Short Stories

Plushka, the Puppy

By Larisa Podistova - Novosibirsk, Russia - translated by Thomas E. Herman - St. Louis, Missouri - 3 December 2016



The original Russian version of this story was first published in Thomas: an Orthodox Journal for Doubters (Фома: Православный Журнал для Сомневающихся, foma.ru), in January 2016. It is re-published here in the form of Mr. Herman's English translation with the permission of the author and of the editors of Thomas.


Maximovna liked the sick children more than those who were recovering. To be completely honest, she did not love one or the other, but simply that the sick children gave her less trouble. They did not run around the ward, did not scream, did not scatter their toys around, and did not scratch their names on the painted walls, and other such foolishness. They lay quietly sedated from medication or simply slept. And at the side of the sick children, as a rule, there were always relatives -- mommies, grandmas, aunts -- so that there was someone to supervise them and to tend to them. For the old orderly, any and all relief from her work was a big deal. Ideally, Maximovna with pleasure would have preferred to live on her pension and occasionally drink tea and eat small cakes, but her pension was too small to allow for even small cakes. So it happened that this 69-year-old woman came to be pushing a mop, cleaning up after small fries.


Maximovna knew that everybody considered her unfriendly and were rather afraid of her. But this pleased her -- they were then less likely to badger her with requests. She took pride in the fact that people approached her only as a last resort, but if they had already been forced to talk to her, then necessarily they spoke gingerly, hesitatingly -- as with a prison warden.


It is true, if one of the children happened to die -- and this occurred from time to time -- something heartrending and painful was stirred up in the old orderly's soul. Deep inside her soul she remembered that she also had had a son, Sergei, who at eight years of age was killed -- fatally hit on the street by a truck. After his death, she could have no more children. She wept so long and bitterly for Seryozha, not understanding why her son had to die, and not some other reckless little boy. She wept so many tears that she believed she would have no more for the remainder of her life.


The children who were discharged took their little belongings out of their night stand, gathered up their scattered toys, exited the door of the ward and vanished from Maximovna's life. After a period, the empty bed would be taken by another child, who would in turn also recover and leave. . . In a word, everything for Maximovna followed a certain routine.


When five-year old Katya was discharged, Maximovna immediately began to clean and polish the floor of the room where this little girl had been for three weeks. The old orderly usually heard and knew a great deal about the patients, from listening to the nurses on duty or from the patients' relatives. In regard to Katya, Maximovna knew that she had not been discharged because she had recovered, but because she needed specialized therapy at a distant hospital, possibly requiring surgery, but without any certainty that this would help her.


Katya herself was no longer in the room, but when the old orderly was arranging the unoccupied bed for a new patient, Katya's mom unexpectedly appeared at the door. The mother looked a lot like Katya -- blonde hair, dark eyes with a pointed, freckled little nose. Katya's mom hesitatingly asked: "Excuse me. You haven't found a very small dog? A tiny little dog with brown fur and long droopy ears?"


As it happened, Maximovna had had a very difficult day. She had gone to bed late, because she had ironed the Christmas vestments for the church which she had attended for many years. The pastor, Father Vitaly, was surprised at her promptness, thanked and blessed her, so that Maximovna arrived at the hospital in a happy mood. But then there occurred those small frustrations and troubles from not having enough sleep . . . So by lunch time there remained nothing of her early morning happiness, and after lunch her tiredness and irritation only increased.


"I don't know anything about any dogs," Maximovna sullenly grumbled, very unhappy that she was being disturbed by such a stupid question.


And only after Katya's mother, having sighed disappointedly, had left, did Maximovna remember that Katya had in fact had a beloved little toy- a tiny little puppy, small enough to have room enough on Katya's little palm, a puppy with happy, dark eyes. Katya called the little dog Plushka and always laid it beside her on the pillow, and when it came time for an injection or bad tasting medication, she squeezed the little dog in her little fist so that the dog would give her courage.


Now Maximovna began to look around and to think. She lifted up the bed side table. There it was! Katya's beloved toy had fallen into the corner along the wall behind the wide wooden leg of the table, which had hidden it from view.


Then the old orderly looked out into the corridor, but neither Katya nor her mother were to be seen. Probably they had already gone down the stairs and had left the hospital. And just when she needed someone, there was no one around. The ward staff had all gone to the cafeteria to eat. Maybe if she hurried up, she could catch Katya or at least call out to her. "Only more bother," Maximovna muttered under her breath, "to chase them down the staircase!? I dare say I'm no longer a youngster, I'm almost 70. I will tell the nurses so that they can call them at home. If it has to be, let them come back and then I will return it to them."


She thrust the little toy into the pocket of her hospital smock and went to clean the floor along the nursing station. There was now much more to clean there than usual -- for Christmas the nurses and had placed by the window a decorated tree. The children elbowed each other around the tree, disturbed the ornaments, which caused pine needles and tinsel to pour onto the floor. Maximovna could hardly wait until the Christmas tree was taken away and it would be easier to clean the floor and to wipe the dust from the window sill.


Already almost home, the old orderly remembered that having gotten involved in her last minute jobs, she had not given Katya's little dog to the head nurse, Mila, and had not even asked her to call the little girl at home to say that the toy had been found. Plushka remained in the pocket of the hospital smock, which Maximovna had taken home to launder.


"Okay, what can I do?" Maximovna thought. "After my days off I will talk to Mila. And all the same, why am I upset? I dare say, the little child has a hundred such little dogs at home. If it is necessary, let them buy a new one, it will not bankrupt them! Besides, my head is bursting with concerns of my own."


Mulling these things over, she went up the staircase to the second floor, fumbled in her purse, searching for the key to her apartment. The light fixture on her floor gave out only a feeble light. She held out her hand with the key and stepped toward the door in half darkness...


Her leg rubbed up against something soft, which moved and suddenly gave out a sorrowful, frightened yelp. Someone or something had laid down or sat on the little rug in front of the door to her apartment. Maximovna carefully bent over to see who had thrown himself under her feet, nestled in the corner. It turned out to be a very small puppy. His whole body quivered, but he nonetheless looked up at the old lady without malice and on the contrary with trusting hope.


"Did you soil the rug?" Maximovna addressed the dog with a note of hostility in her voice. She dealt with cats indifferently but she did not like dogs, considering them dirty. "Why are you trembling, I did not hit you."


The puppy when it heard that the stern voice had softened somewhat began to furiously wag its short tail, and when Maximovna had barely opened the door, he slipped in through the crack.


"Where are you going," exclaimed the old orderly, "I don't have any room for you!! Shoo, skat!!! Go away, get out of here!"


But the puppy had no thought of leaving. On the contrary, he was already running around all the rooms sniffing out the corners and legs of the furniture -- getting acquainted. Turning on the light, Maximovna finally was able to make him out. He turned out to be shorthaired with light chocolate colored fur, and with dangling shaggy ears and lively hazel eyes. He was not a pure bred. Nor was he a mangy mongrel. There was something even a little likable about him.


"Where are you," the old orderly asked, a little less confidently, nevertheless grabbing for the broom.


The puppy understood that she was angry with him, so he let his tail droop and cunningly slid under the sofa. Maximovna tried to chase him out of there, but to no avail. The uninvited guest squirmed and whimpered, not understanding why he was being attacked with a broom. The old orderly began to get angry, tired of being on her knees in front of the sofa.


"You bad dog, you little scoundrel, get out of here! Don't you worry, I will chase you away. Let somebody else take you in, I don't need a pet. There is so much for me to do, and here I am wasting time on this puny creature!"


It was Christmas Eve, and Maximovna was planning to prepare for Christmas Day a holiday salad and a chicken leg with mushroom sauce, and then to go to Midnight Vespers. Sighing and grumbling under her breath, she set to work cooking.


Sensing the smell of meat from the kitchen, the hungry little scoundrel slid out of his hiding spot and carefully approached, clattering his claws along the corridor's old linoleum.


"So?" Maximovna addressed the dog in a threatening tone, seeing his chocolate-brown mug peering around the door post. "Why did you come? Did I call you?"


He hid his little face. Glancing to the side the old woman saw the puppy sitting downcast by the wall, spreading his front paws out, as if considering why fate waved off his hope for a good mistress, and instead palmed him off to this mean old woman, and considering whether it was still possible to expect something good out of life. His little face reflected only deep unhappiness. Maximovna experienced something like compassion. But she had been keeping a fast until the first star of Christmas Eve, and her little meal now smelled unbelievably tempting.


"No indulging," she said sternly to the puppy and to herself. She then went into the kitchen, where the frying pan sputtered with butter and holiday aromas of cooking chicken, and rich mushroom bullion was bubbling in the enamel sauce pan. From time to time she glanced furtively at the kitchen door, but the puppy's nose did not show itself again.


Then suddenly from the living room a loud, ominous clatter rang out. And then another.


Maximovna sighed and ran toward the noise, quickly taking the frying pan off the fire.


There was a spectacle there, which, as they say, was not for the weak spirited. The floor lamp which had fallen had not seriously been damaged, but in its fall it had caught hold of the lace doily whose edge hung from the buffet. The doily also was not badly damaged. But Maximovna -- for decoration -- had placed on the doily several small porcelain reindeer which she had bought a long time ago, a photograph of herself in younger days in a plastic gilded frame ,and a small bouquet of dried strawflowers in a little faience vase. The reindeer broke in falling, some losing a tail, some a leg, and some their ears. The little vase was broken into a thousand pieces, and the picture frame had cracked in two places and now was only good for the trash can.


"Oh, you," Maxima cried, giving into indignation. "Where are you?!" Of course no one answered her.


Looking around, her gaze soon found the moist brown canine eyes, glimmering from the far corner under the buffet. Having learned from experience, she did not go for the broom, but quickly returned to the kitchen, reluctantly cutting from the chicken a small piece of the cooked skin and returned with it to the living room.


"Come here," she called out, with a false tone of tenderness. "yYs, yes, come here, I am talking to you."


The puppy turned out to be not that foolish and did not immediately come out. Maximovna wanted to forget about humaneness and prod him with the end of a mop. But her well ordered cunning now began to work. The little dog emerged from under the buffet and moved toward the old orderly, guiltily lowering its head and wiggling his scrawny little chocolate-brown body. His eyes continuously followed the delicacy in the human's hand.


"Now now!!," Maximova sang quietly going into the entry way. The puppy trustingly followed her, like a child following a magic flute. "Good dog, good dog, come here, come!"


Opening the door to the hallway she threw the chicken skin onto the tiled hallway floor. "Go, eat!!"


The puppy looked reproachingly at her. "You take me for such a fool," she could read in his sad understanding eyes. The dog had no intention of walking out the door. Maximovna, seeing this, lost her last remaining patience. Quickly bending over, she extended her arm preparing to grab the intelligent little dog by the nape of the neck and simply throw him out the door. But the puppy was more nimble and jumped to the side, turned around and furiously slipping his paws along the linoleum, he ran headlong toward the living room to hide under some furniture. But a horrible surprise awaited him. The treacherous old lady had tricked him, trapping him in the entry hall, having firmly closed the doors to the living room and kitchen. The poor creature began to rush around in confusion, then leapt forward between the felt sippers of the ominously approaching old orderly, then literally flew through the only open door -- to the hall and staircase.


Maximovna then slammed the door shut and sighed with relief. The little dog was no longer to be seen, but through the little glass peep hole in the door from the other side she could have seen the little puppy barking, whimpering and scratching on the door with his paws. Maximovna gloomily nodded her head imagining what would become of the little entry rug and the hallway walls. Then she went to the kitchen where the sauce had continued to boil and to thicken so much that a spoon could stand upright in it. Fixing things as much as she could, Maximovna took herself into the living room. Two porcelain reindeer and the picture frame had to be thrown into the waste basket. The floor lamp had to have the light bulb replaced. After noticing and gathering tiny pieces of glass remaining from the vase, the old lady could barely stand on her feet any longer. And Midnight Vespers were to begin very soon . . .


The old orderly set the alarm clock for 11 o'clock and lay down in the bedroom on the divan covering herself with a green quilt, intending to doze for an hour. From behind the door to the hall staircase weak sounds carried to her: that little puppy sadly lamenting his exile. Maximovna had a pang of conscience -- just outside, just beyond her was a little, defenseless creature, that, heaven knows why, appeared at her doorway, hungry and alone. Beyond the door, alone in the big inhospitable world, many bad things could happen. The dog might be kicked by the drunken neighbor from the apartment across the hall . . . he might be tormented by the wicked little boy Stas who lived on the next floor . . . or squeezed too tightly by little Tamara who had come for Christmas to visit her grandmother . . . or . . .


Too tired to follow her thoughts any further, the exhausted Maximovna fell asleep and was soon enveloped in either a dream or a miraculous vision . . .


Everything in her room was suddenly golden, as if the light of the mornign sun was pouring in from all sides. The light was so bright that Maximovna could even see it through her tightly-pressed eyelids, the same as if her eyes were open. The room felt warm and peaceful, but Maximovna felt a wrenching in her chest. And the strangest and most remarkable thing was that in the middle of the room there stood a small, very handsome little boy, looking attentively and directly at the old woman.


Maximovna startled and sat up quickly. Her heart rapidly pounded, because in the whole world there could only be one such remarkable little boy . . .


"Seryozhka!!" Maximovna was amazed. "My little boy! How have you come here?? Oh how glorious you've become -- so handsome and ruddy! I almost didn't recognize you!!"


"But Mama, you have often not recognized me," answered Seryozha, smiling sadly. "How many times I have been in your hospital ward and you yelled at me angrily, and once drove me away, waving a dirty rag at me."


"What? That is impossible. When?" Maximovna was incredulous.


Little Sergei did not answer, but only then did the old woman realize that the light in the room was leaving, the rays shimmering and flowing like miraculous gold water, as she became aware of quiet, sweet but sad singing. Then the hospital ward appeared to her, with its long narrow corridor. A group of little boys was running from an angry old woman wagging a mop at them. And she knew that angry old woman. That woman scowled at Maximovna every morning from her mirror.


Merging with the golden rays of light she again became aware again of sad, lamenting sounds.


"And Mama, I also remember, I lay completely alone with a high fever, and I wanted someone to come by and say something to make me feel better, just to say, 'don't be sad, you are getting better,' or 'don't cry, you will soon feel better.' But you came alongside of me and did not even look at me."


"What are you saying, my son?" But before her eyes another image was already opening up. It had happened like that. How many times it had happened, only the children were now nameless and unknown.


The more heatedly Maximovna protested to her son, the sadder his gaze became. And the surrounding light blazed up more brightly so that her eyes could hardly bear it. Her heart ached with an undescribable melancholy.


"Or else, I remember I came to you in the church that you attend. I approached the Icon of Christ to light a candle, but paused to admire the icon and to listen to the choir singing psalms. And you were behind me snarling. What was I doing, why was I taking so long, and why do they let children come here?"


Finally the old lady could bear it no longer. "Dear Seryozha, I said that to you? But you died a long time ago! Those were someone else's children." Now Seryozhka looked so sadly at his mother that her eyes clouded with salty moisture for the first time in many years.


"But imagine, Mama, that when you will die and appear to the Lord, what if He says to you, "I don't know you, you are someone else's child." How will it be for you then?"


Maximovna listened, now weeping the tears she thought she no longer had. And suddenly the light glowed warmly and Seryozha became happier.


"Mama, when I was alive on earth I did not like to see you cry. But now I understand that tears of repentance are so ardent that for them Our Lord consoles us the most. But, let us go, Mama, soon there is going to be a great miracle."


Just as the glow was becoming blinding, Maximovna saw on the back of her son two bright shining wings which somehow allowed him and herself to rise up from the earth. But how she did not understand. Below was darkness, but with many glimmering lights of the city, as they flew upwards into the night air, which was clean and sweet like spring water.


"Look there, Seryozhenka, how many windows have lights, many people are not sleeping!"


"Those are not windows, Mama, those are Christmas candles in churches. But do not look down, look up -- it is there that we need to be."


But Maximovna could not restrain herself and turned for one more short glance down at the earth. She saw that among the twinkling candlelights there prowled some ominous, troubling shadows, which sometimes gathered together and sometimes dispersed. They tried to extinguish as many Christmas candles as possible.


Noting her fear, little Sergei said, "Don't be troubled, mama! They will not be able to do anything. Christ has defeated the demons of hell, they all tremble at His birth, and even more at his resurrection on Easter."


Above there shone a star brighter than any the old woman had ever seen. As the light of the star became closer, suddenly in the dark sky a portal opened, revealing a brightly lit room. But it turned out not to be a room in a house but a church so large and majestic that it took her breath away. It was filled with the sound of music, it glowed with gold and bright colors, like a magnificent rainbow. It shimmered with light, with singing voices and with an inexpressible delight which warmed her heart. Tears began to pour from her eyes but it was impossible to say if these were from joy or from a poignant awareness of her own meekness. An unseen choir began to sing "Alleluia." "My dear son, is this Heaven?"


"No, mama, this is only the threshold of heaven. I have been given permission to bring you here for a short period of time, to give you some joy for a while, because I have prayed for you so long and so passionately."


"Can I approach closer to the royal doors of the altar rail? I would so much like to see!"


"Take several steps and you will understand. We are now at the most distant gates of heaven."


Maximovna took one step and could go no further, her legs would not carry her. But all around was such beauty -- good, formidable, gentle and fervent -- that the old lady could not move from the spot. She stood, gazed and listened to what eyes and ears could not completely take in, but only the heart. The solemnity surrounding her increased as the great hour approached. Somewhere on the earth, in a poor stable, the Lord God was clothed in human flesh in order that people might not only stand weeping in front of the gates of heaven, but would be able to go further on that journey.


As the moment of the greatest rejoicing approached, Maximovna thought to herself, "Lord, this is the way to die; in such grace!"


But she did not die, but returned again to her home and her bedroom. Seryozha, her son, was still with her, warm and radiant like a small star.


"My little son, will you be leaving now? I would do anything so that you and I might meet again. Pray for me before the Lord, so that He will help me. Ah, if only I could hug you like I used to!"


"Mamochka, I always am praying for you. If you only knew how the angels and saints have such pity for people, how all in heaven hope for you."


Maximovna could feel on her face a gentle, caressing warmth as her son came nearer to her...The voice of her son spoke quietly as if directly in her ear: "Do not drive away the little dog, it was I who requested him for you."


"Why a little dog for me, Seryozhenka?"


"For happiness, Mama! I see of course how sad you always are. Do you remember, when we lived together, that I wanted a little puppy?"


"I remember and now how I reproach myself for refusing you, I am so sorry!"


"Don't be sorry any more, You now will love other children for the sake of the Lord and for me, but the little dog will be with you at home waiting for your return, to make you happy. Our Lord in various and different ways lightens all our burdens. And at the awesome judgement He gives voice to our pets so that they can witness for us -- remember this. Christ save you, Mama! My time has come!"


Then Seryozha disappeared, and Maximovna woke up in tears.


She was startled and amazed that morning light was pouring in through the window. Her journey in sleep had been so long and strong that she had not at all heard the ringing of the alarm clock, and now it was already 7 in the morning.


"I slept through Midnight Liturgy!" Maximovna exlaimed. But then she remembered what great joy had been given to her in night journey. Yes, of course, she had been at the Christmas Vigil with Seryozha!


She fell onto her knees in front of the icons on the wall, and prayed intently, thanking God. Then she wiped away her tears and remembered the last wards that Seryozha had said.


At her hallway door there was not a sound. The whole building was still asleep. No one's steps disturbed the hallway or staircase. Maximovna uneasily opened up the door and looked out. The little puppy lay on the small rug with his tail over his face. Hearing a noise, he lifted his head. In his large shining eyes incredulity was struggling with hope. In the end the latter won out.


"So come on in!" The old orderly called out somewhat awkwardly, and she stepped to the side so that the little puppy could slip past her.


But he did not stir from his spot.


"What, did I offend you so much yesterday? Please, forgive me. Don't be angry. Let's go in.'"


The little dog thought for a bit, stood up, and indecisively glanced toward the vestibule. The memory of the previous evening prevented him from fearlessly crossing the threshold.


"What a calamity I've created. But let's go now -- or are we to stand at the doorway until lunch? Come, little one, come here! Come, so I can scratch you behind the ears."


Dogs probably have more faith in human goodness than we ourselves do. The puppy made several cautious little steps, looking quizzically at Maximovna. Then, seeing that she was not angry and was not going to get the broom, the dog quietly entered the apartment.


"Thanks be to God! Let me pet you, you are such a good, such a smart little dog!"


Gladdened by this tenderness, the dog in a twinkle lay down so that Maximovna could pet his light brown belly.


"Oh, yes you are a female, it turns out. Let me pet your belly . . . How good you are, you plush little puppy. Plushka you will be. Let us go have breakfast, eating what the Lord has given. Come, Plushka, my little Plushka!!"


This time Plushka did not require any extra persuasion.


Carefully inspecting the produce through the window of the kiosk, Maximovna picked out the biggest, brightest orange. The clerk was sleepily leaning against the wall, but finally passed it out through the window to her persistent customer. After that the old lady caught the bus and traveled to the other side of the city, holding tight to her shabby leather purse.


It was a remarkably sunny but at the same time frosty day, so that the bus windows were covered with hoarfrost. Through the icy glas,s the streets could not be made out as the bus twisted and turned along its route. The driver at first was hesitant to announce the stops but the passengers shamed her so that she began reluctantly to cry out: "Museum? Anyone? Next, Boarding School."


Maximovna got off at the Northwestern suburban stop. This region was new, and the old woman had never been there before. There were many tall apartment buildings between brightly colored but snow-covered and frozen playgrounds. The old orderly looked around, in the hope of seeing Katya on a slide or on a jungle-gym. But it was cold, and the slides and jungle-gyms were empty.


Maximovna knew the address by heart, she had an excellent memory in spite of her age. She found the apartment building, and its entrance lobby very quickly. Now she had only to take the elevator to the sixth floor. For some reason her heart was beating fast and she was very anxious. After so many years of angry discontent, she had completely forgotten how to deal warmly with people.


Finding herself in front of a brown wood door, the old woman took Katya's tiny toy dog and the orange out of her purse, but she could not make herself ring the door bell. She was overcome with panic -- she did not have any idea what to say, how to act. If they began to thank her, then what should she do?


She could only imagine difficulties, "Why am I so afraid?," angry with herself muttered Maximovna "Am I lost in a forest expecting to meet a bear?"


And suddenly she remembered that she had previously been proud that people were afraid to approach her with questions . . .


"What will I say? O, Lord help me to know! How did I talk with people . . . now my legs are shaking. Okay, I cannot stay here forever at the doorway, the time has come! Help me, God."


She sighed, carefully made the sign of the cross, and pressed on the white, pudgy little door bell.