Returning to a favourite story about one of our dogs.
Yesterday’s post, the second this week about the long history of humans and dogs ended with me sharing a photograph of Hazel looking up at me as I was writing the post. Here it is again.
Later in the evening, thinking about how much we can learn from dogs (and, thank you so much, Deborah of Dog Leader Mysteries) my mind turned to the wonderful motivation dogs are for creative writing whether that is non-fiction, creative non-fiction or fiction.
In turn that reminded me of when, in the Summer of 2011, Jean and I attended a creative writing course at our nearby college in Payson, Arizona where we were then living. Here’s a story from that time that is fictional, in the sense that the event did not take place, but the names of all concerned, photographs and location are real!
Messages from the Night
by Paul Handover
“Jean, where’s Dhalia?”
“Don’t know. She was here moments ago.”
“Jeannie, You take the other dogs back to the car and I’ll go and scout around for her. Oh, and you better put Pharaoh on the leash otherwise you know he’ll follow me.”
“Paul, don’t worry, Dhalia’s always chasing scents; bet she beats us back to the car. Especially as it’s going to be dark soon.”
Nonetheless, Paul started back down the dusty, dirt road, the last rays of the sun pink on the high, tumbled cliffs of granite. This high rocky, forest plateau, known as the Granite Dells, just 3 miles from their home on the outskirts of Payson, made perfect dog-walking country and rarely did they miss an afternoon out here. However this afternoon, for reasons Paul was unclear about, they had left home much later than usual.
No sign of Dhalia ahead on the road so he struck off left, hoping she was somewhere up amongst the trees and the high boulders. Soon he reached the first crest, panting hard in the thin air. Behind him, across the breath-taking landscape, the setting sun had dipped beneath faraway mountain ridges; a magnificent sight. Suddenly, in the midst of that brief pause of admiring the perfect evening, a sound echoed around the cliffs. The sound of a dog barking. Paul bet his life on that being Dhalia. Just as quickly the barking stopped.
The barking started up again, barking that suggested Dhalia was hunting something. The sound came from an area of boulders way up above the pine trees on the other side of the small valley ahead of him.
Perhaps, Dhalia had trapped herself. More likely, he reflected, swept up in the evening scents of the wilderness, Dhalia had temporarily reverted back to the wild, hunting dog she had been all those years ago. That feral Mexican street dog who in 2005 had tentatively turned away from scavenging in a pile of rubbish in a dirty Mexican town and shyly approached Jean. Jean had named her Dhalia.
He set off down to the valley floor and after fifteen minutes of hard climbing had reached the high boulders the other side. Paul whistled, then called “Dhalia! Dhalia! Come, there’s a good girl.”
Thank goodness for such a sweet, obedient dog.
He anticipated the sound of dog feet scampering through rough undergrowth. But no sound came.
He listened; no sounds, no more barking. Now where had she gone? Perhaps past these boulders down into the steep ravine beyond him, the one so densely forested with pine trees. With daylight practically gone he needed to find Dhalia very soon. He plunged down the slope, pushing through tree branches that whipped across his face, then fell heavily as his foot found empty space instead of the anticipated firm ground.
Paul cursed, picked himself up and paused. That fall had a message: the madness of continuing his search in the near dark. This terrain made very rough going even in daylight. At night, the boulders and plunging ravines would guarantee a busted body, at best! Plus, he ruefully admitted, he didn’t have a clue about finding his way back to the road from wherever he was!
The unavoidable truth smacked him full in the face. He would be spending this night alone in the high, open forest!
It had one hell of a very scary dimension. He forced himself not to dwell on just how scary it all felt. He needed to stay busy, find some way of keeping warm; last night at home it had dropped to within a few degrees of freezing. Paul looked around, seeing a possible solution. He broke a small branch off a nearby mesquite tree and made a crude brush with which he swept up the fallen pine needles he saw everywhere about him. Soon he had a stack sufficient to cover him, or so he hoped.
Thank goodness that when he and Jeannie had decided to give four dogs of their dogs this late afternoon walk, he had jeans and a long-sleeved shirt on, a pullover thrown over his shoulders. Didn’t make Dhalia’s antics any less frustrating but he probably wasn’t going to freeze to death!
The air temperature sank as if connected with the last rays of the sun. Paul’s confidence sank in harmony with the temperature. He lay down, shuffled about, swept the pine needles across his body, tried to find a position that carried some illusion of comfort. No matter the position, he couldn’t silence his mind. No way to silence the screaming in his head, his deep, primeval fear of this dark forest about him, imagination already running away with visions of hostile night creatures, large and small, watching him, smelling him, biding their time.
Perhaps he might sleep for a while? A moment later the absurdity of that last thought hit him. Caused him to utter aloud, “You stupid sod. There’s no way you’re going to sleep through this!”
His words echoed off unseen cliffs in the darkness, reinforcing his sense of isolation. He was very frightened. Why? Where in his psyche did that come from? He had spent many nights alone at sea without a problem, a thousand miles from shore. Then, of course, he knew his location, always had a radio link to the outside world. But being lost in this dark, lonely forest touched something very deep in him.
Suddenly, he started shivering. The slightest movement caused the needles to slip from him and the cold night air began to penetrate his body. He mused about how cold it might get and, by extension, thanked his lucky stars that the night was early October not, say, mid-December. So far, not too cold, but soon the fear rather than the temperature started to devour him. What stupid fool said, ‘Nothing to fear but fear itself!’ His plan to sleep under pine needles, fear or no fear, had failed! He couldn’t get warm. He had to move.
He looked around, saw an enormous boulder a few yards away, like some giant, black shadow. No details, just this huge outline etched against the night. Paul carefully raised himself, felt the remaining needles fall away, and gingerly shuffled across to the dark rock. He half-expected something to bite his extended hand as he explored the surface, as he ran his hand down towards the unseen ground. Miracle of miracles, the granite gently emitted the warmth absorbed from the day’s sun. He slowly settled himself to the ground, eased his back against the rock-face and pulled his knees up to his chest. He felt so much less vulnerable than when he had been flat out on the forest floor. Paul let out a long sigh, then burst into tears, huge heart-rending sobs coming from somewhere deep within him.
Gradually the tears washed away his fear, restored a calmer part of his brain. That calmer brain brought the realisation that he hadn’t considered, well not up until now, what Jeannie must be going through. At least he knew he was alive. Jeannie, not knowing, would be in despair. He bet she would remember that time when out walking here in the Dells they had lost little Poppy, an adorable ten-pound poodle mix, never to be found again despite ages spent combing the area, calling out her name. A year later and Jeannie still said from time to time, “I so miss Poppy!“. First Poppy and now him! No question, he had to get through this in one piece, mentally as much as physically.
Presumably, Jeannie would have called 911 and been connected to the local search and rescue unit. Would they search for him in the dark? He thought unlikely.
Thinking about her further eased his state of mind and his shivering stopped. Thank goodness for that! Paul fought to retain this new perspective. He would make it through, even treasure this night under the sky, this wonderful, awesome, night sky. Even the many pine tree crowns that soared way up above him couldn’t mask a sky that just glittered with starlight. Payson, at five-thousand feet, had many beautifully clear skies and tonight offered a magical example.
Frequently during his life, the night skies had spoken to him, presented a reminder of the continuum of the universe. On this night, however, he felt more humbled by the hundred, million stars surrounding him than ever before.
Time slipped by, his watch in darkness. However, above his head that vast stellar clock. He scanned the heavens, seeking out familiar pinpoints of light, companions over so much of his lifetime. Ah, there! The Big Dipper, Ursa Major, and, yes, there the North Pole star, Polaris. Great! Now the rotation of the planet became his watch, The Big Dipper sliding around Polaris, fifteen degrees for each hour.
What a situation he had got himself into. As with other challenging times in his life, lost in the Australian bush, at sea hunkering down through a severe storm, never a choice other than to work it out. Paul felt a gush of emotion from the release this changed perspective gave him.
Far away, a group of coyotes started up a howl. What a timeless sound, how long had coyotes been on the planet? He sank into those inner places of his mind noting how the intense darkness raised deep thoughts. What if this night heralded the end of his life, the last few hours of the life of Paul Handover? What parting message would he give to those that he loved?
Jeannie would know beyond any doubt how much he had adored her, how her love had created an emotional paradise for him beyond measure. But his son and daughter, dear Alex and Maija? Oh, the complexities he had created in their lives by leaving their mother so many years ago. He knew that they still harboured raw edges, and quite reasonably so. He still possessed raw edges from his father’s death, way back in 1956. That sudden death, five days before Christmas, so soon after he had turned twelve, that had fed a life-long feeling of emotional rejection. That feeling that lasted for fifty-one years until, coincidentally also five days before Christmas, he had met Jean in 2007.
His thoughts returned to Alex and Maija. Did they know, without a scintilla of doubt, that he loved them. Maybe his thoughts would find them. Romantic nonsense? Who knows? Dogs had the ability to read the minds of humans, often from far out of visual range. He knew Pharaoh, his devoted German Shepherd, skilfully read his mind.
Paul struggled to remember that saying from James Thurber. What was it now? Something about men striving to understand themselves before they die. Would that be his parting message for Alex and Maija? Blast, he wished he could remember stuff more clearly these days and let go of worrying about the quote. Perhaps his subconscious might carry the memory back to him.
He looked back up into the heavens. The Big Dipper indicated at least an hour had slipped by. Gracious, what a sky in which to lose one’s mind. Lost in that great cathedral of stars. Then, as if through some passing of consciousness, the Thurber saying did come back to him: All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why. As last words they would most certainly do for Alex and Maija!
Paul reflected on those who, incarcerated in solitary confinement, had their minds play many tricks, especially when it came to gauging time. What a bizarre oddment of information; where had that come from? Possibly because he hadn’t a clue about his present time. It felt later than 11pm and earlier than 4am, but any closer guess seemed impossible. Nevertheless, from out of those terrible, heart-wrenching hours of being alone he had found calm, had found something within him. He slept.
Suddenly, a sound slammed him awake. Something out there in the dark had made a sound, caused his whole body to become totally alert, every nerve straining to recognise what it might be. It sounded like animal feet moving through the autumn fall of dead leaves. He prayed it wasn’t a mountain lion. Surely such a wild cat preparing to attack him would be silent. Now the unknown creature had definitely paused, no sound, just him knowing that out there something waited. Now what, the creature had started sniffing. He hoped not a wild pig. Javelinas, those pig-like creatures that always moved in groups, could make trouble – they had no qualms at attacking a decent-sized dog.
Poised to run, he considered rising but chose to stay still and closed his right-hand around a small rock. The sniffing stopped. Nothing now, save the sound of Paul’s rapid, beating heart. He sensed, sensed strongly, the creature looking at him. It seemed very close, ten or twenty feet away. The adrenalin hammered through his veins.
He tried to focus on the spot where he sensed the animal waited; waited for what? He pushed that idea out of his head. His ears then picked up a weird, bizarre sound. Surely not! Had he lost his senses? It sounded like a dog wagging its tail; flap, flap, flapping against a tree-trunk.
A dog? If a dog, it had to be Dhalia!
Then came that small, shy bark! A bark he knew so well. Oh wow, it is Dhalia. He softly called, “Dhalia, Dhalia, come here, there’s a good girl.”
With a quick rustle of feet Dhalia leapt upon him, tail wagging furiously, her head quickly burrowing into Paul’s body warmth. He hugged her and, once more, tears ran down his face. Despite the darkness, he could see her perfectly in his mind. Her tight, short-haired coat of light-brown hair, her aquiline face, her bright inquisitive eyes and those wonderful head-dominating ears. Lovely large ears that seemed to listen to the world. A shy, loving dog when Jean had rescued her in 2005 and these years later still a shy, loving dog.
Dhalia licked his tears, her gentle tongue soft and sweet on his skin. He shuffled more onto his back which allowed her to curl up on his chest, still enveloped by his arms. His mind drifted away to an era long time ago, back to an earlier ancient man, likewise wrapped around his dog under a dome of stars, bonded in a thousand mysterious ways.
The morning sun arrived as imperceptibly as an angel’s sigh. Dhalia sensed the dawn before Paul, brought him out of his dreams by the slight stirring of her warm, gentle body.
Yes, there it came, the end of this night. The ancient sun galloping towards them across ancient lands, another beat of the planet’s heart. Dhalia slid off his chest, stretched herself from nose to tail, yawned and looked at him, as much to say time to go home! He could just make out the face of his watch; 4.55am. He, too, raised himself, slapped his arms around his body to get some circulation going. The cold air stung his face, yet it couldn’t even scratch the inner warmth of his body, the gift from the loving bond he and Dhalia had shared.
They set off and quickly crested the first ridge. Ahead, about a mile away, they saw the forest road busy with arriving search and rescue trucks. Paul noticed Jean’s Dodge parked ahead of the trucks and instinctively knew she and Pharaoh had already disappeared into the forest, Pharaoh leading the way to them.
They set off down the slope, Dhalia’s tail wagging with unbounded excitement, Paul ready to start shouting for attention from the next ridge. They were about to wade through a small stream when, across from them, Pharaoh raced out of the trees. He tore through the water, barking at the top of his voice in clear dog speak, ‘I’ve found them, they’re here, they’re safe’. Paul crouched down to receive his second huge face lick in less than six hours.
Later, safely home, it came to Paul. When they had set off in that early morning light, Dhalia had stayed pinned to him. So unusual for her not to run off. Let’s face it, that’s what got them into the mess in the first place. Dhalia had stayed with him as if she had known that during that long, dark night, it had been he who had been the lost soul.
The message from the night, as clear as the rays of this new day’s sun, the message to pass to all those he loved. If you don’t get lost, there’s a chance you may never be found.
Copyright © 2011, Paul Handover
Dhalia died peacefully on April 7th, 2014.