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Short Story: The Stepping-Off Place
Dog Island

“Why does the Director want me? Am I in trouble?”

My boss shrugged, clueless as usual, and waved me into his office. “That will do, Carl,” said a thin but strong voice. My boss bowed out and left me alone with the woman behind his desk. She was stern, gray and no bigger than a minute.

“Meghan, sit.” I did, half expecting a cookie reward. “Your file is interesting.”

“I have a file?” I asked, regretting my reply at once. Even the dogs had files.

“You’ve worked in animal shelters all over New England.”

A blur of happy-sad memories. “Well, I just…uh…love dogs.” Brilliant! “I didn’t know Happy Meadows had a Director.”

She frowned. “Where do you see yourself five years from now?”

Unemployed seemed likely at the moment.

“I’ve been following your career. Watching you.”

What career? My hackles rose. Who was this? FBI? CIA! PETA?!

“Good recommendations from your supervisors. You’ve written some articles that were well received. And the dogs seem to like you.”

The dog part was true and I enjoyed writing, but “well received” was a stretch.

The Director closed my file. “I have a special job for you.” Visions of nuclear-powered pooper-scoopers danced through my head. “I need a new caretaker for an unusual facility.”

Clyde’s stocky legs rocked easy with the heavy ocean swells. He steered the small boat with one hand; the other gripped an enormous mug of coffee.

“Are you sure you don’t want some sunscreen?” I asked, squinting into the tropical bright while slathering myself with white cream, my ponytail whipping so hard I thought it might snap off.

Clyde guffawed, his lobster-colored face crinkling into deep, weathered furrows. “Never use the stuff! But you go ahead — shame to bake that pretty face.”

I was ten years past pretty but still young enough to be his daughter. Was he hitting on me? A wave broke over the bow, showering us with spray. I cawed and grabbed for the rail — graceful I had never been. “There she is,” Clyde declared, steadying me with one hand and pointing with his coffee mug. “Dog Island.”

“You’re kidding.”

“That’s not the official name, but Dog Island’s what I’ve always called it. Have yourself a look.” He handed me a pair of binoculars. I tried to focus on the rise of land but could see only jobbling water. “Try the beach,” he suggested, tilting my shoulder until sand came into view through the glasses. I saw a cluster of black Labrador Retrievers playing. Their heads lifted in unison and turned toward us, their mouths working. We were too far away to hear the barks, but they sounded in my head. Hi! Hi! Hi! The dogs broke and raced down the beach, kicking up sand plumes behind. They were dancing at the end of the dock by the time we bumped alongside. Clyde leapt nimbly ashore despite his girth and was swarmed at once. “Get offa me, ya mangy mutts!” he cried, then thumped his chest, inviting them back up to slobber his face while he roared with laughter. When he was thoroughly soaked, they nosed his pockets for treats.

A stick of a man shuffled onto the foot of the dock.

Clyde turned. “Mawhnin’, Jed!”

“And a fine one it is,” Jed replied, his voice quavery and old. The Labs dashed to form a furry entourage around him. “That doesn’t look like a dog you’ve brought me today.”

It took a moment to realize he meant me and another to wonder if I’d just been insulted — I was here to replace him, after all. But I sensed he’d meant no harm and have been called worse anyway.

“Nope,” Clyde agreed. He busied himself unloading boxes while Jed and the dogs approached. I’d seen enough arthritic animals to recognize the ginger gait in a human — I guessed his old joints screamed fair Jesus when the weather turned damp, probably most days in this climate. When he finally reached us, Jed offered a thin hand that I shook with care, and the introductions were done.

“See you in a week,” he told Clyde, who nodded, stepped off the dock and untied the boat. As it motored away, Jed said, “Let’s go. I have a lot to show you and I’m not getting any younger."

There was only one house on Dog Island, a sprawling wood affair on a gentle grass slope overlooking the sea. It was wrapped by a wide porch held down by a dozen grizzled dogs baking in the sun. A Golden Retriever, frosted nearly silver, tail-tapped a reserved greeting as we passed through, but the rest slumbered on, oblivious. “Hey, Pete,” said Jed. “How’s the old fella?” Jed turned to me. “Pete really runs this place — I don’t do anything without his say-so.” A pillowpadded rocker with a tattered book beside it told me the dogs weren’t the only old ones who passed long, slow afternoons up here. We entered a tidy, bright kitchen. I accepted his offer of coffee to be polite, but in my experience no one made worse java than old men. The watery, bitter crap I was expecting, however, turned out smooth and rich. Jed gently lowered himself into a chair at the sturdy wooden table. He took a sip, started to speak, then reconsidered and had another.

“Not sure where to start,” he finally said.

“How about the beginning?” Jed laughed. “This island has too long a history to tell right now and you can read all about it in the library anyway.” He looked around the kitchen and out the window, considering the place. “Guess if you have enough money, anything’s possible.”

“You?”

He laughed again. “No, I’m just the caretaker. The Director handles the business, but the money isn’t hers, either. There are plenty of rich folks who like the idea of this island and would rather spend their money on dogs than on people.”

“Do they come here?” I asked envisioning hordes of weekend pet owners with chips on their shoulders and attitudes up their —

“Nope. Never met ’em. Haven’t even met the Director — not this one, anyway. The one who hired me…well, she’s moved on.” He glanced out the back window up a forested hill rising behind the house. “I doubt the contributors actually know where this place is. The only person I ever see is Clyde when he brings supplies or a new dog.”

“How many live here?” “One hundred. No more, no less.”

I’d worked in larger facilities, but not solo. “That’s enough.” I remembered the Lab clones from the beach. “Learning the names must take a bit.” A thought occurred to me. “Do they even have names?”

“Giving a new dog its Island name is important,” Jed said. “They’re starting new, happier lives here and finding the right name is part of that. Some names will come to you right away, others take longer. If Fi-Fi or Toodles pops into your head, keep thinking.” He waved a hand. “You’ll learn. One of ’em farts, you’ll know who did it and what they ate that made ’em do it.” He gestured at a thick notebook on the table. “I’ve written down most of what I do, how things work and what doesn’t.”

“Vet?”

“On the mainland. You got big trouble, call Clyde and he’ll fetch ’im out, but you’ll learn to handle the little stuff yourself. I’ve done more stitching than I can remember and splinted my share of broken bones.” A chorus of yips outside interrupted us. Jed’s eyes rolled. “Heelers! OCD, every frigging one of ’em. Only the gun shuts them up.”

I followed him to the barn and helped wheel out a tennis-ball launcher. Jed cranked it up. “Near ruined my arm before I thought of this,” he laughed. Thwupp! A green rocket streaked down the hill. A dozen dogs raced after it. One came up with the prize and the others circled back, eyes gleaming. Thwupp! They ran again, sleek bodies flying over the grass. Thwupp! Thwupp! Thwupp! Dogs and balls everywhere. Two heelers jumped for the same one and collided in mid-air. The dogs fell to the ground and the ball sailed untouched in between. Jed and I fell, too, clutching our sides, laughing. The dogs were up again immediately and we fired another volley. After an hour they’d finally had enough.

“I love the gun!” I said and fell back into the grass. “I could get used to this.”

Jed held up a hand. “Talkin’ to the paw!” He gazed across the sea of happy, panting dogs to the sea of water that separated us from the world of humans.

“I can’t imagine not being here anymore,” he said. “Not taking care of them. But I’m too old now. They deserve better.”

“I’m not sure why the Director picked me,” I replied, “but these dogs will want for nothing while I’m here.”

Jed nodded. “That’ll do.”

I memorized Jed’s notebook over the next two months. It made caretaking straightforward, though not easy. I slept deeply each night surrounded by the porch dogs who’d made it clear that the king-size bed was communal property. I didn’t mind the company, although some nights “gastrointestinal challenges” among them forced me to evacuate.

According to the calendar stuck to the refrigerator with bone-shaped magnets, it was late August when one evening I’d finished all the chores with some daylight still left. I’d been meaning to investigate the library for the history of Dog Island, so I ventured through the doorway marked Canis Libris.

Inside was every book ever written about dog breeds, caring for dogs, or caring about them. Many were familiar and good but not of interest tonight. Past them was a hodgepodge of homemade binders. I selected the first one, dated 1820. Inside, penned in black ink on pages of stiff parchment, were sketches that stole my breath. An Irish setter: “Lucy 1812-1820.” A bull mastiff: “Theodore 1808-1820.” A mixed-breed with a big smile and gentle eyes: “Henrietta 1817-1820.” I sat on the floor and paged through a baker’s dozen. Some had lived long lives, others short ones or maybe they had just been old when they arrived here and got their Island names. I closed the book and pondered that Dog Island had existed for nearly 200 years, an impossibly well-kept secret. I had considered myself plugged into the dog community but never heard a whisper. Yet here I was, and here, two centuries ago, had lived another caretaker who commemorated her charges with these amazing sketches. I sagged against the bookcase, overwhelmed by inadequacy. I could fill a bowl and scoop poop, but drawing even stick figures was beyond me.

The volume for 1821 held eight more sketches and 1822 had nine. The following year had 34. Bad luck? Disease? The dogs looked healthy but maybe the caretaker had sketched them in their prime. The volume for 1837 was full of poems, and I surmised that a new caretaker had arrived. This rhyming love was less intimidating; I could work with words. I skipped decades, looking for different caretakers. Each had recorded in his or her own way the island’s history, which I realized was not about the people who made it possible but the dogs who made it necessary. One caretaker did needlepoint. Another shot Polaroids. I put the volume back and left the library to join the snoring old dogs on the bed. Words that would paint their pictures and tell their stories were swirling through my mind already, and I fell asleep smiling.

I smiled much of the next day watching the dog’s antics. Seeing no reason not to start right away, I stuck pen and paper in my pocket to capture random thoughts I found particularly endearing. There was so much to tell and my heart soared as I mentally teased the words into place.

I stopped smiling at dinner when one bowl of food remained uneaten. I knew whose it was without looking, and my heart sank as I went out onto the porch. Pete lay in his spot beside the padded rocker. His tail did not greet me as I came out or when I spoke his name. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I cursed my naïve scribblings as if my eagerness to write them had made Pete’s heart stop beating. I knew it wasn’t true, but felt I had let him down anyway. I resolved to write his story the best ever as I wrapped his cold body in a blanket and went to radio Jed. “It’s Pete,” I said when he answered.

Rain was threatening at dawn and I was afraid that Jed and Clyde wouldn’t come, but an hour later the boat nosed alongside the dock and I tied the bowline to a cleat. Clyde shut down the engine and helped Jed ashore. “Are you coming?” I asked Clyde.

The craggy man shook his head. The bigger they are, the harder they cry.

“Where’s Pete?” Jed asked.

“On the porch.” I didn’t add that I’d spent the night in the padded rocker beside him knowing Jed would have done the same.

“Why don’t you get the ATV,” he suggested.

Cradling the swaddled bundle, Jed climbed onto the seat behind me and directed me behind the house and up the forested hillside onto a road I hadn’t had time to explore yet. We bumped along in silence, climbing steadily, finally emerging from the forest into a grassy clearing. I released the throttle in surprise. Hundreds of small stone markers spiraled in to a larger monument that rose from the middle. The clearing overlooked a steep drop-off to the sea. I killed the engine and in the sudden silence heard waves pounding below. Jed climbed off and I followed him to the monument. The markers closest to it were dated 1820. On the side facing the ocean was carved, “Here lie the dogs who made this world a better place by being in it.”

Jed walked out from the monument until he found an open spot among the smaller stones. He set Pete down and took the shovel from me. I tried to help but he gently pushed me aside. When the hole was ready he laid Pete at the bottom. Beside the body Jed placed a threadbare squirrel toy, a rawhide chewie and a tattered copy of A River Runs Through It. I added a sweater of mine I’d taken to wrapping around Pete each night. When the hole was filled, Jed stepped back. “I call this the Stepping- Off Place,” he said. He paused, perhaps trying to voice thoughts he’d never spoken aloud before, at least not to another human. “I want to — need to — believe that from here they go to a better place. One that’s perfect for dogs, not just an island hidden from the rest of our world.”

I held up a hand. “Talkin’ to the paw.”
Jed didn’t smile but a little light came back into his eyes.

 Over the next two years, I made several trips to the Stepping-Off Place. I didn’t call Jed again — it was my responsibility now. Afterward I’d return to the house and write each dog’s story for Canis Libris. Between those sad days were many more filled with hard work and great contentment. I was taught that to merely sit on the stream bank with dry feet was to miss the point of water; it needed to be thoroughly splashed through to fulfill its purpose on earth. Beach sand had many purposes — like scratching one’s back, hiding special treasures to dig up, or just being run across. I learned that there is a sound to the joy in life and it is Thwupp! Thwupp! Thwupp! And I strove to perfect the art of baking my bones on the big porch while contemplating the meaning of the universe — or just taking a long, well-deserved nap. Days passed, seasons turned and a few years went by. Then Clyde called. “It’s Jed.”

Clyde rode with me up to the clearing this time. He helped me dig a grave just inside the line of trees at the back edge where I saw that the markers were larger and fewer. When the work was done, neither of us could think what to say. Clyde produced two bottles of beer and we drank in silence while the ocean crashed against the rocks below and the grass rippled. From somewhere on the island first one dog voice rose, then another, then a chorus. “That’ll do,” I said.

I never ran out of Island names for the new arrivals. Never resorted to Fi-Fi or Toodles or ran out of the right words to tell their stories in Canis Libris. Clyde’s son took over the boat and was so much like his father I sometimes forgot that he wasn’t. My hands slowly became gnarled, unhelpful things and I sometimes napped entire afternoons away on the porch, but it wasn’t until my eyesight went that I knew it was time to call the Director.

She was a he now, a man I’d never met. “I have just the person in mind,” he said. I taught Keira as Jed had taught me and Pete had taught him. I was eighty when I went back to the world of humans and I lived there for a dozen more years, but my heart never left Dog Island. Eventually I returned to join my fellow caretakers at the Stepping-Off Place, where together we wait at the door between our world and theirs, holding it open, hoping one day they’ll return to make ours a better place by being in it.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 60: Jun/Jul/Aug 2010
Don Katnik has worked as a wildlife biologist in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. He writes fictionwhen not doing home improvement projects or playing with his dogs, Jadzia and Bronx. He lives in Maine with his wife, Misty.

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