When I was fifteen, my half-brother asked me to look after his dogs. He was going to a wedding in Michigan—which was two time zones west—and needed someone competent and reliable to make sure they were walked and fed. I was his last choice. He handed me their leashes with ill-concealed trepidation and a long-suffering sigh. He made polite, circumspect noises to the effect of “I’ll be back in a week; don’t screw this up.”
The dogs and I watched the tires of his old raised-roof pickup truck kick dust into the July afternoon as they spun away.
I was fifteen and spending a bored summer in rural Vermont, so I was glad of the company. I found fetch to be a wonderful antiseptic against midsummer ennui. The dogs were lovely. One was old, ruddy-coated and steady, with a tongue that hung down like a rusted muffler. He would plop himself down at your feet and make off-puttingly humanoid whining noises when you stood up, moved, or looked at him funny. This was Gus. Truly a man’s best friend, with all the exasperation that term implies.
But the other one was young—a bouncing, joyful thing, a gamesome furball in the prime of life. I would often find her aflutter in fields of tallest grass, bouncing above the verdant strands to view the path ahead, then bounding forth again. This land-dolphin’s name was Soma, and she quite stole the show from her companion, Gus. Vigorous and athletic, she would go tumbling off in pursuit of the latest smell, sound, or thrown object, before returning with bobbed tail wagging and face begging for approval. A princely dog this was, the proud scion of a noble doghouse. Her name was Soma.
Towards the end of the week I got them into the car and drove to a trail that ran parallel to a tributary of a larger river. I had a dog whistle and two leashes, which I fastened to their collars. I led them down the path into the woods.
It was sunny and green and pleasant under the trees lining the sun-dappled stream. A light breeze was blowing, and the treetops swayed, casting shifting patterns of shadow across the path. The trees were sprightly and dappled with moss and the trail gently winding, rolling with the curve of the neighboring stream. The water made a sonorous gurgling which underlay bursts of scattered birdsong. In the shade, wild clover bloomed.
When the path dipped low I brought the dogs to the water to drink and cool off. I watched their long tongues lap crystal droplets into the soft red roofs of their mouths. The stream was cool and pebbly-bottomed, the sun glinting across, long and yellow.
I didn’t see anyone, so eventually I let the dogs off the leash. They ran ahead, charging up and down hillsides, sniffing at little holes. They looked happy.
Soon the path veered away from the stream and we came to a sunbaked clearing all warm and alive with summer bugs. Soma charged into the green, as she was wont, while Gus stayed near me and sniffed around the edges where the fresh grass bordered the path. I stood in the sunlight and watched soft clouds churn through the sky.
The scene was so idyllic—the sky so bright, the air so fresh, the river so cheerful and clear, every color crackling like fire—that I found myself wondering why. Who was it all for? Why such exquisite spectacle? It seemed utterly unnecessary. I was young; I was alone; and all around me streamed a torrent of bewildering, superfluous beauty. But what is the source that fed the stream? What can account for a flower?
By and by Soma returned and sniffed Gus, who sniffed her back. I reached down and scratched their bony scalps where they met the soft, attentive ears. They beamed up at me; loyal, lolly-tongued, loving.
We reentered the woods on a ridge path elevated above the river with a steep drop down the side. The trees here were older and more gnarled, with here and there a system of roots or branches protruding from the slope or overhanging the water. Soft and pebble-smooth, the stream babbled on.
Soon we came to a place where the ridge shallowed and one could climb down to the riverbank. Soma jumped down and began sniffing around. I watched the clouds and dreamt.
But Soma didn’t come back to the trail, and I got tired of the clouds. I called a few times, but she didn’t come. I leaned over the ridge to see what the matter was. I saw a tree leaning out over the water, and at the base of it, almost directly below me, a little root-twisted hole at which Soma was sniffing diligently, like an appraiser inspecting a diamond. I’d seen her do this before and I wondered absent-mindedly what made this particular ditch so fascinating. I waited a few seconds and called her again. Then I heard a screech.
I scrambled down the slope. Soma was excited now and spraying dirt behind her as she clawed at the burrow. I pulled at her collar and said, somewhat sheepishly, “C’mon Soma. Get out of there.”
I wasn’t used to owning dogs. I was embarrassed at having to yank her by the collar out of a ditch, and I still half-believed she would get bored of this in a moment. So I played it cool for my imagined observer.
She pulled a cat-sized groundhog out of the hole. When I whirled around she was shaking it by the neck. She was savage, explosive, but the groundhog was tough. It screeched and scratched and squirmed. The sound was like a lawnmower eviscerating a kitten. I thought: “It’s too late; I can’t stop her now.” I also thought: “Holy shit.” Mostly I was glad no one was there to see what a bad dog owner I was.
The groundhog kept squirming and screeching and now it almost freed itself from her jaws, but Gus, catching up to her, barking like mad, grabbed the groundhog from behind, and now the creature, screaming, was caught between the two maws like a heretic on the rack. I couldn’t quite bring myself to look away.
Soma ran up the hill and took off down the path, dragging the carcass like a wet towel. I stared. Then I fastened Gus’ leash to a tree and sprinted after her.
My boots clump-clumped as I ran. The sun shone on the river. I remembered the whistle in my pocket, brought it out, raised it to my lips, and tripped over a root. On the ground I felt the loamy path, cool and pleasant in the shade.
I got up, bloody-kneed, charged forth once more, and gave the whistle a mighty blast. It didn’t make any noise. Because it was a dog whistle. This was vaguely disappointing.
Soon she swerved off the path and tore through a thicket of brambly undergrowth. Picking my way through, slowed to a crawl, I thought the world was strangely quiet. There was only my breath—labored, but steady and strong. The clean air stung my bleeding knees. I pushed brambly curtains aside. The thicket pricked at my skin. The sky was unspeakably blue.
But as I emerged from the thicket, I no longer noticed the sky. I found myself in a dark glade trellised all around by ancient, wizened trees. Systems of gnarled roots carpeted the ground and crisscrossed like a weaver’s loom. Overhead, the twisting boughs knit an almost shrine-like enclosure. The light was filtered and patchy. The silence was primordial.
In the center, as on an altar, lay a dead rodent. Its mouth hung slightly agape. Scarlet gouges scored its throat and chest. Its belly was torn open. Shreds of entrails trailed like ivy on the twisted roots. A crimson pool was blooming beneath. The eyes were inscrutable. Above the gore stood Soma. She beamed up at me; loyal, lolly-tongued, loving, a strand of small intestine dangling from the lower incisors, face and paws spattered with blood. Her bobbed tail shook like an alarm clock.
Afterward I led the dogs to the river to clean off. The red stains washed from their fur and melted into the current, swirling with the eddies, petals in the wind.
On the walk back I stared at the dogs. Gus stayed at my heel and panted, but Soma kept tugging at the leash, nose to the ground. She was lithe and lean. Her fur was long and soft. A beautiful dog.
So why the hell did she do that? How can a thing be so lovely and so violent? She was like a machine…
Now the day seemed so normal, the woods so peaceful, that it was hard to believe it could’ve happened at all. I kept turning the events over and over in my head and getting nowhere. I told myself to forget about it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen something important—something I didn’t know that I didn’t know.
Well, I handled it OK. I think. Right? The best I could.
It seemed to me I’d done well. I’d acted decisively and I hadn’t panicked. I hadn’t flinched at blood and guts. So a part of me felt manly and strong and capable. Another part could still hear the groundhog’s screaming.
Eighty-seven million years of evolution separated me from that animal, and yet the second I heard its shriek I knew—I could feel—that it was a cry of mortal terror.
Forget it. It was just a groundhog. Just keep her on the leash and forget it.. Nature is beautiful. There’s nothing—
“What is tha’, a terriah?”
I was being talked at in one of those old-timey Maine-and-Northern-Vermont drawls. “Shepard? Aus’ralian cat’le dog? Can de Chira?”
“You hear me? I sayed: What breed is ‘e?”
“This one is a cattle dog, yes,” I said, pointing at Gus.
“Oh yah, they can be a pain righ’ I’ th’ neck. You must be a real dog lover!” “Well. Yes.”
“I had myself a cattle dog once, and I tell you, he...”
The brook babbled inanely as the day wore on.
But after I reached the end of the trail and found the car and got the dogs in I still had nothing figured out. And it was getting dark. After a while I turned the key and shifted gear and drove off. In the shade, wild clover bloomed.