Night has not yet fallen, but it is there, waiting to cast its black net across the sky, to illuminate this corner of the world with a thousand stars. The forest is like a solid thing in the fading light, the trees a dark mass here, the snow white and featureless there.
I stand on the edge of it in the cold absence of the sun and I scan the muted landscape for movement. I listen for the ring of a collar, the shush of feet moving quickly through snow. But there is a wind coming up, featureless in the same way the woods are featureless, gray and cold as it creaks around trees and rustles through branches in the same way the light is gray and cold.
In these half times, between light and dark, when the world is neither fully awake nor fully asleep, there is a restlessness that seizes the senses, that tempts a running forward into things, into the dark, into motion of any kind and I stand on the edge of the darkening woods teetering forward while the house sits comfortably behind me, smoke puffing out of the chimney, warm light beckoning at the windows.
Part of me wants to strike out into those woods, into the featurelessness of a world I know so well by daylight. I want to follow the familiar trail and listen to the woods at twilight, in the flat gray. But I am waiting for Molly, and Murdoch is waiting for me.
I watched from the window when I put the dogs out before their dinner, Murdoch on his line and Molly wandering free. I don’t trust her, not after a number of evenings when my voice bounced hollowly about in the trees calling her name and there was no reply but the silence of the forest after dark. Putting her on a line of her own didn’t work as she wrapped herself around trees, winding up the rope until she had nowhere to go and nothing to do but lie down, pinned to the ground.
So I watch from the window, call her back the minute she looks like a notion has passed into her mind to head in the opposite direction from the house. Mostly I just step outside with her, follow her around. But that is ridiculous, I think. I am being overbearing.
I let her out this night on her own. It is suppertime she won’t go far, but I am wrong and I watch from the window as she finishes checking the perimeter of the woods, steps beyond the outlying trees, takes a hard left and disappears.
Murdoch returns on his line and I call for Molly, expect to see through the window her dark shape leap across the snow towards the door. But there is nothing. No dark shadows detaching themselves from the dark shadowed woods, no bounding figures racing at the house.
I put on my boots, grab my coat from the hook, and step out into the quiet of this half time. I call her name and my voice falls flat in the flat light. I walk to the edge of the woods where I saw Molly disappear and I call again, cast my eyes over the ground that has been churned up by many feet leaving their prints over a stretch of days. And I am tempted to wander off in to the woods myself.
I take a few steps along the trail and call her name again and then turn away and head for the road. It would not be the first time a dog managed to show up in exactly the opposite direction from the one in which they disappeared. But there is no sign of her there either, so I return to the gray and creak of the woods.
Now I start to worry. My mind begins to skip ahead, making a list of people to tell I have lost her, imagining their reactions.
I turn around with her name forming on my lips, and she is there, silently and suddenly as though she has never been gone, as though I had just overlooked her there on the edge of my vision. She skips towards me, her whole body wagging, so happy to show me what she has found. It is lying behind her in the clearing on the way to the house.
The creamy yellow of the bone is jarring against the flat gray-white of the snow, making the partial ribcage and section of spine almost glow in the low light. It was a deer, I imagine, taking in the broken ribs still curving towards the missing sternum, the vertebrae locked in a gentle C shape with a twist at the end, but the shape makes me think of a giant scorpion or something insectile.
I escort Molly inside and then scoop the hunk of skeleton onto the rake I use for cleaning up after the dogs and it clicks against the plastic fingers and overbalances one way and then the other. I do not study it as I walk it down the driveway to the road and then across to the gully. I do not want to think about the animal it used to be and how it ended up in pieces, perhaps scattered throughout the forest.
It is awkward to aim with the smoothness of the rake and the roundness of the bones, so I kind of flip the partial skeleton over the edge and it tumbles down where the road falls away to a shallow ravine and I watch it disappear amongst a featureless mass in the half-light of the woods, a mass which I know to be a tangle of fallen trees laden with snow.
I stare down after it for a moment, trying to pick out the creamy-yellow glow against the black of the trees or the darkening gray of the snow but the fading light, lying heavily now over everything, has swallowed it up. Gone. But I wonder how long it will be before Molly or Murdoch finds it again.