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Call of the Wild

We had already bought our dog a car to chauffeur her properly. The next logical step was to get her some real estate.

Our new fifty-eight acres of rocky hillside sat on a dead-end road in the Catskill Mountains, three hours from our apartment in Brooklyn. There, slowly but surely, the three of us (husband, wife and Mercy) could become the wild animals we were apparently meant to be.

Well, Mercy, our Border Collie mix, was a wild animal; we just hadn’t seen the full evidence yet.

Our neighbors on the road, who often stopped their pickup truck to chat with us on their way to the village, had shared stories of the feared coyotes who spirited away their chickens or cats or pet dogs. “Watch out for those coyotes,” they said. “They’ll take everything.” There were tales of their hoodlum behavior, luring small innocents out beyond the protective circle of yards, only to carry them away to some horrible end. I thought for a moment that maybe I should heed their advice to always keep my dog on leash. But then what was this mortgage for? The hefty monthly sum paid for Mercy’s freedom to exercise all her senses. Ours, too, as we watched her do so.

One night, Mercy and I were alone together in the house—a neighborless house that felt seemed poised on the edge of the known world. Night in the country goes unpenetrated by light except that of the stars and the moon. All of civilization, including me, was asleep. But the natural world was still awake to the mysteries of life. A cry cut through sleep like a fierce sword. I woke to the very sound of wildness.

It was as if someone had taken loneliness and compressed it, sent it echoing out over the black mountains. It was at once fearsome, ancient, comforting. It was the cry of a coyote sounding like a thousand coyotes, all saying something utterly beyond me.

But it was not beyond Mercy. She answered in an otherworldly voice I had never heard before. It shook me. Her howl seemed to put a coyote in my room, at the foot of the futon, where before there had only been a dog, one who wore a red collar and loved ice cream cones. In that moment, she told me—by telling her cousins out there—that she was only partly mine. She was of a piece with them. It turned out she was a coyote herself, from way back.

Some days later, Mercy and I went walking up the steep hill behind the old farmhouse, up into an old red-pine plantation. For us it was a magisterial cathedral in which to wander. Mercy was off-leash. I felt it was no more my right to prevent her full interaction with life—risk and revelry both—than it would later be mine to keep my son safe but inert within four walls. She bounded ahead, investigating this, chasing that, always returning.

Then I stopped: I thought I saw a shape in the shadows ahead. A shape like a dog. But wait—over there was Mercy, black and solid. What I couldn’t instantly comprehend—What’s a German Shepherd doing in our woods?—in the next second became clear. That’s a coyote! Ten yards from my dog! My dog, who is now starting to move toward a wild predator!

Frozen, I could only watch as Mercy approached slowly, at an angle. Her ears were up, tail waving hesitantly. The coyote stood his ground, staring and still, then looked away. He had said “I am not a threat” in universal canine language. But the fact that he did not advance also announced: “I don’t necessarily think that’s wise, little sister.” Now Mercy paused. This unknown creature was acting a bit differently than her playmates at the dog park. I think she was yielding to something regal in his bearing. Something she must honor. Indeed, his behavior was honorable.

Finally, head down, the coyote swung around and trotted slowly off. Mercy watched intently, as if part of her wanted to follow. I didn’t blame her. Part of her wished to go, but the part that was bonded to her domestic situation (and me) wanted to stay.

I had witnessed something timeless: the meeting of what a dog is with what that dog once was. The two had met on equal ground, free to come, free to go. If fear had kept my dog tied to me, this moment would have been lost. I would never have seen what Mercy truly was, wild at heart. And I would never have known such a profound sense of completeness then pervading the quiet woods. We had met our purported enemy. And he was us.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 67: Nov/Dec 2011
Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of four books and is currently working on a book about the ethics of dog training. bfskinnersbaby.blogspot.com

Illustration by Daniela Zalkus

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