“It is easy to forget, that in the main, we die only seven times more slowly than our dogs.” Jim Harrison
Anyone who has had a dog will know the sound. A repetitive retch, pitched somewhere between a gulp, a glug and a burp, accompanied by the dog’s whole-body heaving back and forth in slow but violent seizure, while the head bobs like Suzanna Hoffs when she walked like an Egyptian. It is of course the sound of a dog’s stomach in revolt and it is a sure precursor of worse things to come. I woke up to it yesterday morning at 0530. My parent’s beloved dog Zoe was on my bed, her front paws on my chest and her snout inches from mine. I leapt up and grabbed the forty-pound dog, and like a marine with a live grenade ran and half-carried half-dragged her to the hallway where she erupted, vomiting a goodly portion of grass and about a litre of bile on the marble floor. Only a few days before my mother had suggested they manufacture alarm clocks which make that sound. ‘It would get you up liked a shot,’ she said, and she was right.
Zoe is light brown. A mix. Likely Labrador, Rhodesian ridgeback, and pharaoh hound (known locally as tal-fennek). She is an ebullient creature full of love and affection and while she does not possess an ounce of sense, she is at least quite beautiful. She is willful and skittish, a bad combination. Often when she looks at me her eyes seem to smile what George MacDonald Frasier once described as ‘the open simple smile of the truly stupid.’ She has boundless energy, still, at the age of eight. She loves to play fetch but has not yet figured out that she must let go of the ball to do so. While I am emotionally inarticulate with humans, I have no problem telling Zoe how much I love her, and I do so often along with other inanities like the rather threadbare ‘Who’s a good girl?’ and a few of my own devising like ‘Who’s a stinker?’ or ‘Who’s a stinking Zoezer?’ Anyone who overheard me might think I were as simple as she and they would be entitled to such an opinion but when for so much of the year I am away at sea it is a blessing to be around a dog for a few months, and of course my elderly parents, with whom I am temporarily lodging. The fact is, any dog-lover will tell you, the midnight eruptions and returning from a walk with a creature who has rolled in something utterly foul of unknown provenance are worth it. Even coming home to the living room rug Jackson Pollocked with diarrhea. It is all worth the love of a dog.
I believe it was Kurt Vonnegut whose advice to a depressed friend was for them to ‘get a dog.’ Perhaps that is what I needed all along, this past rough year.
I have been in Malta a month now. It is good to escape the weather and spend time with family and friends. Most evenings I sit on the balcony with my father, and we drink beer and stare over the pale roofs at the sea. There is a pigeon racing club down the road and every evening they fly in tight formation, choreographed by the ministrations of an unseen flag. Sometimes they fly just feet from us, and I can hear the flutter of a hundred wings like the changing panels of a split-flap board at a train station.
The other day huge clouds colluded angrily over the Mediterranean. A flock of hundreds of small sea birds, upset by the coming storm, flew across our field of view in shambolic formation, their wings like perfect W’s. The sun behind us lit up their white bellies and each bird seemed incandescent against the darkening sky.
I have taken a long break from writing. The longest in three years but as I’ve been trying to assimilate the news of Joan Didion’s death I have been re-reading many of her essays and there is nothing like a bit of Didion to shake the sentences loose from a head full of murk and cobweb.
For what must be the first time in my life I swam on Christmas day. An American friend of mine named Campbell and I took Zoe down to the sea in Sliema and we swam off the sharp volcanic rock into a large swell. The water was perfect, and it had been two years since I’d last swum. Zoe fidgeted and whined ashore; water is one of the many things of which she is afraid. After, we sat by the sea and drank a beer in the sun and we talked of many things. My friend spoke of his hobby, Vexillology (the study of flags), and some of the finer points in the composition of the state flags of California and Rhode Island.
Zoe continued to fuss nervously, going back and forth between Campbell and me in search of consolation. Two cargo vessels sailed by. I saw them. It was Christmas Day. It was Christmas Day in the morning.