A year ago this February we said goodbye to Bruno, dearest and most joyful of dogs. He was old for a springer spaniel, at fifteen and a half, but he was cheerful and brave to the end. He just couldn’t do much for himself by then, other than eat, shit, and wag his tail. He had a large tumour and his liver and kidneys were shot. A few days before he died, Rose and I took him for an evening excursion to one of our favourite picnic spots, half way up the Grwyne Fawr valley, in the Black Mountains.
We parked by the river, barely more than a stream hereabouts, at Pont Cadwgan. A hundred years ago this valley was a different place entirely. Hundreds of workers had poured into the area to build the Grwyne Fawr reservoir. A village was erected upstream at Blaen y Cwm, known locally as Tin Town. It had a hospital, boarding house, chapel, school and jail, and a bad reputation. The reservoir was completed in 1928 and the village dismantled.
I walked to the top of the forest, just below Bal Bach, with the crest of Bal Mawr looming to the left, and stood for a while by a ruined stone cottage. The roof had caved in and two tall trees grew within its walls. A few sheep had gathered below the ruin, freeze-framed in the dense and yellowing light. Behind them, swathes of dead fern covered the mountainside in a russet mantle. The quality of light offered a world viewed through an amber or yellow lens — which reminded me that in alchemy the colour yellow has a particular valence: it stains and infects, carries with it the suggestion of corruption, of an insidious contagion. But yellow is also the colour of sunflowers.
Returning to the car, I collected the food bag and blanket, and Rose helped Bruno along the muddy track to our picnic spot, with the aid of a home-made harness she had fashioned from a couple of old scarves to prop up his failing back legs. The place is much the same as it was twenty years ago, when we would bring our daughters here after school. I collected a few rocks from the shore of the stream, as the fireplace needed building up. There was a brisk westerly wind. Most of the loose wood nearby was sodden after days of rain, so I started the fire with some dry kindling that we had brought with us. We soon had a blaze, and I laid a grill over the fire and cooked our meal. Rose sat on an old tree trunk, Bruno at her side, and they watched, across the flames.
When the food was done, we ate, and Rose and I took turns in feeding Bruno bits of sausage, his favourite treat.
I was sad that we would be losing Bruno, but also glad that he had been with us for all these years, and had shared in our lives. When I brought him home as a pup, I had severe liver illness, which included bouts of encephalopathy, a kind of brain fog that brought on hallucinations and blackouts. I had been given one year to live, unless a liver transplant could be found for me. I believe I drew strength from that young dog, with his boundless energy and enthusiasm, and once I had received an organ transplant — but still carried the viral hepatitis that might eventually do for my new liver also — I made a deal with the Universe, Providence, God, whatever you call it, that if only I could be granted as many years’ life as Bruno, I would be content. It seemed now, fifteen years later, to have been a little rash to have made a bargain of this kind, however good a deal it appeared at the time. Did it mean that my days would shortly be numbered? Rose didn’t think so, but then, as she reminded me, I have always been predisposed to bouts of magical thinking.
In the last few weeks of his life, whenever Rose or I were near him, Bruno, who was mostly immobile by then, would follow our every move with his eyes, always and without fail. It was as if he were asking a question that we were incapable of answering. We were bereft, anticipating the loss to come.
Once we had finished our meal, I covered the embers of the fire with tranches of muddy turf, trod them down. We returned to the car, but I had to carry Bruno for the last stretch. The lane winds down the narrow valley for five miles, between wooded hillsides. It is a remote place, and never more so than on a night in February. I wasn’t expecting any traffic. But I suspected, was practically certain, that we would come across a wild animal of some kind this evening. I just couldn’t think which.
Setting off down the wooded lane, I recalled lines from the French writer Jean-Christophe Bailly, about driving at night down just such a road and experiencing ‘the soft but deep growl of something unknown . . . as if one were skidding over the surface of a world transformed, a world filled with terror, frightened movements, silences. But now, from this world, someone emerges — a phantom, a beast, for only a beast can burst forth this way . . .’
We were about two miles from the bottom of the valley when the beast burst forth, swerved into sight, just ahead of my right headlamp. He had a sideways lilt, hobbling along awkwardly, as though limping, but nonetheless keeping up a good pace. I thought he might swerve off the road, but to the right there was a steep embankment, and he didn’t seem willing to cross the road ahead of our car, this huge rolling monstrous mass of metal and rubber and blazing light that roared behind him. I slowed to his speed and followed on.
Frightened, he ran ahead, trapped in the narrow estuary of the lane. The uneven swagger of the creature was disarming. Because of the lilting run, he looked to me, absurdly, like a low-slung dog, limping hurriedly down the road. And then I spotted the stripes and distinctive snout, and that uneven frantic waddle now made sense. A badger! Though I preferred to think of him as Mochyn Daear, his name in Cymraeg: Earth Pig.
So Mochyn Daear ran ahead for a good stretch of the road, and a strange, receptive joy fell over us; we became childlike, consumed in an archaic state of wonder. We crawled along, matching our pace with the badger’s. It occurred to me that he might continue trotting ahead, in the beam of our headlamps, all the way to the crossroads at Pont Esgob, and stray from his territory, so I was relieved when he took a sudden turn to the right, and scrambled up the steep bank. We caught his full profile one last time before he plunged into the undergrowth.
I knew that I could not inhabit Bruno’s suffering any more than I might enter the world of Mochyn Daear, whose trajectory briefly met with ours that February evening. There is a difference, of course: a dog will share in the day-to day existence of its human companions, become familiar with our habits and peculiarities, our smells, the sound our voices; but at a deeper level, I cannot know his world, any more than I could that of our sylvan escort, or understand or speak his language, even though, for the duration of a few seconds, our paths overlapped. I shall forever be excluded from the shadowy paths by which these creatures make their way; theirs is a distinct modality, a different way of being. But I can watch and listen and share for a moment the joy of having met, in passing, this other solitary and impermanent inhabitant of the valley’s night.
Richard Gwyn is a Welsh writer and translator. His most recent poetry collection is Stowaway and his latest novel is The Blue Tent. His work has been translated into over a dozen languages. He is the author of Ricardo Blanco’s Blog, which can be found at richardgwyn.me.