Dog days (and nights) in Orange County
By Hilary Holladay
The Virginia countryside has its own sounds and rhythms. In Orange County, where I’ve recently moved after five years in Charlottesville, I’m used to the cicadas, the cry of the foxes, the tap-tap of rain on the tin roof. The other evening, though, I heard something that made me pause: light footsteps on the porch, snuffling, a bit of exploring. I wasn’t scared, but since I had seen a bear up in the mountains the week before, I wasn’t going to take any chances.
The porch light revealed a sturdy black Labrador. Sleek, muscular, and irresistibly friendly, she padded around the porch as if she owned the place. We visited for a while and then I brought her a bowl of water. She was a guest, and it was the least I could do. I had reason to believe she belonged to a family several fields away, though she wore no collar. Surely she would go home on her own.
Later that night, I sat reading in my favorite chair. The cats had retreated upstairs and I was alone, or so I thought. On the other side of the screen window I noticed the faint glint of the dog’s brown eyes. Her fur was so dark that she was all of a piece with the summer night, except for those eyes. Unselfconscious, affectionate, they floated in space.
In moments such as those, time stops: the day’s small miseries slip away. I was watching an invisible dog watch me. Through such a looking glass I would gladly step more often.
The next morning I rose late and opened the blinds. The sky— its moods so riveting out here in the country— wavered between sun and showers. The cats and I made our way downstairs. We were greeted by the domestic sounds of someone else stirring about. The dog! She had slept all night on the porch.
It seemed only proper to feed her and replenish her water bowl. Then I made the mistake of letting the cats out the back door. The dog, with her excellent nose, found them in about ten seconds. There followed tail wagging and prancing, yowling and hissing. Joining in the mayhem, I cried out in dismay. What was I thinking, setting up such a meeting?
With my team safely inside, I took a stand. “Go home,” I said to the dog. “You’re scaring the cats.”
Her tongue lolling to one side, she smiled at me.
“Go home,” I said softly, admiring the sheen of her coat.
I called the neighbors across the field and beyond the linden trees, and they said yes, the dog belonged to the people who lived down by the river. Her name was Coco, and if I brought her to them, they would take her on home. And would I like some soup?
With Coco by my side, I set out beneath a breezy, uncertain sky. I accepted the gift of the soup, and the neighbor’s little girl and I took Coco down to the fishpond. Frogs splashed into the water; the dog pawed the edge then took a few delicate sips. Everything she did was marvelous.
It was time to go. The neighbor and her daughter stood in the driveway calling the dog in coaxing voices. They knew her well and had taken her home before.
Coco took a few steps forward and circled back to me. “The soup isn’t helping,” I said. But we all knew it wasn’t the aroma of the soup holding her back. Coco and I were totally smitten with one another, and if she had bounded down the driveway without a second glance at me, I would have been deeply hurt.
We adjusted our plans. The neighbor would call the dog’s owner and direct him to my house. That was perfectly fine. Coco and I went back the way we came.
In just about the right amount of time, there was a rapping at my back door. I sprang to my feet: the owner had surely arrived. A cigarette dangling from his mouth, a man greeted me. “Have you seen a little red dog?” He measured the air with his hands, indicating a very small creature indeed. Coco stood resolutely by his side.
“A little red dog! I thought you were here about this big black dog.”
We talked for a minute and then I saw his wife waiting in their car. Between the two of them, I got the whole story on the other dog, a stray that their granddaughter, another neighbor, had taken in just the night before. Then we talked about my car, and theirs.
It was turning into a day of dogs, and neighbors, and conversations that the dogs had set in motion.
That afternoon, I had errands to run, one of which was delivering Coco home. But she declined to hop in the backseat of my car. I admired her for setting boundaries and went on my way.
When I returned in the evening, she was gone. The cats ventured outside, sniffed the air, and visibly relaxed. I was relieved: the spell was broken.
That night, back in my chair, I glanced again and again at the window’s dark rectangle. I knew Coco was safe at home—I could feel it. But what I wouldn’t have given for one more glimpse of those warm eyes floating in the August night.
Hilary Holladay is a visiting professor of English at James Madison University.