by Gheorghe Recheşan [România]
translated from Romanian by: A C Clarke & Alexandra Sârbu
pentru versiunea română click aici
The frayed pale-grey rope was wet. It had been raining almost all night and the fibres were wet through. Drops of dirty water were trickling from the dog’s yellow-grey fur, a shaggy dog as big as a sheep. It was swinging, stiffened, at the end of the rope, buffeted by cold gusts of wind, limbs rigid and tongue a piece of purplish meat swollen in agony hanging out between its fangs.
‘I think he only died towards morning, after hours of struggle’ said Mr Chipere settling his glasses on the bridge of his nose as he went up to the corpse. His massive, bony nose with its arched nostrils supported the black plastic frames and thick lenses as if it were the pier of a bridge itself.
‘I wonder how nobody heard him barking or howling’ I said in a faint voice, that sounded like the wind creaking against the windows. I was careful to stay a good ten steps away from the rail we use for beating carpets, under which the strangled dog was swinging.
‘He died slowly, but he didn’t howl… he must have just let out muffled yelps – as you can see, the knot has been carefully tied right under the throat!’
I turned my eyes towards the concrete wall of the apartment building, which was as uneven as the waves of disgust that kept coming over me and which made me shiver in the pit of my stomach. I don’t like dogs, but the pity I felt for this slaughtered animal was jabbing my ribs, swelling in my chest, rising in my throat. It was a greyish, sickening pity, like the rope the dog was swinging from. Animals are not often deliberately executed like that and with that dark image in front of ones eyes, one didn’t need to be an expert to realize that an execution had taken place. The opaque grey sky, streaked with purple clouds, arched above us.
Chipere stopped examining the mongrel and, nose in the air like a spaniel, began to walk about with care, searching for something in the grubby grass. His thickset, heavy figure, dressed in a greyish jacket worn at the elbows was one with the surroundings.
‘He’s playing Sherlock Holmes again’ I said to myself and was getting ready to leave the place when, without a warning, the slope beyond the muddy quadrangle marked out by bushes here and there started shaking and a dingy colossus burst on the scene. Three, four, five, six wagons whose blue paint had been bleached by the sun, with blind windows and compartment doors swinging rhythmically, jolted by with no destination indicators and speeded away. Chipere raised his head commenting drily: ‘useless C.F.R.1 stuff!’ The smoking engine which pushed them, soot dirtying its orange sides, seemed empty and no one could be seen at the portholes. The rails screeched under the weight of the wheels, the points rattled drily and the ghostly car, buffers like oversized buttons, turned its back on us, taking a long bend and disappearing beyond the edge of the horizon. The shrunken poplars swayed with less violence, the air was humming with silence and even the dog stopped swinging like a pendulum.
I left Chipere to go on with his investigation and went home. Actually, that’s not the right word for it: my bedsit, a small cell in a five-storey concrete honeycomb, is not really a ‘home’ it’s just somewhere to live, but I keep mixing cliché and illusions of domesticity and call it that.
At around five o’clock in the afternoon he came in, as he usually did, chess board under arm. Mr Chipere was a mystery in broad daylight to all of the neighbours. He introduced himself with a distant air: ‘Chipere, former specialist in land reclamation and hydrology, now retired’ but nobody there knew if he had a family, if he was a widower or divorced. I knew something more, but I don’t think this is the place to reveal any details and none would be of much importance to the story.
We played a game of chess, I with the white pieces and he with the black ones and I lost. Each of us took a sip of cold coffee, he lit up a cigarette and broke its filter and it started smelling like the cheapest you could get. Through the rancid, bluish cloud he went back to the episode with the dog:
‘It’s weird, since at this time of year there are not many dogs around the skip. Last winter the place was infested with all kinds of mongrels, they would come out of hunger…’
We played another game and he lost. I waited for him to hide two pawns, a white one and a black one, so as to know who would start the game first, but he put the pieces back. He was thinking about the dead dog:
‘Who the hell would kill a dog? Usually, you can get rid of unwanted dogs; I have heard from dog catchers that gypsies cut their throats and skin them. They call it making gloves out of them.’
I was glad when he got up to go. My head was hurting, a faint, but constant pressure in my temples had spread to my eyesockets and was making itself felt at the back of my neck. I knew the weather was changing; that was what my grandmother would have said in the days when being dependent on the weather forecast was only a vague notion. As he was going out of the door, Chipere turned his thickset figure towards me and through the thick lenses of his glasses, his farsighted hazel eyes glinted with a look of enquiry.
‘Who could have benefited from killing a dog… what do you think?’
I said nothing; I opened a window to let some air in and threw myself on the couch, letting the cold air flow over me. I tried to doze off, but the dirty yellowish fur was still swinging in front of my eyes and I started going through all the images of dogs that came into in my head.
About a month after I had moved to no 12, I started to keep a sort of diary. I would write almost every day in a lined exercise book, jotting down unfinished sentences, passing images, descriptions with no verbs, about everything that caught my eye. I wouldn’t note down the date, a page meant a day – only on Sunday an asterisk marked the end of the week. When I read it now, I don’t know what someone else would think about these jottings, but I feel as if they were written by a stranger.
‘green, pink, sienna-brown. spring is boiling, big flies come to the skips. ragged pillows, dirty sheets out on the balcony. I’ve thrown out the cigarette ends from the ash tray. the hag on the ground floor under my balcony saw me and threatened to tell the manager about me. someone, not me, is standing up for me. you’ll set the building on fire, nutcase…’
I skip some of the pages.
‘glaring orange painful white. scorcher. 40 degrees in the shade. Chipere is nice enough. he’s telling me that Aurelia from the fourth floor is sun-bathing topless on the terrace. too old for you, too young for me, he adds. I lost the last game again in a stupid way, even though I had a rook advantage. I never pay attention, I’m too busy listening to what he’s babbling about’.
If he only knew I like mature women… how old can Aurelia be anyway? Thirty five, at most forty. She’s not bad at all: a brunette with classic features, slender and not an inch of flab.
’emptiness. if I could gather all my energies I could get out. who said you were the sum of all the failures you have undertaken? or of your failed experiences. when autumn comes I shall start something constructive.
out of all the ideas that are running through my head, something good must emerge. damned money you only realise when it’s not there.’
I read the last notes; they are short:
‘Fight with Adriana. Period.’
The full-stop is huge, a blue circle that swallows the last letter and goes right through the sheet. I grab a pen and write energetically, legibly, in straight letters on the following sheet:
‘Rough winter, gray all over. Dog strangled near the apartment building. chess. Chipere investigating.’
The second corpse appeared within five days. The dog, a small white mongrel with brownish spots on the back and no tail, was lying on its belly right in front of the skip. If it hadn’t been for the pool of putrid green vomit spattered with dark coloured clots of blood, you would have thought at first glance it was dozing. The hag on the ground floor, Mrs Grama, the one obsessed with fires, had discovered it. When Chipere called me to see it, the group of curious kids was thinning.
‘What do you think?’ he asked me in a soft, hoarse voice, tightening his red, black and white striped scarf around his neck.
‘Why are you whispering?’ I asked him back, ‘another dead dog – big mystery!’
‘I have a sort of laryngitis that tortures me when the weather changes… it was killed, not dead-dead… with poison, I’m sure of it!’
I went to his apartment, two separate rooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and a storeroom, furnished with bits and pieces. The old fashioned paint on the walls had faded, the air was full of dust and in every room there was a faint musty smell of unwashed dishes. In the living-room piles of files and hand-written papers were lying on the long table with its warped veneer. Surprised, I noticed a couple of law volumes: criminology, work legislation, code of civil procedure and others, I don’t remember their titles now. We sat down on two identical chairs upholstered in a worn orange fabric, and he offered me cigarettes, although he knew I seldom smoked someone else’s and said in a husky voice:
‘This time it’s no coincidence. Have you seen it?’
I was a little bit nervous that day, I had to go to an interview and I wasn’t in the mood to listen to him:
‘Seen what? Someone is killing stray dogs and is dumping them behind the building!’
‘Haven’t you seen the sign? A big ‘two’ written with a piece of chalk on the skip… go and take a closer look before it’s rubbed out!’
‘I believe you, but what about it?’ He was tiring me and I wasn’t in the mood to climb down the stairs just for a second look at a mongrel that had croaked.
He was seized with a fit of hollow coughing coming in spasms. When he had got his breath back, he went on with an enigmatic glint in his velvety brown eyes:
‘It’s the same one who killed the other dog as well… the sadist wanted to make that clear and left his signature!’
I didn’t want to contradict him by telling him that he was reading lousy detective novels.
‘Do you have a clue, do you suspect any of the neighbours?’
‘It could be Mrs Grama, she has three pedigree cats…’
I took a cigarette from the pack and lit it with my lighter:
‘I can’t imagine that scrawny old lady killing a dog, not even by poisoning it, and hanging seems out of the question!’
It was his turn to take out a cigarette from the pack with two fingers and as usual, he broke its filter, but didn’t light up. He kept it in the corner of his mouth until it got mushy with saliva:
‘Maybe she can’t but what about her grandson who comes every week to help her?’
I remembered him vaguely: a pale scabby boy who would greet you shyly every time you met him and who was always carrying a bag full of groceries. I didn’t understand why Chipere thought he looked like a criminal. He started coughing violently, his face getting very red, his chest convulsing in spasms and, feeling uncomfortable, I observed:
‘You should quit smoking, it’s bad for you!’
Heavy drops beaded his forehead, his sparse, hemp-blond hair had become damp with sweat, and after a stifled cough he blew his nose with a big blue checked handkerchief. When he felt better, he continued his train of thought as if he hadn’t heard me:
‘I suppose I should look for the perpetrator by starting with the motive, but I have no idea why a sane man should start killing some dogs…’
‘You’re not going to the police for such a thing, are you?’
He looked at me in astonishment, almost offended that such an idea had come into my head.
‘I will try to talk to an expert in skinning to see whether they know more.’
‘What about a chess game?’ I said, trying to divert his attention.
This time, he was dumbfounded:
‘What, today? But it’s only Thursday!’
He was right. I would have disturbed his routine if I had got up impatiently and said I had to go.
‘I was just going to heat up some beef soup. Do you want some?’
I turned him down, as I wasn’t hungry and I was in a hurry as well: ‘Maybe some other time.’
He smiled softly, blinking and nodding at my stiff explanation; I was familiar with the gesture and I went out feeling my refusal had upset him. When I arrived home, I started rummaging for a clean shirt and suddenly felt hungry. How hard can trying to cook soup be anyway? I should have called my mother to ask her for the recipe, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to stem the avalanche of questions and advice. She was always worried that I didn’t eat at least one hot meal a day, that I didn’t put on warm enough clothes and other unimportant concerns, which in her eyes were vital.
As I locked the door, a difficult, alarming question came into my head:
‘Who the hell would want to kill two dogs, one after the other?’
I’ve remembered my last fight with Adriana. I have gone through this episode in my mind so many times, that each time I add a new detail to it. Even half a year later, the words we exchanged seem as big and brightly defined as the subtitles of an old film. The fight started because she wanted a pet. The bedsit where we were living was hardly enough for us and the things that were absolutely necessary. She had a lot of books, especially psychology volumes and university courses; some are still here, covered in dust, because she has never come to get them back. She already knew how I felt about keeping pets in an apartment, but she insisted on it:
‘Please, at least a guinea pig or a parrot!’
She went on pleading with the innocent air of a good little girl, smiling sweetly, but I replied, bored with it all:
‘Why not a dog or a cat?’
She understood my sarcasm, but still went on:
‘A friend of mine promised me a golden retriever puppy… they are so cute when they’re little!’
‘Who’s this friend of yours, do I know him? A man isn’t it?’
I am not a jealous man, but the discussion was deliberately taking this turn.
‘It’s an expensive breed, why would anyone offer you such a gift?’
She started to cry – it was sudden as a downpour – and screamed at me:
‘Yes, he’s a rich man who is courting me and wants to seduce me by giving me a damn pedigree dog!’
Naturally, I didn’t believe her, she only wanted to get me angry and so she did, it brought out all the worst in me and I shouted wildly:
‘Then maybe you should move in with him, so that you have as many golden puppies as you want… and on top of that fish, parrots, cockatoos, cats and even tigers, everything your heart desires; why should you get bored in a filthy bedsit with a hopeless loser like me?’
It was only today that I came to understand the significance of that accusation, but now I can’t do anything about it. She was angry when she went to bed; she only accepted my apologies so as to keep up appearances, but the next day when I got home, I found the goodbye note:
‘There is no golden puppy, nor another man. I’m leaving because I can’t stand the way we are constantly hurting each other.’
From then on, I only saw her once, when she came to get her things. She greeted me, her face bathed in tears, and answered all my tender questions in a restrained voice:
‘Trust me, it’s better like this… stop insisting on it, I was leaving anyway!’
Adriana, such an expert in break-ups! We had had many fights before that – she left for her mother twice – but this time it was forever.
I was wading in a warm dream, I was on a beach, the sun was burning my cheeks, the waves were murmuring happily and I could feel Adriana alive, next to me, when, as I was floating between sleep and reality, I heard heavy knocks at the door. Still giddy with sleep I opened the door and saw Chipere wearing his gray furry jacket over his pyjamas. He was panting, hair wet with sweat, and he could hardly find his words:
‘I didn’t want to wake you up… I thought you would have heard the screams. Haven’t you heard them?’
‘What screams? No, maybe it’s just your imagination!’
I knew he was taking medicine for his blood pressure and strong pills have side effects. He didn’t stay to explain, just gesticulated in disappointment and rushed down the stairs. I dressed army-fashion and ran after him. On the first floor a door opened and Laza’s face crumpled with sleep appeared; he was a worker at the sugar factory, a sturdy guy with bloodshot eyes, who asked me:
‘Did you hear the barks? It was like a dead man screaming!’
I walked into cold, wet darkness that rose up my ankles, knees, chest and shoulders, engulfing me like a wave. In the trembling circle of light shed by Chipere’s flashlight, the scene was unfolding in all its cruelty. The body with its thick tan fur was lying on its side, right next to the door in a pool of dried blood. Its purple-white entrails were hanging out and its yellow-fanged muzzle was sneering in the face of death.
I stayed there looking at the corpse as if it were a victim improbably run over by a bus before my very eyes. Chipere said in a low voice:
‘I knew this one… it’s a bitch, the kids called it Lady… I used to give her a bone or a piece of bread from time to time!’
Behind us, dim figures were crowding in the dark and voices were muffled, curious, surprised, shocked, compassionate.
Mrs Grama’s frail figure detched itself from the crowd. She was wearing a brownish waterproof over her nightgown. Her head was trembling uncontrollably and the aura of sparse silvery hair looked like a round bush covered in cobwebs.
‘It’s Lady’, she said, ‘they’ve killed Lady… I bought her a collar so the skinners wouldn’t take her away and they still killed her!’
Chipere got closer to the corpse, examined it carefully and turned to me triumphantly. He was holding a small strap, like a collar, with a card attached to it, on which a big ‘3’ was written.
‘That’s it’, said Laza, ‘I’m calling the police; someone is terrorising the whole neighbourhood by killing dogs and dumping them on our doorstep!’
I climbed the stairs as fast as I could and groping dizzily, I dropped to my knees on the bathroom tiles. I could only bring up bile, with a groan, and each time I could see before my eyes every detail of the corpse: the fur tainted by clots of blood, the purplish bowels, a wound that laid bare the ribs to the bone, the tongue hanging black through the teeth, eyes opaque with agony and then I began to throw up again.
A police car came in the afternoon and out came a young officer with a red face, followed by an Alsatian. In the hallway, the police dog started barking uncontrollably, pulling the leash violently.
‘ Max! Sit… search!’ ordered the officer and the Alsatian sniffed the stairs, but it was pointless, as someone had cleaned the blood stains off. The policeman zealously did his duty, interrogated everyone who was willing to answer his questions and made notes. To my surprise, Chipere didn’t discuss anything with him and refused to sign the witness statement.
‘I know how it is with these investigations… they’re doing their jobs, they investigate, write reports and the results: nothing whatsoever!’
With a faraway look, he raised his index finger and quoted from memory, as if going through a code:
‘The murder offence is punished as per art. 197 letter B, paragraph 1, penal code, with prison from 15 to 25 years and the restriction of some civil rights for a period of 6 years… for men, of course when it comes to animals, the 205 law in 2004 states in art. 23, paragraphs 1, 2 and 3 that the perpetrator is liable from 3 months up to one year in prison or a civil penalty from 500 to 2000 lei… have you ever heard that someone was imprisoned for murdering an animal?’
We’re playing chess. Chipere is moving carelessly and hastily and before capturing the white queen, I ask him:
‘Why didn’t you get a dog to look after?’
He looks at me surprised, overturns the pieces and sighs:
‘My wife, may she be forgiven, had a Pekingese! It was terribly annoying: it would sleep beside the bed all night and sometimes, when it felt cold, it would snuggle under the blanket. She would only feed it sausage, biscuit and cake, pampering it as if it were a child, because we never had children… Its name was Rexy and it died two years ago, before she passed away.’
I didn’t know what to say anymore, but I could hear myself saying pointlessly:
‘What about afterwards, why didn’t you get a stray dog or even a pedigree dog?…’
He seemed not to hear me and went on sadly:
‘When she found out she had cancer, do you know what she asked me? To exhume Rexy and bury it next to her cross… have you ever heard such a thing?’
He got up, paced heavily to a cabinet and took out a cardboard box from one of the drawers. He showed me a rather blurry black and white photo, in which a thin 50 year old lady in a black suit, tense-looking, with a severe expression and gray hair, was posing rigidly with a furry grey bundle fidgeting in her lap. Chipere started to laugh:
‘Our baby had two years and a half here, which in human years would mean he was grown up… but to go back to her last wish. What was I supposed to do? I had promised she would have Rexy by her side in the world to come… the problem was I couldn’t remember where I’d buried the mutt at all!’
I seemed to see tears in his eyes, but he said cheerfully:
‘Shall we play another one? It’s a tie…’
We put the pieces back on the board and after a calculated sacrifice nine moves ahead, he beat me with the black, even though I had got used to his imaginative style of playing. I got up to go, but the kind and unexpectedly warm voice, almost like a grandpa’s, stopped me:
‘I’ve made some meatballs with mushroom sauce, my poor wife’s recipe… it’s dinner time, wouldn’t you like to…’
This time I didn’t refuse him. We sat down face to face in the narrow kitchen, at a white table.
The meatballs tasted good, but the sauce in which slices of mushrooms were floating like pieces of plastic was not salted. He passed me the saltcellar, apologizing:
‘Maybe you want some more salt: because of my blood pressure, you know… my cooking is a bit low in salt!’
I wiped the sauce from the plate with a piece of bread and thanked him for the meal.
‘You know, he said as he walked me to the door, I think I will adopt a dog after all…’
Five days after the dinner with Mr Chipere, the fourth murder took place. Maybe the word ‘murder’ understates the horror of it. The dog, a half-breed with gray fur and a big head, had been sliced into four parts and impaled on the boughs of a chestnut tree. The police came immediately again, took photos and asked questions of everybody who had been at home that morning. At my suggestion, they also took photos of the number ‘4’ scratched by the criminal on the tree. Chipere continued the investigation on his own. He didn’t know what he was doing and wouldn’t give me too many details, but he spoke to the Animal Protection and started putting up posters about it, along the lines of: ‘stop violence to animals, they are living beings too; to report abuse of every kind, please call the following number at any time… ‘
For the first time since we had started playing chess at weekends, he missed the Saturday afternoon game, because he had begun patrolling the place.
During the day, he would scan the whole area up to the railway and beyond with a decrepit pair of binoculars. Each time he heard a noise or a bark, he would run onto the balcony. At night, he would patrol the building once every three hours with a powerful flashlight in his hand. One morning, I found him behind the skip sitting on a fisherman’s stool, with an old blue padded coat on his shoulders, like the ones the workers on sites used to wear. He was stiff with cold, chilled to the marrow and in a state of collapse . He wiped his glasses and asked me to buy him a pack of cigarettes. It was not without difficulty that I convinced him he should stay in bed.
I heard his hollow cough all night and I went up a couple of times to see whether he needed any medicine.
‘No’, he gasped, ‘I have everything I need… tell me how the dogs are instead, it’s been a week since I last saw a dog.’
As he had noticed some while ago, it was surprising that the packs of stray dogs that used to saunter around the neighbourhood rummaging for food in the skips had disappeared as if the terrifying stench of death had reached their alert noses from far away. However, I saw two huge, brown rats with no fur on their tails that were creeping next to each other through the holes of the garbage bin.
I have started to write in my diary again, I even write a page a day. I have no idea what will come out, words just come and are set down next to each other forming long, dark lines on the sheet:
‘the gray stretches up and down, right and left, it’s one with the sky, the field, the buildings. Winter is slowly dying without a trace of snow; it has not snowed all year but the cold and the damp have eaten away the plaster on the walls exposing the bricks, mould is blooming on the concrete, the trunks of the chestnut trees have soaked up water like sponges and they are slowly rotting as they stand and the dogs have gone. somebody or something is killing them and chucking them in front of us’
Sometimes I become deeply philosophical; where have I read the following?
‘a bitter joke the great cosmic secret: we are born, we die, we rot…’
When I went to buy some bread, I met Mrs Grama on the stairs. She was shuffling her feet and holding in her wrinkled hands a jar full of a yellowish, clear liquid, in which wormlike threads were floating. She greeted me back, although I had a feeling she hadn’t recognized me and went on her way; life flickering inside her like a candle, she whispered:
‘I’ve made chicken soup, I’m taking some to Mr Chipere, he has a cold and said he wanted some chicken soup, I’ve made soup…’
I went to see him as well, half an hour later. The door was open; I found him in bed. He looked emaciated, his face was waxen and scored with deep wrinkles and his body seemed smaller under the shiny satin quilt.
‘ Chipere’, I asked him stupidly, ‘are you ok?’
‘I thought we weren’t that formal… it’s just chronic laryngitis, comes back every winter; when the grass turns green it goes away! I’ll be fine. Who’s going to beat you at chess otherwise? But tell me, have you seen any dogs around?’
Nothing had happened the whole week, although it’s true the police didn’t have any leads either.
‘Don’t worry, everything will be sorted out…’ I soothed him.
He looked at me intently, without his glasses, his velvety brown eyes shining feverishly in their livid sockets:
‘It’s true, one way or another, everything will be sorted out!’
I told him a bawdy joke, but I couldn’t even get him to smile. I tiptoed down when I sensed he had fallen asleep.
I dreamt about Adriana again. She was sitting in a meadow with tall grass, surrounded by a lot of dogs of all shapes and sizes: white with brown spots, as fluffy as snow, black with curly fur. She was happy and smiling, holding a bundle of golden fur with blinking eyes, showing it to me and kissing it. Her chestnut hair was waving on her shoulders, as real as when we were together.
I’ve jotted this conclusion in the diary: ‘There is no deeper sorrow than remembering the times when you were happy.’
It snowed last night. The first snow this winter covered the frozen grass with pristine white icing, the pale poplars wrapped their thin trunks up in white flannel and the empty wasteland seemed transformed. It didn’t last too long, because a sudden thaw came with a warm breeze and underneath the clean blanket of snow, all the wounds of the earth bled into dirty slush
The children, who had been glad they could get their sleds out of the cupboard, were staying indoors with their faces comically pressed against the windows, looking at winter weeping muddy yellow tears.
Mr Chipere didn’t want to check into hospital, so I called a doctor to examine him; a serious dark haired young man with cleancut southern features. He listened to his chest, took his blood pressure, read the notes of his last examination and simply whispered when I paid him: ‘Call the relatives, I don’t think he can last until spring!’
I went back to the bedroom and set out the chessboard on the edge of the bed:
‘Today is Saturday’, I said, ‘you have a chance to beat me!’
Chipere gave me a troubled smile; his skin, dry and taut across the cheekbones, was marked by deep wrinkles like traces of mud in soft snow:
‘I’m not in shape… maybe tomorrow, I would like to rest now…’
I put down in my diary;
‘chipere very sick the doctor says he doesn’t have much time. winter is sick. the gray has swallowed the last grain of purity left.’
The last dog was killed on Saturday night. I woke up with an aching neck, the pain spreading down my spine. I had been reading till late. When I began to doze, I turned on the TV with the volume up to keep myself awake. Minutes were dragging by and to escape the ordeal of waiting, I went down the stairs from time to time, scanning the wasteland by the beams of the flashlight.
After midnight, the moon rose, pale under torn livid clouds. I have always hated the full moon, a macabre old crone; werewolves roam under her cold rays, vampire bats suck the blood of cattle and depressives kill themselves.
Morning was struggling to emerge from the misty dark. Threads of fog were rising from the decaying ground, the black branches of the poplars were outlined against a pale gray background as in a Hokusai print. I took the binoculars and went onto the balcony.
Beyond the slope, a gray-green goods train was rocking noiselessly along the track and disappeared into the white expanse of fog after the last bend.
A heavy presentiment oppressed me and I rushed down the stairs. My heart was beating as if I had been running a marathon lost before it started. It was there, waiting for me, right at the corner of the building, in the grubby quadrangle formed between the skip, the two bare chestnut trees and the carpet-beating rail. The black head with pointed ears, the muzzle, teeth laid bare in a sneer, the dark, staring pupils were in clear profile impaled on a stake dug into the soft ground. In front of it a huge ‘5’ made out of used candles came into view as I got closer. The rest of the body, pieces of bloody meat with tufts of hair pulled out, the paws, bowels, the swollen organs, was laid out in a sinister circle all round it.
I tried to shout, I yelled with all my strength, the blood was screaming inside me, appalled, but my jaws were locked, my shout never reached the air and I gazed fascinated at the darkened eyes of the dog, in which I could distinguish, like a bitter joke, the unforgiving message: ‘we are born, we die, we rot…’
I collapsed helplessly, overcome by nausea. When I came to, choking like a drowning man, the apparition had gone. Someone had packed the head and the rest in a plastic bag. I was sitting with my head in Aurelia’s lap; she had put a wet compress on my forehead and was stroking my temples in a motherly way with her warm fingers. She asked me if I wanted her to call the ambulance and I could only reply:
‘Yes call the ambulance … quickly… I think Mr Chipere…’
I was too late. Chipere had died.
The funeral took place on the following Saturday. There was a scent of spring in the air, the azure sky was clear and bright as a newly washed windowpane. In the fresh air, the bells of the cathedral could be clearly heard beyond the row of gray apartment buildings.
To everyone’s amazement, a lot of people came to the cemetery, not only the neighbours and ex co-workers, but many strangers as well. The grave had been prepared next to his wife’s and after the coffin had been lowered and the undertakers had thrown in the last bits of earth, we all came back to the apartment of the deceased, where, in accordance with tradition, one of his sisters, their granddaughters and his sister-in-law gave us knot-shaped bread loaves and koliva. The neighbours had gathered some money for the funeral , in accordance with tradition, and had nominated me to give it to the relatives, but one of the mourning women gently refused it:
‘There’s no need for it, our poor Mihai, may he be forgiven, was very thoughtful. He has left several envelopes with money in, and written on each of them exactly what it is to be spent on: the priest, the undertakers, alms, the poor… he also left something for you, because you were the closest neighbour!’
In the envelope there were five brand new blue banknotes and a note written in red:
‘Buy a dog, I didn’t get the chance!’
Two months have passed since Mr Chipere’s death. Summer has arrived suddenly, overtaking the natural order of the seasons. On the patch of ground behind the apartment building, where the grass is shining with thousands of golden dandelions, no corpse has appeared again. The police didn’t succeed in finding the sadistic killer, but it seems that the crimes have stopped.
I’ve found a well paid job, I’m not wasting my time feeling sorry for myself anymore and sometimes, in the evening, when I get home, I go to the fourth floor, where Aurelia is waiting for me with hot soup or with Chipere’s speciality, meatballs with mushroom sauce. Nobody has moved into his apartment and every time I go past the door, I give a start, expecting the door to open:
‘Don’t you want to play chess, it’s Saturday?’
I’ve bought a male golden retriever. Because I’m not good at handling dogs, I’ve bought a two year old, already trained. I take him for walks around the building and I show him the places he must stay away from. He understands me, cautiously sniffs everything and looks at me wagging his tail, as a sign he has understood. You will think I am crazy, but in his velvety hazel eyes, I see the glint of Mr Chipere’s farsighted look of enquiry.