An odd, unsettling, well-known Russian tale.
⁓The Voice before the Void
“The White Dog”
translated from the Russian by John Cournos
Everything grew irksome for Alexandra Ivanovna in the workshop of this out-of-the-way town — the patterns, the clatter of machines, the complaints of the managers; it was the shop in which she had served as apprentice and now for several years as seamstress. Everything irritated Alexandra Ivanovna; she quarrelled with every one and abused the innocent apprentices. Among others to suffer from her outbursts of temper was Tanechka, the youngest of the seamstresses, who had only recently become an apprentice. In the beginning Tanechka submitted to her abuse in silence. In the end she revolted, and, addressing herself to her assailant, said, quite calmly and affably, so that every one laughed:
“You, Alexandra Ivanovna, are a downright dog!”
Alexandra Ivanovna felt humiliated.
“You are a dog yourself!” she exclaimed.
Tanechka was sitting sewing. She paused now and then from her work and said in a calm, deliberate manner:
“You always whine . . . Certainly, you are a dog . . . You have a dog’s snout . . . And a dog’s ears . . . And a wagging tail . . . The mistress will soon drive you out of doors, because you are the most detestable of dogs, a poodle.”
Tanechka was a young, plump, rosy-cheeked girl with an innocent, good-natured face, which revealed, however, a trace of cunning. She sat there so demurely, barefooted, still dressed in her apprentice clothes; her eyes were clear, and her brows were highly arched on her fine curved white forehead, framed by straight, dark chestnut hair, which in the distance looked black. Tanechka’s voice was clear, even, sweet, insinuating, and if one could have heard its sound only, and not given heed to the words, it would have given the impression that she was paying Alexandra Ivanovna compliments.
The other seamstresses laughed, the apprentices chuckled, they covered their faces with their black aprons and cast side glances at Alexandra Ivanovna. As for Alexandra Ivanovna, she was livid with rage.
“Wretch!” she exclaimed. “I will pull your ears for you! I won’t leave a hair on your head.”
Tanechka replied in a gentle voice:
“The paws are a trifle short . . . The poodle bites as well as barks . . . It may be necessary to buy a muzzle.”
Alexandra Ivanovna made a movement toward Tanechka. But before Tanechka had time to lay aside her work and get up, the mistress of the establishment, a large, serious-looking woman, entered, rustling her dress.
She said sternly: “Alexandra Ivanovna, what do you mean by making such a fuss?”
Alexandra Ivanovna, much agitated, replied: “Irina Petrovna, I wish you would forbid her to call me a dog!”
Tanechka in her turn complained: “She is always snarling at something or other. Always quibbling at the smallest trifles.”
But the mistress looked at her sternly and said: “Tanechka, I can see through you. Are you sure you didn’t begin? You needn’t think that because you are a seamstress now you are an important person. If it weren’t for your mother’s sake—”
Tanechka grew red, but preserved her innocent and affable manner. She addressed her mistress in a subdued voice: “Forgive me, Irina Petrovna, I will not do it again. But it wasn’t altogether my fault . . .”
Alexandra Ivanovna returned home almost ill with rage. Tanechka had guessed her weakness.
“A dog! Well, then I am a dog,” thought Alexandra Ivanovna, “but it is none of her affair! Have I looked to see whether she is a serpent or a fox? It is easy to find one out, but why make a fuss about it? Is a dog worse than any other animal?”
The clear summer night languished and sighed, a soft breeze from the adjacent fields occasionally blew down the peaceful streets. The moon rose clear and full, that very same moon which rose long ago at another place, over the broad desolate steppe, the home of the wild, of those who ran free, and whined in their ancient earthly travail. The very same, as then and in that region.
And now, as then, glowed eyes sick with longing; and her heart, still wild, not forgetting in town the great spaciousness of the steppe, felt oppressed; her throat was troubled with a tormenting desire to howl like a wild thing.
She was about to undress, but what was the use? She could not sleep, anyway.
She went into the passage. The warm planks of the floor bent and creaked under her, and small shavings and sand which covered them tickled her feet not unpleasantly.
She went out on the doorstep. There sat the babushka Stepanida, a black figure in her black shawl, gaunt and shrivelled. She sat with her head bent, and it seemed as though she were warming herself in the rays of the cold moon.
Alexandra Ivanovna sat down beside her. She kept looking at the old woman sideways. The large curved nose of her companion seemed to her like the beak of an old bird.
“A crow?” Alexandra Ivanovna asked herself.
She smiled, forgetting for the moment her longing and her fears. Shrewd as the eyes of a dog her own lighted up with the joy of her discovery. In the pale green light of the moon the wrinkles of her faded face became altogether invisible, and she seemed once more young and merry and light-hearted, just as she was ten years ago, when the moon had not yet called upon her to bark and bay of nights before the windows of the dark bathhouse.
She moved closer to the old woman, and said affably: “Babushka Stepanida, there is something I have been wanting to ask you.”
The old woman turned to her, her dark face furrowed with wrinkles, and asked in a sharp, oldish voice that sounded like a caw: “Well, my dear? Go ahead and ask?”
Alexandra Ivanovna gave a repressed laugh; her thin shoulders suddenly trembled from a chill that ran down her spine.
She spoke very quietly: “Babushka Stepanida, it seems to me — tell me is it true? — I don’t know exactly how to put it — but you, babushka, please don’t take offence — it is not from malice that I — ”
“Go on, my dear, never fear, say it,” said the old woman.
She looked at Alexandra Ivanovna with glowing, penetrating eyes.
“It seems to me, babushka — please, now, don’t take offence — as though you, babushka, were a crow.”
The old woman turned away. She was silent and merely nodded her head. She had the appearance of one who had recalled something. Her head, with its sharply outlined nose, bowed and nodded, and at last it seemed to Alexandra Ivanovna that the old woman was dozing. Dozing, and mumbling something under her nose. Nodding her head and mumbling some old forgotten words — old magic words.
An intense quiet reigned out of doors. It was neither light nor dark, and everything seemed bewitched with the inarticulate mumbling of old forgotten words. Everything languished and seemed lost in apathy. Again a longing oppressed her heart. And it was neither a dream nor an illusion. A thousand perfumes, imperceptible by day, became subtly distinguishable, and they recalled something ancient and primitive, something forgotten in the long ages.
In a barely audible voice the old woman mumbled: “Yes, I am a crow. Only I have no wings. But there are times when I caw, and I caw, and tell of woe. And I am given to forebodings, my dear; each time I have one I simply must caw. People are not particularly anxious to hear me. And when I see a doomed person I have such a strong desire to caw.”
The old woman suddenly made a sweeping movement with her arms, and in a shrill voice cried out twice: “Kar-r, Kar-r!”
Alexandra Ivanovna shuddered, and asked:
“Babushka, at whom are you cawing?”
The old woman answered: “At you, my dear — at you.”
It had become too painful to sit with the old woman any longer. Alexandra Ivanovna went to her own room. She sat down before the open window and listened to two voices at the gate.
“It simply won’t stop whining!” said a low and harsh voice.
“And uncle, did you see—?” asked an agreeable young voice.
Alexandra Ivanovna recognized in this last the voice of the curly-headed, somewhat red, freckled-faced lad who lived in the same court.
A brief and depressing silence followed. Then she heard a hoarse and harsh voice say suddenly: “Yes, I saw. It’s very large — and white. Lies near the bathhouse, and bays at the moon.”
The voice gave her an image of the man, of his shovel-shaped beard, his low, furrowed forehead, his small, piggish eyes, and his spread-out fat legs.
“And why does it bay, uncle?” asked the agreeable voice.
And again the hoarse voice did not reply at once.
“Certainly to no good purpose — and where it came from is more than I can say.”
“Do you think, uncle, it may be a were-wolf?” asked the agreeable voice.
“I should not advise you to investigate,” replied the hoarse voice.
She could not quite understand what these words implied, nor did she wish to think of them. She did not feel inclined to listen further. What was the sound and significance of human words to her?
The moon looked straight into her face and persistently called her and tormented her. Her heart was restless with a dark longing, and she could not sit still.
Alexandra Ivanovna quickly undressed herself. Naked, all white, she silently stole through the passage; she then opened the outer door — there was no one on the step or outside — and ran quickly across the court and the vegetable garden, and reached the bathhouse. The sharp contact of her body with the cold air and her feet with the cold ground gave her pleasure. But soon her body was warm.
She lay down in the grass, on her stomach. Then, raising herself on her elbows, she lifted her face toward the pale, brooding moon, and gave a long-drawn-out whine.
“Listen, uncle, it is whining,” said the curly-haired lad at the gate.
The agreeable voice trembled perceptibly.
“Whining again, the accursed one,” said the hoarse, harsh voice slowly.
They rose from the bench. The gate latch clicked.
They went silently across the courtyard and the vegetable garden, the two of them. The older man, black-bearded and powerful, walked in front, a gun in his hand. The curly-headed lad followed tremblingly, and looked constantly behind.
Near the bathhouse, in the grass, lay a huge white dog, whining piteously. Its head, black on the crown, was raised to the moon, which pursued its way in the cold sky; its hind legs were strangely thrown backward, while the front ones, firm and straight, pressed hard against the ground.
In the pale green and unreal light of the moon it seemed enormous, so huge a dog was surely never seen on earth. It was thick and fat. The black spot, which began at the head and stretched in uneven strands down the entire spine, seemed like a woman’s loosened hair. No tail was visible, presumably it was turned under. The fur on the body was so short that in the distance the dog seemed wholly naked, and its hide shone dimly in the moonlight, so that altogether it resembled the body of a nude woman, who lay in the grass and bayed at the moon.
The man with the black beard took aim. The curly-haired lad crossed himself and mumbled something.
The discharge of a rifle sounded in the night air. The dog gave a groan, jumped up on its hind legs, became a naked woman, who, her body covered with blood, started to run, all the while groaning, weeping and raising cries of distress.
The black-bearded one and the curly-haired one threw themselves in the grass, and began to moan in wild terror.