The year and a half between Molly and me in age had already started to matter when she started school ahead of me, but when she started her period, which I considered an affront to good sense, that age difference became an outright gap. Molly and I had never felt it necessary to know everything about each other, and our difference in age would matter less and less the older we got. But I didn’t know that then—then it seemed as if Molly not only had secrets but was some kind of secret herself. When she talked with me, I felt as if I were receiving hastily written and merely dutiful postcards from a very, very far-off land, and not one that I cared to visit myself either. I felt this as a great loss, and I suffered because of it, although its importance receded like a sharp shift in camera focus a few months before school ended for summer.
One day, Wolf wasn’t waiting for me when I got home from school. Matu told me not to worry, that he was probably just having one of his adventures somewhere, but I patrolled the neighborhood whistling and calling for him nonetheless. When he still had not shown up a few hours later when it was time for his dinner (and his nightly one-to-one communion with Matu, who told him all sorts of things), Matu herself became alarmed, although she calmly assured us that all would be well. We barely ate at suppertime. When Bobby and Adela, and the then-baby, Sara, began to wail, Matu let me and Molly go out with flashlights to search door-to-door. Nothing. No sign or even sighting of Wolf, who was known by just about everyone. I felt that a great injustice had been done by someone somewhere, and, engaged in compulsive prayers to a god who wasn’t exactly my buddy, I barely slept—actually, no one in the house except the baby really slept.
The next morning, I was so overcome with worry and anxiety that Matu pitied me greatly and said that I could stay home from school so she and I could canvass the neighborhoods all around and call and call for him on every street. But just as we were preparing to leave the house, the phone rang. A neighbor on his morning walk had found Wolf in an icy ditch, dead, apparently hit by a car.
I told Matu that it couldn’t be Wolf. Matu told me that the man had found our phone number on Wolf’s tag. I couldn’t think of how another dog could have been wearing Wolf’s tag, but I was sure the dead dog was not Wolf. As we drove to retrieve Wolf’s body, Matu got so tangled up in trying to explain what death meant and to prepare me for the way Wolf might look, that she finally just fell silent. I was outraged.
Wolf had either been thrown or dragged into the ditch or had dragged himself there. He still actually looked a lot like himself except that blood had run from his nose and mouth and he was a bit twisted and stiff. We put him in the back of the station wagon and I sat next to him with my hand on his stiff body while we drove home. Matu and I buried him in a foresty place back in the property where violets grew and dogwoods bloomed.
As we dug the grave, we talked about Wolf and and sometimes talked to him as well. And we wept. We laughed some too—the crazy laugh of grief—as we remembered the way he sometimes looked at us as if we had lost our minds or the way he tried to herd us where he wanted us to go or all the other thousand things about him that made him dear to our hearts. Of course, all those things were merely trinket signs of the thing that can never be put in words about loving and devoted relationships with animals and the big hole in the world that never quite closes up when they are gone. He had been my savior and best friend since I was a baby, of course, but I think that he had a special place in Matu’s heart as well.
I insisted on putting my old baby blanket—the one that was with me when Wolf found me, in fact—into the grave with him, along with his favorite toy, a big dingy, chewed-up rubber bone. And when he was in the ground, we prayed for Wolf’s soul in heaven, although my heart was not really into it since my many prayers for Wolf’s safety the night before had not only not been answered but had been, I felt, mocked.
For many weeks, Matu or one of my siblings or even Papaw or Mamaw Ridley would think of Wolf or realize suddenly—again—that he wasn’t there and then we would all begin to sniff and weep and blubber. And although Molly tried to conceal it from me, she cried herself to sleep at night for a solid week. We both did. And that our sorrow was solitary made me feel entirely bereft, as if I’d lost not only Wolf but Molly and everyone and everything else, and my main response to the relentless needlings of grief was to lose all interest in my life. So much of life requires imaginative engagement. So much about death makes it impossible.