A Companion for the Stars

The harness restricts my movements, and I am only able to turn my head back and forth. I strain against the chains, pushing my face towards the ventilator. The capsule grows hotter with every passing minute, the air running out. I must find a way to tell them something’s gone wrong.

Tell them to bring me home before it’s too late.

Instead, the voice talks about me as if I can’t hear him. Yes, I’m still here, I’m still alive. The voice drones on: “Tral-D telemetry ongoing, spectro-photometers measuring cosmic and ultraviolet rays. Data confirmed, next check fifteen minutes after each orbit.”

Strange words I once overheard in the laboratory. I close my eyes and focus on my exercises. Despite the months of preparation and training, it is frightening to feel so helpless. Even the utmost concentration cannot drown out the continuous rattling and pounding on the tiny panels that surround me.

There’s no food left now, having eaten the salty, gelatinized substance after takeoff. No water either—I’ve pulled at the tube dangling above my left eye and extracted every bit of moisture.

And I’m still not sure how I’ve come to find myself here.

Before, I was self-sufficient, living on the streets and surviving by my wits. I slept in alleys and rode the Metro at night to stay warm. Around me, the roar of Moscow: automobiles, buses, elektrichika streetcars, horses and trolleys—though they say there is only one left now—a relentless churning, a city in constant agitation, on the edge of snapping and breaking. I stayed out of its way in the crevices, in the shadows.

That changed when I was taken in by the old baker on Arbat street, who ran an inconspicuous establishment with a single oven and wood-planked floors snowy white with powder. It was warm in the winter, away from the cold wind and rain. The baker fed me vatrushka buns and baked apples. He let me sleep inside by the sugar sacks, as long as I didn’t lick them. From daybreak to long into the evening, the bakery filled with the sweet-and-sour aromas of molasses and coriander. People came from all over the city for his loaves of black bread and moskovsky kalatch.

When did you get a pet, Evgeny, the regular customers asked. She is so charming, they said, and called me tiny one, shy one. Sometimes I got an affectionate pat on the head or a small treat. Nearly a year went by, and it was the happiest time of my life.

I thought the baker might ask me to live with him, but every night he showed me the door—shoved me outside and did not offer to take me home. This meant sleeping on the trains again, or waiting by the door until morning. Then I discovered I was pregnant. The baker screamed and kicked me. When his assistants tried to help, he shouted at them too. I ran away as fast as I could and wandered, lost and ashamed.

Is it so hard to believe I trusted the other man when he held out his hand? “Don’t be afraid, limonchik,” he said, little curly one. I had nothing and nowhere to go. I didn’t want to give birth alone. Finally, I thought, I’ve found a safe haven for myself and my new family. But I never saw my pups again.

I didn’t understand until later that the man had come searching for a case like mine, to take advantage of my rootlessness. To be without a home is more than lacking shelter; it means your life is precarious, usually in peril, and you make ill-informed choices.

The man took me to an isolated place outside the city, a cold, unfriendly building filled with instruments and machines and sour faced, pale people in white coats. As soon as I arrived I lost all my freedom, was watched and penned in, a prisoner who didn’t know her crime.

It was here I first heard their odd talk, and learned I was to be a “test subject.” I was afraid of what this might mean, and of them.

Their huge, icy hands prodded and poked my body. They tested my urine and feces, shone lights in my eyes and put mechanical devices in my ears and throat. My diet was limited and I knew hunger again, and only when the scale read six kilograms did it please them. I wondered if they were deliberately shrinking me, making me smaller as part of their cruel experiments.

In the beginning, I was let out once in the late mornings, always under their watchful eye. Eventually, even that glimpse of freedom was taken from me. Day by day, they moved me to smaller and smaller cages. I tracked time in captivity by scratching a line in the bottom of the cages for each day. In the first I made ten lines. The next, fifteen lines. And in the final cage I marked out twenty days.

On the two-hundred fortieth day, I met others like me. There were three of us altogether, all females. Perhaps we knew one another from the streets, perhaps not—it was better to pretend to be strangers.

The one called Albina eyed me warily, growling with a low sound in her throat; I responded with my loudest bark.

Some of the men began to laugh, the women in the room joining in. One looked at me and said, “you have quite a voice for such a little thing!” And that’s when they gave me my name—I was to be known thereafter as “the barker.” I had never had a name before, not even on Arbat Street.

I did not like having this sudden reputation for being loud. But as much as I tried to be friendly, my overtures were met with indifference.

I envied the one they named Myshka because a paw correctly pressed against a panel or nose tapped instrument rewarded her with an extra treat or affection. But I suspected this was a way to manipulate her. I advised Myshka not to trust as easily as I had. The more I wanted to convince her we couldn’t trust these men, the more she whimpered. As if to confirm my warning, they soon confined her to a dark, airless box and abandoned her there for hours.

Myshka cried great wails and sobs all night, begging to be brought back into their good graces. And when they eventually left us all in the dark, I remained quiet and tried to sleep, even though hearing Myshka so distressed upset me as well. She rejected my offerings of comfort; she didn’t seem to understand me.

We could discern no clues from the curious activities we endured. One day they walked me to the end of a long hallway and into a large space with a metal plank extending the breadth of the room. Attached to the end of the plank was a round bag connected to two gear boxes. They strapped a soft harness around my torso and body, leaving my limbs exposed, and then slid me inside the odd apparatus.

A young woman appeared carrying a glass globe which she fit over my head, locking it in place. She smiled at me and told me to stay. Everyone moved to the perimeter of the room. After a few moments, the metal plank and I began to rotate, faster and faster, until my masters’ faces blurred and I felt an immense weight pressing against me. This ordeal continued daily for the next five days.

Not once were we told why they were doing this, what our purpose was.

Then, as if by miracle, yesterday it all stopped—and the same man who found me took me to his home. There I played with his two children. They wrapped their pudgy arms around my neck and treated me like family. I ate vatrushka buns and felt like myself again. I rejoiced, feeling lighter than ever and I wanted to jump up forever. It was everything I had ever dreamed of having. To thank him I tried to kiss and lick the man’s face, but he was serious, focusing on something past me.

I understand now he was saying goodbye.

We returned to the laboratory and I admit I felt a great emptiness. There was no time to mourn my glimpse of happiness and freedom, however, as more preparation followed at a breakneck speed. This is when I learned the great undertaking was not to happen here. I was bundled up and we traveled many, many kilometers to another place. I glimpsed it briefly: a vast open steppe, barren and gray. There was no city here, no people conducting their business, only metal girders and empty rail tracks.

Outside the fading night sky stayed blue, the stars blinking, winking at me. Were they tired like me? Sleepy, I yawned, my tongue wagging. Am I to get breakfast?

Nervous energy permeated my masters’ actions. I nuzzled the hands of those who carried me, attempted to kiss their worried faces, but they were stone-faced.

For the first time I saw the craft, a kind of miniature house coming to a point, resembling the ones on Pushkin Square. Unlike an automobile there are no wheels and no seating. There is one door that opens outward, a kind of hatch. Even if I wanted to push it open, it looks much too heavy to move.

They produced another harness and strapped it around my body. They inserted a bag directly underneath me. Am I not even to get walked this morning? One of the white coats told me to stay calm as he attached small, padded patches to my chest and legs, which were then connected to other wires.

And to my utter shock, they secured me in heavy chains.

I started barking, louder and louder. I even considered biting them. I couldn’t have, of course, but I felt no reason to be treated this way. What had I done? But it was no use. I was completely at the mercy of my caretakers, as I had been since that fateful day in Moscow.

One last task remained before they sealed me inside. A photographer and film crew recorded the occasion. In the city a passerby might take a photograph of me now and again, and every time I hoped to get something in return: a treat, or water, or a modicum of affection, but they only pointed and mocked me.

Today I put on my bravest, most attractive expression, my head straight, my ears pointed and my eyes bright. I stood tall, my face tilted upwards in a most heroic pose. Everyone took turns getting a photo with me and the capsule.

But none of them were interested in praising me or acknowledging my hard work and sacrifice—only the capsule and its mysterious instruments held their attention. The men once again regarded me with stern expressions and anxious faces, their brows furrowed. At least no one laughed.

They closed the hatch and with a whoosh of air, I was sealed in airtight. I could hear myself breathing in the capsule.

The act of enclosing me inside the craft was the moment of epiphany. Now I knew what my task would be. It was clear I would be going on a journey of great importance. Out of everyone, I was chosen. I had triumphed over Albina and Myshka.

Now everyone will be watching. Everyone will know me.

Back home, on this bright, clear, beautiful day of blue cloudless skies, the pack must be riding the Metro to ward off the chill and pleading for meals in the streets.

But there was not a moment to spare. I was moved to a very large structure and lifted onto a metal gurney, and we traveled through brightly lit corridors, emerging outside. I moved back and forth but couldn’t see much outside of the little window above my head. Moving quickly, feet shuffling, the others spin and coast like leaves caught in a squall. Like a leaf torn off its branch, I was buoyed along in the direction of my destiny.

After attaching cables and hoses, the men placed my craft onto a pad and stepped away. The doors were shut and locked with great effort, and at last, I was alone.

Then, the most shattering noise, a huge rumbling sound, louder than anything I’d ever heard. I worried the shaking would break me, destroy me, that my heart would beat so fast it would burst through my chest. The very doorway vibrated. The air was superheated. The cabin shook and moved violently, and I was sure it would explode.

Do not leave me here, come get me, come get me! I thought, and then, no, I will not be like Myshka; I will be strong.

My heart raced—hundreds of times a minute, as if I was running for my life, but there’s no one pursuing me. My heart beats so fast it’s erupting from my chest. Can’t calm my breathing.

Breathing so shallow and fast, hyperventilating, surely I will die--when the voice, his voice, comes through the panel in front of me.

“All right, limonchik. It will be over soon, Zhuchka, my little bug.”

And then I lift ever higher, propelled into the sky, higher and higher, through misty clouds and then suddenly darkness, darkness in the middle of the day.

Darkness, but not night. The sky is an infinite blackness deeper and darker than any night I’ve ever seen. It is so very, very black—blacker than newly shined soldier’s boots, deeper than fresh tar on the roads. Darkness that is blinding, that hurts to look at, an omnipresence gazing back at you, indifferent, merciless. It was daylight when I left them. The blinking and winking stars are so much closer. There are so many stars.

And again it’s dawn, the window filling with rose-pinks and fiery oranges. Glowing sunset followed by glowing sunrise. It gives way to night once more. Time has no meaning.

I am far away, and yet my home feels so near.

And now I have an understanding: I am not bound to the ground. This is where I have been all along, running over the surface of an immense creation, a domain so vast as to not be believed—but my own eyes perceive it.

Color fills the craft, greens and grays and whites—walls of water and clouds. The great curve of the world is revealed to me, and above it, a thin seam embracing the planet in a halo of light, protecting us from the unrelenting blackness.

I am moving incredibly fast. I am untethered, speeding across the sky. The journey reminds me of the great hunts of legend. Prey, pursuit, heartbeat roaring in my ears. Where is my master to accompany me on my journey? How will I find her?

A brilliant white star with a blue-ish tinge there—perhaps I’m not alone.

Speaking out my observations as clearly as I can, I tap with my paws and press my nose to the panel. Above the instruments is a glass, hundreds of lines filling a tiny frame.

The heat is unbearable now. The fan no longer functions. The cabin is stultifying, suffocating me. Walls becoming thinner somehow. When everything shook and a piece of my metal sphere separated, parts of the insulated walls tore. This little house of mine is being torn apart.

Looking away, moving faster second by second, I come to realize these passes over the world move me closer to my end.

Still my new, brightest friend sparkles. My touchstone. Spinning golden clusters.

I am a wave of light, like an arrow, rising into the sky. I am an explorer, no longer of the nooks and alleyways of my city. There is so much more. I had no idea how vast the world is.

In my former home, would the old streets seem small to me? The streets I know so well: there I’ll hide in the old alleys during the morning drizzle and watch the people jostle with their umbrellas; there I’ll see the young boys and girls flirting in their open-topped cars; an errand boy with a loaf of bread tucked under each arm; the soldiers stopping for ice cream during the May Day parade. May or November, summer or winter, the people live and work and love and die. And I’ll see them.

Here there are no seasons, no cold or heat or wind or rain. Only a terrible tranquility and silence. I was a wanderer, ever-moving from place to place, with no particular home. There was freedom, yes; but also loneliness. No loneliness is as great as that when surrounded by others who do not see you.

I have come to that loneliest place of all, that which is hidden inside. The place we look away from and are frightened to face. No one should be alone there. Instead of closing our hearts to ourselves, we must expand, widening the senses. This must be the purpose of my journey: the expansion of ourselves beyond our existence as it is now. To journey forever and be a companion for others so they don’t feel the loneliness in the darkness.

Am I meant to transform? No, I already am that which I am, I only need to become as I already was. A full circle of becoming, a whole existence. My existence is an untapped potentiality. I have earned my worth.

I am no longer an individual, no longer separate, but I am stretched to a wavelength made of my own sinew and muscle, a membrane of an immeasurable body in the firmament.

Whenever anyone looks up at the night sky, they will see me, shining bright in the darkness. I will be as the myriad dots of light. Close your eyes, see me everywhere.

All of you strong, curious, searching hunters, you will look up and see me. You will say, there is our little Zhuchka, no longer our little bug. There is our steadfast companion. There she is.

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