Getting to Misha

By Janet Yoder

August 20, 2010: Going to Enumclaw

 pack smoked salmon, sesame crackers, and bing cherries into an ice bag. I put the e-mails about Misha with photos of Misha on the dashboard. I tuck my anxiety deep inside, where it settles in my stomach. My husband Robby and I drive south out of Seattle, east on 405, south on Highway 167, east on 18, then a long ways south on Auburn Way, which takes us right through the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation. Beyond, we see verdant farms and political signs, about ten to one in favor of Republican candidates. We talk about how King County ranges from highly urban Seattle out to bucolic Enumclaw. We talk about the Muckleshoot Tribe, about how easily we can drive right through other worlds. We don’t talk about our fears: that we are not ready for Misha, that he is damaged goods, underweight, not thriving; that we are damaged goods, depressed, aged by loss, that we will not be a match with Misha, that we cannot bear another disappointment.


July 1974: Doodley Squat

It started with Doodley Squat, a scrappy, tiger-striped, bat-eared, kink-tailed, part-Abyssinian kitten. One day we went to Aetna Bottle Supply on Rainier Avenue South in search of yeast for making strawberry wine. In the shop, this kitten was leaping from boxes of corks to carboys, tubing, siphons, and sacks of corn sugar. “She just wandered in,” the shop owners said. “No tag, no collar.” We picked her up, and she allowed us to gaze into her green-gold cat eyes, into her sphinx face. “If you don’t take her, she’s going to the gas chamber…” So we brought her home to our tiny, top-floor Capitol Hill apartment, transporting her through the halls of our “no pets allowed” building in a grocery sack that looked and sounded like microwave popcorn at its popping peak.

Doodley Squat was the reason we bought a cheap, funky houseboat a month later. She thrived on the lake and with us. She came and went as she pleased and kept the dock free of rats, raccoons, geese, coots, ducks, and otters. She followed us on walks. She learned to lag far enough behind that we didn’t notice her until we were beyond turning back. Then she strode along with us, threatening every dog she met, including a German shepherd named Kaddafi.

Doodley died at fourteen years, and we knew we would not be able to have any other cat.

We considered a dog, read about different breeds, visited the dogs of friends. It had to be a dog that could live on a houseboat. Not a dog that needs a yard. Our ears perked up when we heard about the keeshond, bred in Holland to be a barge dog. We researched the breed and placed a drawing of a keeshond on our altar. Then we waited.


August 20, 2010: There’s no business like show business

We follow signs to the King County Fairgrounds, to the Breed Specialty Dog Show. We see motor homes—a whole portable village—at the edge of the grounds, surrounded by corrals holding boxers, beagles, bulldogs, border collies, corgis, Weimaraners, malamutes, schnauzers, shar-peis, and pugs. We park and head for the main building in search of restrooms. The women’s is near the papillons, dogs with petite bodies and big “butterfly” ears; the men’s is near the Pekingese, with their snub noses and bulging eyes. Between are Chihuahuas, Yorkshire terriers, and Pomeranians.

We step outside and stroll down a row of booths selling canine accoutrement: combs, collars, leashes, brushes, dishes, breath spray, shampoo, and powder. Treats range from vegan peanut butter biscuits to turkey jerky to dried bull penis. Other booths sell hot dogs, French fries, and bowls of chili. My mouth is dry with worry, so I buy a bottle of water. We turn our attention to the outdoor show rings that spread across the grassy grounds—a circle for each breed. We see: russet-colored vizslas ready to hunt pheasants in Hungary, bearded collies who can barely see through their Mary Travers bangs, Irish setters, golden retrievers, Airedales, and standard poodles, all groomed to perfection.

We search out the keeshond, as if it is the only, the echt, the archetypal dog. If you come to know a particular breed, then dogs of that breed—your breed—look right to you. Their bodies are the right shape and proportion, their tails are right; the muzzle, the eyes, even the feet are right. When you think dog, your breed imprints on your brain. We see keeshonden in and around Ring 7, on grooming tables, in crates, leashed to their owners, and strutting their stuff. These dogs—with their short-coupled bodies, thick silvery coats, curled-back tails, eyeliner markings, and smiley faces—look right.


1995–2008: Saba

After Robby spent most of 1994 in Texas, after Robby took over his father’s heavy construction business, after Robby spied on the man who managed that business and found that that man had been using the equipment and connections to run jobs on the side, after he found that that man had pocketed the take, after Robby completed contracts to take down decrepit water towers and dig out old gas tanks and the soil around them, after Robby lived for months at the Ramada Inn at Grand Prairie, Texas, because he could not stay any longer at his folks’ house, where his father woke him at four each morning to give him battle instructions, after Robby told his father one hundred times that he was not moving to Texas to run the business to extend his father’s glory into the future, after Robby closed down the business, after Robby finally came back to Seattle, wrung out, laid low, and worn down, after Robby lay on the floor staring at the ceiling waiting for the other shoe to drop, after Robby tried Prozac and even therapy, we decided it was time to get a puppy.

In 1995, we drove to Gig Harbor to meet our first litter of keeshond puppies and their breeder, Barbara. Six wooly adult keeshonden barked and wagged their curled-back tails to hail our arrival. One dog jumped straight up, much as a jack-in-the-box springs from his windup box. Barbara greeted us. Barbara—gray-haired, solid, grandmotherly—is a librarian and the owner of “By the Book” kennel. She is a keeshond maven and knows all things keeshonden.

Barbara ushered us into a room with easily cleanable floors. We sat on low benches and then she released the five puppies, each with a strand of rickrack around its neck: red, blue, green, pink, and purple. The pups were fuzzy tumblers that tripped over each other. We watched the kinetic puffballs with tiny eyes, muzzles, and tails. Nothing like the big keeshonden we had seen outside. We handled one pup, then another, cradled each pup face up in our palms. Then we put them down and watched. One puppy—the one in the pink rickrack collar—kept running up to us, rolling over to show us her lovely pink belly. This pup stayed with us, liked to be held by us. This pup chose us.

Barbara explained that this pup—“Pinkie”—was claimed by a nun from British Columbia. The nun had recently lost her dog, also a keeshond, and was not sure she was ready for a new dog. Barbara would check with her and let us know. We should call her in a few hours. So we drove on to Shelton to visit another litter of keeshonden, all spoken for but one male. Cute, but no connection.

We drove to Olympia and settled in at the Asterisk Coffee House. We drank luscious handmade espresso milkshakes. We talked about the pup in the pink rickrack. Would we take her if the nun declined? I sat across from Robby and saw his face animated, his eyes nearly as bright as a puppy’s. Charged up with espresso, sugar, and adrenaline, we called Barbara from a pay phone. The puppy is yours, she said. And so we got Saba.

Over time, Robby told friends that Saba brought him back to life. We rolled on the rug with Saba, played with Saba, held Saba, walked Saba, and through Saba met Alpha, Max, and Farley—and their people. And quickly, surprisingly quickly, Robby stopped taking Prozac.

We bought the book Places to Stay with Your Dog and then we proceeded to visit those places with Saba. We stayed on the edge of Stanley Park in Vancouver, where Saba chased black squirrels, a variation on the brown ones in Seattle. Though Saba never caught a squirrel, she remained optimistic, perpetually believing the next one to be hers.

Saba lived for food, loved dinner, liver bears, Greenies, and slices of meat from the French bakery. Saba was secure, sweet, and easy to love.

Time passes and it passes faster for dogs, and that is perhaps life’s greatest inequity. Saba slowed. At the same time, we had begun caring for our frail elders. We were on call. We traveled to be with elders. When we came home, we could not face Saba’s aging. But the day came when she could no longer go down the steps at our office. So Robby carried her down each time until our denial was washed away by the relentless tide of frailty.


August 20, 2010: Enumclaw Dog Show

We observe final grooming and the use of cornstarch for a last-minute butt cleaning. Keeshonden prance around the ring with handlers, then stop. The judge studies each dog for breed conformation: teeth, flews, eyes, ears, coat, torso, tail. Some dogs prance like movie stars; some are regal; some are just dogs doing their jobs. We listen to Barbara and the other mavens critique the dogs, the handlers, the judging.

Barbara takes us over to meet Robin, the breeder from Portland to whom Misha has been returned. Most breeders allow owners to return a dog at any point, which beats even the return policy at Nordstrom. Robin looks up from grooming a young dog. She asks us to hold and distract him while she brushes his ruff up toward his face so his coat fluffs out beyond the rules of gravity. It is like preparing for a fashion shoot on a Paris runway. Robin is also this dog’s handler, so she is wearing a rose-pink skirt and jacket. She offers to send her husband to get Misha; we tell her we are staying for the picnic after the judging, so no rush. Though we long to meet Misha, we hesitate to meet Misha.


2008: Saba’s rug

Saba lived on the Tibetan rug in our living room, the rug designed by artist Carl Chew, made at his rug factory in Katmandu. The rug is a giant postage stamp featuring an elephant with a ball bouncing off its head. Saba claimed the rug as hers. She took her treats there, received affection there, ran wild “cocktail hour” dervish circles there, and spent her last day there. On that last day, the veterinarian and her assistant came down the dock and onto our houseboat and sat with Saba and us on the Tibetan rug. Robby and I said our good-byes with the biggest praise and some bits of ham, the two most acceptable gifts to launch a dog into the next world. The vet found a vein and gave Saba the ultimate relaxant. Saba sighed, closed her eyes, and was gone. Then assistant Tracy wrapped Saba up in a blanket and lifted the bundle of Saba up into her arms. They carried Saba out and up the dock. Our vein of grief opened. We collapsed on Saba’s rug. We wept large gulping sobs and then quiet tears. Our grief could not be contained.


2008–2010: Losses

On December 19, 2008, we lost Vi Hilbert, the tribal elder who taught us the Lushootseed language and welcomed us into her world. On February 1, 2009, we lost Robby’s mother. On January 6, 2010, we lost Robby’s sister. On January 13, 2010, we lost Robby’s father. Of his original family, only Robby remains.


April 2010: We try a puppy

After everyone died, Robby calls Barbara to ask her to keep us in mind for the next litter, which we thought might be in the coming year. Barbara tells us there already is a litter, and it will be her last litter. We should come see the puppies right away if we are interested.

We are in mourning. We are probating three estates. We are exhausted. Yet we trek down to Barbara’s new place near Purdy like pilgrims seeking a miracle at Lourdes. We meet three fuzzy pups. The two boys are spoken for. The girl is wild but compellingly cute.

We bring the girl home. We play on the rug, and the pup bashes into us like a bull charging the toreador. Again and again. We have to walk her every twenty minutes during the day and every two hours at night. She is wild and the houseboat quickly becomes too small for her. She is an escape artist, and we fear she will fall into the lake. We do not sleep. We cannot keep up. Meanwhile, Barbara writes us an e-mail each day to ask if we might want to bring the girl back. As soon as we left with her, Barbara had the feeling she should have kept the pup. The pup’s mom, Trixie, had the same feeling and waited at the window for her baby’s return. Barbara offers to give us our money back. Then she offers to trade the pup’s father, Coaster, for the pup. Finally I call Barbara and tell her we are too exhausted to have a puppy. We drive back to Purdy and witness the wild and ecstatic reunion of puppy and her mom. We drive home, feeling like utter failures as humans. But also feeling relieved.


August 20, 2010, Enumclaw Dog Show: We meet Misha

When the last keeshond and handler have circled the ring and the last prizes given, we go with Robin to her motor home, to her corral of keeshonden. Robin leashes up one thin, agitated dog—Misha—and then opens the corral to guide him out.

Misha is distracted. He has only been back at Robin’s for a couple of months. He was just neutered. His former owners and their dogs are here from Spokane. And there are hundreds of dogs on the fairgrounds on this warm August day. Robin gives us the leash, and we walk Misha away from the canine hubbub and out the fairground gate. He balks on the leash, looks back over his shoulder at people and other dogs he knows. We walk along the outside of the perimeter fence, away from activity. Misha pants and strains at the leash, pees here and there, then hunches up to produce a poop that is more liquid than the desired form. We stop in the shade and kneel down to talk to him in reassuring tones of voice. He calms a little.

We bring Misha back to Robin and ask questions: How old is he? How much does he weigh? Is he healthy? Does he have any favorite toys? Why did his former owners give him up? Robin pulls salmon jerky out of her pocket to give to Misha. Her answers: He is almost four. He weighs twenty-seven pounds, which is low. He had a leg fracture, which healed. He has no toys. He was living with two other unfixed males, and Misha was not thriving.

We learn Misha eats grain-free kibble with a tablespoon of canned salmon stirred in. We learn he has to have his stitches out—from his neutering—next Wednesday. We learn he is an AKC champion who just needs a good home. Robin believes his coat will fill out and he will get up to thirty-five pounds.


Humans and Dogs and Wool

Humans helped dogs survive, and dogs returned the favor. Dogs pulled sleds, hunted rats, protected against intruders, and cleaned up garbage. Here in the Pacific Northwest, native peoples bred a longhaired white dog whose coat was sheared, spun, and woven, often mixed with mountain goat wool. They say the Salish wool dog is the only North American dog that was bred before Europeans and sheep arrived. The Salish wool dog was considered extinct by 1858 as a distinct breed, so there are no photos. But drawings of the wool dog show a resemblance to the keeshond.

When walking Saba outside the Tulalip Longhouse once, I ran into Professor Emeritus Bill Holm, who wrote the books on Pacific Northwest native art. He bent to look more closely at Saba and then reached out a hand to feel her outer coat. “Much like a wool dog,” he said.

When we first got Saba, we were still learning about keeshonden. The Pacific Crest Keeshond Club invited keeshond owners to stroll with their Dutch dogs in the “Holland Days” Parade in Oak Harbor on the north end of Whidbey Island. It was something to do on a Saturday. We ran a slicker brush through Saba’s thick coat, through her tail and her trousers. When she could stand no more, we loaded her and ourselves into the car and drove north.

We spotted the keeshonden and their people, some of the latter wearing Dutch hats and wooden clogs. We joined our canine tribe, admiring one dog after another. One tall blond woman was wearing a fuzzy woven vest. “It’s made of keeshond wool mixed with sheep’s wool,” she told us. “Very warm.” She had the source of her wool on leash. We took her card and said we would save Saba’s wool for her. We did save Saba’s wool. But we lost the woman’s card, so eventually gave our three bags full to another weaver.


August 20, 2010, Enumclaw Dog Show: Lunch

Time for lunch. Misha goes back into the corral. I go to our car to get our picnic bag. The mavens set the table with paper plates in black, silver, and cream, the colors of the keeshond. We put food on our plates, then find our way to seats at the edge of the circle.

They hold a quick meeting of the Pacific Crest Keeshond Club. I am worried through all this whether Misha will be a match for us. My mouth is dry. I wonder whether Robby is worried, wonder whether we should call it off. But then we are surrounded by people who love these dogs and brag on them more than they brag on their children. I don’t remember eating. My brain repeats the big question: Should we take Misha?

Finally lunch is over. We follow Robin first to a vendor to buy a collar and leash, then back to her motor home. Robin puts Misha’s new collar on him and attaches the new leash. She sees we are hesitating and takes charge of us the way she handles her dog in the ring. She gives Misha a pat good-bye and hands over the leash. It is the beginning of our one-week trial with Misha.


August 20, 2010: Bringing Misha home

We get Misha to jump into the backseat and pour some water into a dog bowl we brought. The car is hot. Misha pants but he doesn’t drink.

We begin the Friday afternoon drive back to the city. From the driver’s seat, I roll down the back windows. As we make our way through the town of Enumclaw, I turn back and see that Misha is trying to climb out the window. I raise it up and speak calming words that I wish for him to understand. He settles, sits, and looks out the window. We head back to the city in an itchy heat.

We park at the head of our dock and lead Misha down to the houseboat. Once inside, Misha skitters from room to room, claws clicking on the oak floors. He sniffs under cupboards, snuffles along pillows on the sofa. He makes loops of nasal exploration. Finally he comes to a halt on the Tibetan rug. Saba’s rug. He sits, throws back his head, and he howls.


August 20, 2010: Misha at home

When Misha finishes howling, he goes to his bowl for a splashy drink that wets his ruff and the floor. When he returns to the rug, he lets us sit close, lets us touch him just a little. I run my hand down his flank and feel how thin he is under his fur.

He wanders from the rug, returns, then wanders again. After an hour of this, Misha comes up to Robby, lies down, rolls over on his back to show his entire front, from his mouthful of impressive teeth down to his empty black testicle sack and stitches. Robby rubs Misha’s chest and talks dog to him. I watch this from my chair. “If we give this dog back, we’ll just have to kill ourselves,” Robby says. We laugh. Later when I am on the rug, Misha comes and gives me the same frontal display and receives my praise. By bedtime, we know we don’t need a whole week’s trial.


October 17, 2010, Headline in Dallas News: Made Human by Animals

We read a piece in the Dallas News that describes the claim of anthropologist Pat Shipman: Early humans who lived with and trained dogs were the humans who survived, evolved, and ultimately became us. Humans who did not train and domesticate dogs did not fare as well. Shipman asserts that dogs helped humans evolve, helped humans become more human.


August–October 2010: Misha settles in

Misha is not secure. He wants to be with us every minute, wants never to be left. When we do leave him and then return, he barks insanely as if giving a dissertation on why we should never leave him. We realize he has lived with lots of other dogs and likely was never alone. For our first week with Misha, one or the other of us is with him almost constantly. We take him in the car with us. While we buy groceries, Misha moves from the backseat to the driver’s seat of our Subaru. He does not nap in the car. We find him sitting at attention, peering through the steering wheel and windshield. When he spies us, he barks. He barks when we open the car door. He greets us both and then licks Robby as if Robby has just returned from a year of living dangerously in Afghanistan, as if his saliva will cement Robby to him.

Outside, Misha rubs his whole self against bamboo, boxwood hedge, sedge, nandina, viburnum, and laurel. Inside, Misha rubs against throw pillows, cushions, quilts, rugs, blankets, and us. He receives his new world through the length of his body: head, neck, ribs, flanks, and tail.

We give Misha small slivers of deli meats—turkey and ham—so that his appetite will awaken. Slowly he puts on weight.

There is chemistry between dogs and people. Endorphins course through our bloodstreams when Misha rubs up against us and flops over on top of us. I believe endorphins course through Misha’s bloodstream when we scritch around his furry ears, when we massage his neck and down his spine to his haunches, when we rub through his thick coat down to his doggy body, when we praise him, when we wrestle him, or when we simply love up on him.


Biblical Law:

We know an elderly woman who loves dogs. She told us that there is a Biblical law or Rabbinic obligation to feed your animals before yourselves. When I Google this, I learn that Rav Yehuda said, “It is forbidden for a person to eat before he has fed his animals.” Misha likes to follow this law.


August 20, 2010 to present

We adopt Misha so that he will be an only dog; Misha adopts us so that we will not be lonely. We give Misha food, affection, assurance, walks, praise, play, training, and treats. We take him everywhere. We walk him all around the neighborhood, in and out of pocket parks. Misha meets other dogs, and we meet other dog people. Through Misha, we come to know Aggie, Maggie, Juju, Max, Gus, Tug, Gracie, Casper, Spooky, and Clue. Through Misha our world expands.

Misha prances, poses, plays, leaps, tugs, races, chases, sniffs, grins, growls, howls, and barks. And barks. Misha is quirky and needy, funny and quizzical, kissy and attached. His face is smiley. His breath comes as laughter, and this breath settles us together.


Janet Yoder’s writing has appeared in the books, Enchanted Companions: Stories of Dolls in Our Lives, ed. by Carolyn Michael, published by Andrews McMeel, 2003, and Sunday Ink: Works by the Uptown Writers, published by Tasseomancy Press, 2010. She was awarded first prize for her story, “Four Hands” in Crucible 2006. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chautauqua Literary Journal, River Teeth, Tusculum Review, Passages North, American Literary Review, The Baltimore Review, Evansville Review, PassagerThe Massachusetts Review, The Texas Review, Raven ChroniclesBayouFugue, Left CurvePorcupine, Rio Grande Review, The Binnacle,, The MacGuffin, North Dakota Quarterly, and Pilgrimage. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2008.

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