I am a creature of habit, and that night was no different than any other, at least the first part. Following my regular routine of dinner for one I retired to my den and sat, quite contentedly, in my worn fabric, exceedlingly comfortable overstuffed armchair. In the stone fireplace before me, which provided the sole source of light on this wintry evening, the birch log I had added to the dwindling embers was coming to life with crackles and pops, adding to the already snug ambience of this, my favorite room. I noted the time as from the other room my deep mahogany grandfather clock intoned eight times. I could think of no better place to pass the evening, curled up with my newspaper and a hot drink on the small table to one side while mounds of snow piled up outside and vicious winds buffeted the walls, vainly searching for any crack or crevice through which to intrude. The spray of the wet snow against the windows had a soothing effect and I caught myself dozing lightly, snapped back to conscious thought only by the faint scraping of a tree's frozen branches against what I assumed was the window in the front room. It was during this process of drifting, flirting with sleep, that it occurred to me there were no trees near enough the front window, nor any other in the house, for the branches to reach. Once more the scratching noise came, and with a whispered sigh of resignation I rose from my chair to investigate.
I made my way to the front door, which I had narrowed down as the source of the intrusion, and flicking on the outside light peered through the frosty glass. There was, of course, nobody there. Not on a night like this one, unfit for man or beast to be at large. It could have been almost anything, I supposed, even my own mind playing tricks on me. I felt quite sure after seventy two years, fifty four of them spent under this very roof, I could have identified instantly any noise my home had to offer. Chalking it up to the storm I turned back toward the den and that lovely chair when the scraping sounded once more, directly behind me at the door, with a sort of desperation to it. I must admit to having already put the sound from my mind, so when I heard it this time from so much closer it startled me. It passed quickly, of course. At that age there was always the specter of danger at every turn; every misstep carried the potential for injury, to name but one possible obstacle facing those in my age group. But fear had never been an issue for me, and I wasn't about to be reduced to jumping at shadows in my own house. I turned and determinedly thrust open the door, and there on the front stoop stood my visitor.
Before me stood a black and tan dog which I had never seen before, that I could recall. She was a female, I could tell that much from the way she carried herself, and looked as though she had been outdoors for some time. She was a larger breed, probably a mixture of a few different large breeds for that matter, but was rail thin, and I got the impression she'd seen some hard times of late. Tiny icicles hung from her muzzle and her eyelashes, and she blinked and squinted as the sleet stung her eyes. She looked to be about five or six, but it's difficult to say for sure given her appearance and the shock of seeing her at all there in the dim light above. We stared at each other for a moment, as if neither of us had expected the other and hadn't prepared for what to do. In my case at least, that was a true statement, though I didn't know her intentions at the time and couldn't imagine why she had been scratching at my door. Yet here she was, staring up at me with soft brown eyes. Her tail drooped and her legs shook, but I saw the very tip of her tail swishing hopefully. "Why, hello little one", I greeted her, having gotten over the initial surprise of her presence. "What brings you out on a night like this? Would you like to come inside?".
The sound of my voice seemed to boost her confidence, but she refused to come into the house. Instead she backpedalled a step or two, turned a tight circle to the right, and returned to her original position facing me. A low whimper escaped the poor creature which made me feel even sorrier for her, but she remained insistent. It occurred to me she might be hungry - must be hungry, given her state - and I turned to see what I could find for her. She let out another whimper as I turned away, and pawed at the door frame, her eyes imploring me to stay with her. "Well, if you won't come in, what do you want?" I asked. Her ears pricked up and she backed away another few paces, at the bottom of the steps now, her eyes never leaving me. She's trying to lead me out there, I thought. "You must think I'm as crazy as you are", I grumbled as I grabbed my coat from the hook. Slipping on my boots I followed this mysterious dog down the front steps, destination as yet unknown.
She trotted ahead of me, taking a few paces then turning to make sure I was still following. I noticed she was favoring her left front leg and I longed for her to let me take a look at her, but she had other plans for me. We approached the far end of the front lawn and I had to hurry to keep her in sight, thought she was no more than ten or fifteen feet ahead of me. She stopped abruptly at the end of the drive and dipped out of sight at the edge of the culvert. By this time I was favoring my own left leg, and my ears scolded me for having neglected to don a hat or scarf. The snow was nearly to my knees and the wind seemed intent on attacking from all sides with all of its fury. Groaning inwardly I crouched down to see what she was doing in my culvert, looking for some clue as to why she would prefer it here to my invitation into the house. I peered into the end of the pipe, trying to see through the darkness what she was up to. I wondered if she had been living in there, and if so for how long, and how she had escaped my notice. I heard shuffling noises from inside and leaned in closer.
She emerged from the inky darkness carrying something in her mouth. I stepped back reflexively, then saw it was a puppy she was holding. She set it down gingerly at my feet, looking up at me once again with those expectant eyes. The poor little thing couldn't have been more than a few weeks old, and was nearly frozen. I reached for it, my eyes on her to make sure she wasn't going to bite me, and tucked it inside my coat where it would get warm. She noislessly turned and re-entered the culvert, and moments later brought forth a second tiny ball of wriggling fur. I added that one to the bulge under my coat, and then a third as she presented me with the last of her litter. Loaded down with squirming puppies I carefully made my way back to the open doorway of the house, their mother following closely behind. From where we stood the house looked to be miles off in the distance, further still thanks to the screaming protests of my every joint, but we managed to cover the ground and mount the steps at last. This time she didn't hesitate to enter, brushing past me through the kitchen and into the den. I shouldered the door closed and followed her.
By the time I reached the den, having paused to grab a blanket from the bedroom, the puppies' mother was sprawled on the floor in front of the fire. I removed the pups from my coat and wrapped them in the blanket, placing the bundle at her side. I added another log to the fire, stirred the coals a bit, then hastened to the kitchen in search of something to feed my new houseguests. I thought under the circumstances something warm was in order so I heated some milk and crumbled some bread into it. I carried their meal back in to them, and was delighted to see the warmth was having immediate results; two of the puppies were waddling unsteadily around the area in front of the hearth while the third struggled gamely to escape the folds of blanket. Their mother still lay by the fire, no doubt exhausted from her harrowing ordeal in the blizzard. As I gathered and fed the little ones I pondered their situation. How long had it been since any of them had eaten? Were these tiny ones born outdoors? How far had they been forced to travel in snow that would have been well over their heads, and why had they settled on me as their savior? So many questions to which I would undoubtedly never have answers, but the very least I could do was to make sure they would be safe and warm on this night, with full bellies. I had brought a piece of leftover meat from the kitchen to give to the mother and approached her carefully; she hadn't moved a muscle since her arrival and was obviously exhausted, and might not appreciate her well-earned slumber being interrupted. It turned out I was worried for nothing.
The most important job of her hard life now complete, her babies safe in caring hands, the weary, half-frozen canine hobo had slipped away into sleep from which she would never awaken. I stroked her head sadly, filled with wonder and respect for the magnitude of the gift she had given, both to me and my new charges who by now were growing bolder as they explored their new surroundings. This special dog had given everything for these puppies, to an extent I suspected I would never fully know, but in the process she also stirred in me something that hadn't seen the light of day in years. She gave the ultimate gift, and I felt I owed it to her to accept it if I could. At the same time I felt an overwhelming mix of emotions, realizing the scope of what lay before the four of us together. I was an old man, set in my ways and with failing health. How could I run the risk of orphaning these delicate little ones a second time? The answer came to me almost as abruptly as the questions had poured forth moments earlier with the twelve sonorous tones from the clock; it was now officially Christmas Day, and my thoughts went to my two grandchildren who would be receiving special surprises from Grandpa this year.
The children were delighted, as you may well imagine. Their puppies aren't puppies any more, in fact they've grown into healthy and happy dogs. I kept the third puppy; of course I did. In honor of the night we met, she now answers to Storm. It's been three years now since she came to me as if from a dream, and gave each of us a new lease on life. Every winter she romps happily through the snowdrifts, and if she has any lingering fears of what almost befell her on that fateful night you'd never know it to see her at play. I'm still a creature of habit, only nowadays I have some new habits I've had to get used to, most of which I've adjusted to rather nicely. In particular we have a new Christmas ritual, a stark contrast to my pre-Storm days. On Christmas Eve she finds me wherever I happen to be in the house, corners me and gives me 'the look'. That same determined, "won't take no for an answer" look her mother wore me down with those years ago. Together we wander into the den and take up our positions: me in my overstuffed chair, Storm sprawled in front of the fireplace in a specific spot, and assuming a posture, that is so eerily similar to where her mother drew her final breath. We sit together quietly, and though I can't say for sure I like to think we're both thinking the exact same thing.