Ice and White Sky
A truck pulled up to my neighbor’s house this morning; four men descended and installed a black wrought-iron fence seven feet high around the property. A screen of pines and birch obscures their house from ours, and already we don’t speak, we know our boundaries. These prison bars going up around the most benign cottages and colonials perform a reverse function: Good fences keep deer out. Deer amble down Main Street, munch pansies by the front door, and dictate the selection of shrubs. My dog plods by them on his leash and fails to recognize their presence as though the natural laws have changed; the chase is gone.
When I was a kid we spent a few weeks each summer in the Pocono Mountains. As we turned off the main road and grumbled onto a dirt one, my brother and I would hop out of the car, pull down the tailgate and ride the rest of the way sitting back there, chucking rocks at mailboxes and dragging our Keds in the mud. We’d stare into the hemlock forest, breathe the rich heady smell of ferns, and stroke our quivering dogs as we scanned for deer among wild rhododendrons and naked branches in the dark under story. If we saw one, we whispered urgently to our parents to stop the car and there we’d sit, the deer’s walnut eyes and ours locked in wonder and fear until, in response to a seemingly random impulse, it raised its white tail and vanished. Once our dog leapt out the window in pursuit and didn’t come back for two days.
For most of the year, I played with the dogs in the back yard of our suburban house, circumscribed by a weathered post and rail with chicken wire along the base to keep the terrier from digging out. Without a pack of neighborhood kids, I resorted to an animal menagerie: a mean-spirited white rabbit with red eyes, a dull fat guinea pig named Achilles, and fish that seemed to turn belly up and die pretty routinely. The wildest thing I had were a trio of roosters I won as chicks at a local fair. They grew alarmingly into full-blown white cocks that crowed at 2 am, inciting complaints from the neighbors whom we answered with a shrug. When one of them got loose from the impromptu chicken house, my terrier ripped its throat. My parents found it with its head like a flaccid penis, bleeding on pansies through a cracked windowpane of the cold frames. They pretended the bird had died a natural death, lest I begrudge the dog or learn too quickly that cute does not preclude predatorial. Dog love was not to be tainted by comparison with chicken love. Even worse, I might ask if we can love what does us harm, something the adults I later realized had not grappled with at all. Along with the terrier whose true nature was concealed, we had a dumb yellow lab that ate Alpo and lay around the kitchen linoleum as calm as a box turtle, a black lab with a little more spunk, and a simian mutt that was cranky and smart. These were the family dogs.
In hindsight maybe I wanted my own, or wanted to make my own decisions 3,000 miles away from my mother, or wanted to replace my brother who abruptly got married (that was my mother’s theory). Or maybe I just couldn’t resist when I saw a litter of huskies in a torn cardboard box in a trailer park outside Anchorage. By then I was eighteen, the pup seven weeks. We both had brown eyes, our best feature. I’d driven cross country with two girls and hitched around Alaska for a month, putting Kansas plains and the Rockies and the inland waterway along the Yukon between me and Main Line debutante parties; the pup hadn’t been outside the dirt park, hadn’t seen much humanity. She was silver and slim, more wolf than I knew, with ears like equilateral triangles and hints of smoke down her back and between her eyes. She had round paws with little white nails encased in white fur. I was actually surprised by my mother’s nonplussed response when she arrived on the east coast.
I named her Shantih because the word sounds like soughing grass and because, like everyone else at the time, I was reading Siddhartha and figured peace that surpasses understanding might exist, and if it did, it too was beyond the parameters of my Philadelphia life. She drove cross-country with us in a Chrysler station wagon, scrambling around the back, yanking my sleeve with her teeth, puncturing my raincoat and skin, and sleeping wherever the sun hadn’t saturated the plastic seat. When we camped in our clunky tent, she slept outside, crawling under the car and snarling with serious intent when I tried to get her. If I pulled her paws, she bit. My feelings were hurt, but I began to have inklings, a twinge, that she was something other. That her nose divined grizzlies and the invisible trails of rabbits, that her eyes were as remote as the Brooks Range, that her ears could hear glaciers heave and nudge, that her ancestry was unrecorded. She ignored her name—literally, a misnomer, figuratively, a truth—at will. We often lost a good hour till she decided to come out of her cave beneath the car and take the bait I offered. Unlike her domestic counterparts, she could go quite awhile without regular meals.
Shantih howled, a high-pitched spine-thrilling howl, sometimes in the depths of night. For a time she slept alongside my narrow bed in a college dorm, a reminder of Alaskan summer when the sun only nestled in the treetops at midnight, turning the sky silvery gray. A few students claimed I harbored a wolf, a rumor I didn’t deny since it had a certain cachet. She whined and paced in class, slipped her collar one day and streaked across the football field, game in session, and left groups of prospective students huddled by admissions, unsure. On being expelled, Shantih went to live on Philadelphia’s Main Line and took command of our canine pack. The post and rail furnished with box bushes and pink roses bordering the back yard was immaterial to her. Within a week, three feet of wire braced by inward slanting metal arms graced the top of the fence, creating a comic union of Alcatraz and cultivated affluence. Much later, my mother told me she wanted to give the dog away but figured that would be paramount to giving me away. She had accrued a ten-year arsenal with which to guilt me by then.
One afternoon Shantih tangled with a raccoon in broad daylight in the Poconos. I ran up from the lake to find my mother hitting her with a cane and screaming at my boyfriend to do something. Totally bewildered, and far more afraid of my mother than of Shantih, he kicked the swarming barrage of fur, neither animal remotely concerned with him, and yelled at the dog while my mother yelled at him till he finally grabbed her cane, wedged the two apart, clutched Shantih’s collar while her forelegs flailed in midair, and the bloodied raccoon scurried away. Shantih refused to be tamed; she remained my heroine.
To be wild was to be free, to be free was to be wild. I believed that with the foggy clarity of adolescence.
Now both are more difficult to define. Deer trot down Main Street, common as squirrels. My friend hit one at night just fifty feet from her house, and the cops had to come up to shoot it while she thanked whatever good fortune had saved her car. Not even a scratch. In some New York counties, they’ve rounded up deer for a cull, a word that sounds as benign as getting your nails done. It means controlled killing; it also means something considered worthless, especially an unwanted or inferior animal. What makes an animal with thoroughbred limbs and an airborne trot cross the line from transcendent to inferior? Wild is not in opposition to commonplace, but beauty is. Who stops breathless before a buck that eats begonias and carries ticks, whose ribcage can damage cars? Iron fences won’t suffice. My town wants to shoot the deer with darts to sterilize them for two years. The natural predators– mountain lions and bobcats and wolves–are gone.
Restless, I look across the Hudson River, scan the air for hawks, smile at a wild turkey waddling across the road, and long to feel awe rather than tenderness for a doe grazing along the curb, so close I can see a white scar on her hock.
In the muggy Philadelphia summers Shantih shed fistfuls of hair. She’d lie on a cool slab of stone in the shade and stare into the woods behind my parents’ house, deep dark eyes betraying nothing, perfect ears erect, paws extending in front of her like a Greek sphinx. Sometimes she’d lay her head between her paws, and her eyelids nearly closed, but she was listening. Luckily my father found her statuesque and appreciated the exoticism of her presence, as though she enhanced the value of the property. My mother hired a trainer for the first time in her fifty years of owning dogs. The guy, we all thought, was vicious, using a choke collar that he jerked and yanked, sometimes lifting my 70-pound Shantih clear off the ground. I couldn’t watch these sessions, but my mother reported that the dog loved him. Loving what controlled you didn’t fit my worldview at the time, and I didn’t believe her. I told her to let the dog alone, but she said she needed to be in charge. That’s probably why I went to Alaska in the first place.
They nearly tamed her. I’d come home on weekends from college and later from New York where I was working and find her settled into suburban life. There were no roosters to kill, and the other dogs had yielded to her long ago. When she heard my voice, she’d get up, stretch her spine with her hindquarters raised, shoulders lowered, and saunter toward me, flattening her ears in a smile and crooning a long low growl. She was tame enough to lie still, blinking her white eyelashes, while my son crawled around her, touching her face, exploring her fine thick fur with his little fingers, and leaning against her flank. Still I believed that if we let her loose in the woods, she’d get a scent and be gone. She wouldn’t even hear us.
Sometimes I thought about her brothers and sisters and wondered if they pulled sleds yelping with excitement as they bounded toward an open horizon of ice and white sky, wondered if they slept outdoors chained to a stake, or roamed the trailer park living on potato peels and moose bones, having never found another home. Sometimes I thought she knew what I imagined and knew the answers–why, I don’t know.
Her dying was my son’s first experience with death. She was twelve, he two. Since I don’t believe in heaven, not even doggie heaven, I offered him no myths of kennels in the sky where she might sit waiting for us. “Where Shantih?” he cried. I told him about flowers wilting, about green leaves turning yellow and brown and falling, about life living and then no longer living. He looked up from under his shaggy bangs. “You too?”
For years I would not teach my son to be wild or free. For years I would keep him away from the curbs of streets, the edge of train platforms, rocks by the Hudson, dangerous surf. I tried to protect him, as my mother had tried with me, but some things you can’t control, and I’m sure he didn’t see that I essentially didn’t want to control him. So he closed doors, blasted music, vanished to the city with friends, and threatened to buy a motorcyle to drive cross country but wound up painting oils of open horizons instead, highways crossing cornfields and deserts, lonely highways hemmed by telephone poles, a solitary motel, highways that zoomed toward a vanishing point on a dim seam of rough dirt and purple dusk, highways that ushered you in and made you want to go.
And so I think about loading the Chrysler, about crossing Kansas and making out a baby blue ripple on the horizon where the Rockies float above heat waves on highway mirages. I think about abandoning the car in Seattle and sleeping on the deck of the ferry going up the inland waterway to Skagway, about the water turning sea glass green near Juneau where mountains striated by snow rush up from the water, about Eskimo totem poles and canned spaghetti, about a tarp tied to four trees, rain soaking my sleeping bag, black flies at my ears, the urgency to be away, to believe that away was possible, that it harbored something of oneself.
When we got off the ferry that summer in June 1971, we discovered there were no buses or trains to get us anywhere. Without foresight (or cell phones), we hitched a ride in the back of a pickup, three teenage girls and the guy’s German shepherd. We rode past midnight, staring into bristling woods on a mother-of-pearl sky. A moose raised its head as we drove by, mildly quizzical, not spooked. We felt waves of cool air as if plunging our legs into deep water below the patches warmed by sunlight. We arrived in Fairbanks with nowhere to stay, and I don’t recall where we did. Another day we rode with truckers, one per driver, fools that we were. I looked down on the roofs of cars, saw us devour the ghostly line on the road at night while Coke cans rolled around my ankles and smoke drifted past my eyes. I put my feet on the dashboard, my elbow out the window. Later I took off on my own, telling my friends to come look for me after a week if I didn’t come back. At the end of the Kenai Peninsula, on the far side of Cook Inlet with no road access, I tried to navigate woods without trails, every direction blocked by fantasy size ferns and fallen trunks. The first night it rained, gently at first–discrete, random drops like a pointillist painting. I curled up like a dog under a tree, mosquito netting around my head, and listened to the shush of water expand to a crescendo, an almost solid mass of water. And I thought of salmon gliding in an elliptical path two thousand miles up the Alaskan coast and south again to fight back up their natal stream guided by migratory cues, innate not learned, orienting themselves to the earth’s magnetic field through tiny electrical charges in ocean currents. I listened freely to the whu-whump of my pulse, my cue, though I couldn’t say why I was there.
Sure, I came back. And that vital cue forked as naturally as capillaries do, grew muffled, harder to pin down. It’s knowing the era you grew up in is its own agent with prerogatives informing your judgment, whether you’re aware or not. It’s knowing how you reacted to a deer in the forest when you no longer do. It’s knowing not to be satisfied with recall, knowing that the kiss of icy tundra and smoky clouds is a tease for what I’ll never see. It’s Shantih tunneling under the fence and roaming suburban lawns, catching cardinals, overturning trashcans, inciting fear, dodging trucks, and leaving us in ignorance of why she went, where she slept, and why she ever came back.
For years my mother circumscribed my world too, though I busted out from time to time with grandiose notions and a bleached pair of jeans. But when I look at her now, at this moment, in ER with a full face oxygen mask, her feet with ocher toenails and bunions sticking out of the sheet in the cold air conditioning, I look on wildness without boundaries, without return, the final and ultimate one. But I don’t know if she does. When she looks at me with her fond eyes scrunched by the mask, does she see only me or beyond? I look at borders of forgiveness, far less tangible than a skyline of mountains, to cross. I see hands that held me before I was aware. Now needles feed the backs of her hands, and she is too constricted even to roll onto her side. Black bands around her forehead and the back of her neck hold the plastic mask in place over her mouth and nose. I tell her the tube coming out of the mask is like the ones on the snorkels we used to use. But then I remember, she never liked to snorkel, that was me floating above angel fish and sea fans, shivering at the flash of a barracuda. They tell me not to talk to her, let her sleep. So I listen to each intake of breath, each breath, oxygen, dear oxygen, and remember the story she used to tell of standing by my infant crib and watching me breathe because she was afraid I might stop. By the railing of her bed, my arms dangle at my sides and I lose all notion of time as I follow four ripply green lines traversing the screen of a vital signs monitor again and again with variations I don’t know how to read. Not yet. You, too. Not yet.
Caroline Sutton’s essay, “Brushing By,” appeared in Wild River Reviewin July 2011. Her work has also been published in North American Review, Cimarron Review, and Tampa Review, among others. Southern Humanities Review>nominated her essay, “Eclipsed,” for this year’s Pushcart Prize and selected that essay to receive the Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award for best essay to appear in SHR in 2012. Formerly an editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons and Hilltown Press, Sutton currently teaches high school English in New York.