I want to tell you a story, about a border collie named Ralph—a working dog, in the parlance of the Pink House. He belonged to my grandfather, who let me pick him out and name him, after my own dog (also named Ralph) had been run over by a car. Ralph and I became good friends, our years together, so good that the original Ralph has faded from my memory pretty completely. The later one, the subject of this story, was really the first dog I loved. He was my constant, uncomplaining companion and protector, never hesitating to shield me from whatever wild creature fell in our path. He shared my taste for fried chicken and gravy, and for other things, too—especially swimming. I never saw a dog that loved the water more than he did.
We used to swim twice a day in summer, about an hour before the noon meal, about the time the first traces of sweat appeared back of my neck, and again after supper in the evening, when the water was still very warm, but the edge of the heat was blunted a little. The late swim often initiated after Ralph had emerged from beneath the porch to roll around in the dirt outside the little window looking into the kitchen. Once the screen door slammed, he would race around the edge of the house to find me, before surging ahead, revived and exhilarated by the prospect of water. He would bound forward and backward along the path at intervals, yapping at me when I dawdled, sometimes doubling all the way back to nip at my heels.
At some point along the way, as if giving way to a building momentum, we would both begin to run, as Ralph had wanted all along. We'd slide down the embankment to the creek’s edge, and dive into the green water together in a single squirming graceless kerplunk. All the day’s residual heat was vanished by this ritual until midmorning of the following day. It required at least an hour of floating, splashing, swimming, and diving to accomplish this relief, though, usually until the sun was finally hidden by the tree-line, and even the cicadas had begun to cool down. We would find ourselves dog-paddling side by side in the sudden, tolerable stillness, and know it was time to go home. Silly as it was, these moments I was sure Ralph knew what I was thinking, maybe knew it even a little before I did, so effortlessly he seemed to anticipate my moods, and my movements.
The journey back to the house was delicious and slow. Ralph would maunder under pistachio bushes, trying to root out jack rabbits, and I would kick around the dirt looking for old arrowheads or carelessly buried silver or gold. Once we were back, we would usually sit on the back porch together, and contentedly watch as the sun sank below the roof of Mary Smith’s green little house across the highway.
So were the summers, for five consecutive seasons.
The sixth season, when I was 11, my Uncle Ken came to visit, for a spell longer than the usual one or two days. He stayed so long, in fact, that he came along with us on our swims a few times, to our delight. I showed off my prowess diving (flopping) off the side, and Ralph preened his mastery of the swimming hole, allowing not so much as a turtle to come near without inviting his excited attention. At some point, though, on the second or third day Ken came with us, and after Ralph had dog paddled up beside him—to be stroked and praised and noticed for his bravery—Ken inexplicably reached out, and with one hand on the dog’s back, and the other on his head, pushed him deep in the water.
I screamed, and Ken was laughing, but he let go after a few seconds. Ralph came wheezing and spraying furiously to the surface, springing as rapidly across the water as his legs would carry him before vaulting to the shore in a terrified leap, and sprinting through the pasture home. He was under the porch when I came looking, and wouldn’t come out for 3 days, well after Ken had gone away. It was a week before anyone could come near enough to touch him, and nearly a month before he wouldn’t tremble when they did. It was the next summer before he would even return to the creek. Even then, he wouldn’t swim. He would watch me from the very top of the ledge, his black head resting furtively atop his white front paws, eyes alive with vigilance and caution. When I asked Mary Smith, who taught me to swim—as she had taught my father, and my grandfather, too, when they were boys—why Ralph was so afraid, she said she reckoned he’d learned the heart of humans—"pretty frightening for anyone, beast or man.”
Mary came out one day in July, and managed to lead Ralph back into the water, upcreek where it was shallow, and gradually deeper. He swam again, fitfully at first, but never if I or anyone but Mary was within 100 feet of him. She said it was because she had taught Ralph to swim, too, but I knew she was fooling, that no one had to teach dogs to swim. My Grandmother said it was just that Mary had a "special way", whatever that meant, but I thought I understood why Ralph grouped me in with everyone else, even though I'd never harmed him, or even spoke to him crossly. He had somehow read my heart, I thought; anticipating me, as he always had, he knew of its human meanness, even before I did.
I remembered that, sometimes, the end of evenings, while I sat on the porch alone, and felt Ralph rustling along beneath its planks. The next year, when a rattlesnake bit him on his nose, and it swoll up the size of a grapefruit, and his breath labored and wheezed as he lapsed into coma and death, I thought I knew what he was dreaming as he shuddered away, those final moments. I just wasn’t sure whose face he remembered, in the murk and distance of his death-dream, over the water holding him in.