Sirius, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 17


PLAXY had hoped to be stationed in North Wales, but she was sent to a much more remote part of the country, and would only be able to visit Sirius for a fortnight in the year. Meanwhile he was having a difficult time. Pugh had engaged an extra land-girl, Mary Griffith, to take Plaxy’s place. She had not been long on the farm before she began to be frightened of Sirius. She could not reconcile herself to the fact that the dog could talk and was in authority over her. Presently she began to hear of the scandal connected with him. She was terrified, and fascinated. Badly equipped by nature as a charmer of the male of her own species, she had never suffered the flattery of persecution. Though her moral sense was outraged by the possibility that the great brute would make love to her, something in her whispered, “Better a dog for a lover than no lover at all.” Spell-bound, she awaited pursuit. Sirius gave no sign. She did her best to understand his speech, hoping that his instructions might include endearments. Sirius’s conduct remained coldly correct. She herself began to make clumsy attempts to entice him. His failure to give any sign that he had ever noticed these signals roused a perverse hunger in her, and the thought that even a dog rejected her was too repugnant to be admitted to her consciousness. She protected herself against it by illusions that, as a matter of fact, it was he that had made unseemly advances, and she that had refused. She began to invent incidents, and allowed them to be transformed in her mind from fiction to false memory. She recounted her stories to her acquaintances in the village, and began to gain a welcome notoriety. Once, when she had vainly done her utmost to excite Sirius, she stayed out in the fields for half the night. Next day she declared that the animal had driven her with snarls and bites to the lonely cottage to rape her. Rents in her clothes and marks on her arm were said to be due to his teeth.

This improbable story was welcomed by Sirius’s enemies. They did not trouble to inquire why the girl did not complain to the Land Army authorities and get herself transferred to another post. They merely redoubled their activities against Sirius. A deputation called on Pugh to persuade him to destroy the lascivious brute, Pugh laughed at their stories and dismissed them with a quip. “You might as well ask me to destroy the nose of my face because you don’t like the way it dribbles. No! It’s worse than that, because my poor old nose does dribble, but the man-dog does none of the foul things you say he does. And if you try to do any harm to him, I’ll put the police on you. If you hurt him there’ll be gaol for you, and thousands of pounds’ damages to pay to the great laboratory at Cambridge.” He sacked the Griffith girl, but found to his horror that no substitute was to be had. Rumour had been busy, and no girl would risk her reputation by working at Caer Blai.

Sirius’s enemies were not to be intimidated, Whenever he went to the village, a stone was sure to be thrown at him, and when he whisked round to spot the culprit no one looked guilty. Once, indeed, he did detect the assailant, a young labourer. Sirius approached him threateningly, but immediately a swarm of dogs and men set on him. Fortunately two of his friends, the local doctor and the village policeman, were able to quell the brawl.

Meanwhile Pugh and his wife were sharing the unpopularity of Sirius. Cows and sheep were damaged, crops trampled. The police force had been so depleted by the war that the miscreants were seldom caught.

Matters were brought to a head by a serious incident. This I recount on the evidence of Pugh, who had the story from Sirius himself. The man-dog was out on the hills with one of his canine pupils. Suddenly a shot was fired, and Sirius’s companion leapt into the air, then staggered about yelping. The charge, no doubt, was meant for Sirius; it winged the other dog. Sirius at once turned wolf. Getting wind of the man, he charged in his direction. The second barrel of the shot-gun was fired, but the assailant had lost his nerve; he missed again, and then he dropped his gun and ran to some steep rocks. Before he could climb out of reach, Sirius had him by the ankle. There followed a tug of war, with the human leg as rope. Sirius had not secured a good grip, and presently his teeth slipped on the ankle bone, coming away with a good deal of flesh. The dog rolled backwards down the slope, and the man, though in great pain, clambered out of reach. Sirius’s rage was now somewhat cooled. He wisely sought out the shot-gun and sank it in a bog. His companion had vanished. Sirius overtook him limping homewards.

When the wounded man, whose name was Owen Parry, had dragged himself back to the village, he told a story of gratuitous attack by the man-dog. He said he had found Sirius squatting on a hillside overlooking the camp, counting ammunition cases that were being unloaded from lorries. When the brute saw him it attacked. The more gullible villagers believed the whole story. They urged Parry to prosecute Pugh for damages, and to tell the military of the canine spy. Parry, of course, took no action.

Some weeks later Plaxy received a telegram from Pugh saying “S.O.S. Sirius wild.” As she had a good record with her superiors she was able to secure a spell of “compassionate leave.” A couple of days after Pugh had telegraphed she arrived at Caer Blai, tired and anxious.

Pugh told her a distressing story. After the incident with Parry a change seemed to come over Sirius, He carried on his work as usual, but after work hours he avoided all human contacts, retiring to the moors, and often staying out all night. He turned morose and touchy towards all human beings except the Pughs. Then one day he told Pugh he had decided to leave the farm so that the flock and the crops should be safe from violence. “He was very gentle in his speaking,” said the farmer, “but there was a look of the wild beast in his eye. His coat was out of condition, not all glossy as it used to be when you were here to look after him, Miss Plaxy, dear. And there was a little wound on his belly, festering with the mud that was always being splashed on it. I was frightened for him. He made his wildness so gentle for us that my eyes dribbled like my nose. I said he must stay, and not be beaten by a bunch of dirty-tongued hooligans. Together we would teach them. But he would not stay. When I asked him what he would do if he left, he looked very strange. It gave me the creeps, yes indeed, Miss Plaxy. As though it was a wild beast I was speaking to, with no sense and no human kindness. Then he seemed to make an effort, for he licked my hand ever so gently. But when I put my other hand on his head he jumped like a shot thing, and stood away from me, looking at me with his head cocked over, as though he was torn between friendliness and fear, and didn’t know what to do. His tail was miserable under his belly. ‘Bran,’ I said, ‘Sirius, my old friend! Don’t go off till I have fetched Miss Plaxy.’ Then he wagged his old tail under his belly, and he cried softly. But when I put out a hand to him he sprang away again, and then he ran off up the lane. When he was beside Tan-y-Voel he stopped for a moment, but soon he lolloped away up the moel.”

After Sirius’s disappearance several days passed without incident in the neighbourhood. No one saw anything of the fugitive. Pugh was so busy with farm work, and trying to find help to replace Sirius, that he could not make up his mind whether or not to tell Plaxy of the dog’s disappearance. Then one day he came upon Sirius outside Tany-y-Voel and hailed him, but in vain, At this stage Pugh telegraphed to Plaxy. Then a farmer in the Ffestiniog district found one of his sheep killed and partly eaten. Nearer home a dog that had been one of Sirius’s opponents in the battle was found dead with its throat torn. The police then organized a party of armed men and dogs to search the moors for the dangerous beast, The party, said Pugh, had just returned. They had drawn the whole district round the slaughtered sheep, arguing that Sirius would return to the carcass to feed, but they had seen nothing of him. To-morrow a larger party would search the whole moorland area between Ffestiniog, Bala and Dolgelly.

While Pugh was telling the story Plaxy listened in silence. “She stared at me,” he afterwards said, “as if she was a frightened hare, and me a stoat.” When Pugh had finished she insisted that she must sleep at Tan-y-Voel. “In the morning,” she said, “I will go out and look for him. I know I shall find him.” Mrs. Pugh urged her to stay at Caer Blai, but she shook her head, moving towards the door. Then she checked, and said piteously, “But if I bring him home they will take him from me. Oh, what am I to do?” The Pughs could give no helpful answer.

Plaxy groped her way over to Tan-y-Voel in the dark, lit the kitchen fire, and changed into her old working clothes. She made herself tea, ate a large number of biscuits, and stoked up the fire, so that there might be smoke visible in the morning. Then she went out again into the dark. She made her way over the moors by a familiar route, until after several hours she reached the place where long ago she had found Sirius with the dead pony. The eastern sky was already light. She called his name, or chanted it with the accustomed lilt that she had used ever since childhood. Again and again she called, but there was no answer; nothing but the sad bleating of a sheep and the far-off rippling pipe of a curlew, She wandered about till the sun rose from behind Arenig Fawr. Then she searched carefully round the bog where the pony had lain, until at last she found a large dog’s footprint. Bending down she scrutinized it eagerly, and others. One of them, the print of a left hind paw, gave her what she wanted. The mark of the outer toe was very slightly irregular, recording a little wound that Sirius had received when he was a puppy. Plaxy surprised herself by weeping. After standing for a while mopping her eyes, she unbuttoned her coat and dragged out from her waist a corner of the old blue and white check shirt, well known to Sirius. With her clasp knife, often used in the past for paring the hooves of sheep, she cut the hem, and tore out a little square of the material. This she laid beside the footmark. Sirius’s monochrome vision would miss the colour, but he might pick up the bold pattern from afar, and when he came near he would recognize it. Moreover, since the shirt had been next her body, it would hold the smell of her for a long time. He would know that she had seen the footprints and would return.

Then she wandered about the moor again for some time, frequently using a little monocular field-glass that I had recently given her for use with the sheep. (In the choice of a gift I had perhaps unconsciously emphasized the pleasure of human eyesight, which was so much more precise than any dog’s.) At last fatigue and hunger forced her to return to Tan-y-Voel. There she made herself tea, ate the rest of the biscuits, changed into smarter clothes and went straight into the village. People stared at her. Some greeted her warmly for old time’s sake. Others looked away. Most of the hostile ones were sufficiently impressed by her elegant appearance to treat her with respect, but a bunch of lads shouted at her in Welsh, and laughed.

She went to the police station, where the search party was already collecting. Her old friend the village constable took her into a private room and listened with distress to her earnest appeal for mercy. “I shall find him,” she said, “and take him away from Wales. His madness won’t last.” The constable shook his head, and said, “If they find him they’ll kill him. They want blood.” “But it would be murder,” she cried. “He’s not just an animal.” “No. he’s far more than an animal, Miss Plaxy, I know; but in the eyes of the law that’s just what he is, an animal. And the law says that dangerous animals must be destroyed. I have done my best to delay matters, but I can’t do more.” In desperation Plaxy said. “Tell them he’s worth thousands of pounds and must be taken alive. ‘Phone the laboratory at Cambridge, and they will confirm this and put it in writing.” He fetched the inspector, who had come over from H.Q. to take charge of the search. After some discussion the inspector allowed Plaxy to call up the laboratory. She summoned McBane and told him, incidentally, to come with his car as soon as possible to take Sirius away if she could recover him. The inspector then spoke to McBane and was sufficiently impressed to alter his plans. The search party would do their utmost to bring the animal back alive. With some reluctance he even agreed that the search should be called off for a day to give Miss Trelone a chance to capture her dog undisturbed.

When she left the police station she was almost light-hearted. And though she was shocked by the cold reception given her at the grocer’s, where she laid in a store of food, the baker was kindly and hopeful, and the warm-hearted lame tobacconist, whose meagre stock was sold out, produced a packet of cigarettes from his own pocket and thrust it upon her, “because you will need them, Miss Plaxy, and for old time’s sake.” She toiled up the lane to Tan-y-Voel, with a reeling head, made herself a good meal, changed into working clothes, called to tell the Pughs how things stood, and went straight out on to the moor. All morning she searched in vain. Then after eating her lunch she lay down in the sun, and sleep overcame her. Some hours later she woke, sprang to her feet, and renewed her search. At the pony-bog the bit of shirt remained as she had left it. She hurried away in the afternoon light to explore a remoter region, and in particular a certain rocky cleft in the wildest part of the moor, which in the past they had sometimes used as a lair. Near this she found a dog’s excrement, not recently dropped; but there was no other sign. Once more she left a piece of her shirt as a token. Then with weary limbs and a heavy heart she groped her way back in the dusk, and arrived in pitch darkness at the pony-pool. At a loss to know what to do next, she finally decided to wait there till dawn. She found a sheltered spot among the rocks and heather overlooking the bog, and made herself as comfortable as possible. In spite of the cold, she fell asleep. Not till the sun had risen did she wake, chilled and aching. Once more there was no sign of Sirius. After some desultory searching and calling she set off for home.

At the cottage she made herself breakfast, changed her clothes, attended to her haggard face, and returned to the police station. There she learned with horror that on the previous day a man had been killed and partly eaten. It had happened on the eastern shoulder of Filast, far beyond Arenig. He was a local sheep-farmer. Hearing that Sirius had been seen in the neighbourhood, he announced that he would hunt the brute down and destroy it, no matter what its value to the godless scientists. He went out with an old army rifle and a dog. In the evening the dog returned in great distress without his master, A search party had found the man’s body, and near it the rifle, with an empty magazine.

After this incident the police determined to bring about the destruction of Sirius as quickly as possible. Parties of Home Guards were being sent out to comb all the moorland areas of North Wales.

In great distress Plaxy hurried away to the moors again. At the pony-bog the bit of shirt was missing, and there were fresh canine footprints; but whether they were Sirius’s or not she could not determine. She put down another bit of shirt, then set off towards the lair, searching every hillside and valley with her field-glass. Once she saw on the distant skyline two men with rifles on their shoulders, but there was no other sign of the searchers. It was a bright day, with the wind in the north-west; no day at all for avoiding detection. But the moors were vast, and the searchers few.

As she was approaching the lair, she saw Sirius, his tail between his legs, his head low, like a tired horse, She was coming up wind, and behind him, so that he was unconscious of her presence till she called his name. He leapt at the sound, and whisked round, facing her, with a growl. In his mouth was the bit of shirt. She advanced, repeating his name. Seeing her, he stood still with his head cocked over and his brows puckered; but when she was within a few paces he backed, growling, away from her. At a loss, she stood still, with outstretched hand, saying, “Sirius, dear darling, it’s Plaxy.” His tail under his belly trembled with recognition and love, but his teeth were still bared. He whimpered with the stress of conflict in his bewildered mind. Every time she advanced, he backed and growled. After Plaxy had tried many times to win his confidence, her spirit broke, She covered her face with her hands and threw herself on the ground sobbing. The sight of her impotent distress evidently worked the miracle which her advances had frustrated; for Sirius crept forward, crying with the strife of fear and love, till at last he reached out and kissed the back of her neck. The intimate smell of her body woke his mind to full clarity. While she continued to lie still, fearing that any movement might scare him away, he nuzzled under her face. She turned over and let his warm tongue caress her cheeks and lips. Though his breath was foul as a wild beast’s and the thought of his recent human killing revolted her, she made no resistance. At last he spoke. “Plaxy! Plaxy! Plaxy!” He nosed into the open neck of her shirt. Then she dared to put her arms round him.

“Come to the lair,” she said. “We must hide till after dark, then we’ll go down to Tan-y-Voel and wait till McBane comes with his car to take us away. I told him to hurry.”

The lair was as good a retreat as they could expect. At the foot of the cliff was a tangle of heather and broken rocks. A huge slab had split from the side of the cliff and moved away, leaving a gap. This formed the lair. Its floor was below the surrounding wreckage and heather clumps. The buttress above was inaccessible, so no one could look down on them. Inside lay the remains of the heather which Plaxy herself had gathered to fashion a couch long ago. She now added a fresh supply. They nestled close together, and little by little, by talk about their common past, she weaned his mind away from madness. For some hours they remained talking with increasing ease and happiness. Plaxy often spoke about their future, but whenever she led his attention forward a dark cloud seemed to settle on his mind, Once she said, “We will leave this district and start a flock somewhere in Scotland, as soon as we can find a place.” He answered, “There is no place for me in man’s world, and there is no other world for me. There is no place for me anywhere in the universe.” She answered quickly, “But wherever I am there is always a place for you. I’m your home, your footing in the world. And I’m — your wife, your dear constant bitch.” He caressed her hand, and said, “In the last few days, whenever I was not raging mad against your whole species, I was longing for you; but you — must not be tied to me. And anyhow you cannot make a world for me. Of course, any world that I could live in must have you in it for its loveliest scent, drawing me along the trail; but you can’t make a whole world for me. Indeed, it’s not possible for me to have a world at all, because my own nature doesn’t make sense. The spirit in me needs the world of men, and the wolf in me needs the wild. I could only be at home in a sort of Alice-inWonderland world, where I could have my cake and eat it.”

A distant voice set both their hearts racing. She clung to him, and they waited in silence, thankful for the deep shadow of the lair, for it was already almost sunset. They heard quite near at hand the scrape of a nailed boot on rock. Sirius began to move in her arms, and growl. “Idiot! Be quiet,” she whispered. She tried to hold his mouth shut with one hand while she desperately gripped him with the other. Footsteps moved past the entrance of the lair, then faded into the distance. After some minutes she could hold on no longer. Cautiously she let go, saying, “Now, for God’s sake keep quiet.”

For a long time they sat together waiting and occasionally talking. Twilight was now far advanced, and Plaxy began to feel that the worst of their ordeal was over. “Soon it will be dark enough to go home,” she said, “home to Tan-y-Voel, my dog, and a great big meal. I’m hungry as hell. Are you?” He said nothing for a moment; then, “Yesterday I ate part of a man.” He must have felt her shudder. “Oh,” he said, “I was savage. And I shall be again, unless you hold me tight with your love.” She hugged him, and a surge of joy made her softly laugh. Her imagination leapt forward to the time when they would be safely on the way to Cambridge.

Presently she rose, and went cautiously out to look round. The sunset colour had almost gone. There was no sign of the enemy. She moved round a projecting rock, and still there seemed to be no danger. After straying about for a few moments, searching the landscape, she felt the need to relieve herself. She crouched down in the heather, and sang softly the little tune which since childhood had been associated in both their minds with this homely operation. He should have responded with one or other of the appropriate antistrophes, but he was silent. She repeated her phrase several times, but there was no answer. Suddenly alarmed, she hurried round the intervening rock and saw Sirius standing outside the lair sniffing the wind. His tail was erect, his back bristling. At that moment another dog came into sight, and Sirius, rousing the echoes with his uproar, charged the intruder, who turned tail, with Sirius on his heels. Both dogs vanished round the shoulder of the hill. There was a savage sound of dog-fight, then human voices, and a shot, followed by a canine scream. Plaxy stood fixed in horror. After a moment’s silence a man’s voice cried, “Blast! I’ve hit the wrong one. The devil’s got away.” Two more shots were fired. Another voice said, “No bloody good. Too dark.” Plaxy from behind a rock peered at the men. They strode over to inspect the dead dog; then moved off down the valley. When they were out of sight, she wandered about looking for Sirius. After a while she returned to the lair, hoping to find him there. It was still empty. Anxiously she strayed about in the dark, sometimes softly calling his name. For hours she wandered. Some time in the middle of the night she heard the sirens wailing far off in the villages. Searchlights fingered the clouds. After a while the wavering drone of a plane passed overhead towards the north-east; then another, and many others. There was distant firing, and one larger thud. Dead tired, Plaxy still strayed farther and farther over the dark moor, sometimes calling.

At last, almost at her feet she heard a little sound. She stepped aside and found him stretched out on the grass. The end of his tail beat feebly on the ground for greeting. She knelt beside him. Passing her hand along his body, she found that his flank was wet and sticky. One of the Home Guards’ last shots had taken effect, though in the failing light he had seen only that the dog had not been immediately stopped. The badly damaged animal had staggered off towards the mountains, but shock and loss of blood had at last brought him down. With the first-aid outfit that she had carried on all her searches she put a pad on the wound and contrived to pass a bandage round his body to hold it, though he trembled with the added pain. Then she said, “I must go and get help and a stretcher.” He protested, with feeble earnestness; and when she rose to go, he cried piteously for her to come down to him again. In despair she sank beside him, and lay down to put her face to his cheek. “But, my darling,” she said, “we must get you home before daylight, else they’ll find you.” He feebly cried again, and seemed to say, “Dying — stay — Plaxy — dear.” Presently he said, “Dying — is very — cold.” She took off her coat and laid it over him, then tried to lie closer to him to warm him. He said something which she guessed to be, “I don’t fit you. Robert does.” Stabbed with love and compassion, she said, “But dearest darling, our spirits fit.” His last words were “Plaxy–Sirius — worth while.” Some minutes later she saw his mouth fall open a little, revealing the white teeth in the faint light of dawn. His tongue slipped out. She buried her face in the strong fur of his neck, silently weeping.

For a long while she lay, till discomfort forced her to move. Then a shuddering sigh heaved her body, a sigh of bitter grief, but also of exhaustion; of love and compassion, but also of relief. Presently she realized that she was deadly cold and shivering. She sat up and rubbed her bare arms. Gently she took away the coat from dead Sirius, and put it on herself once more. The act seemed callous, and she wept again; then stooped once more to give the great head a kiss. For a while she sat by Sirius with a hand in the side pocket of her coat. She found that her fingers had closed upon the little field-glass that I had given her. Even this seemed a disloyalty to the dead; but she reminded herself that Sirius had accepted me.

Presently the sirens sounded, far down in the villages, steady, sad and thankful. A sheep called mournfully. Very far away a dog barked. Behind Arenig Fawr the dawn was already like the glow of a great fire. “What must I do now?” she wondered. She remembered how, a few hours earlier, with happiness too soon in her heart, she had sung for him to answer, but in vain. The memory overpowered her with a sense of the gulf that now divided them. He that had been so near seemed now as remote as their common mammalian ancestor. Not again would he sing to her.

But now at last she thought of a fitting thing to do. She would sing his requiem. Returning to her dead darling, she stood erect beside him, facing the dawn. Then in as firm and full a voice as she could muster, she began singing a strange thing that he himself had made for her in his most individual style. The wordless phrases symbolized for her the canine and the human that had vied in him all his life long. The hounds’ baying blended with human voices. There was a warm and brilliant theme which he said was Plaxy, and a perplexed one which was himself. It began in playfulness and zest, but developed in a tragic vein against which she had often protested. Now, looking down on him she realized that his tragedy was inevitable, And under the power of his music she saw that Sirius, in spite of his uniqueness, epitomized in his whole life and in his death something universal, something that is common to all awakening spirits on earth, and in the farthest galaxies. For the music’s darkness was lit up by a brilliance which Sirius had called “colour,” the glory that he himself, he said, had never seen. But this, surely, was the glory that no spirits, canine or human, had ever clearly seen, the light that never was on land or sea, and yet is glimpsed by the quickened mind everywhere.

As she sang, red dawn filled the eastern sky, and soon the sun’s bright finger set fire to Sirius.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00