Another relationship. This time, a big time country music star. His voice resonates within the cabin walls so satisfyingly low and true. We are garbage people. He sits on the couch in bare feet and I hand him a cup of coffee. We watch the dogs and the dogs knowingly entertain us. They are so different from one another.
Finley. Independence. One hundred pounds of slow and unsteady. He limps badly and his ears are made of velvet. Scratch them and he groans so loud and heavily that it feels as though your relieving his heaviest burden. He loves the taste of blood. He comes home every morning with something he’s killed, rabbits, grouse, many of my chickens and once a fawn.
Yus. Quick, fast and sharp. Her yellow eyes watching, burning holes into you. Her gait is long and her undercoat is made of wool. Her ears sit back when she hints she’s losing a stare down, or when she feels any kind of fear or guilt. One of them permanently sliced from when she came home one day this spring with blood down her ear and neck. The back of her hair stands on end when something or someone she doesn’t trust is near. She growls deeply and menacingly. She’s only howled once that I know of. My hair stood on end at the wildness of it and goosebumps prickled at my arms and legs. The wolf in her shining through.
“There’s something not right with Finley though..” I trail off. “Everything’s fine with him one day and he’s good and patient, and then another side of him comes out – he attacks me. It takes a long time to be able to trust him again after.” I had been back standing in the kitchen telling country star this and Finley lay next to him on the couch watching. I walk back to the couch and ask Finley to get off. He stares at me standoffishly. As if on cue I reach to pull him off and faster then I can blink that death growl comes out of him and he’s bitten my forearm. I laugh nervously and go to stand on the couch in “his” space. He doesn’t give a fuck. “Finley. Get down.” I firmly threaten, embarrassment creeping in masking a fear I thought I had overcome. I have never been afraid of dogs. Especially my own dogs, but something was wrong with this one. He finally, slowly gets off, and shoots me a look that blatantly spells that I lost anyway. “What .. the fuck.” Country star sees, well, what I had just been telling him. I look down at the gouges in my arm.
Once weeks before this I came home and saw the neighbours were at the house next door on the ridge, and I knew they hated the dogs.. but fuck them. We live here too, I thought. Finley shot straight over there and I saw what I hadn’t before, a toddler playing in the grass. I saw too quickly the look that crossed Finley’s face and saw the toddler teetering towards him, not seeing the danger that I saw. My blood turned cold as I ran to try and retrieve him. Someone at the neighbours saw too and quickly grabbed the boy and said something about, “We don’t know that dog, stay away.” Finley came back on his own and I knew then. Layla was going to be having a baby, her due date was June 28th. I wanted my place to be a safe place for that baby. All of the excuses and things I had forgiven of that dog that deserved him to be put down I couldn’t ignore anymore. I’ll never forget the look on his face, the same look of excitement and thrill that crossed his face before setting in to kill.
The following weeks I knew what I had to do but couldn’t. How could I, he was a good boy. He could be so sweet and good. A friend pointed out the similarities in how women talk about abusive boyfriends. He seemed extra sweet with me in these weeks. He let me in his space and I lay on the floor cuddled up to him looking at his big eyes and his scarred up big head.
“Then don’t,” he replies.
I weigh out options. What if the leg was amputated from the hip so he wasn’t in so much pain anymore. What if as he got older he mellowed out more. What was I saying, he was mellow. He just loved the taste of blood.
One day I went to the pub with a friend. A few beers in I confess what’s been weighing on me. I lay out the possible options. This friend happens to have a dog with a leg amputated, from the hip down. That dog had been run over too. “That cost $2000…” He says it as if he wishes he didn’t have to be the one to say it. I’m pitifully surviving on ei over this spring breakup. My current debt and bills have me gripped tightly at the throat. I think of Facebook posts of “If you can’t afford a vet bill you shouldn’t have a dog.” I am a horrible owner. I can’t afford the surgery. But also, there was no garuntee that amputation would heal the spontaneous aggression. These attacks happened both before and after he was run over.
I take half an hour to clear my head before asking him.
“Okay. Come get me”
I can’t believe it.
I start sobbing as I feel my heart start to break. No.
We drive to the cabin and I can’t stop crying. I open the door and he limps out on to the deck happy to see us, tail wagging. “You can tell he’s in a lot of pain, you can see it.” We watch him briefly as he limps and waits for some kind of greeting. We load him into the truck and head to Finley’s favourite place. Not a veterinarian’s clinic. The ice is covering the secluded lake still and Finley runs and runs, tongue lolling out and he’s forgotten his badly healed hip. The sun is setting and we throw sticks for him to fetch on the ice and Finley is in heaven.
“Get out of the way.”
I’m pushed back and a single crack broke through the quiet setting sun and echoed across the great expanse of ice. The ringing in my ears made it hard for me to remember that I had screamed after the silence that fell. A quietness akin to that of the world after a heavy snowfall. He had fallen instantly and still, it had been a perfect shot through the heart. I ran over the ice and crumpled. His last stick thrown, patiently waiting twenty some limped steps away from him. How could I have done this. I wailed uncontrollably. I loved that dog so much I may has well of put a bullet through my own heart.
I don’t think I’ve ever completely come undone around anyone but him. He’d seen it when I had lost control of my emotions – through stress and fear. He was the only person I could have trusted with this.
Sometimes to keep from completely breaking it’s to keep someone else from it. He paced the thawing beach and wouldn’t face me, arms over his head. I looked down at Finley’s lifeless body. Sometimes we keep on for the living.
“It’s okay.” I force myself to say calmly. I wipe tears from my eyes and exhale heavily. Suddenly I’m filled with a feeling I couldn’t have pictured. Relief. I pictured all the toddlers that would be safe now, I pictured Layla’s newborn baby that would be here soon.
If nothing else he loved dogs just as much as I do.
I gather my brokenness and stand up on the ice. Surprised that I hadn’t fallen through. I look down at the lifeless Finn.
He doesn’t want to.
“Please.” I beg.
We pick him up and a lifeless one hundred pounds feels like two hundred. We stagger the distance over the ice and to the box of the truck and put him in.
“I thought I could do it…” He trails.
“I’m happy you did. You did a good thing.” I knew this was true and hid how hard it was for me to convince myself too.
“My dogs getting old. You better be there for me when that day comes.”
“What just happened.”
The world is dark and spinning.
“Are you fucking serious right now.”
“I don’t remember.”
And I didn’t. Shock had caught up to me and I couldn’t remember. Everything was in the wrong order and I felt like I was going to pass out all the sudden.
In the past when shock like this comes on or an anxiety attack is setting in, I’ll ask questions. Holding on and honing in on the details of a bit of someone’s story or life to keep from falling into the void that is my own.
Tell me about the day your daughter was born.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever come across in the woods.
If you could go anywhere where would it be.
It’s not that bad is it – I once asked many years ago, moments after having my face smashed in with a rock looking foggily in a mirror through a split open eyeball.
He walks me perfectly through every detail. I try and hold on to each line clutching dearly to never forget. I can’t remember what he said now and couldn’t remember the details until I drove back the next day and saw that last stick lying on very thin ice, a shell lying by my feet.
We brought Finley home.
He didn’t want to help me move him again. I tried by myself and I couldn’t hold on. I felt horror as I felt him slipping out of my arms and I dropped him.
“Fuck Cassandra,” he hissed.
We layed him on the new deck. I took off my long heavy knit sweater and covered him. Safe.
Truck idling in his driveway I could hardly see. I don’t know how we made it there. I see now why people headed to funerals drive with their hazard lights on. “Can we just..” my voice trails off and I can’t bring myself to say it.
“Can we just what.”
He walks inside and shuts the door.
I look at the dash and my low fuel light is on. Fuck.
I drive to the 24 hour gas station and it isn’t self serve. I get a hot cup of tea to try and calm my shaking hands and suddenly I remember that there’s a big blood stain in the back of my truck. I don’t remember paying but walking out to the attendant who’s looking at me like I’m insane. I can’t imagine what I look like. “You have to move closer.” The words don’t make sense. “I can’t fill you up your too far from the tank” I get in and I can’t stop shivering. I pull ahead and as he fuels up the rusting red Chevy I stand there dumbly and then look at him and bluntly ask if he’s ever had to put down his own dog. I must have looked like a maniac. He shook his head. A look crossed his face, pity drenched in fear.
I somehow got home and sobbed as I walked across the steps into the house. I grabbed all my new crisp white bedding and came back out on the deck and covered us both. I held him and cried my entire heart out. At one point he let out a big, big sigh. I don’t know why but it was so comforting to hear. That last sigh I will never forget.
I must have gone to bed at some point in the night. The early spring night had turned very cold.
I woke up and before I remembered what had happened I looked down to see my white bedding horrifyingly stained burnt red. I keep hearing my phone ringing but it sounds so far away. I get up and walk downstairs and find it next to him, still ringing. It’s my mom. I tell her what happened.
When I come back upstairs I catch a glimpse of myself. My eyes are nearly swollen shut and look almost bruised. I go back to bed and lie there numbly. Tears weep out and won’t stop. When Yus sees him on the deck she looks back at me hesitantly. I feel sick. I am sick. I spend the day in and out of the outhouse and in and out of bed.
The ground is still frozen.
I get a hold of a neighbor with an excavator, he is used to death. He offers to bury him where he’s got the excavator working along a new fence line he’s putting in but I want him home. I go to his house later for tea and I’m surprised at how collected I pretended to be. On the inside I was so full of grief I felt numb.
“You should have asked me to do it.” He says.
“No.” I think to myself.
I couldn’t have let him see my brokenness.
That night I sleep without blankets and keep a fire going. I can’t get the smell of iron out of my nose.
It is so quiet. Yus is so quiet.
I lie there and try to sleep. For the next few weeks every time I close my eyes I hear that shot ring out and see him collapse. Over and over and over. I’m afraid to close my eyes.
The third day is calm. I can see now maybe the solace that comes from a First Nations traditional wake. Having the body with you brings a kind of peace and acceptance.
I have to keep checking on him. I have to know he’s safe, that no bears taken off with him. That day as the sun started to set I could hear tracks rattling down the dirt road. All of the sudden a panic started to rise and I couldn’t let him go. The tracks slowly got closer and closer and I lay with my head on his chest and cried so fucking hard. No.
“You were a good boy Finley.” I keep repeating. “I’m so, so sorry.”
The excavator is at the end of the driveway and I show him the spot. Finley loved sitting at the end of the driveway. I hated it because I thought he would get hit again. It was a good spot. My neighbour walks with me up the driveway admiring the new deck.
My neighbour is an avid (avid being such an understatement) hunter and trapper. He is used to death. He grabs Finn by the back legs and drags him to the hole he’s dug. I watch in horror. We could have carried him. And then I think, well I guess Finley couldn’t feel it. As I walk helplessly behind watching him bounce down the driveway I smell it. It was time. Time for him to be buried. Time for me to say goodbye. I bring down his favourite blanket, his favourite toys, and the bedding I couldn’t wash the smell of iron out of. I lay his favourite one down first. He goes on top of this with his favourite toys. I cover him with the white bedding and black soil covers him. I couldn’t and still can’t stand the thought of cold earth touching him. The blankets would be his barrier. His son in law showed up just as the last bit covered Finn and gave me a solemn look. As they left I walked back to the cabin in the light of the pink setting sun and grabbed the roses. I came back down and placed them on his fresh grave.
He wasn’t just a dog. He had been there when nobody was. He had been everything. On days when I didn’t want to go on I carried on for him, and when Yus came along her too. “I have to get dog food.” – I have to carry on. “I have to make it home.”- I have to be there for my dogs.
Yus had her own way of grieving. Both of them had always been obsessed with rocks. Carrying rocks. Throwing rocks for themselves. Tucking rocks into their cheeks. Yus that day and for the next week brought him rocks.
Days after he was buried I heard Yus barking from downstairs. Not just barking but desperately barking at something. I looked out the big downstairs window to see a big black dog sitting at the end of the driveway. No. Fucking. Way.
All reason and logic aside I ran out the door crying. I only got a little ways outside the house before I saw a woman walking, with more dogs. It was her big black dog. I felt so stupid.
For just a moment I thought it was him.