It is snowing.
It is snowing hard with big, storybook snowflakes like we made in third grade with white paper and blunt-nosed scissors.
In our bedroom, Swirl is sleeping stretched out on the floor on a little girl’s flowered quilt, a half-eaten roll of paper towels next to him. Punchy is under my desk, lying like a sphynx, his big sturdy paws perfectly aligned. They are both retired sled dogs.
I put on my parka and hat and look for their harnesses. Both have front hook harnesses because leashed any other way they would pull me off my feet. They were bred and trained to pull and run but, with me, they are patient and restrained. I yell Whoa to them sometimes when they move too fast. It is a command they remember from the old days. I wonder sometimes what else they remember. I wonder if they miss what they were.
Swirl is a large, beautiful dog, an Alaskan Husky bred for freezing temperatures and long-distance running. He is tall and dignified with a face configured like a wolf’s. He is white with large swaths of gold and brown. When people see Swirl, they stop what they are doing to look at him. He is unaware of this and his tail is always wagging. I love this dog more than I have loved any other dog and many people in my life who, one might say, I should probably love more than a dog. I dread Swirl’s demise and hope I go first.
Punchy is a smaller dog, an Alaskan Husky like Swirl, but not a looker, as they say. He was born in Alaska at an elite mushing kennel but washed out soon despite his “great feet,” mostly because, though he ran hard, he “didn’t know what he was doing.” All of this is by way of a note that came with his sale to a smaller racing kennel in the U.P. which they then passed along to us. Our Punchy is black with brown feet and a bit of a grey beard. His ears flop over. He is not wolf-like. He is anxious and ready and seems to be still wondering why there is no sled to pull.
They walk side by side in the snow. Though they came from the same kennel in the U.P. and, until just last year, worked on sled dog teams pulling tourists through the north woods, I don’t know if they ever ran together. They line up, though, ready, as if they could. As if this very day they could be hooked to the line with a dozen other dogs and tear off through the woods, run into a checkpoint, eat hot slop spooned into bowls, and lay down on straw to sleep for a few hours before waking and running again. This is what they did for many years. Because I am human and not a dog, I think they miss it. I think they must have yearning for the life they used to live. But I could be wrong. I am probably wrong.
The snowflakes stick to their backs. Their big feet leave prints in the snow that conjure up wolves and the wild. They are so close to being wild, these dogs, so born into weather and snow, and living with other dogs. At the kennel where they worked, they waited, jumping and barking, on top of their doghouses for the handler to come hook them up, and then they ran, big smiles on their faces, their tongues lolling from side to side. I know this because I’ve seen pictures of them running. They looked happy, joyous even, if a dog can be joyous.
On the porch, I unhitch their harnesses, brush the snow off their fur, and rub their rumps. I tell them they are good boys, the best boys, like I would if they were sled dogs I’d just unhooked from the team. They wag their tails, high and wide, like flags, the signal that they are glad to be home and are ready for their treats. I open the door for them and they hurry to the kitchen where they sit waiting for the cupboard door to open. It is the end of our walk.