Dear John, I’ve Fallen for a Dog,
It’s Sirius. That’s what I named him. I got him on the midsummer morning when that star first rises up in the pitch dark before dawn, marking the time of the dog days. Always thought that idiom was about heat so pervasive that it made dogs lie around for days, but when we came out here to the Blue Ridge I learned that it was really about the year’s first sighting of Sirius the dog star—the brightest in Canis Major, the brightest next to the sun. It seems you just find out the reasons for things in the country. I don’t know why.
Set on seeing the rising, I got up at five o’clock that day. Hadn’t missed it in the nine years since we moved here, always spying it just when the Farmers’ Almanac said I would, a pinpoint of a thing, sort of orange at first and pushing itself out of one of those mountains like a tiny spark from a volcano. Easy to pick out, that dog star, following as it does the hunter Orion, in a straight line with the three stars of his belt—all I could ever see of that constellation growing up, the rooftops and streetlights in the way. But there’s more of that hunting god up there, and a weapon or two, all so clear in the night sky hanging over these hills. Remember when we were still camping, the house not yet under roof? The shadow from the tent was so crisp, a black box on the field. I shook you awake, said, “Johnny, is there an athletic complex or parking lot next to us?” And you shot right up, worried, I guess, that that might be true, that the city lights had followed us somehow and were glaring at us as we slept. But then you laughed—that laugh that used to find a bit of humor in just about anything, that had a way of skipping around inside me—and you pointed to the full moon, shining like the sun, only in grayscale. “I can see the berries on the autumn olive,” I whispered. “At night.”
Not so for Sirius’s emergence this year. The mist was so thick I couldn’t see anything in the sky, or a persimmon tree in the field, or even the lights on that cell tower put up on Chestnut Hill last year. So I went out to the SPCA shelter, later when they opened, and got my own dog star. He’s big, with silky fur, all black but for a fine blaze down his neck like a stream of milk, pure and white, forever dripping from his mouth. He’s a good boy. Well, in dog years, older than a boy. Maybe in his thirties. Which makes him the perfect replacement for you, so there’s no need for you to be here anymore.
When I was asked by the man at the shelter, I told him that, yes, I had a fence. You’d say, That’s a lie, Leda, and I’d say, No, I’m just being precise. We have a fence around the goat yard, don’t we? I said that to Sirius on the way home, in fact, his taking your part of the conversation in my mind. “If he’d asked if I had a fence around the property that could keep a dog from running off, I would have told him no.” Sirius was sitting in the passenger seat, freed from that cage where I’d first seen him with his head between his paws and a faraway look in his caramel-colored eyes. He’d lived in the shelter for some months and was probably getting near to the day he’d be euthanized. But he didn’t know that, and I sure wasn’t going to tell him. I kept up talking about other things, because I think it calmed him to hear my voice. “If he’d just made himself clear from the start so I could understand what he was all about,” I said to Sirius, “I’d have told him where that fence was.” From the time I pulled out of the parking lot, he’d been yipping in a forlorn way, and I didn’t like the sound of that. It was terrible, familiar. I knew he was missing someone. Maybe someone from the shelter, but more likely that old person who’d given him up when she moved away to live with her daughter. You see, I asked about his background. I didn’t want a dog that seemed perfectly fine now but was holding some form of trauma inside him that was waiting to spring out when it was too late. After I was already in love.
He’s not going to run off. I knew that from the first night I had him, when I was out on the porch, sipping my iced coffee. Not sure why I do that, because it keeps me up and working things out in my head half the night. But the taste is good. Never really enjoyed that wine you were making in the spring, just drank it with you because it was nice to do that, to talk on the porch and watch the sun set. “To the perfect red,” you would say, toasting whatever you’d concocted at the time. “This isn’t it yet, but I’m going to make the perfect red.” That cabernet from those grapes you bought up along the CCC road built during the Great Depression had come the closest, you thought. It tasted okay, I guess, but it was kind of thick. The word viscous came to mind, but I didn’t say that because I figured it might seem an insulting choice of an adjective and then you would stop talking for the rest of the evening. The word stuck in my head, I suppose, because it popped right out that afternoon I was clipping hooves in the goat yard. There’s still a bloodstain on the pine slat from where I grabbed the top rail and leapt over. I’d nicked my fingertip with the clipper when I heard the sound. You’d think the hard rains would have washed that away by now.
Sirius, though—I was telling you about that first evening he was here. He was sitting tall and pretty at the edge of the porch, looking out to the tree line, and he spotted a buck and shot out after him, his hackles raised. I jumped up, scared and blaming myself for not keeping him on a leash so soon after bringing him home, and I have to admit I yelled out, “Come back, John!” It was his first night, remember, and I wasn’t yet used to calling him by name. I don’t make that mistake anymore. I want you to know that. Anyway, I didn’t even need to give him chase because once that deer had disappeared into the neighbor’s woods, Sirius came prancing back, all proud-like, and he sat again at his post at the corner of the porch, looking out, scanning. Protecting me, protecting this place. You see, he’s not running off.
I don’t think there’s any hunting dog in him. He used to be scared of the shooting that goes on out in those woods. First time he heard one of those rifle blasts he scurried into a corner of the living room, tail between his legs. So I brought him up next to me on the couch, our Target special that arrived here by UPS on the very day we moved into the house, and I hugged him to make him feel better. He licked my face for a long time. He likes the taste of salt. Now every time we hear those gunshots he comes to find me and sit with me wherever I am. Could just be all about the salty treat at this point, but it still feels like a loyal act on Sirius’s part.
He looks after the goats, too, patrolling the fence lines. I don’t let him inside their yard, because I’m afraid he’d just try to chase the poor things off, and, well, there’s really nowhere for them to go. He used to bark incessantly at them, but I’m training him not to, using the command “Leave it!” that I read about in Cesar Millan’s dog-whispering book. It works pretty well most of the time, like when I want to shoo him away from the step in front of your workshop, but out at the goat yard I have to practically yell it if I want him to calm down. Most of the time, that is. A couple of months ago there was a turn of the weather, and big yellow poplar leaves, speckled with brown, were drifting down from the little copse of trees inside the fence. They were watching the leaves, the goats, then eating them where they landed. I expected Sirius to get all worked up, figuring he’d want to get in there to see what those things falling from the sky were, to try to catch them before they hit the earth. But he was as mesmerized by the scene as I was, as the goats were, like we were all witnessing a miracle. Manna from heaven, for the Israelites left out in the wilderness.
Sirius goes on long walks around the farms and fields with me, always staying near enough to turn and see me from wherever he gets to exploring. And it’s uncanny, but no matter what kind of convoluted circuit I come up with to hike, he always knows when we’re starting to head back home. I can tell, because he picks up the very next stick he can find and bounces along with it, head high. He wants me to throw it once we get up to the house, and then he runs after it as fast as any dog I’ve seen. Every few days or so, I gather up what he collects. I won’t be needing to search for much kindling this year. See what a help he is? I’ve already made a pile over there by your workshop, next to that enormous stack of wood you split last spring.
Seemed like you’d never stop hacking away at those logs, getting another truckload each time you’d finish up with one batch. “Shoot, Johnny, how much wood do we need for one winter?” I’d asked you. But you just shrugged, so I passed it off as maybe a bodybuilding thing or a release of anxiety, because I didn’t know then that you were set on leaving, that you would be gone from here before summer’s first fireflies resurrected themselves from their grassy tombs. You wouldn’t be aware of this, but your woodpile is now adorned with a piece of that metal sculpture you put on the roof of your workshop. The top of it blew off in a freak windstorm in July that tore across the fields, snapped tall trees in its path right in half—a “derecho,” that weatherman who wears a bow tie called it, some kind of weather system that had never ventured up from the southern hemisphere before. The clattering on the workshop roof was so loud and sudden that my heart almost stopped. I think that’s when I first got the idea to go to the SPCA.
Doesn’t look like a phoenix to me anymore, that sculpture. Not even one with its head blown off. Just looks like a welded-together scrap pile from the dismantling of an old still, which, of course, it is. I really did think your moonshine-making was impressive, as if we were stepping back into a time when those squiggly tubes and burping liquids were common contraband in the hollows around here. Had a few good field parties, didn’t we? Invited those fiddlers, and we started learning to play that old-time music ourselves, to be a part of keeping that Appalachian tradition from dying out. But maybe that whole direction of looking—to the past—was part of the problem, got your head wrenched the wrong way. And no amount of log-splitting or metal welding or woodcrafts or any of your other pursuits were going to yank it back where it needed to be. Especially not the search for “the perfect red,” one of your last quests in that workshop of tools and benches and drawers still filled up with the many ways you tried to get things right.
“You’re projecting, Leda,” you said when I insisted that sculpture was a phoenix. And I asked you if you’d ever heard of a thing called artistic genius, because regardless of your intention it looked incredibly like one, its bird head pointing straight up into the blue. I needed it to be a phoenix, John. That’s the thing. You were just so distraught that day you took the still apart, repeating over and over how you were sure you were turning into him. “Did he make moonshine?” I asked you, and you thought I was trying to be funny at an inappropriate moment, but I wasn’t. It just took some time to understand what you were telling me, those things that happened there and happened there in that apartment where you grew up. Took a while to sink in, is all, to make sense of it. Then a lot of things made sense: like why you didn’t want us to have children, like why you wanted us to live somewhere and somehow so completely the opposite of what you’d ever known. “Let’s call it Way Out Farm,” you’d suggested, “a double entendre, because it’s way out of the city and this land is our way out of the grind.” I had pointed out that it was actually a triple entendre, because weren’t we “way out” people? In time, you proved a fourth meaning to be true.
As I kept telling you when you were taking your hammer to the still, you were merely a bit erratic that night before. “Loved ones lie about it,” you insisted, this seeming to be an area of particular expertise for you. Which put us in a box, it did. “Just because a person gets drunk once in a while, even blacks out, doesn’t mean he’s hurt anyone,” I said to you. “And just because the face you are seeing in the mirror is getting more like his, well, that’s simply the way physical traits are over time, that’s heredity.” And I suggested we be the undead and throw away the mirrors. But you accused me again of not taking things seriously. I surely was, John. I surely was. And I told you and told you that you were beautiful and you didn’t have a violent bone in your body. But even if you wanted to believe that, I imagine those little ones had already started twitching in your index finger.
Sirius likes to stand at the door of the house, looking out through the glass. He can see your wood stack from that spot. He doesn’t seem interested in the fallen pieces of metal splayed over top of it, but keeps his eyes on the field mice darting in and out of the crevices between the logs. When he whines, I let him out to chase them. He gets one every once in a while, and if he’s hungry he eats it. One time I glimpsed him cracking a skull in his jaw, and it had such an effect on me that I’m real careful to look away now. But I figure it’s good having a mouser around a farm, seeing as he ran off all the feral cats, thinking them a danger to me, I guess. He digs for gophers and groundhogs, too, with little success. If I took him out regularly at night when they were more active, he’d probably fare a whole lot better, but I’ve been jittery about walking in the dark since you’ve been gone.
Had to be outside late last night, though. Sirius was pacing in front of the door and just wouldn’t stop, like he needed to go. I was up anyway, full of coffee and trying to work things out in my head, so I figured I’d take him out, just in front. Didn’t need a flashlight because it was one of those full moon nights, or near so. While I waited for him to poke around, I scanned the sky for the dog star. The whole constellation of Canis Major had climbed up over the mountains by the time we were out, so I connected the dots in my mind to make up the triangular head and stick body and tail of the big dog. “See there, Sirius, your star is just about where his rabies tag should be hanging,” I said. And then I saw the big bear. And I don’t mean Ursa Major. I mean a real bear. It was on all fours, sniffing around the step of your workshop, and Sirius was looking right at it, his muscles as taut and ready as I’d ever seen them.
“A bear is set on destroying you. It’s useless trying to chase it off, and screaming or running away won’t work either,” you’d said on a walk we took in the woods one night. “You have to play dead in order to survive.” Frightening, that. Rang in my head every time we took a night walk from then on, and rang in my head last night with Sirius, and even rang in my head that afternoon I’d been clipping the goats’ hooves. I knew, of course, that there hadn’t been any bear in your workshop that day, and that you weren’t playing anything. But I suppose you hold tight to any little scrap of what you so desperately don’t want to lose. I’d already deluded myself into thinking that that skinny stream that had seeped from floor to step in the time it took me to race over was from a broken bottle of the viscous cabernet. Even while I knew it wasn’t. Even while I knew it was your perfect red. Still a fine dark blaze, forever dripping on the pale granite. About all that’s left of you.
Caffeine and adrenaline must be one potent combination, because, lightning fast, I grabbed Sirius by the collar just before he sprang. Keeping my eyes steady on the bear, who was rising up on his back legs by then, I yelled “Leave it! Leave it! Leave it!” and I managed to pull Sirius against his will, all eighty-some pounds of him, and we fell through the door and into the house before the bear got heading in our direction. I lay there on the floor, my heart thumping as hard as it had that day you left me, the pain so strong I thought my sternum would break. I held Sirius as close as I could for a long time. He was making the funniest sounds, his mouth moving in an odd sort of way, like he was trying to talk to me. Trying to calm me. To stop my awful yipping.
No, I didn’t follow any of your advice regarding the bear. You have to admit, survival did not exactly turn out to be one of your areas of expertise. If I hadn’t done what I did, my companion would be gone for trying to keep me safe. I didn’t want that, John. I never wanted that. Don’t worry yourself, though. I will be keeping to the house at night. I’ve started making wood fires already, even though the solstice—your usual date for toasting the first fire—is just now here. The bursts of sparks from the logs, not fully seasoned yet, made Sirius anxious initially. His eyes would dart here then there, as if tracking meteors. But now he just stretches out and sleeps, or watches lazily, his head between his paws. He doesn’t much get that sad, faraway look in his caramel-colored eyes anymore. Perhaps he’s forgotten about the one who left him behind at the SPCA. Or maybe he’s just forgiven her. I kneel next to him sometimes on the hearth, his shadow pooled strangely around him from the bright flames lapping the sooty walls of the firebox. I rest my cheek against his side for as long as it takes to feel a pulse or a dream shudder, any sign that he is alive. Then I drop a new log on the fire before the lights of dying embers go out.
The Farmers’ Almanac is predicting a mild winter. And while that is good news from a practical standpoint, Sirius not likely much with a shovel, I find myself wishing for snow. The kind that comes quietly in the night, filling you up in your sleep so you know it’s out there before you even open your eyes. The kind that washes out everything, the way the sun erases the stars at dawn. “Silent snow, secret snow,” you’d whisper when we’d wake to that world, alluding to your favorite short story while we kept each other warm and gazed through the pane to the persimmon and autumn olive covered in white, like ghosts caught in mid-dance in the field.