A visiting guinea? A ‘possum in the dining room? What strange and wondrous occurrences can one expect while living on an Ozark mountaintop for forty years?
These lyrical adventure stories feature chickens, raccoons, bugs, dogs, cats, and natural critters of this woodland home. Throw in a few neighbors who shoot copperheads or remodel the dirt road. Ponder the passage of time through a philosophical lens of wonder and delight. The seasons bring summer heat, winter snow, pouring rain, the power of fire. Lessons learned, questions posed–who has lived and died on this land? What is our responsibility to this place, its creatures, each other?
Come meet the goat on the road.
Three of these stories gained the Rosa Zagnoni Marinoni Writer’s Grant 2002 Award from the Northwest Arkansas branch of the National League of American Pen Women.
They lounged at the rim of the pond across the road from my mail box, three of them in a small friendly pack that had made that place their own. In the first few days they were here, I only saw them at the pond or alongside the dirt road. They were half grown, headed toward big dog adulthood, one with a whitish face and the markings of a German Shepherd, the other two some combination of hound, maybe some shepherd.
They watched me drive by with the hopeful curiosity of dogs who recently knew a home. There had been people, regular food, a few words now and then. Now there was nothing and they didn’t know what to do about it.
One morning a week or so later, agitated barking by my dogs brought me outside to discover the strays had moved further up in the woods. They sat about sixty feet from my house, watching the deer that always move through that section of forest at that time of day. Maybe they recognized the scent of deer from some primal instinct that spelled out ‘food.’ Maybe they were attracted to the smells and sounds of my fenced yard, where scraps might be thrown out, where my well-fed animals come and go in comfort. I didn’t see them chasing deer, but I didn’t try to watch.
Better to not see, not know, I’ve learned from experience, what animals go through once they’ve been dumped.
Don Miller called a few days later, early in the morning like he does on the rare occasions when he needs to talk to me about something. Stray dogs had been chasing his cattle in the pasture he leases next to my land. He had asked around. Nobody claimed them.
“We could try to catch them,” I said. “Take them down to the animal shelter.”
“Tried that. They won’t come to me.”
He was planning to shoot them. I said I wouldn’t want to try, since I only had my .22 with bullets so small that even a perfect shot might leave an animal alive for hours, bleeding, suffering. He said he knew his aim and his shotgun would bring them down quick. He planned to do it the next morning.
I never heard the gunshots, but then, I tried not to. The dogs weren’t there on the lip of the pond or at the edge of the road when I left for town. I felt relief that I didn’t have to worry about them anymore, didn’t have to think about how hungry they were or whether they had been hit by a passing car.
But several days later, I saw one of them pacing along the perimeter of my yard fence. It was the one with German Shepherd markings, his whitish face staring at me through the wire. I had put a pan of leftovers for my dogs out in the yard and he had picked up the smell. He ran at the sight of me. At the far end, he came to a weedy rise and then I saw his companion, another one of the original trio. When the companion tried to join with his white-faced friend, both of them skinny and tantalized by the smell of the leftovers, he hobbled along, unable to move one of his back legs. They disappeared into the woods.
What had happened to Don Miller’s dead eye aim with a shotgun? It wasn’t hard to guess the scene: managed to kill one, shot at the second one and injured it, and missed the third altogether. It had been days. The two survivors had been hiding out, maybe stealing food from the neighbors’ dogs.
Then I didn’t see them anymore. More days passed. One morning as I pulled out of the driveway, there was white face, sitting at the edge of the road. There was no sign of his crippled companion. He watched me pass by.
How could he forget the people who had once been his family? This must have been the spot where they had left him and his friends. How long would he come back here, waiting, hoping?
Last night, I heard the wild dogs in the canyon. I’ve heard their long piercing howls before, some years more than others. Some say they’ve mingled with the native Red Wolf that used to hunt this land during the time of the Native Americans. I never see the wild dogs but I hear them. They come close in the winter. On some long cold nights their howls seem just outside my fence.
Last night, there was one howl and it was close. There was something about it, something that held meaning. It caught my attention and I went out to stand on the porch. I didn’t hear it again after that. But I think White Face found them. I think they welcomed him, as long as he behaved respectfully, took his place in their established hierarchy. After all, they’ve known for a long time where to find water, when to kill deer, how to find rabbit nests and eggs on the ground.
He’s proven himself, I guess, after all these weeks since his human family threw him out, left him and his brothers to die on some back road far enough out of town that they didn’t have to worry about looking up one day to see that their Lassies had ‘come home.’
Maybe they thought that out here, dog food grows on every stalk of blackberry vine and somehow the seeds ticks of July won’t stick to their pet. Maybe they didn’t wonder about the cold of winter, when ice covers the ground for days and even the ponds are frozen. Maybe they assumed that country people like me don’t have enough dogs of our own and are just sitting out here waiting for more dogs to appear on our roads so we can take them in, pet them, feed them, and let them sleep on the floor by our beds when the wind blows at five degrees.
Or maybe they didn’t think at all. In all the years, all the dogs and cats that have been left at the roadside on this mountain, I’ve never been able to understand, to assign any rational process to the phenomena of dumping animals. I’ve made a few wishes, though, like the morning when Don Miller planned to load his shotgun, when I stayed in the shower a little longer than usual so I would miss the sound of the blasts, the dying howls.
I wish that the minds and the hides of the people who leave them were unavoidably linked to the minds and hides of the dogs, so that every pellet of buckshot, every hot burning injury bleeding out life, crippling to a long lingering death in the bitter cold of winter, that every moment of hunger and terror and longing known by those dogs would be known by the people, felt in every moment, every waking hour, every dream, until they could no longer bear the pain and they too would have to track half-starved down to the canyon, seek out the wild ones, and beg for a home.
Yesterday, the pesky doe had circled the fenced yard all day, causing the dogs to bark incessantly. Nerves shot, at around 5 p.m. I decided to fire off a few rounds to scare her away. I grabbed my .22 rifle and stood on the porch at the west end of the house, which is my daughter’s apartment, and looked for the doe. From there a person can look downhill toward the ponds and pasture, normal doe hangout. Nowhere to be seen.
I returned to my dinner preparations, fed the dogs, fed the cats, and fed the goldfish. One cat of the four—Esmeralda—didn’t show up. I thought, okay, she followed me to the apartment. So I went back there and looked for her, called, nothing. Usually she is front and center demanding food at that point, so this was highly unusual.
Then the barking started again. I grabbed the .22 and went to the gate. There stood that stubborn doe not a hundred feet from the house.
Now let me say that this has been an ongoing war for multiple deer generations. Before we got these two hounds, the deer jumped over our yard fence and helped themselves to whatever they pleased—hosta, flower beds right by the porch, any tomatoes or other veggies I tried to grow in the raised beds. But for the last five years with hounds running free in the yard, the deer have decided discretion is the better part of valor, hosta notwithstanding.
But this doe has become quite clever at avoiding the hounds by jumping the fence in the wee hours of morning when the hounds are sacked out in the house. Consequently my tomato plants have been topped multiple times and the peppers probably won’t come back. This is after a second planting. So I really don’t care that it’s not deer season or that my .22 bullet wouldn’t be a clean kill.
In the winter, I would have opened the gate and let the hounds chase her off. But it’s tick season. Worse, the last time we let both hounds go at the same time, the younger one—Weezie—didn’t come back until well after dark. She was shaking and terrified and smelled of tobacco smoke. Someone had penned her up. So now when we let Weezie out, it’s without her big sister Cu. She usually bounds around chasing squirrels in the adjacent woodland, living dog ecstasy for ten or fifteen minutes before she’s ready to come back in the yard. Cu, on the other hand, will stay out much longer, baying as she tracks scent clear back to the canyon.
So I’m standing at the gate with my rifle and the dogs are going nuts. The deer is being coy, facing me with several large trees between us. I can’t get a clear shot. Plus I’m having pangs of conscience. The .22 can’t deliver a kill shot. She might have a fawn around here. I’m thinking, well, if I let Weezie out, she’ll put a good scare in that bitch and I won’t have to shoot her.
I’m juggling the rifle and Annoying Emma the mongrel terrier is underfoot. The minute my hand touches the gate latch, Emma lunges, Weezie lunges, I nearly drop the rifle, and all three dogs are out the gate. Damn it.
Okay, calling them is worthless. In two seconds, two brown streaks are hurtling through the underbrush down by the pond. The doe bounds east and then south toward the canyon, dogs in fast pursuit. I go inside, put the rifle away, and eat my cold dinner.
This is worse than it sounds because Cu is my daughter’s dog. She’s housesitting this week and swamped with coursework for the two graduate level summer school classes she’s taking. Plus she’s seriously attached to Weezie. If she knew the dogs were out there dashing through the late afternoon heat harvesting ticks by the bucket and bound not to return for hours, she would be worried sick. So I decide not to tell her. Dinner goes down hard.
Then I remember I have a missing cat! Why? I could understand if she was preoccupied with her last stealth moves on a mouse or mole, but it’s been an hour. Something is wrong. I go back outside and stand by the gate. Emma goes out too, because she’s way too smart (and too old and too fat) to try to run with the hounds. As she exits the gate, which I’ve left open for the hounds’ return, she briefly sniffs the bed of ivy growing along the fence. She immediately jumps back.
What fresh hell is this? I lean forward toward the ivy before I hear the unmistakable rattle. I can see nothing—the ivy is a green mass about five feet wide and ten feet long and at least a foot deep. But the sound is familiar.
I go back and grab the .22. I’m holding the gun listening. Can’t see a thing. Rattling continues. I shoo Emma back because of course if I told her to, she’d jump into the ivy.
I aim and fire at the sound. The first round cracks out of the gun and the rattle continues. I give it my Shaolin concentration and fire again. The rattle stops and the ivy starts to move. I fire a couple more rounds.
I set down the gun and grab the hoe from the other side of the porch. I start hacking at the ivy, trying to pull that tenacious vine apart so I can see what I’m up against. I don’t want a coiled snake to suddenly strike, so I’m working incrementally from the edge inward. Finally I see a flash of color, that familiar brown-rust pattern of a copperhead. It’s coiling and turning as I expose part of it to view.
I’ve learned that lots of snakes rattle their tails. Once I thought about it, I remembered that rattlesnake rattles are higher pitched, a hissing sound like air escaping a tire. This rattle was lower pitched, a tail hitting leaves. Either way, I’m always thankful for the rattle.
Hack, hack, I drive the hoe down on its body. As it moves toward me, I realize I’m only hacking at the last six inches. I chop more vine. Finally, there’s the wedge-shaped head. I slam the hoe down but it has moved. Toward me.
I’m sweating and cursing and keep telling Emma to get back damn it. I rip more vines and finally I can see the whole snake. I’ve done a fairly decent job of smashing a place six inches from its tail, and now I can see a bullet hole I managed to send straight through its middle. From that point to its head, it seems unable to fully move. Maybe the shot injured its spine.
That doesn’t mean it can’t bite and send its load of venom into my ankle. Or Emma’s face. So I land the hoe behind its head. The ground under all that ivy is super soft. I’m just burying the snake in dirt.
I hook the hoe under the snake’s midsection and lift it out of the ivy. Once I’ve tossed it onto the driveway, a swift blow behind its head finishes it off. Of course it’s still moving and Emma still wants in the middle of it, so I leave the hoe blade sitting on its neck and step back.
I’m thinking this explains the missing cat. This area here between the gate and my car is a place she frequents. If she spotted the snake, she might do what lots of cats do, which is chase the snake. I once had a cat that specialized in chasing snakes. She’d herd them right out of the yard and away from the house. That’s when the kids were little and I always thought she knew exactly what she was doing, protecting our babies.
Of course, I also once had a cat that got bit. Twice. Old Reece’s Pieces was a slow learner or had a contract with death, I never could figure out which. I’ve written about him before. Once he burst through the pet door and ran down the back hallway. I found him my daughter’s closet, cowering in the corner. His right eye was swollen shut and the area around it bloody and turning purple. Trip to vet. Fangs hit his forehead and eyelid, barely missing the eyeball. Vet thought he’d lose the eye but he didn’t.
A year or so later, Reece’s didn’t show up for dinner, just like Esmeralda hadn’t shown up. I remembered what happened then, how I searched around the house for two days before I found him lying in tall weeds. I talked to him, wondering why he didn’t get up and come to me. He was less than twenty feet from the house. How I missed him before I’ll never know.
But he didn’t get up, just meowed weakly. So I picked him up and the hand I put under his belly came back bloody. He’d been snake bit in the stomach. In the two days he’d been laid up, the bite wound had spread about six inches in diameter, the hair had fallen off, and the skin was black and rotten. He was too weak to move.
The vet shook his head, shot him full of antibiotics, and sent him home to die. I kept him in my bedroom where he crawled under my bed. He wouldn’t eat. The next day, I sat nearby eating cantaloupe and he sniffed the air. I gave him some. He couldn’t eat enough.
Who knew? For the next several days, Reece’s Pieces ate mashed cantaloupe. Then he started eating regular food. Slowly he got well.
Is this what happened to Esmeralda? Was she lying in the grass somewhere or in the woods, paralyzed by copperhead poison?
I began searching, again touring the house, under the beds, my daughter’s apartment. Then outside—the flower beds, under the porch, under my car. The weeds. The underbrush, hoe in hand, because one snake is never the whole story.
Meanwhile, every fifteen minutes or so, I’m calling the dogs. I can hear them way down in the woods. Then even further, like they were down in the canyon now. Paying absolutely no attention to my calls, my demands that they get in the yard right now. They’re tracking, hollering as they go.
Which is, of course, what hounds do.
What about snakes?! They could easily stumble across a big rattler—years back, a neighbor shot a timber rattler that was nine feet long. I killed a velvet tail coiled up right by my car door after I thought I was getting a flat. I shot two bigger ones about six feet long and traveling across my yard. I regret killing them. They were beautiful and if the stupid little Pekinese I had at the time had left them alone, I wouldn’t have needed to shoot them.
If those hounds got snake bit out there in that rugged country, I’d never find them. I’d have to wait for the buzzards to start circling. Oh, damn, this is not going well.
I don’t find the cat. Anywhere.
I’ve never regretted killing a copperhead. I leave this one lying on the drive. Our old patriarch cat, Taco, comes by to sniff. Our two younger cats investigate, appropriately wary of the smell. There is a strong scent to poisonous snakes and cats have good instincts. Except the young male Finnegan, appropriately bold for a young king. He wants to pop it a couple of times. The snake is still writhing like they do after death. That thrills him. He stalks around it, hair standing up on his spine.
I try to watch television, springing up at every commercial to look again for Esmeralda. I imagine she’s dead or dying somewhere. I may never find her.
I call the dogs. It’s 7:30 p.m. I can’t hear them at all.
Light is fading. It’s 8:30. No dogs. No Esmeralda. I’m calling, calling. Go to the far end on my daughter’s porch and call some more.
Minutes tick by. I listen to the bullfrogs warming up at the pond. I hear lapping noises at the water bowl. I think it’s Emma. But it sounds like a big dog…
Yes! I step back inside her living room and there is Weezie lapping water like she’s dying of thirst and Cu spread out of the floor like she can’t move one more step. Both dogs panting as fast as they can.
I hurry through the house to close the yard gate before they decide to venture out again. They have no such intention. They’ve been running for three hours in this miserable heat. They follow me to the kitchen where they stretch out on the cool floor. Panting. Lots of panting.
As I step back into the kitchen from closing the gate, there’s Esmeralda. What? Where did she come from? She’s all relaxed, doing her ballet stretches as I scold her. Then she’s all about her dinner.
The only thing I can figure out is that she was having a nap in the apartment and just wasn’t ready to respond when I was back there searching. Or whatever. She’s one of those Cats.
As for the dogs, they are too exhausted to move. Forty-five minutes elapsed before they stopped panting. Covered in ticks. Fortunately, their meds kills the ticks once they bite, so it wasn’t like they were going to be sucked dry. Still, I couldn’t stand it. I got about a dozen off each ear and that was all they’d let me look for. I’m so glad it’s not late July. That’s when the super tiny ticks start, the ones you can’t see that spread like dust by the thousands.
Today has been a vast improvement. The snake is in an old dishpan. It’s about two and a half feet long. Esmeralda is pursuing enigma. The dogs are napping. Once it cools off a little, I’ll walk down the driveway and toss the snake into the woods.