Life of the Un-Animals. Short Russian contemporary stories

Today I saw the hamster who left me a year ago. He left when the cat appeared—it’s not that she wanted to eat him or anything like that, but she’d have these long conversations with him, tell him that if he had been–different, well, then, of course, there would have been no need to get her. I suspected that it would all end badly, but there wasn’t anything, it seemed to me—seemed then!—that I could do about it. He left at night, barefoot, without a kopek of money, and it was so cold by then, I decided he must have died out there, and cried and yelled nonsensical accusations at the cat, locked myself away from her for a night while she dozed on the living room sofa. But then yesterday in Gorky Park he called out to me. I didn’t even believe it at first and practically didn’t recognize him. He’d gotten pretty run down, fur all in mangy tufts, face all puffed up, just horrible. And that waddling walk! He got into a frenzy, embracing me and right away asking for some beer, and brought along some thug too, but the thug, thank god, got shy and politely refused. He looked so awful I started crying even, there was beer at one of the counters close by and I told him: let’s go sit down on the bench, but while we were walking he managed to down half the glass, as if his mouth were on fire or something. I had no idea what or how to ask him, but he just told me everything himself: that night he left he ran into the bums in the underpass under Pushkinskaya and then wandered with them for almost a month—told me, some hell of a life they have, good god, we can’t even begin to imagine. But life with the bums was hard for him, since he couldn’t beg for himself in the underpass, for one thing—nobody noticed him, nobody gave him anything for food—like, he was just so small, like, big deal feeding that tiny thing—nobody felt sorry for him. And he just, well, he felt he was just an extra mouth to feed. And then some Karp guy, or was it Lox, or—well, I don’t remember, one of those bums—got him together with that thug type, the one who didn’t come with us. That thug, it turned out, was a photographer and he had a Polaroid, and the hamster was quick to point out very proudly that Pasha hadn’t drunk it away yet, not even once!  So Pasha took my hamster in, and now here they are, working in the park: Pasha takes pictures of children with the hamster, and for that he gets food and drink. My heart was just tearing to pieces listening to all this, I couldn’t even fathom that all it was because of me! All because of that cunt, that fucking cat of mine—and because of me, mostly! And that hamster is such an angel, he saw that I was about to burst into tears and he started to eulogize the free life, how they were taking an artistic approach, how they would soon get a real camera, like a “Technica,” “and then Pasha’s inner talent is just gonna take us through the roof!..” And then all of a sudden he goes: “Oh my darling girl, I’d have lived with you my whole life long… I did love you so very much.” And by that point I’m just bawling like an idiot and I tell him: come back, I’ll throw her the fuck out, we’ll be together… —and I know as I say it that I’m lying, that I’m only hoping that he refuses! God, what a nightmare! And right away he just starts: oh, no, no, what are you thinking, I’m a free being now, with a taste for the artistic, this, that… and now he’s looking the other way and saying: well, that’s all, I mean, here come the schoolkids, I’ve gotta go, gotta work—and then just dives straight from the bench into the grass!.. And that was it. I didn’t bother to look for him. I went up to Pasha silently, gave him a hundred rubles. Should have been five hundred.

In the pet store on Pushkinskaya, a white mouse, having climbed with its hind paws onto a gray one and clinging with its front paws to the bars of the cage, hissed to the fat and terrified guinea pig crammed into the corner of the neighboring cage: “You’ll get served, bitch… they’ll buy you and take you to Gorky Park… and you’ll be the one turning the wheel…”

The neighbor’s dog talks with its fleas in the morning by the elevator. I pretend that I’m just rearranging the keys in my bag, but I’m actually eavesdropping. “I dunno,” says the dog, “I feel like he’s never done that sort of thing before. I mean, seriously, I’m literally just standing there, eating, and then all of a sudden he comes up to me and just, goes like that with his paw! Oh, it’s all horrible. It’s not like it’s even painful, you see, it’s just… Well I just feel so hurt inside, so horribly hurt. So many years, and I’ve never said no, never been greedy about it, I’d have given it to him—please, go ahead, eat, what, you think I don’t know what hunger is? Yes, I’ve starved, been through a lot, and I’ve been given food, I’ve been shared with, and everything… Oh, fine,” says the dog with a deep sigh, “I won’t go there, don’t want to start crying, he can go to hell…” One of the fleas pets the dog with its paw, the other sighs and says: “yeah, I guess for us this thing is just kind of…” I hear that last part from the elevator already.

While we stood in line—there was nowhere to sit, so many people, even though it was already eight in the evening—I entertained him with some silly stories. It’s always better to wait in a veterinary clinic than in a hospital: people don’t seem to really look at you funny when you whisper stories into someone’s furry ear, because they’re like that themselves, even those who come in, say, with a dog and don’t even look at it, as if they were just pulling along a sled behind them—even they still understand, it’s still lodged somewhere in their heads. That clinic on Sireneviy Boulevard is open 24/7, and I was overjoyed when I first discovered it, because I’m always afraid that something will happen with my cat. I don’t feel that I really understand or know my cat, and so it always seems to me that I’ll miss the symptoms of some oncoming disease, come into the kitchen the next morning—and there she’ll be, already on her right side, breathing so that hard a veterinarian is hardly needed by then, and I’m afraid. So I was very happy at having discovered the clinic, but the cat was actually all right this time, as it happened. Tapka sat quietly in my arms and I tried to think that he was sleeping. We were in line behind an old lady with a turtle. Turtles seem like a pretty useless thing for an old lady to have—you can’t even pet it really, but I swear in front of us there really stood (sat) an old lady with a turtle, maybe her grandsons gave it to her as a gift or maybe they were away on vacation and left it with her to feed. The old lady held the turtle on her palm, and the turtle lifelessly dangled out its hind legs, but kept its front legs and head hidden, maybe it just couldn’t get them out—or maybe the light disturbed it. I told the old lady: maybe the light makes it uncomfortable, maybe it’d be better in a bag? The old lady didn’t have a bag, so we put it in my backpack temporarily, except that it might pee, said the old lady, well, how much can it really pee, I said. From the room we were all headed for, from behind the locked door, came the screams of a cat, howling maddeningly, and I kept preparing myself so that as soon as that cat came out I’d turn away and cover Tapka’s eyes with my palm too, because clearly something was with that cat that neither he nor I ought to see. This was my first time in a veterinary clinic, for up to that moment God had spared me, and the strangest part of it all was that it smelled just like a human hospital, and not at all of animals, but quite precisely of iodine, a cafeteria (why??), medications and iron, as if as soon as they got here the animals suddenly stopped being smelly and dirty, stopped peeing on the floor, reeking of fur, scratching, and turned, in the strength of all their suffering, into almost-humans. But the groans and cries were rather more frequent than those in any human hospital—what animals can’t do is clench their teeth and bear it out, they haven’t got that kind of discipline—don’t wake mother, don’t trouble the husband—so they just scream, those who can, of course, not all animals can, unlike us humans—but almost all of them do cry. And then they brought out the cat (What a good girl I was, we turned away from her just at the right moment, and didn’t see anything at all, oh yes, I was a very good girl)—the cat was probably crying just awfully, but I was singing Tapka a song so that he wouldn’t hear anything. The old lady jerked suddenly and stretched her hand out toward my backpack, and I extracted the turtle (yes, it had peed), and the old lady put it back on her palm, sighed, and shuffled on, but not to Room 411, which Tapka and I were in line for, but somewhere off to the left, I asked her aren’t you going to…?—but the man with the dog told me: we’re all waiting for the operations room, go ahead—and then I said: Tapka, in 15 minutes everything will be so much easier, you understand?—and we went. Beyond the door I stumbled right away on a carpet and something rang, and the doctor looked at me and asked: “And?”. “And”—that was a good start. I sat Tapka down on the table in front of him and blurted out: “He’s not sleeping.” I’m not sure I understand, said the doctor. He’s not sleeping, I said, he no longer sleeps at night, something is hurting him, probably, give him, well, I don’t know, something. The doctor started at me in silence. Jesus Christ, I said, why are you looking at me like that, this is a dog, you’re a veterinarian, do something! “Sit down,” he said, “have you got a Kleenex or should I give you one?” “I’m not crying,” I told him, “no, really—but this is all just intolerable, listen, he hasn’t slept for so long, maybe his ear is hurting him or maybe, I don’t know, a splinter somewhere, or maybe he has a tumor inside, just stop looking at me like that, why are you making such a fool of yourself, I can feel it, goddamnit, I’m not hysterical, I’m being serious here—I can feel it, well at the very least just look at him! He walked around the table and petted Tapka on the head, and I told him: well feel him at least, just, for God’s sake do be careful. He turned Tapka around on her back (her ears flopped down from the table like two rags), scratched her belly, pressed down just a little, very gently, and while I was sniffling and trying to fish out my wallet, Tapka’s belly quietly began to play:
        We wish you a merry Christmas,
        We wish you a merry Christmas,
        We wish you a merry Christmas,
        And a happy New Year!

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