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CHRISTMAS AT SEA PINES COTTAGE
The big yellow school bus eased to a stop amid the squeal of air brakes. By the time the young boy jumped down from the bottommost step, the puppies were already at the gate jumping and yipping their collective greeting.
The child unlatched the gate and as he stepped through was besieged by seven wiggly pups. He fell giggling to the ground as his face and neck were thoroughly licked and nuzzled.
The sound of his name brought him to his feet with the puppies scurrying around him vying for a free hand to receive his pets.
The older boy stood outside the gate. “Mom wants you to go in and rest or you won’t be able to go trick or treating tonight.”
The small boy ruffled the ears of each of the seven puppies and then left, skipping alongside his brother.
The older brother, with some distain said, “Just because dad breeds dogs doesn’t mean the puppies are yours.”
Without responding, as young children are wont to do, he asked his big brother, “Are you taking me trick or treating or is mom?”
Shaking his head at the unheeded warning he conceded, “I am. Mom thinks I’m too old, the only way she’d let me go was by my agreeing to take you. So Jimmy, Bobby and their pesky little brothers are coming over and we’re all going together.”
Getting excited, “Are you going to dress up, too?”
Grabbing his little brother up and pretending to carry him off, “Yeah, I’m going to be a pirate. Argh.”
The little boy giggled with pleasure and expectation.
Night fell and the only sound was the wind rustling the trees that surrounded the kennels.
Snuggly warm in the embrace of his siblings, the young pup suddenly raised his head, his acute hearing discerning a sound other than the wind. He sniffed the air, his sensitive nose recognizing the older of the two boys who had visited them earlier in the day.
The puppy got up and trotted to the gate in anticipation of a treat or ear rub. The other puppies roused by his movement followed. They waited at the gate sniffing the air and milling around the locked gate.
Suddenly three human forms darted out of the darkness, causing the motion controlled lights to come on. As they ran past the puppies’ enclosure, one of them tossed something into the center of the yard.
Expecting some tasty treat, the puppies rushed to where the object lay. One pup nudged the thing with his nose, in spite of the strange hissing noise it made and yelped when a small spark singed the fur of his muzzle. The other puppies stood back away from the thing as it continued to hiss and spark.
The light at the end of it grew brighter as it started to spin in a circle. As the puppies drew farther away from it, the objectionable thing started exploding, one small explosion quickly followed another. The animals running helter, skelter to get away from the horrid noise and find safety; piling into the deepest corner of the kennel. After what seemed an interminable time the loud popping finally stopped.
The puppies sensitive ears were still ringing when the three human boys rushed in through the gate and picked up the offending object.
The boy the pup recognized said, “Gotta get this out of here. My dad will kill me if he finds out about this.”
Another boy said as they locked the gate and walked away, “Yeah, but did you see they way they all scattered and whined?
Meteor is my name.
That is, of course, my human name. Or, more precisely, since I am not myself a human, it is the name that was bestowed upon me by Robert on the day I first arrived here at the gray shingled cottage sheltered among the pines on the wild dunes of Cape Fear.
Though my keen hunter’s eyes have since grown dim with the passage of too many autumns, each wondrous detail of the bright November afternoon when I was named remains as fresh and untarnished within my memory as if it had happened today.
It was the day after, what humans call, Thanksgiving. In the two weeks preceding, Sam had been able to sell ‘as pets’ my brothers and sisters. It disgusted him that we would never be of value as anything but household pets and he was glad to be rid of us. I alone remained.
After a whispered conversation with his female counterpart I was unceremoniously put in a cardboard box in the back of Sam’s truck. But before Sam could drive away the woman returned and secured a red and green bow around my neck, saying I was now a Christmas puppy. Then she gave me some wonderful meat that she said was leftover from dinner the day before.
“Be good,” she whispered as she kissed my nose.
Jumping down from the flat bed of the truck she walked around to the window and kissed Sam, gently reminding him that I was just a puppy. Sam snorted as the truck rumbled off past the sign identifying what had been my domicile, Prairiewood Kennels – Home of Champion Retrievers.
The truck came to a stop at a place with which I was unfamiliar. I could smell the sea and feel its mist on my fur. After peering over the edge of the truck I retreated again to the box, shivering from an unnamed fear rather than the fierce cold that was blowing in from the restless sea.
Robert, at twenty-four, was in the very prime of his youth then. Tall and tan and deep-chested, his tangled brown hair streaked gold from the white hot sun of the summer, he appeared like a young god to the bewildered pup he found shivering in the corner of a soggy corrugated box in the back of Sam Wilson’s old pickup truck.
I was that frightened pup.
Sick and dizzy from the noxious exhaust fumes that had swirled about me throughout a long cold ride in the clattering truck bed, my future could not at that moment have seemed more dismal. Sam Wilson had made it clear that I was a disgrace in his eyes as well as those of any other human who knew and seriously bred dogs for hunting in the great marshlands that dominate this sparsely inhabited region of the Carolina coast.
My life was over before it had properly begun.
Or so I had believed then. Less than a span of seasons had passed since I had been weaned from my mother’s milk. But though I was bright of eye and swift of foot, and despite my noble blood and the fine, strong features that had seemed to promise a happy lifetime filled with the honors that, rightly, accrue to champion retrievers, I had become an embarrassing burden to Sam Wilson; a useless creature to be disposed of as quickly and as quietly as possible.
Cowering in the corner of my foul box that afternoon, I was unwilling even to look up at the curious young man who had climbed onto the truck to look me over. Instead, I curled up in my box and whimpered at the cruel circumstance that had so abruptly reduced my life to such a sorry state. Then, without warning, I felt myself being hoisted high into the air, held up and closely scrutinized by Robert’s calm gray eyes.
Oh, those eyes! Warm and compassionate and wise beyond the years reflected in the smooth, unlined face that held them, they bored into my very soul, searching there for something–I knew not what–but betraying no trace of the naked contempt I had so lately seen in the eyes of Sam Wilson when he looked at me.
Suddenly, my soul was filled with an unreasonable hope. Perhaps this human would give me another chance to prove my worth. Although truly I dreaded the prospect of returning to the scene of my humiliation and was not at all certain that I would not fail again, still, I forced myself to cease my whimpering. And as pups will often do when they sense true goodness and compassion radiating from a human being, I lavishly licked Robert’s square, handsome face.
To my great surprise and joy he laughed out loud, a soft baritone sound that made me shiver with such pleasure that I even forgot for the moment the terrors of the grim trial I had so recently failed. Then Robert set me on the sandy ground and tossed a bit of driftwood far down the beach. It disappeared among the curling green waves that were crashing onto the cold sands in advance of a waiting Arctic storm moving in from the east.
Gulping in a huge breath of clean sea air, I felt my sickness vanish as if by magic. And I ran after that twisted stick of wood as though my very life depended upon it, which, in a way, I was certain that it did. For, from the moment I heard Robert’s exuberant laughter and looked into those placid gray eyes, I had decided that my only chance for happiness lay in gaining the approval of this young and handsome human.
Pounding into the chilly backwash of a receding wave, I pounced on the thrown driftwood with a spectacular splash. Then gripping the trophy tightly in my jaws I dashed back to where the men were standing, and heard Sam Wilson talking in low, serious tones.
My heart sank as I trotted up all dripping and salty to drop the stick like an offering at Robert’s booted feet.
Sam Wilson–who, for all his understandable lack of warmth toward me, was a fair and honest man–was carefully explaining to Robert in his slow Outer Banks accent that he wanted it clearly understood I would never be useful as a hunting dog.
“He will not stand to guns,” Wilson proclaimed, casting a disgusted look my way. What he meant, of course, was that the sound of a hunter’s rifle going off just above my head did remind me of that horrible night.
For though Sam trained me to know that the dreaded explosion would come and not harm me, and I could always steel myself to point the game and stand rock steady, ultimately the awful boom of the rifle shot never failed to take me by surprise, hurting my sensitive ears and throwing me into a blind panic from which my only instinct was to flee.
On that fateful November morning, after endless working sessions on home ground Sam Wilson had taken me along with my brothers and sisters out of our kennel for what he called a test. A test of what we had no idea but leaving the pen that had become a constant reminder of our terror initially brought all of us joy. And we happily jumped into the bed of Sam’s beat-up old pick-up truck.
The trip was fairly short although it was a place none of us recognized. Sam allowed us to run free amid the tall trees, frosty fallen leaves crunching under our paws. After a short time of sniffing out a banquet of wildlife we were all called back to the truck. Sam stood next to the battered old vehicle with a the shotgun on his shoulder. The sight made my stomached start to churn.
Once we were all standing at point around him, amid the strange surroundings, Sam raised the gun and fired a single shot into the air, a shot that sent all of us fleeing like frightened squirrels into the sun-dappled autumn woods.
His normally sallow cheeks as crimson as ripe apples, poor Sam had been forced to drag us all cowering from the woods, knowing that his months of breeding and training were a total loss and that not one of us would ever be a gun dog. His anger at the time, energy and money lost was palpable even to seven terrified pups. There would never be a champion hunter among us.
“I do not hunt,” Robert quietly replied after Sam Wilson had said his piece. Then he bent and gently ran his fingers through the thick mat of wet fur just behind my neck. “Nor do I ever intend to hunt,” he continued. “But I am going to be wintering over here on the Cape this year,” He jerked his chin toward the gray shingled cottage half-hidden among the blowing pines, “and I think that I’d enjoy having this little guy around to keep me company.”
Sam Wilson nodded and cast a dour look at the pair of us, the dog that couldn’t stand to guns and the strange young man who didn’t hunt and, to boot, was planning on spending a harsh Cape Fear winter in an isolated cottage on this remote coastal island, far from others of his kind. “Suit yourself,” he said in a tone that seemed to imply that Robert and I deserved each other.
Until that moment, I had believed that I completely understood Sam Wilson’s motive for bringing me out to this desolate island and its strange inhabitant. It had seemed obvious that he was hoping to recoup some portion of the feed and vet bills he had lavished on what had turned out to be a useless hunting dog by selling me to a lonely man who wanted only companionship. Therefore I was puzzled when the handful of wrinkled bills that Robert offered him were gruffly refused.
“Nossir,” said Sam Wilson, sweeping his old felt hat from his pale, balding head and looking down uneasily at his feet. “I could not take money from a man who has given what you have given for your country. The whelp is yours if you want him.” And with that, he clapped the hat back onto his head, climbed into his old truck and wished Robert a Merry Christmas as he drove away.
“Well now, you’re the first good thing I’ve ever gotten out of that damned war and a Christmas present to boot,” Robert laughed as we watched Sam’s pickup disappear behind a line of dunes. When it was gone, he looked down at me with a grin.
“Now what shall I call you?” he asked and bent to retrieve the soggy stick of driftwood hurling it skyward once more. I joyously streaked down to the beach with the chilly November sunlight flashing like quicksilver against my glistening amber coat.
“Meteor!” I heard him call as I plunged headlong into the bone-chilling maw of a towering Atlantic comber. “Seeing you run like that reminds me of a meteor streaking into the sea.”
Thus I got my human name. And thus began my life here at Sea Pines Cottage. It has been a life that I would not exchange for any other, even were the Maker in His wisdom to grant me an endless span of seasons in this world.
For mine has been a life that any dog would envy.
A life built on unconditional love.