The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Man's Best Friend

By Stephen L. Graf © 1996

Issue: Spring, 1996

The heavy report of axe on wood rang out for miles through the crisp mountain air. Above, the pregnant clouds hung languid - just out of reach. From the field behind my father's house I could see a storm was imminent. The sky had changed from clear to foreboding as abruptly as when the flash thundershowers would appear out of nowhere to drench our thirsty farm on a hot summer day. This was not summer, however, and the great black clouds which shifted ponderously overhead threatened to spread a white blanket over our tiny mountain and shut us in our homes for days. Anyone who had eyes to see could clearly perceive a storm was imminent.

Friedrich Muller was our nearest neighbor at the time, living about a mile over from our farm on the east side of the mountain. Splitting firewood behind his cottage, Friedrich never spotted the fast-approaching storm-front because he could not see. His vision had slowly dimmed like the setting of the sun until there was nothing left. It never ceased to amaze me that at the age of seventy-seven and without the use of his eyes Friedrich could live independently in his isolated little cabin with no more support or companionship than his old Saint Bernard Fritz. It was the ruggedness of his life, Friedrich had often boasted, which preserved him.

Maybe he was right, I would have guessed he could survive anything. He was as enduring as the rolling, verdant slopes or the craggy peaks of the mountain itself. Friedrich had already been a longtime resident when my father purchased the tract of land adjacent to his. He had worked his modest spread since the days when it would take him an hour to reach his nearest neighbor. To me, Friedrich was the mountain.

I began to know Friedrich when I was a young boy, after he had become almost completely blind. Despite his handicap, Friedrich doggedly refused to leave the land on which he had spent his entire adult life and he was too stubborn, and too poor, to allow anyone to move in and assist him. So, my father recruited me, at the age of nine, to: "Help Friedrich with his chores - do the little odd jobs he can't do for himself. Do what you can for him but otherwise stay out of his way. Friedrich is a proud man and would take any mention of charity as an insult."

I have to admit, helping an elderly neighbor did not rank among my top choices of how to spend my free hours, I would have much preferred playing in the fields and climbing the rocks near our farm. But my father had given me an order, so there was no question as to what I would do. Nothing was ever said to Friedrich. If we had, I would not have been able to set foot on his place - at least not to aid him. So, following my father's instructions, I simply appeared the next morning.

The sun had just broken free on the eastern horizon and Friedrich was outside milking his skinny cow when I arrived. I approached him cautiously, not quite sure what to say. I was in the timid phase between the unabashed innocence of early childhood and the arrogant defiance of adolescence, so adults tended to frighten me. Although he had a gentle manner and had always been friendly when he greeted me, I found his forceful yet contemplative nature unsettling. I suppose there was something about his blindness which made me nervous as well. I was creeping stealthily forward, still considering how to begin, when he turned on his stool and called out, "Hello?"

He caught me off guard. I sputtered, "Uh, hello, Mr. Muller. It's Peter... your neighbor."

"Oh, good morning, Peter Your Neighbor. What can I do for you so early in the day?" He smiled in my direction. Friedrich did not wear dark glasses and to look into his clear blue eyes one would think he had perfect vision. But, as eyes sometimes can be, his were deceiving because the light which appeared to shine out from them never entered into them.

"I thought I might help you around the farm today, if that's all right, Mr. Muller."

His smile faded. "No. I don't need any help, Peter," he replied icily. He spoke with the biting precision of a German immigrant who had worked hard to learn the language and had struggled, not completely successfully, to cover his thick accent. "Did your father send you?"

"No, sir," I protested. I had to think quickly or I would be sent straight home. Though I was not particularly excited about working for Friedrich, I was even less anxious to face my father after failing in this venture. As I stood there squirming and stuttering an idea came to me.

"Actually, I'm doing a report on the history of our mountain for school and I hoped that since you know more about this area than anyone, you could help me. I thought that in return I could do some chores for you."

The notion of himself as informal historian appealed to Friedrich and thus began our relationship. In the weeks which followed Friedrich told me everything there was to know about the mountain. Yet even though his life was inextricably bound to the land, he never became more intimate in his tales than to mention, "I saw this," or "I heard that." It was as though he had been alone for so long that he found it difficult to again open himself to another human being. Eventually, the paper was forgotten but I continued to visit Friedrich daily, just as my father had commanded. Except, where I had begun to call on Friedrich simply out of filial obedience, I now was doing it because I was genuinely fond of him. He was an adult I could talk to and more than that, he was a friend. Both of those were precious commodities to an only child growing up in a rural area.

One crisp December afternoon we were repairing a fence when I asked Friedrich how he and Fritz had come to be together. I was tentative about posing such a question because although I had been attending him for over a year at that point, he had yet to reveal anything significant about himself. To my relief, he smiled warmly and turned to his right, knowing by instinct that his faithful friend would be there by his side. He laid down his hammer and rubbed his slender, callused hands together. With an introspective chuckle he shook his white head and began, "How we came to be together? That's a good question. What do you call the power that draws two creatures to one another in a time of need? Is it fate? Destiny? The will of God?"

"It was thirteen years ago, right before your father built that farm of yours across the way. I guess you weren't even born yet. My Gretchen had been gone for just a few years at that time and I still had my vision. He came to me during a blizzard so fierce you would have thought that Judgment Day had arrived and the avenging angel of the Lord had descended onto our mountain to beat his white fury. I have no idea how that pup found my doorstep. I didn't have any neighbors living nearly close enough that his wobbly, little legs could have carried him from their place to mine. And that wind! It was howling so awfully that it had me terrified - a grown man, not a tiny puppy. Fritz, poor baby, was out in that beastly storm just whining and whimpering pitifully."

"How did you hear him over the storm?" I asked.

"I'm not so sure I did hear him, at least not until I opened the door and saw him shivering out there in the snow - closer to death than life. Somehow I sensed that I was needed and that was what brought me to the door. I scooped him up into my arms and held him just like a father would hold an infant. I wanted to let my life flow into him - he was so fragile and helpless."

Friedrich laughed and, nodding at the huge Saint Bernard lying at his feet wagging his tail, said, "Hard to imagine Fritz was ever small, eh?

"Since he was hanging onto life by the weakest of grips, I knew I had to act quickly. I decided the most important thing to do would be to try to warm him, so I took him straight to bed. I piled the blankets over us and wrapped myself around Fritz like a mother bear would its cubs. I stayed up half the night fretting. Every time a chill would wrack his frail body I would shake right along with him. I finally slipped into an uneasy sleep when I thought I could feel Fritz's faint heartbeat growing slightly stronger.

"Early that next morning I was awakened gently by Fritz licking at my cheek. When I opened my eyes and saw him, so young and cute, I began to cry - I had come so close to losing him when I had only just found him. I was still dressed, so I went into my pantry to pour him some milk which I had drawn from my cow - the same cow I have now only she was young and fat then! Let me tell you, the one thing that hasn't changed about Fritz is his appetite."

Friedrich turned to Fritz again and patting the dog's massive head he said, "Isn't that right, my friend?"

Returning his attention to me, Friedrich continued, "Of course, he attacked that milk and it disappeared within seconds. Soon he had eaten a great portion of the other food I had stored. Who would have thought something so small could eat so much? I named him Fritz. Gretchen had always liked that name; she and I were going to name our son Fritz, that is, if we could have had a son. We slept together, Fritz and I, until my little cot could not hold the two of us, then Fritz got the floor. I do believe he's still upset about that one. He's always right at my feet, just the same. When my sight gave out on me, Fritz became my eyes."

This was true. Everywhere Friedrich went, Fritz was at his side. If Friedrich chanced to take a misstep, Fritz would steer him clear of danger. When Friedrich would misplace something, Fritz would somehow know what he was searching for and would retrieve it. It was uncanny that a man and an animal could merge so flawlessly into one consciousness.

Fritz protected Friedrich from another, more insidious, danger as well. During the short days and long nights of the winter when the snow would pile up two and three feet high around his cabin, Friedrich would often go weeks without having a human visitor. Even in the summer, before I began to help him, Friedrich would entertain callers once or twice a week at most. Meanwhile, I could see the effects of time were beginning to take hold of Friedrich's physical being. As the years crept slowly onward, Friedrich began to complain occasionally of a profound weariness settling into every nook and cranny of his rugged body. Luckily, Fritz was always there to help ease that burden.

The following spring, as we were mending some holes in his dilapidated little barn, Friedrich began for the first time to tell me of his wife. All the birds on our mountain had joined together for a merry symphony and through a hole in the rotting wooden wall I could see the sun kissing the dappled green meadows which rolled lushly into the valley below us. Struck by a particular note a lark had sung, Friedrich set aside his plane and began, "It's unfortunate that you never knew my wife Gretchen, Peter. What a marvelous woman she was - smart and kind and good. And could she cook a strudel - so soft and sweet! Were she still here you and I and old Fritz would all be as fat as bankers!

"Eh, old friend?" Automatically he patted the bushy fur on Fritz's wide back. "We had our first date, Gretchen and I, on a spring day much like this one many years ago. I was a young man then, not a whole lot older than you, if you can picture that. We packed a picnic and hiked over to a secluded little grove on the other side of the mountain where the flowers were bursting all around and their scent was so strong you would almost become drunk on the beauty of it. But as glorious as it all was, it was not half so lovely as Gretchen was that day. We had such a wonderful time, I knew then and there that this was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. But now, I suppose, I have lived too long..."

He paused for a long moment and looked away. Then, forcing a smile he continued, "Luckily, I have Fritz now to keep me company. With the way he came to me, like a gift from above on that lonely, blustery night, I sometimes think Gretchen sent him to me from heaven to keep me company and protect me from this..."

The next few years tore by for me as I grew taller and stronger and began to find the world blossoming with fresh new interests. My everyday visits to Friedrich became every other day and then every third day until I was only stopping by once or twice a week. For his part, Friedrich continued on the same as he always had, he had grown accustomed to solitude. Fritz was all the companionship he professed to need. Habit and Fritz were what kept Friedrich going. Each day he would rise at six, dress, eat, milk the cow, feed the few animals he owned and gather and chop firewood.

So he did on the morning of the storm while I, on my father's farm, herded our animals into the barn and provided them with several days worth of food and water. I meant to check on him but by the time I had finished my chores the storm had already begun in earnest and I did not want to be caught away from shelter in so fierce a blizzard. It was already past eight yet it was still dark. By that time I could no longer hear Friedrich splitting logs so I assumed he had retired into the safety of his cottage. As I sat in our kitchen and watched the wind rattle our weather vane while sheets of white poured steadily earthward, I imagined that this must have been how the world looked those seventeen years earlier when Friedrich and Fritz had first met.

Of course, I was wrong. Not about the snowstorm - it was uncannily reminiscent of the icy squall which had flung Friedrich and Fritz together all those years ago - but about Friedrich. You see, Friedrich was not like many handicapped people who have one sense highly developed to compensate for their shortcoming in another area - perhaps it was because he had lost his vision later in life. Whatever the reason, Friedrich was totally oblivious to the storm-front rapidly bearing down on our mountain as he walked out, axe in hand and Fritz at his side, to split his wood that morning. His lack of meteorological intuition might not have mattered had he not slipped while reaching for a log and bumped his head on a rock. Fritz, poor fellow, tried to move to break his fall but Friedrich was not the only one who had slowed with age. So now Friedrich lay stretched out, totally unconscious, as the sky opened up and the snow poured down.

Fritz stayed right by Friedrich's side, wagging his tail furiously and licking his fallen friend's delicately creased face. But Friedrich did not stir. Fritz filled his cavernous Saint Bernard lungs and began to howl but his cries were no louder than the frenzied shrieking of the wind as the storm increased in intensity. Friedrich did not so much as twitch. Fritz even took Friedrich's jacket collar in his powerful jaws and tried to drag his friend to safety but Friedrich was just too heavy. Friedrich lay there motionless as Fritz stood panting over him while heavy snowflakes began to enshroud his body.

I was taught in school that man is the only rational animal. Only human beings are capable of logic or emotion, scientists have observed, while the other dumb brutes which inhabit the earth are guided merely by instinct for survival. What instinct was it, then, which led that great, dumb animal Fritz to lay his entire body across Friedrich? What impulse toward self-preservation could have prompted any creature to stay outside overnight during the worst snowstorm in seventeen years when warmth and shelter were a mere fifty foot trot away?

Late the next morning, after the storm had subsided, my father and I bundled up and trudged across the barren, white expanse between our farm and Friedrich's. Not finding Friedrich or Fritz in the cabin, we searched the yard. Immediately we were struck by a great mound of snow near the woodpile. Following my father, we burrowed through waist deep snow to the drift. With hands numb from the cold we dug furiously to uncover whatever it was that lay enclosed within the icy tomb, praying it would only be logs. Our fears were realized when we uncovered Fritz's giant, still body. But where was Friedrich? Our strength waning but pressed on by the urgency of our task, with arms trembling we removed Fritz to uncover the unconscious but still breathing form of Friedrich.

We carried him to his cabin and wrapped him in blankets. Then we fashioned a makeshift sleigh and transported him back to our place where we cared for him. A couple days later, when the roads had cleared, we were able to fetch a doctor. Friedrich's recovery was slow but that was to be expected from a man of his years. By spring he had most of his strength back, yet the experience seemed to have changed him profoundly. Initially, he received a great deal of attention from the community and the newspapers because of his ordeal but he seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight. He began sleeping late and spending his days beside the fire. When my father insisted he remain with our family long after he had recuperated, Friedrich complied without argument.

One particularly resplendent April day I tarried returning home from school in the glow of the late afternoon while I watched a robin build its nest. I began then to understand how Friedrich could stay on the mountain his entire life and never really worry about the world around him. Finally, as the sun receded into a tangerine glow on the western horizon, my stomach called me home. Walking into the kitchen, I was greeted by my mother. Her pained look chilled me. I knew what it was before she said a word. "Friedrich has passed," she stated bluntly.

I didn't respond, I simply walked outside. It didn't make sense that he could survive that horrible storm only to slip away in the soft spring sunshine when life was exploding all around him. I began to blame myself for not spending more time with him recently. Then I realized he would never have allowed me to think that way. Death is neither right nor wrong, he would have said, it just is.

The tears filling my eyes turned my mother's flower garden into a brightly-colored kaleidoscope. I thought back to that spring day, much like this one, several years earlier, when Friedrich and I were repairing his barn. After telling me about his wife he had paused, choking back the emotion. Quickly composing himself, he took a deep breath. Inhaling the sweet perfume of honeysuckle and goldenrod which filled the air that afternoon, he had sighed deeply and said, "It's on days like these that I am sure ... I am sure."