The Point of Roughness

Posted by jdg | Thursday, December 18, 2008 |

I wish there were some ancient word for this shortening daylight, these days approaching the winter solstice---some Norwegian loanword that spread down from the Shetland Islands. If not English, I hope there is such a word in some Scandinavian tongue. Or Estonian. Inuit, surely, if it's true they have all those words for snow. The nicest I could find was the ancient Welsh description of the solstice, "the point of roughness." In our house these days, when it starts to get dark everyone starts to get restless. My daughter watches the sun set and says, as if to dare it: "Before you are down, Mama will be home." We sit anxiously at the west-facing window, my son staring at the front door in preparation for the long shrieking crawl he'll make across the floor to his mother when she walks through it.

But no one anticipates this moment more than the dog. All day he waits for the kids' mother to get home, to pick them up in her arms so his master can finally flip the switch on his off-duty light and take the dog out for a real walk, not one of those piss-or-shit utilitarian vectors out into the cold, but a chance to run as fast as he can. In the summer he might spend all day with them outside, but not when it's less than 20 degrees. When the mother finally does get home, the dog is the first to greet her, practically trampling the baby on his way, picking up the leash in his mouth and parading across the parquet. Sometimes his master fumbles for a poop bag or wants to check his e-mail. This---in the dog's eyes---is positively criminal. He will stare and grumble in canine code as clear as a telegram: "Quit fucking around-stop. Let's go now-stop. Please stop-stop."

But his master rarely delays: they have both been waiting for this moment. After ten hours of childherding, these are the first moments of silence either of them get. Outside, there's just the sound of jangling tags, falling snow striking fallen snow. The dog pulls with the strength of a workhorse until they reach the empty park. His master reaches down to his collar, thumbs at the leash clip and just like that: freedom. He darts out into the darkness and sprints three times around the park in search of pheasant, or (at the very least) squirrel.

By the end of the third circuit, his master is in the middle of the park, holding up whatever it is he'll throw, and the dog snaps to the posture of his breeding: one front paw firmly planted, the other limp at the elbow, his ears slightly lifted and his nose tense and pointed at the projectile.

In these days of lost daylight, the dog never sees where it lands. Instead he sprints in a widening circle, nose to the ground, tracking the scent, another ancient instinct of his breed. He draws dozens of pawprint circles in the fresh snow, a canine spirograph. It's not the discovery, but the search he loves. Even if it's a stick his master just picked up and touched for only a few seconds, the dog will always find his smell, whatever residue that is we leave on everything we touch, and trot back with the prize in his jaws.

Is there a word in English for the kind of love you have for a good dog, one who lets your daughter ride him around the house, one who lets your infant son pull on his lips with no more than a sorrowful gaze your way? There ought to be. When he's out there circling, I feel as free as he does. I am overcome with this kind of love. I have never known a creature with loyalty so raw and true.

Then a distant light reflects off his eyes. For a second he's an elegant, sprinting demon. What is this creature, really? What can he see in that spectral range? What is it like to live in his head, crowded with subjugation and smells? I run him until he tires, flopping down next to me happily in the snow, his wagging tail knocking up clouds of powder. I do know this: he loves to be with his family. But he also needs time to be free.