By Rowan Kane
There was a thin layer of ice over the foot of snow that crunched as each step sunk into the powder. He didn’t ski but he imagined that this was the type of snow skiers loved, at least what lay underneath the ice. It was fine and delicate and he felt guilty that with each step he was defacing something beautiful. He looked down at his dog who was attacking the snow that was kicked up as he lifted his foot with each step. He kicked harder so more snow came up and this made the pup’s assault that much more ferocious, jumping up and snapping at the chunks of snow that disintegrated before he could snag them. This went on for several minutes, back and forth across the yard, until the snow was so churned that any purity that had once existed was long gone.
He stopped kicking and looked out across the river that ran in front of the house. The trees were bare and skeletal and the white ground that rose up from the opposite bank somehow made them more so. In the summer you could barely make out the far side, now he could see 200 yards in. He checked the time without any real purpose, looked back to make sure the front-door of his house was closed and trudged a few steps down to the freshly plowed dirt drive that came half a mile up from the road, more or less following the path of the river. He turned right and walked past the house toward the massive barn that sat caddy-corner to the residence. At the barn, the drive widened into a circle before splitting off; one part leading sharply down to a small parking lot and some outbuildings before it became the trails that lead into and along the open meadow which lay behind the barn. The other road led up to a larger lot and the trails that headed into the woods.
When the young man was even with the barn he turned again, whistled and called for the pup who had since forgotten his assailment of the snow and was now leading an offensive against the birds that had gathered in a bush under the kitchen window where there were a couple birdfeeders. When the pup realized how far the young man had gone without him, he took off, ears back and a pronounced leap with each stride to clear the snow, then, once he reached the plowed bit, he was leaned into a full sprint. The pup slowed himself with a slide when he reached his friend and jumped up to try and snag one of the lambskin gloves the young man was wearing. He was given a forearm instead that he gnawed on halfheartedly as his front paws came back to earth. The pup jumped up again but this time his head was gently pushed away before he got his jaw on anything, so he forgot about the gloves and jogged off to sniff the tires of a car parked in front of the barn.
The young man walked along the side of the barn and before heading down the quick little slope to the smaller lot and meadow, he made sure the dog was following with another call, whistle and muffled pat on his left hip. The pup left the tire and followed down the yet unplowed drop. The truck that had come earlier hadn’t bothered to plow this bit and so the land manager would do it later with the tractor. The crunches under his feet resumed down to the small flat lot, across it, and down another, less severe slope and past the red outbuildings on the right that began the tree line.
The trees ran 300 yards down and 200 yards across, framing two sides of the rectangular meadow in the dull gray-brown that bark turns in the winter. The dullness of the trees was only made more so by the rich blue of the sky, an equally hyperborean phenomenon, and the blinding white of the snow. The third side of the meadow, which ran along the sandy and eroded bank of the river had fewer trees and he could make out the matching meadow on the far side. Together, the two meadows were really just a part of the floodplain that was cleared every few years of trees for lord knows how long. The white of the meadow’s snow on this side was streaked and blotted with the faded gold of the grasses, some of which had withstood the snowfall, most of which had not. An old cedar fence that would not have been out of place in this field 300 years ago ran from the river on the left to outbuildings on the right thus finishing the rectangle and then up along the tree line before dissecting the meadow about 100 yards out.
As the dog wandered back along the barn, the young man turned to the right and headed into it, whistled, called, patted his hip again and this time added a few muffled claps. He passed through the break in the fence and continued into the meadow hoping his companion would realize how far he’d gotten and follow. The pup had wandered away from the meadow into an area that in warmer weather was kept mowed as a part of the grounds. The area also contained four birdfeeders that in this weather were busy with customers, and so were of great interest to him. When the pup was called, he turned his head first and then ran at his friend. The young man once again kicked the snow and the pup attacked a piece of ice that had remained intact and landed in front of his nose by jumping straight up, arching back in mid-air, and bringing his front paws and snout together to pin it down. Unfortunately this was a completely useless endeavor and he removed his nose from the snow as confused as he was determined a half-second before.
The pup started sniffing the edges along the trail where some grass had survived and now was sitting in resolute golden clumps and besieged single stems. A couple times he stuck his whole snout into the minidrifts and dug in with his paws after the faint scent of a chipmunk or field mouse. After removing his head from one such investment, he felt a breeze and lifted his nose higher to better catch whatever scents were on it. He smelt something he didn’t like and froze.
The young man, accustomed to his dog’s tendency to stop and sniff, kept crunching forward and looked back only after gaining a twenty yard lead. He called, whistled, clapped, and without waiting for a reaction, turned to continue deeper into the meadow. The pup was untrained and so the young man was hoping to teach him to keep up when he was off the leash. Normally the pup followed him around the yard and the house but letting him run loose like this was an experiment. When the young man reached the dissecting fence, he turned again and saw that the dog was now sitting at the opening in the first fence, where the trail entered the meadow. He was watching his friend nervously but not ready to move an inch further. The young man repeated his routine; call, whistle, muffled clap. He kicked up some snow to see if that would entice a renewed attack. The pup barked but didn’t come any closer.
Looking down, the young man noticed that leading out from his feet were a set of paw prints. He immediately recognized them as canine. The prints ran down the middle of the trail for a while then off to the side, circled, and then back up the middle of the trail as it slowly sloped up to a small knoll. Now he knew why the pup was so skittish. He had heard the howls and barks of the coyotes in the evenings when he took the dog out on the leash to piss. He had seen a coyote’s shit in the meadow earlier in the fall. A couple weeks earlier, a group he was hiking with on a nearby property had seen a lone coyote across a harvested cornfield, but it ran off before he found out it was there. For some reason, this was the closest he had felt. The tracks could have been hours old, and probably were, but he was drawn to them.
He looked back across the meadow, back towards the deep red of the barn and the smoke he could just make out, rising from the fire he had left smoldering in the living room, and his dog, who was now pacing back and forth at the break in the fence. The young man called the dog and finally he came racing towards him, ears back and a pronounced leap with each stride to clear the snow. Halfway to his friend, who had bent over waiting for his arrival, the pup stopped short, barked, turned, and raced back to his post at the gap in the fence. The young man stood up straight, looked over his shoulder at the tracks and retraced his step back towards the pup who responded to this with another sprint halfway to the young man, bark and retreat back to his post.
The young man knew he couldn’t go much further without the dog, he was less than six months old and even having him off the leash was a gamble. If they got any further apart, the pup might run off; back to the house or down the drive, anyway out of sight and he couldn’t let that happen. The dog barked again, took a couple steps forward into the meadow, jumped up on his hind legs and circled back to the gap. The young man turned away from the dog again. One final test, he told himself, and started to follow the tracks again. When he got to the top of the knoll he turned around and saw the pup running full speed towards him, ears back, a pronounced leap with each stride to clear the snow. The young man smiled, and for a split second he thought to himself that the pup had passed the test and was going to follow him.
Twenty yards short of the young man, the dog stopped, jumped again with a bark and sprinted back the way he came. The young man’s smile turned to a resigned chuckle. He wouldn’t be following these tracks today. He took one last look at them, trying to see where they led. It was just as well. On the other side of the knoll, they veered off the path, through a low-lying area that flooded anytime there was rain and disappeared into the woods on the right. The young man turned and himself retreated back down the trail. When he reached the pup who was waiting patiently at his post at the gap in the fence, the dog jumped up playfully and tried to grab his glove again. This time he was successful and gnawed a few times on the sheepskin while balancing on his hind legs. The young man gently grabbed the pup’s snout and pushed him down with the same motion. While the dog was coming back to all fours, the young man turned to face him, bending slightly over to decrease the distance between them and make eye contact.
The young man tapped the dog on his cheek and himself took off, crunching clumsily up towards the house with the pup on his heels, ears back and with each stride, a pronounced leap to clear the snow.