The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.20Hal Borland
I didn’t know what to do. That whole pack of stray hounds hadn’t been able to break his spirit, though they mauled and chewed him unmercifully. But when Suzy went out of his life, Suzy, the spayed bitch from down the road, he became an old, dispirited shell of himself. The Pat I had known seemed to be dead.
I didn’t like it either.
CHARLEY STOPPED PAST AND told me quietly that he had had to have Poochy put away. Then he looked at Pat and said old Pat was showing his age and wondered cautiously if he would last out the winter. “Wheeze much?” he asked. “Poochy did, toward the end. Some kind of asthma, or something.” And Albert stopped in and said, “I wonder if that fight with the hounds took too much out of old Pat. Maybe it broke his spirit, getting chewed up that way.” Then he added. “But he’s no pup, after all. They get old.”
September passed. No, that’s not true. September never “passes,” here in the Berkshire hills. September comes and lives among us, unpredictably fretful or placid, benevolent or tantrumatic, and altogether winsome. Even the occasional whiplash of an errant hurricane can’t spoil September; it is human nature to cherish first-hand tales of devastation and disaster, and some Septembers have been both disastrous and devastating in New England. But when the hurricanes hold to their usual course, as they did that year, and leave our scarred hills to the mercy of less impatient elements, September is bounty and beauty, gold of goldenrod and purple of big New England asters. It isn’t October but, until October comes to dwell here and make us doubt the Puritan denial of grace to the warm-hearted and the warmblooded, September suffices.
Pat mourned and languished, but September came and dwelt on Tom’s Mountain and here in the valley, and we picked and shelled the last crop of limas and picked the peppers, cherishing those that had outrun the season and turned red as Southwestern chiles. We debated whether to bring in the butternut squash and the acorns or leave them hiding among the weeds until the first hard frost had blackened the tomato vines. September is always a time of debate, not so much from conviction as from temptation. When the sky is blue and deep we believe that fall will last till Christmas. When the sky turns surly and the wind comes down the valley with a stinger in its tail we put on windbreakers and corduroys and dig carrots and late onions and pick half-ripe tomatoes to squirrel away in the root cellar. And I wonder if the woodshed is sufficiently stowed for the long, cold nights. Then the stinger-wind passes and the sky is blue again. I dig worms. Barbara fetches the rods. We go out for a little fishing and a lot of looking and listening and just plain sensing. We leave the garden’s hostages to chance.
The blue-sky days came, that fall, and we went fishing and sensing. And Pat stayed home. For the first time, September meant nothing to him. It would have been easier, we told ourselves, if he hadn’t survived the battle with the hounds. Easier for us and probably easier for him. Grief and loneliness are grim companions, especially in the graying years of life. As Albert had said, Pat was no pup. “They get old.”
Then October came, with chilly nights and brisk days. I couldn’t stay indoors. I had to go and see the purpling of viburnum leaves and the deep flame of the cardinal flower and the lacquered scarlet of the jack-in-the-pulpit’s berry clusters. So I went, and Pat went part way up the mountainside with me, then turned and came back to the house, not even once yelping a rabbit scent. I went on alone, telling myself it didn’t matter, it didn’t matter at all. Dogs grow old, as men grow old, and Pat grew old before I did, being destined to a different time scale. For one reason or another, and the reasons are often obscure even to the one involved, life loses its savor. Man tames the beasts and links them to his own way of life, robbing them of the anodyne of fanged or taloned death before their prime has wasted into mere existence. Pat was old and life had become a full belly and a long nap and a gnawing emptiness of grief for something he couldn’t even understand. What did it matter?
But it mattered a great deal, and I knew it. Omnipotent man that I believed myself to be, in that empty human arrogance, there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. Except, when the time came, to take him to the vet and say, “Put him away. I haven’t got the guts or the humanity to do it myself.”
I wandered the mountainside, deep in the showering gold of maple and ash and birch, and I watched the squirrels choose unerringly the meaty butternuts from the meatless ones, and I was startled by the brrrrooom-ing of the partridges. I saw these things, and I came home to write down what I had seen and heard; but not what I felt, for the feeling wasn’t there. Don’t ask me why. It wasn’t Pat. It was me.
Then, one mid-October day, I was here in my study, at the typewriter, trying to capture the feeling that wasn’t in me, and I got up and went to the west window to stretch my legs and ease my eyes. Pat was here on the rug, and I stepped over him, and he didn’t even seem to notice. I went to the window and looked out across the pasture, and a movement caught my eye. Up there near the Resting Rock, that fragment of weathered ledge that reveals the nature of the mountain’s skeleton, old Gramp was out and feeding. Gramp was the big woodchuck that for a number of years had defied both Pat and me, as well as the natural hazards to woodchuck longevity. He was out there putting on that final layer of fat which would warm and nourish his minor flame of life during hibernation.
Maybe it was some inner need to vent my simmering anger, or maybe it was just the human blood-lust. I don’t know what. But I turned and hurried down the stairs to get a rifle. I went into the fishing-pantry and lifted the gun from its high pegs, and I heard the click of Pat’s claws in the hallway. He had somehow sensed my purpose and he had hurried down the stairs, scrambled on the bare floor, and now was whining toward me, ears alert, tail high. He saw the gun and leaped and dashed toward the doorway.
For a moment, as I made sure there were cartridges in the rifle’s magazine, I cursed inwardly at him. Dratted dog got all excited at the sight of a gun. Wanted to get out the door ahead of me and yelp and bark and tear off in circles in the pasture and tell everything in sight that I was coming with a deadly weapon. Damn! Pat was a nuisance, always had been, that way. Have to keep him in, latch the door behind me.
Then, on my way to the door, it struck me. Why, Pat was Pat! He was himself again! Thank the all-wise Lord!
I let him out ahead of me, not caring whether I got a shot at old Gramp or not. I let him out and he leaped and barked and dashed ahead of me around the house. I got one look at old Gramp, on his haunches staring at me a hundred and fifty yards off; then he was just a brown scurry in the tall grass, making for his den among the rocks in the edge of the brush.
I took one snap-shot in Gramp’s direction, more for Pat’s benefit than anything else. Pat yelped happily and dashed out across the pasture. I followed, urging him on.
Pat found the scent before I caught up. He found where old Gramp had been feeding, nosed here and there, yelping frantically, and finally traced it to the den. He tried to dig his way in, was balked by the rocks, but scratched away and sniffed and barked and challenged and defied.
I stood and watched, fascinated. This wasn’t Old Pat. This was Pat in his prime, Pat, the scourge of all the woodchucks in Weatogue Valley.
We spent twenty minutes there, and when we came back to the house Pat was puffing and tired, but his tail was high, his ears alert, his eyes gleaming. He licked my hand when I patted and praised him, and when we came inside he went to Barbara and practically demanded her praise, too. This was something entirely new. Then he turned away, seemingly abashed at his own exuberance, and lay down and licked his paws and pretended a blasé taciturnity.
That evening he came down the stairs when I summoned him, stiff but confident. When we went outdoors he sniffed the air, watched the mountain with alert eagerness and barked a time or two at some mysterious presence there or perhaps only at the starlight. The next morning when I let him out he rolled in the frost-crisp grass as he hadn’t done in weeks, and he got up and looked up and down the valley and went o
That was the turning point.
He ran the mountain with me again that fall, coursing rabbits. He hadn’t quite the stamina he used to have, and now and then he lost a scent and came back to me looking chagrined. Sometimes he seemed to say, “I don’t know what’s happened, Boss. Those rabbits haven’t as much scent as they used to have.” And I tried to tell him they weren’t as big as they used to be, either, and that my shotgun seemed to shoot a smaller pattern. I wished I had some way of telling him that it happens to all of us, that we wonder why people don’t speak as clearly as they used to, and why they are using smaller type in the newspapers than they did ten or fifteen years ago.
But Pat put up his share of rabbits, and I shot my share. And we had those magnificent November and early December days when the sky was distant cobalt and the oak leaves were Burgundy and the brooks were liquid laughter. The woods were ours again, the whole mountainside, the whole world of our valley. When the snow came, before it got too deep, I told him, we would go far up the mountain and see about those big white rabbits. Life was good. Pat knew that again.
But other changes, subtler ones, had been going on in Pat. Barbara saw them first. When I went to the village on an errand, he insisted on going outdoors to watch me go. Then he would wait on the porch, watching the road. If I was gone more than an hour he would begin to whine. He would demand that Barbara let him in the house, and once indoors he as much as asked her why I was gone so long. He was restless, wanting out, wanting in again. Then he would hear my car far down the road and begin to whine happily, and hurry to the door and want out. He would come to meet me, as though I had been away for days, and he would accompany me into the house, demanding my attention, my greeting, a touch of my hand. Then he would settle down, content. And if we both went and were gone even half a day, he came to meet us far down the road, raced to the garage to greet us when we arrived, and was beside himself with pleasure at our return. His people.
I noticed a new and more open fondness for Barbara. I was still his man, but now she was his woman. She had been my woman, and Pat liked her and protected her; but the relationship was through me. Now it was independent of me. He wanted her affection, needed it, somehow. And got it. She talked to him, and he listened. When there was a specially tasty bone or juicy tidbit, she gave it to him in person. She had always loved him. Now he accepted that love, returned it. As I say, she became his woman.
Remembering Mike, we had wondered if Suzy had filled a need in Pat for a dog companion. Perhaps he had that need, and perhaps he had finally transferred that feeling, whatever it was, to us. Both of us. It had taken a long time, but there it was now, complete.
With that security, if I may reach over into a dubious area of psychology in discussing him, Pat resumed some of his earlier ways. I couldn’t spend all my days roaming the mountain with him, even though I might have wished to, and when I was at my own work Pat often went on his own excursions. Not up on the mountain, but up and down the valley. He was the canine patriarch of the valley now. Poochy, old and ailing and finally helpless and miserable, had been mercifully put away. Teddy was long gone. Suzy was gone. Charley, like Albert, had a new pup. But Charley’s pup as well as Albert’s would have to live here a long time yet to own the valley, if they ever would own it.
Pat made his tours of his own domain. He went up to visit Charley, now and then, and to greet Elitha if she appeared. He never stayed, Charley said; just came and passed the time of day and told the pup that he still had a lot to learn. He went down to visit Albert and Ruth now and then, and to bristle in distant but sufficient recognition of Cubby’s declaration of local sovereignty. But again, he never stayed more than a few minutes. He went on down the valley. Sometimes, on my way to the village, I saw him two miles from home, trotting along the roadside with that blandly proprietary air, making no show of either friendship or hostility to wayside dogs whom he must have known from previous years. He would hear my car, turn and look, wag his tail at me in recognition but totally without any interest in a ride, wait till I had passed, then continue on his way.
The snows came in late December. They came with some depth, enough to make my promised trip far up the mountain to look for snowshoe rabbits too arduous for either Pat or me. We prowled the pastures and the lower woodland from time to time, he investigating the state of the cottontail population, I watching for the tracks of the red fox that had been barking the moonlit hillside all fall. One day I found where the fox had walked one of the rails of the railroad track for nearly half a mile. There were his prints in the three inches of fresh snow on the rail, showing how he had fallen off three times but had persisted and finally had kept his balance several hundred yards without a slip. Pat couldn’t understand why I was so interested in those tracks or that evidence of fox bravado, or whatever it was. He came and sniffed the tracks and as much as said, “I know that old bush-tail. He’s been around several years.” And he wandered off, looking for another rabbit.
The snow stayed on the ground. More snow came. The cold deepened. We both stayed indoors, and I wondered if Pat’s blood might have begun to thin out. I thought he might wish to stay indoors at night, here in the warm house. But no, he still preferred his own bed, fresh air and all. Even with the wind roaring a gale and the snow coming down in eider blankets, he said that he wanted to be taken out to his own house. And was taken. And when I waded, knee-deep, to open his door in the morning, he came lunging out to wallow in the drifts like a porpoise in the sea, and to roll and slither and leap to his feet and bark his greeting to a new day. Pat still liked winter and snow.
But winters pass. March came, and then April, and the redbirds were whistling and the ducks were on the river and the robins stalked the pastures and the redwings ka-reed in all the boglands. Pat prowled the pastures for early woodchucks, and we planted peas, and all three of us got muddy to the knees. May, and the violets were in bloom, the columbines in bud, the house wrens were building half a dozen nests at a time and singing as though theirs were the total responsibility for this world’s song.
The boat was in the water. The vegetable garden was planted and the first crop of weeds hoed out. The flower beds were not yet the tangle of perennials and quack grass and dubious volunteer seedlings that makes me feel guilty if I take an hour off. And the worms were teeming in the lower end of the garden.
We went fishing. Pat went along.
Barbara caught a fifteen-inch brownie up by the island. I couldn’t buy so much as a nibble. Pat was so exuberant he swam the river three times. Then I found a school of big, hungry perch and began to haul in the fish, and now Barbara couldn’t even get a nibble, But she sat and jeered at me because I hadn’t caught a trout. It was a wonderful afternoon to be alive and on the river.
Pat swam the river a fourth time and I said, “What does he think he is? A muskrat?” Then he waded along the shallows near the shore, frightening green frogs and nesting ducks and getting muddy as a catfish. “I can see right now,” Barbara said, “that he’ll have to be scrubbed before he can come in the house. That black mud is like tar, and we’ve just washed the rugs!” I said, “I’ll take the rugs up. No house,” I said, “especially a house in the country, should have rugs on the floor in the spring. Next thing, you’ll make me take off my shoes before I come in.” And she said, “Good idea.”
It was an afternoon for laughter.
We fished, and we sensed, and we laughed with spring on the river, and we caught more fish than we needed. Then we started for home. Barbara insisted that I must weigh her brownie before I cleaned it. I promised. We stopped at a bank blue with wild forget-me-nots and I edged the boat in and I picked a bouquet, since they are Barbara’s favorite flower. Except for violets, and apple blossoms, and columbines, and baby dahlias, and anemones and most of the others. That day, at least, they were her favorites.
We eased on dow
I was almost through cleaning fish when I heard Pat howl. It was a pain howl. Then there was silence. I waited and listened. I heard him again. He was barking now, and howling too. The “Where are you Boss” barking. Somewhere up the river.
I hurried toward the house. Barbara had come out on the porch. “Isn’t that Pat?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. “I’m going up and see what’s wrong.” She urged, “Hurry!”
I loped down to the float, pulled the cover back just enough to get in, cast off, jerked the starter rope and gunned the motor. I went roaring upstream, shouting as I went. Pat heard me and answered, his yelps peremptory now.
It was early dusk. Half a dozen black ducks took fright and beat the water to a froth as they winged away, up the river. Somewhere back in the woods a wood thrush was calling in that lovely, peaceful contralto, and beyond him were two mourning doves calling. A strangely peaceful evening. A lovely evening.
I shouted again, and Pat answered, just ahead, on the far side of the river. I put the boat over, rounded a big clump of alder brush, and there he was, lying on a grassy bank. I called and he whined, and he got to his feet, then lay down again. His right forefoot was caught in something. I slid the boat inshore, grabbed the painter in one hand and jumped out. Into black mud that sucked at my feet, oozed up around my calves. I waded up the bank onto the grass. And found Pat caught in a muskrat trap. Some fool trapping muskrats there the previous fall had failed to take up that trap when he ended the season. It lay there, set and chained to a deep-driven peg on the bank, all winter. And Pat, sloshing in the shallows, had stepped into it.
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