I read the sign on the door next to mine: “In case of fire, dog inside. Responds to Beo.” Huh. Bee-Oh. Odd name for a dog.
I hadn’t heard anything from him, but I couldn’t say the same for the owner. Dammit, if I hear your freeweights clashing for an hour on end, you’re not doing it right. But that’s apartment life for you. At least I wasn’t home much.
I didn’t think of the sign again until weeks later, cutting through the backyard to get to the patio door. The building back-ended onto a state park, one of the wooded ones with ski trails in the winter and fistfuls of blackberries hanging off the bushes come summertime. I liked to hike the trails at dusk. They twined and snaked around enough that you could get lost fairly quickly if you were looking to do so. Usually I was.
Coming back one night I saw a movement in the patio next to mine. It was twilight, and there were mostly various shades of charcoal, but I thought I could see eyes. Something growled and then sprang out, snarling. That is, snarling and then wagging its tail, the cutest little fluff of a cinnamon bun. He bowed his head down over his paws and laughed at me with that dopey thing dogs do, all big tongue and eyes dancing up at you. I trusted the eyes and the tail. We made friends.
Ended up making friends with Nick, too, the guy with the weights and the sign. He set me straight on the name; it was “Bay-Oh,” not “Bee-Oh,” and sure, I could borrow the dog for walks. Beo was alone while Nick was out painting houses, so he and I had plenty of time to ourselves. In between shifts I’d take him tromping out through the blackberry patch and chasing butterflies.
I learned he was a Norweigan Elkhound, a breed known for twice yearly shedding, very little doggy smell, and a loud, sharp bark. I heard the bark every once in awhile, but he never howled despite the invitations from fire trucks housed just down the road.
One day we were at the top of the foothill, a bare patch where four of five paths crossed. Something about that night really got to me: the starkness of the branches limned in silver, the full moon up above, the utter stillness of the place. When a fire siren went off, I went off with it, throwing my head back for a full howl. Beo startled into a full stance, ears perked forward and eyes directed right on my face. From deep down in that furry chest came a rumble, a gurgling rush of noise that seemed to surprise him when it poured forth in his first great, long howl.
I did him no favor. He wanted to howl then, all the time, whenever another truck took off wailing. I heard him through the thin wall a couple of times, but then the howls started to get punctuated by sudden whimpers. He’d still start up, but then he’d cry. Soft, like a dog does, hiding it.
Time came when I ran into Nick and asked a few questions. He’d put a shock collar on Beo and zapped him whenever it seemed appropriate. We discussed the meaning of “appropriate,” among other things. Nick was moving out anyway, and he needed cash. I, well, I needed to be able to sleep at night, and it wasn’t the howling that would keep me up.
The dog stayed with me. When I made my Northwest Passage the next year, he was sitting next to the two steamer trunks that held all I had left in the world. Now, he’s sitting at my feet.
And that’s the story of Beowulf.
(February 12, 2011)