Where does one start? The beginning? Or the end? In the early days or with the long fade come late? There seems no middle ground: Beginning or end?
I will start at the end; Riika died. Our old girl of wild heart and crazy soul, of passion and love, of independence and devotion and all that a dog can bring. Riika died.
Seventeen years and three months old nearly to the day. How could we have been so fortunate?
Now to the beginning, now that the end has been told.
Seventeen years ago Sally held Riika, gray and white with startling blue eyes, held her up and made sweet talk to her. Riika locked eyes with her and then growled at her! Sal, wide-eyed with surprise, pulled back in shock, said, “This one’s trouble.”
She was going to be our hunting dog, born and bred of German stock, a breed virtually unknown in the United States: Deutscher Wachtelhund, which translates roughly to German Quail Dog. Descriptions note they have the nose of a bloodhound, a hunting capability for all game. They live, according to the book, 12 to 14 years.
She was a beautiful puppy; she really was. I wasn’t the only one saying that. She set her independent path from the beginning with a deliberate determination to ignore any instruction. Our feeble entreaties to come went unheeded. I was despondent. She went her wild way for two full years as if to show us who was in charge and then, only then, did she begin to obey us.
In the early years I said, “I never want another dog” because she drove me mad with frustration, left me weak with despair, with her independent spirit and willful disregard for my pathetic commands. I’d come home from a walk in the woods with a splitting headache from being with her, and say, “I never want another dog.”
Now I think, “I never want another dog” because they could never measure up to Riika.
She was to be our hunter. She became so much more.
She hunted at six months, nose to the ground reading scent. She found birds older dogs missed, ran wild as a November storm, chased after rabbits and deer. My vision of a finely paired team, me and my loyal obedient dog, was left blown to the wind on the clear October air like a fallen leaf once blazing in glory now turning to duff.
I had no ability to train dogs; she had endless talent. We worked it out. We worked it out in the glory of autumn woods and on wind-blown cold water lakes. I stood aside and followed her lead. We worked it out.
We worked it out in the woods of September when she got scent and ran to the next zip code, ran out of sound and sight and reason. She always came back. Came back on a bitter cold New Years Day when Sally and I stood in a stand of solemn trees that offered no judgment and heard her bark fade away, stood there for a long time in wolf country. She came back.
Came back always, panting hard, blooded from brambles and brush. Came back to us until the next time scent’s siren call reached to her soul.
The stories we could tell. The times we could recount. The memories she gave to us.
She was never subservient. She did not beg for table food; to beg was beneath her. Riika would barter with us. She’d walk the house looking for something to give us, a shoe, a toy, a sock. But not just the first thing she’d come to. She’d tip over the box of dog toys, paw through them and finally, only when she found the special gift that was right for that day, would she pick it up and carry it to us and offer it up for food.
It was not an act of begging, that was for lesser dogs. It was a transaction carried out between peers: I will pay for my food by giving you something of value. I will not beg. That was Riika.
Some dogs like to hunt, and some love to hunt. Riika lived to hunt. In that, there is a world of difference.
She came to love the fall days when frost etched the grasses, the oppressive heat of summer gone to ghosts. She loved chill mornings in crystal Wisconsin air with the sweet scent of fern and leaf underfoot. She would run ahead of me into the glow of the rising sun, and the sun would backlight her silhouette, and for that moment, it would seem as if she was afire, a blazing star in the shadowed woods.
We could have lost her years ago. We could have lost her to wolves during her times of wild flight. We should have lost her to the cancer the vet removed. We should have lost her to age.
She had ACL surgery; they said she was too old but she ran like the wind that fall. She tangled with porkies, six, eight, ten times in surgery. She went stone deaf and taught me how to hunt in her silent world.
We could have lost her. Now we have.
She went on her own terms, a slow fade as kidneys failed and perhaps the cancer returned. She went when it was time; we never had to call the vet for the needle. She died in peace on the floor next to the bed.
We had a routine. Sally and I would have dinner with Riika under the table. After dinner I’d go to the living room to read. She’d follow and lie next to me. A month ago, she walked easy. Weeks ago, she limped. In the end, I carried her.
Now I sit to read, but the book slides to my lap, and my mind turns to Riika, to Riika and seventeen years we had, so many memories. I sort through them in my thoughts in the dark night.
It’s going take some time.