The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.22Hal Borland
It was all there in his face. I’d have been the same way, and I knew it. I’d have said the same thing. “I didn’t come down to get him.” And yet I would wish I could have him again, have the dog I used to have, and make the years drop away.
It’s a hard decision, hard all around.
And I knew, too, that I didn’t want to wreck it all for him. He was sure he had found his lost Skippy, the dog he didn’t want to die alone, trapped out in the hills somewhere. He had pestered himself for weeks, months, maybe still did, with the thought that if he’d stayed just another half hour, that raw, sleety winter evening, his dog might have come back. And now he had found an answer that he could accept and make an end to his pestering. He could live with that answer and be content, just to know in his own heart that Pat was the lost Skippy.
I couldn’t wreck that.
But the questions kept pestering. At me.
The wife who raised and housebroke that dog and taught him manners; if she didn’t use a broom on him, who did? And if he loved that woman, why was he so wary of women, all women, when he came here? Why did it take him so long to accept Barbara and show deep affection for her? And if he grew up with kids who rode bicycles, why did he hate bicycles now?
If he was lost in the Monterey area, why did he come all the way down here instead of going back to Great Barrington? Barrington was closer than Weatogue Valley, miles closer. And when we sent him away, over to that York State farm, why did he come back here instead of to Barrington, which again was closer?
If he was a cat-killer, why had he made a kind of truce with that big old tom out in the big barn, instead of killing him? Why was he content to run that cat up an apple tree now and then and warn him to stay out of the dooryard? On the other hand, did he have that battle with the bobcat up on the mountain when he first came here because he hated cats? And did that fight cure him of the old cat-killing urge?
The questions, the nagging questions. And no real answers.
The man’s evidence was mixed. Some of his details were persuasive, and some just didn’t add up. Then I thought of myself sitting there, say seven years hence, trying to remember Pat the way he is at this moment. There would be gaps in my memory, lapses and contradictions. I tried to remember whether Mike had three white paws, or four, and for the life of me I couldn’t decide.
I asked the man, “You only had the one dog?”
“That’s right. Just Skipper.”
“Was there another dog along that day you lost him on the mountain?”
“No. When we took Skip out for rabbits we never needed another dog. Why?”
“Well,” I persisted, “was there a little black dog in your neighborhood, a pup that might have had setter blood?”
He shook his head, baffled. “No.”
“Pat wasn’t traveling alone when he came here,” I said. “This other dog was with him. Pat seemed to be looking after him. They came together, the same night, and we took them both in. We had to get rid of the black one. Gave him away.”
The man shook his head again. “I can’t figure that one. Skip didn’t run with any other dog, and there wasn’t any dog like that anywhere around.” He stared at Pat, and he said, “I see he’s got a slit ear. Was it that way when he came here?”
“No. He tangled with a bobcat, up on the mountain.”
“I think so. I wasn’t there. He got pretty well clawed up.”
The man smiled. “I told you he was a cat-killer.” Then he sighed. “Well, I’d better be getting along. The wife’ll wonder where I am. Sorry to have bothered you this way, and I certainly don’t want to make any trouble. But I had to come and see for myself. You understand?”
“I understand. I’d do the same thing. I’m glad you came. You know,” I said, “it always seemed to me that there are two kinds of dogs. There are dogs that a man owns, and there are dogs that own a man. I think he’s that kind of dog.”
He looked at me, surprised. He thought for a second and said, “I guess you’re right, at that. Some dogs you never do own, do you? They own you. I guess they pick you out, or something. Skip was that kind.”
There was a moment’s silence. Then Barbara said, “Why don’t we let Pat pick now?”
The man looked at her, frowning.
“Go ahead,” she urged. “Call him to you. Let’s just see.”
He drew a deep breath and looked at Pat, and he said, “Skipper. Skip! Come here, Skip.” It was a quiet order, the way a man speaks to a dog he has known a long time and still cherishes.
I held my breath, watching, waiting.
Pat didn’t move, didn’t open an eye. I heard Barbara let out a held breath.
The man glanced at me and slowly shook his head.
Barbara turned to me. “You call him.”
I said, “Pat,” and he opened an eye, lifted his head. I said, “Come here, Pat,” and held out my hand.
Slowly, stiffly, Pat got to his feet. He came over and nosed my hand. He looked up at me, questioning, and slowly wagged his tail.
The man sighed and got to his feet.
I went with him to the door. Pat followed us. The man remembered and turned to Barbara and said, “Thanks for the coffee, ma’am,” and he shook hands with me. He looked down at Pat, but he didn’t even put a hand on him.
We went out onto the porch and he went down the steps. At the bottom he said, “Take good care of him,” and he crossed the grass to his car and got in and drove back the way he had come.
Pat went out and looked around, smelled where the car had been, and I came back inside.
Barbara said, “You don’t think Pat is his dog, do you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he was, once.”
“He couldn’t be! Didn’t you see all the contradictions in what he said? He didn’t even lose his dog till after Pat came here!”
“I don’t know,” I said again. “It was seven years ago. A man forgets.”
Pat was at the door, asking to be let in. I opened the door for him. “Well, Skipper?” I said.
He looked up at me and wagged his tail. I glanced at Barbara.
She said, “Well, Stinky?”
He looked at her and wagged his tail. She laughed.
I said, “Pat, go lie down on your rug.” He went.
We went into the kitchen and began clearing away from supper. As she scraped the scraps into Pat’s food bowl for tomorrow Barbara said, “Do you know what really made him decide the way he did?”
“I don’t use a broom on him!”
“So now you think he is Skipper?”
“Well, if he was Skipper, and if he did remember—” She broke off. “It isn’t funny, is it? Did you see the look on that poor man’s face when he called Pat and he didn’t make a move? And then he went right to you.”
“I saw it.”
“I almost wanted to cry.” Then she said, “You’re right. People don’t own dogs. Not dogs like Pat. Pat owns us. He picked us, and now he owns us.”
We finished cleaning up, and it was nine o’clock. I went into the living room and said, “How about it, Pat? Bedtime.”
He got to his feet, stretched and went ahead of me to the door.
We went outside and he sniffed the cool night air flowing gently down off the mountain. He stood there sniffing it and a whippoorwill called from the far edge of the pasture. Pat started toward the mountain, lured by some enticing scent. I called to him, sharply. “Come back here! None of that nonsense. Off to bed with you, you grizzled old reprobate.”
He came, reluctantly, and he trotted ahead of me to his house, tail high, nose alert. He paused at the doorway and looked at the mountain again and sniffed the darkness. Then he went inside and I closed and latched the door.
I turned back toward the house, where Barbara was putting out the downstairs lights. I stopped under the big apple tree and the night air stirred the lea
Then I came inside.
IT IS MARCH AS I write this, early March, and we have just had the deepest snowfall of the winter, as often happens here in these old hills. Last week it was like spring, the brooks laughing and chattering, bank-full, and the river flowing free and dark. The first flock of black ducks had returned to the river, and I was watching for the migrant robins which come and stalk the pasture in flocks of a hundred or more. Pat was out, sniffing at all the old dens to see if any woodchucks were out looking for mates after their long sleep. He didn’t find any. The woodchucks know what time it is, just as the robins do. And as I should have known.
It began to snow before daylight yesterday. It snowed all day, and if the temperature had been twenty degrees lower it would have been a blizzard. As it was, the drifts piled up, four and five feet deep. When I put Pat to bed last night I had to wade through snow up to my knees, and he had to follow in my tracks. The storm continued well into the night. But when I got up this morning the sky was clear, the stars brilliant, the wind dying. And the temperature was down close to zero.
I avoided the deep drifts when I went to let Pat out, but I still waded through drifts over my knees. And when I looked at the river it was only a winding white highway, iced over again and covered with snow, the third freeze-up and the one that is supposed to close the book on winter for another year. When this ice goes out, tradition says, spring will come.
Pat heard me coming and barked his impatience. When I opened the door he came out with a rush—and buried himself to his ears in that first lunge. He shook his head and barked in delight, and he dived headfirst into an even deeper drift and began to roll, ecstatic. He rolled and snorted and rolled again, and he jumped to his feet and sneezed the snow from his nose and blinked it from his eyelashes and stood there in the rising sun, shimmering from nose to tail. Then he dolphined his way across the yard in great lunges to the road, where the snowplow had already carved a shallow canyon. He sniffed here and there, nosed the air, and trotted down the road in the dazzling crispness of a new day to investigate the state of his world. He was gone almost an hour before he barked at the door and came in and demanded his breakfast.
I shoveled out the walks and opened the way to the garage, and Pat lay in the sun on the front porch steps watching me. When I had finished he came indoors and up to my study with me. We have been here two hours, he napping and dreaming and twitching his paws and uttering little muffled yelps of excitement.
In a few more weeks I shall go down to the town clerk’s office and renew his license and get a new brass tag for his collar. The clerk will flip open her record book and say, “Pat? Still the same dog?”
I will say yes, still Pat.
She will find the page and start filling in the blank, reading as she writes. “Pat … Black and white foxhound … Age?” She will hesitate. She always does. She will leaf back. “Let’s see. He was four years old the first time you registered him. That was eight years ago. I guess that makes him twelve now, doesn’t it?”
“Better keep the record consistent,” I will say.
She will write it down that way, “Age, 12.” And we will have our joke, the same joke we have had for the past three years.
“You want to apply for Social Security for him? He’s old enough.”
“Pat never did a day’s work in his life. He’ll have to wait till I apply for mine.”
We will laugh and I will pay the fee and take the new brass tag and bring it home and fasten it on Pat’s collar. He will scratch his neck to hear it jingle. Then he will go to the door and ask to be let out. It will be April. Woodchucks will be out, maybe old Gramp sunning himself on the Resting Rock. Pat will have to go and see. After all, this is his valley, his mountainside, his world. …
He is dreaming again, twitching and uttering those excited, muffled yelps. He has wakened himself. He looks at me, puzzled for an instant as though not sure where he is, then looks abashed and turns away. I wonder if he was dreaming about last spring, or last fall, or of the spring and fall ahead. Or if it was a dream about a sleety winter day on a mountainside up in Monterey.
I don’t know. I still don’t know.
And does it matter? Must life be all of a piece? I doubt it. Mine hasn’t been. I, too, made my choices.
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copyright © 1961 by Hal Borland
copyright renewed © 1989 by Barbara Dodge Borland
cover design by Mumtaz Mustafa
This edition published in 2011 by Open Road Integrated Media
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Hal Borland, The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir
The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes