When it came to unwanted litters, Farmer Minz favoured death by shovel—one well-aimed blow per altricial skull. He was stooped over the last puppy in line when we entered the daytime twilight of the barn.
“Wait!” my father shouted.
Minz glanced round, his expression strangely mild. “Oh, hey there, Al. Best keep the kids out till I’m done.”
I would’ve been five, my brother six, but my father wasn’t one to shield us from the truth. “Hold up, Len.” He advanced with the pair of us in tow.
There were four of them—black-and-tan bundles, lovely in death. The fifth was different, marked with a saddle of reddish gold. He gazed up at us through unfocused eyes.
“Male?” my father said.
Minz looked at him. “You’d have to bottle-feed him. What’ll your missus say to that?”
Bottle-feed. I could feel the soft weight settling in my arms, nothing akin to my pink-limbed doll. His real mother was the St. Bernard we knew from previous visits—a massive, tolerant beauty we’d followed around the yard. Locked in the farthest stall, she set up a howl when my father knelt beside her litter in the straw.
And the puppies’ father? We knew him only as a wolf-shaped shadow; a free-ranging malamute, he slipped away through the poplars whenever our truck pulled into the Minzes’ yard. Hewas a notorious chicken-killer. Sometimes he even roughed up the neighbours’ calves, but Minz refused to put him down. And here was the shadow’s off- spring, sad-eyed like his mother, still breathing like his dad. My father looked from him, to my brother, to me.
“Well? What do you think?”
The way my father tells it, we kids were the ones who yelled Wait! We’d tumbled out of the truck and gone looking for the Minz kids, or maybe their St. Bernard. Down the back of the farmyard, we came upon Minz and his gun.
“Wait a minute,” I say into the phone. “Gun?”
“‘Daddy, Daddy, come quick!’” My father makes his voice little—he knows how to spin a tale.
“He was the last one left, right? The only one still alive?”
Silence stretches in the space between us—four and a half provinces between his home and mine. I can picture him sitting in his sunroom, staring out into the rain-soaked cedar that darkens his drive. “I don’t know about that,” he says finally.
“He was beautiful,” I say, retreating from the ugliness I’ve once again rooted up. “That red in his coat.”
I can see my father nodding, watching himself in the glass.
What’s the difference, anyway? Shovel or gun, my father shouted or we did, running to fetch him, dragging him by the hand. The point is, we saved the puppy’s life. Unless you ask my mother.
“Minz farm?” she says when I call her to double-check. “No, it was the Keddys’. English couple, he taught with your dad. Minz was where we got milk. And skating—your dad used to take you skating on their creek.”
Before I can question her, the evidence rises in my mind: Minz creek winding off through the bulrushes, Minz milk in the gallon jar.
“Lisie,” my mother says, “you still there?”
“Still here. So why were we there?”
“Keddys’? To get the dog.”
“—The puppy? We went to get a puppy?”
“That’s right, their St. Bernard had had a litter.”
“And we got the last one, the one Mr. . . . Keddy hadn’t put down.”
“Put down? No, love. They were giving them away.”
I don’t know why I’m surprised. It’s like that in families that split, no passing the core stories from hand to hand, agreeing on the shape of them, the size. I could ask my brother—six years old must see more clearly than five. Trouble is, he’s a master of forgetting. He leaves the fragments buried where they belong.
I remember a lucent tunnel, pale bark flashing, light rinsing through tender leaves. Dirt road in the Alberta backwoods. My father at the wheel of the pickup and the three of us—me, my brother, and our dog—bouncing in the open back. A puppy no more, Pompeius Maximus had grown into his ridiculous name. Mostly we called him Pompey. Noble yet clownish, it fit him like a furry glove.
He spotted a buck—a glimpse of antlers through the trees. When it turned to show the flag of its tail, he drew into himself and launched.
“I caught it in the rear-view,” my father says, and for a moment I see it there too—the coppery flash, the shape of him tumbling in our wake.
“Good thing it was icy,” my father adds. “We were only doing twenty or so.”
“Icy?” I say. “But it was spring.”
“No, we’d been out to Baptiste Lake for a skate.”
“But we were in the back. We were with him when he jumped.”
“Uh-uh, you were up front with me. I pulled over and went back to get him.”
“You carried him?”
“Carried him? He weighed almost as much as I did by then. Besides, he could walk. He was sore and a bit shamefaced, but there were no broken bones. I brought him up front, remember, let him curl up on the floor.” I hear the smile in his voice. “You two had your feet up on him.”
It’s coming back to me now, our feet in their clumsy boots on Pompey’s side. Two snow dogs for parents meant he was blessed with an undercoat of heavy wool. Winter. The buck would have been hungry, nibbling twigs.
“He saw a deer,” I say.
“Pompey, that’s why he jumped.”
“Huh. I always figured he got too cold.”
My mother solves the mystery. “Oh, God,” she laughs, “and there was that time he jumped out of the truck.”
“You were there?”
“Sure. He saw some cows—I don’t know why they got to him, we were always passing fields full of cows—but he saw them and he was off.”
So, not one leap but two. It fits: my mother with us when the weather was good; at home reading or writing by the wood stove when it was cold. I like to think of her alone and dreaming, though it unsettled me at the time. The two of them never were that much alike. She recalls the comedy—dog in the grips of bloodlust, husband haring after him across a field. He remembers the frozen road, the painfully close call.
He was attracted to death—dogs are as a rule, being part scavenger. Any one of them will investigate a carcass, though only some are still wolf enough to roll in what they find. Pompey was shameless, forever romping off in search of the fallen, the partially consumed.
“There was this one mess,” my father says, “you could tell it had been a mammal, but that was about it. He’d smeared it flat. It was all through his coat, this . . . jelly.”
I cringe, holding the phone away from my ear.
“Jesus, the smell,” he’s saying when I bring it back. “I used to call him that, remember, ‘Old Smell’?”
I nod. “He liked his dead fish.”
“God, yes. And there was that seal that washed up on the beach.”
“You know, down the end of our little cove.”
He’s jumped ahead a few years, to when we’d abandoned Alberta’s bright winters for the mushroomy rainforests of the West Coast. By then I was a skittish nine. The new house was bigger, woods at its back and a tumbledown yard to the sea. A dream house. And the four of us—or should I say five—about to wake up.
“He burst it,” my father adds. “It was all blown up, and he flopped down and burst it like a balloon.”
I picture Pompey rolling in rot, anointing himself in blubber and blood. We were disgusted, my mother, brother, and I. Only my father laughed.
“God knows how many times I washed that dog. I was always getting my yellows on.”
The moment he says it, the image is clear—him dragging the hose from its moorings, lemon bright in overalls and slicker, everything but the sou’wester hat. It’s handy having a dad who’s not squeamish. He took his turn changing diapers before most men wondered if they ought to, picked debris from our wounds with a nurse’s concentrated calm.
He was depressed when we first came to the coast—Pompey, I mean. He found a hollow under the porch and dug in, a caricature of a dog crawling away to die. This was the house in Victoria, way station between small town backwater and oceanfront dream. The second-to-last attempt.
“I think it was the containment,” my father says. “Before that we never had to tie him up.”
I picture the Alberta yard from above—from the tree house, I realize, rough platform among the resinous boughs. There’s the doghouse, shingled to match our own, and now there’s Pompey himself, trotting from corner to corner, marking the limits of his patch.
“He used to jump the fence every now and then.” My father chuckles. “He came back skunked once. And twice he came back with a face full of quills.” There’s a lightness in his tone—strange, considering he’s recounting one pain-in-the-ass incident and a couple involving actual pain. “I got a call from a farmer one time,” he goes on. “Pompey was harassing his herd. ‘You better come get him,’ the guy tells me, ‘before I get my gun.’ Got a call from the town Mountie once too. Same thing, come get him or else.”
“The Mountie had a farm?”
“No.” He lets me hang for a moment. “But he had a bitch in heat.”
No wonder Pompey balked at his change of circumstance—the gingerbread houses and cherry blossoms, the backyard collar and chain. The beach was what brought him back. While we walked the parkside cliff to the winding stairs, he took the direct route down, plunging over the edge to crash headlong through the gorse. Beating us to the pebbled shore, he’d make straight for the surf. Every wave was a game. In up to his neck, he snapped at their foaming crests.
“He loved the water,” I say.
“That he did. There was that one time, do you remember—well, you weren’t there, it was just the two of us out on Slave Lake. Something must’ve bit him—a horsefly, probably—anyway, one minute he was lying down in the canoe and the next he was going wild. Of course we went over—me, the dog, the paddles, everything. There I am swimming one-handed, dragging the capsized canoe and a garbage bag full of gear, and there’s Old Smell, splashing along beside me, trying to climb up on my back. You’re going to kill me, you idiot. Get off. God, we barely made it back to shore.”
I say nothing. He’s right, I wasn’t there. It was probably one of those times when, rather than raise his voice to meet my mother’s, he packed a day’s provisions and disappeared.
“Camping,” he says after a moment. “You remember winter camping? The three of us in the tent?”
I do indeed. Shivering inside my snowsuit, inside my sleeping bag, inside a pair of green foamies sealed along their edges with glue. It was all right for my father and brother—the two of them have always burned hot. Once, when I’d somehow filled my mittens with snow, my father lifted his sweater and guided my bare hands to his skin. There. As though he were a stove and not a man, his belly banked up with coals.
“Pompey made his own tent,” he adds. “Just burrowed in, and in the morning there was this little chimney, this hole in the snowbank breathing steam.” It’s a happy thought, Pompey curled in his doggy-igloo. We rest in it together. Then, “Your mother wasn’t part of all that.”
“She used to stay home reading. Writing her poetry.”
Decades on and he still says it with an edge. And who can blame him, when she wrote her way closer and closer to the door.
We moved out of the dream house in shifts, my father staying with a friend in town while my mother packed up her half. That’s when it happened, or so my father believes. She was supposed to be out there, he swears, but she spent the night in town—not with a friend but with the bastard who’d broken their life in two.
Funny, because my mother and I remember it happening later on, when the two of us had already moved into the apartment downtown. The other half of who we’d been—my father and brother—were still staying with my father’s “friend.” The oceanfront home was sitting half empty. It only made sense for the friend’s daughter and her lumberjack boyfriend to stay there until it sold.
I imagine them blissed out—eighteen or so, tilting back beers and skinny-dipping in our little cove. It was their fault Pompey got out. They didn’t even notice until he came crawling home.
“You probably don’t want to hear this,” my father says, “but I was so angry with your mother, I was so . . . enraged. She just left him. She left him running loose.”
The way he tells it, it was a neighbour who phoned, not the daughter or her lumberjack.
Either way, my father drove like a man with a death wish, cutting the normally hour-long trip in half. Wherever Pompey lay—our yard, the neighbour’s—his heavy coat was soaked with blood. That’s it, my father thought, game over. And then he saw the rib cage move.
When the vet opened Pompey up, he found a soft-nosed bullet, the kind that mushrooms once it’s inside. It was lodged in a tricky spot, so close to the aorta he didn’t dare pry it out. “It might be all right,” he told my father, “or it might shift and kill him. You’ll have to wait and see.”
The farmer who shot our dog was within his rights: Pompey had been running his sheep.
“No,” my mother says, “not sheep. They were goats.”
And it’s here that her guilt—or innocence—lies. Not long before she left for good, she took a walk with the family dog. Together they followed the coast road farther than ever before, passing close by a field of goats. Swollen bellies and sideways eyes, the young ones with that delicious spring. No wonder they woke the wolf in Pompey’s blood.
“I remember he took an interest in them,” she admits. “I had to get hold of his collar and drag him away.”
I think it was my father who found the lump. My father thinks it was me. We were brushing the long, red-gold fur on Pompey’s back when our fingers stumbled on something that shouldn’t have been there. Cancer, we thought, not even a year after he’d lived through being shot. Again the vet put him under and picked up his knife—only this time the news was good. The growth he cut out of our dog’s back was a vicious little mushroom of lead.
He lived—four, five years after the false tumour that had given us such a scare. The real ones were invisible. They were all through him by the time my father admitted it was more than an old dog growing tired.
“He took a long time to go,” I say.
“—No. No, he was lethargic, off his food, so I took him in. They X-rayed him and put him down then and there.”
“But—” I should hold my tongue. I would if I was being kind. “—I remember it taking months.”
Nothing. Then, “No, that was Shilo.”
Shilo? The soft indoor dog who came after Pompey, paving the way for me and my brother to leave home? But, Dad, I manage not to say, I was long gone by the time Shilo died. And anyway, I remember Pompey lying on the rug inside the back door. I remember him stinking, shrinking inside that beautiful coat, and your new wife saying maybe it was time, and you flinching and setting her straight. I’ll take him the minute I see he’s suffering. The minute he lets me know.
He chose the middle of the night, loosing a spine-chilling wail that brought my father stumbling from his bed. Animal Emerg in the small hours, backing in through the glass doors—an ordinary passing. Far less tragic than being bludgeoned alongside your siblings, or leaping to your death on a back road, or drowning with your master on a lonely lake. Nowhere near as romantic as getting shot through the heart.
Alissa York’s internationally acclaimed novels include Mercy, Effigy, and, most recently, Fauna. Her essays have appeared in the Guardian, Eighteen Bridges, and elsewhere. York has lived all over Canada and now makes her home in Toronto with her husband. Her new novel, The Naturalist, is due out in 2016.