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It's Nelly's World

The Holly and the Ivy

alec vanderboom

I received my Christmas present early this year, and it's all I really want. Oh, well, all right. That's not true. I do have a small list that I have conveyed to the powers at the North Pole, a few items relating to fame, fortune, and the like, but I doubt that Santa is going to get Javier Bardem wrapped and under my tree in time. I'll just take yesterday's gift.

The snow has a nice hard crust on it, so it fools your foot every darn time. "I can walk," you think; "No, you don't," says the snow. After a moment's hesitation on the surface, crunch, down it goes, so that every step is twice the expenditure of energy as usual. But that's for a normal-sized person (as well as for the poor deer, whose sharp hooves cut through the crust, too, so you see them these days taking paths of least resistance on the plowed roads; alas, this is not the time of year they want to be expending their hard-earned calories on commuting). For Nelly, at twenty pounds, the foot of snow merely makes her taller than she is used to being. And that means she can now reach the point on the fence where the gauge is big enough for her to squirm through, or where a sag at the top permits her to go up and over. Please recall that her probable father is a dog named Houdini, whom no fence can contain. Where is the fence-scaling gene in the canine's makeup, I wonder?

In the morning when we go out to wait for the school bus, Nelly comes too, but stays inside the fence, noodling around, sniffing the tracks of whatever visited our yard the night before. It's her version of reading the morning edition. My son and I sit on the bench (at least we do when there aren't five-foot-high banks of snow pushed against it) and read together. It's a lovely time. It wasn't a lovely time yesterday when I watched Nelly scrambling over the fence and running to our neighbor's. They are my dear friends. Plus they have chickens, whom Nelly is very interested in meeting on a far more intimate level. I'm standing there helplessly watching this, both because I can't leave my eight-year-old to stay by the road alone so I can traipse all over the neighborhood trying to catch a Nelly-who-won't-be-caught, and also because it would be, as I just mentioned, bootless to try. It always is.

When she was finished there (no fresh chicken breakfast, thank goodness), she came trotting down the road toward us. Then, she had a thought. She stopped, considered something. Then gave me The Look. Her friend Willy gives The Look, too, at the end of a walk when he's trying to decide if he's going to give his human mother a heart attack as he turns to trot down the road to explore several miles of backyards. Nelly's look said, "I don't think so. I'm not through, just yet." Whereupon she crossed the road, and bounded up onto the wooded hill opposite. Then she found the carefully planted excuse of several squirrels to follow, and did so, finally disappearing out of view up and over, far away.

She is a white dog. Smaller than the snow piles that line the roadway. No one would see her before they were on top of her.

Everyone told me the holidays this year were going to be hard for me. I did not know what they meant until they were nearly on top of me. The analogue is that when I was pregnant, everyone said, "Your life is going to change in ways you could never dream." Yeah, yeah. What did they think, I was an idiot? I'm smart enough to figure that out on my own, thank you.

I wasn't. The truth of the prediction hit only when I had taken that baby home. My life was to change in ways that blew my little unsuspecting, yes, idiotic, mind. And so it is now. The holidays are hard. I keep getting thrown into the past like litter against a storm fence when a semi blows by at 80. Just putting the ornaments on the tree--the ornaments that represent a collective past, and the promise that they will always be in the box in the attic for the future collective Christmas--brought down a sadness that was so crushing I wanted to do anything to avoid feeling it. I recall depressions of the past, how psychic pain can feel so much worse than physical pain that I understand (though don't get me wrong, I am not contemplating it) the urge to wash it away with the spilling of one's own blood. The holidays are hard. They make you remember. They make you wish for what you cannot have.

After the bus came, I reluctantly turned away. I could not see Nelly; she had obviously gone far down the road, up on the hill that skirts it. I left the gate open a foot, and told myself to give myself up to a higher power: the one called luck. Because that was what was needed to bring Nelly back safely across the road when she decided to return home, luck that she would choose a moment when no car was barreling at ridiculous speed, as they often do around here, around these blind curves. I had to give up the sense that I could prevent anything, that I could change fate if fate was to visit this day. I was not entirely successful in letting go, however, because I was writing a little narrative in which the woman who has just lost nearly everything then loses the little dog who is much of her comfort in a time of mourning. And right before the holidays, too. I admit to being morbid and hysterical. Yes, indeedy.

But still I walked back to the house. I made myself: an act of leaving. I was going to go in and shut the door, go about my business, try to tamp down the hope that I would soon hear Nelly's sharp bark asking to come back in, saying, I'm done out there for now.

I approached the porch steps. Something came toward me from the back of the house. Nelly stood and stared. I stared back. How did she get here, appearing from the opposite direction she had disappeared? How did she get back into the yard, when the only way to do so from the road is to come through the same gate I had just come from?

It was a Christmas miracle. The only explanation is that there can be no explanation. That I have to let that desire go, too. The holidays are going to be hard. This gift was easy.