| Nonfiction

I’d Like to Talk About the Bigger Stuff

Nonfiction R. B. Moreno

Today, in leafing through a bundle of letters to Kyrgyzstan, postmarked in Colorado, a sense of guilt begins to build. The feeling that I abandoned this woman before I knew her, and not the other way around. “Are you getting more mail than anyone else?” Lola teases. “We’ll see if I can keep it up for another 700 days.” Another letter compares Allemansdrift to Kant. “I recall lying on a small cot,” it reads, “feeling more alone than I’d ever felt in my entire life. Two years in that room seemed like an impossibility.”

Orion’s Dog they call it, brightest
Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
And fevers to suffering humanity.
—The Iliad

I. Colorado (September 2010)

“You don’t have much compassion for animals.”

The woman I was to marry said these words quietly the other day. They were prefaced, on a sunny afternoon, by a rain of tears. And a text message.

Oh, shit, I heard myself whisper, after reading it. How did I get this wrong?

Lola answered the question in recline, like a patient, on my imitation leather couch. “I feel like you don’t appreciate them,” she continued, sniffling. I handed her a box of tissues. Our relationship was ending, somehow.

I wanted to apologize. Clutch her hands in my own, or wipe clean those high, freckled cheekbones. But I was unprepared for the news. I felt baffled and a little scared by what was happening. The surety in her voice. The weeks of soul-searching that had led, she said, to this moment.

Lola, I should note, spends her Saturdays waiting in driveways for feral cats. And the high country around Fort Collins, where I teach writing, has a lot of feral cats. They come for the tuna fish they find in big metal cages marked with duct tape, a different color for each cul-de-sac and ranch house. A door falls. The cat is trapped. Then spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and released. Free to resume hunting prairie dogs and mockingbirds—in “colonies” or “destructions,” since wild felines don’t have much hope of returning to society. In two years, the group of volunteers Lola’s joined has fixed about 1,000 cats.

“I don’t want to hide this part of my life from you. I don’t want to apologize for it,” she sobbed, grabbing at the tissues, then at her purse. “You don’t want to be with me.”

II. Washington (1991)

In springtime, as a boy, my shears reach high into the branches of a Rome apple tree, trying to prune a leader pointing north. I’m wearing cargo pants, a hunting knife, and a ball cap. The orchard’s grass is growing long and green as palmettos. Too long for Gilly. He’s wading forward through the mess behind me, a little tired. Pink tongue dripping. Ears alert.

Summer has us standing in a sparse forest. The machetes of the migrant crew that finished the apple trees have chopped the nettles low, so that the lens of my father’s camera, dialed wide, takes in the whole valley. The property line, the dirt path to the nursery, the turnoff to the pump house. We’re dwarfed by big Douglas firs. I’m wearing rubber boots and a canvas jacket, ready for a trek up the creek. Even in shadow, Gilly’s paws appear a brilliant white.

By Erik Pennebaker

At Halloween we pose for a portrait in the front yard. Our house seems newly-painted, the roof shingles free of the moss that will ruin the cathedral ceiling. Pumpkins line the porch railing. Rotting fruit litters the orchard. My two sisters have screwed their eyes shut against the evening light, and their arms grip a German shepherd trying to bound toward the camera. Mine wrap around Gilly’s neck, tell him to heel. His orange coat feels thick as bearskin.

Snow is falling in February. Four wet inches already. My sisters and I have tried to sled down along the Christmas firs, to the county road, but our sled’s runners cut all the way to the gravel. We abandon it. On the horizon, ash trees marking the wetlands become apparitions. In the middle distance, I imagine barking from a neighbor’s picket fence, the scowling fisherman with the mutt. And crouched near my left boot is Gilly, looking more collie than corgi. Nose testing the air. Ears back. Nervous.

III. Colorado (September 2010)

Not long ago, Lola and I drove up to the Air Force Academy, outside Colorado Springs, to attend a conference. Beyond the gates, along a barren drive monitored, I imagine, by cameras, we caught some movement in the pines. She pointed, then gasped. I braked and rolled down my window, expecting commandos, maybe an unmanned drone.

Two wild turkeys burst into view, sprinting downhill, about to take flight. I let go a sigh of relief. Clearing a ditch, in close pursuit—and out for some fun, I’m guessing—came two cadets in shirtsleeves and trainers. Big grins on their jowls.

Lola opened her mouth to yell. I shook my head and gunned the engine.

IV. Washington (1981-1999)

Gilly was born to a couple of Pembroke Welsh corgis beneath a mansion on the lower Columbia River, where Charles Lindbergh’s relatives still farm the bottomlands. The groundskeepers named his litter after Anne of Green Gables and her classmates. I knew enough about the novel to detest the idea. My first memories of this dog have him sprinting down a shoreline in July; Anne, Diana, Rachel, and Josie Pye in tow; fireworks bursting overhead. But when his sisters flew away to Hawaii, to another mansion, Gilbert became part of the family. He was third in line after Annie, a half-dachshund, and Pancho, a Labrador retriever who, at age 13, wandered down to the creek one night to die.

Pancho and I had not been close. I had delighted in pulling tufts of hair from his spine. And when I combined this pastime, as a toddler, with nudging his black frame toward a woodstove, Pancho struck back. The snapping of his jaws tore open my face. I screamed and bled. A slanted line across my lip still reminds me, more than any Sunday school lesson, to be kind to others.

Gilly was different. Trained to stick around, for one thing. Flemish weavers brought the dog to Wales centuries ago, and more than the border collie—rated the world’s smartest canine by Stanley Coren’s The Intelligence of Dogs—the corgi’s instincts won over the British royalty in the 1930s. They had long helped to guide the Queen’s cattle, horses, and sheep to pasture. Being “low to the ground,” writes Coren, in an understatement, corgis excelled at goading livestock. Because “when they nipped … and their charges responded with annoyed kicks, the hooves would pass over the dogs’ heads and leave them unharmed.”

Finding only wild geese on my parents’ tree farm, Gilly decided to herd children. Our favorite game had me catch his eye from across a field of maple seedlings. Dropping to the ground, hiding behind the leaves like a renegade, he would wait for a flicker of movement. A step forward—even the tensing of my shoulders—would send him into a dashing, yipping chase.
When my phone rang, days after moving to college, to tell me a tumor had sent Gilly to a grave beneath the orchard, I came apart.

V. Kyrgyzstan (April 2010)

Canis Major. The Big Dog. It could bring madness, warned Homer. In visiting the island of Ceos, one of Apollo’s sons, a shepherd, found that the constellation’s “scorching Dog-star had caused a plague among the islanders,” and ordered sacrifices. Among farmers in Egypt, the same light seemed to herald the flooding of the Nile. And in Rome, its disappearance became cause for celebration and more offerings—wine, incense, sheep, and a dog.

Six months before Lola’s text message, on a Wednesday in April, I find myself staring into the twilight above two Soviet railroad tracks. They run west, where pollution from sprawling Bishkek spreads orange and purple hues across the horizon, all the way to Kazakhstan. Just over the hills hovers Canis Major’s nose, the sky’s brightest point of light. It is not like the sky I know. I can picture Sirius framed by the Rockies, or reflected in the Columbia. But from this vantage the star looks dirty, like everything in Kyrgyzstan. In villages near Kant, a suburb where I live on a sheep farm, it means the end of another training day in the Kyrgyz language.

“You okay, man?” asks Jared, from Vermont. He’s fidgeting with the collar of his track suit, eyeing a construction site separating the tracks from an alley we’re walking. After two months in-country, the trip home from our jog around Kant’s stadium, just before curfew, has become almost routine. Except for this part.

“I swear that dog gets bigger every time we go by this place.” Jared downs the last of a Coke from the stadium’s liquor shop. Like me, he’s about to become an English teacher for the Peace Corps. But he is not stargazing.

Just as we near a wire fence, the mastiff with unblinking eyes trots out. Mange has eaten away his fur, leaving a bluish hide. The lunging and barking begins, although the barking sounds more like hacking from the men who squat on Kant’s street corners. The dog rears up, his forelegs straining against rusted metal. Someday, I imagine, they’ll drag his weight into the alley.

“Seems to like you,” I say, grinning.

Jared shudders. I turn my eyes back to the sky.

VI. Colorado (September 2009)

Six months before Kyrgyzstan and a year before our breakup, an utterly black cat with yellow eyes showed up at Lola’s apartment. He seemed dignified and clever, despite a protruding rib cage. Something about him reminded me of Gandhi, and so we named him Kingsley. He ate his organic chow quickly, then sat by the door, waiting and whining to be gone. And so Lola left ajar an old metal drop in the apartment’s hallway, meant for deliveries of cold milk. This allowed Kingsley to come and go as he pleased.

The absences bothered Lola. She talked of another owner, or worse, an accident. The reappearances—during sex, or late at night—left her euphoric, me vexed. I came to wonder, in making love, when her eyes fluttered shut, what she might be listening for.

Around Christmas, as I began to memorize Cyrillic, Kingsley disappeared.

VII. Kyrgyzstan (April 2010)

Minutes later, in a guest room where Persian carpets dampen every kind of noise, I remove my shorts and begin scrubbing my body with alcohol and perfume. Bathing is a weekend affair for the Tyiok family. Sixteen-year-old Ulan will feed scrap wood to a fire beneath a sauna made of stucco, then show the American how to mix hot water with cold, douse his head, and keep soap away from a tank filled by the spigot in the sheep pen. But bathing day never comes fast enough. So I buy packs of scented napkins—the only kind for sale at Kant’s supermarket, on the far side of the tracks, which double as pasture for the family’s koň—and wash away each night’s run here in the farmhouse.

Ulan’s nephew, Yerbol, might fall over laughing at this spectacle. Behind the frosted glass of the door to the family sitting room—furnished with a bed, a table, and an electric heater—I can hear his little fingers playing with the latch. It’s become a favorite game. Rather than slide down the cracked windshield of his grandfather’s Lada, or chase cousin Najeek with a plastic Kalashnikov, Yerbol now prefers getting at the American’s food. I offer him chewing gum, then dried fruit. He spits each piece on the floor. Yerbol would do anything, it seems, for a whole carton of orange juice, like the one I found standing empty near my sandals the other day. I’ve got you wired, it seemed to say. Now he’s back for the vodka.

As I reach for the door, a text message arrives from Jared: CHASED BY A DOG. JUMPED A FENCE. CUT PRETTY BAD.

VIII. South Africa (2006-2008)

Before we fell in love, the Peace Corps sent Lola to a village called Allemansdrift, which she has trouble locating on maps. She moved diligently among broken host families and tried to train school teachers. But it wasn’t the job Lola had signed up for. She said as much in a blog I seldom checked. In those years, I was just a friend of a friend.

After collecting money for a community garden meant to benefit orphans and women, the women accused her of stealing. On another day she found a gang of boys kicking a penned goat, out of boredom, and began chasing the ringleader, in fury, across the village’s red dust.

“The last few weeks have been very difficult, emotionally,” Lola wrote in one post. “Several times black women or girls have told me, ‘You are beautiful.’ It breaks my heart because they are essentially saying, ‘You are white.’” She adds this: “When I say to a friend in a text message that my day was ‘good,’ it simply means that nothing really bad happened.”

As the weeks turned to months—27 of them—what Lola grew to love, more than South Africa’s people, were its animals. She came to adore another goat, this one a chocolate-colored runt, only to learn of its death on a visit to Pretoria. “I walked back to the hostel, crying the whole way,” she wrote that day. “I am feeling a bit better now, but my heart is still sad.”

Today, in leafing through a bundle of letters to Kyrgyzstan, postmarked in Colorado, a sense of guilt begins to build. The feeling that I abandoned this woman before I knew her, and not the other way around. “Are you getting more mail than anyone else?” Lola teases. “We’ll see if I can keep it up for another 700 days.” Another letter compares Allemansdrift to Kant. “I recall lying on a small cot,” it reads, “feeling more alone than I’d ever felt in my entire life. Two years in that room seemed like an impossibility.”

In desperation, I imagine, Lola began to adopt cats. First a lonely tom, then his friend, and then a female. They soiled her room, bred in the backyard, and spawned kittens. She tried to get them fixed, but like many things in rural Africa, spaying and neutering pets at a government office becomes a losing battle. Still, they were her lifeline. And in leaving the continent, she had to choose just one—a dark, shorthaired charmer with white paws, who now lives in Ohio.

IX. Kyrgyzstan (May 2010)

The Kyrgyz don’t have much compassion for animals. This is a feeling that becomes easy to adopt in Kant, where Ulan and Yerbol can be seen, at dusk, dragging ewes and lambs across the sewer that drains beside the tracks, to separate them from a neighbor’s flock. There is also the nonchalance with which they saw apart the goat the family kills one Sunday in May, in honor of guests visiting from Bishkek. Ulan and Yerbol’s father, about my age and fond of blaring hip-hop, both delight in ogling the American as they chew on intestines and take turns at the other organs with a long knife. Later, with the same smile that challenges me to a chin-up contest, the young father brandishes his cell phone. It can play videos, he boasts. The tiny screen shows a village crowd gutting an alligator in some distant land. Look inside the gut, he whispers, pointing. Those arms and legs? That’s a human body.

X. Colorado (2009-2010)

Fort Collins, I’m beginning to realize, can be just as vexing as Kyrgyzstan. Down at city hall, just before the mayor goes on television, a slide projector advertises $75 ferrets looking for a good home. Cougars and coyotes lead the 11 o’clock news—taking turns, it would seem, menacing dog walkers. Meanwhile, and despite the recession, flanks of swing sets and barbecues advance over prairies and foothills. So that by driving home from Safeway, on the state highway that intersects an old wagon trail, I scare red foxes across the double-yellow line.

The end-of-summer fundraiser at the water park draws a big crowd. It’s a day for poodles and mutts to have a swim with their owners, and Lola can’t believe her eyes. Nails, then tails rocketing down waterslides. A sea of neon tennis balls. I watch the splashing soak her jeans, then her long hair. She’s kneeling in the gutter, next to a wet corgi with a striped collar, beckoning my camera to come closer. There’s so much laughter, and barking. And a light in her eyes I can’t capture.

LOST, reads a flyer I find on a sidewalk nearby: FAVORITE STUFFED ANIMAL. Then two mug shots of something soft and white. HER NAME IS DOG, reads the caption, AND I WOULD DO ANYTHING TO BRING HER HOME.

XI. Kyrgyzstan (May 2010)

Ulan and Yerbol keep two dogs. One, Ulan’s aunt told me over tea, is also named Dog. The other? In two months of coming and going from the carpeted room, and the clotheslines, and the corrugated outhouse, I never see the other.

Dog looks something like Gilly—a shepherd with pointed ears and a low profile—except that he shirks from the family he protects. Waiting, by day, outside the red metal gate that hides the Tyioks’ Lada, he becomes a silent, unrewarded ball of fur. I try to counter this reality by picturing him among the sheep. Helping Ulan, for instance, send his flock along the tracks with careful nips at their hooves. But the image dissolves when I stretch out my arm, offering Dog a piece of bread. Instead of spitting, there is snarling.

Dog has another name, another aunt admits, after some prodding: Sherjan. And that hoarse, nighttime racket from the back of the farm? Oh, she says, smiling. That’s Rex, who lives in a metal box.

XII. Kyrgyzstan (May 2010)

The Kyrygz somehow lost their compassion for animals. This is what worries me about the Manas epic, a never-ending story about a warrior and his descendants galloping into battle. To a nation of 40 tribes, it’s still sacred, so much so that fat and balding Salmorbek, Ulan’s father, squats in reverence before his television watching a wrinkled manaschi sing the epic’s 500,000 verses from memory. Their myriad references to horses, admit scholars attempting translations, can be confounding.

Dinner and a bowl of kumis, or fermented mare’s milk, prompts another tale, this one about the melting of the snows. “I was born in the mountains,” says Salmorbek, his whiskers flaring around the words. From here in Kant, the Tian Shan range looms impossibly high, stretching all the way to China and 10,000 feet above the Rockies. Somewhere up there, in celebration of the equinox, points Salmorbek, through the kitchen window, men mount horses and compete in a sort of airborne wrestling match. Instead of a ball, they fight for a dead sheep. “I too rode a horse,” he adds with pride. “But I was better at riding a tank.”

That night, locked among the carpets, I find “Reviving the Kyrgyz Horse” in the guidebook Kyrgyz Republic. “For centuries, the horse was vital to nomadic life,” reads the entry. I swallow hard at what comes next. The author quotes a French historian dismayed by a Soviet plan to civilize the Kyrgyz: “‘The shepherds were in tears,’ says Jacqueline Ripart. Some of the horses went into giant Soviet stud farms but most were killed for their meat. ‘They banned all the festivals which were most important for horse traditions, and then killed the horses by electrocuting them. So the horses were dead and the horse traditions were dead,’ she says.”

XIII. Colorado (October 2010)

With Kingsley gone, Lola and I now exchange belongings through the old metal drop. A favorite t-shirt, a bottle of plant fertilizer, a last check for groceries. Below this miscellany—veiling bits of cat hair and reminding me of a church’s altar—rests a white paper towel.

The last thing I retrieved there was something she clipped from a travel magazine. It recommends the public bazaar in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, as an exotic destination. “Watch Kyrgyz women haggle over yak meat,” gushes the reviewer. “Step aside as young Uzbek boys push by with trolleys of fresh flatbread.”

The clipping is dated August 2010. It feels dispatched from another planet.

XIV. Kyrgyzstan (June 2010)

The other thing the Soviets did to Kyrgyzstan, before giving up in 1991, is best seen from the air. This is the view I get in June—just a week after beginning to teach English in a cramped classroom—from an Mi-8, a deafening, camouflaged gunship reminiscent of Khrushchev. It’s carrying me and nine other panicked aid workers away from Osh State University, to a chartered plane, then a U.S. Air Force base, and a flight home on Delta Airlines.

To the west, through the helicopter’s tea-colored portals, I can see Uzbekistan; the cotton fields and cherry trees of the Fergana Valley; and a long, maniacal border severing one village from the next. I imagine, for a moment, an engorged Stalin, dragging a fountain pen down a wide gray map. Skirting his line, as though his hand ignored the topography, march row after row of mountaintops. They look cold and lifeless from on high. They divide Bishkek from the farmlands and become impassable in winter. Reminding the Russified Kyrgyz, who prefer white rice, of those hotheaded Uzbeks, who prefer red. But that’s enough imperial history.

Below us, though it’s hard to keep my eyes fixed there, Osh is burning.

XV. Colorado (October 2010)

I’D LIKE TO TALK ABT THE BIGGER STUFF, Lola wrote the other day, in her text message. Back in Kyrgyzstan, I’m afraid she meant to say, you lost something important. You became somehow different. This is what runs through my head as I orbit the cemetery in Fort Collins.

Along the western edge, on a dead-end street, a yellow dog senses an intruder, bolts from his yard, catches my eye. My heart races. I wheel on him, screaming. Uttering something I didn’t know I could yell. The dog looks surprised. Shirks away.
Later, stretching atop a university picnic table, with my head bent low, the ground is illuminated. My eyes go wide. More flashes, then what sounds like the clapping of artillery. I collapse into a ball, hands cradling my ears. Terrified of homecoming weekend, and the bursting of stars overhead.

“And he judged of others by himself,” writes Chekhov, “not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy.” These words came to me as I waited in darkness for evacuation, wondering if the next rock to come through the window would instead be a firebomb. They ring out in my ears now, as though spoken, as though fighting to be heard over the pitched voices on Lenin Street, and the echoes of gunfire. “In moments of depression in the past he had comforted himself with any arguments that came into his mind,” reads the last page of “The Lady with the Dog,” “but now he no longer cared for arguments; he felt profound compassion.”

Some names have been changed.

R.B. Moreno is a literary journalist and a PhD student at the University of South Dakota’s Department of English. His essays have been previously published by Creative Nonfiction, The Normal School, Ten Spurs, and Wolverine Farm, among other outlets. A native of Ridgefield, Washington, and a former NPR producer, Raul Benjamin was evacuated from Kyrgyzstan as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2010. His work appears online at rbmoreno.info. This essay was first published in Phoebe 40.2.

One Reply to “I’d Like to Talk About the Bigger Stuff”

  1. R.B. Moreno says:

    Many thanks, Phoebe and friends! Delighted to find 40.2 online.