A Faithful Watchdog Savors a Day of Freedom
In some countries it is difficult to avoid the distressing sight of emaciated strays roaming the streets, of donkeys stumbling under unbearably heavy loads, ancient horses whipped by their drivers as they slip and slither on cobbled streets. In the island of Samos it is the fate of the dogs that haunts me. Most of all, I am haunted by the dog Arapey.
One May morning I had taken the early bus along the coast road to Platonaika, setting off from there to the high-perched village of Manolates. Then, as so often in Greece, I am tempted off the road and further and further into the woods. At this season they are perfumed with sweet broom and honeysuckle, alive with the song of blackbirds and nightingales.
The path I follow is crisscrossed with amber rivers and shining pools full of tadpoles. Then, at a turning in the track, I come on a hut encircled with orange and olive trees. Around it hens scratch, a cat plays with her kittens, and there he is, a black and white mongrel with flop ears, who is attached to a chain. His kennel is an upturned petrol drum, scorching in summer, comfortless in winter, his life the short length of that chain.
A water bowl lies empty. I fill it from the river, give him the scraps I always carry in my pocket, then wash down his tangled fur and flanks. He wriggles with delight, wagging his white-tipped tail, licking my hands. Presently a small figure in a dark pinafore appears on the woodland path, carrying two pails. She is Paraskeva, she tells me, coming up daily from Aghios Konstantinos with pailfuls of food for her furry and feathered flock. She is quite alone in her spitaki till the evening bus.
"I like company," she says, "but only a few tourists pass by. They wave to me and are gone." She sets us down on two wooden chairs under the trees, picking oranges for us. I must stay and talk to her.
The background to our conversation is the clinking of that chain. "What a fine dog you have," I say, then, suggesting tentatively, "Perhaps I could take him for a walk."
Paraskeva's lips tighten, her expression darkens ominously. "That would give Arapey ideas!" she exclaims. It sounds even grimmer in Greek. "Arapey," she goes on, "must always be chained. He is not here to go wandering about the woods." His job is to guard her spitaki, her hens, their eggs, the cat, the orange and olive crop.
How do I bridge the gulf between our outlook on animals? William Blake's robin in a cage sets all heaven in a rage, but a perpetually chained dog leaves Paraskeva indifferent. He is a dog, nothing more.
I tell her of my dog at home, of his joy in walks, but she wants to talk about her son, Stamatis; her grandson, little Stamatis; the life she led in Aghios Konstantinos before her husband, old Stamatis, died, when people were friendlier and life somehow easier.
Springtime in Samos becomes for me the green woods, the brown nightingales, sitting with Paraskeva under the orange trees - above all it is Arapey.
I arrive early, long before Paraskeva, refill the water bowl, give him tidbits, and wash his hot dusty head. As the hero in Cormac McCarthy's "The Crossing" talks to his wolf, so do I to Arapey, who replies in his own way, with eyes and ears and tail, his snuffling nose, his paws, his whole being.
"How is it for you, brave Arapey, quite alone in the woods at night, with all the mysterious rustlings around you? Are you scared in your tin drum, with nothing to lie on, fixed to your chain? The hens, cats, and nightingales are freer than you, scratching, climbing, singing, flying. I'd walk you in the woods, patient Arapey, but Paraskeva says it would give you ideas. Of course, you have ideas, deep-rooted instincts that tell you of life beyond your chain." Arapey listens, picking up his ears - animals, birds, too, love to be spoken to.
Then Paraskeva appears and a different kind of talk begins on our chairs under the orange trees.
Time runs out, the last day dawns, and I go to take my leave of prisoner dog and his jailer. Always, when I reach the bend in the path, I begin to call Arapey, waiting for his welcoming bark. Now instead, comes a tearing, wrenching sound, then a high-pitched yelp, and a furry black and white hurricane hurtles up on me.
"I'm free!" he bounds past me, chain clattering, chases an astonished cat up an olive tree, scatters the hens, then, in a flash, vanishes into leafy depths. I find him lying in one of the golden pools, splashing, slurping up water, snuffling, grinning in the way dogs do. Shaking himself, he is off again, flying along under the trees.
Brave Arapey, you're free, I think. Then I begin to reflect. Is this alternative life really a better one for Arapey? In his freedom will he not join in the packs of rejected, starving strays. The newsletter I get from Greek Animal Welfare reports the organized poisoning of dogs and cats before the tourist season starts. It would be distressing and distasteful for foreign visitors to see those ravenous skeletons!
I hunt for Arapey all through the woods, returning in the end, hot, weary, empty-handed. Has Paraskeva come yet? She hasn't, not yet, but there, over there, sits Arapey beside his kennel, the chain still trailing behind him.
Miroslav Holub writes of the dog who escapes from the concentration camp, only to return there as the only place on earth he knows. So, too, Arapey, and I, who have fed, watered, and washed him, endlessly talked to him, it is I who return him to captivity. If Paraskeva knew of his wicked, willful abdication of his appointed task she would most certainly punish him. The little progress I have made in convincing her that Arapey is a fine, clever dog - all that would be lost.
I tie him up. Brave Arapey, forgive me. "At least you've had one glorious hour - better an hour as an eagle than a century as a sheep. If only I could take you home with me - it would be a fearful journey - taxis, planes, from Samos to Athens, Athens to England, England to Scotland - and, at the end of it six months in a quarantine kennel, dear, patient Arapey."
Arapey listens, head on one side, accepting the chain as part of life.
Paraskeva arrives, and we sit for a last time in her orchard, while I hear about all the Stamatises and tell her yet again what a clever companion she has. I say goodbye to him. "Hold out, Arapey - I'll be back in the autumn if I can."
It is a slow process, one that has to be begun early, changing callousness and cruelty to compassion. From times past I hear echoes of our parents' beliefs: Always consider the animals, for we share earth with them. Never forget it.