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What Love Is

A Dog's Heart

What Love Is
Photo by Tomáš Malík on Unsplash

The morning sun warms my face. I crawl out of my bed of leaves and stretch, working out all the stiffness. I am hungry. Off to find food.

I trot along the trail, air-scenting, searching for food and water. Wet ground of the forest. Squirrels in the trees. Fresh deer poop. And then, a whiff of human. I do not know this human. It is not the Nice Person that lives in the house in the forest. I keep moving toward the smell. Humans have food sometimes.

I find the human off the trail, lying in the leaves on the forest floor. I watch.

*****

Today is a perfect Washington day. The sun is out, and yesterday’s rain is evaporating, shrouding the Olympic forest in an ethereal mist.

I don’t know how long this hike will take, so I’ve packed some snacks in my jacket pocket. I double check that the little black book is in my inside pocket, safe and sound. The post office lady had said to take highway 119 until I find a blue rooster mailbox; there I will find a trail to where I’m going. I park my Jeep as far from the road as I can, lock it, and find the narrow but not overgrown trail. I head off.

The quiet of the forest is a welcome retreat. I step off the trail to lay among the leaves and watch the canopy overhead,. The sun makes spotlights on the floor for tiny caterpillar divas.

Suddenly, I hear a branch break and I sit up. There is a black dog watching me. It has a white sock on one of its front paws. It isn’t aggressive, but rather, watches me as I watch it.

“Hi pupper,” I venture. It cocks its head to one side. It has a scruffy mustache and eyebrows, reminding me of my grandfather.

“Where is your person?” It looks around, as if searching for someone. It has no collar. “Do you live around here?” It only looks at me. I chastise myself for expecting some kind of answer.

“Are you hungry?” It licks its lips in response. I reach into my pockets, and the dog’s face becomes curious, almost expectant. I pull out a Slim Jim. As I unwrap the meat stick, the dog takes a few cautious steps forward and licks its lips again. I break off a piece and toss it in the dogs direction. It picks up the piece politely, never taking its eyes off me.

“Are you out here alone?” I toss another piece of Slim Jim, and then break up the rest of the stick and toss the whole thing to the dog. It eats all the pieces hungrily.

“I’m going to Grandma Ruth’s house. Maybe she knows where you belong.” As I stand up, the dog backs up nervously, but doesn’t run away. “You should come with me.” I step back to the trail, and the dog follows me but at a distance. Prudent. I continue on my way.

******

The human gave me food, so it cannot be bad. I follow it as it keeps walking. I stay far enough away that it cannot grab me. It has more food, I can smell the food, and I follow because it might give me more food. It keeps talking to me quietly.

Now I can smell the Nice Person’s home! I enjoy the Nice Person. It gives me food and water sometimes, and never chases me away. I bark because I’m excited, and run up ahead, barking, barking, wagging, wagging. Around the bend, I can see the Nice Person out in the yard. I run closer, barking, dancing in a circle in greeting.

******

The dog runs ahead of me down the trail to a house. There is an older woman in the yard; she appears to be familiar with the dog and happy to see it.

“Hello?” I yell. She looks up at the sound of my voice. “Is this your dog?”

She looks at the dog fondly. I keep walking as the dog runs happily around the yard. “I found it out in the woods,” I continue.

“No,” she says with a smile. “Ol’ Blackie doesn’t belong to me. Just comes to visit.”

“Do you know where Blackie lives?”

“No. I don’t know anything about the pup, not even a name. I say ‘Blackie’ so that we can be on a proper first name basis.” She smiles sadly. “The truth is, a lot of dogs get dumped out here by people who don’t want them anymore. I help them as much as I can.”

“People just leave their dogs here?.”

She shrugs sadly, resigned to the occasional poor behaviors of her fellow man. Then she looks at me with her bright smile again.

“What can I help you with?” she asks.

I’m reminded why I came

“I’m looking for Grandma Ruth. The lady at the post office said I could find her here?”

“I’m Ruth,” she replies, sounding a little perplexed.

“I have something that I think belongs to you,” I say, reaching into my jacket as I walk towards her. Blackie plops down in the front yard, feet in the air, rubbing against the green grass, tongue lolling. I pull out the little black notebook.

“Where are my manners? Come inside. Let me make some coffee.” Obligatory politeness, but genuine. She heads into the house, and I follow behind her. Blackie runs up the steps of the porch. “You stay here Blackie.” Blackie obliges.

Ruth has busied herself with tan old-style percolator coffee pot. “What should I call you?” she asks

“I’m Jamie.”

“Well Jamie, pleasure to meet you. How do you take your coffee?”

“Black, please.” The coffee pot is starting to gurgle.

“So, you said you had something of mine?” she asks. I hand her the book. She looks at it confused, but opens the front cover and sees the inscription.

“For Grandma Ruth, Cabin in the Woods, Hoodsport WA,” she reads, running her fingers over the writing. She turns to the next page, then the next.

“Where did you find this?” she asks. Her face is unreadable.

“I was at the library in Shelton, and I found this wedged between some books. I had planned on taking it to the lost and found, but I saw this and thought maybe I could return it myself.”

“How did you find me?” she asks, turning the black notebook in her hand.

“I went to the Hoodsport post office. If I know one thing about small towns, everyone knows everyone else. The woman there was very helpful; she gave me directions to the blue rooster mailbox.”

The percolator has started to boil, coffee pouring into the reservoir. She turns off the stove, and pours the coffee into two waiting mugs, then hands me mine.

“Well, Jaimie, thank you,” she says. Her tone remains unreadable. “You didn’t have to go out of your way like this.”

“It was no trouble. I needed to get out.” I sip my coffee; it is strong and thick, scalding my tongue.

*****

I lay on the porch, panting. It is nice on the porch. I like laying in the sun.

The Nice Person and the new human come back outside with me. They are talking, but I can tell something is different; they do not sound the same. The Nice Person has a cup in one hand, and a bowl in the other. She puts it down on the porch, and I can smell water. I drink.

The Nice Person and the human drink from their cups; it smells strong and rich. I am happy for the company.

*****

Ruth’s demeanor change makes me feel awkward. I drink as much coffee as I need to to be polite, and then set my mug on the railing.

“Well, thank you for your hospitality. I don’t want to intrude.”

She looks down.

“I appreciate the time you took. Thank you for bringing this to me.” She looks at me. “Do you have a phone number or address I can use to contact you?”

“Oh, sure. But it's unnecessary,” I say as I reach into my pocket, hoping to find a stray piece of scrap paper. Instead I find a lone business card. “Here.”

“Thank you.” She reached out to take the card, worn at the edges from being in my pocket.

“You’re very welcome. Thank you for the coffee,” I say, and head toward my car. A few steps away, I turn to face her. “Can I take Blackie? I mean, if it is a case of dog dumping…” I let myself trail off.

“Oh, well, I guess that’s a plan.” She bends down to let Blackie sniff her. “I’ll miss the company, but I suppose it’s better.” Ruth doesn’t ask if I’m going to keep Blackie, which is a relief, because I don’t know yet. Ruth goes back into the house, and comes out with a make-shift slip lead. She slowly gets the lead over Blackie’s head, and with some coaxing, gets the dog off the porch and heads to me. She hands me the lead, and unexpectedly, grabs me in a hug.

“Thank you,” she says with a trembling voice, and then returns to her house, closing the door behind her.

“Well, Blackie… Let’s get you out of these woods.”

*****

Six weeks later, a piece of mail arrives in my mailbox. The script is small and curly, and the return address only says “Ruth, Cabin in the Woods, Hoodsport”. I look down at the black dog at my feet.

“Look Blackie! A letter from Ruth.” We go back inside together, Blackie at my heels.

I sit at the kitchen table and open all my junk mail, leaving Ruth’s letter for last. Inside, there is a card with a floral watercolor. I open the card and a check, folded in half, falls out. I pick it up and unfold it. ‘Twenty thousand and no’ written in her practiced hand, matching the front of the envelope.

‘Dear Jamie,

Thank you for bringing me the book.

My grand-daughter Hannah and I used to play a game where we would hide things, a treasure hunt, if you will. Notes, painted rocks, bird feathers - small joys. It was our thing that we did together.

When she was seven, she was diagnosed with leukemia. She fought hard, but it took her fourteen months later.

I hadn’t known, but even as she was fighting for her life, she planned a final scavenger hunt for me and left it in this book. She was always so thoughtful, worrying about her grandma even as she was losing her own hair and sick as a dog.

You brought me back my dear Hannah. I cannot thank you enough, or explain what this means to me. Please take this as a token of my gratitude. Use it to do something with someone you love.

Regards, Ruth’

I sigh, my heart broken for Ruth. Walking to the fridge, I hang the card with a magnet.

Back at the table, I pick up the check. $20,000. I look at Blackie.

“Do you know what this means Blackie? We’re going on an adventure together.”

****

My Person is happy. I look up at it and I am happy too. You’re My Person. I go where you go. Because that’s love.

dog
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Erica Psaltis
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