Elementary Satellite Two
Rot, rubber, wet mud, the dizzying spike of spilled petrol, exposed rebar, sheets of rain sliding down cold concrete walls. A venomous wind took hold of the half-naked trees and shook them. A gray hare streaked across the cracked tarmac, skimming the pebbled surface, twisting, turning. Two white dogs with black eyes and lips were at its heels. The drama was silent and in the predawn light almost untouched by color: yellow stain of dead grass, hint of teal in the clouds, pink tongues lolling, nothing else. They caught the hare as it skidded through a long, parabolic turn, and at the touch of an extended paw, it cartwheeled head over tail. The dogs were on it and tore it apart in seconds. Then there was calm.
The panting hounds stuck their noses into its dismembered carcass, nuzzled it, pushed its secrets about: the small heart like a tiny fist; guts tangled in their web of slime; a handful of fetal rabbits, curled up into half moons; seeds scattered across the old airfield. After a minute or two, they trotted off.
In Moscow, 1,500 miles away and still pitch black, their great-grandmother began to howl. An old man died in his bed, and she sang her doggy dirge.
“Shut that bitch up,” a man shouted from the apartment below. “Shut that bitch up or I’ll have you evicted.”
The dog kept howling. On the wall there was a photograph of a Soyuz blasting off from some central Asian launching pad. A few cans of stewed meat sat on the counter, tinned fish, a loaf of bread. A pack of cigarettes lay on the table, an ashtray, a book of matches. There was no Bible. There were no icons. Just the photograph on the wall: a pillar of smoke and fire. The dog howled.
“Oh God, please shut up,” screamed the man in the apartment below. “I can’t stand it! I can’t stand it! I need to sleep! Oh God, I need to sleep!”
The dog kept howling. It sang and sang and sang.
Once there was a dog that became a man who became a dog. This is a story all dogs know. It is a sad story and a funny one. He became a man because the winters were cold and miserable and he was hungry and a cook had thrown boiling water on him for no good reason but cruelty. It was funny to be a man, to walk about muttering and whining, to walk about exposed, to eat and fuck and shit in the funny way they do, to be ignorant of every worthwhile thing, funny to sit up straight and to talk: blah blah blah blah, to never shut up, always be talking: blah blah blah blah, always trying to get things done by describing them. It was funny but no fun. So he became a dog again, and lived in the cold streets, and was miserable, and ran here and there and everywhere and never again sat upright on chairs trying to describe the world. He just ran and sang, ran and sang. All dogs know this story. They used homeless dogs because those were already adapted to discomfort, to hunger, the extremes of temperature change. The most sweetly tempered were selected for training: enclosed in ever smaller containers for ever longer periods of time; hours and hours in centrifuges; days eating gelatinous food, shitting into bags, pissing into tubes; weeks constricted in pressure suits. Such good dogs.
They would take them home for a day or two before their missions and let them play with children, gnaw meaty bones, run free in the fields, copulate with the locals, howl at the stars. Then back to the cosmodrome where they strapped them into cages, attached sensors to their shaved skin, and kissed their noses. They would spend the long hours before launch baby-talking them, scratching their ears, keeping them calm. They are always trying to remove your head from your body. The museums are full of canopic jars, stone jugs filled with guts and stomachs and hearts and with granite dog heads for lids. These granite dog heads bark and bark and bark, but what can they do? They have no legs to run away. There was a man who used to catch dogs with a net, real dogs, stray dogs. He caught them with a net and took them to the university. He cut their heads from their bodies and attached them to a machine called an autojektor that pumped oxygenated blood through them. He made a film about this procedure called Experiments in the Revival of Organisms. It shows the head of a sleepy looking dog with long white fur. Its eyes are half closed and a lab assistant stimulates it with feathers, swabs dipped in citric acid, fans, sharp noises made by striking a hammer against a table. It starts, eyelashes fluttering.
The dog is trying to dream. It is trying to dream that it is Laika in her satellite, in her spacesuit, attached to machines. She is generating information: respiratory measurements, pulse rates, telemetric data. The rocket roars beneath her. The blood of a million dogs pounds in her ears. She is flying up, up, up in her windowless box; something heavy is crushing her; she is being squeezed in a giant human hand; she can hardly breathe, and suddenly the roar of the rocket falls away and the hand releases her. The pod is filled with a new smell, a wonderful smell of grass after the rain, and warm deer shit, and leaves rotting in the undergrowth. It is the smell of space, of the moon, and she is running through an open field, paws barely touching the ground. She is flying, she is in pursuit. She is hurtling around the planet in great elliptical loops. Electronic messages pulse back and forth, back and forth, between her pod and the earth. She cannot see what is outside the pod but she can smell it, millions of sour-sweet stars spattered against an earthy black void. She hears voices as she falls asleep, the stars are singing, they are singing to her, they are singing her home. In Experiments in the Revival of Organisms, an isolated dog heart is suspended from a bar by arterial and venous tubes. It fibrillates and, like some frightened submarine creature, swells up then clenches itself into a tight ball, swells up, clenches. It pumps blood collected from a dozen different dogs through a few meters of an abstracted circulatory system. The pulsations of the heart are frantic and unseemly. They are unrestrained by a firm cage of ribs, the warm cushion of the lungs. It seems as if it is trying to sing but cannot. What is it trying to sing? What does a desperate, disembodied dog heart sing? Oleg Gazenko brought Krasavka home from Baikonur to retire in comfort. But his wife hated the dog. She called it Cassandra and threw teacups at it, saucers, ashtrays smashed against the walls. Krasavka, three times in orbit and survivor of a Christmas crash landing in Siberia, would skitter out of the way, stare at the woman with sad, shining eyes, or dart down the hall, hide under the bed and murmur old songs to itself. Krasavka could smell something in the woman alive and growing, bursting with life; something dark and fungal; something that smelled like the six inches of primordial decomposition that made up the taiga floor. When Gazenko’s wife fell asleep and the threatening arm fell limply to her side, the dog would nuzzle at her ribs, at her breasts, would murmur and mutter and try to speak. But a dog can’t speak. What is it, Lassie? Trouble by the old mill? What is it, Lassie? What is it? Trouble at the well? Krasavka could only whimper and whine and look sad.
When the woman was entirely hollowed out by agony, she died and the dog cheered up. Gazenko performed long monologues for her while he smoked, long inconclusive stories about men he had known in the war who built infusion pumps and ventilators from engine parts and scrap metal. He told her about a childhood neighbor who shot his beautiful white horse when it went lame, about shaking black soil from potatoes. Krasavka would stare at him with damp eyes. “There are rabbits on the moon,” she would try to tell him. “Rabbits! On the moon!”
Gazenko would laugh at the dog’s guttering efforts.
“Cassandra,” he would laugh and his eyes would shine as brightly as his dog’s. “She was right to call you Cassandra. Always trying to talk, always trying to help. Always falling short.” Elementary Satellite Two tumbled out of the heavens, head over ass, April 14th, 1958, streaking across the eastern seaboard, trailing a 50-mile tail of fire. Laika was a heroic dog, everyone agreed, a cosmic dog, a dog for monuments, a hero for postage stamps. But recently regrets have been expressed, lives mourned. We were wrong, say the scientists. Sentimental obfuscations are indulged. They were our babies, the scientists say, children who could not speak. The Cold War is denied, lies recanted: we now know phlegmatic, charming Laika did not die gently after a few days of sublime circumnavigations, listening to angels sing. Her lot was terror, despair. She was cooked in the overheated cabin hours after takeoff, a calf in its mother’s milk, an 11-pound corpse hurtling around and around the earth in a metal box, over and over, 2,570 times. Bands of hungry dogs run across the ash-white plains of the moon. The rabbits are all gone. The land is stained and pockmarked, the craters filled with shattered bones: grinning vertebral lumps; knobbled shafts split down the middle with brittle sponge interiors; bowed ribs cracked razor sharp; rodent teeth like chisels; skulls spackled with bird shit, idiot orbits gaping. Near Mare Imbrium, a human lies on its back, space suit shining in the unmediated light, thick fingered gloves in clumsy half fists, massive helmet tilted upwards, visor shattered into a jagged rim. It is filled with rainwater, dead face a dappled shadow beneath the surface. Sometimes the dogs come to be with it. They sit in a half circle and stare. Some lie down with long chins on crossed paws. Some curl up in balls and fall asleep.
The blue-green sphere of the Earth hangs over the horizon, and the dogs perk up when they notice it. They turn their heads to stare at it, to smell the delicious stink of oil and electrical fires, burning rubber and wet concrete, rust. The smells are the story of their other days, of those days when people walked about in the bush, stooped, bent like old branches, picking at the berries and the mushrooms, eating mud, barely better than rabbits. The dogs chased them from the swamps and the forests out onto the steppes where they could straighten out, stand upright.
“Look! Look! Look!” sang the dogs, and the people saw the deer and the caribou and the mammoths walking along the horizon.
“Look! Look! Look!” sang the dogs and taught the people how to chase and catch and kill.
At night, the stars rolled across the blackness and a bone-white disk hung in the sky, motionless, never moving.
“Look! Look! Look!” sang the dogs and pointed with their noses. The people looked up and saw the moon. They saw the future. The dogs began to sing their encouragements. They sang and sang: “Home! Home! Home!”
“Take us home,” they sang.
This is a story all dogs know.
William Squirrell lives in western Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in decomP magazinE, Monkeybicycle, Blue Monday Review and some other places. He edits Big Echo: Critical Science Fiction. More information can be found at blindsquirrell.com.
and on Twitter @billsquirrell.