New England Review - - Translations - An­drzej Sta­siuk

Our old bitch is slowly dy­ing. It was her hear­ing that went first, as I re­call, then her sight, then fi­nally her sense of smell. But she still gets around a bit, and she has a huge ap­petite. Ev­ery now and then she’ll try to bark at some­thing. She can barely keep on her feet, she stares with un­see­ing eyes and barks at her doggy thoughts, imag­in­ings, maybe she’s bark­ing at her doggy mem­ory. She’s been with us for six­teen years. We’ve had her since she was a puppy. One sum­mer a woman friend of ours brought her and left her here with us in the coun­try. At the time we ne­glected the rou­tine shots you’re sup­posed to give pup­pies, and she got ca­nine par­vovirus. But we some­how man­aged to save her, driv­ing her to the vet ev­ery day for an in­tra­venous drip with­out which she would have died of de­hy­dra­tion. She was left with a slight loss of con­trol over her hind legs. But for fif­teen years she ran around and kept up with the other dogs. Once in a while, in the win­ter they’d dis­ap­pear for two or three days at a stretch. I’d be fu­ri­ous, but in the end I’d climb in the four-wheel drive and comb the empty val­leys, forc­ing my way through mounds of snow. They’d be found even­tu­ally, ex­hausted, skinny, half-dead, and, it seemed, ut­terly clue­less about what to do with their doggy free­dom or how to find their way back home. They would meekly let them­selves be loaded into the car and for the next week they wouldn’t budge an inch ex­cept to go to their feed­ing bowl.

But the bitch was the old­est of them. All our other dogs were de­scen­dants of hers. Chil­dren, grand­chil­dren, great grand­chil­dren. In the coun­try, in con­di­tions of al­most to­tal lib­erty, it’s hard to keep tabs on them. Dogs are smart, and when it comes to pre­serv­ing the species they’re three times smarter still. We had her spayed only af­ter her third lit­ter. Her pro­cre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties had be­come a bur­den, be­cause at the time we moved a lot and we were liv­ing in rented ac­com­mo­da­tion, some­times in vil­lages where peo­ple would get spooked at the sight of a dog big­ger than a cat, a dog run­ning free. (It’s true, coun­try peo­ple are afraid of strange dogs, be­cause strange dogs bite; noth­ing can shake this an­cient belief. A belief, by the way, that is quite jus­ti­fied in the vil­lages . . .)

But our bitch was gen­tle. Her grand­chil­dren and great grand­chil­dren will some­times kill one of the neigh­bor’s sheep. When that hap­pens I curse un­der my breath, but humbly take my money and pay for the dogs’ en­ter­tain­ment. But her, she never hurt a soul. One time, driven by some dis­tant echo of an in­stinct, she brought her pup­pies a full-grown chicken. But she didn’t do the bird the slight­est harm. She held it in her mouth as care­fully as if she’d been car­ry­ing one of her own young. She even seemed em­bar­rassed by her ex­trav­a­gance. Once

An­drzej Sta­siuk

re­leased, the chicken im­me­di­ately stood on its feet and went back to its own kind.

I can see her right now, ly­ing on the ve­randa in a patch of win­ter sun­light. Her coat is yel­low­ish, the muz­zle slightly darker, and she has floppy ears. She’s a full-blooded mongrel. There’s no way of telling what breeds had to have met and min­gled in the past in or­der for her some­what mis­shapen, some­what com­i­cal, kindly fig­ure to have made its ap­pear­ance in our home six­teen years ago. But her mongrel genes must have been strong ones, be­cause her grand­chil­dren and great grand­chil­dren en­tered the world al­most ex­clu­sively with the same sandy yel­low coat and the same droopy ears. Now she’s ly­ing in a pool of win­ter sun, sleep­ing al­most all the time. When one of us goes up close, she raises her head. It’s hard to know if she rec­og­nizes us. But she still likes to be stroked and fon­dled, the way she did through­out her life. Now, though, she’s like an old tat­tered rug. Win­ter’s com­ing, yet she’s los­ing her fur, a dense, tightly packed, fuzzy cov­er­ing that al­lowed her to curl up in a snow­drift and sim­ply fall asleep, her nose tucked un­der her tail.

She’s lost a lot of weight too. When she stands she looks like a skele­ton cov­ered in dirty yel­low cot­ton wool. She’s un­steady on her feet. She sways and tot­ters. She can man­age a dozen or so steps, then she goes right back to her bed­ding. She stinks. The usual smell of old age. Of a body that’s stopped mov­ing. In the smell I can still de­tect her old doggy scent from when she’d run in from the wind and rain, but it’s less and less no­tice­able. Some­times she tries to scratch her­self, though it’s harder and harder. That dog­gi­est of dog­like ac­tiv­i­ties is in­creas­ingly be­yond her. The paw misses its tar­get and hangs in midair.

For the mo­ment it’s been a mild and snow­less win­ter, so she can live on the ve­randa. It’ll be worse when the frosts come. She does her busi­ness where she lies. On bet­ter days she’ll man­age to move a few feet away, but of­ten she sim­ply goes right by her bed­ding. It’s hard to get an­gry with her be­cause, aside from hu­man touch, eat­ing is the only plea­sure she’s ca­pa­ble of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. She eats with gusto, greed­ily, and when you give her some­thing you have to watch out for her teeth. But what­ever it is has to be placed di­rectly un­der her nose for her to be able to smell it. Even then she sniffs blindly, in ev­ery di­rec­tion, and in the end finds what she’s af­ter more or less by chance. So with only ves­tiges of a sense of smell re­main­ing, it’s dif­fi­cult to tell whether she has any­thing like taste. Or whether she’s merely gorg­ing her­self, guz­zling things down, fill­ing her stom­ach, driven by the most prim­i­tive of in­stincts. And then, a few hours later she rids her­self of it right nearby. That’s why I’m wor­ried about the win­ter and the on­set of the frosts. We’ll have to take her in­doors, and we’ll have to clean up ev­ery morn­ing and dur­ing the day as well, be­cause she never gives any sign that she needs to go out. She stopped giv­ing signs just as she stopped be­ing able to go out.

These days she ac­tu­ally gets on my nerves at times. As if she were grow­ing old and fee­ble against us, as if she were do­ing it de­lib­er­ately to spite us. I pass by her umpteen times a day, I step across her suf­fer­ing body, and there are mo­ments

when I feel the prick of ir­ri­ta­tion. As though, along with her life, my af­fec­tion for her were ebbing away. In this there’s a cer­tain cru­elty that’s in­de­pen­dent of the will. I lean down and pet her. What used to be au­to­matic is be­com­ing a con­scious act.

I’m writ­ing about this be­cause it’s the first time I’ve watched the long slow death of a be­ing that for many years I shared al­most ev­ery mo­ment with. I’ve talked with other peo­ple about it, and they tell me the most sen­si­ble thing would be to have her put to sleep. (That’s an in­ter­est­ing eu­phemism, by the way. No one says “kill.” Ev­ery­one talks about “putting to sleep,” which is to say, some­thing gen­tle and, as it were, tem­po­rary.) I know that would be sen­si­ble, it’s what peo­ple do, and those who do it have the feel­ing that they’ve brought re­lief, they’ve cut short dis­tress, and that in fact they’ve acted hu­manely. I thought about it too for a mo­ment. But we de­cided not to take that path.

I’m writ­ing this doggy obit­u­ary-cum-memoir about a liv­ing an­i­mal be­cause for the first time in my life I’ve had the chance to watch closely and sys­tem­at­i­cally as a live crea­ture turns into a fail­ing body, and fi­nally will be­come a corpse. I look at our bitch and I think about my­self, but also about all the peo­ple who are slowly slip­ping away, shrug­ging off their in­tegu­ment. And so as I watch the dog, I can’t shake a cer­tain vi­sion of hu­mankind in its mor­tal­ity. Our yel­lowhaired, use­less dog (she doesn’t bark, doesn’t nuz­zle up to you, doesn’t wag her tail, isn’t pleased to see you, won’t cheer you up) is turn­ing into a thing that will have to be dis­posed of. Yes in­deed, some peo­ple rec­om­mend do­ing it sooner, to spare our­selves some trou­ble and the an­i­mal some suf­fer­ing. Af­ter all, at this stage noth­ing is go­ing to change, stop, turn back. A quick in­jec­tion, and that’s that. I could even ad­min­is­ter it my­self. When I’ve had to, I’ve slaugh­tered sheep and goats. Yet for some rea­son I can’t get be­yond the thought of all those peo­ple ly­ing in the care­fully con­cealed places that serve for dy­ing. Peo­ple like that are use­less too. They con­sume energy, money, la­bor. They pro­voke vexation or in­dif­fer­ence. I know how it goes be­cause I’ve seen it many times: three or four peo­ple in nurse’s uni­forms and la­tex gloves en­ter the room. Two of them lift the al­most weight­less body, the oth­ers rapidly re­move the di­a­per, clean, put on a new one. Three min­utes later there’s no in­di­ca­tion that any­thing has taken place. Ex­cept that a strange hu­man-yet-not-hu­man smell lingers in the air. In fact, it may just be the smell of a hu­man be­ing, fright­en­ing us, dis­gust­ing and op­press­ing us, and that’s why we lock it away in those re­mote, in­vis­i­ble places. We pay the peo­ple in the la­tex gloves to breathe in that smell in our stead. We pay them to ac­com­pany dy­ing. When it comes down to it, in a sense we pay them to die for us. Be­cause when we take part in the deaths of other peo­ple, of those close to us, we our­selves die a lit­tle, we our­selves be­come a lit­tle more mor­tal. We’re sim­ply buy­ing yet another ser­vice to save us from us­ing up our own time. To save us from breath­ing in that smell.

It’s strange, this civ­i­liza­tion of ours. It saves lives, pro­tects them, pro­longs them. Yet at the same time it ren­ders us de­fense­less in the face of death. We don’t know how to be­have in its pres­ence. My grand­mother was washed and dressed

An­drzej Sta­siuk

for her cof­fin by her daugh­ters and her neigh­bors. A man who lives near me died at home. His daugh­ter checked him out of the hos­pi­tal be­cause she couldn’t imag­ine him dy­ing among strangers. My neigh­bor took a long time to die, so his daugh­ter had to learn to do all the things they do in hos­pi­tals, in­clud­ing giv­ing mor­phine shots. And my neigh­bor died in his own room, with the view of a green hill­side that he’d looked at ev­ery morn­ing. But my grand­mother, my neigh­bor—those are al­most utopian deaths.

At times I’m trou­bled by a vi­sion of a big city where the dy­ing all re­main in their apart­ments on the up­per floors of mod­ern high-rises or in the gated com­mu­ni­ties that empty out at day­break and are only re­pop­u­lated in the evening; they’re sep­a­rated by thin walls from the hub­bub of the street, from the swirling, preda­tory world of the present-day me­trop­o­lis, amid the never-ceas­ing howl of the city, with the glim­mer of neon lights in their fail­ing pupils. That is the vi­sion I have. That peo­ple aren’t dy­ing in hos­pi­tals, in hos­pices or re­tire­ment homes, but in houses, apart­ments, that for most of the time are un­oc­cu­pied. It’s hard enough to deal with own­ing and walk­ing a dog, let alone a dy­ing per­son. And how do you carry a cof­fin down from the ninth floor? Stand it up­right in the el­e­va­tor? Then what? How do you lead a pro­ces­sion through city traf­fic? Sit in grid­lock on your way to the church, the chapel, then af­ter­wards to the ceme­tery? Honk­ing, flash­ing your lights so the other mourn­ers won’t get lost?

Even in the vil­lages fu­neral cus­toms have changed. When my grand­mother was buried, the pro­ces­sion walked two and a half miles in scorch­ing heat from the church to the ceme­tery, the cof­fin car­ried on the shoul­ders of fam­ily mem­bers. At my un­cle’s re­cent burial in the same vil­lage, the pro­ces­sion went on foot only as far as the last houses, then ev­ery­one walked back to the church, got in their cars, and rode the rest of the way be­hind the hearse.

There are more and more of us, and more and more of us will die. And we’ll be ever more alone when we do. At least till some­one dis­cov­ers the se­cret of eter­nal life. But even this to-be-dis­cov­ered im­mor­tal­ity will likely turn out to be only in­fi­nite soli­tude. Be­cause af­ter all, what can such an im­mor­tal talk about with mor­tals who can­not af­ford im­mor­tal­ity?

It’s thanks to our bitch that I think about these things. It turned colder to­day, and I built a kind of ken­nel on the ve­randa. I put blan­kets around it and in­side it. She curled up into a ball and now she’s sleep­ing. She’s al­ways sleep­ing. Noth­ing would ac­tu­ally hap­pen if she were given that in­jec­tion. She’d just keep sleep­ing. She’d stop do­ing her busi­ness where she lies, she’d stop turn­ing over, she’d stop trail­ing her hind legs be­hind her, she’d stop eat­ing her own ex­cre­ment. She’d stop suf­fer­ing, and we’d breathe a sigh of re­lief too, be­cause it isn’t easy to watch some­one (is a dog some­one?) eat­ing their own ex­cre­ment.

Noth­ing would hap­pen. Peo­ple should an­tic­i­pate events and when nec­es­sary pre­vent them from hap­pen­ing. That’s how we’ve got­ten where we are to­day, so it would seem. And noth­ing can hold us back. We’ll do away with lives that serve no pur­pose. Since we’ve learned to pro­long life, we’ll give our­selves the right to shorten it too, be­cause for some time now we’ve felt that ev­ery­thing is in our

hands. In olden times, be­fore the days of hu­man­ism, death was piti­less, it came as al­ways too soon, but life per­sisted till the end. It was fate that de­cided. Now fate is grad­u­ally re­ced­ing into the past. One day it’ll van­ish. For the mo­ment we’re re­mov­ing it from our ev­ery­day space and putting it in hos­pi­tals and dy­ing places. Then we’ll turn our at­ten­tions to its tim­ing. We’ll be the ones to de­cide when it comes.

As I write, I look out onto the ve­randa. She’s had some­thing to eat and now she’s curled back up in her den of sleep­ing bags and blan­kets. Our young dark gray cat fol­lows her in and rolls up next to her in the warmth of her cool­ing body.

—trans­lated from the Pol­ish by Bill John­ston

An­drzej Sta­siuk

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