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Unmarked Crossings: a poet and her journeys

Indians, Dogs, and Things That Go Bump in the Night

March 18, 2010

Last night turned out to have a bit of unexpected excitement. Around 8:30, I thought I heard a thump and then a couple of short wails, as if from a siren. Then nothing except what sounded like dull thumps far away (or close and small). I didn’t think too much of it; I know the buildings here are alarmed (including my own). My friend, Kathleen Fagley, called from New Hampshire around 9:30 and we talked for nearly an hour, even though a couple of times I heard something (I didn’t want to end the call). At around 10:30, I opened the door to see if raccoons or possums had gotten into the trash can on the porch. I was surprised to have two very bright headlights shining directly at my door! When I looked out again, I could see several people with flashlights up near the goat barn.

I didn’t panic, but did try to call just about everyone on my call list, just to be sure that it was not someone who did not belong in the park up to no good. No one answered, but I left messages for a couple of people. I was happy when, around 10:45, one of the people I’d called returned my call, only to find out she was in Kentucky. But she was able to call someone back here in North Carolina, who called her back. Then she called me back to say that an alarm had gone off, but the maintenance crew had been having trouble with it over the winter: it would go off, then freeze, making it difficult to reset. I went on to bed, relieved that I didn’t have to take any real action, but that I could leave it all to the professionals.

I opted for an adventure jaunt today, and headed to Western North Carolina. I-40 is closed about twenty-five miles west of Asheville, so I checked Mapquest for directions on how to get to Cherokee, North Carolina. Cherokee is named for the tribe of Native Americans (my friend Denise prefers indigenous people or first nation) that in habited the Smokies before white man ever set foot on this continent. If you remember your history, the Cherokee were marched to Oklahoma via the “Trail of Tears,” except for those who escaped to the mountains.

I had visited Cherokee back in August of 1977 with my first husband who, only a few days before, had been fully ordained as a minister in the Church of the Nazarene. That seems a lifetime ago and my friends who know me now find it hard to believe I was ever a pastor’s wife. My response: “I’ve recovered nicely.” But back then we took a vacation together, having left my girls in the care of my mother and father.

Cherokee then was totally different than I remembered, of course. I saw black-haired people walking here and there. Plus, there are still small houses and trailers everywhere and the names of the short streets off the highway were often hard for me to pronounce. In the center of the town, however, is a huge Harrah’s hotel/casino complex. I’ve only been to one other casino—a small riverboat casino in East Peoria, Illinois—but I managed to donate a bit of my hard-earned money to the local economy.

I finally found the two-cent slots and spent most of my time in the casino in front of the Three Stooges slot machine. It was fun to watch, but, although I won some money, by the time I was ready to leave, I had lost most everything. Good thing that I never gamble for the money; it’s the excitement and entertainment that I love. A poor young woman who had been sitting me next to me did not fare even as well as me. After about forty-five minutes, she got up and said, “Holy crap, I just lost $200!). How one does that two cents at a time in such a short time is a mystery. I was happy just to enjoy the tinkling, blinking machines for awhile.

Fortunately, two ladies from South Carolina who were playing on either side of me steered me back to Hendersonville on a safer, easier (albeit slightly longer route). Mapquest, ugh! I had driven down to Cherokee from I-40 through Maggie Valley and on down an extremely winding, narrow two-lane with rock outcrops hanging over the road. By my new friends’ directions, I slipped quickly along the Great Smokey Mountain Expressway and on to I-40. I’m not sorry I went the way I did, however. It reminded me of when my family used to travel to Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, with all those run-down, falling over gift shops and attractions.

By the time I merged onto I-40, heading east again, it was dark. I had a flashback to when I used to drive to Kentucky on Friday afternoon, and then back to Chapel Hill on Sunday evening. Back then, however, I had my sweet little dog (an Ori Pei—a breed bred from the Pug and Sharpei), Poppy riding silently in the back seat. Once in awhile, I would feel her paw on my left shoulder, as she nosed up to get a bit of fresh air where I had left the back window open a crack. On the dedication page to my chapbook, Little Fires, it reads, For Poppy: the solitary brightness in my darkest days, reminding me “that love is dependent upon memory…that there are bones in the earth without any markers...” (the quotation being from Chard deNiord’s lovely poem, “What the Animals Teach Us.”

Poppy really did save me. Without going into what was happening in my personal life, suffice it to say she was the only living creature to know what I went through. Poppy died quite suddenly in the fall of 2006, a year after my mother passed away. All the grief I had found difficult to express for my mother seemed to have been transferred to my loss of Poppy. Even as I write this, I can’t help but weep. For all our lost pets and parents. My mother rests next to my father in a family plot in Knoxville, Illinois. Poppy is buried among other four-legged loves on my friend James’s farm outside Lancaster. My cat Kiki, who died having kittens, ironically on Labor Day weekend last year is there. James’s dogs Eclipse (who died during the ice storm of 2009) and Smoochy (who died last summer) are there, too. Dogs I have loved almost as much as my own. There are other dogs I don’t know as well, too: Elvis, and two of his dog cousins. They are up a rise from the frog pond, where James planted willow trees.

I look at the three dogs I have now and know they will only share my life for what will be too short a time. I adopted Petunia (a Jack Russell mix—I swear the rest is Tasmanian devil) as a tiny little puppy from the animal shelter as a friend for Poppy, when I had settled into my house in Kentucky. About six weeks after I lost Poppy, I decided Petunia and I needed another dog. So I found Chloe, a registered pug, paying only $100 for her because the breeder didn’t want a dog that had to have her puppies Caesarian. When I got Chloe, she still had stitches from delivering her last litter of one dead puppy. About eighteen months ago, I made the mistake of “stopping by” the local shelter. A few days later Camellia came to live with the other two dogs, Kiki, and me. Cammie is a rat terrier/Chihuahua mix.

I recently began letting Cammie sleep with me, the first dog to share my bed since Poppy died. Petunia is too crazy and Chloe wants to lie on my pillow, above my head, and claw my face affectionately. Cammie, however, much like Poppy, curls up behind my knees under the covers, emerging to pant a bit when she gets overheated, then burrowing under the comforter again when she’s cooled. She also weighs about twelve pounds, so she can practically get lost under the covers. I had forgotten how much comfort a dog can be, apart from being a friend and confidante. Being here in this little house alone, I find I miss that little creature with her warmth and breath and pulse leaning against my legs in the night. And I know, when I return to Kentucky there will be a joyous homecoming. Nothing like three little furry persons jumping around your feet, extolling your virtues and how much they missed you while you were gone.
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