Kate was the only dog I’ve ever known who howled when you petted her. Her human—my good friend Steve—always insisted she was singing.
Like him, she loved people. And birds.
She stayed with me and Cath a few times over the years, when Steve had to be out of town. Indoors, she always parked herself just inside the sliding glass door to our back porch, eyes riveted on the action around the birdfeeders.
Our black Lab, Kaia—puzzled by her Brittany friend’s immobile fixation—would occasionally check on Kate, sniffing at her shoulder or licking at her fuzz-fringed ears. Kate ignored her. She had her priorities. She even spent the first night there, staring at the reflective surface of the glass, not yet having figured out that the entertainment was a daylight affair.
There were only two ways to get Kate’s attention: fill her food bowl or suggest that it was time to go out. Outdoors, she was wildly enthusiastic. Nose to ground, she’d zigzag through field and woods, casting about excitedly.
Two walks with her stand out in my memory.
On the first occasion, in autumn, Cath, the two dogs, and I had hiked out through the woods, along the old railroad bed that runs near our house. On the way back, I noticed Kate some seventy-five yards ahead of us. She was frozen, stock still, her butt visible, the rest of her buried in the brush beside the trail.
When I caught up, she ignored me. I scanned the woods and undergrowth below the embankment, but saw nothing.
“Go get it,” I said, giving her a slight nudge with my foot. The instant she moved, a grouse rocketed up. Just five feet from her nose.
That’s a bird dog.
On the second occasion, in spring, we were coming back along that same stretch of trail and Kate had gone ahead. We heard her yelp and feared she might have crossed paths with a porcupine. When we found her, she was merely splashing about in the first open water of the season, along the edge of an old beaver pond. Her yelp, like her being-petted howl, was one of delight.
But she yelped again a minute later and came out of the woods on three legs, screeching, a forepaw held high off the ground. Great. A friend’s dog injured on my watch. Inspecting her paw, I found a puncture in the webbing between two toes. Barbed wire, perhaps.
Normally an uncomplaining dog, Kate just sat there, letting out that ear-piercing shriek. She wouldn’t take another step. So I picked her up and carried her the last hundred yards to the house.
I caught Steve on his cell phone and he asked me to clean the wound and massage it. I got the peroxide and a bowl of warm water. And two pairs of ear-protectors.
When I stepped outside, though, all was quiet. Cath—who practices both acupressure and Reiki—had her hands on Kate. And our shrieking friend had subsided. Even as I worked the paw, Kate remained silent, relaxed, her eyes taking on a faraway dreamy look. I had never seen her so mellow. If her brain turned to cosmic mush and she forgot what a grouse or woodcock smelled like, I’d be pleading the Fifth.
Thankfully, both paw and mind recovered, and Kate spent many more happy days afield.
But four nights ago, after several days of precipitous kidney failure, her irrepressible little body breathed its last.
There’s emptiness in Steve’s house and heart right now. Though he has loved and lost many dogs in his lifetime, he wasn’t ready for this. Kate, his constant companion, was torn away after only seven years.
Thinking about him, I’m finding solace where I can. She didn’t die at the vet’s. She died at home in his arms. And though there’s still snow in the woods, it’s not mid-January, the earth hard as iron. Up the hill behind his house, a shovel can break the softening ground.
© 2010 Tovar Cerulli