I remember the first time I laid eyes on Flo. Looking back, it’s interesting, because she showed up in my life right before Christmas in 1986, a month before my husband Ken died. Of course, I had no idea he was going to die. Just as I had no idea at the time about the significance of a black dog appearing mysteriously in my life—about the Celtic mythology that the black dog was a messenger from the Underworld, and that she would portend death.
I was returning home from my midwifery office and was turning into my snowy driveway when I saw, at the entrance to my drive, a medium size black dog sitting tensely erect and looking at me expectantly.
I lowered the passenger side window and said, in jest, “Oh, hello, have you been waiting for me long?”
The black dog wagged her tail tentatively. As I drove down the driveway, I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw her begin to trot and follow me down the drive.
When I opened the front door, the black dog shot past me, and ran upstairs and hid under my bed. I put groceries away, and then I went upstairs and lay on the floor, talking to her gently as she cowered under my bed.
“What’s your story, my friend? What’s your name? Do you have anyone who is missing you right now? It’s okay, you don’t need to be afraid.”
Her tail bumped a nervous rhythm but she wouldn’t come out. I gave her a couple of stale cookies that I found in the pantry.
When Ken came home, he went upstairs to try to get her to come out. She bared her fangs at him and growled ferociously. He called her a “cur”…among other things, mostly the “B” word. I lay down again and looked at her more closely. She was trembling beneath the undercarriage of the bed. She looked to be in fairly good health, although very skinny—her ribs desperately needed more flesh on them. But her eyes were clear and intelligent and—what? Something about her eyes riveted me.
I let her stay under the bed for the night, despite Ken’s protestations. After Ken left for the hospital in the morning, I managed to get her to come out. I gave her a bowl of water, opened the front door and sent her on her way. I have to admit, I didn’t really think too much about her after that.
A couple of days later, as I was driving to work, I saw the black dog in a neighboring field in the snow. I pulled over on the side of the road and watched her. It appeared that she was playing. She would cock her head sideways, looking intently at the snow, then leap up in the air, slam her paws down, and bury her whole snout in the snow. When she surfaced, she had a mouse in her mouth that she swallowed in one gulp. Ah! I had seen coyotes do this—hearing their meals scurrying under the crust of the snow.
The black dog saw me watching her. She came over to my car and cocked one eyebrow. I got out like it was customary and opened the back door like a chauffeur, and she jumped in. What can I say? I certainly hadn’t planned on adopting a feral dog. But the black dog sat regally in the back seat of my car as though it was her throne, placidly looking out the window.
I convinced Ken that someone would certainly claim such an obviously intelligent dog, so he allowed her in the house while I contacted the police and the local pound. Nobody had reported a lost dog. The more I looked at her, the more I was convinced that she had been on the road for a long, long time. I didn’t tell Ken that. I put a “Found Dog” ad in the local papers. A young couple responded and said she matched the description of their lost dog. They came into the house eagerly, but the woman’s face crumpled when she saw that the black dog was not theirs. She started sobbing as though her heart were breaking.
“I’m really very sorry that I got your hopes up,” I said to the couple. It was starting to dawn on me that I was about to have a new dog.
Ken was actually the one who named her. He was standing behind her and said loudly, “Who are you? Are you Muffy?”
“Are you Fifi?”
“Are you Flo?” With this the black dog whipped her head around and looked at Ken with clear recognition. Florence. Really?
It seemed incongruous to name a semi-wild dog after the matriarch of the Brady Bunch—but Flo it was. It was the name she answered to for the rest of her life.
I brought Flo to my friend Jim Paine, the local veterinarian, to be checked out. Jim said he thought she was around five years old and seemed to be in good health, despite being on her own for who knows how long. He said she appeared to be a terrier, mixed with—what? Perhaps coyote. A terrier-coyote hybrid. Jim also believed that Flo had been spayed, as she had no obvious signs of having had litters.
I let Flo come and go as she liked. I left the sliding glass door open just enough for her to squeeze through to the unheated, back sun porch, where I put a dog bed down for her. In the beginning, she would be gone for several days, so I didn’t know if she would ever be coming back or not. But then, there’d she be, waiting to come in and have some dry dog food and get warm in front of the woodstove. We both liked this arrangement.
It soon became clear to me what Flo was doing on these disappearances. One day as I walked out the back door, I found the carcass of a baby goat lying at my feet as a trophy present for me. Uh oh, I thought, some farmer is not going to be very happy with my feral black huntress.
Then Ken died. Out in our back woods, Ken put a 12-gauge shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger with his toe. There is a strong possibility that Flo was with him when he died. Perhaps that was why she was terrified of guns.
The day he died, my girlfriends all appeared as if by osmosis to be with me. I was so grief-stricken that I got intense tetany in my fingers from hyperventilating, so my sister had to wipe my nose as my hands clawed up like a chicken foot.
Late in the night, I woke to see a bunch of lumps on my bed in the moonlight. I sat up, disoriented, until I realized all the lumps were my girlfriends sleeping, or passed out, scattered in various positions all around me. I turned to my right, and there was Flo, with her snout on the bed, staring at me quietly with one eyebrow cocked up. She wasn’t wagging her tail at all and her eyes were full of concern.
I have to say, Ken’s death kicked the shit out of me. As time went by, I didn’t get “better”; I seemed to get worse. I knew I was dangling precariously close to insanity. I gave myself permission to be crazy for as long as it took to heal. It ended up that it took one full year of crazy to come out the other side. That was just the way it had to happen. I had to feel it all. I wasn’t going to drug away the pain.
I built a hut at the base of The Tree where Ken died. I bent heavy saplings in an arch to create a dome shape and lashed them together until the frame was pretty sturdy. I wove smaller saplings through the frame until it was strong enough to handle the elements. Then I covered this structure with blankets and then with waterproof tarps. I dug a fire pit in the center of the lodge and made a small smoke hole in the roof. I had a heavy Indian blanket covering for the door. The door itself faced East.
I spent as much time as possible in my lodge in the forest. In retrospect, I’m sure my family and friends did think this was insane, but they only conveyed to me their love and support. Flo was my constant companion. During this time she only left occasionally to hunt. Most of the time she was by my side. She was probably extremely worried about me too, but we had an amazing time out there. It was an intensely healing time full of sorrow and joy. A magical time.
Even in the dead of winter, we were all right. I had a great sleeping bag that was rated for 40 degrees below zero, and I had Flo, who would curl up next to me on the insulated mat to keep warm. So we were good. The only downside was that the smoke from the fire pit started to seriously hurt my eyes after a while. But by then it was warm weather again so we weren’t so dependent on fire for warmth. I began to get better.
On the one-year anniversary of Ken’s death, I decided I was going to go to a holy place to learn hands-on energy healing. I wanted to become a healer. The joke was on me, however, because as I began to heal myself, my rebellion gene began to re-emerge. I broke all their stuffy rules, and ultimately got kicked out of the ashram. But I came back home feeling whole and strong and back to my regular naughty self.
I had been gone a month. I walked to the back yard and saw Flo heading home across the back field with a large bird in her mouth. When she saw me she dropped the bird and let out a plaintive howl that made the hair stand up on my neck. I had never heard her howl before. She sounded just like a coyote. I laughed and said, “Well! I guess you really are a coy-dog after all!” She ran frenzied circles around me, yipping like a puppy, delirious in her joy at my return.
“Okay,” I said as I hugged her tightly. “I promise I will never leave you again.”
~ ~ ~
As Flo became more socialized, she hunted less and less. Except for the occasional frog, or the time I found a bloody baby deer skull with tiny antlers, still covered in cartilage and fur, perched proudly in one of my planters—she embraced her domestic dog side. Except for one thing. She hated small yappy dogs. Probably the coy-dog instinct was too hard-wired genetically for her to be able to resist killing a small obnoxious creature. I think she couldn’t—or wouldn’t—distinguish a small domestic dog from a rodent or small game.
The first time it happened (at least while I was present), Flo and I were walking down a remote dirt road in central New Hampshire as an elderly couple walked toward us. They were walking a small, longhaired dog—probably a Pomeranian. When the dog saw Flo it started barking at her in a high-pitched, frantic yip. I felt Flo tense and then silently run at the dog in full kill mode. In a flash, before I could even react, Flo grabbed the dog and shook it like a rag doll, instantly snapping its neck.
The people were screaming, “Lady! Lady! Lady!” I was horrified. After many apologies and negotiating and groveling, that little episode cost me $1500.00. Not that this could ever replace a beloved pet, but this was the price they asked for that breed.
Back in the car, I yelled at her, “Jesus Christ, Flo! What the hell am I going to do with you? You just can’t kill someone’s pet! You do that again and you’re going to be dog meat. I mean it!”
She looked at me serenely, deliberately obtuse. “What? What are you going on about? I thought that was a ground hog.”
~ ~ ~
More than once, I believe Flo saved my life. When I turned forty, a Mexican shaman woman named Quinn suggested I do a vision quest to celebrate this milestone birthday. She designed it for me. She said I was to do three days in the wilderness with water, but no food, and she allowed me to take a knife, matches for fire—and my dog.
My dog? I said I thought it was pretty unusual for me to be able to take my dog along on a quest that was supposed to be solitary. She agreed that it was—but she said she had seen that my dog was also my spirit guardian and she needed to be there to protect me.
I spent three days deep in the solitary wilderness of coastal Downeast Maine, and it was miserable. At first it was foggy and misty and rainy, as only the Maine coast can be. Then it got humid and the mosquitoes came out in droves. I wondered wryly if the Native Americans of this area, the Penobscot (which means “first light”), had to contend with horrendous mosquitoes on their vision quests. I resorted to rolling “stogies” out of dry oak leaves filled with dry pine needles and “smoking” these cigars, blowing the smoke around my head to keep the mosquitoes away.
On the final night, the mosquitoes were so bad that I dug a body-sized hole in the forest floor with my knife and I buried myself in it. When I woke, it was pitch dark. A light rain had started, and it put out my fire. Then I heard a growl, a low threatening growl very close to my back. All of a sudden Flo attacked whatever it was, and there was a screaming fight between the two animals. They were locked in a ferocious battle to the death. For many minutes, I heard guttural snarls and jaws snapping and screaming and howling—and then nothing.
Then something started walking slowly toward me where I sat trembling in the dark.
Ho…ly…shit. I braced myself for the worst.
Then Flo rested her snout on my shoulder.
To be continued on Monday… “Sister Flo ~ Part II”