CLEMENTINE, CARMELITA, DOG
A middle-aged dachshund with a short-haired, caramel-colored coat scurried along a path, nervously veering from one side to the other, stopping to lower her nose to the ground, to catch traces of human footwear, a whiff of rubber, an even fainter residue of shoe leather, smells that formed a vague pattern of hikers in the past. Some had probably walked through that part of the woods long ago. She lifted her nose and let it flare to catch the wind from the north, and in it she detected the familiar scent of river water after it had passed through trees and over rock, a delightful and—under other circumstances—soothing smell that in the past had arrived in the house when her person, Norman, opened the windows.
The wind was stirring the trees, mottling the sunlight, and she tweezed it apart to find his scent, or even her own scent, which she’d lost track of in her burst of freedom. But all she caught was a raccoon she knew and a whiff of bacon frying in some faraway kitchen, so she put her nose down and continued north again, following an even narrower path—invisible to the human eye—into thick weeds and brush, picking up burrs as she moved into the shadows of the cliffs to her left until the ground became hard and rocky.
Then she paused for a moment and lifted her head and twitched her ears to listen for a whistle, or the sound of her own name, Clementine, in Norman’s distinctive pitch. All she heard was the rustle of leaves, the call of birds. How had she gotten into this predicament, her belly low to the ground, lost in a forest?
That morning Norman had jiggled the leash over her head, a delightful sound, and asked her if she wanted to go for a walk—as if she needed to be asked—and looked down as she danced and wagged and rushed to the back door to scratch and bark. At the door, she had sniffed at the crack where the outside air slipped in and, as she had many times before, caught the smell that would never leave the house, the mix of patchouli and ginger that was Claire. She was still Claire’s dog. In the scent was a memory of being lifted into arms and nuzzled and kissed—the waxy lipstick—and then other memories of being on the floor, rolling around, and then the stark, earthy smell that she’d noticed one day near Claire’s armpit, a scent she knew from an old friend, a lumbering gray-furred beast who was often tied up outside the coffee shop in town. It was the smell of death. Claire got that smell seeping up through her skin. It became stronger and appeared in other places until she began sleeping downstairs in the living room, in a bed that moaned loudly when it moved, and there were days on that bed, sleeping in the sun at her feet, or in her arms, and then, in the strange way of humans, she disappeared completely.
When Claire was gone, Norman began to give off his own sad odor of metal and salt, and Clementine did everything she could to make him happy, grabbing his balled socks out of the laundry pile and tossing them in the air, rolling to expose her belly when he approached, leaning against him as he read on the couch, until she began to carry her own grief.
This morning he’d dangled the leash, and, while she was waiting at the back door, he’d gone to the kitchen and got a tool from a drawer, an oil-and-saltpeter thing that made a frightening sound, Clementine knew, because once he had taken her along to shoot it upstate. (Don’t get me wrong. She knew it was a gun but she didn’t have a name for it—it was an object that had frightened her.) The thing was zipped into his bag when he came to the door. He stood with his hand on the handle, and she waited while he looked at the kitchen for a few seconds—minutes, in dog time—and then she was pulling at the leash, feeling the fresh air and the sun and the morning dew as she guided him along the road, deep in routine, barely bothering with the roadside odors, to the entrance of the park. On the main path that morning—with the water to the right and the woods to the left—there had been the usual familiar dogs, some passing with their noses to the ground, snobbishly, others barking a greeting. (Her own mode was to bark as if they were a threat—she was, after all, as she acknowledged in these moments, shorter than most dogs—while wagging vigorously at the same time.) There had been an old Irish setter, Franklin, who had passed her with a nod, and then a fellow dachshund named Bonnie, who had also passed without much of a greeting, and then finally Piper, an elderly retired greyhound who had stopped to say hello while his person and Norman spoke in subdued voices—she got the tone of sadness, picked up on it—and then, when the talk was over, Norman had pulled her away from Piper and they continued up the path until they came upon a small, nameless mixed-breed mutt who launched, unprovoked, into a crazy tail-chasing routine in the middle of the path, a dervish stirring up the dust in a way that made Clementine step away and pull on the leash, because it is a fact that there is just as much nonsense in the dog world as there is in the human world.
* * *
Sitting now on the rocky ground, resting, she lifted her nose to the wind and caught the smell of a bear in a cloak of limestone dust from the quarry, and inside the same cloak was the raccoon she knew, the one that had rummaged around Norman’s garbage cans, and then, of course, deer—they were everywhere. Lacking anything better to do, she put her nose down and began to follow deer traces along the rocks and into the grass, a single-file line of hooves that led to a grove of pines where they had scattered, broken in all directions, and at this spot she cried softly and hunched down, feeling for the first time what might (in human terms) be called fear, but was manifested instinctively as a riffle along her spine that ran through the same fibers that raised her hackles, and then, for a second, smelling pine sap, she closed her eyes and saw the basement workshop where she sometimes stood and watched Norman, until one of his machines made a sound that hurt her ears and sent her scurrying up the stairs.
Cold was falling and her ears twitched at the memory of the sound of the saw blade. Norman was upstairs in his room staring ahead and clicking plastic keys in front of a glowing screen while she lay on old towels in the sunlight, waiting for the clicking to stop, opening her eyes when it did and searching for a sign that he might get up, get her food. Sometimes his voice rose and fell while she sat at his feet and looked up attentively, raising her paws when he stopped. Since Claire had disappeared, he left the house in the morning only to return at night, in the dark, to pour dry kibble—that senseless food—into her dish and splash water into her drinking bowl. Behind his door, the television droned, and maybe, on the way out of the house the next morning, he might reach down and ruffle her head and say, I’m sorry, girl, I’m not such great company these days.
As she opened her eyes, stood up, and began walking, these memories were like wind against her fur, telling her where she should be instead of where she was at that moment, moving north through the trees. The sun had disappeared behind the cliffs and dark shadows spread across the river and the wind began to gust, bringing geese and scrub grass, tundra and stone—wrapped in a shroud from beyond the Arctic Circle, an icy underscent that foretold the brutality of missing vegetation; it was a smell that got animals foraging and eating, and it made her belly tense.
Here I should stress that dog memory is not at all like human memory, and that human memory, from a dog’s point of view, would seem strange, clunky, unnatural and deceptive. Dog memory isn’t constructed along temporal lines, gridded out along a distorted timeline, but rather in an overlapping and, of course, deeply olfactory manner, like a fanned-out deck of cards, perhaps, except that the overlapping areas aren’t hidden but are instead more intense, so that the quick flash of a squirrel in the corner of the yard, or the crisp sound of a bag of kibble being shaken, can overlap with the single recognizable bark of a schnauzer from a few blocks away on a moonlit night. In this account, as much as possible, dog has been translated into human, and like any such translation, the human version is a thin, feeble approximation of what transpired in Clementine’s mind as she stood in the woods crying and hungry, old sensations overlapping with new ones, the different sounds that Norman’s steps had made that morning, the odd sway of his gait, and the beautiful smell of a clump of onion grass—her favorite thing in the world!—as she’d deliriously sniffed and sneezed, storing the smell in the chambers of her nose for later examination while Norman waited with unusual patience.
That smell of onion grass was the last thing she could remember—again in that overlapping way—along with a small herd of deer, who that morning had been a few yards away in the woods, giving off a funk, and the sudden freedom around her neck when Norman unharnessed her and took the leash and she darted up into the woods, running past the place where the deer had been and, on the way, catching sight of the rabbit for the first time, chasing it while feeling herself inside a familiar dynamic that worked like this: he would let her go and she’d feel the freedom around her neck, running, and then at some point he would call her name, or, if that didn’t work, whistle to bring her back; each time she’d bound and leap and tear up the hillside and then, when he called, she’d find herself between two states: the desire to keep going and the desire to return to Norman, and each time she’d keep running until he called her name again, or whistled. Then she’d retrace her own scent to find her way back to him.
It was true that since Claire had disappeared the sound of his whistle had grown slack, lower in tone, but he always whistled, and when she returned there was always a flash of joy at the reunion. Not long ago, he’d swept her into his arms and smothered her with his blessing, saying, Good girl, good girl, what did you find up there? Then with great ceremony he’d rolled her up into his arms, kissed her, plucked a burr from her coat, and carried her over the stones to the waterline, where he let her taste and smell an underworld she would never know: eels, seagrass, fish, and even the moon.
Yes, in the morning light she’d caught sight of a cottontail flash of white in the trees and then, giving chase, barking as she ran, followed it into the brush until she came to it in a clearing, brown with a white tail, ears straight up, frozen in place, offering a pure but confusing temptation. There they stood, the two of them. His big eyes stared into her big eyes. The rabbit darted sharply and Clementine was running with the grass thrashing her belly and then, faster, with all four paws leaving the ground with each stretched-out bound. There was nothing like those bounds! Slowed down in dog time it was a sublime joy, the haunches tightening, spreading out, and then coiling—she could feel this sensation!—as the rabbit zigzagged at sharp angles and, at some point, dashed over a creek while she followed, leaping over the water to the other side, where, just as fast as it had appeared, the rabbit vanished, finding a cove, or a warren hole in the rocks at the bottom of the palisade, leaving her with a wagging tail and a wet nose and lost for the first time in her life.
* * *
Now she was alone in the dark, making a bed in the pine needles, circling a few times and then lowering her nose onto her paws, doing her best to stay awake while the cool air fell onto her back. Out of habit, she got up and circled again in place and then lay down, keeping her eyes open, twitching her eyebrows, closing them and then opening them until she was in the room with Norman, who was at his desk working, clicking his keys. Claire was there, reaching down and digging her thumb into a sweet spot where the fur gave around her neck.
Hearing a sound, she opened her eyes. There were patches of underworld moonlight and through them deer were moving quietly. The bear was still to the north in the wind. A skunk was spreading like ink.
In the car with Norman and Claire, her own face was at the open window, the wind lifting her ears, and her nose was thrust into a fantastic blast of beach and salt marsh and milkweed chaff while, in the front seat, they talked musically to each other, singing the way they used to sing.
Something rustled in the woods. In the faint starlight, the large shadow of the bear moved through the trees. She kept still and watched until it was devoured by the dark.
She was in the bed by the window in Norman’s room. He was tapping the keys. Tap tap, tap, tap.
The tapping arrived in morning light. It came from a stick against the forest floor.
The man holding the stick was tall and lean with a small blue cap on his head. Hey, good dog, good doggie, what are you doing out here, are you lost? The flat of his palm offered something like coconut, wheat flour, hemp, and, as an underscent, the appealing smell of spicy meat.
The man picked her up gently and carried her—How long have you been up here, what’s your name, girl?—across the ridge of stones, through the woods to a wider path under big trees and then down, over several large stones, to the beach where he smoked and poured some water into a cup and laughed as she lapped it up, twirling her tongue into her mouth. In his hand was a piece of meat, spicy and sweet as she gulped it down, and then another, tossed lightly so that she could take it out of the air, not chewing it at all, swallowing it whole.
That was all it took. One bit of spicy meat and she reconfigured her relationship with the human. She felt this in her body, in her haunches, her tail, and the taste of the meat in the back of her throat. But, again, it wasn’t so simple. Again, this is only a translation, as close as one can get in human terms to her thinking at this moment, after the feeling of the cold water on her tongue and the taste of meat. One or two bits of meat aren’t enough to establish a relationship. Yes, the moment the meat hit her mouth a new dynamic was established between this unknown person and herself, but, to put it in human terms, there was simply the potential in the taste of meat for future tastes of meat. The human concept of trust had in no way entered the dynamic yet, and she remained ready to snap at this strange man’s hand, to growl, or even, if necessary, to growl and snap and raise her hackles and make a run for it. Human trust was careless and quick, often based on silly—in canine terms—externals, full of the folly of human emotion.
This is as good a place as any to note that through all of her adventures, from the early morning walk on the path to the long trek through the woods and the night in the pine needles, Clementine did not once hear the loud report of a gun. Of course she wasn’t anticipating the sound. Once the gun was in Norman’s bag, it was gone from her mind, completely, naturally. It wasn’t some kind of Chekhovian device that would have to, at some point, go off.
The man picked her up from the sand, brushed her paws clean—It’s gonna be okay. Where do you live?—and carried her to the main trail. The sway of his arms made her eyes close. When she opened them, they were on a road and the limestone dust was strong, and there was a near-at-hand bacon smell coming from a house. He put her to the ground and let her clamber down a small cinder-block stairway and through a door and into his house.
* * *
In a charged emotional state, Clementine poked around the strange rooms sniffing the corners, eagerly reconnoitering—a dusty stuffed seal under a crib in a room upstairs, eatable crumbs under a bed, a cinnamon candle near a side table, a long row of records—all the while missing the freedom she had experienced in the woods, bounding through the trees, the harness gone, and beneath that, a feeling that Norman somewhere outside was still calling her name, or whistling.
All day she explored the house, pausing for naps in the afternoon sun, and retraced the activities of previous dogs, a long-ago cat, and various persons. She found pill bugs and cobwebs (she hated cobwebs) in the corners, and on a chair in the dining room, small plastic bags of something similar to skunk grass and spider flowers—not exactly onion grass, but still worth close attention.
* * *
That day, Clementine came to understand that the man’s name was Steve. Later in the afternoon, a woman named Luisa arrived and spoke a different language—no words like sit, or walk, or good dog, or hungry—to which she paid close attention, partly because Luisa had a smell similar to Claire’s, gingery and floral with a faint verdant, bready odor that—Clementine felt this, in her dog way—united them in a special way. There was also the way Luisa rubbed her neck, gently and then more firmly, using her thumb as she leaned down and said, What should we call you? And then went through many beautiful words until she settled on Carmelita. Carmelita, she said. Carmelita.
Even in her excitement over her new home, Carmelita was experiencing a form of grief particular to her species. There are 57 varieties of dog grief, just as there are—from a dog’s point of view—110 distinct varieties of human grief, ranging from a vague gloom of Sunday afternoon sadness, for example, to the intense, peppery, lost-father grief, to the grief she was smelling in this new house, which was a lost child (or lost pup) type of grief, patches of which could be found in the kitchen, around the cabinets, near the sink, and all over the person named Luisa. It was on the toys upstairs, too, and as she sniffed around she gathered pieces together and incorporated them into her own mood.
Resting in the moonlight that night, on an old blanket in the room with the stereo speakers, she kept her eyes open. An owl hooted outside. A faraway dog barked. A distant rumbling sound, along with a screeching sound, began in the distance and gradually grew into a high-pitched screeching and clattering, a booming roar that was worse than thunder, and then it tapered off, pulled itself away into the distance, and disappeared.
The light came on and Steve rubbed her belly—It’s just a train, sweetie, you’ll have to get used to those—and then, in the dark again, she detected a mouse in the corner, erect on two feet, holding and nibbling on something. When she growled it disappeared into the wall. The light came again and Luisa rubbed her head and belly. Then it was dark again and to soothe herself she brought out from one of the chambers in her nose the smell of onion grass.
* * *
Days passed. Weeks passed. Carmelita settled into her new life. Some days, Luisa was in the house, moving around, sitting at the table with the smell of green stuff, dangling a bag of it in front of Carmelita’s nose so she could sniff and open her mouth and gently clasp—she had learned not to bite the bags.
One afternoon, Steve took her into the woods, along a small trail, and through a fence to an open spot. She lay and watched as he dug with a shovel, cut down stalks, and stopped to smoke. (She liked to snap at the rings he made, to thrust her nose into the smell that tangled up and brought the sudden overlap of memory: Claire in her bed smoking, and the strange smell of the cans under the workbench in Norman’s workshop.)
In the evenings, they ate at the table by candlelight and talked about someone named Carmen. Each time the word appeared, the smell of grief would fill the room. The scent was all over the house, in different variations. She even found it on the thing that Steve carried when he left the house in the morning, a leather satchel with a bouquet of iron and steel, clinking when he hefted it up—So long, Carmelita, see you after work, gotta go build something—an object always worth examining when he came back to the house because it carried an interesting array of distant places, and other humans.
Sometimes they took her for a walk to the woods, or down the road past the stone quarry to a park where children played and other dogs hung out. She became friendly with the dogs there and they exchanged scents and greetings. Her favorite, Alvy, a bulldog with a playful disposition and a scratching issue, came to the house one evening and they slept together in her bed, side by side. He snorted and sneezed and coughed in his sleep. When he sneezed—his massive nose was beautiful—he emitted a cornucopia of aromas, mint weed, leathery jerky, Arctic vegetation, even a hint of caribou—essences he had drawn in from the northern wind and stored for future examination.
Winter came. Snow fell. The ice smell from the north became the smell outside. When Carmelita went out in the evening—her belly brushing the snow—she kept to the path and did her business quickly, stopping only for a moment to taste the air. Then she dashed back to Steve in the doorway, the warmth of the house pouring around him into the cold blue.
* * *
One night there were cries from the bedroom upstairs. She got up—noting the mouse—and went and saw them naked together, wrapped in the familiar bloom of salt and, somehow, a fragrance like the river underworld. When they were finished they brought her up onto the bed. There was a hint of spring in the air that night, and the next morning; the wind shifted and the ice smell from the north was replaced by southern smells—one day faint forsythia and crocus, another day Spanish moss and dogwood, magnolia, morning glories, and another the addition of redbuds, and, of course, cypress, all these smells drifting in a mirepoix (no other human word will do) of red clay and turned rich farm soil that told the animal world that green was coming. When the weather was good she would go out to the back deck—passing through the little door Steve had installed—and rest her chin on the wooden rail, looking out over the water, watching the birds in the sky, as she turned the wind around in her nose.
Copyright © 2022 by David Means