You can live with a family and eat with them. After a while, you learn the quiet manners of the house, but this really doesn’t allow you to know them. You can learn their history by looking at pictures or listening to stories – still, you don’t know the family wholly. You don't understand the genes that knock around the bones of this particular nuclear group.
But when the dog runs away, you know it. You can see it in the air.
You come home from dinner and realize the dog is gone. It’s always at night. The dog, the mother will say, wanted to be where the family was, so he ran off in search of us.
The kids trot to the garage and ready the bicycles. Then they find the flashlights, shaking them because somehow that makes the batteries come back to life.
The father doesn’t speak much – he gets his jacket and hops back in the car. In his head, he worries the most because he remembers what a dog does for a growing boy – he knows what that wild thing that sleeps in the shrub-shade does for a family.
And maybe you’ve lived with this family, but never known them until now. All of the sudden, this is your responsibility as well. All of the sudden you remember losing your dog. So you become part of this family. You become something important. An extra set of eyes, a forward observer, another wanting voice in the blackness chasing after the mangy animal that somehow manages to keep a family alive and together; that barely tamed thing with the panting tendency that makes a family what a family should be – a living organism needing only presence to exist.
So off you go, throwing your voice into the night, hoping canine ears will hear the trembling yells under the faint stars. Hoping maybe their awakened instincts will subside as they chase a very important trail and they’ll remember you. Hoping against all hope that it isn’t true what they say about animals not feeling things – but you still wonder and fear, If I was free for the first time – smelling some wild scent in my nose, a borderless world now open to me – would I go back?
And maybe you think to yourself that you wouldn’t, and you couldn’t blame the pup for bounding west with exhales of adrenaline billowing behind him as he knifes through the stale coldness.
But sometimes they come home.
They hear the cries of a family on patrol and finish the cataloging of those scents and then side gallop their way out of the night’s obscurity back to you – tongue out, perhaps feigning a limp for effect. There's some dried blood caked into his coat, but he’s happy to see you.
And he smells of wilderness as you usher him into the crouched family huddle and his eyes are a little wider and the hair on his back stands on end. There are some new truths he knows – this was his bildungsroman.
Even so, he left the forrest to come to the cones of your flashlights and heel to the pleading you pressed against the night.
And when a dog chooses to come home, you really understand what home means to a particular family.