Unlike Roo, I am not easily frightened. This is not to say that I am not in many ways a coward. I’m just saying I don’t frighten easily. Today, though, I was.
First, a word about muskrats. The muskrat is not an animal I have ever seen. This is because they exist to tantalize dogs like Roo by living in dens at the edges of ponds and streams that they cleverly construct with underwater entrances. Anybody who wants to get in has to submerge on the waterside, scoot under some kind of obstacle—roots, branches, mud—and then pop up on the other side. This way, muskrats can live in the lap of luxury, unworried by predators like Roo who might come along.
Of course, Roo knows all about them. I think she has seen them, at least once, because she barked her head off at what had to have been a muskrat once. Now, she suspects them of living just out of reach everywhere. She prowls the banks of ponds and streams, sure of it, filled with dreams of a bloody struggle ending with one of them dangling from her jaws. She looks forward to parading it around in front of me to make me jealous for a while before she digs a hole and buries it. But, so far, thank God, no luck.
Today, we were taking a walk. Roo was a little on the slow side, maybe because of the possible allergies she has. Maybe because she’s six-and-a-half years old. It could also be that’s it’s pretty tiring just being Roo sometimes.
She was walking next to me and I was saying, “Imagine the odds, Chig. Here you are, the best bear in the world. I’m not just saying that because you’re my fat little bear. I’m saying it because it’s a provable fact. When you got of jail all those years ago, you could just as easily have been sent to some other daddy. Then, that daddy would have the best bear in the world. Which proves it, Chigi. After all, doesn’t it stand to reason that if there can only be one best bear in the world, and you were someplace else, then, wherever that would be, you would be there being the best bear in the world? The odds are staggering, Chig. It was a matter of luck.”
Just at that moment, she heard somebody down in the mud and perked up. She never lost her taste for cliff diving, and she didn't hesitate to go over the edge.
My guard was down a little because the temperatures these last few nights have been down in the 30s. Wishful thinking has made me believe the snakes might not be out in too much force.
I was still keeping a good eye on her, and I followed her to the bank to see who she was checking and saying the same thing I say a hundred times a day: “Watch out for the snake, Roo. Be careful of the snake, Roo.” In fact, I often tell her that in advance of a walk. I take her arm and press a couple of fingertips into the spot where she was snakebitten and say, “Remember the snake? This is where the snake bit you. Yes, the snake bit Chigi right here in the arm. It was terrible. Do you remember the snake? You have to watch out for snakes. Careful of the snake.” Snake, snake, snake. She hears about snakes from me all the time. God, how I miss there being no venomous up in the northeast.
I got to the mudbank three or four seconds after Roo, AKA Chig, AKA Chigi, did. She was standing in the muddy water watching someone. Her ears and tail were up, but she wasn’t wagging, a sure sign of being unsure.
“HISSSSSSS,” someone out of sight down there said, as loud as a jungle cat. For a disjointed moment, I thought it was a cat, a cat of some exceptionally loud caliber. In the next nanosecond I realized there would be no cat down there. What cat short of a Florida panther would be prowling around down there? The only other candidate for a hiss like that was a cottonmouth. Where do they get the lungs to hiss like that? It seemed like it never stopped.
“NO, ROOKI! NO!” I began to shout at her. “NO! NO! SNAKE! SNAKE! DON’T TOUCH THE SNAKE! YOU COME UP HERE RIGHT NOW! SNAKE!”
"HISSSSSSS!" the snake said.
Roo, being the great naturalist she is, was fascinated by the hissing creature, though, and she kept looking at it.
“HISSSSSSSSSSS!” the snake said. Roo tilted her head to one side. Then I saw the cottonmouth—when it wriggled. It was the color of a shotgun that had been thrown into a trunk full of old tools after a few too many murders. It was as frightened of Roo as I was of it and it was lashing around like a snapping rope. I could see in the tension of Roo's muscles that her instinct to pounce was on a hair trigger.
“NO, ROO! LISTEN TO ME! NO! NO! NO! SNAKE! SNAKE! DON’T TOUCH THE SNAKE! NO, ROOKI! COME UP HERE NOW! NOW! SNAKE! THAT SNAKE IS GOING TO BITE YOU! YOU COME UP HERE THIS MINUTE, BEARFACE!”
Amazingly, Roo took a step back in the water and the cottonmouth took the opportunity to fling itself in the water and swim away in an elaborate, showy S. When cottonmouths swim, they keep their entire, fat bodies above the waterline. Regular, nonvenomous water snakes, on the other slithery hand, ride low in the water. This snake looked like a southeast Asian canoe.
“Good girl, Roo!”
She looked back at the snake but the snake had disappeared, probably to go spearfishing for one of the 18-inch prehistoric needle-jawed monsters with rows of piraña teeth who live in that lake, and who I only know about because a couple of days ago Roo dragged one of their rotting carcasses out of the water and up onto the grass so she could drop down and wiggle on it on firmer ground where she could grind into the stench more effectively and make my life as her bather that little bit more difficult.
She came up the bank and looked at me. I’ve seen that look on a dog before. It was one of those smug looks. One of those self-satisfied looks, like on a kid who held on to a cherry bomb a second too long before tossing it away and didn’t get his hand blown off out of sheer luck.
Muddy and wet as she was, I put my arms around her anyway. Oh, she was proud. I think she understood the risk. I think she was feeling she had performed well under the threat of death. Which she had.
“I told, you Chig,” I said. “The best little hear in the world.”
Over the course of the next hour, I think Roo heard me say the word snake 300 times. At least.
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