Caroline Bruckner


Caroline Bruckner is a writer and screenwriter based in Vienna, Austria. Her short film The Confession won the Student Academy Award and was nominated for an Academy Award (Best Live Action Short) in 2011. The children’s book Moritz was published through H&M for the UNICEF All For Children initiative. Caroline’s short fiction has been featured in Crack the Spine, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Forge, The Minetta Review, Westview, Willow Review, and others.

The Song of a Dog

It was because I had fallen out of the tree no one liked me. We were seven children on the farm. You’d think I’d find a friend between my sisters and brothers. It didn’t matter. I had Rascal. Rascal wasn’t allowed into the house, so I slept out in the barn with him. We lay there together, protected from the world, pressed close, body to body, for heat and comfort. I listened to the cows grunting and the soft turning of the mill by the river as the shadows came down and felt how lucky I was to have a best friend.

When I came into the kitchen, Mother was arranging the breakfast. “Trudi,” she scolded as she saw me in the door. “I don’t know what to do with you.” She shook her head and handed me a bun. She put extra sausage on it because she knew I would give it to Rascal. “You can’t live in the barn forever, girl,” she continued as she poured me a glass of warm milk.

“I don’t live in a barn, I live in a castle,” I answered, and she smiled then, turning away so I wouldn’t notice.

“Do we want our breakfast, Lord Rascal?” I asked as soon as we turned the corner behind the mill. Rascal barked and stood up on two legs until I threw him the sausage. If I had known in time how much friendlier dogs are than humans, I would have chosen to be born a dog. I liked running, and barking, and scratching myself behind my ear, so maybe there had been a mistake in the making of me. My siblings certainly thought so. And most of the other children in school agreed. We rarely had anything to do with them, Rascal and me. Our days were full with burying treasures in the woods and chasing each other and taking long naps in the sun.

The road to school was long and crooked. Winter and summer we walked for an hour. We started off before Maria and Rudi so we would be free to do as we liked without any comments from their dull hearts. Maria was vain and Rudi strict. “Don’t bark, Trudi!” Rudi would scold and throw a stone at me. “Don’t destroy your skirt!” Maria would cry and put her hand in front of her mouth. “You are embarrassing us!” they would shriek together. Pride made me bark even louder and roll in the dirt one more time, as anyone with a noble soul would understand.

We were not afraid of anyone. We ran through the fields and stole apples from the orchards. We stuck our tongues out at the train passing and barked at Postman Fritz on his bike. There was only one person in the world we looked out for and that was Hunter Lizt. Hunter Lizt was rotting from the inside, and worms had eaten his heart. His moustache looked like a dead adder curling above his dry, thin lips. His small, black eyes were cold as bullets in a box. Every child was afraid of Hunter Lizt. “That shit-dog belongs on a chain!” he’d shout at me and rattle his shotgun. I was terrified of him. If we had to pass him on the road, I’d hide in the bushes at the side of the street. “Never ever cross Hunter Lizt, Rascal,” I whispered in the dog’s ear, his curly hair tickling my nose.

I could not sit quiet for long, knowing Rascal waited for me outside. Every few minutes I’d stretch my head, trying to look outside into the yard to see what Rascal was doing. It was a fine morning; the sun was shining and spring was everywhere.

“Would you continue reading, Trudi?” Fräulein Rosa’s sharp voice cut through the room. I had not even opened the book. I felt my cheeks turn red as I flipped through the pages. “Page twenty-one, start at the top of the page.” Fräulein Rosa half sat on her desk and looked out over the classroom. I bit my lip and tried to remember what twenty-one looked like. I used to know it, but since I fell out of the tree, all letters and numbers seemed to have fallen out of my head. I could feel them giggling behind me. “Who will help Trudi find the page?” They were quiet then. Only the sweet, freckled Anna leaned back and turned the page for me. It didn’t help much, of course. I felt inside of myself for the meaning of the black pattern on the paper. I looked close, trying to understand, trying to decipher the signs. But the closer I looked, the more the page blurred, and suddenly the things that I knew must be letters started turning and flying and dancing, and after a little while all the words had danced off the page, and there was only a big, empty hole left. Just at this moment Rascal howled, feeling my distress. It came from deep inside, from that place where love lives. Woff woooff wooooofff! The children shrieked with laughter. Fräulein Rosa slammed the stick on her desk. “Vile child! Stop at once! At once!” Dark stains spread under her arms. The letters danced around my head and I could not stop barking.

I was sitting in the outhouse with the door open as she biked into the yard. Fräulein Rosa must have been mighty upset to come all the way from the village in the rain. I saw her face and chilled. She had been to the farm once before. My brother Erwin had forced a kid to eat a spider, and the kid had vomited on his desk in the classroom. Erwin got ten “lessons” with the belt from father. The boy could not sit for a week without pressing his lips together. I knew I only had a minute or two before my mother would see her from the kitchen window. I looked at Rascal, who sat at my feet, and I shivered. “Better run,” I warned him. “I’ll get you when we’re safe.” Rascal licked my leg before disappearing behind the outhouse.

I stepped through the door to the sitting room. It seemed unusually cold inside, even though the sun was shining straight in.

“Close the door,” Mother said with her fine voice. I had only heard Mother use her fine voice when talking to Pater Alfons after Sunday Mass. Fräulein Rosa sat, posing as a very important lady, back straight and lips pressed together. Her pale fingers held onto the delicate teacup, the gold-rimmed ones with the violets that were only used on special occasions, in a way that made me want to scream. Both women stared down at me, frowning. One does feel guilty when people are looking at one in that way. “Gertrude, I am ashamed of you,” Mother continued. “Apologize to Fräulein Rosa for your childish, vile behavior.”

The grandfather clock ticked restlessly. I could not take my eyes off the heavy pendulum swaying back and forth. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. “Gertrude!” Mother’s voice was shrill now. There was a clang as Fräulein Rosa put her teacup back on the saucer demonstratively. I wanted to say something; I searched my brain for the right words but I couldn’t find anything. My mind was empty but for the tick-tock. Tiiiick-toooock. “It is because of the fall.” Mother tried to sound rational. “She was the sweetest child before the fall.”

I felt an urge pushing in on me, and then there was a kind of leap. My hands touched the floor suddenly. I realized I was on my hands and knees only after I had started barking, only after Fräulein Rosa had dropped the violet teacup, only after Mother stopped cursing.

Mother placed the two hot bricks in front of the stove. I rolled up my trouser legs above my knees.

“It is for your own good, Trudi,” she sniveled.

“I don’t mean to!” I shouted. “I can’t help I fell out of that stupid tree!”

“Do it quick.”

“Mami!” I pleaded, but I knew she was right.

I kneeled down on the hot bricks. Mother cried as I screamed. She held me then as tears streamed down my cheeks. “Promise me to never bark at people ever again.”

My knees burned, my legs were shaking, my head spun.

I promised.

I was sent to bed without supper. Lying next to my sister Maria, I wished I was in the barn with Rascal. I wondered if he was missing me too, up in the hay. I was waiting for everyone to go to sleep so I could sneak out and go home. “You have to stop this nonsense, Trudi,” Maria whispered suddenly. “It will all end badly.”

“I already knelt on the bricks,” I whispered back.

She turned to me then and looked at me in the dark. “Father will shoot Rascal.”

Her words hung in the air, suspended like hot air balloons. “Father says they have been letting you run wild for too long and you need a lesson.”

My heart stopped beating and I could not breathe. The air was locked.

“Trudi, can you hear me?” Maria shook my shoulders. “Trudi?”

The terrible, terrible words curled around my throat, strangling me. I lay there and I was dead. “Look, you got to start behaving like a normal girl!”

I thought about Rascal running around the meadow behind the farm. I felt the wet grass under my naked feet, the sun in my hair, the strength inside me as I ran after him. Breath came into me again.

“He won’t really shoot Rascal, will he?”

“It will be all right if you just stop being bad,” Maria said almost gently.

“I already did sit on the hot bricks! My knees are all red, Mother had to put Marigold cream on them!”

“Will you stop behaving like a dog? Will you?”


“Will you be a pretty, sweet girl like before?”

I sighed and nodded. Maria leaned on her elbow, satisfied. “Got a kiss for your big sister?”

Hating the touch of her, I withdrew my cheek quickly.

I knew better than to leave right away. A good escape needs careful planning. I had to find Rascal before Father did. I had to pick a warm sweater and a blanket. We would need food to last us a few days and a good knife for life in the woods. I would take a roll of cheese, two smoked sausages, a loaf of bread. I was waiting for Maria’s breath to slow down. I saw us, me and Rascal, living in a cave overlooking the Great Alp. I saw us; I cut up a small piece of sausage and offered it to Rascal. His round dog eyes shone then, and I knew all would be well.

I poked Maria on her arm but she didn’t stir. “Rascal, Rascal, Rascal,” I whispered, calling him to me as I snuck to the bedroom door.

I struggled with the door for a moment before I realized. The door was locked. Mother had locked the door.

The next morning Maria insisted on combing my hair and braiding it. I had to press my legs down with my hands to force myself to sit still.

“Are you nervous?” she asked and tugged at a piece of my hair.

“I need to pee,” I said but it wasn’t true.

“Oh, you can sit still for another minute. Fräulein Rosa will have to forgive you with such nice braids.”

She is doing it deliberately, I thought, to make me suffer, to prevent me from going to find Rascal.

“You look almost like a normal girl!” Maria exclaimed proudly. “Aren’t you going to say thank you?”

I had a feeling, a feeling that something was going to happen soon. There was a heaviness waiting in the air. “Yes,” I said uncertainly. “Thank you.”

Rascal was chained to the wall in the courtyard. They had strapped a leather pouch over his muzzle. Someone could have chopped my right leg off, and it would not have hurt more. I kneeled down beside him, pressing his head against my heart. I looked down onto his face; he looked up at me helplessly. “I’ll get you out of this!” I whispered. “I’ll get you out of it.”

“Your dress will get dirty!” My mother’s voice like a whip behind me.

“Why is Rascal in chains?” I asked, even though of course I knew the answer.

“The dog will stay here from now on, Trudi.”

“But he always walks to school with me!” I pressed back the tears.

“Hurry up, we’ll come too late!” shouted Maria from the kitchen door.

I looked up at my mother.

“Where is Father?”

“That’s it, Gertrude! You have worn down my patience!” She grabbed me under my arms and forced me to stand up. “It’s ruined!” She pulled and tugged at my dress, her hands shivering. “What will you say to Fräulein Rosa?”

“Father won’t hurt Rascal, will he?”

“You will beg her for forgiveness and you will mean it!”

“He won’t hurt him? Mother?”

“He won’t hurt the dog.”


“I promise, you stubborn child!” She slapped my behind and I knew I could trust her.

I walked next to Maria all the way to school. My legs were twitching and feet itching, but I kept on putting one foot after the other, slowly and orderly. There was a dead cat at the side of the road. I longed to get down on all fours and sniff it. I longed to tell Rascal about it. About the way it was lying there, the texture of life gone out of it. Poor Rascal, tied to the wall like a criminal. A burning flame of hate came over me. Stupid, stupid grown-ups, I thought over and over. Stupid, stupid grown-ups.

The class was sitting in neat rows, all faces in quiet anticipation. Fräulein Rosa sat with her hands carefully folded on her desk.

“I believe someone has something to say.”

Everyone turned to look at me. Obediently I stood up. There was a sharp burn in my throat. “I am terribly sorry for the despicable way I behaved. There is no excuse even if I did fall out of a tree and hurt my head. I promise to be a nice girl from now on and never bark again.”

Suppressed chuckles from the back row. Fräulein Rosa nodded vainly, her sharp, dry face grave.

“You are a selfish girl, Gertrude. From now on I want you to stop trying to be the center of attention.” She unfolded her hands and tapped the tip of the desk to underline her point. “A little actress you are, quite the sly wench.”

I bowed my head in shame. Fräulein Rosa went on and on but I didn’t hear her. I listened for Rascal breathing outside, but of course he wasn’t there. I was perfectly still and I listened. I listened all the way down the road, past the dead cat, over the old stone bridge, and back home until I finally heard him. Fräulein Rosa babbled in the background, low and steady like a river. Rascal breathed. I could feel his chest rising and falling. I bowed my head and I adjusted my breath to rise and fall like his.

“You are a very spoiled girl, Gertrude,” Fräulein Rosa stated. “Spoiled girls need to learn humility.”

Steps on the gravel. Then suddenly a shot.

“STOP IT,” I moaned in wild panic. I could not breathe. There was no breath left. I searched for Rascal. Fräulein Rosa stood up abruptly, quiet now. She started to hum as she opened the lowest drawer on her desk. She took out the pipe she sometimes used for punishment. The class gasped in silence.

“I didn’t mean for Fräulein Rosa to…”

“Quiet!” Her eyes were black as bullets.

“Please let me go home!” I pleaded with a shrieking voice I had never heard coming out of me before. “Please, Fräulein! My dog!”

Fräulein Rosa needed only to blink for me to walk up to the front of the classroom.

I held on with both hands to the desk. As the pipe hit my behind, all the bones in my body rattled and cried with icy shock. I tried to listen for Rascal, but my head was alight with electric spasms. I stared down at my hands, holding on so tight to the edge of the desk the bones shone ghostly through the skin. The boys could hardly suppress their giddiness. Sweet Anna had a tear running down her cheek. I didn’t care about either. Mother promised, I thought. Mother promised he will be there waiting for me.

I hobbled straight into the main stall and climbed the ladder upstairs. My body ached, my knees burned, but my heart was full of yearning. “Rascal?” I wheezed. My eyes had not yet adjusted to the dark, but I knew this place well enough to navigate in the blackest night. I had not crawled a meter before I felt something missing in the air. “It’s me,” I whispered, ignoring the shivering, cold thing growing in my gut. “Where are you, boy?” I knew he was not there, and still I searched the entire haystack and each and every corner of the barn. The panic grew thick in my throat. I closed my eyes and forced myself to become entirely still. She promised. He will be running about, chasing mice on the field. I pressed my face against the wall and listened to the sounds of the farm. A loose door somewhere was shutting and opening quietly in the wind. Mother, walking back from the vegetable garden, resting for a moment under the tall cedars behind the main house. A dog that was not Rascal barked in the neighboring farm.

“I am back,” I shouted. “Where is he?”

Mother’s face was colored a dark green as she sat under the tree. She did not look up.

“Did Fräulein Rosa forgive you?”

“He is not in the courtyard!”

“Well, he must be here somewhere,” Mother said, flattening out a wrinkle on her apron. “I saw him just a minute ago.”

My heart became a cup of light full of stars. How silly I had been! How silly it had been, feeling afraid when Mother had promised! I ran up to her and threw myself into her lap. She put her heavy hand on my head and sighed.

“I found some wild strawberries. You want some with cream?”

I buried my face deeper in her skirt and shook my head.

“Trudi, not wanting wild strawberries?”

“Trudi was bad,” I managed to stutter. “Maybe you can beat me up tomorrow.”

“Why tomorrow?”

“Fräulein Rosa already gave me the rod today.”

A quiet came over her then.

“I remember now. I saw him running into the woods a while ago.” Mother’s hand tightened around my neck. “I hope he is careful. Hunter Lizt is in a bad mood since his front tooth had to be pulled.”

Slowly I raised my head to look at Mother. In the darkness beyond the words, there was a quiver. Mother did not look at me. She swept up, brushed me aside, and collected her baskets of vegetables.

It was humiliating. Nothing was said at dinner. I was served a thick piece of rye bread with sausage and lard just like the others. My father grunted as he ate, as he always did. For a few minutes I almost believed nothing had happened. Maria passed the salt, Rudi ate all the pickles, the older ones had their beers. No one mentioned either my bad behavior earlier in the day or the disappearance of Rascal. I stared at their faces, one after the other. The features seemed to not belong to them individually but to a monstrous being with multiple eyes and many legs, like a spider. They talked about Greta, the cow that was soon to give birth, and Farmer Hannes, who had tried to cheat with the wheat again. I sat there among them and wished I had died falling out of that tree. You are murderers, I wanted to shout. You will burn in hell.

This night the door was not locked. I smiled brokenly up at the house as I crossed the yard. The moon shone on the roofs and the river and my hands when I put them up in front of me. As I had suspected, the muzzle hung orderly on a hook in the garage. My fingers worked with an intelligence of their own. The leather smelled of earth and dried meat as I strapped it over my nose and mouth. Rascal, I thought, Rascal my brother, my friend. What they did to you, they did to me.

The rain started sometime after four. One by one the stars disappeared, and the vastness of the sky was lost behind the clouds. I closed my eyes and put my ear to the ground, listening to the sounds of the earth beneath me. I could feel the buzzing of life from ants and worms and grass trying to grow. Far down I could hear the heart of the earth beating, whispering its ancient secrets to those who knew to listen. This is my place now, I thought. I will never leave. My skin seemed to welcome the wet rain in spite of the chill. I was not cold, not really, not in the place that counts.

It was when my mother propped the kitchen door open it came over me again. The warm scent of bread in the oven swept out behind her. “Trudi!” Mother shrieked, her hands moving up to cover her mouth. For a minute we stared at each other, just breathing. And then I let it loose. I barked and bellowed and howled. I yelped and wailed and growled.

“She has chained herself to the wall!” my mother cried. “Franz, come here! She is even wearing the muzzle!”

She tried to step up to me. I stood on all fours and lunged at my mother, baring teeth and shrieking. If she so much as tried to touch me, I would bite her hand off. If anyone tried to touch me, I would fight like a dog.

My husband’s mother grew up in a small village in Austria during the second world war, and this piece is inspired by her story. She is now over seventy, but the memory of her dog, and how it died, still haunts her.