by Nelly Shulman
In the spring, Maxim Makarov’s dog fell ill.
At first, Red tried to bark, quickly running along the coast and jumping into a flaky boat. The dog twirled among the silvery quivering fish and sank on gray pebbles, wagging its tail. Hearing the creak of the boat’s bottom in the shallow water, Red would get up. Taking a few steps, the dog collapsed on the stones. Maxim patted his silky ears. Red’s amber eyes watered under the northern wind. Breathing heavily, it licked Maxim’s hand. The fisherman was concerned.
“What is the matter, dear? Maybe I should take you to the city?”
Shaking itself, Red crept closer to the boat. Maxim threw the dog a couple of fish, and Red held them with its paw. Makarov was relieved. The dog seemed to be eating well.
Red was of no use to him. Birds, echoing in the low sky, were not worth the cartridges spent on them. Tourists asked about bears, but the beasts did not wander here even in winter. Maxim saw animals only in his youth.
“The island is too crowded now,” he explained to the guests, “only the chatterboxes remained.”
So, Maxim called the seagulls.
Maxim would have felt better if Ivan had been drunk, but the police said his brother had thrown a noose around his neck sober. Ivan has left only an unreadable note, scribbled with the broken pencil.
Guests often asked the fisherman where the name of the island came from. Maxim shrugged in response.
“From our ancestors, this is our surname.”
Tourists photographed the ancient house, towering silently on the slope above the strait. The rocky hills on the mainland glistened with countless lakes, streams, and swamps. In the spring, the cries of the cranes returning home mingled with the voices of the seagulls.
Red had disappeared after the cranes came to the coast.
The dog liked to curl under the bench, where the fisherman threw his equipment. Maxim kept the door of the room open. The dog could crawl under the old spring bed, but Red behaved modestly.
Makarov woke up that morning before the cold dawn. Usually, by this time, Red was already restlessly tossing and turning. Sometimes the dog got up and wandered around the stove, where a pot of barley was waiting.
Listening to the silent house, Makarov decided to get up. Red could run away to the sea or retire to the low cliffs where the dog sometimes caught the crabs. Maxim never closed the entrance door. There was no one to be afraid of on the island.
Throwing on a canvas jacket, taking a gun, Makarov went out, breathing in the salty wind. The fog hung in the air, obscuring the darting arrows of the seagulls. The boat swayed on a shallow wave, and the mainland was sinking in a whitish mist.
“Red,” Maxim shouted, “Red, where are you!”
Wet pebbles slipped under his rubber boots. Makarov wanted to shoot in the air, but Red could not have heard anything in the relentless cry of the wind.
On a fishing trip, the dog sat quietly at the stern of the boat and only licked its lips when the nets neatly darned by Maxim began to swirl with a writhing lead of the fish.
Makarov had not had to shoot, catching a faint barking sound. Red hid behind a mossy boulder. Squeezing into the crevice, the dog curled up into a ball.
“Red,” Maxim knelt, “Red, what are you doing, dear …”
The dog moved with difficulty. The haze obscured its amber eyes, and its fluffy tail swung a little. When Makarov held out his hands to the dog, Red gratefully dropped its head into his large palms. A rough tongue licked Maxim’s fingers. The dog fell silent, but Makarov still did not rise, trying to catch the beat of its heart. The dog’s body turned completely cold. Maxim brought from home an empty canvas grocery sack.
Over the hills across the strait rose the ancient dark crosses and silver-painted obelisks of the almost abandoned cemetery. Makarov did not want to look into the destroyed village where he was born. His ancestors lay on the slope, and here the truck hired by Maxim brought the coffin with Ivan’s body.
“You were still a puppy then, “he said to the dead Red, “you were so young, barely two years old.”
Throwing an unexpectedly light bag over his shoulder, Maxim went to the boat. He brought the dog to the cemetery hill facing the Makarov Coast, where two years ago, Maxim buried his brother. After dragging a boulder to the grave, Makarov looked at the empty sky over the island.
Now everything was as it should be.
Nelly Shulman is a writer currently based in Berlin. Her work has appeared on JewishFiction.net, in the Vine Leaves Press Anthology of the Best 2021 Flash Fiction, in Sky Island Journal and other literary magazines.