He stumbled over the rough stones at the gate. My heart lurched to watch, but he caught himself, looked around and took a slow breath. I sat on a bench amongst a covey of stones, nearly all of them marking graves of border collies. Their dates ranged from decades to a few year ago. Some stones were raised, most just flat. Around me, monuments to pets of every kind instilled a sense of deep connection, bonds that humans have made with creatures who, I can attest, seem to reciprocate our emotional ties. At least, I’ve always hoped they did.
“Ah, you’re sitting there. Mind movin’?”
The warm summer day couldn’t have been more beautiful. Maple and beech trees dotting the cemetery provided shade for meandering paths and granite tombstones. The place felt imbued with a spiritual heft that cooled not just the air, but the mood of the place. A brief shiver ran across my shoulders.
The man, surely in his eighties, stood at the end of the bench, a cane held in both hands as if about to dance. I’d watched him make his way toward me, expecting him to turn down some other path. There were thousands of graves here.
“There’s room.” I patted the lichen covered wood next to me.
“Hmm, maybe. But, that’s my spot.” He swung the cane and pointed. “And, you’re in it.”
I shifted over. Who was I to deny an elder? If the fellow had a spot, and was bold enough to claim it… “There you go.” I rearranged myself and settled back in. I was unwilling to surrender the solemnity just yet. “This is quite the place for a spot.”
“Hmm? Do we know each other?” He groaned as he lowered himself. He set his cane between us, gave me a glance and moved it to hang off the bench-arm. His unshaven face stirred for a moment. “Spot. Yes. My spot. ‘Course, it comes at a price.” He nodded down at the stones.
“Your collies, I take it?”
“Champions. Every one o’ them.”
“All ten?” They had been arrayed such that counting them came easily.
A grimace passed like a cloud. “You dim ‘r something? Fifteen. Fifteen champions I bred and trained and, and…”
I’d missed an entire row. Five were offset and outfitted with raised marble headstones. “A legacy unmatched I presume.” My mistake had triggered some inner conflict. My compliment had soothed the anger that had flashed in his eyes. “Fifteen show champions,” I continued, “I imagine such a record might exist only in Europe or Asia, perhaps.”
His dark mood returned. Swollen knuckles lifted the cane, its end tapped on the nearest gravestone. “Sheep dog. Sheep. Dog. Show dogs ‘r for pompous pricks ‘n sissies. My dogs worked for a living.”
Clearly this battle was lost. I gathered my uneaten lunch and the paperback I’d brought. But, before I could stand, the end of his cane had come to rest on my knee.
“I…” His mouth worked at chewing hard words, “I apologize for my, my irritability.” The cane returned to his side. “I’ve disturbed your day, pushed you out and, and chased you away.”
Stalemate, perhaps. I sat back and tilted my face into a beam of sunlight striking through a gap in the leaves. My eyes lowered and drifted to his. “I’ve long admired the ability of sheep dogs. The whistles and hand signals you must have taught them.”
A piercing shriek burst from his lips. It warbled and pulsed. “Gather them tight and hold them.” He wiped a drop of spittle. “Pony, she could hold those stubborn Marinos the best. The finest wool but the confounded worst behavior.”
“You named a dog Pony?”
An accord had been struck. The man went on to tell of the great Sheep Fever that had come to New England in the 1830’s—all due to this breed called the Marino. More whistling followed and more strangely named sheep dogs. At one point he rose, hobbled to the furthest stone, knelt and passed a kiss to Teena’s name etched in marble. Teena had saved his life one stormy winter. He waved me off when I tried to help him up.
“Not ready for the grave just yet.”
The sun had traced its arc and his spot now bathed in the heat of its fire. It was time to go.
I shook his hand and we finally introduced ourselves. I knew I’d never be back here. This leisure time was a gift of a scheduling conflict. I realized this as I looked around. The slate and granite glowed hot and forbidding, but the stories buried beneath each stone…
“Thank you for listening, son.” He let me help him up this time, and he held my arm to the gate. “I wish you well and hope you find room in your life for another dog.”
I smiled at the thought and waved farewell. I paused at his final words.
“Give a collie a try next time. They’ll break your heart. But, what’s a heart for, anyway?”