The water is calm and dark, but the sands show the remains of the rainy season. Deep wells form and drift, brine collecting in sudden pools, and rocks and shells litter all the way back to the sturdy palm trees. There are mountains out in the water, on distant islands, ones just as quiet as this one. The wind carries black, heavy clouds, and it feels like a monsoon could open up upon us at any time. It is bright here, but it’s fragile–a storm just biding its time.
There is salt in the air from the sea, and we walk the enormous distance of the low tide to get to the water. Koh Mook is usually a busy island, but the monsoons leave it quiet, desolate. Emptied out. No one stops us from entering this private beach, which becomes our private beach simply by default. The sands and surf before us are endless, and it feels a little bit like we are alone in the universe, or at least in this small part of it. It’s the end of the world, or just after it.
There is little noise but for the slow, easy swell of the tide, and the skittering of paws from behind us. We are not so alone: a scrappy stray approaches us cautiously. He has a mutt’s colouring, the enormous paws of impending maturity, but the wary eyes of youth. This is his turf, maybe, this great, untouched swath of dark-brown earth and deep, black water. He knows every rock and cave, he knows the nearby forest. He trots towards us, this little local lord, and not long after his brother, or his loyal viceroy, sidles up, too.
Both dogs are anxious about the water, and nervous too about how much to trust us. They are strays on a small island in Thailand, and thus probably hadn’t seen much love at the hands of humans. Understandably so: as softy North Americans, our vision of stray dogs involves poor, abused ruffians romantically slurping spaghetti noodles with their collie paramours, shiny eyes, the need for a good home and a loving, if brutal, bath. For the locals, a stray dog is just an adorable pest–an overly fecund big rat that can storm the gardens and kill all the chickens.
We eventually convince a bored young woman at a nearby resort to cook us dinner, and the strays remain at our side. They know what a menu is. They are beggars both, but starved for animal interaction, we feed them bits of curried chicken and vegetables from the table, all but cementing our claim upon them. When we return to the beach, they follow us, even to the surf.
The sun sets, and we take the long walk back across the island to our guest house, our companions in tow. Our headlamps flicker on—the island is quiet and dark, and the locals are going to bed. There are only a few roads here, but just enough for us to get lost in the jungle at night. It is still hot even in the din, and various other enormous strays sniff at our approach. Still, our dogs remain alongside. The older we name Nibbler, and he soon departs when he deems us unlikely to provide him anything else to eat. Fleabag, the smaller, more docile of the two, continues to follow us over cement, over dirt, over gravel and sand.
We pass through the territory of other strays, under the boughs of tropical foliage, over tiny foot bridges. The path to our guesthouse has been swallowed by high tide, and Fleabag has to bound fast so as not to be tugged out by the water. When we go to sleep that night, Fleabag curls up on the threadbare welcome mats in front of our rooms, and when we wake, he is up and wagging his tail.
We realize we have made this dog a promise we can’t keep. He’s not ours, not really, but his need for companionship runs deep. He isn’t grown yet, and can just barely fend for himself. We need to be callous, if only so the pup can wander off and learn he can’t rely on humans, but of course we can’t, and we begin to slip him snacks, pieces of fish, and whatever else we can find. The Germans next door show him no kindness, and we begin to take personal offence, even as we know it’s probably for the best.
Fleabag follows us when we head out for an excursion, very nearly attempts to clamber into the rocking boat with us. We spend all day in the sun, swimming into an old pirate cave, diving with tiger fish, and walking distant beaches. We could get very used to this life, and when we return to our temporary home, there is our pet, waiting for us. We talk idly about how we might smuggle him through the rest of the trip with us, but then stop as though worried Fleabag has gleaned enough English to hold us to our words.
We rise early on our final day. The sun is hot even at this hour, and the only boat leaving Koh Mook for the mainland leaves soon. Our guesthouse owner has promised to escort us to the pier.
I open my door and Fleabag nervously waits at the threshold. He has an adult dog’s tail which moves the second he sees any of us, and he runs excitable circles around our feet as we wait for our ride. He has made a temporary home here. The other, larger strays never bother coming this far, as we are technically in cat territory, and the feline masters of this guesthouse and its environs are a vicious, fluffy gang. But the yard is large, and the surf cuts off anything dangerous that might come looking for Fleabag. The family that owns our guesthouse, too, has grown to tolerate his presence, even though he is clearly not a cat. We hope we have set him up well, and that he remembers us for this, and not what is coming.
A large, middle-aged Thai woman in a great turquoise mumu takes Faith on her motorbike and disappears into the forest. Ty and I follow the grandfather of the house to his bike, which has a sidecar for our bags. Fleabag is at our feet as we load the trolley, as we awkwardly climb aboard, as we take off. When we get caught in the mud, he is hopping and watching from behind us. His eyes are brighter than the first day we saw him, when we accidentally adopted him. When he became ours, for however long.
The wind picks up and the sun starts to pierce through the leaves. Our bike sets off again, and is just slow enough that Fleabag can keep apace. I begin to worry he will follow us directly onto the pier. But soon we pick up speed, we become to difficult for Fleabag to follow, and he stops in the path, staring off at our wheels. Another stray dog passes, and he turns back towards the guesthouse. He heads back to wait for us, to rest his big paws and his mottled-brown fur on our welcome mat. He will wait for us to come back, to scratch him just above his eyes, to let him sit astride us while we watch the water. To rest beside us, and to not have to worry. He will sleep, and when he wakes, maybe we’ll open the door and invite him in.