— in memory of Roland Lombard, DVM
I have entered the circle of old men.
They are “talking dogs” and I have been invited.
Outside in the October chill, the dogs are restless.
We hear their chains jingling, sense their feet
quick-dancing, their new fur rippling and attentive.
We know their Asiatic eyes are bright as stars
after first snow – they who come from a world
with 200 words for snow.
Inside, the first man speaks.
He has a womanizer’s easy smile, a slaver’s hard laugh.
He’s run with the best and beaten them.
He tells of being chased by wolves, a panicky jab
of a ski-pole into the haunch of a dog
suddenly crouched and frightened – the yelp,
the burst of speed. He tells of later
fastening that ski-pole to the sled frame
just at dog eye-level, banishing forever
the big gray’s shrewd laziness.
draws slow on a cigarette, speaks slow,
tells of 1400 miles of Antarctic wastes,
crevasses opening like grim mouths, nails
digging in for dear life, the sheer guts,
tirelessness, even the autocratic Byrd’s
grudging admiration, despite their small frames.
He smiles then and waits for the third
who cannot speak
but has eyes like blue fires, wolf’s eyes
under shaggy white brows – patient, fierce,
yet mild in their singleness of purpose.
That he can no longer speak seems proof
he’s gone hunting with wolves, entering
their silence like a furred, ghostly god.
He is legend even among the Inuit
for kindness, for indefatigable attention
to detail, able to enter a dog’s mind
and bring out the best with no more
than a cluck or gesture – who’s felt the wind
of the bull moose charging, the white bear’s
shadow, yet come back again and again
to beat the best of the younger men.
It is this quiet the dogs outside are restless for,
his quick signal the hunt is on.
He has fashioned
a model of scapula, humerus and radius/ulna
to show me the shoulder blade’s proper rotation.
Outside, he buries my hands in the deep ruff of his leader,
his eyes searching mine for the flicker of comprehension.
Each dog, whirling on its chain like a separate constellation,
keeps eyes riveted on him, waiting for the touch,
the nod, the gesture.
A gasp goes up
as we stare into the treacherous ravine that starts
his training trail, now over half a century old.
“He wants to die on the runners,” someone whispers.
The first stars have come out, their light perhaps
even colder than wolf’s eyes. A hint of snow’s
in the air, but also a surge, electric, similar
to a February night I stepped from a Lakota sweat lodge
and stared into buffalo fire—
the horned skull
speaking to the stars.