Ollie’s Last Swim

April 2008

Venturing into the wood on this early spring day made hot by full sun and few leaves for canopy, the people and dogs follow a meandering pathway through undulating terrain, over criss-crossed fallen hardwoods and pine, twisted roots, and gnarly scrub brush. Hints of summer’s lushness peek through the brown floor beneath their feet and paws. Green tufts of fern and purple violet dot the landscape, and along the path on either side is new-leafed holly. Dogwoods, budded in white bloom, portend exploding splendor.  The silence of greening is interrupted briefly by the interlopers.

Ollie trips from the trail in spurts and starts. She splashes through the stream and chases the elusive buried-beetle, the just-hatched bee. Emerging from the muddy bank, she trots through a wide swath of the peopled-path, from side-to-side and forward-and-back, joined by her sister, who returns to the trail from a whirlwind foray into the wood. Running circles around their more seasoned rural friends who have learned to pace their woods’ walks in a reasonable way, the city girls lap up every moment of this day. In frenzy, they seek each smell, see all movement, and hear the call to any adventure. The farm dogs take a measured gait in the confidence of knowing that tomorrow they will return, and what is lost today can be found another time. Their visitors, soon to return to their urban walks tempered by leads, rely on now to find it all.

In single file, the sisters trudge the trail, Ollie leading. Smiles beaming, their eyes scan right and left to find the squirrel, the twittering leaf, the possible interesting pebble. They spy in unison the creek, its serpentine path camouflaged within the undergrowth and fallen branches, its embankment rimmed in fern among the dead oak leaves, belying early seasonal frosts and radiational cooling that has swept into the wood with twilight this past week. As one, they charge the bream, creating white-water in their wake.

Sweet earthen odors mingle with detritus to create a kind of dog-perfume. A springtime fragrance. Ollie’s sister wiggles forward and continues along the path with abandon, leaving Ollie to pause and gaze, to catch the song, the chirp, the skitter, and most, the wind. She glimpses into the ancient past of tree and root and of other dogs on other trails, different and yet the same. Her reflection gives her little meaning except for the feeling of what is good in life. She knows the joy of mud between the toes, the smell of tadpoles, and the croaking of peepers in springtime. She senses the coming of warmer days and fuller blooms. For now, though, it is good to breathe in the scents of earth and stream.

Not far ahead, her sister barks in delight at the mouth of the pond, where the creek flows into a shaded cove. She calls to Ollie to join her in exploration of the scum mired in the shallows, and where she wades and makes brown stockings of her once-white-feathers. Ollie hesitates; then, she springs out of the wood, rushes onto the path, and speeds past the people, who have stopped to see the first curled fronds of the fiddle fern.

Sisters meet, nose to nose and bodies taut; then, turning, they gaze across the expanse of water.  Its tranquil ripples glisten blue-green-black in the sunshine. At the far end of the pond, they spy the earthen dam and hurry to the causeway where they follow the perimeter of the pond, farm dogs ahead of them now and the people bringing up the rear. Soon, the sisters take the lead and dash to the staging area of the dock. Ollie whimpers and shakes at the sight of sticks being gathered and looks to the water then back at the people, whose arms are full to brimming. She rushes to the pond’s edge.  Easing into the water, first knee-deep then submerged with head erect, Ollie makes long even strokes that propel her forward. Her curly brown ears float outward on either side of her freckled face. She is clothed in otter-fur, brown and dark and sleek. Shining in her wet coat, she glides with ease through the wake of other swimmers, eyes intent to see the first-thrown stick.

Beside her flails a Golden Retriever mix, a landlubber in pretend-wet-suit, surviving with floppy dog paddle. His country cousin, a large Yellow Lab, muscles his way in smooth, long strokes away from his splashing companion, and as alert as Ollie, prepares to grab the branch that is sure to be tossed. Little Sister quakes on the shore, primed to leap in time with the release. The height of her spring is in tandem with the apex of the throw; stick and dog are suspended. Time stops. Attention is rapt. Then, a haphazard rhythm of paddles, long strokes, short flaps, and splashes move toward the floating object that each dog seeks.

More sticks fly, attention diverted, as the swimmers disband and move in their own way to other targets. Except Ollie. She keeps her sights on her intended trophy, the first toss of the day. Meeting the ever-expanding circles, reverberating out from the source, Ollie retrieves her treasure. She swims toward shore, evading the would-be-robbers who sense that she has won the prize. Their sticks lie abandoned, floating like stray timber downstream from a felled forest.

Reaching shore, Ollie parades. She is the conquering hero, displaying the spoils of victory. She marches quick-time with head erect, pauses, and gazes as before in the forest; this time, she considers the depths of water and mud. She sees the trickle that expanded, eroded, gullied, and created this site, where people dammed the source and made the pond. For this moment, her pond. And she is glad.

Smiling through clenched teeth surrounding her stick, Ollie turns and runs the length of the dam again, galloping past the envious swimmers. Her sister pours out of the water, joins in the triumphal march, and side-by-liver-and-white-spaniel-side, they trot in companionable joy for the day, this day of woods’ walks and warm sunshine beaming through the naked trees onto their shiny wet coats. This day of Ollie’s last swim.

By Ellen Gaines

Olive Oyl Gaines, “Ollie”
June 9, 2003 – April 2008