See those vines hanging down in the background? Mark that spot well.
We picked and slid our way down a red clay slope toward the cave, Liam and Jake well ahead of us and racing through the woods toward the main attraction. I stopped and stared at the sinkhole and cave below. Leaf-littered slopes gave way to mossy rock. The same water that had created the cave had undermined the cliff where we stood. The rock cliff to our right simply and abruptly dropped off into space. Liam and Jake were already down and exploring the cave when Phoebe, Dave, the dogs and I arrived. “Oh my God! If I’d known how dangerous this trail was, I’d never have let Liam go ahead!” I muttered. It was so steep and slick, and what tread was on my trail runners was so packed with clay, that I was skating, grabbing for a handhold anywhere I could find it. Thank God Liam and Jake had made it safely. The ease and the hubris of little boys.
Chet was off the trail to my right, as usual, nosing around in the leaves. I called him, and he turned to come back up; he was perilously close to the cliff’s lip. He looked at me, scrabbled, scrambled, twisted frantically, and was gone, simply dropped off into space. Silence, broken only by Phoebe’s helpless scream, the scream she gives when she stumbles on a copperhead, the scream she gave once when I pulled away from the curb while Liam was still climbing into the car. We all froze. A tremendous, sickening WHUMP sounded from the bottom of the sinkhole. I never, never want to hear that sound again. Dave was already in motion, his father's instinct sliding him down the trail as fast as he could go; Phoebe was still rooted, screaming, I was screaming Chet’s name over and over again.
And here he came, back up the trail, ears laid back, wide grin, everything working, everything intact. Smiling. A little embarrassed. To all appearances, fine. He stood at my feet, panting, as I ran my hands over his compact little body. We all had to touch him, this dog we had so nearly lost forever. If the kids look like they're seeing a ghost here, well, they are.
We climbed down the rest of the way, knees weak, crying a little. When I saw how far he’d fallen, and onto what, I was numb with shock. 20 feet at least, through space, onto a pile of rotting logs and large branches. A few leaves to cushion the spot where he'd landed. He'd lost his foothold right by the cleft in the cliff, and landed just above where Dave's standing. On either side of where he’d landed, slabs of sandstone the size of tabletops. I could so easily have been picking up a limp ragdoll, but here he was, smiling at my feet.
Well, I knew he’d be hurting the next morning, and he is. He tries but has trouble jumping up onto the bed, and he lies curled up, forsaking his usual frogleg stretch. He's got no fever, no obvious bumps or tender spots, but I’m taking him to his wonderful veterinarian today, because I know that this dog has for all intents and purposes been hit by a car. We shall see.
Everything works, he stretches, he runs, he leapt for sticks and toys yesterday right afterward, and he ate a huge dinner, but this morning he threw up foam and is a bit listless. As, I suppose, he should be. Poor Chet. The Little Cat Dog has used another of his nine lives (the first went when he tried to round up cattle as a pup and got stepped on).
I called Dr. Lutz and she worked Chet in at 3 PM. Here, he waits, looks out the window, hopes again to see the bundle of black and white fur that looks like a cat or a skunk, but is really a Japanese Chin. He has to settle for an old yellow Lab.Dr. Lutz felt him all over, listened to his lungs, and shook her head. "You’re a lucky dog, Chet Baker." She said she thought that whatever he landed on must have cushioned his fall sufficiently to keep him from serious injury. From any injury at all. She also said his compact build was a big help; a bigger, rangier dog could easily have twisted in the fall, landed on a leg wrong and gotten all busted up. "He's pure muscle," she said, looking at him appreciatively.
He’s sleeping at my feet, heaving those deep, rattling sighs of dog contentment. He chased chipmunks, had a big dinner with meatloaf drippings on it, begged for a tiny bite of my low-carb ice cream bar just like he does every night, watched hamster TV, and leapt to greet Bill when he got home from work. He’s probably forgotten it happened; he may not remember it until he nears a cliff edge again. I look at him and marvel. How did he do it? How did he fall twenty feet off a sheer rock lip, land on logs and live to chase chipmunks and beg for ice cream today? I don’t know. I’m just thankful, thankful that I’m able to kiss and hug this precious little dog, thankful that I’m not looking for just the right spot to lay him to rest tonight. I guess he still has work to do.
As impossible as it is for me to imagine, this would have been my last photograph of Chet Baker. It makes my heart drop into my guts just to write that.
I know, deep in my heart, that I love this dog more than I should, more than any human being should love an animal, animals being the exquisite, heartbreakingly impermanent beings that they are. But there are times when he is everything to me, when he saves me, when I think I might wither up and blow away without his kisses and the warm popcorn scent of his feet. He wants to be with me all the time, and for that I am amazed and grateful.
He has a lot of work left to do.