‘THEY ARE NOT ALL DEAD!’ she was roaring into Romochka’s shocked, young-boy face. ‘We found three for you.’
Romochka dropped back to the wall, his face suddenly blank and truly eight years old. He covered his ears with his shit-smeared hands, cradling his own face. No one moved or spoke. There was a silent tableau in the room as two tears rolled down his cheeks. He reached out his hands for the puppy, waggling one hand in a strangely demanding gesture that was made all the more odd by him simultaneously dropping his eyes and averting his face. The hand wagged and flapped imperiously as if independent from the rest of his body. Dmitry pulled out the other two puppies, tears prickling his own eyes. The boy reached greedily for the yabbering babies and buried his nose in them, breathing in deep, licking their faces, tongues, open mouths, whimpering now into their dirty fur, worrying his fingers over their hungry bodies.
Romochka sat on the floor with the wriggling, yelping puppies scooped to his belly and chest, sobbing, head down.
Dmitry squatted down next to the boy and began stroking the black stubble of his head, avoiding the red welt. Romochka didn’t stop him.
‘They are yours, all yours, and safe if you stay here,’ Dmitry said softly. He had an inspiration then. He could never have said how, but he knew, in that moment, exactly what he should say and what it meant.
‘We are the only dish on the table.’
Romochka held his breath. He looked up sideways at Dmitry with a large, quiet, child’s eye. His scarred wet cheek rested in his armful of puppies. His rather fine-featured face was pale and gentle. He smiled, his eyes sliding from Dmitry’s face and focusing on nothing. His face was transformed, mysterious, alight behind the pallor. For a moment Dmitry was reminded of Marko.
Dmitry motioned to Konstantin, who was leaning against the wall grinning, weeping, shaking his head. They left Romochka alone with the door open, Konstantin first, hands outstretched for the bathroom, Dmitry following. Natalya glanced at Dmitry, then raced to the kitchen to prepare some bottles of milk.
Dmitry was sure Romochka would stay, even if this was the softest moment he would ever see in the boy. He was buoyant with the success of it all, charged with electric happiness at Natalya’s glance. She was surprised, admiring. Impressed. It was the right thing, and it was well done—and not just because now he felt that he and Natalya were a true team: lovers and partners. Parents. A family, now, with a child and three dogs. He couldn’t wait to clean him up, straighten him out and see what sort of boy he made, what sort of boy they had. If they formally adopted him, Romochka would even be able to go to school, eventually—especially if Natalya got up to her usual tricks and faked his papers. Romochka would have the best, with a behavioural scientist for a father and a paediatrician and scamming queen for adoptive mother!
He looked around his stylish lounge room. The chipped old matrioshka on the sill was a new addition—one of Natalya’s few things. After their big fight she had, without a word, moved in properly and he had been surprised and humbled to find how few things she had, and that these were precious to her not for their own sake, but for the sake of the person who had given them or the use she had made of them. She brought her piano, all her slightly gypsy clothes, her matrioshka; and everything he had ever given her. This last made him suspect her of uncharacteristic tact, but then he gave up analysing it all and just felt grateful.
He’d need a new vacuum cleaner for the dog hair. Perhaps even a Kirby. Yes, there would be quite a shopping list, and it would be a long while before they could have a dinner party again. His friends and colleagues would talk about this for months, years, that was certain. Most would say he was a fool; but some might think it was noble of him. And of course:
would think it was Natalya’s influence.
He smiled to himself, savouring the feeling of being at last a family man. They were going to be a very unusual family. Maybe Romochka and Malchik next door would get along.
Three dogs. Perhaps eventually they could wean him onto one. One was enough for the purposes of this transitional phase; and after all, what boy ever has more than one dog? Three dogs might hold him back. Make him yearn for the old life. No, it would have to be one dog, and it would have to go to obedience classes. He had a sudden vision of himself at the dog school by the Krylatskoe line, a charming, well-behaved dog at heel beside him, commuters whizzing by, looking on. He’d have to watch to see which was the most intelligent. No, the most loyal, or perhaps the most docile and least boisterous. A single dog that was gentle, smart and loyal like Malchik, but not boisterous or drooly, would be ideal. One that would tip its head back to look at you the way Malchik did.
Then he thought, ashamed, that ideal was not what he should be angling for. He should just hope they wouldn’t be noisy eaters or lick their genitals in front of visitors.
Then, alone in the living room, he felt dizzy—even sick—with fear.
The shower roared and the microwave in the kitchen dinged. He sniffed his hands. They stank of fresh faeces. He held them stiffly away from his body, unable to go to the bathroom until Konstantin finished. Now he could smell shit on everything.
How does one really raise a child? This child? Wouldn’t it have been better for everyone, a small inner voice suddenly chipped in, if this awful unimaginable boy had quietly succumbed to cold or disease and malnutrition out there beyond the perimeter of the known? He could have bought his Natalochka a pedigree dog. He could have let her adopt a clean, normal, drug-free newborn.
He froze. Their strengthened relationship. They could have had a child biologically and lived happy ordinary lives.
His scalp crawled with foreboding. What had he reeled in on his puppy-baited hook? What had he taken on?
If you were to look now through the window—while on the other side of the thin wall Dmitry takes his turn in the shower, while Natalya in the kitchen farewells Konstantin and begins slicing onions with verve, cooking up a dinner to mark their new lives—you would see Romochka alone in that room still cradling the three puppies. The empty milk bottle stands beside him.
His face is in profile. He strokes the pups until they sleep. Then he stands and begins to weep, his shoulders tense and shaking. He turns. His face is raised towards you now, and he is sobbing in earnest, mouthing a scream. He stays like this, his body stiff, his fingers outstretched.
He stops. His breathing stills and he stands limp at the window for a while, his eyes huge and dark in a white face. Then he turns swiftly and, bending down to the puppies, bites through each of their skulls in turn.
He has chosen to stay.
This book owes more than I can say to Larisa Aksenova. Without her it could not have become the book it is.
Roger Sallis put years of loving encouragement into this book; and, in the long Moscow twilight, he found the dogs.
It is published in its final form thanks to my agent Jenny Darling and editor Mandy Brett.
Many people contributed in different ways to this book. They are: Stuart Barnett, Donica Bettanin, Gillian Bovoro, Maria Danchenko, Nikolai Danchenko, Tania D’Antonio, Sonja Dechian, Amaia de la Quintana, Jenni Devereaux, Jem Fuller, Alfred Hornung, L’hibou Hornung, Richard Hornung, Alexey Kopus, Tamara Leonidovna Kozlovskaya, Aleksandr Kozlovski, Gay Lynch, Lyudmila Malinin, Michele Meijer, John Morss, Maria Nichterlein, Alexander Ovchar, Rosa Piserchia, Olesya Pomazan (www.russiangirlfriday.com
), Ramsey Sallis, Tom Shapcott, Valery and Svetlana Shusharin, Celia Summerfield, Paul Voytinsky (www.unclepasha.com
), Phil Waldron, Teresita White, Claudio Zollo.
Thank you to the University of Adelaide for a fruitful residency in the first half of 2008.
Thank you to ArtsSA for funding my research trip to Moscow in 2006.
Thank you to Nexus Multicultural Arts Centre for a three-month residency in 2006.
Thank you to Rafael Sallis for the title and much more.
Special thank you to Emori Bovoro for playing with Rafael, making possible long writing hours through the summer holidays.
Finally, Halley and Rosie deserve dried kangaroo tail every day for their parts in this book.
EVA HORNUNG was born in Bendigo and now lives in Adelaide. As Eva Sallis, she is an award-winning writer of literary fiction and criticism: her first novel
won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award in 1997 and the Nita May Dobbie Award in 1999. Her most recent novel
The Marsh Birds
won the Asher Literary Award 2005 and was shortlisted for numerous awards including the Age Book of the Year 2005, NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.