Tuesday evening after dinner, I sat on the couch by the front window, reading, when I noticed a stranger walking down the street. The oddly misshapen head and face were unmistakable. The pit bull paused to urinate on one of our rosemary plants and, when finished, kicked up a storm of dirt and pine needles. He ambled off with the abstracted air of a child working hard not to appear lost.
The neighbors rallied. The dog wore a collar but no license or name tag, and we put him on a leash. He was friendly but not affectionate, and never made a sound. Endearingly ugly, he liked being scratched behind the ears. Someone brought him a bucket of water and he drank sparingly. We gave him two cups of our dog’s food and he inhaled it. On his back and ears were old scars, but otherwise he looked healthy and cared for. I remembered “Kashtanka,” of which Aldo Buzzi writes in “Chekhov in Sondrio” (Journey to the Land of Flies and Other Travels, 1996):
“One of Chekhov’s best stories is about a dog with a reddish coat called Kashtanka (Chestnut), which was the name of a dog he had in his house. The cat of the house was called Fyodor Timofeyich: a name and a patronymic, as if he were an orthodox Christian—that is, Theodore, the son of a former cat, Timothy.”
Chekhov wrote “Kashtanka” in 1887, on the eve of the decade during which he would write his best stories. Simon Karlinsky calls it “Chekhov’s most popular animal story, describing a cobbler’s [actually, a carpenter’s] dog which joins a circus. It is regularly reissued to this day in illustrated editions intended for children.” An animated version of the story was produced in the Soviet Union in 1952. Karlinsky’s description is rather misleading. Kashtanka is separated from her owner by a brass band marching in the street and rescued by a clown who performs with an animal act in the circus. Kashtanka joins Fyodor Timofeyich and a trained goose, Ivan Ivanitch. Animal stories charm children but adults usually find them insufferable (consider Animal Farm and Charlotte’s Web). But the narrator of “Kashtanka” is omniscient and the animals remain animals. They don’t speak and don’t understand the words of humans. With a little tinkering, a child could be substituted for Kashtanka, and the story isn’t far from the essential appeal of Dickens – lost and found. There’s a death followed by a happy ending. The story contains thoughtless, foolish characters but none is truly evil.
Neighbors posted photos of the lost pit bull on several pet and neighborhood sites. At sundown, we went inside. The woman across the street unleashed the dog and stayed with him, hoping his owners would be cruising the streets, looking for him, but no one responded to the photos and no one drove down our cul-de-sac, so she went inside.
[Chekhov wrote another dog story, “Whitebrow,” in 1895.]