A pang of desolation runs through me during that spasm of glad-handing at Mass called the Kiss of Peace. The High-Five of Peace, as often as not. All the Rotarian hand-shaking, wigwagging, and waving toward every possible compass point makes me lonely. Congregants two generations removed from Woodstock have taken to raising that old two-fingered, tie-dyed peace sign. The sight of it dispirits me. (Who was it who said that the Sixties, like the poor, will be with us always?)
What the hubbub brings to mind is not the pax tecum, an eschatological promise to a community linked by the same faith and the same love. Not one bit. Any gravity intended to prepare receivers of the pax for the Eucharist has disappeared down the rabbit hole. Amid the surrounding bustle and compulsive camaraderie, my memory fills the void with the final lines of a short story by Stringfellow Barr.
“The Little Yellow Dog,” first published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, 1928, was a staple in high school anthologies of American literature until the multi-culti ethos rolled like a Panzer division over curricula. The story unsettled me in girlhood; it unsettles me still, if for different reasons. Quite brief, it appears in its entirety below.
The images here are not specifically related to the text, though a case might be made for them. I simply delight in them. Maybe you will, too.
Little Yellow Dog
F. Stringfellow Barr
On the white road that leads out of Mirebeau toward Nantes, between slender wavering poplars, I met a very small yellow dog. He trotted slowly up to me, halted, and spoke.
“Of course,” he said, “I am only a dog, and a yellow one at that. But I am sure you will help me. I am looking for my master.”
“I will do what I can,” I answered. “I like your courage. Frankly, I never expected a dog to speak to me, least of all a yellow one. Where do you think your master is?”
The little dog wagged his tail gratefully; and it was not until he showed this sign of cheerfulness that I realized by contrast how very sad were his yellow eyes.
“I do not know where he is. I have gone South as far as Poitiers and northward to Tours and I could find him nowhere. I live in Mirebeau; but as it is certain he is not there, I am on my way to Nantes to see if he comes off the ships.”
“But did he put to sea?”
“I do not know. But I fancy he loved the straight masts against evening skies. They would remind him of the poplars along the road-side. He was restless and always liked roads and ships. He always smelt of travel, even in his best clothes. Yes, I think I had best try Nantes.”
“What does your master look like?”
The dog turned his head quickly, and a far look came into his melancholy eyes. I thought at first that he could not speak for pain; but suddenly his gaze softened and he seemed to be smiling serenely at some old recollection.
“Ah,” he said, “it is not so much how he looks, or even how he smells; but the things he does. He is always strong and calm and sure of himself. So that one aches to follow him and serve him. You don’t know how we little dogs do ache to serve and follow someone. You may think, because we are restless and keep running into the fields on either side of the road and back again, that we would gladly be independent and free to come and go as we please. Never believe it. We are indeed restless, but how we crave someone to come back to from our strayings. Every morning at dawn I want my master to lead me off. And I can scarcely sleep by day or night for seeking him.”
I noticed then that the little fellow was indeed gaunt and unkempt, with that haunted look in his eyes that some men get. One or two sleek tidy dogs, who came trotting by at the heels of their masters, never even stopped to make his acquaintance. He seemed, by his gentle manner, used to this treatment. But I reflected that his enthusiastic and, I confess, somewhat bombastic description of this marvellous master of his was really not of the least value in a search. So I turned to him sharply.
“I have never seen him,” said the little dog simply. “Maybe that is why he is so hard to find. No, if I had once found him, you may be sure I would not have lost him again. But I have never seen him.”
He was standing very rigidly before me, with his head on one side, and he seemed so confident of my understanding his trouble, that I could not laugh at the absurdity of his quest.
“But, my dear fellow,” I exclaimed as gently as I knew how, “how can you find a master you have never seen? And if he exists only as your ideal, you have but to keep hunting until you find him in the flesh.”
“I have,” said the little dog ruefully. “I have hunted ever since I knew what my ideal was like. Though, to tell the truth, it is not so much a question of what my master must be like, as of what he must not. There are no men that I have seen in Poitiers or Tours that I could follow.”
“But other dogs seem to find masters.”
“I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that better dogs than I find masters in these places. You are thinking that I am a most conceited pup, a most—”
“No, no!” I cried. “I am thinking nothing of the sort. I understand what you mean.”
I sat down suddenly beside him on the dusty bank and drew his head against mine. A plump peasant who was driving by, looked amusedly at us while his cart covered us with white dust. The peasant’s great black dog paid us not even the attention of a glance.
“No, no,” I murmured again in his ear. “I understand how you feel. You cannot follow the fat butcher in Mirebeau, or the sleek pharmacist, or the inn-keeper with his well-kept dogs. They would take good care of you, but you cannot follow them. A pup must follow whom he can, not whomever he will. And none of these men in Mirebeau or Tours is the man you are searching for.—Poor devil, I understand.”
The little pup’s body stiffened; he drew his head back; and a strange, troubled, joyful look came into his eyes.
“No, not that,” I cried, pushing him away and leaping to my feet in a panic, and starting down the road. “No, not me! Courage. Keep a good heart. You will surely find him at Nantes. Or at Rochelle. You did not think of Rochelle, did you? He will surely come off the ships there. —But not me! No, no, not me! There is no strength or sureness in me—no strength.”
• • • • •
Why does this story come to me, unbidden, at Sunday Mass? The search for a master does not apply, but something else does.
The handshake is a social gesture, not a liturgical one. Shalom drains out of it before it enters the pew. In context, it is convivial, a protocol of sociability; it signals ordinary neighborliness, not communion. Bereft of solemnity, it is crippled in its function as a seal and pledge of the prayers that went before it. Instead, it suggests a quotidian comity that stylized ritual is designed to mute.
Rarely am I within greeting distance of a familiar face with whom the neighborly gesture might resonate. My pew-mates and I are usually strangers to each other. After that brief, isolated burst of obligatory good cheer, we return—gladly, I suspect—to our anonymity. For that reason, the smiling handshake becomes a vacant gesture. Perhaps even a dishonest one.
Each week my fantasy is the same: After Mass, I approach one of the strangers who put their hand out—and who listened reverently to that week’s canned intercession for whichever faceless victims of distant disaster made the evening news. Please, my brother, my sister, would you stay just five minutes more to pray with me? Recite the Last Gospel with me for a dying friend? For the suffering of a lost beloved? For the peace of heart that escapes me?
My fellow parishioner would bolt. A mental note would be made to steer clear of me next week. Embarrassed excuses would come in a rush: So sorry. If only I could but I am running late as it is. Another time, perhaps. But really, it is not necessary. God bless.
“No, not me! Courage! Keep a good heart. . . . No, no, not me.”
• • • • •
Somewhere within the chill Barr’s story induces lurks the fear that I might, myself, turn and flee if a wandering stray stopped me along my own road to Nantes.
Note: F. Stringfellow Barr was editor of Virginia Quarterly Review in the 1930s and co-founder, in the ’40s, of the Great Books Program at St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland.