Think of all the useful dogs in the world. Guide dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs, search and rescue dogs; even dogs that sniff out prostate cancer or predict their owners’ seizures. Just last week I heard of a perfectly ordinary dog who jumped into a swimming pool and dragged a baby out of the water. Practically any dog will alert its owners if strangers are at the door. Not our dog. If he can even bother to drag himself to the front door, all he does is give the visitor a good sniff, flop his tail a couple of times, and go back to bed.
Wilbur – not our fault; that’s the name he had when we got him – is a whippet: like a greyhound, but half the size. He is beautiful, a silky black brindle, with a gorgeous physique: elegant face, deep chest, tiny waist, slim muscular hips. I’ve heard that people get to look like their dogs after a while. Let’s just say, I’m still waiting. I take him for a walk most days, not because he really enjoys being dragged out of bed and marched around the neighborhood, but just to keep him from turning into a complete mushroom. We have a one-mile circuit, which is much exercise as he can stand. And yet, his muscles look like they’ve been drawn with a fine-point pen. If you could bottle his metabolism, you’d make a fortune.
Today I gave up any hope of Wilbur ever being useful, even in the most minimal way – by protecting me against wildlife. He’ll probably chase a squirrel if it comes too close to me, and even a cat if it isn’t too big and scary-looking, but real wildlife? Forget it. Until today, when we met a snake.
The first part of our walk is a cul-de-sac with only three houses. We walk opposite the houses, next to a bank of dry earth covered with pine mulch and dead leaves, home to snakes. There are always a couple of holes in the bank, but up until today I’d never seen a snake, except occasionally laminated to the asphalt; roadkill doesn’t count. As we walked past this afternoon, we saw a black rat snake, a lovely creature, three feet long, with a diameter of an inch. Wilbur and the snake saw each other and both of them panicked. Wilbur ducked behind my legs, and the snake curled itself into ess-curves and hissed. The tip of its tail flickered among the dry leaves, and it looked and sounded just like a rattlesnake: a fascinating display. While I watched the snake, Wilbur peeked out from behind my knees from time to time, quickly ducking back to safety as the snake changed direction in its esses.
Eventually the snake gave up on trying to chase me away. Rather than heading for one of the holes, it slithered up the bank into the roots of the white pines. Wilbur and I continued on our walk, and as we circled the loop of the cul-de-sac, in a minute or two we were back at the same spot. Wilbur insisted on pausing. He stretched out his long neck and sniffed where the snake had been; every now and then he twitched his whole body backward eight inches. He stood with his head down, panting, his thighs tight and trembling. I shook the leash. “Come on, dog, let’s move.”
One last time he snuffled through the leaves, tracing the snake’s passage. Then he stuck his nose down one of the snake-holes and whuffed. I shook the leash again. “Move, dog!” He gave me a particular look, and I relaxed the leash. He squatted, positioning himself with more-than-usual care. His tail stuck straight out at, quivering, parallel to the ground; and he filled the snake’s hole with a steaming pile.
The he looked up at me, whuffed again, and led me up the cul-de-sac, prancing, with his tail carried high. Useful? Maybe not. But if I ever need a snake evicted, Wilbur’s the dog to do it.
Sonja Condit Coppenbarger is a musician, writer and teacher in Greenville,
South Carolina. She plays bassoon with the Hendersonville Symphony, and
teaches at North Greenville University and the South carolina Governor's School
for the Arts and Humanities. She is a student in the MFA in Creative Writing
program at Converse College.