Andrew L. Pincus: Niknik goes duck hunting

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LENOX — He was the smilingest dog I ever saw. Also one of the hairiest. In shedding season, white fleece billowed around the house and yard like dandelion fluff. My wife was able to knit me a dog sweater out of all that hair. The day of reckoning was the great duck hunt.

Nikolai — Niknik or Nik for short— was a big, clownish Samoyed, a reject from his previous home. Moby-Dick, Snow White, virgins in white? White elephant was more like it. There was nothing godlike or virginal about Niknik with his heavy coat that attracted mud, sticks and burrs like a magnet. Bad enough having to comb him out after every trip to the woods. With his amber eyes a-gleam, the big slob wanted to play games. He'd steal the dust rag from the pocket of whoever was cleaning the house and dance away with it. Let's play keep-away.

I told him he was so clumsy he needed hinges to get around corners.

"You got no brains," I said. "How you ever going to catch those rabbits?"

He smiled. Or he nibbled my hand or beard and gave me a big paw. "You tell 'em, boss," he all but said. "I love ya." Nibble-nibble, slurp, paw.

Along the road with him on the leash, when I picked up the newspaper in its plastic sleeve, or a beer can left by our friendly night riders, Nik would take it from me and proudly carry it up to the house to be presented to me. "Home delivery," I called the paper service.

A neighbor down the road, a crusty bank ex-president from New York, had a duck pond next to the farmhouse he had turned into a retirement villa. About a dozen resident ducks — mallards and Chinese and who knew what else — were joined from time to time by wild ducks passing through. The banker and I were on neighborly but hardly social terms. We would wave when I passed and go through the formalities of how are you, nice day, isn't it.

Niknik was aware of the duck pond from passing it in the car and from leash walks and runs along the road. "Ducks at 3 o'clock, copilot," I'd alert him as we drove by. But my Arctic he-man, poking his head from the back seat into the front next to my shoulder, couldn't be bothered with ducks. Squirrels, rabbits and woodchucks: yeah, they were the thing.

Or so I thought.

A WHITE DERVISH

As we were walking on the mountain behind the house on that fine summer day, Nik took off. Just pointed his nose south and was gone. A white ghost slithering off through the green foliage.

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I pointed my nose in the same direction. Breaking out of the woods, I saw the thrashing and splashing up ahead in the pond. A white dervish was swimming in mad pursuit of now this mallard, now this white mouthful, now an iridescent chomp. As soon as one duck, squawking and flapping, outswam him, Nik took off in pursuit of another. Safe from turning into dindin, his quarries began to find sport in the chase. Around and around they paddled, squawking and flapping, just in front of his snout. Around and around he went, snapping at air.

There was no danger of Nik winning this contest of unequals. But now the real danger emerged. The lord of the manor, who had the shape of a bent golf club, exited from hallowed halls to observe the chase. We stood together on the shore under the big willow.

"Does he do this kind of thing often?" he asked.

"First time."

"Not much of a swimmer, I'd say."

"He was meant to pull a sled."

I was sure every Wall Street lawyer was going to be down on my neck. I'd lose my house, my car, my job, lightning would strike me dead. Nik would be carted off to the execution chamber. The twilight of the gods was at hand. Valhalla lay in ruins.

Nik finally dragged himself out onto dry land with nothing to show for his troubles. Wet, panting and bedraggled, he collapsed in exhaustion by my feet. The neighbor collapsed in laughter. Slapping his leg, he said the comedy was good enough to be on television. He wished he'd had a camera.

Strewn on the grass like a pile of wet rags and panting as if he would burst, Niknik was humiliated. I could hear his thoughts: "I couldn't help it, boss. I'm finished. No good. It's all over." This sled puller surrendered to the leash and let me pull him home along the road. He slept 16 hours straight, waking only for dindin and a quick trip out to the bushes.

I no longer walk in those woods but I can't pass the duck pond without thinking of Nik, my personal monster.

Andrew L. Pincus writes about classical music for The Eagle and is an occasional op-ed page contributor.


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