When my dogs disappeared, I called the first psychic at the urging of a neighbor. I cringe now at the need to refer to Cassie as the “first” psychic, for it forces me to reveal that she was not the last.
I had no history in believing in psychics. I had never spoken to a psychic. I had long regarded them as con artists living out lives at the other end of 1-900 numbers—preying on people’s gullibility. But there is a thing that we say about desperate times and what they call for. I emailed Cassie first. She wrote back immediately that she was just coming in her door after a motorcycle ride, but that she was already getting a mental picture of my dogs. My relationship with Cassie and her psychic business partner, Rita, evolved over the next several months. We talked on the phone. We emailed. They gave me directions. “Go stand by your front door. Look north. Go that way. Your dogs are that way.”
And so I did that. I went north. I knocked on every door north of my front steps. I did not find them.
They said, “Try to reach out to your dogs in your mind. Try to visualize them. They will hear you.”
I soaked in a hot bath for hours in a bathroom lit only by candles. I played soft music. I got quiet inside. I called out—through my heart—to the universe. I called to the dogs. I reached out. I visualized. Nothing happened. There was no scratching at the door. My dogs, Hazel and Daisy, remained at large, somewhere out in the woods, in whatever place they had fled to the morning that they had run away. I imagined them out there, merely turned around and lost, trying to find their way home.
The morning that they disappeared didn’t seem unusual at the time. They were in the yard while I got ready for work, and did not come when I called them. I went outside, dropped my laptop and purse into the passenger seat of my car, and went to look for them in the field behind our house. I saw them there, poised at the edge of the woods. I shouted, “Stay!” as Daisy disappeared into the trees. Hazel turned at the sound of my voice, then faced the woods again. Something was out there in the forest. Something compelling. She paused for only a second, as I shouted her name. “Hazel! Stay!” One leap, and she was gone.
They did this when they felt like it—running off to chase rodents or deer. They always came back when they felt like it. Their disobedience made me furious that morning, and I left for work assuming that I would return home to find them pressed against the back door, tongues hanging. But that’s not what happened.
Several weeks into the search, a friend suggested another psychic: Kaimora and her student, Sandra. I talked to Kaimora on the phone, and once she and I went out and drove around.
I do not live in the Maine of postcards and scenic calendars. I live in Washington County, which backs itself into the easternmost point of land in the US and shares more in common with the wildest parts of New Brunswick than it does with Portland or Bangor. This is the Maine of scrubby blueberry barrens, monstrous twenty-foot tides that swallow acres of beach then spit them back out again over and over every day, and hard-working, hard-living families in hardscrabble homes tucked into pockets of forest at the ends of dirt roads.
Kaimora and I slowly cruised along many of those dirt roads, peering down long driveways, following her urges to look more closely at this house or that. Sandra came along too. Heads leaning towards each other in the front seat, they conferred about what they were feeling. Kaimora spotted a husky tied to a doghouse in a neighbor’s yard. She exclaimed, when she saw it, “Is that your dog?” As if I would have needed a psychic if my dog was in plain sight. As if it could be that easy.
Years later, I saw Sandra at the grocery store and she told me that Kaimora had died unexpectedly. She had been elderly, but healthy, and her death had come as a shock. Sandra had given up the psychic business—she had lost faith in her mentor. I asked how that happened.
“She didn’t find your dogs. I had to wonder.”
In the weeks right after my dogs ran away, Rita and Cassie continued to offer advice over the phone. Upon hearing that I had talked to Kaimora, they said, “Stop trying so hard. You’re looking in too many places.” Finally Rita told me that I was scattering my energies too widely. “Your dogs aren’t coming back because you’re not focused.”
I hung up on her.
When the dogs had been missing for two months, my mom found one more psychic three hours downstate. She lived above a drugstore in downtown Skowhegan in an apartment decorated with scarves and psychedelic posters. She had long black hair, and wore her nails as long as her dangly earrings. We sat around a small kitchen table and watched her randomly draw lines and circles on a map of Maine. The map was flat on the table in front of all three of us. We held down its corners as it tried to fold and curl back up. In an apparent trance, she circled letters on the map and drew lines between the circles. She became convinced that my dogs were either in Blue Hill or Columbia Falls: both towns were hours from my home. She was the only psychic who ever asked to be paid. My mom gave her $100, and I dutifully hung posters in convenience stores and banks in both towns and went door-to-door handing out flyers. I waited for weeks, but this process yielded no dogs.
I wasn’t used to problems that were bigger than any solutions I had at hand. Daunted, but certain that I could find them if I just looked a little harder, I kept going. I didn’t know it, but as I was running around, talking to psychics and looking for my dogs, there were hard lessons ahead.
My boyfriend, John, (who ultimately became my husband back in the days before he was my ex-husband) and I searched in all the conventional ways as well. We hung posters. We walked trails. We drove miles beyond measure down back roads, main roads, and winding, dirt logging roads.
We developed a method of covering the miles. We would drive to a road that hadn’t been searched yet, and he would get out of the car and start walking down the shoulder, calling for the dogs. Whistling, clapping, calling their names. I would drive on farther, then pull over, leave the keys in the ignition, and start walking in the same direction, whistling, clapping, and calling their names. When he reached the spot where the car was parked, he would get in it, drive past me, pull over and park, and resume his walking and calling. We leapfrogged down countless miles using this method.
One afternoon, I walked along the gravel shoulder of County Ridge Road. It was July-humid, and one unceasing horsefly dumbly buzzed my head. I called for my dogs—shouted their names into the empty woods and whistled. My voice, my sharp whistling, didn’t seem to penetrate the forest at all. It seemed to hang up on thick barricade of Maine pine, all branches and needles. The trees were scraggly. White moss hung like untrimmed facial hair from dead branches. Those acres of wild were not about to cough up what I was missing no matter how much I clapped and whistled. It was as if I was using a silent dog whistle—a Galton’s whistle—and nobody was there who could hear it. The beseeching behind the sound was beyond human hearing too, beyond my own ears.
The sun was noon-high. Both sides of the road were walled-in by ancient pine growth, but the trees cast no shadows. I adjusted my hat, trying to maximize shade falling from underneath the brim, trying to get it to fall across my face. John’s car rode slowly past with the windows down. Our eyes met, but we didn’t say anything. I called some more for the dogs and kept whistling. A few hundred yards ahead, he pulled his car over, shut the engine off, and got out. He walked on the shoulder—headed the same direction I was walking—and I heard him calling. Heard him whistling and clapping. His sounds rolled out through the woods, then came back in echoes. I worried that no dogs could hear us, that this was a whistle that only we could hear.
This is the summer that turned into the year that turned into the two years that I spent looking for my dogs. This is also the summer that I got married and that turned into the year I conceived and lost my first baby in a miscarriage. This is the summer that, by all reasonable measures, I lost my mind, along with my dogs and my baby. I stayed crazy for years. The crazy, high-pitched and all-consuming at first, became something that rose and fell in cycles.
I grew up believing that I could solve any problem if I was willing to sit on hold and ask for the manager’s supervisor. Someone always had the authority to fix it. I knew that nonrefundable airline tickets were refundable if you said the right thing to the right person. I knew that laws could be rewritten if they were unjust. I knew that, to change anything, you merely had to show up, and if you showed up fully enough, you could fix it. You just had to ask the right person or apply force to the right place.
That’s why I had spent weeks sleeping in the living room so I could hear the dogs if they came to the door. I printed posters and hung them, not just in our town, but throughout the county. I found an online list of statewide animal shelters, and sent them all an email with pictures of the dogs attached. I called everyone I could think of: game wardens, animal control officers, veterinarians. Nobody had the answer. Nobody had my dogs. Nobody heard my whistle.
This summer’s losses were the events that grabbed me by my shirt collar and shoved my back up against this single truth: Not even the manager’s supervisor’s supervisor can fix everything.
Five weeks after the dogs disappeared, John and I got married in a ceremony on the deck of our house. Our guests were invited, not just to a wedding, but to a deck-building party that happened to include a wedding. John and my father had somehow found time in those five weeks to pour footings for the deck and to construct the frame. Led by John’s father, our wedding guests pounded steel nails through blond cedar planking to make the deck’s surface and built a railing and stairs. When it was completed, we brought out pots of flowering plants and hung them from the railing and John’s nieces scattered dried rose petals across the floor.
John wore a tuxedo he borrowed from a friend, and I wore a straight white dress I found on Ebay for $10. We both wore Birkenstocks. He had trimmed his beard neatly, and looked like the man I was supposed to marry: glasses, artsy, liberal, and smiling. I had ordered a crown of sea lavender from the florist, and I wore it perched on top of my head. The crown was larger and spinier than I had intended, and it made me feel a little bit like a mermaid, but I wore it anyway.
That day, I did not think about the dogs. For that one day, amidst the sounds of the hammering and John’s mother and her friends keeping the coffee going and my mother bringing out trays and crock pots of food for lunch and all of our friends and their guitars, I was able to forget that my dogs were missing. I relaxed into the warm din and married the man I would divorce just a few years later.
It was only two months later that I was pregnant. This was by design. I was thirty-three, and I feared that my childbearing years were almost over. I bought a book about how to get pregnant by creating charts and logging daily body temperatures and monitoring the viscosity of my vaginal fluids. I did these things, and was able to identify the exact moment of maximum fertility. I took on this process with complete confidence that if I followed the instructions I would prevail over the vagaries of mere chance. It wasn’t romantic, but it worked and we conceived a child that summer.
Once pregnant, I followed the books to the letter. I gave up alcohol and caffeine. I drank glass after glass after glass of water. I got lots of sleep and ate foods full of fiber and low in sugar.
And I kept looking for the dogs.
During the eleventh week of my pregnancy I went for a routine visit to the midwife and she used a handheld wireless device to try to detect the baby’s heartbeat. As ultrasounds go, this was on the low end of the technology scale, so when she couldn’t find a heartbeat, she said, “It’s nothing to worry about. This thing isn’t very reliable.”
I was lying on the exam table in her office, the paper crinkling beneath my back. My belly, not yet bulging, was exposed.
She tried once more, moving the rounded wand across my skin. It left a trail in the gob of lubricant she had smeared on moments earlier. The device did not detect a heartbeat, but it did, for just a moment, pick up the local radio station. We heard a snippet about rain coming. The midwife snapped the device off.
“Okay,” she said, looking directly at me. “Now you’re probably nervous.”
I nodded, pulling my shirt back down and sitting up. I wanted to say something out loud, to clarify that the word “nervous” didn’t come close to the panic that was setting in. I wanted to hear from this baby. I wanted to hear that reassuring, quick-paced “whoosh whoosh whoosh” that meant its heart was beating away in there.
“You don’t need to be, but I understand. We’ll order a better ultrasound at the hospital.” She must have noticed that I was barely breathing. “We’ll set it up for tomorrow morning.”
A nurse made the appointment for me and told me to drink a lot of water before arriving. I spent the night trying not to worry, trying to remember that this lousy piece of technology had transmitted the weather, trying to breathe.
The next morning, I filled a water bottle and drank it while John drove us both to the hospital. The bottle’s volume was marked in metric, though, and I miscalculated and drank at least four times as much water as I was told to. By the time we were led into the dark ultrasound room, my bladder felt ready to burst. I asked the technician if I could use the bathroom, but she said, “Try to hold it. We’ll get a better picture that way.” I complied, undressed, and lay down on the table.
Ultrasound technicians aren’t doctors. They are not supposed to interpret what they see on the monitor. I now know that they break this rule, over and over, when the news is good. When they can show you the heartbeat, the fingers, the face of your baby—they do. When they can find the parts that say “girl” or “boy”—they do. But when they can’t find anything at all—no heartbeat, no spine, no baby—they don’t say anything. I had a very silent ultrasound.
The wand was inside me, and the tech moved it in tiny motions, trying to get the right view on the monitor. It was like looking at outer space. Light and dark shapes came into view then receded. I didn’t know what to look for, but I searched the screen desperately for something, some movement, a set of tiny toes or an ear. Nothing emerged. John sat next to me, his hand on my arm, staring at the monitor. All three of us were quiet until I asked, “What do you see?”
The tech seemed uncomfortable. She wore a bright-colored nurse’s smock and white shoes. Perched on a chair between me and the monitor, she pushed the wand higher into my body, pushing uncomfortably up against my too-full bladder. She shifted and said, “I think we should call your midwife.”
There was no baby. There was no heartbeat, no fingers, no rounded rump. I knew this before my midwife came into the room. I knew this while I was allowed to leave the exam table and relieve myself in the bathroom. I knew this as I was getting dressed and I heard John say miserably to the tech, “We just lost our dogs, too.” In my head, I willed him not to say that. It sounded so dumb, so irrelevant, but of course it wasn’t.
There never was a baby, the midwife explained to me over a box of tissues that she held out for me in her office an hour later. I was seated in a chair, crying my way through the news. There had been a conception, but no baby ever formed. “This happens sometimes,” she said. “It’s normal.”
It had never happened to me, and nothing about it felt normal.
The midwife wanted to schedule a D&C immediately. My body still thought it was pregnant and she felt it was better to reset the whole system as quickly as possible.
I refused. My body, I knew, could handle this on its own. I talked to my family doctor, and she approved. “It’s a closed system. You’re not going to get an infection or anything. If it makes you feel better to wait,” she said to me in a phone call, “then I think you should wait.”
I would miscarry on my own.
In my rural community, going door to door involves a car, and the doors are spaced out—sometimes separated by miles. That same summer, I carried postcards with pictures of the dogs and our phone number everywhere I went. I talked to everyone in town through screen doors, on porches, on sagging back steps with kids peering at us through windows. I stuck the postcards into door frames when people weren’t home, but made sure to circle back to those houses later in the day. Sometimes John went out with me on these excursions, other times it was my mom. Sometimes I went alone.
My mom and I talked to one man who lived with his family in a house barely bigger than a shed, way down a back road. The yard was a circle of gravel. Tree stumps remained where trees had been felled to make room for the house. A pack of beagles, each chained to a doghouse placed at even intervals, formed a circumference around the gravel yard. They bayed at us as we parked. There was a rusted, blue truck next to the house with a bumper sticker reading, Shit Happens. The man invited us in, and we stood on the plywood floor of the kitchen while we gave him a postcard. He studied it and shook his head sympathetically.
“I love dogs,” he said, glancing up at me. “I really love dogs. And I’m in the woods a lot, working with my beagles.” He gestured vaguely toward the yard, my postcard in his hand, indicating his dogs, still out there baying and howling. His rough, stained hands had seen a lot of trees felled, driven a lot of nails, dug a lot of trucks out of the mud. His hands had grazed or even caressed the surface of many rifles too. “If your dogs are in these woods around here, I’ll probably see them.”
I felt hope step up next to me and take my elbow.
“I’ll keep my eyes open, and if I see them I’ll sure call you.” He looked me in the eye. His wife was working in the kitchen behind him, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. She had long, stringy black hair and wore an oversized T-shirt and a pair of dirty jeans. Their kids—I don’t know how many—peered at us from behind a curtain that served as a door leading into some unseen room. The wife occasionally barked at them to stay quiet. They stayed hidden.
It was years before I learned that this man, even as he met my gaze and made promises to help, had already dumped my dogs’ bodies in a swamp and left them there to decompose. By the time I knew, by the time the sheriff’s deputies had searched the swamp for evidence, all that remained was one bone. After the trial was over, the game warden mailed me that bone in a small, padded envelope about the size of a postcard.
I miscarried that pregnancy late one night in November. The news that there was no baby was approximately ten days old, and I had lived that time in torturous expectation. I still had morning sickness. I still felt pregnant. And I was, but I was pregnant with a blank space where a baby should have been.
It was the week of Thanksgiving, and my older brother and sister-in-law were visiting. John and I had given them our bedroom to sleep in and had moved downstairs onto the fold-out couch in the living room. Our house was unfinished and lacked some basic amenities such as bedroom doors and a second bathroom. The only bathroom was right next to the open doorway into the room where my brother and his wife were sleeping.
At some point, I started to bleed. Lightly at first, then heavier. Though I knew what was coming, I managed the holiday. I baked pies. We played card games. Watched movies. If I let on that anything was happening, I likely spoke about the miscarriage in the past tense—something that was already over.
During the last night of their visit, feeling sharp pains, I got up to check and the bleeding was severe. I made several trips up and down the stairs, in and out of the bathroom, trying not to make any noise. After I had soaked through three maximum-thickness pads in just thirty minutes, I returned to the bathroom and I did not leave it again until it was over. The pains became deeper and evenly spaced and blood and tissue heaved out of me like a dam had let go. I sat on the toilet, weeping, trying not to make noise, while John waited downstairs. He built a fire in our wood stove and waited. I flushed the toilet over and over, whooshing away the blood and the globs, hoping that I didn’t wake up my brother.
It felt like my uterus was trying to wring itself out like a sponge. Every nerve, every muscle crackled and twisted as the pains organized into contractions. I was folded over on the toilet, holding onto my ankles, waiting, and trying not to cry out. I felt a final, devastating contraction that felt like I was being skinned—and then it was over. Something soft and enormous slid partway out of my body and hung there, suspended above the bloody water. I had to push to fully expel that expectant, blank space that should have been a son or a daughter. It slid to the bottom of the bowl, and I never saw what it looked like. The pains abruptly stopped. I had done it—alone.
I cleaned up and went downstairs. John and I sat together, wrapped in blankets, looking at the fire until we both fell asleep on the couch. If we talked about it that night, we didn’t say much.
The dogs had been missing for fifteen months when I got a call from someone insisting they had seen two husky-like dogs crossing the road in Charlotte—about fifteen miles from my house. It was deep in autumn. I was, by this time, nine months pregnant: due any day. I picked up my car keys and drove to the spot where the caller had seen the dogs. It was not near a house. The only landmark was a junction with another road. I parked on the road’s shoulder and entered the woods. The trees were wet and there was no trail. I pushed my way through dripping branches, my feet shin-deep in fallen, dried leaves. I called, clapped and whistled, and pushed further into the woods. My hair was wet and water began to run in rivulets down my neck. Slowly, as I walked and called into the dripping autumn canopy, lights began to turn on in my head, like someone was walking through a house at dusk turning on lamps—illuminating one room at a time. I felt the camera pull back and I saw myself out there, pregnant, thrashing through the woods during hunting season at dusk with a temperature hovering close to the hypothermia mark. The stupidity of the situation appeared in the woods in front of me, waving its arms, demanding to be noticed. Arms in mid-air, pushing back tree branches, I stopped trudging. I studied that truth for a moment. The dogs were not out here. The dogs were not anywhere. I turned and went back to the car. I did not go out looking again.
A year later, I was at work when the Assistant District Attorney called to say that he knew what had happened to my dogs. I was working at a domestic violence agency, and was well-accustomed to phone calls from the police and the DA’s office. Someone handed me the message that Paul was trying to reach me. He had called twice—both times insisting that it wasn’t an emergency. I excused myself from a staff meeting, and called him back. Paul and I had been working together for years at this point, and our relationship was easy. I assumed that we were about to talk about a domestic violence case. I was ready to hear about some batterer that Paul was prosecuting—perhaps a victim to be warned of some upcoming court proceeding. I sat at my desk, leaning back in my chair, and held the phone between my head and shoulder. The heels of my shoes rested up on the desk, next to the phone.
“So, what are you doing?” He plunged right into the conversation.
“I’m at work, Paul.” I picked up and fidgeted with a desk knick-knack. It was a square, acrylic cube with floating gold glitter inside. It had a wire that jutted straight up out of it with a clip on the top; it was meant to hold phone messages. I twirled it by the wire part and watched the glitter spin. “Just like you.”
“Right.” There was a quality to his voice I hadn’t heard before. Was he nervous? It was as if maybe he was also fidgeting with something in his hands—the phone cord or his badge. “Are you sitting down?”
I put the glittering cube down on the desk. I tried to make a joke—tried to ease whatever this tension was. “Is this an obscene phone call? Do you want to know what I’m wearing?”
I heard him take a breath. His next words came quickly—like he wanted to get it all out without letting me say anything. “I know who killed your dogs, and I have them in jail right now. I wanted to tell you because it’s going to be in the newspaper tomorrow.” His voice softened. “I wanted you to hear it from one of us.”
By “one of us” he meant the cops in our rural community. Because of our linked careers, these men were my colleagues. We went to meetings together, sat on task forces, attended the same trainings. The men who killed my dogs—the ones Paul was holding in jail—were not arrested because they killed dogs. They were arrested as the result of an undercover sting. They were poachers—but that word doesn’t quite capture their depravity. They were killers. They killed every animal they came across. They killed seals. They killed bears. They killed eagles and crows. There had been a rare albino deer living in our town, and people caught sight of it now and again. It always caused a stir. People felt lucky to have seen it. Then, gradually, people realized that nobody had seen it for a while. These two men killed it. They killed late at night, with snares and guns and traps. They killed for fun, because it made them feel good. They didn’t eat what they killed. They left it. It wasn’t about surviving—it was about killing. They also killed dogs. They killed my dogs.
Paul kept talking, which was helpful, because I was immediately reduced to quiet sobbing. I was trying to keep it inaudible. Paul wasn’t someone I cried in front of. Paul was someone I joked with, did victim safety planning with, negotiated cop politics with. Paul was someone who let me be one of the boys, even though I wasn’t. I had not been in this role with him before—role of the crime victim.
“We’re trying to keep you out of the press, but this could be a big story. These are bad men, and people are going to be really angry at them. At some point, someone will make the connection because everyone knew about your dogs.” He paused. I tried to keep my breath evenly spaced so he wouldn’t know I was falling apart. He knew anyway. “You’re going to get some calls.”
I didn’t know that, while Paul and I were talking, there was an assistant deputy standing on the front steps of my house, having the same conversation with my husband. The law enforcement community takes care of its own, and I had become part of their net. And—of course—in a small town like ours everyone saw the cruiser parked in our driveway that day.
The footfalls of justice are slow and leaden. Months after the call from Paul and after the deputy had backed his car down our driveway, I sat across a courtroom from one of the poachers at his sentencing. I was not allowed to speak, but had submitted an emotional, overwritten victim impact statement. In those few pages of prose I had tried to describe to the judge all of the crazy that had rained down on my life as a result of this crime—the back roads, the psychics, the whistling and calling, the mourning, everything.
The poacher and I faced each other from wooden benches. I was his only living victim—there was nobody there to represent the loons, ravens, seagulls, or albino deer. I sat, hands tangled in a knot on my thighs, and looked anywhere but at him. He was a huge man in a clean T-shirt. He had a massive black beard, and a baseball cap hung from his bent knee.
The judge asked if he had anything to say, and the man crumpled the fabric of his cap in his giant fist as he stood, continuing to face me. I saw a stapled sheaf of papers in his other hand, and recognized it even from that distance as a copy of my statement. He tried to meet my eyes as he said, “Yes, your honor.”
I stared at the victim witness advocate’s knee, just inches from mine.
“I’m very sorry,” he said, looking at me. “For what I did.”
I didn’t know if he was the driver or the shooter, but the two men had apparently been driving when my dogs broke from the trees into the road. I learned from the undercover game warden that the driver veered to run over one with the truck, and when the other dog came back to sniff the first, they shot her.
My hands untangled and rose in front of me in a “stop” gesture. The previous years had filled me with empty spaces, but none of them had room for his remorse. I pressed my back into the bench, trying to increase the distance between us and shook my head. I wanted his silence. I don’t know what he said next. I couldn’t hear him.
He did in-state jail time, and the court awarded me five hundred dollars to try to fill the hole.
The other poacher, a felon who wasn’t even supposed to have guns in his house, went somewhere south to serve hard time.
And I had given birth to the daughter I had always wanted, and a son was to follow soon. I should have felt better. And I did. But I also didn’t.
The topic still comes up, a decade later, in conversations at the gas pump, farm stand, potluck dinner, or parent/teacher conference night. People who missed my picture in the paper, taken outside the courthouse, crease their foreheads and ask, “Did you ever find out what happened to your dogs?”
I have donned various responses the way we try on coats or shoes, the way I tried on therapists and cures in the years following these things that I could not fix, but I’ve learned that this isn’t a story most people want to hear when they’re making polite conversation over the unleaded nozzle. I either say, “No,” or “Yes, but it’s a terrible story for another time.” Then I pay for my groceries and move on to picking up my kids from swim practice or thinking about my next oil change—desperate for some reminder of my competence. People think they want to hear, but some sounds are too piercing for human ears to handle, and some stories are better left as blank spaces.
A year after the miscarriage, with a baby girl in my arms and my dogs still missing, I asked my brother if he had known that anything was going on just outside the door to that room that night, if he had heard my repeated trips up the stairs or the almost continuous watery sounds of flushing. I wanted to explore the edges of the thing—to understand how far sound travels.
“I didn’t hear a thing,” he said. “You were very quiet.”
Original art by John Leavitt, from a series entitled “Lost Dogs.”