Dog (Where I End and You Begin)
Moscow, February 1954
Being an account of Liya Nikoleyevna, wife of Vladimir Demikhov, transplant surgeon.
In the morning there is a dog that hadn’t been here before. Volodya is asleep, his eyes little half-moons. In the pale light this morning his face is waxy, a death mask. Never before has a man looked so young and yet so old. He is like a little boy, the way he purrs in his sleep. But this is no time to admire. There is a dog, a big Alsatian, slobbering on the bedclothes. On my mother’s coverlet, no less. I hiss, trying to shoo it away without waking Volodya, but then I feel a short stab of anger — it is he who has let the dog into our tiny apartment. And not a small dog, either — a huge beast. What of Olechka, sleeping soundly in the next room? Her door is ajar; it would be easy for this dog — which could, now I think more because I am shaking off the foolishness of sleep, be rabid — to get into her room and it could rip her throat out.
How do I know it is Volodya who has brought this dog into our apartment? First, who else? Not Olechka, who is but a girl. But it being a dog in particular does not surprise me. He has a history with dogs. Not long after we met, before his face got soft and puffy with tiredness and he had something like prospects rather than ignominy, he told me by candlelight a little story of his childhood.
“You know, Iliusha”, he said, his face a weft of shadows, “I once tried to stab a dog."
Naturally, I had recoiled. But he laughed, his teeth flashing. “No, listen,” he said. His laugh spilled out like honey. Slow, slow. Everything deliberate and slow with him. “I am a scientist,” he said. “Always have been. Why, this is what I am trying to tell you. Even as a boy, I was an anatomist. My real father was Vesalius. Ha, ha, ha. No, listen. We had a dog, but I was curious. I wanted to know what was inside. Now, whatI really wanted to know was, what was inside me, or mamochka, but I could not cut us open. But family dog, yes, that was something I could do. We could always get another dog; for one thing, there were plenty on the streets! What would the death of one dog be? It would be noble! So I took a knife, a sharp one, and in the kitchen readied myself for — ha ha, I realise now — what would be my first anatomy lesson! But — and perhaps luckily — mamochka thwarted me! She burst in when I was an inch from chest cavity and snatched the knife away. A second later —“ and here he brought his hand up and then down in a slashing motion — “and dog would have been no more.”
I remember him sitting there, laughing to himself. I had not laughed, but something in that moment had made me know — really know — that this was the man I wanted to stay with, hold in the most intimate of ways, and at the same time I knew he was insane, but that this insanity straddled the line of insanity/genius, and I would be alright.
But, even so, here now is a large dog still slobbering on the bedclothes, and it will not respond to my hisses and frantic arm gestures to leave. So I nudge Volodya, soft at first, but then I really shove him. He stirs, heavy with sleep, but he smiles and nuzzles into his pillow. Dog at the bottom of the bed has now soaked my mother’s coverlet, so I shove Volodya again, and this time his eyes flutter open, but he shuts them again. Trickster.
“What the hell is dog doing here?” I say.
He blinks. He props himself up on his elbows. “Dog? Ah, yes! Dog!”
Dog, or maybe Volodya, whimpers. Volodya looks at me. There’s not much in the look, but I know. I have seen it many times before. It is the look that apologises for needing money. It is the look that apologises in lieu of flowers when he comes home late. “I have an idea,” he says. “Involves dogs. Perhaps many dogs.”
Perhaps many dogs. This is it. Blood on my mother’s coverlet. The chickens have come home to roost. The bats are in the belfry.
“Yes. But not for long. Dogs will stay for perhaps … week at most. Do not worry, Iliusha. They are temporary guests.”
Do not worry, Iliusha. I have heard this before. It always results in me worrying. Do not worry is often followed by the rat-a-tat-tat of bailiffs. Always when he is out. Always.
So Volodya tells me that he has a great plan for this dog. And, he warns, many subsequent dogs. For this will not be easy.
“I wish to perform dog head transplantation,” he says, as though he is saying he would like porridge for breakfast.
I have to ask. “What do you mean?”
He smiles. "I am going to take the head of a small dog and put it on this dog.”
There is silence that goes beyond the cold creeping in. When I speak, I say ha ha ha in a voice that brings outside’s cold in. But my ha ha ha is met by a smile like melting snow.
“I am serious,” he says, taking my hand in his. His hand is warm, too, and his eyes seem to swim. I cannot look at them. These eyes, when they become wet like this, moon-in-puddle wet, are irresistible. They shine with his dreams, of things beyond words, of madnesses puncturing the membrane of genius. I know no walls can contain him: not those of this apartment, not those of the Institute of Surgery, at which he tugs at the cabling of biology, hacking and tearing and ripping, but then making anew.
I want to say, Volodya, please, take on ordinary medical work, like an ordinary medical man. But such things are beneath him. He grows bored, stormy. The apartment shrinks around his hunched shoulders. It is not enough. It is never enough.
And all the while fucking dog is staring at me, still drooling on my mother’s coverlet. Dog looks at me with eyes like Volodya’s. So now I have dog staring at me and Volodya staring at me, both as earnest as each other.
And now another pair of big bright eyes stair at me. Olga, little Olga, Olechka, standing there with her nightie balled in her fist. Her knees knock a little in the cold. I beckon her to our bed. Volodya spreads his arms. “Come, Olechka, lisichka, get yourself warm.” But of course, she sees dog. Dog is now main feature of our apartment, star property, main attraction. Get your tickets, please. And of course she runs up to dog and buries her face in dog’s neck and hugs dog tight.
Dog continues to drool on my mother’s coverlet. Fucking dog, I think, and I feel my lips move, and I worry that my thoughts might escape, so I clamp my lips shut.
“What is his name?” Olechka asks.
Volodya does not miss a beat. “Brodyaga,” he says.
Olechka snorts. “That’s a funny name for a dog.”
“Well, I found him by the railway depot. He was eating some scraps out of a paper bag. When I saw him, he begged for food, like this,” (and here Volodya pantomimes with surprising accuracy a begging dog), “so I decided to call him Brodyaga.”
“I love him.”
I cannot keep my voice at bay behind teeth. “You do not love dog,” I snarl. “You have just met dog. Dog will not be here for long. Your father has brought dog home for work, but dog will be gone soon. So do not get attached.”
Olechka’s face falls, then puckers into a frown. “His name is Brodyaga,” she says.
I look at dog. Dog whimpers.
“Are you hungry, Brodyaga?” Olechka asks.
Dog whimpers as though in the affirmative.
Olechka goes to the fridge. I know she is going to take the meat, but I do not stop her.
When I was a girl, I saw a man with the head of a dog.
I used to look through my mother’s old books. It was a house of books: books were shoved unceremoniously anywhere a book could go. Books in drawers, books under stairs. Books on kitchen countertop, books behind shoes. Books under bed, books in the wardrobe. Most days I would stay inside and look at books. From an old breviary fell a picture.
I waved it at mama. Dog man, dog man, I yelped, I have found a dog man.
Mother had been kneading dough. She snatched the picture away with floury fingers. “It is not dog man,” she said, her eyes widening. “It is St Christopher.”
“Why does he have a dog head?”
Mother shifted, softened. She waited and so did I. “It is an old picture,” she said, finally. “It does not make sense now.”
Later, I found out about St Christopher. The dog-head might have come from a misreading of the Latin Cananeus, meaning Canaanite, as caninus: canine. This was not very interesting. I wanted him to have had a dog head. Saints did not interest me; this was the first time one had piqued my curiosity.
The next day, a dog appeared at our door. We children fed it scraps. Mother wanted to shoo it away, but we children cooed and it kept coming back.
Mother got sick that winter. The dog would lie down in the snow and wait. We would come out and pet it. The night she died, we came out and knelt in the snow and felt its wet nose push against our necks. It did not come back the next day.
Volodya has gone to work. He has taken dog with him. Apartment is quiet. Olechka plays quietly in a corner, drawing, with her tongue sticking out. I am drinking lukewarm tea and thinking about dog.
For Volodya wishes to take the head of another dog — take it clean off — and graft it onto dog. This I cannot imagine. I cannot imagine the removal of a head, let alone the removal of a head that does not result in instant death. I touch my own neck, feel relief at its wholeness. I feel like I need to wear a scarf. I picture my head on the body of dog; I picture dog’s head on my body. Yap. Yap. Yap yap yap. Give meat. Meat please. Am but humble dog. If this happened — who is to say it could not? — who would be dog, and who would be Liya? Would both be Liya, or neither? Where, exactly, does Liya end and begin? This is what shakes me: not the knife, not the blood, not the pumping and the hissing and the humming. It is the impossibility of knowing where I end and begin.
Volodya is home for dinner. He does not bring dog. He is bouncing around the apartment like a beautiful nuisance. He sweeps Olechka up and dances with her after dinner, swooping her around in a great blur. Where does she end and he begin? And I realise that there is no answer to this except that she is him and he he is she. They blur and melt as nature intended, in that swirling of cells, of life, of sight. They are bound by light. I see him look into her eyes and somehow beyond them.
When they ask me, how do you know, Liya, I tell them, this is how I know.
Volodya has been busy for the last few days. He comes in late, carrying with him a singed smell. His suit is as rumpled as his skin. He is pale. His eyes hang loose in his skull.
One night, I awaken as he slides in next to me, smelling of blood.
“Shh. I am sorry, my sweetheart. Go to sleep.”
“Did you bring dog?”
“No. Dog is at the lab.”
“Yes, of course alive.”
“Will dog stay alive?”
“I hope so. But I do not know.”
“Will dog remain dog? Or will dog be … more than one dog?”
There is silence from his side. Then he says, “This I do not know. You take my head and put it on your shoulders. Are we Volodya and Liya, or something else entirely? Where are we?”
We are here. In this bed. I move closer to him. I feel him contract in surprise. “We. We are here,” I say.
Volodya shows me a picture. At first, it appears to be just dog.
“It is dog,” I say. “So what?”
He looks at me. Then I see.
Stitched to shoulders of dog is a smaller dog, its foreleg still attached. Its little head flops over dog’s head in a way that’s almost playful. Like a little child who is getting sleepy. There is an area near the shoulder where the hair has been shaved away. Smooth skin, like a baby. The join is a thin black line. Neat, blink and miss it. The line that separates and joins one and another.
I think I should be disgusted by this. This Frankenstein’s monster. This abomination. This crime against nature. But, as Volodya’s eager head bobs above the photograph, I can feel no disgust. I feel an affinity with that two-headed dog, as though it is the best kind of right to be attached to the head of another. Where do you end and I begin? I know two-headed dog will not survive. Not now, not maybe for a long time, but someday. And until then I put my chin into the crevice his clavicle makes, feel the thrumming of every excited molecule of him. Feel the patter of his heart, the fever of his breath. We make each other warm.
In the darkness, afterwards, there is a bark. And then another bark.
Notes and sources
This story started life here:
If you'd like to read about Demikhov, start here:
I found out about Demikhov originally from this excellent book, which is about the Dr Robert White, a pioneering transplant surgeon who was inspired by Demikhov:
During the course of my writing / research, I came across Cynocephaly, which I found fascinating to the point at which I had to integrate the cynocephalic icon of St Christopher into the story.