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« Der Hund (part 2) | Main | Guilty as Sin »
Wednesday
May262010

Der Hund (part 1)

The first part of a story ("The dog") by this Swiss man of letters.  You can read the original as part of this collection.

My first few days in town, on the small square in front of town hall, I found a few people gathered around a disheveled man who was reading aloud from the Bible.  Only later did I notice the dog lying at his feet; and only later did I wonder how such a huge and repulsive animal, a beast of deepest black and smooth, sweat-covered fur, had not gained my immediate attention.  Its eyes were the yellow of sulphur; when it opened its mouth, with horror I noticed teeth of the selfsame hue; and its shape was unlike any other being I had ever seen.  Once the sight of the enormous animal became unbearable I cast my eyes towards the preacher.  He was a stocky fellow and his clothes hung in rags upon his person; yet his skin shimmering through the patches and holes and even the tattered clothes themselves were all extremely clean.  His Bible looked expensive, with diamonds and gold twinkling about the binding.  The man's voice was steady and calm.  His words were distinguished by an extraordinary clarity so that his speech appeared simple and sure, and here I also noticed that he never used parables.  What came forth was a calm and unfanatical exposition of the Bible.  And if his words were not convincing, this was only because of the dog as he lay at the man's feet and watched the crowd with yellow eyes. 

This odd connection between preacher and animal was what captivated me at present and made me seek out the man again and again.  Every day he would preach on the town squares and in the streets, yet he was not easy to find.  Even though he would practice his craft well into the night, it was the town that confused me despite its clear and simple layout.  Many times it was evident that he left his home at varied hours and never had a set plan for his activity nor any rules for his performances.  Sometimes he would hold forth all day on the same square; sometimes he would change location every fifteen minutes.  But his dog, black and dauntingly large, accompanied him wherever he went, walked beside him as he paced the streets, then lay down with a thud when the man began to preach. 

He never enjoyed a large audience.  Mostly he would stand alone, although I was able to observe him in such a way as not to fluster him, and instead of leaving the square, he would simply keep talking.  I often saw him praying aloud in the middle of a small street as people inattentively walked by.  Since I was never able to develop a surer method of locating the preacher and always relied on chance, I decided to look for where he lived – but no one wished to give me the slightest bit of information.  To that end, I followed him one time the whole day long.  It turned out that I had to repeat my actions for many days since every evening he would vanish owing to my efforts to keep my face hidden and unknown.  At length, one night I was astounded to see him entering a house in a street that domiciled only the town's richest citizens.  Henceforth my behavior towards him changed: I forsook my clandestineness to place myself in closest proximity so that he would be obliged to take notice, an act that, as it were, disturbed him not in the least.  Only the dog growled every time I came up to him.

And in this way many weeks passed.  It was then in waning summer when he, upon completing his exposition of the Gospel of St. John, accosted me and asked whether I would walk him home.  He said nothing more as we walked through the streets; and as we entered his house it was already so dark that he turned on the lamp in the large room into which he had led me.  The room was more deeply situated than the street so that from the door we had to walk a few steps down and I could not see the walls as they were covered from floor to ceiling in books.  Under the lamp was a large, plain table made of fir wood at which a girl was standing and reading.  She was wearing a dark blue dress and did not turn around when we came in.  Beneath the two cellar windows imposed upon the room lay a mattress and, against the opposite wall, a bed; at the table stood two chairs.  By the door was a furnace.  Yet as we approached the girl turned around and I was able to see her face.  She held out her hand and indicated a chair, at which point I noticed that the man was already lying on the mattress and the dog, as always, laid itself down at his feet.

"That's my father sleeping," said the girl, "and he can't hear us talk.  The large black dog has no name.  He just came to our house one evening as my father began preaching.  We hadn't locked the door so he was able to push the handle down with his paws and make his way in." 

I stood numb before the girl and then asked in a soft voice about her father and his past. 

"My father was a rich man, the owner of many factories," said the girl and lowered her eyes.  "He left my mother and my brothers to spread the truth to humanity." 

"Do you think that what your father spreads is indeed the truth?"  I asked.

"It is," she said, "it is the truth.  I always knew that it was the truth.  That's why I moved into this cellar and continue to live with him.  But what I didn't know was that once he spread the truth, the dog would come."  

The girl fell silent and looked as if she were about to ask me for something that she dared not say aloud.

"Then send him away.  The dog, I mean," I replied.  But the girl shook her head.

"He has no name, and so he won't go," she said gently.  She perceived my indecision and sat down on one of the chairs at the table.  I sat down as well.

"Are you afraid of this animal?"  I asked.

"I have always been afraid of him," she said.  "When my mother came with her attorney about a year ago to take me and my father back, my brothers were also very afraid of our nameless dog.  The dog of course just plopped himself down next to my father and growled.  Even when I lie in bed I am afraid of him – and then especially so – but now everything has changed.  Now you have come and now I can laugh at the beast.  I always knew that you would come.  Naturally, I didn't know what you looked like; but I knew that sooner or later you would come home with my father one evening when the lamp was already on and the streets were quiet to celebrate our wedding night in this half-underground room, here in my bed near all these books.  And here we would lie next to one another, a man and a woman, and over there father would be on his mattress in the dark like a child, and the large black dog would keep a vigil over our love."                           

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