Tracking Being in a February Melt
by Vivian I. Zumstein
In a whir of wings, birds scatter from my feeders as I step outside. I spy the red flash of a cardinal, flamboyant among the rest of the flock clad in subdued tones of grey, brown and black. A brazen chickadee flits to a nearby branch chirping his displeasure, ordering me away.
Snow lingers, but the sun is bright in a clear, blue sky as the temperature climbs toward 40 degrees. After two weeks of sub-freezing weather, the day feels almost balmy; yet the air retains the crisp, clean smell of winter.
My dogs frolic. Too many days indoors have made them antsy. Sunny, a young yellow Labrador, dashes toward the street. Pika — a smaller and older honey-colored mongrel — stays closer, but she, too, is itching for a walk.
Down the hill, the community’s common area is large, open, and isolated. Dog heaven. Sunny and Pika disappear to explore the woods. I know they haven’t gone far: I can hear them crashing about.
Slipping into a childhood game I played years ago in tame suburbs, I imagine I am an Indian investigating the field.
Evidence of previous visitors abounds. Most tracks I can identify: squirrel, rabbit, dogs, only a few humans. Sneaker treads lead down to a picnic table, where cigarette butts dot the ground. Teenagers.
Three sets of deer tracks traverse the ground. I inspect them, surprising myself by what I can surmise. Close together, I can tell these deer were in no hurry. They were here recently. The tracks go deep — all the way to the ground beneath, revealing dark, sharp imprints of the deer’s twin crescent-shaped hooves. I follow the tracks to the edge of the woods, noting they continue up the hill toward my house. Hmm, I muse. These deer are probably responsible for the clandestine overnight pruning of my azalea bushes.
One set of tracks I cannot identify. Puzzled, I bend low to examine them. They are close together and disrupt only the top layer of earth. It was something light and small, about Pika’s size. Perhaps lighter. The foot imprint is indistinct, but the paw looks small, compact and round. I think I see the hint of a long tail sweeping behind the tracks. A fox, perhaps?
Then I come upon marks I needn’t guess at. The outlines of four snow angels remain, evidence of wanderings my children and I made in the recent snowstorm.
Suddenly Sunny bursts from the woods. She barrels toward me, eyes shining, tongue lolling. Moments later, Pika emerges. Seeing her, Sunny drops to the ground, initiating their choreographed greeting game. Pika stands stock still as Sunny inches forward on her belly before launching herself at the much smaller dog, her powerful strides devouring the distance between them. Pika waits. Just as Sunny leaps, Pika tiptoes to the side with the grace of a pro quarterback avoiding an oncoming blitz. Sunny skids to a stop, wheels and makes a slower attack. Mock snarls and snapping teeth complete the ritual.
I laugh, calling the dogs to heel. They fix me with baleful stares but fall in by my side. Time to go home. We huff and puff up the steep incline, our lungs full of sweet winter air and our souls refreshed.