On a summer day not so long ago, my husband and I stood, our shovels in hand, on the lower edge of the sloping hill leading toward the higher ground of our backyard. We were burying our seventeen-year-old dog there, between the empty chicken coop and the stretch of yard that leads up past the old sugarhouse we use as a shed.
Paul had done most of the digging—he likes digging—and he was making a hole about three feet by two feet and two-and-a-half feet deep. We knew the hole had to be deep enough so that some other critter would not come out of the woods, just beyond where we stood, and dig him up.
George, our large, tortoiseshell-colored, five-toed cat, sat on the tin roof of the abandoned coop watching us. He had very much adored Noki, whom he slept next to on the dog bed, when the dog allowed, and followed around the house and the yard. Noki also occasionally permitted George to lick the fur around his ears.
“Taid etched coffin plates,” Paul said, pausing with his elbow on the shovel’s handle. Taid is the Welsh word for grandfather.
“Yeah,” I said. “I remember. He was the ironmonger, right?” There is a turn-of-the century photograph of his paternal grandfather standing in front of the hardware store where he worked in North Wales—a small, olive-skinned man wearing a long white apron.
We reviewed all the pets we had buried on different parts of our two acres. There was Harvey, a rescued older cat who had preferred drinking from water glasses set on a table to using a water bowl—his body was just above the stone retaining wall. Ginger, a rescued Australian shepherd whom we had had too briefly before she died of a mysterious illness, was buried on the wooded hill above us. Then, too, there was the fawn we had kept alive for two weeks, which succumbed both to its injuries from fisher cats and, so it seemed to us, to sheer loneliness for its mother. It was buried not far from Ginger, at the wood’s edge. Sugar, a small, delicate, but fierce cat, got carried off by an owl one day and required no burial.
I took my turn at the shovel. By alternating our digging efforts, we made some progress. It is hard to dig a grave and not consider what happens to the body beneath the ground, over time and through the seasons. Noki’s double-coated fur, which was golden red with black highlights that circled the rim of his ears and each eye, like eyeliner, was so thick and lush that the vet who came out to the car to euthanize him said: “Oh! His fur!”
I pushed rot and worms from my mind. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I said as Paul placed shovelfuls of dirt onto a blue tarp he had carefully spread out alongside the grave, “if Noki’s body could remain intact? His fur would always be soft and luxurious? He could be the dog version of Rosalia Lombardo.”
“Remember me telling you about going to Palermo by myself? When Karen and I backpacked through Europe and split off from each other for our own adventures? I went to Palermo on the train from Rome and met an Italian professor who advised me not to go there by myself?”
“Um, yeah, okay. But who was Rosalia?” Paul paused, setting his shovel against the old wire fence and wiping his face with the bottom of his T-shirt.
“She is a perfectly preserved two-year-old child, the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in the Capuchin Catacombs. She died after the turn of the nineteenth century. In the nineteen-teens sometime. Her skin looks soft and tan; her cheeks are plump as if she died yesterday. And she has beautiful hair with cascading curls and a big, peach silk bow on top. She has these thick eyelashes, and her eyes are closed, almost, but not all the way. Her father was so bereft, he had her preserved by a well-known embalmer who died without revealing his secret solution. I think I read somewhere they recently uncovered the embalmer’s formula.”
I had arrived on a bus on the outskirts of Palermo one hot, dusty August day in 1986. I got off the bus with the only other passenger, a young Israeli soldier on leave. We politely introduced ourselves before giving a fee to the monk standing at the entrance. Then we descended the few steps and entered the hushed crypt that holds 8,000 corpses and more than 1,200 mummies. The soldier and I, the only ones in the narrow, musty space, lost sight of each other somehow. Perhaps he hurried through the catacombs and I lingered? I took my time looking at the skeletons, wearing the remnants of monks’ brown robes, tucked into open vertical and horizontal niches from floor to ceiling.
Farther down the passageway, I was close enough to touch, though I didn’t dare, the faded garments of the wealthy deceased from the 1800s to 1920 who had paid for the privilege to be on view not just to their families but to an eternity of curious strangers. One skeleton wore a tattered, faded, once-opulent royal-blue crepe de chine dress. Rosalia was at the far end of the catacombs, on a pedestal, in a glass-enclosed coffin.
“Here,” Paul said, handing me a hot pint glass of tea. We sat down on the grassy slope of the hill to rest a bit. George stood as sad sentinel on the coop’s roof. Noki’s body, beginning to stiffen, lay nearby, his fur ruffling in the breeze. We talked about our own burial wishes. I knew I wanted to be cremated. Paul thought he would too, and we discussed where we might want our ashes to be tossed. Paul thought perhaps in Wales, on Cape Cod, and in Vermont—the three places where he has lived most of his life. I had no idea, as I have moved around so much. My father was buried in Dayton, Ohio, a place he had lived the last twenty years of his life but to which he was not really connected.
“What about being buried on our land? We can do that.” We had heard in Vermont that one could be interned on one’s own property. “But what if we moved? That would be weird.”
“Yeah,” Paul said. “I sort of like the idea though.”
“Then there was Cee’s ex-partner, remember?”
“Who is Cee?”
“Emily’s friend we hung out with a bit in Portland?”
“Oh yeah, the lawyer?”
“Well, her ex-partner was buried in an eco-friendly Oregon cemetery with lots of trees and flowers and stuff. She was wrapped in a shroud and put on a biodegradable board in the earth with no marker, to decompose and contribute back to the environment. After a while the burial area sinks a bit or something and they replenish it with soil.”
Just then from the woods we heard, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you aallll?”
“What could that mean?” Paul and I said simultaneously, then laughing.
When we first moved to Vermont, we had mistakenly thought barred owls to be bears because of the low “errrr” at the end of “all.” We also have heard the soft chomping sounds of deer, during long winter months, nibbling the juniper bush, and once, while we were quietly sitting in the dark waiting for a lunar eclipse, the steady, gentle padding of their hooves, like a nearly hushed, invisible army marching through the black night as they herded in a line from the ridge of the mountain above down to the river below.
After he had been living with us for eight years, Noki had become a fragile, crooked walker, his hind legs slowly sinking if he stood for too long; he wore adult women’s diapers, size small, with a hole cut out for the tail. We had spoken to other old dog owners and had learned dog diapers didn’t work and were more expensive anyway. It is the kind of elder dog care either you instantly relate to or you find ridiculous.
On a quiet Saturday morning I had gone to the local pharmacy, across the road from a rural cottage hospital. The pharmacist happened to be up front, stocking shelves. I told him what I needed and why. “Those are the ones we used when our dog needed them,” he said, pointing to an upper shelf.
As I walked past him on my way out, he said, “The things we do for our pets! My wife had a mouse that got brain cancer and she had him operated on!”
In the final months of his life, Noki whimpered steadily from the bottom of the stairwell. His whimpering became whining, then barking, until Paul came down to join him on the first floor. Paul, a sculptor, worked in his own time, I went to my day job, as an administrative assistant. Paul dutifully got up through the night to change Noki’s diapers, or take him out, under the cold stars on a winter’s night or onto the wet, long grass of spring, as January became March and then May.
Eight years earlier we had found him next to his owner’s dead body. She was our across-the-street neighbor and, after her retirement as a nurse, had withdrawn into the dark basement level of her house, a recluse, hoarder, and alcoholic. Noki had been with her for those ten days after she died, not drinking, eating, or getting up from the couch where he dutifully lay next to her, not barking, moving, or making a sound.
“Okay,” Paul said, getting slowly up from our tea spot beneath the walnut tree. “Let’s finish.”
We gently carried Noki’s body from the tarp to the open grave.
In our years with us, the second half of his life, Noki had learned to run off-leash—thanks to a rescue-dog trainer who had taught him in one week. We had hired the trainer because the first time I let him run free he gave me a wild grin and took off, hell-for-leather, streaking past the Saint Francis statue that stands watch where our yard’s edge meets the thirty-foot drop-off to the river below, and disappeared into the dense trees of the forest. Though nine years old when we adopted him, he was astonishingly athletic and energized. After being secluded with his first owner in one room of her house, he savored the freedom of running and leaping, Lassie-like, in one freeing bound from the five-foot-high embankment of the woods’ edge to the dirt road below.
Other times he scrambled across the rocky bed of the narrow river, then paddled, with a surprised determination, to the other side. He waited, patiently at first, while we swam in the swimming hole, on the small sandy spot under the steep cliff that rose to the forest floor above us. But he would get bored, determine Paul and I had enough of swimming, and bark at us.
I joked with Paul about this as we savored the cool water of the river, the steady current running alongside a big boulder in the middle of the river in which I could do laps without going anywhere. “Listen!” I would say. “Lassie is trying to tell us something!”
“Wooof!” Noki would insist, fixing us with his eyes like a hypnotist.
“The boys!” I would pretend translate.
“Woof! Woof!” Noki persisted.
“The boys are, the boys are . . .”
“Woof! Woof! Woof!”
“The boys are stuck in the quarry!” I would say. “We have to go get them now!”
“I really want the cremation that Ayars’s aunt had,” Paul said. We were standing over Noki’s open grave looking down at his orange-shrouded form.
Ayars had told us how she had discovered that an aunt, whom she had not seen since she was a toddler and who did not have any direct descendants, was dying, alone, in a nursing home in Pennsylvania. Ayars drove down with a friend in a rented car to bring her back to the small, dark-shingled Vermont house she lived in and in which she had cared for her partner’s mother until her death. She cared for this aunt until she died two weeks later. Her partner, R., an eccentric, wiry man with a wild spray of gray hair, drove his van over to the house, and with the help of a neighbor, they carefully carried the aunt’s body, neatly dressed by Ayars and a hospice nurse, on a wooden door—the door on which R. usually displayed his raku pottery at art fairs—into the van.
They drove to a town thirty minutes away where there was a small crematorium run by a Vietnam vet and his wife, a nurse. Here one could observe the body entering the oven and come back later to pick up the cremains and a complimentary bottle of Vermont maple syrup. Sadly, since then, the couple divorced, and the crematorium closed.
The sun was easing downward in the sky, burnishing it copper and deep red and glinting off the metal roof of the covered bridge. The bee balm, with its tall green stems and delicate red-fringed petals sprouting out from each round head, was a field of miniature frothy ball gowns set on fire by the day’s last rays of light. Paul retrieved an old, framed screen from the sugarhouse, which he snuggly placed in the grave, because we could not bring ourselves to shovel dirt directly on his beautiful fur. Then we placed rocks on top of that, and shoveled the dirt back into the hole, over the rocks, the screen, the orange blanket-shroud, Noki’s body.
This day was done. We picked up our shovels and our empty tea glasses and walked with George, who had quietly leapt from the coop’s roof onto the ground behind us, back toward home.