Loretta and the Nun

The dog is old. I am not sure how old, but dogs don’t really age in years anyway. When we first got her, she would run ahead of me on the trail, then race back as if to make sure I knew the way, then ahead again, before disappearing into the scrub for 10 minutes to chase deer, collect ticks, and coat herself in poison oak, only to emerge 100 yard behind me wondering how I’d had the temerity to get in front of her. If I walked three miles, she ran seven. Her off-trail sorties worried me. I wanted to be the kind of dog owner who let his animal roam. But I’d become attached. I didn’t want to lose her and I didn’t yet know her well enough to know that she would always come back.
She was new to us then, a gaunt mongrel, rescued from the mean streets of Madera County, plucked from a high-kill shelter, complete with a right hip full of buckshot, an infected paw, and teats that scraped the ground. There was nothing remotely attractive about her. She barked at strangers, attacked bicyclists, and refused to look us in the eye. We did not instantly love her. In fact, we came close to returning her to the kind folks at Wonder Dog Rescue who’d insisted that she was “the right dog for your busy family.” 
            I remember vividly the walk I took her on that was supposed to be our last. My wife couldn’t abide the idea of being the family in the neighborhood with that dog, the one that snarls and lunges and makes small children cower. We’d had her a week and she’d shown no improvement. We knew when we decided to take a shelter dog that we’d signed up for some socialization, but she was more than we’d bargained for. 
            I’d left a deeply apologetic message for the mustached woman at the rescue organization. “I’m sorry. I feel really bad. But I just don’t think it’s going to work.” Three hours later, she called back to say that she was headed to Modoc to collect another group of death’s door mutts and wouldn’t be able to take ours back until Monday. If we still wanted to bring her back after the weekend, she’d understand. 
            We started down the street toward Five Corners. Knowing that returning her did not sentence her to death did nothing to assuage my guilt. I owed her one last walk before sending her back to indefinite foster care. To my surprise, she wasn’t pulling on the leash this time. Every hundred steps or so, she looked up at me sheepishly, as if to ask, “Am I doing it right?” We got to the intersection and paused. I squatted on my hamstrings and looked her in the eye. She looked away, as she’d done every time for a week. Then she looked back. She made eye contact for as long as she could. And her marbled eyes said, “I’m trying.”
            I called my wife.
            “We’re keeping this dog.”
            “Are you sure?”
            “Trust me. She wants to be with us.”
            That was over 10 years ago and I was right. She did. 
            Since then, Loretta and I have walked hundreds miles on the trails of Homestead Valley. Her solo excursions have become shorter, her prey drive weaker, her sprints slower. She stays with me now. Some days, she lets me mosey ahead, while she lags behind in a shady spot. When I get too far, I pause until she finds the energy to catch up. She wants to be the kind of dog that lets her owner roam. But she’s become attached.  
            She’s about 12 now, or so we think. All rescue dogs are apparently two when they’re pulled from the shelters; old enough to be manageable but with plenty of life to live. Every dog I’ve ever owned has been the best dog I’ve ever had. Maddie, Bear, Phoebe, Buster. I told each one of them they were my favorite. Now I say the same thing to Loretta. And she very well may be, but she is certainly the easiest. No creature has ever asked for less. She doesn’t beg for food. She doesn’t make puppy eyes when she wants attention. She doesn’t eat shoes or destroy furniture when she’s gone too long without a walk. She has surrendered. And, despite her appearance, it has made her beautiful. 
Yesterday we took an unusually long walk. It was hot and she was tired. I worried that I was asking too much of her. In deep bay laurel canyons, I let her lap at the mossy trickles of fading winter streams. We came to a fork in the trail. The uphill path was a loop back home, up to Four Corners with a steep climb in the bright sunshine. Downhill would take us farther away, into the redwoods of Stolte Grove. I paused, sorry I could not travel both, and some movement caught my eye.
As I peered through the trees on the lower path, an amorphous figure floated into and out of view. I wondered if it was a trick of the light, god rays illuminating a cloud of atmospheric duff. Then it appeared again, rounding a bend in the trail before disappearing behind a tree. There was a time when Loretta would have run ahead, staking her claim to the path and silently protecting me from a would-be attacker. She’s mostly deaf now and had no sense of impending danger.  If this apparition was coming for me, I was on my own. The figure reemerged, coming into something like focus. Fifty yards in the distance, someone was moving steadily toward me, heavily cloaked in flowing, canvas-colored robes. 
Despite being on the edge of a residential neighborhood, the trails of Homestead Valley are lonely and little known. Encounters are rare. This sudden Obi-Wan-ish appearance was unexpected, but not alarming. I stood passively awaiting the arrival of a shapeless stranger. Moments later, I understood why I’d been unable to identify the figure. There, in front of me, was an oval-shaped face framed entirely by thickly draped robes; a nun in a multilayered monochromatic sackcloth habit. Loretta became aware of our sudden companion and cantored ahead to meet her. The Sister hesitated momentarily, showing appropriate caution. I studied her. Her skin was covered in diffuse freckles that had spread broadly across her face, nearly obscuring her native Elmer’s glue complexion. I saw not a single wrinkle or blemish. She was untouched, unaffected by the heat or her own exertion. Her robes looked to weigh 10 pounds, yet she moved without burden. At first, she had seemed to me to be the most incongruous object I’d ever encountered. But as she came to a rest before me and my gaze met her gentle eyes, she radiated an absolute certainty that she belonged here. 
Loretta sniffed her robes.
“She’s friendly,” I reassured.
“I see that.”
“Are you lost?” I asked, knowing she wasn’t.
“No. But I could use some directions. Do you know these trails well?”
“Yes,” I said, wondering if I sounded arrogant. Then, casually, as if she were my second or third nun of the day, “Where did you come from?”
“I came up the steps from downtown. You know, the staircases that keep going up and up?”
“The Dipsea Steps.”
“Yes.”
I imagined her climbing all 680 steps in her heavy habit, but somehow I couldn’t picture her breathing hard or fatigued. 
She continued, “Do you know where this path leads?”
“It goes in a lot of different directions. Lots of little branches here and there. Up to Four Corners. Down into the valley. Where are you trying to go?”
“It doesn’t matter. I was just curious.”
I suggested that if she wanted to avoid the heat and hills, she could make a left at the wooden bench in about a quarter mile, then find the hidden path on the right that would follow a dry creek through shaded woods and down into a neighborhood. From there, she could walk the narrow streets until she got back to the main road that would take her, as I assumed she hoped, to Buena Vista Avenue and the little apartment building across from Mt. Carmel where, I’d learned several years ago during a comical trick-or-treating encounter, a small group of nuns lived communally in our otherwise secular town.
She took in my directions, looking back at me with gratitude but without a hint of whether she intended to follow them. 
“Thank you,” she said. “Shade sounds nice.” Loretta, satisfied, left the nun’s side and returned to mine. “She’s a nice dog.”
“She’s the best.”
“Where are you coming from?” she asked.
“We live at the far other end of this trail, back behind me a couple, three miles.”
“I see. And where are you going?”
“Down that path you just came up. Toward Stolte Grove. You know, those redwoods you came through.”
“Beautiful. This whole area is beautiful. Have you lived here a long time?”
“Most of my life.”
“You must know how lucky you are. To be able to walk these paths with a sweet dog.”
My mind exploded with questions. Where are you from? Why are you here? When did you arrive? How long will you stay? Do you walk alone every day? Why did you become a nun? I asked her none of them. Instead, I just stared at her ageless face, looking at the edges where it disappeared.
“Enjoy the rest of your walk,” she said.
“Thank you. You, too.” I wanted to say that I hoped I’d see her again. That I hoped I’d see her every time I walked the trails for the rest of my life. She passed by me, six feet distant, and she was gone. 
Loretta and I began our descent. The trail soon steepened and small hillside homes began to appear, their roofs completely covered in needles and leaves. We reached the valley floor and followed the creek as far as we could before being forced onto the road. I worried that the hot asphalt was bothering her paws. Her gate was slow. She was tired, in pain. Her right leg dragged a bit more than usual. This walk, one we’d done so many times before, had become too long for her. I paused and squatted on my hamstrings. I looked in her eyes and she looked back at me. She stared into my eyes while I scratched the fur under her collar. She won’t look away until I stop. 
“Are you tired, girl? Is this too much? I’m sorry I made you walk so far.”
We’re coming to the end. Our paths will diverge soon. The fact that we ever met seems miraculous. I dearly wish she’d stay a little longer, walking the trails with me every day for the rest of my life. But she won’t. In the end, I’ll be grateful that we found each other at all.


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