You Don’t Give Dogs as Presents

In villages nearly everyone has a dog, and we had Ťapka. My first ever memory was when I was two and a half and Grandpa took me on a horse and we went somewhere in the village to collect a puppy. Though maybe it’s not a memory, maybe I just made it up after seeing a photo, because for a long time Dad had an old-fashioned film camera that you got proper photos from, and there’s a photo of me walking along holding Grandpa’s hand, and Grandpa’s carrying a puppy, and that puppy is Ťapka.

But Ťapka was a wee dog and never left the garden, and in primary two I loved the book The Children of Bullerbyn Village, and the boy in it has a dog which is just his, and I started to really want a dog that would be just mine.

And so I went to my dad and told him I wanted a dog that would be just mine. And he said to me that I was too young and that you don’t buy dogs for children, that they aren’t toys, and then I forgot about it, probably because I was young. But then in the autumn of primary four I was cleaning my room – Mum wanted me to – and I found that book and thought that now I was older I could get that dog.

The first time Dad probably wasn’t even listening – he was chopping wood and he didn’t even stop, so I left him alone.

I didn’t say anything to Mum at the time because she had just had Julie and Nina and she couldn’t deal with anything apart from the babies, and anyway she’d have said that dogs were an expensive nuisance and that I shouldn’t talk nonsense. And that I should remember how I wanted to play the trumpet, which I really did want to, but only for two weeks till I realized that it was really hard – oh, and that we already had Ťapka.

I don’t really know why I didn’t forget about it. That’s just the way I am, Dad says I’m awfully stubborn, but it was probably because I knew it was rubbish, that no-one would ever buy me a dog, even though a normal dog would have been fine, it didn’t have to be anything special, but I wanted it to be big, like Svipp from the book – and that’s probably why I wanted it all the more.

And because it was just before Christmas I thought to myself that I would ask for this dog, even though I obviously knew there was no such thing as Baby Jesus didn’t exist, that it was the parents who bought the presents. That’s why I’ll never get anything really good, because our lot don’t have any money — Dad works in the forest and Mum doesn’t work because she has the babies and she’s at home with them.

But that was exactly why I wrote asking for a dog, because I saw on the television in the pub that you can get a dog from the kennels and it’s totally free, even if the food isn’t, but Ťapka eats leftovers from dinner as well, so there.

I wrote a nice letter to Baby Jesus and drew a picture of a dog. I drew different dogs to show that I didn’t need any one in particular. Then Mum came and told me there was no chance and that I should ask for something else like a phone or something that the other kids in school had, that they could maybe scrape together enough for a cheaper one – and of course I needed a phone, everyone had one, but at that moment I couldn’t say anything else apart from the dog.

Mum patted me on the head and said, “Máťa, be reasonable.”

I wonder if parents know that when they say this the opposite will happen and that I won’t want anything else until they buy me a dog or get me one from the kennels.

We don’t have a television or a computer. Recently the television broke and my folks said it was pointless buying a new one, and they don’t use a computer either, so why get one, and only Dad has a phone and it’s an old push-button phone. So I’m totally uncool in class, though luckily I’m friends with Faňa, who’s in the same boat. His parents might have money, but they think that these are useless things and children shouldn’t be sitting at the computer, and even though they do have one computer at home, neither Faňa or Kája get to play on it, it’s just Uncle Standa’s work computer. And they’re all vegetarians too, and their mum’s even a vegan, which means she can’t even have cheese or eggs, not even eggs from our hens, which are happy and don’t sit in a small cage and aren’t all scraggly and don’t have a crazy expression with broken legs and wings.

I also saw that on television, when we still had one, and since then I only eat our eggs and I’d never eat a shop-bought egg to show that I care about hens, even if they are idiotic, dim-witted creatures and they’re always clucking, which I hate. But the stupid thing is that my folks never buy eggs, so no-one’ll know I’m against keeping hens in those cages.

Dealing with dad is more straightforward but worse.

First of all I told him I wanted a dog and he said if I didn’t stop harping on about that dog, then I wouldn’t get anything, which was not what I wanted.

I was silent because I couldn’t very well say anything else and Dad said, “All right then, you’ll just get some stuff you need for school and new winter boots.”

I still said nothing. I knew that Dad wasn’t kidding, but I also knew that if I backed down now, I’d never get a dog, and I wanted a dog. Then Dad shrugged his shoulders and went about his work, telling me to help him feed the rabbits, which I did.

Mum said I was ruining Christmas with my pig-headedness. Dad said that if I didn’t stop, he’d lose it and belt me one. Julie didn’t say anything. She didn’t speak at all, even though she was a year and a half. Nina talked all the time, but just “mama” and “dada”, which meant food, and “ba” when she threw something on the ground, which she did a lot.

I was so tense because the whole time my folks were acting like I wasn’t getting anything, but I knew that parents had to get kids what they wanted for Christmas, that they were just playing with me with their serious faces and saying things like “Máťa, there’s still time to ask for something else.”

But then on Christmas Day when Dad rang the bell while Mum pretended he’d gone to the shed for wood, I ran in (it was interesting that Dad wasn’t there and the window he could have jumped out of wasn’t open, but I’ll probably look into that more next year) and I saw that under the tree there wasn’t a dog or even a box that could contain a dog.

I was close to tears, but then I said to myself that they might have the dog in the other room and then they’d let him in, and so I calmed down again, and Mum, Julie and Nina gave out the presents. The twins wanted to open all of the presents. They were constantly fighting over them and crying in turns when the other one got to open the present, and so they opened my presents too, which were winter boots, a hat and scarf and three books, and then when Julie unwrapped my phone it finally sank in that I wasn’t getting a dog. And when Julie tried to hand me my present, I crossed my arms to show I wasn’t going to take it and then I burst into tears, ran out of the room and put on my snow boots. Everyone came out into the corridor and my parents said something to me, but I wasn’t listening and ran outside and out the gate without my coat. Then I ran along the road until Dad caught up with me and grabbed me, and I struggled with him and he held onto me, his coat smelling of sawdust, and Dad carried me back inside, even though I was a big girl.

And then they explained it and explained it to me, but I knew all that, I knew it was a big responsibility having a dog and that there are lots of worries with them and that they cost money and that we have a dog. But I still refused to take the phone and went to bed awfully sad, telling myself that I’d never speak to them again, but I only held out for two days, which was really hard when it was Christmas and we were at home a lot and we also went to see Gran and Grandpa. When Grandpa was smoking in front of the house and I came back from sledging, I still wasn’t speaking, and Grandpa said, “I understand, love. Having your own dog is an amazing thing. But you don’t give living creatures to children as presents. Well, some people do,” he added, “but they shouldn’t.”

And just then I realized my birthday was coming up in March.


The Runt of the Litter

But I didn’t get a dog in March. I got him in February, because Ťapka died. She was old now and didn’t come out of her kennel much in the winter. She had a lovely warm kennel, but in the mornings when I went to school she’d always come out to greet me – well, not just me, but anyone who was leaving the house in the morning. But one day she didn’t come out of her kennel at all, and when I came home in the afternoon she was lying huddled in her kennel, dead as a doornail. And Dad carried her away huddled like that because the ground was frozen and it was impossible to dig a grave.

I asked where he was taking her, but no-one would tell me anything.

Then Mum and I made a kind of gravestone with a cross and I lit a candle there.

Of course I felt sorry for Ťapka, but she was already old and she wasn’t my dog. Now I’d have my own dog, so I wasn’t sad. Though it was strange that the kennel was empty and Ťapka’s water bowl was completely frozen and no-one had to break the ice and add warm water.

A few days later, we were having dinner and Dad said that someone he knew had some puppies and would give us one, so if we wanted we could pop over there tomorrow after work, and I nodded my head in agreement. Even though Dad had said “us” when the dog would really just be mine.

And then he sent me to the pub for beer. I got a canteen and headed out. Usually it’s a pain in the neck when I have to go for beer because the pub is nearly two kilometres away, which I don’t mind, but I have to be careful on the way back not to spill any beer and I hate having to carry the milk can so it takes a long time, but that day I jumped up and was happy to do it.

The next day I was all set, waiting expectantly outside the house for Dad, but he went into the house first for a snack – bread and salami and a beer. I kept staring at him as he ate until he said that if I didn’t stop gawking at him, we wouldn’t be going anywhere, and so I went outside again and played for a while with Julie and Nina, even though it’s boring playing with them and one of them is always whining.

I accidentally hit Nina in the face with a snowball and Mum chased me angrily around the garden and I tried not to laugh.

Then we finally set off. Julie started to cry because she wanted to go with us, but Dad was having none of it: “There’s no way I’m going to drag a pram around with me.” Mum said something nasty to him, but I wasn’t listening anyway, I was only imagining what the dog would look like, and how it would be great if it looked like a wolf.

And then we walked to the next village. We took a short-cut through the forest as Dad said there was no point in paying for a bus when it was only a couple of kilometres, and I said nothing. The lodge where the gamekeeper lived was at the other end of the village – in fact, just past the village. There were two big dogs and two sausage dogs barking in the courtyard and there was also a tame deer standing there, and inside there was a normal brown German shepherd, the mother of the puppies, and seven brown puppies and one white one, and they were all amazing, but I already knew which one I wanted.

“He’s the runt of the litter,” said the gamekeeper, “He won’t amount to much.”

“Choose a proper one,” said Dad, but I was already holding the white puppy in my arms. He wouldn’t stay put and finally wriggled free and fell to the ground. I got a fright, but the gamekeeper laughed and the pup immediately rolled back onto his feet and he was all right.

We carried him home wrapped up in a blanket. We took turns and Dad carried him more, but I had to as well – he was mine, after all – even though it hurt my arms, and we’d also put him down sometimes so he could run around, a white dog on a snowy path, but I was worried he’d run away as we didn’t have a lead, and that he’d be cold. We got him home, Mum liked him and said, “Oh, that’s a lovely pup,” and Julie was excited as long as he didn’t knock her to the floor and pull her hair, while Nina was afraid of him from the very start. They both ran away from him and climbed onto the couch where he couldn’t get them.

I named him Snížek.

But he wasn’t a good dog. That became obvious when he grew up.

But the fact he was deaf – that became obvious after just a few days.


Translated by Graeme Dibble