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By Dawn's Light, by Monty Joynes

by Monty Joynes

One cloudless morning along the banks of the Las Trampas River in northern New Mexico, the man felt the presence of an animal.

In his dawn ritual of going to water and honoring the creation of a new day, the man was often aware of the presence of living things-night feeders scurrying in the underbrush, a familiar owl in a whoosh of air returning to its perch, a family of deer poised by the river to drink, rabbits that came to nibble the dewy tender grass near his feet, and with daylight, the excited singing of the songbirds. The smell of the pines and the fragrance of the eucalyptus were his incenses of devotion. In the silence flowing within the stream water, he became renewed.

This particular morning, there was a different energy that waited in patience among the dark shadows of night. The man did not look the way of the presence, and so it stayed in proximity throughout the prayerful period leading to the celebration of light. When he stood to ceremonially bathe himself in sun pollen, the animal did not stir. Then as day erased the dark shadows, the man turned to greet the source of the energy-prepared to sing the song of a bear, or an elk-but what he encountered was a small black dog. If he had turned from his prayers earlier, he would not have seen her in the dark, so like a shadow that she appeared.

She was not a neighbor's dog, nor any one of the numerous dogs that he knew by name and personality on his walks to Las Trampas and Peñasco. She was not defiant, nor poised for flight, so the man went slowly toward her, singing a Pueblo lullaby that caused her to look directly into his eyes. He knelt near her, and as the light revealed, he saw that her thick coat was matted with dried mud and that she was in poor condition. She had the size and look of a border collie or a Shetland sheepdog. She was long and low to the ground, a mixed breed, but probably quick and able to change direction abruptly on the run. If she had a tail, the man could not see it as she cowered at his approach.

At the end of the lullaby, the man talked to her in a gentle manner, asking if she was hungry or needed medical care. When he finally inched close enough to touch her, she rolled over in the submissive posture of the defeated, and he saw the patch of white on her chest and that she was female. He stroked her matted coat, and she whimpered as if other human beings had abused her. He tried to reassure her of his intent and gave her his hand to smell or to bite. She chose to lick it. He, in turn, bent down and kissed her on the nose.

The man was not surprised that the dog followed him from the river to the house. She kept pace behind him, although he could not hear her. Cathia, his best friend and lover, was in the kitchen, and the smell of her robust coffee greeted him as he entered.

"We have a small dog to feed this morning," he said.

"Will it eat leftover beans?"

"From the look of her, she will eat anything. What about some milk to go with it?"

Cathia put a bowl of beans and a bowl of milk on the porch as the small black dog watched her from the yard. The couple gave her the privacy of her meal but peeked through the window curtains to see if the fare was accepted. Later, Cathia went out on the porch and introduced herself. The little girl rolled over at her approach and then licked her hand in seeming gratitude for her breakfast.

"Do you think she will let me give her a bath and comb her? She has some sores that need medication, and she needs relief from her fleas. We'll need a bag of dog food to get her back in shape. When I go into town, I'll put up some 'Found Dog' notices in case her people are looking for her."

Cathia, judged by her family as supremely impractical in her life and career choices, was immediately practical in everyday circumstances. In her, reason had its function for problem solving in a most direct manner. When Booker came home with the hungry, emaciated animal, Cathia did not question his intent; rather, she addressed herself first to the need. In her character, the man experienced the warmth of admiration without the naming of virtue. In Cathia, good character was a habit that required no reinforcement, although she found it in Booker's eyes.

The small black dog soon revealed a long tail that was like an expressive plume. She signals her delight and enthusiasm for food and for play. And she has found her way onto their laps where she lays her head against their hearts and even goes to sleep as they stroke her. They are the great beneficiaries of her trust.

When no one responded to the notices, their four-legged friend was christened Sombra, shadow. Cathia noted that Sombra, being bilingual, was a very intelligent little girl. And she has become their literal shadow, accompanying them wherever they go. In the truck, she wants to be in the passenger's lap, with her black nose poking out the open window, smelling her way down the road. On walks, she runs ahead like a scout, sniffing the way as their protector and guide. In a meadow, she races in a zigzag pattern like a bird dog, and even points on three legs with her right paw lifted and frozen in stride. To follow the point of her nose is to often be rewarded by the flight of a wild turkey or the raising of a resting doe. They laugh in wonderment at their little darling, who is now called "Sweetheart" more often than she is called Sombra.

Cathia has claimed Sombra for the house and gives her a weekly bath. She also took Sombra to the vet, and it was agreed to have her spayed. Sombra sleeps near the couple's bed, and there is a nightly routine of letting her out for a final bladder relief, the reward of a milk bone, and then a last-minute exchange of affections before lights out. When there are human pheromones in the air, Sombra is very discrete and leaves the bedroom.

When Booker gets up for his pre-dawn walk to the river, Sombra refuses to be left behind. She trots ahead in the knowledge of where he is going, and when the man arrives and settles in for the silence of his ritual, Sombra slips into the darkness and stays as quiet as an acolyte serving high mass. Is it the man's imagination that she participates in his communion?

Booker sees water as the connector of all life. The individual who honors water will also honor the life that water generates. Water is mindless in its volition. It is unconscious of its perfection, and thus its exercise of will is as elemental to creation as the tides of the moon that reflect the pull of gravity. It cannot sin against life in its pure nature. It cannot sin because it is not separate from any creature who would judge it.

He sees the stars above and reflected in the eddies of the stream as sparkling diamonds. Trees stand in the dark earth as sentinels who support the man in his silence. They seem to invite him to remain in it, to maintain it, as they themselves hold it in their heartwood. Sitting there, the man is conscious of their sacred silence as the small river runs in his blood and in the xylem and phloem of the trees. Here is benediction without seeking.

The man and dog are joyous when they head back to the house in daylight. Sombra barks and wants the man to throw a stick for her to fetch. He teases her and asks her if she will leave the warm house in winter, with snow on the ground and a chilling wind blowing down the valley. Will she follow him even to the woodshed and wait to honor the sunrise on a hard, cold ground? Her sleek coat catches the rays of the rising sun, and her tail is high with enthusiasm. She runs back toward the man with the treasured stick in her teeth and offers it to him.


Monty Joynes writes for a living. This story is an excerpt from the fifth novel in his Booker Series—Psalm Maker—scheduled for future publication by Hampton Roads Publishing. His fourth novel in the series—Dead Water Rites: A Novel (2000)—has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Books in development include Eagle Feathers in Glass, a novel based on the experiences of contemporary American Indian fine artists, and the non-fiction The Psychology of Spiritual Being.

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