November 11th is Armistice Day in Europe, marking the day the Allies and the Germans signed the peace treaty ending World War One. It was deliberately scheduled at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. An 11-11-11 to signify that it truly was all quiet on the western front. So it’s a national holiday here.
Having a respite from the spate of wet weather we’ve been having, I stopped working mid-afternoon to take my long-suffering Tilly, my 2-year-old Coton-terrier mix out for a well-deserved walk. Heaven knows, she's lucky these days if she gets more than one or two a week, as my work is so demanding.
We live in the Parc naturel régional de la Brenne, a major refuge for birds and other wildlife. I drove Tilly to nearby Preuilly-sur-Claise where we parked in the national forest, and we headed off into one of the many forest paths, me with a map in my pocket as I’m notorious for getting lost walking in a straight line.
It was a lovely walk and Tilly charged back and forth, skidding through the carpet of crunching, somewhat damp leaves, getting impossibly muddy and having a marvelous time. I thought, as I walked along the empty trails how safe I felt, how few of the dangers of much of the world this part of France contains. I had a moment where I felt a frisson of fear that I might encounter some sanglière, some wild boar, who would make short work of my 3-plus-kilo friendly ball of white fluff.
I began wishing for signs of other walkers and was reminded of a comment my mother once made when I was younger about her early days in Blessington, Co. Wicklow in Ireland. She lived in a fairly remote area and said that, if one was walking down those dark country roads (much like rural France now, the country roads there were hardly strung with streetlights) and one saw a figure in the distance, one prayed it was a live person and not a ghost. I smiled, thinking that, indeed, here in this part of France, it’s practically the same. You welcome the sight of a fellow human striding toward you when you’re out in the wilderness alone.
In the distance, I saw two figures rising above a crest ahead, heading toward us, and felt myself relax. After some moments, I saw they had a dog. I had a split second of concern, realizing I hadn’t brought Tilly’s leash but then she’s far from aggressive, tentatively approaching other dogs while whimpering to let them know she’s not going to attack.
As we got closer, I saw that the dog, quite young but very big, was being held by the collar by the female half of this French couple. When the dog caught sight of Tilly, it nearly yanked its owner off her feet several times as she struggled to control it. When we were about twenty feet distant, I heard her order, “Assis!” (Sit.) The dog was indeed very young, at least part Alsatian and very big. The owner struggled to get her dog to continue sitting as we approached. Meanwhile, her husband, who’d walked on ahead, gave me a friendly smile and “bonjour” as he passed.
As we drew abreast of the woman with the dog, Tilly uncharacteristically glued herself to my leg, putting me between her and the dog, giving off her typical little whimpers, keeping her eyes glued on the other animal. The woman and I greeted each other with the standard “bonjour,” Tilly and I on one side of the path and the woman on the other, with easily eight feet between us. I continued on my way, Tilly now looking forward, trotting happily at my ankle.
When we were about ten or fifteen feet beyond the woman, I heard a rush of leaves and turned to look over my left shoulder. The woman had released the dog and it was running full-tilt towards her husband who was a good distance beyond. All of a sudden, the dog turned and began tearing toward Tilly (me, too, although I didn’t stop to think of that at the time). By the time I could turn back to find Tilly to scoop her up, the dog was on her.
Stunned, I watched as the large Alsatian sank its teeth into the back of Tilly’s neck and lifted her off her feet in its jaws, Tilly squealing in high-pitched terror. It ran further down the path before stopping and throwing its weight on top of her. I have never screamed in horror before and often wondered if I was capable of it. Now I know I am. I could not stop screaming. I watched as Tilly tried desperately to escape the dog’s jaws and I thought to myself, “He's going to kill her. She’s going to die. She’s going to die right in front of me and I can’t do anything to stop it.”
The woman was frozen in shock just as I was. But my screams galvanized the husband who came tearing down the path past me, threw himself forward, almost Superman-like, arms extended in front of him, and landed on his dog, pinning it and prising his jaws apart to release the petrified, shrieking Tilly. He remained pinning his dog to the ground as I scooped Tilly into my arms, trying desperately to determine if she was seriously injured and thinking, why does this have to happen on a holiday when I have no clue where to take her for emergency care?
Frantic to get away from the dog that was still securely pinned beneath its owner, I began to make a hasty retreat but the dog owners shouted after me to come back. I was so dazed and upset that I obeyed. The man stayed on the ground atop the dog who was lying still, not trying to escape, while the wife came to me. Tilly flinched and screamed again as the woman gently put her hands on her, but I held her still as the woman proceeded to examine her minutely for any sign of trauma. Not so much as a drop of blood. It was at least a minute or more before the woman and I were both convinced that, at least physically, Tilly seemed to have escaped harm. I was shaking more violently than Tilly, who clearly felt safe now, clutched in my arms. Both husband and wife were understandably concerned and tried to tell me they’d never seen their young dog behave so. I believed them. They were quite distressed and worried about us.
We bid a tremulous “au revoir” and I headed back to my car, about a 25-minute walk, with Tilly clutched tightly in my arms. After about 10 minutes, I realized I might do more harm coddling her so I put her down on the path. After a moment, she shook herself and headed off several feet ahead of me, which I took to be a very good sign.
I broke my rule of not letting Tilly sit in my lap in the driver’s seat, unable to relinquish her. I drove to my friend Innis’s house, praying she’d be home, as I didn’t think I could bear driving home with no one to talk to in English and only the incessant pull of work tugging at me. I knew I couldn’t face working anymore that afternoon.
Violence is a frightening thing to encounter, whether it’s a thwarted attack like this or something far, far greater. It’s a good thing to remember those who risked their lives for our freedom, and also those who soldier alongside us in our daily lives, who just give us happiness day in and day out. I know Thanksgiving is two weeks away but it helps to remember that we should give thanks every day for our blessings, for our near misses, for the creatures great and small who bring joy into our lives, with their unconditional love, their unilateral support, their constant presence.
I’ll say a prayer tonight for the veterans and those who have died in all wars, and an especial prayer of thanks that the little creature who gives a soul to my house is alive and well.