The dark of night lingers, pushing further into the morning as a tide to a shortening beach. At 6 a.m., when Thor wants out, the backyard is shrouded in shadow and void of color, the darkness bearing down as a weight upon the yard. Come dawning on a clear morning the eastern sky will be egg-shell white; on a cloudy break of day there is no distinct line between tree and house and horizon and sky.
Of late Thor has been hunting the backyard, nose lifted high, light on his feet, crossing then re-crossing the lawn, checking the gate at the driveway, moving into the darkness along the back fence where lilac grows thick. I see him, then lose him, a shadow of a dog in the shadow at the edge of the dark yard where night is a presence still.
Thor works the fence like a locksmith, probing patiently, intently, waiting for the tumblers to align and the shackles to fall free. Up and down the length of it, testing it all the while. He wants out.
He has, in the past, gone through the fence after he found a joint in the mesh; he has forced his way under the fence when it was loose and could not hold; and he has gone over the fence, climbing it like an alpinist, all four legs finding purchase in the tight weave. In Thor’s mind the world is an ongoing riddle, a puzzle to be solved. Thor, given time, could solve a Rubik’s Cube, or find a way to fit a square peg in a round hole.
Now the fence is secure, heavy chain link topped with 2 feet of chicken wire, this installed after he climbed over the 4-foot high chain link. But still he tests it, moving like rushing water along the fence, checking it, pushing against it, trying to find a fissure that leads to a breach. He does this in the light of day and he does this in the dark before dawning. He does this because he is Thor, and this is what his task in life has become. And he does it well.
I hear him even if I cannot see him, hear him rattle the wire, push the fence, hear the sound of lilac stems parting as he passes; sounds that tell as much as the sound of distant thunder as it rolls closer. I hear him in the darkness, but he is hidden from sight.
On this morning I hear him; then there is silence. I stand barefoot on the cold concrete and strain to listen. Silence as thick as the night. And I know, against all odds, that he is out.
I put on shoes and walk around the block, quick-legged as if fighting the chill, peering into dusky backyards, listening for his bark, watching the street for him to cross. I walk one loop, check the yard, then walk another circuit. No Thor. I back the truck out and drive the block, then circle farther to the next block, then the next. I drive in widening gyres as a raptor seeking prey, around the blocks; casting out farther; circling around the block, around another.
There is a dim light in the east; daybreak comes. I turn toward the pearl-colored sky; pass one corner, truck tires smooth on city street.
Then comes a scent on the air, faint but distinctive, like smoke from a distant fire; enough to identify, not strong enough to overpower. It lies close to ground like fog, but fog has no odor; this does. This is not scent of smoke or fog come to ground, no, this scent is earthy, pungent and unmistakable: Skunk. And I think, “Dang it Thor, what have you done?” Even as I hope against hope it is not him.
It is him, of course. I find him close to home, a dash of foam on his nose, white against the black of his noble snout. He is agitated, pushing his head against the lawn as if trying to bury his head in the loamy dirt. I wrap a collar around his neck, lead him to the truck; he is ripe with the piercing odor of skunk. Is there anything in this part of the world so strong, so sharp, so impossible to mistake?
Inside the house he rubs his head and back against carpet and rug, against dog bed and chair; we will be tasting the scent of skunk for days to come. Riika comes near, sniffs, then backs away as if in horror at what she has found. Sally comes down the stairs, bleary eyed, and asks, “What happened?” Then knows.
We scramble for a remedy: What would the world be without Google, the new grail. We find a recipe, pour hydrogen peroxide into a bucket, mix it with baking soda and detergent and set it to fizzle and foam with vinegar; we work like alchemists. We lead Thor to the tub and lather him. He stands glumly as if embarrassed by it all. Then we rinse him, towel him off, and turn him loose.
In the grim light of day I visit the scene of the break-out. Thor had dug under the fence, burrowed like a badger in the sand and dirt, gotten deep enough he could wriggle out and bolt to freedom. I fill the hole with rock, pile it high like a cairn to mark the spot.
The next day we hunt. We drive, Thor and I, leaving Riika at home. He is still a bit whiffy; the truck cab holds stench of skunk and I wonder idly how long it will last. Thor sits in the passenger seat. I talk to him: “How do you think that nose is going to work on birds, Skunk Boy.” He turns his sad, weary eyes toward me, but does not speak back.
I park. He leaps from the open door and waits as I load the shotgun.
Then we walk into the greenery and gold of September, into the thick fold of wood and brush. He hunts well, against all odds. He flushes woodcock and, once, grouse. With the grouse he barks high and shrill; with the woodcock he is silent, as if they are less notable. We flush a dozen woodcock in the hour we are out, but they rise into impenetrable leaf and branch and bramble; I see one, two, but no shots, then I kill one as it flies high into the September air, rising high as if a dream, trying to clear a tall popple tree, and I fire as he nears the crown of the tree and the bird falls to earth.
Thor works hard, moves well, but at times as I walk behind him and the air is just right and the breeze just so, there is the faint trace of skunk scent wafting behind him, evidence of his misdeed, light in the air, but there nonetheless, the scent of skunk following Thor as would a shadow.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournal NOW.com.