by Sasha A. Palmer
The asphalt was boiling hot. I trod funny, limping like that three-legged guy who taught me about trams.
A light breeze filled my nostrils with the rich smell of dirt. Following my nose, I made a sharp turn off the beaten path into an archway. A few more hurried steps, and there would be shade, and a patch of grass, and — with a bit of luck — a few yummy scraps from an overflowing garbage can. My empty stomach growled. Wait. I stopped short. One cannot be too careful.
I sniffed the air, checking for the musty odor of dvornik, the worst creature that ever walked the earth. My side twitched remembering the taste of his old broom. I sure had the last laugh that time, though, returning after dark to do some serious digging.
The look he must have had on his ugly face the next morning. I pictured him gaping at the wrecked flowerbed, every pore of his being giving out the sour stench of hatred. Serves him right. I showed my teeth, sniffed some more. The coast was clear. I entered the courtyard with alert dignity of a stray mutt.
It was one of those odd hours when a noisy crowd drains fast, like rainwater disappearing in the sewer, all at once. Even birds, those busybodies, were gone. I could hear strands of grass whisper. Then I heard Man. He whistled and made that silly smacking with his lips: the sound humans think dogs find attractive. He was inching towards me, hands by his sides, desperate to show he was nothing to be afraid of.
He had a most curious scent. On the surface he smelled of things harsh and inedible, made me think about that drugstore I passed by on my daily routes. But underneath it lay something powerful, something I couldn’t quite recognize. It gave me a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“Hey there, Kudryavka.”
His voice lacked the phoney sweetness I detest. We watched each other. He waited for me to say hello back. My tail still between my legs, I stretched to sniff his hand. The same scent, the kind I couldn’t place, almost knocked me out. I had a flashback of my early milk-breath days, remembering the warmth of my mother’s grooming tongue against my full belly.
“Good girl, that’s it.”
He was scratching me behind the ear now. My tail wagged in wild circles. He took something out of his pocket, but it wasn’t a treat. It was that awful choker I’d seen on house pets before. And I bowed my head and let him put it around my neck.
* * *
My mom was a terrier, no beauty gene there. My no-good tramp of a dad I never knew, but I hear he was a handsome dude. I must have inherited his good looks. Thanks, Pop. Otherwise, why would Man notice me?
I wasn’t the only one, though. I never understood why he needed the others. On the first day, Mushka tried to pick up a fight with me. I didn’t like to quarrel, it turned out she didn’t, either.
“Sorry, girl,” she said, “just an old street habit, you know.”
Albina and I never hit it off. Her pedigree was just as lousy as Mushka’s or mine, but — oh, boy — the way she held herself. You’d think she were purebred. Polite, but so aloof, so proud. All that white fur.
“She’s a bit slow upstairs,” Mushka told me, “She’s been there twice.”
“Not upstairs, silly. Up,” Mushka raised her muzzle as if about to howl.
“Well, doggy heaven, of course!” Mushka’s round eyes rounded even more.
Doggy heaven? I didn’t buy it. Maybe if Albina said something like, “Cheer up, girls, we’re all going to a real nice place in the end.” But no. She just looked bored to death.
I figured she was bummed out because she was stuck with us commoners. Well, be that way. I didn’t want any trouble. One thing for sure: we were stuck with each other. Better make the most of it.
If it hadn’t been for Man, I would’ve split when I still could. Before they put us in cages that is. The food was terrible. I had spent three years roaming streets, believe me I knew about rotten food. I’m telling you, that goo they fed us, it made you crave garbage.
And then all that weird stuff started. They cramped us in those things, made me remember the pipe I got stuck in once; and they’d spin us, and spin us till we puked our guts out.
And the noise. Loud, louder. Your heart goes faster, faster. You wish it would explode and blow you into a million pieces and make the noise stop.
It stopped, always stopped, and I sure was happy to be alive. I could kiss Albina, that’s how glad I was. And then Man came. He always came for me. He snuck me a treat and scratched me behind the ear. “There, there, Kudryavka,” he said. “It’s over girl, it’s over.”
And I licked his hand.
* * *
“My, I’m getting fat! I can barely fit into this thing.”
I could hear Mushka huffing in her cage.
“Am I getting fat, Kudryavka? Tell me?”
“You’re fine,” I said without looking. “Go back to sleep, it’s late.”
“Forget about it. Albina will tell me, won’t you, girl?”
All was quiet for a moment. Good, I thought. Maybe I’ll catch a wink.
“It’s not you,” Albina said. “The cages are getting smaller.”
“Oh,” said Mushka, “that’s what it is then.”
I bet she was rolling her round eyes.
Nobody spoke for the rest of the night, but I couldn’t sleep.
The next day they put us in new cages. A couple days later, again. Each time the cages were smaller than the ones we’d had before.
They got so tiny we couldn’t turn around. Couldn’t do our doggy business.
“Why?” Mushka wailed. She looked like a scary balloon, her stomach all bloated, her round eyes popping out of their orbits.
Albina lay still with her muzzle between her paws. She looked dead.
There were times I thought it was the end. But they didn’t let us die. They picked up our bodies, and emptied our insides, and filled them up with goo, and groomed our fur. Before they tortured us again.
Then Man came for me. He took me out of the cage, and out of the room. He took me away. Far away, to some wonderful warm place that smelled like something I couldn’t quite recognize.
His Woman was there. I didn’t mind her; she was kind and gave me some real food. His human pups were there, too. They ran up to me. “Kudryavka! Kudryavka!” they shouted and laughed. They rubbed my belly and tugged on my tail. They had milk breath.
Then Man took me back to my prison. But it was all right. I knew now where I was going in the end. I’d known that all along.
The tiny cages, the crummy food — it’s nothing. When they made me sleep and cut me up and stitched me back together, it didn’t matter. They moved me and did strange things. I didn’t care.
That one last time when they spun me like never before, when the spinning went on and on, and the noise grew and grew, and my heart was beating in my throat like a small bird, I knew I’d make it. I had to.
I can still hear the noise. I can bear it. It’ll be over soon. Man will come for me. He’ll take me to that place again.
So warm... It burns. Burns. Can’t breathe. No. He’ll come. He always... he...
[Author’s note] Dedicated to Laika (a.k.a. Kudryavka), Mushka, Albina, and all the dogs who paved the way for human space exploration.
Copyright © 2021 by Sasha A. Palmer