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from the January 2005 issue


A dog in Cameroon wrestles with the cost of domestication in this short story by Patrice Nganang.

I am a dog. Who else but me can acknowledge it with such humility? Because I don't blame myself for anything, "dog" becomes no more than a word, a name: it's the name men have given me. But there you have it: I eventually accommodated myself to it. I eventually came to recognize myself in the destiny in which it decked me out. From then on, "dog" became part of my universe, because I made men's words mine. I digested the construction of their sentences and the intonations of their speech. I learned their language and flirted with their way of thinking. To the point of arrogance, I put up with their orders. Who could even have imagined it in the olden days? I perform without any rage when my master calls me, even if I always shuffle along a little while I do it.

It wasn't always so. At the very beginning, I would feel wounded by even the most innocuous of men's words. Any order would turn my gaze bloody. I would even sometimes hear my name as an insult, mistake a call for snotty spit. "Dog" was, at the time, one of the countless human things that strangled me, beheaded me, disemboweled me, broke my teeth, smeared me with mud, killed me, buried me. For what it meant to me was men's arrogance in naming the world, in giving a place to the things around them, and giving them notice that they had orders to be quiet. Every time it was uttered with regard to me, it meant that I was part of the human universe, that I had ceased to be who I really am, that I had no right to speak.

With age, I grew accustomed to the degrading name with which men refer to me. To be completely honest, I truly became used to it the day my master, Massa Yo, took me to the veterinarian to have me cured.

"Mr. the veterinarian," he said tearfully, "my dog is ill. When I call him, he jumps on me and tries to bite me!"

The veterinarian didn't ask anything else. He said one or two sentences, out of which I only heard the word "rage," and pulled out a long black needle. On that day, I understood that I had to answer to my name to survive. I wagged my tail, lowered my ears, closed my eyes and stretched my back. I even stood on my hind legs and started dancing. The veterinarian, surprised, stopped his needle and caressed my head and back. Then he laughed, amused by my acting. He said I was a good dog, and I purred with pleasure. He didn't inject anything in me. He established a long list of flavored stews that were supposed to soothe my nerves. Above all, he recommended cans of dog food that my master would be able to buy at Score for five hundred francs. Massa Yo scratched his head, thought for a moment, but said that he still had the means to feed me:

"As long as my salary keeps flowing in," he stressed.

The name my master gave me is in fact "Mboudjak," which means: "hand that searches." I do not know why I am flattered by this name, or why I prefer it to that of "dog." In truth, it too should have disgusted me because, like "dog," it does not free me from the long human leash. Doesn't it presuppose that I too have a hand? Doesn't it presuppose that I am my master's hand? Nevertheless, we dogs also have our vain side. Because, all things considered, I prefer "Mboudjak" to "dog" out of sheer vanity: this name gives me a certain ascendancy over my master. It makes me into not just his enlightened guide but also and above all his infallible hand, his arm that leads the way, omniscient of the danger to come, and this makes me happy. I feel honored by the feeling my name gives me, of showing men truth's modest hiding place, and of being in charge myself.

I might be a dog, but I'm not stupid. I know I have never guided anyone. I know that only my master decides which path we take and how long the course we follow will be each time he goes out with me after work for a walk toward the Quarry. Never does he tell me before our walks where we will be going. Never. And even once in the forest, I can frisk about all I want before his footsteps, run all I want as advance guard to his stroll, I can already hear him cry out my name when I step away from the path he has mapped out in his head only: "Mboudjak, come here!"

Sometimes, Massa Yo is happy even just whistling: hwew! I don't know why this reflex brings me right back to him. Most of the time, in any case, my movements are limited by a chain that ties me to his will. Because I am his dog, you see. Still, I must admit that my diligent strolls make the dogs in our neighborhood bark with envy. "Isn't it your master has money?" they bark when we go by. "You have already seen what."

And, amused, I answer them: "Is a big one a small one."

Once, during our walk, a neighborhood dog came and sniffed my behind. His skin was streaked with mange and an escort of flies made his presence diabolical. It was as if they were peeling him alive. My master chased him away viciously.

"Bo-o, you do that with him?" the mangy dog asked me after he reached a safe distance. "Why does he love you like that no?"

He barked a laugh full of irony. Haughtily, I averted my eyes. He didn't stop laughing. He said I certainly was my master's wife, that no man in Madagascarever strolled with his dog, that within stray dog memory he had never seen this. He said that only I knew the price of my favored treatment. He added that I could shut up if I wanted, that my ass said what my mouth wanted to keep quiet, that my behind wa-wa was the proof of my condition. Such slander needed to be nipped in the bud. I jumped to my feet. My master had me on the leash. I began one sentence. I began a thousand sentences all at once. I shook my head and preferred to keep quiet. Yes, what one can't say, one should simply keep quiet. I refused to listen and continued my stroll, behind my master.

Me, his dog.

1Working-class district of Yaoundé, never to be mistaken in the text for the country of the same, of which the poet Jacques Rabemananjara sings.

From Temps de chien (Paris: Serpent à Plumes, 2001). Copyright Patrice Nganang. Translation copyright 2005 Christine Schwartz Hartley. All rights reserved.

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