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From the author: This is a story about the poet Emily Dickinson and her dog, Carlo.
by Carrie Vaughn
That's what they call a metaphor in our country. Don't be afraid of it, sir, it won't bite. If it was my Carlo now! The Dog is the noblest work of Art, sir. I may safely say the noblest — his mistress's rights he doth defend — although it bring him to his end — although to death it doth him send!
—Emily Dickinson, in a letter of 1850
Would you instruct me now?
—a letter of 1866
First thing was to write letters. Make letters into words into sentences into letters. Tell the world—and a letter was how to do it because a letter stayed. Even when a person was absent, one could not disregard the page in hand. Immortalize the event, begin to turn the grief into something else, something that would live outside her instead of inside her.
"Emily, come down, please!"
Not supper yet, but still her sister Vinnie called, which meant visitors. Emily didn't hear. She crouched beside Carlo at the foot of the bed and tied folded packets of paper to his collar with string.
"Take these with you when you go. If you can, bring some back for me."
He looked at her with clouded eyes half-hidden under his coarse black hair, and his tail thumped the floor once.
From downstairs, Father's orator voice sounded, and Mother's soft immovable one, and Vinnie's over all, shepherding the whole house with a will like a staff. More voices, more visitors.
"Mr. Dickinson! What a fine house—"
"—please, take off your wraps—"
"—how is your son and his lovely wife?"
The front door opened and closed. Carlo raised his head. In his younger days he'd run to greet everyone, tongue dangling and tail wagging the whole back half of his body. She'd have to hold him, leaning her whole weight against him. Carlo was so large, he sometimes scared callers. If she lay down very small, she could hide behind him. Vinnie could come in and not even see her. They'd all have a good laugh about that.
Emily tore a scrap of paper off an old envelope and wrote another note. This one would be to God, how could she forget to send one to Him, along with all the others?
"Another one, Carlo." After the ink dried she tied the note with the rest. She scratched his ears. Patient Carlo hadn't moved all day.
Carlo was getting ready to take a very long walk, without her. She remembered every walk they'd ever taken together, everything they'd seen. Every tree and blade of grass, new spring leaves, brown fallen leaves of autumn. Blue skies and gray. They followed sunsets and climbed hills like they were Crusaders' castles. How much ground had they touched? All of it, everywhere, for dust from the whole country blew in and came to rest in Amherst.
Carlo could not take her with him this time, but he could take part of her, the words. Faithful Carlo could carry her letters.
If she could ask a question of Death, any question at all, what would it be? Emily wrote her questions on scraps of papers and tied them to Carlo's collar.
"Emily?" Vinnie was calling from the top of the stairs this time. She'd crept up so as not to startle the guests with her shouting. "They've come all the way from Boston. They'd like to see you."
They might as well be visitors from Jerusalem as from Boston. There were so much more interesting places to travel than Jerusalem or Boston. How far could a bee burrow inside an iris before it became lost? How far would Carlo walk this time?
She hugged him, holding her face against his smelly fur. He used to be massive, weighing almost as much as she. But he'd stopped eating, and she could feel his ribs.
No visitors tonight, oh no. She had to wait for Carlo to return.
It had happened late that evening, when the house was still. Carlo slipped out, and she didn't even hear his clawed paws clicking on the floor. The gardener, Dick, took him away, saying he'd put him in the ground under a nice tree. Nearest thing to a Christian burial one like Carlo could have, he'd said. Everyone was very quiet that night, more careful of Emily than usual. Especially Vinnie, who sat with her a long time and told stories about great good Carlo. Emily contradicted her. Carlo belonged to her. All Vinnie had ever done was spoil the beast with pastries or punish him for tracking mud.
Emily clung to her sister until the candle went out, then she curled up in bed alone.
Emily wrote the best condolences. She understood, she took the grief of others into her heart, tugged it and sewed it up to try and make it whole and good, then she sent it back as poetry. Her correspondence was voluminous.
He was my friend! Easier to express sadness when sadness had a cause. People would understand. They would mourn with her.
And they would say poor Emily, like always.
How to write it? What words? He died. That was all. But that didn't explain it, not at all. What would she do when the hole left behind was larger? A Father-sized hole? But Father didn't take walks, not like Carlo. Carlo taught her as much about the world as Father ever had. And Carlo had never begrudged her Keats.
A week ago she had not imagined a hole shaped like Carlo.
Was Death so enticing, that Carlo would walk with him and not her?
A house asleep. A world asleep, so still the maple in the yard groaned. It creaked so loud, as though goblins danced on every bough. They'd break all the limbs if they weren't careful. There should be a dog to bark at them.
And so it did. A deep rumble, like a saw raking through wood.
Emily sat up. "Carlo."
He'd come to fetch her, so they could take a walk together.
Wrapping a blanket tight around her, she climbed out of bed and scampered down the stairs, barefoot. The clicking of paws sounded in the foyer.
Skidding to her knees, slipping the rug on the hardwood floor of the foyer, she met Carlo head-on, crashing into him with a hug. He wrestled her over, playing, and she had to clamp shut his muzzle to keep him from barking and waking up the house, even though she was laughing loud enough to do so. But no one woke; they were alone.
There was a note tied to his collar. Just one, thick creamy stationery folded and tied with a black velvet ribbon. Her name, "Emily," was written on the outside in a flourishing hand.
A reply. She loved receiving letters. Every one with her name on it was an affirmation—here is a world, here is a friend, and I am here too! When her friends didn't write back it was so easy to think them dead. They frightened her when they didn't write back.
Climbing out of their wrestle, half-sprawling on Carlo, she eagerly untied the ribbon and unfolded the page. Written in solid black ink, in confident cursive:
And nothing more.
The paper lay lightly in Emily's hands. "In time, the carriage stops for all."
Was that right? It was a riddle, surely, and she must know if her answer was right. In time all happens, armies march, wars are won and lost, the seasons turn endless and eternal. All people are born and die. But what happened out of time?
"I must reply. At once, I must write! And you must carry the letter for me, Carlo."
But Carlo stood at the door, nuzzling the knob and wagging his tail, like he needed to go out.
"Well, how did you come in, you great beast? Surely you can go the way you came and don't need the door."
He wagged his tail, whined a little. He had to go, that was that, and he needed her to open the door this time. If one could predict the rules, there'd be no need to ask questions at all, would there?
When she stood up to get the door, he bounced in place, jumping back on his legs—he was as tall as a person when he did that. He'd run when she opened the door, like a cannonball. He could run again.
"I want to go with you."
The letter felt cold in her hand. It didn't answer any of her questions. None at all. Perhaps if she asked them in person—but she had come to dislike visitors, and visiting.
She'd open the door, and he'd run so fast his legs would be a blur. She could never keep up with him when he ran. But Carlo always came home. However far ahead he ran, he'd always come back for her.
She knelt and held his stout head in her hands, looking into his clear brown eyes. "Don't forget, when you've gone far enough ahead, come back and get me." A kiss on the nose, like she gave him when he was a puppy.
She opened the door, and in a flash he was gone, running into darkness.
"A piece of Immortality," she said, holding the letter tight in both hands, close to her heart. "That's what I've always thought a letter is."
Carlo returned to fetch Emily twenty years later.
This story originally appeared in Talebones 21, Spring 2001.