The night I discovered the manuscript I never went to sleep. It wasn’t premonition, not at all; just a trivial case of human restlessness. I just sat in the kitchen with the lights off, listening to Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the fire” on a loop, on my waterproof yellow Walkman. Sipping unsweetened, cold black tea. Watching snow rise in layers like sparkling, stellar yeast-dust on the unplowed sidewalks of my little proletarian corner of Moscow.
I was waiting for morning. It was one of those endless nights that haunt young minds – a frustrating night-pause in the cosmic order of things, an unwelcomed imposition on the racing cycles of a youthful heart. I finally made my mind to go for a run. I quickly bundled up – two layers of dog-wool socks, two layers of sweat pants, two long sleeve undershirts, tightly tucked, a hoodie, a lined windbreaker, a ski hat and gloves, of course – grabbed my music and the house keys, and went out as quietly as I could. I was pretty sure I didn’t wake up anyone in the apartment and now I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t wake up anyone in the building, so I skipped the elevator and strummed the stairs with quick light steps, navigating around broken beer bottles and puddles of piss. The entrance door into our high rise was missing and the ground floor greeted me with a powerful draft. I gasped, zipped up my hoodie all the way to my chin and got ready to breathe through my nose.
I ran fast, like someone trying to catch a bus, taking creative short-cuts through the courtyards of the projects, as I have done many times before whenever I would miss my bus at the corner stop and would chase it through improvised diagonals and “back channels” of my ghetto world. Powdery snow muted my steps and I moved through the sleeping suburbs like a mad shadow, unwitnessed, with no destination in mind. Fresh out of the military, my lungs were used to this sort of challenge. For the last two years I was used to running in full jacket with an RPK machine gun and a trench shovel slapping my ass every step, in any kind of weather, sometimes in a gas mask. But now, without any gear and without much light, I felt weightless, moving through the night with powerful, high-knee strides and kicking up my heels like a mountain goat. Thankfully there was no black ice under the snow to slow me down. But something did anyway.
First I didn’t realize what I saw, I just zoomed by and then had to re-wind myself like a cassette. I was passing by a fenced-off dog park and at this time of the night it should have been empty. But it wasn’t. In the dark, I made out a figure of a man, on the bench, sort of slouching to the side, and a dog laying down around his feet, sharp ears standing tall and on guard, panting, warm air billowing out of its muzzle. I turned back and came up to the fence. Taking off my headphones, I called out: “Hey, guy! Are you ok?” There was no answer but the dog bent her ears back and issued a whining noise. I jumped over the fence to investigate. Not knowing the dog, I approached the bench slowly. I took off my left glove, bent down a bit, and offered my hand for the dog to sniff, my eyes, however, fixed on the man, who seemed motionless. The dog did stand up but didn’t oppose my advance and settled down immediately after sniffing my hand, its leash – I noticed - being tied to the iron-wrought legs of the bench. I poked the man with my left hand and, still not getting any vital signs, slapped him a bit harder on his shoulder. He didn’t protest. The dead generally don’t. For no reason at all, I started trying to straighten him up on the bench but Earth’s controlling mistress of gravity wouldn’t have it. The body kept falling over to the side, even worse than before. He was frozen. I leaned in to smell his breath and did pick up a strong odor but that means nothing in Russia – most older men, at least, where I am from, have a smell of hangover on them. I noticed the dog’s eyes on me – she was watching my every move and I felt sure that, while it didn’t know what to do and was now in a position to rely on human mercy, it still wouldn’t allow me to physically disrespect her owner with any kind of careless gesture or movement. Somehow I knew in my gut that it was a she and I addressed her: “It’s gonna be okay, girl. What’s your name, love?”
I carefully reached under her face to see if there was a tag on her collar but there wasn’t. I petted the dog on her chest, noticing the pounding of her heart. She was clearly distressed but had that built-in Stoic feel that all German shepherds have about them. She looked young, perhaps, a year old. Perfect in posture, with inquisitive eyes. I refocused on the man and sat down next to him – or, rather, next to what was left of him, that is, next to his body. I checked his outer coat pockets and found an envelope with a good bit of cash and a page-long note with neat smallish handwriting.
It said the following:
“This is not an accident. Nothing is. This is Karma. She is 13 months old. You will find her paperwork in my inner pocket. The money is for the dog. This is your Karma now – your dog and your destiny. What happened to me is my own business. Your business is what is happening to you right now. You are at crossroads right now. A choice is required of you. You can call police and let them take it from here. You can take the dog and the money. The dog is well trained, very social, she knows she needs someone right now and will readily imprint on you, she is still young enough. Or you can just take the money and go, in which case, fuck you. If you call the cops and let them take care of this, you know how it will play out: they will take the money and hand the dog off to animal control, which, I am sure, you realize is a certain death for the dog. Frankly, I don’t have a preference since I don’t know who you are. Maybe you are a sadistic vivisectionist … Maybe you are one of those fucks who will displace your frustrations on the dog every day … I have no idea who you are and that’s why I don’t know what’s best for the dog. Perhaps, dying at the hands of the animal control is a better option for her than to put up with you. I don’t know because I don’t know who you are. But you know who you are. So this is now on you. Whether you act or not act, you are acting. There is nothing else to it. It’s on you now … “
The message took up about two thirds of the page, the quality of handwriting getting worse towards the bottom of the page, words sliding off the lines and the shape of the letters becoming less and less legible. The tone too had also seemingly de-evolved from formal to rather informal, as befits a parting mind. I wondered if the note had been started at home but was finished right here, in the dog park, on the bench. Did he take something to overdose and then went outside with his dog to wait for someone to find him? It seemed probable but also somehow irrelevant.
As for the dog, I already knew what I was going to do but I turned over the page to see if there was more. There was. There was a short post-scriptum. It read:
“Underneath my shirt you will find a monograph on the concept of karma, “The Topology of Karma,” it is yours if you are philosophically inclined and if you are interested. Take it if you want. I hope it helps you in your life.”
I looked at the dog, she was starting to tremble from the cold – who knows how long she had been on this strange post-mortem guard duty; she seemed, however, calm and accepting of my presence. I folded the note and put it back inside the envelope, and then folded the envelope and stuffed it inside the first layer of my wool socks. I untied the pup and petted her a little. She seemed to be finally calming down. A few moments later I looked around to make sure there were no passersby and began to unbutton the man’s coat. It was a cheap padded vatnik “body-warmer” with tight buttonholes. I finally reached inside and unbuttoned his shirt, feeling his cold and clammy chest with the back of my right hand.
I stopped for a moment, not in doubt, but in a strange state of awe. I looked at the man, studying his face, and thinking about the mystery of death. Here he was – a multicellular microcosm – a home to trillions of cells, some of which had clearly already died but some of which were still alive. His nails and hair would still grow for days, and, given the freezing temperatures outside, I am sure there were still plenty of organ cells that could be revived and transplanted – and reincarnated? – into other bodily homes. So, was he alive or was he dead? “He sure acts dead,” occurred to me. This thought struck me as new and very strange, cascading into unfinished fractals of word-fragments and images, finally re-emerging as a question to self: “Is death an act?” A question that in a moment answered itself in a rhetorically elusive manner: “Life is an act, isn’t it?!”
I sort of came back to myself and refocused on the task at hand, namely, on locating the aforementioned manuscript on the man’s body. Like the man had said in the note, the papers were on his body, inside a plastic folder, with about forty or so typed up double sided pages inside. I looked at the front page in the dim light of the streetlights. It was a title page, which read: “Topology of Karma and Reincarnation, a Non-Dual View.” I skimmed through the table of contents and returned to the front page, looking for the author’s name. None was included. “Strange,” I thought to myself again: here I was, knowing the name of the dog and not knowing the name of her owner.
I got up from the bench and stuffed the manuscript under my hoodie, into my sweat pants. Then I sat back down and re-buttoned the man’s coat. I stood back up and stepped back, having a moment of doubt. I remember I wanted to ask the man: “Are you sure?” But dead men typically don’t answer questions, let alone change their minds, so I said nothing.
I looked up into the sky, at the stars, - no, not to consult them, not in search of guidance, but just to see if they were paying attention, and it felt like they were, - and closed my eyes for a moment. I felt the squeeze of the foam covers of the headphones on my neck. I felt the gentle wet kisses of snowflakes landing on my face. I felt that somehow it was all just right, just so in that moment. The Universe that didn’t make sense to me for so long finally started to make sense. It was the right night to be awake. And, yes, I was “philosophically inclined.” And, yes, I preferred to have a running mate that morning. So, I picked up the leash and pulled the dog away from the bench. She obeyed. As we walked away, she kept stopping and turning back to look at the man, tightening the leash; but then the leash would slacken and she’d heel and follow me. When we were a hundred or so feet away from the bench, I tugged on the leash harder and started running.
And Karma – my dog now - ran with me that morning, through the snow, through uncertainty, until the morning sun re-infused the world with its illusory reassurance of light. Eyes make fools of us – yes, they do. Half way through the run I realized that Billy Joel had been on pause now for quite some time and I pressed the black “Play” button on my racing-yellow, heavy-duty, water-proof Sony Walkman. And Billy shouted into my ear: “We didn’t start the fire … It was always burning, since the world’s been turning …” And I felt he was absolutely right, in a karmic sense. We are all innocent as we burn through our lives. And it dawned on me that there is no such thing as sin, there is just “topology of circumstance” and “parameters of ability” and an interplay between these two cosmic factors.
After an approximately two-hour run, Karma faithfully bonded by my side, I circled back to my apartment complex and took the elevator, not wanting the pupper to cut her paws on the bottle glass from in the stairwell. I opened the door and let ourselves in. My mom was already up and happened to be in the foyer, getting dressed to go to the store. “Oh,” she said with a jolly lift in her voice and bent down to greet the newcomer: “Now, who do we have here, Pash?” “Karma,” I said, introducing my mom to a destiny that she and I, and my dad, and my brother were all yet to share. Karma was my first German shepherd. In years to come she was followed by Sherpa. And, finally, Zoya. But back then, in that moment in time, there was only Karma.
Without missing a beat, my mom decisively took off the wool shawl from her shoulders and used it to towel off the snow from Karma’s haunches. The tail wagged and I realized that I was no longer needed at this moment. I went to the kitchen and put the darkened copper cezve on the stove to make thick Turkish coffee, my dad’s favorite, and plunged myself into the man’s unsigned manuscript on “The Topology of Karma.” I knew my dad and I would have much to discuss that morning and I wanted to get a head start on the matter.
This was in 1986. I was almost 17 then. And now I am almost 51. The time has come – I feel – to share these strange pages with you. Over the years I gradually translated the manuscript into English. The text proved quite elusive for translation – at times I felt as though I was working a Rubik’s Cube with all black sides, while wearing a blindfold. I was both annoyed and inspired by the endless wordplay of these passages, by the ever-morphing iridescence of connotations, and by the “rascal sage” tone of its propositions. But, translation challenges aside, the work is largely unedited, just as I found it all those years ago in Moscow. I have, truth be told, taken the liberty to sprinkle in a few quotations and epigrams here and there. And as you read through this work you will see a few of my annotations and some related material that might or might not be of interest to you. In the years that followed the discovery of the manuscript, I have tried to also learn about its author. For months I walked nearby neighborhoods, accompanied by my new dog Karma, looking for someone who would perhaps recognize the dog so that I could ask them about her owner. And I had some luck with that. I did manage to gather a few crumbs of information about the dead man in the dog park, and I will share these findings later in the book. But for now, I think, it is time for you yourself to plunge into this murky topic. It will, I suspect, feel on some level like a game of whack-a-mole where each and every conceptual pore on the surface of the text is a dizzying rabbit hole, and where an occasional paragraph break throws you into an unexpected, high-speed, Moebius-style u-turn.
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