“I don’t see how, but I think you’re right. This many wheels of weirdness have to be on the same train.”
The wolfhound and his new companions finished eating. Merlin noisily licked his chops. With their fingers, Puzzle and Riddle meticulously combed the fur around their mouths.
Picking up her medical bag, Cammy said, “I’ll make my inquiries before I go to bed. By midmorning sometime, I should have replies, but I doubt there’s any chance we’ll be enlightened. Then we’ll have to decide what to do next.”
“Come here for lunch?”
“Yeah. Okay. Unless I have an emergency the techs can’t handle and that I can’t pass along to Amos Renfrew. He’s the best cow doc in the county, and he’s good enough with horses, but his heart isn’t in small-animal care. I wouldn’t recommend him for a dog in serious shape, he might overlook something.”
Merlin settled to the floor in a weary heap. Puzzle and Riddle snuggled against opposite sides of him, apparently at last worn out. The wolfhound was like a great woolly coat that had been thrown down, and the golden-eyed pair were the coat’s dazzling trim.
When Cammy opened the back door and stepped onto the porch, Grady followed her, but the animals remained behind.
“I’m pretty sure they’re already asleep,” Grady said. “Sometimes I think it would be a great blessing to walk on all fours and have a smaller brain.”
She shook her head. “It’s not their smaller brains that let them sleep so easily. It’s their innocence.”
“Then I’ll be awake all night, maybe forever.”
His singular smile was the best last sight to any evening, so she said, “Call you in the morning,” and moved toward the steps.
He put a hand on her shoulder, requiring her to face him once more. “This isn’t a theory or hypothesis or even something as grand as speculation. It’s a gut feeling. Nothing’s going to be the same.”
“Not all change is for the better,” she said.
He took her by both shoulders, and his face lowered toward hers, and for a moment she thought he might, with the purest of intentions, do the worst of wrongs that he could do. But the kiss he gave her, the first between them in these four years, was a brother’s kiss, his lips chaste against her forehead, and that was an expression of affection with which she could cope.
“Thank you for Merlin,” he said. “Whatever Puzzle and Riddle might be, I don’t believe they’d have followed me home if I had been on that walk alone. I think it was Merlin who drew them here.”
“He’s a magnet, sure enough,” she said. “He was from the moment he was born. Be careful tonight, Grady. I know they’re not a threat, they’re as innocent as Merlin, but innocence always has its enemies. Always.”
In the car, driving away, she hoped that she had not tensed when he bent down to kiss her brow, that he had not felt her stiffen defensively. She should have had faith that, though he knew nothing of her younger years, his intuition would always be that of a heart healer who knew the seriousness if not the precise nature of those wounds that could not be seen, for that’s what he had been as long as she had known him, a good man of exquisite intuition, not just a friend but a grace for which she was profoundly grateful.
If Puzzle and Riddle were more than one kind of curiosity or another, more than a quick stranger-than-fiction item on cable news, more than mere mutation, if they were something, as she believed they were, something momentous, they could not have entrusted themselves—or been entrusted—to better hands than Grady’s.
She drove out of the foothills, to the lower meadows, where the moonlight pooled in the pale grass.
The strange night appeared to have wrought subtle changes in the familiar land, and the well-known road seemed to be leading her into unknown places.
For twenty years, since she was fifteen and at last free, Cammy had wanted only what she possessed now: a veterinary practice and a life with animals, a life of service to the innocent of the Earth, to those who could not lie because they could not speak, who did not envy or covet or steal, who never betrayed and never took pleasure in the pain and despair of others, who did not enslave and brutalize and humiliate those weaker than they were.
But tonight, in the light of those beautiful unearthly eyes, she glimpsed something that she needed in addition to what she had. She hesitated to want it, for fear that by wanting it, she would ensure it was withheld, but she wanted it desperately nevertheless. Her life was filled with beauty, the flora and the fauna of the mountains, but she longed also to have what for now she only dared to call mystery. She wanted mystery in her life, things unknowable yet not imagined, things her mind could touch that her hands could never feel, mystery that could fill her half-empty heart with wonder.
Over gently rolling land, the road rose and fell, while in the geometries of the white ranch fencing, she saw embedded symbols that she had not recognized before, that the builders of the fence had not intended. The symbols now apparent to her were only a consequence of the principles of proper construction, yet they were icons that since time immemorial had been metaphors for hope.
As in the pasture at High Meadows Farm, her vision blurred. She pulled off the highway where the shoulder widened, put the Explorer in park, plucked Kleenex from the console box, and blotted her eyes.
With the magnificent horses and their attendant animals, Cammy had not understood what sentiment had brought her to tears. Whether the same feeling might have been at work then as now, she didn’t know, but she knew what moved her this time. Her life before her fifteenth birthday had been unspeakable. Her life these past twenty years was in many ways austere. She found a kind of happiness by demanding much of herself, by expecting nothing of others, and by seeking to balance those years of slavery with years of willing service to what was good in the world, as a way of expunging any stains the past had left on her. Now she stood at the center of a mystery, a significance. Although she had been wretched and without courage in her youth, Cammy knew—knew without doubt, as geese knew in their blood when the time had come to fly south ahead of winter—that the presence of these two creatures in her life meant, if she had once been damaged, she was now whole.
In the bedroom, treading on his large plump pillow bed, Merlin turned three times before settling with a sigh, his head between his forepaws, his tail tucked between his hind legs.
Grady had brought another dog bed from the downstairs study and put it in the same corner with Merlin’s. He felt sure that from the wolfhound’s example, their visitors understood where they were to sleep.
Puzzle and Riddle, however, declined to turn in for the night. They circled the room, sniffing this and that, peering under the dresser, taking a quick taste of the water in all three of the water dishes, while Grady pulled the draperies shut at the windows.
As he folded back the thin bedspread and draped it neatly over the footboard, as he turned back the covers and the top sheet, and as he plumped his pillows, the pair sat watching him, heads cocked to the right, as if fascinated by his rituals.
“I hope you noticed,” he said, “that before I undid it, my bed was made as tight as a drum skin.”
Riddle cocked his head to the left.
“Once army, always army.”
Puzzle cocked her head to the left, and Riddle cocked his back to the right.
When Grady removed his shoes and put them by his nightstand, Puzzle scurried forward to smell them and to pluck tentatively at the loose laces.
In the walk-in closet, as Grady took off his shirt, jeans, and socks, Riddle followed him—and discovered the mirror on the back of the door. Intrigued by his reflection, Riddle made a thin sound—“Eee, eee”—and reached out to this apparent other of his kind. Surprised when the other reached toward him as he reached toward it, Riddle hesitated, considered the situation, then touched his hand to the reflection of his hand.
Over the years, Merlin had seen himself in mirrors many times, and he showed no interest in his reflection.
Riddle’s ears twitched, and he scurried out of the closet.
Returning to the bedroom, Grady found his two guests at the son of Ireland’s bed, watching their new friend with interest. Evidently they had been drawn by the wolfhound’s snoring, which was indeed impressive.
In the bathroom, after Grady squeezed toothpaste on his brush and turned on the cold water, Puzzle suddenly sprang onto the closed toilet seat and sat prairie-dog fashion, watching him with interest. Half a minute later, Riddle ascended to a position on the side of the bathtub, as intrigued as Puzzle appeared to be by their host’s dental-hygiene regimen.
After he finished brushing, they watched him floss. They watched him wash his face and trim a hangnail and wipe splashes of water off the countertop with a towel.
When the time came to toilet, Grady shooed them out of the bathroom and closed the door.
No sooner had he taken the throne than a soft, rapid, irregular rapping arose at the door.
“Go away,” Grady said.
The sound came again: rap-rap-rap, rap-rap, rap, rap-rap-rap-rap-rap.
“I didn’t go out in the yard and stare at you when you were peeing,” Grady reminded them.
Rap-rap, rap-rap, rap-rap-rap-rap-rap-rap.
The rapping stopped.
When he heard one of them sniffing along the crack between the bottom of the door and the threshold, he considered renaming them Nosey and Snoopy.
The silence that followed the sniffing was welcome, but then seemed to have a suspicious quality.
Although the skeleton key had long ago been lost, the old door featured a keyhole. Grady leaned sideways on the toilet, lowered his head, and clearly saw a luminous golden eye on the farther side of the keyway.
“You’re a little Peeping Tom. You two ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
The golden eye blinked.
By the time Grady washed his hands and returned to the bedroom, Puzzle and Riddle were on his bed, lifting his pillows to peer under them.
“Off, off,” he told them.
They dropped his pillows, sat on his bed, folded their hands on their bellies, and watched him.
Having been awakened after such a short snooze, Merlin yawned extravagantly.
Grady went to the empty dog bed, fluffed it, and said to Puzzle and Riddle, “Here. This is yours.”
They stared at him attentively but didn’t leave his bed.
In the closet, where he kept a few dog toys, Grady selected a blue monkey. He returned to the bedroom, knelt beside the empty dog bed, and squeaked the monkey to entice Puzzle and Riddle to come to him.
Merlin grumbled, displeased to be disturbed.
A different toy might possibly lure the pair to their proper place. Instead, Grady decided to show them what was wanted, as he might show a puppy.
He went to his bed and scooped up Puzzle. She not only allowed herself to be lifted and carried, but she also curled into the cradle of his arms, exposing her belly, bending her forelimbs at the elbows and the wrists in an expression of happy compliance.
When Grady put her down in the big fleece-covered dog bed that he intended for her to share with Riddle, he said, “Stay,” as if the commands of canine-obedience school were universally understood in the animal kingdom. He gave her the blue monkey to keep her occupied.
At his bed once more, he scooped up Riddle, who proved to be as cooperative as Puzzle. Grady carried him to his appointed lodgings—where only the plush blue monkey waited.
With Riddle still in his arms, he turned and saw Puzzle on his bed again. He deposited Riddle with the blue monkey and returned to his bed for Puzzle.
She virtually leaped into his arms, nearly knocking him down. But no sooner had he turned to take her to Riddle than he heard the monkey squeaking on his bed behind him.
Merlin no longer grumbled. Head raised, ears pricked, he watched with interest.
Instead of taking Puzzle to the empty bed, Grady put her down beside the wolfhound. He lifted one of Merlin’s sturdy forelimbs and draped it over the golden-eyed animal.
“Stay,” he told Merlin.
In a sterner tone, narrowing his eyes like Clint Eastwood, he issued the same command to Puzzle. He also extended his arm in an accusatory fashion and pointed a finger at her.
She cocked her head to the right.
Grady turned away from her. As he crossed the room to get Riddle and the damn monkey, Merlin and Puzzle sprinted past him and leaped onto his bed.
Riddle put the monkey under Grady’s pillows. With expressions of blissful contentment, the dog and the two somethings curled around one another.
The wolfhound and his posse watched Grady turn out the bedside lamp. They watched him turn out the overhead light.
Leaving on the lamp beside the large Stickley-style reclining chair, Grady went into the closet to retrieve a spare pillow and a blanket.
The snuggling animals raised their heads as he came out of the closet, and they tracked him as he went to the reclining chair. They seemed unmoved by the sour look he gave them.
Grady sat in the roomy chair, which he had built and upholstered the previous year. He stretched out his legs on a matching footstool.
The three compadres watched him solemnly.
He draped the blanket across himself and put the pillow behind his head.
They watched him adjust the pillow and the blanket until he got everything as right as he could. The chair made a comfortable bed, and he was too tired to play here-we-go-’round-the-mulberry-bush with these animated plush toys.
He said, “Just so you know …”
The three caballeros remained interested in him, although he couldn’t honestly claim that they waited with bated breath for what he would say next.
“… I consider this mutiny,” he informed them. “Mutiny indeed. And in the morning, discipline will be administered.”
He switched off the lamp beside the chair.
Their colorful eyes seemed to float in the darkness.
“I see you watching me,” he said.
They didn’t blink.
“I’m counting on you, Merlin. Don’t let them devour me in my sleep.”
At the computer in her office at the veterinary clinic, Cammy Rivers wrote e-mails to Dr. Eleanor Fortney of Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Massachusetts, and to Dr. Sidney Shinseki of Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in College Station, Texas. She attached JPEGs of photos of Puzzle and Riddle.
Eleanor Fortney was an eminent zoologist, an internist, and a surgeon who had been a guest lecturer for a month at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in Fort Collins, when Cammy had been in her last year of studies at that institution.