Monday, July 16, 2012

A midsummer's tale from the wildwoods

     Losing a friend who had wiggled into your affections without your full realization is a quietly confusing, painful thing. In a year of confusion, when winter was blended with late spring days, springtime saw infusions of high summer, when summer came blasting through with a drought and brutal heat and then proceeded to see the days of autumn droop hit the trees months early, the mind of a genuinely rural resident is already in a tail spin.

     This year, for the first time in my nearly half-century of life, I picked huckleberries side by side with blackberries. Earlier, in the spring, I was startled to see redbud trees and dogwood trees blooming simultaneously. These things are possible, but not common in my awareness of environment.

     Having finally come up with a way to do a little productive vegetable gardening this year, I was delighted to have a guard to keep the 'neighbors' eating their normal fare instead of ours. Wiggle-Britches, a dog of our own place, born and raised. Mostly Border Collie with a touch of Rottweiler that gave him a broad, solid-looking head, this combined with amazingly creative thinking and excellent memory, the dog was often a distraction, but never could he be called 'boring'. His name is plainly his actions: he has wiggled, waggled, wriggled, and been generally in motion from the ears back at almost any moment glanced at him from the first day he graduated from the puppy pen.

     Many nights, he guarded our home grounds. We never once saw him leave an approximately 200 yard zone around the house and only once saw his tracks beyond the gate, during which the tracks showed he had turned back to home within some 50 feet. He alerted us to traveling packs of 'pet' dogs (a simple rule to follow: one dog is a pet, two dogs is a pack; your dog and your neighbor's dog is a pack), marauding coyotes, bobcats, deer, wild turkey, the occasional grouse, snakes, lizards, turtles, opossums and raccoons, and anything else that 'invaded' the 'den'. In short, he often kept us awake with his dutiful guardianship. He was doing his job, and he took it seriously.

     At home, he followed me around like a glossy black shadow. I stumbled, he worried. I spoke to him, he kissed my fingers with sloppy doggy grace, the glow of utter devotion in his intelligent brown eyes. From time to time he followed me into the house, where he observed fine dog manners and restrained himself from urinating on anything that might be mine.

     Ronnie, he tolerated. Me, he loved. We all knew the difference. We all were satisfied with the arrangement, including Murph, the huge father of Mr. Wiggles. (Doofus (mother of Wiggles) and Gracie (his sister) helped with duties too, in their more limited ways. For example, 'Doofy' has never failed to bark when we've left home; she's a born Contrary and full-blooded Border Collie.) Coming home meant reaffirmation of the Human-Dog Pack Order According to Wiggle-Britches.

     July 6, 2012: midnight saw Ronnie and I home but sleepless, chronic pain and daily worries combining to have us wandering around at odd times into the pre-dawn hours. I had just given in to the urge to try to sleep again when Murph and Wiggles set off a brief alarm. Male, they said, not coyote (no false-dog song/yodeling) or bobcat or bear (no panic/anger/territorial rage in the barking) or deer (Wiggles was a sneak-biter by nature, a bit of a coward who preferred the advantage of choosing his ground in any but a confrontation with an herbivore, which he didn't fear ... much). Dog, then. A dog they had seen before, and which did not belong, though familiar.

     Ronnie, awake and aware, clear in his thinking, took the .22 rifle outside and fired it into the ground. The logic in this is that the small 'pop' of the rifle going off will usually startle a dog into leaving territory not its own. I was up before the first shot was fired, dressed and armed in less than five minutes; this was not our first round with some less than benevolent species in our area, and I feared for our dogs and cats (others among our neighbor's animals have died or been mangled, and some were found as 'remains').

     Hard on the heels of the second shot, we heard a short, single yip from up on the road, our driveway in, on our side of the gate. I called for Wiggles repeatedly, but got no reply, no pounding of fast feet as per his usual, pelting hard in my direction for no reason better than that I had called him.

     Rifle and pistol at the ready, we got in the truck. If it was a bear or cougar, even a surprisingly silent pack of coyotes, we were better off not walking. A bear has been sighted near our home, and we have seen tracks of bobcat, big cat, and bear (out of range of the house; they live in the woods just like we do, so we spare them good respect and hope they do the same).

     Up the hill, down a small, short incline, and around a brief bend in the dirt lane, and there he lay, clear to see in the headlights' low-beam sheen. Still at last, his head bent back in an impossible angle. His brown eyes were open, the third eyelid at near half-mast. There was no where he could have fallen from, no way for him to have come to such a position without a third party being there.

     Pistol in my hip pocket and rifle in hand, I guarded Ronnie and held the flashlight for the informal inquest; details of the body that the headlights of the truck could not show alone were there to see.

     There was no blood. Death had to be instant, or nearly so. There was no sign of a struggle otherwise, and the only tracks were, not surprisingly, dog. Two dogs, specifically, one of which was Wiggles. Wiggles had a habit of kicking up the sandy soil with his toes, leaving a gouge at the front of a oval-shaped track. The other tracks were far more round, deeper-pressed, with blunter, wider nails.

     All the signs point to the typical kill mode of a Great Pyrenees dog, several of which run loose in our area, unsupervised and in some cases insufficiently cared for enough to be hungry and roaming.

    The sun was just beginning to give color to the trees and mountainside when we lifted the dog's body into the rear of our old truck. One of us was on watch at all times, the other dogs being contained for their own good for the duration.

     The day was already hot. For days in a row, the temperatures had exceeded 100 degrees F., the heat index exceeding 130 F. on a routine basis. In our partially underground house, the humidity was low, the heat a more tolerable 75 F. We needed to bury the Wiggles before the sun was fully risen, and retreat to our refuge for the duration of the hot hours.

     6:30 a.m. saw the glimmering of dawn mixing with a shimmer of heat on the sandstone cliff sides. Ronnie labored over a long-handled shovel while I again held the rifle at the ready,  holding a flashlight on the burial site. If it had been a mountain lion or small black bear (unlikely, given the evidence), being prepared to handle it was just plain good sense.

     Wiggle-Britches is no more. He rests at the side of our old horse, Eagle, and near our old diabetic cat (she lived to see 19 years with special care), the Norwegian Elkhound (who developed incurable skin problems and had been given to me by my Dad), not far from where we laid Draco the peachy-white Himalayan cat and his old friend the Persian. The woods go on without pause, green and enduring, dreaming the seasons into life and through all the cycles of being. We go on as we always have, though remembering.

     I continue to work on what a writer does, the sheer act of writing being a form of coherence with creation as a whole. Ronnie works on the house. We try to get a little decent sleep, worry about the bills and day to day survival, holding out for better times and better days. Some days we see headway, some days we grind our teeth and resolve to wait, just wait. And breathe.

     In a few months, with a little luck and some hard work, a brand-new local publisher has granted me the opportunity to have a real book published. It will be a collection of memoir, stories from Kentucky, stories of horses on and off the bluegrass horse farms. I am also gathering photos to include in the book. If it does well, other books may very well follow, among them a selection of memoir drawn from a small-town veterinarian's work, and a separate selection of  (also nonfiction) tales of local happenings. It pleases me that I may be able to offer images along with the stories, in each case.

     In short, the next phase of business has begun: I am in search of a good, reliable agent who can and will aid the progression of a career I once thought impossible, unlikely, even ridiculous. For that, I have my friends to thank.

     Friends come in all shapes and sizes. Friends are guardians when we're sleeping, when we're awake, when we're doubting our own self-worth enough to also doubt theirs as well.

     Wiggle-Britches was a friend. I will miss him. And yet he will inspire me, I hope, for as long as the memory of him endures.

     For now, I must write. Like Wiggles, I have a job to do, and it will not let me be still while yet I live.

     Peace, friends.