A mongrel dog with a limp and copious fleas.
Did such defects and disadvantages lessen my Nadya’s love for the beast?
Not in the slightest. Very likely such misfortunes made my daughter cherish her pet all the more. When the two were together, it was my Nadya, not the animal, who served as protector, my Nadya who chased away his enemies, who carried him and his injured paw across river stones, who would not consent to eat until her dog had been fed.
Nadya was five years old when we left Poland to return to Piter. A sturdy, healthy, curious, joyous child of five with dark red hair that escaped her braids no matter how tightly I plaited, her chubby knees accustomed to the joys of dirt and grass.
Five is an impressionable age.
To break the news of our leaving, her father, my husband, Konstantin, led her beyond the verandah of our home into the wilder profusions of that Polish spring. From the window, I watched them settle side by side on a yard bench. Greenery twined above them. Branches of blooms crisscrossed behind their backs.
I could not hear their conversation; I could only chart its effects. With his arm around her shoulders, Konstantin spoke. Thrilled by her father’s undivided attention, Nadya looked up with eager pleasure. And then, from one heartbeat to the next, pleasure turned to grief. Tears streaming, she ran toward the corner bushes and stopped, back to us, body heaving.
I stepped out onto the porch, but Konstantin motioned for me to remain where I was.
He would attempt the consolation of our daughter.
There would be none of that for any of us, either in our last weeks in Poland or in Piter, where the defamation of my Konstantin’s character would accelerate.
Beside the bushes and Nadya, Konstantin once again began to speak. Briefly, briefly, she turned an anguished face toward him, then away. She had been beating her fists against her thighs in protest. That now ceased.
Again I started in their direction; again Konstantin discouraged me. A moment later Nadya wiped her nose on the sleeve of her dress. And then, with the gravity of a seasoned mourner, our daughter squared her shoulders.
Nonsense! you will say. A child of five? Squaring her shoulders? Romantic revisionism!
Do you imagine it pleases me to report the squaring? The necessity of it? To admit my powerlessness in preventing the wrenching that occasioned that squaring?
Konstantin kissed the top of Nadya’s head and left her. The dog approached, ears quivering.
“What did you tell her? How did you explain it?”
“I said that a Polish dog that had enjoyed the run of a yard would not be happy in an apartment in Piter. I said that she must think of the dog and the dog’s happiness before her own.”
In the yard, our child had planted her cheek against what she must abandon. She chewed her lip but there were no more tears.
“May the tsar and his generals dream of vultures! May they toss and turn and cry for mercy in their sleep!”
“Yelizaveta! Your tongue!”
Perhaps you believe that losing a dog is of little consequence in a world of war and slaughter, hunger and neglect, inequity and oppression. In the larger sense, certainly you are correct.
But in the forming of my daughter’s character?
A child of five who gives up a pet for the greater good will grow into an adult determined to make those responsible for her loss pay or become so accustomed to sacrifice she will cease to define her behavior as such.
In my daughter’s case, the result was not one or the other; the result was both.
KAT MEADS is the author of For You, Madam Lenin and other books of prose and poetry, including The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan and Little Pockets of Alarm. Along with Gina Frangello, Cris Mazza and Stacy Bierlein, she edited Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience (OV Books). Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Drunken Boat, American Letters & Commentary, Gargoyle, Crazyhorse and Chicago Quarterly Review. She has received an NEA, writing residencies at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and Yaddo, Chelsea magazine’s fiction prize and the Dorothy Churchill Cappon Essay Award from New Letters. Her short plays have been produced in New York and Los Angeles. She teaches in Oklahoma City University’s low-residency Red Earth MFA program.
Adapted from For You, Madam Lenin by Kat Meads. Copyright © 2012 by Kat Meads. With the permission of the publisher, Livingston Press.