During the decade I edited the annual Best Canadian Stories I included stories by Cynthia Flood twice, no mean recommendation. But I didn’t know her otherwise. Then, last fall, we bonded in the green room at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. I was there for Savage Love and she was touring for her remarkable and hugely-praised story collection Red Girl Rat Boy (Biblioasis, 2013). Today NC offers a brand new Cynthia Flood story: starts with a small walking tour of the Pyrenean foothills, decayed French villages, haunted by the Cathars and their bloody suppression, haunted by Klaus Barbie and the Nazis, haunted by history, all this haunting concretized in the form of a stray dog with blood on its muzzle that follows the group, like a scapegoat or a threat. “The Dog and the Sheep” is a marvelous story of middleclass (tourist) naiveté and the dark mysteries that lurk just at the margins of consciousness.
Late in the afternoon the dog appeared again, around a curve some way ahead on the road.
She had often come trotting back to us. We were slow, halting to name and photograph a flower, or to query as our tour guide spoke of local limestone formations. Of French cheese-making. Of the peasant houses (animals downstairs, people up) in the Cathar villages we’d visited. Of the Cathar heresy: adherents saw evil and good as equal powers, chose poverty, strove to be kind. Of their betrayers, the informants paid in the usual currencies of cash or sex.
“Shocking,” we agreed.
French wine-making, too. Terroir, very important.
Nearer the dog came, wagging, closer, until those at the front of our walking group cried out.
In a huddle, we all stared.
Blood covered the dog’s muzzle, stained the delicate fur beneath her eyes, dabbled an ear.
“My God, what’s she done?”
Our cries drove her off a little, puzzled, her tail drooping. Through that red mask she peered at us over her shoulder.
Early that morning, this dog had turned up.
As we left the gite where we’d spent the night, we spoke of the Inquisition’s unsparing work in that particular village. In 1308 every single resident got arrested for heresy.
Our walking tour itself was titled In The Footsteps of the Cathars, though most participants had signed up to see the beauty of the Pyrenean foothills. Some did feel that faith, if not extreme, might sustain social order? In a good way? One or two, confusing Cathars with Camino, had expected to follow a specific route taken by all the heretics to a singular destination.
“I wonder how many Cathars, total, got burned at the stake.”
“Are we going to be so gloomy all day?”
“I’m just glad I didn’t live then.”
“Tomorrow’s the castle of the Really Big Burn.”
“Oh no, not rain again!”
Past the last house in the village, our guide paused till we all caught up. “Our way starts here.”
We stood by a single gravestone at a field’s edge, a stone tilting somewhat and obscured by long wet grass. Ici est morte, we read in our remembered high-school French, Ici est morte / 18 Aout 1944 / Castella Pierre / innocente victime / de la barbarie Nazie.
“Glad I wasn’t here for that, either.”
Then this dog rose out of a ditch.
A mutt. Thin, scruffy, brown, collar-less, small-eyed. Dark long nipples swinging. She came close, wouldn’t quite allow pats, whimpered, scuttled away, returned to circle and sniff, hung back till she saw where we tended. Then she rushed forward to wait for us, panting.
“D’you suppose she has puppies somewhere near?”
“Get away!” Our guide thrust his hazel stick at her. She yelped.
“If she has, she’ll go back to the village,” we concluded, and went on.
As we were led from one thin grassy path to another and then to a narrow road of beaten earth, light rain continued. On all sides now the fields spread out in their spring greens, shining wet, and in the distance the terrain sloped up, polka-dotted with sheep, to a forested plateau.
“Up there we shall walk,” our guide said.
The dog trotted ahead, looking back to check we were still in view. The breeze wafted moisture at us, swirled it into loose airy necklaces.
Behind us sounded a — truck? French. So little!
We smiled, moving aside for the vehicle to pass, but it stopped so the three men inside could joke and talk with our guide. They spoke so fast we grasped nothing.
The driver pointed inquiringly at the dog.
“Problème.” Our guide shrugged. More laughter.
As the van moved off, the unknown men wiggled their eyebrows at us and waved.
“Foresters,” said our guide. “They work not far from where we walk today. To remove the rotten branch. Inspect for pasts, no, pests.”
“But how on earth do they manage with that van? Trop petite!”
The discussion lasted until we neared a larger road. In its middle sat the dog. Intently she watched us approach, her head sticking up above the hedge lining the route.
“Thinks she’s hiding.”
“Stupid! She’ll get run over.”
“Never been trained.”
“Why the hell doesn’t she go back where she came from?”
Our guide chased the dog until she howled and ran off.
We crossed the road and walked alongside a field. Its unknown tall grains swayed close by us, and their wet silky heads made moiré patterns under the breeze. Mesmerizing.
Without no notice, our guide made a turn into a tall green tunnel of shrubs and small trees (what the Irish call a boreen) that ran off at an angle from the field. We’d not noticed the entrance, draped with wet vines.
“Just as well this isn’t a self-guided tour!”
“Too right, we’d be lost in no time.”
After emerging from the tunnel we started uphill, and half an hour later paused to look back at the valley we’d traversed. In the rain it formed a long trough full of silver-green air, resembling the great stone troughs in the ancient villages we’d passed through, shapes empty now but once alive, sparkling, with laundry and the hands of women.
Now we were ascending a great staircase, up on what had once been terraced farmland. Disuse had blurred the steps to faint ledges.
The rain got serious. We stopped to put on rain-pants and jackets, and went on.
After an hour the dog re-appeared, wagging madly. A hand reached out to pat. She snapped, cringed, ran.
“Damn that bitch!”
“Maybe her puppies got taken too early, and she’s upset.”
“Couldn’t we get her back to where we started?”
“Are you kidding?”
Our guide, looking dour, moved on. We followed.
The temperature dropped steadily, the rain chilled. As hands went into pockets for gloves and woolly hats, the dog came near again. She’d stretch out her front paws and drop her head, abasing herself, and then look up in hope.
“No! Nothing for you.”
We climbed. She came close, sniffed, almost nudged.
“Go home!” Whack of the hazel stick.
She yelped, but stuck around.
When at last we attained the forested plateau, the dog pranced about and shook herself as if happy to be in the dry at last. So were we. All of us were wrong, though. Up there, a freshening wind blew rain through the trees and also made their foliage shed thousands of cold drops already accumulated.
Our way was stony, muddy, and so narrow that the dog left the track to move to and fro among the trees. Some of us tried that too, but low branches and hidden roots made our balance as uncertain as did the stones underfoot. Stepped on, they often slid. We stepped in liquid mud, stepped, stepped among the black pines sheathed in ebony plates. Sweet-smelling fir. The thin grey trunks of fagus sylvatica. Holm oaks, festooned with catkins.
“Where’s that dog got to?”
“Headed back to the village, probably.”
“Sensible creature’s gone to shelter. Not like us!”
Not our guide. “A dog to run about the forest is not good. Higher up on the montaigne is wild boar. Deer. Sheep of course. And — wolfs?”
We went on.
Were those animals observing us as we came through their country? Some in our group had seen wild boars on YouTube. Not as large as pigs. Mean tusks, though. One told a story from a TV newscast about a huge sow in Ontario stomping on a drunk, killing him.
A howl sounded from behind, a blundering rush. We turned. Just as the frantic dog reached us, we sensed a blurred motion away, away in the trees and gone, like a curtain shaken then still.
“Roe deer,” said our guide. “Bad animal!” He shook his stick.
The dog’s chest heaved. Whining, she skulked off, followed again.
Then the terrain altered.
We started downhill. That steepness — how odd to be almost vertical after two hours’ walking on the flat! Our feet felt unfamiliar. The trees changed too. More conifers, fewer deciduous. Progress, we thought.
Also we wondered, Lunch? Daily, leaving our gites, we each got a bag holding ten inches of buttered baguette (we measured) stuffed with meat or fish plus hard-boiled egg and tomato. Local cheese, a slab. Cold meat, sliced. Fresh salad. Cake. Our guide carried dark chocolate, also a mini camp-stove for hot drinks.
We went on.
The rainy twist of trail down through the trees grew steep and steeper. We slowed, slowed. Many stones now underfoot were larger than those up on the plateau, but they still slipped. Terracotta-coloured mud ran two inches thick, clogging our boots. Our hiking poles must be used for every step, while our guide moved urgently amongst us to point out safe foot placements, to repeat Attention! Rain fell. Occasionally some of us did too, delaying the group to cope with minor injuries.
We murmured of forestry campsites at home, of fire-watchers’ cabins. Did our guide plan a lunch-stop at a similar place?
The dog came close again, but whenever a hand reached out she’d show her teeth. Shouts and rushes drove her off, snarling.
Always the path turned down through the pines to — where? None of us knew. With fewer deciduous trees, the forest’s ambience dulled. No more wry jokes about la boue. Silence, except curses and rain.
Again the dog came close. On her forelegs, mud reached well above the carpal pad.
“Poor thing bit me, remember?”
“She needs people.”
“Well, we don’t need her.”
Another distant noise sounded, r-rr-rrrrrr. Not animal, mechanical. Piercing. It’d hurt your ears, close up. Rrr-r-r-r-r.
“Must be the foresters.”
“Why haven’t we seen them?”
Why indeed? What route had they taken? Surely that cartoon vehicle couldn’t go cross-country like an ATV?
Then our guide loosened his pack. “Time to eat.”
Here? Steep slope. Dripping pines. No stumps or rocks to sit on.
Standing in a ring of soggy backpacks on the forest floor, we ate.
R-rr-rrrr, further off.
The dog grovelled, whined, begged. Our guide, about to shoo her, aborted his gesture when one of us tossed her a slice of ham. Another threw torn bits of baguette on the mud. A tomato landed there, a cube of cheese, half a hard-boiled egg.
Even as the dog swallowed, her pleading glance moved up again.
“C’est tout!” Our guide raised his voice.
“No more for you, greedy girl.”
Some of us ate all our lunch, some repacked much of it. We stretched, or leaned against trees to relax while drinking coffee and tea, well-sugared.
The dog sidled amongst us, sniffing at hands, bums, packs.
“Are you deaf? That’s all!”
Packs on again, poles in hand, la boue again.
Down those stony steeps for another nameless time, down, down.
More slips, delays, wrenches, bruises. We went on. Only the chill rain stayed steady, and the dog slinking off into the trees (who cared what kinds they were?) or weaving amongst us on her muddy paws. Once, close to the trail, she squatted.
“Dammit, not right here!”
Small dry turds.
How far, how much longer, when? Some asked, others cringed. Like kids pestering a parent, we knew what our guide would say.
Then the rain stopped. We didn’t notice right away. At ten that morning we’d reached the plateau; our watches said five pm when we realized that the sound of falling water was MIA.
The steep softened first into a hill, next to a gentle slope. The dog lolloped ahead, out of sight. In sunshine, peeling off sodden jackets and hats and gloves, we exited the forest laughing.
For the first time in hours, our guide smiled. “Now we see the Kermes oak. Not the holm any more.”
Our legs, trembling, sought to adjust as we moved into the valley and across a sunny meadow sprinkled with primula, tricolor pansy, anemone, cowslip, speedwell — all bright-eyed still with rain.
Ahead rose the foothills. Atop one stood the grey ruined teeth of the castle where the greatest immolation occurred. To be bundled alive into the flames or to deny their faith: two choices, those Cathars had.
We walked alongside a brook whose current carried a thousand spangles downstream, and soon reached a gravel road. This, our guide assured us, led to the nearby town where we would spend the night.
Round a curve ahead, the dog appeared again. Came closer, trotting, wagging. Those at the front of our group stopped.
We all stopped.
“What’s she done?”
Over her shoulder, that puzzled red face, peering.
We hastened forward.
In a depression at the roadside lay a large ewe, fallen.
She could nearly have been an illustration for a children’s book, that sheep. Background: blue sky, tall green grass. Foreground: the beautiful creature in her seemingly restful motherly pose, in her roundness, her billowy shining creamy woolliness — but her swelling hindquarters, fully exposed to our view, had been savaged to a bloody mangle. One leg was raw. She could not move.
Patient, full of pain, her large eyes met our gaze.
“Wolf,” stated our guide.
“Not — ?”
“Her? No no, too stupid, she just sticks in her nose for a taste. Wolf.” He pointed at the steeps we’d just descended.
Some loudly wished for a gun, a knife.
Others noted that the sheep was not ours to kill.
We walked on along the valley.
The brook, still shallow, grew broader. While fording it, by silent agreement we lured with ham the red-faced dog who’d chosen us. We grabbed her, struggling, yelping, to splash and rub her furry face till she no longer looked a murderer. While controlling her thus, we touched her nipples. Hard as horn. No loved puppies, not for years.
At the first farm we came to, our guide went in to leave word of the desperate sheep, so that her owner in this life could be notified and come to end his property’s pain.
“They will phone him,” he said, returning.
Would this happen before the wolf came back?
We went on.
The dog circled near, ran off, came back.
No one threw food. No one tried to pat. Why, we asked ourselves, did this animal, so obviously fearing yet desiring human contact, not have a home?
Did the SPCA operate in France? Even if so, there’d hardly be a branch in the small town.
Why are people so careless?
Why do they not train their dogs?
Why do they not affix identification tags to their dogs’ collars, vaccinate the animals, have their teeth checked?
What could we do about the damn dog?
“La mairie,” said our guide when we put the matter to him. “We’ll take her there.”
The town hall was closed, though, by the time we’d walked over the centuries-old bridge (our stream had grown to a river) and threaded our way along the narrow streets, faced with houses washed in white or cream, to the green of the central square. Here stood rubbish bins where we dumped our leftovers, and here a fountain played near a large memorial to locals killed in one or another World War. A smaller, special stone was dedicated to local héros de la résistance. The plane trees’ dappled trunks were re-dappled by the late sun among the leaves, and, on one corner of the square, red shutters shielded the windows of our small hotel.
Exhaustion, held back for hours, at this sight filled all of us.
We entered the lobby, the dog pushing forward too.
“Mais non,” said Monsieur to the animal that had walked twenty kilometers with us that day. (Perhaps thirty, given how she’d run back and forth and circled?) The door, closing, touched her nose.
Later we came down to a pleasant sitting-room that looked out through small panes to the hotel’s courtyard, bright with red pelargoniums. A fire warmed the hearth. Madame, smiling, poured kir for us and for guests from other tours. Quite a United Nations we made, really, travellers from every continent.
And here were the foresters again.
One exclaimed, “You made so loud noise!” All three laughed.
Graceless, we felt. Dumb tourists, trailed unawares by savvy locals.
Another forester chortled, “We found this.” A glove, with a clip for attaching to a belt. “Not latched, no good! This, too.” A candy wrapper.
The third commented, “That dog with you, we see her often today. No good in the woods. No sense.”
“Ouaf ouaf, all the time!” agreed Monsieur. “I have let her stay there,” and he pointed to the courtyard, “tonight. Then she goes out.”
A wicker chair beside a puddle offered partial shelter from the rain. Nose on paws, the bitch looked up.
Monsieur made the face that says Not my concern. His busy day wouldn’t feature escorting a stray to the town hall. As for Madame, her mien indicated abstention from this topic.
“Couldn’t we — ?”
Our guide answered, “We leave too early.”
After a jagged silence, one forester suggested that he and his fellows return the dog to the village we’d walked from, that day.
“We work there tomorrow. It is her home, yes?”
The glove’s owner pocketed it, while Monsieur tossed the crumpled candy wrapper on to the flames. Its silvery coating flared. We all sipped kir.
A South African exclaimed, “Dinner smells wonderful, Madame!”
A Scot agreed, and a Californian. We all agreed.
While we were at table, Monsieur talked about the magnificent trees on the terrain we’d crossed. Especially he admired the strength and longevity of the Kermes oak. In calcareous, pebbly soil it throve, indifferent to that chemistry.
We asked him about the semi-deserted villages we’d walked through, the proliferating À Louer and À Vendre signs, the shut schools, the ancient churchyards poorly maintained.
He considered. “Every century has its disasters. These are ours.”
Madame nodded. We went on to her hazelnut cake.
All night it rained.
Next day’s breakfast featured blackcurrant and apricot jams, made by la maman et la belle-maman de Madame from fruit grown in the hotel’s garden. Croissants, home-made. We ate quite fresh oranges. The foresters were not at table, nor the dog in the courtyard.
Soon the tour company’s van arrived, to take us to the start of our climb to the site of the great burning. We looked forward to being driven. Our luggage stuffed in, we squeezed giggling on to the narrow seats as our hosts bade us a courteous farewell.
In another town at the end of that day we ate a celebratory dinner, laughing and talking at a table crowded with bottles and serving dishes, to conclude our tour.
As we finished the wine, some of our group confessed that at dawn they’d heard barking. Had opened the red shutters to witness the dog’s struggle, see the men bundle her into the funny truck and drive her away. Where to?
That query segued into Where next? One was due at the airport by seven am for a Munich flight, one for Amsterdam. Sure, share a taxi. Brilliant signage, these European airports had. A Danube cruise, old pals in Barcelona, a family reunion in Edinburgh — happy plans, though It’ll be good to get home won several repeats. Best then to wrap up the evening now, finish packing. Bustle of bill and tip, purses closing, wallets folded.
That beautiful sheep — we spoke of her also. Her great shining eyes, what colour? Some of us thought dark blue, some remembered brown.
Cynthia Flood’s latest book, Red Girl Rat Boy (Biblioasis 2013) is her fourth short story collection. The Vancouver Sun called it “stunning,” the National Post described her as a “highly accomplished stylist,” and Quill & Quire’s reviews editor picked Red Girl as one of ﬁve “Books of the Year.” Flood’s earlier collections are The English Stories, My Father Took A Cake To France, and The Animals in their Elements. Her work has won the Journey Prize and a National Magazine Award, among others, and has been chosen four times for the annual anthology Best Canadian Stories. Cynthia Flood lives in Vancouver’s West End.