Like The Queen
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Tuesday, April 22, 2003  

My Archives are a wreck and I'm too lazy to fix them - assuming I am smart enough to do so. But LD is home and I wanted him to see this - so forgive the re-run. I give you:

The Tale of Topsy

Topsy was born on the farm. Her mother, in true Labrador fashion, while being a wonderful family dog, was most strongly attached to BigDarling. But when in heat or pregnant, she would cling to me. I used to say “Tru has cramps and she knows I understand” when she would leave his petting hand to snuggle up close to me. The night the pups were born I woke suddenly, sat straight up, and exclaimed that Tru was having her pups. Ignoring spousal scoffing I said “either that or she’s in trouble. I know she’s going to try to have those pups under the yurt and I saw a black snake down there this morning.” so at some time after midnight I was prowling around outside with the flashlight.

Tru was 7 years old and we’d debated a long time about breeding her. This pregnancy she’d seemed more sedate, less lively. Several pups had already been born by the time I flashed the light on a concentrating mother. She looked over her shoulder at me and, through ancient, silent female communication, she told me “Don’t you ever do this to me again.” and I solemnly promised this was her last litter.

They were wonderful little critters, though, with one exception. A small yellow female just seemed off. She didn’t move with the same surety. She wandered a quarter of a mile out into the field at 5 weeks and only BigDarling’s absolute dedication tracked her down. She acted as if she were blind. HardHeartHere said she ought to be put down because she would taint the rest of the litter when prospective buyers came to look, but both BigDarling and LittleDarling booed me back into silence. I even sought corroboration from the vet when I took them in for their first shots. Of course, these dedicated animal lovers, true physicians, who never give up hope where there is life, demurred, but I could see them tsk and shake heads.

So the little pup lived, but she did not sell. I forget whether black males were the dog of choice that spring or yellow females, but by the time we got a call from someone seeking a yellow female she was the last one left. We had promised LittleDarling he could have his pick of this litter as his own dog. He and I were upstairs and when we heard BD explaining how this pup was probably not going to make a good hunter LD burst into tears. “But she is the only dog I’ve ever loved with all my heart!” he wailed and I said “then better hurry downstairs and tell Daddy she’s not for sale”. And that was that.

She continued to seem different. The most striking thing about her was how she would spin around in a tight circle, whence the name TopsyTurvy, quickly shortened to Topsy. But she was a beautiful golden yellow color with two faint darker stripes that ran the length of her back. She had meaty thighs and a powerful swift run. She also wandered. She was a springtime dog so she began swimming early. Our favorite swimming hole is across the bay, a little sandy bottom spot on the Island that we get to by canoe. Topsy always started out in the boat, but before we’d gotten to shallow water she’d have leapt out and begun swimming to shore. She was an inveterate hunter as well, though BD was hunting less and LD had not yet taken up the sport. Squirrels were a constant temptation and groundhogs the enemy. Over on the Island were all the furry rodents a natural hunter could wish for and time after time she’d be long gone and out of earshot when we were ready to go home. We’d call and call, climb the bank and call some more, and finally, as the gray cloak of summer evening slid across the shoulders of the eastern horizon, we’d have to go home. A day or two, or sometimes even three, later, she’d show up, smiling, sleek, glad to see us.

Oh but the heartaches she brought us when she’d do her disappearing act. It was a hard lesson for a little boy. Many a day we’d drive the 12 miles ‘round to the Island and try to find her. I remember once seeing a skunk, at the far edge of a field, with a white stripe so wide it almost looked like a yellow Labrador. I know we came home sans Topsy that day - and there were a goodly number of other days we made the trek in vain. Topsy was just a scatterbrained wanderer.

Out of that littler we also kept a black male, although I am firmly of the belief that nobody needs 3 dogs. This big black fellow chose me as his own, though, and I was not about to let him go. This is a grave danger of having a litter of pups - that you won’t be able to sell them all - that you won't let yourself sell them all. Pokey shared Topsy’s fierce hatred of groundhogs and the two of them could have been rented out to farmers had we wanted to earn a little extra cash. Topsy would start out sniffing and digging and when she’d made some progress her brother would shove her aside and finish off the hole. If they were near the base of a tree, seeking squirrels, Topsy would even bite and tug at the tree roots and in a frenzy of passion one day she broke off one of her teeth.

And so, the little dog grew “like Topsy” and became an important part of the happiness of our lives. Who can know the joy a boy has with his dog.

The Sunday before Christmas in ‘93 LD and I were walking back with the morning paper. We took the long path through the woods because it was just one of those wonderful days for walking and ended up on the bank overlooking the wild winter marsh. Topsy came running up to us and urged Pokey to join her in some doggish pursuit. They both dashed back into the woods while the humans walked on home. I remember at the time thinking how odd she was acting and that she must have found some truly fascinating scent to get her to behave that way. I thought about it later that night when guests arrived and there was no Topsy in the yard to greet them.

Then began the strangest and saddest time for us all. Topsy had gone. Vanished from her own home. Five years old, she was way too old to have gotten lost. We called. We posted signs. We even checked with families who lived across the river - a good mile and half across marsh and water. And we wept.

It was in early March when Dr. Wilkins, from the vet’s office, called and asked me if our dog was still missing. An affirmative was countered with “can you describe any identifying features?” and of course I told him about the broken front tooth, the wide stripe of darker fur down her back and her characteristic spinning. “Well, I think I just treated your dog” was his reply.

Oh. First came the wash of joy. The amazed, happy grin. Topsy had been found. She was across the river, 40 miles from home, but just fine. She had been given to a retired couple by the young man who’d found her wandering along the riverbank. No. She didn’t have a collar. We’ve only ever collared true wandering dogs - and we’ve only had one of those. After all, she’d only ever gone to the island and back. Who would have thought she’d not only swim the river, but then get adopted and transported another 10 miles in shore? And who would have thought this couple would have bypassed all the vets on the Northern Neck, to bring Topsy to the Tappahannock Veterinary Clinic for checkup and shots?

But my second thought was “Do I want a dog who’s going to wander that far? We’d only just begun to stop grieving over her loss. Pokey had at last stopped moping around. LD could smile once again. What was the purpose of bringing back a dog who would run that far away from her own front yard?

My final thought was that it was not my decision anyway. The dog belonged to LD and it was up to him to decide what to do. And so I did nothing till he got out of school. How well I remember the same emotions flashing across his face when I asked him if he wanted Topsy back - Sheer delight, a thoughtful consideration of going after her, and then the resolute decision to go and see. We knew it was Topsy. If she remembered us when we got there, we would take her home. If she didn’t we would leave her with her new owners.

I called and talked to a gentle voiced man who said sadly, after I had described some of Topsy’s more vivid personality traits , “I believe we have your dog, ma’am”. He gave us directions and we drove to a pleasant house set in a pretty yard. Two teary eyed people welcomed us in and before we had spoken more than a few words, we could hear Topsy barking excitedly from down in the basement. One of Topsy’s most surprising behaviors was a deep distrust of men who were not her men. She seemed to like all women, and if you belonged to her she was as cuddlesome and friendly as you could wish, but heaven help the man who was not one of the accepted. The man told me that he had to keep her locked away when his brother visited, for she growled so fiercely at him. But the rest of the time she would sit by his side, chin on his thigh, and keep him company.

Topsy’s joy at being reunited with LD was a sight to behold. It was the most telling evidence that she truly belonged with us - something this tenderhearted couple couldn’t deny. I did reimburse them for their recent vet bill but something the Mrs. said made me actually glad we were taking our wanderer home. She began to tell me about how much they loved animals and how they fed wild ones in their back yard. A chill ran through me - for, though I love the wild animals that fill the woods and fields of my farm, I do not feed them. It is dangerous for them and for us. They need to have the skills to feed themselves and there are diseases that I would rather they not share with us - or for that matter, we share with them. But worst of all, was that Topsy was a natural hunter- swift, and deadly. The thought of these gentle people putting feed out for critters and then watching in horror as their “pet” went in for the kill right before their eyes made me shiver. I knew for sure that Topsy was the wrong dog for them.

And so, the prodigal daughter came home. And thank goodness, she’s never wandered again. We have speculated long and hard about what could have sent her off on such a journey. That year there were a lot of beaver moving into the area and on a walk on the Island we noticed that she swam out after them - way out in the river. Frantic calls, shouts, whoops and whistles eventually turned her in our direction, but out there in the water, she really did seem confused and lost. Perhaps she had followed a beaver across the river. Perhaps she just got turned around or caught in the current and swept downstream a ways, that fateful December day. We will never know for sure, but for sure we are glad we’ve had these additional 10 years.

She is very old now. Her mother didn’t quite make it to 15 and, at that, she was considered the oldest pure bred lab in the county. I wonder where Topsy ranks in the longevity list. But mostly we just enjoy watching an old dog have a truly blissful old age. She still likes to prance when we feed her at night. She’ll always walk the half-mile out to the mailbox with us and if she’s rested, she’ll go all the way to Rose Hill with BD, which is a good 4 mile trek. She groans when she lies down, and you can see her once meaty thighs are thin and a little unsteady. She’s grown to look more like her mother as she’s aged, no bad thing, since Tru was the most beautiful yellow Lab I’ve ever seen. She’s outlived them all - mother, father and siblings. She’s patient with the other dogs, but careful, because they’ll knock her down if they bump into her. Sleep is her favorite activity, but she loves to be loved and will nudge you for more strokes if you don’t move away. Food is a joy, though she only has her back teeth - all the front ones have worn down to nubs. And like Br'er Rabbit, she'll lay low. If you aren’t careful she’ll hide in the den and spend the night inside. And we let her sometimes, because she is Old Topsy, the yellow Lab.

posted by Bess | 6:35 AM