Monday, April 12, 2010

Le Chien, by Melanie Faith

I. Le Woof-Woof:

I crouched on the cobblestones, a bright fuchsia bougainvillea shrub and scuba-gear store at my back. Framing the dog’s expressive face across the street at the café, I silently willed him look over here, come on, just once more--there we go! My shutter a split second too late. Ah! A soundless exhale, my left hand reaching out, assuring him I am friendly, my right hand releasing the shutter. The anguish! Take three. Le Woof-Woof exhibited the kind of patient ennui that his master, who did not happen to be anywhere nearby, would have found fitting. Like most European dogs I had encountered, Le Woof-Woof did not have a leash. European dogs in general did not run with wild abandon in the carefully landscaped public parks--they stuck to the owner’s sides or were carried. They were a curious mixture of spoiled senseless and disciplined. This, after all, was the land of General Charles De Gaulle, who one quipped, “The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs.” Sure, they demonstrated a modicum of normal dogness--sniffing curiosity, intent observation, alertness--and yet most exhibited nary a bark nor signal of aggression. These were not their boundless and infinitely energetic American cousins. Le Woof-Woof tilted his head twenty degrees to observe tourists climbing steep steps through village roads carved deep and twisting into the mountainside. Then, unaffected, just as easily glanced away, straight over my shoulder for my third try is a charm.

II. Dog-Less:

Growing up, we were forbidden to have a dog. “Dogs are too much work,” Mom pronounced--and she would know, having grown up on a dairy farm where housework and barn chores were a perpetual facet. Being typical children, however, My sister and I circumvented this ruling through pet shop visits, attempting to get Dad to sneak a dog home (no such luck--although Dad did rescue two pigeons from an about-to-be-demolished building, which we named Maude and Claude, and housed in a coop in the apple orchard), and when all else failed, we begged. Finally, my sister and I started bringing home a menagerie of “allowed” pets including hosts of fish (dead-in-a-day goldfish along with tropical fish that did not fare much longer), a rabbit my sister named Licorice that was a prize from a country fair ring toss, and a host of stray outdoor cats from surrounding farms and their legions of kittens that we named, cuddled, and set free. When I was sixteen, my sister bought a guinea pig, Daphne, who would squeal on cue whenever the freezer door was opened because peas were her raison d’être.

III. Hot Dog!:

Google Search:
“Dog”: 286,000,000 results
“Puppy”: 35,000,000
“Dog Quotes”: 34,300,000
“Man’s Best Friend”: 17,600,000
“Canine”: 16,100,000
“Pooch”: 2,870,000

IV. Princess:

My cousins across town had a large and affable border collie. In a family with five children and scores of cousins dropping by on weekends, Princess was gentle beyond all good sense. You could pull her fur and ears, or ride her like a circus pony (which several younger cousins attempted) and she would stand unflappable, her tail wagging. You could hear her toenails like high heels scampering across the kitchen tiles to find the nearest clump of children and there she would hang out in the huddle, pleased to be included, even when that meant attempting to sausage her into doll clothes too small for her. French dogs, I could tell upon study, would have none of that.

V. Le Chien:

My sister and I took the train into Nice (testing our flagging high school French skills: “Je voudrais un billet, s’il vous plait”). Crowded with buskers, tourist shops and fast food restaurants, we had wandered from the platform to streets along the main thoroughfare, past the bookstore vendor who scolded me in rapid fire for photographing a poster of Nicolas Sarcozy through the window. After several days in Spain and Italy, we wondered if France would be a wash.

Then, after our return trip “sur le train,” we ambled through a tinier nearby village, Villefranche. This visual map dotted the atmospheric fulfillment of every picture-book-American-in-France fantasy Hollywood ever envisioned. From the friendly vendeuse who sold me batches of postcards and initiated chatty conversation about how I had picked the best ones and was going to keep them all for myself (I kept one), to the ancient apartments, louvered shutters flung wide to display laundry, the pristine white power boats bobbing in the harbor, the damp cathedral vestibule with candles flickering but no supplicants in sight, and even the toddler on his tricycle pedaling home with two trailing parents close behind (one with the newspaper, the other with a bakery bag). Parfait! Sister wanted espresso while I wanted freedom to amble the tourist bazaar, so we parted amicably. Five minutes in--after perusing milled lavender soap bars that I could purchase for a third the price at home and lovely hand-painted silks--I spotted him. Le Woof-Woof.

What first struck me about the dog was his expression, which resembled a long-ago acquaintance. Not that it is a detriment to either’s handsomeness--quite the contrary. But it wasn’t only this doppelganger quality to the dog that drew me in. On a Mediterranean June afternoon, Le Woof-Woof reminded me of a landlocked rural farming community: home.

I thought of the future--and in that future I imagined a similarly lounging dog on painted porch boards on a lazy Saturday. Dogs symbolize the unconditional security we crave and, at the same time, an inquisitive spirit that we yearn to retain. As European novelist Milan Kundera has noted, “Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring, it was peace.” In a world that can be anything but secure or sensible, dogs represent something deeply tender, observant, yet optimistic in us, the better qualities we lose track of in the gleaning and grasping and running breathlessly forward.

MELANIE FAITH holds an MFA in poetry from Queens University of Charlotte, NC. She recently had a travel essay featured in Quicksilver (U. of Texas, March 2010), and another published essay (Shape of a Box, Oct. 2009) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work won the 2009 Anne E. Sucher Poetry Prize for the Iguana Review, and her articles about creative writing were published in The Writer and Writers' Journal. Her current poetry chapbook, Bright, Burning Fuse, was published by Etched Press ( in December 2008. Her poetry and photography are forthcoming from Schuylkill Valley Journal, Porter Gulch Review, and Old Red Kimono (Spring 2010).

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