Ebony was a small black cocker spaniel. My wife and I had begun calling her “Ebber-dog” as a puppy and, as with all pets, the name stuck. She’s buried in her own special place in the yard of our home here in Palm City along with forty-two years of peers, predecessors, and prodigy–both canine and feline. Most of their resting places are unmarked but we know exactly where each of them are.
Ebber-dog’s transition in my life’s passage centered around the late 1980’s and had all of the heart-warming moments we all have in remembering our four-legged life’s partners. With the years falling away, the details of all but one of these treasured memories rests with Ebony … but there was one–one magical interlude, and I can’t get it out of my mind.
In early December of 1988, my wife, Dee, and I had embarked on a sailing trip on Le Esperance, my 24′ cutter-rigged sailboat. Our destination was the St. John’s River and the City of DeLand where our son was starting his freshman year at Stetson. The lack of space on board dictated that stowage be minimal and the crew limited–the only one we had was black, with long hair and a cold nose.
The first day out, with a light on-shore breeze and in the inter-coastal waterway near Vero Beach … Ebber-dog was perched on her haunches in the cock-pit with her fore-paws up on the port rail. Being on the lee side, she was watching the water go by only inches away when it happened–a bottle-nosed dolphin broke the surface right in front of her. She jumped back and, instantaneously, I yelled out: “Look Ebber-dog … fisher, fisher Ebber-dog!” After a short retreat, Ebony hesitantly went back to the rail and didn’t have long to wait. The dolphin resurfaced in the exact location, relative to the moving vessel, and its four-legged observer was mesmerized. The saga continued for four or five minutes, as the dolphin would return to the surface, blow out, and seemingly glance in Ebber-dog’s direction before disappearing, once again, in the boat’s wake. Long after our visitor had lost interest and swam away, the little cocker spaniel sat gazing at the same flowing target off the port rail.
No. This wasn’t the moment I remember so vividly … it’s only what would lead up to it. Dee and I continued our trip. Almost a week later, we reached Crow’s Bluff on up the St. John’s near DeLand and left Le Esperance in a marina. After visiting with our son, we returned home in a rental car–with a lot of dirty laundry … and our dog.
A lot transpired over the next year. 1989 saw the Powell family in America exit the food business, counting farming and excluding wars, for the first time in three hundred years. After selling Powell Purveyors, Le Esperance would, in stages, be sailed north and end up docked at, my college fraternity brother, Willie Goode’s “rivah house” on the Piankatank in “tide-wot ‘a” Virginia. The fall months of leisure were spent in the mountains of North Carolina and only interrupted by Hurricane Hugo’s passage from the coast. In November, with the falling leaves, the crew drove over to the Piankatank, turned in the rental, put on fresh water and provisions, sailed out into Chesapeake Bay and turned south. We were headed home and, yes … Ebber-dog was with us.
They say dogs don’t have very long memories, but it had been less than a year and … somewhere in the North Carolina Sounds … “Look Ebber-dog … fisher, fisher Ebber-dog!” She reacted immediately–ears up and tail waging, she scampered to the same exact spot along the boat’s port rail where she had seen, months before, the dolphin on the Indian River in Florida. The only problem was; the frolicking mammal wasn’t at the rail. It was twenty feet away on the opposite side of the boat. The only way I could bring the new sighting to Ebony’s attention was to pick her up, position her in another deck location, and hold her head in the direction of the next anticipated dolphin surfacing. Even then, she probably wouldn’t catch sight of the breaking and I found that I couldn’t, so much as, whisper the word “fisher” or Ebber-dog would go into a Pavlovian, bell-ringing, struggle to escape my grasp and return to her post in the cock-pit on the port side. We finally gave up. Unless I could maneuver the boat into an alignment that would put a passing dolphin, and there were many, near the exact spot–there was no reason to alert Ebony. I don’t think she saw another of her aquatic friends until …
We’d been two weeks in passage. All but a few nights, were spent anchored from cocktail time to sun-up in neat little coves off the inter-coastal waterway. We had Ebber-dog marine potty-trained utilizing a piece of Bahia sod on the fore-deck where drainage was automatic. This was very important, especially when that special day arrived and, as the sun was setting, we were getting ready to set the hook. There would be no “doggie poop park” to dingy in to because there was no dry land. We were somewhere south of Brunswick, GA. The tides are extreme at this latitude and the topography is as unique as it is beautiful. There would be no shortage of anchorages. Where they flow into and out from the streight cut of the inter-coastal waterway on their way to the sea, they all look the same and none of them have names on the charts. We were in the salt marshes and there wasn’t a structure, another boat, or even a tree anywhere but on the furthest horizon … only a grassy sea of green. The tide was ebbing but only beginning to fall, so I only cozyied up into the mouth of one of the creeks, checked the depth with the lowered anchor rode as best I could, and we settled in for the night. Winter time … no bugs, it should be nice.
As darkness fell, the air cooled, the tide receded, and the mud banks began to appear on both sides of the boat. Whereas, when we anchored, we could see for miles across the grassy flats … my picturesque vista gradually began to diminish from the bottom up. Knowing the depth was sufficient, Dee and I enjoyed a bottle of wine and a simple meal–then crawled up into the V-berth along with our hundred and two degree bed buddy and called it a night.
I’m not sure what time it was. I was awakened by the thump of Ebber-dog’s landing on the cabin sole. I couldn’t remember her ever having jumped off the berth before. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I watched as she went aft and jumped from floor to seat, then to the companion way, and finally outside and into the cock-pit. The moon was near full and beckoned me to see what the commotion was all about.
Quietly peeking out of the opening; there was Ebony–in her favored position, seated with her paws on the rail and looking overboard. But there was a difference … she was on the wrong side–she was on the starboard and making little whimpering noises. Just then, there came the frantic splashing action of fleeing bait fish right next to the boat. I didn’t want to interrupt what ever was happening but I had to see, so I eased up the stairs and quietly ensconced myself where I could watch what was going on.
I suppose it was the school of finger mullet that attracted the dolphin to the narrow flow of water between Le Esperance and the, now moon-lit, muddy creek bank. The shore seemed so close–almost like I could touch it. The tide had reached dead low and the level of the sea grass was fully nine feet above my head. In trying to elude their pursuer, many of the mullet had landed on the bank and were squirming and flopping around helplessly in the mud. But it wasn’t the fish that had Ebber-dog’s attention and it certainly wasn’t the hapless creatures with fins that had my dog whining and whimpering into the darkness below. No it was …
The dolphin wasn’t going anywhere–he, or she, would actually thrust its body up and halfway out of the water to slither up on the muddy bank to continue its meal. After each new morsel there would be a sliding retreat and it was at this juncture, with the dolphin back in the water, that the strangest thing was happening. The dolphin would momentarily remain at the surface and nudge over close to the side of the boat–all the while making an intermittent low whistling sound. To these entreaties, Ebony would respond with a whimper or whine and, it may have been just my imagination, I think there was actual eye contact. I know my dog never looked away from the dolphin and I was sure that the “fisher” below us never blinked.
Eventually, the beached mullet were all either consumed or escaped and the dolphin disappeared. I crawled back into bed and covered up from the chill, but I chose to leave Ebber-dog on her lonely vigil.
When the sun came up–the tide had returned, Ebony was asleep on the cock-pit seat, the mud banks were, once again, hidden below the surface, and the grassy sea of green was … well, let the man who once called Georgia’s salt marshes the “Vast of the Lord” describe them for me …
Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-withholding and free
Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea!
Flashing forward, and putting this piece together … I’ve struggled with a conclusion. Do I want to infer that the magic of the moon light and our night in the marshes seduced my judgement and convinced me that my dog and a dolphin were actually carrying on a conversation? That might be a little far-fetched … or would it?