The winter dog

 di Paolo Fantozzi


    The winter I’m thinking of is concerned with darkness. Darkness of nature, darkness of event, darkness of spirit. The thundering darkness of not knowing which is somewhat similar to faith. But probably it is closer to hope, that is more active, and far confused than faith must be. Faith has no need of words. Hope, I know, is a fighter and a tempter.

   Winter mornings start with darkness. The huge, tense blackness of the outer world. The house is hard cold. I dress in the dark and hurry out. The sleepy dog stretches, looks at me then just a few strides, and disappears. I listen intently to the stirring foliage in the wood. It is a language the trees are murmuring. There are no stars, no mood. The air is thick with damp fog. Still I can tell that the breeze is rising, as it speaks singingly and I can see a pale hazy streak of amber floating in the Eastern sky. Now and again Brio the dog comes back. His happy paws dashing the mud. Before we reach home and cross the yard, it is no longer night. It is like standing on a blue wharf that leads to the sharp, white day. The grey cat jumps off the canvas roof of the old Land Rover. Brio barks joyfully. This is the beginning of every winter day. The wood used to be a pinewood, although now the pines have been all cut down. Oak trees fight with the sneaking deadly clasp of the silent ivy. Modest trees that mean so much to me. Among these trees I have walked thousands of times with dogs mostly Brio, being the last one in a long row of friendly dogs.

   For many years I felt more at home here than anywhere else, including my own house. Stepping out into the shady green, into the grass, onto the path, was always a kind of relief. I was not escaping anything. I was stepping across some border. Eventually I began to appreciate that the great black oaks knew me. I don’t mean that they knew me as myself and not another – that kind of individualism was not in the air – but that they recognized and responded to my presence, and to my mood. They began to offer, or I began to feel them offer, their serene greeting. It was like a quick change of temperature, a warm and comfortable flush, faint yet palpable, as I walked toward them and beneath their outflowing branches.

   In my wood is where the owl floats, and where the woodpecker ticks the time away by hewing the bark of trees drawing mysterious and eternal hieroglyphics. Here is where a fawn approached me one morning, in an unforgettable sweetness, its face light brown leaves, its eyes kindred and full of curiosity. This is also where a fox appeared, one season, and followed me down through the pathway. Its tail like a heraclitean fire that was never to be extinguished generating power, strength and wild dreams. Brio looked on steadily, his eyes gazing in the darkness perceiving what I was forbidden to see or understand. The world changes. Now the entrance to many stretches of wood is closed and barred either by men or by forgetfulness.

   It's true I know several paths where I can sneak in, but they are not anymore as they used to be. Barbed wire, plastic, dumped tires, the polluting presence of man’s stupidity. This has ruined my visitations which were such deep excitements and such serious part of my life.

   If it were not for the dogs … there’s a place at home where the vanishing bodies of our dogs lie in the sweet smelling earth. My conscious thoughts always bring me back to haunting memories where dogs are roaming free. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple. Under the trees, along the pale slopes of the stream banks, I walk in an ascendant relationship to rapture, and with words and colours I celebrate this rapture.

   I think that the man who does not know not nature, who does not walk under the leaves as under his own roof, is partial and wounded.  I say this even as wilderness shrinks beneath our unkindedness and our indifference. Take for example a spell of bad weather. I heard on the forecast that it may rain, and there will be high wind: clap of invisible hands and all the winds together, those breezy brothers are just on their way. Darkness rises to meet the shaking leaves. The wind pounds. Trees creak and flap, doorways whistle, loose objects thump down of fly off. I rejoice in the unknown shift of colours, sounds and smells. A longing for intimacy and silence prevail. Let the storm speak! Let me doze in a country sleep! But let me get back to the woods!

   Brio is ahead of me poking about in the grass. By the time I reach him a gnarled piece of wood lies scattered in the dust, myriads of spongy splinters ready to be carried off by insects. Brio’s eyes roll upwards to read my mood – praise, amusement or disapproval – but I only touch his head casually and walk on.

   Winter walks and the dog: you cannot elaborate the dark thickness of it as he can, you cannot separate the rich, rank threads as Brio makes his way through the grasses. I have seen Brio place his nose meticulously into the shallow dampness of a boar footprint and then shut his eyes as if listening. But it is smell he is listening to. The wild, high music of smell, that we know so little about. Tonight Brio charges up in the frosty ground. He runs in the wood and is gone. A soft wind, like a belt of silk, wraps the house. I’m following him to the end of the field where I hear the long-eared owl, at wood’s edge, in one of the tall pine trees. All night the owl, at wood’s edge, in one of the tall pines. At night the owl will sit there still, except when he opens pale wings and drifts mothlike over the grass. Brio knows the way of bird and looks up as the bird floats by.

   As a Springer Spaniel Brio bounces whenever a ball is thrown to him. He giggles to express pleasure and cocks his ears to show alertness and speed. He flings into every puddle on the muddy path. In the car, we are getting close to home and the smell of the wood envelops him, Brio sits bolt upright and hums. Brio’s winter dreams by the fireplace are mystic. Voices call him. In dreams he finds himself running over incredible lush or barren stretches of land, nothing any of us has ever seen. Deep in the dream, his paws twitch, his lip lifts. The dreaming dog leaps through the underbrush, enters the earth through a narrow tunnel, and is home. Brio wakes and the disturbance in his eyes when I say his name is a recognizable cloud. How glad he is to see me, and he sneezes a little to tell me so. But ah! The fading dream where he was almost “there” again, in the pure, rocky, wild place beginning. Where Brio was almost wild again and knew nothing else but that life. A world of trees and dogs and the white moon.

   Winter breaks in. Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old – or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give. Winter wilderness is that one out of which Brio cannot step entirely, and from which we benefit. For wilderness is our first home too, and in our wild ride into modernity with all its concerns and problems we need also all the good attachments to that origin that we can keep or restore. Brio is one of the messengers of that rich and still magical first world. Brio reminds me of the pleasures of the body with its graceful physicality, and the acuity and rapture of the sense, and the beauty of the forest and the mountain and the rain and our own breath – there is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him. Brio is a kind of poetry himself as well as all dogs that are free, when he is devoted not only to man, but to the wet night, to the moon and the rabbit-smell in the grass and his own body leaping forward. Because of Brio’s joyfulness, my own is increased. It is not a small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honour as well as love the dogs of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?

   A winter morning as bleak as can be. To believe in the soul – to believe in it exactly as much and as hardily as one believes in a mountain. How far reaching, and thoroughly wonderful. For everything, by such a belief, would be charged, and charged. You wake in the morning, the soul exists, your mouth sings it, your mind accepts it. And the perceived, tactile world is, upon the instant, only half the world.

   I believe each bird and dog and living creature has a soul. The wild waste spaces of the sea and the pale dunes with one bird hanging in the wind, they are for me the spaces that, in a liturgy, are taken up by prayers, song, sermon, silence, scripture. And as with prayer, which is a dipping of oneself toward the light, there is a consequence of alternativeness to the grass itself, and to the floating bird. I too leave the fret and enclosure of my own life. I too dip myself toward the immeasurable.

   Now, the winter I’m writing about begins to ease. The sun rolls towards the north and I feel, gratefully its brightness flaming up once more. What is one to do with eternal moments of happiness, such memories, but cherish them? Who knows what is beyond the known? And if you think that any day the secret of light might come, would you not live in continual hope, and pleasure, and excitement?

   Now the leaves begin to take on the bright green hue. Weary and sleepy, winter slowly polishes the moon through the long nights, then recedes to the north, its body thinning and melting, like a bundle of old riddles left. Brio springs up chasing a ball and delving stones.