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Niki, the story of a dog

Tibor Déry

The dog – we will not yet give it a name – adopted the Ancsas in the spring of 1948. Janos Ancsa, a lecturer at the School of Mines, Rivers and Forests in Sopron, and a qualified engineer, had been posted to Budapest. Having tried in vain for six months to get a flat in the capital, he had, in the end, rented two furnished rooms in the outer suburbs, at Csobanka on the Szentendre line; he left for his office very early in the morning, returning late in the evening to his dinner, where his wife, in default of a kitchen, cooked on an electric fire in one of their rooms. And it was in the evening that the dog visited their home.

So far as they could make out in the dusk gathering over the garden, it was a fox-terrier, possibly a cross between a wire-haired and a smooth-haired terrier. Its slender and shapely body was covered with a smooth white coat without blemish or marking. Only the ears were nut-brown, with a suggestion of black at their base. And by one of those whimsicalities of which nature is so prodigal, the shape and colour of the markings at the base of each ear were not the same. A nut-brown line ran from the base of the left ear, over the curve of the brow, and so to a point above the eye; whereas the mask above the right eye was immaculately white, but a black line, put in as if for amusing contrast with the whiteness of the mask, ran from the base of the right ear, down the neck, to the point where, as a rule, dogs wear a collar. There it expanded into a sort of black square, in so far as nature is willing to make squares or other regular geometrical shapes. To which should be added two large, shining eyes in a triangular head, at the point of which gleamed a small black nose that seemed to have been highly polished with wax. And this more or less completes our sketch of the pretty creature which came into the garden and lay down at Ancsa’s feet.

Ancsa gave the dog his attention for several moments; now it was sitting bolt upright and, with head raised, bore the engineer’s close scrutiny until, at last, Ancsa said, ‘What is it, then?’

At the sound of his voice, which, no doubt, conveyed an impression of sympathy, the dog rose and, walking round behind the man, sniffed at his feet. Lowering its head it sniffed first to the engineer’s right, then to his left, taking in his scent with small, palpitating nostrils.

Ancsa waited patiently, giving the animal time to make the acquaintance of that aspect of the man which, for a dog, is the most intelligible. In due course it became apparent that Ancsa’s scent was as pleasing and agreeable to the dog’s heart as had been the vibrations of his vocal cords. The animal returned to its former position in front of him and, standing on its hindlegs, placed its short foreleg on the engineer’s thigh.

Ancsa was then able to see that the dog was a female, and that her chin was embellished with a short and thin white beard. This detail revealed, beyond all doubt, some wire-haired blood in her pedigree. The white eyebrows, also reminiscent of a wire-haired terrier, formed a sort of bushy ridge above the eye. On the other hand the legs seemed to be rather longer and more slender than they should, perhaps, have been, as far as it was possible to judge of such a detail in the deepening twilight. There could be no question of this being a pedigree animal. Nevertheless, the engineer stroked her head.

Thenceforth the Ancsas’ fate was decided. Anticipating our story by a little, let it be said at once that the dog, despite the protests and opposition of the household, contrived, after a certain time, to install herself as a member of it for good. As for the opposition in question, it was founded on theory, which may account for the fact that it failed to attain any considerable degree of efficacy. Ancsa and his wife were fond of animals, it is true, especially dogs, but their only son had been killed at Voronesh, Mrs Ancsa’s father had been killed in a saturation air-raid, and the Ancsas had good reason to know that affection is not only a pleasure for the heart but also a burden which, in proportion to its importance, may oppress the soul quite as much as it rejoices it. Ancsa was fifty, his wife more than forty-five, and neither of them was willing to undertake a new responsibility. But apart from any other consideration, there could be no question of their owning a dog, seeing the conditions in which they lived, and still less of their picking up a stray bitch in the streets, as it were, a young and completely strange animal, ill-suited to their time of life, and a female at that, whose family cares might be expected to be added to their own.

Ancsa called his wife, who was busy washing up. From that moment the bitch began to pay clever court to the engineer, charmed as she had been, no doubt, by his agreeable scent and voice, to say nothing of the stroking which she might well have interpreted as an encouragement. With the pretty, wanton coquetry of which females have the secret, she threw into the scale all the charm of her sinewy little body and playful spirit, as if her entire future were at stake during the subsequent quarter of an hour. She began to bark, and then to rush dancing in wild circles over the lawn in front of the house. One minute the white body was extended until her belly almost brushed the ground as she ran; the next, doubled up like a cat arching its back, she frisked round the human pair at a mad speed, as if to enclose them for ever in a magic circle.

Sometimes, at the very top of her speed, she would whip round so suddenly that she seemed to cut herself in two; the, full of sly skill, she would perform a series of arabesques, as if to throw some imaginary pursuer off the track anon, speeding in the opposite direction, and braking triumphantly, she would resume her swift circling about the Ancsas until they became quite giddy.

It was her carp-like leaps, straight up in the air, which were the funniest. In dog language, no doubt, each of these leaps was a witticism which an audience of dogs would have greeted with laughter. Indeed, Mrs Ancsa, who like most women was in closer touch with natural things, did laugh once or twice at this spectacle.

The bitch came and lay down at her feet. With lolling tongue she was panting loudly and staring out of black, shining eyes at Mrs Ancsa’s face. And when Mrs Ancsa stooped to pat her, she turned suddenly over on her back, waving her four paws in the air and offering her pink belly covered with whit hairs and the nine little nipples of her chest to be stroked, without any regard for modesty.

Mrs Ancsa brought her a drop of milk in an earthenware saucer. Meanwhile night had fallen, and the engineer switched on the lights in their rooms. The bitch, having lapped up the milk, set out on a voyage of exploration. Sniffing busily she made a tour of the lodging, and of the summer-kitchen lean-to at the back of the house. Then, with a burst of speed, she ran out through the garden gate. When she arrived at the edge of the ditch, she turned her head towards the Ancsas by way of leave-taking, then crouched and relieved herself. Then, turning left, she set out again, trotting briskly, and disappeared along the road leading to Pomaz.

The fact must now be made clear – and this holds good for the whole story – that from the very beginning an element of awkwardness entered into the relationship between the dog and her future owners. Because of this element that relationship was destined to have a slightly equivocal character on both sides, but especially on the side of the Ancsas. It seemed clear that the dog, inspired by a natural egoism, was guilty, in so far as an animal’s feelings can be analysed, of a certain cunning. She showed herself, in fact, at her very best in order, by flattery, to captivate the Ancsas and ensure their benevolence. Or we might equally well put it – to win their affection, which would serve to attenuate the gravity of her wrong-doing, if, indeed, a sincere attachment accompanied by selfishness can be called wrong-doing. Besides, this raises the question of whether there is such a thing as a love without self-love; and even supposing this to exist, what would that love be worth which did not require the love to devour the self in order to nourish others? At all events, the bitch had recourse to every art and artifice of her feminine nature, both crude and subtle, in order to get herself loved and to have the chance of loving in return; and in our opinion this attitude cannot properly be called immoral, even from the point of view of the strictest human and social morality. There is, we may feel, the slightest taint of fraud in the fact that she did display all her good qualities, while dissimulation her faults, weaknesses, failings, her future illnesses, old age and death; but is there a lover worthy of the name who, to win happiness, does not have recourse to precisely these same artifices! If we must talk of faults, then the fault had better be sought in the Ancsas’ hearts; for they, in spite of their superior intelligence, discerned no subterfuge in the bitch’s masterly display, nothing of that trifling and factitious twist which interest gives to sentiment. And even if they were aware of it, they pretended to think it perfectly normal.

The fact is that the Ancsas, though to all appearances energetic in their rejection of the idea of taking up a new burden of feeling, had really surrendered to the animal’s deliberate affection from the very start. It was the Ancsas who were at fault, the Ancsas who agreed to start a game which, in their heart of hearts, they wanted to lose; the Ancsas who showed themselves disposed to exchange the pureness of their solitude for sentimental and earth-bound amusements, and to soften the harshness of mourning for their son by futile distractions; the Ancsas who, in that son’s place, were ready to welcome a dog…. But there is no use in labouring the point, for it was clearly from this source that sprang the thin, clouded trickle of that ‘equivocal element’ which was to mark the relationship between the bitch and her master and mistress. In relationships between man and beast, we believe that the man is always the guilty party.

The bitch came back next day, at the same hour almost to the minute: Mrs Ancsa was doing the evening washing-up, while the engineer was getting a breath of fresh air in front of the house. On the third day the animal was cleverer, and arrived before dinner. On the following days she turned up with the punctuality de rigueur at diplomatic receptions. By the end of the week she was waiting for Ancsa at the bus-stop, about a hundred yards from the garden gate. She recognized the engineer the moment he stepped off but, to make doubly sure, sniffed at his heels before celebrating his arrival by a series of wild leaps of joy. So lightly did she jump up to the level of his chest, tall as he was, that her joyous and loving tongue almost licked his moustache. And we may as well point out at once that these prodigious leaps were to cause a sensation throughout her entire lifetime. She levitated herself so high in the air, with ears flat back against her head, and paws working as if she were swimming, that she would have no difficulty in licking the lips of any of her tall human acquaintances. On the Danube embankments, where, at a later date, her master and mistress took her walking, she could jump higher than the largest wolfhound. It was as if her muscular, quivering little body were constantly being launched and relaunched in the air on the springs of gaiety. She would bound like a ball on to any object she coveted, her muscles regulated like the parts of some finely adjusted mechanism and her heart full of a tigerish boldness.

Although the Ancsas had no wish to receive the dog into their home, they did get to hear – from the neighbours, perhaps, or possibly from their laundress or the postman, but in any case quite by chance – that the dog’s owner lived in the third house on the left from their own. He was a retired colonel of Horthy’s army, living in a shabby gentility and a villa with his wife and his mother-in-law, and caring very little for his dog. It was on the same occasion that the Ancsas learnt that the dog’s name was Niki. In spite of everything that had happened, however, they were careful not to use her name to each other, taking care to avoid any appearance of intimacy in a matter which could, in the long rung, burden them with a new responsibility. They still spoke of her as ‘the bitch’, and never let her into their bedroom lest she acquire the habit of it. And they were reassured when they saw that every evening, once she had gobbled up the food they provided for her, she returned to her master’s house for the night.

One fine day the Ancsas discovered how it was the dog had made her way into the garden in the first place, at the same time when she was not yet meeting the engineer at the bus-stop of an evening. The discovery was made on a Sunday. Ancsa had – it was exceptional – remained all day long in his remote suburb. Towards noon the dog appeared outside the closed iron gate, and seemed to be suddenly riveted to the ground by her four feet: her body became rigid, and it was obvious that she could not believe her own eyes. For a long time she stood motionless, her whole being expressive of that stupefaction which men, as a rule, express only with faces. Even her little white mask with its gleaming black eyes was positively petrified by a discovery which flew in the face of both experience and logic. Never before had the bitch seen Ancsa at home in the day-time.

‘Why, you’d think she was astounded with delight,’ Ancsa said, and burst out laughing.

At the sound of that familiar voice confirming the evidence of her eyes, the bitch was released from her state of boundless amazement. She barked and then, swift as lightning, flung herself at the double gate and contrived to wriggle under it by way of a shallow depression worn away on one side. First came her head, then her forepaws, the belly followed, pressed flat, next her hind-quarters, finally the short, muscular tail. And her joy in the engineer’s unexpected presence was given free rein.

After lunch, however, like a guest who does not want to abuse his host’s hospitality, the bitch left the garden. Towards evening Ancsa and his wife went for a walk. A hundred yards from the house they saw her, seated on her hind-quarters, demure and patient, waiting at the bus-stop for the Pomaz bus.

Her back was turned to the couple so that she could not see them. The Ancsas decided not to invite her to go for a walk with them: such a walk, with just the three of them, would have strengthened the bonds which already united them. But when, later that evening, they got back to their house, the dog was sitting in the garden and she greeted them with innumerable leaps of joy. She seemed to be demonstrating a return of her confidence in logic: she must have reasoned that since the engineer was not on the bus, sooner of later he must appear in the near neighbourhood of his house. Ancsa thought the warmth which rose from his heart somewhat uncalled for: it wasn’t as if they were being welcomed by their own dog, after all!

Another week passed and the Ancsas noticed that the bitch was pregnant. It became obvious in the rounding and lowering of the belly, but especially in the greater and greater efforts she was forced to make to wriggle under the gate. Mrs Ancsa was the first to realize the animal’s condition. When she was quite sure of it and had told her husband, Ancsa decided that they must break off relations with the dog. He did not want an intimacy, which in his opinion was already becoming awkward, to be carried any further.

At the moment when he was coming to his decision the bitch had just succeeded, with great difficulty, in getting past the obstacle of the gate. Ancsa went to meet her, opened the gate, and pointing towards the road, more or less ordered the creature off the premises. She, however, looked at his extended arm with curiosity, and made several playful leaps at his sleeve. As her pregnancy increased the normal gravitational resistance, she could not quite reach it. Ancsa spoke a sharp word of command and continued to point beyond the gate. The unwonted sharpness of his voice surprised the animal, who then sat down and stared at the engineer’s face, her eyes grave and questioning.

The bitch positively refused to understand that an attempt was being made to turn her out. Ancsa’s intimidating manoeuvres had succeeded in scaring her, but it was obvious that she did not understand what she had done to deserve the harsh tone, the hostile motions, and the frightening clapping of hands. Incapable of believing that the engineer could do her harm without good reason, she resolved to await the end of this incomprehensible outburst of anger and the return of her host’s customary good-will. She therefore remained in the garden. She laid back her ears, hid her tail between her legs, made herself as small as her swollen belly would permit, and implored Ancsa with her eyes. And, when he advanced on her with a threatening look, she slipped out of his way, either backing from him or jumping to one side, but still avoiding the gate. And in the intervals of inaction, when the engineer suspended his threatening operations, the bitch stood still in front of him, trembling all over, her coat staring and her eyes begging. She gave the impression of asking to be forgiven for a crime she had not committed. At last the engineer stooped, and with a movement which dogs must be born understanding, picked up a stone. At that the bitch turned at once and, whining quietly, her tail between her legs, ran quickly out of the garden. However, she stopped on the plank over the ditch after the gate had been closed, turned round and stood for a long time watching the engineer as he walked away.

A quarter of an hour later Ancsa happened to glance through the glass panel of the front door as he was passing. The bitch was standing hard up against the door, on the top step, still on the watch. When their eyes met, she lowered her ears, turned and went down the steps. She walked slowly to the gate, flattened herself against the ground with a sigh, and laid her head on her forepaws.