Clippings: Mishka makes lasting impression

When my roommate, Nikhil, announced he was going to Mauritius for three months and asked if I could take care of his dog, I thought immediately of body heat. A 70-pound German shepherd throws off a lot of warmth, and I sleep in a poorly insulated room.

“Can he sleep in the bed?” I asked.

“He’s not really supposed to, but…”

“Done,” I said. “When do you leave?”

At first, three months sounded just perfect. All the joys of having a dog without the vet bills, I thought. And, three months of furry space heater would bring me solidly into the spring.

But now, Nikhil’s return shadows the edge of my thoughts when Mishka and I are out walking. I don’t know exactly when he’s getting back, but I suspect that it’ll feel too soon.

Mishka is a black dog. He looks and acts like a German shepherd, but we aren’t certain about his ancestry because he’s from the humane society. His ears point straight up, though he can rotate them independently to pinpoint scurrying rodentia, streamline them back in aggression, or flop them halfway to the sides when he’s feeling apologetic. His name means “bear” in Russian.

His favorite things, in order, are: squirrels, skunks (from a distance), lacrosse balls, protecting his house and female dogs.

His least favorite things are: fireworks, loneliness, turnips, canoeing and skunks (up close).

When we drive, he sits in the backseat and rests his chin on my right shoulder. Once he fell asleep in this position and toppled over. He drooped his ears in embarrassment and wouldn’t look at me until we got home.

He’s prone to almost daily incidents of disastrous exuberance.

Our first accident happened on the morning after Nikhil left. Mishka caught a skunk. “Caught,” in this sense means “shook violently in his jaws.” Understandably, the skunk retaliated. We walked home, took a vinegar bath, and I came into work. Some in the newsroom generously compared the scent to fermenting chicken teriyaki. Others just went home early.

Later in the week, Mishka fell through thin ice while chasing a squirrel, which helped cleanse his lingering miasma.

Neither of these events seemed to faze Mishka. In fact, he is a Zen master of cheerful acceptance.

While he joyfully pursues squirrels, rabbits and crows, I’ve dedicated our morning walks to apprenticeship. He’s a good teacher on days of soupy weather when I’d rather still be soaking up his radiant heat in bed. One morning, when the sleet was especially gray and malignant, I started repeating to myself, “Think like a dog. Think like a dog.”

The more I soak up Mishka’s attitude, the less I worry about when his real owner will return. I could send Nikhil an email, or find out from another friend when he’s getting back. But for now, I favor ignorance.

Sometimes, when we’re walking and the light is purple across the Champlain Valley and up onto the mountains, and Mishka has his front paws up on a tree trying to wheedle down a squirrel, I imagine that he and I can do this forever.

To Mishka, it is forever. He’s not worried about our imminent parting. Nikhil will return and they’ll move back to Monkton; Mishka will keep knocking over bottles and chewing on his blanket and rolling in a dead fish he found by the river until he’s an old dog.

When he’s gone, and the last hints of skunk have atomized off my clothing, I’ll miss more than his body heat. And, though Nikhil doesn’t let him sleep in the bed, I’d like to think Mishka will remember it fondly. 

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Middlebury, VT 05753

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