Bob saw owls everywhere that summer. An omen of death, he told me as the feathered silhouette vanished into the burning haze of the horizon. I always looked too late, never saw more than a flutter against the smoke-draped mountains. We stood still as Ronja, his beloved border collie with feathered black fur splotched in pockets of white, stood between us. I reached for his hand, kissed his cheek. It was what I did when I didn’t know what else to do.
The winter before the owls, I followed Bob’s silhouette, all angles and grace with a cluster of curls leaking from a red wool hat, and Ronja’s four legs—an unbroken extension of him—along the snow-dusted slopes of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.
Ronja, pronounced run-ya, was named after the feisty, rebellious heroine in Astrid Lindgren’s book, Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter and by the time she barked at me on a trail near my newly adopted town, she’d been herding and watching over Bob for almost twelve years. Bob was like no man I’d ever met, gray-blue eyes like an ocean of promise and awakening, the impossible becoming possible in his presence, and she was like no dog I’d ever met, brown eyes like polished stones that held a maternal wisdom, an absence of judgment, an unquestioned welcoming.
“There are too many brown spots,” Bob said, stopping at a divot on the ridgeline, looking back at the snow-splotched basin we’d just traversed. “I’ve never seen it this dry in January.”
Following his gaze across the thirsty landscape, I thought about how I spent years navigating by the light of the Empire State Building and chasing the fairytale of more while Bob made his life in these mountains, chasing his passion for snow and skiing and exploration, making a career of what he loved by building a backcountry lodge at 12,000 feet above sea level that was now a mecca for backcountry skiers.
“Maybe the snow is just coming later this year,” I said, reaching for something like optimism, like denial, as I poured tea from a thermos, steam pirouetting skyward, warming wind-battered cheeks. Bob shrugged in skepticism as Ronja burrowed her tufted paws into the white at our feet.
While living in Manhattan, snow was beautiful until it turned to black sludge on sidewalks. My fingers were decorated with paper cuts, cracked cuticles, dark polish, but never dirt, and climate change was a scientific fact, flung around climate-controlled rooms. Wool suits and sweaters all summer. Silk blouses all winter. And a salary paid by my liberal-leaning law firm’s ongoing defense of British Petroleum.
Distraction became avoidance. And though I’d read articles, listened to newscasts, words like global warming were too familiar, too far away, to really feel. I grew up with muddy hands and scraped knees, but at eighteen, I left my small town for something bigger and better and for over a decade, I chased that up the ranks of a New York law firm. Emails, to-do lists, deadlines numbed me to the world and I never followed the creation chain back to the depths of the mine that gifted the metal for taxis I took everywhere or the cattle that bequeathed my shiny leather heels.
Bob’s I love yous to me, to Ronja, were my favorite bedtime lullaby that winter.
I loved Ronja because he loved Ronja.
I loved Ronja because when we traveled through dips and bends of mountains, she always paused, always turned, always waited until I caught up or nodded or both.
I loved Ronja because when I cried, she placed her chin next to my tear-streaked cheeks and locked her eyes on me until I smiled.
And Ronja loved me because Bob loved me.
I was in Colorado because seventy-plus hour workweeks punctuated by martinis had swallowed me whole. Unsure of who I was or what I wanted, I’d downsized from an apartment swollen with disposable fashions to a 100-cubic-square-foot used car and zigzagged around the American West. Dwarfed by untamed spires, soothed by feet drumming dirt and stirred by the perfume of bark and leaves and wildflowers, I awoke to a second chance, another way of life. And, my footprint became visible. Waste that I’d once scattered in emerald trashcans around the city collected in my car. I tried to reduce. Secondhand stores. No paper towels. Reusable snack bags. Fewer showers. Less meat.
By the time I fell in love with Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, I was consuming less, but still part of the problem. Forty-thousand road miles in one year. Flights back east to visit family. One of 700,000 people who’d relocated to the already taxed, semi-arid lands of Colorado in less than a decade. But, I was paying attention. I was trying. And that’s when I met Bob, that’s when I met Ronja.
As the sun crested the peaks on the other side of the bedroom’s glass French doors that winter, I watched the craggy lines dripping in a thin white crust then fading to muted hues of gray and brown where snow should have been.
We chased snow high into the mountains, carrying skis over dry patches, Ronja always on his heels, always turning to check I was there, close behind.
No flakes came.
No flakes were forecasted.
When Bob found the lump in Ronja’s throat, it was too big to allow for anything like hope but we hoped anyway. Our vet couldn’t perform a biopsy because of the tumor’s location so we drove four hundred miles through our snow-starved state to a veterinary clinic.
Ronja on my lap, on his lap, on the car’s center console as we passed stretches of skeletal lodgepole pine forests. My eyes shifted from Ronja to row after row of dead trees the color of rust, infested by bark beetles whose population had exploded amidst warmer winters and longer droughts.
At the clinic, we tugged at Ronja’s leash as she stood firm outside its brick walls and white, sterile insides. After hours of testing, us waiting among strangers and magazines we didn’t want to read, the vets told us what we already knew: Her tumor was inoperable. Bob’s hand stroked the white patch of Ronja’s forehead. My hand squeezed his quivering leg. My lips kissed his cheek.
On the drive home, I clung to Ronja as she trembled and we retraced miles through skeletal forests.
Every day, the mountains framed by the French doors were less and less white. Every day, Ronja wheezed more and more.
We lay on the bed, Ronja between us, our arms her blanket, our hands grasping for each other.
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
As if love could slow time.
When I was born, my parents had a golden retriever with silky hair the color of a bright autumn day. She chewed my blankets, my toys, my books, anything that smelled like me, except me. We lived in a growing suburb then and as homes overtook fields and forests, there were fewer places for her to roam so my parents found a family with several acres where she could be wild in a way she’d never been.
My whole life I’ve seen the world through human eyes, me always at the center, but the memory of saying goodbye to our golden retriever was different. I was looking down, from the vantage of a songbird or a tree branch, from some place wiser. Looking at me, a little girl, under a canopy of birch trees, combing hands through our dog’s glistening fur.
My parents say I was too young to remember.
Maybe it was a dream of a memory, but I remember.
Dogs inhale and exhale to cool themselves and when cancer grows near an airway, pushing against it, it becomes harder to regulate body temperature. As the muted spring melted to a more muted summer, Ronja was almost always panting.
She still followed us everywhere. Detouring to barren streams, lingering by shallow waters, idling on parched grass in the shade of willow bushes. Among slabs of rock, we lay down. Our heads nestled next to Ronja’s pillowy belly, listening to her breath, a crescendo growing louder each day.
The first wildfire began to the north on the twenty-sixth day of May. The Horse Park Fire. Six days later, to the southeast, a coal-fired steam engine sparked the 416 Fire. It feasted on thousands of acres and darkened the skies.
Some days, we tasted the scorched forests in the air, watched ashes falling like snow, and stayed inside. On better days, we scrambled along lichen-kissed ridgelines, carrying Ronja when her legs faltered. Bob’s arms stretched like a safety net, our eyes watching her, watching the hoary sky.
On the eighth day of June, the Burro Fire began, leapfrogging toward the 416 Fire, separated by mere miles and a shallow creek. Four days later, 1.8 million acres of San Juan National Forest closed to all human visitors—the forest so dry, any flicker could mean widespread destruction—and the world shrank.
We sat on our porch, looking at the hazed forest, Bob’s hand strumming Ronja’s too-hot fur and I asked, “When will the land recover?”
“Maybe never,” he said, his eyes murky with the past, with the purity and wildness we’d never get back.
After light rains, the forest re-opened, unshrinking the world just a little. But fire raged on, suffocating thousands and thousands of acres around us.
We could see smoke, but most days, the air quality was still okay and so, I ran.
I ran through the mountains that had rebirthed me, eyes on the talus, the dirt, the boulders, anything but the sky. Because when I looked at the sky, my whole body ached, unprepared to lose what I’d just discovered.
When I returned from runs, Ronja smothered my dewy skin with kisses, drinking in briny droplets, coating me in her saliva. No more left to lick, she rolled on her back, shimmied in the grass and I did the same, our paws stretching in opposition, in harmony.
By July, the 416 Fire had spread and was not the only plume we saw.
Fire in every direction.
We celebrated Independence Day atop Lookout Peak. Ronja sat between us. Her tail wagging, her chin resting on a boulder splotchy with jade. The landscape softened and warped by smolder, we strummed Ronja’s fur. The hum of her crowded, shrinking airway a constant presence, a constant reminder.
I wore red, white and blue leggings. There were no fireworks.
By August, Bob couldn’t stop seeing owls. An omen of death. He heard them too. Calling into the ash of dusk.
By August, we waited for afternoon monsoons that had come every summer before. We waited and waited and waited as the word monsoon slipped from our vocabulary. One word, replaced by six: Above. Average. Temperatures. Below. Average. Precipitation.
A new fire raged to our west, ignited days before the 416 and Burro Fires were finally contained, and Ronja’s breath had become a labored crescendo of not enough air.
Her tufted belly, less and less pillowy every day. Though we tried, filling her bowl with raw elk and goat’s milk, she wanted none of it and we succumbed to the nothingness of her diet. Filling capsules with medicinal mushroom powder, pushing them far into her mouth, rubbing her throat, our hands swallowing for her.
We followed Ronja through meadows. Our walks shrank smaller and smaller and smaller until they were nothing but the man I loved carrying the dog he loved to a stream a few hundred feet from the house.
By late August, wildfires raged across Colorado and I flew over the smoke to a wedding on the west coast. For three days, Bob didn’t leave Ronja’s side. For three days, he said okay, when I asked how she was. But the night I returned, she wasn’t okay, he wasn’t okay. Wheezes had swelled to gurgles, her airway clogged, her lungs collapsing and he’d left out the leaking bladder, the thirsty and chapped mouth and those pebbled eyes, now in pain and confused, looking at him like she was worried to let her human, her pack, down.
“I need your help,” he said, as I kneeled to Ronja on a pile of blankets splayed across the bedroom floor.
“I think we have to let her go,” he said soft, an almost whisper.
Our hands, our eyes, on her.
He’d seen another owl.
The vet came to us, to Ronja, where the French doors separated her wilted body from the parched world on the other side. Bob curled next to her, whispering in her ear, stroking her black coat. I kissed his cheek and kissed Ronja’s forehead, saying I love you, one more time.
Neither of us wanted the moment to end. Neither of us wanted to let go.
I held him, while he held Ronja, and the vet slid a needle into her matted black fur, forever closing those brown eyes that had taught me so much.
We camped that night while Ronja, wrapped in a gray wool blanket, rested in the backseat of his truck. The tent was less crowded than usual. Quieter. Colder. We told each other she was at peace as we gazed at the sun sinking below the hazed mountains, but the words felt empty even as we said them.
The next morning, we woke to low-hanging clouds and the soft rain we’d been praying for all summer. We wandered slopes until we came to the place where Bob had camped with Ronja while building the lodge.
“This is it,” he said as he took the shovel from me. “Now, go run.”
I was grateful for the directive. Not only because the soil was dry and rocky and hard to break, but also because in love, the pain of one belongs to two. Brushed by rain, I ran, and ran, knowing there were some things we can never outrun.
When I returned, Bob was damp with precipitation and still digging.
“Go in and read,” he said, leaning into the shovel.
Inside the lodge, I sat by a window that framed rose-washed peaks, obscured by smoke all summer, now obscured by a soft shower and fell asleep thinking about how much I’d missed in the chase for more and how I hadn’t even known I was missing it until now.
When he woke me, the cascading rhythm had stopped, the peaks were visible again and I followed him to the truck where he lifted Ronja’s wool-wrapped body to his shoulders, and I inhaled the smell of death. The decay, the decomposition, the rot so strong, I could taste it. I could taste everything. I could taste my own complicity. I could taste the way Ronja loved me anyhow. I could taste how foolish it was to ever think I could really know something without tasting it, without dirtying my hands. And I could taste how much I didn’t want to lose what I’d just learned to love.
After Bob placed Ronja in the grave, I climbed down to kiss the matted white patch on her forehead. Thank you, I whispered, not knowing whether I was grateful to have been part of her life, or her death, or both.
Bob looked at me, his gray-blue eyes glassed over with goodbye, and then put his head to hers one final time before climbing from the hole, taking the shovel and sprinkling Ronja with dirt. He then passed it to me and I clasped the wooden handle, looking down at Ronja, now blanketed in a thin layer of earth and I dug and swathed, replenishing the chasm with soil as Bob rested a hand on my back.
Allison S. Kingsley is a writer living in southwest Colorado. In 2016, she traded a legal career in Manhattan for running shoes and a used car and set out to live a simpler, more meaningful life. When she’s not writing, she’s trail running with her border collier, Pippi, and operating an off-the-grid backcountry lodge at 12,000 feet above sea level with her husband.
Jona Fine is a non binary photographer, poet and performance artist. Jona uses the gender neutral They pronouns. Please respect that! Jona’s artistic endeavors as of late involve photographing lots of eggs, and sometimes potatoes.They have also been nurturing Open Circle, a they body who is so full of trauma they rarely leave the under of their coffee table. Jona currently works the graveyard shifts as a crisis worker for a lgbtq youth suicide hotline.