Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960

   

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An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Farley Mowat, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, 1957

 

Death of Mutt


Death of Mutt:

April Passage –16-

It was raining when I woke, a warm and gentle rain that did not beat harshly on the window glass, but melted into the unresisting air so that the smell of the morning was as heavy and sweet as the breath of ruminating cows.

By the time I came down to breakfast the rain was done and the brown clouds were passing, leaving behind them a blue mesh of sky with the last cloud tendrils swaying dimly over it. I went to the back door and stood there for a moment, listening to the roundelay of horned larks on the distant fields.

It had been a dour and ugly winter, prolonging its intemperance almost until this hour, and giving way to spring with a sullen reluctance. The days had been cold and leaden and the wet winds of March had smacked of the charnel house. Now they were past. I stood on the doorstep and felt the remembered sun, heard the gibbering of the freshet, watched little deltas of yellow mud form along the gutters, and smelled the sensual essence rising from the warming soil.

Mutt came to the door behind me. I turned and looked at him and time jumped suddenly and I saw that he was old. I put my hand on his grizzled muzzle and shook it gently.

"Spring’s here, old-timer," I told him. "And who knows — perhaps the ducks have come back to the pond."

He wagged his tail once and then moved stiffly by me, his nostrils wrinkling as he tested the fleeting breeze.

The winter past had been the longest he had known. Through the short-clipped days of it he had lain dreaming by the fire. Little half-heard whimpers had stirred his drawn lips as he journeyed into time in the sole direction that remained open to him. He had dreamed the bitter days away, content to sleep.

As I sat down to breakfast I glanced out the kitchen window and I could see him moving slowly down the road toward the pond. I knew he had gone to see about those ducks, and when the meal was done I put on my rubber boots, picked up my field glasses, and followed after.

The country road was silver with runnels of thaw water, and bronzed by the sliding ridges of the melting ruts. There was no other wanderer on that road, yet I was not alone, for his tracks went with me, each paw-print as familiar as the print of my own hand. I followed them, I knew each thing he had done, each move he had made, each thought that had been his; for so it is with two who live one life together.

The tracks meandered crabwise to and fro across the road. I saw where he had come to the old Trespassers Forbidden sign, which had leaned against the flank of a supporting snowdrift all the winter through, but now was heeled over to as crazy angle, one jagged end tipped accusingly to the sky, where flocks of juncos bounded cleanly over and ignored its weary threat. The tracks stopped here, and I knew he had stood for a long time, his old nose working as he untangled the identities of the many foxes, the farm dogs, and the hounds which had come this way during the winter months.

We went on then, the tracks and I, over the old corduroy and across the log bridge, to pause for a moment where a torpid garter snake had undulated slowly through the softening mud.

There Mutt had left the road and turned into the fallow fields, pausing here and there to sniff at an old cow flap, or at the collapsing burrows left by field mice underneath the vanished snow.

So we came at last to the beech woods and passed under the red tracery of budding branches where a squirrel jabbered its defiance at the unheeding back of a horned owl, brooding somberly over her white eggs.

The pond lay near at hand. I stopped and sat on an upturned stump and let the sun beat down on me while I swept the surface of the water with my glasses. I could see no ducks, yet I knew they were there. Back in the yellow cattails old greenhead and his mate were waiting patiently for me to go so that they could resume their ponderous courtship. I smiled, knowing that they would not long be left in peace, even in their secluded place.

I waited and the first bee flew by, and little drifting whorls of mist rose from the remaining banks of snow deep in the woods. Then suddenly there was the familiar voice raised in wild yelping somewhere among the dead cattails. And then a frantic surge of wings and old greenhead lifted out of the reeds, his mate behind him. They circled heavily while, unseen beneath them, Mutt plunged among the tangled reeds and knew a fragment of the ecstasy that had been his when guns had spoken over other ponds in other years.

I rose and ambled on until I found his tracks again, beyond the reeds. The trail led to the tamarack swamp and I saw where he had stopped a moment to snuffle at the still-unopened door of a chipmunk’s burrow. Nearby there was a cedar tangle and the tracks went round and round beneath the boughs where a ruffed grouse had spent the night.

We crossed the clearing, Mutt and I, and here the soft black mold was churned and tossed as if by a herd of rutting deer; yet all the tracks were his. For an instant I was baffled, and then a butterfly came through the clearing on unsteady wings, and I remembered. So many times I had watched him leap, and hop, and circle after such a one, forever led and mocked by the first spring butterflies.

I thought of the dignified old gentleman of yesterday who had frowned at puppies in their play.

Now the tracks led me beyond the swamp to the edge of a broad field and here they hesitated by a groundhog’s hole, unused for these two years past. But there was still some faint remaining odor, enough to make Mutt’s bulbous muzzle wrinkle with interest, and enough to set his blunt old claws to scratching in the matted grass.

He did not tarry long. A rabbit passed and the morning breeze carried its scent. Mutt’s trail veered off abruptly, careening recklessly across the soft yielding furrows of October’s plow, slipping and sliding in the frost-slimed troughs. I followed more sedately until the tracks halted abruptly against a bramble patch. He had not stopped in time. The thorns still held a tuft or two of his proud plumes.

And then there must have been a new scent on the wind. His tracks moved off in a straight line toward the country road, and the farms which lie beyond it. There was a new mood in him, the ultimate spring mood, I knew it. I even knew the name of the little collie bitch who lived in the first farm. I wished him luck.

I returned directly to the road, and my boots were sucking in the mud when a truck came howling along toward me, and passed in a shower of muddy water. I glanced angrily after it, for the driver had almost hit me in his blind rush. As I watched, it swerved sharply to make the bend in the road and vanished from my view. I heard a sudden shrilling of brakes, then the roar of an accelerating motor — and it was gone.

I did not know that, in it’s passing, it had made an end to the best years that I had lived.

In the evening of that day I drove out along the road in company with a silent farmer who had come to fetch me. We stopped beyond the bend, and found him in the roadside ditch. The tracks that I had followed ended here, nor would they ever lead my heart again.

It rained that night and by the next dawn even the track were gone, save by the cedar swamp where a few little puddles dried quickly in the rising sun. There was nothing else, save that from a tangle of rustling brambles some tufts of fine white hair shredded quietly away in the early breeze and drifted down to lie among the leaves.

The pact of timelessness between the two of us was ended, and I went from him into the darkening tunnel of the years.

 
   
 

Adrienne Nater, 2008

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