The Dogs in the Trees
By: Matthew Battles | Categories: Fiction, Spectacles, Uncanny

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The first sightings of dogs in trees were reported not long after the Fall equinox. Early rumor came in the form of videos shot at arms’ length on cell phones and hastily uploaded — grainy, shaky, shot with cock-angled intensity, the palsied depth of field swimming as it sought purchase amidst limbs and leaves. I regarded these links with bemused curiosity, reloading and watching again in a couple of instances to search for telltale lumber or wires or other evidence of trickery. But no more than a week had passed before I witnessed the sight firsthand. In the great pin oak by the corner of my street, in the crook of a heavy branch full thirty feet off the ground, a greyhound brown as bark stared at me with that expression of mingled curiosity and resignation which so many dogs are wont to wear.

I stood beneath the dog for some while; its coat of dark brindle blended into the background, and I had to blink to separate figure from ground. The tree itself was a beautiful specimen, which surely had stood in the district since long before the first houses had been built. It would have seen and survived the clearing that turned a tangled wood into an estate of copse and meadow, would have witnessed the subsequent laying out of streets, their pavement in wood and brick and macadam, and the rise of homes that rivaled but did not overmatch its ever-spreading height. Thanks to the clumsy landscaping of the bank along the road, the oak now rose out of the earth seemingly at mid-trunk, without the arched and mossy root-flare a tree of such stature usually exhibits. Rising out of the ground at its full circumference, the tree seemed as if it might reach down any number of yards through loam to bedrock or beyond to root in worlds beyond reckoning, dimensions in which clay and loam were transparent as the air into which the tree’s top jutted. The canopy still held its full complement of barbed and elegant leaves. Tiny acorns lay all about on road and lawn alike, ground on the pavement to a soft brown flour by the passage of cars. A stately oak, as the formula goes, a neighborhood tree utterly unremarkable but for the prodigy of a dog, sleek and pacific, nestled amidst the buttresses of the canopy — a prodigy out of which the wonder of the tree itself seemed to erupt, seemed to speak. A prodigy in any case for the lack of evident means by which the dog could have assumed its seat; for no steps, no rope-and-pulley setup, no basket or bungee were visible. Nor was the tree’s tightly furrowed bark marred by any trace that claws would have left — as any canid climbing to such heights would needs have fought a terrific battle, would have done itself and the tree great violence. But the dog, although somewhat discomfited by the precariousness of its position, showed no other sign of disarrangement or dis-ease. As I stood far below it broke off staring at me, yawned, stretched, turning its head demurely and dropping into the kind of haunch-raised crouch that greyhounds seem to prefer. The great branch ever so slightly shivered to its leafy ends, signaling the shift in weight, the tree registering the unavoidable empirical quiddity of a dog in it midst.

What could I do but pass beneath and continue on my way to work? In the office where my colleagues and I ran a small free daily journal, the trickle of reported sightings already had captured our attention. Having witnessed the phenomenon, I was assigned to cover a situation that was growing stranger and more engrossing by the hour.

Late one afternoon, on the strength of numerous testimonies, I made my way to a nearby park. Most of the land there, stretched between two boulevards flowing with traffic, was taken up by a pair of ballfields separated by a grove of trees that following a low narrow bourne through which a bit of slime might trickle on soggy winter days. This day was dry, however, and the trees, mostly Norway maples, stood tall as their bright leaves spiraled down to gather in drifts in the long grass. Hanging like ornaments amidst the boughs, a veritable pack of pooches in all shapes and sizes — nine dogs of various breeds, sizes, and ages — regarded their growing audience of humans with innocent eyes. Wedged into lichen-spangled, deep-foundationed crooks were a sleek Labrador and what I took to be a malamute; further out, a spaniel set its branch swaying with the wagging of its tail; in the next tree a wiry-haired mongrel with a lazy eye looked down over its wedge-shaped snout; and two Pomeranians, white as down, seemed to float like clouds netted in the woody tangle. At the farthest extent of several limbs bobbed a cockeyed chihuahua, a trembling poodle, and a pekingese, its hair flowing over the end of the branch almost decoratively.

Cur and purebred alike festooned the copse like notes on a musical staff, and the people pondered them and murmured to one another sotto voce like concert-goers. It was a bright Fall day, and warm, and the crowd had grown; office workers were sitting in the grass with their food in their laps. Most were on their phones either talking or taking pictures. A vendor pulled up at the curb and offered tacos from an insulated box nestled in the trunk of his car. A few children ran here and there, evidently unconcerned for the dogs, as if they alone among the tribe of mankind were unmoved by the strange scene. The dogs watched all this with some interest; it was evident that several were hungry, as they licked their lips and quivered with attention while the taco vendor plied his goods.

Among the arriving children — for it was afternoon, and school was letting out — some teenagers lurked, hanging back and snickering. An aloof few now loped down the grassy hillside, gathering speed; as they neared the trees they launched a salvo of rocks. The dogs were quite high, some topping seventy-five feet from the ground; the rocks reached apogee and seemed to waver before plunging harmlessly backing toward the boys, who dodged and laughed and punched one another. The dogs backed up against the trunks or — where no retreat was possible — looked left and right in beseeching submission. The crowd had quieted; there was a tension, as all pondered the question whether to intervene. It seemed to me that the question prompted others — for why merely stop the boys from throwing rocks? Why had no one called for a ladder, or dialed 911 and asked for the fire department? They come for cats, after all. Why had they not come for the dogs? What is to be done about the dogs in the trees?

I pondered this question as I stared hard at the dogs themselves, not scrupling to look left or right to those standing with me in the field, sensing the current of avoided eye contact rippling through the crowd. The boys, oblivious of everything but the maddening, insistent absurdity of the dogs on high, threw stones with a stiffening intensity, silent now but for their grunts of effort. Among them lurked a threat that had stopped thinking and was now intent upon its task. The only thing that could destroy this hate would have been the ugly success of their endeavor; and yet the dogs remained just out of rocks’ reach, their defenses fully deployed. The pack instinct bloomed among them now, fey and fixed and they growled and snapped towards one another in vain succor. One of the pekingese began to bark, not angrily but plaintively it seemed, swaying there upon its perch; the boys turned their aim its way with redoubled energy, the rocks now reaching the heights and looping over the pooch in sharp, threatening arcs. I nearly called out then, fighting the thickening in my throat, coughing and all but barking myself — when out of the wind fell a flock of starlings, rippling and distending, diving towards the copse. It flowed as a freshet around the boys, who stood frozen in the hurtle of birds swooping upwards, whirling and braiding their passage into the steel blue sky before settling in an instant upon every branch amidst the copse. At this wordless chastening the boys dispersed, and the crowd’s brittle energy fractured into small shards of conversation, voices respectfully quiet as in a church or a hospital before the bird-beatified dogs.

By degrees, however, such scenes lost their distinctiveness. As the number of dogs in trees continued to grow, the sense of prodigy gave way to a siege of numbing tension. At first it had seemed that only the lost, the stray, and the feral were taking to the canopy; with regularity now people reported their own dogs had gone missing in the trees. A neighbor’s blue-pointed cattle dog, whose face had always seemed to me to bespeak a placid certainty, had resisted the call for some weeks; but from day to day for some while now it had watched through the windows with unappeased fervor as the trees swayed in the seasonal winds and gave up their leaves. The pooch —Pearly was its name — had all but ceased eating or even drinking water, and would no longer walk on its leash, but would only stand with its lips trembling at the base of the first tree it encountered. My neighbor greeted these behaviors with undisguised consternation, her anguish taking the form of impatience with Pearly’s new-found, metastasizing madness. She would stand at the foot of a great wart-kneed beech berating Pearly, who crouched in tremulous rapture, tugging and tugging at the leash until it seemed the poor dog would lose consciousness, until at last Pearly would back away down the path towards home. At night, my neighbor told me, Pearly no longer slept at the foot of the bed; instead she paced at the door, stopping only to paw and whine piteously. She would turn in unsettled circles, coming round each time with freshened purpose as she caught a glance of bough-shadow twitching in the moonlight, or sniffed who knows what subtle allusion of bark and leaf-litter. Her whimpering turned to barking, which by degrees lengthened into a mournful baying for which Pearly seemed to have no lack of energy. Three nights this full-throated cry went on; I could hear it on the cold air, joined now and again by dogs on high throughout the neighborhood. Looking through the window above my bed, I caught glimpses of baleful eyes staring in the sky, their livid green constellating the dark high fretwork of the trees.

On the third night Pearly’s plaint went quiet. I found out a few days later that my neighbor, having reached the nadir of her patience, had in the end simply opened the door. Opened the door and watched as Pearly flowed into the night without another sound.

And on it went, the dogs abandoning their families and friends and taking to the trees. No one could explain how, much less why, they made their way up the trunks and into the branches; no one seemed ever to catch them in the act of climbing or vaulting or perhaps even flying skyward to light among the branches. And day by day the dog’s domestic career gave way to this new arboreal habit. Trees drooped with — what, not packs — gangs? flocks? Limbs grew heavy with their canine crop: dogs haunting the branches in silence, swaying in the wind; dogs shivering but stoic in the cold gray mornings; dogs in trees, their shoulders swathed in growing cowls of snow.

By midwinter they were dying. Rarely did the bodies lie about for long; municipal authorities dispatched crews to patrol the tree-lined streets, gathering up the remains and carrying them off in covered trucks. Occasionally, they struck a car or broke a fence in their falling, but such deaths were infrequently witnessed. For the most part, people had lost their fascination; videos stopped making their way around the networks, and news coverage all but ceased. I was soon reassigned to writing movie reviews, a happy respite in those wet, dark months. By the time the first buds of Spring had burst open with their bright and larval leaves, the dogs were gone. And in the years since, we talk about them hardly at all. The dogs have left us, the consensus seems to be; their rebuke is quiet and complete, and may only be passed over in silence. Few now will admit to having ever owned a dog, fewer to having lost one. To the children, dogs are a rumor — an archetype, a figment fit for dreaming — like the other lost creatures who once filled the skies and darkened the plains.

***

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Matthew Battles, Hilobrow's cofounder, has written about language, history, and the natural world for many publications. When he makes poems, he puts them here. A fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, he's also the author of Library, An Unquiet History.