By Zdravka Evtimova
Rumm loved the small brick dog-house whose roof ended abruptly with a short rusty spire. He had believed it impaled the stars, the moon, and even the sun on its black tip, and sometimes he felt the sky wanted them back. On such days the house seemed to fly to the dusty clouds. Once when he was a little boy, he crept on all fours into the darkness of its only room. The stale air smelled of mould, but he felt secure in it. From that day on, he hid in the dank stinky dusk and remained in it like a shriveled grub, all the long, brown afternoons away from the burning heat. He sank into the husky croaks of the frogs that were afraid the Struma River would run dry in its concrete bed. There were seaweeds in the river, which smelled of autumn and used lubricants spewing from the big drain tubes of the metallurgical factory.
Rumm’s mother did not search for him for she was busy shouting at his father. His father did not have any spare time either. He had to scream back at his mother then usually phoned a strange woman whom he married in the long run. It was his grandmother who took care of him. In fact she was not Rumm’s real grandmother, rather than some lousy intruder who had ended up squatting in Rumm’s grandpa’s house. She cooked for Rumm’s grandpa and minded his dog that hid together with Rumm in the small tumbledown dog-house built here by some rich guy a half a century ago.
The old woman took out a bowl of hot soup – or perhaps she had only rinsed the pot in which Rumm’s mother had cooked a stew in between her fights with her husband. Then Rumm’s grandmother carried the aluminum bowl to the kennel, plodding forward in the heat, her head like a tortoise over the black path. She mumbled something under her breath in Romanian, or perhaps in Greek. Rumm did not understand a word and assumed she most probably cursed the river, the heat and the frogs in it. The old woman left the bowl in front of the dog-house, and prattled on in her strange language as her walking stick thudded on the hot arid ground, which July heat had split open at her feet.
In the beginning, Rumm was afraid of the old woman and let the dog he called Dad lap the appetizing swill. Later he crawled out of the narrow hole that served as door to the kennel and drank together with the dog. He could not determine if the thin liquid was soup or just hot water with which the pot had been rinsed. It was very delicious, though.
Rumm loved the small hut that was far from his father’s mistress, and from his mother’s miserable salary. His mother couldn’t pay for the fire wood and didn’t have enough money for the electricity bills. Every week, she grew visibly older, turning into charcoal that July was going to bury in its warm dust. Rumm felt pity for her face and tried to steal something – gimcracks from nearby villas, umbrellas, ladies’ purses, which later he sold for a handful of pennies. He left the money on his mother’s pillow, but that made things worse – she bought cheap brandy with the money and drank, oblivious to the world, trying hard the quench her anguish. Rumm found her on the floor by her bed, darker, hugging an unwashed greasy pot, her clothes soaked in brandy.
Rumm’s grandmother, muttering in Greek or in Romanian, obstinately baked potatoes she bought with the last penny she had stolen from his mother’s pillow, and made Rumm eat. Week in, week out he ate baked potatoes in the morning, at lunch, in the evening, hidden in the dark brick kennel with his dog.
The dog was so beautiful that merciful people left food for him – pieces of stale bread, or formless lumps of cheese. In the beginning, Rumm ate everything to the last crumb munching and smacking his lips, while the dog squatted at his feet, drooling at the mouth, his yellow nose intent on Rumm’s hands. At times the dog wailed quietly, his shrill endless howl parallel to the Struma River. The transparent water flowed into Rumm’s heart and always brought the boy to the black charcoal on his mother’s face.
His mother had gradually become smaller than the dog, her eyes half asleep, half dead, her hands drenched in cheap brandy. Sometimes Rumm’s grandmother covered her with a blanket; sometimes the old woman washed her face, and very rarely she drank from the brandy and wailed in between her huge gulps. Rumm didn’t know why his Romanian grandmother should act like this – most of the time she was calm like the river and distant like the clouds that burned in the sky above the roof of the kennel.
Rumm expected his mother’s death, his heart a dry autumn leaf, in the dark of the kennel. The people from the nearby houses, enticed by the smell of hot soup, or perhaps by the water with which Rumm’s grandmother washed the greasy pot, began to throw out the newborn puppies in the small brick kennel.
Rumm knew that the rich guy who lived in this area years ago had built the dog-house for his daughter’s favorite mutt. The girl suffered from some mental illness: she was scared to go out of her house, she dreaded meeting men and boys, she was afraid of women, too, even of her own mother. She was thin, translucent, and the fish in Struma River tingled as she walked along the bank. The girl was unafraid only of her dog, so she squeezed together with the mongrel in the kennel, where her father left silver plates, spoons, forks and knives for her.
Once Rumm found a silver spoon; it had stuck into his heel and his dog licked his wound. Of course, the boy sold the spoon for small change, but didn’t buy food for his mother. She could eat no longer, she only drank, so he bought a bottle of brandy, half of which his grandmother downed right away.
The people in this area were not rich at all. No one remembered the schizophrenic wealthy guy’s daughter. Rumm’s grandmother hinted but once that a desperate adventurer married the young woman. She refused to show up at her wedding, though. She hid herself in the kennel, scared and shivering as the priest knelt by the door of the dog-house to ask her if she’d have the man as her husband.
Rumm’s grandmother didn’t know for sure what happened after that. The rich man’s neighbors said they heard quiet wailing, which came from the room with a window to the north. They thought it was the young woman’s dog, but their kids assumed that the bride wailed in fright at what her husband did to her. Rumor had it, too, she had given birth to a daughter, but in this arid district nobody was interested in the guy next door. The only concern here was your own piece of bread, which was usually not enough for everybody, like warm days in winter.
Here the people kept dogs in front of the doors to their yards because the thieves were more numerous than the ordinary guys. In fact the ordinary guys were ordinary only during a certain part of the day and during the rest of it they were criminals, too. So the dogs at the front door were guards – savage and under-nourished. Sometimes the animals were so hungry they attacked and bit their own masters. Some people set their dogs free from the leashes for an hour in the night. Loose shadows flitted in the black air, sounds of yapping and growling reverberated around the corners as the mongrels expressed their joy as they were making love to each other.
At that time, Rumm sat silently in the kennel, his small dog a shaggy throbbing bag of bones at his feet, whining, its young throat itching to summon some bitch. Or perhaps Rumm’s dog wept for his mother that he had lost a long time ago in the days of his happy childhood. Dogs multiplied at a heart-breaking speed along the two banks of the Struma River. Though they were criminals, during their spare time the people did not kill the new-born puppies. They needed only one animal of the litter: the strongest and the most savage one.
In the beginning, men threw all the rest—hairy balls still warm and wet after the birth—into the waste-bins, and Rumm could hear them whimper in the metal containers. He imagined it was the strange bride whining, the one who was scared by men, and who loved only her dog.
The whole street, especially at the beginning of autumn, was an eyesore to look at. Rumm was sure the Struma River wanted to run away from that place, from the town that was a new-born puppy someone had thrown out to wail in the waste-bin of autumn. Rumm could not stand it and hid in the kennel, pressing his dog to his heart not because he loved him so much, but for the sake of warmth.
It was very cold in September; biting frosts were followed by rains which felt like snow. The yellow brick house slowly filled with wriggling forms of mongrels of a different color: some had started to discern the light under their noses, and others had just learned to walk though they reeled with hunger. Naturally, the pieces of bread that Rumm’s grandmother brought were not enough for them all.
One day, amazed and scared out of his wits, Rumm saw that big dogs, too, came to the kennel. They left two other mutts dead by the aluminum bowl, their throats split open. Unfortunately his dog, the one the boy called Dad, was one of the dead mutts. The boy stayed there, unable to cry, unable to breathe. He bent down and pressed the remnants of his friend to his chest. Rumm was very cold, and at that moment the Struma River flowed through his heart with fish and stars that were swimming in it.
Of course, in the evening, Rumm took another small dog. It felt hotter than the dead one, but it did not look at the boy as if the water of the greasy bowl was on its tongue.
Some guys are simply no good, Rumm thought on the days when he failed to steal something in town. He was angry with himself, he felt guilty about not helping his mother, who in defiance of logic sat up in bed and started eating again. Perhaps his Romanian grandmother had cured her, or maybe after his father packed up and went to live with his new wife, Rumm’s mother forgot about her troubles.
Or maybe there were some drugs in the herbs that Rumm’s Romanian grandmother gave his mother, for at times in the evenings, his mother laughed for no reason at all, staring at the moon, or grinning at the rain, which did not let the sky have any moon. His mother laughed her head off and Rumm did not know when he was more afraid for her: when she lay immobile, darker than the brown blanket, or when she sniggered at the dog-house.
Rumm had to find a job, but there were no jobs in the town, and there were no jobs in Sofia and in Radomir, so he planned to catch a train to Italy. He had heard people say they looked for good chefs in Calabria. Rumm could not cook at all, but he hoped his Romanian grandmother would teach him to make the dishes she knew, the delicious soups and stews, which killed his mother’s agony and left the younger woman watching the empty September sky. Rumm had waited for her to die, but she survived, and at nights he could hear the two women talk in Romanian or in Greek, languages of which he didn’t understand a word.
One way or another, he had made up his mind to go for in the evenings he was alone with the frogs and the Struma River. There was nothing to steal in town any more.
“What are you two talking about?” He had asked his Romanian grandmother, and she had answered, “About Nasso.”
Nasso was the man who had promised to marry her when she was young and pretty. She had even allowed him to make love to her as a result of which she woke up pregnant one May morning. Nasso promised he’d come back to make love to her again then went to Bucharest to make money for their wedding, building railway carriages. Before he went away he kissed her and made her swear to God that when she felt jumpy she wouldn’t go to another man, she would say these words – then the old woman mumbled the words in Romanian or in Greek – he would hear her speak and would come home right away to comfort her.
Of course, he didn’t come back and she sold her new-born child to a rich woman from Radomir for thirty-five gold lev then married Rumm’s grandfather.
Rumm’s grandfather was an old, quiet drinker unable to make love to a woman, but he promised her a roof and a bed in a warm room, if she took care of little Rumm. At the very beginning, the old man was aware that Rumm’s mother and father wouldn’t make it. Their fights and the noise of the woodworms annoyed Rumm’s grandfather and he couldn’t sleep, he said.
Rumm’s Romanian grandmother put many herbs and spices in her stews, and maybe her herbs restored his grandfather’s ability to make love. That turned out to be not so fortunate after all, for when the old man fell in love with his Romanian bride, and made love to her with all his power, his heart exploded, and he died, his face smiling at the moon, all happiness in the world written like a book in his eyes.
Rumm’s grandfather wailed before he breathed his last, and the boy wondered if the old man was happy he could make love to his wife, or on the contrary: the man was sorry he couldn’t do that a little longer. Perhaps his grandfather felt sad he would never again see the Struma River, where summer began and ended.
Anyway, Rumm hated the big dogs, and made up his mind to guard the small hairy balls in the kennel until he went to the restaurant in Italy. He and his Romanian grandmother didn’t have enough of hot greasy water for all puppies, but she was a clever woman, a woman who was still searching for the girl she had sold to that rich lady in Radomir. The old woman had put it into her head that if she saved the little mongrels, she’d see her child.
One day, to Rumm’s amazement, in the kennel where not a living soul was seen of late and small dogs wallowed like ghosts on the ground, something happened. It was an afternoon when the night had started at noon. The sky had glued to the river. It was thirsty and wanted to drink up the whirlpools.
Rumm had managed to steal a good car from the parking lot in front of the convenience store, and felt quite happy when unexpectedly he found a dark figure back at the kennel rolled into a ball. It was there, in the heap of the little puppies, in the dark. It was quite fortunate he kicked the dark figure first for it was not a big dog as he had guessed. It was something quite different, another man, or a boy, and he didn’t have to fight him. He could even talk to him.
This dark figure was a girl. He knew she was a girl by her soft voice, and by the fact that she caught his hand and put it on her breasts. She did not wait for him to ask her anything. She even did not wait for the end of the burning investigation the skin of his hand did on her breasts.
“There is a jar of hot soup for you,” she said. “Sleep with me.”
Rumm stood in his tracks, helpless, blind like the last two puppies some neighbor had thrown into the kennel hours ago.
“I am afraid of people – of men… of women, too,” the girl muttered. “It’s dark here and I can’t see you. I am not afraid of the dark.”
He didn’t know what he had to do. He had never touched a girl, and did not dare to approach her, although herbs and spices kicked in his blood. They were the same herbs and spices his Romanian grandmother had used to cure his grandfather and teach him to make love to a woman.
“Quick. My parents will come. They think I am crazy. I am not afraid of dogs… even of the biggest ones. I thought I’d be scared of seeing you… that’s why I came when it was dark. Now you look like a big dog and I’m not scared.”
“But I… I don’t know…” Rumm mumbled. He should get out of the kennel and run home where his mother was grinning at the moon. In fact, that evening there was no moon, but she saw it all the same.
“I’ll show you,” the girl said. “I’ve seen on the TV how it is done.”
He suddenly felt his burning cheek glued to her stomach. He could swear he heard the Struma River flow through the girl’s skin, through her breasts. This was the most magnificent sound he had heard in his life.
“My father is ill,” she said and suddenly the skin of her stomach became cold.
“Ill?” He whispered, scared stiff, desperate that her skin through which the Struma River flowed would go away. “What’s wrong with your father?”
“He’s old… He says his name’s Nasso,” she whispered. “Every night he hears your grandmother call him. She wants him, you know. He leaves for your house every day… My mother is old, too. She’s weak. I am afraid of your Romanian grandmother...”
He did not listen to her any more. He kissed her quietly, carefully lest his Romanian grandmother could hear. He wanted the girl for himself. The Struma River was in her. The moon was in her skin.
“I brought you food,” she said. “Please, don’t go. My parents will come soon.”
He kissed her. He was going to give her all the money he had taken for the stolen car.
“Don’t be afraid," Rumm whispered. “I love you."