It was a quiet horse, the color of gray corduroy, or those elephant slabs of damp clay wrapped in cellophane. They delivered the horse to the pasture out back of my trailer, and it had taken four men to coax her from the truck. She didn’t kick or fuss, but simply refused to budge. I’d paid 100 dollars for the horse to save it from being put down. My old girlfriend had a pathological weakness for downtrodden animals of all kinds.
One of the delivery fellows kept referring to the horse as ‘daft,’ which I thought was an unusual word choice for a young man who couldn’t have been more than 25 years of age. I didn’t think the horse was daft, at any rate, just depressed. She tended to stand in one place out in the pasture, with her head down, and I very seldom saw her eat.
I’d never in my life spent Christmas alone. The day before Christmas Eve I’d driven into the nearest decent-sized city, a college town of maybe 70,000 people, just under a half hour’s drive from my trailer. The city was crowded with last minute shoppers from the small towns that were clustered in the long valleys throughout the mountains. I’d stopped at some cheap steak chain for lunch, and later splurged on a bunch of new CDs for myself and nearly fifty bucks worth of treats for my dog. Heavy snow was falling even as I made my way back out of town, and by the time I pulled into the half-mile gravel road that led to my trailer visibility had been reduced to next to nothing.
I stumbled through the blowing snow to the door of the trailer. My dog, a mongrel so strained as to look exotic, was waiting for me in a state of pitched agitation, and I opened the door and watched the dog disappear into the whiteout beyond the trailer.
That night I drank enough to feel genuinely sorry for myself, and almost managed to talk myself into flying out the next day to spend Christmas with my sister’s family in Colorado.
The next morning, Christmas Eve, I woke up on the couch, as hungover as I’d been in years.The trailer was completely drifted in, and the wind was still tossing snow around and obscuring the range down the valley to the north. I’d left every light on in the trailer. The only radio station I could pick up in the valley was wheedling with Christmas carols, the signal drifting in and out –some choir somewhere, with a big echo effect that suggested a live feed from a cathedral. I was determined to drink down some Alka-Seltzer and go back to bed, but I realized with a start that my dog was still someplace out in the storm. It was rare that I would allow the dog to spend the night outside in any weather.
I went to the door and called out into the blowing snow. There was no response, and I still could not even make out the gray horse in the pasture less than 100 yards away. I pulled on a pair of boots, parka, mittens, and a hat with earflaps, and ventured out into the drifts. My truck was almost completely buried. I tried to call out into the snow for the dog, but my voice was swallowed in the swirling wind. Wading knee- and sometimes hip-deep through the drifts I made my way around the side of the trailer and managed somehow to locate one of the fence posts from the horse pasture. I couldn’t see much, or far, but there was no sign of either the dog or the horse.
I crawled back into bed, bundled myself in blankets, and tried to take a nap. My head was throbbing, and as I lay there I kept imagining that I heard the dog barking somewhere out in the storm. I actually got up and went to the door twice, but there was no sign of the dog and no sound other than the howling of the wind. Even as I slept fitfully I was aware of my heart pinging in my chest like a sonar in an abandoned submarine.
I’d traveled so far from the person I had once been that the people I’d allowed myself to be close to, as well as those to whom I was conjoined by blood, had become mostly uncomfortable strangers to me. I had drifted out of touch. I had no axe to grind, no extravagant grievance or baggage, and it now seemed sad and even a bit shameful to think that my mother did not even know where I was now living or how to get in touch with me. I hadn’t spoken with her in over ten months. When my girlfriend had grown tired of the west and had moved back to Boston –it had been almost two years—I’d given up the apartment in Bozeman and taken the trailer in the valley. I was supposed to be finishing a set of illustrations for a children’s book, but hadn’t made any progress in weeks.
I’d been traveling further into loneliness and its odd, romanticized solace and pleasures. My girlfriend had been in possession of a more polished set of social instincts. She’d been an English professor at a local college, and liked to host small gatherings, enjoyed going out for dinner and shopping. Left to my own devices I seldom did anything that might be considered social. I had made few real friends in the years I’d been living in the west, and still hadn’t even bothered to have the trailer wired for a telephone. The dog was a perfect companion: a good listener, an enforcer of routine and a reasonable order in each day. It was also patient, even-tempered, and eager to please –absolutely companionable. That Man’s Best Friend business really was not overstating, not in this instance. It was unconscionable that I’d allowed myself to get so drunk that I’d left the dog outside in a raging blizzard all night. The poor animal could have strayed miles in search of shelter by this time.
The odd thing about the whole affair was that I’d seldom even gone into town without taking the dog along. I’d been made careless by melancholy and drink, and I would chew myself up forever with grief if anything had happened to him. As I lay there drifting miserably along the blurriest edges of sleep and hangover, I imagined being hounded to the end of my days by the ghost of that dog. In the two preceding years the only real highlights of the holiday season had been the long walks down the valley we had taken together on Christmas Eve.
I finally bundled myself up again and ventured out in what was left of the afternoon daylight to look for the dog. The storm had apparently lifted or moved on; I could see the last of the clouds departing down the valley. The odd and alarming new development was that not only was my dog missing, but there was no sign of the gray horse anywhere in the pasture. The sky had cleared to the point that I could see the entirety of the horse’s fenced enclosure, and the horse was nowhere to be seen. I waddled along the drifts that were built up along the fence line and inspected the gate. It was not only firmly latched, but drifted completely shut. I walked the length of the road to my trailer, all the way out to where it intersected the main gravel road that led out to the state highway. I saw no evidence of any traffic whatsoever, no animal or vehicle tracks other than those from my own truck the previous evening, and even those were mostly obscured.
I managed to get the truck started and backed out to the turnaround. From there the four-wheel drive got me through the drifted snow out to the gravel county road, which was in pretty good shape. From there to the blacktop state highway, a distance of just under two miles, I saw no signs of either the dog or the horse. Once I hit the stop sign at the highway I decided to make another trip into town. I had no idea what I expected to accomplish there on Christmas Eve; it was almost five o’clock and already getting dark. The highway had been plowed and road conditions were fine. There were still Christmas carols looping on the radio station, and I made up my mind to attend Christmas Eve services at some church in town. I hadn’t been in a church in a half dozen years, at least, but I had fond memories of the holiday services from my childhood, and felt very much like a man who needed somehow to be forgiven. If God was ever going to grab me, I’d never felt so susceptible.
In town I found a phone book and tried to call the local animal shelter, but got the answering machine and a deadpan voice wishing me a merry Christmas and encouraging me to neuter my dog. I walked around downtown checking telephone poles and bulletin boards where I thought I might find notices of lost and found animals, but turned up nothing that fit the description of my dog. In the empty Greyhound station I picked up a copy of the local newspaper and found an advertisement for Christmas Eve services at area churches. There was a six o’clock service at a big Lutheran church right in town, so I left my truck on the street and went off in search of the place.
The service was packed with families, and there were dozens of scrubbed and squirming children. I had a tough time staying awake through some of the readings and much of the sermon, but I nonetheless felt somehow better for having gone. My heart felt lighter and heavier at the same time, a strangely emotional state that I have always associated with the holidays. As I walked back to my truck I was greeted warmly by at least a half dozen strangers. I remembered my late father coming in from a last-minute errand on Christmas eve long ago; the old man was rosy-cheeked, half in the bag, and happy as a clam. He was a man who loved special occasions, and as he came in with his arms loaded with shopping bags he had bellowed, “The whole damn town is lousy with Christmas spirit!”
All the way out to the trailer I tried to repair the years in my mind, to line up memories and freeze them in a place where there had still seemed to be so much time, all the time that had since carried me past dark off-ramps, dimly-lit intersections, and all the forks where I had chosen –or, unconsciously, not chosen—the direction that had led me to this road along which I was now driving. I’d basically always let each day shove me wherever it wanted, and when it stopped shoving I stayed put. I missed the old man, a guy who’d been a shover, a dictator in the best and most intoxicating way; he’d always gone his own way and dragged others along who were helpless to resist him, right to the end. After he died my mother had admitted that she’d been little more than one more of his tag-alongs. “He told me he was going to marry me,” she said, “and I believed him.”
Back at the trailer I stood out in the middle of the drifted-in driveway and called out to the dog. The sky had been blown entirely clear of clouds. I stood and watched a jet make its way right through Orion’s belt in the east. It was already close to nine o’clock, and I went back into the trailer, mixed myself a glass of eggnog, and managed to nod off on the couch for a time. At some point I was awakened by what I thought were bells. I sat up in the dark and listened. All was silent, and then I heard voices. I pulled on my boots and stepped outside the trailer. It was a gorgeous night. I could see the Christmas lights twinkling from my neighbor’s yard across the valley. The trees at the farthest edge of my fence line seemed to be nested with glowing corposants. I walked around the trailer and there, a hundred yards away in the pasture, was my dog, sitting attentively before the gray horse.
The horse was standing perhaps three feet from the dog, and her big head was hanging directly above the dog’s, and their joint breathing had created a surreal little pocket of steam in which they seemed frozen. It was an absolutely clear night, eerily quiet. The horse appeared to be conversing with the dog, and as I approached the fence I swore I heard the words –clear as they could possibly be: “And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.’” The dog emitted what sounded like a hoarse, incredulous chuckle. From across the valley I heard once again the ringing of bells. Stars were stretched out above me, precise, detailed constellations, the clear, dusty clutter of the Milky Way. I was astonished to see fireworks bloom suddenly above the valley in the distance, and was inexplicably moved to see the dog and the horse raise their heads in unison to marvel at the display.
I let out a belly laugh that snapped out into the cold air and was quickly swallowed up, and at that precise moment my dog turned and saw me. As he came bounding in my direction I fell to my knees in the snow, opened my arms wide, and braced for the impact.