The Crucifix and My German Shepherd-Husky (or Maybe Coyote)

Karen Van Fossen

I have gathered myself into bed beneath a crucifix, something that doesn’t often happen in my life. More than once, I have caught myself saying, “I am so hap­py,” for only my ears to hear. This joy is not inspired by the African-looking Jesus on a mahogany-look­ing cross above my head. But I’m just where I wish to be: taking a retreat with the Presentation Sisters in Fargo; settling into Guest Room #2, the African Room. This modest spot with its twin bed and unassum­ing African art might be the quietest place I have ever been.

The second quietest place holds a different kind of quiet. In central North Dakota, Cross Ranch pulses with the quiet, breathes with the qui­et. I imagine the wind and the river as two strands in a braid. I wonder what the third would be. Coyotes? Leaping fish? Deer, both living and dead, perhaps.

Jasmine – our German-shepherd-husky (or maybe coyote) mix, sur­vivor of skunk, porcupine quill, and three-day coma – once carried the leg of a deer in her jaw for an entire afternoon. I joked that there were thirteen legs joining the hike at Cross Ranch that day. Had I ever known that deer, my joke would have been repugnant, not to mention impossible.

But Jasmine has always kept pace with the wild, sending me to places I otherwise might have missed – like the tomato juice aisle at the grocery store. It started with a hike along the river, close to home. On calling her back, I stopped in my tracks. Sniff, sniff. That scent! I was coming upon a skunk, and my nose knew it.

Then, the stink grew ever stronger, with every step my trotting dog took in my direction. I groaned like a ju­nior-varsity football team, getting an unfair penalty in a game they could otherwise win. Except I had no idea how to win..

All I knew was this: Our very car­peted, very absorbent trailer house was currently on the market, and that was the house, of course, where Jasmine lived. I also wondered if skunk spray might be toxic to her skin – and not just all my senses.

Long story short, I turned her pink.

This was not my effort to gain fa­vor with would-be buyers. It was just an untoward chemical reaction. I had plunked down a bunch of money on an invention called Skunk-Off, but not enough money, since Jasmine continued smelling like a skunk-in­fused dog – with the slightest hint of Skunk-Off in her aura. At last, I had to resort to that infamous home rem­edy – filling the bath with water…and tomato juice…and dog.

Had I worked for Mary Kay, I might have been ecstatic to have a rose-colored animal.

But, long story short again, Jas­mine’s perky color had no bearing on the stink. We took our trailer off the market.

And our dog? We loved her pink or blue or gold or whatever color she happened upon. Even today, when I catch a whiff of skunk, it’s not as sweet as jasmine flowers, but I’m a Pavlovian creature, too; it makes me feel…good.

I miss her in this African room, near the biblical passage from Micah artfully rendered in black and white: “This is what Yahweh asks of you, to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your god.”

Yahweh hasn’t spoken to me in years. That’s not the name I use, any­way. But here in this deep quiet that the sisters have gracefully shared, I am nurturing a tenderness for the writer named Micah, the artist who crafted this crucifix, and, as always, my dog.

To think I almost lost her. Up and down the frozen river, she made her fox-like tracks that day. She was such a wild creature then, my gratitude felt like a living presence every time she returned.

Then – a pack of coyotes, fast and proud on the diamond-like river, came running toward my dog. She stood on the ice, yards from me, ignoring all my calls. Instead, she faced the coyotes. She joined the pack of coyotes. Among the pack, she ran across the ice – far away. Smaller and smaller, her body became, keep­ing pace with the pack, heading into the cottonwood trees on the opposite side of the river.

I didn’t call her back. If these were Jasmine’s people, I would let her have her people. But I wept from deep in my belly, watching until there was no one left to see.

And then a speck appeared. One, lone speck. Growing. Nearing. Un­harmed, unscathed. Coming back.

To me.

Together, we walked humbly, or maybe we walked proudly.

Yahweh, by any name,

was probably there.

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