attacked the road sweeper. I can laugh at that now.”

  Barbara shook her head. “It’s something that goes deeper than mere clowning. Or even such an absurd stunt as attacking the sweeper. There’s something almost paranoid about that.… Anyway, it will be very interesting to hear what happens. Something will happen, you can be sure of that.”

  Two more weeks, and then one evening Sybil called us. I took the call. She didn’t even mention Penny at first. She asked how we were, she discussed the weather. Finally I asked, “How is Penny?”

  “Oh,” she said, with a transparent air of surprise that I even mentioned the subject, “she’s fine. Just fine. We got her a license. Yes, Bob fell for her, just as I thought he might. So we decided to keep her. What’s one more dog, with the pack we have around here?” She laughed, a rather forced laugh. “But she has been a little restless. Last week she kited off and was gone all day. As a matter of fact, she’s been gone all day today. You haven’t seen anything of her, have you?”

  “Not a sign.”

  “I didn’t think so. This is home to her now. She has just gone to see one of her friends down the road, probably, and forgot to come home. She’ll be back by morning. But if she should happen to—”

  “We’ll call you if she shows up here.”

  “Thanks.”

  We hung up, and I went to the front door to look out on the porch. Then, to make sure, I went outdoors and looked, walked around the house. When I came in I began to laugh.

  “What,” Barbara asked, “is so funny?” She had been upstairs while I took the call.

  “Penny,” I said. “And Sybil.” And I told her about the call.

  “Why were you laughing at Sybil just now?”

  “Just on general principles. She’s talking just the way we were talking six weeks ago.”

  We were alert all evening for that unmistakable sound on the front porch. When we went to bed I expected to be wakened at 2:00 A.M. by barking and scratching at the front door. I wasn’t. I slept till 5:30, as usual, then came downstairs in robe and slippers and looked out on the front porch before I made the coffee. No dog. I drank my coffee with a mixture of disappointment and relief. It did hurt, just a little, to think that Penny could forget us so completely. But I said nothing like that aloud, or even above the slightest whisper to myself.

  There was no sign of Penny all day. But just as we were eating supper that evening the phone rang. Barbara took the call, was gone five minutes and came back to the table with the word, “Relax. She’s home, at Sybil’s.” She sat down and told me what Sybil had said while she finished her supper.

  People six miles away phoned that afternoon and said Penny was at their house. They had traced her by her license tag. She was such a sweet dog, so well-mannered and affectionate, they almost wished she was theirs. Sybil asked if they wanted her for keeps, but they said they really couldn’t because they went south
in the winter and couldn’t take her. But she was welcome to visit them any time. So Sybil went and got her. “And,” Sybil said, “this I must tell you. Penny and Abby haven’t had any fights, but they have barely tolerated each other. But this afternoon when we brought her home, Abby went over to Penny and kissed her, nuzzled her with a real dog kiss. So she’s one of the gang now, and I think she will stay at home.”

  “Sybil said that?” I asked.

  “Word for word.”

  We looked at each other and began to laugh. Finally I asked, “What are you laughing at?”

  “Sybil. I think. What are you laughing at?”

  “You.”

  “All right, the things Penny does can be funny, in retrospect. Or when she pulls one on someone else. Remember the day they called us from the lime plant?”

  “We went and got her, and she was absolutely white with lime dust. Looked like she had fallen into a barrel of flour.”

  “And she wasn’t even living here. She’d gone back home.”

  “But still had our license tag. That’s how they traced her.”

  We laughed again.

  “Good old Penny.”

  “She’s not old.”

  “Old enough to know what she’s doing. Remember how she would sit on the porch or just stand in the yard, and look. Not at something, the way a normal dog does, at a leaf or a bird or a car, but just staring into space. You could almost see those little wheels going round in her head, thinking up some new deviltry. Maybe just a romp up the mountain, but even that meant a chance to wallow in every seep spring up there.”

  “Well, at least she went back to Sybil’s.”

  “They went and got her.”

  “She stayed up in that area.”

  “She didn’t want to come back down here.”

  “I suppose your feelings are hurt.”

  “I’m wounded to the quick. Let’s celebrate.”

  Mid-October came and the leaves reached the peak of their color here in the hills. The autumn wanderlust, restless counterpart of spring fever, made it hard to stay indoors or even at home. If I were a dog with an itchy foot, October is the time when I certainly would light out.

  I watched the front porch every morning, as soon as I got up. But she didn’t come. The air was balmy by day, frosty by night. There was brilliance in the trees, crispness underfoot. The air smelled of ripeness, of butternut hulls, of purple grapes that the possums fed on every night, of fermenting windfall apples, of minty bee balm at the roadside. Asters and bouncing Bet whitened the roadsides, and lavendered and purpled them, and in hidden, unexpected places the gentians spread their incredible blueness and faded. Flickers gathered in restless flocks. Milkweed floss spilled from the pods, thistledown was dragged from the heads by the goldfinches, and silvered the breeze and went shimmering off toward the horizon. Bittersweet berries split their tan husks and shone in their orange brightness. ’Coons were busy in the cornfields every night, cottontails were all over the place, woodchucks were waddly with fat stored for their long winter sleep. Ruffed grouse, which we simply call “birds,” feasted in the wild barberry tangles, and when you walked in the woods they flew from underfoot with a roar that startled you half out of your wits. Foxes were abroad every night and occasionally in the autumn-misted dawn.

  As I said, if I were a dog I would have to get out and go when the year reaches that point. As a man, I had to go and look at the far side of a few hills. So we went, driving the back roads and the country lanes whenever we could. But we kept well away from Sybil’s area. If Penny was out autumn-wanderlusting, we didn’t want to cross her path. So we went on one-day trips all through the superb days of Indian summer. Then it turned dour and wet. The rain brought down most of the leaves. We stayed at home till the sky cleared, then made one more excursion to see the far horizon, which is so much wider after the leaves have fallen. Then we went over to the lake and closed things up for the winter, and here at the farm we did all the autumn chores and, in a sense, began to snug in for the winter. We had firelight evenings, the time when country folk are glad they have four walls, a pantry, a root cellar and a woodpile. We began to settle into the annual status of indoor people, though we probably wouldn’t have more than a light snow until after Thanksgiving, with luck not till after Christmas.

  The week of Thanksgiving a letter came from Sybil.

  “Just a report,” she wrote. “I thought you might like to know how Penny is doing. Well, she is doing pretty much as she pleases. But we get along. I guess I didn’t tell you, but she had an encounter with a porcupine. She found one back in our woods and, being Penny, had to try to scare it off. You know porkies. Penny got a whole mouthful of quills. We had to take her to the vet and he knocked her out to get all the quills, and kept her overnight. She came home cocky as ever, but she did have a sore mouth for a few days and was picky about her eating. But she learned a lesson. She’s smart. She hasn’t got into a porcupine since, though she has been out in the woods several nights. That’s the way she is. She decides she isn’t going to stay here, so she goes somewhere. She comes home when she feels like it. Or we go and get her. By now, folks know her for ten or twelve miles around. She goes and visits them, and when they get tired of her they call us. And I’ll have you know that now she has a pass on the school bus. If she’s out somewhere and wants to come home, she waits at a school bus stop and gets on when the bus comes along. The driver knows her, and so do the kids. They bring her right to our driveway.

  “I could go on and on about her. There’s only one black mark against her. She doesn’t like my cat. They don’t actually fight, but Penny doesn’t like cats and that’s that. On the other hand, she does like our big white rabbit. You know how she chases cottontails. Well, the other day, when Penny was home, she was asleep on her blanket in the kitchen, and the white rabbit was let loose in there. It’s the rabbit’s kitchen too, of course. Well, Penny sensed it, I guess, because she opened one eye and saw this big white creature, and looked again, practically bug-eyed. She sat up, and then she went over to the rabbit, and the rabbit just twitched its nose and stared back. And Penny practically said, Hello, I’m glad to know you. The rabbit waggled its ears and Penny almost smiled. Then she went back and lay down and went to sleep. So maybe it evens out, cat and rabbit.

  “I could go on and on, but I won’t. I admire Penny. She’s a free soul. She’s going to live life the way she wants it, and that’s that. Right now she’s gone for the day, but she’ll be back. Tonight or tomorrow. Probably tonight she’ll come and bark under my window, and I’ll get up and let her in. Come up and see us. Let me know ahead of time and I’ll make sure she’s here.… Sybil.”

  We read the letter through and Barbara said, “It’s fascinating for what she doesn’t say.”

  “I wish Penny would write and tell us her side of the story.”

  “I know what Penny would say.”

  “What?”

  “She would say, ‘Life is really good. I’ve found someone who lets me do exactly as I please. I would anyway,’ she would say, ‘but it’s nicer when people don’t make a fuss and try to force me to live by rules.’”

  “Penny wants to make the rules.”

  “If there have to be rules, yes.… I think I understand what Sybil means when she says she admires Penny. Deep down, most of us would like to make the rules. Or ignore them. Some of the time at least.”

  “Who makes these rules?”

  “Society. Civilization, I suppose. Society demands that you follow patterns. Otherwise there would be chaos, anarchy.”

  I agreed. There are times when most of us feel like rebelling, especially when we are young. Before we have settled, or been forced, into the mold of conformity. The ideal, of course, would be a world where no rules are needed, and that is the Utopian dream, basically. The trouble, of course, is that before long a new set of rules emerges, based on the tenet: Thou shalt not obey the old rules. And there goes Utopia, in another code of “Thou shalt’s.”


  “That’s a fine theory,” I said, “the make-your-own-rules idea. But it doesn’t make the rule-maker easy to live with.”

  “That,” Barbara said, “is one of the rules that have to be broken right at the start—‘Thou shalt be easy to live with.’ Break that one, and go on from there with an easy conscience. Penny obviously does.”

  “And comes out where?”

  “A free soul, as Sybil says. Sybil doesn’t know what to do about that either. We tried, and we couldn’t find the answer. Sybil admires her and lets her go her own way. Maybe that’s the answer.”

  December passed with just enough snow to cover the ground. After Christmas, January brought a storm that left two-foot drifts and subzero temperatures. Not the kind of weather that invites even restless dogs to go wandering. We wondered if Penny had settled in and become a tractable house dog, but we had no word from Sybil and we didn’t call to ask. As the weeks passed, our concern for Penny lost its intensity. She had a home where she was cosied and cared for, and she had people who admired, and tolerated, her independence. She evidently had friends all over that area who welcomed her whenever she went visiting. She was a privileged individual. We were only a couple of people she had known in passing, you might say: acquaintances, good to know. So the ties of affection were loosened in us and began to fall away.

  February was blustery, as usual, and March came in like the proverbial lion. But soon after the vernal equinox it quieted down to the lamblike temper that can make an occasional New England spring a delightful surprise. Usually we have little or no spring; we go from late winter right into summer, with maybe a couple of mild days between. But this year the tree frogs were yelping by the last week in March, the pussy willows were fat and furry, and the migrant robins were back in our pastures, great flocks of them, and the redwing blackbirds ka-reed from the trees along the river. Spring’s outriders arrived and we welcomed them with open arms. A benevolent April is an event here. We don’t so much expect April showers to bring May flowers; we only hope April showers won’t turn into sleet storms or snow, and we expect the May flowers to take care of themselves. They always do, even though we nearly always have hard frost right up till the end of the month. We have had snow in May, and we have had killing frost the first week in June.

 
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