Long Way Home

A lost dog, a loving family, and a lesson in letting go.

illustration of miniature wire-haired dachshund sitting on a log outside of a cabin in the woods
By Susan Hand Shetterly
Illustration by Jada Fitch
From our April 2024 issue

“Anybody want this lost dogs?” the man’s voice grated over the aisles of the Winter Harbor 5 & 10. We froze, my kids and I. We couldn’t see the man or the dog because we were four aisles away, come to pick out a broom and a screwdriver for me and art supplies for Cait, my four-year-old daughter, and Aran, my eight-year-old son. It poured outside — a drab March rain. The town of Winter Harbor, on the down east coast, borders the village of Prospect Harbor, where we lived then. Like ours, it was a fishing community with a working harbor, clapboard houses, and a small library flooded with light and color from its stained-glass windows.

This was our favorite store. It had everything anyone could possibly want, such as things to make a household neat or a garden grow, wool socks to keep feet warm in winter, and lots of toys for kids.

“I can’t keep this thing,” the voice came again, a shade more desperate. A pause, as we waited to hear a response, and a woman’s voice piped up, “That’s not a dog. It’s a drowned rat!” she shouted.

“Well, ma’am,” the man said in a lower voice, “it’s a dog, and it’s been hanging around my house for a week. And I can’t keep it.”

“I’ll take it!” I heard my voice echo through the store.

My kids stared at me — stunned. Where was this heading? I had no idea, but I led them away from the aisle of crayons and scissors and construction paper, past the front windows of the store, slick with rain, and into the aisle with the drowned rat. The man wore a dripping jacket and held a small, sopping dog. The three of us watched as it turned in our direction. Its dark-brown eyes looked straight at us.

“Have you tried to find the owner?” I asked.

“Oh, I’ve asked my neighbors and everyone else I know. Nobody’s ever even seen this dog before.”

The dog had a wiry coat, bushy eyebrows. But truth to tell, it was soaking and shaking, and it did look a bit like a rat. I froze for a second. Then, I reached out and took it. We paid for our purchases and stepped outside, shielding the dog from the rain with our hands, and got in the car, the dog in the passenger seat, the kids in the back. I turned on the heat. The dog sat up on its haunches like a circus dog, holding its front legs out straight and its little paws down as we rode. It was still and serious, staring out the windshield. Not tall enough to see the road ahead, it seemed to be watching the wipers or the branches of the trees we passed, or perhaps it gathered itself for what was coming next.

“It’s so cute!” said Cait.

“What will we tell Dad?” Aran asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“Mom, he’s not going to like this.”

“If he really doesn’t, we’ll find the dog a good home. How about that?”

Less than a year ago, our two beloved dogs had died. We buried them alongside our garden. Then, Robert, my husband, announced one night at dinner that he’d prefer we go dogless for a time.

“Here’s a plan,” I said. “We go in with the things we bought and tell him that a package in the car is too heavy for us to lift, and we’d like him to get it.”

“And then what?” Aran said.

“Well, look at this dog. It’s got to be the most charming little drowned rat. I think your dad’s heart will melt. Don’t you?”

We left the dog sitting on the passenger seat and carried our bags inside. Robert went out to get the heavy package. We waited. After what seemed forever, he came back carrying the dog against his chest, and the look on his face said everything: annoyed, yes, but amused too. And we could tell he thought the wet thing he held was, perhaps, in need of some care.

Cait gently dried the dog off. We discovered it was female. And hungry. At bedtime, she curled up next to my daughter on the lower bunk. I couldn’t miss the wistful look on my son’s face as he gazed down from the top bunk. I tucked him in and whispered, “You can feed her breakfast tomorrow. She’ll love it.”

Those were the years we lived in our small cabin in a woodlot, surrounded by ambitious kitchen gardens, and just beyond us stretched what was left of the wild. I lay in bed touched by this creature who had come to us out of driving rain. The image of her on the passenger seat overwhelmed me, and I turned toward the open window, to the night, and very quietly cried — for what, exactly? It was the way she sat up on the seat, I think. Animals will teach us, and we often teach each other, about something I’m not sure has a name, but it’s what drives the courage and the grace to reach beyond uncertainty and loss.

She was on her way to becoming our dog. First, though, we had to try to find her former owner. After Aran ran around and around the cabin with her and Cait brushed her until her wild hair sprang up soft and smooth, Aran and I wrote notices on typing paper and drove to Winter Harbor, posting them around the town: Found — little tan dog, female, very friendly. Please call.

As we drove home, he said, “I hope no one reads our notices.”

“I know,” I said, “but we have to try.”

Animals will teach us about something I’m not sure has a name. . . what drives the courage and the grace to reach beyond uncertainty and loss.

No one called. We named her Fiona. She became our children’s dog. She chose them, and they eagerly chose her. I took her to the local vet for a check-up and shots. When he saw her, he smiled and said, “You know what breed she is?”

“She’s a breed?” I had no idea.

“A miniature wired-haired dachshund,” he said. “When they’re pups, you could almost hold one in the cup of your hand. I’d say she’s about five. She’s healthy. Whoever lost her took good care.”

Spring turned into summer. When working in the gardens or hanging up laundry, I’d sometimes come across Cait out in the yard, sitting on a low hummock of moss, entertaining her dolls and Fiona with a tea party, her little white tea pot and cups spread out around them. She’d be chatting away, and I dared not interrupt, but I would watch for a bit. Once, she set a handmade lace doily on the dog’s head, and I have to admit, Fiona looked very pretty, lying close to Cait, attentive.

To the south of the cabin, my brother-in-law had redirected a small stream so that it flowed into a dip in the ground, creating a wide, shallow pond. In winter, we skated in small circles around it. In spring, wood frogs and peepers took it over. One Saturday in October, Aran and Cait asked for a picnic out by the pond. I made them sandwiches, filled a thermos with cider, and also put treats for Fiona in the picnic basket. From the kitchen window, I could see them sitting on the opposite bank, Fiona between them, eating lunch and feeding her snacks.

“We’ve got a problem,” Robert said, coming into the house. “I was picking up some things at the five-and-ten and saw a note on the notice board. A woman is looking for her dog, a miniature wire-haired dachshund.”

“Fiona’s been with us seven months,” I said. “Surely, she’s our dog now.”

“Well, I called the number. She described her dog. And it’s Fiona.”

I glanced out at our children. How could I let them lose her?

“No.” I said. “Too late. What was she doing all this time? We put notices up. Why didn’t she read them?”

“It seems she was away and a neighbor lost Fiona. And she didn’t know about it until she’d come back to get her.”

“We can’t give her up,” I said.

“But we can’t keep someone else’s dog,” he said. “We just can’t do that.”

“Okay,” I said, scrambling for a solution. “Let her come over and see — see the kids, the dog. She’ll know then that Fiona is happy. She’ll see that she belongs to us now.”

I stood at the window watching my children and their dog. They were throwing sticks into the water, trying to get Fiona to jump in. But she was having none of it. Her tail wagging, she was running back and forth along the bank between them, barking.

The woman who emerged from the car was middle-aged, dark haired, with an open, kind face. I had expected a witch, and she wasn’t that. I invited her into the house and took her to the window. She stood, looking out at my kids and Fiona. “Yes,” she said. “That’s my dog.” And she smiled.

“My children think she’s their dog,” I said. “And they love her. Let’s call them over. Let’s see if she remembers you.”

Momentarily startled, she composed herself. “Sure,” she said.

We stepped outside. I called the kids and they came running. Fiona dashed after them. Suddenly, she stopped, looked up at the woman, gave a high, piercing shriek, and began circling her, faster and faster, running with all her strength. The woman reached down and lifted her, and the ecstatic dog licked her cheeks and nose and eyelids.

That was the answer. And we let her go.

As I tucked Aran and Cait in for the night, I reminded them that Fiona had been a puppy growing up with the woman, as they were growing up with their father and me, starting out, learning about the world. Fiona, I told them, loved them. She had loved her time with them, but she had a life before we knew her, and we had no idea how much she must have missed it. But she did.

It took a while to settle them for sleep, and the dinner before had been a solemn one. Eventually, I walked back into the kitchen feeling wrung out. It wasn’t long before a double wail rose from the bedroom and I went to them again.

No one called. We named her Fiona. She became our children’s dog. She chose them, and they eagerly chose her.

My children’s time with Fiona had a beginning and an end, like a story. They talked about how we’d found her. It took a while before they added the part about the afternoon with the picnic. But it was all there, preserved in a sort of childhood amber. And I am pretty sure that Fiona didn’t forget them, that individuals of species other than our own carry memories with them.

Three months later, on a bone-cold January afternoon, Robert walked through the cabin door carrying a puppy. As fuzzy as the slippers my mother-in-law sent me for Christmas, the dog’s coat was black and brown with a brush of white at the throat. Someone found her trotting along the shoulder of the highway in the snow — a sickly little puppy — then picked her up and took her to the vet. Robert had dropped by on the chance they might have a dog that needed a home. She was thin and needed medication. She was sweet and a little bit shy. She was perfect.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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