The Last Howl
By, Meserbee Chek
The afternoon is quiet and calm. The sparse sound of crows cooing fills the countryside. It is mixed with the relentless sound of sundry dog barking. The sun is out. It is veiled by the cover of snow clouds looming in the lowlands gusting up the cold winds. It is late day and the sunrays are beginning to shadow the minute snowflakes slowly coming down. The snowflakes sparkle lightly in the sunlight, floating back and forth through scattering winds, eventually piling atop frozen earth. Everywhere else over-sized icicles are attaching themselves to the corners of neighborhood houses while packing snow covers rooftops.
From an aerial perspective one can see the land is enveloped. Further south lays the majestic ranges of the northern Caucasus. They include the epic double peaks of Mount Elbrus. Historically, the strategic placement of these ranges acted as natural borders holding off invaders from the lower south for hundreds of years. They are the tallest in Europe. My residence lay 15 minutes north of the capitol city of this modern day republic. The house is situated on the edge of the gwaja (village). The entire republic houses an estimated two million residents. It may well be one of the greatest assets of the Russian Federation with a story still hidden from the world. Succession, exile, and a final occupation completed centuries long interminable fighting, ultimately leading to a Circassian defeat at the hands of the importunate Russians.
To date this land mass spends a third of the season under snow and the rest covered in lush green. During the summertime it does get a bit arid in certain areas, but then flowing streams and rivers from the mountains replenish life. It is a haven for visitors seeking to escape the city and who are looking to capture some of the world’s most breathtaking sites.
The weather has plummeted to zero degrees every day since the beginning of the New Year. It is mid January and the sub-temperate weather continues to drop. In this climate the gust of air enters the lungs fastening a grip on vital organs. Kidneys begin to stiffen, lifting torsos, and forcing postures more erect. It is said the winter frost gives the residents their rough skin and thick blood. The extra callous is necessary to bear the brunt of the cold. The crunching sound of fresh snow beneath hiking boots every morning became a familiar routine as I stepped downward from the last front door step, outside the house, to a waiting car. There on the front porch next to the car lay my companion frozen stiff on the parking area concrete floor.
I shared a house with a family from the village. The father, Aslan, accepted the responsibility of house sitting the home. He and his family have been lodging at the residence for the past 9 years. He was shocked in fact how long his service would last. I came with the intention of letting him know my family did not forget him. During his stay he did manage to start a business. He also fathered a second daughter with his wife, Luda. My plan was to ease the transition of his family leaving and mine returning. Living here I could survey the condition of the home and relay critical news back to my parents in the United States. My long term goal was to cohabitate in the home along with his family till the next summer one year away. The feeling the last 8 months has been somber, thus far.
As I did every morning I got dressed quickly and approached my car to leave to the university. As I reached the drive-side parkway I noticed the pet dog lying on the floor. It was odd because he was spread on frozen concrete unmoved. I knew without nudging him that he was done. This was just one of those unforeseen things that happened in life. God always has a way of surprising those who least expect it. It is still a mystery to me what caused the death. Around here nobody bothers to make animal autopsies. They observe the deceased, remove them, and move on. The dog could have been poisoned by anyone in the block of houses, but why and by whom. Though, Misha was just an animal he embodied everything good in this world. It is funny how a bond between friends can make the world a better place. You will learn the reason why he was such a treasure as the story goes on.
As the story goes Aslan picked Misha up during a family outing. He asked one of the patrons at the picnic area who the dog belonged to. No one lay claim to him, so Aslan began playing with him. Misha had a very contagious personality right from the start. He got along well with everyone in the family and was gentile with his daughter. Just as the family was getting set to leave Aslan decided he wanted to bring the dog home in the hopes of keeping him at the house as a watch dog. His plan was simple, to slide open the door of his van, throw the piece of barbecue meat inside, and trap the dog inside. While Aslan was attempting to do this he exclaimed to Misha, “Ak-wa mida, ma.” (Come, here.) His plan worked as he tossed the meat ahead of himself, inside the running van, and Misha jumped in.
This occurred approximately two years prior to me visiting the house. Aslan guesses the dog was around two human years which made him around 14 dog years by all convenient analogies at the time of our introduction. The family brought him home in the van and occupied his attention long enough to reach the house. Upon arrival at the house Aslan introduced Misha to his new home and instantly began teaching him to trust them. After awhile Misha showed a willingness to be loyal and to stay on the house grounds. They fed him every day with leftovers from Aslan’s café.
Then I arrived. I have heard a lot about this breed, but have never come so close to one. I noticed Misha was very kind and affectionate, so I turned on to his ways right from the start. Aslan used to tell me Misha was part forest wolf. He was not certain, but he surely looked like it. His appearance was that of a wolf, but for his age he was already the size of a bear, hence, the name Misha which literally means bear in the Circassian language. Misha's coat was a peppered mix of silver, white, and black. Many times I would grab him by his mane and pet the tip of his wet nose. Over time our mutual trust in each other allowed us to share this type of affection. I do not think anyone was ever aware of the strong bond growing between us, as we were spending more and more time alone together at the house. Although, Misha was friendly with everybody and his well-mannered demeanor earned him many free food scraps and plenty of extra attention. He was an amazing dog.
Aslan lifted the heavy animal corpse from the floor to the outside limit of the property just behind the back gate. The ground was too frozen now to bury the body underneath. It would have to wait until the winter season changed once again. Misha’s body would have to lay stiff and undisturbed until the thaw of the spring warmed and softened the earth.
Misha was the biggest dog in the block. In a neighborhood where packs of wild dogs loiter about, he stood the tallest with a specially outfitted winter mane. During the warmer seasons the same coat would thin out and shed off. Shards of the hair were always deposited around bushes and sharp edges around the house. Misha's appearance and stance made him the alpha male. He was bred to survive in this kind of weather which added to the mystery of witnessing him dying in the cold like he did. In the Circassian language this breed is referred to as the ovtcharka, or literally translated, thick coat. They are also known around the world as the Kavkazian Sheppard and are solely indigenous to this area of the world. They say that two from this considerably fierce breed when provoked can oppose a real bear and take it down. In the end they always stay loyal, well-behaved, and gentile to their masters.
The world is full of this type of misfortune. When Aslan remarked of the news of Misha’s death, he exclaimed with a pursing and blowing of his lips, “Psha-em, zi makhwam Misha makwa ziri e-lajah-em khwadew, etana thaht?” (I don’t know, one day Misha is going around like nothing is wrong, then he died?) He said this in not so many words. The trauma of the death was surpassed by a cold understanding of the law of the land and the hierarchy of life. Man comes first, then beast. Though, there will remain a soft spot in my heart for these kind and gentile beasts.
We shared a very short while together, Misha and I, but I carry many fond memories of him now that he is gone. During one particular occasion I happened to walk to the backyard area of our home out here in the Kabardian countryside. The house is situated along the edge of town surrounded by crop fields and empty plots of land. Out in the country it is common to find small field mice pattering about in basements. It just happened I trapped a little culprit in a small pale bucket in an attempt to throw him out and be humane. Just as I was carrying the seemingly harmless vermin away I stepped out of the house and walked to the back wall separating our property. I happened upon our neighbor’s backyard and there made direct eye contact with their pet monster, Lord. I must mention the English meaning of this dog name is in no way representative of any quality of this peculiar dog’s nature. I do not know where the owner found the inspiration for his name. Lord was too disturbed and aggressive to be known as the one to bring peace.
In any case he was off his leash once again and to my misfortune the connecting wall stood only three feet high. In an instant Lord growled and started digging his way toward me to attack. Sensing the bustling Misha dashed quickly over the neighbor’s wall and courageously clawed the canine into submission with a growl and violent claw thrust to the snout. Lord just ceased up with his tail between his legs and walked away to his house with no further provocation. I never felt this kind of feeling of loyalty toward an animal. He really protected me from a dire fate. Misha truly was the king of his domain and the purveyor of peace for those around him that he cared for.
On many occasions Misha and I were left alone at the house. I always took the time to clean his bowl to fill it fresh with water. He began to grow on me without me realizing it. We shared a daily routine. I prepared Misha’s water as he sat and watched. As I walked to him he used to look up at me like he understood what I was thinking. I would talk to him most of the time while he listened intently. Sometimes I could swear Misha was trying to express a genuine emotion through the bending of his eye brows and a mumbling of his mouth. Maybe this was a prelude for what was to come.
It may be a conceding afterthought of the reason why Misha died, but when he passed he may have been trying to send a message. There must have been a reason why he laid right by my car during his last moments. The tragedy of his body sitting there on the floor that morning may have been a lesson in life. I invested a lot of time, effort, and affection in Misha and he surely did the same back. As I see it, our relationship risked an impractical vulnerability in each of our hearts that he apparently could not afford at the time, but still did. This may have weakened his defenses against the harshest elements. Over time while guarding the house he may have discovered his fate was binding. That Misha was asked to give everything he had. Maybe this last cold push forced him to face the real truth all alone that fateful winter night. His death like his life was a surprise.
The unforgiving truth is the dogs roaming the countryside are wild, fearing people, and distancing themselves apart. They really do not know how to react to a person who is kind and scratches their foreheads, rubs their bellies, and gives them attention. He may have become too dependent on others when he was supposed to remain aligned to his wolf instincts, to be alone and feared.
One can say Misha is an example of what happens when man intervenes in the wild. I believe things happen for a reason and that my protector, Misha, did not lose his life in vain. He may have suffered deeply from his stand against Lord, or was struggling with the burdens and responsibilities of local pack dominance. There is no doubt Misha was bound to the house. This in addition to a hard life outdoors may have taken its toll on our poor friend, but his spirit endured. Maybe he made the dire mistake of feeling. The added strain of this extra sensitivity may have made it harder to bear the duties of his twilight isolation time and again. Realistically, without Misha’s sacrifice I would not have had the opportunity to document this story. One thing is certain, things happen for a reason.
Misha’s time on earth was spent entertaining and protecting those he cared for. It may be strange to think about, but this dog may have reincarnated from noble stock in a previous life. He surely did give himself to others in the most selfless way and did display an omniscient awareness of his environment. As I see it, Misha came into this world for a reason -- to make it a better place for those he loved and depended on. He was a clean-hearted dog and a loyal martyr, who just decided to leave.
His exit will always be a mystery. Maybe he was trying to pass wisdom on to the rest of us. That, in this world one moment you find joy and happiness and the rest of the time you are left reflecting and holding on. It may be the ultimate irony of life. Maybe this is Misha’s simple message to the world. When one values something so, one must unconditionally sacrifice everything. Outside of his home and friends all Misha ever possessed was his own ****. In the end he left behind the only thing he had ... bravo Misha, may your howl always live on!