Nina in Germany


      Niña woke up to the tread of boots outside the door.

     Immediately, all the other dogs in the room burst into a cacophony of barking. The Sheltie gave the black-and-tan occupant of the crate beside her own an annoyed look. The footsteps only meant people, she knew, and for all of her four years, people had only meant good things to Niña. These people were probably coming to let her out of this unsettling place, so different from the showground bench she was used to.

     The door was opened by a boy of fourteen, with wavy blond hair and dark blue eyes.

     “I’ve never seen a dog like this, sir.”

     He was followed by an elderly man, dressed in the uniform of a German major. As the two entered the room, the dogs suddenly ceased their racket and stood placidly in their cages, tails waving slowly back and forth.

     “What have you never seen, Rolf?” the major asked irritably.

     His companion strode over to Niña’s crate and crouched down in front of it. “Look at this dog, sir.”

     The elderly officer ran a hand impatiently through his freshly trimmed hair. “That barber can never do a proper job,” he muttered. “Well, what is it, boy?”

     “Does this look like a German shepherd dog to you?”

     Still grumbling, the major stomped over to look into the metal crate. He whistled when he saw Niña, who was staring up at them, her brown eyes curious.

     “How did she get in here?”

     “It must be a mistake, don’t you think, sir?” Rolf asked, standing up again. “She was probably supposed to be going to a show. I mean, a dog like that doesn’t belong anywhere but in a show kennel or a home. Unless someone had the crazy idea of sending his pet to an army barracks.”

     “No, this is not a German dog,” the major cut in. “I have never seen any other specimen of her breed here. I wish I had. No, this dog is an American one, and I think I know who owns her.”

     “Really, sir? Who?” Rolf asked in amazement.

     “My boy, have you ever heard the name Alexander Rothsmore?”

     “You mean, the American millionaire?”

     “Yes, exactly,” the major replied.

     From his uniform’s breast pocket, he pulled out a cigar and lit it. After he had returned the matches to his pocket and taken a long puff, he continued, “This is the International, American, and Canadian Champion Seacrest’s Spanish Quean. She is the best Shetland sheepdog in the States and the only one of her kind to ever win the Westminster Dog Show.”

     “So,” said Rolf, “this is Mr Rothsmore’s dog. Right?”

     “More correctly,” said the major, “she belongs to his daughter, Diana. Mr Rothsmore bought Niña––that is her kennel name––for an unheard-of sum of money as a birthday gift for Diana.”        

     The major fell silent for a moment, puffing thoughtfully on his cigar.

     Then Rolf asked, “But how do you know all of this, sir?”

     The major smiled. “Alexander Rothsmore is famous all around the globe. Basically everything he does is in the news, including his purchase of the lovely creature we have here. I saw a picture of Niña in the paper, and I would never forget that expression, which has become her trademark in the show ring.”

    The door opened, and a blond private stuck his head in. “Major Schröder, sir, the colonel wants you.”

     The elderly officer snuffed out his cigar and turned to his companion. “I had better go, Rolf. If Colonel Richter wants me, it must be something important. See to the dogs, will you? And make sure you take very special care of the Sheltie. Remember, you have a ‘queen’ there.”

    Rolf smiled and nodded. “Yes, sir, I will.”  

    As the two men left, Rolf knelt again next to the cage and sprang the lock. Niña trotted gracefully over the threshold, glad to be out of her confinement.

     “Niña, come here, girl.” Rolf snapped his fingers, and the Sheltie walked over to him, ears back. He stroked her golden-brown head and ruffled the perfectly tipped ears.

     “Boy, I wish the colonel could see you,” he whispered.

     Rolf thought pleasantly of the young officer who had been his father’s childhood friend. When both of Rolf’s parents were killed in a riot at the end of the war, the colonel had taken Rolf under his wing and been like a father to him ever since. The boy looked up to Colonel Richter with an admiration akin to hero-worship.

    Niña watched Rolf’s thoughtful face, her dark brown eyes questioning. The boy was sure that any judge who saw her expression would never be able to forget Niña. Then, remembering that he had at least fifteen other dogs to water and exercise, Rolf gave the Sheltie a final pat and got reluctantly to his feet.

     One by one, he let the shepherds out of their cages and into long runs that opened out of the barracks’ quarantine building. Then he filled bowls with cool water from the faucet in the wall and set one in each run. Niña followed him with her eyes as he went from crate to crate, fluffing the blankets inside each.

     Finally, after he filled the Sheltie’s dish, Rolf held it for her as she drank. Niña lapped eagerly, and the water made jewel-like droplets on her muzzle. The boy remembered reading somewhere that show dogs were fed from raised dishes to make their legs stronger. Figuring that this was what Niña was probably used to, he set her bowl of chopped meat and vitamins on a short stool that had been standing in a corner of the room. He stroked her as she ate.

     The Sheltie didn’t gulp her food like all the other dogs Rolf had seen. She ate it slowly and daintily, a fraction at a time. When Niña was done with her dinner, the boy opened a door leading out into the kennel grounds. Rolf was sure that the Sheltie would follow him without the need of a lead, and he was right. Niña kept close to his left leg, heeling perfectly and gazing around her with interest.

     The heat of the early June day was gone and crickets had begun to chirp their evening hymn. A light breeze was blowing through the many-shaded fir trees, sighing as it lifted the fir around Niña’s head and the hair on the back of Rolf’s neck. The last rays of the evening sun were peeping over the roof of the attractive white building where Major Schröder and the colonel were still talking. Rolf could see them through a window, its curtains pulled back. He wondered what they were discussing.

     Niña looked up quizzically at the boy and nudged his hand with her nose. Rolf smiled down at her and chuckled. “Gut, Niña,” he said. “We’ll finish our walk.”  

      The two of them circled the grounds in the falling dusk. From somewhere very far off, a strange dog let out a wolf-like howl. In seconds, many of the other dogs in the place responded with their own barks and bays. Niña only perked her ears and continued to follow Rolf back to the quarantine building.

     They were walking past the hedge-bordered meadow that adjoined the barracks on the left when the Sheltie halted suddenly and gave a low woof. Rolf looked at her.

     “Kommst du,” he said. “Come, Niña.”

      She obeyed, but reluctantly, giving small anxious whines.

     Rolf was puzzled. “What is it, girl?”

     Niña glanced from Rolf to the hedge and back again.

     “All right,” said the boy, “come on. We’ll go and see what’s troubling you.”

     When they reached the field again, Niña circled in front of the hedge, sniffing furiously. Rolf ducked through the greenery, and the dog followed him.

     “Who’s there?” the boy called out, more bravely than he felt.

     “I am,” came the reply.

     To Rolf’s surprise, a girl came walking towards them over the neatly trimmed grass. She was about thirteen years of age, with raven hair down to her shoulders and eyes that were either black or very dark brown. Rolf couldn’t tell in the fading light. But he could tell that she was extremely attractive and that her tailored suit was of a nice cut and colour.

     “Who are you?” he said in astonishment.

     The girl replied in a superior tone, “May I first be permitted to ask the same question of you and also the more important one of why you have my dog?”

     Rolf was still staring in disbelief, but Niña trotted over to the girl, her tail gently waving. The girl gave her a careless pat on the head.

     “What are you doing with him?” she asked the Sheltie.

     The last word brought Rolf very quickly to his wits. “How do you know she is your dog?” he demanded worriedly.

     “I ought to know my own dog,” the girl retorted. “And besides, you can see that she knows me.”

     Rolf reluctantly nodded. Niña now made as if to return to him, but the girl noticed.

     “Sit, Niña,” she ordered sharply.

     The Sheltie sighed and obeyed. Rolf saw her eyes placed longingly on him, and he comforted himself with the thought that perhaps she stayed with her mistress only out of obedience.

     “You still haven’t answered either of my two questions,” the girl said pettishly.

     “And you never answered mine. Who are you?” Rolf said, even though he already knew.

     “Well,” said the girl, sighing, “if you must know, I am Diana Rothsmore, the only daughter of Alexander Rothsmore and Olivia McKnight. You must have heard of them?”

      The boy nodded.

     “I sold Niña to one of your countrymen to start a Shetland sheepdog kennel here in Germany,” Diana went on. “She is the best of her breed in America and probably the world. But I much prefer horses. I flew over with her as she is too valuable a dog to trust to those stewards.” She made a face. “I was right, of course. When we landed, I couldn’t find her anywhere. Some man told me that she had probably been put with a shipment of German shepherd dogs that was going to one of your army barracks.”

     “He was right!” Rolf managed to get out. “I found her in the quarantine building with them.”

     Diana didn’t answer.

     “Look, Fräulein, I didn’t steal your dog,” the boy said earnestly. “I just thought she’d like a walk after her long journey. And if you insist on hinting that I would be so base as to take a child’s pet, may I point out that you are trespassing on another’s property?”

     Diana’s dark eyes flashed. “I am not trespassing!” she snapped. “This field belongs to friends of my parents, with whom I happen to be staying. I heard a lot of barking and walked over to see if this was a kennel or a barracks. Now it seems a person can’t even satisfy her curiosity without being accused of trespassing!”

     “I’m sorry,” said Rolf, feigning a contrition he did not feel. “I didn’t know.”

     “Well, seeing as you didn’t steal Niña––not to say you wouldn’t,” Diana said, quickly adding the last part, “I’ll tell the buyer to come pick her up tomorrow.”

     She turned abruptly and started back across the meadow in the gathering gloom. Rolf watched her retreating figure until it vanished into the falling darkness. Then calling Niña to him, he knelt and ruffled the dog’s ears.

     “Did you ever see such a disagreeable Fräulein?” he asked her. “I’m sorry you had to have an owner like that. Maybe your new owner will be better.”

     But Rolf didn’t want to think too long of Niña’s purchaser, so he got up hastily, telling the Sheltie to heel. As soon as the boy opened the door of the quarantine building and switched on the lights, Niña walked into her crate and lay down, placing her graceful head between her forepaws.

     Rolf grinned at her. “Tired, girl?”

      He let the shepherds into their crates and opened the large icebox to get out the meat. He set seventeen cans of it out on the wooden counter and then reached into the cupboard above the icebox for the vitamins. After Rolf mixed the dogs’ dinner, he set their metal bowls in the cages and leaned against the counter to watch them attack the food with gusto. He pondered a way to keep Niña longer, but nothing came to mind.

     Finally, after the last dog had licked his dish clean of the last scrap of meat and curled himself into a ball, preparing for sleep, Rolf made the final rounds, making sure each crate was padlocked securely. Then he straightened the room and, calling Niña, turned off the lights and went out into the night, locking the door behind him.

     The moon had risen, a silver crescent riding in the sky on a sulky of clouds. An owl hooted in an oak tree, and Niña raised her nose, sniffing the bird’s musty scent. The barrack grounds were silent, but a cosy light shone from a window here and there. The lamps in Colonel Richter’s office building were still on, and Rolf could see him reading a newspaper in his favourite leather chair. Probably about the Anschluss, the boy mused.

     The room where Rolf slept adjoined the quarantine building on the right, and one could only get to it from the outside. The walls had been painted red, and they were covered with pictures of dogs and horses, some of them newspaper clippings of the famous shows and races of Germany. In one corner was a wooden dog bed that Rolf had constructed, with an old mattress on it. Whenever a dog was sick, the boy would bring it into his room for the night.

     After Rolf had shut the door and switched on the lamp on his dresser, he plopped down on his bed and motioned for Niña to join him. She bounded up gladly and sat next to him. Rolf petted her for several minutes, then opened the top drawer of the dresser. This was where he kept one of his most treasured possessions: a camera.

     Colonel Richter had given it to him several months before, and the boy had spent many pleasant hours photographing the officers, horses, and dogs that made up the barracks’ inhabitants.

     Rolf put film in the camera and set it up. “Smile, Niña.”

     She panted and thumped her tail against the bed quilt.

     “Smart dog.”

     He took several pictures, then dismantled the camera and put it away. He joined Niña on the bed again and pulled his knees up against his chest.

     “I never knew there was a dog like you in the world,” he said.

     The Sheltie rolled over on to her side and licked her lips contentedly.

     “Don’t go to sleep.” Rolf nudged her with his foot, but she only thumped her tail again and closed her eyes. The boy sighed and lay back against the pillows, his hands behind his head.

     Suddenly there was a light tap at the door and Niña became quickly alert, woofing warningly.

     “Come in!” Rolf called. “It isn’t locked.”

     “It should be.”

     Colonel Richter entered. He was a handsome and distinguished-looking man in his early thirties, with black wavy hair. He smiled affectionately at the boy on the bed, and his dark eyes twinkled.

     “You know what I told you about keeping doors locked after dark,” Colonel Richter said. “Even with all the guards, it isn’t as safe as I’d like.”

     “Yes, sir,” Rolf answered guiltily. “I guess I forgot.”

      “Don’t worry about it,” the officer assured him, as he turned on another lamp. “Just remember next time.”

     “I will,” Rolf replied sleepily.

     “There’s a call waiting for you in my office,” Colonel Richter went on. “A young lady by the name of Diana Rothsmore wants to speak with you.”

     “She does?”

     Rolf suddenly did not feel tired anymore. His heart turned over with dread.

      “That’s right. And if I were you, I would get over there right now. Rothsmores don’t like to be kept waiting.”

     “Yes, sir. Stay, Niña.”

     In a second, Rolf was out of the room. But once outside, he took his time, walking slowly towards the only other building that had lights on at this hour and trying to still the anxious beating of his heart.

     Colonel Richter smiled and sat down on the bed next to Niña. The Sheltie looked up and wagged her tail. She realised that this pleasant man was no one to fear. She was puzzled as to why Rolf had dashed out so suddenly and why he hadn’t wanted her to go with him. But the friendly officer was scratching her under her chin, and she was content.

     Rolf finally reached the office. He paused at the threshold, gathering courage to actually enter the room. Then he opened the door and walked over to the telephone lying on the large walnut desk.

     “Ja?” he said into the mouthpiece.

     “Well,” answered Diana, sounding exasperated, “you certainly took your time getting here. I was calling to tell you I just found out that the man I sold Niña to is a friend of yours. So it’s just as well she was put in with the shepherd dogs. And I’m sorry I was so rude to you earlier.”

     She started to say more, but Rolf didn’t hear her. He felt as if his heart would burst with   happiness. But at the same time, he was unwilling to believe the girl, lest he be disappointed. Finally, he sensed that Diana was ending the conversation, if it could be called that, and he tried to listen with more attention.

     “I’m going home tomorrow,” she said. “I’ll probably be back here some time on vacation. Maybe I will see you again.”

     “Maybe,” Rolf replied, trying to sound enthusiastic.

     “Well,” said Diana, after a pause, “good night.”

     “Guten Nacht.”

     Rolf set the ‘phone back on its cradle and leaned against the desk. For the first time since the death of his parents, the boy felt truly happy. He still had to keep telling himself that this was not a dream, and that Niña was here to stay. He smiled as he thought of the pictures he had taken of her. He wouldn’t need them now. Still, they would be nice to send to Diana. And for the first time since he had met the girl, Rolf thought of her with a feeling of tolerance.

     Then he stretched his arms and made his way to the door. Pulling it shut behind him, he descended the low steps and took the gravel path to his room, whistling, and with his hands in his pockets. Through the window, Rolf saw Colonel Richter sitting on the bed, Niña beside him, her head on his leg. The two looked up when he came in, and the colonel grinned as he saw the boy’s face. Niña waved her white-tipped tail and bounded off the bed to come to him. Rolf knelt and put his arms around her ruff. The Sheltie licked his cheek lovingly. She seemed to sense that something important was happening, but of course, she knew not what.

     Colonel Richter watched the boy and the dog with affection, until Rolf looked up and met his eyes.

     “You bought her, sir?” It was more of a statement than a question.

     “Yes, Rolf,” the officer said with a smile. “I have always liked her breed and was sorry that there weren’t any here in Germany. Hopefully, Niña can change that.”

     He was silent for a moment, watching the beautiful Sheltie caress Rolf’s hand with her tongue. Then he looked again at the boy.

     “What do you think?” he asked. “Would you help me take care of her and the new kennel?”

   “It would be an honour, sir,” Rolf said seriously.

     But inside his heart was singing, and he couldn’t hide the excitement in his voice. Colonel Richter noticed this and smiled. He held out his hand to the boy. Rolf shook it firmly, then laughed as Niña held out her white paw to be shaken.

     Outside, there was not a sound in the barracks, save the lone owl who hooted questioningly into the night air.

     As for Rolf, all his questions of this day had been answered, and he soon slept the blissful sleep of a perfectly contented boy.

By Anna Raj