It stood there, its tongue lolling out, and looked directly at him. It was a brown and white mutt with friendly eyes. It gave a hesitant wag of its tail and took a step toward him.
“Waddaya think, Hop?”
Hop responded to his whisper by tickling his hand.
The man squatted on the edge of the road and the dog trotted up to him, giving his stubbly face a quick lick with his hot tongue. It nudged his hand with its nose and sniffed. Hop slid through the small gap and hopped on the dog’s nose, pausing as the two looked each other in the eye, then up on the dog’s head and finally rested on his back.
The man looked the dog over. It had no collar nor tags and its ribs were beginning to show. He petted it for a full minute, then got up and began walking again. The dog trotted sometimes beside him, sometimes nosing into the grasses along the road, then catching up again, Hop clinging deftly to his back.
He watched the dog and its tiny passenger, riding now backward and watching the man as he walked behind them. The ghost of a smile crossed his lips. Nothing had changed. The cicadas still sang their buzz saw song, the sun still beat down its white hot light and the lilies responded with carefree orange faces. Yet he began to feel different; a small excitement somewhere in his gut, a repressed hope he’d denied. He closed his eyes and breathed in the hot air.
“What’s yer name? Shep?”
The dog stood still, looking back at him.
“Brownie? No? Look here, I’m no good with names.”
He licked his dry lips. He could feel heat radiating from his skin, his body a stove. The dog trotted ahead of him. Dust rose and settled. The sun began its slow descent. One mile. Two. He began to breathe harder. Either he was growing weary or the dog was trotting faster. Every so often the dog would stop and look back, waiting, then trot on again.
One foot in front of the other. Always onward. Why did he do this? Always. His life was a pattern of stay and leave, a wandering mission of disconnection. Five miles farther on, its sound began to wind its way into his subconscious until he heard it: water running over rock.
His life was a pattern of stay and leave, a wandering mission of disconnection.
He quickened his step and came to it, a river half a mile back from the dusty road, hidden by a dry meadow and a sudden drop from the tree line at its edge. The dog rushed its descent as the man followed him, hanging onto a bush here and there for balance. By the time he reached the bottom, the dog was splashing in the cold river, lapping the welcome water, then laying in the shallow edge, panting. He removed his boots and socks, stepped into the shallows, cupped his hand and drank. The cold water sent coolness through his tired bones. Looking down, he saw Hop, tickling the tip of his toe. The man felt hopeful, the first in a long time.
Man and dog lay on a bed of soft pine needles and slept as the moon rose and stars blinked on one by one.
A moist tongue on his face woke him. The sun was just peeking over the horizon, turning the sky from gray to violet to pink and orange and yellow. He waded in the now still water and drank freely, then pulled on his socks and boots. Rising from the piney bed, he stuck his hands in his pockets as he watched the sun’s early morning display.
“Hey. Where’s the key?” he asked, searching the ground.
The dog trotted up to him.
“Did you see it, boy? Did you see the key?”
The dog barked.
The dog put his front paws on the man.
“Your name’s Key?”
The dog jumped around in a circle, then lowered himself in a play bow.
“Waddaya know. Well, boy, it didn’t matter anyway, did it? Whatever that key was for might be long gone by now.”
The man began following the path upstream, then slowed to a stop.
“Key! C’mon now!”
The dog trotted up to him, looking at him expectantly, then back from where they’d come. He hesitated, looking at the man.
“Ah. Where’s Hop? Is that it?”
Key lay in the river, his head on his paws.
Maybe the mutt was more of a key than in name only. How had he gotten to a point when an animal cared more for connection than he did? He suddenly felt – he didn’t know – sad, he guessed. Lost. It was a feeling he’d not had since he’d left home at sixteen and never looked back. He’d not been acquainted with it in the twenty years of his wandering since then. He sat down, resting his arms on his knees.
What did it matter? It was just a toad, for pete’s sake, hardly as big as his fingernail. But the thought of trudging ahead without Hop – he shook his head. You had to let someone – or something – in to feel the emptiness when they were no longer there. He didn’t like it. He started on again, then stopped and looked back. Key waited, cocking one ear. He shook his head at his own weakness. A new knowledge pushed its way through his stubbornness and wouldn’t leave. He sighed. Maybe it was time. Perhaps he’d been a loner long enough. And, hard as it was to have the thought, it was possible it wasn’t weakness after all. Maybe it was strength. Maybe it was a source of strength he’d missed along the way.
Turning the other direction and starting back, he called, “Okay, Key! We can’t leave our pardner!”
Key bounded ahead of him, then began nosing along the water’s edge. The man jumped. Yanking up his jeans, he saw it perched on the top of his boot. He scooped up the toad with one hand and covered it with the other. Its tiny presence tickled his hand and he smiled.
It scooted out of his hand onto Key’s nose, hopped onto the top of his head, and found his place on his back.
Down the river’s path, they walked; one talking, two listening, three together.
Photos: 1280px-Dog_nose-Elucidate-CC-by-3.0-en.wikipedia.org_.jpg; goodfreephotos.com_.jpg; the-back-of-a-fowlers-toad-frog_w725_h483-public-domain.jpg