By Sebastian Castillo - Aug 24, 2020
There is a small village in Northern Europe whose name translates to Large Curd of Smoke. In this village, where the population has averaged 500 people for over a millennium, one can take a walking tour with a local guide. These guides are usually young men—strong, with a defiant vitality—but they know the village’s history well, as does everyone who lives there. The tour takes no longer than an hour, depending on the guide’s chattiness. They love talking to strangers.
On the tour, one can see the opening to a small cave where the village’s famous cheeses are fermented; a variety of red and purple flowers endemic to the region; and a derelict railway track. All of the tours start with a visit to the center of the village, where a boxy statue of a dog sits, as if placed by accident. Invariably, a tourist will ask of its history and significance, as the statue does not bear a placard. At this point, the guide will tell a story. He was prepared to tell this story, but prefers it when someone asks him first.
At its inception, the village—relatively secluded, and at a high elevation—had little contact with the world outside of it. The people of this village had an amenable relationship to fowl, hare, and cats, but they loathed dogs. They felt that relationships with dogs augured personal and communal catastrophe, and the young of the village were encouraged to murder any canine they might encounter during their instructive travels throughout the surrounding forests. If successful, the carcass would be returned to the village, where it was burned. Once the flesh had melted to reveal charring bone, the people of the village would take turns spitting on it.
One day, a young boy from the village strayed too far from the designed path in the forest. As one can imagine, there he encountered a dog—black, mottled with uneven patches of brown and white fur. The dog was emaciated, and whimpered with a pain that communicated resignation more than fear. The boy, not knowing what to do, gave the dog some meat. It was the last of the little food the boy had brought with him. The dog devoured it in two mechanical bites. From there, the boy and the dog became partners in life. The boy would pet the dog; the dog would lick the boy. They would walk through the world with each other, though always in the forest, in secret, away from the village. If the boy’s relationship was revealed, the dog would be killed, and the boy would be banished from the village, without exception.
Several weeks later, a poisonous snake attacked the boy. He was traveling through the forest with his best friend, frolicking, enjoying the palate of green around them. He had been warned of these snakes since birth, but given the joy and ease the boy felt with the dog, he had not been paying adequate attention. The boy told the dog to stay in the forest; he needed to run to the village doctor for immediate attention.
Things did not turn out well. The boy’s health declined in a matter of hours. He lay on a cot in his living room, where his mother occasionally fanned him, knowing what was to come of her beloved son. He would be dead in the night.
Here, the tour guide will stop with his story. There are three possible endings, the guide will say.
In the first ending—the sentimental ending, he adds—the dog returns to the village, facing potential capture and certain death, to save the boy. The dog sneaks into his house at night, puts his mouth on the boy’s leg, above the bite marks, and sucks out the poison. The boy’s mother catches the dog doing this, knowing, somewhat, what was happening. The dog sleeps next to the boy, who is still recovering. In the morning, the boy wakes up, newly healthy. He is ready to return to the world of possibility, of decisions and engagements. Next to him lies his best friend, bloated and dead. His eyeballs extend slightly out of their sockets, a ring of red and purple around them. The mother tells the boy what she witnessed. She tells the villagers. In that moment, their symbolic imagination shifts. They burn the dog’s corpse. They do not spit on it. They build this statue in the dog’s honor. The same statue you’re looking at today.
The second ending follows the first, almost. The dog puts his mouth on the boy’s bite. He sleeps next to him. The mother watches, again, knowing something which she cannot configure. In the morning, there are two dogs in the boy’s bed. By sucking out the poison, by giving the boy some of his life force, the dog has transformed his best friend into a dog. The mother tells the village what happened. Their symbolic imagination skews. They decide, after strenuous deliberation, to accept the boy, now a dog. The boy has sacrificed his life, his humanity, through a mystic, mutual bond of suffering. In the end, the villagers accept dogs as a part of their world. They erect a statue of the boy-dog as a totem of this change in spirit.
The third ending is catastrophe. The dog tries to save the boy, but is caught beforehand. He is beaten and burned to death. Spitting. The boy dies. The other dogs of the forest understand what has happened. One of their own has tried to sacrifice himself for a human, and now—this, again. The dogs descend on the village. They tear it apart. Many of the villagers die. The ones who remain, barely understanding what has happened, create a pact with the dogs, and suggest building an effigy of the murdered dog in their honor. In fact, for all the murdered dogs. The dogs accept. The village’s symbolic imagination—which was based in certainty—has now been tainted with a sliver of obeisance and terror.
The guide will ask the tourists what they think: which ending is the real one? The tourists will argue among themselves for a story that suits them best. They will take on a tone that is a third serious, and then laugh. They will select an ending together. The tour guide will smile and say, That’s exactly right. Later, he’ll guide them to a market by the canal where they can buy the village’s best cheeses at a great price.