Monday, October 31, 2011

A Well-Worn Friend

At the park this morning, chilled because I'd only climbed out of the shower thirty minutes before, but clear-headed and content in the newness of the sun and the freshness of the cold air, I threw Duncan's bright new ball as hard as I could across the park and watched as he scampered after it, his coat deep red with a distinct golden line around its edges. I watched the ball land and bounce before turning and walking in the opposite direction, an act, I've learned, that encourages Roo to chase after me even quicker. I'm careful to wait to see where the ball lands because occasionally he misses it and needs a little help in the search. But this morning he saw it bounce and hurried after it. I turned toward the east, the sun in my eyes, and listened to a chorus of crows in the bare elms along the sidewalk.

It took a bit for Duncan to return and when he did he dropped his ball at my feet, his grin wide and beautiful, his tail erasing the white smudge of the morning's frost. I reached the ChuckIt down to scoop it up when I noticed the ball he'd brought back was not the one I'd thrown, the bright new, shiny green one he'd traded it in for yesterday. It was his old ball, the ball we've played with for years, with the tear and scuff in the side, its green faded to a pale, almost tan sort of yellow from afternoons bouncing in the mud and the minutes spent bobbing along the surface of the river before Duncan returns it to the shore where I stand waiting. Its seams are dull and not as pronounced, but it has held together well, even overnight, abandoned in the park.

"Good boy," I told him, handing him a treat and scratching behind one ear. "You did good."

I don't know where that new ball is, lost among the leaves, waiting for another dog to find it and bring it home, but I know that even dogs recognize the value of an old, well-worn friend.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Sentimental Fool

There are more balls in this little apartment than you'd think possible and nearly every day our collection grows even bigger. It seems we cannot leave the apartment without Duncan stumbling upon a golf ball right below my window (the golf course is about thirty feet from where I live and quite often we're jolted out of our peace and tranquility when some errant golfer knocks his ball right into the side of my building, rattling the windows and scattering the cats). During the summer it's not uncommon to return home after a quick walk with four or five of them filling my pockets, which I then empty into the small bureau where I keep all of Duncan's toys. I pick the golf balls up because I worry about their size; they're just small enough that a dog could easily choke on one. I don't throw them over the fence because if I did our walk would cease and Duncan would sit and pine for the ball beyond his reach. And every walk thereafter he would pause and look longingly out in the tall grass at the edge of the course and whine at what could have been.

And so, reluctantly, I've turned into a bit of collector. The bureau gets more and more full each day and I'm not exactly sure what to do about it. You see, I'm a sentimental fool. I'm not a hoarder, but I do tend to hold on to things longer than I should. Not big things––those are easily disposed of––but the little things, which are quite often more important than the big ones. I have nearly all of Duncan's toys, even the ones chewed beyond recognition (remember Percy, the penguin Duncan disemboweled which I never got around to repairing? He's tucked away should I ever decide to fix him up and reintroduce him to the gang). I have the baby blanket he was sitting on when Ken first brought him home as well as a single unused puppy pad that's been lurking in a box since 2004. I have all the food and water bowls we've fed him from and each and every one of his collars. I have nearly everything, especially these drawers of balls and balls and more balls.


I took Roo out for our morning excursion to the park while it was still dim and very early, when it seemed only the birds were up, lazy and drowzy in the uppermost branches of the trees. I grabbed his tennis ball and the bright blue Chuckit Launcher I keep by the door and we walked across the street for our usual game of fetch. We played for nearly an hour: me throwing the ball as far as I could and Duncan chasing after it, returning it to my feet for his reward. For a Retriever fetch was not a game that came naturally to him so I worked long and hard on training him to bring the ball back by bribing him with goodies. He drops the ball and waits patiently for the treat he's earned. And if by chance there are no treats he very clearly lets me know there will be no game of fetch by running to the ball and laying down on it while he looks at me like, "I've got this thing you threw away. Better come and get it if you want it back."

On our last throw Duncan returned with a different ball, a bright green one, new and unscuffed. He was a bit dodgy about dropping it and meandered around me in a lazy, distant circle, his head down, the ball firmly and selfishly clasped between his jaws. When I finally wrestled it from him I asked where his old ball was. He rolled on his back, indifferent to my question, and tried to distract me with his bright pink belly instead. I tossed the ball for him and then walked back in the direction I'd thrown the original ball. I found it among the frosted grass, buried among the leaves, its color long gone, its surface old and matted from years of being tossed and retrieved, poked and gnawed on by Duncan's teeth

"What about this ball?" I asked him, kicking it beside the new ball. He looked down at them then back up at me. "Don't you want your old ball? It's been so good to you." He looked back and forth between the two, laid down, mouthed one then the other. "Think of all the miles you've run to get it and bring it back? It has been there every time you wanted to play and has come home with you, waiting by the door until you're ready to take it out again." He mouthed his old ball, his tail stirring the leaves behind him. "It's been a good ball, Roo. Do you really want to exchange it for this newer, prettier ball, a ball you hardly know?"

He whined at me, pawed at the old thing then looked nervously at the new one.

"The choice is all yours, Dunc. It's either the reliable, trusty old ball who has been your friend for a very long time or this shiny, new one you've only just met. And who knows where it's been! You decide. You can't have them both."

I watched him and waited, knowing in my heart he'd do the right thing. He went back and forth between the two, picking them up, biting once or twice then spitting them out to be replaced by the other. He pawed at them, sniffed them, rolled across both of them, marking each with the sweet smell of his back. He looked up at me for guidance then stared at them both.

And then he made his choice. He grabbed the ball, stood up and trotted away to the edge of the road where he waits for me to leash him up, the bright, new one firmly held in his mouth, the old one abandoned and forgotten. 

"Well, old friend," I told the ball we've played with for years. "The decision is made. It looks like it's up to you now to find a new home." I stared at it a moment longer, fought my urge to pick it up and put it in my pocket and bring it back home where it belongs, but turned my back and walked away, leaving it tucked among this morning's hard frosted grass.

Duncan, no sentimental fool, didn't look back once. And so I think the day is soon coming when I'll be cleaning out those drawers and getting rid of our many balls.

Unless I go back and rescue it later, an act that will certainly doom me.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Dog Way

The good thing about the snow is that the park is all ours once again. Our mornings are free of the runners who sprint back and forth across the fields and our evenings are clear of the dreaded Soccer Hoards and that wretched high school marching band. The cold and snow and subsequent slush have removed just about everyone except Duncan and me, one or two snow-shoe enthusiasts, who I never see except for the tracks they leave behind, and the few parks department workers whose job it is to de-ice the sidewalks and empty the garbage cans. So it was nice tonight to wander the trails and meander around the baseball diamonds, whistling my Autumn songs and having very one-sided conversations with Duncan until he stumbled upon the bright green softball resting in the mud on the opposite side of the fence.

Normally when the park is empty I remove his leash and we walk, sometimes side by side, sometimes with one or the other of us leading the way. Often Dunc ambles far aside to investigate the hedges near the fountain or to mark the trees, especially the scarecrow-looking dead ones with the neon orange stripe spray-painted around their trunks marking them for removal. And when I've ventured too far ahead he always stops what he's doing and rushes to my side, the sound of his tail alerting me to his presence, his nose poking the palm of my cupped hand for the treats I hold there. Then, once he's checked in, he ventures off again, to the puddle that needs a good tromping through, or to a pile of leaves that beg to be rolled in, good and hard.

It took me a minute to notice he was gone. I'd moved up the walk to the center of the four baseball fields where the concession stand sits empty, the bathrooms locked, the chemical-blue port-a-potties left as sorry substitutes, their odors repellent except to Roo. I turned and looked all around, didn't spot him, whistled once, waited for the sound of his hurrying feet and propeller tail pushing him forward, heard nothing and whistled again, louder. Still nothing.

"Duncan," I called. "Come!" That usually does the trick but tonight I was met only with a distant whine and a meager, sheepish bark.

And there he was, sitting in front of the fence staring at the fat softball on the other side. The gates are locked nightly, with thick, heavy chains and a big padlock, and the little clovers of snow still resting on the shady side of the locks told me they hadn't been opened in days. The fields were a mess of mud and slush no one would play on and the ball must have been left behind earlier in the week, before October turned treacherous and bitter. I couldn't get through the gate if I wanted, and climbing over the fence, as I've done on more than one similar occasion, was out the question with my tender back. There was nothing I could do for him, and knowing there were two drawers full of literally over a hundred tennis, base and golf balls waiting for him back home, I didn't feel all that guilty about not heeding his wishes this one time.

I whistled again, called again, but he merely sat and stared at me, and when that didn't work he crouched down low along the fence line and attempted to reach one feeble paw under it to scoop at the ball, which was easily six feet away and well beyond his reach. And when he glanced back up and saw I hadn't moved he began the soft whining, which soon escalated into louder whimpering which eventually transformed into a full-bellied, echo-inducing bark. He was like a child at a store, who, after demanding every shiny thing within reach, resorts to a full-throated temper tantrum, the kind that hurries a parent from the store, jaw clenched, whispering curses and threats. Only we had the park to ourselves and the sun was beginning to set so I couldn't have cared less how loud he barked.

On and on it went, and when I finally walked away, assuming my absence would hurry him after me, it only got louder. I ducked to the other side of the concession stand and waited, counting off the minutes, expecting silence followed by the clatter of his nails on the cement. But Duncan can be quite stubborn and his barking only got louder and more desperate. After nearly fifteen minutes of waiting I walked back and tried to explain to him that he couldn't have that ball, that there was a multitude of them waiting at home for him. I pushed the gate open as far it would go––no more than four or five inches––and watched as he attempted to squirm his way through it. I sat with him, I tried to distract him, I bribed him with treats, I tossed snow at him, but his attention would not leave that softball.

Finally I did the only thing I could: I leashed him up and dragged him, kicking and yapping, away from the fence, across the courtyard and down the other side of the baseball diamonds toward the wide field where he loves to run and roll. Once we were a fair way away I took the leash off and watched as he turned and headed right back the way we'd come. I used my loudest, sternest Papa Voice and told him no, which froze him in his tracks.

"Get back here," I demanded and watched as he slinked past me, head down low, eyes aimed anywhere but at me. "Now go be a dog," I said, giving him the command that really means "hurry ahead and get out of my hair for a few minutes." He did exactly as he was told, huffing and snorting once over his shoulder as he went. I watched him scurry down the path and head straight to the mucky, moss-laden drainage ditch at the intersection of two sidewalks. He glanced once over his shoulder and just as I opened my mouth to tell him to sit and stay he jumped in, swished his tail angrily in my direction and stuck his face right down into the water.

And when he came up, clutched in his mouth was a pristine, white baseball, smaller and more practical than the softball he'd spent nearly thirty minutes pining for and pouting over. He scurried away as I ran up to him and dropped it in the snow where he threw him down on top of it and rolled all around it, smearing its cold, mossiness across his back and belly, keeping as far away from me as possible.

One way or another he was going to come home with a ball. It was either the easy way or the dog way and there was nothing I could do about it.

video

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A New Place

There is much to be done the day after a snowstorm here on the edge of the Rocky Mountains so Duncan and I ventured out early, moments, it seemed, after the sun first peeked over the horizon, painting the snow a lazy shade of lavender with the faintest trace of orange. I pulled on my boots and coat and the gloves which have been so kind to me these past few years but will soon need replacing, grabbed a pocket full of treats and led Dunc down The Run.


The trees, still covered in their Autumn attire although markedly more naked than they had been just two days before, were bent over themselves under the weight of the snow. As Duncan sniffed and snorted below the crystalline cave of their boughs, I reached in, grabbed their icy limbs and gave them a few quick, hearty tugs, raining bright, fluffy flakes down onto his red head. While I'm not too fond of the inevitable cloud that finds its way under my gloves and creeps down my back, Duncan thinks its a magical event the weather has churned up just for him. He dances on his hind legs and snaps at the air, turning in circles and hopping like a trained poodle. The trees seem to breath a sigh of relief as I let go and watch their heavy limbs stretch back into the air, free of the added weight of the snow. Over and over we did this, all the way down The Run and throughout The Glen, tending to the cowardly and noxious elms who shed their leaves far too early, the low branches of the Japanese Maples and aspens, even the pines and junipers got a good shake down.


After that, and because my back has been very tender as of late, the only other chore that needed tending to was a walk through the park where we could admire the remainder of the Autumn colors kaleidoscoping through the morning glow of the sun and the new Winter white which has laid claim to our corner of the world. These paths are paths we have walked thousands of times. These are the trees we have passed beneath and admired over countless mornings, afternoons and moonlit evenings. But there was something so wondrous about them this morning and the park seemed a new place, a place we either had never visited or hadn't visited in a very long time. Duncan trotted happily ahead and when he spotted something remarkable, like the jagged shapes of the uppermost crust of the snow, or a treasure of golden leaves protruding through the lazing slope of a drift, he'd dart back to me, bark me along and guide me to his discovery. Nothing escaped his eyes or nose; no tree-bound drift slipping free of the branches and leaves and thundering down onto the sidewalk escaped his ears. He did not walk through the park so much as dance and fly from one occurrence to another, his ears raised high, his eyes bright with wonder.


If this is how each and every walk will be from now until April, when Winter finally gives up and allows Spring to return, then I shall be happy indeed, for Duncan will guide me through the days ahead with a joy that is as unquenchable as the sun.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

First Snow

And so there it was, the snow, waiting for us, for our eyes to blink open after a long cold night. Ken has gone to Michigan so Duncan and the cats slept on the bed with me, curled around me, warm and soft, little mounds of dreaming heat around my feet and legs. It was a cold night, so I'd switched out the sheets for the new fleece ones and we slept heavy, with rich dreams, the kind that are warm and colorful but linger only briefly once the eyes flicker open, leaving a feeling in the head as though you were about to say something but forgot just as you opened your mouth to speak.


I expected Duncan to dash out into the fluff with all his exuberance but he wandered slowly as though still in bed, as though wondering if it was still Summer and this was some sort of long-lingering dream.  His steps were tentative at first and he kept his nose low, inhaling the stuff, turning his face into the fall and blinking against the flakes as they fluttered down onto his long eyelashes. Finally, though, he seemed to come awake and threw himself into it with all his spirit, running figure eights around me, his mouth hanging open so he could scoop it up and snort it out, the sound of his passage through it like music that echoed through the bowed branches bending under the weight of the first storm of the season.

Watching him I whispered my hopes for him into the cold air, the wind catching my breath and pulling my words out into the morning. May every flake be a blessing for him, of joy and happiness, long life and good health. May his joys and delights carry him through the winter and all the days of his life. And may I be there to witness every moment.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Tipping Point

Besides the autumn poets sing,
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the haze.
(Emily Dickinson
)

Duncan and I have spent two glorious afternoons wading ankle-deep among the leaves, their sound underfoot glorious and heart-breaking all at once, the fortune cookie voices they contained all summer finally given sound and reason as their bodies are broken by our passing steps. I have watched the colors change slowly, keeping my watchful eyes on the maples and cottonwoods, always the last to change. The elms, weak and without hope or courage, gave up their bounty in September, but the cottonwoods and maples have held true, their spirits more like mine––optimistic and full of dreams. But this morning I spotted their first changing, so I stood a long moment, plucking with my eyes, the soda can yellows sprouting among their lush canopy in much the same way I watch Ken stand at the mirror and pick out the very first graying hairs at his temples.


Two days of warm, windless afternoons and cool, pleasant evenings, the scents of burgers and chicken on the grills in direct defiance to the cold and snow that is coming, as early as Wednesday we are told. We have reached the tipping point and soon the color all around will be replaced with snow, exciting and bland all at once. Too soon there will be too few leaves on the trees and the wind will find our warmest spots, poking and prodding until it forces us back inside where it will howl curses of cowardice at us. I am not looking forward to it. As much as Autumn hurts my heart, Winter is even more difficult. Duncan will see me through it, though; his enthusiasm for the flakes and drifts and whitewash as tremendous as my love of the sun and sweat and Russian Olives.

Bless my good dog and his love of all things.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Groomed

Well, we did it again; we survived another grooming.

In August a new neighbor moved in, bringing with her two dogs, a daughter, and her mobile dog grooming van. She's a wonderful person and we've spent a lot of time chatting and waiting for her Colorado dog grooming license to be finalized. Finally, it arrived early this week and we made an appointment for Roo to get the full treatment, all mere yards from home. So this afternoon I walked Dunc downstairs and across the parking lot where Jennifer was waiting for us. Duncan loves her and her two dogs, Cody, a beautiful Golden, and his son, Logan, a Golden Rotty mix. Dunc had no problem climbing right inside although he was a bit annoyed when I left his bag of treats and walked away. An hour later, though, he emerged, bright and shiny, smiling and smelling as sweet as a May morning.

He's always good to cuddle with, but now he'll be even better! At least for a few days.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Farewell

He was waiting this morning, in the last of the green trees, his back the color of mottled bark and almost lost among the foliage. It wasn't until he turned that he caught Duncan's attention. Roo darted to the base of the fence and sat with such force among the leaves that they dusted up and scattered around him, a mighty red comet leaving an impact crater. The hawkling hardly moved. He turned to look at us, calm and almost indifferent. He ruffled his chest once and looked from Duncan to me and then back out at the geese who have already laid claim to the golf course.

I have no way of knowing if it is our hawkling, now a full-sized bird, strong and fierce, no longer that helpless creature hiding among the shrubs while I stood guard against Jeffery's cat. But I like to imagine it is the same creature, that perhaps he spent the summer watching from the giant willow behind my home, watching us venture out in the mornings and then again on our afternoon and evening walks down The Run. I've heard their voices in the mornings, the sound a shrill call that scatters the smaller birds and stiffens the tails of the squirrels Duncan has treed. I know they have been there all along but I haven't seen them, not since he returned to show he'd survived and had found the power of his wings. Perhaps he picked this moment to say farewell before moving on for the winter, to let us know he was grateful for the time and worry we spent with him.

I like to think this is the case, that maybe my good dog and I have imprinted on his wildness somehow, that he is grateful in whatever way he is capable, and that he came to wish us well before departing these fading lands for a warmer place where the mice are plentiful and the cats scarce.


Stranger things have happened. Nature is an amazing place. And some stories do have happy endings.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Purpose

It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life.
(P. D. James)

It was a glorious afternoon, breezeless and stationary but with cool, tolerable temperatures, too cold for a t-shirt but too warm for a jacket. The windows had been left open and the sun allowed to bless the cats with the warm squares it made on the carpet. The sleepless leaves, damp and nearly quiet in the morning but crisp and loud underfoot in the afternoon, stayed where they'd landed, stirred only by our passing.  It was a day for walking and breathing, inhaling the dark, almost-musty fragrance of the earth and the cinnamon scent of tree bark. There were birds, too, settled in the lush stillness of the branches, singing softly, quietly, as though whispering through a church service. Even the squirrels were cautious and respectful in their steps, bounding along from one bald spot in the grass to another, afraid that any sound would bring back yesterday's cold and the turbulence we endured over the weekend.

But Duncan could care less. Duncan, who loves all things, especially the seasons, threw himself into the world with an open, generous spirit, unafraid of the consequences of the autumnal music he made. I lingered behind, watching him prance and play, his tail stirring up contrails of leaves behind him, his nose pushing paths through them. His love of the world, its mysteries and gifts, is a remarkable thing to witness. Even the sun seemed to pause in the sky to savor the sight of him. He turned a corner and vanished from my view so I hurried to catch up with him, the sudden silence of The Glen ahead unnerving. But there he was, resting on the hillside waiting for me, his head cocked, his eyes bright, everything about him asking me why I took my time, why I didn't gallop beside him through the bounties of the world, why I chose to take pictures and whistle softly instead of spin as madly as he.


So I laid down beside him, tucked my camera into my pocket and rolled down the hill, pulling the leaves around and behind me while he for once followed, his paws dancing in the air behind me as though pushing me forward.

His pleasure is all I need. And on afternoons such as this, my pleasure seems to his sole purpose.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Discovered Stillness

As Duncan has learned many times on our walks, sometimes there are discoveries to be made in the low bushes and shrubs along our grassy path. I could not count the number of sticks or balls (tennis, base or golf) he had retrieved and dropped, wet and heavy, into the palm of my hand. Or the birds he has rooted out, scattering them into a fluttering, dancing cacophony in the air about his head. Sometimes there have been mice, darting frantically, little more than rustling gray streaks, at our feet. And squirrels and lizards and frogs and bunnies. There are a hundred things in the deep shadows of those places that await the delight of a Golden.

But sometimes those things we find don't get up and run away. Sometimes they are meant to stay where they are, their days of play and sunshine behind them, the slow obligation of their eternal stillness just beginning.


Try explaining that to your inquisitive companion who stares up at you, a smile on his face, ears raised hopefully, expectantly, as the sunshine dapples his face and eyes.

“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today."
(Richard Adams, Watership Down)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

It's Lovely Up Here!

"Life down a hole takes an awful toll,
What with not a soul there to share with
Hurry––it’s lovely up here!"
("Hurry, It's Lovely Up Here!" Alan Jay Lerner)

It's National Coming Out Day and after Duncan and I strolled around the lake, where a cool breeze was stirring the aspens and elms along its shore, we stopped by Hero's Pets to pick up some treats and to say hello to Chelsea and the gang. As Duncan sniffed along the lower shelves of The Wall of Horror (where Chelsea displays the bully sticks, the tracheas, shark spines and other grizzly goodies) Chelsea handed me something she'd ordered just for me, even though I hadn't asked her to do so. It was a car magnet with a single dog print on it. I've never been one to display things on my car, except for the rainbow dog tags which hang from my rear view mirror, but this was too good to pass up so I took it and stuck it on my car the minute we got home.


I am fortunate because my coming out story was an easy one. My friends and family were supportive and welcoming to Ken.  Coming out is a process, something that never really ends. It was not an easy thing to do but over the years it became something I could do with little thought. It is as much a part of me as the color of my hair, the blue of my eyes or the color of my skin. It is not my sole identity but an aspect of it. I am just as much a son, a brother, a partner, a writer, a friend, and a dog lover.

The other day on Facebook I posted the following photo:


As Ken and I walk with Duncan it often crosses my mind that perhaps he is more evolved than the species with which he has chosen to spend his life. He loves us completely and without conditions, does not mind that we hold hands or are working on spending our lives together as partners. He sees only love.

Now if only the rest of us could follow his example.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

In the Grass

In June I thought it was a shoelace, a long one from someone's sneaker, something once white but now dirtied, well-worn and tossed by an inconsiderate tenant from one of the balconies overlooking The Run. It was resting in the grass, pale and fragile, like a frozen wisp of smoke or a thin piece of onion paper, moist from the morning dew and curled upon itself, draped across our trail a little too carefully to be something randomly tossed from above, looking instead like something almost arranged. Duncan and I saw it at the same moment but he was a little quicker to lean in and investigate. It was only when his nosed touched the thing and he jumped back as though he'd received a sudden shock, ears and tail down, his body shrinking in upon itself, that I knew what it really was, a snake skin.

I am not what you'd call squeamish. Bugs don't really bother me, unless, of course, I discover them crawling across me or when someone points and tells me there's one on my back where it can't be seen or easily reached. Mice and other rodents have always fascinated me. In fact there was a long time in junior high and high school when I kept gerbils, sometimes a cage of as many as ten if the two original occupants decided to start a family. Even the bats that fill the skies above The Glen just after the sun sets haven't really troubled me. But snakes? Snakes are another story. Yes I know they are here and that they are mostly harmless, but I don't have to like it one bit.

It was only the skin and nothing to be afraid of, but it's head was pointed in the direction of the tall grass on the edge of the golf course immediately to our right and the narrow impression in the wet grass that headed in the opposite direction, toward the heavy shadowy hiding places of the bushes to our left told me that its previous resident was still quite nearby. It had come from the golf course, molted quickly and was now resting nearby, moist and soft, its new skin drying while it watched us, tongued tasting the air around us. With my heart racing irrationally and my whole body tense and ready to jump back if need be, I leaned in to study it, bent down low to see the big, pearl-shaped places where the eyes had been, the curling onion-skin folds of its mouth. It was nearly complete and without any breaks in its mottled surface and when I steeled myself to touch it it seemed soft, like dandelion fluff, and very, very fresh.


It was the first indication I'd seen of a snake in the four years we've lived here so I stepped over it and continued on our way but for several weeks afterward it stayed in my mind and where I'd once found myself watching for bunnies and squirrels and even Jeffrey's stray cat, I now found myself considering snakes, lurking in the depths of the bushes where Duncan bounded and played and snorted. But as the summer progressed and no further signs appeared I forgot all about it.

Until this afternoon.

And then there it was again, except that this time it was dark gray, as fat as a hot dog, with black markings running up and down its body––a little less than three feet in length––from the sleek head to the narrowest tip of its tail. It was resting in the same spot the skin had been three months ago, its body bent in the middle as though caught in the act of pushing itself forward. My foot hovered inches above it, frozen in the air about to come down, in the soft, squirming middle of the thing. I thought it was a branch from the elms above. The ground was littered with them from our windy nights. Most still held a handful of refugee leaves that had only just begun to change colors. This one, though, was smooth and shiny and leafless, without a knot on it. My heart gave a tremendous leap and I backed away. Dunc was still a few yards behind me, nosing along the fence for signs of intruders or would-be usurpers to his territory, and hadn't spotted it yet. He'd only had one other encounter with a snake and that ended with him also mistaking it for a twig, something to be carried in his mouth and played with. I took a step toward the thing and tapped my foot near its head, striking the ground four or five times, half expecting, half hoping, it wouldn't move, that its lifeless body could be something kicked under the fence where we wouldn't have to think of it again. But it wasn't lifeless and the last time my foot came down it gave a great heave, its narrow head leaving the ground and turning in my direction for only a moment, before it thrust itself forward and slid into the shrubbery a foot away. I jumped back, every nerve in my body alive and fired up. And then I felt something brush the back of my foot, leaped up and turned around, a cry in my throat, the sound a cross between the gasp of a little girl and the shriek of a cat in the night. But it was only Dunc, dumbfounded and startled by my reaction. I breathed a sigh of relief, patted him on the head, watched him sniff suspiciously in the grass where the thing had been only moments before and then move on.
It took a few seconds, but with one eye on the shadows under the bushes and one on the happy tail of my dog, I made it the rest of the way.

Perhaps there is reason to look forward to the coming winter after all.