All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why.
Yet another WordPress theme:
Day Four: Serially Lost
Today’s Prompt: Write about a loss: something (or someone) that was part of your life, and isn’t any more.
This doesn’t need to be a depressing exercise; you can write about that time you lost the three-legged race at a picnic. What’s important is reflecting on this experience and what it meant for you — how it felt, why it happened, and what changed because of it.
Today’s twist: Make today’s post the first in a three-post series.
Our blogs are often made of standalone posts, but using them to take readers on longer journeys is an immersive experience for them — and you. It allows you to think bigger and go deeper into an idea, while using a hook that keeps readers coming back.
A series can take many forms:
- Recurring features of the same type of post, like The Stakes’ Game of Thrones recaps or Chronicles of an Anglo-Swiss’ responses to daily prompts.
- Posts on the same topic, where each builds on the last, like Literature and Libations’ multi-part posts on becoming a beer writer.
- Fiction, where each post gives readers the next chapter or a new story, like the work at Flashes in the Pan and 300 Stories.
We also have advice that might help. If you decide to go serial, we’ve got days scheduled later in Writing 101 for parts two and three, so don’t worry about writing everything now or having to shoehorn the other posts in. If you’re not sure where to start, share your trilogy ideas in The Commons first to get some feedback.
You only need to write the first post in the series today — we’ll let you know when it’s time for the next installment.
This is a very easy theme for me to write about. For I want to share an early story from my yet unfinished book. My book of the same name as this blog: Learning from Dogs. This story has appeared on the blog some years ago but what is presented today is a much-revised version.
Messages from the night.
“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, I 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 three miles from our home on the outskirts of Payson in Arizona, made perfect dog-walking country and rarely did we miss an afternoon out here. However this afternoon, for reasons I was unclear about, we had left home much later than usual.
There was no sign of Dhalia ahead on the road so I struck off left, hoping she was somewhere up amongst the trees and the high boulders. Soon I reached the first crest, panting hard in the thin air. Behind me, across the breath-taking landscape, the setting sun had dipped beneath faraway mountain ridges; a magnificent sight. Suddenly, in the midst of my brief pause admiring the perfect evening, a sound echoed around the cliffs. The sound of a dog barking. I bet my 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 me.
Perhaps, Dhalia had trapped herself. More likely, I 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.
I set off down to the valley floor and after fifteen minutes of hard climbing had reached the high boulders the other side. I whistled, then called “Dhalia! Dhalia! Come, there’s a good girl.”
Thank goodness Dhalia was such a sweet, obedient dog.
I anticipated the sound of dog feet scampering through rough undergrowth. But no sound came.
I listened; no sounds, no more barking. Now where had she gone? Perhaps past these boulders down into the steep ravine beyond me, the one so densely forested with pine trees. With daylight practically gone I needed to find Dhalia very soon. I plunged down the slope, pushing through tree branches that whipped across my face, then fell heavily as a foot found empty space instead of the anticipated firm ground.
I cursed, picked myself up and paused. That fall had a message: the madness of continuing this search in the near dark. The terrain made very rough going even in daylight. At night, the boulders and plunging ravines would guarantee a busted body, at best! Plus, I ruefully admitted, I didn’t have a clue about finding my way back to the road from wherever I was!
The unavoidable truth smacked me full in the face. I would be spending this night alone in the high, open forest!
It had one hell of a very scary dimension. I forced myself not to dwell on just how scary it all felt. I needed to stay busy, find some way of keeping warm; last night at home it had dropped to within a few degrees of freezing. I looked around, seeing a possible solution. I broke a small branch off a nearby mesquite tree and made a crude brush with which I swept up the fallen pine needles I saw everywhere about me. Soon I had a stack sufficient to cover me, or so I hoped.
Thank goodness that when me and Jeannie had decided to give four of our dogs this late afternoon walk, I had jeans and a long-sleeved shirt on, a pullover thrown over my shoulders. Didn’t make Dhalia’s antics any less frustrating but I probably wasn’t going to freeze to death!
The air temperature sank as if connected with the last rays of the sun. My confidence sank in harmony with the temperature. I lay down, shuffled about, swept the pine needles across my body, tried to find a position that carried some illusion of comfort. No matter the position, I couldn’t silence his mind. No way to silence the screaming in my head, this deep, primeval fear of the dark forest about me, imagination already running away with visions of hostile night creatures, large and small, watching me, smelling me, biding their time.
Perhaps I might sleep for a while? A moment later the absurdity of that last thought hit me. Caused me to utter aloud, “You stupid sod. There’s no way you’re going to sleep through this!”
My spoken words echoed off unseen cliffs in the darkness, reinforcing my sense of isolation. I was very frightened. Why? Where in my psyche did that come from? I had spent many nights alone at sea without a problem, a thousand miles from shore. Then, of course, I knew my location and always had a radio link to the outside world. But being lost in this dark, lonely forest touched something very deep inside me.
Suddenly, I started shivering. The slightest movement caused the needles to slip from me and the cold night air began to penetrate my body. I mused about how cold it might get and, by extension, thanked my 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 me. What stupid fool said, ‘Nothing to fear but fear itself!’ My plan to sleep under pine needles, fear or no fear, had failed! I couldn’t get warm. I had to move.
Looking around, I saw an enormous boulder a few yards away, like some giant, black shadow. No details, just this huge outline etched against the night. I carefully raised myself, felt the remaining needles fall away, and gingerly shuffled across to the dark rock. I half-expected something to bite my extended hand as I explored the surface, as I ran my hand down towards the unseen ground. Miracle of miracles, the granite gently emitted the warmth absorbed from the day’s sun. I slowly settled myself to the ground, eased my back against the rock-face and pulled my knees up to my chest. I felt so much less vulnerable than when I had been flat out on the forest floor. I let out a long sigh, then burst into tears, huge heart-rending sobs coming from somewhere deep within me.
Gradually the tears washed away my fear, restored a calmer part of my brain. That calmer brain brought the realisation that I hadn’t considered, well not up until now, of what Jeannie must be going through. At least I knew I was alive and well. Jeannie, not knowing, would be in despair. I bet she would remember that time when out walking here in the Dells we 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 me! No question, I 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 me in the dark? I thought unlikely.
Thinking about Jeannie further eased my state of mind and the shivering stopped. Thank goodness for that! I fought to retain this new perspective. I 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 me 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 my life, the night skies had spoken to me, presented a reminder of the continuum of the universe. On this night, however, I felt more humbled by the hundred, million stars surrounding me than ever before.
Time slipped by, my watch in darkness. However, above my head that vast stellar clock. I scanned the heavens, seeking out familiar pinpoints of light, companions over so much of my lifetime. Ah, there! The Big Dipper, Ursa Major, and, yes, there’s the North Pole star: Polaris. Great! Now the rotation of the planet became my watch, The Big Dipper sliding around Polaris, fifteen degrees for each hour.
What a situation I had got myself into. As with other challenging times in my life, lost in the Australian bush, at sea hunkering down through a severe storm, never a choice other than to work it out. I felt a gush of emotion from the release this changed perspective gave me.
Far away, a group of coyotes started up a howl. What a timeless sound, how long had coyotes been on the planet? I sank into those inner places of the mind noting how the intense darkness raised deep thoughts. What if this night heralded the end of my life, the last few hours of the life of Paul Handover? What parting message would I give to those that I loved?
Jeannie would know beyond any doubt how much I had adored her, how her love had created an emotional paradise for me beyond measure. But my son and daughter, dear Alex and Maija? Oh, the complexities I had created in their lives by leaving their mother so many years ago. I knew that they still harboured raw edges, and quite reasonably so. I still possessed raw edges from my father’s death, way back in 1956. That sudden death, just five days before Christmas and so soon after I had turned twelve, that had fed a life-long feeling of emotional rejection. The feeling that had lasted for fifty-one years until, coincidentally also five days before Christmas, in 2007, I had met Jean.
My thoughts returned to Alex and Maija. Did they know, without a scintilla of doubt, that I loved them. Maybe my 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. I knew Pharaoh, my devoted German Shepherd, skilfully read my mind.
I 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 my parting message for Alex and Maija? Blast! I wished I could remember stuff more clearly these days and let go of worrying about the quote. Perhaps my subconscious might carry the memory back to me.
I 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 stirring of my consciousness, the Thurber saying did come back to me: “All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why.”
I 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 I hadn’t a clue about my 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 I had found calm; had found a peace within. I slept.
Suddenly, a sound slammed me awake. Something out there in the dark had made a sound, caused my 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. I prayed it wasn’t a mountain lion. Surely such a wild cat preparing to attack would be silent. Now the unknown creature had definitely paused, no sound, just me knowing that out there something waited. Now what! The creature had started sniffing. I 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, I considered rising to my feet but chose to stay still and closed my right-hand around a small rock. The sniffing stopped. Nothing now, save the sound of my rapid, beating heart. I sensed, sensed strongly, the creature looking at me. It seemed very close, ten or twenty feet away. The adrenalin hammered through my veins.
I tried to focus on the spot where I sensed the animal waited; waited for what? I pushed that idea out of my head. My ears then picked up a weird, bizarre sound. Surely not! Had I lost my senses? It sounded like a dog wagging its tail; flap, flap, flapping against something such as a tree-trunk.
A dog? If a dog, it had to be Dhalia!
Then came that small, shy bark! A bark I knew so well. Oh wow, it is Dhalia. I softly called, “Dhalia, Dhalia, come here, there’s a good girl.”
With a quick rustle of feet Dhalia leapt upon me, tail wagging furiously, her head quickly burrowing into my body warmth. I hugged her and, once more, tears ran down my face. Despite the darkness, I could see her perfectly in my 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 my tears, her gentle tongue soft and sweet on my skin. I shuffled more onto my back which allowed her to curl up on my chest, still enveloped by my arms. My mind drifted away to an era long time ago, back to an earlier ancient man, likewise with arms 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 I did, brought me out of my 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 my chest, stretched herself from nose to tail, yawned and looked at me, as much to say time to go home! I could just make out the face of my watch: 4.55am. I, too, raised myself, slapped my arms around my body to get some circulation going. The cold air stung my face, yet it couldn’t even scratch my inner warmth, the gift from the loving bond Dhalia and I had shared.
We set off and quickly crested the first ridge. Ahead, about a mile away, we saw the forest road busy with arriving search and rescue trucks. I 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 us.
We set off down the slope, Dhalia’s tail wagging with unbounded excitement, me ready to start shouting for attention from the next ridge. We were about to wade through a small stream when, across from us, 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’. I crouched down to receive my second huge face lick in less than six hours.
Later, once safely home, it came to me. When we had set off in that early morning light, Dhalia had stayed pinned to me. So unusual for her not to run off. Let’s face it, that’s what got us into the mess in the first place. Dhalia had stayed with me as if she had known that during that long, dark night, it had been me 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 I loved. If you don’t get lost, there’s a chance you may never be found.
I know it will cause Jean much angst to republish this photograph but I can’t close today’s post with sharing this picture with you.
Dhalia died peacefully on April 7th, 2014.