When 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. The lane winds down the narrow valley for six 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.
As we set out, two things were on my mind. The first thing, which I didn’t mention in the last piece, was that when I was very ill, and Bruno was a pup, I had 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 happy. It seems now, fifteen years later, to have been a little rash to make a bargain of this kind, however good a deal it might have seemed at the time. Did it mean that my days would shortly be numbered? I hoped not. Rose didn’t think so, but then, as she tells me, I am predisposed towards bouts of magical thinking.
The second thing was that I suspected, was practically certain, that we would come across a wild animal of some kind this evening. I just couldn’t think which. I remembered a night like this, a couple of years ago, driving back to the village where Rose and I were living in the Pyrenees, we had passed a wild boar sow and her two piglets, crossing the road just ahead of us. They were caught in the lights and trotted for a good stretch before sliding away into the scrub. I had regarded them as a good omen.
Driving at night down such a wooded lane again tonight, I remember Jean-Christophe Bailly’s essay, The Animal Side, where he writes of ‘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. It had a sideways lilt, hobbling along awkwardly, as though limping, but nonetheless keeping up a good pace. I thought it might swerve off the road, but to the right there was a steep embankment, and he — I thought of it as a 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 like a low-slung three-legged dog. And then I spot the stripes and distinctive snout: and that uneven hurried waddle now makes sense. A badger! Though I prefer to think of him as Mochyn ddaear which means Earth Pig, his name in Welsh.
So Mochyn Ddaear runs ahead for a good two or three hundred metres, and a strange, receptive joy comes over us, we become ‘childlike, or perhaps archaic.’ (Bailly). We slow our pace to match the badger’s. Just when it seems as though he would continue trotting ahead in the beam of our headlamps all the way, he takes a sharp turn, and scrambles up the bank to the right. We catch his full profile as he turns one last time before plunging into the undergrowth.
I do not want to attribute any special meaning to this encounter on the night we built a fire and cooked a meal for our aged dog, knowing that he had only days to live. I know that I cannot inhabit Bruno’s suffering any more than I can inhabit the world of the badger, whose trajectory briefly met with ours that night. I cannot know his world, or speak with the voice of a Badger, even though, for the duration of a few seconds, our paths overlapped. I shall forever be excluded from the shadowy paths by which creatures make their way; theirs is a different modality, a different way of being. But I can watch and listen and report back, share for a moment the joy of having met, in passing, other distinct and impermanent inhabitants of the valley’s night.