Trouble the Water 1
The Old Dog
The dog was old and close to dying. He woke slowly now that he was back, the sun warming the ache out of his bones. He had a flickering thought that he’d like to fall asleep and never wake, but he couldn’t die until he knew the boy was safe. So every morning he pushed himself up and sniffed the air for the boy’s scent, and when he didn’t find any trace of it, he started for the river.
Most nights he slept on the woman’s porch, so that he could smell the river, hear the boy’s calls if they came. His first night back, he’d gone
to his old house, but when he’d barked, no one had opened the door or called out, “Hey, pup, ready for dinner?” If the boy had been there, he would have answered.
He knew that the woman would give him scraps from the table in a bowl by the door when she saw him, and he knew that if he stayed too long, she’d try to claim him. She’d snapped a collar on him when he showed up the first time, but he’d complained so loudly that she’d finally taken it off. The old dog, like most dogs, couldn’t parse out the particulars of human speech, but he could make sense of what people were telling or asking him from the pitch of their voices, the firmness or wobble of their words, so he’d known the woman wanted him to stay when she’d said, “You’d like it here, I swear you would,” before she put the collar back on a peg just inside the doorway.
The woman lived in the house by herself. No other human smells mixed with hers, no onion stink of a man home from the fields, no sweet scent of a child fresh out of his bath, traces of
soap still in his hair, an untouched patch of dirt behind his left ear. The old dog had lived close to humans when he was young, close to the boy, and could sniff one on the air. They each had a particular smell, and there was only one human smell around the woman’s house. It was a nice smell, a mix of river water and new grass and something sweet. The first small flowers of May. He didn’t have words for any of these things, but he knew them.
“Well, hey there, pup,” the woman greeted him now as she emerged from the doorway with a basket in her hand. “I see you stayed for breakfast. Look at you, so slow to get up. Bet you got the arthritis in your bones, old thing like you.”
He followed her around the corner of the house and through the garden gate. “Got to get your vegetables picked first thing of a morning,” the woman informed him as she set to work. “Bugs’ll eat you alive if you come out here at night, skeeters and no-see-ums, they’ll bite you all to pieces. Sun’ll burn you up, you come out at noon. No, first thing of a morning,
that’s the best time. That’s when you get things at their freshest.”
As she talked, she pulled tomatoes and squash and cucumbers off their vines and put them in her basket. The old dog sniffed the vegetables without much interest. Sometimes the woman scrambled him a pan of eggs, and cooked a few slices of bacon, and at the last minute threw in leftovers from dinner the night before. He knew all he had to do was follow along as she did her morning chores and chatted to him. The old dog liked the woman. He didn’t mind waiting.
Breakfast this morning turned out to be fried liver mush and cold roasted potatoes. He gulped down the liver in two swallows and sniffed the air for more. “Sorry, pup, you got the last of it,” the woman told him. “Come back tonight, I might have some chicken for you. I’ll take out the bones first, lessen you choke.”
The old dog recognized the sound in her voice as something he’d been feeling so long now it was like a natural-born part of him. It was the sound of something—someone—missing.
On his long journey home, his nose in the air, hunting for the boy’s scent, he’d let out a howl now and again, and you could hear that sound in his voice too.
After breakfast he left the woman’s house for the woods and the river, and was almost at the water when he heard a younger dog barking. How far away? Far enough that he couldn’t be sure what—or who—the younger dog was growling at. Maybe the old dog, but probably not. He understood other dogs even better than he understood humans. Still, he took cover.
When he sensed the danger was past, he slowly took to his feet again. Should he go back to the woman’s house, rest under the cool shade of her front porch? When the sun got low enough in the sky, she’d come out to keep him company, and he liked that, liked her voice as it went up and down and drifted through his dreams.
He was about to turn around when a feeling seized him, shot through his chest and around his ears like a winter wind. Follow the dog, the feeling told him. Sniffing the air, he
understood. It wasn’t just a dog in the woods; the wind carried the scent of a boy. And though he knew it wasn’t his boy, maybe this boy could lead him to his boy.
The old dog was dying. He knew he was dying. He knew he didn’t have much time. He turned and headed deep into the woods.