Fiction

Once Upon a Dog: Fiction by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku

dog

Image: Phil Manker via Flickr

I ran into Smallie when he was a two-day old child. His mother’s owners said that Smallie’s mother was a fecund bitch – she had already whelped twice that year, and like HIM, there was no place for Smallie and his sisters and brothers. That was why Smallie and his sister were brought to our school in a carton by his mother’s owner. She said she was looking for anyone who would take them in.

As we all gathered together looking at the two puppies, I heard their mother’s owner say, ‘I hear you love dogs…you could take that one’. She was pointing at Smallie’s sister and looking at me.

‘You mean me…? Where would I keep it? How do you expect me to take care of a two-day old puppy?’

Just then Smallie opened his eyes. He looked at me. Next, he made to clamber out of the carton. With each attempt, he would whimper and roll back in. His sister just coiled there enduring her brother climbing on her to come out of the carton either to play or be taken home.

‘See, he likes you…’

‘Ok, I’ll take the one…she looks quiet, not like this here one that’s already giving trouble…’

‘No, you won’t…that one’s mine’, one of the teachers there said. She scooped up the sleeping beauty. ‘Ah, now I have something to use for cleaning my son’s shit’.

‘What did you just say…?’

‘Dogs eat shit, especially baby shit…I’ll not be having problems with how to throw away my baby’s shit any more’.

That was enough reason I finally decided to take Smallie in – I wanted to save him from having to eat shit for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the rest of his sweet life. But there was nothing I could do for his sister. I confess that I liked dogs and had wanted to have one as a pet but I had not planned on a two-day old puppy. But this one looked different. Smallie’s long ears hung down his head in a fluff, and there was this boyish way he looked at you, more like a tot I should say, as if he could read your mind – and he sometimes appeared to smile at you. Whenever I looked at him, I thought I saw Oliver Twist’s eyes in that cartoon of him in my book, imploring Mr. Bumble for more food. Yet he was a trifling, no he was small, certainly very small and when I was looking for a name for him, I didn’t have any problems. So I called him Smallie in the manner you would refer to a goaltender as ‘goalie’.

Nobody in my compound expected Smallie to live. My neighbour told me that Smallie would die without what his mum would have offered him at that critical period of his life. He needed his mother to suckle him otherwise he would not last a week. So, he would need milk, wouldn’t he? Why, he’s just a pup…his milk would hardly put a hole in my pocket. As a matter of fact, I had a big sachet of milk – he can have it… But Smallie, he refused to have the milk that night. Did he want shit then? Are pups really fed baby shit? Where on earth was I going to get baby shit to keep him alive, at least for the time being?

Our first night together was awkward and very long. After I gave him a hot bath that evening, I rubbed aboniki balm on him to try to keep him warm. Thereafter, I wrapped him up with my own version of swaddling clothes, and thrust him in a drawer I no longer used. Smallie did not sleep. He wailed all night. We did not sleep as well, no, not one of us in that large compound of ours that doubled as our school’s dormitory and as residence for the other members of that community. The noises he made were noises that resembled what a mother dog would make to mourn the death of an only pup. Those sounds crept from his little drawer where I had arranged a bed for him into our beds. At some point I considered flinging the brat into the streets but how could I? So, I tried to muffle those irritating sounds of his with my pillows but it didn’t work. My thoughts were running wild. Apart from probably going to start life eating shit, maybe this nasty pup would do well to sign up with Bob Marley as a wailing wailer? Oh God, how he wailed that night. Nobody slept.

But was he really trying to say something? Maybe the aboniki balm was too hot for him? Aboniki is a hot rub you rub on joints and swellings to ease pain. Why didn’t I rub Mentholatum on him instead of Aboniki? Mentholatum was milder, oh dear me. But did he want to lie on my bed? Drat…lie on my bed! Maybe he missed snuggling with his mum and curling up with his brothers and sisters in the carton with which he was brought to our school? Or perhaps he was hungry. The thought that he must be hungry yanked me from my bed so what I tried to do to placate him was to heat that plate of milk I’d initially offered. The pup would none of it. So at that point I thought oh, now he must need his shit but no, no, no, no, not me. First, where was I going to get baby shit? – the voices in my head suggested it but no, no way – my shit…how was I going to be able to live with myself giving him that one thing I tried to save him from eating for breakfast and dinner that his sister has probably had in its new home? That night this pup drove home the meaning of the saying – the child…em dog that insists that its mother would not sleep, it too would not have a shuteye. He also taught me a fundamental principle about newborns: they cry by night and sleep by day.

In the morning, the neighbours complained.

‘You can’t keep that noise here…’ Mama Ndubuisi said. ‘We hardly slept. I must speak with our landlord…no, we can’t have you disturbing our sleep. It’s either you do away with that thing or we report you to him’, Mama Ndubuisi kept saying even as I tried to appeal to her to give me just one more night with Smallie. But she was adamant.

‘Okay, you can go…go and report…’ I said to her. And just as I was considering whatever it was that I was going to do, I spied that the brat had gone quiet. Maybe it had died already? But no, Smallie hadn’t died. As I drew closer to observe it, I could see that gentle rise and fall of part of his body. He had just fallen fast asleep. Thankfully, this was a Saturday so I kept a vigil as he heaved ho. By the time he was up I was ready for him with a jug of milk. It didn’t last a minute with him.

Smallie, naughty, lofty Smallie – he was always hungry…and thank goodness, I didn’t have to feed him shit. Apart from loving his milk, he relished his rice mixed with fish. You had to mix the whole thing in a paste otherwise Smallie would nick the fish and leave you with the rice. The fish was the incentive for his rice. Smallie also had a habit of messing up the extra room in that premises that became his ken. So I would bring him close to his poo and he’d retreat with me going after him with his poo. Before long, Smallie began to totter from the cubicle that I often kept him, to do his poo outside. I tried to protect him from getting involved in any domestic palaver or getting in the way of those people in my compound that had passed a death sentence on him. His being naughty hardly compared with his golden-yellow furs which shone with the sun anytime he was out of doors with me, taking his first steps and getting used to a new environment. As he grew, Smallie hated to take a bath whether the water was hot or cold: I remember the few times that I had to give him a bath. On these occasions, I have had to prepare myself for days because of the coming duel between us. As the water fell on him, he would growl quietly yet would just sit there in my tub licking the darned soap off his furs. Perhaps his punishment for me for getting him all wet was that as soon as he was off his leash after that bath, he would run right into the garden, and roll and thrash about on the dirty floor mostly to my dismay. But no matter how much he rolled about on the floor after those baths that we quarreled about, his golden furs shone with the sun when he became dry.

And Smallie shone as he began to grow. Six months after he was destined to die, he became the most popular soul in my compound: kids loved to play with him and he loved to gambol with them as well. Adults gave him lots of their leftover food: whenever they could not finish their foods and drinks wherever they were, they wrapped them all up and brought them to Smallie. I remember too that there was a little boy in the neighbourhood who had a birthday party but I could not attend because I was busy: the boy insisted on someone bringing Smallie and they did. I think it was from that day that Smallie began to hate chicken leftovers. They told me he had lots of chicken and Coca-Cola. Therefore, if I had cause to give him a treat by sharing some of my chicken with him, there was a way that Smallie would look at the chicken and eye me as if he wanted to say: ‘No please sir, I think I’ll pass’.

Smallie – that time he just loved to sleep and sleep and sleep – as he grew. Let me tell you – I wasn’t happy with his sleep habits then. Was this the kind of dog I wanted? No, no way. I wanted a dot-com dog, one that behaved like that famous dog that did fantastic things for his blind master: that blind man’s dog could answer the door, wait for the vendor to deliver the newspaper and mail letters at the post office. But how wrong I was! I was not to know that Smallie had to sleep for him to grow. And we fought about his sleep. I tried to convince myself that this must be the sleep that Smallie did not sleep that first night but I could not convince myself. So I took my whip and thrashed him – very hard. He bared his fangs. They were like two long knives in his mouth. They warded me off.

In our village, you made a dog ‘wicked’ by slicing off its tail. When the dog was sleeping, you would creep up to it and swish, you separated the tail from the dog with your cutlass. It would only take a week, but the dog whose tail you sliced off would come to you again wagging its waist without its tail. So I tried to slice off Smallie’s bushy tail to make him as ‘wicked’ and as ferocious as the dogs in my village. But Smallie had seen through me. When I got home from work on the day I decided to cut off his tail, he was gone…gone to sleep at my neighbour’s. He stayed there for days and we were not speaking to each other. Each time I approached, he would growl and bay. So one day, I approached anyway in spite of his growling and baying. I reached out, ready to lose a finger from the long knives that were in his mouth. But Smallie licked my fingers instead. So I rubbed his head and stroked him. Before long, both of us were in my kitchen – he looking for something to nick for a snack, and me shooing him off. A lot of the times that I hurried off to work and didn’t have the time to prepare his breakfast – that mish-mash of rice and fish, he had to make do with ordinary biscuit – lots of it. I said ‘ordinary’ because Smallie had a pedigree and class and a swagger that was bigger than him: you should not feed him crap.

One day, I was off to work and didn’t have the time to give him his special – six raw eggs and a tin of fresh milk mixed into a broth. Usually, Smallie would wag and wag and rub his waist against me after his special. But that morning I didn’t have the time so I tossed him a loaf of bread before I left.

‘Bye, Small…! I called after him.

There was this disappointment in the look he gave me in those semi-human eyes. It tugged at my heart. I knew he was not happy with his breakfast but there was nothing I could do, so I hurried off. When I returned with chicken bones leftover for him after work, still he refused to have the chicken bones for dinner.

‘Woof, woof!’ Smallie barked at me. And even as he did so, he would run ahead of me, and sensing that I was not taking a cue from his barking and his running ahead of me to follow him, he would bark again, and run ahead of me. So I took his cue and followed him to the back of the house. I met Smallie there digging up something, and I moved closer to see what it was. Golly, it was that piece of bread I had tossed him that morning for breakfast – he had buried it, perhaps for safekeeping or perhaps for him to have whenever I didn’t have his breakfast ready or in the event that I forget to let him have either his breakfast or dinner or his special.

And then I began to see another aspect of Smallie’s personality with the coming of the rains. He couldn’t stand the cold and the wet. So, if there was rain and you left Smallie outside, you had yourself to blame: he would scratch and scratch at my door and make those annoying little noises that he made when he was just a baby. Smallie wouldn’t stop until you let him in. But after you did, you’d have to make enough room for him…and on your bed if you wanted to have any peace!

You see, my Smallie had a big mind of his own. So, I decided to take this mind of his for a long walk by teaching him the letters of the English alphabet. Most evenings, I would get a chair and ask Smallie to sit down in front of me. He would squat on his fanny, with his bushy and curved tail, wagging it like a playful pupil who was trying really hard to be attentive. His tongue – I didn’t know it had grown that long – would hang out to one side, and he would cock his head to one side with a look on his face that seemed as if he was smiling and daring you at the same time to test his intellect.

So if I read the letter ‘A’ to him, he barked once, letter ‘B’, he barked twice, letter ‘C’ he would bark thrice, and for letter ‘D’ four times. Of course I rewarded him with biscuits…Smallie loved biscuits. Even though we never got up to Zee, Smallie showed that he could be a prof. if I let him.

Pretty soon though, stories about Smallie began to walk here and there. By this time, Smallie was now quite a bonny lad and those who showed up at my door to see the ‘small’ dog would beat hasty retreats at the massive semi-Alsatian with such deceptive a name as ‘Smallie’. So I had to put a notice outside: BEWARE OF DOG. I also remember those times Smallie and I go for walks – it was an absolute pleasure to see Smallie’s big tongue stick out of his mouth, with his red lasso around his neck, as we strolled along. People would cross over to the other side of the street apparently in awe of the mastiff looming ahead. I used to wish then that those who had passed a sentence of death on him would chance by and cross over to the other side too and eat their words…and their shit.

We began to have problems. First, some people saw Smallie and they saw raw meat – meat known in Ibo language as anu 404 – dog meat. One day, after we got back from taking a walk, I met a couple of friends lounging around my compound staring at us. They dared not come any closer for Smallie’s sake. So I put Smallie away and approached them.

‘Hi guys…what’s going down?’

‘Nothing much…’ one of them replied. Then he drew closer to me.

‘That your dog…’

‘Yeah, Small…’ I said smiling at the irony of referring to Smallie as ‘small’.

‘Yeah, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about – er, are you training him for chop or just for train?’

‘What d’you mean, training him for chop…?’

Then it dawned on me: the chap asking the question was Calabarian. The Calabarians were renowned for having dog meat pepper soup as a delicacy, just the way some Chinese relish shark fin. They claim that dog meat pepper soup with palm wine cures malaria. People who know about this say that most dogs in our locality can get a sensation if they come close to you and you are a Calabarian. Then the dog would either attack the Calabarian or bolt for its dear life if its sensors indicated that the person is a dog pepper soup lover.

‘Sorry, I’m not breeding him to eat him…’

But they didn’t believe me. They said that they could not understand why I spent so much of the money and attention I had on an animal that may soon be food.

I also remember when I had to take him to a vet for a shot – the neighbours were beginning to complain again that Smallie was getting out of hand – you dared not touch anything that was mine if I was not around and so they urged me to take him to the vet for a shot.

‘So, what breed is he…?’ the Vet asked. Smallie was sitting on the slab with his big tongue lolling to one side. I sat by him, trying to calm him. He was already nervous and my guess was that he was not used to being in the company of the so many dogs in that room – these were the pictures of the different kinds of dogs there were.

‘You’re the vet…I was hoping you’d tell me’.

The vet consulted his catalogue but none of Smallie’s history or pedigree fitted with any of the dog breed or pedigree in the catalogue.

‘Hmm, seems to have been cross-bred between an Alaskan malamute and a German shepherd…but I’m not so sure’, he said, rubbing his chin. We left the vet’s after Smallie’s shot – and my brave Smallie did not even flinch or wince or protest even at the sight of the injection. If it was me, I’d have squirmed and fidgeted like a worm as that big fat needle came close to puncturing my tom-tom. Therefore as I was taking Smallie back home from the Vet’s that evening, a police officer around the road junction cornered us – Smallie especially.

‘D’you have a license for him…?’ he asked me, his gun at the ready as Smallie moved towards him, as if to ask the police officer to scratch or pat his head. Thinking that this was some kind of joke, I said no and made to move on.

‘I’m afraid both of you’ll have to come with me to the station to answer a few questions’, he said. He commandeered a taxi and drove us to the station on the charge that Smallie, not me, hadn’t a license to be kept as a pet, and not that I didn’t have a license to keep him. What rubbish, I thought! The police arrest a dog? A Dog..? Weren’t the police supposed to be arresting thieves and hoodlums? There were a thousand and one things wrong in this country and the very least of the worries they should be having is an unlicensed dog. But there we were at the police station, answering a lot of the questions that eventually forced me to pay five thousand naira to get Smallie from going to prison.

It seems that from the start I should have told you that I lived among students then as what you may loosely refer to as a Housemaster. The big boys did not like me or my dog. They did not like me because I used to live under their skin like a virus, and would bark at them always to focus on their studies rather than spending time and money on video games to wee hours of the day. They did not like this and I’m sure they decided to get back at me by harassing my dog: they would taunt Smallie whenever I was not there. But my Smallie, I know, was no sissy and no Winnie the Pooh and did not waste any time to jump on one of them. Of course this was what they wanted with this little molehill which they built up as an Everest. After Smallie jumped on one of them, I took an undertaking to take proper care against that kind of fracas in future. But my employers were adamant. They insisted that I must remove Smallie from the premises. I refused but that left me without a choice either way: it put me between Old Nick and the deep blue sea – a choice between keeping my dog or my job.

Like a slithering worm that got salt sprinkled all over it, I maneuvered and twisted all I could but it was no use. I couldn’t be a hero for my big companion, Smallie – he had been there all the while for me, fighting by day and by night to protect me from man and those cats that used to meow by my window every night. Smallie had never lied to me. He never asked for anything but my company and for me to show him a little respect. And it would have been rather naïve to try to explain things to him: he knew already that the odds were stacked against us.

When I eventually put him in a taxi to a new home, Smallie was calm at first but not for long: he fought with us all – his new owner, the lady that had taken in his sister and who was in the taxi, the taxi driver and with me. He was very upset and didn’t want to leave. But leave he eventually did. After that, an uneasy silence fell on the compound afterwards. I could not bring myself to take off the BEWARE OF DOG sign that I had put there at the gate, somehow believing that Smallie would make it back, and everything would be ok in the end.

His new homeowner said that Smallie’s sister had died at infancy the way everyone had expected Smallie to have died with me. But I knew she was lying…Smallie’s sister may have died from eating baby shit. But Smallie couldn’t settle down in his new home as I suspected he wouldn’t be able to: he had grown up in a place of a love and respect that was different from the distance and disrespect he was going to get. Smallie had never eaten shit or taken any from anybody. How was he going to cope now? His new owner told of Smallie’s problems with her husband and sooner or later I knew Smallie would need a new home again. Even though they accepted some of the milk, the eggs and fish I sent, I knew they were outraged that a dog was getting to eat some of the things that were way out of the reach of the ordinary person in Lagos. I knew as well that those things never got to Smallie. I knew too that Smallie would not eat the shit they would try to feed him.

‘So Madam, how’s Smallie doing with you?’ I asked her one day.

‘He’s fine…er, there are some problems but I’m doing the best for him’. I knew again that she was lying but there was nothing I could do for Smallie.

Not quite long after, she announced to me that she had had no choice but to ‘relocate’ Smallie. I knew what she meant by relocate – she sold him, stupid woman, apparently to those who had little or no qualms about having Smallie for pepper soup and palm wine. Was I crushed to learn this? I was. So I set out in search of Smallie. In that neighbourhood, there were times I had seen dogs being transported in vehicles to wherever they were to be slaughtered for pepper soup to go with palm wine. I was lucky to find one of the vehicles driving just along. It was caught up in traffic, so I ran down to see if Smallie was in it. He was not. The vehicle was only packed full with puppies and puppies and puppies. One of them I remember just didn’t seem to care anymore, quite unlike the rest that were whining, crying and barking and crying: but there was this one that had a very faraway look in its eyes, staring into the skies as if it was contemplating the uncertain future it was going to face soon. Three days after, as I was walking under the Oshodi Bridge, I chanced upon the people who actually kill dogs for food. First they tied the dog by the scruff of the neck with a long cord and drag him to the place where they would kill him. The dog I saw being dragged to the slaughter house resembled Smallie…

So I called out the way I would have called out to him every evening whenever I returned from work.

‘Yoooo, Smallie….’

That dog and its slaughterer hesitated awhile while I held my breath hoping that one of two things I envisaged would happen: that this would indeed be my Smallie, and we would be re-united again, or that I was just led to this point to be able to realize that I should have been able to stand up for my Smallie and save him from the cruel death that dogs eaten as food are subjected. Alas, but this was not Smallie – Smallie had golden furs and fluffy ears and eyes like our eyes.

The dog slaughterer kept dragging the dog along, and I followed them from a distance to the place where three men were waiting. They appeared to be ready for the slaughter. As we all watched, they tied the dog’s hind and fore legs with a strong rope. The other rope on the dog’s neck had been strung so tight that the dog’s eyes were nearly out of their sockets, so that when they swung the dog a couple of times and dashed its head against a stone, the only sound we heard was a muffled yelp. The carcass just hung limp, before they picked it up and flung it in a big drum nearby where other carcasses were being kept ready to be boiled.

That night, I mourned my friend and the companion that often told me things that nobody told me or of things that I learnt from Sigmund Freud. Smallie taught me that life is life, even though it is a life packed together in a little package as a maggot, a leaf, a fish or in a four-legged fur like my Smallie. I mourned my Smallie, who grew so possessive of my belongings on that premises and would suffer anyone touch them. I mourned my best friend who would come greet me in the evenings when I got back from work despite the fact that we had quarreled in the morning before I left for work. I mourned a friend who fought those cats that used to meow and disturb my sleep every night, and who stood by to watch for me every night I went to bed.

Life after Smallie has not been the same. Everything fell apart. I no longer had the benefit of hearing him bark and listen to him complain about being left outside in the rain. I began to hate the people around me who led me to give away my friend and before long, I quit that job and left that compound. And instead of me to carry along with me the hope that I would one day introduce my own children to Smallie and his own family, I only have strong memories of our life together. These memories are tempered with grim pictures in my mind of how his life must have ended at the hands of people who had no qualms at having man’s best friend for pepper soup and palm wine.

Rest in peace my friend…

 

Image: Phil Manker

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