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Pastoral symphony

It's that time of year when dogs bay in bright moonlight; when eerie night sounds echo among the hills and woods and mysterious creatures scuttle away to blend with the shadows. One minute the sun shines with golden warmth, the next heavy rain clouds are scudding across the sky, dropping showers that turn to snow flurries.

Today, we woke before dawn to the crackling of hail against the windows. Inside, we listened curiously to goblin music -- the vigorous clackling of minuscule castanets, then a roll on a tiny tympanum, ending in a triumphant thump, a brief pause before the main orchestra took over. The movement opened with a crescendo on the big bass drum and was followed by a lively lyric on triangles and cymbals. Interpreted from upstairs, the mice were feasting on a packet of peanuts in the parlor and, in their eagerness, had rolled a pen across the table till it fell to the floor; the noise disturbed the dogs in the kitchen next door; the Labrador rumbled a warning, while the bull terrier sounded his customary alarm by beting his whip of a tail against the dog chains that hang beside the outer door.

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By the time we arrived dowstairs, the parlor was deserted, except for an inquisitive spider who ad slid down her rope of web and dangled in the middle of the room. I knew that on closer examination. I'd find several of her colleagues watching silently from every corner. At this time of year, small creatures materialize from nowhere, seeking shelter from the harshening elements.

There is a ritual greeting from the two dogs -- much tail wagging and circling and offering of paws.The Labrador makes the ultimate gesture by presenting his oldest bone, but as I reach for it, he has second thoughts and gently withdraws it, waving his feathery tail apologetically. We let them out into the early mist.

Up the hill, the woods are still at revelry, the trees a little faded and jaded now, but their luxurious jewels of gold and amber, ruby and emerald, glisten in the moist morning. They are compelled to dance, to trip to the tune that nature calls; they bend and shake, making the most of this final fling before the rapacious hand of the winter strips them of their garments.

The dogs have emerged from their summer somnolence and frolic around the yard , chasing each other and charging the crows who rise from under their noes, cawing in witchlike mirth. They pick up the scent of a night predator and disappear into the trees behind the barn, noses to the ground, tails held as high as warriors' banners. It's probably the fox who prowls in the shadows. He's stolen half our hens in his frequent forays. The flock had a contented summer, ranging free throughout the yard and among the trees, but a chill in the air brought myriad beasts bent on stocking winter larders. We and our domesticated hens had blunted our instincts and were taken unawares.

Not all the seasonal madness has been bred oiut of domestic animals, however. The harvest moon never fals to produce the unexpected. We returned from an excursion to our nearest town this afternoon to find a herd of cows in our backyard. They stared at the car as if we were the intruders, and chewed contentedly on their cuds. Unperturbed, one cow continued to strain to reach a tempting morsel beneath the car, her horns clattering against the metal. Four of the great beasts lay in an unconcerned circle around the lilac tree and a green sheet hung half off the washline, one corner mistakenly munched in a grassy mixture. The dogs were laagered inside the house, the Labrador on his usual chair by one window, the bull terrier standing with forepaws on the other windowsill, ears pricked and shivering with excitement as the huge bovines swayed and grazed around the house.

In due course, the visitors were benignly guided back to pasture and the farm settled back to peaceful routine. Darkness descended and it was time for the final walk before bed. These days the bull terrier remains curled up, his nose buried under his paw. He opens one beady eye when invited out and gives a rapid , sheepish movement of the tail, but stays solidly put. The Labrador, on the other hand, has been sitting at the door willing my husband to join him for the past half-hour. On this occasion, my husband returns quicker than usual and alone. "He put up a skunk," he tells me in disgust. No tomato juice. A watery-eyed black dog dances in proudly, the center of attention. The bull terrier doesn't know whether to welcome him or attack him. After a while even the culprit finds it hard to live with himself.

It's a restless night for all. There are smells and noises and activities that belong only to this time of year. We're keyed to the unpredictable, our senses alert, preparing, grasping last chances. It's the strange, short season of the harvest moon.

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