Another Dog’s Death


by Joshua Bodwell

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are stronger at the broken places.”

—Ernest Hemingway

There is a field behind my parent’s home. Beyond the field there is a wide stone wall, and beyond the wall are young, damp woods. In the field, there are several leafy clumps of trees. At the bottoms of the trees, under a carpet of pine needles, moss, and leaves, are mounds of small rocks that were piled there a hundred years ago when farmers cleared the fields for planting.

Beneath one of these clumps of trees are the graves of two faithful dogs. I dug both.

I have lived a life blessed with mutts, a life tinged by the bittersweet reality that we tend to outlive our animals. I will never know what became of my first dog, Salty, a sweet black-and-white border-collie mix. She simply never came home one autumn weekend.

I wish that I could say I know nothing of how Babe died, our big shepherd mix with coarse rusty-brown fur and sweet eyes—but it was me who found her in the backyard, strangled by her own dog-run, and it was me who wept and shook as my grandmother crushed me in a tight hug against her bosom.

When Junior, the reddish-brown puppy we’d kept from Babe’s litter of seven, succumbed to old age and a strange blood disease, I was a junior in high school. My father took Junior to the veterinary clinic for a checkup and I never saw him again. I have always regretted that I did not collect my dog and bury him with my own hands.

I was 22-years-old the first time I buried a dog—it was the most difficult, and yet the most appropriate, thing I had ever done. It felt like growing up.

Bud was a Labrador with a dash of rottweiler. He had been in my life for only a couple years when the tumor in his belly quietly took him one night. I buried him in my parents’ field and covered over his grave with sun-bleached rocks I pilfered from the stone wall. A year and a half before Bud died, I had adopted another dog, Wemedge, while living for a short time in New Mexico.

Wem’s name was a little-known nickname given to a young Ernest Hemingway; it was a funny contradiction: a sweet, dainty dog named after a big, macho man. A beagle-shepherd mix, Wemedge was the smartest, gentlest dog I have known. She was a fiend for tennis balls, loved the ocean and shadowing my father in his kitchen. She used to take Bud’s leash in her mouth and pull him along on our evening walks. When my daughter was born, Wem slept at the foot of her crib and whimpered at the slightest sign of trouble.

By September, the cancer coursing through Wemedge had left her weakened; several times a day, I carried her in and out of the house. Her thin frame was rattled by labored breaths, and when she finally succumbed, it was just a few weeks before her twelfth birthday.

Two days before Wem died, I drove to my parents’ house, filled a wheelbarrow with a shovel, a metal rake, and a pick-ax, and rolled it out into the field where I began digging a hole beside Bud’s grave.

My father came out to weigh in on the situation and warned me against digging too big a hole. But I wasn’t going to dig a lazy, shallow hole. I wanted a resting place that was deep and wide—if nothing else, the digging, making my hands blister and my muscles burn, felt like a salve for my heartache.

Sweat rolled into my eyes as I swung the pick-ax and broke the hard turf. I hacked at roots and pulled out rocks. When the darkness began to fall, I could barely feel the mosquitoes bite through the layers of dirt and sweat on my arms. I wanted this hole dug.

As I worked the spade, I thought of the old John Updike poem, “Another Dog’s Death,” that my high school English teacher Arnie Amoroso had given me so many years ago when I was struggling to write about Junior’s death. “At last I took a shovel into the woods and dug her grave in preparation for the certain. She came along, which I had not expected,” wrote Updike. The poem continues: “We found a spot we liked, where the pines met the field. The sun warmed her fur as she dozed and I dug; I carved her a safe place while she protected me.”

When the darkness made it impossible to continue, I gave up and went into my parents’ kitchen, where I guzzled water and wiped my eyes. Then I walked back out into the field with a flashlight and a silver tarp to cover the hole in case of rain.

Crickets had begun to sing. As I crossed the field, their wispy song rose up and enveloped me. The night air was pungent with the smell of cut grass and damp earth. Above, stars flickered like tiny lights twisted into the ceiling of black sky. I was in middle of something larger than me.

I laid the flashlight in the grass, dragged the tarp across the hole, and secured it with the rocks I had set aside while digging. I stood and moved the light back and forth between the silver tarp and the mound of dirt beside it. Then I shone the light on the dirt and held it there. I listened to the crickets and the sound of my own breathing.

I knew that filling the hole would be much harder than digging it.

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