This story was written to honor Leah, who passed away, this summer, at age 13.
Christmas decorated tree brightening a corner of the room. Yule log blazing away. My wife positioning numerous lighted bayberry candles strategically throughout the house.
“A Christmas Carol” accompanying on the tube. The Alastair Sim version, of course.
Scene set, Leah snuggled up on the warm bricks in front of the fireplace.
I’d donned my Santa hat at a rakish angle as we toasted the season with our favorite nightcap.
Suddenly, Leah stirred. No clatter on the lawn had caused her to rise to see what was the matter.
On the screen, Scrooge had completed his encounter with the ghost of Christmas Past when Leah leaped to all fours, staring into the darkest corner of the foyer.
Fluttering damp airbrushed past us from that vicinity.
“Ghost just licked me,” I said, attempting levity, with no success.
“What is it, girl?” I asked.
The hair on her back rose. Leah cowered.
Had she heard the stirrings of a Christmas mouse?
As I reached the stairs, Leah barked. A trained seeing eye dog, now retired, it was most unbecoming behavior. It was the first time I’d ever heard her bark.
It was a doozy, shrill, stuck pig-like, shriekish. She’d definitely saved that one up.
We remonstrated with her in human-dog pantomime, showing her that all was calm.
The dog pulled back, barked again, holding her ground. Then she crawled into the lighted part of the room, staring expectantly into that same dark corner.
“Maybe she needs a potty break,” my wife suggested, handing me the leash.
Rule number one when analyzing uncharacteristic canine behavior: assume need for bowel movement.
I approached Leah with the leash. Her lips curled back menacingly, teeth bared.
“Quit faking tough guy,” I said.
She backed away. She ignored my attempt to employ training commands. I finally offered her a treat. She turned me down cold.
“I’m sure something’s wrong. She never turns down food.”
I did something you’re not supposed to do. I grabbed Leah by the collar and dragged her toward the door.
She pulled back hard. Leah’s a sweetheart but she’s wiry and strong. She broke away. She refused to budge. We battled wits for another two hours before I surrendered, exhausted.
“Let’s just go to bed,” my wife suggested.
“Yeah, maybe Santa can get her to relax.”
But Leah would not cross through the foyer of terror or climb the steps of doom.
We lined up dog biscuits leading from the edge of the lighted area through the foyer, step by step to the top. Leah jauntily sprinted over, snatched up the closest treat, then retreated to her safe zone, leaving the rest untouched.
“If you don’t behave, Santa won’t come.”
Her look told me that she’d wait for him with care, by the chimney in the living room.
At which point, I threw out the training guide and abandoned the puppy psychology playbook and carried Leah upstairs. That could develop into a major mistake. She clearly enjoyed it and I pictured myself playing Leah’s litter bearer for the rest of our natural days together.
Making my way up with my burden, something momentarily blocked me, a wet chill descending across my face. Slobbery.
“Ghost drool,” I cried.
“Now you have me spooked,” I chided the dog.
Maybe “it” didn’t want Leah to ascend but no spirit was telling me where I could go in my own house.
“Humbug!” I shouted, plunging forward.
Finally reaching the bedroom, Leah leaped from my embrace and ran to her place beside the bed. The spell on the stairway obviously broken, she rummaged through her toys, tail wagging, as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
There was no further haunting as we snored through the night, Leah the loudest. Visions of dog bones dancing in her head.
Christmas morning. Piles of loot beneath the tree. Phone calls from loved ones and pots of hot coffee. Sappy music you love once a year. Roasting turkey tantalizing the nostrils.
And Leah frozen at the top of the stairs, wailing pitifully like Marley’s ghost, refusing to descend.
We teased her with brightly wrapped gifts. Not a move.
We tempted her with Christmas goodies from her own special stocking, filled to overflowing by overzealous St. Nick. Leah stayed put.
We issued commands. She was insubordinate.
We ignored her. She wailed piteously.
Finally, I lugged her down the steps.
Once safely established in the living room, she joined us in festive merrymaking. Leah tore through her stocking, then helped my wife with hers. She avoided mine since, as usual, Santa had filled it with coal in his one-holiday gross miscarriage of justice… at least in my mind.
Leah proceeded to enjoy the day, running the entire household, supervising the guests and assuming a prominent position on the floor ‘neath the table during the feast. We forgot that last night had happened.
After our holiday dinner guests departed, the house exuded the bright warmth of lingering holiday goodwill.
But Leah grew restive again.
She again refused to leave that circle of light in the living room.
“She’s acted like this before,” I suddenly realized, recalling an incident during one of our walks.
I reminded my wife about the ancient dog that lived down the road from us. The old-timer frequently got loose, wandering aimlessly along the road until someone fetched him home.
Finally, his vision had gone and he could hardly hear.
One morning walking Leah a few days before Christmas, the dog did another Houdini and joined us as we walked down the road, taking obvious interest in Leah.
Leah tried her best to act ladylike but that old dog thinking himself perhaps an old goat, pressed his case. Over and over he dropped a slobber covered object at Leah’s feet, a gift to entice, which she haughtily rejected. But the old-timer persisted.
I yelled at the top of my lungs, jumping up and down, hoping to scare him off.
It worked, or maybe he forgot why he was there in the first place.
He slowly sauntered back in the direction from which he’d come.
Meanwhile, Leah had frozen in her tracks, her eyes following him.
As the old dog slouched around the bend, Leah let out a whimper.
Just like the one she gave now, staring at that foyer.
“What does it all mean?” I wondered. We assumed that we’d never know.
After the holidays, Leah returned to her normal self. Until one day, out in the yard, she sniffed and circled a single tree over and over. She huffed. She pawed the ground.
She paused, looking around, whining.
Finally, she started digging at the foot of the tree.
She eventually emerged from the crater she’d excavated, holding a toy in her mouth.
“I’ve seen that before…”
It was the filthy, dirty, unidentified chewed object the old dog tried tempting Leah with.
We managed to pry it away from Leah to thoroughly wash it.
She henceforth refused to part with it.
The old dog down the street had died that Christmas Eve. When his family buried him, they wanted him to have his favorite toy. They couldn’t find it and assumed the poor old fellow had lost it.
Or maybe he’d left it as a Christmas gift when he dropped by our house on Christmas Eve to say goodbye.
Rebmann writes from South Seaville.