Alistair MacLeod Short Story: As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1985)

I felt like it was time for another short story from Alistair MacLeod’s Island collection, and thought it would be nice to find one appropriate for summer. So I chose As Birds Bring Forth the Sun – sounds summery, right? (I can hear those of you who know this story laughing at me already.) How wrong I was. This is more of a ghost story than anything else; a haunting tale passed down through generations.

Not only is it ghost-y, but it’s also horribly sad with a terribly graphic and heartbreaking scene of brutality. Why did I go on? Because the cadence of his writing lured me on with the hope of good things to come. Once you get past the first part of the story, it gets easier to bear. Ghosts aren’t nearly so bad as attacking dogs and dead fathers.

Once there was a family with a Highland name who lived beside the sea. And the man had a dog of which he was very fond.

The dog became known as “the big grey dog”.

One spring, when she was pregnant for puppies, she disappeared and did not come home. Some time later the man was out on the water with his sons. They came to an island on which had been living the big grey dog. She fell on him with joy as she used to do, but when her offspring saw what she was doing, they misunderstood and came to her “rescue”. (I’ll spare you the grisly details.)

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look on this type of dog again without thinking about this story.

Since then, it has been said, that when a descendant of the man who loved the dog is near death, a vision of the big grey dog shows itself to them.

In the deaths of each generation, the grey dog was seen by some – by women who were to die in childbirth; by soldiers who went forth to the many wars but did not return; by those who went forth to feuds or dangerous love affairs; by those who answered mysterious midnight messages; by those who swerved on the highway to avoid the real or imagined grey dog and ended in masses of crumpled steel… Many of the man’s descendants moved like careful haemophiliacs, fearing that they carried unwanted possibilities deep within them.

Even those who are most sceptical, like my oldest brother who has driven here from Montreal, betray themselves by their nervous actions. “I avoided the Greyhound bus stations in both Montreal and Toronto,” he smiled upon his arrival, and then added, “Just in case.”

This might not end up being my favourite story of the bunch, but let’s hope I’ve gotten the most dismal out of the way early on.

Other stories I’ve read from Alistair MacLeod’s Island: The Boat and In the Fall

22 thoughts on “Alistair MacLeod Short Story: As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1985)

  1. Sarah Emsley says:

    I remember that story. Not my favourite either, though there’s much to admire. That line about the fear that they “carried unwanted possibilities deep within them” is wonderful. I started rereading The Lost Salt Gift of Blood a couple of days ago, and so far I’ve read the first story, “In the Fall,” twice. This is the part I keep coming back to: “It is as if all of the worst things one imagines happening suddenly have. But it is not at all as you expected. And I think I begin to understand for the first time how difficult and perhaps how fearful it is to be an adult and I am suddenly and selfishly afraid not only for myself now but for what it seems I am to be.”

    • Naomi says:

      That’s such a great quote! I loved that whole growing up ‘theme’ in “In the Fall” – a lot of stuff really does hit him all at once, including that wonderful scene at the end.

  2. Grab the Lapels says:

    Not trying to scare you more (or am I?), but world-wide, feral dogs are one of the most dangerous and deadly animals across the globe. Scattered over Asia, South America, etc., feral dogs will attack and maul *whispers* and eat people.

    • Naomi says:

      Or you could just opt for one of his other stories. Although, I see there is one called “Winter Dog”… uh oh. Maybe I’ll read that one next – test it out for everyone. 😉

  3. buriedinprint says:

    There are two things that I love about this story.

    First, what it seems to say about devotion, which is not uncomplicated. When he rescues the pup, and sees the silhouette left behind the mud, it is like a whisper of how things can hold other things, without shifting space.

    And it’s so interesting that none of the rest of the people are willing to help the pup and, not only do they not want to help it, but they advise killing it. (And, in the end, the other dogs are the creatures which are the cause of the father’s demise – not the single dog who advocated for love and mercy.)

    It is as though we are initially directed to see the bolder act of brutality but, really, isn’t the other, an outright call to end a life, even more brutal? (But, then, his act of saving the pup is connected to his death, not causal but relative. Complicated!)

    And the way that time passes is captured so brilliantly in the way that the pup begins to recover, so slowly and incrementally, unseen healing.

    Second, for the part which brings this story into another place entirely (and, yet, the same place) when he says “I am thinking about all of this now as…” and then continues into another scene, in which there is slow and incremental decay, unseen loss.

    And the way that time passes there, in that scene. Sheesh. And this is one of his shortest stories. He is a wonder. (Sorry this is such a long comment but you’ve inspired me to reread and it’s just a superb story.)

    • Naomi says:

      I am so glad you read it and left such a long comment! I might never have stopped to think about your points otherwise, I was so blown away and taken aback by what happened. But I do remember, before the ‘incident’, how tender the story was with the rescued puppy and the devotion. You’ve even made me want to read it again!

      • buriedinprint says:

        Well, to be fair, it was technically my second reading and I quite likely was just as caught up in “what happened” as you were on first reading. I read them all a couple of summers ago when I was trying to decide on my next short story project. And I knew that MacLeod would be perfect for close reading and would make an excellent project, but I wasn’t sure I could manage to read him on a weekly basis. Even knowing that you had posted on this one, it took me since then to work up the nerve to reread these few pages. *winces*

      • Naomi says:

        Luckily, I seem to be going with more of a monthly+ basis. I’ll let you know in advance when I decide to read the next one!

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