Blackie: A Dog Elegy

By Jiang Zidan[ 1 ]

Tr. by Mei Li Inouye and Haiyan Lee

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright December 2014)

Jiang Zidan. Source: Baidu

Jiang Zidan. Source: Baidu

The Polytechnic College had commenced less than a month when a new student in the Department of Automation jumped off a building to his death, sending the entire school into shock and agitation. Jiang An was more rattled than anyone else—Liu Gen, the boy who had committed suicide, was his roommate and slept on the top bunk. On the day they met, they had exchanged names and shared a knowing smile. Jiang An (river bank) and Liu Gen (willow root)—who could say their meeting wasn’t the work of fate?

But in less than three weeks, the bed above Jiang An had become an empty bed board. The body that once loved to rock and sway overhead to music on an MP3 player while cramming all sorts of snacks into his mouth had been converted into a few plumes of grey smoke. He had drifted away from the crematorium’s slender smokestacks, never again to appear inside this crowded dorm where all manner of unidentifiable odors wafted. No one knew the reason for Liu Gen’s abrupt decision to end his life; after all, they had only been classmates for three weeks, and Liu Gen had been a reticent, withdrawn chap.

Naturally the dorm mates still mentioned him on occasion, but other than expressing regret and bewilderment, there weren’t many fresh perspectives. Of all the commentary circulated, only what Li Li said stuck with Jiang An. Li’s dad was an army officer in the Ali military sub-commandery. He had grown up in Tibet and, at first glance, actually looked like a Tibetan. Every time he opened his mouth, he would say, “In Tibet we . . ..” Regarding Liu Gen’s death, he had this to say, “We Tibetans believe that dogs are people who were wronged in their previous lives. Those who kill themselves are usually aggrieved about something. In all likelihood Liu Gen has gone to his next life as a dog.”

His words gave Jiang An goosebumps. He immediately thought of his family’s dog, Blackie, and blurted out an odd question, “How about dogs wronged in former lives—what do they become?”

Li, who ordinarily had ready answers for any question on life, death, or reincarnation, burst out laughing. He countered, “Is there a dog like that in the world?”

Jiang An said gravely, “Of course. My family’s Blackie was such a dog.” Afterward, Jiang An told Li the story of Blackie, and as Li listened, his smile slowly dissolved into woeful sighs.

* * *

The Blackie incident occurred years ago. Jiang An was in the fourth grade when he died, but Jiang An had never forgotten him. Whenever and wherever he saw a dog, especially a mid-sized black dog, he would think of Blackie with an aching heart. That was why, as soon as school started, he joined a campus group that volunteered weekly at the local animal shelter. Jiang An believed that Blackie, had he known this, would certainly have approved.

Blackie was a mutt. His dad paid ten yuan to a dealer on a footbridge and brought him home without giving the matter much thought. The Jiang family had recently moved from the north to China’s southernmost city and were temporarily lodged in a row of abandoned military barracks. Waist-high weeds overtook the front and back of the barracks; cobwebs in the windows were thick and dense like gauze curtains rising and falling with the wind, and bands of geckos roved the ceilings, chirping shrilly.

Jiang An vividly remembered the way his mother tiptoed up the doorsteps and beat a hasty retreat before reaching the threshold. She plopped herself down on the luggage and burst into a bitter wail, all the while lashing out at his father: “You just couldn’t tough it out in a city where the living is easy but had to hightail it to this godforsaken place for your career? Do you think you’re Su Dongpo? That folks will remember you here and transfer you home one day?”[2]

Dad, ordinarily short-tempered, was uncharacteristically unctuous. Flashing Mom an apologetic smile, he said, “One can’t trap the wolf without risking the kid. This is what they call retreating to advance. Wait till I’m promoted—then you’ll know the marvel of a big guy who can take a temporary setback.”

Jiang An listened to their row with hazy comprehension and more or less grasped that Dad had forced him to leave a familiar city and school and dragged him to this strange place, all in order to seek opportunities for promotion.

Mom wasn’t happy. She dumped the neatly folded clothes from the trunk helter-skelter onto the bed, grumbling, “Such a shame . . . these nice clothes!”

Mom was a clothes horse and had previously been a member of an amateur modeling troupe. During holidays and festival celebrations, she would dress to the nines and find excuses to drop by friends’ houses or crash parties, never missing an opportunity to be admired and complimented. Now she rarely bothered. The few times she did suit up to canvas the streets, she returned home even moodier. She would shout at Dad, saying she was homesick like an Englishwoman in India.

Pushed to his limit, Dad sprang up, “Who do you think you are? The emperor’s relation? Aren’t you just a small town merchant’s sheltered rose of a daughter? And you fancy yourself an English lady in India!”

Dad’s words struck Mom’s most sensitive spot. Her rage was enough to detonate her lungs. With her eyebrows arched nearly vertical and eyes ablaze like lamps, she snatched a cup, dashed it to the ground, and then charged out the door together with the ricocheting shards of glass. If Dad hadn’t chased after her immediately and soothed her with abject apologies, she would have run all the way back home.

Mom wasn’t happy, but Jiang An was even more unhappy. He had yet to become close with his classmates and teachers, and things at home were left in a mess by the inattentive, distracted adults. He didn’t know where to kill time after school and often wandered aimlessly through the sun-scorched streets. A mere second-grader, Jiang An passed each day alone in glum silence, and before long even his appetite diminished. Mom quarreled a few times more with Dad over this, and Dad, naturally, couldn’t be happy either. It was into this gloomy family that Blackie walked.

Dad had purchased Blackie with the intention of having him guard the house at night. Mom always became skittish around nightfall. The rustle of wind or rain, the sound of leaves falling or mice scampering—every little noise was enough to make her shriek with exaggerated fear, which forced Dad out of bed again and again to investigate. Dad suspected that Mom was making things difficult for him on purpose, but he didn’t dare be negligent in this alien environment. So he obligingly and wearily trudged in and out of the house. It wasn’t long before he’d had enough. Then one day on the footbridge, he ran into an old huckster who pushed a puppy into his arms. Dad’s eyes suddenly lit up: the little creature might be his way out of a desperate plight. At the time, Dad couldn’t have known that this little sparkly eyed pup, glossy black from head to toe, would make such a difference in his family’s life. It would eventually and profoundly change his son’s opinion of him as well as his son’s view on life,

Eight-year old Jiang An cradled the pup in both hands and broke into hearty laughter such as had not been heard by his parents in a long while. The pup gazed at him with a bewildered look, triggering a rush of brotherly affection in Jiang An; the name Blackie came to Jiang An unbidden. Blackie gladly accepted this affectionate appellation and hardly half a day had passed before he responded with alacrity to this call. From that day forward, Jiang An rediscovered the happiness that had somehow vanished without a trace.  He cooed, “Blackie, Blackie,” to his canine brother hundreds of times each day. Ordering the dog to come here, carrying him over there, Jiang An was overwhelmed with joy.

Blackie was an extremely intelligent dog. He didn’t need any special training to intuit his master’s intentions. Each morning, Jiang An had only to shoulder his backpack for Blackie to fetch his leather sandals; in the evening, no sooner had Jiang An stuffed his homework into his backpack than Blackie brought his shoes—the sneakers he wore for soccer, for sure. Blackie never made a mistake.

One time, Mom asked Blackie offhand, “Do big brother’s sneakers stink?”

Blackie surprised them with a resounding sneeze. He then cocked his head slightly to one side and made a sputtering noise, as if saying, “Stink? They reek!”

At first they thought this was just coincidence. They never imagined that from then on, every time Blackie fetched Jiang An’s sneakers, he would sneeze, tilt his head, and moan.

That night as soon as Dad walked through the door, Mom and Jiang An tugged him left and right, vying to describe Blackie’s remarkable feat. Dad didn’t believe it, so Jiang An made Blackie perform on the spot, and he did not let them down. Mom was so pleased that she promptly dispatched Dad to the market so she could make a special dinner for the family that night. Dad, equally delighted, brought back a bottle of wine as a bonus and even bent his rule by letting Jiang An drink a small glass. Dad was utterly amazed at how this little dog had cheered up his wife and child. Turning to Blackie, he confessed, “I never guessed a little beast like you could be this useful. Getting you here was a stroke of luck indeed.”

Blackie surveyed the scene and instantly knew the praise was for him. He took to running feverishly in circles, his tail looping like a small quaking windmill. The grownups and the child piled on top of each other in stitches. Such gaiety, such a merry meal—to think that it all had started with Blackie.

Time passed like a dashing white colt. Jiang An was soon in the fourth grade. By this time, Dad had fulfilled his dream of becoming a department head, and he was feeling rather good about himself. Mom joined an amateur women’s chorus and developed a new social circle—her abundant wardrobe lined up for use. Everyone in the family busily attended to their own affairs and passed the time in cheerful harmony. Blackie, needless to say, shared their happiness in full. He and Jiang An were practically inseparable. As soon as the class bell rang, Jiang An would race home and Blackie, equally punctual, would wait for him under the tree by the courtyard entrance. In two years, Blackie had already grown into a splendid, imposing dog. Having shed some of his puppy playfulness, he was even more well-mannered and sensible. In this large compound of much coming and going, a family over here would lose a pot while a family over there would lose a bowl. But the Jiang family didn’t lose so much as a single chopstick thanks to him. Everything was swell.

But too much happiness courts its own disaster—this would become the adult Jiang An’s most fastly held maxim.

At last, Dad’s work unit assigned much anticipated new living quarters to the eager Jiang family. With the apartments still in the process of being outfitted, Mom couldn’t help but trek thither again and again to conduct reconnaissance shopping while counting on her fingers the days remaining until move-in. She excitedly told Jiang An that in their new home, he would have a room all to himself, and that she had already picked out a trendy three-piece children’s set at the furniture store for him. Dad and Mom never once told Jiang An that their plans didn’t include taking Blackie to the new apartment with them.

On moving day, Jiang An went to school as usual. In the afternoon, Dad picked him up after class and took him directly to the new apartment. As soon as he walked in, he sensed something wrong. Blackie didn’t bound over as in times past, wagging his tail and yelping joyfully.

“Blackie! Blackie!” Jiang An called as he ran from room to room.

Mom chased after him with a pair of slippers in hand, anxiously yelling, “First change into slippers, change into slippers—you’re trampling on the new floor!”

When Jiang An realized that Blackie had been abandoned at the dilapidated old house, he began to wail. He cried, kicked, and stomped his muddy shoes against the shiny, lacquered floor. He didn’t dare hate Dad and Mom, but he dared hate this new building, new home, and everything new inside it. In exchange for these new, lifeless, unbreathing playthings, Dad and Mom had gone so far as to leave behind his intimate companion: Blackie, that intelligent, big-hearted dog who had brought the family so much peace and joy.

Jiang An sobbed the entire night. Thoughts about Blackie baying pitifully and dashing about in that deserted old house twisted Jiang An’s young heart into a knot.

The next morning, Jiang An refused to let Dad take him to school and insisted on catching the bus by himself. Dad, weary of dropping off and picking up his son every day, embraced the opportunity, saying, “When a boy gets to the fourth grade, he should get to school on his own.”

So it happened that Jiang An, carrying two steaming hot meat buns and a thumping heart, ran straightaway to their old house. From a distance, he saw Blackie lie listlessly at the entrance. When he heard Jiang An’s footsteps, his body perked up at once and his throat thrummed with excitement. In no time he had charged headfirst into Jiang An’s embrace.

Jiang An’s tears plashed down. Although only a naughty ten-year-old, he was already quite keen to be regarded as manly and often fought hard to hold back tears when beaten or scolded for fear of losing his dignity. Now, however, before poor and helpless Blackie, he abandoned all pretenses. He wrapped his arms around Blackie’s big doggy head and cried his eyes out.

Blackie nestled tightly and motionlessly against his young master lest the slightest movement shatter their reunion. Jiang An was astonished to discover wet tears no different from those of humans in Blackie’s eyes. When he fished out the meat buns and stuffed them into Blackie’s mouth, those glistening tears tumbled down like a string of pearls, dampening the back of his hand and searing their warmth on his skin and into his heart for life.

Dad and Mom eventually discovered the reason for Jiang An’s increasingly early departures for school and progressively late arrivals home in the abandoned Blackie. Except for attending class, their son spent nearly every waking moment keeping his dog company. This was unacceptable, of course. But when his parents tried to intervene, Jiang An made a big scene, insisting that if he wasn’t allowed to spend time with Blackie, they’d have to fetch Blackie home. To precipitate a clean break, Dad drove Blackie dozens of miles away from the town, intending to let go of him once and for all.

Dad and Mom forgot that Blackie was exceedingly clever and deeply attached to his young master. Such a dog was not so easily cast off.

Jiang An’s sulky, anti-social days recommenced with Blackie’s disappearance. He began by throwing tantrums and falling seriously ill; he then locked himself in his room, muttering only monosyllables when speaking to his parents. Just as Dad and Mom’s anxiety about their son’s behavior escalated, Blackie suddenly appeared on a rainy evening at the front door of the Jiangs’ new residence. The dog had been starved to skin and bones. Large patches of mange covered his back, carving up his formerly glossy black fur into a messy patchwork. Yet his expressive eyes were exactly how Jiang An remembered them: brimming with goodwill and intelligence—except now there was also a hint of grief.

The recovery of Blackie brought tremendous joy to Jiang An but aroused complicated feelings in Dad and Mom. His loyalty was impossible to criticize. His forbearance weighed on their consciences. What’s more, his IQ demanded to be admired. They were convinced that Blackie had not only retraced his way to the city from miles away, but had used the old house as a starting point to find Jiang An’s school, and then from the school had tracked Jiang An to the new house. Even though Blackie was the only one that could make their cheerless son happy again, the parents were reluctant or unable to openly take him back into their care. The administrative department of Dad’s work unit had issued an ordinance prohibiting ownership of large dogs in the residential quarters. Blackie was a mid-sized dog, albeit on the large side, so Dad wasn’t quite sure if he fell into the prohibited category. Additionally, as a newly promoted department head, Dad didn’t want to get a bad rap in his unit on account of a dog, particularly in this apartment block where the lower floors were full of bureau chiefs and deputy bureau chiefs. But to a ten-year-old boy this kind of consideration was complete nonsense and could in no way justify abandoning Blackie again.

Jiang An squatted near the front door firmly clutching the filthy and smelly Blackie. If Dad and Mom so much as touched him, he would scream like his life depended on it. The family finally devised a compromise solution. They fed, bathed, and rubbed ointment on Blackie, and then let him crouch on the doormat. If the neighbors noticed and objected, they could explain; if there were no objections, they’d keep him there. Actually this plan nicely accommodated Mom’s worries that Blackie would mess up her meticulously managed new home, except that she couldn’t quite come clean to her son.

Although Jiang An was supremely unhappy with this arrangement, he was in no position to prevail over his parents. So he capitulated, content to see Blackie every day. Every night before bed, Jiang An would open the door and say good night to him. He would stroke his head and pat his back, exhorting him, “Whatever you do, don’t make a peep. Ignore everything and anything. If the folks downstairs get irritated, you won’t be able to stay.”

Blackie’s eyes shone in the dim lamplight as he listened knowingly, a faint murmur escaping his throat as if to acknowledge Jiang An’s injunction. Every time Jiang An shut the door, leaving Blackie’s bright eyes to the darkness, pangs of distress would stab his small heart. Every morning right after jumping out of bed, pulling up his pants, and shoving on his slippers, he rushed to check if Blackie was safe and sound.

In the face of adversity, the bond between Blackie and Jiang An grew deeper each day. By and by his parents, however reluctantly, caved. They began allowing Blackie to come into the house briefly at dinnertime to crouch under the table and wait for Jiang An to feed him a meat bone and the like. Without realizing it, Mom was buying more meat so that Jiang An, who was sharing it with Blackie, wouldn’t be eating any less. With an air of smug self-congratulation, Dad said to Mom, “It’s a good thing we live on the top floor. We can walk the dog on the roof terrace without bothering anyone downstairs.” In order to keep the couple across the hallway from talking, Mom did her best to befriend them. Whenever she made dumplings or bought fresh fruit, she was sure to make Jiang An deliver some to them. Jiang An gradually came to appreciate his parents’ well-meaning efforts and eased up on resenting their attempt to abandon Blackie. But the memory of abandonment seemed to stay with Blackie. In this new house with gleaming furniture and shiny floors, he was evidently not at ease. He’d sit in one spot with bated breath, not barking, not moving, and not playing. Jiang An told Mom, “Blackie is scared stupid because you’ve turned the house into a stage.”

In reality, Blackie was far from stupid and grew even more well-behaved. When called inside, no matter how enthusiastic the invitation, he would proceed gingerly unless the call came from Jiang An. When anyone displayed the slightest sign of wanting him out of the house, he immediately betook himself to the door and waited for it to open.

One day, after Dad had drunk and eaten to his heart’s content, he casually let out a big yawn. Blackie, taking it as a signal that Dad was tired and desired rest, hurriedly picked up the bone he was gnawing, and headed swiftly to the door. Eventually, even Mom and Dad had to admit that Blackie was an extraordinary dog. The naive boy believed that if his canine companion could adhere to his admonition not to make noise and not to pay heed to anything, the dog could continue living sub rosa with them.

But in the end, Blackie was a dog. As a dog, he simply couldn’t ignore suspicious happenings right under his nose. One winter night, a strong wind was blowing across the top of the building. A burglar climbed along a drainage pipe to the fifth floor terrace intending to sneak into the building to pick locks and break in. But his thieving scheme did not account for dealing with a brave, loyal dog, so when Blackie leapt out from the darkness and put all he had into a volley of frenzied barks, the burglar instantly collapsed in the corridor.

After the police marched the burglar out, and just as the residents were gathering their wits and beginning to disperse, the bureau chief from the third floor suddenly asked, “Which family’s dog discovered the thief just now?”

Dad, already on the fourth floor, instantly turned around and croaked, “Chief, it’s our family’s.”

“That barking didn’t sound like a small dog.”

“We had it when we lived in the row house. Later on, well . . ..”

Dad sounded very sheepish, and it’s hard to say whether all adults spoke in this manner with their superiors, or whether it was because Blackie was contraband in this building. As Jiang An saw it, Dad should have taken advantage of the moment right on the heels of Blackie’s triumph to sing the dog’s praises. It was also possible that the bureau chief didn’t give Dad a chance to go on. Soon the doors on the third floor as well as the other floors closed and the hallways resumed the late night’s quiet.

Blackie stood at the door vigorously welcoming his masters. With his ears standing straight up and his tail wagging like a windmill, he was evidently expecting fulsome praise. He hadn’t been this animated and exultant since his harrowing journey home. He never expected that Dad would pat his head and heave a long sigh, “You poor thing—things are not looking good for you.”

Sure enough, a few days later, Jiang An returned from school to discover that Blackie had vanished again.

Jiang An frantically searched for Dad, determined to bring Blackie back home.

Mom said, “Dad’s away on business. It’ll be a couple of weeks before you see him again. Besides, Dad doesn’t know where Blackie has gone either.” Jiang An threw a fit, wailing and rolling on the floor, but to no avail. Dad didn’t come home, nor did Blackie.

At dinnertime, the bureau chief’s housekeeper brought over a large bowl of braised meat and said to Mom, “The chief sends his thanks to department head Mr. Jiang. This is very nourishing, particularly in this season . . . ”

Mom cut her short and exclaimed, “Oh! What a meaty rabbit!”

Oddly, Mom didn’t feed the braised rabbit to Jiang An, nor did she eat any herself. The next day, she packed it into a lunchbox and took it away. Little Jiang An never could have guessed that Blackie, the dog he was desperately searching for, was inside the lunchbox.

Two months passed before Jiang An finally learned the truth regarding Blackie’s disappearance.

On that day, in an effort to take Jiang An’s mind off losing Blackie, Dad invited the bureau chief’s grandson to their place to play computer games with Jiang An. When the kid saw a photo of Blackie and Jiang An on the wall, he callously blurted out, “Hey, this is the dog Uncle Jiang gave my grandpa. The meat was delicious!”

* * *

The year Jiang An tested into college, Dad achieved his dream of becoming a bureau chief.

Before Jiang An left home, Dad, while helping him pack his bags, discovered an entire photo album of Blackie hidden at the bottom of his son’s suitcase. His heart was pricked. In all those years, he had felt a barrier between them that he couldn’t quite explain. Was the ultimate answer right here?

On the eve of Jiang An’s departure, Dad asked his son about his future aspirations. Jiang An replied without a hitch,  “Anything but a government official.”

Translators: Mei Li Inouye and Haiyan Lee


[1] First published under the title “Goushang: Hei Hai’er” 狗殇:黑孩儿, in Shiyue 十月(October) 2007, no. 5. Collected in Jiang Zidan 蒋子丹, Dongwu dang’an 动物档案 (Animal files) (Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 2008), pp.167-178. The translators would like to thank Jiang Zidan for permitting them to translate and disseminate the story, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford University for funding this translation project with an Introductory Seminar Enhancement Grant.

[2] Su Dongpo (pen name of Su Shi, 1037-1101) was a renowned Song dynasty poet and statesman. He was exiled twice to the south and twice recalled to office because of shifting factional politics in the capital. (translators’ note)