Blesok no. 21, June-July, 2001
The Hairless Dogs
excerpt from the novel
Liljana Jokić Kaspar
Mrs. Frida was striking as hard as she could a lump of sugar in her mortar using a brass little tool, while her neighbor Todor was standing at the doorway of her and Rita’s apartment. That wasn’t exactly an apartment, rather a huge room with six windows in it, all of them facing the street, divided by various, improvised partitions made of antique, bulky wardrobes, cupboards, curtains, and dusty, gray cloth. Right in the center of the room, which used to be a merchant Majn’s drawing room with the ceiling richly decorated with plaster ornaments, there were two beds separated by partitions, and next to one of the windows a massive, oldfashion ottoman with worn out bedspread over it, and on its back a couple of painted, big red roses, now hardly visible. All over the place, scattered around there were odd chairs and armchairs in different styles, dating from all possible epochs, and on each of them, at least two or three blouses, swaggering, with their sleeves turned inside out, dresses, dressing-gowns washed out and dark, ruffled sweaters. In the middle of the room there were a wardrobe and a white, round table with bent legs, holding on its gnawn, cracked lion’s paws a countless number of empty or half-empty plates, dishes, shallow round dishes, slices of bread, shells of sorted onions, and on one of the dessert-plates there was a dry and awry half-eaten white cake. Under the table, on the stripped, black floor, a few puddles were glimmering, evidently adding to the entire space a strong, terrible smell.
Before going to bed, Mrs. Frida Petrovic had a shot of elder-brandy from her green, thimble-like glass, and right after she drank it up, she decided that one shot wasn’t enough for her.
Why wouldn’t I have one more, I’m going to bed anyway. All I want is to fall asleep quickly, she was thinking and pouring herself another glass halfway down.
After all, she suffered a lot from her sore throat during those winter days.
I always get sick in winter, wouldn’t it be more comfortable to get sick in summer or spring? The pain became so bad that she wasn’t sure any more whether she’s going to make it to the market tomorrow or not.
As many other people, she too was spending most of her life at the market in those winter days, buying, trading. She would do the transactions using her own dimes, flipping them in her pocket, touching them and counting without looking at them, then moving them from one hand into another, one coin at the time, incessantly feeling them under her fingertips. She could identify each single coin by her palm and fingertip; she touched every one of them a countless number of times before bringing it to light and handling to the market-women, bargaining, begging, succeeding every time in making them to bring down the price of whatever kind of plant.
Cabbage, cauliflower, savoy, leek, potato, chestnut, radishes, oranges, beets, apples, figs, she was buying a couple of everything, two pieces, and afterwards, back home, after she had dragged off all of it in a shapeless, straw-bag, surprised by her own selection, she was going through the fruits trying to get an idea what she could possibly prepare from all that plentifulness. She was a gourmet queen, and spending hours in her castle, behind a blue plastic partition, on a small, wooden table, she was cutting, mixing, frying and cooking, filling up and planing, braising and pouring over tanned sugar, honey, oil and goose fat on the improvised, white chicken chests, legs, pigeon back, necks and drumsticks. She would put together oranges and celery, chestnut and leek, beets and apples, honey and a lump of cheese, and in her rather inconvenient, medieval kitchen, standing by the stove with only two rings on the stovetop, she was a magician of twentieth century. Her walnut rolls were magnificent, the well-fed birds, her potatoes were ripe apples, and yellow dumplings were sitting on a white saucer like Easter chicks on the top of their little nest. She was able to create a lunch out of nothing, and make a rich dinner the same way. And still she was inconsolable because the dinars melt rapidly day by day, disappearing in market-women breasts, every time she would lean against one of the counters to give a break to her tired, exhausted body.
Tomorrow will be a better day, she heard the last sentence pronounced by the news announcer on her TV screen, and gave it a look. She waddled to her improvised private kingdom, and took out from the old fridge the last piece of bacon. She cut off a few slices and decided not to take any medicine for her sore throat except the one she’d made on her own. From the wicker laundry-bin, which was lying on the floor, she took out a rotten flannel scarf and tore it in two pieces. She took off her fancy, stained dress, and put on her night-dress. She lifted a short string of fake pearls which over time turned yellow, and touched her big, wrinkled neck. It used to be a white, swan’s neck, she said out loud.
She knew her own face in details, and for years she didn’t use mirror. Very skillfully, without looking at it, she put some thin slices of bacon onto her throat, holding them with her fingers. Then she fasten them with a stripe of gauze, made a knot of the rest of the flannel scarf and put it over. With her neck all wrapped up, she went to bed hoping for recovery.
Bobby was watching all that without making a slightest sound, peeping beneath the divan with two embroidered roses on the back of it, hardly visible in the darkness of the room, waiting for Mrs. Frida to fall asleep. He had some intuition about what was going to happen in the kitchen. Actually, he heard the old fridge door creaking and decided not to fall asleep by any means. He was starving, being the only one dog in the house who remembered the good old times when he would have something more concrete for dinner, not just potatoes and sugar. He was craving for some real food, and firmly decided to stay his stomach no matter what. It wasn’t the first time for him to be stealing; he proved to be successful in that business a countless number of time in his long life. He was very experienced in knavery of all kinds and rather self-confident about that late dinner, which, it’s been several winters by now, he got used to have in peace and quiet, when everyone around asleep. Nobody is going to find it out, since he isn’t the only one dog in the house. He was ready to wait for hours, while Mrs. Frida kept turning round in her sleep, and he knew, out of his experience, that hat it was just a matter of time when the knot on the scarf was going to be undone. He was waiting for the best possible moment, and the moment came. He sensed it by the bacon smell which was reaching him. Then he approached the bed furtively, made a light jump and got on it, and crawled up to his owner’s neck. For a few moments he was just lying on her chests, sniffing, enjoying the smell. When Mrs. Frida’s rhythm of breathing became well-balanced, he bared the bedspread with his nose, and using those three of four teeth which were left in his jaws, he tried to undo the knot. Not having very much success with the knot, he tried to lick the thin, greasy slices with his big nose, twisting his head as much as he could. Finally he reached the bacon skillfully stretching his tongue, and just as a human would do it with his/her finger, he pulled the slices out over the colorful flounces of her night-dress. Right above his owner’s neck, he started eating greedily, chewing and swallowing a tough slice. He found himself let down by his worn our, dog’s teeth.
Rita was woken up by grumbling from her mother’s bed, and in the poor light coming from TV screen and the street, she spotted Bobby sitting on her chests, eating her up beginning from her neck. For a moment, being aware of his wickedness, surrounded by darkness and shadows of the night, she came to believe to what she saw and, terrified, she cried at the top of her voice. Bobby run away from the bed.
– What happened? – sleepy Mrs. Frida asked peeping from her bed.
– Bobby was eating your neck!
– Nonsense, he was just sleeping with me in the bed. Leave me alone and let me sleep.
– Tomorrow I’ll call the vet to put him asleep. I had enough of his insolence! From day to day he’s becoming less of a dog and more of a human! An arrogant thief!
– Maybe you should take some valerian before going to bed, said Mrs. Frida and went back to her snoring.
The quietness took turns with typical night sounds. Rita tried to fall asleep evoking the sounds of summer and rustling of the big river’s waves, whistling of the wing in willow-grove by the river channels, the roaring of a hurricane above the city roofs, squeaking of woods against the rumble of thunder, but darkness of the night and coldness of the winter stifled every sound she could think of.
In the darkness, Rita is listening to the babbling of dirty water going down through the kitchen drain. That is the strongest sound she can hear right now. Is there anything in this second-hand life? The life stretching through twentieth century, the century of concentration camps and crimes. The concentration camp Rita lives in is the biggest and the most beautiful in the world. It is locked both from outside and inside.
That is the true measure of this age and Rita believes that what was given by destiny should be taken, not because there is no other choice, but because it is surely real, right, since at the same time it is unique. How different it used to be, in times past, when she was exposed to all those lights flashing onto the stage, surrounded by all her beloved? Had they really loved her, they would’ve been by her side now, not at the other end of the world, and she would’ve been sitting on their lap at the very moment instead of sleeping in this bed with her hairless dog Bobby snoozing under it.
All of a sudden, she got up from her bed, approached the window, opened it and inhaled the fresh air. The cracking of hinges interrupted Mrs. Frida’s snoring. Rita was breathing in the air filling every single cell of her lungs. In the gray light of the room she spotted a few newly made little piles of dog’s shit on the floor.
So what if it is dirty? The streets are dirty too, apartments and hospitals, schools and pre-schools, concert halls, TV studios, markets, restaurants, hotels, public toilets and dumpsters. The dirt is everywhere human’s eye can reach it. The entire city is dirty, including Danube, birds in the city park are dirty, and pigeons with their greasy sticky wings can hardly land on little dirty abandoned squares. This room is dirty too and her heart, which is still beating hard as if it wants to escape to someone else’s chests, will surely get dirty soon.