Tiny clots of tissue and intestine trailed down my driveway and snaked around to the backyard. Before the touch of day, I’d let Shiva out to run free from the house and I. Two hours later and still no sign of her. She’d usually come back to the front door scratching and whining to get back in; negative 42 degrees had a way of making animals panic. The cold couldn’t bother me anymore, but the sun still did—it was too bright. I grabbed a jacket anyway and headed out to look for her. She had no problem jumping the metal fence around the property. And when she didn’t feel like jumping, she’d dig her way to freedom.
Tan and brown feathers lay torn and scattered in the packed snow. I followed the bright red spots on the ground and thought of the Hansel and Gretel story I’d once read to Lily, it had scared her. She didn’t like the idea of never being able to find her way home. I walked carefully through the snow-covered yard and came to a stop at the side of the house.
The playhouse existed in the backyard along with the memory of her. I’d grown sick of not being able to tear it down. I could see it from my window at dusk, and sometimes, I saw images of little hands in mine.
I shook my head free of hesitation and struggled through the thick of the yard. In less than two hours, it had managed to stack high enough to shield my calves from the freezing wind. I could make-out the massive paw prints she’d left behind like a signature. Her prints ran too big to be those of a domesticated dog. I couldn’t see her, but I always felt her. Her growl shuddered through my ear canals, and goose bumps erupted across my jaw. I rounded the back of the house and found her; relief choked me in a sharp intake of breath.
The playhouse floated in a sea of white and my wolfdog rested on the floor of the battered structure. The wooden frame whistled in places where the wind blew through it. The yellows and blues of the slide had faded to white. The bars had chipped down to the bare metal bones that had begun to rust. I often found Shiva here gnawing her frustrations into the empty wood. She growled again, a guttural sound with the tenor of a successful hunt; I needed to approach her carefully. Not always, just at moments like these. I waited until my heartbeat had slowed before I moved closer. I inhaled deep pine-scented breaths until my shoulders slacked.
I cooed to her,
“Shiva?” My breath fogged around my head just before the Alaskan air whipped it away.
Shiva’s mercury eye lit up with happy frenzy. She’d lost the right one the night I lost Lily. But her silver eye wasn’t all she’d lost. The grizzly bear also took a chunk of flesh out of her haunch. She no longer had full use of her left leg and walked with a limp. Sometimes, after a long day, her leg shook uncontrollably, but she only ever whimpered when it went completely numb.
The night of the attack was mostly a dream. Like with sleep paralysis, I found my legs stiff and bent under me in a bed of snow. The sky wasn’t so dark under the moon. White flakes sparkled under the rapid flash of red and blue lights. The front and back yards filled with people moving in and out of focus. The edge of the forest met the backyard at the bottom of the slope. Evergreens looked like twisted angels in white gowns from the winter storm. Negative 45 degrees. Uniformed workers walked in and out of the forest, their faces frozen with the same expression of discomfort. Snow turned to slush under their many steps back and forth. They hadn’t mattered to me.
From the top of the slope I could see her. Lily’s hands were exposed to the cold too long and had frozen to her side. Her eight years of life were too small for the yellow gurney. My neighbor, Blake, had seen the lights and come over in his pajamas and hunting boots. He’d tugged at my arms, tried to pull me to my feet, but I was frozen too. I became as useless as the packed snow beneath me. And then darkness. The nightmare always ended like that.
When I’d stepped outside the house this morning to look for the wolfdog, I half expected to never find her. She wasn’t bound to anything but her own whimsy. Shiva didn’t have nightmares or a severed memory of Lily. A part of me hated her with her solitary eye and her quivering leg, because she’d found pure joy in the throat of a chicken. She didn’t have one, but four of what I assumed had to be Blake’s chickens. All dead, and only one of the tawny birds had its head still attached to its body. The other three rested like a plume of gory souvenirs between her massive paws. She’d clearly been chewing on them for play, because the eyes and beaks no longer existed. The blood made her crème and black-tipped fur look like it dawned a bright undercoat of red around the front and side of her chest. She yipped her bloody muzzle playfully at me and rolled in the pool of liquids in delight.
I fell to my knees; this would mean her death. The community wouldn’t allow her to remain here. The farmers had zero patience for wolves. When we first got her, my wife, the local veterinarian, had convinced everyone Shiva wouldn’t be a hazard. Now that we’d settled on divorce, she wanted nothing to do with me, let alone Shiva. I’d only gotten the puppy for Lily, how was I to know she’d grow to be more wolf than dog? The penalty wouldn’t be just a fine this time. I understood that Shiva was messing with people’s livelihoods; people had their families to consider.
My mouth must have been open because the breeze blew my teeth dry. Shiva took my descent to her level as appreciation for her work and barked. She snatched up the last chicken with a head and proudly rubbed it in my face, smell she said in her wolfdog way, it’s divine. I of course did not have a nose like her shiny black one and couldn’t smell anything in the cold other than a tinge of sickening-sweet stomach acid. Shiva never hurt Lily when they played together; she always made her laugh more than I ever could during the divorce. They were best friends. Sometimes, Lily even growled at her mother and me when our arguments got too loud. She’d bare teeth at us like a little wolfdog. We’d laugh and smile like a picture and say, “take Shiva outside to play Lily, while mommy and Daddy talk.” And she did.
Shiva nipped at my face lightly. My attention wasn’t on her, and she didn’t like that. Her single eye equaled mine, and much like all that she demanded, I obliged. I dug my nose into the wet feathers of the dead animal. Her instant response, a high pitched yip. But she didn’t stop there; she whined and insisted on a game of tug-of-war.
Determined to please her, I bit down into the soft wing of the bird, as she pulled, the rest of the bird tore away from the bit in my mouth. Drops of chilled blood dotted the snow by my knees and dripped down my chin. As always, she relished the win by ravaging her prize won.
I watched her mauve, blood-stained paws stomp with reverie and wished I could smell the chicken as she did.
“Evening Keller, Look I’m sorry. I know it’s been a long year, but enough is enough. This is the second time this month.”
Blake rounded the corner where the drain pipe resided. I’d heard him and a few other guys pull up in their trucks. Their struggled steps crunch as they approached. I’d only pretended not to notice. I hadn’t wanted to ruin her happiness. It meant more to me now than ever.
My last big talk with Lily was a week before the attack.
“Lily, honey do you understand what your mother and I are saying?” I said to her. Lily shook her head in protest and buried her small face in Shiva’s neck.
“Your mother and I made a deal that you can keep Shiva as long as she follows the rules. Yesterday, she bit me when I tried to pet her and she broke the rules. No biting was a big rule. And Shiva broke it. I had to get stiches.” I raised my hand to show her. Lily had dried tears on her cheeks her brown eyes glared at me,
“You scared her. You can’t just sneak up on her. She couldn’t smell you, that’s why she bit you. She didn’t mean it. I promise. She didn’t mean it.” She pleaded for me to forgive Shiva.
I rubbed my face with the injured hand out of habit and flinched.
“Okay, okay. She couldn’t smell me. But she can’t bite the family. What if she had bitten you?”
“She never bites me, even when we play. You just have to give her a hug and a kiss and she won’t ever bite you again.”
Shiva didn’t wriggle under Lily’s tight grip. She whimpered every time Lily cried. Lily made me kiss and hug her, and that was that. My wife didn’t like it, but I couldn’t say no. She’d clung too tightly to her companion. I would have had to ship them both away, attached to each other. For all her teary negotiations, my daughter was right. Shiva never bit me again after that day.
Blake stepped until his knee stood a few inches away from the side of my head. Shiva didn’t like this. She bared her teeth and growled, her hackles raised, and the other men in the group backed away. Blake just knelt down beside me. I didn’t look at him.
“Lily named her Shiva. She’s her dog, and you have no right to her life.” I said. My eyes never left Shiva.
Blake took a deep waddle-shaking breath, clapped my shoulder, and squeezed. Another warning growl reverberated across the yard.
“Look, there’s no doubt this town had, has, love for you and your family. My wife prays for yah all the time. Your loss hit everyone badly. My girls cried for weeks, it wasn’t enough killing the bear for what it did. It just wasn’t enough. I can’t empathize with all that you feel, but Goddammit, if I don’t wake up twice a night to check on my girls. I’ll be damned if I don’t scan that damned tree line for bear scat at least once a week. Ever since–”
Blake’s voice caught mid-sentence.
“Shiva’s all I got left. If it weren’t for her Lily would still be out there, there wouldn’t have been anything to bury.” My shoulders shook with a painfully sharp breath I tried to take in another, but it wouldn’t come. I struggled for air and fell face first onto my hands.
Blake placed his gun behind him and reached to catch me. He grabbed my shoulders and pulled me up right.
“Breathe Keller, just breathe.” Blake begged.
Shiva was whimpering and barking in my face. I took another shot at breathing and it came that time, as a cold gust of oxygen. I swallowed it like water. Shiva had begun to lick my face, her back leg shook with strain. Blake had his arms loosely around me and slowly let me go as my breathing grew steadier. His eyes watered a second before he ran a gloved hand over his face.
“Okay, okay.” Blake said it more softly than before.
“We’ll take care of this. Those chickens weren’t laying like they were supposed to. I had been thinking about cooking them myself. I suppose Shiva just beat me to it. Smart animal. We’ll let it go for now. But, if it happens again, for safety reasons I’ll put her down myself. This town can’t take any more accidents like Lily’s. We’ll figure this out.”
I nodded without looking up. He gave me a reassuring shoulder squeeze and left. I’d have to move, take Shiva somewhere new. I’d already lost Lily and her mother, I couldn’t lose her best friend. Shiva kept her hackles raised but trotted up to me and pressed her body against my front. Her growl vibrated through my face until Blake’s scent had reached outside the radius of our property. When she knew he’d retreated, she howled a mix of yips and growls. Lily used to howl with her.
A month after Lily passed, I found myself stuck in bed. I couldn’t get warm. Days had the same texture as nights under the blankets. The silence was deafening in the four bedroom home. A home without a family. I only got up to pee or feed Shiva. At night, her scratches and whimpering at the front door tore into my dreams. Under the weight of my sheets, I imagined the sound was a bear gnawing at the door. I dreamt of it gnawing on me until my eyes were missing. In that nightmare, my eyes were always silver and my hands were always blue. When I got up to feed Shiva, I saw that the front door frame had scratches in them. She’d too had been trying to escape the silence.
So, I opened the door to the cold and let her go. What could I offer her but silent floorboards and cold company? She’d taken off. I was okay to let her be free of me and return myself to the quiet of my blankets, the chill of empty rooms. 30 minutes into my sleep, her howl shattered the silence. That day and every day since, she’d called for me. The howl—it crested up and down, slid into the house and rattled the barren wood. The chord erupted like the sudden thunk of a solid object against a hollow one. It resonated like the vibration of forced breath over an empty glass bottle—a musician’s sweet spot. She ruffled the hairs at the back of my neck and forced me into warmth and motion. Into life.
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