He learned about pain and death from an ugly dying dog. It had been run over and lay by the side of the road, its chest crushed, bloody foam bubbling from its mouth. When he bent over it the dog gazed at him with glasslike eyes, eyes that already saw into the next world.
To understand what the dog was saying he put his hand on its stumpy tail. “Who mandated this death for you?” he asked the dog. “What have you done?”
“I did nothing,” the dog replied.
“But this is a harsh death.”
“Nonetheless,” the dog told him, “I am blameless.”
“Have you ever killed?”
“Oh yes. My jaws are designed to kill. I was constructed to kill smaller things.”
“Do you kill for food or pleasure?”
“I kill out of joy,” the dog told him. “It is a game; it is the game I play.”
Emmanuel said, “I did not know about such games. Why do dogs kill and why do dogs die? Why are there such games?”
“These subtleties mean nothing to me,” the dog told him. “I kill to kill; I die because I must. It is necessity, the rule that is the final rule. Don’t you live and kill and die by that rule? Surely you do. You are a creature, too.”
“I do what I wish.”
“You lie to yourself,” the dog said. “Only God does as he wishes.”
“Then I must be God.”
“If you are God, heal me.”
“But you are under the law.”
“You are not God.”
“God willed the law, dog.”
“You have said it, then, yourself; you have answered your own question. Now let me die.”
When he told Elias about the dog who died, Elias said:
Go, stranger, and to Lacedaemon tell
That here, obeying her behests, we fell.
“That was for the Spartans who died at Thermopylae,” Elias said.
“Why do you tell me that?” Emmanuel said.
Go tell the Spartans, thou that passeth by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
“You mean the dog,” Emmanuel said.
“I mean the dog,” Elias said.
“There is no difference between a dead dog in a ditch and the Spartans who died at Thermopylae.” He understood. “None,” he said. “I see.”
“If you can understand why the Spartans died you can understand it all,” Elias said.
You who pass by, a moment pause;
We, here, obey the Spartan laws.
“Is there no couplet for the dog?” Emmanuel asked.
Passer, this enter in your tog:
As Spartan was, so, too, the dog.
“Thank you,” Emmanuel said.
“What was the last thing the dog said?” Elias said.
“The dog said, ‘Now let me die.'”
E chi volete voi che mi conforte
In cosi dura sorte,
In cosi gran martire?
“What is that?” Emmanuel said.
“The most beautiful piece of music written before Bach,” Elias said. “Monteverdi’s madrigal ‘Lamento D’ Arianna.’ Thus:
Let me die!
And who do you think can comfort me
in my harsh misfortune,
in such grievous torment?
“Then the dog’s death is high art,” Emmanuel said. “The highest art of the world. Or at least celebrated, recorded, in and by high art. Am I to see nobility in an old ugly dying dog with a crushed chest?”
“If you believe Monteverdi, yes,” Elias said. “And those who revere Monteverdi.”
“Is there more to the lament?”
“Yes, but it does not apply. Theseus has left Ariadne; it is unrequited love.”
“Which is more awesome?” Emmanuel said. “A dying dog in a ditch or Ariadne spurned?”
Elias said, “Ariadne imagines her torment, but the dog’s is real.”
“Then the dog’s torment is worse,” Emmanuel said. “It is the greater tragedy.” He understood. And, strangely, he felt content. It was a good universe in which an ugly dying dog was of more worth than a classic figure from ancient Greece. He felt the tilted balance right itself, the scales that weighed it all. He felt the honesty of the universe, and his confusion left him. But, more important, the dog understood its own death. After all, the dog would never hear Monteverdi’s music or read the couplet on the stone column at Thermopylae. High art was for those who saw death rather than lived death. For the dying creature a cup of water was more important.
“We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaining one’s aim IS a dog’s death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.”