“When daddy was a little boy/ All little boys were good/ And did just what their nurses/ And their parents said they should.// And sometimes when I’m naughty/ He takes me on his knee./ And tells me when he was little,/ how good he used to be.”
From a 1900 child’s handkerchief
When Papa was a little boy, he had no pets. Not really. He lived with his dad, Ark, and his mom, Yana in a city in Russia, in a large apartment they shared with three other families. When little Papa asked his parents if he could have a dog or a cat, they said, “Of course not, you know we are living in an apartment we have to share with three other families, we have no room for a dog or a cat” – and that was that.
And so little Papa had no pets. Unless you count the ants that lived in the windowsill. Sometimes he played with the ants. He would lay out little piles of sugar or breadcrumbs, and watch the ants grab the food and drag it into their hole in the windowsill. Or he would pretend the ants were an enemy army, and bomb them from the air with little balls of plasticine. But ants don’t count as pets.
So, little Papa had no pets. Not really. Well, once his mom brought home a cage with a family of guinea-pigs – a father, a mother, and a baby guinea-pig. Little Papa was very happy. It wasn’t his fault that in Russia, guinea-pigs are called sea-pigs. He felt sorry for the poor sea-pigs, having to live in a cage so far away from their home in the sea. He decided at least to let them swim in the bathtub for a while – starting with the father sea-pig. That didn’t go very well – and the two sea-pigs that survived were eventually given away to someone else.
Other than that, little Papa had no pets. Not really. The closest he ever came to a pet was a chicken. And this is how it happened.
That summer, like every other summer, little Papa and his parents went to live in the little summer-house they had next to the Black Sea. One morning, on the way home from the beach, little Papa and his dad took a different road. They passed a big yard with a fence, and inside they saw hundreds and hundreds of baby chickens. Little Papa came closer and saw one tiny baby chicken, fluffy and yellow, who had somehow managed to get out through the fence, and was running around outside. “Oh Papa,” said little Papa to his dad, “can’t we take it home? Please?” His dad looked at the chicken, looked at little Papa, sighed and said, “Well, I guess if we take just this one little chicken, no one will miss him, I guess.” And that is how Tzipka came to live with little Papa.
Little Papa was very happy. It was almost as good as having a dog. Tzipka followed little Papa everywhere. He would come running when little Papa whistled or called his name. He would let little Papa pick him up, and even sat on his shoulder and pecked him lightly on the ear. Others thought it was very funny. They told little Papa, “This chicken thinks you are his mother.” That made little Papa very proud.
As the summer went on, Tzipka lost his fluff and turned white. Every day he grew bigger and bigger. Little Papa’s parents would sometimes say, “Look how big and fat your chicken is. What do you think, should we have some chicken soup tomorrow?” They would laugh, which meant this was a joke, but little Papa didn’t think it was that funny.
With time, though, little Papa began to get tired of Tzipka following him everywhere. Tzipka was no longer fluffy and cute, and he was too big to be picked up. I am sorry to say that sometimes, when little Papa wanted to be alone, he even kicked Tzipka and shouted, “Go away, leave me alone, stop following me!” Tzipka soon learned to keep out of little Papa’s way.
Then, one night, Tzipka was gone. They found a hole dug in the earth under the box where Tzipka slept, and there were some white feathers scattered on the ground. “It must have been a fox,” little Papa was told. “See, the fox made a hole under the box and dragged your chicken away. Don’t cry. He was too big anyway. It was either this or the soup.”
Little Papa didn’t cry – because he knew better. He knew it wasn’t a fox. He knew that Tzipka had been hurt by his shouting and kicking, he had probably heard them talking about chicken soup, he had realized little Papa wasn’t his mother, and so he had escaped to the forest, where he would live with other wild chickens and be free.
Still, little Papa was sorry and sad for a while after that. And he made a promise to himself that when he grew up and had a kid of his own, he would make sure that he would have real pets, instead of just ants, sea-pigs and chickens.
And that is exactly what happened. Little Papa did grow up, and had not just one but two kids. They live in a big house with a back yard they don’t have to share with anyone. They have a cat, and a dog, and four hens as well. The dog follows big Papa everywhere, but big Papa never kicks him. And he never jokes about making soup out of the hens – at least not where they can hear him.