From the Magpie In Which the Magpie Lets the Dog Live
A dog and her birthday pancake . . . the fate of Old Yeller et al . . . Thomas Roma’s dog shadow photographs
Magpie, definition, Cambridge Dictionary: 1) a bird with black and white feathers and a long tail, 2) someone who likes to collect many different objects, or use many different styles
Consider dogs. This will not have anything to do with the recent Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which the Magpie did not attend because, this year, cats. The Magpie did attend the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show one year some time ago, and perched backstage, where it mostly seemed to be people blow-drying their dogs. The weird thing was that the dogs looked kind of happy about it, which suggested to the Magpie that the show dogs had lost the plot. What kind of life was that, shuttling between a crate and standing on a platform having one’s fur blow-dried? Do dogs care if they win, anyway? What would a win be for a dog, on the dog’s terms? A former consort of the Magpie’s used to bury pancakes in the garden for their dog on the dog’s birthday and then let the dog discover her treasure. That dog, running around the yard with a pancake in her mouth, clearly felt victorious over the entire pancake-withholding universe.
Why are dogs always dying in stories, novels, and movies? The Magpie often wants to shout out to any dog entering a short story (or deer, but that’s another essay), “Get out while you can! Run, Spot, run!” Because you know what’s going to happen to that poor dog. In the title story of Phil Klay’s collection Redeployment , for instance, there’s a soldier on leave, an old dog, and a gun. You do the math. And don’t even talk to me about Old Yeller, the dog in “Mr. Bojangles,” Sounder , or Sam, the beloved dog that Will Smith has to kill in I Am Legend . I could go on. The dog is the big trophy kill of any fictional world, perhaps because dogs attract so much human sentiment. Any storyteller willing to kill off the dog must be Serious. In an essay for Literary Hub , Laura Lampton Scott writes that, of two thousand fiction submissions to her university’s literary journal one year, thirty featured dogs being killed by “the central male characters.” Scott speculated that the dog killings may have “stood in for a significant trial or pain these writers hoped to convey but could not yet present.” As at the dog show, the win, this one for narrative balls rather than cosmetology, goes to the human, not the dog.
A favorite T-shirt of a friend of the Magpie’s reads, i don’t care who dies in the movie as long as the dog lives. What would it mean to let the dog live? If you have a dog, go look into your dog’s eyes. If you do not have a dog, go to the nearest dog run and stare into the eyes of a stranger’s dog. If you look for more than a few seconds, you will see that the dog knows more than you do, much more, but is incapable of telling you in human speech, and that the dog greatly suffers from this. The dog tries hard with paws and tongue and tail, sometimes ears, to explain things to you, but the dog’s instruments are clumsy, and the dog knows it. Sometimes the dog just sighs with frustration after a long day of trying so hard and being understood so little. Moreover, as the dog is aware (and we would prefer to forget), the dog’s time on earth is so brief and there’s so much to tell. This is why dogs become melancholy. You can see that melancholy lurking if you hold a dog’s gaze for any length of time. Perhaps it is easier to kill dogs off than to bear that gaze, or even express what it is like to experience it.
Some do bear it. The photographer Thomas Roma published a book last fall titled Plato’s Dogs . For this project, Roma attached a camera to an eight-foot pole, then took aerial photos of the shadows of dogs. For Roma, the evocative silhouettes that resulted from his technique showed that “lurking inside, there’s still this other wild thing.” As he commented to Hyperallergic , “The shadows, being such primitive drawings, make us aware that they’re also related to the wolf and the coyote.” In Roma’s photographs, the dogs look wild, but also immortal, as if their spirits have burned themselves onto the landscape.
Letting the dog live would mean that the fearsome, unknowable, elemental shadow of the dog might appear in your house, fictional or otherwise, at unpredictable moments. It would mean that you would not only think of your dog as an oxytocin delivery system for your wellness situation (see any number of recent articles about the way looking into a dog’s eyes delivers a big hit of stress-reducing oxytocin, like a living supplement), but also as a sentient being trying to work out its shit. It would mean accepting that the dog will die on its own time, for its own reasons, and that you will never be ready for it, and you will hang your head down and cry in the vet’s office. It would mean that you would have to figure out another way to end your story. It would mean that you could stand it that the dog is also a storyteller, but you will never know the story the dog is telling, because you can’t read it, no matter how much both you and the dog might wish it were otherwise. It would mean that you know that it’s all that warm, shitting, melancholy, barking life that really tests us for years and years, not whether or not we can shoot things dead in a few seconds, thus ending the often painfully inadequate conversation. It would mean that you are aware that letting the dog live is the most serious thing you can do, and that it may be, in fact, a life’s work. Scrabble of paws. Scent of fur. Glimpse of shadow.