About Dogs, Post-Polio and the Poetry of Loving and Dying

Issue 39 by Alpheus Williams

About Dogs, Post-Polio and the Poetry of Loving and Dying
The Village

Take the exit when you see the sign and leave the highway. A small narrow road will take you there. You’ll not be surprised how you missed it, nestled away from the day-to-day neurosis of shopping therapy, road rage and commuter traffic. A medley of native trees and shrubs line the road in places interspersed with glimpses of ocean blue in the distance. As the land flattens, the road lines with melaleucas, their raggedy white trunks a wall of papier mâché bones, and clears to low growing coastal heathland and saltmarsh. In spring it will come alive in a multitude of tints, tones and textures. Rainbow bee-eaters will return in flashes of brilliant colour. Honey eaters will alight on impossibly beautiful flowers and suck sweet nectar. Native bees will hover, dart and speed from petal to petal collecting pollen and germinating the clusters of blooms. It truly is a celebration of copulation, regeneration and rebirth.

But it’s coming to winter now, a time of long nights and crisp cool mornings, when mist rises from the river and morning is slow to shake off the stiffness of slumber. Winter, the end of things and the harbinger of new things and rebirth. Winter has a claim to beauty and a peace that is its own.

Perhaps you camp the night and wake in the morning to the waves crashing and a thin mist rising just over the dunes in this winter stillness and that stillness will be filled with birdsong and you will marvel at its beauty. Bush turkeys scuttle through the camp like ugly shadows. You may be sitting in a canvas camp chair at your table looking out from the awning of your tent or the window of your caravan. Maybe you’re making your way to the amenities block for your morning ablutions. But you have to wake early, before the sun, if you expect to see them, the elderly couple and their dog.

See them approach, a woman, a man and a dog. They are older like many in the village. She walks at a good clip, carrying a lead, with a container of doggie poo bags and blue ball-tosser with a green tennis ball in its jaw. It’s cold and she is dressed warmly in winter track suit, jacket and scarf. He sits astride a small bike, pushing it along with splayed sloppy feet slapping the road, his lips moving, his head tilted, listening, eyes focused and watching, face stern in concentration. Bearded, bespectacled and beanied with woollen watch cap pressing giant ears to the side of his head, he mouths the words of the novel he has never written. His head leaning forward, big eared, he conjures in his own mind an old rusted Volkswagen Beetle staggering drunkenly down the street with the doors slightly ajar blowing puffs of carbon monoxide into the chilly air. He imagines that if those doors open further and his cap releases those ears they will spread out and catch the wind and he will be swept up into the sky and fly away like a kite with a broken string. You think him an old curmudgeon, angry at the world and you might well think him crazy. It’s a cliché and a generalisation to fuse the two together but our minds are trained to such things.

Like many who are thought to be crazy, the man couldn’t give a bag full of monkey turds what you thought of him. The woman would take offence and defend him. She knows he’s not. The dog would agree with you. The dog is certain that the man is crazy and the dog should know, because she’s crazy too, at least the man thinks she is.

And while the old man knows that his memory fails him at times and the words he seeks refuse to surface and names of faces and things hide behind clouds in his mind only to reappear in startling clarity at three o’clock in the morning, he knows, as many of the crazy do, that he is approaching the broad path of a wisdom that has escaped him most of his life and if he mourns anything, he mourns the realisation that he would have loved to have found it earlier.

So many things conjure the image of old and crazy. The homeless, the hoary-headed and the deserted, the cart people pushing their stolen shopping trolleys, carrying their life’s possessions mumbling to themselves, ragamuffin hair and tatterdemalion clothes flapping in the breeze, pushing their bent and rusty carts on wobbly wheels through wind tunnelled sunless streets, chilly and cold, between the towering walls of calloused big city indifference. It’s what we get used to as we scurry about our busy days living dreams that aren’t ours. Dreams that have been fed to us by billboards and amphetamine nourished voices speaking at volume and speed on thirty-second sound bites promising things we can’t afford and don’t need but convincing us that we do. Seduced with silken legs, pert breasts, digitally enhanced skin, Botoxed pouts and bottle neck waists in shimmering dresses. Seduced with thirty-two carat teeth gleaming in lantern jaws, climbing mountains, kicking winning goals, serving aces across a net in a stadium filled with thousands of adoring fans, diving with sharks, cutting down waves on magical surfboards with white spray shooting out behind them. Seduced with youth stopping to refresh on drinks toxic with sugar presented in shiny plastic bottles with corporate logos that will end up in the sea, on beaches, in landfills, in stomachs of seabirds and turtles. Seduced by shiny cars smoking the atmosphere because they are the de rigueur of such fantasies and embellish the new age, new world order and the myth of success that has spread across the earth in a virulent contagion of thoughtless planetary destruction.

And the clinging to those values encourages the man to think the rest of the world is crazy and he’s one of the few who is not.

He and she accompany the dog. The dog is certain who is in charge on these morning walks and she runs zigzag across small lawns of little seaside cottages, her nose close to the ground and tail wagging like a mad metronome, furiously beating out some silent tarantella rhythm, gathering news from pee-mails of other intrepid four legged explorers. She is an old dog but she’s filled with intense joy and enthusiasm: it’s contagious and it’s a contagion that older people desperately need. Sometimes the man and the woman stop on their walk, say a few words, rub shoulders and touch hands. Normally the dog would become jealous and nose in between them and growl but on morning walks she’s too concerned with the frantic busyness of her morning mission to sniff, to pee, to empty her bowels.

When this little parade of dog, woman and man separate and each become immersed in their thoughts, his lips move over those words that are yet to find paper. His whispers are silent, just breath. He can feel the words there. He rolls them over his tongue and remembers their sounds, rhythms and textures.

Sky—river—rain—current—tide—ebb—sea—ocean—beach—waves—breakers—cloud—sun—bird—pelican—butcher bird—currawong—drongo—noisy minor—lorikeet—magpie—willie wagtail—kingfisher—kookaburra—grass—bark—melaleuca—gum—casuarina—mangrove—bottlebrush—grevillea—tree—grass—pleasure—love—song—death—breath—life—blood—pain—fear—joy—earth.

He wonders where they come from and how old they are. How they fell off the tongue centuries before and what kind of people said them. In the space of a word and boom of a wave beyond his sight just over the top of dunes, oceans of people and words and time cartwheel over him.

Long ago, he’d read in a book that knowing the names of things gave you power over them. He thought about it and he didn’t think it was true. Maybe it was truest that knowing the names of things empowered the person who knew them.

Sometimes he liked the sound of a word but he had to abandon it because the meaning wasn’t good enough or the word didn’t mean what he thought it meant and the sound confused him because to his ear it meant something other. He pushed the limits, invented words that were obvious even though they didn’t say so in the dictionary. These words, this routine that passed along with the surf hammering over the dunes, the myriad of early morning birdsong and the sound of the bike wheels bumping along the ground as he pushed his bike with his feet along the path, the dog panting, they were the words of the book he hadn’t written.

Sometimes he scribbled the words into sentences in notebooks, on sheets of paper. Sometimes when he thought no one could hear or was watching, he would record them on his phone, looking furtively, a burglar shoplifting in a dictionary, to listen to and write down later in notebooks or scraps of paper.

The fluted song of butcher birds pipes the crisp air. A willie wagtail twitters and tweets as it flutters above grassy verge next to the wet road, a fairy-dancing to conjure insects from the dew-damp blades of grass for its morning meal. Magpies warble and currawongs resonate, the world is awake and the dog is shit happy to be out and about.

Waves boom in behind the steep sandy dunes. Most times he doesn’t notice them. The waves like the wind and the tides are constant, only their intensity varies and on this morning they make their presence known, cracking and slamming the polished sand like cracks of thunder.

They cross the road from the camping grounds and enter the grassy reserve treed with banksia, sheoak, melaleuca and river gum verging the river. He stops on the banks and looks out over the smooth-running water and the incoming tide and the waves breaking in the distance at the heads. The moody blues of a cloudy sky is copied on the surface and the light and colour is a cool turbulence of swirls and contradictions in a palate calming and rich and beautiful.

On this day in early predawn light the sky is muted beneath a blanket of cloud. The colours seduce, demand attention ... blues of so many hues ... cobalt, navy, cerulean, sapphire, lapis lazuli, indigo, aqua, turquoise, teal, cyan ... all in the sky, in the clouds and reflected in the swollen river at full tide. Aqua, the colour in his mind and the word on his tongue, conjures the sound of exhaled breath from an exhausted swimmer.

He carries his camera in the basket on his bike because the early morning light takes on a new role every morning and wears a different cloak. He records the sky and clouds and light and photographs the creatures that punctuate, enhance and complete that canvass of sky and water. White pelicans, graceful winged, large leathery bills, awkward waddle-gaited as they swagger over the sandbars on the river, fluent and elegant aerial ballet of their descent to the river, the simple unbothered ease of their flight, a song on the wind, wings resting and caressing the slightest puff of breeze and working it, harnessing, and making it theirs without owning it. Soft grey and white gulls, sharp-beaked terns skimming surfaces, black shags perched on naked branches like black twisted reflections perusing breakfast swimming beneath them with the ebb and flow of the river, pied oystercatchers with long flashy red beaks scurrying over rocks and sandbanks.

Photography.

Light Writing

From the Greek

Photo: Light

Graph: Writing.

Ancient Greece, one of the dawning cultures, thought took wing like the pelicans in flight, Sophocles...Plato...Aristotle...Homer...

Alexander marching through Thebes and saving the house of Pindar the Poet and all who descended from him because he revered his poetry.

Photography, writing with light, dappling the dark, making sense of things, finding the hidden, exploring and discovering. Seeing anew, re-seeing, rediscovering, reinventing the old, the overlooked and the neglected.

Maybe as much as words, he loved the image. He loved the shades of black and white, how it captured the beauty and form of the human shape, how it captured the dignity, pain and story behind age.

Nights filled on his feet in a dark room converted from an old storage shed projecting negatives under the light of the enlarger, finding the line and sharpening the focus until all became clear and sharp and fine, shifting the red filter to turn the light red then carefully placing the paper beneath the image, turning off the light, flicking the filter off then hitting the white light, timing, off with the light and gently sliding the paper into the bath of developer and watching beneath the red light, like magic the blacks and greys slowly emerge on the white paper beneath the liquid, neutralising and fixing and having the image captured again and carefully clipping it on the line stretched above him with a clothes peg.

Light writing.

Digital was something new again. A new kind of magic, a format that allowed him to take hundreds of pictures, select and delete and save. Still, it was the old photography that literally taught him to appreciate and recognise writing with light.

Across the river is the National Park. It’s protected land. There is a little tern colony there that nest yearly. He’s been there, across the river where the beach looks to go on forever. One day he will shed his clothes and swim to the other side and go there again.

Long ago, when younger, he was on that beach. He walked over the dunes with his camera and the light was brilliant and the sea glimmered with that light and the waves were gentle and well-spaced and beautiful. He walked down the beach for a while. It was empty. There was no one. It was like the end of the world or maybe it was more like the beginning. Even the gulls were absent. He watched a school of mullet swimming behind the waves and the water was rich and clear and tinged with green as if they swam behind a lucid jewel of some watered-down jade.

He shed his clothes, folded them on the sand and placed his shoes and camera and hat on top. He was neat and tidy to minimise their impact on the scene. He walked over the wet sand and into the water. It was chilled and refreshing as a drink on a hot day and was effervescent and smooth on his skin. A wave humped and hilled and rolled towards him rising to crest as it came closer. He raced to meet it and dove through the wall of green before it crashed into whiteness. He swam beneath the surface until he hungered for air and rose toward the shimmering sparkle of sun behind a line of waves. The water was delicious and cool and he swam with long deep strokes, cupping the water in his hands gliding forward, rolling to his side, filling his lungs with the air and it felt magic and he felt strong and vital and alive, the taste of salt on his lips, its wet stiffness in his hair.

He swam until he was tired and his limbs felt loose and empty, then turned back and swam toward the beach. The crashing waves softened and muted his water-soaked ears and he rode a wave onto the shore, felt it crash around him. He rose to his feet, scooped water from around his legs and rinsed the sand from his body and limbs and walked up the sloping beach to his clothes. He pushed water from his skin with a flat palm and dried the rest with his shirt. He slipped into his underwear and sat on the warm sand for a while before dressing, letting the sun dry and nourish him. He brushed the sand from his legs and put on his pants and he pushed the wet sand from beneath his toes and further cleaned them with his socks, then shook the socks free of sand and put them on, then his shoes. He stood, flapped his shirt to rid it of sand and air out the wetness from his drying and slipped it on. He wore it without buttoning it; it flapped around him in the breeze and dried further in the sun.

It was a perfect swim. It was a perfect day. He loved this land even more and all that was in it. He remembered this time, being totally alone on a beautiful beach, on a beautiful day and a long beautiful swim.

There are times when something is so beautiful, so fulfilling that when you experience them you long for someone to share it with. Somehow on this day he didn’t long for someone to share it with. He was replete. On a deserted beach, not another human to be seen, a clear blue sky and the sound of waves rolling in, the sun and the smell of salt and sea on his skin and hair and body, he felt at one with where he was, this little synapse of time, this in between space was an enlightenment, a short burst of Siddhartha beneath the Banyan tree, a short respite of being totally and completely in the now.

It was stronger and more intense than some consciousness expanding hallucinogen and yet so passive and tranquil, it sang with a whisper of wind, a softness and warmth and remained with him.

And he thinks to himself that even if no one cares to read them, these are things that he will put to paper before his body turns to dust and his words become one with the wind. Wax and wane the light and words like moon glow and weave the common into the uncommon and the uncommon into the beautiful because it’s already there and sadly people were just too silly to notice.

The journey over, he returns to riverbank and pushes the bike without peddles with his sloppy floppy feet to catch up with the woman and the crazy dog.

The Village is where an abandoned dog, old, tired and worn found shelter with people, got a feed and a pat on the head and when the weather turned too cold outside was taken into the warmth to assuage and comfort old arthritic bones. Should the council dogcatcher arrive in the village, word travelled and the dog would be fetched and ferreted to a villager’s home to escape capture. In some quarters there was an enduring love for the dispossessed and the outcast, especially those with four legs.

There is a cat, with a missing back leg who hobbles in and out of shaded gardens and collapses in the sun to warm itself.

People meet other people through their dogs. They often forget names but somehow remember the names of dogs. They form passing acquaintances and friendships and indulge in quick greetings along the morning paths as their dogs tug impatiently on their leads.

Most Villagers pick up their dog’s shit. When you find a large steaming dog turd in the reserve along the river or in the children’s play area, you suspect an interloper. Some have the loutishness and asininity to leave their plastic drink bottles and beer cans lying on the ground even though there is never a shortage of bins nearby, but there are Villagers who pick them up and bin them while on morning walks. Persons speeding in boats along the river are shouted at to slow down to stop the erosion of the riverbank.

Villagers are protective and visitors are expected to respect this place because after all is said and done there are few of its kind remaining.

He liked the old-timers who came and stayed in cottages or caravans or camper vans or tents. The old gnarled Aussies who were of a sort who walked barefoot on the beach, dragging onion bags filled with smelly fish heads and frames, old bodies squatting on haunches with a piece of pippy dug from the wet sand held between their thumb and forefinger waiting for beach worms to pop their heads up.

He watched them wade across the river at low tide with their buckets and yabby pumps working the sand flats for bait to entice the river whiting, flathead and bream. But they were beginning to diminish and be replaced by boats with outboards that motored up the river and kayaks that were paddled or peddled quietly to the river mouth or down towards the headwaters.

Standing on the headland in the evening light, he watched the long beach rods arced out over the incoming coastal surge, lines taut with the current and tide as they fished for tailor and winter bream in the colder months.

The old-timers became fewer and their numbers begin to fill with the Boomers like himself. He, too, had become an old-timer like the wrinkled wanderers and wonderers exploring the long shoreline of Australia in the winter of their years.

Every Autumn the pelicans returned, a feathered squadron of graceful flight. They were big and white and black and when they flew in they reminded him of a fixed-winged seaplane, their broad beautifully arched wings, still and effortless without movement as they glided in for a soft landing on the water.

Spring brought the wild flowers and the heath became white and purple and yellow and later in the year the Christmas bells would flower their red and gold blooms dripping forward like delicate waxed sculptures.

Wattle birds nested under their veranda in a hanging lantern, their raucous cry altered and softened with parental care into gentle chatty coos and twitters. Time slipped away with the subtleties of the seasons and each day held nothing eventful except the celebration of natural and beautiful things and those events touched and nourished a deep place within him that was rewarding and worthwhile.

It’s almost four a.m. He’s awake but he doesn’t know for how long: It’s one of those things that travel so slowly he’s not aware of its happening. He finds himself awake, conscious, aware. He lies flat on his back, Frankenstein’s creature, suppressing his moans with his sudden aliveness. A black-and-white image pops into his head of a man with slicked-back hair in a lab coat, melodramatic and screaming in a room made of grey stone over a prostrate figure on a table.

“It’s alive! It’s alive!”

His shoulder aches and he needs to have a leak. He wonders if he turns over and really tries, he could go back to sleep. He’d like to go back to sleep but he’d also like to have a leak and even in the brain fog of awakening, and around the hysterical screams of Dr Brylcreem Hair rapturing over his moaning creature, he’s awake enough to know he can’t do both.

He rolls to the edge of the bed and gingerly toed puts a foot out, sweeping the area lightly. He has no idea where crazy Molly is and he doesn’t want to step on her. He feels her soft fur on the arch of his foot. She tail-thumps the floor a few times in response to his touch.

“It’s alive! It’s alive!” the tail drums.

He slides his bum a little more towards the head of the bed. Crazy Molly moves a little towards the foot of the bed, harrumphs and collapses to the floor with a thud. She might be crazy but she cooperates when it suits her. He plants bare feet on the timber floor, lightly gritty with sand and warm from where Molly has been lying, leans a supporting hand towards the wall, rises, grabs the edge of the doorway and reaches around for his crutches. He fits them into his arms. Once he’s up and on his feet, the liquid drops further. Science! Gravity! The urge to urinate is painful and desperate. It’s dark, but there is enough light from the electrics of the entertainment unit to illuminate his way in a pale soft green and the night light from the toilet seeps under the door. He finishes his business and stops at the sink. He thinks about popping a few aspirin for the shoulder but doesn’t. It always seems to get a bit better when he gets up.

A spirit wind wails mournfully around the edges of the house and spaces in the window frames. It’s an old house. Most all the houses here are old houses. Old fishing cottages and holiday homes, many built by farmers who could turn their hand to most things in a rough and ready way, but craftsmen they weren’t. Some are liberally artistic in their structures but sophistry is rare in these parts.

Outside in the dark from the veranda, trees and leaves dance, shimmy and sway in the mounting wind.

Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

And close your eyes with holy dread

For he on honeydew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise. *

Clouds in the current of the dark sky drift across the night leaving clear spaces where the moon and stars play peekaboo from the blackness.

He turns on the light, puts on the electric jug, taps the screen of the computer, opens a new document and blank page and begins:

I was born and grew up in a small town...

* Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Kubla Khan)

About the Author

Alpheus Williams

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Alpheus Williams lives and writes in a small Australian coastal village with his wonderful wife and border collie. His work has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail Winners Anthology, Barren Magazine, Storgy, The Write Launch, The Fabulist Magazine, et al.