Of Love and Other Dogs
by Mollie Murray
There are three principles to remember if you are to teach a human being anything, and they are consistency, consistency, consistency. They are such frail creatures to begin with, with poor eyes, poorer hearing, and no sense of smell left to speak of, it’s no wonder they are made of fear. Some centuries ago they moved inside and with that move went nine-tenths of their intuition. It is almost unmerciful to make them live so long when they spend their lives in so much pain.”
–Dante #1, “Sight Hound,” Pam Houston
When John calls to tell me that his dog-sitter turned out to be a flake, I say, yes, I’ll watch his dog, even though secretly I have always wanted him to get rid of her. One of the advantages of dating your good friend is that you know a lot about his past girlfriends. One of the disadvantages of dating your good friend is that you know a lot about his past girlfriends. From one of these women, he ended up with the dog, which is, all things considered, better than ending up with the kid. Neither of them were his to begin with.
He is fighting wildfire in the Mat-Su Valley of Alaska; he says it is one of those things he needs to do before he settles down. When he says it like that, I have to fight off the impulse to tell him he can do anything, whatever he wants, if when he says settling down he really means with you. I am taking care of sled dogs, a thing I have to do to overcome my fear of relationships. It helps that in caring for the dogs, I am necessary. I live with the dogs on the top of a hill that overlooks Kachemak Bay.
In the time before we were dating, John left Sadie at a party. In the morning, I let his dog out with my two and walked a ways down the snowy road until I came across his car. The dog practically lived in that car, went everywhere with him and slept on the back seat while he taught class. I opened the back door and she jumped in. I found the key in the center console and put the windows down to give her some air. I left John a message that his dog was in his car, and left for work.
A few hours later, when John woke up and found her, she had chewed every last seatbelt in half. I have always thought it had something to do with the ex-girlfriend.
A few years later, I hear myself admitting to John that his dog has come a long way.
“She just needed someone to be nice to her,” he says.
“Look at us,” he says, “we’re those bleeding heart types that ended up with three crazy pound dogs because we felt sorry for them.”
Since he inherited her, Sadie has worn a thin black leather collar with a pink heart-shaped tag. This says a lot about her past owner and probably a lot about Sadie’s identity crisis when she woke up one morning to the reality of living with John. She probably took one look at those hunter green plaid sheets, shook her head—pink name tag rattling against the metal buckle of her collar—and sat down by the cabin door to wait for her owner to take her back to an apartment in Anchorage. She probably waited a very long time, thinking, this can only be temporary. And then she became John’s dog, and I have never understood why he didn’t take off that tag.
Today, to the great dismay of my two dogs, Sadie and I went into town alone to do a little shopping. I slipped the delicate collar over her head—pink jingles and all—and told her to wait in the car. The woman who owned the store pointed out the collar selection. “These are usually for sled dogs,” she said, pointing to one side, “and those are for pet dogs. But I don’t know which you’re looking for today.”
I picked out a blue sled dog collar. As an afterthought—a concession—I put it back and picked out a purple one. After all, I thought, she is a girl. At the counter, I made excuses. “I like these because they’re sturdier,” I said. “I like that there’s a big ring to clip a line to.” Back in the car, I slipped the new collar over Sadie’s head and adjusted it. She licked my face and sat up, I thought, a little straighter in the front seat. When we got home, after I plied my dogs with treats, I took out a permanent marker and scratched ‘SADIE’ on the back of the collar.
If you’re thinking this is about possession, it is not; it is about treating a dog how a dog ought to be treated. It’s about bonding. It’s about how relationships can change, and suddenly you can be downright giddy to be living, as you do, in the present moment.
The dogs sing the morning into being when they awake to frozen ground and the clean white of winter. It is mid-May. By 9 the roof is already dripping; larger chunks of rain-snow clamor against the fuel tank and fall into heaps on the ground. I wonder if the ground feels this extended winter as confusion. The cottonwoods have already begun to bud. The chives have pushed a few green shoots up through the alternately freezing and thawing mud in the garden. We all seem to share this anxious vigil for the new season.
Later, when the dogs start to sing again, a new voice joins the chorus. It is a rich, deep tenor, long and whole and cathartic, as if this one note has waited an eternity to be held. Maggie sits at the edge of the porch, snout pointed to the sky, black ears drawn back against the ruff of her neck.
This is my dog who growls at bears in the darkness outside the tent, who barks at moose in the daylight on the hillside, and who gives a murder-inducing, high-pitched squeal to everything else.
She sings with the best of them, her clear tenor ringing out over the alto and soprano chorus of the pack—and even after they are done her story rings out, and then falters, and then she licks her chops and tucks her head down and surveys the world, I believe, with new eyes.
When I met John, he still drove around with his ex-girlfriend’s clothes in his car. When I asked him about it, he shrugged. I’d heard the stories: she didn’t like Alaska, had left him suddenly after three years, had moved to the Dakotas instead. She was a horse person. John invited me to dinner at his cabin and I took my two dogs along, fearing that he might consider the dinner a date. Maggie marched through the door, up the stairs to the loft, and hiked her leg to pee on the corner of John’s bed. I apologized, laughing, and figured that was that. We cleaned up Maggie’s mark, and then we found ourselves staring at each other over the bed, suddenly unacquainted.
Back downstairs, I rambled on about falling in love with a childhood friend of mine. I told John that he—this friend—was going to move to Alaska, that we were going to make a go of it. I spoke a little too fast; John eyed me warily. After a string of improbable and failed relationships, I had appointed Magnolia—yes, my dog, a female who hikes her leg—as my relationship counselor, and she had delivered a verdict. Still, we enjoyed our dinner. We ate a dish that John had learned to make while living in South Korea, and we talked about adventures: those we had taken, those we planned to take, those we knew we probably would never take. We became friends. Even Maggie, in the years to follow, came around, though she caused him plenty of trouble—namely, running away for two days at fifty below—before she did.
As I was feeding the dogs, a chain emerged from the new grass, snagged my foot and threw me to the ground. The five gallon bucket I had been carrying broke my fall, but also knocked the wind out of me. Blood-soaked dog food and chunks of moose meat spewed across the grass. A few feet away, Shaman pranced at the end of his chain and barked for his breakfast.
I rose and spun around, but there was no one to blame. I scraped what I could out of the clingy weeds, mumbling cuss words. It was impossible to get it all. Falls of this sort are easier to put to rest when they are witnessed, laughed at, but I was angry—I don’t fall well—I needed to yell at someone to ease the tension. I wanted to kick the chain, pull it from the ground where it was staked, hurl it toward the bay. I wanted not to be so stupid, so clumsy. I looked around the yard and out to the closest neighbors, to the hay fields that border their houses, but only the dogs had seen. Better to live alone, I thought. Had John been there, I would have lashed out at him and then regretted the lashing out. I brushed off my work pants, took up the greasy bucket, and resumed feeding.
In Fairbanks, winter becomes hallucinatory. The darkness is tempered only by the reflection of light off of the snow. My first winter with Magnolia¬—her first winter ever—we lived in a small neighborhood comprised mostly of cabins; on one side a creek and a trail, on the other the Parks Highway.
The diesel stove struggled to keep the temperature inside above 50°F. I tried to pretend the red hot glow of the burner through the grate was a wood fire. I lodged pillows against the bottom of the door and nailed the heaviest blanket I could spare to the wall above the doorframe so that it would keep in some of the heat, or keep out some of the cold, I wasn’t sure which.
The dramatic loss of light during November had made me sleepy, but as the nights grew ever longer my body seemed to forget when to sleep and when to wake, so that I sometimes rose at two or three in the morning to climb down the ladder from the loft, turn on the light and grade papers, read, listen to music.
On this December night, the moon was full and Maggie’s eyes turned wild. She was at my side the moment I descended and she whined softly. We had, with great difficulty, emerged from the era of house-training, and I knew she did not need to go out at such an hour. I looked out at the snow, which burned in the moonlight¬—a deep, blue glow—and I reached for my boots. Her squeal rose in pitch and fervor while I put on my bulky down coat and picked up the leash. By the time I had cleared the doorway enough to actually open the door, I could barely contain the wild animal at the other end of the leash. (How hard I have worked in the span of her years to keep that leash in my hand, and how determinedly she has pulled against it.) We descended the frozen stairs in a blur and reached the end of the driveway before I could think about where we might be going.
In the middle of the street, my instinct was to stand still, as still as the world stood around me. Already the inside of my nose had frozen; the moist air of my exhalations condensed around tiny nose hairs, forming a buffer against the dry air. Maggie pulled against the leash and I stood my ground, bending my knees and elbows to absorb the shock. I considered the improbability of our existence in this silent, cold world. I would never be able to satisfy her desire for freedom; I would never grow a fur coat so thick as to be impenetrable. All around us, the stillness waited for me to give up.
I knelt on the hard-packed snow of the road and beckoned to her. I fumbled with the clip, my hand clumsy in the mitten. I released Maggie into the night, and I ran in the other direction. The cold air burned in my lungs, but I ducked and spun and, when I saw that she had followed me, I dove into the deep snow in the ditch that lined the road. She pounced on me, but I was already up, dancing, taunting her as I shook the snow from my hat and coat. She pranced around me in circles but did not bark, or squeal, or make any sound at all besides the sound that breath makes. In this manner we moved down the entire length of the road; we crawled through a patch of stunted spruce trees and we emerged onto the trail that led to the creek. We did not go to the creek, but we darted in and out of the snow on either side of the trail, sometimes on four points and sometimes on two, and rarely, briefly, we touched no ground at all. We tumbled back up the stairs of our tiny cabin and entered its warmth. I put on water for tea and rubbed my frozen face while Maggie shook the snow from her fur and licked the ice out of her paws.
But this is not how it happened at all. I knelt down in the middle of the street and when Maggie turned back to me I looked into her eyes; I saw all the wildness there, saw that she loved me but did not need me, and I kept the leash on.
The dogs exploded into barks and yips and piercing howls, unlike the song of sunrise, or the contented song of full bellies. This was the song of alarm. All around the yard, dogs were looking in, all the ears and eyes pointing in one direction: the fence where Farmer lived. I could not see Farmer, the blue-eyed, picture-perfect husky who lived in a fenced pen close to the musher’s house, and I could not see the blur of a loose dog terrorizing the yard; I put on my boots and walked over to the fence. When I rounded the corner and peered into his house, I saw two back legs: one protruding from the entrance, stiff and electric, and the other braced against the underside of the plywood roof.
I raced to the musher’s empty house and returned with a bottle that I found in the fridge, in that sectioned off shelf in the door where the butter usually goes. Farmer had seizured before, last summer, had almost died. I removed the roof of his house and gave the medicine to him as an enema. I dipped my hands into his water bucket and rubbed them under his armpits to cool him down. I spoke to him softly, as if I could cure the seizing dog by will. I lifted his trembling body out of the house and carried him to the quiet, dark kennel in the mudroom. I sat with him, spoke to him through the open door of the kennel. I could hear the rest of the dogs in the yard settling down, now that he was out of sight. I called the vet.
“I gave him the epidural,” I yelled into the phone. My hands were shaking. When the vet was silent, I considered what I had said. “Not the epidural, the el—the en—”
“The valium?” she asked.
“Yeah, that gooey stuff with the syringe,” I answered. “There wasn’t much left.”
“It should take effect within the half hour,” she said.
They were mild seizures, only every so often mounting into the back arch, distorted body kind of seizure, but he couldn’t break out of them. He foamed slightly at the mouth, his head twitched, and twice he threw up. I took deep breaths; I laid my hand on his shaking paw. I was more afraid of my failure as his caretaker than I was of the possibility of his death. Only later did I realize that I was scared to call his owner, the musher; I was certain she would somehow determine the seizure was my fault. Eventually, though, he seemed to cross into the disorientation that follows the seizure. I took him into town and the vet injected him with phenobarbital. When he got that stoned look in his eyes and his ears stopped twitching, the vet released Farmer and we drove back up the hill. I brought him inside for the night, and at one point I woke up to hear him snoring in the kennel.
Before John, there were others. I had a habit of keeping close male friends who were possibly in love with me, of dating charismatic men who I instantly fell for. Of being devastated when, inevitably, these relationships ended dramatically. I expected love to hurt, and when it didn’t I couldn’t recognize it. Nice guys scared me more than those who were potentially dangerous.
When my friend Kristin and I moved into a garage loft in Willow to work with sled dogs, we didn’t know that we would spend a winter apart from the worries of men. We were green to Alaska, isolated, and we kept to ourselves. Once a week we ate dinner with the family of mushers that employed us, and the rest of the week we spent with the dogs, or with each other. We knew each dog by name, knew his quirks of personality and her eating habits. At night we lay in our beds, closed in by plywood, and spun narratives involving the dogs. Le Blanc had a crush on Etta, even though they were both from the same litter, named after jazz musicians. Ace wanted to be our house dog, and Zodiac had danced with wolves way off somewhere in the remote Arctic. We checked out cookbooks from the library, tried new recipes. We watched all five discs of the BBC’s “Plantet Earth” series. We practiced our respective arts: Kristin drew, and I wrote.
In the spring we would part ways, begin new lives, forget the names of the dogs in Willow; that winter, I learned a different way of life, one that didn’t require a man. I shed a layer of my skin, discarded some of the old voices in my head and the notions about what women should and shouldn’t do. These ideas would come back to haunt me, but I was learning to put up a fight.
Technically, I stole my dog. It was kind of like that feeling you get when you realize that you are happy and you feel sure it will not last very long, so you push it as far as it will go, even into ecstasy. You laugh so hard that you begin to cry. And then you feel better, because honestly, the happiness is a little scary.
There was a dog musher in Talkeetna who had several accidentally pregnant dogs. My friend and I, knowing that he had more dogs than he could afford to feed, knowing that we had both worked with sled dogs before, went to visit the kennel and ask about the puppies.
“I’m not giving them away,” he said, and laughed. “I’d want $200 for them, at least.” His too-thin girlfriend stood behind him and watched us. Perhaps the way it went for him was the opposite: that you are slipping, and you feel it, feel the desperation of it, so you grasp at anything you can get your hands on. You think, $400 will be enough to feed those twenty or so pups. Sure it will. $400 will change everything.
A month later, when we heard that he had skipped town with only half of his dogs, my friend returned to the kennel and found Snoopy and her pups. But Snoopy was sick, close to dying, and her non-immunized pups had died of Parvo, all except for two, which my friend pulled from underneath the dog house. They wriggled, pissed on her, and tried to crawl back under the house, into darkness and safety. All around the yard, dogs were sick at the end of their chains. They had not been fed. Neighbors called Animal Control, but Animal Control was delayed in responding due to the overwhelming number of dogs. Later, the dogs that could be saved were divided amongst local mushers, who gave them good homes and happy, active lives. Magnolia and her sister, Birch, were delivered into my arms—two little balls of fur, carrying the names of trees—and I held them close to me, up against my belly.
The local veterinary clinic provided Maggie’s shots for free—they said I had done her a great service—but I lived in fear, those first few weeks of our life together, that her original owner would return to claim her. That he would confront me in the street, demand that I pay my $200. That he would take back what I could not possibly deserve, the happiness I had stolen.
As we walked with my dogs on top of Murphy Dome in Fairbanks, John and I planned how we would operate a hypothetical dog yard. Sadie had come into his life at this point, but was not yet his dog.
“It’d be like this,” he said. “One person would have to have a really great seasonal job, say, fighting fire. A job where you had the potential to make some money. And the other person would live out somewhere, like Eureka, with the dog team. You could spend the winter together, running dogs. Hunt for meat, burn wood. Live cheap.”
“Better if you could alternate seasonal jobs,” I said. “Keep a steady income of sorts. But then you’d never be together.”
“Trouble is you’d have to be in a relationship with someone who wanted to do that,” John said.
“Right,” I said.
I had gotten a second dog, Lindsey, from the pound, on the heels of a nasty break-up. I thought that she would be a better companion than my last boyfriend, and she was. She even snored like a man, in a way I found comforting. She needed me, and like a true pound dog, she could be very destructive when she didn’t get what she needed. My car still bears the wounds of her early insecurities. Today my two dogs ran around the top of the hill together; they tousled and chased each other.
“Maggie’s grown up,” I said out loud. “She’s really calmed down, listens to me. I think one day she’ll be the perfect dog.”
John laughed. “Keep dreaming,” he said.
When the barking started, we both ran toward the sound. Earlier we had passed a couple with guns and a dog; they were hunting grouse, and I figured Maggie had taken off to terrorize them. John ran faster and when I looked up from struggling through the leggy willows, he raised a hand and signaled me to stop.
“She’s got a moose,” he said. Maggie’s barking grew loud as she neared us, and then faded as she moved away. She was herding the poor beast, first up the hill, and then down, into the valley below, where we lost sight of them. When they came back up again, I groaned.
“Three moose,” I said. “Mama and two babies.”
Maggie circled the fear-stricken family, darting in to nip, then lunging to the right or left. The angry mother stomped the ground exactly where my dog had stood a half-second before. For a moment I was struck by the sheer beauty of her athletics; then the moment passed, and I prepared to watch my dog die. One slip of the paw in the dirt, one inch more of precision on the part of the moose, and my nimble athlete would be crushed by a thousand pounds of meat.
Of course, I yelled. I called her sweetly, then begged and threatened. Lindsey whimpered at my side. Occasionally, she made a false start, as if she were ready to come to her sister’s rescue, but, maybe it wasn’t needed just yet. Maybe she’d wait on the sidelines, where it was safer. And really, what kind of idiot gets in between a Mama moose and her babies?
As the afternoon wore on—one hour, then two—I withdrew further and further into that dark space in my soul. It can’t go on forever, I thought. You’re going to bury that dog. Silly girl, you thought you could keep her. You thought there was some unbreakable bond between her and you. You don’t even know her. Maggie grew hoarse, her barks softer.
John was perplexed by my reaction. He ran behind the quartet as they danced into the valley, and he trotted up the hill when they turned around. He put me into my car and drove it down to a road that bisected the hill in the hope that Maggie might follow us. “What do you normally do when this happens?” he prodded.
“Wait,” I replied. For her to come back or not.
“She’s scared of gunshots,” I said, and he was off again. He flagged down a truck and the driver stepped out of the vehicle and discharged his firearm into the air. Maggie, who in the past had appeared out of thin air and crawled into my lap at this sound, did not show. We listened as the echo of her hoarse bark drifted away from us.
“Maybe we should go,” I said after a while. “You should go. I’ll take you home and come back.”
“And then what are you going to do?” John asked.
“Get my dog,” I said. Dead or alive, I thought. I imagined that I wanted her dead. That when it was all over I could come back here, to the top of this hill, and bury what was left of her, and with her my shame. I wanted to take all of the wildness out of the world.
And then John was gone. I heard him moving through the willows downhill from where I sat; he followed the barks and grunts in a determined line.
“It’s not worth it!” I yelled after him. “Don’t be stupid.” A dog and a friend, I thought. Look how destructive you are.
I did not see it happen. I heard a thrashing in the bushes, and then John emerged, his hand through Maggie’s collar, pulling her along behind him with her front paws in the air. He walked a quarter mile like that, head down, trudging uphill with my dog. He didn’t speak when he brought her by me, just moved past and up toward the road, and the car. He was angry with me, or scared.
Later, as we drove toward town, John spoke. His voice was gruff. “That was close,” he said, “and dumb. I don’t want to do that again.” It felt like a rebuke, an acknowledgment that boundaries had been tested, or trespassed. Perhaps that something hidden had inadvertently been revealed.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and later, “Thank you.”
I didn’t speak to Maggie for days.
In the dogyard, solstice approaches with a heat wave. All around the dogs, wildflowers are beginning to bloom; first the lupine and the dandelions, and then I spot several chocolate lilies. The fireweed is waist high and growing. The wild roses appear here and there, and then the Jacob’s Ladder explodes in purple bunches. Solstice seems to bring all rhythms into one harmonious rhythm: a renewal. Here are the flowers we were promised in the dead of winter. And here, too, the beginning of winter’s approach. The flowers burst open in bloom and begin to die. In the yard, the dogs shed last winter’s fur in thick tufts. They begin to store the energy and nutrients required to build next winter’s coat.
I stand in their midst in shorts and a tank top. The air is calm and dense, like the sea stills when the tide is about to turn. I move from one dog to the next, brushing the chunks of old fur from their sides and bellies. I brush the minutes away into the long hours of light. We are poised here together, waiting for the darkness to return, and even as I am brushing, brushing, the daylight makes its final stand and retreats; a breeze picks up, out of the North. The dogs can smell it, they shift and shake. I wonder if they can feel the new fur growing, if their follicles deepen in preparation. I move among them, brushing, brushing, and when the fur comes loose I ball it up in my palm and toss it into the wind.
During the season Kristin and I lived in Willow, our mushers bred Miracle, the shyest female in the yard. By April she was quite pregnant and had been moved to her own pen, the large fenced-in area where the puppies of last year had lived. The mushers were leaving the state for two weeks and Kristin was off on a ski expedition to the Ruth Glacier, but calculations did not suggest that the dog would give birth while I was alone.
One night around two or three in the morning, I awoke to noise from the yard. It was not the sixty-dog chorus that meant someone was coming down the driveway, but something else. Once outside, I stood for a while to orient myself, and did not see anything amiss. The dogs were not straining at the end of their chains; they were just restless. Without really knowing why, I walked to the puppy pen and pointed the beam of my headlamp into Miracle’s house.
She was curled up in the corner of the large house and was licking a wet spot on the floor. I let myself into the pen. When I peered into the house again, I saw that on top of the wet spot was a small black pup. Miracle was cleaning her pup, which wiggled and squirmed against the pressure of her tongue. Alive, I thought, and I remembered to breathe. I had read and re-read the entire “Birth” section of the veterinary book the mushers had left me, just in case, so I knew that Miracle had just eaten the pup’s afterbirth, and also that the afterbirth would provide her with the essential nutrients to nurse that very same pup. I knew there was a “normal” interval between each birth, and I could tell I was making Miracle nervous, so I went back inside to wait for her next delivery.
I paced back and forth, set a timer on my phone. The mushers had told me a story once, about a bitch that had eaten all of her pups before they could get to them. An entire litter, gulped back down into her body. I chittered to myself. My timer went off, and I went back to Miracle to check on her. On the floor of the kennel, a little slick of greenish goo. Dead, I thought. Breech puppy. Stillborn. Stuck. The vet book said nothing about greenish goo. It was Miracle’s first litter. “Come on, girl,” I whispered to her. Surprisingly, she let me get close. I lifted her leg, checked out the existing pup. I decided to give it another ten minutes.
Two! There were two of them when I returned. The second pup had a white ring of fur around its neck, the rest of it black. I will call you Two. I wanted to remember their birth order. I wanted to remember everything about this moment, the darkness, the new life, the mystery of animal instinct. How did she know to lick the pups until they squirmed? To eat the afterbirth? I wondered what instincts I might have, what I would pass along to my offspring were I to give birth. Surely nothing so impressive: a tendency toward flight? a fear of commitment? a mistrust of kindness? Three more pups came, at normal intervals, until there were five, and Miracle was exhausted. She lay on her side and curled her body around the deaf and blind pups. In the coming weeks, their eyes would open, and then their ears. Tomorrow, morning would come, their first, and then another, until maybe one morning they would wake with expectations for what they might find.
It took a while for John to realize that I did not trust him, not the way I should. Once, I watched him take off his shirt in a bar to show a friend his tattoo. A girl from the neighboring table leaned over and asked him, loudly, to put his shirt back on, and he complied without embarrassment. I watched this episode as a friend, and somehow after we began to date the scene returned to me, again and again, as if to ask: how can you be with someone who has once done embarrassing things, things you would not do? Or this: the time he described to me, in detail, how perfect were the breasts of his girlfriend at the time. It was as if my mind was intolerable of an outsider, as if drawing close to another person posed a threat to its sanctity. How to be with someone you could not predict? John didn’t need me—I wasn’t necessary to him, just wanted. What would happen if I lost control?
My time on the hill with the dogs is halfway gone. July has arrived, and with it some rain and the feeling that fall could creep in unawares whenever it pleases. Out in the yard, the dogs wait for me. They dig deep channels through the clayish earth, channels that span as far as their chains can reach, and if I am not careful I will fall into these pits, again and again, as I move through their circles.
When I arrived in the spring, I thought, I have made a mistake. I have my own two dogs, my own life, and how can I ever feel affection for twenty-five more? I cared for their needs, did chores in the yard, but when I came back inside and sat down on the couch and my two girls curled up on either side of me, like they always have—noses tucked in under my thighs—I felt immense relief. Yes, this is us. We are us and they are something else, other.
When Rosie licked one of her paws completely raw—licked straight through the pad on the bottom of her foot—I was irritated with her. I knelt in the mud inside her pen and tried to clean out the paw. After soaking the wound in a kennel with Epsom salts and warm water, I dried the foot, wrapped it in a bootie, and took her back outside. But when I returned to change the bootie, she would not give me her foot, and then would not let me bend it so that I could look at the bottom. She turned back to me as if to bite—though I didn’t think she would—and when I released the paw she went gallivanting around her pen, alerting the entire yard to the atrocities of my doggie torture.
With one of my own, I would have saddled the dog, held it tightly between my knees, regardless of the screams or squirms or false nips. This is for your own good, I would have murmured through my clenched teeth. But Rosie was not my dog, and after blindly cleaning the wound and applying ointment, I let her go. I wrapped the Velcro of the bootie around a high fence link and let myself out. I watched her from the porch of the cabin, and every time she bent over the paw as if to lick, I growled. “I can see you, Rosie,” I called out. After a few days of this routine, the paw healed.
Now, only a few weeks later, I enter Rosie’s pen and she races toward me. I run my fingers under her collar, moving it and scratching her neck. She leans her whole dog body against my leg and twists her head to look up at me with her electric blue eyes. I scratch the fur behind her ears. I’ve fallen for her, I think. But when I close the door of her pen behind me and look out at the yard, I find I am mistaken. No, Feather’s the one. She folds her ears and lowers them to the side when she looks at me—just like Maggie does—and then they pop back up and her tail wags and she prances. But what about Ghost? The big white male crouches on top of his house, and his tail betrays him, thump-thump-thump against the wood. Soon I am in the back of the yard, rubbing Goblin’s shoulders as he rests his paws and chin on my belly. I am among friends. I think about the children’s story, “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie.”
If you give a girl a dog, she will ask you for another. Then she will bed down with her two dogs, and appear to be sleeping, but really she is dreaming of more dogs. When she awakens, she will give you those charming puppy eyes, and ask for another. Just four, she will beg, I only need four dogs to pull me through the woods. But soon, she wants to go faster. She wants to travel further with her dogs. Eight will do, she says, Eight is the perfect number of dogs. But by the time she hooks up the eighth dog, she is already dreaming of the Iditarod. She looks out in front of her team and she sees them, those extra dogs in harnesses straining against their tug lines, ready to run to Nome. And just before she pulls the snow hook, she turns back to look at you with those pleading eyes….
I become aware, again, of my love for all the dogs, regardless of ownership, and perhaps it is easier to love those dogs when I am not the one responsible, come winter, for figuring out how to keep them fed. When I do not pay their vet bills. Perhaps it is easier to love when all that is required of me is to be present, to care.
I wonder: did I fall in love with John simply by being present? I didn’t see it happen. When we spent time together, lots of time, in the woods, in canoes, on sleds or skis, in bars, complaining about our frustrating relationships, were we actually building a platform for something real to emerge? Were we giving ourselves the chance to fall in love naturally?
So when John asks if I will move with him to the Ozark Mountains to work in a small, rural school, I tell him I’ll consider it. I begin with dogs, or a memory of dogs. I’ve just pulled the hook and taken off into the snowy woods with my first eight-dog team. Six of them are puppies, who have only been running in harness for a few weeks. The instant we begin to fly down the trail, the dogs go silent. They begin to work. This rapid transition from cacophony to silence, from stasis to motion, is perhaps my favorite part of running dogs on a sled. My head is empty besides the thought of how to distribute my weight on the runners, or which way to lean around a curve so as not to flip.
We come around a bend in the trail and the trees appear more dispersed; we are nearing the creek, and we need to keep up speed, because it is late spring, and the trail across may not be as solid as it once was. “Let’s go, let’s go,” I call to the dogs.
But something is wrong. The pup on the left, in front of the wheel dogs, has thrown a leg over the gangline and tangled with the pup on the right. I slam my foot down on the brake, and the metal spike drives into the snow and stops us right in front of the creek, just as the pups begin to fight. The leaders—old, and usually reliable—look back over their shoulders and begin turning in on the team. I set the hook and run up to line them out. Then I pull the pups apart, untangle the lines, move the trouble maker forward and replace him with another pup. I do this out of necessity; I lack experience, and if I want to congratulate myself on solving this problem, I have only to wait until tomorrow, when I will flip the sled and be drug a quarter mile through deep snow while the musher, who happens to be following me with the snowmachine, looks on and laughs heartily.
But today I am alone in the woods with the dogs. I pull the hook and lift my foot off of the brake and we ease out onto Deception Creek. We gain speed—the dogs are excited to be moving again—and when we’ve blasted across the creek and gained the other side, I wipe the snot from my flushed face and smile.
I wonder what the Ozarks can teach me about life that dogs haven’t. I wonder if leaving Alaska will strip me of my freedom. I have promised myself that I will never follow a man anywhere. Though I am curious, though I am learning to trust John, I decide to tell him that I don’t want to go. I am, quite simply, afraid.
We have twenty-four hours to make a decision, because after that John will return to fight fire and lose phone service for another two weeks. The school needs an answer. We spend the day floating a section of the Knik River outside of Palmer. We put in on Hunter Creek and wind around through flooded drainages until at last we reach the broad channels of the river. The water is high, higher than John’s ever seen it, and I know that he is not happy about the three dogs I insisted we bring with us in the canoe. (The last time we took the dogs canoeing—to Tangle Lakes with Sadie’s former owner—Maggie split a herd of sixty caribou, driving half of them across the lake and the other half down a valley. “This is why you shouldn’t bring dogs into the wild,” John scolded. “They’re predators.”) But the river is relatively calm; we float, drink beer, and discuss our future.
I opened our discussion the night before with my argument: I was ready for a leap, but this one was too big, too far, too little notice. “What else, then?” John asked. We had schemed a bike trip to South America that would drain our bank accounts and bring us back to Fairbanks mid-winter.
“I don’t know,” I replied. It seemed that John, during his last two-week stint on fire, had decided the Ozarks were a good idea. I worried about where our disagreement would put us.
“I just want to reiterate something,” John said. “I’m not going without you. And I’m not going if you don’t want to go. I’m going if we decide this is a good opportunity for us.” Something clicked inside my head, then, something that had been waiting for this very moment, it seemed, to reveal itself to me.
“I think we should go,” I said.
“You do?” he asked. And then we switched places, and continued the dance.
On the river, we debate pros and cons. The clouds lift just enough to reveal the Knik Glacier behind us. “That’s what I love about living here,” John says. “It’s not that I’m ever going to climb on that glacier, or hike over the mountains behind it. But I have the potential to climb on that glacier and hike over those mountains.” I think about my recurring Iditarod dream.
“So maybe we should leave,” I say.
“We’ve done stupider things,” he says.
We round a bend in the river and hit a pocket of colder air. “Grab your dogs,” John says. “Moose on the bank.” When I spot the animal, it is loping away from us, away from the shore and into the willows. We are both looking at the bank, looking after the moose that has disappeared, and then the boat trembles and we hear a splash. From the glacial silt and water moving past us, Sadie’s orange and white head emerges. She gains land, shakes, and sprints after the moose, which we now see has a small calf in tow.
We watch and John yells as Sadie chases mother and child through trees and bushes and then up to the river’s edge. The Mama moose swims across the current and runs toward treeline on the opposite bank. Sadie circles the baby, nipping at it until it plunges into the cold water and Sadie jumps in after it. As we move downstream, the river in front of us transforms into a whirlpool of moose and dog—one barking, the other whimpering. They swim a circle in the middle of the current. We are both yelling at Sadie, now, and as we near them the calf looks up at us, bobs, blinks, and then breaks formation to swim directly toward the boat.
Now we are yelling at each other. I am holding both of my dogs with one hand and trying to paddle with the other; John steers us around the young moose and we try to circle in for Sadie but she has already moved away from us. “Sadie’s getting tired,” I yell. “The water’s cold!” I add, as if we don’t know.
“If she drowns that’s one less dog to move,” John says, his voice bitter, and I think I know what he is feeling.
“And if the baby drowns?” I ask. He doesn’t reply. He beaches the canoe on the bank and I step out, pulling Maggie and Lindsey out after me. The canoe drifts back out into the river.
“What are you doing?” John asks. “I can’t paddle this upstream by myself,” he says. I wade out to pull him in. The Mama moose is lurking somewhere in the trees behind us, and we can’t stay here long. He leaves me with the boat and walks upstream until he can get to where Sadie and the moose are swimming. When she hears him yelling from close by, a nearly exhausted dog turns and swims to her owner. I watch the young moose swim another circle solo and head to the shore. When they return to the boat, John looks around.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” he says.
On the drive back to the dogyard, I think about how I got to Alaska. Kristin called mid-summer and asked if I’d found a job. We had just graduated from college and I was staying with my parents in Savannah. When I told her I hadn’t, she replied that she hadn’t, either.
“I’ve always wanted to spend a winter in Alaska,” she said.
“I’ve got a Great Aunt in Alaska,” I said. A week later, I bought a plane ticket to Seattle, where we met to drive North in Kristin’s car.
As I drive up the hill, I feel a sense of peace. “Sometimes things happen for a reason,” I tell the sleeping dogs in the back of the car. Tomorrow, I will move through the yard, from dog to dog, greeting them, saying goodbye.
We will go, with our three dogs, to the rural Ozarks, where we will learn that our lives are limited, that we cannot choose where and when it is that we make a difference. The voices will return, the ones that focus on the proper place of a woman (with small children, in the home, powerless). They won’t just live inside my head, but in the words and eyes of my peers. We will flee the barren hills and windy roads, the windows that always have eyes peering out of them, and we will return to the North. In the Yukon, our three dogs stuffed in the backseat of the car, John will stop and declare that he is walking the rest of the way. He’ll slam the door when he gets out. I will seize the wheel, calm the dogs, and drive on. A mile later I will stop, roll the windows down, and listen to John scream my name over and over into the darkness as he runs toward the taillights.
We’ll make it. We’ll learn that accepting each other’s flaws is a daily chore, one that must be done over and over, that this is the repetitive work of love. We will choose this work rather than need it. We’ll return to the coast, to Kachemak Bay, to the dogs in the dogyard on the hill. I’ll make peace with the loss of control, the messiness of life with another. I’ll practice my confidence like an instrument. Our dogs will overrun the cabin. We’ll buy them beds and they’ll leave them empty, preferring the couch. They’ll crowd underneath the table when we eat. Together, we will dream of more dogs.
Mollie Murray is originally from coastal Ga. and now lives in Homer, Ala., where she works as a dog handler and a freelance journalist. She is a graduate of the MFA program at University of Alaska Fairbanks and her fiction has appeared in Ruminate. She recently completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail with her partner, John, and their dog, Magnolia.