I set up camp in an opening filled with dead leaves and branches from surrounding oaks. I cleared a 7-by-6 rectangle for my backpacking tent and put the brush in a pile for when I cooked with fire. Pickles loved hot dogs. I teased that she was a cannibal; she’d eat me if I ever stopped buying her favorite peanut butter cookies.
With the kindling stacked, I fed a bendy pole through the loops of the tent. It caught on fabric and I pulled it out and the segments separated. I tugged till the elastic shockcord holding the pieces together stretched to its limit before throwing it down in a tizzy, cursing of course, and stepping on the tent in my socks to fix the snag. Pickles came to comfort me. Actually her kisses were apologetic as though she thought my yelling was at her for licking her paws. She scratched my jeans and whimpered, promising not to do such a naughty thing again without permission.
I cooed “It’s okay. I’m not mad at you, li’l puppy. Li’l poopy puppy. You got poopy breath, puppy!”
She got excited and ran off to play. She wouldn’t wander far so long as the camp smelled like hot dogs.
I went back to the collapsed tent, dusting paw prints from the nylon. The pole went through fine this time and the second pole crossed with the first in the middle. At each corner, I inserted a small rod into the tent poles and the poles, being longer than the tent’s floor, bent in the middle and the tent popped up. The fabric hooked to the poles to keep the tent from deflating. I attached the fly and opened the door to air out the musty stench. Using a rubber mallet that was orange and easy to find on the forest floor, I pounded a stake into three corners. My final stake, yellow and also easy to find, was missing. I checked the bag, inside the tent, under leaves; I even undid the other stakes and lifted the tent and tarp, but the stake was gone.
Pickles gnawed on something by the firewood – I had figured it was a branch. But when the mutt raised her head to swallow saliva, I sat chewed bits of yellow in her whiskers.
“HEY!” I yelled and she darted for the woods with the stake clenched between her teeth. She was faster than me and stopped to look back then sprinted off again, stopped, sprinted. The beast was taunting me.
In our backyard when she got ahold of my socks or Molly’s undies, I could corner her with the fence or trick her into running into the pool where she’d drown without help – boxers’ toes are not webbed and Pickles’s barrel-body sunk despite her powerful kicks. In the summer I made her wear a lifejacket if I wasn’t outside too.
But in the woods, I had to chase her or pretend not to care then sneak up on her or bribe her with something tastier than plastic, which to a frenzied dog that’s prime-cut tenderloin cooked but bloody.
Pickles skidded through dirt and leaves, stopping just before a hill.
I didn’t see the hill.
Charging with years of cheeseburgers deposited in my keester, I had too much momentum to stop.
I tripped over Pickles and slid headfirst through the dreck of leaves that blended the hill with flatland so while sledding on my belly, spitting out pebbles, it was impossible to tell where the end was; I grabbed a sapling: the roots ripped out; a rock hit my chin – that was sure to bleed. I rumbled over dirt clods and skipped the slim trail, going too fast to stop on the flat patch. Finally my feet tumbled over my body, kicking my head before it flipped too. My butt hit the ground like a toddler throwing a tantrum – I was just as mad as the toddler and expressed it as he would: tears.
Pickles stood atop the tallest mountain in southern Illinois, maybe 100 meters high, and felt like a giant tyrant barking commands to her minion but she’d probably still be terrified of the scotty dog on our street. She pawed the edge. Pellets of dirt rolled down but stopped against the first leaf – I had not been so lucky. She considered being a loyal companion like in the great stories and sliding down after me. Or maybe she considered the descent the rough fun she enjoyed. But fear of falling is innate in all creatures and many mistake it for a fear of heights, and so Pickles hesitated. Perhaps if her weight was front-loaded in her massive head instead of her thick haunches, she would’ve ventured down despite her fear.
“Big chicken dog!”
Her head tilted at talk of food. Maybe I brought her to KFC too often.
I had bounced over a trail on my way down but it was halfway up the hill and I couldn’t spot the gradual rise. It had been years since I last rock climbed and I was not prepared to trudge up mire, gripping roots and slipping in deer-dung. “Stay!” I yelled to the dog. “Sit! Stay! Stay! STAY! STAY!”
Pickles finally sat. I didn’t want her wandering off while I made my way back to her. I’d pack up and we’d head home, skipping dinner if we had to—that was my punishment (the dog could find a squirrel or have my trail mix). It was stupid coming here. I had fallen down stairs and it knocked a wild idea into my dented skull. It took another tumble to straighten out my head.
As I followed the hill, the mud rose to limestone cliffs. I was just about to turn back when I saw a cave opening. Spelunking might make this trip worth something. Pickles would love the brackish water from the fossil aquifers. She might actually float in it! She did in the ocean.
It was best to investigate without her in case it was too dark for a Maglight or too deep for a boxer. I couldn’t see inside. The dark curtain might’ve hid a dragon, who, like skinny teen girls, had body-image issues and when photographed from the wrong angle roared that it made their tails look stubby. The bad joke comforted me after I realized a bear might live there. I was about to poke my head inside when a blurry hand reached out and nearly poked my eye. I backed up and uncrossed my eyes and the blurriness turned to boniness.
The flesh clung to the inflamed joints. Arthritis permanently bent the frail index finger but it steadily pointed between my eyes – the nail could etch a hunter’s exploits on the cave wall. The other fingers were curled so the tips touched the palm. The joints were bald, or perhaps the hair was too fine, too white and blended with the pale skin. However a long grey strand wrapped the hand loosely. Between the fingers, like between the thighs of skinny teen girls, there was an unhealthy gap – but also parchment that flapped in the wind.
It fluttered and finally flew free a foot till it slapped my face. The worn page, larger than the A4 computer paper I required my students use, covered my eyes. And when I lifted it, the hand had retreated.
“You dropped this,” I called. The voice carried into the cave and died in the blackness. I reached towards it but my world shook. Illinois got earthquakes monthly, but most ranked a 4 or lower on the Richter scale and so went unnoticed or they rocked us to sleep. But this was a 9! Why weren’t trees and rocks and the very heavens collapsing on me? Because I was the one shaking, and as I drew back my hand to shield my head from debris, I realized this. A sudden seizure had stopped me. But the woman – did I assume from the long grey hair? – was still inside and near starvation. Ricketts, beriberi, scurvy, Mom the nurse had scared me into eating vegetables with threats of these diseases should I skip even a single serving. This cave woman must’ve missed hundreds! Or a calorie-deficiency resulting from only eating greens. Did you know it’d take 400 cups of fresh spinach to get your DRA of calories? She’d pick the forest clean and still starve. I reached in again but the seizure restarted and the gravity of that spot doubled so my obesity-stressed knees crumpled. I lay among the brush, trembling, crawling away from the seizure-inducing gravity well that I mistook for a friendly cave with unphotogenic dragons.
By the time I was well enough to stand, Pickles had come down the mountain, still carrying the yellow stake. She was a smart dog, possibly smarter than me since she had found the path from camp to here while I was still lost. Maybe she was missing a few teeth, but she was smart. She squatted just uphill of me and pissed. It trickled like a stream toward my chin.