by Chantel Lavoie

That summer he moved into the house where she had raised her children. He brought with him patience, self-knowledge free of ego, minor flaws that come from living too long alone. Strong hands willing to pull weeds. Height to reach the top shelves. A warm laugh. Also, two dogs.

She had not chosen to live with dogs, although she’d grown up with them. Farm dogs—who stayed outside—kept away coyotes and skunks, tangled with porcupines then ran howling across the prairie yard, noses needle-pierced so that her father had to take pliers to the quills. No one had picked up after those dogs, or leashed them. They roamed. Once, a stupid stray they’d taken in got killed by a truck on the gravel road.

So, when her new husband asked her to come on walks with the three of them—man, black Labrador, and Australian Shepherd—her “yes” in response was five percent desire for air and exercise, and ninety-five percent duty, virtue. She didn’t spell this out for him, and he didn’t voice disapproval at her ordering groceries online despite the plastic bags. Other displeasures remained unspoken: she had more possessions than met his approval; he let the tea towel get used too often before putting it in the wash.

Mostly she kept him company on the last walk of the day, after television and before bed. She held the lead belonging to Jemma, the Labrador, easier to take charge of than the large Australian Shepherd, Sam. Even so, Jemma pulled hard in her eagerness to smell the world. Winter was coming, and she foresaw falling on ice because she had fallen in love. So much is chance, even with good boots taking careful steps.

And she missed strolling. At first the newlyweds held hands, but they couldn’t stay in step with the dogs following their noses once the snow came, wrenching their humans in zigs and zags. Squalls in the night drifted and banked the sidewalks. When they stopped for him to take a bag from his pocket, she reached to take the other lead from him so he could bend his long length over, insert his hand into the bag, scoop up the feces with its bit of snow—fluffy or in bag-tearing chunks—and twist the end. He knotted the bag, reached his hand out for the lead.

“Thank you.”

People across the world were doing the same thing, bowing to their four-legged masters.

There were clouds or there weren’t, a moon or there wasn’t. She could not attend to the skies as she would do on a canineless walk. She imagined herself to have been quite the stargazer—as she had told herself back in the years of pushing strollers. All that looking down. Then, too, she fancied she had noticed all kinds of things before.

January nights the first year of the marriage, neighbouring houses and pines held on to their twinkling lights; it was a year of not enough colour or hope, so she pushed crankiness away and complaints down, for the world was in the grip of illness, between denial and despair.

“Not long now,” he said.

He meant spring is coming. He meant an end to what last spring had seemed like the end of the world. Already they were paying less attention to numbers—in the ICU, in their city, in their country, on earth.

Blossoms came magically from buds. But it was hard not to think, even then, winter is coming. Masks stayed on while rumblings grew louder.

Six months, eight. Snow returned like the blanket on a sickbed.

In the living room, her vegetarian husband would not sit on the leather sofa. Fur in strands and puffs accumulated at the edges of life, caught her in irate flashes.

Jemma and Sam sat or lay on the floor by the table at mealtimes. Her husband feigned sternness.

“Ah, stop it. I know you. Nothing will come of begging.”

But he placed his emptied plate, then hers, on the floor to be licked clean and gave them chunks of muffin at breakfast. She set the dishwasher heat to high, swept morning and night.

Her husband was diligent with the vacuum. Also he gardened. He otherwise sat on the deck or in a not-leather armchair with a book, played word games on his phone. Now and again one hand reached down to stroke a sentinel’s silky head. When he rose, they rose. When he got a glass of water or went to the bathroom, they stood close, watched him, or waited by the door.

He hugged her with the same lingering attention, happy to rest his chin on her head. Sometimes they stood like that, swaying to the sound of sleet on the windows or steam agitating the lid of a pot on the stove. After dinner she made the tea. He turned their programme of the week on, streaming. They sat cuddled in the dark before its glow—sipping, watching, scoffing at British murder, American laughter, old-world romance. Screened in.


Spring. Summer. Fall.

Getting ill the third winter was the only thing he’d ever done quickly.

Trembling, he stopped using a knife, then a fork. Pieces of bread. Piece of cheese. Bowls of soup drunk from the bowl. Water. He no longer put pen to paper to describe the birds that moved him or the music of ice crunching under his boots. He no longer read. One hand, sometimes two, still stroked a dog’s head as he sat while the other companion lay at his feet.

He was cultivating shadows under his eyes. She could smell fecal matter on his breath. Not long, then. The dogs, who had not been allowed in their bedroom, now took over the carpeted floor on his side of the bed—curled into themselves, alert to his movements.

She joined them for every slow unsteady walk. He took her hand and squeezed, leads tangled together and around wrists. One hand gripped a cane. He fell. She scolded. He fell. He let her do the walks on her own. The dogs wrestled and growled.

“When you find them a new home, please make sure they stay together.”

Hands entwined on the sofa, her instinct to reassure beyond the request. Of course, I’ll keep them. For his sake, in remembrance of him or an imaginary him—living in her head and approving of the sacrifice.

“I wouldn’t split them up.” Truthful, not giving up too much. It was only, after all, til death do us part, not until every death happened—deaths plural.


Then it was over, and three hearts beat in the house rather than four.

He had asked to be turned into mushrooms. She found the company name he’d flagged, bought the mycelium coffin that transformed itself and its inhabitant into compost in two years. They laid him on the moss inside, bed brimming with microorganisms. How a hobbit might be buried, she imagined, although not with this need to thaw the ground first. There was a Cat Stevens song, a Buddhist poem by Ryokan, another by Sufi master Hafiz. She spoke Psalm 23 over the box, considered how mushrooms would thrive in the valley of the shadow of death.

That night she could not sleep in their bed. She carried a pillow and comforter down to the sofa, leaving the bedroom door open for the dogs to settle into their worn places. Shuffles and snuffles reached her ears, but she turned up the television and lay in its blue glow until morning. She sensed one or the other descend and prowl through the dark rooms, pause beside her narrow bed before sloping off. She kept her hands under the blanket to avoid a wet nose or tongue.

Bitter cold. The front door was ajar. She’d forgotten to lock it in the past but had never left it so the wind could push it open and let itself in. Rising from sleeplessness—or sleeplessness dreamed of all night—she staggered up, pulled the blanket around herself, and shuffled in stockinged feet to shut out the frigid dawn. Shivering to the kitchen to grind the coffee, boil water. The dogs should have come down with the noises she made, but even after her second cup neither had stirred. I should pet them more, she thought, give them a brush. They’re grieving too.

Heavy feet carried her upstairs. In the hall she noticed how furry the carpet had become in the last days—she was now free to replace it with hard clean slippery wood. Snores rose from the dark bodies asleep alongside the empty bed. The dogs did not stir as she stood in the doorway.

Three dogs.

Her sobbing woke them. She slid down the wall.


It might be an hour she spends with her tear-soaked face buried in his fur, smoothing, smoothing her hand along his back, pulling away to stare into his eyes. He looks over her blanketed shoulder at the wall, lets her scratch his ears. He is medium size, glossy brown, a mutt. He licks tears from her cheek with his great dog’s tongue, a blast of hot dog breath in her face. Jemma and Sam pace around them, sniff them, circle back around and lie down again.

When she stands unsteadily, the sun is higher at the window. He moves with her down the stairs and through other rooms, rests his head on her lap so she feels the dog bones of it while she eats a piece of toast. The other two follow him following her.

Whimpering, they let her know they need to go out. He scratches at the door. Strange to have forgotten, even though she herself has peed, dressed, and peed again, leaving the bathroom door open. He’d come in to rest his head on her leg while she urinated.

A new intimacy.

Coat. Boots. Hat. Scarf. Bags in pockets. Mittens. Leads—she finds a spare one on a hook among the tools. An awkward moment kneeling before him to put it around his neck, but he is compliant. So.

Outside she feels weak-kneed, pulled along and uncertain in the patchwork of April snow and mud, the moving shadows of tree branches. The sun and the clouds, the blue of the sky completely new. What is real? Has she forgotten adopting a new dog, yesterday or before—struck her head and been concussed? But yesterday was the celebration of life; she walked Jemma and Sam before and after. Has sorrow rendered her demented? Is this a canine reincarnation or a vivid drawn-out hallucination? If the former, why has his soul not travelled further afield? If the latter, God help her.

God help her, anyway.

She hopes she hasn’t said any of this out loud as she walks, pulled along tripping. None of the three dogs is heeling. The other two have never done that anyway, but she feels hurt that he doesn’t.

Two dogs are a handful. Three dogs are a pack.

Their leads braid over and under, force them close together weaving along the sidewalk. She stops to unravel as they follow their noses into bushes, into piddle and one another’s muzzle and ass, speeding and slowing, almost taking her arms off when they meet another dog. The two humans apologize over frenzied yelps.

The first time he defecates in the snow she turns her head away from the steam rising, the ridiculous pose. He kicks the powder precisely where it needs to go—finally, a dog who does this—then she shoves more over with her boot.

But the second time he stops while someone is walking towards them, and she cannot avoid citizenly duty. She pulls the bag from her coat pocket with an awkward mittened hand. He eyes her as she digs it out of the snow and turns the small heavy bag inside out.

“You could at least look away.”

The woman passing by looks startled.

The day becomes a week, then two. The skin of her left hand grows raw from him licking it. When seated she keeps her fingers entwined in the fur on his head, at his neck. She turns pages one-handed, lets the dog hair accumulate in corners.

Nights he sleeps alongside the others on the floor. He won’t jump on the bed or the sofa even when she pats the furniture, using her voice for a dog or her voice for a husband. But she won’t close the door to keep him out of their room, and he won’t stay in the room without the rest of the pack. She steps over their bulks when she wakes.

Friends try to get her out. She makes excuses, knowing they think she’s cracked, just a little, acquiring a third dog instead of giving two away—even the dog lovers think so, especially since she was never one of them. She doesn’t call him by his name, to her friends or even to him, but they never had done that. Sweetheart, she says. She has become one of those women without a man and with too many pets. Maybe they all have the same secret.

She immerses herself in research: rebirth of souls, dog breeds and their lifespans. She tries to calculate ages and odds. But how old was he in dog years when he became this new self? What will happen when he dies as a dog? What will happen when she dies as herself? She looks in his eyes, but he does not hold the gaze. He understands, though.

“If I found a new home for Jemma and Sam—?” she begins. Quickly, she adds, “A good home!” for he begins to howl and the other two join him. This ends the conversation. When she brushes him, he nudges her—once nips her hand—if she moves to put the brush away without lavishing the same attention on the others.

She walks them five, six times a day, seven—his eyes beseeching her. He circles her and the breakfast table, butts her with his nose. But if she tries to take him out without the others, he won’t cross the threshold. The only time she takes them to an off-leash park to play catch they are all wild with excitement. It is dark by the time she can get them all back on their leads, and only with the help of two strangers corralling Jemma and Sam.

After two weeks, he refuses the dog food they’ve always bought. His nose goes up.

“Selective, aren’t you?”

All three are now fed ground beef, liver, chicken and fish. In the morning he drinks coffee with a little milk from a bowl. Her trips to the grocery store are speedy, the dogs lying in the car while she slips in and out of the shop.

If she is in a different room, cooking or cleaning, she checks constantly, listens for sounds of his restlessness. On the phone she cuts the other person off mid-sentence.

“I have to go. Sorry, the dogs need out.”


Her husband’s best friend, Douglas, calls and wants to stop by. He’s in town. How can she say no? Vacuum. Sweep. Mop. Lint brush the armchairs. Wipe the counters down. Rush out for biscuits to serve with the coffee. Home, she lights a scented candle, then opens a window and walks around spraying air freshener until he knocks. The house smells like flowered aerosol, three dogs, and her.

A hug is startling, weirdly human.

“So good to see you, darling.”

“I’m glad you could make time. How’s your sister?” she asks.

“The same. They say six months now, so it’ll probably be a bit more. You know how they do that—don’t want accusations, no But you saids, as if it had been a guarantee, y’know?”

“Yes. Sit. Sit.”

“And who’s this? I heard about you, fella.” He buries his hands in the dog’s fur, massaging his neck. If a dog could purr, he would. “He’s a handsome one. Where’d you come by this one, now?”

“Oh, a rescue.”

Her husband stays between their chairs. He moves to rest his jaw and ear against her thigh, but keeps his gaze on his friend. She feeds him half her biscuit. Then he switches to rest his head against Doug’s leg. The Lab and the Shepherd stay in another room.

They talk funny memories, hikes, a flat tire, getting lost. She is out of practice looking into eyes, reminding herself to do this. They talk about his sister, and her husband, his friend. Her hand is on her husband’s warm head as she recalls, “Even when he asked directions, he got lost again.”

She has forgotten to buy cream or milk. Doug pretends he takes his coffee black.

“The fucking cancer,” he says, draining his cup.


When he leaves, there it is again—encircled by arms, human hands on her back.

“Take care of yourself, girl. He wouldn’t want you to wear yourself out.” Fingers gripping the doorknob, he glances from the entrance towards the living room, at the large squares of cardboard with words and images on them laid along the rug in front of the fireplace. A quizzical squint, right in her eyes, then he’s gone.

She watches him walk to his car and open the door, stomp his boots on the driveway before getting in. He waves through the clouds reflected in his windshield and her window.

Her beloved looks from the closed door up to her, turns around on the welcome mat, and lies down. He puts one paw across his eyes. She walks into the living room.

Last week she set out the words, signs written with marker—“FOOD” and “BALL” and “OUT”—urged him to point with his nose or to paw at them. She wrote his name along with a question mark, drew a valentine heart, and showed him a photo of the two of them at their wedding. The next day she drew pictures—a bowl of food, a ball, a tree—and set these on the floor. Every day she asked him questions, made requests.

“Point to the tree, Sweetheart. Here, give me your paw.” And “What is your name?”

His brown eyes are dull, dumb. He stares at the front door, would rather follow the scent of a rabbit, bark at another dog until her ears ring and her wrist hurts from holding on. He would rather chase a real ball.

So much for trying to be that psychologist who taught the chimp Washoe to sign.

At best she is Pavlov. Or he is.


It’s been two months, and she knows the dogs stink. She tried bathing him in the tub, but it had not gone well. He howled, struggled until she was crying. Jemma and Sam barked on the other side of the door. When she opened it, he leaped out to shake soapy spray over them all.

Still, she feels apprehension dropping them off at the groomer’s. The woman who works there is sympathetic, sad.

“I heard what happened. I’m so sorry for your loss. He was a good man.”

“Thank you. Yes.”

“Oh, what a lovely new animal. You’re a beautiful boy, aren’t you? What’s his name?” The woman’s fingers are stroking his fur, scratching behind his ears so his eyes half close in pleasure.

“I call him Sweetheart.”

“Aw. I’m sure your husband would have loved him. We’ll get along fine, I know. With this lot it will take me close to three hours, so I’ll text you.”

She tries to catch his eye, but he is looking away. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Walking down the steps then the driveway, she imagines his eyes on her back through the smudged glass door. She wants to turn but not to see. The car is quiet.

The café she comes across is new. She orders an Americano and crème brûlée. The brittle crust crackles under her spoon. She lifts burnt sugar and creamy sweetness to her mouth, reads pages of her book without looking up. The hands of her wristwatch surprise her.

Climbing the steps back up to the groomer’s, she’s relieved to see his pointed ears and black gums through the door. He jumps up at her as soon as it’s opened.

“He’s well named, this one,” the woman smiles, fastening his collar.

While he thumps his tail on the floor, she hands over payment and a tip. Damp, rasping gratitude licks her other hand.

Once the other two are safe in the back, she opens the door to the passenger seat. He leaps in, panting, facing the windshield. “You smell great,” she tells him. She buries her face in the clean thick fur at his nape.

Chantel Lavoie

Chantel Lavoie lives in Kingston, Ontario, where she teaches at the Royal Military College. She has published fiction in The Humber Literary Review, and poetry in journals including Arc, CV2, and Prairie Fire, as well as in three books of verse: Where the Terror Lies (2012), This is About Angels, Women, and Men (2021) and, with Meg Freer, To Serve the Sorrow World with Joy (2021).