Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems. From where I stand.


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A Late Need for Moorings

My dogs have all loved to run off-leash. Living in the city, the opportunities to do so are few and far between — and are often stolen at odd hours or in what most people would call “bad weather” so as to avoid being caught and fined. The Golden Retrievers in my life loved to stretch their legs and run for the sheer joy of it. My Coyote, though, could simply never believe she was untethered, having spent her previous life chained to a post. Of the three dogs who have graced my adult life, she has always been the most grateful for that small freedom.

As Coyote has grown weaker in her illness, I’ve started walking her up and down the street without a leash, knowing that she is too sick to run away and believing that I was doing her a kindness by allowing her to make her careful way without the tug of the leash on her collar. From time to time, I’ve caught her suddenly jerk to attention, seeking me out, so I’ve stayed relatively close and within her narrowing range of sight, thinking that was enough.

Tonight’s walk gave me a different perspective. As we rounded the corner in front of my house, Coyote stumbled over the crumbling road surface. She hesitantly struggled over the rough spot and continued unsteadily on for a few steps before stopping and gazing up at me, tremors running through her poor old body. She seemed to want to lean on me, and I thought, I wonder if she feels lost.

“Do you want your leash?” I asked her. She dragged a few, insecure steps toward me. “Would it help you if you had your leash, baby girl?” I closed the tiny gap between us, and she stretched her neck out in that familiar gesture that, for more than a decade, has signaled she wanted me to clip her leash to her collar for a walk. Only, now, there was another layer of meaning: I need to feel attached to you. I feel unsafe without my moorings.

We walked on for the short way her paws will still carry her, and I noticed that when she stumbled or when her hind paw clubbed up because her brain can’t command it consistently anymore, she would glance up, leaning into her end of her leash so she could feel me on my end. Sometimes, if the leash hung too loosely, she would cast about with her head, relaxing only when she felt certain I had hold of her.

And at the end of our walk, once we were safely in the yard, I unclipped the leash, as is our habit, and tried to coax her into following me up the hill to the house. She froze in place, waiting for the reassurance of my touch on her back to guide her across the yard and up the path.

To keep her connected to me. To guide her home.

white husky-mix on her leash


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Dance of the Good Dog

This was a post from a couple of years back, when Sachi, my Golden Retriever, was still with us. My girls were generally a good team, but sometimes their worldviews simply clashed. (Go figure — a Golden and a husky at odds…) There were times I swear I saw Coyote roll her eyes…

Overheard from the living room:

Coyote: “OK, what did she do?”

Sachi: “She patted me on the head and smiled at me.”

Coyote: “That’s IT? Did she say anything?”

Sachi: “Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. She said I’m a good dog.”

Coyote: “Oh, brother.”

Sachi: “Because I really am a good dog.”

Coyote: “That’s not the point. I sent you in there because she seems to understand you better than she does me.”

Sachi: “I am a good dog, though.”

Coyote: “Yeah-yeah.” <thinking> “Did you wag?”

Sachi: “Yup.”

Coyote: “And point your nose at the back door?”

Sachi: “Yup.”

Coyote: “So, she doesn’t get me looking meaningfully at her and putting my paw on her leg — that just got me a belly-scratch and a smile…”

Sachi: <musing> “That was so nice.”

Coyote: “And she didn’t get your wagging and pointing and big brown eye thing…”

Sachi: “And she told me I was a good dog.”

Coyote: <frustrated> “Quit with the good dog thing already! I’m trying to figure this out!”

Sachi: <defensively> “But I *am* a good dog!”

Coyote: <huffing> “Whatever. OK, so what do we try next? Maybe rush her and dance around her a bit?”

Sachi: <flatly> “Say it.”

Coyote: “Say what?”

Sachi: “Say I’m a good dog.”

Coyote: <incredulous> “WHAT?!”

Sachi: <firmly> “Say I’m a good dog, or you’re going in there and dancing all by yourself.”

Coyote: <sighs> “Fine. You’re a good dog.”

Sachi: “You don’t mean it. You have to mean it.”

Coyote: “I might have to bite you.”

Sachi: “That’s not good-dog behavior.”

Coyote: “You know, you’re such a human sometimes!”

——

(I think my dogs need to go for a walk.)

Sachi, peering from under table


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Ash

Every so often, I set fire to my life
believing I’m practicing alchemy.

I touch a match to it, and my world
explodes into red roar roaring flames of anger
or slowly boils dry on blue licks of lust.

It combusts with the bright yellow heat of ambition
or disintegrates into white-hot flashes of self-loathing,
singeing me with its howling ferocity.

Sometimes it ignites in a green burst of envy,
choking the air with the acrid scent of regret,
or blooms with the slow, torturous orange glow of despair.

Each time, afterwards,
I poke through the remains looking for something precious enough
to pay the cost of all the wreckage I’ve left.
I stir the ruins of each separate immolation with a stick —
as though they were tea leaves to be read for meaning —
before sweeping the mess into the dustbin
and starting again.

It’s only recently I’ve realized that the answer was always there,
that all I had to do was listen to the wind
lifting the edges of the swirling debris:

“Put away the matches. Stop this madness.
You solve nothing with all of this beautiful destruction.
No matter what brilliant color the flame

all ash is grey.”

Burning embers


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The Long Crawl to Healing

We began again.

For weeks, we had been spending a good part of our evenings in this way. I called her. She crawled, inch by painful inch, toward where I sat on the floor with my hand outstretched, palm up. She was only a few feet away, but the effort — not so much of dragging herself along on her belly as resisting the urge to run and hide — exhausted her. She paused now and again to pant and cry. I kept my face carefully averted, my body relaxed, my voice quietly soothing and encouraging. She would get close enough to allow me the barest of gentle touches before dashing away, trembling and drooling in her terror, before summoning the courage to crawl toward me again.

Sachi, my Golden Retriever, laid nearby, anxiously watching our slow progress. Her faith in me was complete, so she was confused by this fearful dog. Didn’t I make sure they had plenty of fresh water and food? Didn’t I frequently and freely give belly rubs? Didn’t I take them for long, daily walks? Why was this dog so…broken?

I glanced at Sachi from my position on the floor. Her soft, brown eyes were bright, pleading. Fix it, they said. You know how to fix everything. Please, please fix this.

The problem was that I wasn’t sure what, exactly, I was fixing.

——

Coyote had come to Sachi and me as a rescue. For several months her rescuer, Chris, had seen her chained to a porch, with no shelter from the elements and a hard-packed circle of earth indicating that she’d been tied there for some time. As the months went by, that suspicion proved out: Rain, sun, or snow, the little grey-brown dog was there, stoically enduring her exposure to the open sky.

The house she was tied to was dilapidated, emanating an air of stagnant desperation, as though its inhabitants had simply given up. Sometimes small children played in the overgrown yard, as dirty and shabby as their home.

Then one day something felt different about the place. The dog was still chained outside, but something felt…off. Another day went by, and another, before Chris noticed the gaping front door, swinging on its hinges, and the realization hit her: The inhabitants had abandoned the house, along with many of their possessions.

The dog lying on her packed circle of dirt was one of those possessions.

Chris cautiously gathered up the half-starved, dehydrated dog and took her to get help. At the veterinary clinic, they cleaned her up, finding that, beneath the grey-brown filth that matted her soft fur, she was a glowing white, with a faint tan streak running down the length of her back. Her ribs protruded and her pointed, velvety ears were scarred by fly bites. When they spayed her, they found she was pregnant.

She was terrified of men.

And, even after five months of being loved back to health by Chris, she was also terrified of me.

I don’t know her full story — no one really does. All I know about is where our stories co-mingled. I know that, despite her fear — her certainty that, when she finally arrived at the place on the floor where I sat calling her, a terrible, dangerous trickery would occur — she continued to crawl toward me.

I could imagine all kinds of abuse. I could tell myself that her neglect was intentional, that leaving her behind was an act of cruelty and not — as it might have been — in the hope that someone would find her and feed her because the family could no longer afford to. I could believe that the chain that bound her was a mean-spirited choice and not a landlord’s mandate.

Or I could simply celebrate that, all those years ago, this pretty little husky trembled and whimpered and dragged herself — just one more time, sweetie — toward the love she saw me lavish on Sachi, toward the bond Sachi so badly wanted to offer her, toward the new life we both wanted to wrap around her as a sanctuary. Whatever she might have suffered, she was still willing to be vulnerable. It wasn’t easy, but she was trying so very, very courageously.

It was months before Coyote learned to trust me. There were times I wanted to give up on her. But there was something in her eyes — that heartbreaking, beautiful hope — that made me keep trying. And the day  eventually came that she greeted me at the door with her sister, wagging her tail and smiling up at me.

We fixed it, Sachi. You and Coyote and I fixed it.

My dog with her raccoon toy


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What This Looks Like

The snow lays over the gardens, still and silent and sparkling under the moon. It is late. And cold — about ten degrees below zero. We are trespassing here at this deserted hour.

I breathe in and feel the frozen air bite my throat and lungs. The girls run off-leash, a rare luxury in the city and a fine-able offense. I chose this frigid hour carefully so that our secret would be safe. I love to watch them run.

Sachi streams over the drifts of snow, and my breath catches at her fluid beauty. She’s a puff of gold-grey smoke flowing across the field, her nose to the ground. Sometimes she lifts her head and stretches her body and legs to their full lengths as she flies over the landscape, her beautiful, long fur streaming in the wind.

Coyote trots more than runs, her bottle-brush tail held high at the alert. She pauses to sniff delicately at the base of a bush, and her tail relaxes a little as she paws at the ground to get a better concentration of scent. In a fit of humor, Sachi swoops past her, jostling her a little, and she’s caught up in the swirl of her sister’s dash. I watch as Coyote takes off after her, transformed into a white shadow against the white background of the snow. 

Coyote is more nimble than her Golden sister, and she turns sharply, leaving Sachi scrambling to change course and catch up. Coyote’s ears are laid back, her eyes slits, and her jaws partly open in that Husky grin that makes me laugh aloud. She springs to one side and twists, facing Sachi, then pounces on her — and away again — with breathtaking speed and grace.

My two dogs laugh and play together, and I think: This is what it looks like to be wild and free and joyful.

——

It’s not the crash that wakes me, although I’m sure there was one. It’s the scrabbling of claws and the sound of water splashing across the tile floor and off the walls. I throw back the covers and reach her in three strides, knowing Coyote is panicked. When I flick on the bathroom light, I find her splayed out, one of her hind legs twisted beneath her and a front paw reflexively clenched and caught in the water bowl from which she’d been trying to drink. Her eyes are wide, dilated in terror, and she’s panting hard as she struggles to free her paw and untwist her hindquarters. I crouch down, gently wrapping my arms around her belly and pulling her to her feet.

I feel every rib, every vertebrae in her frail body, as she kicks her hind legs and continues to thrash in my grasp. I murmur soothing words to her, trying to calm her as I slowly guide her from the tile to the carpeting, freeing her front paw from the bowl and rearranging her limbs for her until she’s standing on her own.

She’s shivering and soaking wet, and my heart breaks open. She bumps her nose against the gate that contains her and her brother, Bodhi, in the small area — hall, bathroom, and bedroom — where we all sleep. She clearly wants to go outside. I lift the gate and help her navigate to the back door, then down the two low steps to the yard. She simply stands there, dazed and trembling, panting in the thick summer air.

Once again, her dying body has betrayed her.

My mind flashes to that winter night in the garden, watching her leap and dash like a diminutive wolf at play, with a sister who left us years ago.

This is what this looks like, I tell myself for the hundredth time. This is what it looks like to grow old and sick and weak.

I let her stand there for a few minutes, gathering herself. When her panting slows, I call her name softly, and she turns and totters over to me and lets me guide her slowly, patiently back to her bed.

Coyote, my husky, lies in the yard.