Bisou may well be my last dog. If I’m lucky and she lives to fifteen, I’ll be eighty, probably not a good age for me to start a relationship with a new dog. These evenings, as she snoozes by my side in front of the fireplace, I have been reviewing my history with the canine species, starting with yellow Ali, who belonged to the concierge of our Barcelona building, and whose barks terrified me as they bounced off the marble floor and walls of the lobby. There was also a pair of German shepherds belonging to a French couple who were friends of my parents. The dogs shed fleas in the elevator, and the fleas would then leap ravenously on me. “Just look at this child–they have eaten her alive! It’s a disgrace!” my mother would lament at the sight of my welts. But she was too polite to complain to the owners.
The main dog of those early years was my veterinarian grandfather’s hunting dog, a field-bred Irish Setter. He was named Hunding by my father, an ardent lover of Wagner, after a character in The Valkyrie whose name means “son of a hound.” In the fall, Hunding would hunt partridge and quail with my grandfather and my uncle, but the rest of the year he spent in the farmhouse courtyard (and I can barely stand to write this), tied to his shed by a long chain. Sometimes Hunding broke loose and disappeared over the horizon, and when he returned (and I’m really having to force myself to write this), my uncle would beat him, to “teach him a lesson.” Why Hunding kept coming back is one of those mysteries of the canine heart.
By the standards of the time, neither my grandfather nor my uncle were cruel to animals. In fact Hunding, who had been nursed as a puppy with precious eggs from my grandmother’s hens, lived into his teens. But to spend year after year, except for the short hunting season, tied up by a length of chain, seems like the worst possible misery for an animal bred to run and possessed of sufficient intelligence and devotion to pick up dead birds gently in his mouth and surrender them to a human.
Every June, when we arrived at the farm, Hunding would greet us with yelps of joy, straining at the end of his chain, begging to touch us and be touched. But not only was I never allowed to touch poor Hunding, I was warned to give him wide berth. Why? Setters are not naturally aggressive, and the only danger lay in the poor dog’s possibly jumping up on me and getting mud on my dress. It never occurred to the otherwise loving adults around me that Hunding might have made a good playmate for me. He was essentially treated as a superior form of livestock, a step above the horses and mules, fed and sheltered but valued mostly for his usefulness in the field.
When we returned to Catalonia for a visit after five years in the Americas, I was fifteen, and Hunding, whose muzzle was now completely white, had retired from hunting. He was succeeded by an English Pointer whose name I don’t remember. When I look at the photo below, I am surprised that neither dog is leashed. When did Hunding stop running away? Was he happier now that he wasn’t chained up all the time? Did he enjoy having another dog around? Did he remember me when I arrived? How much longer did he live?
But those are questions that the present-day me is asking. At the time, dogs were not much in my mind. I had not been brought up to think of dogs as beings with whom one could have a deeply significant relationship. It would take another decade, and lots of mistakes, for me to discover that.
It’s autumn in Vermont, and as I watch Bisou disport herself among the leaves, looking for all the world like a miniature Irish Setter, I wonder if her deep red coat, love of speed, and “birdiness” are gifts sent to me by the long-gone Hunding, who would have liked to be my friend. (To be continued.)