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September 6, 2023

Old Dogs

Marta Regn

My father used to tell me that the best way to see an animal is to fall asleep in the woods. If you fall asleep, he said, they will come right up to you.

There is something about a sleeping person, prostrate or in repose, and shorn of their power. They become another kind of being, closer to plant, pulsing but passive. I wonder if this was the only way my father could allow things to come close. I wonder if this was his way of willing something to trust him, to unfear him.

Prostate or in repose was not a way I often saw my father: a drinking man, a working man, an angry man who held hardship so tight it never could leave him even in his old age.

I once watched my father attempt to beat our little squirrel dog with a kitchen chair. The dog had run off, gone for a day, sending my father into a fit of worry. In the dim evening when the dog reappeared on the front porch steps, my brother or I opened the door for it. My father came from the kitchen with the chair, running after the dog through two rooms, trapping it beneath the wooden legs, yelling and swearing and lifting up the chair and bringing it down again.

If you were to ask me how I came to love dogs, I would tell you because of my father. When my father’s last bird dog was beginning its slow death, I came home from elementary school one day to find shit on the floor in the hallway and another kind of fluid on the living room carpet. “Oh no,” my father had said, before letting the dog outside. As it went, my father’s swollen red hand touched the dog's head, smoothing its feathery ears with his palm cupped but turned like he was refusing a drink. I watched him crouch beside the blotch on the oriental rug and scrub the dark spot darker. Then he went to the porch as he did most days, and my brother and I sat with him there. It must have been a nice day. It must have been early autumn. This was before the dog died on a dreary day in a month that might have been March, almost-spring, almost-winter.

That afternoon on the porch, the dog staggered in the yard, waiting by the three of us. I remember saying, “You’re not allowed to come inside, you’ve done something bad.”

My father said, “He’s sick. He’s just a sick, old dog,” and stroked its ears again with gentle knowing.

When the dog died some months later, my dad wept by himself driving home from the veterinarian’s office. I know this because I had asked, and I had asked because I had cried and wanted to know if this was the right thing to have done. The dog’s body was wrapped in a camouflage jacket, and the hole had already been dug when we walked with the dead dog to the treeline at the backyard’s edge. “When a hunting dog dies,” my father explained, “you bury him in your hunting coat. You salute him with your rifle.”

We fired three shots, my dad, my brother, and I. We fired three shots to nowhere in the woods. “That’s enough,” my dad said.

I saw the first shovelful of red dirt fall down on the body, and I couldn’t watch closely anymore. I moved backward, away from the grave and the dog and my dad. When it was done, my father left the shovel, took the gun, and walked into the woods. He was gone a long time, long enough that I knew he’d found a place to sit, maybe even to sleep, and maybe there was another life that wandered him by, came close, and maybe he asked it to stay a while.