When I first started this column, I promised the occasional glimpse of my life in rural Florida. For the most part, I have not kept this promise, as the subject matter has proven too demanding and interesting for me to spend much time on personal subjects. A good break point has been hard to find, a good place to talk about my own life, without damaging my exposition of Gaulish Polytheism itself. But, he point where we shift from worldview to deities is as good a place as any, I suppose, so I will inject a few stories here – stories about a dog, and about our life, and our neighbors.
So, then, how does a Gaulish Polytheist of educated, suburban, Northern origin live in the woods of rural Florida? The unsurprising answer is: not that much differently than anyone else here. It’s a wilder life than most of you are used to, I suppose, but some millions of people in this state of 18 million inhabitants live in more or less the way we do, though perhaps with harder lives than we have, more suffering, and fewer opportunities.
We inhabit a four bedroom house, neither a mansion nor a hovel, on a half-acre of land, in a small rural settlement on the southern fringe of the Ocala National Forest. Orlando, home of the infamous Disney World, is a little more than an hour away. Daytona Beach is less than an hour. Ocala an hour in the other direction. The nearest town is about seven minutes away, and consists of two gas stations, a Dollar General Store, a library, a community center, and a post office. Technically, it’s not a town, as it has no municipal government, but rather a Census Designated Place – a mere wide spot in the road where the Census Department has munificently condescended to count people. For a town with its own City Hall and Police Department, you have to go twenty minutes the other way.
Most of the inhabitants of our little settlement live in trailers. The roads are gravel, and the Community Association (of which my wife, Dawn, and I are Board members) has a terrible time keeping them up during the rainy season. That’s all the Community Association does, by the way, that and keep up a little building generously called the Community Center, where we hold occasional fundraisers to help with the roads. Our neighbors are an interesting lot: mostly white, a few Hispanic, some Northern transplants, some Southerners, a couple fairly affluent, the retirees among them forming a middle stratum, and most terribly poor. Some don’t know where their next meals are coming from. Dawn and I help out where we can, mostly by hiring our neighbors to help us with projects whenever possible. Most of the other middling or affluent people here do the same. When I do this, I work right beside them. When money’s short, sometimes we pay in kind. Sometimes, we drink afterwards together, the privileged and the less privileged swigging rum from the same bottle and swapping stories.
To my knowledge, all of our neighbors are Christian. They do and don’t know about our religion. It’s a bit of an open secret, a thing everyone knows, but no one talks about. At least one neighbor refers to Dawn as the Village Witch, a name she wears with pride.
But tonight’s column isn’t about us. It’s about a dog. We have three dogs, two cats, and about ten chickens. The chickens provide us with eggs. We could live on them if we had to.
One of the dogs used to be a stray. When we first saw him about five years ago, he was emaciated and starving, a pale white hound dog mutt, lean bodied even if he’d had enough food, with a long head and floppy ears. As near as we could see, some lowlife sadistic coward had dumped him out here, something that happens occasionally, but had clearly spent a lifetime abusing him first. He was terrified of people, men in particular, dark haired men like me most of all. He was the most elusive dog I’d ever seen. You couldn’t get within ten feet of him, before he darted back into the woods. But he had a funny, brave habit: he barked at the bears, drove them away from the settled parts of the community.
You see, we have a bit of a bear problem out here. Bears are numerous. They get into people’s garbage. They bed down in people’s yards. They break into chicken coops for the feed. They even have the habit of getting into unlocked trucks looking for food. I’ve seen this myself. One night, I was coming home late, and saw that the lights were on in Dawn’s truck. I wondered why that would be. Was she out looking for something? As I pulled up, a bear lumbered out of the truck’s front seat, and sauntered off into the woods, staring at me insolently. The truck was undamaged except for some leaves on the seats, but we lock our vehicles now. Not from fear of crime, but from fear of bears.
So, then, this white dog would bark at the bears and frighten them off. Well, pretty quickly people figured this out and started feeding him. They’d leave the food out, then retreat until he could overcome his fear and eat it. He acquired several names in that time. I called him Cû Dumni, “Dog of the Underworld”, a sort of Gaulish riff off the Welsh Cwn Annwn. Most people named him Shy Away, from his obvious habits. Dawn, who respected neither my nor the neighbors’ naming choices, named him Caspar, because he was a sort of “friendly ghost” of a dog.
Over time, the dog became less afraid of people. You could get closer to him, though he still retreated eventually. A few less generous types among the neighbors called County Animal Control on him. After all, he got into the garbage from time to time, too. And he barked in the night, keeping the bears in the woods, in their own kingdom. Some people Didn’t Get It, and found it irritating. Animal Control dutifully came out, set traps, and drove around in trucks carrying poles set with nooses, to bring him in. They didn’t catch him. He was just too elusive, too smart. Eventually, they gave up trying, and returned to town, defeated.
Dawn fed Caspar more than anyone else, and he spent more and more time on our land. Eventually, he practically lived in our crawl space, though he still adventured every night. He would let Dawn pet him, and even I could pat him on the head every now and then, though he would then beat a quick retreat.
One wet day, I was in the front yard, I forget for what reason. Caspar was there with me, although a short distance away, as was his habit. Some teens were roaring up and down the road in an ATV, splashing through mud puddles. They were well known as mean kids, from families into drugs and violence. Caspar took off after their ATV, barking. And they steered right for him and ran him over. The ATV flipped him up into the air. He turned over twice, head over tail, and came down with a sickening crunch I could hear from across the yard and the street. They whooped, hollered, and laughed, then drove on without stopping. Poor Caspar, incredibly, got up and limped into the woods.
There were a lot of witnesses: two people across the street, and the next door neighbors, who don’t exactly live close by but still could see. The kids realized they had been seen spotted, and came back. Now, only now, they were all apologies, all remorse. I didn’t believe it for a second, but it wasn’t the time to start a feud. I enlisted them into a search party, and we looked for the dog. We looked all afternoon, but could not find him. Injured, he was more frightened than ever, more elusive. The day ended with me certain the dog had crawled off into the woods to die.
That sad certainty was gone late the next day. A shivering, traumatized, limping Caspar came out of the woods, and up to our house, seeking Dawn, the only person he trusted to help him. So, help him we did. He got him to a vet right away. It turned out that the only injury was a broken leg, so a good fate had actually been sworn for Caspar that day. The setting and bandaging of the leg, plus antibiotics, assorted shots Caspar had never had, and other bills cost more than we could afford, so we took up a collection on Dawn’s Facebook, and assorted websites. Neighbors and others donated, and we were able to pay all Caspar’s medical bills.
We took him in after that, and kept him in the house, while he gradually healed. By the time he was healed up, he was well and truly our dog, pretty well house trained, and even willing to cuddle with us on the couch. So, the dog who once retreated from me at ten feet now is willing let me hold and stroke his ears. Sometimes, men, women, and dogs win victories together – victories of compassion and gentleness, boudios trei trougocariin.