What Fresh Hole Is This?

hole By Elizabeth Speth 

Every time Angus, the Jack Russell Terrorist, digs a new hole, I think to myself:  “What fresh hell is visited upon us now?”

Lest you think I am melodramatic, let me explain.  Have the stomach to hear me out, and then ye can judge.

Angus digs several holes — about 36 — a day.  In the nine or so years he’s been with us, that makes… let’s see…. multiply by… carry the four… factor in two leap years… seventy billion holes.

It’s not his fault.  He’s a Jack Russell.  They are known for their frantic energy, their non-stop drive to go, chase, chew, jump, yip, run, bark, dig.  I don’t hold these things against him, although my husband swears he is football-shaped for a reason.

My objection to the holes is based solely on three factors.  Location, location, and location.

I’m talking about the holes in the flower beds.  And the dirt sprayed over the walkways.  I’m talking about the holes in the garden, and the subsequent mass slaughter of innocent herbs and tender radishes.  Holes among the rose bushes.  Holes around the propane tank.  Holes in my neighbor’s yard.  Holes in my neighbor’s garden.

Holes in my indoor plant pots.

There are the holes in the riding arena, where my horses will someday snap a leg if I don’t constantly re-fill them, only to turn around and see that little white tail going mad in a new flurry of flying soil.

We have a lot of pasture, and many are the nights I have heard the horrific clack of my teeth as I suddenly step in one, arms full of hay, because Angus has strategically dug right in my walking path between the gate and the feeders.  Between the gate and the barn.  Between the faucet and the water troughs.  Our pastures are so hole-y they ought to be consecrated.  Filling those holes is about as vain an exercise as picking up horse manure every day, but it still must be done.  One does these things.  One keeps up appearances.

You might be tempted to suggest a dog trainer, or a canine psychotherapist, or a strong sedative.  What we need here, gentle reader, is an exorcist.  I am withholding Angus’ allowance until we can afford one, but in the meantime there are the holes, multitudes of them, each one bringing us several inches closer to hell.

This morning, I caught my wheelbarrow on a new one.  It was hidden under the gate, right where I always pass through, often pushing or pulling a loaded cart, to deliver the horse poop to the compost pile.

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The wheel of the cart plopped right in, my forward momentum was abruptly arrested, and over the cart went, road apples tumbling everywhere, a warm and fragrant bed upon which I landed after several long seconds of undignified struggling against the inevitable fall.

Angus had the grace to look guilty, although he did not offer to help me re-gather my manure.

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“Damn you, Angus,” I said, because no one was around to hear it.

I finished my chores, circumnavigating the hole, and then I went to fetch my shovel to fill it.  Angus ran circles around me as I worked, joyful and energetic, assuming I was having as glorious a time as he so obviously was.  This is why it’s hard to stay mad at Angus.  He is a gleeful dog.

Shovel poised, I approached the gate.  Angus scurried underneath it, as he’s been doing for years, because he’s too impatient to wait for it to open.  I watched him crawl through using the hole like an open tunnel.

I rested the shovel on the ground.  “Come here, Angus,” I said, and he slipped back under, through that perfectly-placed, perfectly-sized hole like a breeze.  He came and sat at my feet.

I took a good, long look at him.  In my mind’s eye, he is still a puppy.  That is because my actual eyes, which will be fifty soon, blur the edges of the everything now.  They still see Angus as a youngster because of his energy and attitude, I guess.  But I did the math right there, and realized he is a middle-aged gent, maybe even a little older than that.

Also, he has gotten stocky, put on a few, as the saying goes.  I hadn’t really seen that before.  I asked him to lie down, then roll over, which he did happily, but was that a little stiffness he struggled against there, getting back up?

“Angus, go back the garden,” I said, and he obliged, flowing like a creamy white rivulet, right back through the hole and under the gate.  I put the shovel away, marveling at the fact that it was entirely possible Angus is taking stock of himself, and coming to some of the same realizations that I must face.

I’m approaching middle age too, and damned if things aren’t starting to widen and stiffen.  Most of my clothing has elastic now.  I need reading glasses.  I use a mounting block to get on a horse, but I don’t intend to stop riding.  Angus needs a hole under the gate, because he does not intend to start waiting for it to open.  We are both trying to maintain a certain standard of living here.

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I have to admire the fact that he assessed a need to adjust his environment to his changing needs, and took care of it.  It made me feel better about myself.  And also a little sad for both of us.

So that one hole can stay.  All future holes will be evaluated in light of this Angus epiphany, but I think it is a safe bet that most will be re-filled.

The horses remained unimpressed when I shared my new insights about our tiny, rough-coated, high-pitched and frenzied friend.  They still find him irritating.  They assure me it will be ever thus.

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In Which Angus Gets What’s Coming to Him

By Elizabeth Speth

Every morning Angus and I meet at the front door for a standing date to do chores together.

Now, the thing about Jack Russell Terrorists — what endears them to their humans despite all the crazy behavior, shrill barking, general mayhem and destruction — is that they are joyful dogs. Those frantic, furiously busy little bodies house enormous reservoirs of happiness over the simplest of things.  A wide open place to run.  A puddle of water.  A morsel of food to bury.  A daily appointment to scoop manure and terrorize the horses together.  He’s all in.  Every ecstatic, wriggling square inch of him.

So, as I was saying, we meet at the door, and we wish each other good morning with a dignified handshake.

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I gather my boots, stuff my pockets full of whatever cream, medicine, ointment or pills I’m administering to the horses that day.  I put on my hat.

Sometimes, to shake things up, I pretend to forget my hat, because it is fun to see Angus boy-oy-oing into the air to knock it off the rack with his nose.  Then he looks at me pointedly as if to say:  “Okay, Forgetful.  Pick it up, put it on, let’s get going.”

Angus likes his routine.  All of it.  You can’t skip even one part of the ritual.

Lately, though, our smooth, calm scooping of the morning poop, wheeling of the barrow, filling of the troughs, throwing of the hay etc. has been marred by the presence of a bully.

I’m talking about the neighbor’s enormous, fluffy, blindingly-white cat.  Hereafter I’m going to refer to the cat as (S)he, because there is no way I’m getting close enough to narrow it down any more than that.  This cat is terrifying.

S(he) first strolled out to the middle of the pasture a few weeks ago.  S(he) stood out like an ice floe in a field of dirt, and basically look-dared Angus to come over and mix it up.

And Angus wanted to.  Angus saw S(he), and his jaw dropped.  He snapped to attention as the cat began to grow, arching to twice its size, all that glorious white fur now standing on end, a scattering snow flurry.

“Angus, heel!” I commanded, because I did not want a gory felineocide on my hands.  That cat was positively suicidal, sitting there like that, a creamy challenge to the poor, whining, blood-lusting little warrior that is Angus.

Since then, chores have become very stressful, because every day that damned cat is out there, big and fat and blinding and insolent in the middle of our field.  I should be working, occasionally looking up to see Angus trotting around happily, exploring and stirring up trouble.

Instead, I am constantly anxious, shouting:  “Angus!  No!  Heel to me, Angus!  Stop it!  Angus! Get back here!”

And he is constantly sneaking off, only to be called back, darting away, only to be sharply reprimanded.  He is a yipping, yelping, squirming misery of longing to get at S(he) and show that interloper what is what.

I’ve tried leaving him inside.  His sharp, high-pitched protest was shattering eardrums in the next county.  Authorities were summoned.  The cat situation was explained.  No sympathy was elicited. Noise ordinance violations were handed out.

I’ve tried varying the times we venture forth, to no avail.  S(he) watches for us, and comes sauntering out of the blackberry bushes, all menace and attitude, at the first rattle of the gate.

I tried scaring the cat off with a wave of my arms and rake, and the cat winked at me.

And then this morning it all got away from me.

I lost focus for a moment, I guess, my mind on manure.  Maybe the tines of my pitchfork got snared in a weed.  Maybe I was dozing.  Maybe I subconsciously wanted it all to end.  Whatever the reason, I looked up and Angus was halfway across the pasture, streaking at the fast-swelling S(he), who spat loud and long, screamed hellishly, and then charged right toward the missile that was Angus.

I was frozen in shock and horror.  Angus’ name died a futile death on my tardy lips.

They collided like two white-hot stars.

The cat went over the top of Angus, slashing at him with an impressive arsenal of claws, which sent the poor dog tumbling once, twice, three times.  He crashed into a post.

He wasn’t down for long, though.  Nosiree.  In less than a second Angus’ feet scrambled and found purchase in the witnessing dust.  And he got the hell out of there, tongue and ears flying behind, just trying to keep up.  He streaked past me with a large-eyed, humiliated stare, and then he flung himself under the fence and thoroughly out of the pasture, unmistakably ceding it to the cat.

Who strolled back into the blackberry bushes and, point made, has not been seen since.

Once the cat was gone, Angus, still on the other side of the fence, began running up and down the line of it, barking ferociously at the section of greenery that had swallowed the cat.

Loosely translated, because I’m leaving out the profanity, what Angus was saying was:

Why, you dirty cat!  If it weren’t for this fence between us, and the fact that you’re not even here anymore, why, I’d tear you limb from limb.”  

He did this until the greenery moved, rustled by a passing breeze.  That’s when he ran inside.

Later, he showed me where he thought he might have hurt his paw in the battle.

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He’s been sticking close to the house today, keeping an eye out for that damn S(he).

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I think he will be haunted for some time to come.  When his eyes look out into the horizon, unseeing, he will go back to this terrifying morning.  When a kitten meows softly he will start, and then retreat inward.

There are no support groups for Angus. (I checked.  He asked me to.)  No words of comfort.  It’s his burden to carry.  His and his alone.  Poor fellow.

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In Memoriam — Tragedy Strikes on a Friday Morning

By Elizabeth Speth

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RIP, little lizard floating in the water trough, your pretty blue belly turned up to the sky.

I’d seen you around the neighborhood, under-supervised.  I feared you might become a statistic.

We’ll never know if it was suicide, an accident, or murder.

Did one of the horses push you in?  You can tell me.

Maybe you had a heart defect.

Is there a history of sudden death by heart attack in your family?

I am deeply sorry that when I tipped the trough and you flowed out, Angus the Jack Russell Terrorist snapped you up and started chewing you.

I was sorely grieved when he spit you out and began hacking disrespectfully.

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He is in deep disgrace. Also, he is unrepentant.

I’m sorry I gagged as I dropped your several little pieces into that small hole in the ground, and covered you with hot, impersonal dirt.

I should have held it together better.

It was with acute regret that I saw Angus immediately begin to dig you up again.

I hoe you understand why I just had to walk away at that point.  It was too much tragedy to bear.

A couple more days of these 110-degree temperatures, and the winds will be scattering your ashes.

RIP, little lizard, floating in the water trough.

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What Value, the Soul of a Dog?

By Elizabeth Speth

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This will be a hard post to write. I’ve been putting it off for more than a week.

It’s about a beloved family member who stretched out to sleep in the warm sun on the front steps last Friday morning. It’s about Death coming quickly to claim this gentle creature, mid-nap, in his favorite snoozing spot.

I’m talking about our dear friend Dobra the Doberman, who came to live with us as a foster rescue dog when he was a young adolescent. He stayed for more than a dozen years, helped us raise our children, roamed our three and a half acres, kept its borders safe. He kept the horses in line, fended off intruders of all species. If you posed even a possible threat to any Speth creature — equine, feline, human or otherwise — you had to go through Dobra first. And God help you.

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Dobra the Doberman, with my son Leland, whom he helped raise.

We don’t know if he lifted his head in surprise those last seconds, somehow understanding what was happening to him. We don’t know if he fought his mortality, twitched in protest as he struggled up from sleep. We don’t know if he woke at all, or experienced any discomfort. We weren’t there for any of it. Only his best friend was with him. Angus, the Jack Russell Terrorist was there, lying beside Dobra when we found him, keeping watch while the slow humans finally got around to understanding what we’d lost.

I was very sad that Dobra was suddenly gone. It was so unexpected.

But then I was so grateful.

He had just begun to experience some arthritis, but otherwise seemed youthful. So I didn’t have to agonize about the ‘when do we put him down’ decision, which is so hard.

I rarely have the luxury of having the decision made for me.

Let me just say for the record that Dobra had an epic morning, which was typical for him. He chased some horses, cornered a rodent in the woodpile (that was VERY exciting).

I was scrubbing horse troughs, a game he loved.  He chased the water rivulets as though they were live animals, which he killed by digging holes quickly in their paths to stop them. The holes always drove me crazy — I had to fill them before the horses or I broke a leg in the dark, but I’m glad he got to enjoy the activity on his last day.

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Dobra supervising morning horse chores.

I scooped loose dirt back into those holes with such a heavy heart.

He had a ginormous plate of leftover spaghetti for breakfast — his favorite meal ever.

Exhausted from our morning chores, he stretched out on the front steps. I stepped over him coming out the door, on my way out for a horseback ride. He raised his head, and I could tell he was grateful I hadn’t made him move out of my way. He put his head back down and went to sleep.

My husband Neil and I got a call from our son Lyle that afternoon. We were deep in the American River Canyon, at least two hours over rugged terrain from our truck and horse trailer. Lyle was devastated, and said Dobra had not moved from his napping position, but that he was gone.

Neil and I had miles to ride to get back. We both cried all the way home.

We buried Dobra on the property, as we have all of our beastly friends over the years. We thanked him for all his lovely companionship, and we gave thanks that he had not suffered. We were shell-shocked. Diminished.

But the hardest hit was Dobra’s buddy Angus, the Jack Russell. He has not made a peep since Lyle found him lying beside Dobra, whimpering a little.

When Lyle wrapped Dobra in a sheet to bury him, Angus started pawing at it. He looked to us to fix it. And of course we could not.

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Angus on a typical day. He is usually pretty feisty, which is how he earned the Jack Russell Terrorist classification. He is not the same right now.

I dragged Dobra’s favorite sleeping blanket over next to the fresh grave, and Angus has been sitting or lying on it ever since, except when I make him come inside for the night. He is not eating. He just keeps sniffing the air and looking around, as if he can’t quite figure out where his friend has gone, or from which direction he will come when he returns. That makes me the saddest.

We are not supposed to anthropomorphize animals. They each behave and think according to their unique, species-specific programming. They are not people, and woe to any of us who assume their behaviors are explained by our own human motivations.

But, after this sad week watching poor Angus in the enormous bewilderment of his loss, I know that animals are capable of great grief. It follows that they must be capable of great attachment. That is why we love them so, and are so grateful to walk with them a ways in our much longer lifetimes.

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Many, many animals, horses and dogs and cats, have passed over this property, leaving footprints that eventually fade, fur and fluff blown away in the winds. We have fostered them, dogs and horses and cats in various stages of transition, some traumatized. Some have gone on to wonderful homes. Some, damaged beyond repair by neglect and cruelty and human failings, have been put down as humanely as possible, which is a weak apology at best. Some have just quietly told us, in one way or another, that they would stay.

Some of them have been very special, for whatever inexplicable reason. They have burrowed particularly deeply into our hearts. I still see them in the corner of my eye if I turn suddenly, or gaze into the smudged shadows of the pond, deep in the trees at sunset. I see a lolling tongue and a trotting dog, the flick of a horsetail and the twitch of a mane. I hear a faint nicker in trees that creak as they are nudged by night breezes.

I know it is these creatures I will rush to see, first thing, when I get to heaven. I hope I can find them right away, because I will be so eager to throw my arms around them. I will catch up with my lost relatives and friends afterward. But everyone knows you always say hello to the dog first when you get home.

My horse Santa Fe. My blue Doberman Baron. I hope they are waiting, that we will see each other again.

And I powerfully, profoundly wish to see Angus and Dobra, together once more, as they most certainly belong, the loneliness of their separation a mere memory. That would be an appropriate end to this story, I think.

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