By Paulette Gehlker
Long ago, dogs could talk to people and other animals. They could say, “Good morning, I’m hungry, scratch my ears,” and other helpful phrases. The only problem was that Dogs could not keep secrets. They spread gossip and exaggerated something awful.
One day, the Shoemaker bought six loaves of bread from the Baker. He loaded the basket of bread into his burro cart. On the way home, the cart hit a deep rut and bounced high in the air. When it came down, one loaf of bread flew out and landed in a ditch.
When he got home, his wife said, “I asked you to buy six loaves of bread.”
“I did,” said the Shoemaker.
“Well,” said his wife, “There are only five loaves in the basket.”
“Perhaps the Baker forgot. I’ll tell him next time I go to buy bread. Let’s eat dinner. I’m hungry.”
That night, when all the masters were asleep, the dogs got together for their nightly canine convocation.
The Shoemaker’s dog said to the Baker’s dog, “My master says your master is a cheat!”
“Well, I never,” exclaimed the Baker’s dog in a huff. He would have growled and nipped the Shoemaker’s dog, but fighting was strictly forbidden at the convocation on threat of never being allowed to attend again.
Early next morning, even before asking to be let outside, the Baker’s dog told his master what the Shoemaker had said. He also added that the Shoemaker thought the bread was stale.
“Well, I never,” said the Baker, as he fumed and complained loudly.
When the mayor and his dog stopped by the bakery to buy morning sweet rolls and mentioned that he was going to have a fine new pair of boots made, the Baker said. “Don’t go to our local shoemaker. He makes all his shoes too small to save on leather.”
That night the mayor’s dog told the Shoemaker’s dog that the mayor did not want a pair of boots made by his master, since everyone knew he was stingy and used alley-cat hide to save on cow leather.
Well, by now the Baker wasn’t talking to the Shoemaker, and the Shoemaker wasn’t speaking to the mayor, and the mayor was walking around in old boots with holes in the soles because he didn’t dare ask for a new pair to be made.
The entire village was unhappy and unsettled. Half the villagers were on the Baker’s side and the other half on the Shoemaker’s, but no one quite understood why.
That night at the convocation, the blacksmith’s dog, who had overheard what the mayor’s dog had said, left early and searched out El Gordo, the biggest, meanest, nastiest tempered tom cat in the village. El Gordo was as big as any two cats tied together, his fur was the color of mud, and one ear was missing from losing a fight long ago. He hadn’t lost any sense!
“The mayor is going to start paying a bounty on every cat skin brought to city hall and the shoemaker will use them instead of cow leather.” He needed to repeat himself three times for, as every dog knows, cats are slow of speech and stupid.
El Gordo gathered his followers around him that very afternoon. It was the time for self-respecting cats to take siesta, and dream of fat mice trapped in corners and baby birds falling out of nests. The assembled cats knew that El Gordo must have something muy importante to say if it was worth disrupting siesta.
After El Gordo told the gathering about the bounty on cat skins, Rosita, one of the older and wiser cats, spoke, “Are you sure the blacksmith’s dog said that? You know how mutts mumble; you can hardly understand them most times.”
El Gordo’s fur bristled. “I had him repeat it three times,” he hissed.
Rosita, a petite black kitty with a white bib, thought for a while. “Before we do anything hasty or foolish, let me see if I can get to the bottom of this.”
She stretched out her neck and touched his nose with hers. “Promise me, to do nothing until you hear back from me.”
Although El Gordo was spoiling for a fight and would protect the cats under his care to the death, he agreed.
Rosita began asking different village dogs about what was going on and why. It was hard, tedious work to try to learn more about this village feud. It took all her feline patience not to hiss and scratch at the plodding speech of the dogs and their cur-like manners. Some could do with a good nose scratch, she thought. At last, she figured out that the first rumor came from the shoemaker’s dog.
She confronted him and asked for the exact words the shoemaker had said about the missing loaf of bread. At first, the dog said he didn’t remember the exact words, but after Rosita curled up in his flannel-lined basket and said she was in no hurry and could nap for hours in such a comfortable bed, he suddenly recalled.
She made him go to the baker’s dog and tell him exactly what the shoemaker had said.
“Well, I never,” said the baker’s dog and went to tell the news to his master.
The baker felt better about the shoemaker and so when he saw the mayor the next morning; he told His Honor that he was mistaken about the amount of leather used by the shoemaker. He could make a marvelous pair of boots for him.
The mayor, whose feet were hurting by now, went immediately to the shoemaker and ordered three pairs of boots.
Everyone seemed happy again. But Rosita knew it was only a matter of time before dogs stirred up trouble again. She asked El Gordo to call a special gathering, a great meeting between dogs and cats. No one could remember when such a thing last happened and had only heard stories from their grandparents. It took days to organize but finally happened.
Rosita perched herself on top of an old burro cart and waited for all to be silent. All the village dogs and cats were there. The cats lined up on one side of the alleyway and dogs on the other. Some dogs refused to look at the cats and some cats licked their paws to show how unimpressed they were with the dogs. Speaking very clearly and slowly, so even dogs could understand, she said, “As all of you know, it is of utmost importance that humans and dogs get along. They depend so much on each other—one group cannot thrive without the other. However, some of you cannot talk without causing trouble. When that happens, we all suffer.”
She looked hard at the dog’s side of the alley. The shoemaker’s dog looked ashamed and lowered his tail and head to signify he was sorry.
“To prevent such a thing from happening again, all dogs must take a great oath. Raise your right paws.”
At first, the dogs hesitated, then, one by one, they began to raise their paws.
“Do you swear on the heads of your newborn puppies and sacred collar given by the masters to never speak to humans again, now and forever?”
“We so swear,” said all the dogs.
And from that day to this, no dog has ever spoken to a human again. Sometimes, after a fun day of fetching a stick on the beach or a long walk or scattering a pile of leaves, a dog is so happy it wants to tell its master what a great day it has been. Then it remembers the great oath taken by its ancestors and only barks.
As for cats, they could talk to humans if they chose. So far, it has not been worth the bother.
-From the August issue of The Compass
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