The Refining of Barley

Barley smells. Intensely.

On the first -20 degree night when I brought him, fouled, timid, and cowering from the Animal Shelter, he screeched and howled like a newborn. Relegated to his kennel in the freezing mudroom, the howl reached a pitch that sent neighbors to their bomb shelters. My spouse, Hans, entered his first complaint exactly one hour after Barley’s arrival, “That Dog, goes back to the Shelter first thing in the morning.”

I tiptoed to the porch door. A sharp, pungent electrical burning odor slammed my face. The electrical cord from a heat lamp was blackened and sizzling.  While I put out the smoldering ash with my bare hands, I held him close and warm to me. He licked the  rising blisters on my palms.

Morning brought the start of a week-long Christmas blizzard that closed the world but brought out Barley. He laughed and snuggled the snow: burrowing tunnels, bringing bits of fall to me, the last reddish leaf, an ancient hot dog bun, lint from the dryer. Near the  side vent of the dryer and gas furnace he commenced a fox hole through Dogwood shrubbery and precious Boston Ivy, dragging chunks of wood in to show me. In a gloomy sunset, he stood atop the growing odd snow/mud drift and bayed.

Just before Christmas Eve, Barley began to bite. Not me, Hans, although they had bonded some during the blizzardy days.  Barley  nipped the back of Hans’ calf and tore a dark, crimson scratch from the knee to Achilles tendon with his dewclaw. The refrain of Barley’s tune:

That Dog goes back to the Shelter…

I know. “First thing in the morning.”

Christmas Day found us in the emergency room, Barley’s bites swelling Hans’ calf and rage to an enormous size. All the necessary and unnecessary expensive tests followed. My guilt grew as Hans spent Christmas in the Intensive Care Unit. Diagnosis: massive blood clot. I blamed Barley, locked him in the kennel and waited for the Shelter to reopen in the New Year. It was a miserable holiday season, Barley and Hans both yowling.

The blizzard snowed sideways for days. Barley dug his massive tunnel where the snow was warm and soft near the vents, mucking up the porch. Yipping. Yapping. Growling. Pulling at my coat sleeves to come and see.


“First thing.”

At 3 am on New Year’s Day, the carbon monoxide monitor shrieked its shrill warning followed by a couple screams of my own. Then the trucks: city utilities, fire trucks, plumbers, ordinance officers, police.  We opened the windows on the coldest, darkest night of the year. Barley was silent as laborers loosened the buried ice-covered vent outside.

Then came the expensive repairs. Construction workers knelt on basement concrete. Barley had developed a knee fetish and sat near each man sniffing his knees while the repairs were completed. I tromped through snow every day trying to exercise Barley, half hoping he would slip his flimsy collar and bolt, smelly accursed mutt.

Already, though,Barley had developed a deep and secret love for our widowed neighbor, Virginia. He tried to snuff his nose between the ragged slats of the privacy fence to reach her as she hung out bed sheets to freeze dry in the icy wind. Virginia disliked and feared dogs, and his intense longing for her was annoying to all of us. At home, Hans grew ever restless, cranky; any odd noise offended him. Quietly at first, like the blizzard wind, a keening filtered from the porch. Low, long, and endless the coyote-like lament emitted from the porch rising in urgency and volume.


“First thing”

Then the Sirens. Louder in the crystallized air and 40 mile an hour wind; Barley matching the ambulance note for note. Frantic at the  door, he tore paint, then wood shards. As I opened the door to see the disaster impending, he shot through the house, smashing through the front door onto what was once lawn, now tundra. He darted to Virginia’s screen door, tearing at the metal scrolls, but Virginia  was sailing away, pale and ashen, in the back of the screaming, snow colored ambulance. In the darkening wind, Barley sniffed the snow, following the exact journey of  gurney and aneurism. Sitting in the ice covered street he whimpered like a wolf pup. I swear I saw icy tears.  “Yip, yip. Owwwoooooooo.”

“Is it not possible to shut That Dog up?”  Barley reconnected to the world at the sound of his beloved master’s voice, sitting near him in the warm kitchen, slipping his nose along the length of the blood clot. Hans delivered a secretive sideways kick.

Every day for the next five, Barley followed Virginia’s final path, always trying to knock at her door, always finishing in the street, howling. I found  only few tiny drops of blood along the sidewalk. The moment of realization came to me in a flush of fear and discovery. Was Barley medically sensitive? Could he detect disease or injury? Blood at least?

He smiled when a recovered Virginia leaned from her walker to pet him, but he was only interested in sniffing, toe to finger tips. A practice he maintains religiously, if dogs have a religion. He is responsible to the sick and injured before they know they are sick or injured.

Barley has a strong feel for diabetics with high blood sugar, but alarmingly bites through the soles of their thick rubber shoes to inform them. It usually means a sore on the feet or badly trimmed toenails. He retains his affinity for knees. When plumbers, refrigerator repairers, or electricians visit, he tests the knees first. I can’t help test the theory, “So how do your knees feel today?”

There’s always a look of odd surprise. “Hurt like heck today.” Every time. Barley nods. He knew that.

I stopped ignoring Barley’s signals. A long stroll in a newly mown hay field will likely result in his sudden ice sculpture pose and I, too, freeze. Today a molted snakeskin rattled by in the winded tumbleweeds, while he snapped at my pant legs to drag me away. Yesterday, he blocked the way as I distinguished musky coyotes sprinting westward.

Barley has allergies too; he coughs hard in the sugar factory air and serves as the canary in a cave. If he sneezes, it’s time for me to put away the paint, the scrubbing bubbles, the weedkill in a can.  On a calm fall day with a sky so blue it is art, he will raise his nose high. Funny how each tiny muscle in a dog’s nose can quiver. I know in a matter of hours it will sleet, or hail, or snow.

Best Barley Smell Story so far: A sprinkler repairman labored two hours on his knees to rewire my foolishly diced system while we talked about dogs’ abilities. “Will Barley sniff out injury on command?” He asked.

He will.

“Seek out!” I bark. He performs the cursory toe to knee starter exam. Without warning, he  slams his nose into the gent’s inseam. I have to drag him back by his collar in an agony of embarrassment and restrain him. “Ya, I know. Prostate cancer.” He whispers to Barley.

He licks at my breath when I snuggle with him, searching for a sniff of chocolate but warns me of cavities and strep. Any visit to the doctor or dentist carries the scent of the clinic’s every disease and procedure for the day. Like some sort of Academia of Odor for Barley, he’ll spend hours diagnosing and analyzing the discarded clothes.

He doesn’t always score 100%. Late in a summer evening, he terrified me with a full body scan, a shrill bark and a sharp nip to my ankle. I stumbled to the light as he scuffled between my feet. A large common slug wriggled on my Nikes. Now,  big holes fringe the fountains; he’s all about slugs this week.

His sense memory is powerful. A package from my cousins with a gift of a woolen pack sent him around the house and yard in a frenzy searching for them and their border collie. Again, where my friend, Sari, laid her arm along mine as I help her down my slippery tile steps. His nose, practically attached to my arm where she touched me, and he’s off, searching the house for her and her look- alike puppies.

He finds stuff we’ve lost: keys, dollar bills, mittens, glasses. Stuff we haven’t: rotted potatoes, unclassified skeletal remains, watermelon rinds, wounded night crawlers, prairie dog parts.
Mark, across the alley from my medical yard, is a year out from a poorly replaced knee and painfully limps as he gathers scarlet raspberries from behind the garage. He must endure Barley’s daily check.  Barley stands on his hind legs to join in picking the berries, pointing only to the perfect blood red ones.

He loves, if dogs know love, to sit near the wounded leg of his master at every opportunity to check the genetic deep vein clots concealed there.  Hans shivers with nervous fright, but he murmurs, “We’re keepin’ This Dog.”


  1. You tricked me Cheryl as is often the case with your poetry.. I thought you were going to tell me how the grain, barley, was refined. It shows how different the worlds we live in are–yours and mine.


  2. Oh my word……you told me this story the day I met you in the library……I did not know the ….”rest of the story”……but am witness to Hans’ blood clot reminder.
    God sure works in strange ways.

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