But someone else wants to go on. You look into those big, beautiful brown eyes and you can't say no.
It's pheasant season and there is someone that is not done hunting yet.
I've watched him skirt and track, making J hook maneuvers that would make a fighter pilot proud even if he was a beginner. I'd watched him point. Yes. point. He did it first at about 6 months of age, pointing at a Baby Ruth wrapper on the ground. Then it was a ball cap dropped by someone, then a pigeon. I called the lady I got him from. She said "lab's don't point, that's just a puppy thing". Tell that to Barkley. He points at birds, bacon and if company is over, to that pair of underwear I accidentally dropped on the floor while putting laundry away (thanks Pal, that's NOT what I had in mind here).He's just gone a few times, not trained from birth like most hunting dogs, just learning as he goes, watching other dogs. Mostly we're out for the hike, and the sky, the birds today are secondary. "What do you think Barkley? A couple more miles?" I'd say. People would probably think me daft, sitting and talking to my dog, but out in the field or just sitting some evening quietly watching the fire, I can talk softly about the things that will matter to me the rest of my life. And he only reacts to the heft of my words or the urgency of tone as I talk about missing people I love, and the nature of death and fate and the way I've had to look deep into my own capacities to become the person I am. He just looks and he listens. At least until there is that sound, the tiny whoosh of air being displaced by winged creatures with the brain the size of a pea and a breast that calls out for succor or bacon. It's time to hunt!
We've walked for what seemed like 10 miles, while the others fan out up ahead with their dogs much more experienced in the field, leaving we junior birdmen to trail behind, watching for brass, looking out for wake turbulence. It's sort of nice, being just a tiny group, the single monotony of our goal, striding forward, chests heaving, moving fast, the world suddenly coming to a stop with a small sign from a retriever.
It's that glorious moment in time where the motion of a wasted world of daily activities, of cell phones, meetings, and doing chores, comes down to that one moment of freedom and decision. That moment when the world accelerates and then just suddenly stops, there on the precipice, there in that space between dog, hunter and bird. A moment in a hunter's life, that evocable quality of living, where the forward motion towards the game stops, but then loops back, towards you. A loop that completes a circle of predator and prey, waiting only for the curl of a dogs body, the curl of your finger, to close that circuit, and release it all with one sharp sound that breaks the lie of containment.
He stands almost motionless, only the subtle tremble in his eyes, a despair of ever being released from the hold that's been placed on him, a responsibility he picked up willingly, if only for you. Yet as much as he's trying, he might well rush forward, caught up in the moment, trying to please, it's a learning curve for both of you, but that free and loving heart is heavenly to see.
Barkley's had enough training to be a good bird dog yet. I started too late, after years of being a spoiled house dog. He'll never win any awards as a rocket scientist. He still sits patiently by the spot next to the counter where once a meatloaf fell on the floor, as if there's a secret beef shrine there and if he waits long enough, another will reappear on its alter. He'll chase the same ball for an hour, convinced he's on some major breakthrough in retrieval tactics. And he's consumed an entire pizza, a sock, a paperback book Tam brought for him (The Perfect Puppy, go figure), a jalapeno pepper and a dead worm, all with the same gusto.
We may not get a bird today, he will make mistakes as will I. But we will forgive one another, help one another learn. For we are family. For me, not a substitute for something lacking in my life, but an outlet for the warmth I harbor in my soul, seeking a place for the waters of my emotion to go when all else is damned up. He's my confidant, he's my fashion critic (jeans and t-shirt again? Well if you insist), he's the soft hearted Kleenex if I cry.
He's given me renewed hope in the capacity of a heart, as his ability to love is boundless. He'll stay on alert, face aching with a grimacing growl, keeping predators at bay while I'm at work. He's been the soft nuzzle of concern on my neck after a coughing fit during a bad winter cold, and he welcomes the friends that I shoot with into the house while keeping those that wish to harm at bay. Now, he is getting. older, grey starting to show up in that black hair. Yet still, when woken by my soft snore from the family room couch he'll move from the fire, to my side as swift, as strong as ever. Looking at me with brown eyes more humorous and honest than anyone I know, a soft paw on my arm, content simply to be by my side because I'm there. Like the rest of my friends, his needs are simple, his demands of me only warmth, faithfulness and time to go out and play.
He's taught me that money doesn't matter, he's as happy with a stick as an expensive toy; satisfied with a sleeping bag in a tent with me more than a luxurious pillow top mattress. Life is simple, someone to love and something cold to drink, well loved toys to play with and a safe place to sleep. I know he will love living further out in the wild, with less bills and more values, going where I go, with an open heart.I think I can give my best friend a little more time outdoors, maybe a bird for dinner if we're lucky. That's all we need, some open sky and something in the distance to seek, a bird or perhaps a dream. Perhaps, that's all any of us really need.I give him one last little pat as we get up and move out towards a fading sun. His muscles rippling like silk under my hands, yet more precious than anything man made. He races ahead, legs leaving the ground all at once, an outstretched leap towards his future, as if he had lost contact with the earth.
From the grass up ahead, a bird, the glint of the sun off the barrel. Life coming back, full circle.