Nora by Jose Sotolongo

The gunshots woke him up just as it started to get light out.  Too early in the season for deer hunting, he thought.  Must be another animal being hunted down.  Jeremiah loved the fact that the woods surrounding his house were insulation from the human contact he wanted only sparingly, but here it had been violated this morning, violently.  It would be another hour before the alarm would go off, but he wouldn’t go back to sleep now, eager for the beauty of sunrise.  He turned the radio on softly, although he was all alone in the house, as he had been for the past three years, except for Nora.  He got out of bed to a chair by the window and sat there naked to watch the birds.

The clearing where the house had been built in the early 1800’s was in the middle of  acres of woods, hundreds of them.  The tree closest the house was an ancient and dying maple, its trunk three feet across.  Just beyond it started a trail that went for miles, into unpopulated acres of the Catskills.  Daily, after work, he and Nora, his Newfoundland, would climb to the top of Goat Hill and never see a soul.

She was a huge dog, the focus of his emotional life after he brought her home from the shelter, two weeks after Rose had died.  Her slobbering affection dominated any room she was in, and he woke up in the mornings now with a sense of purpose that was new.  Even people at work, an emotionally cold place for him, had noticed a change in his spirits.  The one person he occasionally chatted with at the factory, Luna, had noticed the change.

“You actually smile in the mornings now.  It’s that dog, isn’t it?”  she had said a few days after he had brought Nora home.   And yet, even with Luna, who was dark of skin and mood, he maintained a certain distance, despite the fact that he thought of her pretty face and shapely body when he woke up with a morning erection.

He had broken his engagement to Rose three years ago, after a difficult year.  What was the point, he had concluded, of marrying someone with whom there were more skirmishes than pleasures?  He knew he tended to be too logical and rigid about things, and Rose had been careless of any order, even messy.  He wanted, for instance, the orange juice in the refrigerator on the left side of the shelf and the milk on the right, so that he could pick up the heavier milk with his stronger right hand.  Rose didn’t see the point, or didn’t care, and put the cartons back any which way.

He had liked her sweet thoughtfulness in the early days of their relationship, especially in the quiet mornings as they got ready for work.  She would scald the milk in his mug in the microwave as he liked, before pouring the coffee in, and would give him a kiss on the cheek as she handed it to him.  All her charms had become eclipsed by her worsening temper in the evenings, along with an enormous weight gain.  Some evenings he wished that she would not come home from the auto dealership where she worked.

He had finally run out of energy for Rose, and had called it off one Wednesday evening as they were cleaning up after dinner.  Standing at the sink, with his back to her, he had said, “I’ve been doing some thinking about our future.”

After a few seconds silence, during which the clatter of dishes that she she was clearing had stopped, he continued.

“I’m not sure marriage is what I want any time soon, or ever.  I need time alone.”

She had dropped the dishes on the table and spoke incomprehensible words through heaves and tears.  She went to him, looked at him incredulously as he turned finally from the sink to face her, but he said nothing more.

With her face bathed in snotty tears and drunk on chardonnay, she had driven off in the dark, forgetting the headlights and the seat belt, and had gone off a high bridge over a dry creek.  He made himself believe it was just an accident, and nothing more, although her weight problem, she had often said, had kept men away for most of her adult life.  He was it, she had said.

She had been just slightly overweight when they had met, having just finished a diet, but in the space of two years she had grown massive, clothes splitting and eroding from the chafe of her flesh.  The smell from under her breasts and abdominal folds when they were in bed was yeasty and pungent, and sex had become nauseating for him the rare times he even attempted it.  Even as he prepared the words for the break up, days before the accident, he kept hearing  her words that he was the only one with whom she could have a future.

She had died in the ambulance on the way to hospital.  Whether her death had been accidental or a suicide, he felt the crush of guilt.  His wish for her not to come home had come true.  Perhaps if he had used different language, or chosen a quieter, less acrimonious evening, he thought, she might still be alive.  He wished he had stopped her from getting in the car while intoxicated, and wondered whether he hadn’t because on some level he had hoped for the very end she had met.

George, the foreman at the factory, had reluctantly agreed to his week’s vacation.  It was a busy time of the year in the manufacture of chef’s knives, three months before Christmas. But Jeremiah was a good worker, punctual and fast, and he was seen by George as dour and distant, not likely to back down easily from a reasonable and rare request for vacation.  “Going anywhere on your time off, Jeremiah?” He had asked, trying to break the uncomfortable distance between them.

“Nope,” Jeremiah said quickly, but without vinegar.  “Just catching up on work around the house.”

In fact, Jeremiah had made plans to pack up the tent and take Nora on a camping trip to a lakeside, where she might go swimming, which she loved to do.  In preparation, he went shopping for the provisions he would need, mostly vegetables and grains.  He was working towards being a complete vegetarian ever since he had become educated in the practices of the food industry: chickens that never saw daylight; calves chained to remain tender veal; pigs that lived in pens so crowded they ate their young.  He didn’t want to be a predator of other animals when there were alternatives.  His lack of banter about women and his vegetarian lunches at work drew smirks and snide comments from some of the other guys.  He kept his distance from everyone but Luna.

On Monday, the first day of his vacation, he arose just a little later than usual.  He lingered over his coffee in the kitchen, looking out at the busy bird feeder.  As he watched, a male cardinal in brilliant red flew in to feed, and immediately was attacked by the resident and territorial male cardinal.  After a scuffle of red on the ground, he could see one of the birds limping away, unable to fly.  Better to look away, he thought, and not witness this violence.

“Come, Nora, let’s go for a walk.”  She perked up her ears and ran to the door, waiting for him to grab his flannel overshirt.  They took the path by the maple, planning a longer walk today, luxuriating in his first free day.  Nora nosed the trail, finding hidden scents, and he envied her connection to her surroundings.  Compared to her, he thought, he was an alien visitor to this planet.

He took the low trail to go back, Nora leading the way.  Near the bottom of the trail, not a half mile from the house, Nora pointed her nose up in the air and took off into the woods.  When she didn’t come back right away, he sat on one of the many boulders for a few minutes.  It was nearly lunch time, and the lentils he had left soaking before the walk would be ready for a quick boil with garlic, oregano, and olive oil.  Where was Nora?

After a few minutes she reappeared on the trail, carrying a large, muddy object in her mouth.  She stopped for a second and looked at him before racing down the trail, back to the house.  Jeremiah followed her back, intent on not letting her eat something that might harm her, like a deer bone.  As he neared the house he saw her by the kitchen door, eating the contents of what she had been carrying in her mouth: a wooden box almost big enough to hold a pair of shoes.  She looked up at him as she crunched what must have been a bone, her found snack.

The small brass plaque on the mahogany box that now sat on the kitchen table was engraved:  Richard Scofield, June 6, 1938 — September 20, 2010.  The name was familiar.  He knew they lived in the area and had read something in the paper about them, but didn’t know them.  He searched in vain outside by the kitchen door, where Nora had been going through the box, looking for any recognizable remains.  Nora sat by her food canister, ready for a proper meal.

He cooked and ate the lentils, and fed Nora, usually an enjoyable task for him.  Today, though, he fed her without satisfaction, watched her eat not with the gratification of nourishing her, but with some disgust.  Her eating fragments of human bones, likely the result of cremation, had crossed a line for him.  She had chased and mangled squirrels and woodchucks before, and would partially eat them some times.  But to eat human remains — didn’t dogs have a sophisticated olfactory system that would limit what they would eat?  He watched her finish her bowl of kibble with sadness and disgust.

After lunch they set out again, up the trail, to the boulder where he had sat and waited for her.  He tried to determine where in the dense brush Nora had ventured off the trail, and he went into the woods, hoping Nora would lead him to the spot.  He had brought the box along to place it back in its proper place, if he could find it.  But where could it have been that it was so easily reached by Nora?  Why wouldn’t it have been properly buried, or kept in the family’s home?  He held the box close to Nora’s nose, but she took no initiative.  He walked through some brambles with difficulty, looking for a clearing with a freshly dug spot, without success.  He put the box down in front of the dog.  She ignored it and sat, looking at him.  They went back home.

There was one Richard Scofield listed in the telephone directory.  He considered calling the number, then knew he couldn’t face telling whomever answered what had happened.  And wouldn’t there be legal repercussions for him because his dog had disturbed a gravesite?

He closed the lid of the box as well as he could.  Nora’s powerful jaws had broken the hinges and cracked the wood.  He walked to his pickup and placed the box in the glove compartment.  He busied himself with repairing a tear in the tent and cleaning the bed of the pickup, in preparation for tomorrow’s camping trip.  By then he’d be done with this incident.

After dark, before dinner, he set out without Nora towards the address listed for the Scofield house.  It was easy to find on this country lane with very few homes.  No other cars traveled the road as he approached the house, which was entirely dark except for a light downstairs.  A car in the driveway of the only other house, some forty feet away, reflected the blue light from a T.V. set coming through a window.  Jeremiah stepped out of the truck and tried to place the box in the mailbox, but it wouldn’t fit.  He left it on the ground, and left.

Back home, he found the number again, and dialed.

“Hello?” It was the shaky voice of an elderly woman.  Frail.

“Is this Mrs. Scofield?”

“Yes.  Who is this?”  There was some alarm in her voice.

“I’m sorry,” Jeremiah said.  “It was an accident.”

“I don’t understand.  Who is this?” now with some fear.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated.  “It’s by the mailbox.”  He struggled to say something comforting to this scared old woman on the phone, but he did not want to give his identity away.  “I’m very sorry.”  He hung up.

He slept badly, tortured by the furtive way he had returned the remains.  He arose at dawn, unable to sleep once the sun was up, and got ready for the long drive later that morning to the campground.  After breakfast, as he finished loading his gear on to the bed of the truck, a state trooper pulled into his driveway.  Jeremiah froze, already queasy with dread that his truck had been identified last night.

“Looking for Jeremiah Spencer,” said the trooper.

“That’s me.” He tried to sound casual and relaxed.

“Your vehicle was seen by a neighbor as having been at 71 Denton Road last evening.”

“Yes,” said Jeremiah.  “I wanted to return a wooden box to its rightful owner.”

The trooper made some notes in a pad.  “How did you come upon the box in the first place?”

“My dog Nora found it in the woods.”  Nora, who had been lying down between them, looked at him and at the trooper when she heard her name mentioned, wagging her tail.  The trooper ignored the dog.

“Do you know what was in that box?” he asked.

“I couldn’t be sure, but the plaque on it had someone’s name and dates, so I assumed it was in memory of a deceased person,” Jeremiah said.  There was no point, he thought, telling the trooper about the crunching of bones in Nora’s jaws.  The trooper thought about Jeremiah’s response for a few seconds, and then asked Jeremiah to show him where in the woods Nora had found the box.  With some trepidation, thinking the trooper might arrest him for failing to prevent his dog from desecrating a grave, Jeremiah led him up the trail, followed by Nora, who gamely ran circles around them as they walked up the trail.

The walk seemed to relax the trooper.  “Nice country back here,” he said.

“Yes, Nora and I have been walking this trail ever since I got her as a pup, almost two years ago.

They walked the rest of the way in silence until they arrived at the spot where Nora had emerged from the woods with the box.  “This is where she came out of the woods with it,” Jeremiah said.

“Did you go into the woods at all, you yourself, I mean?”

“No, I just saw her come back to the trail through there,” he said, pointing at a clearing.

At this point the trooper took out a roll of yellow tape from his pant’s pocket printed with “CRIME SCENE DO NOT ENTER,” and tied a length of it across the clearing between the bushes where Nora had emerged.  Jeremiah thought the next words out of the trooper’s mouth would be “You’re under arrest,” and he looked at the trooper with dismay, feeling faint.  He sat down on the nearby boulder.

“You OK?” the trooper asked.

“Not sure,” he said.  “Am I in trouble?”

“Not really, but we may need to ask you more details in the next few days.  The box your dog found was one of several stolen last year from Hansen’s Funeral Parlor.  Someone broke in looking for jewelry being buried with the deceased.  We’ve had a couple of suspects for a while.  Be sure to be available for the next few days.”

Back home, Jeremiah unpacked the camping gear, and after putting it all away sat at the kitchen table and looked at Nora, sleeping by the door.  Nora’s behavior paled now next to the ruthlessness of the robbery.

It was not noon yet.  If he couldn’t go on his camping trip because of the trooper’s instructions, he would not waste his vacation.  He found his fishing gear and loaded it onto the truck, put Nora in the back, and drove to a stream eight miles away where there were trout running.

As he put on his long waders and got his gear ready, Nora sniffed towards the woods, then ran off into them.  He heard a horrific scream then, coming from the woods, not more than twenty yards away, followed by the rustling of vegetation being disturbed.  Had something attacked her?  There were bears still out this time of year.  The fear of her being killed or injured chilled him.

Nora burst out of the woods suddenly, carrying a spotted fawn in her mouth, not more than a day or two old, bleeding profusely and still kicking, even as it died in her jaws.  Jeremiah became quickly nauseated at the sight of the carnage.  His disbelief at what he was seeing paralyzed him, and the panic of losing her gave way to revulsion.

As if watching from the treetops, he saw himself moving away from her and closer to the few people in his small world.  He looked at the dying fawn, savaged by Nora.  This graphic proof that death was inevitable and sometimes untimely brought him sudden peace.  He had caused a flare-up in Rose’s despair, not her death.  Other events to come in his life would lighten that weight.  Luna, for instance, had asked last week, without a trace of guile or calculation, to meet his dog.  It would be nice, he thought, if that went some place eventually, unless that too fell apart, or death came to one of them before the relationship matured.  He didn’t think he was being morbid.  No, it was just the way things were, what could happen.

And then Nora walked up to him and dropped the now limp and bloody carcass at his feet.  She went to lie down in the shade a few feet away, panting from the heat, looking out at the stream, as if she was pondering a swim.

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About the Author

Jose Sotolongo’s background and previous field of endeavor is in medicine. His fiction has appeared in Turk’s Head Review and The Rusty Nail.  He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with his partner and an Australian Cobber Dog.