That which is carried above the literalness of life. A way of
thinking that avoids the problem of gravity.
In the dark of my bedroom, waiting for sleep, I sometimes imagined a cylindrical chamber with the dog strapped to a veterinarian’s stainless steel examination table. I knew nothing about space travel that wasn’t suggested by the cheap sets of the Flash Gordon television show. But I knew dogs. In spite of what I’d heard about sensors connected to that first little space dog, at times I pictured Laika without restraints, rushing back and forth in the cylinder, scratching at riveted metal seams with frantic forepaws. I saw her alternate the pawing with sharp yaps; then, like a pet at a screen door she waited, expectant, until when no one came, she resumed the scratching. Or I fantasized pre-flight escapes for Laika. Last-minute get-a-ways played out on the tarmac between a cement block building and an Erector Set platform. That was decades before I learned about Laika’s window or about her trainer Oleg Gazenko, who describes his own descent from the platform just before lift-off as a long effort to control his tears.
When I was a child, I once thought my older brother told me that he had missed some mark by a “hare’s breath.” To me that phrase was linguistic perfection. It said that event and possibility came so near to coinciding that the distance between them was no more that the soft puff of air inhaled by a rabbit who, observing this clean slice between what is and what might have been, gasped. It taught me the power of metaphor.
I began to lace my language with the expression. I wove it into the tales I told, feeling at the time that I knew precisely, intuitively, when to use it: “After the rain stopped, I came a hare’s breath from finding elves under the hosta leaves.” I thought the phrase captured and communicated an element of experience that enthralled me: those split seconds when (though I couldn’t have said this then) an observing universe sees how very close we come to something radically different from what we know.
Eventually, however, I read the phrase in print. A hair’s breadth? What good was that? Calipers, rulers, tweezers. It said nothing to me, but it said it with clinical authority. It turned my stories against me.
There are countless ways to appear foolish to the world’s measurers of hairs. Our culture so admires their fine instruments and rituals of data analysis that the rich possibilities of myth and metaphor, of ambiguity and connotation, seem like guilty pleasures at best, infantile misunderstanding at worst. I think this is what makes the story of Laika’s window so risky and irresistible to me. Technological one-upmanship. Science in the service of ideology. Calipers, rulers, astrophysicists. But also a dog story. When I stumbled across it in an old magazine, it brought me close enough to epiphany to hear the astonished inhalation of a hare.
But this is the point: When you come within a hare’s breath of something, you have by definition not connected. You’ve missed it. If that something seems to offer answers to your personal great imponderables, reengagement feels essential. You have to have another go at it with whatever instruments are yours. Mine are the devices of language. So I’ll tell you Laika’s story, and we’ll see where it takes us.
One day some years ago, I was paging through old magazines to tear out images for my picture file and stumbled onto the article. I find it curious that I somehow missed reading the item back when the issue first arrived. That the magazine disappeared within hours after my discovery strikes me as less curious—more Freudian. In that one brief reading, Laika’s story stunned me with the things it almost said to me before it slipped somewhere beyond my reach. I would tell you that I sat there only a breathless moment after finishing the last line and the captions under watercolored illustrations. Then I rose and tucked it like treasure into some safe place where I could return to it with my tasks done and my head cleared.
That’s how I remember it. But I never found the magazine again. Over the years I’ve searched in all the logical and illogical crannies. I’ve cleaned drawers and shelves and bins. Database searches and phone conversations with research staff at The Smithsonian archives led nowhere, though I thought that theirs was the publication that carried the article. Since then, the internet has occasionally delivered elements of the information the story related—Cold War politics, competition straining technology—but not the elements that matter most to me. So I work from memory, even though losing the original makes me skeptical of that source. But memory is what I have until the print version of this tale works its way back to me.
The missing issue dated from a period just after the break-up of the Soviet Union when information flowing outward with the first flush of freedom gave us openings into personal experiences of Soviet life. The article was written by or in the voice of Oleg Gazenko, the man who trained the little dog Laika, first dog rocketed into orbit in the drama days of the space race. Later technology would enable the Soviets to bring their space dogs back to earth alive, but as Laika’s role was purely sacrificial, she became the darling of the international press and a household name during my childhood. We saw her grainy photograph in newspapers and on the covers of magazines. When she appeared in My Weekly Reader, I cut out the picture, folded it, and tucked it into my zippered pencil case, where I could keep it near me without having to look into those earnest eyes.
Gazenko speaks of the bond that grew between the dog and him as they worked toward her mission, leading us in unembroidered prose through a brief tale of preparation, hours of readiness on the launch pad, and the launch itself. But the heart of the article for me, and the part to which nothing I’ve found since makes reference, is this: Gazenko tells us that as engineers rushed against deadlines to complete the capsule that would carry the dog into space, outfitting it with equipment to record the details of her death, he took on a battle in Laika’s behalf. Against heavy objections from the decision-makers, he insisted upon the installation of a window. A window in a space capsule, where such a luxury would cause complications and expenses that I can barely imagine. A window for the dog whose monitored demise had been this man’s objective in all the interactions that had bonded her to him with the eager devotion of every well-trained working canine.
Yet Gazenko persisted and prevailed. During the hours when Laika waited on the launch pad strapped into place, he stayed beside her on the platform to comfort her through this whimsical porthole. Then, he reports, in the first moments after the launch when he was to be honored by the dignitaries gathered for the occasion, he walked past his reception line and out into the forest, where he cried.
I don’t know what accounts for this story’s effect on me. The elaborate expression of the trainer’s affection or his duplicity? My sense of the little dog’s game expectation or her grappling with betrayal? In orbit, the magnificence of the view beyond the window or the intimate space inside the capsule. Foremost, I think, is simply the sweet earnestness of dogs, because for me, this is above all a dog story.
In a tale of international tension and scientific ambition, of men intent on dominating cosmic forces and nations on intimidating one another, we find scampering at the heels of Oleg Gazenko a little street dog lifted from Moscow’s gutters. Her dispensability qualified her for the mission, but her innocence of all questions of motivation freed her to devote herself, as only salvaged strays can, to extremes of gratitude. These, we can imagine, she bestowed on the trainer she credited with her great reversal of fortune.
I learned about the gratitude of strays first from Daisy, who spent a lifetime thanking my father for her rescue. She was a mixed breed with the coloring and body type of a Jack Russell terrier but a tranquil spirit. Dad brought her home from the machine shop where he worked after she wandered in and tried to hide in its dark corners. She bonded with our whole family, but Dad fired her passion. When he was at work, she waited for his return. Detecting the sound of his pickup while it was still blocks away, she burst through two doors and danced circles in the driveway gravel until he pulled to a stop under the elm. As he opened his door and stepped from the cab, she mastered her frenetics and became ceremonial. Standing before him on her hind legs with her forepaws against him, she lowered her chin and pressed her forehead into his thigh. Both bow and embrace, obeisance and laying claim. When Dad finally broke the spell by moving, she followed him everywhere until he settled into his chair with the evening paper. Then she lay on her rug and watched his face as he read, a scene that still appears to me whenever I hear the word “regard.” She regarded him—gave him her best regards.
That lavish expression of love was part of our household routine when Americans first learned of Laika’s flight in 1957, and I know that much of the power this story’s new version has over me stems from my childhood response to the news of Sputnik II. It affected me the way the best fairy tales did, with mystic intensity. During evening play, I searched the darkening sky for it, learning with the rest of the watching world to recognize passing satellites by their star-like light and ghostly movement. Thoughts of the space dog left me wakeful at night. Staring through the darkness at my bedroom ceiling, I wondered about her exact location. Did she still breathe comfortably, or was she beginning to notice that her panting didn’t relieve her lung’s effort? One night this thought so troubled me that I pressed my face into my pillow to see how long I could pull air through a thick filter of feathers. I compared the effect of long, gradual, sucking inhalations to short, shallow whiffs that seemed more dog-like to me; but in either case, I soon had to pull my head up, gasping.
I made up prayers for Laika, thinking that maybe her position in space put her closer to God. That helped for awhile, but then one Saturday evening my friend Linda and I, picking violets along the railroad spur behind the hatchery, happened on the decaying body of a coyote. Grizzled fur and fraying hide draped over ribcage and leering skull. For long nights afterward, that was the image I saw in the riveted cylinder crossing the sky over the bedroom ceiling, and I felt that God and science were equally to blame.
So the glasnost version of the story in the lost magazine, with its new shades of human concern and emotional frailty, falls upon my fertile susceptibility: childhood vulnerabilities mulched in layers of whatever it is we rake from each year’s experience and tamp around the mysteries that we have not voiced. “Vulnerable to what?” I wonder now as Laika’s story links past to present. To innocence in the path of power. To the starkness of death stripping flesh from bone in the fading light. To trust’s betrayal, and in spite of that, the promise of metaphor. And to dog stories.
After many years of petlessness, I live again in the glow of a rescued stray. My husband Jeff and I found her starving and tick-ridden in a pasture we own an hour’s drive from our house in Omaha. After a period of indecision we marvel at in retrospect, we hauled her home, named her Kismet, and spent the next year’s vacation budget on removing ticks, worms, reproductive organs, and after complications from surgery, a life-threatening blood clot. And though her means of communication differs from Daisy’s, she, too, is eloquent in her gratitude. Another mixed breed, this one with suggestions of German short-haired pointer ancestry, Kizzie has eyes the translucent brown of Coca-Cola. Through them she urges us to access her soul and plunder all the affection she stores there for us. I know it is not uncommon for a dog to place a paw against your arm to remind you to resume petting if you have slacked off. But Kizzie makes her gesture at the height of the petting, when tactile contact is at its best. And she doesn’t lay her paw against you, but curls her oddly-webbed little toes around the curve of your forearm, grasping with the urgency the Ancient Mariner must have used in stopping a passer-by to hear his tale. She has a tale to tell, too; and once she’s riveted your attention, she tells it with those Coca-Cola eyes. It’s entirely about love. “Take it all,” she says. “No, really. Take it all or I will burst.”
I’m guessing that Oleg Gazenko read that message in Laika’s eyes as he stood beside her sealed capsule on the launch platform. Did the article say he waited with her for three hours? Three hours face-to-face on opposite sides of that window, Laika’s slender face asking, “Is this what you want from me? Am I doing this right? Now do you open the door and we touch and you say, ’Good girl! My good little girlie-girl!’?"
Try to tease out the threads of significance, and find instead a felted thickness of dichotomy: horrors in the comforts, comfort in the horrors. Laika’s capsule and Snow White’s crystalline coffin. In each image, the delicious balance of fear and fascination. Why do I experience such powerful attraction to that close curve of confinement? The few images of the craft released with the propaganda touting Sputnik II, though I don’t remember seeing them at the time, turn up now in iconic repetition on the internet. Laika lies tucked into a small space between what look like the upholstered arms of a Lazy Boy chair—the arms only, separated by a space no wider that the dog’s shoulders—padded barriers the height of her head, which she raises to gaze at the camera. Dog, Naugahyde panels, and an ominous structure of bars and bolts and sprockets fit snugly into an arc of metal suggestive of an oil drum in the Russian photo, though the Smithsonian reproduction of the flight vehicle is a sphere. It’s an image to break your heart.
So why do I feel, instead, a breath-catching envy?
I’m drawn, I suppose, to the stark clarity of Laika’s situation. All ambiguity of expectation falls away. She meets her obligation, pleases her beloved, does her duty. She is a good little girl. Who could doubt it?
A summer morning of my childhood. In our backyard, I move between laundered sheets that hang from the clotheslines. The weather is hot, but the linen radiates damp coolness and mutes the sun’s glow. I pretend that if I brush against it with my summertime grubbiness, we will all disappear. But if I pass among the lines of sheets without touching them, I am a Worthy Being, and I save us all. I enter the passageway between them in a thrill of caution. I enact worthiness. I condense my gestures and slow my movements, practicing awareness of my limbs. I feel the envelope of air around me and use the coolness lifting from the fabric to angle elbows and shoulders away from contact. These slow, hyper-conscious movements form me into a kind of dancer, and the screened privacy of the half-lit space shields me from anything that might interfere with my performance. Between the clotheslines, curtained and cooled by whiteness, I find a world of precise rules; and each wash day, I dance virtue.
I don’t think I caused my parents any unusual stress in my childhood, but maybe because they were gentle and tolerant, I had a weighty dread of doing so. Loved children, like saved dogs, are as eager to please as they are ill-equipped to understand the criteria for pleasing, so they read the signals intently and suffer reprimands with humiliation. Make an “I Love You” card, and you track library paste across the dove-gray carpet. Fix a surprise breakfast, and the egg cracks open on the wrong side of the skillet and slips down through the coils of the burner.
But here is the real surprise: neither the desire to please nor the challenges to doing so diminish as you mature. The set of those whose judgment matters to you expands to include teachers and co-workers, spouse and bosses, and in a disorienting evolution of roles, your own adult children. Master the steely self-sufficiency that supports a single’s life, and discover that marriage wants a mesh of interdepencies more intricate than tapestry. Train your heart to beat and your soul to move to the rhythm of your child’s needs, and suddenly any need he has will be met only through your letting go. Find that you can, after all, in your mother’s fragile decline offer her a home rich in the values she spent a lifetime teaching you: order, cleanliness, laughter. Then watch dementia erode her sense of any of these and carve out needs so cavernous you cannot map your way through them to find her.
So “envy” is, indeed, the word that names the pull I feel toward Laika’s pod with its spare clarity. This is not the escape I planned for her as a child, but it is escape; because I can believe that just as she realizes the door will not be opened this time, she sees Gazenko spread his palm against that contested window like a benediction and answer her expectancy in these words: “Yes. This is exactly what I meant.” With that, the thunder of lift-off and the lung-deflating fight with gravity and all the other signals that alternatives have ended become part of the blessing. Now—and perpetually—she does what love requires of her.
But that window. What do we do with the contradiction between the gift and the betrayal—the unprecedented view of the universe in exchange for annihilation?
We might say that Laika’s master compensated her for her exploited devotion with the means of contemplation from afar, from above it all—the reflective stance. And I’m guessing that he fought to give her that window because he had to believe in the solace of the broader view for his own purpose, as well. This was Gazenko’s strategy for coping with his loss at Laika’s lift-off: keeping his eye on the big picture, the higher purpose. It’s the assumption we all make about our gods—that they see more than we do and that such a view justifies everything.
The church basement smells of polished floors and coffee grounds. We in the primary class march in a straight line back to the small folding chairs to join the older children in the “Loving Send-off” that ends each Sunday school session. Around my neck on a loop of blue yarn, I wear a construction-paper bird I have just made in a guided process of cutting and folding. The yarn is so long that when I sit down the bird settles into my lap like a tamed pet. Mrs. Neilson stands before us by the piano and says things I don’t quite understand, though I listen earnestly, to prepare us for the great comfort we are to find in the song we will now sing. Her solemnity affects me, and I try to reflect it back to her with a beautific expression as I join the others in singing,
God sees the little sparrow fall
It meets his tender view;
If God so loves the little birds,
I know he loves me, too.
But I can tell that my expression is a sham, and I am using it to hide my deep resentment that the sparrow, nonetheless, fell.
That tender view, in the absence of intervention, was cold comfort. So, too, is the pressure to savor from our speck of singularity the wonder that Aldo Leopold calls “the magnitude and the duration of the biotic enterprise.” The biotic enterprise, let’s face it, makes snack food of the individual. To find our consolation in its beauty is a tall order—one more responsibility that outstrips our efforts. There is something deeply troubling about power requiring its victims to note the glory in their sacrificial roles. If creation’s gift to human kind is reflection and insight, why such a paltry dose of it? Would it help the sparrow to ask “Why?” as the asphalt rushed up to meet it? Who is Laika to derive comfort from the vast overview? Who are we?
But pairing us in that way, equating the little dog’s modest capacities with our own, returns me to the story’s solace. The power of myth lies in our acceptance of its limitations, our willingness to trade final resolutions for fragmentary illuminations—an “if only but yet” quality that meets each disappointment with fresh potential.
In a tale that pulls our awareness toward horizonless perspective and indecipherable expectations, we find a limited little consciousness with a surfeit of love. The story places her above the sky looking down a bit like a god herself, all-seeing in a sense, but not all-knowing, not powerful.
She is not judgmental like the god of Abraham, nor selfish and manipulative like the gods of Homer and Augustus, nor tainted with the issue of intervention—its granting or withholding. While her view surpasses that known to any earthly being before her, she receives it through her mortal eyes into her mortal heart. She does with that window what she can, and that I understand. From there, other ribbons of possibility unfurl, as they do from myth, just a rabbit’s gasp beyond language. Above the literalness of Sputnik II, beyond the gravity of its passenger’s death, I hold to this one in particular: Even as a dog, Laika may have experienced that window with rapture. She may have found beyond its frame wonder so sublime as to transcend fear and questioning. I still watch for her ship of faith to rise, like the sun, again and again upon my day.