“Do you think she’s coming back?” I turn to my wife, Julie, with a panicked expression. She suggests we wait five more minutes, and then return home to await the light of morning. It’s deep dusk in the forests near Lachaux, France and we’ve lost a dog. And not our dog. We have been calling Lily the dog for nearly fifty minutes now, running up and down the forest road, hoping to hear a sound of crashing through the bushes and see her fluffy white face. We have been entrusted with the care of five dogs, a job we picked up on Nomador, the housesitting exchange website. Now we’re down one pack member. Cue freakout.
Lily is probably not worried. She takes after her mom, Collette, a vivacious French woman who does not worry about anything. Collette floats out of bed each morning, fresh as the breeze, dressed in white linen. Despite the fact that red wine will be poured for lunch and dinner. Despite having five outdoor dogs. The woman is fearless. I have always wanted to wear white once in my life and not have it marked with stains.
Collette has invited strangers from America to watch over her home and dogs for the next six weeks. She greets us like friends from the start, whisking us up from the train station and showing us her qualifications for race car driving while we wind our way up the mountain roads from Vichy to Lachaux. Collette laughs easily, as we exchange pleasantries with an easeful mix of French and English. Easeful for her, that is. My brain aches from trying to stretch my beginner French vocabulary into a semblance of conversation.
Fresh flowers by the bedside awaited us in our room at her mountain chalet. Collette could hardly wait to show us the box of specialty gluten-free items she had procured (knowing my wife has Celiac disease) for our enjoyment. Next came the homemade sangria with simple appetizers while Collette started to make dinner. She flitted about in the kitchen making a gourmet meal which she would later dismiss as normal fare when we showered her with praise between bites.
The next five days went on like that: Collette making simple yet spectacular French meals, freely pouring wine, and telling us about great places to go while we were there. She wanted us to have freedom. She embodied pleasure and spontaneity. When she discovered that only one of her bicycles was in working order, she went out and bought a brand new one! Collette made us feel like her long lost American daughters, in a matter of days, before she left for her camping adventure in Eastern Europe.
So it’s easy to imagine how awful it felt to have lost one of her dogs. Dog walking for this pack involved simply letting them out of the van at the trailhead sans leashes. I was shocked by this. How would they possibly come back? In the handful of walks we took with Collette and the pack, the dogs would crash through the woods and then eventually return to the van miraculously when the walk was done. Collette was never worried. “They always come back,” she had said.
I tried in my adrenaline-rushed state to embody Collette’s carefree spirit. I stood there in the growing quiet, darkness enveloping me by the minute, and took a deep breath. I felt my feet on the soft earth. I took the cool evening air into my lungs. This was a forest Lily knew well. Heck, she probably had a standing poker game I didn’t know about and was rather upset that I was calling her back!
I walked slowly up the trail one last time and suddenly I heard something. Ragged breath, the purposeful padding of paws. My spirits lifted as I saw a shadow moving my way. It was Lily, back from a hunting adventure with a badger and quite proud of herself. What a thoughtful girl, she brought us dinner.
This story was a shortlisted entry in the World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship 2020.
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