Through her sacrifice, Laika gave science precious data, which will soon allow mankind to dominate space.
L’Unità, November 11, 1957
It is over, the terrible heat. The terrible heat and the horrible noise have passed. Soon He will come to let me out. I can hear my heart beating, fast then not so fast. This is my favorite time, when all is still and quiet, and He is coming. I have to sit like this a lot, sometimes they make me sit for days, but I like to sit. I listen to my breath, moving in and out, and forget that I am hungry, or hot or very thirsty; that I cannot stand or turn around. I forget about Him even, my longing for Him, although it was He who taught me how to find this peace. Sit, Laika, sit.
But something is different today. Though my heart has calmed, the rest of me feels strange. Even though I cannot move, trapped as I am between two pillows, in my suit – still, I am rising. If I were not so firmly tethered, I might float away. Everything else is the same, but this is different.
Something is wrong. He has not come to let me out. I search my memory for clues. I think it was yesterday morning, or perhaps the day before, that He took down the Leash and opened the door to the Cage. “Walk? Walk?” He asked, in that simple way of His.
“Yes, of course!” I responded. “Shall we go somewhere special, like the Beach?” But as usual, He ignored my question. Or perhaps He simply didn’t understand. After all this time, I know so many of His words and He knows so few of mine.
We did go to the Beach, down to the Great Water. But He would not let me go in, only stand at the edge and smell the salt. There were many gorgeous smells on the Beach that day, even some dead things, but He would not let me near them. “Sit, Laika,” He said, and I sat.
He stroked my head with His heavy hand, looking out at the Great Water. I was happy, the way I always am sitting next to Him. No matter what I have to endure, when He comes to let me out, I am happy again.
He tried to tell me something, but they weren’t the words I know. They were the words they use when they talk across their desks or while walking down the corridors. The only one I recognized was “Limonchik,” the name no other calls me. Limonchik, He kept saying over and over, putting that word up against the other ones, as if it could somehow make them mean something to me, or make me mean something to those words. Whatever He was saying, it caused warm water to stream from his eyes and His body to jerk and tremble.
“I understand,” I told Him. “We are all subject to forces beyond our control.” He laughed and took hold of the paw I had proffered, but the water continued to leak from His eyes.
Something is wrong. Everything is the same as before, but I am in a different place. I know this from the floating feeling I have, and the fact that He does not come. I am hungry, too; usually they do not let me get this hungry. I’ve finished my water, and the thirst – I sit and try to forget the thirst.
There is a horrible creature in here with me. She has only just made herself known. She bites me incessantly and says terrible things.
“Ouch!” I yelp. “How did you get in here?”
“I’m a flea. We get in everywhere.”
“But they wash me once a week. With a special shampoo.”
“Oh yes. They treat you so nice.”
“Because I am not a dirty parasite. Ouch! Stop biting me!”
“I can’t,” she says. “I’m a dirty parasite.”
The Flea is very angry to be stuck in here with me. I think she bites me more than she has to. “We’ll be out soon,” I tell her, despite my doubts. “He is coming.”
But the Flea will have none of it. And she has a peculiar explanation for what I’m feeling. She says we are, in fact, floating.
“And where we’re floating, no one has ever floated before.”
“Nonsense!” I say. “This a Test. I’ve been through loads of them.”
“And what did you think they were testing for?”
I ponder her question long and hard, even though she is biting me.
“They were testing my loyalty,” I say finally.
“Your loyalty? Your loyalty to whom?”
“To Him? They don’t need to test your loyalty to Him. You’re a dog.”
But she is wrong, this flea. I was not always so loyal. When they first captured me and brought me in off the streets, I would not let them near. I bit one of them, hard. When he screamed, I bared my bloody fangs and laughed. I paced my cage, I gnawed at the bars, I plotted my escape. I cursed them, long, elaborate curses, and though they understood nothing, my enmity chilled them. “Volchishka,” they called me, Little Wolf, and tried to win me over with meaty bones. But I had learned long ago that the key to freedom is to live for something other than food.
They were ready to turn me out: ungrateful little bitch, unlovable, untouchable, untrainable, and I was more than ready to go. Then one day He came, in a white coat just like the rest, but on him it seemed less a hygienic precaution than the outer manifestation of an inner purity. “Limonchik,” he chuckled when he saw my sour face. Little Lemon. “She’s just what we want. A fighter.” He offered me nothing but a simple command: Sit, Laika, sit.
And I sat.
The Flea has been feeding me more of her peculiar ideas. I am on a mission, apparently, but my mission has nothing to do with the one who calls me Limonchik, or only so much as He is one of Them, the ones who have sent me into the Deep Dark Night That Never Ends. They want to go there too someday, and they need to know if they will survive the trip.
“But why would they want to go where their survival is threatened?” I ask.
“Because they feel trapped.”
“Trapped? By what?”
“By their tiny planet, which is nothing more than a plaything in the hands of the Universe, a bright blue ball. They need to know if there are other worlds out there. Then it doesn’t matter so much what they do with this one.”
“And are there other worlds?”
“That is what they have to find out, before the Americans do.”
The Americans are another band of men shooting small animals into the Deep Dark Night. If they find the other worlds first, the Flea says, they will destroy the one we live on.
“Because then they could do without it. Don’t you know enough of Man to understand that what I say is true?”
Not my Man, I answer silently, for what does a flea know of higher motives? Not Him.
I would like to see it. The Flea has described it to me, but I would like to see it for myself: the silent black, the shining dust, and then, when you turn, the bright blue ball that holds everything that has ever lived. How could a flea know this, you ask, and I had the same thought, but she swears it is a memory handed down from generation to generation of the lower order creatures, from the time when we were all of us shining dust, yet to land.
I think I’m starting to understand this mission. Not the race with the Americans, that seems childish to me, but the desire to see what is out there. If the Flea speaks the truth, it must be so impossibly beautiful. That must be why He sent me ahead. It can only be that.
“Oh, why didn’t they make me a window?” I cry, and the Flea laughs her horrible screeching laugh.
“When are you going to get it through your thick skull, you dumb dog? They don’t care about you.”
I am dizzy, dizzy with hunger and very weak. There was only one other time I have ever felt this hungry. It was the dead of winter and there was no food left in Moscow for anyone, man or dog. Only the fleas, those dirty parasites, continued to feast. When I could not go one step further, I lay down in a back alley and let the warm snow cover me. I was almost ready to go but not quite—as He says, I am a fighter. There was a human mother crouched there in the alley with her two children, and she shoved a bowl towards me. I saw the hunger in her eyes and in her children’s eyes, yet she shoved the bowl towards me and watched me gobble up the slop that remained.
That’s when I realized there is something good in Them that mirrors the something good in us, something a Flea could never understand.
I ask the Flea what it smells like out there in the Deep Dark Night that Never Ends.
“Seared steak,” she whispers, biting my ear.
I am so terribly cold. The Flea has stopped biting me. She says I’m starving.
They know I’m starving, she says. No animal can go this long without food. They know I’m starving, and still He does not come.
Since the Flea has stopped biting me, she will soon be starving too.
“So, you are a higher order creature after all,” I say.
“No,” she answers. “I’m still a lower order creature. I’m just having a moment.”
The Flea is dead. I killed her. It was an accident, sort of, a reflex response to a horrible thing she said. I smashed her into the wall with my shoulder. I’m in a very sensitive state.
I killed the Flea for the terrible thing she said, but what she said was true. They have no way of getting me back. They were in too much of a hurry to figure it out – it is a race, after all. That’s why the warm water burst from His eyes. That was the force beyond His control.
“But He had you there, at the Beach,” she said. “He could’ve let you go.”
It’s terrifying to be so utterly alone, to hear only the voice in my head. For a while it flitted from topic to topic in a blind panic, but now it simply repeats the same words over and over:
I wish I had not killed the Flea.
I wish I had not killed the Flea.
My heart beats irregularly; it stutters and stops, stutters and stops. Is He tracking all this, down there on his tiny planet? I cannot know, and I no longer care. The silken cord that once bound me to him binds me no longer. I feel neither hate nor love, for Him nor anyone.
I untether my thoughts and let them float up and away; I fix my eyes on the bright blue ball in my mind. The voice in my head is growing quieter, moment by moment, and there is a new sound to listen to. The Flea had said we might hear it if we got far enough out: the chiming of the stars – or no, the music of the spheres, she called it. Well, I have heard it, that eternal harmony beyond reach of man or dog. I hear it now, and I never wish to hear anything else—no, not even the sound of my master’s voice.
What I wish is to stop floating and rest my head on my paws, in its glass bubble.
What I wish is for the life I have known to end.
Lie, Laika, lie.
Janet Sarbanes is the author of the short story collection Army of One, and has published fiction and criticism in journals such as Black Clock, Zyzzyva, Afterall, Popular Music and Society, Utopian Studies, Los Angeles Review of Books and East of Borneo. Her current book project is titled Radical Imaginaries: Aesthetic Sociality and the Project of Autonomy. She teaches in the School of Critical Studies and the MFA Creative Writing Program at CalArts. “Lie, Laika, Lie,” was inspired by the Soviet space dog portraits of M.A. Peers.