Sunday, August 7, 2011

Toby's hour

It just stood there, a shadow on the pathway. As still as a sentinel, so still, and for so long, that it almost seemed unreal, as if time had stopped. 
We stopped too. 
It seemed impossible to just march past such watchful stillness, and the path through the woods, which had until then seemed nothing more than a track between a dozen trees, joining one stretch of river-walk to another, seemed to grow into a dark forest, where the wild things are.
Plus, it might bite.
But then some cyclists buzzed by, and it stumbled out of the way of their slicing wheels, and became a dog again, and rather sorry for himself.
Herself. I stood corrected. I wasn't convinced; it looked like a boy to me, but my assertion that it was a Belgian shepherd was conceded, so I decided to yield the point.
The dog was not scared, not thin, not particularly lost looking. We just walked by.
"It probably got out of its garden, you know, ran away. Belgian Shepherds are terrible for that," I said, remembering when Sam killed the ducks. That was twenty years ago, but I still remember what they did to Sam afterwards. "Or maybe it's been abandoned. Poor thing."

We just kept walking. None of our business, after all. Stray dogs might bite, their fleas would definitely do so. Much better to stay away, and just enjoy our walk down the river.
But the conversation inevitably turned to pets in general and dogs in particular; how much fun they can be, and what a great way to meet new people when you take them for walks; and then on to how much they eat, and what happens when they're left alone, and how hard hearted you have to be to make a puppy sleep outside in winter.
"He's all wet!" I said, looking back discreetly. "He must have been swimming!"
"She was probably just rooting around on the bank, looking for something to eat."
"I bet he - she - was swimming. She looks like a swimmer."
"Just hungry, probably."
We both stopped, giving the dog the chance to approach; perhaps its owner was nearby, and we could help reunite them. We put out our hands towards it in gestures of friendship, and made little noises of encouragement. The dog seemed unimpressed. Well, we gave it a chance. No point in hanging around, we thought, and headed off again upriver. Sad to see a dog like that, but it wasn't our problem.
The path twisted and turned among hazel and robinias.
"I think he's following us," I said presently.
And soon there was no doubt.
"It's funny how much better a walk is, when you're with a dog," I said. "Hey! There's a business idea! Dog rentals! I could set up a stall at the beginning of this trail, for all those people who are too busy to keep a pet at home, but who want to enjoy a nice country walk with a dog by their side. The random walker comes to me, rents the dog for an hour or so, then drops it off and goes back to their nice, tidy, smell-free home, having had their canine fix. All the joy of doggy companionship, without the whiff of dog food to go with it. I could clean up!"
"That would be mandatory, I imagine," came the practical reply. "Maybe she's lost. I wonder if there's a dog pound anywhere nearby. Or someone we can ask."
We came back to the water's edge. There were some fishermen. Yes, they'd seen the dog hanging around  in the woods ever since early that morning. No, they didn't know who she belonged to, or where the nearest pound was. We could ask at the village, just ahead, upstream. They shrugged. It was the old summer story, in Italy. Dogs are a lot of work, and they don't do vacations.
"There are marks on her back, like she's been beaten or bitten."
The dog consented to be petted, but not by me. Her collar was a nice wide leather one, but there was no medaglietta hanging from it to show where she belonged.
"She's only half-grown.  Look at that face. Probably got to be too much of a handful. Poor thing," I said.  "I''m going to call it Toby."
"Toby? It's a girl dog."
 I didn't care. I was going home in three days. For the next mile or two, this was going to be Toby, and whatever had bitten or beaten Toby was in the past, and we were all walking with a spring in our step towards a Good Lunch, somewhere near the water.
Short fur is better than long, and girls more docile than boys, and medium size dogs are the only way to go. In your head, when you walk, you can go many miles, all the way to the dog pound, to the grooming parlor, to the vets, and back. Now and again our separate mental journeys came together in some shared comment or other, on the subject of commitment, and Dobermans, and The Dog Whisperer; but honestly, on the whole, the verdict was that dogs are great, but No.
Toby kept up.
The path turned out of the woods, and cut up into farmland, on the edges of a village.
 Fields gave way to farmhouses, and farmhouses to mills, and walls and waterwheels. We stopped on the banks of the river, tempted to take our shoes off right then and there.
Toby jumped in.
"She's thirsty, look at her drink!"
Toby lapped a bit, and started splashing around happily.
"I told you she was swimming before," I said. "Look at her go!"
She was completely at home in the water, swimming and floating and splashing in great circles, out into the heart of the rushing water, then back to the slack pool under the trees, and then out into the middle again.
 "Toby!" I called. "Come back, boy!" I called, and we both whistled and yelled.
Toby paid no attention. She made one more great splashing circle over the pebbly shallows, and then set her face downstream. She looked back once, and then turned with confidence into the strong, broad current.
We just stood there, suddenly alone. We watched until she became a shadow on the water; then she reached the bend in the river, and was gone.

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