Excerpt from The Street of Crocodiles. Copyright C.J. Schulz, 1963. Orignally published in Issue 27, Summer 2004, by The Bark, by arrangement with Walker & Co.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A Bark Classic Favorite
September 12 2012
I spent the whole of August of that year playing with a splendid little dog that appeared one day on the kitchen floor, awkward and squeaking, still smelling of milk and infancy, with a round, still unformed, and trembling head, paws like a mole’s, spreading to the sides, and the most delicate, silky-soft coat.
From the moment I first saw it, that crumb of life won the whole enthusiasm and admiration of which I was capable.
From what heavens had that favorite of the gods descended, to become closer to my heart than all the most beautiful toys? To think that an old, completely uninteresting charwoman could have had the wonderful idea to bring from her home in the suburbs—at a very early, transcendental hour—such a lovely dog to our kitchen!
Ah! One had still been absent—alas—not yet brought back from the dark bosom of sleep, when that happiness had been fulfilled and was waiting for us, lying awkwardly on the cool floor of the kitchen, unappreciated by Adela and the other members of the household. Why had I not been wakened earlier? The saucer of milk on the floor bore witness to Adela’s maternal instincts, bore witness, too, unfortunately, to moments lost to me forever from the joys of parenthood.
But before me, all the future lay open. What a prospect of new experiences, experiments, and discoveries! The most essential secret of life, reduced to this simple, handy, toylike form was revealed here to my insatiable curiosity. It was overwhelming interesting to have as one’s own that scrap of life, that particle of the eternal mystery in a new and amusing shape, which by its very strangeness, by the unexpected transposition of the spark of life, present in us human beings, into a different, animal form, awoke in me an infinite curiosity.
Animals! the object of insatiable interest, examples of the riddle of life, created, as it were, to reveal the human being to man himself, displaying his richness and complexity in a thousand kaleidoscopic possibilities, each of them brought to the some curious end, to some characteristic exuberance. Still unburdened by the complications of eccentric interests which spoil relationships between people, my heart was filled with sympathy for that manifestation of the eternity of life, with a loving tender curiosity that was identical with self-revelation.
The dog was warm and as a soft as velvet and had a small quick heartbeat. He had two petal-soft ears, opaque blue eyes, a pink mouth into which one could put one’s finger with impunity, delicate and innocent paws with enchanting pink warts on the outside, over the foretoes. He crept with these paws right into a bowl of milk, greedy and impatient, lapping it up with his pale red tongue. When he had had enough he would sadly lift his small muzzle, with drops of milk hanging from it, and retreat clumsily from the milky bath.
He walked with an awkward oblique roll in an undecided direction, along a shaky and uncertain line. His usual mood was one of indefinite basic sadness. He had the dejected helplessness of an orphan—an inability to fill the emptiness of life between the sensational events of meals. This was reflected in the aimlessness of his movements, in his irrational fits of melancholia, his sad whimpering, and his inability to settle down in any one place. Even in the depths of sleep, in which he had to satisfy his need for protection and love by curling himself up into a trembling ball, he could not rid himself of the feeling of loneliness and homelessness. Oh, how a young and meager life, brought forth from a familiar darkness, from the homely warmth of a mother’s womb into a large, foreign, bright world, shrinks and retreats and recoils from accepting the undertaking—and with what aversion and disappointment!
But slowly, little Nimrod (for that was the proud and martial name we gave him) began to like life better. His exclusive preoccupation with longing for a return to the maternal womb gave way before the charms of plurality.
The world began to set traps for him: the unknown and tantalizing taste of various foods, the square patch of morning sunlight on the floor in which it was so pleasant to rest, the movements of his own limbs, his own paws, his tail roguishly inviting him to play, the fondling of human hands which induced a certain playfulness, the gaiety that filled him with a need for completely new, violent, and risky movements—all this tricked and encouraged him to the acceptance of the experiment of life and to submission to it.
One more thing: Nimrod began to understand that what he was experiencing was, in spite of its appearance of novelty, something which had existed before—many time before. His body began to recognize situations, impressions, and objects. In reality, none of these astonished him very much. Faced with new circumstances, he would dip into the fount of his memory, the deep-seated memory of the body, would search blindly and feverishly, and often find ready-made within himself a suitable reaction: the wisdom of generations, deposited in his plasma, in his nerves. He found actions and decisions of which he had not been aware but which had been lying in wait, ready to emerge.
The backdrop of his young life, the kitchen with its buckets and cloths full of complicated and intriguing smells, the clacking of Adela’s slippers and her noisy bustle, ceased to frighten him. He got used to considering it his domain, began to feel at home in it and to develop vague feeling of belonging to it, almost of patriotism.
Unless of course there was a sudden cataclysm in the shape of floor scrubbing—an abolition of the laws of nature—the splashing of warm lye, flooding all the furniture and the loud scraping of Adela’s brushes.
But the danger passed; the brush, now calm and immobile, returned to its corner, the floor smelled sweetly of damp wood. Nimrod, restored again to his normal rights and the freedom of his own territory, would have a sudden urge to grab an old rug between his teeth and to tear at it with all his strength, pulling it to the left and to the right. The pacification of the elements filled him with indescribable joy.
Suddenly he stopped still: in front of him, some three puppy steps away, there appeared a black monster, a scarecrow moving quickly on the rods of many entangled legs. Deeply shaken, Nimrod’s eyes followed the course of the shiny insect, observing tensely the flat, apparently headless torso, carried with uncanny speed by the spidery legs.
Something stirred in him at that sight, a feeling which he could not yet understand, a mixture of anger and fear, rather pleasurable and combined with a shiver of strength, of self-assertion, of aggression.
And suddenly he dropped onto his forepaws and uttered a sound unfamiliar to him, a strange noise, completely different from his usual whimpering. He uttered it once then again and again, in a thin faltering descant.
But in vain did he apostrophize the insect in this new language, born of sudden inspiration as a cockroach’s understanding is not equal to such a tirade: the insect continued on its journey to a corner of the room, with movements sanctified by an ageless ritual of the cockroach world.
The feeling of loathing had as yet no permanence or strength in the dog’s soul. The newly awakened joy of life transformed every sensation into a great joke, into gaiety. Nimrod kept on barking, but the tone of it had changed imperceptibly, had become a parody of what it had been—an attempt to express the incredible wonder of that capital enterprise, life, so full of unexpected encounters, pleasures, and thrills.
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