"The Guardian" by Gail Nardi
2017 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist
Gail Nardi made the 2017 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for "The Guardian".
In 1979 on a bitter January morning in Dawson City, I put on my home-tanned mukluks and down-filled parka. From the furnace room I dragged the small child's sled out into the darkness and down the back stairs to the packed snow of the back yard. Efficiently, I padded the box on the sled with thick blankets and a large comforter, placed my three-year-old daughter April in the back and two-year-old son Lucas in front between his sister's legs and wrapped them both snugly with the comforter.
The double row of social assistance duplexes located on the high ground above the ballpark stood partially shrouded in ice fog. Ice particles hanging in the motionless air tasted of soot from the neighbourhood's wood stoves and roaring oil furnaces. I heard the distant whine of a labouring pickup's engine and the fading "whop, whop" of the truck's frozen tires as the driver turned the truck west toward downtown.
My dog waited until the children were secured and paced to the front of the sled. Skookum weighed 70 pounds, not as large as some freight dogs, but large enough for reassurance when he stood beside me. He had a black coat, tan legs and an off-centre white blaze from his nose to between his erect ears. He had intelligent eyes, but one was half-blue, half-brown. A product of a deliberate mating of a German shepherd to a malamute, he was disliked by some of my rougher neighbours and carried himself with a challenging arrogance.
Yet after the birth of each child I had carried the infant over my threshold and shown the baby to the dog. I had spoken to him softly, seriously, and told him how important the babies were, though I'd felt a bit silly. He had returned my trust by giving himself completely to my children, not as their plaything, but as their guardian. No one would have believed that I had once heard an anguished groan and found the children sitting on him, their toothbrushes in hands, his jaws drooling saliva and toothpaste.
I had become a single mother the year before and this dog was now my main source of transportation for my children. On winter mornings he hauled the children to the baby sitter's; after saying good bye to them, I would return the dog and sled to the warmth of the duplex and continue on to my job as cook-housekeeper at Father Judge Hospital. When I finished work for the day, I would collect dog and sled again and Skookum would bring my children home.
Now I spread the green harness webbing over his chest and back, attaching the two leads to the sled, and a leash to his collar. I pulled the wool scarf over my mouth and nose to beneath my eyes and adjusted the snorkel hood of my parka. With an encouraging pull on the harness, the dog leaned into the chest strap, dug deep with his hind feet, arched his back and strained with both hips to break free the metal runners that had already frozen into the snow's crust. Together we dragged the sled to the edge of the road and carefully over the berm. Once onto the smooth snowpack, the going was easier. The dog increased speed; I released my grip of the harness and jogged lightly beside him, every footfall squeaking as leather struck compacted snow.
His warning growl halted us instantly.
Four stray dogs stood in a loose group, 15 feet ahead of us, just beyond the wan pool of light from the streetlamp. Thin, on the point of starving, they had floated with a ghostly silence from the rear of the empty house on the corner. Hackles raised, ears forward, they advanced slowly on stiffened legs. Two were as large as Skookum, two smaller. I sensed my dog's muscles bunch, felt the low vibration from his chest. I eased back my parka's hood and glanced quickly to the sled, then back to the threat in front of us.
One misstep and the pack would be on my dog, April and Lucas defenseless under the crushing weight of their combined frenzy.
I don't remember making a conscious decision. I inched slowly back, quietly unclipped the leads from the front of the sled, stepped back to the dog and released the clip of his leash. My eyes searched for anything that might function as a weapon and I had a giddy, fleeting wish for the broom sitting in the back entrance of the duplex, but there was nothing. With deliberation, I pleated the nylon leash and let the brass clip swing. It was as likely as not to whip full circle and strike me should I miss my intended target.
I stood motionless beside my dog, a still hand on his withers and feigned a steady calmness. I felt the rising growl until his body trembled with rage, his coal-black hair erect and rippling in the pallid glow of the streetlight. We stood side by side in a moment of perfect understanding, and in that moment I trusted my children's safety to him and whispered a single word.
His full-throated roar shattered the stillness, molten fury in his voice as he launched himself at the pack, harness leads flailing wildly in his wake. He leaped, overshot his mark and landed, striking the first dog's spine with his hind feet. He was strong and agile and whirled instantly. A second dog darted behind him, striking for his rear legs and I lunged, lashed out with the leash, missed as the dog flinched and winced as the clip struck my temple. Now wary, the dog retreated beyond my reach as my own dog, driving forward, pursued his opponent with single-minded ferocity. In the turmoil of the melee, fangs flashed and Skookum dominated, gripping and shaking the weaker dog by the scruff with vicious determination. He flung the dog to the ground with a terrible finality and pinned him. As the fallen dog shrieked and fell silent, the others began a panicked scramble, furtively distancing themselves.
With a pragmatism more often manifested in canines than in humans, Skookum released the submissive dog and stood a moment to watch him follow the others as they scattered, running low to the ground, tails to their bellies.
He shook himself and trotted slowly to the sled.
My temple throbbed. In less than 15 seconds, a challenge had been given and answered, battle joined and enemy routed while the neighbours slept unaware in their darkened houses.
I turned to the sled and peeled back a corner of the bulky comforter. The children stirred drowsily in their snowsuits and I released a breath of profound gratitude as I pushed the comforter firmly around them and into the corners of the open-ended plywood box. I knew that we'd been lucky.
I checked the dog quickly, found wet fur, but neither blood nor other evidence of a wound. The partially erect hair along his spine and croup slowly subsided. His flanks heaved and panting breath misted, suspended in the still air and his eyes narrowed as my thumb stroked him briefly between his eyes. I patted his ribs harder than I'd intended before clipping the leads to the sled and tugging the harness to signal him to move out.
Twenty minutes after dropping the children at the sitter's, we travelled once more at a light jog, dragging the empty sled back to the duplex. I imagine we appeared relaxed as we sped along, easy in our companionship, though an observer might have noticed that my parka's hood was pushed back for visibility, or that my eyes cast side to side, probing the shadows. From time to time, Skookum's ears flicked back and to the sides before returning to their usual upright position. As we neared the house on the corner, I slowed the pace, vigilant for signs of reprisal.
In the year that I had lived in the duplex, this corner house across the street had been unoccupied. If there was a caretaker, I had never seen him. Once last fall, I had daydreamed on the covered veranda as I peered through dusty windows at a scarred hardwood floor glowing in the afternoon sunlight. Crown molding from the 1930s graced the 10-foot ceiling of the empty dining room and I had imagined my family living in that house, eating meals at a claw-footed oak table.
There was no welcoming warmth to the house that stood in front of us now.
The stray dogs had found shelter underneath by tearing a hole in the insulated skirting around its foundation and they had simply defended their territory as they understood it. Their lives were likely to be short. Arson had destroyed the town's dog pound, a Humane Society did not yet exist in the Yukon, and though there were rumours that a veterinarian was setting up a practice in Whitehorse, the method of animal control remained unchanged. In past years, as the pendulum of popular opinion swung from "let them run" to "get rid of them," the Dawson City council had reluctantly implemented a policy of shooting loose dogs to control the packs that posed a threat to public safety.
The outcome for the strays was certain, and though I softened toward them as I stood on the snowpack of the road, I knew I could not help them, for I was also aware of my own limited resources. The kindness of friends sustained me. I had April and Lucas, a place to live, my job and just enough money to get by if I was prudent. And my dog… I had my dog.
I spoke his name as he stood staring into the shadows to the rear of the house, and his eyes met mine as his tail waved once and back.
We moved out together.
Read the other finalists' stories
- "Caught" by Sarah Bennett
- "Trust Exercise" by Becky Blake
- "Diving" by Alisha Mascarenhas
- "The Road to Machu Picchu Starts at 385 lbs" by Carla Powell
Gail Nardi is retired LPN. She lives with her husband and two border collies on a rural property about 30 minutes from downtown Whitehorse, Yukon. From 1973-1981, Nardi also lived in Dawson City, where "The Guardian" takes place. As a child and teen, she wrote sporadically and only resumed writing in her 60s. Nardi is a voracious reader with a love of dark chocolate and good coffee, vegetable gardening, wilderness hiking, and working dogs and their people. Yukon has been her home since 1972.