The dogs of Pompeii are still with me. One of us decided on the spur of the moment to give a name to the small golden one with the fluffy tail arcing back towards his midsection. He had followed, falling into a trot beside us and eventually showing us out past what appeared to be smart new kennels and onto the Viale delle Ginestre. The little troupe of five of us, four humans and one little golden dog, made its way around the perimeter of Pompeii back to the fairground jumble of panini and gelato vans and souvenir hawkers, to the main entrance where the persistent tour guide woman had by this time shut up shop, and the Circumvesuviana train was due to arrive. By that time the dog that had briefly been “Philip”, for reasons best known to the youngest sister who chose it, had peeled off with a purposeful set to his head and tail, back into the ruins peopled with tourists and the whiff of half-eaten sandwiches.
We first saw Philip from the top tier of the amphitheatre, where you come in what would once have been the main entrance to this ancient entertainment complex. Coming in from a stand of whispering trees, for a moment you adjust your senses to a neat semicircle of open-air seating spilling away to a stage below. No sound, no movement. The silence and stillness remind me that time is really all one thing, not a filing cabinet containing a past that still exists. With eyes, ears, noses we merely record moments that evaporate with the flicker of our senses and thoughts, and then cease to be. Wasn’t it really just a moment, a flash, a time-warp ago that the voices of Pompeians filled this air?
The small light coloured dog lay asleep, his back pressed against the curved stone of a seating tier about half way down. Despite the fading day, the sun would have warmed it enough to last another hour or two as a sleeping spot. I was curious about the dogs. I’d seen the first one, again lying prone and apparently happy, stretched out in front of the Tempio di Giove, the Temple of Jupiter, at one end of the city’s Forum. It was dark in colour and appeared quite large, something like a Labrador or German Shepherd or perhaps both. Dozing, it lifted its head and then let it fall. I walked on, wondering why it was there. It didn’t look hungry or neglected. I didn’t want to disturb its rest. But now here was another one in the amphitheatre, lying down there in a slight comfortable curve. My youngest asked if I had any food we could give it. I didn’t take much convincing. We began to walk down to get a closer look. Would it be a bit mangy, rangy, unkempt? Should we keep our distance?
This was a dog that was out to it, submerged in an ocean of sleep, the sort that induces twitching in a creature’s lips and whiskers. We had brought the usual Panini with us from Naples, filled with prosciutto and cheese, and half the price being asked at Pompeii, and fresh sugary doughnuts. My panini was half-eaten, the doughnut having taken care of the rest of my rumbling appetite before we set out exploring the city, so I approached “Phil” thinking if he looked hungry he could have the leftovers. But he was so heavily asleep….why didn’t we just walk on? We dangled a piece of prosciutto near his nose to see if the aroma would rouse him. No need to wonder really. A couple more dangles to waft the smell and the little dog woke. Cautious, it accepted the meat and ate it politely. We gave it more, and then the cheese. He took it without snatching or bolting it. I knew what would happen of course. Much as we might like to simply administer our charity and walk on, pleased with our generosity and consciences salved, a gift of food establishes a relationship. Sure enough, Philip stood up and joined us. We talked to him, patted him.
These Pompeii dogs weren’t begging. Not like the “old women” holding out tin cups where tourists throng, bent over with shawls pulled low over their faces, or prostrate on the footpath as if struck down by a vision of holiness, swaying, praying audibly, urgently. These dogs asked for nothing other than a spot in the sun. The thing is, once you give something you are acknowledging your role in a shared universe, and that we have a duty to care and to act on it. But once you commit to an act of kindness you create expectations of future acts, and the possibility of dependence. And you should remain committed.
Little fair Philip disappeared for a few minutes. I was briefly relieved we were off the hook, even though I liked him and was a bit regretful that he’d gone. Then I spotted the distinctive curved golden tail, fringed when held up like a flag, moving along the top of a stone barrier, and then the plume of it vanished down a flight of steps. We hadn’t managed to shake him after all. Chastised by the other two who didn’t want the guilt of leaving a little friend behind to starve, we moved on a little more quickly, aiming to look nonchalant, not looking back. Food? What food? But Philip had by now reappeared and trotted along with us, looking for all the world like he was ours and knew exactly where we were going. Somehow we were pleased to see him. We greeted him like an old friend, patted him, took photos of him, and felt guilty all at once. What would become of him? Why was he here?
Exiting onto the Viale delle Ginestre, I spotted clean, dry kennels, and the story began to fall into place. The dogs were cared for after all, even if they didn’t have a home. Philip kept pace as we took more photos and then stopped to read all about the [C]Ave Canem project, implemented by the Commissario delegato for the emergency of Naples and Pompeii archaelogical areas, explained and illustrated on large display boards with photos of the Pompeii dogs that are cared for and may be adopted. And so we were conducted out to the road that would take us back around the perimeter to the entrance, the ticket booths, the place where we would find the train back to Naples. Our small Pompeii guide took us through the food vans, the stalls, and was greeted – patted fondly – by a stall owner. Ah, so he is known around here. He has a Pompeii family. He trotted along looking straight ahead, apparently oblivious and unperturbed by cars that were now careening past, heading out to the main road. Briefly, he barked and ran at a car, challenging it to get off his road, then resumed his trotting pace. The girl who’d named him Philip was anxious – we don’t want you to get run over! I said dogs that run at cars know how close they can go, it’s all right. Pompeii dogs are all right. We don’t need to feel bad. They’ve been here always and never and now and forever. Cave canem – Beware of the dog! Pompeii guardians. Old souls.