Obituary of a Wonder Dog
Bix died a year ago last spring as she lived, wild and free, the reigning terror of North Plain, East Haddam. She is buried down by our garden, in a spot marked with a field rock for a headstone.
She was slightly past her fourth birthday and was showing precious few signs of mellowing. When she didn't want to come, which was most of the time, she would head off in the opposite direction as if the starting gun for the Iditarod had just sounded. Often she would return at dawn, panting, bedraggled, rank with swamp ooze. I would get stern, downright angry with her, but what was the point? She wasn't the least contrite, although clearly she knew right from wrong.
At times after her sorties into the wilderness there would be something cold and still on the lawn, a young turkey, perhaps a woodchuck, rabbits, once or twice a fawn. I would dispose of these discreetly so as not to alarm the family. Three feet of dirt cover and a sprinkling of large rocks ensured that the dearly departed rested in peace.
An Alaskan malamute and Alsatian shepherd cross, Bix looked more like a wolf than wolves do. And true to her appearance, she was bent upon filling the niche left when her ancestors were extirpated from these parts centuries ago. Bix was a reminder of life's unruly nature. Our control over her was minimal.
We did eventually wean her from domestic delights - local ducks, chickens and geese. Our neighbors were remarkably restrained. Rob said he was getting tired of raising chickens anyway. Jan had several llamas that would chase Bix off her property. Charlie and Barbara bought a second pair of pond ducks that managed to survive.
Likewise, I had dissuaded her, with Rob's help, from chasing his cattle. But we never could convince Bix to refrain from confiscating our neighbors' inanimate property. Weekly we would find diverse acquisitions by the front stoop: the odd pool skimmer, an array of carpentry tools, crockery, barbecuing utensils, clothing, toys and lawn ornaments. My favorite was a plastic statue of a Scottish terrier, in mint condition. Bix was proud of this coup, examining it carefully and then looking at me with smirking eyes. I had to agree, this was high kitsch. I gave her a biscuit. In the beginning we religiously returned these items or replaced them, but gradually we kept many of them. It was getting expensive and each stuffed animal, leather glove or earmuff was embarrassing proof that our dog was beyond our control.
How, you may ask, in this congested, regulated modern age, when people race like Indy drivers along narrow winding roads, could we have allowed our dog to run free? To come and go as she pleased? To kill innocent creatures, torment the motoring public (she chased cars, naturally) and make a mockery of sacred property rights? Good questions all. For starters, we live in the boondocks, and our dogs have always been free rangers. What is the point of living way out in the country if there are no perks, of having a dog and keeping it confined? Might as well cozy up to an ant farm.
Besides, most of our dogs managed to survive life's slings and arrows. Fred, for example, maneuvered the mean streets of New Haven, learning how to cross three lanes of traffic, at the light or in between. He was spotted all over town, on Broadway, in front of Sterling Library, outside Woolsey Hall. He even audited a couple of courses in American studies. Fred came to football practice one day, and a clumsy lineman stepped on his paw. Preparations for the Harvard game came to a halt while first aid was dispensed. The New Haven Register wrote him up. Handsome Dan was livid.
When we moved to the country, my plan was to keep Bix safe and confined until she learned the lay of the land - and of the roads - under my tutelage. The problem was keeping her confined. She leapt over the deck gate, tumbling ass over teakettle down the stairs to freedom. I built a large pen. She destroyed the thin wire. She created gaps to slither through or under the thicker wire I installed. She climbed, she dug, she gnawed. She escaped. If we left her in the house alone, she burrowed into doors and walls. In the warm weather she'd sometimes burst through window screens, even when we were in the house, like Lassie off to save Timmy. At 75 pounds, long and lean, she made quite a hole.
When we went on vacation, she immediately made friends with her new neighbors, even hobnobbing with officialdom down at the town hall. We didn't have to go to the pound to retrieve her. The dog warden delivered her, reporting that she had made the most God-awful sound inside the pen and was stirring up the other inmates. There was no fine, just take her back, please. He suggested that we purchase a restraint system that included a full body harness and a thick wire lead that attached to a long spike pounded securely into the ground.
So we did. As we drove the mile or so to the beach the next day, Bix, all harnessed and wired up in the yard, lay calmly watching us. I took her passivity for resignation. Silly me. Her territory had been summarily reduced from a ZIP code to the size of a wading pool, and she was going to lie there and take it?
As we trudged back to the car three hours later, tanned and tired, my thoughts turned to Bix. This time I had her. When I wanted her to stay put, I could now accomplish it.
"Bix!" My reverie was interrupted by my son's shrill outburst. And there she was, sitting in our car, in the driver's seat, pretty as you please. And me without a biscuit.
You may have gotten a skewed impression of Bix. Wild and crazy as she could be at times, she was also a home girl, content to hang out in the living room with the family. She, my son and I would play elaborate games of hide 'n' seek and keep-away, often at her instigation. She was fun to tease. Sarcastic praise or a jab in the ribs elicited theatrical yelps and frenzied but gentle nips.
And although she howled and yowled like a wolf, she never once barked or growled at people. She knew more of our neighbors than we did and introduced us to several. I recently met someone who rides horses in the nearby woods who said Bix would often join up with her along the trail. She liked our species to the point of being useless as a watchdog. When my nephew and a friend, neither of whom she knew, showed up at 3 a.m. for a visit, she didn't make a sound. She greeted them like old friends, inserting her nose squarely in the closest crotch (her signature cry for affection).
We got the call at 1 a.m. You knew the news wasn't going to be good. The people stopped at our neighbors, who called us. Bix had been out that night and wouldn't come in. One night months earlier, I had heard her yipping in the woods and had followed her for nearly a mile. When I reached her, she darted ahead, aggressively charging into the void, then stopping. Whatever she was after had stopped, too. She repeated this maneuver several times. I never saw her quarry, but I assume they were coyotes. They were probably trying to recruit her.
The people said she flew across the road in front of them at full speed, as though she were chasing something. Of all the times for it to happen. If there is a car an hour on our road at 1 a.m., it's a big night. All I could think of saying to her was "Oh, Bix.''
My wife and I carried Bix to the car and went to wake up a friend who is a veterinarian to confirm what we knew but didn't want to believe. Before I told my son the next morning, I went outside to check on Bix, half expecting her to have rallied.
The tears finally came as we placed her gently in the ground. Words came as well. Bix had had a good life, wild and free. As I dug, I had unearthed one of her many purloined trophies as proof. Sad for her, sad for her stillness as the dirt bounced off her fur, saddest of all for ourselves. Sad to this day.