*A 2018 Recovery Essay Contest Finalist.
With Featured Artwork by Imelda Hinojoso.
She arrived when I was on a sabbatical from life.
In February 1996, I was sprung from an abusive relationship when a close friend murdered the man I loved and lived with. For some time thereafter, I suffered severe emotional shock. Clinically, those who suffer this sort of shock feel stunned, confused, or lost in thought and find it difficult to focus. I also lost my ability to trust, my comfort around others. By spring that year, I was fully withdrawn in my hilltop cabin in West Virginia; alone, out on the point of a mountain ridge peninsula.
The cabin perched like a high, rustic castle, surrounded on three sides by steep, forested slopes that fell sharply into the long valley below. There was no yard around the sides or back of the cabin, only a small front yard where the driveway followed the path out to our point on the ridge. The back of the house looked down on the valley, quiet and distant, deep below. “The Hippie House,” built by hippies from Pennsylvania and New York in the seventies, had a beautiful west-facing view, but its location was entirely impractical.
The only access into the secluded spot was the mile-long red clay mud driveway that branched from the main ridge and led out to the point. The only water supply was rainwater collected from the roof, funneled by gutters through a makeshift barrel filter and into a cistern in the basement. In winter, the cistern froze over and the driveway became an impassable clay bog–anything that entered was immediately sucked down. I had not left the house for weeks.
That winter, lost in my loneliness and loss, I developed a minimalist routine: sleep, feed the dog, nap, watch the sky during sunset, sleep. I spent countless hours in pensive silence, working to resolve questions that had no answers. The gardens filled with weeds, the lawn grew tall. Dust settled on everything around me. When I noticed my own body odor, I soaked in the bathtub until the water turned cold. There was no real need to awaken, no one to please but myself, and I wanted nothing but to sleep.
The defining moment of each day was the summer sunset.
I never intended to curl in the rocker by the west-end window every afternoon, that is just where I found myself after feeding Jazz, my dog. I would wander into the living room and slip sideways into the rocker, back against one arm of the chair, legs drooping over the other. As I stared out the western window, time passed, thoughts rolled. When the clouds caught the blushing peach of the settling sun, I took leave of my inner ruminations to observe the bruised emotions of dusk. The sky succumbed to the coming darkness with a slow soulful dance of shifting colors, velvet hues shifting deeper and darker until there were no colors remaining, just stars. Each evening, I soaked my soul in the glorious death of day.
When dark fell, I merely turned my thoughts inward again to percolate. A million better choices I could have made. A million ways I could have avoided what happened. A million ways I missed him; a million reasons to be glad he was gone. What part of the fault was mine? I was in the shadows like that when she interrupted my life.
The house stood mute beneath the sparkling, star-filled sky. A breeze consistently blew there on the point, and windows and doors stood wide open, allowing the house to breathe—just breathe. I sat silent in my rocking chair, lost in lamentation. I had been listening to the woods around me for weeks, crickets, tree frogs and night birds, the occasional owl. I had not spoken aloud for days. Then one evening, the cyclic tones of the natural world were interrupted by a low, brief growl on the front porch.
Part Norwegian Elkhound, part Golden Labrador, Jazz made a natural watch dog, no training required. I tuned in to the world around me to listen for any further complaint from him to determine if he might be announcing guests. But minutes passed, and he remained quiet. Jazz chose to relax on the front porch most of the time, on watch for any intruders in the yard or driveway. (At night, he slept between my bed and the bedroom door.) He was intelligent and well-mannered, and at the time, my only friend. If an issue arose, Jazz would let me know.
I was about to fade off into thought once more when he grumbled again.
The growl was so low, I almost thought he was dreaming—feet jerking in a dream run the way dogs do. But, there was something in the brevity of it that made me sure he was awake. I listened intently for any sound out of the ordinary, but heard none.
Curious, I went to the door to check on him. When I arrived at the doorway, I heard his tail beat the wooden porch slabs to greet me, and I turned on the outside light.
The yard ended abruptly on each side of the point, where the dark tree line marked the edge of the surrounding forest and the steep drops to the deep valley below. Illuminated by the light, the immediate yard was exactly as it should be, shaggy, still and shadowed. The driveway cut hard and dry through the middle, fading in the darkness towards the main road. Nothing out of the ordinary.
My secluded world was intact, undisturbed. No one had come for weeks. Even the mailbox was a mile away. For me, nothing existed beyond the trees but darkness.
Jazz looked at me, brown eyes questioning, and then to his bowl which lay below us in the yard, still half-full. “You have food,” I told him, clearing my throat. He wagged his fluffy tail and looked up at me, panting. He looked like he was smiling.
I joined him on the porch, sitting cross-legged next to him on the stoop. Together we looked out over our hidden domain and contemplated the shadows, appreciating the breezes that funneled our way through the valley beneath us. I was picking a burr from his thick golden fur when his pointy ears perked forward and I caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my right eye.
There, where the lit yard met the gloomy edge of the wood, two round orbs shone in the blackness. Eyes. Low to the ground. A sign of a small creature—or a large creature crouched down, ready to pounce. Jazz did not raise his hackles though, so I knew it wasn’t a bobcat or a coyote, or a bear.
We sat silently, and waited. Jazz pretended not to be aware of the invader, eyes straight ahead, but his ears remained perked and alert, and I could see his nostrils continually testing the air for an interesting scent. Minutes passed and the crickets resumed their chirping.
I thought I saw movement, a shadow shifting in the darkness. I squinted my eyes, but still perceived nothing solid. Then, ever so gently and quietly, a petite white paw emerged from the shadows. A small beagle, creeping slowly toward the porch.
I remained still and so did Jazz, except for a slight radar-like rotation of his right ear. Closer, closer, the thin creature crept, eyes focused on Jazzy’s food dish. When the beagle came within a foot of the black bowl at the bottom of the porch steps, Jazz objected.
Quick as a rabbit, the beagle lunged into the bowl, grabbed a mouthful of dog food, and darted across the yard into the darkness of the woods again.
I sat, stunned, forced to acknowledge a new development, a situation unrelated to my own internal obsessions. A new creature, a new life, not involved any way with the old.
I noticed a slight limp in her right rear leg as she dashed away, one that brought to mind a flash of a hard kicking steel-toe boot. I noticed her concave stomach, her tail tucked tightly between her legs. She was four-legged fear with fur, alone and desperate for food. I imagined she was likewise desperate for a safe home, and I swelled with a yearning to supply. I understood all her needs, and instantly, she was endeared to me.
It did not take the beagle long to learn that Jazz was not easily riled. She developed a routine for her thievery. When she approached from the right, she grabbed food then dashed left where she would stop at the edge of the wood and chew up what she had stolen. Then she approached from the left, grabbed food and ran to the right. Jazzy, accustomed to living with cats, didn’t seem to mind her, and once he saw that I didn’t object, relaxed about her presence. But he still didn’t want her in his food bowl.
After a few evenings of reserved observation, I noticed the beagle always approached first from the right. The next evening, I filled an extra bowl of food and placed it just in the light at the right edge of the woods. Then I sat with Jazz on the porch to wait.
“Do you think she’s comin’, Jazzy?” I asked him playfully.
He looked up at me, surprised I think, and then licked my face. I realized then how long it had been since I spoke to him in such a frisky tone. He looked at me expectantly, with big brown eyes set in a golden face, above his black snout and nose. I felt pangs of guilt at the neglect.
“I’m sorry Jazz,” I said aloud, rubbing his ears. “You’re a good boy.”
I sat with him on the porch that night—rubbing his white belly, scratching his ears and whispering praise. I got his dog brush and raked away his shedding fur, brushing up to pull his fuzzy undercoat, then down to thin his wiry topcoat. I told him what a good boy he was again and again.
Right on schedule, the beagle arrived.
She crept from the darkness slowly, body low and crouched, right up to the new bowl. She then froze, eyes on Jazz, waiting for him to object. He did not.
Slowly at first, she began to eat, her eyes glued on us. When she was crunching and chewing and Jazz still did not object, she gorged herself. I knew she would likely vomit from eating so fast, but also knew she would eat it again following regurgitation. Dogs that hungry always do.
As she ate, I tried to take inventory of the tri-colored creature. I could see no wounds, no injuries other than the weak hind leg. She had scratched herself raw in some places, an obvious sign of a flea infestation. A small rabbit-beagle, she could not have weighed more than twenty pounds if she was soaking wet.
When the bowl was almost empty, I spoke softly. “Hi there, little one.”
She jumped as though my words were gunshots, and quickly scrambled back into the obscurity of the forest.
Each night for a week, I repeated the process—bowl at the edge of the woods, soft words when she was almost finished. I left sunsets unfinished in order to prepare and place her bowl, sitting on the eastern front porch instead of my west window chair. At first, the beagle fled fully into the woods when I spoke to her, but then she grew some courage and only dashed a few feet away, waiting to see if I would rise and chase. I made no attempt to interfere, and Jazz followed my lead.
The following week, I began moving her bowl closer to the house, a few feet closer each evening. After another two weeks, her bowl was at the bottom of the porch steps and Jazz was eating in the kitchen. Little One would no longer scramble in fear of my voice, but if I moved in any fashion, she took flight. When Jazz decided to greet her, casually strolling across the yard to her, she immediately dropped low and submissive as he sniffed her out. When he stepped back, she was up in a flash and ready to run.
The evening feeding with Little One became a new part of my daily routine—her eating, me greeting from the porch. Though she and Jazz had established their relationship, she was still not willing to let me, the human, get near her. I recognized this sign of abuse by human hands, an abuse I also knew. I began talking to her as she ate each night, explaining that I understood how she felt, she did not need to worry now, and everything would be all right.
It’s okay. We’re okay.
Little One began sleeping under the front porch, and stayed in the yard most of the day. As spring warmed to summer, I wanted to be outside with her, where I tended neglected flowerbeds and let her grow accustomed to my presence. It felt good to yank and toss weeds, to dig my fingers into the cool soil. Felt good to be using my body and mind for a purpose. When resting, I raised my face to the sunlight, lifted the hair off my neck to expose my skin to the breeze. As I carried brush and weeds to the compost pile, I looked at Little One, lying at the edge of the yard, watching me intently.
“It’s all right.” I assured her again, “We’re okay.” She perked her ears and lifted her head, but she did not rise to flee. I returned to my gardening, shoulders warming in the sun. That night I began moving her food bowl up the porch stairs.
My time clearing the garden proved therapeutic. I was drawn to its fresh neatness, its clarity. I found I could focus again and was no longer satisfied to sit stagnant. I cleaned the house, rearranged the furniture, and started washing my hair on a regular basis again. The flowers and herbs began to flourish from my care. Jazz and I walked to the mailbox at least three times a week, with Little One following far behind from the edge of the woods, not along the road. Each day I moved her bowl across the porch, a little closer to the front door.
When the first chills came that fall, I moved her food bowl inside the door, still leaving the door open for her to come and go as she pleased, always greeting softly to let her know everything was all right. When the cool nights of September arrived, she came in one evening and I closed the door behind her. She was frightened, but I assured her with soft words, then I left her in the foyer with the food and a blanket laid out on the floor. I returned to the couch where I was writing and heard her eating, and then all was quiet for several minutes. When I peeked around the corner, she lay curled on the blanket, looking at me. In the morning, when Jazz barked at the door to go out, she was standing right beside him anxious to flee. But the next night when I shut the door, she just started eating, and then curled up on the blanket again.
I let her sleep inside two nights before I approached her, grabbing her as she attempted to scramble away. She yelped as though I had pinched her, but I pulled her wriggling body tight to mine, and hushed and whispered softly in her ear.
“Shhhh. It’s all right, you’re okay. I won’t hurt you.”
When she tired of fighting my grasp, I sat on the couch with her in my lap and let go with one hand to tenderly pet her head. I cooed at her and loosened my grip slightly and she quit resisting. When she finally relaxed, I gingerly checked her condition. Ear mites. Fleas, of course. She was thin, but not completely malnourished, that could be quickly remedied. However, her right hind leg was awkward and twisted in the hip socket, knocking her foot out of alignment with her body. I feared checking it too closely, because I did not want to cause any pain and set us back from our current level of trust. It appeared to be an old injury, unaddressed when broken, that had healed crooked on its own.
I rubbed the outside of my own hip, remembering what a kick from a steel-toed boot felt like when I was once curled up in a ball on the ground. I had old injuries as well. No wonder she was so afraid. Like me, she had been forever changed by violence.
I ran my hands slowly from her head to tail, transferring love from my heart to hers.
“It’s all right,” I assured her. “We’re okay.”
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