strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Black Hound at Sunset

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 3, 2017

This isn’t quite the first piece I published in a national magazine, but it’s the first one that I felt good about. It ran in 1979 in Sports Illustrated, which back then took an interest in the world beyond Big Four sports.  I sent a copy to E.B. White, to thank him for some of the the things he had taught me about writing, and he replied, saying “when I got around to reading it, later, I could not put it down.”  This piece also appeared in my story collection Every Creeping Thing (Holt 1998).

by Richard Conniff

The sun was shining over the Atlantic when I arrived at the end of what had been a wet, stormy September day. I was staying the night at a hostel on Crohy Head about five miles from Dunglow, County Donegal. Inside, there was a turf fire and tea, and though I had already put in many miles on foot, the sun drew me out of doors again as soon as I had warmed myself a bit.

The hostel stood on a high spot with pasturage running down to the rocks and the water. Clambering over a stone wall, I walked slowly down through the grass. A stream babbled nearby, though the overgrowth almost hid it completely. Distracted by the murmuring water, I didn’t notice until the last moment the black dog racing down on me. It ran with a crazy, bucketing speed, and it leaped up at me almost before I had spotted it.

I have always been good with dogs, and I found I was particularly compatible with those in the West of Ireland. It was easy. The dogs there generally look alike and share the same quiet temperament; they are bred to herd sheep. “You seldom get a cross sheep dog,” a Mayo farmer had told me, as his dog rested its head against my knee. I hadn’t met a cross one yet, and so I didn’t panic when the dog

came at me.

It twisted in midair, landed at my feet and was up again immediately, leaping and turning. Like a sheep dog, it didn’t growl or bark, but I’d never seen one so wild and frenetic. Most of them I had come across in Ireland were content to sit listening and watching in the corner of a field or to wait patiently in a farmhouse for their meal of potato skins and milk. I saw by the mad, happy look in this dog’s eyes that it wanted a tussle. I offered it my arm. Then I wrestled and boxed with it and spun it around, letting it leap for my hand and the sleeve of my jacket. It was skinny and stood only knee high, so I was able to toss it about without much effort.

The sheep dog started playing other games with me, trying to make me run. It charged me, cutting and bobbing. It dashed down the hill and then came back a bit to tease me on, leaping out of reach each time I drew near. After running in tight circles around me, it bolted out of sight, only to appear a few moments later on a knoll two fields away. Its speed and energy startled me. It didn’t leap the stone walls with the compact forward motion of a horse. Instead, it took them with an insane springiness that seemed to leave it suspended in the red sunlight, 1½ feet above the wall.

I followed the dog across the fields, playing the game. When I stopped to catch my breath by the ruins of a church, the dog darted in and out of the vacant doors and windows, calling me back to the chase. It drew me on insistently until we got to the bottom of the field, which surmounted a sheer, 30-foot cliff.

A finger of the Atlantic ran beneath the cliff and the sea whirled and spat and washed around the rocks below. I paused to take the scene in. The sun, a great red ball, was slowly dropping into the sea. It lit up the red-and-brown cliff face, the rich, green grass, the gray stone ruins. Everything in sight was timeless, as if it had not changed in the centuries since the Armada sailed past these shores.

But the dog had no interest in sightseeing. It ran down the irregular rocks to the sea as a house dog might go down the back stairs. It was as if the dog could have done it blindfolded. It stopped only to look at me curiously. Twice it came back up onto the grassy headland to urge me on. I didn’t move at first. I didn’t trust the way the sea rolled into the little inlet and then went sucking back out. Was it a rising or a falling tide? How deep was the water around the rocks?

Such considerations didn’t affect the dog, who ran down to the water’s edge and continued on, stepping from one rock to another, into the middle of the inlet, where the sea was all around it. It made the trip slowly, looking over its shoulder as if to instruct me. Then once again it returned to me on the headland. There was really nothing to be afraid of, I thought. The weather was fine. There was still plenty of daylight. The dog would be my guide.

I climbed down slowly, unsure of my footing. The dog ran ahead with its characteristic abandon, stopping at intervals for me to catch up. I slipped and fell once, and it came back to inspect me with its gray-blue eyes. It pronounced me well and then stood behind me, urging me on.

I looked again at the swirling water and at the clear sky. I thought of Ireland’s weather, “changeable as a baby’s bottom.” Only that afternoon, on the Bloody Foreland, the country’s northwestern tip, I had watched this same sea lashing at the rocky coast in a great, white, boiling fury. A blinding rain had whipped in over the low farmland, tearing at the hand-stacked oat ricks. “There’s nothing from here till you get to America,” one fellow had told me, “so the sea has plenty of room to work up a rage.”

From its perch on a rock a few feet away, the dog looked back at me expectantly. The red sun showed it handsomely, all black, with those penetrating eyes. It waited for me. I wondered, only half jokingly, if it was some agent of the sea gods, leading me away from the safety of land. I had been told of demon cats in Irish folklore. Were there demon dogs, too? In the un-Anglicized Irish, my family name (MacConduibh) means “Son of a Black Hound.” Was this dog the agent of some personal Irish destiny, some retribution due my ancestors who had lived in the West of Ireland a long time ago?

I stepped out onto the rock. The dog turned, and with that characteristic springiness, leaped one rock farther out. Then it turned and waited. When I hesitated too long, it came back to draw me on. And so I followed it from rock to rock. It wasn’t satisfied until I had come to the last rock in the little archipelago. We stopped, with the sea rushing around us and cliffs on either side, and at last it sat down like a sheep dog, staring quietly straight ahead.

I followed its gaze, peering anxiously into the west for a squall rolling in from America, but the Atlantic had taken on a glassy evening calm.

The dog was watching the sunset.

It was a perfect spot. At the mouth of the inlet there was no distraction, nothing to obstruct our view. The sun lit up a great red path straight across the sea. We watched silently as it settled down into the ocean. Then, in the dusk, the dog led me slowly back over the rocks and up onto the headland. Someone was calling when we reached the road. The dog’s ears went up, and we parted almost as abruptly as we had met.

END

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One Response to “Black Hound at Sunset”

  1. 24-6.org said

    I really liked that. How remarkable and written with as compelling a pace. Truly mankind’s companions.

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