Deader Than Dead
By Maria Buras
Translated from Russian by Lena Mandel
At 120 kilometers an hour, one cigarette lasts for slightly more than three kilometers. I am on my second pack. That would amount to a carton and a half if I drive nonstop. But I’d have to stop eventually, to eat and to pee. Besides, I don’t know how long the border crossing will take. I need to calm down and take reasonable breaks; otherwise, my stash won’t last. And my mouth already tastes like a trashcan.
We packed in a hurry. Of course, there had been rumors that all dogs would be drafted, but I refused to believe it until the end. My Pepper’s breed was wrong (ridiculous even to imagine); besides, he had no training at all. He even “shakes hands” only when he feels like it. And now—bam!—a military summons.
“In accordance with the ‘Act on the Responsible Treatment of Animals’ and the ‘Act on Obligatory Military Service,’ you are summoned to appear, together with the dog, pepper, registered in your name, at the conscription center at Veterinary Clinic No. 17.”
For some reason, I was particularly struck that they didn’t even bother to capitalize Pepper’s name.
The summons was for the next day, so there was no time to dither. A bag of dog food, some bowls, a couple of items of clothing, computer, chargers, documents. Looking for Pepper’s passport, I came across a folder of family documents, so I took that along as well.
In the eighties, some guy called, claiming he wanted to write a book about our family. My dad’s ancestors were a famous Kharkiv dynasty—they had built factories, presided over synagogues, helped the poor, did all sorts of other stuff. In other words, Kharkiv got some use out of my family. The guy was planning to write a book to mark some anniversary of the soap factory one of my ancestors had founded, so after he spoke to my dad he left him this folder of notes about his ancestors. He never wrote that book—at least, nobody ever heard about it again—but the notes sat in our attic for years, gathering dust; nobody had any interest in ancestors at the time. As I was about to graduate from high school, my mother decided to clean the attic, and I ran across these brittle, handwritten pages and, for some reason, typed them up. Then they gathered some more dust somewhere and suddenly surfaced as I was packing.
Some Haya Dvora, an Israeli originally from Petersburg, talked on her telegram channel about which countries let in Israeli passport holders escaping the draft. Theoretically, it should be all countries, but fair laws don’t work anymore; there is no “should”. Pepper’s passport is international, but it was issued in Russia, not Israel. He’s never been to Israel. Will they let us in? And what are we going to do if they don’t?
My Kharkiv great-grandmother’s name was also Haya: Haya Basia. But the family lore talks about another Kharkiv great-grandmother. I think her name, actually, was Dvora, but I won’t swear to it.
The lore is that this presumable Dvora was killed—at the age of eighty-seven—with a boot to the belly. That was during the war—the previous war, in 1942—in occupied Kharkiv. The Germans entered her house and demanded something or other. She did not like that, grabbed an oven fork, and attempted to bash one of them over the head, but he proved to be too quick. Dvora had twenty-seven children. (Anybody who hears this just stares in disbelief, so I always elaborate: nine pairs of twins and nine singles. Not that it changes the facts all that radically.) She also had grandkids and great-grandkids at that time. But then—Drobnitsky Yar, Babyi Yar—not many were left.
Pepper is lying there quietly, not even whimpering, looking away. Casting quick glances at me—checking if I am okay, if everything is going according to plan. I envy his ability to relax. Although he is not always relaxed; he can be a total psycho. Like when I go somewhere for a long time, leaving him behind, or if we run into somebody in a uniform, it doesn’t matter which; he really dislikes people in uniforms. They’ve never done anything to him, but for some reason he is afraid of them and so starts blustering, barking, yelping.
When he first appeared in our house, a two-month-old pup, a friend said that getting a male was a mistake, headaches are guaranteed. I couldn’t understand the connection between his maleness and headaches. On the contrary, no need to worry about unwanted pregnancies.
“Big deal, puppies,” said the friend. “If nobody takes them, you can always drown them.”
The “drown them” suggestion was the end of that friendship.
My grandfather was arrested in ’37, but he was drowned later, on a barge packed with camp inmates, in that same 1942 that Dvora was done in. Nobody would have ever found out, but one inmate survived—my grandfather helped him into the water but didn’t manage to jump in himself—and came to tell my grandmother about it.
When Pepper was one, he ran away. I never kept him on a leash; he was the most good-natured of all dogs, he never wandered away and was generally obedient. But that time I got distracted, someone called from work, and I focused on the call for about ten minutes. When the call was over, there was no dog! I called and called him—nothing. I ran around for an hour and then—what else was there to do?—went home. I prepared lost dog posters, attached Pepper’s picture, and, armed with glue and pushpins, went to put them up.
I walked out of the house and there he was, in front of the door, waiting to be let in. One ear and muzzle bloody, dirty as the devil, fur full of burrs, and stinking to high heaven.
“Well,” I said, “come on in, spill.”
He sobbed, squeezed through the door, and tried to climb the stairs—there are some stairs to the elevator in our building. But he couldn’t. I noticed that his front left paw was bent awkwardly, like somebody turned it to the side. So I picked him up, carried him home, washed off the dirt and the blood, picked out the burrs. I found the closest twenty-four hour vet with an X-ray machine, called to make an appointment, and we went. It was a complex break—plaster, meds, the whole shebang. For half a year I would take him for walks on a towel—it went under his belly for support since he could not step on his paw. Since then, he’s been limping a bit and I do not get distracted when we are out walking.
My dad came back in ’43, minus a leg, but alive. His twin, Grisha, stayed till ’47; he fought in Manchuria. But he started later; they both were under sixteen in 1941, but my dad changed the date of birth in his passport and went first to a flight school and then to war. Grisha became a year younger than his twin. But he had one leg more.
“Defending our home is a sacred duty of your four-legged friends!” proclaimed large letters on a poster.
At the bottom of the poster, some nervous hand added: “What home? Nobody has attacked our home.” The inscription is smudged, as if somebody tried to rub it off.
About a month ago, these posters appeared overnight on every building in the city. There was some text below that I can’t remember exactly. Something about our home being in danger, the draft being a temporary measure, the training program for dogs, and the assurance of the strictest criteria for selecting dogs for combat duty. About tons of free dog food to which the dogs will be entitled when they come back. The owners that attempted to interfere with the dogs’ patriotic duties were threatened with fines, reduction of salaries, loss of employment, water shut-off, and some other nonsense described vaguely as “and other measures, depending on the specific circumstances and current events.”
“Mice will be next,” said an upstairs neighbor in the elevator.
I always liked this old guy, even if I didn’t even know his name. He and his wife also used to have a dog, a spitz, Elza. But she died a long time ago.
“Why mice?” I wondered automatically.
“Mice can chew through strategic cables,” he explained. “If there is nothing else to eat.”
“The following breeds are subject to temporary mobilization,” the announcement went on. A list of breeds followed. “Ages 1.5 to 8 years.”
Pepper’s age fit, but not his breed, so I relaxed somewhat.
Some pitbull and various Staffordshire owners took their dogs to the conscription centers themselves. But okay, those are battle animals; they are bred for it. Although every creature deserves pity. Besides, who knows who they will be tearing to pieces over there and for what?
But it became dangerous to take any dog out without a leash; they simply disappeared. And it turned out that a leash was not a guarantee of safety, either. An old woman who lived nearby walked her lapdog in our yard three times a day; some guys in unidentifiable uniforms tore the leash away, pushed some crumpled piece of paper into her hand, grabbed the tiny creature, threw her into a car, and sped away. The poor old woman collapsed, ambulance, hospital…
I heard it that night at the dog run. People were sharing news sotto voce, staring at their feet. Goodness, why would they take a lapdog, what kind of warrior can she make?
I heard rumors that even seeing-eye dogs were taken from the blind, sometimes snatched in broad daylight in the middle of the street. All official channels denied this vehemently. I haven’t seen it myself, so who knows?
I started walking Pepper once a day, in the middle of the night. Just in case.
Claudia, the breeder from whom I had bought Pepper, called. Asked about my plans. Said she would be happy to take Pepper, she had a house in the country with a large cellar, they won’t find him there. She is calling the owners of all her dogs and has already hidden four. I declined. Pepper’s breed is not subject to the draft under their own rules, so why should we be parted? My mind displaced the old lady’s lapdog entirely.
“They are like family; I will never give them up, no matter what they do to me,” Claudia said. “Call me when you get real, just don’t wait too long.”
She rang off.
It’s actually funny about those Kharkiv relatives. We didn’t even know them, just remembered some family legends from Grandma’s stories. But when I started university, another freshman approached me on the first day of classes.
“As soon as my dad saw your name among those admitted,” she said, “he told me to ask you: Which one is your dad, Misha or Grisha?”
She turned out to be my cousin many times removed; we both descended from Haya Basia. There were only twenty-five of us in the linguistics course, from all over the country, and there we were. It’s such a small city.
Well, it has recently become a lot roomier; people have been scattered overnight. Everybody has dogs.
It’s raining so hard that the windshield wipers can’t cope. I had to close the window, and smoking in a car with all the windows closed is disgusting. Well, an enforced break would be good for me.
Pepper has fallen asleep, whimpering quietly. I wonder what he is dreaming about. Personally, I’ve stopped dreaming altogether. Falling asleep has also become problematic; the same random thoughts swirl in my head, like eating spaghetti: As soon as you wind them around a fork, they slide off and you have to start all over again.
Some news started to emerge from the vet-centers. Vague, unclear—after all, the dogs can’t call or write home themselves, and they must have picked particularly taciturn staff. But some things become known. There are hardly any trainers; the dogs are not being trained at all. There are not enough bowls, water is scarce; the little dogs can’t get any, the big ones muscle them away from the bowls. There isn’t enough food, either. They claim that dogs in a natural setting are hunters, so they can get their own. Naturally they start attacking one another, particularly as they are packed tight in cages at night. Total hell in other words.
Horrible images are filling the Internet, both from the vet-centers and from the front. Of course, there are official denials. People spreading these rumors are denounced as enemies of the motherland, slanderers of the government, haters of animals, tarnishing their honor and dignity. Whoever they could catch was arrested and given injections that made them lose their voices and hair.
My aunt Nora was beautiful even when old, until the end. At eighteen, she was sent to the labor camp at Ravensbrück, where women had to walk several kilometers every morning to a Siemens factory until Siemens, for efficiency reasons, built its own mini labor camp on the factory premises. Once the bombing started, Nora and the other women were taken back to Ravensbrück, and Siemens had its mini-camp demolished; it could tarnish its good business standing.
The Association of Breeders of Hunting, Service, and Decorative Dogs launched a formal protest. It was published on the Association’s site. It cited violations of the “Act on the Responsible Treatment of Animals,” which prohibited both consigning dogs to their death and siccing them on others. The law also prohibited taking stray dogs for anything outside the program “catch–sterilize–vaccinate–release,” and any catching had to be on video, to prevent cruelty. There were penalties not just for a dog’s death or injury but also for causing mental suffering. And what was going on now? Already almost half a million dogs went missing throughout the country, and nobody had to answer for it. The Association demanded that the law be heeded, the citizens informed, and the guilty punished!
Of course, nothing changed. Except the Association acquired a new president; the old one suddenly got ill and died, although he was still a young man. The new one immediately went on TV to apologize for the spreading of unverified and obviously false information.
I kept reading about all of this on various news channels until it made me ill. It was as if Pepper could feel my mood; he became anxious, jumped at every loud sound, barely ate. He even peed on the bathroom mat a couple of times, something he had not done since he was six months old. I started letting him stay in my bed at night. He used to try and climb into my bed when he thought I was asleep, but he had never gotten away with it. But now he never even waited till I fell asleep; as soon as I went to bed, he’d burrow against me. I’d embrace him and feel a little better.
Of course, I did think that we should probably run. But these thoughts were halfhearted, unformed. I didn’t know anybody in other countries, had no money, lived from paycheck to paycheck. Where would we run? How would we live, and where would we get money?
“Just change his name in his passport,” a friend advised. “That should do it! They’d come for Pepper, but you’ve only got Popper.”
That was funny advice. It was based on the premise that some laws were still operational, so one could evade them. It’s very hard to get used to the fact that there are no rules anymore.
But changing your name is a time-honored ploy. When Jewish children were so ill that their lives were in danger, their names were changed. This was meant to fool death: She came for Moishe, but we’ve only got Itzik. People believed that when death failed to find the Moishe it was looking for, it would just go away. My grandmother changed her name from Sarah to Sofia. I only learned that she used to have a different name when I, all grown-up, was sorting through some documents. When did she do it? And why? Was she also trying to cheat fate? Many people changed their names at that time. It helped very few.
All of a sudden, my old friend Ninka surfaced. For the past nine years she’d been living in a different city. About half a year ago, she got divorced; we texted for a couple of months after that, but then just stopped.
Ninka was practically hysterical. After the divorce, she kept a ten-year-old mutt called Dopey. His age group was exempt from the draft, so his breed didn’t even matter. Mutts were mentioned very equivocally in the list of breeds subject to the draft: “depending on the exterior.” That left vast discretion to those responsible for numerosity.
But apart from his age, Dopey’s exterior left much to be desired. Or not, depending on your point of view. He clearly had a dachshund somewhere in his pedigree because his length significantly exceeded his height, and his dangling ears resembled little scraps of silk. But, thanks to some taller ancestor, Dopey was bigger than your average dachshund, albeit his legs were short and bandy. And he smiled all the time. He really did: mouth stretched ear to ear, eyes tender. All the old ladies in the street were crazy about him, always trying to sneak him some treat. Ninka was sick and tired of trying to stop them; Dopey was on the fat side, and he could do without all that extra food.
After the divorce, Dopey was visibly afraid that, just as his master had suddenly disappeared, his mistress might one day leave the house and never come back. So, when Ninka had to go somewhere, to work or shopping, he would start barking like mad and even howling. Nothing would put his mind at rest—So what if she came back this time? There is no guarantee that she would come back the next. The master also used to come back, and then he didn’t. The neighbors must have gotten tired of this, and somebody reported him to the conscription people. Three men came for him.
“I was such an idiot to open the door, damn idiot!” Ninka was crying on the phone. “I thought it was the plumber. I have a leaking faucet, so I called them a month ago, and I thought they finally came. Oh, I don’t care if everything leaked! And they—wham!—one pushed the summons into my hand, and the other two went straight for Dopey. They put a bag on his head, lifted him up, and headed for the door. I tried to grab him, but they pushed me away. I screamed and screamed that he was old and sick—no reaction. They took Dopey! What do I do now?”
Of course, I told her to go to the vet-center to lodge a complaint. But I did understand there was no hope. It’s just easier to do something than doing nothing at all.
In that folder with our family history, there was a long, meandering story, with a lot of documented details, about a stolen cow—or maybe a heifer. Different ownership theories were based on that distinction: either my great-great-grandfather Yankel stole it, or it was stolen from him. The court sided with Yankel, but the other side appealed. And at that point—out of the blue—Yankel gets arrested.
Among other documents, there is Yankel’s letter to the Kharkiv governor, Count Sievers, dated March 15, 1865: “…When I was first arrested, the chief of police told me that I would be released if I handed over my cow to the widow of Lieutenant Asheulov (which she believes to be her cow that strayed); otherwise, I would be expelled from Kharkiv.”
I don’t know where the cow ended up, but Yankel ended up expelled from Kharkiv after all. So complaining wasn’t much help back then either, although that’s no solace.
Yankel and his family settled in Voronezh. Not clear whether all his kids went with him. Yankel’s son, my great-grandfather Gershko, appears to have remained in Kharkiv, because my grandfather was born to him and Haya Basia in that city. But his older brother Peisach definitely moved to Voronezh with his parents at least for some time, although he came back to Kharkiv eventually. And he built all sorts of buildings there; they were still standing and in use until recently. I guess not anymore.
The rain has stopped. I am running out of cigarettes, and my stash is in the trunk—I should have thought of taking at least a carton inside with me. Now I’ll have to stop on the shoulder somewhere to get it out. Might as well let the dog run around, drink, pee. I should turn into a side road; nobody seems to be using it, and it’s surrounded by woods.
This place is weird. I was going to go further into the woods, not to be so visible from the highway, but there is a chain-link fence there, about two meters high. As soon as I let Pepper out of the car, he tenses up. He barely glances at the water bowl; he actually thrusts his tongue out but doesn’t start drinking. With the top of his shoulders taut, and head lowered, he sits back on his hind legs and growls. He is visibly scared. I couldn’t understand what of.
“Come on,” I say. “Let’s just walk along the fence. You have to stretch your legs!”
Pepper doesn’t want to go; he resists, and I have to pull on the leash. We barely start walking when I see a dog behind the fence. Huge, gray, hide bloody, and blood all around him, his motionless, prominent forehead planted firmly against the fence. Pepper is yelping, whimpering.
And then it strikes me (trajectory: ears-heart-toes). I’d refused to heed some of the rumors—if you don’t know something, it doesn’t exist, right?—but they must have penetrated my subconscious anyway because there was no hesitation—I knew what I was looking at. A wolf.
There were rumors that they were drafting wolves in wildlife sanctuaries. They caught them and transported them to the front along with the dogs. They say the wolves kill the dogs first, and then everybody else they can reach until somebody kills them. They say wolves are hard to catch, they don’t trust people, they prefer their freedom, they attack, they try to escape. But how do you escape with such a fence?
“Sleep, wolfie,” I say quietly. “At least you didn’t kill anybody, so you’ll do better in your next incarnation. And they all will be deader than dead.”
Pepper and I go back.
My great-grandfather Haim-Issor was shot dead in 1918 in the office of the political police in Yaroslavl. An anti-Bolshevik uprising had just been suppressed there, in which both the revolutionaries from the SR party and ordinary people took part. Nobody knows whether my great-grandfather was involved, but he obviously did or said something to earn being shot right there in the office, not even in the yard. Well, at least he didn’t suffer.
Pepper is asleep on the floor, curved into a ball, nose under tail, sniffling. Every now and then his whole body shudders and he starts to whine, but doesn’t wake up. I lower my hand, pet him on the back. It’s almost night, and we’ll be at the border by morning. Will they let us in? If not, I have Plan B: We’ll go live in some remote, quiet village where nobody knows us and where we won’t be found.
A boy I knew used to dream of hiding from the draft that way: Go to Siberia, move from one old woman to another, split firewood for them in return for shelter. That was his plan. I used to laugh at him, but now that’s exactly what I am planning to do—if I’m lucky. A bad plan is better than none (who said that?). And good plans are hard to come by.
They say there are long lines at the borders. Not everybody can leave, and not everybody can get in. What if they try to seize him at the border? I doubt they take bribes in front of all those people; besides, bribing is not a skill I possess, and we have no money, although I took everything I had. For the past couple of weeks I kept exchanging all my money into dollars without questioning my reasons for that, as if half-asleep. Even if I had more, you can’t take more than ten thousand with you. We don’t have anywhere near that.
What kind of law forbids people to take their own money with them? How lawful is such a law? Those are stupid rhetorical questions. Laws work only during peacetime; and even then, only until they don’t. Certainly not now—they can dream up any law at all and get away with it.
On the other hand, it’s not like it has ever been otherwise. There is a famous directive issued by Catherine I when she decided to kick out all the Jews from the Russian empire and forbid them to ever return. The empress ordered that care should be taken to ensure that the Jews did not keep any gold or silver coins and that any such coins should be exchanged into copper. What a racket. I wish money was our biggest problem, though. We just need to get through, and then, if you don’t mind working, you can always make some sort of living.
There is no moon, no stars; the sky is devoid of any light at all. My headlight beam lights up only a small portion of the road right in front of the wheels, and the darkness all around us seems even more impenetrable. I am so sleepy. I guess I should stop and sleep for a couple of hours. But the woods are too scary and, according to the navigator, we are coming up on a rest stop. I’d better wait.
Don’t know how long I slept. I am awakened by a frantic knocking at the car window. Pepper jumps up, barks once. There is an old woman at the window, shabbily dressed, left arm behind her back.
“Come out for a minute, honey,” she says. She is on the verge of tears.
I get out. There is nobody at the rest stop, but it’s brightly lit.
“I see you have a dog there, honey,” she goes on. “Good for you! Going to the border? Have mercy, take another one!”
And there is a doggie on a short leash behind her. A small mutt, scruffy, her hind leg bandaged. She is looking at me dubiously with her smart eyes (all mutts’ eyes are smart).
“She has a passport, all her documents are in order. She’ll be no bother, she is docile. Let her out as soon as you cross the border; she’ll be fine on her own! I’ll pay you, don’t worry.” She starts rooting around in her rags.
“Stop with this ‘pay you’. How can I possibly take another dog? ‘She’ll be fine on her own…’ I don’t even know if I’ll be fine myself!”
“Look!” The old woman grabs my head and whispers loudly into my ear. “She was taken a week ago. They stole her from my backyard. But she is a clever one; she came back three days ago. Limped back, more like it. Hind leg shot through; I guess they sent a posse after her. But don’t you worry: I cleaned the wound, put on some salve, bandaged it proper. But she can’t stay; you know they’ll shoot her as a deserter! And I don’t have a foreign passport and am too old anyways. Please take her, I beg you, you don’t want this on your conscience!”
Her eyes are terrified, lips trembling, hand shaking.
So I took the doggie. What else could I do?
Grandma Ida was three in 1941. In early summer, she and her mother went to visit some distant relatives in Byelorussia. She was the youngest, a late child; the other children, including my own grandmother, Sonia, were grown already, had their own kids, so she was the one taken. So, of course, the Germans came, killed everybody: my great-grandmother, the distant relatives, all the other Jews. Everybody thought that Ida was killed, as well. But no. Her mother pushed her through some random gate. She didn’t know who lived behind that gate, she only knew they were Gentiles. They lucked out: Those people did not give her up to the Germans. They hid her, and after the war, in 1948, they managed to find my great-granddad and returned his daughter to him.
So we keep going. Pepper is grumbling softly by my side; the mutt is curled up under the back seat, silent. There are no thoughts in my head, only direction. The only thing I know is that there are now three of us. I will think about that tomorrow. There’s still an interminable night and a long road ahead.