Mary's Dog

Mary's dog died on the first Saturday of January while sleeping at the end of Ted's bed. When Ted woke up, the mutt's stubby limbs were already stiff and the grayed muzzle remained frozen in a wide, eerie grin, its tongue sagging onto the quilt.

Ted was mildly upset about this. It had always been Mary's dog but in the years since his wife's death, Ted had gotten used to the old arthritic beast following him around. He'd mostly liked the dog and talked to it sometimes when he was lonely, reminiscing about the good old days when the two of them didn't creak with every step.

But Ted mourned for only a moment or two. His mood changed completely when he realized he now had to go out and dig a grave in the middle of winter. Sighing, he got out of bed and wrapped the dog in a sheet.

Ted carried the dog's body downstairs and placed it on the old dog pillow in the corner of the kitchen. After frying up some eggs and bacon, he delayed his morning ritual for just a moment to raise his coffee mug in a toast to the old mutt who would never again beg him for scraps. Then Ted sat down to breakfast, pondering what he'd do with the sheet-wrapped body in the corner.

An hour later, he laced up his boots, pulled on his flannel jacket, and dragged the dog's body behind him on a sled until he found some ground near the shed that hadn't been covered in a foot of snow. The digging was as hard as he expected, through partially frozen soil that made his joints ache even more than they usually did. Eventually, though, Ted rolled the dog into the grave, shoveled the dirt back in and patted it all back into place.

A cold breeze blew around his neck as he surveyed his work, a patch of black mud in a blanket of snow. Something about that mournful dark blot of mud compelled him to say a few words. "Well...I don't think you hated this spot more than any other place in the yard," he said. "It's a pretty good one." He looked around. "I guess under that tree would've been a nicer place. But here you've got the shed and the fence and I think that rose bush is still alive. It'll smell like Mary in the summer."

Ted paused and tried to imagine what Mary would have said at her dog's funeral. He could almost see her crouching by the rosebush, working in her garden as though the last decade had never happened. Her hair peeked out from beneath a sunhat, framing her face in wispy grey waves. She stuck the trowel in the ground and turned to look at him, shading her eyes with her hand, sensing him staring at her. "What?" she asked, with that look of amusement she always had when she found him beside her for no good reason. "Did you forget something?"

For a moment, Ted did forget the reason why he was outside and turned to look by his left leg to tell Mary's dog about this beautiful vision he'd just remembered. But the muddy patch in the snow was all that he found and he shook his head chiding himself for being so silly. Ted kept the memory to himself.

The cold breeze returned and he huddled deeper into his coat. Icy crystals drifted onto the muddy grave, reclaiming the disturbed ground and the dog beneath. "Bye," Ted said with a little wave, then he picked up his shovel and the sled and went back to the house alone.

The one thing Ted was not prepared for, after Mary's dog died, was the silence. It had never been a noisy mutt; sure, it barked on occasion and whined every once in a while when Ted forgot to share his bacon at breakfast but overall he just remembered seeing it, not hearing it. Now that it was just him in the old farmhouse, all he heard were its creakings and groanings and the melodramatic breath of the wind shaking the windows, all trying to get his attention. For the most part, he ignored them.

That night, Ted lit a fire in the fireplace in the living room and read a book. Mostly he stared at the book and listened to the non-living sounds of the house but he told himself he was reading and enjoying whatever book he'd picked at random from the bookshelf.

He'd only been alone, completely alone, in this house once before since he'd gotten married. If he looked to the doorway, he could see her come into the living room, rushing through the doorway and over the coatrack in one big rush. "I don't expect you to understand, Ted, but I did want some help."

"I'd help but I don't think we need to go out and look," he'd said then, and almost said now. "It's a dog, they run away all the time. It'll come back before too long. They remember who feeds them."

"Just like husbands," she'd replied with an exasperated smile on her face. Her skin shone young and relaxed in the lamplight. That had been before the cancer treatments and the wigs. That was her own beauty, the Mary he preferred to remember.

Ted glanced to the rug in front of the fireplace and opened his mouth to share this vision but Mary's dog was still not there, still dead and buried in the backyard by the shed. He closed his book and got up off the couch, annoyed that he'd almost talked to a dead dog again. He hadn't done that when Mary died…he'd just talked to the dog because it had seemed lonely and it helped both of them. But now the dog was gone and he saw no sense talking to something that couldn't respond.

A particularly loud, attention-seeking gust of wind blew large fresh snowflakes onto the glass of the window and Ted rubbed his hands together. Just the thought of more snow coming to bury him and his house made him cold. Grabbing a couple more logs to toss on the fire, he loaded one in and almost loaded the other when he paused to examine it. The log, some nice pine, had grown and been cut in such a way that he could almost make out the shape of a human nose.

Ted brought the log with him to the couch and set it on the coffee table so he could stare at it better. If he looked at it just the right way it certainly looked like a nose, slender and slightly pointed, like a crooked pyramid. In some ways it looked a lot like Mary's nose.

Intrigued, Ted went and got his wood carving toolkit and tentatively shaved off a couple chips of wood. Already it looked more noselike. Ted worked on it for an hour or so, moving from the nose to the cheeks and forehead and starting the indents of her eyes.

But he set it down in disgust before too long. The log now looked somewhat human, but it didn't look much like Mary. Her face was longer, her eyes wider, her nose not quite so high on her face… It irritated him that the wood was not cooperating with the image he had in his head. He tossed the half-finished carving in the fire and returned to not reading his book.

He stretched out on the bed that night and slept how he wanted to sleep. There was no dog at the end of the bed dictating what position was allowed so he sprawled out like he always thought sounded nice. Ted woke up with an aching back and a nagging feeling that there was something he needed to do.

Then he went downstairs, fried up some bacon and some eggs and drank his coffee in silence. No whines or big eyes watching him from the corner. Ted was rather annoyed about that too. He glared at the pillow in the corner as if it was all its fault. The house was too quiet.

Ted finished his coffee and wandered around looking for something to do but found he'd already done everything the day before. The laundry was washed and put away, the kitchen tidy, and even the bathroom was clean enough to pass over. He went into the living room and picked up his book from the coffee table. A wood shaving fell out, marking the last page.

Ted gingerly picked it up with his fingertips and examined it before flicking it into the fireplace. It landed next to a log he almost thought had a nose.

"Why not?" he said aloud to no one (and promptly felt silly for talking to himself). He picked up another promising piece of wood and began to carve.

For weeks that was all he did. He'd wake up early, eat his bacon and eggs in silence, and attack a chunk of wood all day. Sometimes he botched every piece within an hour, spacing the facial features incorrectly or making the wrong stroke with his tools and marring Wooden Mary's beauty. Other days he would nearly finish the piece, down to the way her hair fell around her face, but he'd step back and it was still all wrong.

Over time, he began to realize what the nagging feeling was that followed him day in and day out. It caused him to see Mary and say nothing, until he no longer saw Mary when he looked at her robe on the coatrack and her boots on the bench in the hall. He just saw Mary's things and didn't think of anything else. Ted was afraid he was forgetting what she looked like altogether, forgetting how to make the wood come alive like she'd once been because he couldn't remember how she'd been. His hands forgot the contours of her face and the texture of her skin and he ruined every carving with fading memory. As hard as he tried, he couldn't stop himself from destroying Wooden Marys with his efforts to try and remember.

If it was a cold day he'd throw the mangled ones in the fireplace; on warm days he'd stack them outside on the woodpile for future fires.

Three weeks after Mary's dog died, Ted couldn't help but stare at the few uncarved logs that remained on his woodpile. Less than a quarter remained faceless, an eerie sight in the half-light of sunset, all staring at him in different stages of development. A little spooked, Ted grabbed a couple more logs and hurried to the safety of his wood shaving-filled living room.

He put one log in the wood bin by the fireplace and the other in front of him on the coffee table, sizing it up. It was probably the closest to ideal he'd seen since the nose log, a promising start. Ted pulled out his tools and put the chisel to the rough bark but hesitance stayed his hand.

After so many failures, he wanted this one to be the right one, to be the Wooden Mary that stayed with him and didn't have to be burned to save him from looking at it.

So, sacrificing his dignity, that's what he told the log.

After, he felt better and set about his work with a new energy. The skin smoothed under his hands like Mary's did, the eyes formed just right, and her face was neither too long nor too short. Everything was taking shape just like he'd always imagined.

The fire cracked loudly in the fireplace, taking his attention away from his work for just a moment. It cracked and popped and then one of the half-carved logs split and settled into the coals, knocking a few little coals onto the rug. Ted set down his carving and rushed over, kicking the smoldering embers back into the fireplace and closing the screen. The rug had a few dark scorch marks mixed in with the dog hair and years of wear, but otherwise it escaped with little damage. Crisis averted, he sat down and went to pick up his carving tools again but thought better of it.

"That's enough for one night," he told himself, feeling only a little silly.

When he woke the next morning, Ted knew what he needed to do. Sometime in the night, consciously or otherwise, it occurred to him what was necessary for him to feel like old times, to remember Mary and pass his days without destroying the year's firewood.

He went downstairs, left the eggs and the bacon in the fridge for the day, and got in his car. Ted drove into the city, went into the building alone, and came out with a new mutt, a young mutt that pulled at the leash and played with Ted's shoes. In the car on the way back, the mutt clambered over the seats, wanting to get a good look at the world from every angle.

When they arrived at the old farmhouse, the young mutt ran around the house three times, sniffing at every new thing. But when Ted called its name, it came running back to him and happily stood next to his leg, staring up at him. Then Ted and the mutt went inside, into their home.

Ted sat down with his nearly-finished wood carving, his tools laid out on the coffee table in front of him. He could hear the young mutt chewing on a rawhide bone on the rug in front of the fireplace and he smiled.

"Let me tell you about my wife, Mary," he began and Ted's dog looked up from its bone and listened.