Copyright is held by the author.
THE WARMTH of the fireplace was a distant memory as his heavy boots stomped through the drifts. His toes were one solid block of ice. They didn’t sting yet. Malcolm knew his woods front to back even with the trails knee deep in snow. His face was as tough as the weathered bark on the maple trees. He wasn’t fond of winter anymore.
But he was fond of King. Siberian Huskies love the snow and King was no exception. The dog would sleep outside as the snow fell around him till he was completely buried. Malcolm would call him in and a mound of snow would burst into the air as King sprung from his white nest.
It’s been an hour and the paw prints Malcolm’s been tracking are filled with snow. King usually headed down the trail first and then circled back through the woods near the swamp. There were lots of dead things to roll around in or drag up to the house. Maggoty dead raccoons were his favourite. He hit a pure treasure this fall. Malcolm grinned at the memory. King had pulled an entire deer skeleton up to the back porch. The Mrs. nearly had a heart attack.
The tree shadows fell across the path, turning white snow into zebra stripes. Malcolm turned onto to the south path leading through the back of the woods. His flashlight swayed back and forth for prints and signs of motion. He kept his ears sharp. Coyote packs were braver at dusk. He whistled and called out. There was no response — no sign of King.
“That one Malcolm!” The Mrs had picked King out of a romping pile of puppies. King had been the biggest of the bunch with one brown eye and one blue. He had light grey fur with pure white legs and belly. A handsome pup she’d said. She’d never had a pet in her life. The gesture had meant the world to her. It was a moment of childlike bliss bringing King home. She spent her days playing fetch, cleaning up messes and training King to do new tricks. King loved her for it.
Malcolm paused to listen. The tree limbs rubbed together in the wind of the approaching storm. He had a bad feeling about this storm. Maybe it was his gut instinct or that the cold was harsher on his aging body. Snow seeped into the upper rim of his boots, despite the firm Velcro. He ignored the ice stumps that were his feet and marched onward.
King had known something was wrong before Malcolm or any of the doctors. He hadn’t been content to be on the floor anymore. He’d whine until they’d let him up on the bed. He’d stick his nose under the covers and lick her feet. Why her feet? If only he’d been able to talk.
A deer bolted out from his hiding place with its tail bobbing as it leapt. Malcolm, startled, dropped his flashlight. His stiff fingers reached down to retrieve it. The deer was across the field and into the neighbours woods by the time Malcolm stood up straight. He had two in the freezer. But he wasn’t hunting deer, dang dog. He called out, whistled and swore at the dog. This was taking too long. He was cold, worried and knew he couldn’t come home without him.
They had let them bring King up to the hospital room after they had proof of all his shots. Malcolm had spent the morning brushing the thick fur and tying a bandanna around his neck. He hadn’t been sure what to say to the Mrs when she needed him the most. Words were never easy for him; but he could do this for her. The Mrs had been a wreck at the first sight of King: unable to speak, with tears streaming down her face. A nod had been enough thanks for Malcolm. King had jumped up on the bed and tried desperately to get to her feet. The nurses had the covers all tucked in so Malcolm dug out a spot for him. They had spent the day there despite the odd looks. Malcolm hadn’t known how to leave. He had waited till she fell asleep, then lifted the dog off the bed.
He listened through the whistling wind, cracking branches and crunching snow. He wanted to hear the panting dog, branches smashing as he ran through the brush and the pounding of paws on the ground. The snow should kick up if he’s running he thought. There was a squeak. Malcolm stopped mid-step and strained his ears. It squeaked again. His boots changed direction towards the swamp.
The neighbours had all come over with casseroles when they heard the Mrs was in the hospital. They’d heard Malcolm was on his own for two weeks and thought he’d starve without her there. He’d been embarrassed to let them in. The state of the house had made her absence even more apparent. Crops were coming off and there was no time for it, he’d explained. Truth was, he’d not had the heart to pick up after himself. He had sat on the couch and drank cheap beer and stared at the television mindlessly. King had roamed the house looking lost until he plopped in front of the fireplace dejected. On the day before the Mrs had arrived home a bunch of church ladies had forced their way in with buckets of cleaners, garbage bags and more casseroles. They’d even baked dog cookies for King.
Malcolm called out to the dog. A whimper, this time directly ahead of him, sounded pained and desperate. Malcolm forced his feet to take bigger strides. The sooner he found him the better for everyone.
The Mrs knew everybody in the county. That’s how it seemed to Malcolm. He had let the stream of people, curious to see how they were doing, in all day long. King had wagged his tail and greeted them all. He’d escort them from the side door to the Mrs’s chair in the living room. The Mrs thrived with all the attention. Malcolm had stood back and watched all the goings’ on. Fortunately, he hadn’t had to say a word as King had done all the work.
The flashlight caught the reflection of eyes low to the ground. The whimpers came fast and high pitched. It had to be King. The half frozen swamp mud sucked on his boots as Malcolm approached. It’s a different kind of mud, black, slimy and easy to lose a boot in. There King was, up to his neck in mud with one paw clawing pointlessly at the muck. Relieved and alarmed, Malcolm stuck his hands into the cold wetness to grab onto King. He worked on the front legs and chest hoping to get a hold of enough of the dog to haul him out. How long could a dog last submersed in cold mud? He pushed this question from his mind and kept digging.
His wife, the Mrs. as everybody called her, would be at the window watching for the flashlight to return up the path. She’d be pacing if it weren’t for her legs giving out on her. Instead, her chair would wiggle as she leaned forward and back in anticipation. She’d see a brief flash and stand up hopeful, waiting for that moment of elation when all is well again. King was her companion. Malcolm never said much and worked long days. It was harder to chat with friends now that she couldn’t get out much. What could she talk about anyhow, her illness, her legs, her loneliness? A flash came again and she squeezed the arms of the chair.
King was reaching with the little strength that remained in him. His left leg was ice cold and barely moved. Malcolm stuck his arms around the dog’s chest and heaved. The mud held onto King. Malcolm felt his boots go down deeper. He’d have to walk back sock footed if he didn’t adjust his feet. He moved one foot and then the other and stood with his legs spread apart. “It’s now or never,” he said to King. He wrapped the dog in a bear hug and pulled with the strength in his back, his legs and all his weight.
The snow was coming down harder. The Mrs. brought her attention back to the television in the corner. The radar showed squalls and warnings. Nobody comes to visit once bad weather starts. Best get more books, yarn and maybe some of those puzzles. The flashlight came full on through the woods. It’s been over two hours. Her eyes were wild with hope.
Here’s another vet bill, thought Malcolm as he landed flat on his back. Now, to try and get up with 100 pounds of dog and another 10 of mud and water on his chest, he thought “You’re out,” said Malcolm. He stuck the flashlight in his coat pocket, heaved the dog up and his back jolted somewhere around his hip. He was grateful he found the dog and still has his boots. His back was wet now. King was quiet in his arms. Vet opens at eight he thought, maybe eight-thirty.
King had loved the vet. The Mrs. would sit in the truck watching him through the back window as Malcolm drove. The moment the truck stopped in the parking lot he’d be at the door. There were treats in a dish, people to lick and other dogs to sniff. He had no fear. He had no clue. The cone only lasted a few hours. He’d smashed into the kitchen cupboards, pulled the curtains off the walls, nothing was safe. They quarantined him in the laundry room where he pawed at it till his feet were raw. The Mrs thought they should put the cone on his rear end instead. That didn’t stay long either. She stayed up with him all night keeping him from ripping out the stitches. Somewhere around two a.m. the two of them snuck into the bed. King no longer trustsed the vet, although a truck ride is still worthwhile.
Solid steps landed on the wooden porch. The Mrs was up and pushing herself forward to greet them. A silhouette of Malcolm with King in his arms entered the mud room. The Mrs. was there, with her crutches, leaning against the wall. King opened his eyes and wagged his tail. “He needs to get warmed up,” said Malcolm.
“My King! Poor doggie!” said the Mrs.
Malcolm kicked off his muddy boots and headed to the fireplace. He leaves behind a trail of swamp that he’ll have to clean up later. The Mrs. has limitations now. She held a warm cloth and told Malcolm to wipe King’s feet, piled blankets on King and muttered about calling the emergency vet. They cost extra, but he’s a good dog, my first dog, it’s King, we have to help him. She cries uncontrollably.
Malcolm isn’t good with words and he’s even worse with emotional women. He called the vet from the kitchen to put some distance between them. His feet were stinging as they thawed, his hands were shaking. The emergency vet usually came for horses, sheep and cows. The dogs are seen in the clinic.
The vet’s voice came across the phone clear and carefree. “What can I do for you?”
Malcolm got a lump in his throat. He could hear the Mrs crying, his hands were throbbing and he couldn’t find the words.
“Hello? What can I do for you?” said the vet.
“You have to come, King’s nearly frozen dead,” said Malcolm. His eyes watered and he heard his own voice falling apart.
“This is Malcolm and the Mrs, right?” said the voice.
Malcolm’s eyes had lost control and he pulled his hand across his face. Hot tears mixed with cold mud smeared across his face. He couldn’t find his composure. It’s just a dog, he told himself. It was no use. He had to speak.
“Yes, it’s our King” he choked out. “Come help him please.”
He didn’t want to leave the kitchen crying, but the Mrs was begging to hear what the vet said. Shit. He ran his hands under the tap to warm them up and steal a moment. The dog treat jar was in the window in front of him. His eyes watered again. Shit.
The Mrs took one look at him and she knew — could see right through his tough disguise. She knew he loved that dog, couldn’t say it, but he felt it as deep as she did. She dabbed her eyes and waited for him to speak.
“Vet’s on his way” he said.
“Good” she said.
The waiting, the silence was unbearable. Most times the Mrs didn’t mind sitting still, knitting and doing her puzzles. Malcolm could see tonight she wanted to talk. He braced himself for it. He wasn’t in the mood and he sure as hell didn’t want to cry again.
“Where was he?”
“How did you find him?”
“Walked back the path, heard a squeak and there he was.”
“Seriously, Malcolm! Can you not give me more than that! We’ve had this dog for 10 years and he nearly dies, you nearly freeze to death, a big storm’s about to blow in and that’s all you got?” said the Mrs.
She was right as always. So he started to describe what happened out there. It was an awkward thing describing events with a lot of words when just a few would do. He was at the part about only one foot moving. She started to cry again. He wanted to get up and get a hot chocolate, away from the emotions but the story wasn’t done. She looked so small, frail and now her heart was breaking too. He’d hug her but that always seemed an unfamiliar gesture to reach out and wrap around all that emotion. He wouldn’t know how to start, how to stop or what to say afterwards. He sat there waiting for her collect herself.
The vet was sitting on the floor listening to the tale as he works on King. He wrapped a heated blanket bundled around King and spoke softly to the dog. Kings tail flapped just at the tip and his eyes opened and shut slowly.
“He’s going to make it. His heart’s strong and he’s breathing okay. Seems to be tuckered out from the exhaustion though, best keep him warm. Try some warm broth to get him warmed up on the inside. He’ll be starving, but go slow till he gets moving around more,” said the vet.
The Mrs stood up and shook the vet’s hand. Her body quivered with the effort of pushing off her legs. It shot pain up and down her limbs. Malcolm took a step closer and reached out to steady her. The Mrs turned to face him, her legs wobbled and she fell into him. Malcolm’s arms wrapped around her. Her head pressed into his chest.
“Oh Malcolm, I don’t know what I’d do. I can’t train another one.,” she said.
He gazed out the window as he held her. He thought he should call that vet to be sure he makes it home and say thanks one more time. The storm was picking up speed and hurling more snow. He’d be stuck inside for a day or more. He was glad he was inside though. The embrace continued. Malcolm waited for it to end. It was surprisingly warm and he liked it, but he didn’t need it. He told himself it’s for her. Just like the dog.
While she sobbed he stood thinking. She had more strength in her than he thought. Her illness, his quiet nature and being confined had taken a toll, but never once did he hear about it. Now she was letting it all out. He felt badly for the way he was, but couldn’t seem to help it. It was the way he was made. He held her a little tighter and kissed her forehead. It surprised her and she looked up at his face.
“Thanks for finding him. I love King and I love you too,” she said.
Malcolm was stunned. He has to respond. It has to be good. Shit. “I love the dog.” He paused. Shit. Big teary blue eyes were looking, waiting, expecting more from him. “I love you, you’re my Mrs.”
Then the Mrs smiled and King wagged his tail.
“I’d really like it if you’d do a puzzle with me,” she said.
“Okay,” he said.