Summer 2010

Table of Contents - Vol. VI, No. 2


Poetry    Fiction    Reviews   

Charlene Logan Burnett


The Hounds

I am an admirer of the Irish wolfhound, the extravagant legginess of their gait. They put me in mind of the stories I read as a boy about Fionn mac Cumhaill and his 300 hounds loping through the primeval forests of Ireland in pursuit of six-foot stags and wild boar. So when I retire, after thirty-eight years as an active faculty member in the history department, I feel it is well within my rights to finally fulfill my dream of owning a pair of Irish wolfhounds. I envision the dogs and me taking morning walks around the neighborhood loop, and then in the afternoons, we’ll retire to my study, where I’ll work on my book about medieval European history. They’ll sleep on a large red shag rug. Occasionally, one will lift the hairy ridge of an eyebrow to look over at me and corroborate that all is well.
My wife, though, disapproves.
“You won’t be the one feeding them,” she says.
“I will.”
“You won’t get up in the middle of the night to take them out.”
“Of course I will.”
“They’ll run wild. You won’t discipline them.”
“Ridiculous. I’ll have all the time in the world.”
She stands firm, though, and when September arrives and my colleagues return to the college, I am left to ramble about my aging ranch-style house, which I soon realize is more my wife’s than mine. She has turned the guest room into her office, where she writes a bi-weekly blog called Deconstructing Aging. Although she has a Ph.D., she has always been a poor speller. She refuses my editing suggestions and publishes posts bloated with exclamation points, ellipses, and dashes.
“Instead of standing over my shoulder and telling me what to do,” she says, “why don’t you go work on your own book?”
“I don’t feel inspired.” And I don’t. Although I’d planned on finishing my book this year, away from my faculty office and the constant interruptions, I find my home study unnervingly quiet. The bookcases, which cover all four walls, act as a buffer so no sound penetrates into the room. The oak desk is too tall to place a keyboard. The brass lamp casts a yellowish pallor. And of course, there are no Irish wolfhounds, sleeping on the red shag rug near my feet.
“Go outside. Get some fresh air,” my wife says each time I peer into her office and ask if she wants to do something, like take a drive into town or to go to a movie matinee. “Try taking a walk,” she says.
Our house is situated on a country lot among a hodgepodge of older ranchettes and a few newer stucco castles. Some people have horses. Others llamas or sheep. Almost everyone has a dog. “I’d have a reason to walk if I had a dog,” I say.
This goes on for a number of months, well into spring, and I can tell I’m beginning to wear on her nerves. She, now, closes her office door during the day. She keeps a pot of coffee on her desk. Still, I continue to knock on her door. I call in to her, “You want to do something together today?”
Finally, she opens her office door. She is more frazzled than I remember. She rarely combs her hair. She never rinses her coffee mug. “Harry,” she says. “You can’t keep bothering me like this. I have work to do.”
“I’m bored,” I say, although I know it’s much more than that. I am lonely. Lonely for the companionship of my colleagues, even if it was just a nod in the hallway or a quick chat over a Styrofoam cup of coffee at the kiosk.
“Work on your book,” she gently prods.
“I have no interest in that anymore.”
“Well, you have to find something to do,” she says. “I can’t be the solution.”
She must pick up on my body language as I think, if only I had my dogs, because she says, “Okay, go ahead. Do what you want. Just make sure you take care of them. I won’t be getting up in the middle of the night to let them out. If you remember correctly, when our children were small, you were nowhere to be found.”
I am instantly invigorated. “I’ll feed them,” I say. “I’ll take them out at night. We’ll go for daily walks.”
“Sure,” she says and closes her door.
I walk to my office, arms raised, fist clenched, as if I was Fionn mac Cumhaill himself, arriving home with his dogs after a successful boar hunt. I turn on my computer, tap the plastic edge of the keyboard, and wait to logon and open Safari. I click on the bookmark folder where I saved the websites for the American Kennel Club, the Irish Wolfhound Club of America, and a number of breeders I’d previously researched. I narrow my focus to a kennel that is within a five-hour drive.
I call, but it turns out they have no dogs available and a waiting list for a litter of pups that aren’t even due until next June.
I try another kennel. Same story.
“How’s that possible?” I ask.
“You might try the rescue organizations,” the kennel owner says.
“But I’m looking for a purebred.”
“Lots of purebred dogs looking for homes, too.”
He gives me the phone number of a wolfhound rescue group. I call. They, too, have a waiting list for young dogs, but they do have two adults, a brother and sister, whose owner died. Ideally, the rescue organization wants them adopted together. They are nine years old.
“Nine!” I yell into the phone. “What’s that in dog years? Like sixty-three?”
“Actually, giant breeds age quicker. More like seventy-two.”
“But that’s the same age as me.”
“They’re healthy, though. Still strong and active. They could possibly live for another two years.”
I don’t know how to respond. I tell the rescue volunteer I’ll call him back.
“They’re seventy-two years old,” I tell my wife over dinner, the one meal we still share each day.
“They’ll be dead soon.”
“Are you afraid of mortality?”
“Of course not.”
She lathers a slice of French bread with butter. “Are you sure?”
She does not understand what it is like for me. When she retired, it was as if she was reborn. She took a dance class. She volunteered to teach reading at the local library. She started writing. She does not know how it feels to be irrelevant. She did not endure what I did during my last few years of tenure: the insinuations by the history department chair that I was out of touch with my students; the younger faculty challenging me on any number of historical facts; the bemused expressions of my students the one time I fell asleep while proctoring an exam.
“Older dogs are housebroken,” my wife says. “This will be best. For both of us. I wasn’t looking forward to a pair of untrained wolfhounds galloping through the house.”
“I wanted a young dog.”
“Why? Why is that so important?”
“Because why?”
“They’re active. They’ll keep me feeling young.”
I can’t look her in the eye because I know she pities me. I am a doddering old man whose hips ache constantly. I have arthritis in my fingers. I occasionally drool due to a combination of medications I take for high blood pressure, thyroid, and insomnia.
“Harry,” she says, reaching across the table and touching my hand. “You are not old. Seventy-two is just the beginning of the rest of your life.”
She is quite wrong.
I go to my study, turn on the pale, yellowish light. I run a finger along the dusty spines of my shelved books. I have never disposed of a book, and I own thousands, but I quickly find my boyhood favorite: An Illustrated History of the Fenian Cycle. The hemp cords in the book spine are broken, the leather cover is flaking away in my hands, but as I sit, I am transported as through a time portal, and I am a boy again, hunched over the worn and delicate pages, breathing in their secrets. My old fingers remember the page I am looking for, and the book falls open to a pen and ink drawing of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his two favorite hounds, Bran and Sceolang.
There are conflicting stories about how Fionn died, but the one I like best is that he is not dead at all, but merely sleeping through the centuries in a cave under Dublin. I imagine, too, although the legends don’t support this, that it is Bran and Sceolang sleeping by his side. They are grizzled and old, but loyal as always. I ask myself, What better companion could one ask for than an old dog?
Gar and Aibhe—that is the wolfhounds’ names—arrive at their new home on a magical morning. The sun is topping the eucalyptus trees. The blue-green leaves look almost golden. My wife and I, stand together in the driveway, and watch as the rescue volunteer opens the rear door of a van and two fawn-colored dogs, the size of ponies, leap forth.
The dogs are dizzy from the new sights and smells, and they lurch about the yard, chasing whatever catches their fancy. They seem sound for their age, although Gar favors a front leg and Aibhe’s hair is thin along her trunk.
“They’re magnificent,” I say, barely able to catch my breath over the sheer size of them.
The rescue volunteer whistles, and the dogs lope over to us. I look into Gar and Aibhe’s amber eyes. They are wise, kind. They lean their massive heads toward me, and I rub behind their ears. I stroke their bristly backs. They press closer to me, sit, and splay out their hind legs to accommodate their massive length.
“Looks like you’ve found two best friends,” my wife says.
“Yes.” And I’m sure if I were to close my eyes, I might very well imagine that I am back in ancient Ireland, among the whispering of trees and the cry of the peregrine falcon, and always under the watchful, loving eyes of my wolfhounds, Gar and Aibhe.


© Charlene Logan Burnett



Poetry    Fiction    Reviews   

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