This is the very beginning of a story that, like any story, happens both at the end of one story and also smack-dab in the middle of all kinds of other stories. This particular beginning is about how Louka, a 3 year old rescue dog, came into our lives not long after Orca, our precious young pup, died of a mysterious bladder issue before she was even two years old. I write the story of Louka as it unfolds; this time I know to pay attention to everything. Here we go.
When Orca died, she was in my arms in the back seat of the VW at a gas station on the side of the highway. Under the lurid neon red lights and a hand-lettered sign that promised “confectionery”, this willowy little dog threw her head back and breathed her last breath, and as I wept and held her close the words that were ripped from my chest were
“I am willing.”
“I am willing, I am willing, I am willing.”
Rocking as my stomach twisted into a solid mass, pressing my lips to her head again and again.
I am willing.
It felt like a prayer, and also like a promise. In her short fierce life she had thoroughly altered mine, and somehow in the course of her long and mysterious illness, she had rendered me willing: for this moment, for the pain that would fill me in the vacuum of her absence, for whatever she was making room for by leaving the physical realm, for everything that would henceforth ever be – because all things had now been altered by her very existence.
In our conversations that followed her death, she told me many things. Whether I was flat out on the floor, unable to move for the weight of grief, or out in the late fall forest, looking for signs of her, she would find me and deposit some nugget of doggy wisdom before dissipating once more into everything. She reminded me of my prayer-promise again and again. Are you still willing? she’d ask, each time I faltered. But she also detailed the mechanics of being immaterial, joyfully inhabiting the cells of the cottonwood, the flow of the river, the grains of the concrete parking barrier and calling to me. Look! Look! Look! And then she would be the wind and I wouldn’t hear from her again for a while. Or she might get more specifically philosophical and give me something to chew on for a few months. Humans are slow creatures, she once said, as I walked and wondered why grief made my footsteps so heavy. Why do you try to be fast like me when you can’t? You miss everything that way. You’re meant to be slow. Just be slow, and pay attention.
Within a few weeks of departing her beautiful spotty body, she told me to look for a wolf-dog with pointy ears. I did a quick search on the characteristics of wolf-dogs and shook my head. Nope. Hard to tame, hard to train, full of needs, likely to kill things. You were enough of a wolf-girl for me, little Sea Wolf Orca Pup. And besides, I was nowhere near ready to turn and open to a whole new being in dog-form.
But are you willing?
And yet. And so. I found myself scrolling through the websites of local shelters, scanning blank-faced for any clues, any hint of the Next One. I knew that my time for unblemished puppies was over – after raising three from scratch, dog-karma dictated that the next dog come from a rescue. I dug through poorly-constructed websites and seldom-updated Facebook pages, knowing vaguely that I’d know when I knew. Nobody I saw gave me the Feels.
My heart constricted and grew heavier just thinking about another dog That Was Not Orca. But I looked and looked, widening my search to towns further away. My husband, for whom Orca had been the first dog-friend of his life, and for whom her death had been unequivocally devastating, was nevertheless adamant we adopt a new dog, and soon. “We live in the Kispiox Valley,” he said. “It would be cruel not to have a dog.” Maybe he, too, felt her urging. Not to rush, but to pay attention and not miss what was coming next.
Three months after Orca departed for the stratosphere, my husband brought up The Dog again. I felt every ounce of resistance I had flare up all around me. I cried and cried, because how could I ever have a dog that wasn’t Orca? How could I possibly have enough dogness left in me for anyone else, after pouring it all into the ground with her perfect body, after letting it follow her into the rocks and the water and the sky and the falling leaves? I cried myself to sleep and when I woke up I found Louka.
My internet search now stretched 300 kilometers to the west, where it was stopped by the sea, and 500 kilometers to the east, to our biggest northern town. It was here, in the east, that I found the rescue with the photograph of a wolf-dog with pointy ears. Not only were the ears pointy and the words “part-wolf” on his description, but he was also plainly part German Shepherd and his colouring was very similar to that of my first rescue dog, Moses.
“I am willing,” I said doubtfully, and filled out the application to adopt him. Louka – Lou, Lu, Lugh, being light (and Lou, Lu, Loup being wolf). Bringer of light. If Lou-ka is the bringer of light, then Or-ca was the bringer of gold. This all added up to one big compelling linguistic make-believe all-things-are-connected mystery. The year being 2019, I of course proceeded to stalk this dog on Facebook. I dug up old pictures of him posted months ago, and savoured each short description. Who was this dog?! He was a six hour drive away, we couldn’t just go check him out. And if we brought him home, we couldn’t give up and take him back. I needed more to go on.
When I finally followed up with the woman who ran the rescue, days later, having almost talked myself out of this whole crazy scheme, she told me my application was perfect and that we “might be this dog’s only hope for a happy life”. After a few exchanges, we figured out we could come and meet him in two more weeks, when my mother came home and we could once again leave the farm for more than a few hours at a time. My husband was wary of the dog’s reported breeding, being from a country where wolves are a distant memory, but I assured him that most “wolf-dogs” were wishful thinking, and that he was probably just a big ol’ husky. We planned a fun weekend in the “big city” of 70,000 souls that would include “visiting” the rescue.
Louka was found by the police one frigid night outside town last winter, and he was skin-and-bones – but far more actual skin than that cliche usually conjures. Bare from his toes up to his elbows on some legs from a bad case of mange, the young pup had laid down, exhausted, in the road…which promptly froze to his naked flesh. The cops found him when it became clear that he couldn’t move out of the way of their cruiser, and they had to pour warm water over his legs to peel him from the ice. He was taken into veterinary care, and nursed back to some semblance of health. When it was clear that life in a kennel was driving him mad, he was taken to a rescue on a 160 acre ranch. In the course of a year he had grown to a hefty 120 pounds, started a bad habit of running away, and had failed two adoption attempts and been returned to the rescue for being “too much dog”. We were also informed that he liked to jump up on people, hated being inside, and never barked; instead, he made Chewbacca noises.
When we finally drove up the snowy driveway and saw him fully alert, watching us approach, both our hearts were pounding. We were mobbed by loose dogs, but he was chained on a zip-line. He was wary of me, and so terrified of my husband that he wouldn’t look at him; this, his caretaker explained, was pretty normal for him, but he should warm up eventually. I had been expecting a big obnoxious dude, so his shyness surprised me, and showed me the first of my mistaken assumptions about him. This – the constant challenging of my assumptions about him – was to become a theme, but I didn’t know that yet. For now, I was struck by his spotted paws, a feature I hadn’t noticed in the pictures. When Orca was sick, it was her incredible spotted legs and paws that hurt my heart the most when I thought about losing her. Louka did not have her flair, but the tan freckles on his white paws and his multicoloured toenails (where would a German Shepherd/Husky/Wolf find the genes for spotty paws?!) were like a sign straight from the dog gods.
We had our evening out, punctuated by another wave of shared grief as Orca moved through us yet again and somehow sealed our fate with that of this dog. We cried together in the local brewery while the server avoided us awkwardly. We didn’t need to talk about Louka and whether or not he was coming home with us. I didn’t sleep, so deep in conversation was I with both Orca and Louka. I don’t remember what any of us said, but being together in some non-cognitive way that night felt vital. I felt I had Louka’s consent to claim him, and that mattered to me. The next morning, we returned, paid his nominal adoption fee, and drove away with a 120 pound supposed wolf-dog in the back seat.
He was appalled at his kidnapping, and rightly so. Even if his crafty higher self had somehow helped to orchestrate this match with the help of social media and a bossy dead dog, his current physical-dog-self was being dragged away from a happy-enough home in a strange vehicle piloted by two nefarious strangers. He whined for 5 hours, determinedly ignoring us both when we spoke to him or offered a hand to smell. On pee stops, he would walk at the very end of the leash and do what he needed to do, steadfastly cold-shouldering us like a resentful prisoner with his ill-begotten guards. An hour from home, as I was busy in my head designing our life with this fearful, avoidant dog, something shifted and he began to acknowledge us.
On a stop to buy grain for the farm animals, he suddenly teleported from the ground to the side of the pickup truck, his huge bulk lifting with no apparent effort and landing lightly on the feed bags; he reared up to place his leonine paws on the cab of the truck and gaze out over the highway, Lion King style. I admired his incredible strength, his undeniable size, and his creative mind, and told him as much. On the last stretch home, he finally allowed himself to sleep. The whole drive, as he whined and did his best to pace in a back seat barely twice his size, often trying to climb into the front over the arm I had to keep up as a barrier, I’d been wondering what, exactly, I’d gotten us into. Then I’d remind myself that I couldn’t possibly know, and that I’d have to just wait and see.
That night, we pulled in to our little log cabin long after dark and let the poor dog out of the truck at last. He and I walked up and down the half-mile driveway, I a forgotten inconvenience on the end of the retractable leash as he drank in the new sights and smells. In the cabin, he paced and whined; he had never slept inside. The small, square living space built around a central wood stove made an endless track to loop around, toenails clicking on the linoleum floor and whisper-whines coming rhythmically with his breath, eyes shining dully as he completed a lap, doubled back under the kitchen table and retraced his steps. I took him for another walk.
We finally crawled into bed, exhaustion and doubt pulling us downward, the ticktickticking of dog claws on lino and Louka’s little whines circling the cabin, the moon burning bright through the window. That’s okay, I decided. We’ll just have to live with this until it changes.
And then 120 pounds of dog landed squarely on our feet, did a half turn, and plunked down with a heavy sigh. We all slept carefully through the first night of our new lives.