Dog Star Winter
LLyn De Danaan
This story has been around for years, since the time I took a winter long sabbatical to work and write in New Mexico. It truly was a transitional period in my life.
It has never been published, thus never available for wide distribution. Now, thanks to e-publishing, it is.
LLyn De Danaan
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
OYSTER BAY LITERARY SOCIETY
Dog Star Winter
January 15…The dogs are here. The landlord warned that they might come around. They were waiting at the door when I arrived. I call them Duke and Anna. Duke for Dukkha, suffering, and Anna for Anatta, without self or soul. These are two of the three conditions of all beings according to the Buddha. They sit, conditions and dogs, wagging tails, at my threshold.
I have not met the third condition, Anicca, or impermanence. I am certain that she is around. The crumbling adobe of the old Chimayó plaza attests to her regular visits and abiding presence.
January 18…Duke is dark, grizzled, and cowering. She grins hideously and wheezes uncomfortably when she walks. Maybe it’s the altitude. Maybe it’s the burden of a long life. I’m accustomed to a polished and sprightly Springer Spaniel, my long time pet at home. I draw away from this other boney creature. Anna, her pup, is mottled brown and rust, like the surrounding hills. There are patches of hair missing from her body. She is smaller and slightly less servile than Duke.
January 19…I don’t want to touch either of them. I pull back into myself as they pass. I think mean thoughts about them. I fear they will bite or give me a disease. But I notice that they stay around my door and bark at the approach of other dogs. In my solitude, I begin to appreciate them and tonight even miss them. I suppose I have named them for the conditions of life I want to acknowledge and understand. Or need to understand. The dogs are four-footed metaphors. Lots of metaphors are. I won’t shrink away from them anymore. In fact, I’m glad they are here.
January 20…At the store today, I bought the dogs a large bag of food. I even sprang for a small bag of biscuits. What the hell. Anna arrived as soon as I got home. I ripped open the bag I’d brought home and poured some kibble in a cracked crockery dish. Anna ate all I put out. Though it wasn’t in a proper dog bowl, she didn’t seem to mind. I thanked her for being around.
January 24…Because this is an initiatory period in my life I am aware that these dogs are more than dogs. I’ve known coyotes are not just coyotes for a long time. This is not a new thought. There are messages everywhere. The trick is learning to read them.
January 28...Okay. I’m an anthropologist. I should be able to figure this out. The Siberian shaman ascends to heaven to recapture the soul of anyone whose essence has been carried away by spirits of the north. Mircea Eliade, a historian of mythologies and world religious traditions, recounts that one of many hazards the shaman must overcome is dogs. The dogs will not let the shaman pass until they are appeased by gifts. Do my biscuits and handfuls of cheap kibble count? My dog at home eats lamb and rice laced with avocado meal. I saw nothing quite so exotic at the supermarket in Española. Should I make a trip to Santa Fe? If I don’t find something more appealing to them, am I stuck somewhere between heaven and hell forever? They seem to like my offerings fine. But, better to be generous. This is my soul we are talking about.
February 3... Huïchol yarn paintings depict the roads to heaven and hell. Early on the way, one meets the dogs one has kicked or otherwise mistreated. The dogs have a chance to get back at you along your pilgrim’s way. I hope I’ve been kind and just to dogs and vow to treat Duke and Anna as my special guests. I am thinking of them in a different way now. They have become almost beautiful. They like the peanut butter cookies I found in Santa Fe.
February 13…Dogs among the Yakut people can act as familiar spirit helpers. They are not as powerful as bulls or colts or eagles or elk or bears, but they can be special, particularly if they are steel-colored hunting dogs with white spots upon their bodies. The Yukaghir describe journeys in which the shaman arrives at a little house where a dog stands barking. The dog alerts an old woman who guards the road and poses questions to the traveler. These questions must be ignored if one is to proceed. Dogs likewise guard the Koryak entrance to the underworld.
The Eskimo dog stands at the bottom of the sea with bared teeth and defends the entrance to the abode of the mother of sea beasts. This dog, however, is only dangerous to those who fear it. I no longer fear Duke and Anna. I feel happy and peaceful when I am around them, and so far they have not called forth any demons. No old woman has appeared with questions. Unless, of course, I am the old woman with questions. This seems likely.
February 14…Anicca (impermance, remember?) arrived this morning. It is twenty-nine degrees farenheit at seven -thirty. The sun is just visible above the mountains to the east. Yesterday, before sunrise, Venus was bright in a dark sky within the constellation of Sagittarius. But this morning there was a heavy cloud cover. Anicca was moving about by the grey adobe across the arroyo. I was looking for Duke and Anna, but didn’t see them. A little white pickup and a dark sedan drove out towards Española a few minutes ago. Anicca came from behind the moving sedan and headed over this way. She slid under a well-worn rut at the base of the locked gate that contains my car, my house and me.
“Nothing,” she told me as she chewed the nuggets of food I’d put out for Duke and Anna’s morning meal, “nothing that takes form can endure for eternity.” She licked her lips broadly. She sniffed the ground to see if there was more kibble. “Sooner or later,” she continued, “all will be worn away, broken, destroyed, or eaten. Preferably, the latter.” I seem to remember Gary Snyder hoping for something like that. I was listening. She sat back on her haunches and stared at me until I got a couple of organic biscuits from the bag in the kitchen. “’Everything is in flux. Only in the mind’s eye do we conceive of things as still or stationary.” As she spoke, I thought about Venus. I saw it in its quarter phase through my telescope when I first arrived. I thought about how much the shadow on its surface has moved since. To the naked, casual eye, it seems the same. One has to look closely, pay attention, to see the change. The radio is on now. I can barely hear it from my perch on the doorstep. It’s in a back bedroom. The news: more rain and mudslides in California and a series of storms lined are up over the Pacific Ocean. I can smell logs of piñon burning in my kiva fireplace. They blazed up easily this morning over the ashes of last night’s fire. As I write this, I notice that the skin of my arms is dried and wrinkling and my hair is growing over my eyes after just a few weeks of living here.
February 14…. Afternoon. Anicca is still here. I am not attracted to Anicca but I believe that I understand what she has to tell me. Impermanence. I hope that Duke and Anna haven’t been consumed in the night. I’ve not seen them today.
… Anicca is leaving. I watch her as she treads lightly across a field of brown grasses and cholla. She moves towards the west and does not look back.
February 17…Shamanism, ritual, and ceremony: these are our very human responses to impermanence. We have found ways to note the passing of a thing. We have found ways to celebrate a leave taking and to release our profound sorrows. We provide for transitions and transformations. We have designed structures, events, poems, songs, and costumes that acknowledge death, growth, puberty, old age, illness, and menopause (to name just a few). We mark the cycle of the seasons and the movement of the sun, moon, planets and stars. We attempt to predict what may come, and hope, even, for some control through our efforts. In ceremony we try to relieve suffering (Dukkha) though we know it is always with us. In our cultural responses to death and crop failure and mudslides we find a place through art or religion or science that is beyond self and ego (Anatta).
February 18…After an absence of four days, Duke and Anna were back this afternoon. They stayed close and watched me make a sundial of pebbles and sticks in the side yard. I was happy to be with them again. I rewarded them with an extra helping of kibble and made myself a salad to eat with them. We huddled close together and watched the sunset. After a while we could see Canis Major and Minor. Sirius, the Dog Star, and the brightest star in the heavens guided us to these constellations. We talked a long time about Anicca. They decided that I’d probably given her all the attention she needed.