A Chance Encounter

TO GET TO WHERE WE LIVE, you take a county road that’s paved for 3 of its winding miles up a mountain before becoming gravel about half a mile from our acres. The house is a hundred yards or so off the road and is flanked by fenced pastures. Several goats we don’t own roam around in one of the pastures, eating everything but the rocks. We enjoy an arrangement with the neighbors on that side whereby those goats of theirs are never hungry, and our pasture never needs tending. Horses and cattle occupy the other, which we don’t own. Behind us are big woods. It’s a good place to live, if a little right of where we like to keep our politics. But folks mostly wave when we pass on the road, and the ones we know well enough to talk to keep an eye on us in the best way and always give us a hand when they see that we need one.

Undesirable individuals do pass this way, however. Not long after we moved out here, one robbed us of a riding mower we had bought the day before. Instead of putting it in the shed where it belonged while we were at work, we left it in plain sight, available to anybody willing to trespass long enough to load it up. We called the cops and filed a report, figuring we’d be going mower shopping the next day. Instead, the cops called us back, and a deputy sheriff took us on a nighttime ride deep into the meth-y hills. He was responding to a call about a guy who’d come in drunk and punched his girlfriend—behavior that his girlfriend’s 11-year-old daughter had seen often enough to decide that this was when she’d finally pick up the phone. Her mother didn’t seem likely to act on her own behalf, so the little girl just went ahead and took brave charge. She told the dispatcher she knew her mom’s boyfriend was also selling dope, but probably not enough to afford the new mower he brought home that afternoon.

The machine, as the deputy had assumed, turned out to be ours, and while he went over the details of its return, a couple of other officers dealt with what we all hoped was the ex-boyfriend. We saw him handcuffed and hauled away, blue lights spinning. He wasn’t big, just a tight bundle of muscle and wire, and you could tell you’d better be fully committed before you tried him.

“Y’all need a fence and a gate,” the deputy said back at our house. “I’d get me a dog out here, too, if I’s y’all. Like a man-eater, one that’ll give guys like that second thoughts.”

We built the fence out of used crossties and hung the gate between thick posts. The barrier won’t keep you out if you really want in, but if you’re up to no good, it’ll occupy you longer than you’d want to be. The other thing we needed, we got from a breeder who’d had one returned because the people who originally bought her didn’t realize that you have to train a puppy, and that training a puppy takes more work than googling how to do it. And this particular puppy was a willful handful of a purebred Siberian Husky who would grow up to be Ella, the dog who makes it impossible for your dog to be the best dog there is. We got her because my wife, an all-in dog person, unlike me, had always wanted a Husky. I told her that the word was not to get one for a watchdog, but this wife of mine is herself willful, and I have learned to recognize a made-up mind. Ella made quick work of conscripting me into her service, and she looks enough like a wolf to discourage any intruder who doesn’t know that the only watching a Husky will do is for the chance to lick somebody’s face.

One of the many blessings of being rural is that nature is a constant presence in your hours. I’d just as soon not start the day sweeping a snake back outside or having to deal with what happens when a skunk sprays with full intent, but these things occur only once in a while. What is always going on is the glorious unpaved world, its sights and sounds, its smells and colors, its seasonal movements. It’s a showcase of life and death and the in-between, all of it over and over without end.

During a recent morning walk, Ella had an encounter with a deer, a small doe. I wish I had a way to show it, but I don’t carry a camera on our walks because the only one I have is on my flip phone, and it doesn’t make good pictures. And though I probably ought to have it with me on those walks, I don’t like carrying a telephone, which is probably obvious since I still have one that flips open. I call only three or four people, and I’m not the kind of a person who needs a picture to know that something took place.

This wasn’t the case the other morning. We’d been out for half an hour or so when I sensed a presence and turned to see that deer walking behind us. We stopped. She did not. She stepped, cautiously but without fear, right on up and got nose to nose with Ella, who was as uncertain of her next move as I was surprised by what I was seeing. Then, incredibly, the deer started a game of back-off/move-in chase. Being on a lead, Ella couldn’t fully engage, but she did bow and accept the invitation. It was truly an amazing thing to witness, this back and forth between deer and dog, and I sincerely do wish I had a visual record of it. How long did it last? I couldn’t say because time gets hard to keep in that kind of a situation, but it definitely went on for quite a little while.

They played and played. Ignored, I moved with them, marveling, giving Ella as much slack as I could. There was no growling or snorting, no stamping or baring of teeth, no threats, just a little camaraderie between species on a chilly morning—a little cooperation, a little getting along, a little sharing, a little miracle. And then it ended. The doe turned, her step becoming a prance, and in a flash, she was at her full speed, bounding away.

Ella watched until she was convinced that it was over. Then she looked at me and might as well have said, “Did you see the fine thing that just happened?” I was certain that I had and longed for a way to share what I’d seen beyond speaking it back into existence because if you could see it, you’d know what’s possible. And you’d be ashamed, as I was, of all the times you’ve allowed yourself to get nose to nose with others, literally and figuratively, for the sole purpose of challenging their beliefs and visions, when instead you could have done what those two creatures did. You could have taken the opportunity to enjoy a moment together in the sweet world that we share.

Thomas Cochran is the author of three novels, including, most recently, Uncle Drew and the Bat Dodger (Pelican). A native of Haynesville, La., he currently lives with his wife on some acres in rural Northwest Arkansas.