The Seventh Birthday
Frank Thomas Smith
Usually Nicky's mother has to call him at least three times, kiss him twice and pull his ear gently once before he gets up in the morning. But not today.
"Nicky," she says, "it's time to get up. Do you remember what day it is?"
What day? Nicky thinks -- Monday, Tuesday? Then he remembers: his birthday! He jumps out of bed and cries, "It's my birthday, I'm seven years old!"
Before going to school, Nicky's mother and father and his little sister, Jeannie, sing Happy Birthday to You and he opens his presents, which have been placed around a candle on the living room table. They call it the "birthday table". It is covered with a light-green cloth on the children's birthdays and the only light is from the beeswax candle, which sheds a magical glow throughout the room.
Their dog Frodo, who is very old, for a dog that is, watches everything and wags his tail slowly from time to time. He is happy when the children are happy, although you couldn't tell it from looking at his face, which always has the same expression.
They celebrate Frodo's birthday on the same day. Although they don't really know exactly when he was born, Daddy said that as far as they were concerned his birthday was the day he came to their house. He had been Grandpa's dog, but Grandpa became ill and couldn't take care of him anymore, so he gave him to Nicky for his birthday. Nicky didn't realize it then because he was so small, but they told him later, when Grandpa was already in heaven.
Some of Nicky's friends, who have collies or German shepherds or boxers said Frodo was a mutt, but Daddy said that he was the best kind of dog because he was a mixture of all those other breeds. When Nicky told his friends that, some of them wished they had mutts too.
There is also a present for Frodo on the birthday table. Usually it's a bone, but this year it's a new collar, because Frodo doesn't have many teeth left to chew a real bone with.
Nicky opens the last package and sees that it's a book: "The Jungle Book", a present from his grandmother. As he is looking at the pictures his father says, "We'll have to hurry now so you won't be late for school."
"When is my birthday?" Jeannie, who is only five, asks for the umpteenth time as they leave the house.
"I already told you, Jeannie," mother says, "soon."
"Is that a long time?"
"How many days?"
"Let's go or we'll be late," Daddy says, ending the conversation. Frodo follows them to the door, but doesn't go down the steps to the front gate, because he knows it would be difficult to climb back up. Besides, it's raining and he doesn't like to get wet. Nicky pats him on the head as he always does when he leaves for school and says, "Bye, Frodo, don't let the fleas bite." It's a standing joke between them and Frodo always wags his tail when Nicky says it. They both know that Frodo doesn't have fleas.
In school the teacher, Miss Constanza, announces to all the children that today is Nicky's birthday. They sing Happy Birthday, then they eat the chocolate cake Nicky's mother baked. The teacher tells the class about Nicky and about his little sister Jeannie, who is still in kindergarten, and his dog Frodo, who is twice as old as he is. Nicky is pleased and feels important, but he wonders how Miss Constanza knows so much about him.
Several of Nicky's friends accompany him home from school: Peter, Jerry, John, Alex, Andy, Sally and Nina - they are the guests at his birthday party. He had also invited Marina, a little girl who lives next door, but she said she didn't want to go because she wouldn't know anybody.
When they arrive home Nicky is surprised that his father is already there, because that morning he said he would arrive later, after he finished work. He calls Nicky and Jeannie aside and they go into his study, while the other children go into the back yard to play.
Daddy sits in his armchair and motions to Nicky and Jeannie to sit on the floor in front of him.
"Did you notice anything different when you came home today?" he asks.
"The birthday decorations?" Nicky says.
"I mean did you notice anything missing?"
Nicky is impatient. He wants to join the other children at play. But his father is looking at him seriously and suddenly Nicky understands what he means.
"Frodo!" he cries. "Where's Frodo?" He jumps up and starts out of the room to look for his dog, who is always the first to greet him when he comes home, but who hadn't done it today. His father calls him back.
"Nicky, wait," he says. "You won't find Frodo."
"Where is he?"
"Come here." Nicky returns and sits on his father's lap.
"Do you know how many years dogs live?"
"About fourteen. Frodo was already seven years old when you were born. He belonged to Grandpa, remember?"
"Now, how much is seven plus seven?"
Nicky counts on his fingers. When he reaches ten he frowns, then climbs down from Daddy's lap, takes some paper clips from the desk and counts out seven twice.
"Fourteen," he announces.
"That's right," Daddy says. "Very good."
"Frodo is fourteen years old then?"
"Where is he, Daddy?"
"Frodo lived his fourteen years and died this morning while you were in school, Nicky."
Nicky nods and a tear rolls down each cheek. Jeannie sits on the floor with her mouth open.
"Do dogs go to heaven like us when they die?" Nicky asks in a trembling voice.
"Of course," Daddy says.
"To dog heaven?"
"Then we wouldn't see them, would we?"
"Then they go to the same heaven we do?" Nicky asks, his face brightening.
"Will I have to wait until I die to see Frodo again?"
Daddy thinks for a moment, then says: "No, you two loved each other so much that when you have another dog it will be like having the same Frodo again. He might not look the same, but--"
They hear a noise outside in the yard, a noise like barking, and Nicky and his sister rush to the window.
"Daddy, come quick. Look!"
Daddy gets up from his chair, goes to the window and looks out, but he doesn't see anything except the trees and flowers and the fence and the woods beyond it.
"What is it?" he asks.
"Didn't you see him?" Nicky says.
"Yes, he wagged his tail like he always does and turned around and ran into the woods."
"He went through the fence!" Jeannie exclaims.
Nicky is smiling now. "He must be on his way to heaven, right Dad?"
Their father looks at his children, then turns his head to look out the window again. "Yes, he must be," he says, and kisses them, first Jeannie, then Nicky. "Now it would be a good idea to bury his body, don't you think so?"
"Oh sure, he left that behind, didn't he?" Nicky says.
"Yes, come on and call your friends. They can help."
Nicky, his parents and his little sister join his friends in the back yard, where his father digs a grave. It doesn't take him long, for the earth is soft from the rain. The sun is out now though, and the whole garden sparkles as though it were strewn with pearls.
Just then a voice calls out: "What are you doing, Nicky?" They look around and see a little girl standing on the other side of the fence. It is Marina, who had been invited to the party but didn't want to come because she wouldn't know anybody.
"We're going to bury Frodo," Nicky says.
"Why do you want to bury him?"
"I just saw him run into the woods," Marina interrupts. "I don't see how you can bury him if he's in the woods."
"Oh, that was his, er..."
"His soul," Mommy whispers.
"Yeah, his soul."
"Oh," Marina says and puts her thumb in her mouth, something she still does occasionally, although she is almost seven.
"Did you see how he got over the fence, Marina?" Daddy asks her.
"He didn't go over it, he sort of passed through it. I thought it was kind of funny, but if it was only his soul I guess it's O.K."
"We told you, Daddy," Nicky exclaims.
"Yes, of course," Daddy says. "I just wondered if Marina saw it too."
Daddy carefully places Frodo's body into the grave and Nicky and Jeannie cover it with earth. Then they all gather flowers and put them on the mound. Marina helps too.
"Well," Mommy says, "now that Frodo has been taken care of, we can go inside and finish the party."
Nicky plays with the other children and blows out the candles on his cake and enjoys himself at the party. He can't help feeling a little sad that Frodo isn't there to play with them, even though he knows he's in heaven.
When the party is over, Daddy promises to get another dog.
"When -- now?" Nicky asks.
"Well, it's too late today and tomorrow I have to work," Daddy says. "We can look around on Saturday--OK?"
"I guess so," Nicky sighs. Then his face lights up. "Frodo needs time to find a new body. That's why we have to wait till Saturday. Right, Daddy?"
"Sure--for that reason too," Daddy agrees
"Will he be a Mutt again, Dad?" Nicky asks.
"Without any doubt," Daddy answers, and Nicky is relieved to hear it, because he wants Frodo to be the best kind of dog again.
Illustration: Pablo Fracchia
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