I. Tennessee Valley
In the winter beech woods—silver-white trunks and limbs, sky bright as ashes—in those blank days at the start of a year, we took our first walks together. I threaded a rope through a belt loop, tied the other end to his collar, so that the bond between us was tangible: fibers, twined, before he had a name to call, before I knew he would come back to me.
He was fox-red, his pelt vivid against the bare trees as we wound through them. He was a tug at my waist, pulling me down the path behind the old marble quarry, to the glinting river. I followed him deeper into the place I lived. He stopped often to put his nose to the ground, the burnished-gold leaf litter: traces of scent left by animals, made visible to me by the lines his nose drew across the earth.
I set forth on foot following this tug of energy that urged my legs to walk. The circle of my life, small as it was, widened outward.
He was not yet a year old, the vet guessed, but he was full-grown and fully formed, having wandered from somewhere, some yard or roadside, stray. Eyes round and pleading, color of pine-needle duff in the sun, of fallen oak leaves. His ears folded over in perfect upside-down triangles. Full, proud chest, tail a jaunty arc curving up over his back. Lean, ligaments and tendons strung taut to his legs. Sleek as a greased buckeye, he was lightning-bolt fast.
Walks filled hours of the days, and the days grew longer. We might walk anywhere.
We went down the sidewalk in the bohemian neighborhood in the city where I lived. First a block away from my apartment, then a block farther. Passing the houses. Ten blocks, eleven. Farther, where the neighborhood turned into another neighborhood, all part of the same wide, spreading city. He tugged me toward a slumped woman on the sidewalk, her hair in tatters. She looked into the animal’s face, disarmed by his earnest eyes. She placed a knobby hand on his head, stroked. How soft, she said, and she may have been talking about the texture of her life then, turned from hard to soft in that instant, the moment stretching out, her hand feeling the ears.
On a scrap of paper I scribbled all possible things I might call him. I folded it into my pocket, tested each in those first days. He might have been Chester, Buster, Lester, Clyde, Peanut, Bandit, Charlie, or Chestnut. He might have been Hank, Rufus, Ranger, Cooper, Whisky, Harley, Hunter, Finn, or Farley.
I took him outside of town, to the mountains. He tugged me along the path, dotted with the delicate bursts of fleeting early-spring wildflowers. Toothwort, bloodroot. His nose to the ground. It had been weeks that I had kept him tethered to me, afraid to let him go. That day, I bent to him, looked into his face. He nuzzled me, his tail swinging side to side. I loosened and unfastened the rope. He felt the sudden tensionlessness, a new zing traveled through his body; anyone could have seen it, the way his eyes grew wide and darting. Then he bolted up the trail and out of sight, as I had known he would.
Where is he?, I already thought. The woods were dense with trees, the scatter of fallen limbs and trunks rotting on the ground. Chipmunks scurried in the leaf litter, shot across logs away from me. The birds chittered overhead. I clenched my jaw as I walked—hurried—my chest tight and constricted. A long minute of listening to my footsteps on the path. At last I belted out a name that echoed through the canopy. I stood and waited.
The moment gaped, my breath held, listening.
Then, finally, the snapping of sticks and rough crunch of leaves under his bounding paws, the sound of his excited breathing, and he was back, the feel of his fur in my hands, and he was licking me. Tamed, named.
It was the beginning of five thousand days of walking. I would call his name into the open air, would holler it out over numberless hills, fields, valleys, ridges, mountain slopes, desert basins, rivers, creeks, hollows, yards, meadows, and coves—would call it across the earth like a repeating prayer. Always a hope, no guarantee of return, as tame always remains wild in part. As life is wild and not guaranteed, and he was so fast and roamed so far from me.
And on the sidewalks, down the roads and highways: we navigated our city together with a mutual pull on both ends of the leash. Each day held the promise of a walk, which is to say the possibility of presence. Two bodies walking, four paws and two feet on the earth. This was attention. This was living. This was devotion.
We roamed in the scraggly land that filled the margins. The city was mostly margins, it seemed: sidewalks that crumbled and ended, railroad tracks and abandoned lots, fences with gaps in them, and my heart thumped when we walked, I could feel it. These corners. They all held interest for his nose, and so I followed.
Broken glass glimmered in the alleys. We wove, a warp and weft of alleyways and streets, every block, the endless city, we threaded through it. I noted the morning-glory blooms, the wisteria vines looped and draping the fences. He noted the cat pee, the diapers in the trash cans, greasy potato-chip bags, the spot where a possum had crept through the night before, the old vomit, the half-eaten hamburger, the tossed-away pizza crust, the cigarette butt with lingering saliva-remnants of someone’s lips, beer can with a swig left in it, the mouse scurrying, the baby bird fallen from the nest (drop it!), gulped in an instant.
O yes, this was living. So fragile and tough at once.
We walked out to the sweep of river that curved away from downtown and to the west. Gray bluffs rose from the opposite bank, sheer walls of stone. The river scrolled out flatly, edged by a field that was soppy in the spring. Birds lifted up in a shudder. He lunged after them—lunged upward, lifting off the ground—as if to catch the spark of life itself. Wings fluttering away. Wingbeats drumming against the skin of warm air that hung over the river.
In the standing water of the field, each of his paw-patters was a joyous splish-splash, percussive—the music of him shooting ahead of me, the fade as he receded, as he followed the river toward the horizon.
Alone then, I followed the river too, a ribbon scrolling at my side, listened to its long lapsed waves that rolled in and gently knocked against the muddy bank. On these walks my bones were humming.
He seemed to be governed by boomerang physics, propelling ahead of me and quickly beyond my line of vision—out to the edge of the flickering earth, to sniff the horizon (scent-trails of coyotes, perhaps, his kin, holding the boundaries of the house of the sun), out to the edge of the tame, to lick at the nameless wild with his mottled tongue. Then, a faraway dot, and another dot beside it, growing larger, two dogs racing toward me, mine in the lead, full-tilt ahead with a spreading toothy grin that split his face, hyena-like, the other dog trailing him, the slap of their paws on the soggy ground, happy.
Happy for another day of walking, which is sometimes running; happy for whomever he might meet. This is a dog’s religion.
II. Blue Ridge Mountains
To know the earth, we walk it. That it might grow large enough for us, wide enough, wild enough. That our days might be filled with the world, we walk. That we might know this feeling.
Another city then, another river snaking through it. Years later. Down the boulevard lined with walnut trees, left at the road (across from la tienda), over the bridge on the sidewalk, left again, past the salvage lot with old kitchen cabinets, sinks, bathtubs in the yard, through the meadow with black-eyed Susans open to the sun, the gold hues of late summer. He followed the winding greenway path with his nose to the ground. Then an upright posture at the coming approach of another dog and owner, his tail held aloft, the planting of the front paws.
A shaggy black dog: they touched noses, looked sideways at one another, touched noses again, sniffed necks. Then a quick exhale, a sudden whirl, kneeling, forelegs on the ground, the other dog knelt too; they sprang back up, and the dogs circled one another, their leashes tangling.
We owners smiled and scolded them, untangled the leashes, pulled them along. Saturdays at the park. Each one the same and different.
Back to the neighborhood, across the tracks and up the hill. Walking just to walk. We passed men not walking just to walk. They were going places. They were going back and forth many times a day. Several men walked together with their knees shooting out wide, heads up, talking loud. I nodded and smiled, and they slung their chins toward me, toward the dog.
A man in his car slowed down to look at me. He pulled his chariot up alongside me, forearm draped across a wide steering wheel. He asked if I had a man, focused on my stride.
I lied. I said yes, I got a man. He played disappointed, and I played sorry and we all moved along, me pulling my hound dog on his leash.
Another man turned around on his bicycle, pedaled up from behind me, slow. Squeak, squeak, I heard him approaching. You got a man? he asked.
Saturday in the neighborhood. Each one the same and different.
A walking woman in a city is always seen, noticed. I was always seen walking alone.
I was always seen with a dog in front of me.
I walked the city freely. I walked to see, to notice. Each day, he led me, tail high. I held the leash.
Years of walking the sidewalks and streets, years of Saturdays, of rainy Mondays with an umbrella, the asphalt slick with rainbows of oil in bright puddles, the days in every weather and light, and all the days slipping past.
And then we lived in a yellow house down a long gravel road, past a field with a donkey, in a hollow with a singing trickling stream, away from the city. There was no holding of the leash anymore. He ran ahead of me on the driveway to the river.
It was fall; the leaves of the witch hazel were large yellow coins on the branches. Not coins, not any kind of measured or measurable currency: ruffled at the edges, ovate leaves that had turned a brilliant for which there is no metaphor or replacement; let the name witch hazel flash in your mind like a hundred fluttering yellow flags. The cherry trees’ leaves were a deep magenta, shiny, smooth. The red maple leaves were every one of them a slow fire burning. The river—another river, new to us but old—was a silver channel. A well-trod deer trail cut into the slope above it, and down to a lower path, where the ungulates and other animals went to drink from the clear water, as if taking light into their bodies. The dog bounded through the deer-threaded woods, his own body a fire, the red flame of his fur like sparks in my eyes.
There was a black shape hunkered on the trail; it bulked, fuzzed, its coat so thick it stole my breath. It rose upright, stood against a tree facing the dog who had been running full speed toward it. The dog stopped; the hair rose in a flare from his neck and along the length of his spine. The bear and dog faced one another. I hung at the edge of the air that tensed between them, the dog planting his paws and projecting a loud ringing bark, the bear unflinching, fixing its eyes on the dog. The bear began to huff. There was the smell of acorns. The bear’s eyes rolled toward me, toward the dog. It lowered its weight onto all fours and then turned to lope uphill, the moment shattered. The dog raced after it baying—the whole forest for miles filled with his barking after the bear, out of sight, and the day seemed large.
That was not the first bear we met together and it wouldn’t be the last.
Nights, the hound shuddered in dreams on the quilts at my feet, and I dreamed of bears, the way they bend space around the trees. Him getting nearer them, me watching from afar, yelling as he moved in on one. And then it turned to winter, the bears hibernating, and I dreamed he was a bear that slept at my feet. The bedroom was so cold at night I could see my breath.
One morning, frost laced the windowpanes. The earth lay hushed in a thick blanket of white. Icicles hung like glass ornaments from the eaves. We walked to the river, the dog’s paws imprinting the white with tracks. Snow weighted the pines; gusts of wind flung the glittering dust from the boughs into the air. We walked the deer path—already pressed with the heart-shaped marks of hooves—down to the dank cold thicket of rhododendron.
I followed the dog’s tracks along the path to a burrow on the riverbank that we passed every day, every day looking for a sign of what lived there, not seeing anything. That day, he stood on the bank with his eyes on the river. A plate of glass sealed the black currents that pushed beneath. Two dark shadows turned and curved around one another in a playful dance. Otters. My blood quickened. I was but a piece of life’s heart.
I watched the shadowy shapes of their bodies move beneath the ice toward the river’s edge, then a head pressed against the ice and broke through it with a soft clatter. The two sleek heads met in the air at the surface and pressed their noses together, and in the same instant perhaps heard my gasp and turned their whiskered faces to me, to the dog. They plunged down again.
The dog’s tail wagged wildly back and forth and he pranced along the bank, kicking up shimmers of snow.
The five thousand days passed like this, and with much more, with work and heartache and conflicts and struggle, and all that remains unspoken. And this I offered up, each day, waking to his insistent plea for a walk, and the days were walking, the sound of his paws padding against the earth, and we walked through it all.
The dog was always at my side.
No, he was always ahead of me, threading, weaving, then circling back, then rocketing ahead once more, through the woods, down the path.
Then the familiar paths changed again, as they always had. That is, they led to other paths, other places. Days turned over into more and different ones. We walked the days from the Tennessee Valley to the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Georgia Piedmont (and there was the Chihuahuan Desert and the southernmost tip of the Rockies in between, hundreds of days unwritten), walked the country.
In a new place, we walked down the driveway from the house, past a neighbor’s field of zinnias, paused at the persimmon tree. I picked up a fallen fruit, brushed off the grit, eased the sugary, nearly pulped flesh into my mouth. He stood and waited. We ambled on, me spitting out slippery seeds, turned left at the road, the dead-end road that saw only a few cars a day. He wasn’t leashed, and he didn’t run ahead. He panted in the buzzing heat of September, one paw placed in front of the other, hung his head loosely, and we advanced into the shade of post oaks and sweetgums, down the road. My heart was syrupy and heavy to have him at my side, finally, after all the years. (In this final place?)
I walked with him, his coat the color of changing maple leaves.
The season turned, persimmons fell nectared to the ground.
In a shroud of fog on a November evening, we headed down the driveway, mist fresh in the lungs. He stopped and planted his nose with care into a patch of upturned duff where a deer’s hoof had landed. I stood and waited. The light falling. We continued, left at the road, down the way. Geese flocked overhead. As we passed a house, two dogs came running across the yard, loping, muscular bodies in the dim light.
I whoaed them down and they slowed, slunk. When the younger-looking one reached us, it cowed, got down on elbows and haunches before my dog, the eldest. He stood straight and still—an air of nobility that he always carried in the presence of other dogs—his ears slightly back. The other dogs witnessed him, sensed that he had been places in his stoic worn body.
The sky began to spit a light rain. We turned toward home, and I shooed the dogs away. Walking, he picked up his step, lifted by the other dogs. He almost skipped home on the dark road, just ahead of me, tail up, trotting. Then, on the driveway, he stopped. As I neared, he turned and stared back down the flat road. I could see the resoluteness in his posture, then the lightning-flicker of him as he took off away from me into the rain and back toward his canine kin, who perhaps bore witness to him in a way I couldn’t, in a way that he needed. I yelled and ran after him, though I knew he couldn’t hear me; he had gone deaf a couple years before, his ears as if stuffed with gauzes of cotton. He outran me, his sleek body fast slipping away from me into the dark. My blood tingled with adrenaline, with the fear that had always come, since the first day so long ago: of losing him—to a car, to the trees, to the road, to the dark, to the earth.
I didn’t lose him. I caught up to him, leashed him, put my nose into the damp fur of his neck, where his coat is thickest; I inhaled the fragrance of fresh rain, of leaf litter and molasses. We walked into the dusk light home.
On the brisk mornings of winter—the air sharp but gentle, not freezing—in the pale veils of mist that rose from the creek, herds of deer floated across the grass. There were countless days, years before, when he shot across the earth, electric, toward deer and evaporated with them, later reappearing, his breath hot. Numberless chases. But on these days, he merely stood outside the back door in the morning and looked toward them with what may have been wonder. He let his eyes rest on the deer, watched as they bent their necks to graze, and he didn’t give chase. His eyes fixed on them and flickered, and he stood watching, his back legs sinking until he came to sit.
His coat was the color of blooms of rust.
I dreamed I was walking with him through the woods, up a hill. Where two paths crossed, we met a deer. Ethereal, like a mist. It hadn’t heard our steps or caught our smell. It swung its head around just as we approached, and its nose met with the dog’s. They sniffed one another and had the same bodies, were the same animal; that was felt and known the way things in dreams are felt and known. I called to him and he couldn’t hear me.
The days are walking. The days are walking away from us.
Through the winter, another season, this walking forward doesn’t stop. After the five thousand days of walking, there will come a day of not walking. He is sixteen. I have turned from twenty-one to thirty-seven in this pile of alive days. And still we walk, the moments spooling out as he lags behind. I stop to watch the long fluttering grasses of the field swallowing sunlight after days of rain. The soft ground I will lay him into, finally. Not yet.
I walk backward now, urging him forward. He pads along with a slow, abiding devotion, the invisible cord between us slackening. I feel him moving into some other country; he stops and gazes long at nothing. Maybe he gazes long at everything and all the fullness of it. Maybe his clouded eyes are taking it in. Maybe it is all worth stopping for. He sniffs each patch of ground. My voice doesn’t reach him, and so I have stopped calling his name, Banjo. It will live forever in the chamber of my tightening throat. Not yet.
I walk forward, glance backward and backward to him over my shoulder. We are flooded by winter sunlight the whole length of the road.
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