Mikhail Bulgakov the heart of a dog and other stories


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There is absolutely no call to learn to read when one can smell meat a mile off. Nevertheless, if you happen to live in Moscow and you have any brains at all, you are bound to pick up your letters, even without any particular instruction. Of the forty thousand dogs in Moscow there can only be the odd idiot who doesn't know the letters for "salami".

Sharik had begun to learn by colours. When he was only just four months old they hung out blue-green signs all over Moscow bearing the legend MSPO — the meat trade. As we said before, all that was quite unnecessary because you can smell meat anyway. It even led to some confusion when Sharik, whose sense of smell had been disorientated by the stink of petrol from a passing car, took his cue from the caustic blue-green colour and made a raid on Golubizner Bros, electric goods shop. There at the brothers' shop the dog made the acquaintance of isolated electric cable, something to be reckoned with even more seriously than a cabby's horse-whip. That occasion should be considered the beginning of Sharik's education. Already out on the pavement it occurred to Sharik that "blue" did not necessarily mean "meat" and, tail tucked between his legs, he recalled, howling from the burning pain, that at all butchers' signs the first letter on the left was a golden or reddish curlicue shaped something like a sleigh.

As time went on he improved his knowledge still more. "A" he learned from the legend "Glavryba" on the corner of Mokhovaya Street and, after that, from the same source, "B" — it was easier for him to sneak up from the tail of the word ryba (fish) because there was a militiaman on duty at its head.

Square tiles on the corners of houses in Moscow always, unfailingly meant "Cheese". The black samovar-tap at the head of the next word stood for the ex-owner of a chain of cheese shops whose name was Chichkin, for mountains of red Dutch cheese and ferocious shop assistants, the brutes, dog-haters to a man, and sawdust on the floor and that repulsive, evil smelling cheese...

If there was someone playing the harmonica, which was really not much better than Beloved Aida, and at the same time there was a smell of sausages, then the first letters on the white hoardings could be comfortably deciphered as "impro" which meant "improper language and tipping are strictly forbidden". In such places fights would suddenly boil up like whirlpools and people would hit each other in the face with their fists, though to be honest this did not happen often, whereas dogs were always catching it either from napkins or boots.

If slightly off hams or tangerines were on show in the window, the letters read gr-gr-ro-ocers. If there were dark bottles with a nasty liquid content... Wer-wi-ner-er-wine... Eliseyev Bros., ex-owners. (3)

The unknown gentleman who had enticed the dog to the door of his luxurious first floor flat rang the bell, and the dog immediately raised his eyes to the large black card with gold lettering hanging to one side of the wide door panelled with rosy, ribbed glass. The first three letters he made out straightaway: "P-r-o — Pro". But after that came a paunchy two-sided trashy sort of a letter which might mean anything: surely not "Pro-letariat"? thought Sharik with surprise...

"Impossible!" He raised his nose, took another sniff at the fur coat and thought with conviction: No, not so much as a whiff of the proletariat. A learned word and God knows what it means.

Unexpectedly, a cheerful light came on behind the pink glass, showing up the black card even more vividly. The door opened without a sound and a pretty young woman in a white apron and a lace cap materialised before the dog and his master. The former was conscious of a divine wave of warmth and from the woman's skirt there wafted a scent like lily-of-the-valley.

This is life, thought the dog, I really fancy this.

"Do us the honour, Mister Sharik," the gentleman ironically ushered him over the threshold, and Sharik reverently did him the honour, wagging his tail.

The rich entrance hall was full of things. A full-length mirror impressed itself on the dog's memory with an immediate reflection of a second shaggy, ragged Sharik. There were a terrifying pair of antlers high up on the wall, endless fur coats and galoshes and an opalescent tulip with electricity hanging from the ceiling.

"Where did you find such a creature, Philip Philipovich?" asked the woman, smiling and helping him take off the heavy coat with its silver-fox lining. "Good heavens! He's covered in mange!"

"Nonsense. Where do you see mange?" demanded the gentleman with abrupt severity.

Having taken off his coat he turned out to be dressed in a black suit of English cloth and a golden chain glinted joyfully but not too brightly across his stomach.

"Wait now, don't wiggle, phew ... don't wiggle, stupid. Hm!.. That's not mange ... stand still, you devil!.. Hm! Aha. It's a burn. What villain scalded you, eh? Stand still, will you?.."

"That jail-bird of a chef, the chef!" the dog pronounced with pathetic eyes and whimpered.

"Zina," the gentleman ordered. "Into the consulting room with him this instant and bring me my smock."

The woman whistled and snapped her fingers and, after a moment's doubt, the dog followed her. Together they proceeded along a narrow, dimly-lit corridor, passed one varnished door, went on to the end and then turned left into a dark cupboard of a room to which the dog took an instant dislike because of the ominous smell. The darkness clicked and was transformed into blinding day; sparkling, shining white lights beaming in at him from every side.

Oh no, you don't, the dog howled inwardly. Thanks very much, but I'm not putting up with this. Now I understand, may the devil take you and your salami. You've brought me to a dog's hospital and now you'll pour castor oil down me and chop up that flank of mine which is too sore to be touched with your knives!

"Hey, where are you off to?" cried the woman called Zina.

The dog twisted away from her, gathered himself together and suddenly struck the door with his good side so violently that the thud could be heard all over the flat. He rebounded and began to spin round and round on the spot like a whipped top, overturning a white basket with chunks of cotton wool. As he spun the walls revolved around him with their glass cupboards full of shiny instruments and he kept getting glimpses of a white apron and a distorted woman's face.

"Where are you going, you shaggy devil?" yelled Zina in desperation. "You hellhound, you!"

Where's the back stairs? wondered the dog. He rolled himself up into a ball and dashed himself against the glass in the hope that this might be a second door. A cloud of splinters flew out, clattering and tinkling, a fat jar leapt out at him full of nasty red stuff which immediately spilt all over the floor, stinking. The real door opened.

"Stop, you b-brute!" shouted the gentleman struggling into his smock which was half on, half off and seizing the dog by the leg. "Zina, get him by the scruff, the blighter."

"H-heavens alive, what a dog!"

The door opened wider still and in burst another person of male gender in a smock. Crushing the broken glass underfoot, he made a dive not for the dog but for the cupboard, opened it, and immediately the room was filled with a sweet, sickly smell. Then this person flung himself on the dog from above, stomach first, and Sharik enthusiastically sunk his teeth into his leg just above the shoe laces. The person grunted but did not lose his head. The sickly liquid set the dog gasping for breath, his head spun and his legs gave way and he keeled over sideways. Thank you, it's the end of my troubles, he thought dreamily as he collapsed onto sharp fragments of glass. This is it. Farewell, Moscow! I'll never see Chichkin again, nor the proletarians, nor Cracow salami. I'm on my way to heaven for the dog's life I bore with such patience. Brothers, murderers, why did you do this to me?

And with that he finally keeled over on his side and breathed his last.

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