Issue 131 |
Winter 2016-17

Up Here

The decision had been made the night before, though I’d played very little part in it. We’d been lying in bed and she’d said it had to be done. And because the day had been long and we were tired and a bit drunk, I thought it might not stick, and hoped it wouldn’t. It seemed like the kind of thing you decided at night and safely forgot in the morning. But it wasn’t forgotten. We were going to shoot the dog. Or rather, I was going to shoot the dog.

That didn’t have to be spoken of at all. Up here, it was the kind of thing you did for your lover. In other places, you might be expected to do other things. I had never shot a dog before, but I was determined to now because I’d never done any of those other things in those other places. I wanted to show—to her, to myself—that I was getting better at being in love. I wanted to show her how committed I was. I couldn’t bring her twenty-thousand-dollar bills, but I could shoot her dog for her. “I’ll do it,” I’d said, before she’d even had to ask. That was my part of the decision.

The sun wasn’t fully up yet and the mosquitoes were bumping frantically against the screens on the windows. They were always at their most bold, or desperate, during these early hours; it gave an added, grating octave to the high, whining hum of their wings. My girlfriend, who worked as a naturalist in the park that surrounded us, had explained to me they were mainly crepuscular insects. “Crepuscular,” I’d said. “They use that word in biology?” Up until then I’d never heard it outside of a poem. It was like that with words here sometimes: they turned up in ways and forms you didn’t expect. For instance: what exactly did park mean in a place where they were as big as countries?

“Fucking crepuscular insects,” I whispered.

My head was hurting. I’d been more than a bit drunk.

“They’re only doing what they have to do,” my girlfriend said, turning around to face me.

She must have been awake for a while, but I hadn’t noticed because she’d been lying with her back to me. Now I could see she’d been crying and knew that what she’d decided had been remembered, and that it had stuck. After a second or two, she turned her back to me again and I reached over and gently touched her head and we ended up making love in that slow, muffled morning way, at once coy and intimate, where your bodies touch but your stale breath is carefully exhaled in other directions. It began slowly, but then she started pushing herself back onto me, strongly and roughly, as though it was after midnight and we were making a different kind of love. Afterward, she jumped out of bed and held up her hand so I wouldn’t follow her.

‘Give me fifteen minutes,’ she said. She wanted to say goodbye. And for the first time, it dawned on me that I actually would have to shoot the dog.

“OK?” I said when she returned.

“OK,” she said, returning her head to her damp pillow.

We lay there for another few minutes. I went to brush a strand of dark hair from her forehead.

“I said OK,” she said.

I got up.

“Make sure you feed her first. I just couldn’t.”

For a moment I hesitated. A knight picturing the thundering hooves and quivering lance as his lady ties the ribbon onto his arm.

“We could take her to the vet?”

“We decided,” she said.

Up here, even mosquitoes did what they had to do.

The dog was standing beside the kitchen table. She took a long time to get onto her feet in the morning, so once she was up she tried to stay that way as long as possible. The world she stood on had become a thin wire. Her body was slowing, her insides were failing, her bones were going: she had to be careful about each move she made. Every morning, my girlfriend crushed painkillers into her food, as well as pills for arthritis—both of which I think were meant for humans. Sometimes she gave her a few tablets of her depression medication too.

I placed a bowl of kibble by the door and she teetered over to it, looking confused; it wasn’t me who usually fed her. After eating, her hips and back legs began to judder and tremble. Her nails made a doleful clickety-clack on the wooden floor until she could no longer sustain herself and collapsed into a sitting position. Every day the wire got thinner. She looked up at me, her eyes sorrowful, perplexed, ashamed, until I could no longer bear it. I have always been moved by the eyes of old dogs.

She remained sitting as I went to fetch my girlfriend’s rifle. It felt strange in my hand (I didn’t come from a place where people owned them) and for a moment (there were often these moments) I felt that strangeness extend outward to take in my whole situation. Here I was, living in a house beside a lake, in the middle of a great forest, holding a gun. When I returned, I tried to keep it out of sight behind my leg, but as soon as the dog saw it, she dragged herself painfully back up. Her expression had altered. She looked suddenly delighted, restored. It was excitement her legs trembled with now. Sometimes, in the autumn, my girlfriend would take her out to hunt grouse on the logging roads, and this is what she must have associated the gun with. When she followed me out the door, she didn’t even notice the greenness of the leaves.

And how very green they seemed! Up here the summers were short. There was so much to be packed into them. The colors, the warm air, the sun, the smell of fresh sap and sweet gale, the glitter of light on the lake, all of them felt concentrated, intensified—a hallucination through a magnifying glass; a glass of bright cordial whose sweetness sometimes left you feeling a little sick.

The dog stopped on the deck to sniff a stale hotdog bun. There were empty bottles of beer strewn everywhere, and saucers full of cigarette butts, and pieces of burnt meat—who knew what they’d once been—on the barbecue. A white sunhat lay bedraggled at the edge of the shoreline. On the dock was a pair of shattered sunglasses. It had been a long day.

None of it had been planned. Some of our neighbors—a couple about our age—had come by after lunch to borrow my girlfriend’s generator. Another couple (there were only three houses on the bay) had been driving past in a boat and seen us and stopped by to say hello. They were also about our age and had two children, and in no time at all these children had changed into bathing suits and were jumping and diving from the dock. And pretty soon we adults were running back and forth from house to house, fetching cases of beer and searching through freezers for meat. And pretty soon after that we were all jumping and diving from the dock, happily addled by the heat and light, as reckless as the children under the high sun. At one point, I slipped away from the others to sit beneath some red pines and hold my own happiness to myself for a minute or two. I watched my girlfriend dive and swim. The elegant arch of her back, the easy grace of her swimming strokes—how beautiful and unencumbered she appeared, uplifted by the light and water. How lucky we were to live on a lake like this! How golden our lives seemed, lived so far away from anywhere! What a wonder it was, this magic trick of distance; that could conjure you so effortlessly into another existence. In a different far away my other life stuttered and failed, and here it meant nothing. It was no great fall, hardly a topple really (though up close it might have felt that way). I’d published a few books and not many people had read them. Twice a week I drove into the little town down the highway and sat at the computer in the library and looked at my emails as though they were the flickering of some nameless, inconsequential star. I saw its light but not its slow implosion (which was maybe the kind of expression that had meant not many people had read those books).

Later on, we all sat on the deck and drank. I found myself standing with the men by the barbecue, burning the mysterious meat. They were talking mostly about hunting and fishing and other things I didn’t know that much about yet. But my enthusiasm felt boundless. I told them I was very keen to learn about these things. I told them I wanted to share in the kind of stories they told. One of them ran an outfitting business, the other one fought forest fires, and I told them I admired and envied them for having such a practical purchase on things, for being so solidly enmeshed in their world. I think that may have been the phrase I really used. The fire fighter smiled indulgently, and surreptitiously put the beer he was about to hand me back in the case.

At some point, quite a few drinks later, the outfitter took me aside and said I should marry my girlfriend, that she was a truly wonderful woman. I agreed wholeheartedly and said I’d like to do that very much and he thumped me on the back and we clinked beer bottles and I felt like a stand-up guy among stand-up men.

We threw horseshoes. We swam some more. We lit the sauna and sweated and drank and said all manner of things. My girlfriend told a story about spending a year homeless in a city when she was a teenager, and everybody laughed as if it was funny. That was the way she described it. But I knew it hadn’t been funny and wondered why she’d brought it up. Maybe she’d thought if she told it here, at this time and in this place, she’d be able to laugh at it all like the others had. It felt like the kind of day you could think things like that.

She left the sauna soon after and I waited a second or two before following her out. She’d walked to the rocky shoreline near the edge of the property and was crouching down toward the water. I thought she was upset because of what had happened in the sauna.

“Hey there,” I called out to her.

“You’ve got to help me,” she called back to me.

And I ran toward her. Everything felt possible that day.

It was the dog. She must have gotten excited about everyone leaping into the lake and followed them in, forgetting in a euphoric instant the thinness of the wire beneath her. She was trying to get up over the rocks, but her hind legs had failed and she was scrabbling pitifully against them with her front paws. She was half drowned. It was a terrible sight.

“Please, you’ve got to help me,” my girlfriend said. She was trying to pull the dog over the rocks but couldn’t get a proper hold of her. She was a big dog.

Once I’d hauled her out of the lake, I carried her into the house and dried her with a towel.

“She could have drowned,” my girlfriend kept saying.

“But she didn’t,” I kept replying.

By the time the others returned from the sauna, the light was beginning to fade and it was something of a relief when they made their excuses and began to leave.

It had been a long day, in a short season.

The dog followed me along the dirt road that curved around the shore of the bay. Now and again, she’d stagger a few feet off the dirt and sniff the trunk of a tree, trying to pick up some scent that to her failing senses must have seemed as faint and fleeting as grains of pollen in a breeze. We passed through stands of birch and cedar and pine, past outcrops of lichen-mottled granite, along the sides of lonely pools edged with sphagnum and cattails. We could have walked a hundred miles and seen no more—or no less—than this. She suited these wild places. I was never sure what mix she was, but there was definitely Husky in there—and I’m sure some wolf too. She’d been out at the lake for almost five years and had her routes and territories. It was the reason my girlfriend had not wanted us to drive the many hours it would have taken to get to a vet. The journey would have been traumatic for her. She wanted her to die where she had lived longest and happiest.

About half a kilometer or so down the road we came upon my neighbor’s daughter. She was searching for wild asparagus. It was the kind of place where that’s what children really did. Although in actuality my girlfriend had planted the asparagus a few years before just so the girl could search for it. It was the kind of place where that’s what grown-ups really did.

She looked up from a blueberry bush. “What are you doing with that gun?”

“I’m hunting grouse,” I lied.

“But it isn’t the season yet.”

“I’m practicing, for when it is the season.”

The second lie came even more quickly and effortlessly than the first. Being a killer—or being about to become one—seemed to help in that way.

“Have you seen any asparagus?”

“No,” I said. “But I did see some back near your house.”

“Really? I looked around there already.”

“It’s easy to miss.”

“Are you sure?’

“Oh, I’m sure,” I said. “I’m one hundred percent sure. I’m one thousand percent sure. The dog here sniffed it out.”

“That dog’s too old to sniff anything out.”

“You’d be surprised what this old dog can smell.”

“OK,’ she said. ‘If you promise it’s there.”

“I promise.”

The dog and I waited until she was long out of sight before we carried on. I didn’t want her wandering anywhere near where we were going. I wasn’t experienced with guns. Who knew what accident might happen? It was bad enough I was killing this dog.

We’d walked about a kilometer and a half and the dog was beginning to tire when we came to a narrow side road. It led up to a small clearing where my outfitter neighbor kept a reefer truck to hang deer and moose carcasses during the hunting season—which had made it seem an apt enough place for what I had to do. What I hadn’t taken into account was that every hunting season the dog snuck up there in search of scraps of meat, and every season my neighbor had to go up there and chase her away. The dog knew she wasn’t supposed to go up this road with people watching and didn’t trust me when I tried to coax her.

“C’mon old girl,” I pleaded.

She looked at me. She knew her territory.

“It’s OK,” I said.

“Please,” I said.

Things weren’t going that well. It wasn’t the executioner who usually begged.

Fortunately, before leaving the house, I’d stuffed a handful of milk bones into my pocket—for a sort of last supper—and so I started up the track dropping one behind me every few steps. Now she followed me. It was like the very worst kind of fairy tale.

Occasionally, on sunny days, I’d go down to the park’s visitor center—this park that was as big as a small country—and bring a picnic lunch for my girlfriend. Often, after we’d eaten, I’d stay on and watch with the other visitors—mostly families and campers, and various outdoors people—while she delivered talks about the natural history of the park. She was knowledgeable and charming and it made me proud to watch and listen to her. She told better stories than me. The ones she told for the visitors were of appointed times and seasons; of cycles; of a world where everything fitted together and carried on. The turtles laid their eggs at this time, the bears hibernated at another. In the autumn, the trout spawned, the walleye in the spring. She rolled it all out for them like a more upbeat Ecclesiastes.

But in private she told me different ones. The seasons sometimes didn’t arrive when they were supposed to. And the animals tricked by them fared badly. When the snow came late, the Snowshoe Hares, white nuggets in the dun landscape, were taken easily by hawks and foxes. When the spring came too early, the moose, still wearing their winter coats, would overheat and die of stress. Ice stayed too late and thawed too early. Rivers dried up and then overflowed. Fish couldn’t lay their eggs. Frogs perished in multitudes. And when she told me these stories, it seemed as though being a naturalist was more like doing PR for a Greek god. There was no absolute where or when or how. It could do whatever the fuck it liked. It didn’t really give a shit about anything. It was a wanton boy with a fly.

It’s hard trying to live between different stories, ones that will not fit together. Sometimes at night my girlfriend locked herself in the bathroom to cry. Sometimes she made love with me so roughly, and then so sadly, it wasn’t like love at all. And outside the window the sap would drip down the bark of the black trees and the loons would keen and the mosquitoes would fly berserk through the dark like miniature warlocks on their broomsticks.

And the next day, she’d have to talk to the visitors again, while they took pictures of turtles sleeping on logs, and lifted their faces to the bright sun, and spoke of beautiful sunsets.

I remember once we journeyed deep into the park together. The place we went to was so remote we had to get flown in there by boat plane. It was my birthday and she’d arranged it all as a gift. The plane landed us beside a long sand spit that stretched across the narrow bay of a lake. The whole place was unusual for up here: the water was almost turquoise, the sand soft and fine and white, as though it had been miraculously transported from somewhere closer to the equator. It was like a tropical pearl in a boreal oyster. After we put up our tent, we swam naked and lay together on the hot sand. We’d brought a thermos of gin and tonic and as we passed it back and forth, she told me she wished she’d met me ten years before, and I laughed and said what mattered was that we’d met at all. Maybe it would have made a difference back then, she said. A difference to what, I asked? She never answered that. When the thermos was empty, I got up and ran to the end of the spit, tipsy and exhilarated, my bare skin still warm from the sand. On returning I told her this was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been. Come with me, I said, getting ready to run back along the spit. I’m so glad you like it here, she said. I really am. She began to lift herself up but then paused and dropped back onto the ground. She looked at me, and then she looked past me toward the end of the spit, as though she were calculating the distance.

“Wherever you go,” she said, “wherever you end up—there you are.”

This time it was I who could offer no answer, even though it had not really been a question. I felt my tipsy joy begin to evaporate, the gin and tonic settling flat and cold in my stomach. I already missed the warmth of the sand.

The clearing was a dreary place, even in the summer. It was shaded by a stand of tall pines. The outfitter stored his retired boats there, and various pieces of broken and abandoned machinery. There was an old tarp covering the floor of the reefer truck, to catch the blood of the hanging carcasses, and it occurred to me it could be useful for carrying back the dog. How could it be that I was now somebody who had such thoughts! Was this what being practical was? Was this being happily enmeshed in the world?

I was pretty sure the dog’s hearing was mostly gone, but when I pulled back the bolt on the rifle, she looked up. She was expecting to see a grouse. But seeing none she returned to her milk bones. She chewed them slowly.

After a while, it was as though I could see every one of the gray hairs about her muzzle and hear each separate poplar leaf flicker and the wing of every fly beating in the air, and even feel the slight tremor in the earth beneath my feet as the worms began their hungry ascent toward the surface. I would experience this same sensation later—at bedsides and in white corridors and in certain recollected minutes and hours—but I will never know more vividly the terrible intimacy and clarity of last moments than I did in that clearing, watching an ancient dog eat milk bones.

I ended up sitting down on the grass beside her. I rubbed her ears.

“Hey there, old thing,” I said.

I didn’t know exactly how old she was. My girlfriend had told me how this dog had been her one constant companion—through failed love affairs and family estrangements and brief lives in other places. And then as we’d lain in bed the night before, she’d told me how she felt her love for it had morphed into a cruel and selfish desire to eke out its dwindling life, one she could take no pleasure in. She’s suffering, she’d said, and there’s only one thing that can stop it. But how can you tell how much she’s suffering? I’d asked. Why decide now? Because if I don’t decide, then I’ll just keep on not deciding, she’d said.

“What are we going to do with you,” I whispered to the dog.

I scrabbled for alternatives, some useless, some cowardly. I would walk her far into the woods and abandon her. I would ask the outfitter or the fire fighter to shoot her.

The milk bones were almost done.

“What are we going to do,” I shouted.

The dog looked up at me and I held her around her neck and pressed my face deep into her matted coat, which was rank with all the years that had gone and all the ones that would not be. “And so here we are,” I wept. “Here we are.” And when I released her from my arms, she bent down to the bones again and I picked up the rifle and shot her in the back of the head.

Afterward, I wrapped her in the tarp and dragged her back to the house.

My girlfriend had already decided where she wanted the dog to be buried: on a rocky point at the edge of the bay. She hadn’t wanted to see its body, and so I rowed her out there on my own. A breeze had begun to blow across the lake and the boat thumped gently over the crests of the small waves. One of the dog’s paws had come loose from the tarp and its nails scraped across the aluminum bottom, in almost the exact same rhythm as they’d done against the floorboards in the morning. When I arrived, I removed the tarp and lay her down on the moss between two cedars. There was too little earth for a burial.

I would return there only once. I had not been up here for some time—an amount I could not then bring myself to properly measure or calculate, to unpick from the blurry gray knot it had all become. At first there was no sign of her at all, but eventually, I dug my hands into the moss and found a few small bones. The eagles and vultures and foxes had left nothing else.

I rowed out there on my own that time too. I’d had to borrow a boat from the outfitter, and as I returned past the dock, I could see the winter ice had warped some of its boards. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t stop off at the house, but in the end I couldn’t help myself. I’d noticed one thing before I reached the door, and that was enough for me. Even though it was getting toward evening, there were no mosquitoes on the window screen. There was no longer anything inside to draw them to it.

And that was because of another decision. And how did you learn to live with a decision like that? What was it that you had to do? And what here was there where you could do it?