By Patrick Donovan
It’s funny what one might hear when listening, or whatever. Laika was born March eighth nineteen-fifty-four on the flats of Alberta. Her mother, Starthunder, was an American Kennel Club champion, but her father came from the streets—a mutt—and had wooed the championess with his waggle, bark, and snaggletooth. But after Starthunder became pregnant, her owners would shoo the mutt away each time he came to croon until finally one day the wife made the husband get his gun and shoot the mutt. This happened months before Laika’s birth and Starthunder mourned for the rest of the pregnancy.
With labor pains, Starthunder howled towards the moon, its emptiness echoing across the dark prairies. The owners finally woke and called the veterinarian, talking in soothing voices to their prize winner all throughout. After a weaning time, the husband and wife picked out those pups who showed no trace of the mutt’s features to sell, through deception, to the buyers in New Brunswick who wouldn’t know any better. They boxed up the obvious half breeds, Laika included, with a sign saying free puppies in English and French that they left in a gas station parking lot in Saskatchewan on their way to New Brunswick.
No one looked in the box the first day. When night came and it got cold, the pups started to whimper until the bright, full moon rose into view of the box top and Laika started howling—stagnant at first, and quiet, but soon growing fluid and wet. The gas station attendant heard them when he went out for a cigarette break. The attendant decided to sell the dogs during his shift, and brought the pups home each night. Before too long, Shin, an entrepreneur from Hong Kong with a summer home in Vancouver, making his way by car across the whole of Canada to forget his ex-wife, stopped at the gas station and, deciding he might like the company, paid the gas station attendant ten dollars more than the gas for a dog and drove off with Laika.
Shin and Laika spent four months touring the countryside. Laika ate well and learned quickly not to pee on the car seat, and every night, whether they were driving or eating or watching motel TV, when the moon came out Laika always gave it her round, bellowing howls. Shin soon began howling too, though quietly because he preferred to attract little notice. Eventually they reached Nova Scotia and Shin had to return to his job in Hong Kong by way of a charter flight for the duration of which he hid Laika, still small, in a bag he carried. Laika obeyed and stayed quiet the whole time.
In Hong Kong, during the day, with Shin at work, Laika spent her hours restlessly looking out the windows of Shin’s house until she figured out how to open and close a back door with her nose and forepaws. From then on she wandered the neighborhood along the streets and alleyways between houses, staying close to home, and always returning before Shin came back. One morning, during the summer, when even the tree shade left Laika panting, she wandered onto the grounds of a Buddhist monastery, just a little further than she’d yet explored. Instead of returning home, she stayed sitting with a group of monks around a pond until that evening when Shin found her and brought her back. Before she left the monastery, as the moon peaked over the tiled roof, Laika howled once and a tile fell to the ground.
Laika spent her days from then on with the monks who howled when she left each evening to greet Shin at home. Towards the end of summer, Shin took Laika on a business trip to Mongolia. They lodged in a rural hotel room, Shin had just returned from the outhouse and began reading the newspaper to Laika curled at his feet when two thugs broke in the door and shot him twice in his chest, robbing his corpse and bags, and taking Laika also, because she bit one on the groin and the other laughed so hard he cried and wouldn’t let the first kill Laika because of it. The thugs were Kazakh smugglers exploiting the communalizing, though still nomadic, Mongols.
Laika would fetch them a good price in certain villages near their home because Shin had fed her so well. Laika made trouble for the men at border crossings when they left Mongolia to straddle the Sino-Russian boarder back to the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Though Laika was not contraband, and for no other reason than habit, the smugglers hid her away in their luggage wherein, when border agents questioned the men, Laika began to howl. The smugglers paid bribes and continued on to the next checkpoint.
At one crossing, the soldier checking the smugglers’ goods did not react to Laika’s howl, instead opening the bag and freeing the dog. When the smugglers tried to bribe the soldier, he took their money then told them it wasn’t illegal to bring dogs across the border, at which point Laika bolted away from the smugglers and the soldier. It took the smugglers some time to track down Laika by following her footprints in the snow, only catching her because she did not know the area nor any hiding places.
Being half thoroughbred, and entirely Canadian, the cold fell off her coat like starlight from the troposphere, which proved helpful on the trip through the Kazakh winter towards Tynratum and the Baikonur Cosmodrome where the smugglers worked as laborers when they weren’t smuggling. Laika escaped pretty quickly once the smugglers were home and asleep and had stopped keeping her bagged overnight. Laika waited for an evening with heavy snow and then slipped out a window the smugglers had not locked on the second story. From the roof, Laika leapt into a snow bank, sinking the few feet to the ground and then tunneling towards the snow bank’s outer surface where she broke free a ways from the smugglers house, trotted down the road, stopped, looked up, and howled at the moon.
Laika spent the few months before spring learning the streets and where unclaimed scraps showed up most often. She found a warm place to sleep at night on the spaceport near some vents leaking heat atop one of the buildings. She would leave the spaceport in early morning before the workers arrived, and return in the evening after the workers had gone home to their makeshift cottages in the built up town surrounding. Late at night, sitting in antennae dishes mounted on the roof, Laika would look up at the stars knowingly, and howl symphonies at the moon. When spring came she began to hear howls in return—welcoming. The other dogs around the Cosmodrome all had homes and roamed the town streets only sometimes and in daylight when they’d already eaten breakfast and were yet unconcerned with dinner. Laika fell in love with a spaniel named Petre that always left some of his food outside in the mornings for her, and who would sneak out at night at times to trek onto the spaceport and roof where Laika slept, and sit in the dishes with her, howling. Eventually Petre’s owners figured out their dog left at night and so better locked him in each day, all day, except for walks at five which Laika never missed watching.
Laika rarely ventured near the part of the town the smugglers had kept her in. She avoided people wherever she could and by summer had regained the weight she’d lost since Hong Kong. Petre escaped from his house one day, pulling behind him a bag of canned food from the Cosmodrome Petre’s owners had been eating in test trials. He waited atop the spaceport building near Laika’s heating vent having chewed one can open with his teeth, spreading the contents across the ground to share with Laika when she returned that evening. They were young and in love, spending the days of autumn secluded from the ground and people, rationing their cans of space-food and howling at the moon from antennae dishes every night. Laika was happiest those few months before the food ran out and the nights became too cold for Petre, even with the heat from the vent and from Laika. One morning he simply didn’t wake up and Laika did not move all day, silent towards the moon that night and those thereafter.
Maybe entanglement, or electro-harmonics, but Laika knew she’d find the moon again, to the west and not up, so she jumped in the back of a cargo truck and made her way to Moscow. She could not have stayed in the town anymore anyways with every scent the spaniel’s; Petre’s. Laika roughed the Moscow streets, joining and then leading a hungry pack of dogs. She did not like the gang life, but for a stray in Moscow who needed to keep tough and relatively healthy, running with a pack was good exercise. Laika planned it just right, as she knew she would each night when she used to howl at the moon, even back in China, or her motherland Canada, and the Soviet space program picked her out from the streets in the days after Sputnik’s launch so that the Soviets might celebrate forty years of revolution by sending the first dog—or living anything—into space. Laika had trained her whole life for the chance.
Her two competitors for spaceflight, Albina and Mushkas, both strays, had led their own packs. Albina did not handle well the progressively smaller cages they had to sleep in for training, and Mushkas wouldn’t eat the nutrient paste scientists provided for food, though all the dogs enjoyed the centrifuge training, simulating the rocket launch. Laika would think of her road trips with Shin. She remained always peaceful; quiet; accepting. At night before being kenneled, Laika would look out a window towards the moon, pursing her dog lips, pushing hot air out her nose.
When Laika entered space she knew she wasn’t coming down. She knew she did not even have the ten days until she reached the poisoned food paste. The rocket’s Blok A core did not separate right which jammed up the thermal controls. But Laika had not planned on sticking around in the craft anyways. She started humming to herself about the monastery in Hong Kong, about all the points of light that can make up one life, every life, the universe and nothing, Petre and dog sweat. Laika began meditating like the monks had showed her, increasing her body’s temperature even more than the craft’s malfunction already had until all she could do to keep from burning up was to press her face against the ship’s still cool plastic window and howl and howl until she became like dust, encapsulated, floating between the earth and the moon.
Patrick Donovan lives in Los Angeles, having completed his MA studies at Loyola Marymount. His work has appeared in the Bicycle Review.