We were walking in the woods, just like we did every day. We were in deep. She was ahead of me, about fourteen feet if I had to guess. The trees up there bent down and were genuflecting. They were heavy with some ice that came the previous night. The tiny jutting branches looked coated with blown glass. The sun was shimmering off of them and drenching us. The ground wasn’t covered with anything new, no snow, just damp leaves decomposing into the dirt. I was looking at the prints that we had left the previous day, and the day before that, and the day before that…
The air was full and it was crisp, you could feel every molecule of it enter your lungs and clean them off while it was in there. Then you could feel all of it exiting just the same as it came in. You could see it leaving, though, that was the difference. I thought about how it looked as it came out and disappeared and I wondered about just what was disappearing when it was doing that. What it was taking with it.
She was ahead, like I said, and she was looking at a cluster of dense brush low to the ground. She was up close to it, checking it out. She had her face buried in it, and it made me want to laugh so I laughed to the woods.
Slow down so I can catch up, I said, sounded paltry against the trees.
What ya doin’ up there?
She didn’t make any notice that I was talking to her, so I just let it go and quickened my step to get to where she was, face buried in the bush.
We had both worn a path into these woods from walking all the time, but it was nice to see. Nice to know that we were doing something out here where no one else was doing anything. When we started, it was just woods, woods and mud and fallen trees. No sign of anything that had come from anyone, no markings, engravings in the wood, garbage, remains of a fire, nothing. We walked the same route everyday, we made a path of our own, because we liked to do it and we liked to know that it was just us doing it. She especially loved it. She loved looking at all of the bugs and bent leaves. She loved to get really close to them. Take them in. She never complained about following the path, either. And we walked it every day.
Things weren’t so lively in the winter. Most of everything was dead or dying. It was all a pale shade of white. A thousand ghosts were just stuck there gliding around. It was really quiet in the winter, mostly, except for the crunches from the snow breaking beneath each step. But today, there was no snow. There was no sound. Just motion and just leftover white.
Ladybird, don’t you ignore me when I call fer you.
That got her attention. She turned her head, stared at me, blinked her black eyes for a couple of sets. Her nose pickled up as she was trying to distinguish something from the air. Her eyes got glassy.
You don’t want me to have to come over there and grab ya, I said.
She turned around and continued to sniff, the little puffs of her breathing turning the ice into streams. She was a distinguished winner four years prior in the regional dog show. First place: Bluetick mix. My parents had brushed her a lot that year, even though I brushed her a lot in years previous to that. Her coat was a brilliant mix of browns and blacks, all thrown onto a core of white. There was some gray jutting through these days in her old age. The ears that hung in her face were muting veils and she always threw them from it in a fury of flapping skin. Signature sunken eyes gave her the perpetually sad look, and even though she never was, I pretended that she was because I was.
She was twelve. I was fourteen. Don’t remember too much of my life before she was in it. Don’t remember any of it, actually. Do remember the first time she bit me, I think. I know it was the only time. I just got home from preschool and was showing my mom a picture of a chicken that I colored that day. My mom said Lady was jealous so she bit. She told me that I cried a lot, and then through my tears I went over to Lady and wrapped her on one on her nose. She whimpered, and so did I, and she hasn’t bit since.
I heard a cluster of ice on a tree snap and crumble in the distance. The sound came to me in slow waves, got into my head and filled it up. Swam around. Ladybird heard it, too, and she went stiff. Like she was fresh from the taxidermist. She dismissed it quickly and went back to pawing at the mushed ground. Aside from her sniffing, there came the silence again.
It was getting cold. I pressed my hands together like I was doing some sort of praying and I brought them up to my face. I blew into them with the soupy breath that was gurgling in my lungs. I didn’t wear gloves because I didn’t have anything other than thin gloves that didn’t do much protecting at all. The breath rushing between my hands caused them to burn and sting as the blood in them started to move again. They turned a pink like the sunset I wouldn’t see that night.
Lady was still trotting around the low bushes, but I had caught up to her. I plunged my hand deep into the corduroy pocket on my pants, fumbled around, pulled out a black horn-shaped pipe. Brought it up to my face, like I had done with my hands, and sniffed in the lingering burnt smoke smell. Plunged my hand into my other corduroy pocket and pulled out a bag of tobacco. Pulled some strings of dirty shag from the bag and stuffed them in to the bowl of the pipe. Every now and every again I would palm this, my dad’s pipe, before leaving for my walk with the old girl. I loved to watch the smoke hanging on the air on windless days. White smoke against white sky. It would linger in a curling line behind us as we walked, and Lady would jovially hobble in front of me, occasionally turning around to watch me tongue my bottom teeth because I loved how my mouth tasted after a deep breath of thick smoke. The tobacco was my own. Was able to purchase bagfuls at the aging general store in town. The aging clerk knew of my own age, but I think he sensed that the tobacco would be an integral part of me being me out there. He had a glint in his eyes, he shrouded it by a green visor, probably for professional reasons in a town like our town, but he had a glint in his eyes. And that glint told me that he used to come home to his own house with his fingernails encrusted with mud, and that if I were able to look at his feet they would show to be hewn from the woods, calloused and sturdy. Probably had a great hound of his own once.
$3.59, he would say.
He would put his lips together and curl them upward toward the sky. He would put a hand through his white hair and slick it back over his head. I would lay him four ones on the counter.
Going to be cold, he would say. Better keep bundled up, he would say.
I would stuff the brown bag into the corduroy and I would leave. He would let his eye drag extra long on me as I left. Then I watched through the store window as he would hunch over the counter and scribble down black lines on a yellow piece of paper, biting his lips.
Lady, let’s go home! I smacked my hands together in a sting. Gettin’ to be damn cold. Can’t feel my thumbs.
The dog didn’t turn around. She went still again like before. And then all at once she made a dive right into the icy brush where she had been sniffing. Her paws slid a little trying to dig in and then she disappeared under the growth. Seeing her move like that was something that I hadn’t seen in so long that I think my mind dismissed it as a pure fallacy at first. She usually moved with such lethargy that you could get fat-man-watching-television lazy just from looking at her too long.
Ladybird! I yelled. The fuck are you doin’? I dropped to my knees and peered into the hole.
Under the bushes there was a drop-off, about 3 feet slanted down and the dense ground hung over it like it was some kind of mushroom cap. It went deep and down like a wartime trench. Never had seen that particular opening before. And my initial thoughts were all about how it seemed to be quite a natural wonder. A dazzling mini-cave of sorts. If I had known about it many years and clothes sizes ago, I could have turned it into an astonishing hide-out, I bet. But I did not get there first. And right then I thought about what did.
There was the strained yelping that accompanied those cautionary thoughts. I knew it too well. She did it when she didn’t get fed on time. It wasn’t usually like this, though. Usually a lot more hushed. Artificial. Like when asshole people go boo-hoo after you get done telling a sob story. Boo hoo was the noise people made when they cried sometimes, but asshole people saying boo-hoo wasn’t anything like the real thing. And my Ladybird yelping when she didn’t get fed wasn’t anything like the real thing, either.
Started to panic. The hole sucked in, dismantled any of the sun’s rays that found their way in. Black was all I could see. I blinked my eyes in a fruitless attempt to focus them as I rustled up closer to the opening. I reached my hand inside as far as it would go. I had no care for what might be on the other side. My hand fumbled around but only grasped at mounds of stray dirt and tiny piles of snow, all while my dog was screaming.
At first I thought we had gotten her because the Satterfield family was giving her away. They found her mother after she had been mashed by a car, still alive. Howling her head off, she delivered four puppies. Then she died. One of the puppies died, too. My mother said that it looked like a sucked-on butterscotch candy. The Satterfields’ kept two of the hounds for themselves, they were hunting enthusiasts after all, and they put up a sign in their yard that they had a dog to give away. A lot of dogs come to people that way, through other people, and that’s how I thought Lady had come to us, but that’s not how she came to us. We were the Satterfields’ neighbors, with only a gravel road rarely traveled and a huge expanse of flat, green grass between our sturdy houses. And one day when the Satterfields’ were picking weeds or something of the sort, Lady skittered through a thin hole in their screen door and took off across that green grass and lonely road. And she mauled me. My mother was doing some gardening close by. I was sitting on a dirt mound being two years old. Lady licked my fat face and my mom shooed her away. Said, A hound like that deserves to be pulled into hell.
Then Lady looked up at my mom. Panted. Tongue hung out of her mouth. She didn’t go back over to the Satterfields’ house ever again. She stayed at ours. My mother was in love with her. Sometimes I thought more than she loved me.
Never been around death before. Never saw, heard, talked about, listened to, been preached to about, none of it. After Lady yelped some more, after my teeth were just about chipped from clenching them so tight, and after my fingers were just about broken from digging into the frozen ground. She licked at my hand still inside the hole and the contact startled me back. I grabbed at her collar. Pulled her out. She emerged. Face bloodied. Dragging her hind leg. Tongue hanging out the left side of her mouth. She plopped down in front of me. Seeing her like that had me recoil, move back, slipping in the snow. I lunged forward. Wrapped my arms around her. Knowing full well it was useless anyway, still I scanned the forest for help. Only saw a crow flap its wings and take off from a dead branch. She was shivering. I was shivering. I struggled to maintain a handle on the situation. Brought her away from my body to look at her wounds. She stared up at me. Made high pitched noises in between breaths. I took my hand, grabbed her snout, began pushing the blood around to find where it was coming from. Her black eyes were fixed on my contorted face. Blinking wildly. Couldn’t find the wound, I determined that it wasn’t her blood on her face. I felt a surge of hope push itself through my blood.
Ladybird, where you hurt? …Where you hurting, girl?... The fuck happened? I said, while searching her over.
She was heavier on my lap than times before. She wasn’t taking any care to distribute any of her weight. She was just sagging. I wanted to cradle her. Rock her to a sleep so great she wouldn’t hurt anymore. I tried to reposition her and saw that my corduroys were soaked through with blood. This time it was hers. Dripping from a nasty gash on her right side. Just beside her stomach. Red like the sunset I wouldn’t see that night.
Je-sus, I said upon the discovery.
Felt gut-punched. Her injured leg was fluttering. The blood was gathering in a pool beside my knees. She reached up, licked my face like that first time. She closed her eyes. And I closed mine. And they dripped a drop from each. I rocked, and rocked, and rocked, and rocked…
I had never been around death before. All grandparents were intact. No friends hit by cars. No schoolmates who shot themselves. I carried her body in my arms the entire way back. They ached under her weight. Her tongue hung out from the side of her mouth. It was just limp and long and hung there. My face felt heavy. It was drooped to the ground and spilling itself. I placed her body beside our fire pit and threw some of our stored wood into the ring. I lit it. The flames flickered spryly against the lingering sunlight. I took a shovel from the tool shed and put it atop of the burning orange. Waited till it glowed. Walked behind the shed where she took refuge on the guts burning days of summer. Stuck the shovel into the earth. Watched the steam rise in coils around me. Dug it. Placed her down. Covered it. Stared. Listened to the trees crackle off of themselves.
When I went into my house my mother told me that dinner was ready and that I was responsible for gathering the scraps to give to Lady. Told her okay. She asked if it smelled good and I said yes even though I wasn't breathing. Went to my room. Opened a box underneath my bed and pulled out a dull pink cylinder about three inches long. Put it in my pocket. Went back outside. I walked and walked and walked…back to the hole. The signals of the happening were bright and bleak. Claw marks in the hard dirt. Thrown tufts of bushes. A blood puddle set serenely in the white ground. I lit the wick of the pink cylinder and threw it into the hole. Waited. Winced when the explosion hit, even though I was expecting it. There was nothing left. Walked home.