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Excerpt from Starry Night, Copyright W. Bryan Smith 2004
Jay’s life has come undone.
His five-year engagement to Daizee Fay has been broken, and only anxiety, depression, and a peptic ulcer remain. In the midst of a nervous breakdown, he witnesses a hallucinatory vision: the night sky above his garden melts into a dizzying swirl of stars. The vision passes, but Jay’s sanity is shaken: his faithful Jack Russell terrier Nick, can now suddenly speak.
But are Nick’s abilities of speech merely the result of Jay’s mental collapse, or the conjuring of an ancient animal spirit from Irish folklore, or-
Is it the unthinkable: can Nick actually talk?
When Jay accepts Nick’s offer to reunite him with his beloved Daizee, he steps into a reality askew with talking dogs, mythical Irish sprites, and intrigue. With the aid of the enigmatic Ned Church, a brain-damaged ex-spy, Jay and Nick plunge headfirst into a mystery with Daizee at its core.
In Starry Night, Smith returns to the mythical setting of Mt. Canaan, Pennsylvania, in a wonderfully odd meditation on love, reality, and the meaning of life.
Nick nosed his way in through the crack of the bedroom door, first his
snoot, then a paw. The hinges groaned, relented as he bullied his way into the
room. There was an urgency in the way he walked, in the unblinking manner
of his eyes. His ears were drawn back, his muzzle tense, and his tail tucked
low. He leaped upon the bed, parked himself next to Jay’s face.
“What is it?” Jay asked, alarmed.
There was sorrow in Nick’s eyes and he held his head low. Jay had never
seen him like this before. Nick exhaled and sighed. “I’m going to die,” he
Jay bolted upright. “What do you mean? When?”
“Someday,” he whimpered.
“Someday I’m going to die,” Nick repeated.
Jay laughed. “Someday, we’re all going to die.”
But Nick didn’t laugh. “I don’t think you seem to understand, old sport.
This comes as quite a shock to me. I wasn’t prepared for this.”
“You didn’t know you would die someday?” Jay asked.
“I thought death was something that happened to the weak, the unlucky.
But I’ve been watching the news, old sport. It happens to people, to animals
every day. It happens to the old and the young, the sick and the strong.
Everyone dies. It awaits us all. I didn’t know it … I didn’t know it awaits us
“Death? What? Did you really think you we’re going to live forever?”
The dog looked back at him and said gravely, “Yes, I did.”
Jay patted him on the head. “Nick, it’ll happen to all of us, sooner or later.”
But Nick shook his head. “Not to me. It never even crossed my mind. I
figured I would always have my blanket in the corner of the kitchen, my bowl
of kibble, my box of toys. I thought every spring the begonias, the irises, and
the lilies would bloom, fill the garden with sweet, lovely perfume, and I
would be there to smell it all. This is not easy for me. My whole reality is
changed. Life isn’t life. There is no ‘happily-ever-after.’ It’s a death
“Ah, Nick. It’s not so bad. It makes the experience of living all the more
precious, I think.”
Nick rested his chin upon Jay’s leg. “You’re going to die too,” he
lamented, as if it were a fate he somehow regretted more so than his own. “But
I’ll die long before you, I fear—dogs don’t live nearly as long as people. And
then who will take care of you?”
“Nick …” Jay began and attempted to stroke his ears. But Nick pulled
“There’s a blissful ignorance that comes with being a dog, old sport. Not
knowing, believing you’re immortal—that made sense to me. When this
magical “awakening” happened, I thought it a blessing from some cosmic
intelligence. But now I see it is twofold.” He scratched himself, thoughtfully.
“How do you live with it, Jay? What propels you from bed every morning
with the knowledge that in the end, it is utterly meaningless? No matter what
you do, what you accomplish, it doesn’t change the outcome. You can’t cheat
it. You could lock yourself away in a room of a high tower and fate will still
find you. Death will come for you in a brain aneurysm, or a fire, or in the form
of cells gone haywire. You can’t hide from it. It’ll take you when it damn well
pleases ‘and all your money won’t another minute buy.’”
“Dust in the Wind?” Jay said, perplexed. His dog was quoting from the
1970s group Kansas?
“Why does any of life even matter? Why fight to stay alive? No one
survives in the end, anyway. Why give your money to a doctor so he can patch
you up until your next breakdown? He can’t save himself from dying, what
makes him think he can save you?”
“Nick, have faith.”
Jay breathed deep. “Faith, Nick. Faith that there is a purpose, a reason for
all of this—suffering.”
“Like religion?” Nick asked.
“Religion,” Nick repeated. His eyes glowed with thought. “Religions,
there’s quite a lot of them. With so many religions, how can a body know
which is the true one?”
“I guess you can’t,” Jay replied. “You have to rely on faith.”
“Faith, again? What kind of proof—what kind of evidence, is that? You
just choose a religion and believe? Well, that doesn’t seem very scientific,”
Nick whined, to which Jay responded, “Science is science and religion is
religion. I don’t think there is a common ground between them. Science is
based on the scientific method. Science only believes what it can test, and
religion cannot be tested.”
Nick paced. “If that’s the way it is, I would think it possible that no one’s
got it right. In fact, it seems most probable they’re all wrong to some degree:
the scientists, churchgoers, and the theologians. Why, they’re not worshiping
a god—the truth—at all; they’re worshiping ideas, theories. How’s a body to
“It’s the ultimate mystery of human life, Nick.” Jay said, and then
corrected himself. “And now I suppose, a dog’s life too.”
“Well, I for one don’t like it one bit, old sport. I’ve a bone to pick with this
Supreme Being who puts someone down here without any instruction to think
up religions on his or her own and then they have to guess at which parts
they’ve got right or wrong.”
Jay laughed. His little dog was growing up so fast. It seemed like only
yesterday he’d said his first words—
“Nick, we all wrestle with it. It’s life’s greatest mystery and unfortunately,
there’s no definitive answer.”
“Do we ever find out? What happens when we die? I want to live, Jay. I
don’t want to die—”
“Well, Nick. Some people believe that death really isn’t an end at all.”
“What do you mean, old sport?”
“Some people believe in an afterlife—a continuing of your consciousness,
Jay weighed the question for a moment. It was a bit heavy for a Saturday
morning. “I don’t know.”
But the dog was intrigued now. Perhaps there was an escape, an out from
nothingness—from erasure. “Tell me, tell me more about the afterlife.”
Jay rubbed his chin, felt the stubble resist his touch. “Okay. Well some
people believe in Heaven—that’s a place where you go, if you’ve led a good
life, I suppose.”
Jay struggled with a definition. How do you describe the concept of
Heaven to a dog? “Clouds, harps, angels, pearly gates …”
It wasn’t going so well. Nick seemed unimpressed. “You said only some
people believe in Heaven. What do other people believe? Give me more.”
“Well, let’s see. Some people believe in reincarnation …”
“They believe in the concept of karma—very Newtonian, really—the idea
that every action has a reaction. If you’re kind to people and animals, that
kindness comes back to you in the form of good karma. Likewise, if you’re
unkind, you’re repaid with bad karma. That karma may not surface in this life,
but in the next. After you die, you come back and you ‘reap what you sow.’”
“You come back here?”
“Yes. Depending how you lived, you might possibly come back in a better
or worse form, than your previous life. It’s sort of a ladder, a karmic ladder.”
“What about dogs? Can dogs come back too?”
“I suppose dogs are included in the mix.”
Nick rolled on his side. He seemed more relaxed now, more resigned.
“I guess if I had to choose something to believe in,” Jay said, “karma
would be it. It just makes the most sense to me. If you think about it, we’re all
made of the same things—planets, stars, and mountains. Death just converts
us from one form to another. I mean, when we die, they bury us. Our bodies
“Entropy,” Nick offered.
“Sorry,” the dog replied. “I’ve been nosing about your books. Entropy is
the tendency toward chaos.”
Jay really didn’t know what the hell his dog was talking about. “Anyway.
What I was saying. Our bodies breakdown—entropy—you say, and we turn
to dust. We return to the Earth. We nourish the soil, feed the flowers.” He
looked at Nick and smiled. “The ‘beautiful uncut hair of graves.’”
Nick picked up his head.
“Grass,” Jay responded.
Nick nodded. “That’s lovely, old sport.”
“It’s Whitman, ‘Song of Myself.’”
“Whitman, you say?”
“Walt Whitman. He was a poet. He wrote Leaves of Grass. It’s downstairs
on the shelf.”
“I’ll have to give it a look. I’ve been watching too much television lately.”
They were quiet for a moment, but their conversation hung over the bed
like a stubborn cloud.
“I fancy I might like to be buried beneath the begonias,” Nick said, finally.
“So that I might nourish them and they could turn me into perfume. Then you
could smell them—breathe them in, breathe me in, and then I could be with
Jay smiled. “I’ll do that.”
Jay touched Nick’s wet nose. “Promise.”
“That’s like asking is a cat dead or alive before you look at it?” Jay said.
“Erwin Schrödinger … You know, Quantum theory, wave function and
all that physics stuff? In a famous experiment, he put a cat in a box with a gun,
uranium, and a Geiger counter—”
“I’m not following you, old sport.”
“Cat!” Nick sneered. “What does my speaking have to do with a cat?”
“Not a real cat, of course. He was challenging the notion that something
could only be proven by observing it.”
“Hmph. I can’t place much importance on the results of an experiment
involving a cat, real or imagined,” Nick scoffed.