Essays

Dogs and the Dead

Here’s a little overachiever story about Halloween in Pennsylvania, raising a daughter alongside two dogs, sewing the perfect costume, carving the perfect pumpkins (that’s right–plural!), and wondering what it all means. It’s from For the Love of a Dog, (Harmony Books, 2001), by Elisabeth Rose (aka. me, Lisa)

3030179834_45aa88f312_oIn late autumn high in the Appalachian Mountains, the leaves rust and redden and brown and yellow and yet cling, while snowflakes float in the air like ash from some distant bonfire. Night falls abruptly, mornings are gray, and at dawn the grass crackles underfoot. By Halloween, the mountains lay hunched and bare. Looking up at them from the bottom of Happy Valley, you can almost see through the trees to the rocks. Thin and frail, the trees rib the mountainsides like fish bones. This is the join between two seasons, between harvest and the long barren months. Rainfall flickers to snow and back. The join is loose.

They used to say that on Halloween night the join between the living and the dead was loose too; there was a tear in the fabric of space-time. On that night fools walking in the dark might follow a will-o’-the-wisp, slip through the tear, and disappear. On that night the souls of the dead wandered among us, witches took the shape of beetles and passed through the keyholes of locked rooms, cows were heard to speak in their barns, bats swooped and ate the souls of the dead like so many gnats. Come autumn in the mountains of Pennsylvania, when the wind blows hot, then chilly, then hot again, when plants that had browned suddenly bloom, you can feel the tear in the fabric howl wide open.

The week before Halloween, when Casey was still only five months old, Delaney, Pip and I drove out to the Mennonite farm where we always get our pumpkins. From the highway we could see that the pumpkin fields had lost their broad leaves, and the great vines had crumbled and left behind the big tilted orange heads, nodding off like an audience dozing before a big-screen sky. The farmhouse was charmingly old with its wrap-around-porch awry, laden with Mennonite handicrafts for sale, and on the back stoop stood a rusted 1950’s Frigidaire bearing the sign, “Take eggs and leave money.” Nearby, as if trained to open the refrigerator and lay their eggs inside, hens roosted and cooed on the stump of an ancient grapevine. High on the gable of the barn hung a Pennsylvania Dutch hex sign, either to ward off evil spirits or to beckon tourists–or maybe both.

8045494616_870dcef490_zIgnoring the hens, Pip dashed about the farmyard, nose to the ground. Delaney and I reached the edge of the pumpkin field where pumpkins had been trucked over, unloaded, and sorted according to size. Several other families were there, running their hands over the orange grooves. Refusing to examine the one his mother preferred, a boy straddled his favorite. A man toppled a pumpkin and peered at its bottom as if discerning its gender. Planning to flank both sides of our front walk with jack-o’-lanterns, Delaney and I chose six noggins, set them in the trunk of our Toyota, called Pip, and drove off, swerving under the new ballast. All the way home, Pip, who usually bounced from front seat to back, calmly twitched his nose on the edge of the open window, eyes closed. At home, looking unusually black and lanky, he serenely drank his water dish dry and then slipped off for a nap. I lined the pumpkins up on the counter, where they stood hugely incongruous, making the kitchen into a barracks for six squash soldiers. We still had to go to the grocery store. Through the bars of her crate, Casey, recovering from her broken shoulder, had her eyes fixed on me. I took her out to the yard to whizz and then locked her back up.As we drove out to the grocery, afternoon slumped toward evening without the sky changing at all, just a pale, blank, steady gray, a sheet thrown over the dead face of the day. An hour later, I fumbled at our front door in the sudden dark, noticing that Pip didn’t greet us by sticking his nose through the mail slot, clacking the brass cover and roo-rooing his high-pitched banshee song the way he usually did. Grocery bag on my hip, snapping on lights as I went, I headed for the kitchen. There, I stopped.

The kitchen was still mobbed by pumpkins, but somehow, oddly less so. One was missing. Delaney counted five, counted again, and began to cry.

A pumpkin was missing, and so was Pip.

Picking Delaney up, I kissed her, gave her a tissue, and said, “Twenty-pound vegetables don’t just waddle away.” Look–a smear on the linoleum–the glistening trail of a giant orange snail. We followed it into the dining room. There, on the rug, was the stem and a wedge of shell. Like an interrupted attempt at black magic divination, seeds lay scattered amid whorls of pumpkin entrails.

“Oh, no!” Delaney cried.

Poor Pippi!

In tottered Pip, belly distended, hanging his head. Slowly, he belched, just loudly enough to make Delaney giggle through her tears, and then he broke wind, so loudly that he spun around to examine his own rear end. As if from the maw of an outhouse or from the syrupy innards of a great vegetable corpse, an odor rose up and haunted the room. Pip slunk away.

 

*     *     *

 

Long ago, in Salerno, Italy, families spent Halloween day preparing banquets. They set out the food, then left it steaming unattended while they went off to church. They believed that while they were out, the souls of their dead were dining. When they returned, the food in fact was gone–eaten, they believed, by ghosts.

Of course, it was the doing of the town dogs. But either sneaking dogs or dining dead, I thought, marveling at the size of the remaining pumpkins, it’s mystifying. Pip had eaten a vegetable half his weight.

My pattern: Pip's head.

The model.

Coincidentally, this was the year Delaney wanted to be a border collie for Halloween, and it did make some spooky sense to dress her as the family scavenger, especially in light of the dogs of Salerno. That fall I’d designed and sewn an oversized costume out of fake fur, thick as a parka, with furry white spats, white fur mittens, and a white fur ruff. Using Pip’s head as a pattern, I’d made a black fur hood with two drop ears and a white fur blaze on the brow. Should the night be colder than forty degrees, there was plenty of room in the outfit for more insulation, which I figured we’d need since the previous Halloween we’d had sleet.

The morning of October thirtieth, the day before Halloween, a warm, heavy rain fell. I woke to summer weather in a late fall landscape, the trees stripped of leaves, the lawns brown and puddled. So plentiful were the fallen leaves and so very wet that when the rain stopped no one raked them. Water and rotting leaves slithered along the gutters, rain spouts clogged and overflowed, scarecrows sagged, ghosts hung in trees like forgotten laundry with their Magic-Markered faces smeared, and ducks appeared where ducks had never been before and paddled across back yards. Bees, flies, and mosquitoes, risen from the dead, circled rooms where the window screens had already been removed for winter.

And so it was that on Mischief Night, which the town officials had cleverly replaced with a Halloween parade, Delaney stood in our living room, sweating under black-and-white fur and face paint. The face paint turned out well. I’d blackened her brow, cheeks and nose tip, and dabbed a white blaze that met with the fur blaze on the hood. I whitened the area around her mouth and her lips as well, then drew a cartoonish doggy mouth, complete with freckles and a lolling pink tongue down one side of her chin. Except for the tongue and the fact that my daughter’s muzzle is pretty short compared to Pip’s, she looked uncannily like a border collie standing on hind legs. The tongue violated the verisimilitude enough that I almost erased it, but when Joe first laid eyes on her, he burst out laughing and declared the tongue hilarious.

My daughter the Border Collie.

My daughter the Border Collie.

However, as Delaney and I headed out to the parade, Joe stopped me at the door. “I know you’ve worked hard on this,” he said tactfully, “but people might not know what she is.”

It was true. In fact, even people who knew border collies didn’t always know what smooth-coated Pip was. Even if you already knew what a border collie was you might puzzle over Delaney’s costume; with the white bib you might think she was a cat or a panda. “Oh, I’ll just bring Pip–that’ll clue people in,” I said, and put on my rain coat, stuck my camera and a couple of compact umbrellas in my pockets, handed Delaney the plastic, glow-in-the-dark, trick-or-treat pumpkin that I was going to end up carrying, and took up Pip’s leash. Joe and the wild animal with her broken shoulder stayed home.

When the parade stepped off, the cadence of the high school band rapped against the stone store fronts, rumbled under the street lights, and thumped through the throng of soft bodies, a river of sound under the wide, warm night. Time slowed; hands and faces floated. Spectators made a long wall of grinning faces, all of them, it seemed, straining to see Delaney and her dog. Over and over we heard, “Look! Two dogs!” followed by laughter. People stooped and said to my daughter, “Which is the real dog?” and my daughter’s blackened face beamed behind its white stripe. People shouted and pointed to make sure their friends didn’t miss the sight of a little child dressed exactly like her dog. Some looked me right in the eye and said, “It’s wonderful” or “I love the tongue.” I passed friends, neighbors and colleagues who laughed and congratulated me with a heartfelt “Wow.” Looking down at the two, I realized the effect could never be so perfect again–this fall they happened to be the same size, both forty pounds. Delaney carried her plastic trick-or-treat pumpkin and people dropped candy into it. “Thank you,” she said, and people laughed all the harder, surprised to hear her speak, because really, she looked quite a bit like a dog.

The crowd gathers for the State College Halloween parade.

The crowd gathers for the State College Halloween parade.

Pip was there to prove it. Person after person looked at him, guffawed at the walking punch line, then reached to pet him. Having noticed that people had brought bags and bowls of candy to toss to the marching children, Pip darted from one to another, his nose a missile guided at their hands. Some people recoiled, but most grinned to have been touched by one of such a uncanny pair. To some, Pip quite simply was another child. “Well, hello, there,” people said to him as if he wore a particularly ingenious costume, “how are you?” As soon as they’d noticed his nudge it was over, and for some it was over too soon–they whistled to call him back and slapped their knees, they strained to glance his side with their fingertips and settled for a swipe of his tail, as if he were something rare for Central Pennsylvania, a leopard, a swami, a real-life leprechaun, as if touching him might cleanse their conscience, improve their karma, add positive ions to the chemistry of their souls.

Like the dogs of Salerno who gobbled up banquets left for the dead, Pip had fooled his town. People weren’t simply mistaking his thieving nudge for friendliness the way strangers mistake a baby’s gassy grimace for a smile. They were spellbound, bewitched by the little dog-child and her twin who presumptuously “shook hands” like a campaigning politician. Neither creature was what it seemed; the two merged in the eye-duping commotion of white and black, loosened the join between animal and human, created the electrifying possibility that at any moment one of the passing gorillas or zombies or space aliens or trolls might be the real thing.

 

*     *     *

 

On the next night, Halloween proper, I spent a couple hours stabbing pumpkins, then set out my five intricately carved jack-o’-lanterns in a row to light my front walk.

Within the hour, all five disappeared, most likely stolen by college students, or perhaps turned to a convoy of magic carriages–or eaten by a passing dog.

Smarting, I dressed my daughter in her deep plush dog costume, painted her face again, and took her and Pip into the warm drizzle for trick-or-treat. Clever, store-bought, pumpkin-faced paper lanterns lined front walks, defied the rain, and, I couldn’t help but notice, did not get stolen. Styrofoam ghosts swayed under the bare limbs of dogwood and Japanese cherry trees. Slouching under umbrellas, shadowy troupes of parents and children scurried across the street, a cape or two trailing behind. The bell of Old Main rang the hour, echoing like sorrow against the wet stone faces of the houses, echoing like the clang of medieval bell ringers who long ago wandered the streets on Halloween, warning that the spirits of the dead approached.

8139905958_ec07069d61_oThe trick-or-treaters seemed to feel that the parade was the real holiday, this rain-soaked event but a miserable afterthought. Trudging across front porches, children muttered their three-word line and declined invitations to take more than one piece of candy. A surprising number of houses were closed up dark with a large bowl or basket of treats left out as if to appease something too fearsome to face. With their slippery thick layer of unraked leaves, the sidewalks were treacherous, but the neighborhood streets, free from cars as if by unspoken community agreement, had been washed clean. People walked down the middle of the streets and crossed without looking, the way they do after a disaster–a blizzard, a bombing, a tornado–has made roads impassable by car. In the gaps between the slate roofs and elms, summer bats crisscrossed. On front stoops, the faces of jack-o’-lanterns leered in their slow rot.

With a lanky black dog at my side, the desolate night seemed a most convincing Halloween, much like the original ones, during which people, in fear that the waning sun might snuff out altogether, built bonfires to boost it. I could almost imagine these might be the last warm breezes we’d ever feel, this the last sweet rain. The final harvest was over, decay had set in; and now, in our last hours, in darkness and mourning, we faced a never-ending night of want and isolation, of fits and agues, of cantankerous ghouls who threw shoes and ashes, of yellow-faced goblins gawking through our window panes, of witches with their packets of blood, bones and hairs, their naked bodies greased and blackened with flying oils made from the fat of little children. Our only protection was to light candles in carved pumpkins, leave sweets to appease angry phantoms, nail horseshoes above our doors, cook meals backwards, and throw salt into fires. Pausing here, crossing there, wandering back, the bewildered people on the streets might just have to hurry out to pour milk over graves to feed the dead.

Or, they could disguise themselves. They could dress as a dog. They could walk with a dog. Centuries ago, afraid of the evil spirits All Hallow’s Eve unleashed, villagers sent decoys out, dressed as demons, to parade them to the town limits, and wore disguises themselves in the hopes of being mistaken for a demon and spared as one of them. Having dressed and painted my own daughter to look like Pip, to be him, I was akin to the black animal that trotted along, head slung low, long white teeth gleaming from gleaming gums, a familiar of the dead. The animal that shared my bed moved comfortably through the gloom, bony shoulders rolling, lean as a mummy, blacker than a shadow on a moonless night. He would trot the same way whether on suburban sidewalks or on the Sahara, where other toothy, skeletal canines tear at rats. In his flickering silhouette I saw a creature made to thrill over the offal on the outskirts of Istanbul, to swill in the gutters of Cairo, plunge his head into a wild boar’s rotted gut on the bank of a Siberian lake. No leash was necessary; Pip would stay beside me; in the fabric of space-time we were woven across Asian plains, across the tundra and the Great Lakes, the Alps and the African deserts–across the twelve thousand years since the day when, in the land we now know as Israel, a woman was buried with her hand resting on the body of her dog.

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  1. Reblogged this on I just have to say… and commented:

    Here’s a little overachiever story about Halloween in Pennsylvania, raising a daughter alongside two dogs, sewing the perfect costume, carving the perfect pumpkins (that’s right–plural!), and wondering what it all means. It’s from For the Love of a Dog, (Harmony Books, 2001), by Elisabeth Rose (aka Lisa Lanser Rose)

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