We do not comb our hair. We shove our feet into old sneakers. The dog dances around our knees.
The stained coat is good enough. At least it is lined and will keep the wind out. “Hold her tongue,” Bug tells me. He means for me to squeeze her snout closed to keep her from licking him. I do not do this. It would be easy but he has grown stronger with the latest surge. He is rough with the dog now. He is approaching her weight. He torments her with the grooming comb and scarves from the dress-up trunk. Instead, I place her head against my knee and try to force her still while pretending to be gentle. I try to model tenderness but it is hard when my most regular company is a 72-RPM boy and an oaf of a dog.
The pooch is into her middle age and will never learn not to lap at us when we pet her. Bug digs down into her woolly neck to find the collar buried there. We turn it around so the metal loop is up. It takes him three tries to work the latch, pushing away my offered hand. The dog jolts and wiggles against my forced stillness. She contorts her tongue sideways and up to swipe my hand from the back.
Bug races down the cul-de-sac with the leash. He leaps in a circle. He tries to get her to tangle herself around a fence. He squeals in delight. The pooch looks back at me in desperation. “Stop messing with her, baby. She doesn’t like to play like that.”
“She does,” he insists. He turns in a circle and then runs, dragging her along.
“She likes to move slowly and sniff everything. She wants to read the morning news.” I follow them. “Walk her easy. She’s old.”
“How old?” He calls back.
I do the mental calculation. “Seven. Almost.” She was born the same summer Tee and I married. The wedding was June and she was born in July. I found her in September up in those piney California mountains. The first time I met her, she turned over on her back, offered me her belly, and started licking me. She hasn’t stopped. I don’t tell Bug about the timing. It’s hard to remember anymore what life was like when there was a Tee and me in all of this. Before all of this. “Her birthday is a little over a year before yours. In dog age, she’s even older than Mommy.”
Once we near the entrance to the woods, I jog up and set her free. Bug scowls but I ignore him, closing the retractable distance between us. I take the leash and shove it into an oversized pocket. Bug turns and roars down the hill towards the woods. The dog hesitates near me for a second. With the slightest of signals from my hand, she is off and running.
My two thundering little ones plow through last autumn’s leaves. They tumble over hidden roots. Both end up with thorns studding their coats. Bug plunges down into the dry creek bed and storms along its narrow artery, ignoring the prints hardened into frozen mud. Herds of creatures have covered this distance before us. A stunning menagerie was assembled here. Thin and long, tiny and round, hoofed, handed, footed, clawed. Bug stops short before a whorl of white ice. It is the only trace of water here and it is as hard as stone and ringed like a contour map.
“Is it solid?” He asks.
“I don’t know. It was pretty cold last night.”
He starts to put his foot on it. “You sure you want to do that?” I ask. “What might be under there?”
He thinks about this for a moment and then searches around for something. He finds a stick and begins hammering at the ice. Sure enough, it breaks through in the middle and his stick plunges down into a puddle of water. He continues to crack at the surface near the edges. I squat there and watch the sheets shatter. Hardened prints fan out around my feet. They move in every direction. It is dizzying to feel the collective activity of all the animals who preceded us here and who will surely follow. They are all near. They are all waiting for our departure.
“Look at all of this,” I say to Bug. “All these prints are here, but we aren’t making any. That’s strange.”
Bug glances over. “The animals must have walked there.”
“We are walking here, too.”
Bug shrugs and hammers some more. Then he squats and touches the frozen edge of a print. “That’s a raccoon,” he exclaims. “And that one’s a deer.”
“Aren’t there so many? Look at them all! It was like a party here.”
“They like to walk in the creek like us.” He stands again, picking up a shard of ice and hurling it towards the brown puddle.
“I guess. Look, though. There aren’t very many up there and there aren’t very many behind us. Those all go kind of in a straight line.”
Bug now looks at the mess of gathered animal prints. He looks hard. Then his face breaks into a grin. “Oh, I know! They came here to drink the water!”
“Oh, I see! Hmm. How could they drink it? It was all ice.”
Bug touches the hard print again and thinks. “It was soft then. It wasn’t ice. See? That’s why they have prints here but they got frozen.”
I bang my foot on the ground. “Oh, so that’s why we don’t make prints? Because the ground is still frozen?”
Bug rolls his eyes. “Duh.” He picks up his stick and races ahead along the creek bed. “Keep up, Mommy! We’re following the leader dog!”
Unbeknownst to her, our pooch has become our guide. Bug tracks her black smudge up the tangled hillside. He tells me he has to go potty and stops to pee against a tree before tromping off again. The dog weaves, following her nose. We weave, following her. My boy scales a fallen log, skirts pricker weeds, rubs a skinned calf, and skids down an embankment. I pick up garbage and carry it in a plastic supermarket bag.
The sun ducks around the bare knuckles of the maples, dropping shafts of bronze along our route. Three white tail deer startle from the brush and flick up the hill, backsides flashing. The dog gives it all she’s got, plowing her stumpy legs through the leaves as she charges after them. They are gone, up over the rise. Still, she runs, a black milkweed pod blown headlong the wrong direction. Bug stands up on a log and watches with his face shining. He laughs and laughs. “Look at her! She is never going to catch them!”
Seven years in and she still believes she might. At the crest of the hill she slows to a stop, breathes hard for moment, then turns and trots back toward us. Her panting mouth is all lolling tongue and grinning delight. We clip her leash on and head towards home. Bug chases my shadow and I chase his. We both chase the dog’s and she doesn’t seem to mind when we land right behind her on the jaunty, flapping flag of her tail.