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Navel-Gazing

He droned on, completely—and what was worse, unconsciously—absorbed in himself, and suddenly I realised what hell it meant, not only to be a killer, but a bore. You think nothing of taking a life; but your own existence fascinates you, and that’s the imbalance that we mean by evil…this neat, dull man crouched in a sort of mass over his own hands, that freaked me.

The Devil’s Home on Leave
by Derek Raymond

Skipper

I assume the nightmares preceded the fascination but they pretty much wallow entangled in my mind’s primordial mud. Nemesis as an anthropomorphised blue wolf—metallic, Cookie-Monster-under-spotlights blue, and originally torn from god knows where. I tried to bluff out my own imagination. For whatever reason, the dreams never immediately repeated in a row, so before sleep I’d lie there chanting a monologue convincing myself how terrifying yesterday’s invented nightmare was, how relieved I felt knowing the blue wolf couldn’t possibly return so soon. He disappeared with age and as inexplicably as he arrived, but such a haunting was bound to leave an impression.

Wolves became Awake Me’s earliest remembered interest. The blue wolf served as an inoculation against the less psychedelic, conventional lupine evil. There were a host of picture books in the “My First Cub”-type model. Fenris, Loki’s son and destined Odin eater. White Fang of course, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Gmork from The Neverending Story. I wore out my grandma’s home-recorded Ladyhawke VHS watching it again and again. I still have the first poster I ever bought, a National Geographic blow-up of a wolven stare through timbered shadows. It hung above my bed during the height of the blue wolf’s reign. Zoo visits and their lesser dingos and hyenas disappointed; dogs, at least certain types, were a much better approximation, the closest I could get.

Barring some traumatic accident (which with hindsight was probably more present in possibility than presumed at the time), my upbringing made fearing dogs impossible. Single motherhood meant hours with Omi, Ladyhawke supplier and technically grandmother by marriage. I’m in photos, long before personal memory found its ratchet, curled up close on a blanket against her Rough Collie Oberon. As a duo they were obedience champions and tracking and search and rescue volunteers. During extended holiday stays we’d wake up at 4AM, racing the dawn to the bushland or nature reserve chosen for the morning’s training. The team huddled around thermoses while I dawdled along on a trail-laying, dew-soaked hike. And then I’d sit in a thicket cluster or the crook of a tree, the lost victim, waiting for Oberon’s familiar mane to find me, or one of the exclusively German Shepherds that made up the rest of the volunteer squad. Cool, very cool…but not enough to satiate an only child’s possessiveness. The time spent in environments like that and amidst Omi’s social circles sharpened the hunger. I desperately wanted a dog of my own.

Mum deflected my nagging for years; a farm girl, she thought it cruel to keep the kinds of dogs I asked for trapped in backyard suburbia. I must’ve barely turned 13 when a colleague mentioned a Working Kelpie breeding friend with a new litter and an unsellable puppy. There are a bunch of recessive genes floating around in the breed’s backstory. Working Kelpies are expensive tools. No farmer is willing to wager thousands on a dog suggesting the temperament and instinct balances tailored over generations could be awry. A prominent white smudge across the snout, vulnerable to UV, and stupidly oversized paws, are sometimes all it takes.

I made the usual promises about walks and grooming and food and training, sensing an opening, ruthlessly exploiting Mum’s intimate knowledge of what usually happens to useless animals when dependence—genuine indispensability—does not afford the privilege of indulging much eccentricity or idiosyncrasy. Swayed. At last.

Skipper’s namesake(s) were the otter leaders from Brian Jacques’s Redwall series. In Australia though, that goddamn kangaroo…thankfully, he seemed to grow into it, literalising it by adopting a strut that went well with the lazy, teasing head cant keeping a clutched frisbee out of reach.

High school started in earnest, distractions and excuses metastasised. A few minutes play was always a comfort but walks were increasingly shrugged off and Mum had to pick up my slack. Eventually, inevitably, reliably as he continued to reward my unreliable attention, Skipper made it clear he had become much more her dog. I hope I took a lesson from that. Any initial jealousy was cut by a grudging admission of mutual benefit.

The hedge and brick corridor running down the side of our house ends at a weathered wooden gate with a busted latch. Its once sliver of ground clearance warped into a decent five centimetre gap. You’d round the white letterbox into the driveway, in car or on foot, and spy the white snout smudge, a single eye, wedged between splinters and cement. Without fail. From the raised living room window Skipper looked like he’d collapsed, splayed out on his side, spine twisted 90 degrees to accomplish the awkward doorstopper hello—a contortion of welcomed welcome.

His twitchy-eared litheness lent him an intensity that made some strangers wary, a focus bred to be unshakeable. His bearing had purpose. Kelpies were supposed to be able to run through near-desert forever, careen along the backs of penned ranks of sheep, stare down big dumb plodding beef outweighing them twenty to one, with minimal supervision necessary. Impossible to tire, in other words; a contented pant was the best you could hope for, pleasure smoothing over alertness’s harsher edges with each chug.

The standard walk followed along a trickle charitably upgraded to “creek”. On days when I was smart enough I’d tag along. At a fork in the track, remnants of a superannuated drain system threw up one rectangular concrete block like a bench. Mum paused there often enough for Skipper to learn a leap and conditioned expectation for attention. No idyll: overpass pillars jutting skyward in one direction, scrappy weed and scrub in the other, a low motor rumble the freeway noise barriers couldn’t quite cover. The pair of them, however, at rest on that ugly geometry, under morning sun: Mum’s never, ever had it easy, and that image lingers. Hints of a rare peace.

I guess she knew what she was agreeing to with the initial surrender, the loaned time all pet owners haggle over to some degree or another. Me, finding a way to juke around the most onerous of obligations, didn’t exactly shatter established patterns. But listening to Mum recount Skipper’s sudden death over a fragile Skype call was awful. How he was off his food on Monday evening. How things hadn’t improved the next morning. How she left him at the vet for tests, spry enough to walk in unaided. The phone ringing an hour later, the report of massive seizures, the blessing and the curse of the choice to end suffering. The frustration of no answers. Poison? Sepsis? How she brought him home, wrapped in a blanket, and buried him, by herself, near the stump of an old lemon tree in the corner of the backyard. That wasn’t a part of the contract, to carry that alone.

The wolf thing perhaps, or the formative exemplars of my childhood. Too many Werner Herzog movies taken too closely to heart. A tiny part of my brain bristles when it catches the rest reaching for the crutch of ascribing behaviour to a dog’s “personality”. Character, sure, it lets that pass no problem. It takes over entirely, nauseated, at stories on the latest luxury pet trend. Those five-star canine hotels, the jewelled collars, the wills bequeathing fortunes to surviving companions, the insidious advertisements for gourmet, chef-designed, Because They’re Worth It mass-manufactured food—they share a wellspring with practices as obscene as fighting pits. Saddling animals with the worst of our human shit.

I’d challenge anyone to find a more devoted dog owner than my grandma, but definitely dog owner. She never thought to grind them down into child surrogates. The “dog” part is the whole point. The profundity of so powerful a connection with a consciousness even more unfathomable than usual…isn’t that special enough? The same creature you have to stop from taste-testing its own vomit can make you shrink in shame from your pettiness, laugh like a maniac with a look, tear up, thousands of miles away, when you hear it’s gone. We’re lucky to gather the surface gleanings from their world that we do. And if there’s nothing more beneath than alien perceptions and runnels of instinct the connection’s only stranger, more beguiling. A ridiculous mystery that’s gotten me struggling—failing—to trace back why it might have meant this much to me. Eulogising a dog.

A dog. Just a dog. A great one.