S ince we didn’t make it to that pet shop, let’s just say we’re still on our way there. I write “we” because I wasn’t looking for it alone. Actually, all of this happened only because there was a “you” back then. Someone might say that we were only going there on account of you, and technically that’s the rotten truth. But the thing is, already four years later I still keep going back to our pet shop. I want to clear my conscience there.

I remember it clearly, and if it exists in actuality, I’d be able to recognize it from a block away.  A small but, of course, respectable store. Along the left side from the entrance are shelves of dog food. Deposits of cheap pellets, promising “the tender meat of delicious turkey” (I’ve always wondered about that job—a taste-tester for dog food).

Above the door is a bell like the ones at Seven Eleven. On the right is an entire wall of aquariums.  There aren’t any expensive saltwater fish with digital-looking color combinations here—only nice old freshwater ones are sold.  There’s a school of zebrafish (Danio rerio) wearing the striped outfits of disco dancers. There’s the “Siamese fighting fish” (Betta splendens), who, with the faded glamor of discolored dressing gowns on their sides, wander, not looking at each other, like married artists who have grown old together. The top aquarium to the right is completely without fish, here there are only aquatic plants, snails, and water bubbles. Finally, I notice that there are bubbles in every aquarium.

The aquatic plants are the most ordinary ones—Sagittaria Spec and Vallisneria. I break the silence and start telling you about duckweed (Lemna). About how there’s a kind of duckweed, of which the little leaves, if you don’t stop them, will multiply and spread over the entire surface. Like parasites. They’ll block out light to the large fish. You have to thin out duckweed from time to time. I tell you about how when I was a child I wanted to lie in shallow water, slightly below the surface, and watch the duckweed from below to see how rays of sunlight managed to break through the gaps between the tiny leaves, while the top of my head rested on the warm, sandy beach. A hedgehog in a cage has caught your attention. For goodness’ sake, it’s just an ordinary hedgehog. What is it that you see in them? That they can protect themselves? But you’re not trite like that. I won’t ask you what you see in my plainness.

Oh, Chicago—with your head in the clouds and the chill along your river. You’ll always be my New York. The view from the bridge of a rusty tugboat passing by below. To touch your wall of a church covered in ivy. All of the doors are locked. The street preachers are so convincing that you don’t even need to go inside the church.

To grow up here, without the habit of ever thinking to lift your head up, then go off to war, and return with a sense of the fragility of this world, which you wouldn’t understand any other way. To know what kind of people are here and why. How poems change this city. For the better—or not.  

Your strange, one-of-a-kind Latina friend tries to convince us not to go there. It’s dangerous. But the medicine can only be bought at this pet shop.

The owner doesn’t pay any attention to us. Now I’m certain. That is, certain that the salesperson at the store is also its owner. An ordinary salesperson would have said something. Even jokingly. An owner understands his work.

The display case for fish medicine is right behind his back. I ask him to recommend fish antibiotics. He takes interest, responding, “WHAT KIND OF FISH and WHAT HAPPENED?” It sounds like a prompt for a secret passphrase. He doesn’t recognize my accent and is apprehensive, but by habit, I have a lot of trust for people, which I push in front of myself everywhere I go, like a cart full of apples. I know how to use it. In every country in the world people ask me for directions. Though most often to the train station.The owner/salesperson points at the display case with his hand: Aqua-mox forte, $28.99, Aqua-zole, $37.99, Aqua- Ceph, $24.99, Fish Biotic Ciprofloxacin, $27.99, Fish Biotic Ampicillin, $17.99.

You, of course, are thinking about your cat—she never did return home. I try to imagine the scene of a nighttime shooting in Venezuela, in your hometown. Bullets don’t leave a gleaming trail as they fly through the air. Such an image is almost always a lie. Gunfire is panic. But who would ever think to shoot a cat?

She’ll come back in two days and you’ll start reading your Brodsky again.

And that salesperson with the Czech eyes will listen to you.

Translator’s Note

Yuriy Serebriansky’s genre-defying meditation reflects on a trip he made to a Chicago pet shop with a friend for the purpose of obtaining fish antibiotics for his friend’s relatives in Venezuela, who were unable to receive antibiotics intended for humans on account of the international sanctions imposed on the country. Serebriansky also alludes to Yuri Norstein’s 1975 animated film, Hedgehog in the Fog (Ёжик в тумане), in which a hedgehog, searching for a white horse, finds himself lost in an expansive fog, making a journey through an unknowable, mirage-like world. As Serebriansky brings attention to human experiences that arise from economic sanctions, he evokes pensive hope for a better alternative. Translated from Russian to English by Sarah McEleney.

Afterword (Author’s Note)

I wrote this piece in 2019. It took two years to find a way to speak about the situation: US-imposed sanctions restricted, among other things, antibiotic imports to Venezuela. I was shocked to learn the only way to legally buy antibiotics for your relatives in Venezuela now is to buy them from the pet shops. Fish treatments contain several types of antibiotics. Some might work.

I do not write and have never written intellectual prose; I am an observer. But this narrative was written with the idea that one day the observer will be replaced by someone empowered to act. We might see writing itself as a way to call others to action, and to affect change however and wherever we can.