by Kika Pulcheriou
As published in In Focus Vol. 10, No. 2, June 2013
She used to appear at the exact same time, a little before sundown. She would announce her arrival with a couple of small grunts and come to sit quietly at his feet. With her head resting against his army boots and her eyes fixed on his face, she’d study his slightest move, his every expression, trying to understand what went on inside him. He would look at her lovingly and, at his first smile, she’d leap up into his lap and settle there. He liked to stroke her, right on that white spot on her forehead and he talked to her as if he were talking to a good friend; a friend with whom he could share both joys and sorrow: Monica, a dog with a white star on her head and Alexis, a young soldier doing his military service.
They met on an afternoon in autumn when Alexis was off-duty. He was sitting by himself outside the barracks. He saw her coming from afar and wondered what a dog was doing in an army camp. It wasn’t long before he had the answer: the dog was searching for some food and a friend. Alexis gave freely of both his food and his love. He began to share his dinners with her and sometimes, secretly, his bed. He had no idea who she was or where she came from but it didn’t matter. He didn’t even know her name. He soon found her a name. He called her Monica; a name he felt suited her perfectly. She quickly responded to it. Monica was the name of a girl he used to know, a girl from his old neighbourhood, a childhood love that eventually faded.
Time passed quickly and Alexis’ two-year military service would soon end. He’d be discharged in summer. He had a lot on his mind, Monica being his prime concern: what was he going to do with her? He wanted to take her home but he would soon be leaving for university and his mum seemed unwilling to take on the responsibility of looking after a dog. “A dog is a huge commitment,” she had already said. “It needs a lot of care, who will provide that?”
His mum was a nurse; she worked long, irregular hours and his father, who was a taxi driver, had no time to devote to caring for a dog. As for Stella, Alexis’ sister, that was out of the question: she had her lessons, her exams and could hardly cope. She didn’t want to be burdened with looking after a dog.
This is what his mother had said whenever he raised the subject of what would become of Monica. Alexis never pressed her. He hoped that gradually he would persuade his mum. Besides, he still had plenty of time then. But not anymore. He had just thirty-eight days. It was now July; he would be discharged in mid-August. Full of dreams and hopes, he would head for Greece where he planned to study acting and everything would be just great if only he wasn’t so worried about Monica.
“Why are you so worried, mate?” his friend, Theodosis, asked. “When you’re gone and she can’t see you, she’ll forget all about you. She’ll soon find someone else to take your place. I mean, it’s just a dog! You’re acting as if she’s a real friend, worse yet, your girlfriend!”
But Alexis could not let it go – Monica was more than a friend, more than a girlfriend. Her honey-coloured eyes, the white star on her forehead, her soft, brown fur, her gentleness had etched themselves on his heart. He couldn’t forget her. And his worry grew with each passing day.
In the end, a solution presented itself: an unexpected, brutal solution that turned the whole world upside down and drove Alexis and Monica apart for good. War broke out on the island and Alexis’ battalion was ordered to move to the north and, together with other mobile units, ward off the invading Turkish army who were advancing inland undeterred.
A cold sweat covered Alexis when he heard the orders. Rumours were rife. Some were saying that it was a lost cause and that the battalion was being sent straight into the wolves’ mouth. But there was no other option. Orders had to be obeyed at once. The tanks came to life, rusty chains creaking, engines roaring, they licked their way across the land and headed straight into the wolves’ den. The entire battalion was devoured by the wolves and life drowned in blood and fire. Alexis was among those who were killed. His mother searched for him, ached for him, cried for him – the pain was too strong to bear.
Later, when life resumed a semblance of normality, mothers went in search of news of their sons. Only then did Erasmia, Alexis’ mother, learn that her son had “fallen heroically for his country.” With her heart shattered into countless pieces, she went to the barracks to collect her son’s personal effects. She couldn’t leave anything of his behind – it felt like an abandonment. A betrayal. She wanted to bring them home, look at them, hug each item to her and, finally, place them next to the enlarged photo of her son that she had hung in the hall of her house. She needed to be surrounded by everything that had once belonged to her son, to create the illusion that he was still with her. In the house. Watching her.
It was there, at the army camp, that she heard from Mr. Mihalos, the canteen-man, that Monica, the dog, continued to come by every afternoon, at sundown. She would sit in the exact same spot, eagerly awaiting for Alexis. But she had become unrecognisable. Hunger and hardship had left their mark: her eyes, dull and washed-out, revealed her abandonment.
For the first time, Alexis’ mother thought of the dog. Tears welled up. This dog had been her son’s friend, his last companion. This dog had loved her son in life and in death. How could she turn her back on it?
She stayed at the camp and waited till after the sun had set. Stars spotted the sky but Monica didn’t come. Neither did she come the next day or the day after next and Alexis’ mother felt as if she were drowning in a river of hopelessness. She had to find that dog at all cost. She began walking the streets of the near-by village, asking everyone she came across. No one could tell her anything about Monica. The dog had vanished.
Disappointment gripped her heart. One of her colleagues told her about the dog shelter that had recently opened up in Nicosia. She heard that volunteers were rescuing stray and abandoned animals (and there were many of those roaming the streets after the war) and with unwavering love, were caring for them at the shelter. Maybe she should go there and ask about Monica. With hope flickering weakly inside her, Erasmia went to the shelter and asked to speak to the person in charge.
The description of Monica matched that of a dog the volunteers had recently brought in. Erasmia returned home that same day with a skinny, wretched dog in her arms. She wasn’t even absolutely certain that this was the dog she was looking for – it didn’t respond to its name. But for her son’s memory, she was willing to try.
The moment they entered the house, the dog hesitated briefly in front of Alexis’ photo. It stood still, frozen to the spot and then it suddenly seemed to come to life. It leaped up, ran up to the photograph and began to whimper softly.
Erasmia needed no other proof. The dog was undoubtedly Monica, her son’s greatest love. Shaken, she hugged the dog and cried, cried, cried for a long time until she had no more tears to shed. They had all run dry.
Translated by E. Pulcheriou