by Mark Doty
Wet grass, headlights streaking morning fog,
and three deer sudden in my friends’ driveway:
lithe buck leaping in seconds
onto the stone embankment, flash of doe following,
then the slim-hipped adolescent, mossy antlers
sprouting...So much hurrying life in them,
glancing off the human world,
like the herons I used to watch in the country,
the morning’s steel-feathered news
poised on the single lip of rock
cresting the river, upright, each a yard
of oystery shantung, fog-toned, lyrical
and awkward at once. In air they were fire,
that easy, over the railroad shacks where dawn
broke the pearl veil of acres and acres
of fog. Then they were gone for days, and gone
all winter. From those steep-raked hills
so many bells rang, and nights when it snowed
it was as if the tolling were hung
in the air over town, the chiming
actually vibrating through each snowflake
until the bells would reverberate
against the granite hillside
and the frozen surface of the river
whose banks had grown together, all November,
as ice moved up from the cataract,
through which the bells rang also,
ice doubling them again.
The colder the night the more perfectly the air
itself seemed to ring, the whole storm
swirling around us. My dog would stand
caught in that sound, absolutely still,
while the ringing passed through his solid
year-old body and he would look up,
head cocked slightly, as if for an explanation.
That winter, just to feel I owned something,
I drove once a week to our cabin in the woods.
Something chimed from the thickets one January morning
like a bird continuing the hammer of its call
over and over without stirring from its branch,
and I followed the sound until I could see
from the road—I don’t want to tell this—
what looked like a nest, a cluster of necks moving back
and forth above the snow.
And I crouched into the brush
and saw what called: four paws thrust up
from a hole the heat of a body had melted;
it must have been lying there all night,
running on its back. The hole was wider,
close to the soil, and the animal’s face
was hidden by snow. I thought, It’s a fox,
don’t touch it, I thought, touch it. At first
I covered its face, as if that would help it die,
but I couldn’t do it, I scraped the snow away,
all of it, from its face: someone’s
fox-colored house dog, a dustcloth of a dog.
And feeling half-foolish and half entirely real
I said You can go if you want to,
it’s all right if you want to go.
The dog never even looked at me, the dog
kept running almost mechanically, on its back
in the stained nest, all four paws moving
in that pointless version of flight, nodding
its head from side to side and making the little
choked sound, at exactly the same interval.
That was what it could do. I didn’t know
it had been shot in the head, as country people
will do, when an animal has outlived its usefulness;
the man or boy with the rifle hadn’t cared
to make sure it was dead. It wasn’t dead.
It wanted even a life reduced to this
twitching repetition, no matter how diminished,
how brutal, how wrong. Something which was
and was not the dog wanted to continue,
something entirely dependent upon that body
which was already beginning to be rimed
with ice. Something cleaves to form
until the last minute, past it,
and though the vet’s needle was an act
of mercy, the life needed to continue,
the life was larger than cruelty,
the life denied the obliterating gesture
where only kindness had been expected.
Even with one eye shot away and the brain spasming
the life takes it in and says more,
just as it takes in the quick jab of the needle
and the flooding darkness. The life doesn’t care.
The life only wants, the fugitive life.
Last updated December 21, 2022