Sunset Dog Beach
(Near Edinburgh, Scotland)
Rab sits on a log looking across the sea to Fife enjoying the view and thinking. If this sunset were music, it would be a rich symphony, or better still Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, resplendent with drama, noise and passion.
In front of him yellow and red flames leap from a brightly burning fire.
He sits in a cove surrounded by sand dunes, which make a surprising pasture for the marram grass growing there. Boulders, rocks, and flotsam slope downward away from the fire. In the middle of all this is a patch of smooth, firm sand, a clear space in contrast to the jumble of natural disorder that surrounds it. The patch runs all the way down to small lapping waves, which add a constant rhythm to the scene.
He made the fire quickly with bone-dry marram grass hidden under this year’s fresh growth. He could have built a huge fire with all the wood available but he settled for a smaller, contained fire … and he sits close, where flames warm the chill out of him. Dusk has come early on this Sunday evening in early autumn. He’s alone, and the fire shines into the gloaming to create a pool of light that defies glowering clouds slashed through with vivid red and streaks of blue. Opposite - over the Forth lies Kirkcaldy, a thousand pinpricks of light, and behind them are the Paps of Fife running into mist and darkness.
Rab bends nearer the fire. He hears the waves; he feels the chill touch of the breeze. He savours the smell of wood smoke and the contrast of firelight and the sky darkening. He tastes salt in the air. His thoughts are calm and tranquil.
Rab is dozing in front of the fire when he feels something wet on his left hand, the cold tip of a nose. A dog has joined him without making a sound, an attractive and fit looking dog with black fur with some white in it and an intelligent face. He looks at the man expectantly, his ears standing, alert and ready for action. Rab pats him and rubs behind his ears. In response, the dog licks his hands and rests on his haunches.
The dog wears no name-tag and is not at all concerned about being alone with a stranger. They sit together in amiable silence looking at the fire, serene and at peace.
‘‘Nae thing like a guid fire to warm your fur,’ the dog says.
The dog sits up with his tongue hanging out. He looks at Rab as if expecting an answer. Rab stares down at him. This is an important moment in their relationship. He thinks back to other dogs he has spoken with over the last few years. Quite a few when he adds them up. His golden rule with dogs is ‘be prepared to be friends with the intelligent ones.’ He won’t waste any more time with the numpties.
Rab’s early surprise when he discovered he could talk to dogs has passed, although he thinks that it’s unnatural. It began over fifteen years ago when he had a near death experience on a holiday in Papua New Guinea, swimming in a river when a strong current dragged him under. He knew his time had come. As he began to lose consciousness a man appeared. He had decorative scars on his face, and hair matted with paint and sticks and feathers. The apparition poured a drink into Rab’s open mouth. His heart beat so hard it felt as if it would push itself out his throat. His body roared with fire. He blacked out.
When he woke he lay in a grass-roofed hut. Later the local shaman came through the door, the same man he had seen in his apparition.
“Drinking the powerful medicine – Iaawaska – saved you; I am here to complete the miracle,” he said.
Rab accompanied the shaman to the spirit world and met his spiritual animal … a dog, the first dog he had ever spoken to … the first of many.
Rab feels tense now; his stomach knots. This happens when he thinks about his special gift. After all, he is rational, a scientist. How can he deal with the fact that he can talk to dogs?
The dog makes a friendly whimpering noise and wags his tail. He nuzzles up to the man. He knows what this man needs, uncritical and unbounded affection and loyalty … qualities beyond reason.
‘Where are you from?’ Rab asks.
‘North of here, Master’ the dog says, and tilts his head to one side.
‘What’s your rank?’
‘Second to the pack leader.’
‘Do you have a name?’
‘Aye, Master, it’s Spear.’
‘Who are your friends?’
‘All of the pack except the leader.’
‘Good, you seem okay, we can talk.’
‘You realise that logically this can’t be happening. It means one of two things. Either I have broken through the species barrier, or I have gone mad. I find both of those alternatives unacceptable.’
‘Master is worrit. Throw a stick, I’ll run after it for you. It’ll make you feel better.’
‘Not now … Maybe I should conduct an experiment. But my colleagues will never believe me.
‘They dinnae have to. You and I are allies. Foreby, oor ancestors fought th’gither through the ages. Dinnae fash, let me comfort you.’
‘Listen Spear, you’re an animal, a dog. You operate by instinct and gut feelings. I’m advanced, I have an intellect and I operate on rational principles, yet I feel as though I’ve lost something. I don’t feel content. Perhaps I should be more like you!’
‘Master, can I speak plainly?’
‘Do you ken that humans treat us dogs fairly?’
‘No, not everyone but you have legal rights, you know. People can’t treat you just as they want with impunity.’
‘But ye ken humans’ abuse dogs!
‘Yes they do, but then humans abuse each other and sometimes for no apparent reason.’
‘Och aye Master, and this is what you cry rational-scientific is it?’
Spear feels compassion for the man. He has seen into his heart. What resides there is loneliness. The man uses logic and rationality to fend off despair. But Spear sees that this is a good Master, a better man than his last. He was neglectful; left Spear alone every day, ignored him and did nae feed him richt. But Spear senses the man’s anger; he doesn’t want to admit his fragility and is frightened of commitment, to Spear or to anyone else.
‘You’re nae alone Master, you’re a part of nature, a part of a’thing. You’re part o the human pack with your position understood by all.”
Rab thinks of his mother, brother and sister. He remembers being part of a family, but he’s on his own now. He’ll tell the dog to go. He doesn’t need anyone or anything.
Before he can speak, Spear looks up to the night sky. A full moon has appeared from behind the clouds. He stretches his head back and howls … a long heartfelt plea to the universe.
A moment later, far off, an answering howl, and then another and a third, a fourth … a tenth.
Shadows appear at the edge of the firelight. One dog comes nearer than the rest, gnarled and more like a wolf than a dog, fur missing from his coat and yellow fangs showing.
From nowhere Rab hears the voice of the shaman telling him to overcome his fear and look into the eyes of the wolf dog.
He can’t help it, he looks into the primordial eyes and his vision becomes blurred, his boundaries become indistinct; waves of light flow over him and bathe him in warmth. Passion grips him and he feels a strong bond with the pack. He understands them. Rab knows the name of wolf dog; he’s called Scar. He’s the aggressive side of nature, he has to control and dominate; the opposite of Spear, who is generous and compassionate. It’s an elemental clash.
Scar jumps onto Spear and knocks him over. He lunges and takes Spear’s throat, going for his windpipe and his jugular artery.
The pack barks and howls encouragement.
Now Rab looks into Spear’s eyes and he sees himself years earlier on the ground, under the body of the school bully astride him, hitting him in the face. Rab recalls the taste of metallic blood and the pain, the humiliation. He remembers his integrity and spirit compromised. Then his schoolteacher Mr. Derbyshire pulled the bully off and threw him against the chain fence surrounding the tennis court.
Rab doesn’t hesitate; he draws his knife and thrusts it into Scar’s heart.
After a moment’s silence, the pack moves forward, growling.
Spear jumps into the pack but not to fight. He turns towards the man.
‘Master it’s time to decide. Open your mind and feel the union of the pack. Become one with us.’
Rab could go home to his cold, lonely flat, he could return to his tedious research job. But his heart jumps, it craves to be part of something vital and alive; to become a true aspect of nature. His heart demands that he answer Spear and face the pack. Rab looks up and howls at the moon
Next day some walkers come across the remains of a fire. A man’s clothes lie nearby. Dozens of paw marks score the sand, but there’s no sign of where the pack went.