Mountain Dogs [essay] by Steven Moore

A mother and her puppy are playing on a mountaintop in Afghanistan. Nudging and running, pouncing in the darkness. The dogs are silhouettes on the screen of a thermal camera. Their bodies in motion are radiant whiteness, and the glow they make actually exists; I have not given it to them. The camera perceives their heat, and as the heat dissipates around the boundaries of the dogs they glow. There are plenty of connotations to give them in regard to the glow, about purity and simplicity and blankness as a calling toward our fulfilling it, and the connotations might be especially useful given the dogs’ deaths later on, when a platoon sergeant decides they might carry disease and he shoots them, but for now the dogs have a glow and the glow exists as they do. The glow can be seen. The camera takes heat and makes a moving picture, allows us to see in the dark. The camera doesn’t have a mechanism for recording so I’m holding my personal camera up to it, aiming one through the other. It’d be invisible without the technology. Not lost exactly, but invisible.

The heat of the dogs registers evenly across their bodies: The point of the mother’s tale is as white as her belly. The puppy’s hind legs are as white as its tongue. Even and equal. Mom lays her front legs flat on the gravel, lifts her hind in the air, loading a spring, ready to pounce. The puppy attacks first, scampers over and smacks mom in the nose, paws at her eyes and face and they tussle. Their silhouettes become indistinguishable, melt together. You can see paws reaching out of the glowing white, the size of which tells you who it belongs to, but they’re partly a single animal. The image pins them together, flattens them. Just as their bodies’ heat is identical in all its parts, both dogs’ heat are identical to each other, and the union of their silhouettes can be seen. The image came before what you can make of it. Mom and her pup, playing. It’s out there. Mom loads back again, and the puppy walks up so they meet nose to nose, the whiteness bridges at the tips, and mom swats the pup in the face, jumps and knocks her pup to the gravel. And it goes on.

There’s a break to scratch at fleas. Both dogs are heavy with fleas. The pup bends her body sideways to reach its neck with a hind leg.

Mom sniffs the ground, which is cold but not perfectly cold; the camera shows it as an aquamarine. Nothing is so cold to be black. The possibilities for meaning can get a little out of hand. You have to keep some control. There are moments of blackness when the camera shifts direction or acquires a new distance, but then it focuses, registers all the heat that’s out there, and brings the black into a grayish-blue, gives it a thermal code, a place in the map. There are crosshairs on the screen though the camera isn’t attached to a weapon. Doesn’t have the metal railing for it. The crosshair is a way of centering the image, though the crosshair has no center itself: four unconnected spokes pointing in due directions, blinking black to white, black to white. The pup stops again to scratch, always the same right hind leg at her neck. Mom sits on her haunches facing north, away from me, toward our base at the bottom of the mountain. Not facing it, specifically, but that’s what’s down there. Her tail has a tight perpetual curl near the end, patting against the rocks.

The pup rises and jumps over to mom who runs off down the trail a few meters, there’s a chase, and they both take breaks to scratch at fleas. The pup really works at its fleas, and as it does, mom leaps from her haunches, both front legs spread wide like human arms, and she lands completely atop the puppy. It’s hard to tell what goes on in the whiteness for a moment. There’s a scuffle basically, and it becomes apparent that mom has her puppy pinned, mom’s snout against the rocks, kind of driving the little dog into the ground. The pup is on its back, legs kicking and swatting back. Mom tackles her puppy a couple of times, but the puppy still rises and scampers and comes back. On it goes. They stay centered in about the same place on the mountain’s trail, like there are boundaries to respect. They take breaks to scratch, then keep going, the whole theater a literal inversion of nighttime. There is no black or deep cold blue, even at night in the mountains. Everything is made of some heat, rendered so brightly that the eye is momentarily blinded when you finally look away.


Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: this essay refers to the poem “To Know It Again” by Sara Michas-Martin.]

Image by tkcrash123b

 Steven Moore’s essays have appeared in The North American Review, The Southeast Review, DIAGRAM, Gravel, and Small Print Magazine. He is currently pursuing an MFA in nonfiction writing at Oregon State University.