By LEIGH NEWMAN
I grew up in Alaska, where one thing after another was constantly threatening my young life. Floatplanes stalled. Grizzlies ate our camping supplies. A moose wandering through our backyard got angrier than expected when a kid from school threw a rock at its knees. I wouldn’t say I was cavalier or brave about these experiences, but I didn’t need much time to recover from them. I was a child. My conclusion was almost always the same: I was still alive, and so was the rest of my family. We could all eat a granola bar and keep on fishing.
So, a few decades later, I couldn’t believe how shaken I became over an incident with a dog—not even a feral one, a pet. I was thirty-two years old at the time and living in a farmhouse in a Western Massachusetts with a few other graduate students. The dog belonged to one of them. He was a Rottweiler, but friendly. This particular night, he was sleeping on the living room couch. When I went upstairs to use the bathroom, he followed me. I stopped to pet him. He nuzzled my hand. Then, idly, as if experimenting, snapped his jaws into my arm. I stood up, stunned, puzzled. Blood was leaking from a hole in my skin, a tooth hole. The Rottweiler cocked his head, as if he, too, was puzzled. Then something hardened in his eyes. He jumped. I put my hands out to stop him, but he landed on my chest, and—whap—knocked me on my back. I tried to protect my head with my hands, but he was heavier and faster. The next thing I knew, someone was tearing the dog off, and I was crawling into the bathroom for safety. I was unhurt, save for the bite on my arm.
The Rottweiler was later taken away by animal control. But I was haunted by how unprepared I’d been for the force of the animal pinning me to the floor. Then again, the idea did occur to me: Who in the world would be prepared for such a thing? Maybe what I had taken for an understanding of mortality during my childhood was actually a child’s belief in the immortal.
I developed a fear of big dogs that lasted years. This fear was embarrassing to me. I didn’t want to be the person who crossed the street to avoid a German shepherd on a leash or who trembled whenever a pit bull glanced at me from behind a fence. I told no one about my feelings. Not my husband, Lawrence And not my five-year-old son, Henry. I didn’t want my little boy to develop a dog phobia from me. Besides, my fears felt silly, girlish. By now, the Rottweiler incident was six years in the past; I had no disfiguring scars or lasting injuries. I had grown up in the land of tough, courageous people who fished on riverbanks beside grizzly bears.
Two years ago, however, my family and I flew out to see my dad for Christmas. After a lifetime in Alaska, he now had a vacation home in Idaho. The valley where he lives is isolated, surrounded by cottonwoods and forest. But there are roads, cable TV providers—and neighbors.
When Lawrence, Henry, and I got out of the car, Dad mentioned that we should keep an eye out—there was a pack of not-so-nice dogs running loose. According to him, the dogs were owned by a man across the river who let them roam at will. The pack consisted of a few shepherd mixes and golden retriever.
“A golden retriever?” I said. Golden retrievers fell into the category of cute, dopey, human-loving canines, I reminded myself.
“They killed a deer,” said Dad. Something must have crossed my face, because he suddenly added, “Don’t worry. That pack is only after other animals. They’re spooked by people.”
For the next few days, on the way to woodpile or walking to the river, I kept looking over my shoulder. In Alaska, it’s difficult to move through the wilderness. Dense, clumpy alders block your passage and also provide protection for a lot of wildlife. You can easily surprise a moose or bear while walking, and they can easily surprise you. But there is a weird, almost comforting illusion that there is a wall between the humans and animals.
In Idaho, the slender, graceful cottonwoods were almost branchless on the bottoms of their trunks. Brush was low-lying and packed down by snow. There was plenty of room to move between trees. Walking to the woodpile or river, I kept expecting the pack to come charging at me unimpeded. I stopped sometimes—as if waiting for it to happen, just to get it over with.
But I never saw the dogs. I never heard them either. I daydreamed about them, though. In the daydream, they came at me from behind, in a hot vicious rush, leaping on my back and toppling me down into the snow.
During lunch the day after Christmas, Dad passed me the plate of leftover roast beef sandwiches and cleared his throat. I was thirty-eight years old and on vacation. And still, I knew what that particular sound meant: Time to do some chores, honey.
“I got some ducks the other week,” he said.
Like most people who live in the wilderness, my dad is a hunter. Plucking ducks has been my job since age seven; nobody can eat a duck with feathers on it.
Henry broke in: “I want to pluck with Mommy!”
I thought this over. Henry was in pre-K. We lived in Brooklyn. We ate a lot of organic snacks from bags and squeezable fruit that came in foil pouches. Cleaning ducks would teach him where his food comes from—not from a package in a supermarket but from the real, live, sometimes unfair natural world. “All right,” I said.
Outside, it was a clear, bright day. Gusts of wet, minerally wind blew off the river. Deep in the woods, about quarter mile from the house, Dad had set up a little plucking station with tools and a stump. I took the ducks out of the bag. There were two mallards—big, soft, beautiful birds with dark-green heads and slashes of cobalt on the wings.
I looked at Henry. He looked back at me. “Are you okay?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “This is gross!,” and joyously kicked a pile of loose snow.
I took the first duck out of my bag and flipped it onto its back, stripping off the chest feathers, showing Henry how to pull at the base, following the grain. The feathers made a tuft-tuft sound coming out, tiny bits of down floating up. As odd as it sounds, it all felt very peaceful. The woods were so quiet. And there was something comforting about teaching my son a skill that I had grown up with.
In fact, I was so wrapped up in my task that I didn’t notice when Henry stopped working.
“Are you scared of the duck?” I said.
He looked at the woods, then back at me. “No.”
“Dead things are a little scary.”
“Mom,” he said. “It’s a bird.”
He was right. At this point the duck looked like a very skinny version of the chickens we bought at the grocery store. I finished plucking, Henry staring glassily off into the trees. Suddenly he froze, whispering, “I’m a little scared.” His eyes were huge and wide. He was a lot scared, so much so I thought he might whimper—but not about the ducks. He was looking into the distance, at the woods.
My whole body gasped with adrenaline and understanding: the woods, the pack—the dogs were coming. I had nothing to protect us. I rushed forward, looking into the trees. But there were no dogs tearing towards us. Only silent trees and brush and snow.
“Mom,” said Henry. “Are you okay?”
There it was again—the trembling, down to my fingers.
Back at the house, Dad was waiting at the kitchen sink to start making dinner. He turned on the faucet, then shooed Henry out into the living room to play with his new Iron Man motorcycle. “Boy,” he said, as soon as we were alone. “I was a little nervous about you two being out there.”
“About the dogs?”
“No,” he said, looking puzzled. “What do the dogs have to do with anything?”
I slipped a nonchalant look on my face. “Nothing. Those dogs are afraid of humans, right?”
“Listen, how did Henry deal with the ducks?”
“He was fine.”
“It seemed a little much to me—to take him out there and show him all that. I didn’t want to tell you how to parent. But there’s only so much dead stuff a kid can take.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. My childhood with Dad in Alaska was one dead thing after another: spawning salmon on the riverbank, caribou skulls on the tundra, geese aging on a line in the garage at home. We were hunting or fishing or butchering or filleting all the time, to store food to eat.
“What I mean is,” Dad said, “Death. . . it’s just such a big thing for a little boy.” His voice was low, almost a whisper, and the look on his face was unmistakable—fear.
Suddenly I understood, as I should have from the beginning. About eight years ago, Dad was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition. His heart began to rapidly fail. He is not someone who talks very much about feelings. Neither am I. We talked about his dying a number of times. But occasionally I just slipped into denial and “forgot.”
One summer, I was out for a visit, and we went for a hike in the mountains. I had just given birth to Henry. I was walking really slowly. But still Dad kept falling behind. Worse, he kept sitting down and taking breaks.
“Hurry it up,” I said. “Stop lazing around.”
He just smiled at me, breathing a little too hard. “I can’t.” My father had never said “I can’t” in his whole life. I didn’t know what to do except try not to weep and embarrass him.
From then on, I was careful to walk behind Dad. Or to suggest other things besides hiking or even walking—easy-on-the-heart things like playing cards. But he got sicker, too sick to participate in what seemed to be a promising clinical surgical trial, which would have involved inserting a pacemaker into his heart to help it “remember” how to beat. So he did something a little desperate: he used his retirement savings to pay for his own pacemaker. And, to our surprise, to the doctor’s surprise, it worked—almost immediately. In a few months, his heart was functioning at a normal level.
There in the kitchen, he took the pale, scrawny ducks out of my hands and placed them in the sink. He rinsed them, whistling a little.
“You’re better,” I said, way too loudly, way too suddenly. Dad looked up at me—embarrassed by my leap of logic, or grateful? I couldn’t tell.
That night, Henry helped me with another of my old childhood chores: building the fire in the living room fireplace. I showed him how to build a cabin out of kindling, how to manage the draft by layering open spaces between the logs. He insisted on blowing on the coals, long past any need for extra air.
“Henry?” I said. “What were you afraid of, out in the woods?”
He laughed, embarrassed.
“You can tell me.”
He looked down. “Wolves,” he whispered to the carpet.
For a minute, I considered giving him a long spiel about how wolves are more afraid of us than we are of them, and how the nearest wolves lived hundreds of miles away in Yellowstone National Park. But he spoke first. “I saw one, in the woods. It was black. With big white teeth.” He shivered a little.
“Oh,” I said, relieved. His wolves—big black wolves, not large, silver-beige-gray ones—had come straight from The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood and older kids at his preschool who play brain-eating zombies during recess. He was scared, true, but also a little in love with the feeling of fear itself.
For a minute I felt so dismissive of my son—a judgment that quickly turned to longing. If only I could go back to Henry’s age. I keep getting older, old enough that watching police dramas about the murder of teenage girls no longer provokes a titillated, morbid thrill: I’m too worried about quiet, boring terrors of real life. And I suspect my dad is, too.
And yet, was my pack of imaginary dogs all that different from Henry’s imaginary big bad wolf? Hadn’t I—like my son—built my monsters out of a handful of old, recycled memories? Hadn’t I—like my dad—shoved away my fear inside me so deeply, that, of course, it had popped out and come to life over the silliest of events?
When do the shadows of our long-over dangers finally fade away? I wanted to ask somebody—somebody big and tall, somebody who knew everything. But outside, night was falling. The moon silvered the snow. Everything the three of us dreaded lay out there in the dark—the boy-eating wolf; the woman-eating dog; the long, arduous trails through the forest where an aging father might no longer be able to keep up with his grown daughter.
The minute my dad came into the room, I knew what to say—and what to do in order to help my son. My dad had done it for me all my life, telling me to hop back on my skis after I’d taken a bad fall or get back in the canoe after it tipped over. But still I hesitated. We all stood looking out the windows at the black trees, the coming night.
“Why don’t we go for a walk?” Dad finally said.
And we did, taking our phantom anxieties with us, crossing through the snowy yard and into the woods. We listened for the rush of water, waited for our eyes to adjust to the darkness, then moved towards the river, the drifts crunching underfoot. In the process, we were re-teaching ourselves an old lesson: how courage is defined not by absence by fear, but by its presence. How feeling afraid but acting anyway is the real test of character—even if that action is simply an evening stroll down to the river. As we stopped by a clump of trees to admire the winter stars, it occurred to me that I had survived that dog attack on my own, by keeping the animal off my neck for those few crucial seconds. But I wasn’t going to be able survive the fear the same way. It was going to come at me, again and again. The only thing to do about it was hold hands with my father and son and keep walking through the dark. I wasn’t alone, and I wasn’t lost. That was maybe all you got. And that was maybe enough.
Leigh Newman joins us from Brooklyn. She is the author of Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-up World, One Long Journey Home. Her fiction and essays have appeared in One Story, Tin House, The New York Times, Vogue, Real Simple, and elsewhere. She is co-founder of Black Balloon Publishing and the deputy editor of Oprah.com.
Listen to Leigh Newman and Tyler Sage discuss “Big Not-So-Bad Wolves” on our Contributors in Conversation podcast.