On the Scent of Life
In the distance he saw it; the figure of a woman, emerging from a stand of pin oak and palmetto. He had to squint to make sure he was seeing right. Sometimes at dusk, when daylight mixes with the onset of early evening’s darkness, things get murky; one’s eyes can play tricks on one.
But the figure was real and young; willowy, dressed in a black T-Shirt and short black skirt. Her pale face framed by dark hair pulled tightly behind her head in a pony tail. Ahead of her trotted an unleashed scruffy brown and white dog.
Barefooted, she navigated the sandy soil filled with crab grass, prickly weeds and mounds that teemed with armies of fire ants with no problem.
The young woman moved slowly to where he stood in the middle of an overgrown vacant lot next to the motel where he’d been staying; a perfect place for walking one’s dog.
“Stay, Vida,” he commanded the large Belgian shepherd that sat by his side.
The woman’s small dog confidently strolled up to the big shepherd, stopping right before her. The well-trained Vida sat unmoving, calmly surveying his visitor.
“Easy, Clancy,” the woman spoke to her dog, a small poodle-mix.
The man laughed. “I’m Tom and this is my dog, Vida,” he spoke to her. “No worries for Clancy. Vida is a Cadaster, or Cadaver Dog; he only means business when he’s on the scent of death,” he explained before stopping abruptly. He’d learned that this information sometimes unnerved strangers. “Let’s just say he’s a well-trained dog that helps locate the deceased after a disaster has occurred.”
The woman gave him a curious look. “Vida?” she said. “In Spanish that means life. Odd choice for a dog obsessed with death?”
“Yes,” Tom said, nodding. “I’ve heard that before. I like to think we give people closure so they can go on living their lives knowing the truth about a loved one, and maybe bring some closure to the departed, if you believe that kind of thing.”
“It sounds like you’re trying to convince yourself,” the girl said.
Her statement gave him pause. She wasn’t wrong. Lately his relationship with his wife and children had been a bit strained.
He spoke to the woman. “Perhaps you’re on to something. Lately I’ve been accused of caring more about my dog, and my work, than the humans in my life.” He paused. He’d never shared these thoughts with anyone. “But it’s just that we’ve become so bonded. Our work together gives me purpose. We know what to expect from each other. Sometimes I feel closer to her than any other living thing.”
The woman listened intently and nodded. “I understand,” she said. “Take Clancy here. His owner died just the other day. I was here for the wake today and funeral services tomorrow and to watch after him.”
Tom said nothing. His eyes met those of the small dog before him. They shimmered from the glow of a nearby street lamp that had just come on.
“His owner thought of Clancy as the child she never had. Her life revolved him in a way most couldn’t understand, even her own family. In some ways it drove a wedge between them all which seems so sad now.”
“What will happen to Clancy?” he found himself asking. “He looks like an excellent companion.”
“He is,” she said. “I don’t know. I can’t keep him so I’ll have to take him to the shelter I suppose. No one in the family wants him and I’m going away. I hope he finds the right home, someone to love him just like his former owner had.”
She squatted to kiss Clancy on his head as if to console him. “Well, it’s late and it’ll be a long day tomorrow,” she said before heading toward the woods from which she’d come, Clancy following close behind as if scared he’d lose her trail.
Tom had felt a peculiar coolness as the woman had stood before him, which was odd given the extreme heat of the day. But as she’d departed, the full weight of the lingering heat and humidity descended on him.
He stood in the darkness unmoving, deep in thought. Lately he’d spent a great deal of time trying to convince himself that all was right in his life. But increasingly, he just couldn’t. The long days he spent out on the road running from disaster to disaster found him almost constantly in the wake of earthquakes, tornados and hurricanes. The routine had taken its toll on his family, and him. He recalled too many hot summer days spent searching for human bodies and bones with Vida by his side while most of the world was at the beach searching for shells and sand dollars and throwing balls for their fun-loving dogs to fetch.
His life was shifting; shutting down. Numbness was moving in.
It occurred to him that his family had been asking for a dog; one just like Clancy actually. But he’d argued that they already had a dog. “No,” his young son had said. “We want a dog that digs for normal kinds of bones and doesn’t work all the time.”
Tom sighed and realized he’d not gotten the young woman’s name and had no idea of where she was staying. “Come, Vida,” he spoke to his dog in the dark. “I’m exhausted, time to hit the sack.”
In the motel coffee shop the next morning Tom lingered over the local newspaper. On the floor next to him Vida sat wearing her working vest. He placed a steaming hot mug of coffee down on the counter and perused the “Local” section. His eyes were immediately drawn to the photo of a young woman. He knew that face. It was her. The woman he’d met last night in the field with Clancy.
Tom read the story of how this girl had been a victim of a car accident which had occurred just three days ago not far from this motel. She’d been visiting family when her car had gone off the road. She’d died before she even got to the hospital. Her funeral would be held today. He read the entire article three times and the accompanying obituary. There was no mention of Clancy.
He stood up so quickly his mugged tipped over. Brown liquid spilled and splashed all over the paper and the photo of the woman. He apologized distractedly and threw a few singles on the counter. He looked down at Vida. His dog’s attention was focused on something just outside the shop’s window. It was Clancy sitting right outside the coffee shop’s door.
“There’s that stray again,” a waitress said to a man behind the counter. “Poor thing was probably dumped by its owner. Happens a lot around here.”
Tom nodded a rebuttal. “No. I met the dog’s owner last night,” he said, not believing his own words.
“Well, if you see them again you better tell them the manager is gonna’ call the pound and have it taken away soon,” she said. “I know we’re a dog-friendly establishment, but we have our limits.”
Tom walked Vida out the door into the blasting heat of another hot day. Clancy’s tail wagged and swished across the warm concrete in happy recognition.
“Clancy?” Tom called. The fluffy dog slowly stood and walked to him. Vida licked at Clancy’s ears.
Tom’s legs went out from under him. He collapsed to the ground. Curbside, he sat flanked by both dogs. “Clancy,” he spoke to the dog. “I think I know a family that would love to have you.”
He felt a stream of hot tears roll down his face. Vida licked them off before they rolled off his chin.
The manager of the coffee shop came out to see Tom. “Is that dog bothering you? He’s been hanging around here for the past few days,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to call animal control, but I’ve been hoping his owner claims him. I seem to recall a young girl who checked in with him a few days ago. I don’t think she would abandon him. She told me that she was so happy that she’d found a dog-friendly motel.”
Tom listened to him as he focused his gaze on Clancy.
The man prattled on. “I seem to remember that she said she was visiting family and her dog wasn’t welcome in their house due to allergies and what not. This is the first time that dog has let anyone near him.”
Tom recalled the young woman’s words. It drove a wedge between them all which seems so sad now. She’d been talking about her own life.
Tom put on his sunglasses and looked up at the man. “A call to animal control won’t be necessary,” he told the manager. “As a matter of fact, I was just telling Clancy here that his owner has been very concerned about him.”
The manager shrugged, rubbing the back of his neck, seemingly satisfied with this turn of events. “Safe travels,” he said, returned to the cool of the coffee shop.
Tom spoke to the dog. “Clancy, if you’re willing to go with Vida here, and me, I can take you to a great new place to live for the rest of your life.”
As if understanding, Clancy’s tail wagged again, faster.
“Life,” Tom repeated the word. It sounded good.
Tom stood and fished keys from his pocket. He led the dogs to his car. They both hopped in, Vida took her station next to her master, and Clancy claimed the back.
“Hang in there Clancy,” Tom said looking back at the dog with a smile. “It’s a long ride home.”
He turned his attention to Vida and spoke to the big panting dog. “But the ride won’t seem so lonely because for the first time in a long time, Vida, we’re on the scent of life.”
Vida seemed to understand. She threw back her head and let out a loud happy-sounding yip as if saying the word “Life” in a language only a dog could understand.
About the Author:
According to Chinese star-gazers, Lisa Begin-Kruysman was born during the Hours and the Year of the Dog. It’s no surprise then that she’s made canines the focus of her award-winning works of Fiction and Non-Fiction, and social media platform. She is the recipient of the DWAA’s Maxwell Medallion and the North Shore Animal League America Award and the author of Dog’s Best Friend: Will Judy, Founder of National Dog Week and Dog World Publisher (McFarland & Co. – 2014). Judy was also a co-founder of the DWAA. Her writing is inspired by the licks and love of her adorable foster-to-forever dog, Teddy.