A Dog’s Death
Octave Mirbeau (1848-1917)
Translated from the French by Robert Helms
"La Mort du Chien" originally appeared in the monarchist paper Le Galois under the pen name Henry Lys on August 23, 1884, about a year before the author's conversion to anarchism. Although most of Mirbeau's work remains untranslated, he is now regarded by French critics as one of the most important writers of his period, and his 1903 play Business is Business made a triumphant return to the Paris stage in 1995. He is best known to anglophone posterity for his novels The Torture Garden (1898) and Diary of a Chambermaid (1900).
His master called him Turk. He was thin, yellow, and sad, with a pointed snout, a small build, and short, badly cropped ears that were always bleeding. The tail he wore on his rump looked like a scabby question mark. In the summertime, Turk went into the fields to gaurd the cattle, and into the roads to chase passers-by who dealt him swift kicks and pelted him with stones. His great joy, out in a mowed field, embroidered with sprouting clover, was to come across a hare that would bolt in front of him and to pursue it across hedges, moats, and streams with long leaps and wild sprints, returning out of breath with his legs trembling and his toungue hanging out, dripping with sweat.
In the Winter, while the beasts stayed numbly in the warm beds of their stables, Turk kept to his own niche: a miserable, caved in-barrel, without straw, at the end of which he spent the days sleeping, curled up in a ball, or endlessly scratching himself. He ate a meager, stinking sustenance of larded bread scraps and dirty water, which was put out for him in the morning in a chipped stoneware bowl, and each time someone unknown to him penetrated to the center of the farm, he would lunge at them till he reached the end of his chain, and then bare his fangs and growl.
He also accompanied his master to fairs when there was a calf to sell or a pig to buy, or to stops he needed to make at the inns around the city. Otherwise, he was resigned, faithful, and miserable, just like a dog.
Once when he was coming home late from one of the more distant fairs with his master, he lost the man at a village cabaret. While his master drank a few short glasses of Three-Six, the dog decided to run through the neighborhood, eagerly digging through heaps of garbage, trying to unearth a bone or some precious thing of that sort. When he came back into the cabaret, ashamed of his escapade and bracing himself for some thumps on the back, he found only two half-drunken farmers who didn't know him at all and who chased him off with a boot, so Turk went away.
The village was built on an intersection where six roads came together. Which one should he take? The poor dog looked puzzled at first. He cocked an ear so as to catch the sound of a familiar footstep on the wind, then he sniffed at the ground to discover the smell of fresh tracks, and then, letting out two little sighs, he swiftly departed. But soon he halted, disturbed and shivering all over. Now he walked at an angle, carefully, with his nose to the ground. He would go only a few yards into the shortcut roads that emptied into the main route, climb the embankment, smell the drunks who were sprawled out along the ditches, and then turn, spin around, retrace his steps, probing the smallest cluster of trees and the smallest clump of gorse bushes.
Night was falling. To the right and left of the road, the fields were drowned in purple shadow. As the moon rose, climbing into the smooth, cloudless sky, Turk sat down on his rump, with his neck stretched out, his head pointed straight at the astral globe, and for a long, long time he cried:
"Houou! Houou! Houou!"
Everywhere there was a grand, spreading silence.
"Houou! Houou! Houou!"
From the depths of the night, only the dogs at neighboring farms answered the sobs of the poor animal. The brilliant, magical moon steadily rose, and the dog's shadow stretched across the silver surface of the road.
Mr. Bernard, a notary, left his house at the crack of dawn and was about to start on his usual stroll. He was dressed entirely in black cashmir, as is fitting for a notary. But, as it happened to be the hieght of the Summer, Mr. Bernard figured that he could liven up his attire with an umbrella made of white alpaca. Everything was still sleeping in the town. A few bars had hardly opened their doors, and a few road-laborers with pickaxes on their shoulders had just started off to work with sleepy footsteps.
"Always up early, eh, Mr. Bernard?" asked one of them, greeting him with respect.
Mr. Bernard was about to reply --for he was not an arrogant man --when he saw approaching from the end of the wide, level Boulevard, a dog so jaundiced, so skinny, so sad, and so filthy, and who seemed so tired that Mr. Bernard instinctively stepped aside and placed himself against a plane tree. That dog was Turk --poor, lamentable Turk.
"Uh-oh!" said Mr. Bernard, "There's a dog I don't know! Uh-oh!" In small towns, one knows all the dogs, just as one knows all the citizens, and the appearance of an unknown dog is just as important and troubling an event as that of a stranger.
The dog passed in front of a fountain that stood in the center of the Boulevard, and didn't stop.
"Uh-oh!" Mr. Bernard said to himself, "This dog, who I don't know, doesn't even stop at the fountain! Uh-oh! This dog is mad: obviously it has rabies." Trembling, he armed himself with a large stone. The dog came toward him, trotting along gently with his head down.
"Uh-oh!" Mr. Bernard screamed, turning pale, "I see the foam. Uh-oh! Help! The foam! Help!"
Using the plane tree as a shield, he threw the stone, but the dog paid no attention. Turk looked at the notary with his soft eyes, turned back onto the road, and left.
In an instant, the little town was awakened by the disturbing news: a mad dog! Faces still puffy with sleep appeared at windows; animated groups of men in their shirtsleeves or women in nightshirts and caps, formed on doorsteps. The more intrepid among them were armed with pitchforks, stakes, spades, billhooks, and rakes; the joiner gesticulated with his plane, the butcher with his cleaver; the little hunchbacked shoemaker, an avid reader of mail-order dime novels with an obscene smile, proposed refined and dreadful tortures.
"Where is it? Where is it?"
While the little town raised its defenses, and all the people fired up their courage, Mr. Bernard had awakened the mayor and told him the terrible story: "It lunged at me with the foam on its teeth, Mr Mayor, and it almost bit me, Mr. Mayor!" Bernard cried out, reaching down to feel his calves, thighs, and stomach. "Oh, I've seen plenty of mad dogs in my day. Yes indeed, plenty of them. But, Mr. Mayor, I've never, ever seen one more rabid, or more awful than this one. Oh!"
The mayor, quite dignified but also very perplexed, shook his head and reflected for a moment.
"It's serious... very serious!" he murmured. "But are you sure that he's as mad as all that?"
"As mad as all that?"" shouted Bernard indignantly. "If only you could have seen it, if you could've seen that foam, those bloodshot eyes, and that fur standing on end... it wasn't even a dog anymore. It was a tiger. A tiger! A tiger!"
Then, becoming solemn, he looked straight into the mayor's face and slowly pronounced: "Listen, It's not a question of politics here, Mr. Mayor. It's a matter of public safety. Let me repeat: It's a matter of the safety and the protection of the citizens. If you shirk the responsibilities that are incumbent upon you, if you do not make a firm decision this instant, you'll soon regret it, Mr. Mayor. That's what I, Bernard, Notary Public, am saying to you!"
Mr. Bernard was the of the radical opposition and an enemy of the mayor. The latter hesitated no longer, and the rural policeman was summoned.
Turk was stretched out, tranquilly taking refuge on the square where no one dared approach him, gnawing a bone of mutton which he held between his two crossed paws. The rural policeman, armed with a rifle entrusted to him by the mayor, and followed by a sizable procession, advanced until he was ten paces from the dog. From the balcony of the town hall, the mayor, who attended the spectacle with Mr. Bernard, couldn't help but remark to him, "And yet it eats!" in the same voice that Galileo must have used in pronouncing his famous phrase.
"Yes, he eats... the horrible animal, the sly devil!" responded Bernard, and addressing the policeman, he commanded: "Careful! Don't get so close!"
The moment took on a solemn tone. The policeman, with his cap leaning on his ear, his sleeves rolled up, and his face animated by a heroic fever, loaded his rifle.
"Don't push me!" said one voice.
"Don't miss!" said another.
"Aim at the head!"
"Not at the armpit?"
"Watch out!" yelled the policeman. Apparently uncomfortable in his cap, he sent it rolling in the dust behind him with a brusque gesture. "Stand clear!"
He took aim at the poor, lamentable dog, who had discarded his bone and now regarded the mob with a soft, teary eye, seeming not to suspect what it was that all these people wanted with him. Presently a grand silence imposed itself upon the commotion. The women stopped their ears with their fingers, not waiting for the gunshot; the men blinked their eyes, huddling against each other. An anguish gripped the crowd, in the expectation of something extraordinary and horrible. The policeman steadily held his aim.
At the same moment there pealed out a cry of prolonged and piercing pain, a bellowing that filled up the town. The dog stood up. Hobbling on three legs, he fled, letting little drops of blood fall behind him. And while the dog ran and ran, the rural policeman looked at his rifle, stupefied; the dumbfounded crowd looked at the policeman, and the mayor stared open-mouthed at Mr. Bernard, overcome with horror and indignation.
Turk ran all day, dancing pitifully on his three legs, bleeding, stopping sometimes to lick the wound, then stumbling off again; he ran through roads, fields, and villages. But everywhere the terrifying news of a rabid dog preceded him: its eyes are haggard; its fur is standing on end; its drooling mouth is smeared with crimson froth. The villages were in arms and the farms were bristling with scythes. Stones flying everywhere, blows from clubs, shots from rifles! His body was no more than a single wound, one horrid wound made of hacked living flesh, leaving blood in the dust of the roadways, reddening the grass, and coloring the stream in which he bathed. He kept running and running, tripping over rocks, clods of earth, and clumps of vegetation, followed incessantly by the cries of death.
Toward evening, he entered into a field of tall, ripe corn, where a breeze was softly rocking the golden ears back and forth. With his sides heaving and his legs stiff, Turk collapsed on a bed of poppies, and there, as some scattering partridges called back and the crickets sang, he died without uttering a complaint, surrounded by the murmurs of Nature herself, who lulled him to sleep and who summons the souls of the poor dogs that sleep on the brilliant and magical Moon.