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Touched by an Angel

October 17, 2011
By Eric Holmlund

One can depend on autumn in the Adirondacks for brilliant foliage, electric blue skies alternating with sodden blankets of grey drizzle, steadily declining temperatures, the return of football and, apparently, increasing mayhem around the neighborhood. We live in a comfortable, well kept, seemingly law-abiding part of Saranac Lake, a place where we are not overly concerned with security, where the neighbors you know are friendly and the ones you don't know give you the impression that they would be if either one of us had the time to invest in the other. It's a place which rarely begs a second thought or a second glance. Perhaps a place of assumptions, assumed tranquility, where you take peace for granted, never suspecting your own foolishness.

On a Sunday morning in September, we hustled the kids in the general direction of church. Church at that point was a concept we had floated, a sort of ideal that sounded awfully nice to us but which lacked, you might say, a proper spirit of consensus from the three children. At the 30-minute mark, Dana's hair had been brushed and she was choosing shoes while the boys' coifs had a more free-form texture. John and Will, the 11-year-old twins, had finished their breakfasts, donned clean clothes and had been discharged to the backyard to corral three of the younger chickens, which we had been raising separately from the Big Four grown hens in the main pen in an attempt to build up the flock from last winter's owl massacre. We separate the youngsters for their protection, to avoid hen-pecking, bullying. My wife Kim had let the, shall we call them, middle-school chickens enjoy 20 minutes of recess, during which they were allowed to free range around the swing set while the Big Four looked out enviously from their high-school enclosure. While Kim briskly finished her preparations for church, I concluded a lap around the block with the dog prior to her Sunday morning meditation, locked in her crate. All was hectic, but well.

I have neglected to mention that the in-laws were visiting from the City. Further, we were down to one bathroom, a tiny sort of afterthought attic water closet off of the boys' bedroom. Seven people were playing a kind of O'Hare airport morning brain-teaser, attempting to come in for a landing in the one available runway - you know, waiting for the air traffic controller to give the "all-clear" while you make another circle around the house. People were brushing their teeth with the garden hose out front, legs crossed. Not really. But you get the picture.

I had just unclipped Nellie in the house when we all heard a blood-chilling scream that sounded awfully like John, who can compete with the Adirondack Scenic Railway whistle when motivated. Next someone cried, "They're dead! They're all dead!" Now, there is no shortage of drama in our household. Some of us seem to take a kind of delight in imagining the worst, taking simple events and painting them with the garish colors of hyperbole. I like to think of this as a refusal to be limited by the literal. When someone screams, "They're all dead!" you might imagine a scene out of a war zone or a horror film. But you also sense that the truth is somewhat less severe, considering the florid imaginations and verbal excesses of some members of the household.

I received the customary command whenever there is a hint of peril: "Eric, go see what happened!" This is my role. My wife spots danger, and I respond to it. A couple of years back, a friend's dog fell through the ice along the shore of Lower Saranac Lake. Kim and I both observed this, were equally close to the dog, who struggled to get her front legs up onto the good ice, only to break more off. I was observing, gathering information. Kim cried, "Eric, do something!" And so I jumped into the lake, knowing it was only up to my waist, and rescued the dog. Somehow, I was better prepared to respond. Or maybe I was expendable. There may be some deep biological explanation.

At any rate, I sprinted to the backyard to see both boys in tears, pointing back to the area where the young hens had been enjoying recess. "A dog killed them! They're all dead!"

"What dog?"

"That one!"

I beheld a very excited dog ranging around our yard. I had never seen this animal. It was a beautiful young husky, a female, with tail up, ears pricked, eyes bright and a few feathers in its mouth. There were no chickens to be seen, only a small cloud of feathers on the grass.

I easily collar the dog, which is very friendly, acting like a 10-year old let loose in a theme park. I hook her to Nellie's lead and search out the chickens. Will had told me that one was lying in the ditch. I find it, a black hen, eyes closed, neck broken. This is another of my jobs. I'm the chicken undertaker. The high school chickens look on from the pen with garbling fascination.

We have under 15 minutes until church. I have caught a strange, murderous Husky, bagged and disposed of one chicken, and start a grid search of the surrounding forest for the other two. Kim gets the whole story out of the boys. I give up on the search and return to the Husky. What will we do with you? I read the name on the collar and get a telephone number from a heart-shaped tag.

John walks up, scowling at the dog, which wags its tail at him.

"John," I say. "She's a nice dog. Her name is Angel."

He is not convinced. He narrows his eyes, scowl deepening. "More like Devil, I'd say," he mutters venomously.

"Aw, she's nice. She was only acting on instinct." We had a few too many chickens, anyway, I say only to myself.

Kim isn't yet in a place of forgiveness. She stabs the number into the phone and speaks to the dog's shocked and dumbfounded owner, who turns out to be a Paul Smith's College student living in an apartment across the street. He is currently in Plattsburgh, shopping with his mother. A fine thing to do on a Sunday.

My brother-in-law and I run Angel across the street and back to her crate, which she had somehow opened up to begin her spree earlier that morning. Kim and I blast off to church with Dana. The boys have a perfect excuse to skip church and hang out with their aunt and uncle, calming down. Later, Angel's owner comes across to apologize. He's a terribly nice young man, and I can imagine how mortified he must be to have his dog kill the pet chickens of the children of a professor at his own college. I tell him that it's not a problem and that I'll try to forget the incident if he happens to show up in one of my classes. But we both know that I won't. It's too good a story.



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