My big dumb dog is lost.
We’d been training her over the past few months to come when called, her response time getting better each day, her loyalty near bursting. We were parked alone in DNR land in Michigan, literally recharging our battery in freezing temperatures, and helping ourselves to a pretty lake view on an entire campground completely empty. And then, we helped ourselves to a long trail hike after a morning of hunkering over computer screens.
We practiced off leash calls, our smart little dogs responding quickly with every whistle, leashing them back up and trying again later down the trail. Perhaps we are idiots, but we were building trust, and our new pup had risen to the occasion for days. Until she didn’t. Training dogs always feels like a crapshoot, an incomprehensible act of inter-species communication building, vulnerability abounding– Do you love me enough to come back? Do you trust me to still be here? Do I trust you to not be angry when I return too late? But there are few woods safer than Michigan’s.
Then, Magpie lifted her head, took a sniff, and bolted. Our other pup, Puddle, followed her. I didn’t panic– they’d be back. Sure enough, I whistled, and Puddle popped herself over the crest of the hill. Magpie did not.
“Magpie!” I yelled, becoming impatient while I leashed our other dog. “MAAAAAAGPIIIIIIE!” I yelled again.
I walked up the hill, stopping to look and listen. I called for my Someone. We split up and crawled through the brambles, combing the woods until we met again back at the trail’s split.
“She’s gone,” I said calmly.
“She’s gone?” my Someone responded.
“She’ll be back,” I said. It felt true. But right now, she was also gone, gone, doggone.
“He has brown hair and a beard, like Uncle Scott, but his eyes are brown, not blue, and he wears, like, a white dress with buttons. You can’t be God and have blue eyes. They have to be brown,” my niece said. I asked her to draw me a picture of God, and now she was explaining it. She’s been dabbling in religion as a 6-year-old, mixed with a few Sunday morning church drop-ins and her endless imagination, I was endlessly fascinated with her perspective.
“Where does he live?”
“In the middle of the woods,” she said promptly.
“Who lives there with him?”
“Well, his wife. And his children,” she said.
“Who are his children?”
“Well, there’s Jesus, but then also Jesus’s brothers– the three guys who came to see him when he was born? With the presents? And also, his other siblings, a goat and a cow.”
It was a surprising number of boys in that family. Also, a shocking number of beasts. I then uncovered that God, in fact, was in the woods in the United States. He worked from home. If he needed something outside the woods, he sent Jesus or one of his other sons. Jesus would sometimes leave to go talk to animals, but not the ones with sharp teeth. Only rams and bunnies, mostly. Cheetahs and wolves and our new dog, Magpie, were out of his jurisdiction. Her confidence was persuasive, and I felt like I was really learning.
“So,” I asked, “what exactly does God do in the woods for work?”
“Oh,” she said, “He writes papers all day to send out– the papers just say ‘Help me! Help me! Help me!’”
Help me, help me, help me, I started muttering. We were leaving the woods, heading back to our camper to conjure a game plan to find our missing dog. Help me, help me, help me…
And then, Who am I talking to?
I’d been here before– in the woods with a missing dog, talking to someone whose name I didn’t know. When my first dog, Butter, went missing for hours after being hit by a truck, I made promises to this Unknown, swearing to quit smoking and go to church. When she was found, I was grateful, but celebrated with a cigarette on a friend’s front porch. I quit just a couple years later, when I had enough and believed in something better for myself.
Now, just like then, I didn’t know who I was talking to. And somehow, it seemed more likely that the someone I was praying to was just a hermit lost in the woods crying out for help, too. Someone whose jurisdiction didn’t cover my big toothed, unruly dog. With every vapid Help me to the sky or the Woods God, my panic began to grow. I needed something better. I needed someone who could actually hear me.
We got back to the camper to retrieve our phones and scan the map, marking a definitive plan to scour the woods. But first, I texted Kristie. Kristie has become my mental health buddy, checking in on me regularly, and me returning the favor. She’s heard every confession from me, all the way down to the night I melted a brick of cheddar cheese on a stack of day-old movie popcorn and ate it with a fork on my couch.
So, Mags ran away. We can’t find her. I texted.
The response time was immediate.
Omg noooooooooo! Where????
My heart rate dropped. It was going to be okay. Someone out there heard me. She didn’t tell me I was a bad dog mom. She didn’t judge me for losing my dog. She didn’t say she had all the answers.
Oh man! I’m going to pray you find her or that some nice person does and takes her for her chip to be scanned. Are you ok? Freaking out?
I was okay. If there was a God who wasn’t just a lunatic in the woods, he would definitely listen to Kristie. Saint Kristie, Intercessor for Those Who Have Lost Their Dog and Don’t Pray, Anymore.
My head was clear when we hopped in the truck, and my intuition was keen. I dropped pins and plotted between driving, stopping the truck, and listening. I was impressed with how much better I could hear when my head wasn’t pounding with prayers. My Someone kept a sharp eye between stops. We drove to the nearest houses lining the woods and knocked on doors. They hadn’t seen her. But someone heard her– out there in the woods. I checked my map– it checked out.
She’d been gone for only an hour and a half when my Someone caught sight of her from the road. He hopped out and ran into the woods as I parked. Her tongue was hanging low and she looked tired, but relieved. Like she’d just nearly met her maker in those woods, and was glad to be home.
Found her! I texted Kristie.
Oh thank god!!!!!!!!!
I went over the details of her recovery, how she seemed to have followed the sound of our voices, how we circled with our maps and followed the direction of the people we’d met. And, I thought to myself, how I didn’t simply fall to my knees in fear.
Smart girl. Kristie texted back. I wasn’t sure if she meant me or Magpie, but it rang like a voice of confident Love. The kind of voice that can’t echo back from a vast sky, but from a real person, eyes wide, heart open. A real answer to prayer.