A Song for Laika
A while ago, in the back of a bar in Madrid, a friend once asked me which, out of all of God’s creatures who ever walked this earth, I pitied most. My answer, spoken over an overpriced cocktail slick with ice melting in the heat of a dry Spanish night, was a Russian mongrel terrier and I was not lying. Scoff at me all you like (he certainly did) but I will not budge. Brand me a melodramatic simpleton, but my heart goes out to that tiny pup plucked from the streets of Moscow to be sent to a cold grave in a steel coffin, lazily tracing circles around the globe.
I have seen the postcards, cartoons, the granulated photographs. A little white-and-brown face, ears bent at the tips like the folded edges of a book’s pages, head cocked with an air of playful inquisitiveness, mouth hanging open to reveal a happy panting tongue. A petite pioneer sitting among the chrome confines of the shuttle that would banish it into the Abyss. Sent to die, alone and scared, with barely the memory of the human touch it had dreamed of, in fitful snatches, as it rooted through greasy dustbins on Muscovite streets speckled with frost.
How proud she looked, an unsung canine hero that paved the way for us monstrous apes to plant our flagpoles on lunar sand and tighten a girdle around the cosmos.
What a sin for us to live with, that we watched as man’s best friend lay belly-up before our path to please us. Only to then go and press our boots upon her furry stomach without a second thought, to step towards the heavens. And even then, she would have trotted at our heels, curled tail vibrating with excitement, wet nose nudging at our thighs. Staring with those round black marble eyes, portals to love, unconditional and infinite, that we do not know how to understand, or how to give.
No number of statues cast in bronze, emblazoned with trite slogans can do you justice. For all its shining pallor as it strikes the sun, metal does not have a heart as big as the one (barely the size of a hand) that beat within your breast, fit to explode with excitement as a solitary existence with nothing but hunger for company gave way to a world of engineers, doctors and cosmonauts fussing over your every move. Showering you with precious names so unlike the rough curses and kicks a dog of the streets would learn. “Mutt” and “beast” became “Kudryavka,” meaning ‘little curly,’ for your snail-shell tail, “Zhuchka,” ‘Little bug’, squashed by human indifference. So many new friends, a world of play and touch as alien to you as the distant suns among which you were to pass your final moments. At the thought of the rough and calloused hands that stroked your fur, I wonder if you felt safe for once. If you stored beneath your fragile, shaggy chest, a kernel of affection to keep you warm.
A scientist took you to his home, to be with his children, as the clock shaved away the minutes before a life was snuffed out. Scampering to and fro, barking with excitement in a cacophony accompanied by the squeals and giggles of little ones that showered you with kisses, rolling on the floor and squirming, legs kicking in satisfaction as delicate fingers scratched away at your itches. Curling up, nose pressed against the scent of a family and a home, rocked to sleep by the slow rise and fall of a human’s lap as they breathed.
A brief memory of what should have been, before the terror of tight, sharp metal confines and the bellowing of rocket fuel. The engines screeching out in a whirlwind of pure fear overpowering every animal instinct with an onslaught of heaving, juddering, rattling steel belching out in a roar to hurtle you away from the kind strokes and smiles.
Away, to a purgatory that a man could not fathom, from the figures you had worshipped, with the tenderness of paw-prints scratching at a trouser-leg, into a maelstrom of confusion, a lifeless expanse devoid of even a voice to say your name.
I can see your breath spread fog upon the grimy windows of your shuttle, as you saw what no other being before you had ever set their eyes upon. Could you have possibly understood that the sapphire marble speckled with blotches of green and diamond, perhaps no bigger than a tennis ball you would gnaw at, was a world so much bigger than the back-alleys and parks you had known?
By the light of the sun, within a silver capsule floating before the threshold of eternity, a four- legged friend watches. In her inkwell eyes she holds galaxies.
She waits for when she will be let out of this tight, wintry prison. Fitfully, her tail drums a beat against the iron walls, impatiently yearning for when she will be able to return to be hugged and praised and fed. She sounds off one or two barks, calling out names known only to her, answered only by the menacing hum off the shuttle, as her pleas fade into echoes in the dark satin sheets of space.
With a low, hurt whine of confusion, she slumps on the floor, a tired sigh puffing from a coal-black button nose.
For the first time in aeons, the crackling quasars and solar winds are underscored by the soft yelps and twitches as she chases sticks and children in her sleep. The astral dance of meteorites and stardust stops for a second, interrupted by the wet, rhythmic lapping of a pink tongue washing fur. The street-mutt does not know it. Could not know it.
She is the loneliest creature in the Universe.
In a better world, she would not have perished. I smile to myself as I daydream of the bone- surface of the moon, a wreck bearing the faded letters CCCP nestled in a lunar crater. There, a little figure in a clunky spacesuit, a glass dome already misted over from excited panting on her head, sprints and jumps in mammoth leaps free from the confines of gravity, tongue flapping as she runs after the rabbit of Chang’e. The rings of Saturn are marked with pawprints as she chases her tail in an endless circle, and she sniffs the dusty trails of comets that remind her of the snow back home.
Call it puerile fantasies, mock its lack of substance. Better to dream of this, than think on the last moments of the world’s finest canine cosmonaut as she struggled to breathe, her vision clouding over as precious air ran out, her last thoughts of the children’s laughter that had, maybe, made it all worth it.
Even as the shuttle began to plummet like a fallen angel back to Earth, burning cherry-red then blinding white in the hellish furnace of re-entry, five measly kilograms of life turned to ash, cremated to dot the rapids of the Milky Way, becoming yet another flaming trace in the sky to make a wish upon. A Viking burial to a yapping, barking firebrand in the pages of history.
When I hear the howls of your compatriots, as they turn their snouts to the sky, I think they sing a song for you, Laika. A low, quavering eulogy, a yowling cry in remembrance for the stray that sailed the winds of space. Their barking tones will keep you company the way we never could.
I step away from my desk as I write this, because my throat is blocked with lead and my eyes are smarting with tears that I would never have even shed for myself. I leave my computer to pulsate fluorescently, beckoning me to fill up the emptiness of its screen and finish this tale. A pinned-up picture of my West Highland Terrier catches my eye, her miniscule face almost straining to break out of the photograph and onto my chest in a wet, snuffling heap. She would lick away at the tears, salty treats to be brushed away by a rough, sandpapery tongue. Laika, no-one was there to wipe away yours.
It is 10:30 in the evening and night has snuck up on me outside the streets of Edinburgh. I briefly look outside the window of my room, ignoring the neon logo of a convenience store, the orange fuzz of streetlamps. A golden streak arcs across the heavens as I watch.
In my mind’s eye, a shooting star becomes a dog, running joyously into the waiting arms of its master.