By Scott Kirwin
Springs storms are rolling through my area of rural North Carolina. The cropped fields are greening up and the trees are leafing out. Near my house there is a tall hickory tree that my dogs, all rescues, like to play under. My 70 lb puppy in particular enjoys picking up hickory nuts leftover from the Fall and carrying them in his mouth. He reminds me of another dog that I had briefly, an old beagle that I had found in the middle of a nearby bridge late at night. In this post I documented finding her, an unspayed female her body riddled with cancer, who spent her last 16 months with us, the happy old beagle who loved tailing behind my tractor.
Eventually the cancer got the better of her, but I haven’t forgotten her and I always think of her when I watch the dogs play under the hickory tree.
When she passed I wrote this.
Originally published at TheRazor.org
Lay the body in the shade of the tree and scan the ground for a place to begin digging. Two heavy roots dive into the clay soil at right angles, leaving an empty patch where there are likely no large roots (I don’t want to harm the tree, a tall and strong hickory). Scrape away the top layer of small stones and hickory nut husks with a steel rake, then set down my phone and sunglasses in the grass. Grasp the spade shovel, place it onto the hard pan and stomp on it – but it barely scratches the surface before hitting a rock underneath. Repeat the motion again and again as a begin to shovel out the general shape of the grave, north – south axis with the tree a few feet from its southern end.
Two inches and it’s the first root – about an inch thick that stops the spade shovel. Beads of sweat begin to form on my forehead as I throw down the shovel and grab the pick axe. The dogs have all settled around me after a few cursory sniffs of the body wrapped in a green towel in the red cat litter pan. Swing the pick ax and look at the body (will she be cool enough in the shade?) swing again, sever one side of the root, swing again miss and again before severing the other side of the root, I raise it high above my head for a final blow to loosen it from the soil and feel the clay crumble down on me, mixing with the sweat as I swing the ax down. The root is severed but there’s another, and plenty of rocky clay. I move her body into the cool basement and the dogs scatter, some following me but stopping at the door, no doubt afraid I’ll lock them in or remembering that it is a no-go zone for dogs (it’s where the cat’s litter box is).
Return to the grave, just a pit actually that seemed deeper when I left, I grab the spade shovel and begin to dig. I hit rocks and small roots that I place the shovel to slice through and stomp on it with both feet to send the blade home. The sweat’s coming down in rivulets now and I wipe my face on my shoulder, making my blue checked shirt orange with wet clay.
What Buddhists call the Monkey Mind runs amok in my thoughts. How deep do I have to dig? Will her decaying body contaminant our well? It’s odd knowing she will spend eternity here; that’s a long time. Is she too close to the house? One by one I answer as I continue kicking at the earth with shovel and alternating it with the pick axe. About 3 feet. No our water is separated by two hundred feet of rock and clay from her. Eternity is doubtful; her bones will probably be dug up in a few hundred years by accident. No – we want her close by because she was happy here and this was her home.
Swinging the axe I stumble, my lungs are already hurting and sweat is in my eyes (You are so out of shape – you middle aged failure, Monkey Mind interrupts). I stop and lean against the UTV, breathing heavy and wiping the sweat on my shirt tail. Graves should be hard, I consciously say to myself. They should be sweaty if not painful because they are the final act of love.
I swing the axe high and shower myself with more clay.
There were easier ways. “Do you want to drop her off?” the vet tech asked. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. I suppose I could have dropped her off to die among strangers, and had her body burned with others, their ashes in a heap swept out and then forgotten like so much trash. But she wasn’t trash – she was a living breathing entity that lived a hard life of abuse, thrown out of a car on a long bridge over a shallow river in the middle of the night. As I crossed the bridge I saw a shadow huddled against the concrete wall in the dark and I knew what it was, I just knew. I stopped the car mid-span ran to her and without thinking scooped her up into my arms. Her belly was wet – had she been hit already? But when I got her into the pale overhead light in my car I saw the old beagle with open weeping tumors on her belly.
The grave is a foot deep now and the roots are gone. The clay is more uniform in color with a mix of small bits of quartz that shatter with blows from the axe. It is narrow and long enough for her body – but the roots are containing its shape and size so I can’t widen it to dig deeper. Instead I switch to the straight-edge shovel and continue. Sweat drops onto the sides of the hole as I struggle, fighting the earth to give me an inch of space, using my arms to chip away at the hard clay then the spade to clear out the rubble before moving on to the pick axe. Eventually it too can do no more because the hole is too deep for the handle, my hands banging into the side of the hole, singing with the pain.
Her nails were overgrown and had never been groomed. The first night she spent with us she soiled herself in the crate against her own instincts, meaning that she had probably been caged most of her life. We took her to the vet and had her tumors removed, her feet cleaned up and several of her rotten teeth removed. He said she had probably spent her life pregnant at a puppy mill, birthing scores of puppies that were trained as hunting dogs. Once they became too old to hunt, they would go out on their last hunt and never return from the fields. Her cowardly owner didn’t have the stones to pull the trigger on her himself, so he took her to the bridge to drown her – but didn’t have the balls for that either, so he just threw her out.
My heart is pounding in my chest and I am wet with sweat. I want this grave to be right but I cannot trust my own judgement so I walk inside, grab a tape measure and measure the depth of the grave. Two feet at the lowest point. I need six inches more. I snap the tape back into place and lay it in the bed of the UTV. I then walk to the patio table and find a hand shovel used for gardening and return to the grave. I kneel down, feeling the clay hard on my knees, then I lay down on my belly and reach into the grave with my hand holding the shovel. I begin to stab at the clay.
In the first days she cowered whenever I raised my voice or made an unanticipated move towards her. But my soothing words and gestures calmed her and she took to following me on the tractor as I mowed the fields. At first I was afraid that she would run into the mower, but she knew what she was doing and stayed a respectful distance behind me as I made pass after pass in the field, leaving sweet smelling hay behind me that she ambled through, her ears and tongue flapping. When we come home she would announce our arrival with loud beagle bays. The other dogs didn’t have much to do with her; it was clear to them she was beyond issues of pack hierarchy although one would occasionally attack her to improve her own standing in the pack – and was often squirted by a hose for the effort.
My shirt is filthy, there is dirt in my hair and in my nose and I can taste it on my lips. I stop for a moment and lay face down on the cool ground marveling at the geological processes had taken the Appalachian mountains and turned them into this clay, this evil soil that resists my honest need. How many millions of years does it take to weather a mountain peak and send it to the plains below? Yet for all that violence, all that change, it fights me for every grain. My Monkey Mind flashes with the story of eternity told to us by the nuns in grade school, how a bird flies to the tallest peak imaginable, alights on it, then rubs its beak against the stone briefly before flying away. A thousand years another bird arrives at the spot and does the same. A thousand years passes before another, and another… On and on until eventually the mountain, after having been visited every thousand years by birds with itchy beaks, is worn down. That is eternity according to the nuns. My Monkey Mind added that erosion would take the magic out of that story, but I still find it rather beautiful.
I look into the hole and it feels like an eternity stares back at me. I don’t want to do this. I could go inside and have my son help me. Or better yet I could go out into the well-tilled fields and bury her in its soft, easily shoveled soil. But this isn’t about me. Isn’t it? My Monkey Mind shouts back. But I push it out of the way and thrust myself up on my hands and continue digging with the hand shovel. The clay absorbs the tip and then flakes off as I chip away at it.
She had never been house trained, probably had never spent any time in a house whatsoever, so when we let her in it became her favorite place. She would scramble into the living room and leap upon the soft cushions of the sofa where she would often lay for hours. It became her obsession, and it wasn’t easy to live with. She’d bully her way in at our feet as we opened the door, and then when we weren’t looking, she would shit or pee on the floor. She had never been trained, and after months of frustration trying all the techniques I had read about to break her, she would never be. Cleaning up her messes became a chore, multiple times a day. Walking barefoot in the house was a guaranteed way of finding them. Eventually we ripped out the carpet and laid hardwood – hickory of all species. And as she declined the messes were easier to clean up and didn’t seem to matter as much as they once did.
I scoop the clay out with my hands, feeling it slide beneath my fingernails. Hands can be washed I tell myself and I keep pulling handfuls of the clay chips out.
She was always happy – until the final weeks. She stopped following the tractor months ago and the barks announcing our return home ended soon after. I noticed that she had begun losing weight. She had fattened up after we found her and I nicknamed her “Fat Girl” not to offend her but because the more nicknames an animal has in this house the more it is loved. It’s our culture here. But then she slimmed down and I knew that while we had removed the worst tumors, the cancer was continuing its spread within her. We tested her urine and found blood in it, and there was blood in her stool as well, but she didn’t seem to be suffering so we continued caring for her. She couldn’t leap onto the couch so we picked her up and placed her there. When she quit eating the dried food we give our animals, I made her omelets from eggs laid by the chickens ranging in our front yard. Then a few days ago that was thrown up, and finally she had refused all foods including cooked chicken and ground beef. I had never had a dog refuse those before.
I push myself up and dust myself off but the dry clay clings to my clothes. Hands will be washed, clothes will be cleaned, but not now. I feel time pressing on me and I check the phone – soon it will be time to attend to other matters, but not now! I must finish this. I grab the tape measure and measure the depth of the grave. It is deep enough. I snap the tape back and throw it into the back of the UTV.
When she stopped drinking water I knew the end was near. I called the vet and made arrangements. “Do you want me to come?” the wife asked. I said no. I felt that I needed to do it myself because I had avoided Death so often in the past and allowed myself to be shielded from it. The last time I saw my father was through the backseat window of a car. His coffin was closed. When my childhood pet was dying I left her with my mother and got drunk on cheap wine, returning early in the morning to bury her in my shame, hungover in the dark. When our first dog died I had been at work and left the Wife alone to handle it. It was time for me to accept this as a part of my love of animals. If I was to cradle a kitten in the palm of my hand, I had to cradle a cat in my arms as it breathed its last.
I get into the UTV and drive into the field where I had mowed yesterday while she laid on the sofa. The cut hay is a mix of grasses and wildflowers, some with brushy soft seeds. It is soft and fragrant after laying all morning and afternoon in the sun. I feel the warmth of the hay drying and decaying as I plunge my hands into the pile and load an armful into a box in the back of the vehicle. I stop at the basement door and load her into the back. I pull up to the hole, set the brake and get out.
She didn’t struggle as she rode on the backseat of the car on the green towel. I caught her lifting her head once or twice but she seemed exhausted, too tired to resist. I passed a slow driver on the rural highway. Did I really need to rush to get to the appointment Monkey Mind asked? Her breathing is labored, I replied, and it is time to do this. We arrived at the vet’s office on time.
I make a bough of some hay at the bottom of the hole and pat it down gently, smelling the earthy clay and the warm hay as the dusty air rises up. I pick up her body, already cool and stiffening with a faint scent of decay, and place her on her belly, her paws at her sides as if ready to come when called, her head pointing north because that is tradition isn’t it? I place the coin with the year’s date by her side – a talisman (my own personal tradition), and then sprinkle hickory nuts and shells upon her brown fur – some which she may have cracked herself in better days, my final offering to her happiness as she lays in the soil of the land I love so much beneath the tree that she loved near the house that was her home all too briefly. I leave her collar and her tag on because when I found her she didn’t have one, and the collar and tag were the symbols that she was of my pack. I then lay some more of the freshly cut hay on top of her, a natural shroud in place of the old bath towel that held her body while she breathed her last and acted as her shroud until now.
I gently push the soil back with the steel rake until it is filled. She was a good dog and I miss her my Monkey Mind says. I quietly agree. I place the tools in the back of the UTV, start it and drive away.