The Dog ~ Robert Klose

I was thrilled when the Ivanovs moved in next door. That house had been empty for a long time.  Too long.  I felt that they had arrived not a moment too soon, before the roof fell in and the foundation buckled.

Actually, I would have been pleased had anyone moved in, but the Ivanovs, being recent Russian immigrants, lent the event an exotic gloss. Vova, the patriarch, was the stereotypical Russian bear. He was immense, but, except for his paunch, most of his bulk was raw muscle. He had high cheek bones, a split nose, the punchy aspect of a heavy drinker, and a Clint Eastwood squint. His hands, overworked for years in a Russian coal mine, were like square, dark vices. He was balding, but the hair at the sides of his head was full. His wife, Luba, was an interesting opposite. Petite and soft-spoken, she was a plain woman. She wore no makeup and tied her salt-and-pepper hair back in a simple knot. Whenever I acknowledged her she blushed.

They had two children — Nina, age fifteen, and Igor, fourteen. Actually, Igor is no longer Igor. On his first day in an American high school, his peers, hearing his name, were merciless. And so he came home and announced, “Call me Gary.” Vova never accepted this.

I was immediately drawn into the family’s orbit. On their first day in their new home, Vova came over and asked, in halting English, if I had an ax he could borrow.  I watched as he took the tool, marched into his backyard, and demolished the half-collapsed garage to its underpinnings in the space of three hours. I remarked to Luba that two men couldn’t have done that job in a day. “Vova never gives up,” she said. “He always finishes what he starts.”

She was right. By the end of the week there was a new garage sitting on the concrete slab, the whole of it built with wood Vova had scavenged from the town dump.

The family went at the house and its land with the same élan. Day after day I watched as broken panes were replaced, sagging gutters removed, clapboards scraped and painted. Luba worked tirelessly in the garden, with Nina joining her after school. They removed the dense jungle of Japanese knotweed with pickax and shovel, turned the newly revealed soil, and within weeks had created a small garden of Eden, brimming with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and beans. In a gesture of good will, Vova planted, of all things, a kiwi vine along the chain link fence that separated our properties. “Take all the fruit you want,” he said, his arms spread wide.

I was an idle observer of all this industry, though not by design. I offered to help wherever and whenever I could. Vova wouldn’t hear of it. He was not only a master at demolition and construction, but knew a great deal about electricity and plumbing, and was eager to put this skills on solo display. He rewired the house and installed a second bathroom. Every morning, before he went to work at one of Maine’s last paper mills, Vova headed out in the family’s old Volvo and returned a short while later with materials from the dump — wire, junction boxes, copper and pvc pipe.  You name it.  He even found a perfectly serviceable commode there. “Vova never stops,” said his adoring wife. “He does it all for us. He is so loyal.”

We lived side-by-side along the Penobscot River. This body formed our common artery.  We each had a modest dock and often chatted across the water while sitting in our lounge chairs, enjoying the summer breeze and listening to birdsong. The Ivanovs had a dog, a Great Pyrenee, that was snow white and for this reason was named “Sneg.” Vova was utterly in love with this large animal that sat on its haunches by his side at every opportunity. One evening, while we were on our docks, Vova was stroking Sneg’s head and humming. “Look at him,” he beamed, his voice tender. “This is smartest dog. Brain very big. Bigger than some peoples.” And then he got down on all fours and began to commune with the canine, arfing and rubbing noses. Luba waved her hand in silly embarrassment. “Oh, Vova,” she said, as if she were talking to a child. Vova looked up at her and yipped.

Sneg cast adoring eyes at Vova. But his love for his master was exceeded only by his loathing of me. I discovered this the hard way one evening when I went over to the Ivanovs’ dock to show Vova one of my fishing lures. As soon as I set foot on it Sneg began to growl. He bared his teeth and his eyes flashed. I backed away.

“Ooh,” cooed Vova in a mock cautionary tone, as if he did not want to be too harsh on the animal. “This is friend, Sneg. Be nice.” I was hoping that he might give the animal a clip on the snout. Instead, he only stroked his back and continued to speak sweet words.

I learned to work around Sneg, as our relationship seemed to have little chance of improving. Things were easier, of course, when the Ivanovs were visiting at my house; but even then, Sneg howled in great ululations of longing for Vova. “See how he cries for papa,” said Vova, looking up, his eyes like stars as he sat at my table with his family, his voice full of emotion.

Those visits were always congenial, if animated. Vova could never resist speechifying about Russia, about the obstacles he had overcome: his life in the coal mine, the rampant theft, the need to lock everything, unaccountable authorities, arcane laws. His complaints, I sensed, were a means of showing how much he could take. Nina and Ig…, er, Gary, said little. Now and then Nina would sigh. I couldn’t tell if it was a sigh reflecting some sense of loss, or whether she was just becoming an American teenager, convinced that her parents were refugees from some primitive, less sophisticated culture. Gary was more engaged, his intelligent eyes following every face, every word of the conversation. “I miss real Russian food,” he said at one point.

His father immediately reacted.  “No!” he bellowed. “Your mama make it just like Russia.”

“It’s not the same here,” countered the son. “Maybe the ingredients are different.”

Vova slammed the table, his large hand coming down like the piston of some great engine. “You don’t know what you talk about,” he said with finality. Through it all Luba smiled lovingly at all the members of her family, like a benevolent sun casting its warmth upon its planets.

As the weeks, months, and then that first year peeled away, each of the Ivanovs bore down with intensity on their particular projects. Vova continued to be a locomotive of hard work. Tireless and imaginative, he rose at four to get in a few hours of nail pounding and scavenging before setting off for the mill. When he returned home he resumed where he had left off, his energy undiminished. Luba stayed home and avoided me when Vova was not there. She worked inside or in the garden, but my greeting elicited only those demure blushes. Nina, as per my inkling, quickly became a petulant, self-centered, American teen. She began to talk back to her parents; I could hear the screeching at night. “You peasants!” she screamed at them. “What do you know? Tell me what an iPod is. You can’t even turn on a computer. Get an education!”

Luba’s only response to this was to quietly sob and turn to Vova who, for his part, seemed amused. The two of them came over one evening, at Luba’s behest, to get my opinion. I had never heard Luba speak so much. “She’s becoming another person,” she sniffled into her Kleenex. “She’s impossible to live with. But I couldn’t live without her.”

“She’s just learning from her new friends,” I offered. “Trying to be like them to fit in.”

Vova snorted, as if in derision of my opinion. “She beautiful girl,” he said. “Good parents. She will find love and  man and in the end everything is happy.”

I could hear Sneg howling dolefully across the way. Vova’s ears perked up. “You see?” he said, his expression becoming dreamy. “Sneg love papa because papa love Sneg. Everything will work out.”

“Vova!” sobbed Luba. “Nina is not a dog!”

In at attempt to turn the subject to something that did seem to be working out for them, I asked about Gary, but my voicing of his alias struck a nerve. Vova firmed his lips and sat up. He pounded the table with his fist. “Igor!”

I conceded the boy’s given name.

“He lazy,” said Vova, which surprised me. “Luba  disrespectful, but believe it, she work. In garden. And  babysit for people. She work. But Igor! He read, he write, he look out  window. Sometime I think he sleep with eye open. When I talk to him he smile and say, ‘Yes, papa,’ but hear nothing. And then,” he continued, lowering his voice and leaning toward me, “I hear something in bathroom, something unnormal, and I go in and…”

“Vova!” shrieked Luba.

“He look at me like nothing wrong, just holding himself in hand.”

Both parents fell silent. “It’s normal,” I said.

“But to continue when found!” said Vova, his eyes wide.

This detail was a red herring. What really seemed to hurt Vova was his son’s perceived shiftlessness. But who wouldn’t look like a laggard compared to Vova? And so I offered, “Maybe he’d like to do a little work for me. Mow the lawn, do some painting.”

“Yes, yes,” said Vova immediately, his expression begging. “Anything to get him out of house and doing something with hand” — he caught himself — “Something else with hand.” As he said this he threw out his own hands, clasping and unclasping them repeatedly, like restless claws.

Gary came by the next day. Such a pleasant kid. He greeted me cheerfully. A little on the stocky side, he was by no means heavy, just well packed. His straight, dark hair was neatly cut, accenting a high forehead and immense brown eyes. I watched as he mowed the lawn, then took it upon himself to rake up the cuttings, which I had told him was unnecessary. The day was searingly hot, the sun brutal, but he moved apace, back and forth, without rest, clearly his father’s son. In a nod to the heat, he finally took off his shirt and cast it over a tree branch. His chest glistened with sweat. He turned and I caught my breath. There, across his back, was a long, crimson welt, extending almost from shoulder to hip. At first I thought it might be a surgical scar, but what procedure would warrant such  a long diagonal incision?

When Gary appeared at my door he had his shirt on again. I invited him in for iced tea. He sat quietly at the kitchen table and drank two tall glasses before drinking the third at a more moderate pace, chuggling the ice between sips. I took the opportunity to ask him how everything was going.

“School is not very challenging,” he said. “I learn more from reading books at home.”

“Do you play any sports?”

“No. Nothing. In Russia I played soccer.”

“I bet you were good.”

He perked up, smiling broadly. “I was a midfielder,” he said. “I could go anywhere on the field.” As he said this he traced a line through the air with a finger.

“Why don’t you play here?”

Gary shrugged. “I’m not interested.”

“Do you have any friends?”

“At school. A couple.”

“You live in a beautiful place, right on the river. I’m sure they’d like to come over some time.”

Gary shook his head. “No. That wouldn’t be good. Sneg.”

“I think I’m the only one Sneg has a problem with. He seems gentle with everybody else.”

“Sneg is gentle,” confirmed Gary. “Dad treats him better than anybody else in the house, except for mom. Last night we had lamb chops, but he saved the tenderloin for himself and Sneg.”

I was struck by the quality of the boy’s English. How many American kids his age would know what tenderloin was?  But the bit about not being able to bring friends home because of Sneg struck me as inauthentic.

The conversation ended there. Gary got up and I pushed a few bills toward him.  He demurred, but I gestured with the money.  He finally took it and shook my hand. “Any time you need help,” he said, “just ask. And you don’t have to pay me.”

As I watched him cross over to his yard it occurred to me that this kid was no slouch.

The summer progressed in a lovely fashion — long, hot days punctuated by rain at night, just as paradise would have it. The river slowed until it was a still lake, glinting in the sunlight. When it looked inviting like this, I felt a tinge of regret, and embarrassment, that I had never learned to swim. I watched as kingfishers darted and rattled low over the surface of the water and mallards conducted their broods among the reeds. The Ivanovs continued to labor and prosper, although Nina became more intractable. She wore capris whose tightness gave her a stiltlike gait, took on a gothic look with black lipstick, and had her navel pierced. She dyed her hair purple with flame orange highlights. All of this sent Luba into a slough of despondency. At night her wailing elicited howls from Sneg in a piercing counterpoint.

Gary continued to work for me — painting and weeding and mowing. In the tug of war over remuneration, I managed to prevail, telling him that all work was good and worthy of compensation. Our post-chore conversations, though, barely broke the surface before he got up to return home. On blistering days, when he thought I was occupied elsewhere, he took off his shirt and I saw fresh evidence of abuse. A bruised shoulder and another welt, crossing the first one, creating a broad crimson “X” on his back. I was finally compelled to speak. When I did, Gary froze before me, his hand clutching his glass of iced tea. His expression was serene, but in his eyes I could see the wheels turning, as if he were searching for the correct thing to say, or deciding whether he should speak at all. Finally, after releasing his breath, he said, quietly and clearly, “I’ll take care of it.”

“I’m willing to talk to your father.”

Gary’s gaze unlocked and he threw me a questioning look. “Who said anything about my father? Please don’t think you know what’s going on. And please don’t interfere.”

He left. And he left me wondering. If not Vova, then could it be Luba? If so, why? It seemed impossible, but then again, in the newspaper that very morning I had read about a woman, a physician, no less, who had kept her six-year-old son in a wooden box in the basement because he had tried to set her on fire. Anything was possible, nothing was beyond belief anymore. I wouldn’t be surprised if Vova told me he was the heir to the Romanov throne.

Not long thereafter, things changed. A period of calm set in at the Ivanovs. Vova was more light-hearted, Luba less emotional. Perhaps it was because Nina seemed more normal. She had returned to her natural hair color, dispensed with the body glitter and black lipstick, and unshackled herself from the capris. Only Gary seemed to be moving off in a different direction. He had become morose. Since our last conversation he had made excuses every time I offered him work. Late at night a dim light burned in the bathroom next to his room, and then, before the light went out, a gasping moan.

Then, one day, Vova showed up on my doorstep. “We are going on American vacation,” he announced, grandly. “First time. Florida!” As he said this he clapped his chest with his hands. Then he said something which left me speechless. “Please,” he begged, “take care of Sneg.”

“The dog?”

“Yes, yes,” said Vova. “Everything okay. He stay in doghouse with chain. Just give water, food, speak lovely words to him, like son.”

“But the dog hates me.”

Vova waved me off. “No, no,” he said. “Sneg love papa. When papa not here, Sneg love you.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Please,” he begged. “We leave tomorrow.”

“Why don’t you board him?”

Vova looked confused. “What is board?”

“A place where they keep dogs while you’re away.”

“Cost money?” he asked.

“Of course.”


They left the next morning, the diesel of the Volvo clattering and puffing black smoke as the boatlike vehicle moved off down the street. I looked over the fence and saw Sneg, reclining on his front paws in the entrance to his doghouse. When he saw me he raised his head and growled. He had enough water and food for the day, so I decided to worry about him the next morning.

The ensuing week was a disaster. Sneg’s chain was twenty feet long, so I couldn’t get near enough to service his food and water bowls. On my first attempt, he allowed me to come close, watching placidly as I spoke lovely words to him. “What a good dog. A father’s angel.” And then he lunged. I flew out of range, his jaws snapping at my heels. The end of the chain yanked him back with such sudden force that he jerked the entire doghouse forward as he let out a wrenching yelp.

My only recourse was to toss dog biscuits and sodden clumps of meaty food from a safe distance. Water was a messier affair. I squirted it over the fence with the garden hose. It filled Sneg’s bowl but also created a mud pit in front of the dog house. At night Sneg howled so forlornly and so incessantly — for Vova, I presumed — that the neighbors called the police. Although I pleaded helplessness, as the animal’s caretaker I was fined for disturbing the peace. Otherwise, during the day I worked in the backyard, throwing worried glances over at Sneg, imagining he had the brute strength to break his chain in his determination to attack me. Instead, he rested on his forelegs, taking his repose, staring blankly at the green world around him.

Then, one day, his landscape offered a diversion.  Mrs. Osnoe’s cat, an orange tabby, wandered into the yard from across the street.  Sneg took notice and followed her with his black marble eyes, his great head rotating like the turret of a gun. The cat paid him no mind as it ambled past the doghouse. In a flash Sneg sprang to life, seized the tabby in his great jaws and broke its neck. Then he resumed his repose, the lifeless feline lying at his feet, one small forepaw twitching.

I gasped. What could I do? I tried to retrieve the body by making a lasso from clothesline, but Sneg seized it and engaged in a tug of war with me. I couldn’t tell Mrs. Osnoe. Not yet, anyway, because she would have called the police and I feared they might shoot the dog. At the very least, I would be fined again. The tabby had been a porch cat that came and went as it pleased, so Mrs. Osnoe never fretted when it disappeared for a couple of days. And its lying in state in front of Sneg’s doghouse seemed to have a pacifying effect. He ceased howling at night. I decided to drop the whole affair in the Ivanovs’ lap when they returned.

Two days later they were home. I heard the harsh clatter of the Volvo’s engine from inside my house. I thought to go out to greet them, but then decided to let events take their course. I didn’t have to wait long. Within five minutes Vova was at my back door. “Who is cat?” he asked.

“Sneg killed her.”

“Poor cat.”

“Yes. She belonged to Mrs. Osnoe. I tried to take the body away but Sneg wouldn’t let me.”

“Sneg dirty.”

“I had to squirt water into his bowl with the garden hose. He wouldn’t let me come near.”

“Ooh,” sighed Vova with sweet emotion. “He miss papa so much. He cry?”

“Every night. Until he killed the cat.”

“Don’t worry. I take care of everything.” Then he began to tell me about his vacation. He glowed and raised his eyes heavenward. “Florida!” he proclaimed, as if he had discovered the promised land. “Beautiful, beautiful. But hot!”

The Ivanovs settled back in with a vengeance. Vova began to build a sort of seawall by the dock, Luba weeded the neglected garden as if she were mounting a counterattack, and Nina, the prodigal daughter, arranged flower boxes under the front windows while her iPod pumped tunes into her head. Gary was conspicuously absent. I finally called out to Vova, who was shirtless and roasting in the sun, his gut flowing over his belt like batter, as he heaved cinder blocks and mixed mortar. “Igor sick,” he said. “Very stay at home.”

“Is it serious?” I asked. “I want him to do some work for me.”

“You tell me,” said Vova. “I work for you.”

“No. You have your hands full. I’ll wait until he gets better.”

Vova gave me a thumbs up and returned to his wall.

I grew increasingly concerned about Gary over the course of the week. The family carried on as if he didn’t exist. He finally emerged one day to tend to Sneg. I called to him from the fence. “Please come over.”

Gary appeared in my kitchen and I handed him a glass of iced tea. I noted a slight discoloration just to the side of his left eye. “Are you okay?” I asked him.

“Please don’t…”

“Listen,” I said. “Your father is beating you. I saw the marks on your back. And now your face. I want to talk to him.”


“I’m going to talk to him. And then, if he does it again, you must tell me. You have no choice.”

Gary looked shocked. Not because I was probing, but because I had denied him a say in the matter. Then his features softened. “It’s not so bad,” he said. “The only thing I don’t like are the marks. If there weren’t any marks, I could take it. But I’m always bringing notes to school so I can get out of gym.” Then he looked at me, his eyes pleading. “The thing is, dad never gives up. When he starts to beat me, he has to finish. He never gives up.”

“Why does he beat you?”

Gary shrugged. “To tell you the truth,” he said, “I don’t think my father ever really liked me. Is such a thing possible? Or maybe it’s because life has been hard for him. There are money problems. Our relatives in Russia say they are coming to live with us. Dad can’t afford it, but he can’t say no. It’s like he has to take it out on somebody. He won’t touch mom or Nina. He’s so loyal to mom. And he’d never hit Sneg. So I guess he has to hit me.”

“Nice analysis, but no, he doesn’t have to hit anybody. Nobody deserves pain.”

Gary quietly nodded. Then he swallowed and his face grew tense. “What if it makes things worse?”

“I don’t think it will. When a batterer knows somebody is watching, things can change.”

“What if it doesn’t?”

“Then I will call the police.”

Gary had no response to this. He quietly left the house. That evening Vova came over to invite me to supper. I made him a cup of tea and decided to confront him. “Vova,” I said. “I need you to listen to me for the next sixty seconds without saying a word.”

Vova laughed as if preparing to hear a joke.  I watched as dumped a tablespoon of sugar into the tea and stirred it with a bare finger. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Go ahead. Talk.”

I laid it out like machine gun fire. “I know about the beatings. In America it is against the law. If you do it again I will call the police. If you do it again and I don’t call the police, they will arrest me.”

I had awakened the Russian bear. Vova erupted from the table, spilling his tea. “You tell me!” he said. “My son. You tell me! I love my son.” Then he gave me the finger and stormed out.

A pall of silence descended. Vova broke off all contact. When I passed him on the street he stared straight ahead or took pains to avert his eyes. Luba followed her husband’s lead. I saw her alone in the pharmacy one day and greeted her warmly. She pretended I wasn’t there. Nina, too, despite her independent streak, snubbed me. But Gary stayed in touch, however furtively. He sent me an occasional email and shared a few words when he saw me. “But I can’t work for you again,” he said. As I arrived home one day I noticed the kiwi vine that Vova had planted on the fence between our properties. It had borne one solitary fruit, and it was hanging on my side.

The tension was uncomfortable, but what could I do? If I had saved Gary from further abuse, then it was fair at the price. One night he snuck into my house to talk.  He told me the beatings had indeed stopped. “He still yells at me for being lazy, for not making a contribution. I know these aren’t the real reasons, but at least he doesn’t whip me with that cord anymore.”

I told Gary that I believed him, but what was that Russian proverb that Ronald Reagan once quoted? Trust but verify? I told him to take off his shirt. He complied.  The scars on his back were fading, and there were no new marks.

One quiet evening in late August, as I was sitting on my front steps, the Ivanovs piled into the Volvo and went somewhere. I waved as they passed, but they stared straight ahead. Gary, in the back seat with his sister, threw me a quick, apologetic look. It was a warm evening with a clear sky. I walked into my backyard to look at the river, which had begun to move again from recent rains. Sneg was reclining in front of his doghouse. I suddenly noticed that he wasn’t chained. But the backyard was now completely enclosed by a new section of fence Vova had erected as an act of indignation. I was sure he couldn’t leap over the barrier. When he saw me he yawned and licked his chops, as if to say, “I’m free and could get you if I wanted to. This knowledge is enough for now.”

I sat on the back porch and continued to look out at the scene. A last flight of birds before dark, a refreshing breeze from the west, and the first star winking through. A full moon was on the rise. And then I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. Sneg was up and ambling across the yard. I watched as he trotted to the Ivanovs’ dock, paused, and pricked up his ears. There. And another. Fish were breaking the water, feeding on whatever insects were alighting on the surface.

Sneg grew excited. He barked, jogged in place, and then ran to the end of the dock. He hung his head over the side and barked every time a fish broke the surface. With every event he grew bolder, snapping and running from one side of the dock to the other. As he ran to and fro with increasing agitation, the momentum of that huge, overstimulated body finally carried him over the side with a howl of horror.

I froze, wondering if my eyes had deceived me. I had never seen a dog lose its balance. And then, recovering, I sprang to my feet. I clambered over the fence and considered, for a moment, that perhaps this was Sneg’s scheme to get me onto his turf for the final, definitive attack. But his howls echoed from the river as I ran to the dock.

I looked down and saw the dog, madly pawing the water, seeking return to firm ground. I watched, helpless, as Sneg’s claws scratched at the cinderblocks of Vova’s wall.  But it was insurmountable. I dropped onto my belly and reached over the side of the dock but Sneg was out of reach. I jumped to my feet and looked about for a stick, a rope, anything. Sneg continued to howl. For animals with such fixed expressions, I suddenly understood what dog lovers had always professed: that these animals were capable of profound changes of mien. What I now saw in Sneg was a look of terror.

I didn’t have my cell phone, so I couldn’t call 911. Yet I felt that running back into the house would waste precious moments. In the dark water below, Sneg was now paddling in circles, looking forlornly for an escape route. Much of his exertion was against the current itself, which was not as powerful as it was persistent — an unremitting force which quietly tugged, as if knowing that, compared to that of the life it enshrouded, its energy was inexhaustible.

Sneg had ceased to howl and yelp, dedicating his remaining strength to keeping his head above water. In a fit of inspiration, I pulled off my shirt, fell onto my belly again, and threw it out to him. The dog snapped at it but missed. I retrieved the shirt, quickly wound it into a sodden rat’s tail, and whipped it back out. Sneg snapped and missed again. On the third attempt he caught it. But then he stopped paddling and yielded entirely to the lifeline, exhausted.

Now I felt the full weight of that heavy body as I tried to drag it against the inexorable pull of the river. The fabric itself held fast, but I could feel it slipping from my grip. I stared down the length of the twisted shirt, at the end of which Sneg was tethered like a streamer, the dead weight of his white body undulating gracefully in the current. Beyond him the sky was growing dark, already studded with the brightest stars. The moon was well up in the sky. I felt the cool of the evening on my bare back. The neighborhood was silent. The shirt left my hand and I watched Sneg’s two dark, unbelieving eyes fly away from me and disappear under the water.

My God.

I pushed myself up off my stomach and sat there, breathing hard for both me and the life that had been taken by the river. I continued to sit and think, until night had fallen and a scrim of moonlight played upon the water. Two headlights flashed across the backyard. I got up and saw the Volvo pulling in. Then, a few moments later, I heard Vova’s voice. “Sneg! Papa home! Sneg?” Then something indecipherable in Russian, followed by, “SNEG!”

The flashlight fell across my face as I stood there. Vova looked at me, first with surprise and then disgust. “Where Sneg?” he asked. His family was standing behind him, their faces expectant.

“He fell off the dock,” I said, taking pains to speak quietly and clearly. “He fell. I tried to help. And he drowned.”

I had presumed that Vova would neither understand nor believe me. And so, preemptively, I tensed my muscles and struck a defiant pose. “I did my best to save him. Please step aside.”

I could sense Vova’s gathering rage. But what could he do? I had grown so hard that even he could see that I would not be pressed. “I’m sorry,” was the last thing I said as I moved past the family and headed back to the house. But before I went many steps I heard Vova imploring the river spirit the way an unbelieving child might nudge a dead parent. “Sneg? Sneg?”

I heard the great splash. Vova was in the water, swimming downriver, his exertions abetted by the current. “Sneg!” he screamed with every breath.

“Help him!” I cried, turning to the family. “He’ll drown. The current…”

But they were all standing quietly by, as if privy to a shared truth, one they had learned from long experience. Luba was a wall of stoicism as she gazed after her husband, diminished now, cutting a small silver ribbon in the moonlight.  “No,” she said, her children gathered to herself. “Vova will not drown. He can swim a long, long time. He never gives up.”