My father named me Laika because when I was born, my grandfather told him to treat me like a bad dog. To Father, Laika was synonymous with dog. He used the name to remind me of my place in the hierarchy: lesser. Beneath. Inferior.
Nothing but a dog.
My father meant to humiliate and degrade me with such a name, but he honored me instead.
You see, Laika was a stray dog from Moscow. On 3 November 1957, the Soviet Union put her on Sputnik 2 and launched her into space. She was the very first animal to orbit Earth.
The Soviets knew how to put a rocket into space, but they didn’t know how to bring it back. This made Laika’s mission a death sentence. Shortly after reaching orbit, the interior of Sputnik 2 became catastrophically hot – far too hot for mammals to tolerate. Mere hours after launch, Laika died an agonizing death. She perished the same way she’d lived: lesser, beneath, inferior. Abandoned. Unloved.
Nothing but a dog.
I spent many hours imagining her terror, pain, and loneliness. How would it feel, spending my last hours hurtling through divine darkness in a metal bucket?
What must it be like to not understand what I was seeing, or why it was suddenly so loud and so hot?
What must it be like to not understand why – after being plucked from cruel streets and dropped into a bustling world of kindness – I was now alone? Perhaps I would think I’d been a bad dog. Perhaps I’d think this was my punishment.
Punishment is my mother tongue. I know what it was like to be punished for transgressions I cannot remember or understand, to be hurt so badly my heart rate triples and my mind flies out the window and soars into the stars, retracing Laika’s doomed flight while my husk squirms and weeps on the floor of a dirty house sixty-eight miles below.
Even so, I adapted to punishment. As I said, it eventually becomes a language. Given enough time, anyone can learn a language.
What I could not adapt to was fear.
As a child, I was afraid of everything. You see, in the deepest, most forgotten parts of the world, there are things that most people cannot believe and even fewer would understand. Old ways, old things, old truths.
And old monsters.
Monsters like my father and my grandfather.
How can I describe this in a way you will believe? Maybe I can’t. Maybe I shouldn’t try. So instead, I will describe my grandfather.
He was called Paval. By the time I turned nine, he had gone through six bodies. By this, I mean he inhabited them. Using a variant of blood magic perfected by my forebears across many centuries, he leapt from body to body.
He was not a spirit; he had a corporeal body of his own, a twisted, monstrous thing covered in scars and hard, glittering skin, a body that could shrink to the size of a garden snake or expand to the size of a house.
But for all its marvels, this body was weak; sunlight burnt its eyes and blistered its flesh. So it entered other bodies, like a hand inside a puppet, and wore them until they rotted away. I will never forget the sight of him – of many hims – in different bodies as flesh degraded and fell away in wet, discolored strings. Or the way his eyes – hard, round yellow eyes – glinted deep within their stolen sockets.
Grandfather preferred the bodies of men, but sometimes chose women or children. Once, he even wore the body of my mother. I was very young then – perhaps three – and the sight of her familiar form standing before the fire sent me into such transports of joy that I bawled from sheer ecstasy.
Then she turned around, and in her bruised sockets I saw my grandfather’s eyes: flat, glittering yellow. Like rotted gold.
I reared back, screaming.
My father, who had been stroking a pair of old baby shoes, looked at me with contempt so deep it scorched my heart. “Shut up, dog!”
I cringed. This was a mistake; his contempt exploded into disgust. He shot out of his chair and stomped upon me. Dirty, squirmy pain exploded across my abdomen. I hobbled away, whimpering, and hid under the stairs.
I lay there alone for many hours. Eventually my mind left my body and soared into the sky, a reverse dive into a sea of stars. I drifted away, dreaming of diamond-colored constellations and red nebulae. At my side was a curly-tailed dog with a striped face. My namesake.
When I woke, I felt her: furry and warm, chest rising and falling under my hand. I opened my eyes. For just an instant I saw her in the shadows. Then she shrank away, sinking into the ground. I tried to grab her, but the floor swallowed her. My fingers closed on cold, hard floorboards.
I covered my eyes and wept.
Several months later, Grandfather-Within-Mother gave birth to a child. A baby boy with yellow eyes and my father’s curly black hair. Mere minutes after the birth, Father picked up the baby and took him outside. He returned an hour later, empty-handed.
Spurred by horror, I immediately ran out into the night. The cold was brutal, at once invigorating and exhausting. I searched until I found the baby, whimpering weakly beside a snowdrift. He was still covered in birth blood.
I named him Alexander and brought him home.
When I walked in, Father immediately slapped me. I reeled back as stars rocketed across my vision. “Never,” he hissed, contempt dripping from every syllable, “never disobey again. Give him to me now.” He reached for Alexander, but Grandfather stopped him.
I looked up, and swallowed a whimper. Grandfather stared back at me through my mother’s rotting face. The mouth – puffy and discolored, with an oddly detached look – quirked into a smile. “No. Let the dog keep her pup. We have other concerns.”
They certainly did; they worked together, and they worked constantly. Father kidnapped victims, and Grandfather used them. Whenever Father brought a new victim to the cabin, Grandfather used his hands – long, hideous things marked with scars and covered in strange, glittering flesh – to tear out the victim’s tongue and crush their feet.
Then he would wait until nightfall – because remember, sunlight burned Grandfather’s eyes and blistered his skin – and carry them to his Chapel.
His Chapel was an ancient stone structure at the base of a wooded hill. Within the chapel were three red windows and six rough-hewn pews. At the end of each pew sat desiccated corpses, facing the altar like sentries.
I hated Grandfather’s chapel; the very air weighed upon me whenever I entered, crushing my heart and poisoning my lungs. The worst part was the fear: electric and paralyzing, inescapable.
Luckily, I was just a dog, and dogs do not spend much time inside chapels. But dogs hear screams. Even screams from far away, echoing down forested mountains long into the night.
Grandfather did not often leave his Chapel, but when he did it was always in the wee hours of the morning. I know this because my father and I were required to hold vigil until he walked through our door. Whenever Grandfather came back from his Chapel, he looked human again: smooth skin, wide smile, good proportions. Sometimes he looked a bit like Father. Sometimes he looked like his victim.
It was as incomprehensible to me as outer space would have been to Laika.
The stream of Grandfather’s victims never ended. Vagrants, the elderly, the travelers, orphans fleeing violence. There were so many.
So, so many.
If it weren’t for Alexander, I would have withered into nothing. He was more than a brother to me; for all intents and purposes, he was my son. Neither Father nor Grandfather cared for him. They didn’t even feed or clothe him; I had to feed and dress him with what little I had.
Despite my best efforts, he never learned to speak. That isn’t to say he couldn’t communicate – he could, with gestures and facial expressions and nonsense syllables – but language eluded him. But it was all right. He grew into a sweet, curious boy with freckles and long, delicate hands. Over time, his terrible yellow eyes mellowed into a clear, bright green. He was my life. He was my heart.
But he wasn’t enough.
One night, as a little girl’s screams came shrieking down the mountain from Grandfather’s Chapel, I finally went to my father.
I lay prostrate at his feet, which is how he taught me to approach him. The wooden floor was rough and painfully cold under my fingers. “Why, Father? Why do you do this?”
He sat in his chair, watching the fire. In his hands he held a pair of white baby shoes. “Because your Grandfather and I must live, little dog.”
“Will I have to do this to live?”
“Then I don’t want to live.”
“I understand,” he said. His grip tightened on the shoes. “But you don’t have a choice.”
I choked back a sob and waited for the dismissal; I could not come to him without crawling, and I could not leave until he told me so.
Instead, he said, “Stand up, Laika.”
Hearing my name was like being doused in ice water. He never used it; by that point, in fact, I’d almost forgotten I had a name.
“I said, stand up, Laika.”
It was a struggle to obey; fear made my bones rubbery and my muscles weak.
Father held out the baby shoes. “What do you see?”
“Shoes.” My voice quavered. “Old baby shoes.”
“Those shoes,” Father said, “belonged my sister, Alexandra. I loved her more than anything. More than life. More than my parents. More than your mother. More than you. She was my heart.”
I watched him. The firelight threw his face into relief, creating crevasses out of wrinkles. His curly black hair shifted like smoke, and his long, sharp nose looked strange and monstrous. Paralytic electricity swarmed my skin, so much like the Chapel that I could have wept.
“On my twelfth birthday,” Father said, “your grandfather boiled a pot of oil and called Alexandra to him. She and I were going to pick wildflowers later, so she was dressed in her finest clothes: a blue dress and white shoes. These shoes.”
Father did not speak for a very long while.
“She was my heart,” he finally repeated. “When my heart broke, I broke. It made me like Grandfather. Someday, I will be just like him. I will live forever. You will, too.”
That night, I had a nightmare of a little girl with sunken yellow eyes melting into blisters as my mother’s rotted body doused her with boiling oil.
I woke screaming.
Moonlight streamed through the window, drenching my room in celestial silver. My heart thumped so wildly that I could see my nightshirt moving. It wanted to escape. I wanted it to escape, to, because without it I would die, and when I was dead I could sail the stars with the other Laika.
Small, warm hands touched my face. I turned, expecting Alexander. Instead I saw my nightmare.
Great inflamed blisters bubbled and burst, sending rivulets of pus down her tiny, raw face. The skin around its mouth had burned away, leaving neat rows of milk teeth fully exposed. Burned scalp and dull bone glinted through black, curly hair. A blue dress clung to her body. Oil dripped from the hem, soaking my blanket.
“Don’t cry,” she whispered.
Alexander stirred between us.
“Get out,” I whispered.
The girl’s blistered chin quivered. “But you made me come here. Please let me sleep.”
“All right,” I whispered, because I did not know what else to say.
The girl burrowed under my blanket. I watched, aghast, as she threw a bony, burnt arm across Alexander and drifted to sleep.
That night, I did not sail the stars with Laika. Instead I sat awake, watching the apparition with mingled excitement and fear.
Just before dawn, my door creaked open. I tried to shield the girl as my father stepped into the room.
“What is that?” he asked sharply.
“Please,” I whined. “Please, don’t.”
The girl shifted, and – incredibly – began to shrink. Her body flattened into nothing, leaving her dress crumpled on the floor. That sank away, too, leaving the cold, empty floor in its wake.
“What was that?” Father screamed.
“I saw it in my sleep –”
“Her!” Father roared. “Her, not it!”
“I s-saw her in my sleep,” I stammered helplessly. “When I woke, she was here.”
Sweat gleamed on Father’s skin, reminding me of stars. “Get dressed. You must see your grandfather immediately.”
I fell to my hands and knees and crawled to him.
“No,” he said. “Stand up. Bring the boy.”
Alexander wept angrily when I picked him up. I ignored him and followed Father into the dark forest. The full glory of early spring bathed the landscape: pale beams of light shafted through the canopy, cutting the thick shadows with gold. Vermin crept through the undergrowth, and deer watched from a distance. The forest was always full of animals; Grandfather was no danger to the birds or beasts, after all.
Soon the Chapel came into view: an ancient little church with a black spire, red windows, and frost-encrusted stones.
Father ushered us inside. The moment I crossed the threshold, my skin began to crawl. Dread and fear swept over me. Alexander burst into tears.
Father shoved me toward the altar. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the sentry corpses twitching. Chests rose and fell in jagged, senseless rhythms. One especially tall corpse with long copper hair turned as I passed.
I covered Alexander’s eyes and stopped at the altar.
Shadows thickened and writhed against the back wall. Back in the pews, bones clattered and dried joints creaked.
Something blinked in the darkness behind the altar: great, flat eyes like golden moons, shining in the cold shadows.
“The dog,” Grandfather intoned, “and her pup.” He snarled: a deep, bone-shaking rumble like that of a tiger. Teeth glinted in the shadows, a shining ivory arc wider than Father’s entire head.
“Paval,” Father said urgently. “She had a nightmare. When she woke, it followed her out of the dream. It came alive. I saw it.”
“Oh,” Grandfather murmured. “Oh.”
“Our little dog has talent after all,” said Father.
“All good and well,” said Grandfather, “if she loves her pup. Do you love your pup, dog?” He reared up from the shadows, twisted and sinewy and utterly inhuman. “Do you love him? Or do you feel obligated to him?”
I opened my mouth to answer. Instead, I burst into tears.
Grandfather laughed, a low roar that shook dust from the rafters overhead. “A weak bitch indeed. Our hope is in the boy, Mikhail. It was always in the boy. That is why we made him. Now go.” Those great yellow eyes flicked to the pews. “I do not like to tempt my sentries. Not when they are hungry as they are.”
Fear and disbelief battled across Father’s weathered face. “Do you not understand what I’ve told you? She creates life from thoughts.”
“A poor substitute for what we require. Leave, Mikhail.”
“But – ”
Grandfather rocketed out of the shadows, a rippling mass of glittering skin and malformed limbs, and knocked Father to the stones.
The corpse-sentries uttered a deep sigh and continued to twitch.
“Never,” Grandfather snarled. Sunlight poured through the crimson windows, imbuing him strange hide with a red glow. He looked like the sky. A starry piece of outer space. “Never defy me.”
I waited breathlessly for Grandfather’s eyes to burst and his skin to sizzle – he was, after all, exposed to daylight – but it did not.
Many moments later, Grandfather struck Father across the face and whipped back into the darkness.
We left. Father did not speak again until the cottage came into sight. Then he grabbed me and dragged me off the path.
“Listen,” he growled. “Listen well. I can protect you from him. And…” He looked down at Alexander, eyes blazing with disgust. “When the time comes, I can protect you from him, too. But only if you help me.”
“Why should I need protection? He’s small, and loves me as a mother.”
“Do you remember the story of Alexandra?” Father asked.
“Your story is coming. Only Alexander will be me, and you will be Alexandra.”
My heart fell to the cold earth. I carefully pressed Alexander’s head into my shoulder, shielding his face from Father.
“Listen, dog. When next you dream of my sister –” His voice broke; he pulled away and ran his fingers through his hair. Tears shone in his eyes, which were huge and miserable over his quivering mouth. “When she comes again, bring her to me.”
“All right, Father.” I had never seen him weep before; the sight was frightening and curiously thrilling. “I will.”
Father nodded curtly, then left. I nearly followed, but thought better of it. Instead, I stayed in the forest with Alexander.
As the morning brightened and birdsong swelled to a symphony, I set Alexander upon the narrow path. He ran forward, humming a tune of his own composition. Shadow and sunlight dappled his skin, turning him into a woodland sprite. The trees were in full bloom: petals drifted down like snow, carpeting the earth in glistening white.
Alexander pulled ahead. After a while, I couldn’t hear or see him; he’d drifted away, slipping into the deep shadows.
Panic overtook me. “Alexander! Alexander!” I rushed ahead, grimacing against the pain in my chest. My heart thumped wildly, so hard I could see my shirt move; it wanted to escape again. “Alexander!”
He darted from between the trees. I halted, overcome with relief so powerful it took my breath away. Petals covered his head and shoulders. As I watched, one drifted down and settled on his nose. Wide green eyes glimmered above it, bright as the promise of spring.
For the first time in my life, my heart was so full that I wept.
That night, Alexandra came to me again, blistered flesh dripping down her face. Her eyes had melted away, leaving raw, swollen masses of flesh in her melted sockets.
Remembering my instructions, I sat up. “Father,” I quavered. Alexandra reached for me blindly, ruined hands closing on shadows. “Father!”
Father burst into my room, gasping. “Alexandra!” He shot forward, arms extended as if to sweep her up.
Alexandra tottered toward him. “Mikhail,” she whined. “Mikhail, my eyes hurt.”
Father collapsed and covered his eyes as Alexandra approached. She left a trail of pus and oil, shining like a tiny river in the moonlight.
“Mikhail, my hands hurt.”
Father wheezed miserably.
“Mikhail, my skin is on fire and drips away.” She stopped before him and crouched. Father whimpered and whined like a beaten dog, twisting away from her hands.
She set her small hand on his cheek. Father squalled and writhed, but couldn’t break away from her. “Mikhail,” she wept. “You are just like him now.” She jerked and began to shrink, to sink, disappearing into the floor. The moment her hand fell away, Father leapt to his feet and ran.
After that, he did not ask to see Alexandra.
This is good, because I did not see her in my dreams after that. I only saw Laika. I spent most nights drifting among the stars with that dear, doomed dog at my side. Imagined or not, the sights were glorious: incomprehensibly beautiful star formations, planets, great multicolored expanses of celestial mists.
Sometimes I woke, bleary and incoherent, and felt her fur against my skin. But by the time I opened my eyes, there was nothing.
One winter morning, I woke very early. My stomach growled immediately, and no wonder; Father hadn’t fed me for days. I’d fed Alexander with table scraps and tree bark.
That, I decided, would change today.
I crept into the kitchen. There wasn’t much; there never was. But I scraped together what little I could, and turned around.
My grandfather sat at the table, great golden eyes shimmering in his terrible face. “Little bitch. What have you done to your father? He no longer hunts. He no longer eats. He no longer obeys.”
I felt like I was back in his chapel: crushed by darkness, heavy with dread, on the verge of panic.
“Your ability,” said Grandfather, “has not been seen on this earth for a thousand years or more.”
Of course the ability wasn’t of earth; I’d no doubt come across it while sailing through space and breathing stardust. “It’s just nightmares.”
“No. You take the dark things of the world – the fear, the hate, the pain – and channel them into physical form. And that is just the beginning. You will be able to do anything. You will make bodies. Permanent, perfect bodies for me…and for you.”
The relish in his voice made me sick.
He said, “Our women have always been weak and talentless. I thought the same of you, little bitch.”
Tears pricked my eyes and my bones thrummed as if struggling to break through flesh and run away. But it was no use; destiny had already bloomed between my grandfather and I, heavy and foul with the promise of despair.
Grandfather whispered, “Listen closely, for you will only hear this once: I was wrong.”
He left. I ran to the window and watched him hurtle through the trees as sunrise threatened. Back to his Chapel.
I waited until the sun was up. Then I ran to my room, bundled Alexander in every bit of clothing I could find, and left.
We followed the path for many miles. Our home was hours and hours from the nearest town; we wouldn’t reach it until long past nightfall. I could only hope that Grandfather wouldn’t notice our absence until the following day. It wasn’t an unlikely hope; Grandfather spent most of his time in the Chapel.
The second this thought crossed my mind, a glittering dark shape leapt out of the trees and knocked Alexander from my arms.
I caught a blur of twisted limbs and nightmarish hands, of great yellow eyes like flattened moons. Alexander screamed as a torrent of blood splattered across the snow. It sank quickly, melting red canyons through the pristine white.
Grandfather at me, narrow sides heaving. Then he leaned down and tore out Alexander’s throat.
I screamed. Birds took flight and mammals ran through the undergrowth. The piercing note echoed off the mountains. The pain within it should have ended the world, but there was no one to hear and no one to care.
Grandfather grinned. Alexander’s blood and sinews clung to his teeth.
I felt it; the crushing weight of sorrow, the almost physical sensation of my spirit tearing and bleeding out into my guts.
I fell to my knees and cradled Alexander’s head for hours.
My father finally found us around nightfall. He had a heel of bread and an oily chicken leg. He pressed them both into my hands, then left.
I tore the bread into pieces and dropped them, one by one, into Alexander’s mouth. When he did not wake, I burst into tears and hurled the chicken leg into the woods.
The moon rose into the cruel, dark sky. Stars glimmered through the bare branches over head, creating a breathtaking fractal pattern.
I flopped down beside Alexander, pulling him to my body. He was cold. Terribly cold. I held him anyway, keeping my eyes trained on the stars. My mind detached with great difficulty, like it was trapped in tar.
Finally, it wrenched itself free and sailed upward, disappearing into a silvery sea of sky and stars, rocketing ever higher until I saw the Earth spinning below.
Laika’s rocket zoomed past. I reached out and caught one of the metal bars near the nose. I could sense Laika within: her terror vibrated through the craft and leached into my bloodstream.
“It’s all right,” I said. “It’s all right, Laika. I’m here. When you land, I will help you out and we will play together.”
Her fear diminished, and so did her pain. So did mine. Together we sailed the stars, looking upon the Earth and marveling at the incomprehensible beauty around us.
I woke cold, sore, and in more pain than I can describe.
I sat up. Alexander’s stiff body broke away from mine. I reached for him blindly. A thin scrim of ice covered his eyes. The wound in his throat was an open horror, one I couldn’t look at for long.
I drew my knees to my chin and wept.
After a while, something warm bumped my hand. A wet nose touched my palm. I knew what I would see long before I opened my eyes.
Laika’s striped face and dear curly tail made me smile, even through my tears. Stars glimmered through her fur, gently pulsing pinpricks of light.
“What is this?” Grandfather’s voice echoed through the trees.
Rage flowed through my blood, exquisitely corrosive. Hate, I learned then, is pleasurable; it is fury and it is the basis of power.
Grandfather erupted from the darkness, scaled skin shimmering like a river under the moon. “You waste your talent,” he sneered, “on a mutt. Not even your own pup! No matter. I will correct you.”
Laika reared up and leapt, snout piercing one of Grandfather’s flat moon eyes. He screamed and shook his head back and forth. Laika fell to the snow, twisting, and quickly righted herself. Then she bit his foot. Her teeth sank through that impenetrable, immortal hide like butter.
Laika was not large enough or strong enough to kill him, but she tore holes in him the way a match scorches holes in paper. Soon Grandfather was on his knees, mere feet from Alexander’s corpse.
Laika came to me, panting, and collapsed in my lap. She bled from a thousand wounds: some small, some undoubtedly mortal.
“Good dog.” My voice broke. I stroked her gently, willing those wounds to close. I was a monster. I’d used Laika just like the others had; calling her down on false pretenses, filling her with hope, before throwing her into the void. “Good girl. Good, good girl.”
I looked up as Grandfather’s good eye slid to my dead brother. Something dark bloomed there: a wicked, corrupted hope. He curled in on himself, twisted body shrinking to a withered husk, and slid down Alexander’s throat.
I screamed as Alexander’s body twitched and juddered. Then he sat up, bones creaking and frozen sinews cracking.
He smiled. His eyes shone like molten gold in a forge.
Laika attacked again. Alexander’s face curled into a snarl as she bit and tore his skin, exhibiting an energy at odds with her awful wounds.
I watched, helpless and hopeless and hurting, wishing I could detach and fly into the stars once more. Except there would be nothing there for me now; I’d called Laika down from the stars and doomed her.
The snow crunched behind me. I whirled around. Father stood there, watching me with contempt. In his hands was a sleek, gleaming shotgun.
Relief and horror engulfed me. This was the end. My mind would detach, forever this time. The fear would finally end.
Laika bit down on Grandfather-within-Alexander, who hit her. She whined, but held fast.
Father stalked past me and cocked the gun.
“No!” I screamed. “Don’t hurt her! Don’t hurt her!”
Father pointed the gun at Alexander’s head and fired. Blood and viscera and dark, glittering flesh exploded across the snow.
Father fired again, then reloaded, and fired again and again. Alexander’s head evaporated into red mist. Finally his body lurched, and Grandfather – small, bleeding, scaled Grandfather – slithered out of his throat.
Laika caught and held him. Father pressed the barrel of the gun against his good eye and pulled the trigger as the sun broke over the mountains.
Father stepped back. I reached for him, drunk on hope and gratitude, but he recoiled from me. In his weathered face, I saw despair and rage…
He kept his eyes trained on mine as he placed the gun in his mouth.
“No!” I screamed.
He pulled the trigger. Half his head evaporated, leaving a glistening mass like a fleshy geode. His body stumbled forward a step, then crumpled to the snow.
It took a very long time for the sun to burn Grandfather down to dirty oil. Laika held on until the last scrap of skin melted. Then she stumbled to me and collapsed.
I stroked her until her body shrank and sank into the ground, leaving nothing but a scattering of tiny, dim orbs: the stars I’d seen in her fur. I touched one. It was pleasantly hot. I gathered them up and slipped them into my pocket. I went to Alexander’s body – ravaged beyond description, broken in ways that did not see entirely real – and sat with him until nightfall. Then I stood and walked away.
And life went on.
At first, I brought them back from my nightmares – Alexander, Father, Grandfather, even Alexandra – but I quickly taught myself to starve and eventually kill my ability. It is not a good power; it is born of rage, despair, selfishness, and fear.
And I cannot tolerate fear.
Besides, dogs do not have such awful powers. It is good to be a dog, because they are not necromancers. They are not monsters. They are nothing more or less than the simplest and most loving of creatures.
That is why I will always be Laika the dog.