The Viking Send-Off
Today I ground my coffee alone. My morning dog, she’s gone, no longer at my heel. The ghost of her memory haunts our house, sounding her appearances by her many noted absences. While Huck is still asleep on his back, dog-snoring in his corner until the more respectable hour of seven or eight o’clock, it is our dog gone, Baylee, who is more keenly felt in the pitch pre-dawn. Baylee was the four or five o’clock dog, whacking cabinets, or, later, thumping the floor, with the rhythmic booming of her heavy tail. When I’d start pawing around the dark kitchen to make my first cup of coffee for the day, she, who’d bark maniacally at anything, man or beast or machine, for any disturbance in her domain, would let me pass on to the beginning of my morning ritual with only the resonant thud of her metronomic observance, her unvoiced greeting. Now it’s just the grinder breaking beans, the hiss of steam, the gush of dark espresso splashing down into my cup, and it’s all too quiet without her backbeat marking time.
One dozen years gone down, or nearly so, and that’s enough slow time sweeping through its arrow’s arc to carve out hollows in the granite order of our lives, to leave a glacial splay of gold-scarred touchstones scattered in the wake of her receding. “Nothing gold can stay.” There’s no nuzzle against a cheek, or an insistent yowl if we’ve delayed her breakfast. There are no imploring eyes, no patient, Pavlovian drip puddling on the tiled floor, as she sits beside the table, mouthing silent as a goldfish, anticipating her due reward, the ‘last bite.’ When my father, taunter of dogs, walks into the house, there is no frenzied barking, her mock aggression – fierce in tone, but toothless considering all her fangs, her joyful tail beating silent time across swaths of empty air if there was no wall to slap and dent. There’s no sweetpaw, pressed upon a sitting thigh, to claim her person; always a lady, she expressed her dominance with great gentleness, but it was not less resolute.
No different from any self-respecting hound, in her mind, we’re certain, she owned us, tolerated us at our worst, loved us at our best, worked us like dogs to provide her with food, with water, with walking spaces, with grooming, and any other attention she might desire – an extra biscuit, a demand to inspect that groundhog waddling the yard, the snake rustling fallen leaves, or that wing-spread vulture perched overhead, sunning after a rain. Very little escaped her regal notice as she patrolled house and property. She appointed herself at an early age as our demanding protectress, alerting us to disturbances, but always demanding a high toll of obeisance. All hail Mistress Baylee, the illustrious brown dogger, mighty woofer, queen of the nearer couch and the farther couch, etc., etc., ad infinitum. The two new dog beds, bought one for her and one for Huck, she decided, were for the children if they chose to watch a movie in her living room, and so she relegated the younger humans to the floor, beneath her as she reclined in full stretch, her hind feet upon one arm of the shorter sofa to the other arm which she used as a rest for her observant head. In the fire room, she would accept the longer sofa, but strongly preferred my wife’s Roman day bed nearer the wood stove. She could guard the glowing coals of a hot fire like an old, accomplished dragon watching the hoarded gold in its keep.
Baylee, not always the old matriarch, was new to this world when Grendel was ancient. Named for the foul beast in Beowulf, our lone, large, Leonberger was nine days in ten the gentle giant exuding the ‘serene patience’ of Kennel Club literature, but on his days of decimation, those rarer moments when he was called upon to protect his lair or his little charges, he was fearsome. If you were an interloper downrange of Grendel’s tenth of a ton mass, he seemed formed and poised to propel his gaping maw, flashing white the terror of his teeth when he Cujo-curled his lip, each tooth dripping saliva as an adder’s fangs ooze venom. On those days he inspired purple prose. Still, the beast was, for all his potential, never malevolent, merely protective. When we introduced Baylee, he snarled and whumped at her with his baritone bark. We explained that Baylee was new to the family. He raised his eyebrows, asking, “Why?” He stood and lumbered away if she approached. He guarded his food bowl. He guarded us, and was thoroughly indignant at our stupidity if we stooped to play with the new pup. Grendel could have squished Baylee with a thoughtless paw, or gulped her like a two-bite table scrap, but he never did. A month later they were inseparable and stayed that way for all of his remaining years.
Here’s Grendel, in fine fur:
We live on rocky ground. When Grendel was already older than his allotted seven years, we had hired an excavator to spend a day shuffling rocks on our property, creating rough outlines of arcing beds at the top of the driveway, leveling and terracing a garden with each tier supported by a row of rocks bigger than I could budge, even with a digging iron. In the spot of flat of land, earth dumped and leveled, below the stepped garden, the excavator dug out a fire pit, nine feet across the middle, and then he lined the pit’s edge with more boulders.
The excavator finished up his requested tasks, but we still had paid time left on his clock and he asked if we had more projects. He could have gone home, but he wanted to earn his full day’s hire. With my aged dog at my side, his hips gone crunchy and the meat on his bones beginning to whither, I realized that what our family would need soon was a grave site. Digging a proper burial hole in land where the little spots of naturally occurring dirt were collected in the interstices between rocks was not a task for hand tools. My wife and I picked a spot not far from the house, and visible from the back porch, and the excavator dug Grendel’s grave as his final task.
The next morning we had a frogless pond. Grendel’s hole had filled right up. Seems we have almost as many springs as we have rocks on this land, but the slope keeps most of the water traveling downhill, unless you carve it a convenient niche. Within a year, a year that Grendel survived, that small pond sang a mystery, a silent siren’s song, and it attracted a teeming amphibian horde. Spring peepers, green frogs, leopard frogs, bull frogs, toads.
Following the frogs and toads came the predators: garter snakes, water snakes, and snapping turtles. Waterboatmen took up rowing practice while striders strode the tense surface. Algae bloomed. Tadpoles squirmed free of their gelatinous eggs and schooled by their hundreds, then their thousands, across the pond bottom, now beautifully patterned with last fall’s leaves. This accidental oasis in the rocky forest was no place for a dead dog.
Here’s Baylee, herding white ducks in the small frog pond – it’s been churned up to the point that it looks like chocolate milk, and that churning was done entirely by this group of ducks who loved to frolic, and eat frogs, in the little pool.
When Grendel passed, four years past his supposed seven, the winter world was frozen, the bits of earth were hard as the rocks that were themselves more often than not. Ours was never a digging ground and this was not a digging season. What to do with our heroic dog, our furriest family member? We opted for a hero’s funeral, a farewell more ancient than the Greeks, but popularized by the relatively recent raiders, the Vikings. If I say we gave Grendel a Viking send-off, you know we burnt him on a funeral pyre (movies aside, pyres on land were more common, and more effective, that burning a corpse upon a wooden ship set afloat on the trackless sea). We stacked firewood, log-cabin style, until the fuel in the pit was nearly level with the ground around the pit. We laid on the great dog Grendel, whose bulk we had sledded over to the fire pit. A linen shroud would have been a nice touch, but we were unprepared in that regard, having neither that bolt of cloth, nor a desire to postpone the event. Ask. Receive. The snow falling on his thick fur provided Grendel’s white shroud, drifting across his perpetual sleep as we built more logs up, around, and, finally, over him. It was a feast of fuel, windspun, that we offered this fire, and that is an immolation imperative if you want perfect combustion and not an insufficient act, an accidental barbecue. We might not be Vikings, or heroic Greeks for that matter, but we’re not about to be reckoned as half-assed when our efforts to emulate them are assessed.
Baylee stood by as Grendel burned, last dog among the humans of this household, her dark eyes reflecting the licking flames until the heat turned us all away from the fire and back into the December cold. Sauntering down to the house ahead of our trudging selves, Baylee may not have seemed as cognizant of our family’s loss as we were, but that was only seeming. In the days and weeks that followed, she nosed around the house for her friend. She whimpered. She searched again. She looked at us with eyes that seemed to brim over with sadness, asking only, “Where?” She picked up gnawing bones from around the house and dropped them on the dog bed he preferred. She tried to draw him back, with these scarred offerings, from wherever he had gone, and when she failed she became listless, lost her appetite, and seemed to die. But, again, it was only seeming. Eventually she turned from her lonely paths and returned to her people, bonding herself to my wife while watching over everyone. Years later, the mention of Grendel’s name would perk her ears, turn her head, because her hunt for him, it seemed, was never ending.
When Baylee faltered she was past eleven. It was July. The dog who was once my wife’s running partner on her shorter marathon training runs now couldn’t be trusted to hobble to the mailbox for fear she couldn’t hobble back. Her hips turned in, her fur blew out, leaving Baylee a frail, scraggly remnant of the robust, luxuriously pelted animal she had been in her prime. Pain meds helped, but left her helpless, so torpid we thought the first pill had killed her; after that death fright my wife put her on half rations at pill time. Not being a dog of the floor, she’d scramble to get onto a couch, forelegs up but back legs flailing uselessly until we heard her scratching like a broken toy, circling aimlessly, her bicycling hind paws digging at the wood floor. She was incapable any longer, smartest of dogs, of sussing out, or of accepting, an alternative. We would dutifully lift her back end onto the sofa, try to get old blankets tucked beneath her if they weren’t already covering the cushions.
Baylee should have died in July, her body was ready. That she lasted until fall was a matter of a sheer will power, Chesapeake stubbornness. She didn’t want to give up her Sunday treat – the run to Dairy Queen for a small vanilla cone, served upside down in a dish, courtesy of my wife, the crazy dog lady. Also, Baylee didn’t trust the new dog, Huckleberry, still a mental pup as he approached his eighth birthday, to watch over her house and her people. She was absolutely right. Huck is a sputtering idiot. Whooey! A sweet dolt who loves his belly rubbins, who whips and turns and rolls and pees while squealing with infantile delight if we’ve been away too long. He knows his name, a few commands, and little else. Huck is large, though not as large as Grendel was, but he has no sense for how to wield his mass. He’s half Golden Retriever, half Newfoundland…looking like a Newfie in the snout, like a Golden for his glowing coat, except it’s midnight black – there’s that Newfoundland, found anew in the onyx coat shrouding his Golden mind. We think it’s the Golden in him that replaced any intellect he might have been destined for with pure joy, and little else. We love our dogs, even this lolling nincompoop. I think Baylee felt honor-bound to outlive this juvenile dog. She certainly tried. But Huck is still here, flopping unceremoniously in her empty spots, yammering at the squirrels, snaffling great gobs of food, while polluting everything we drink or eat, from coffee to nightcap and three squares between, with long silken strands of black fur we’ve come to call hucklefluff. Huck’s outfall is the rebar that gives structure to all we consume. When he dies and needs a dirge, his hymn will be a paean to idiocy, love, and family called The Sound & The Furry. I’ll be left trying to parse out some meaning while a bloody Scottish protagonist trolling through the back of my mind insists it all signifies nothing. And he’d be wrong. There is meaning to be found. Whereupon, it occurs to me that Spot is a damned good name for a dog, because you can’t get a dog out, even when they’re gone.
So, week by week, as late summer shed its first leaves and made passage into autumn, Baylee crashed again, falling further and further behind the active, athletic, dog she once had been. She was collapsing and at, or just beyond, the point where humans take their final care of beloved animals. It was time to put her down. I volunteered. My wife said no; she wouldn’t let me have that moment as my final memory of Baylee. The vet, then? My wife said no; she should die at home, like Grendel had. This dog was her dearest, of all the dogs she’d been companion to, and there was no easy letting go. One morning, during her ritual of petting and chatting with Baylee before work, a chat that always ended with ‘good-bye,’ my wife asked Baylee to choose, please, urging her to sleep, forever, or to understand that if she didn’t go, we’d have to carry her across the void, some river Styx, with a trip to the vet’s office, the good Dr. Charon on days like this. Well, ask. Then, receive. Baylee licked Steph’s hand good-bye, then our good brown dog left mid-day of her own accord. We believe Grendel was there, nose to her nose, as she stood again on stable legs and woofed her query, “where, now?” Elysian Fields, forever. To ensure her stay, she, like Grendel, received the send-off of heroes, ancient and modern. Her ash, like Grendel’s, is scattered in our woodlands.
Baylee’s scratches, the worn wood, her paths of passage through the house and across the cherry floors will remain until we leave. The damage done is a reminder that we all do damage where we tread. We scar the world around us, and it remembers us for a time, until those scars are overwritten by subsequent ages of howling winds, of erosion, of fires, of glaciation. The inconsequence of that damage – real, palpable damage – when set against time tells us to seek another meaning in the damage aside from resentment or regret. The scars around us, within us, are, perhaps, long-lived enough if they outlast our need of them, triggering our memories, our ruminations, our lurching, scratching climb to some little plateau of understanding only a foot above where we stood before we took notice, before we remembered. If we can’t accept the scars, learn some lesson, how can we possibly plot our own new and distinct path forward? How can we trek off, defining by our passage a new web of paths through the unknown, through each moment that presents its opportunity to us? Let those who survive us worry about the damage of our passing. May it rouse their memories and alter their courses step by step.
I feel the dull spots in our wooden floor, the scrapes and gouges Baylee wore through the varnished surface, when I pad, barefoot, from the kitchen to my writing desk. Espresso in hand, I think of her, of what I might write, of how I might take up something worthy from the ashes of her existence. This mourning of our dog Baylee remains, yet she is forever healing.
Poor Bay, she might have died of embarrassment many years earlier had she seen my attempt to paint her. For some reason, I do better with frogs. Had she been a pet frog…
And here’s Huck: