A short story from Afrikasta on paljon kertomatta (‘Much is still untold about Africa’, WSOY, 2002). Introduction by Maria Säntti
You’re exactly what a dog should be, I told him. You’ve a black ear and a white one. You’re not too big and you’re not all teeth.
I stroked his black-spotted coat. He wagged his curly tail.
I crouched down. He squeezed up against my chest. I sent my ball rolling along the stairway corridor. He shot after it, accidentally running over the top of it. As he braked, his claws screeched on the tiles. Sparks went flying.
He snapped the ball in his jaws, nibbled its plastic and sent it back with a snuffle. His tongue was wagging with glee. Next I wanted to roll the ball so he wouldn’t get it. It bumped against the iron banister and went off in a different direction, skidding under the dog’s belly. He turned and dashed after it.
The lift door opened, and he crashed into it.
What are you doing? I howled. Dad was standing at the lift door holding a purse and a bag of bread.
You hit him with the door.
It’s not moving!
Dad stepped carefully along the corridor and peered around him.
Now you’re standing on it! I bawled out. Dad raised his leg.
On what, in hell’s name?
My dog. He’s under your other leg.
Look, I’m sorry, Dad said and turned round. I dashed over to the dog and clasped him in my arms. His tail dangled, I scratched him under the chin.
What breed is it? Dad wanted to know.
What’s it called?
Dog, I said.
Can I stroke it?
I whispered what he asked in the dog’s fluttering ear and then closed my fingers round his muzzle, making a private speaking tube.
He doesn’t want you to stroke him. And when you trod on him just now he bit you five times and he’s proud of it.
How long have you had it?
I found him in the bike shed, when I came in. He was stuck under the snow shovel. Dad scratched his chin against the grain. In my opinion you ought to give it a proper name, he said and turned to the door of our flat. He prodded for the keyhole with the key.
He does have a proper name. It’s Dog. And he’s proud of it!
At the weekend we went to my cousin’s. We slept there twice over. Milla stood on her hands, even though she’d got a plaster on her thumb. We came back home: I looked under the bed straight away. No. There was only my Lego box, too narrow for my dog to hide behind.
I looked in the cupboard though I knew Dog didn’t like being among the long johns. I pushed my hand into a boot. Inside there was something bunched up and hairy.
Don’t be afraid, it’s me here.
It was a rolled-up insole.
I crept into the sitting room, peeped behind the India-rubber plant. Dad was lying on the sofa and quickly hid something he’d got in his lap. He began poking at some paper with a pencil.
Have you seen Dog? I asked. Dad stared at me with his brow wrinkled. His lips were yellow from the outside of the pencil.
Ah, the dog, he realised. It’s not been hanging around in here before.
I told him to keep watch till I came back! Come here, Dog! I called. I crawled on all fours, looking for him under the sofa, I ransacked the video cassette boxes.
You should have given it a name before, Dad pointed out, and then you could call it by name. It’d know itself which shout to answer to.
Its name is Dog.
Barkbark. Bark. Dad drew some circles on the paper. Under the paper was mother’s picture. He often looked at it, secretly. I gave Dad a kiss on the cheek.
The snow shovel, I realised. I dashed down to the floor below in my stocking feet, to the bike room. I grabbed the doorknob with both hands, tugged, and the door opened a bit. I slipped inside. The snow shovel was leaning against the back wall, and wet trickles were running across the concrete floor.
He’s pissing out of fear.
I twitched the shovel up, rocking the row of bikes hooked onto the ceiling.
Where the snow shovel had been there was a lonely lump of melting snow. I slapped it with my hand.
Sshit! I hissed.
I looked around the landing again for my dog. I asked the caretaker, have you seen a dog. Black-eared and white-eared. What he said was, you’re not allowed to keep dogs on the stairway. When Reetta Neighbour came out of the cage, I peeped quickly inside to see Dog hadn’t got stuck in the lift.
I poked about in the snow banks outside with an ice-hockey stick. If someone’s piled snow on top of him, I’ll give them a slapshot. Dad said you can’t even skate.
I looked in the oven, then on the balcony. There was a can tucked in the corner of the balcony. Ah, I thought: Dog’s got into the can. I got a screwdriver, prised the lid open. Dad said, listen, be careful with screwdrivers, they’’ve got a sharp edge. Inside there was some congealed yellow paint.
I heard a warning bark. I peeped over the railing. A pile of snow fell on the back of my head from up above. I turned to look up and another pile was already dangling on the side of the gutter. It was coming from right up on the roof.
I ran into the hall and put my shoes on. I shut the door quietly, ever so quietly you could hear the fairies’ voices.
I went to the end of the landing, to where the steps began.
I knew the house’s widest balcony was up there. They did their carpet-beating up there. I’d been there with my mother. I’d seen the back of a tern from there.
I’d never climbed up the steps, though. That time we went there in the lift.
I rose a step. I looked back. The landing was still there. Five steps and it was still there.
I went back to the home landing to get my breath.
Again I began. I got up to the next landing. I grasped the rail and strode up two steps at a time. And a new landing came. It was just like our home landing. I was afraid I’d gone beyond the roof.
On the next one the lift was standing, the light from its narrow window cut across the floor. I jumped up and down to see inside the lift.
I couldn’t get the lift to go.
Seven strides and I was in a new space. Jumping rat Alpine ibex flea, all jolly good jumpers. I was the best. From this landing there were no more steps. There were plenty of doors in the walls, with locks on, except for one. The lockless door was different from ours, this was iron. I couldn’t find a doorbell, so I knocked on the iron. It hurt my fingers.
I turned the door knob. It clicked, and open sesame.
First there was just cold air blowing from it, and then I made out some grey carpet rails and a railing. I went onto the balcony, and stretched over the railing.
Dog! I called.
It was frozen stiff, it couldn’t bark. I got astride the railing and swung up onto the flat roof. My ankles flopped in the snow. There was slippery ice underneath, I tumbled over. Dad says, you don’t slide along nicely, even on skates, you poke about like a blind man on the edge of a well. He’s wrong.
I did slide.
In the middle of the roof there was a box, rising up into the clouds. Bigger than me, three buses would fit in it. Because of the box I couldn’t see the whole roof.
I started walking round it. I knocked on its wall. It wasn’t cardboard.
Dog, I called out as I went round its corner. Wag your tail so I can see you!
It was dark, I held myself by the hand.
The snow had piled up in waves. I knew my dog was waiting for me behind the next corner. I moved faster, making the snow go powdery. The box’s wall swayed in a gust of wind.
Dog, hey, where are you, I screamed from the corner. The nearest ventilator shaft hummed. Behind it was an unbroken field of snow. I gave the tin on the ventilator a kick: my shoe fell off and sailed over the edge of the roof. Tying the lace in a bow makes a rotten knot. The pea soup was making my mouth tickle. I waded at a good lick towards an aerial.
I stumbled on a lump under the snow. He was just the size of the dog.
I raked the place bare with my fingers. I got a cut in my finger and a brick in my hand. I looked a long time at both of them. My ankle felt burning cold.
Dog, I shouted, groping round another corner. All ahead was untouched snow again. I broke the surface again with my forefinger, carefully. Two round openings appeared through the snow: big eyes.
I said hello to them. Mummy, I said, what are you going to do in the winter?
Hah! came from behind the corner. Reetta Neighbour’s head peeped round. Who’s there? she asked, scared. I stumped closer to her.
Reetta was craning her head up from the carpet balcony. Behind the carpet beater was Reetta’s eye, which was growing.
Come here at once! she ordered. I lingered near the railing. She grabbed me under the arms, pushed me against a hairy mat hanging from the carpet rail. Her eye was now as big as a plate. I got some snow in my mouth, sucked on it.
Reetta snatched some more snow from the rail and rubbed my face with it. There you are, eat that if that’s what you like.
She squeezed me by the wrist and took me down the steps to the floor below and sent for the lift. Her tights had dark flowers on.
Why have you got flowers on your legs? I asked.
She toted me in the lift and to our door, tinkled the bell. Dad opened it. The telephone was at his feet, the receiver on the carpet. A big bill would be coming, who’d pay it?
Reetta Neighbour has flowers on her legs, I said.
Dad sent me into the kitchen. I pressed my ear to the floor, I can hear the train coming along the track eight curves back. Reetta said: little monkey. Dad soon came. There was a dent in the plate.
Did you realise you could have fallen off the roof? I shook my head. I’ve just been ringing the police – I was worried, because you’d disappeared. Do you understand? I nodded.
What were you doing up there?
I was looking for my dog.
The one you call Dog?
I listened from the balcony, he was barking up there.
A funny muscle was twitching in my father’s face. I tried to find the same muscle. Twitch tremble. It made me get some slush on my face from my hand. I asked for a handkerchief. Instead Dad took a carrot out of the fridge.
When we went to your cousin’s, Dad said, I was getting pissed off with that dog, and I popped home one day, grabbed it and broke its back like that. Dad snapped the carrot in two. A sharp-cornered bit fell on the floor and rolled over to the washing basket.
Then I threw it in the dustbin outside, so there’s no point in looking for it any more. Got it?
Dad crunched the carrot in his teeth. I licked my upper lip.
There you are. Dad broke the remaining bit of carrot into two. It pops like rice crispies, he said. Do you want some rice crispies?
You’ll never ever go on the roof again.
The phone’s on the floor, I said. It should be cleared up.
Off to your room, Dad said. And bloody well stay there. Right?
At my bedside I noticed my other shoe was still on my foot. I stood on the carpet and took it off, and my wet socks. The only thing that came into my head was heehoheehoheeho. I waggled my bare toes and said it again: heehoheehoheeho.
I can stand on my toes. It’s more difficult than on your hands.
Dad came into the room, hugging an open book.
There’s a proper dog for you. You’ll read it and not leave this room till you can recite it to me word-perfect. Without the book.
Dad took his finger out of the page. It was in two upright columns. At the beginning was a word circled in red ink: Dog.
I thought you were clever when you learned to read before you were five. I was wrong, Dad said.
I put the book closer to my eyes and spelled slowly. The writing was slanting and small.
Dog. Canis. What? Familiaris. Oh yes. Name of the species Dog. What? Which is probably not. In descent. Some in unbroken line. Bred. From jackals and. Possibly also from. Coyotes oldest. Bone findings. Who? Are from the stone age.
I looked up, Dad had disappeared. The door was shut. My fingers had smudged the paper with slush. The wet bits stuck up like hills. I drew Alpine ibexes on them.
The bitch. Heat lasts approximately three. Weeks. On heat twice. In whelp twice. That was her time on heat just now! Which lasts sixty.
I jumped to the bottom of the page.
Breeding. Whose? Is used to. To improve certain. Characteristics. Of different breeds. For more information see. See where? See under the bed. Above the rowan tree. See diseases of dogs.
I built a dog with my Lego, it had six legs and five different-coloured heads. Each head groaned and had a burning forehead. I looked to see the diseases.
Looking won’t make this one get better either.
Dog, I started at the beginning. Canis. Dog canis. Familiaris.
Translated by Herbert Lomas .
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