Gary Inbinder, Confessions of the Creature
Confessions of the Creature
Publisher: Fireship Press, 2012
Size: 314 pp.
ISBN: 1611 792 096
978-1611 792 096
Her name was Agrafina. She lived in a one-room cabin with thick, plain oak walls, a plank floor, and a large stone hearth and fireplace. Her home was surprisingly clean and comfortably warm and dry. She had a fire going and an iron cauldron on the boil. I had no idea what was in the pot, but it smelled good and I was hungry. The old woman must have read my mind; she pointed to a chair next to a large unfinished wooden table. Turning to me, she smiled and said, “You must be hungry, my boy. Sit down, and I'll fetch you some soup and a tankard of kvass.” At least that is what I thought she said; I could make out words like “hungry,” “soup,” and “kvass.”
I sat, and in a minute Agrafina brought me a tankard, a bowl filled with steaming borscht, and a large piece of black bread. I was bewildered; all others responded to me by running away or attacking me with weapons. I was grateful but also suspicious, and I answered the old woman's charity with a grunting, “Thank you.”
I slurped my borscht and chomped my bread; I had not had any training in table manners. The old woman did not seem to mind; in fact, from the look on her wrinkled face and in her twinkling light blue eyes one might think that she was amused. She sat next to me and watched me finish my meal without herself eating anything. When done, I belched loudly, smacked my full belly, and muttered, “Good.”
Agrafina laughed, “I see you have quite an appetite. That's no surprise for a big strapping lad such as you.”
Agrafina reached over and patted my shoulder with her bony hand. I flinched at the unexpected gesture.
“Ugly, you say?” Agrafina's voice was a raspy whisper. She coughed to clear her throat. “Let's just say you're different. I sensed your presence long before I saw your yellow eyes glaring at me through the slats of my woodshed. At first, I thought you were a shape shifter or forest spirit: neither good nor evil. What folk like me call neutral. I sense the evil ones in this wood: the ones who serve Chernobog, the dark god. Don't worry, my boy. They have no power over you and me.”
I could not make sense of what she said. Turning to her with downcast eyes, in a way I thought would be least threatening, I grunted, “No understand, grandmother.”
Still smiling, Agrafina again touched my shoulder, and this time I did not flinch. She whispered, “You are not evil.”
These few words I understood. Suddenly, I felt something deep inside me; it was an unfamiliar emotion. I had known anger, fear, and hatred; this was different. My hands trembled, my throat tightened so that I could not speak, and tears filled my eyes. I laid my head on the old granny's shoulder and sobbed as she cradled me in her arms. While Agrafina held me, I closed my eyes and saw flickering images as I did in my dream in the Archangel alley. I looked into the mirror and saw myself; the reflection was not ugly.
* * *
Agrafina made a little home for me in her woodshed, and I stayed with her doing chores for my keep. The work was easy: gathering wood and chopping it for kindling, and digging for potatoes and planting cabbage in Agrafina's garden. I also did some hunting and fishing, although this was for my benefit. The old woman was almost toothless, and her jaws were too weak to chew meat.
On occasion, I watched Agrafina boil roots, herbs, and bark in her cauldron. She would stir the pot while mumbling strange words that did not sound like the little Russian that I knew. This odd smelling borscht piqued my curiosity, especially since it did not seem fit to eat. One evening as Agrafina ladled some of the brew from the cauldron into a jug, I asked her, “Grandmother... what you make? Is good?”
Agrafina looked up from her work and smiled. “This is a healing potion, my boy. Old granny knows all the ancient secrets and formulas, and the peasants pay good silver coin for my remedies.”
I grunted, “Hmmm... healing. Granny good,” and then went about my business. Fortunately, the peasants avoided Agrafina's cabin except when they needed her potions. However, as a precaution, Agrafina gave me a scarf and a hood to cover my face in case anyone spotted me in daytime. When a couple of nosy peasants asked about me, Agrafina told them I'd been burned in a forest fire and she had taken me in and given me work out of pity. No one questioned her.
Agrafina taught me Russian, and as with French, I displayed a surprising facility. After two or three months, I spoke Russian as well as any peasant. After that, Agrafina began to take me deep into the woods where she gleaned the natural ingredients used in her remedies and charms.
One morning in early May, she led me to a secluded circular clearing dominated by an ancient, gnarled oak tree growing in the circle's center. The day was bright, clear, and unusually warm, yet I felt a strange chill as we entered the grove. Shafts of white light streamed into the shadowy glade, and I sensed that something in the surrounding forest was watching us. I found the place disturbing; I stopped and shuddered.
Agrafina looked up at me, and took my hand in hers. “You feel their presence, my boy? Don't worry; we're safe from Chernobog and his evil ones. They fear you, far more than you fear them.”
I looked down at her. “What place is this, grandmother?”
Her blue eyes squinted, and her face wrinkled in a twisted grin. “This is an enchanted place. In the old times, before the priests came, this is where the folk celebrated the coming of spring with fertility rites. They sacrificed a young virgin and spilled her blood on the ground.” She pointed toward the oak. “That's the ancient altar. And that is where I go to gather mandrake.”
Agrafina led me to a grassy area in the shade of the old oak tree. She pointed to a spot, and said, “Dig there, my boy.”
I got down on my knees and began to dig in the earth with my knife. Soon, I saw a strange root; it reminded me of a little man.
“You found a good one,” Agrafina whispered. “Pull him out, then, and we'll be on our way.”
I reached down, grabbed the root, and pulled it up. As I tore the mandrake from the ground, I thought I heard a scream. I recoiled in fear and dropped the root.
Agrafina picked up the mandrake and put it in her apron. She laughed quietly, and whispered, “So big and strong, yet you fear a little root?”
I trembled, and my hands were clammy with sweat. “I heard it scream, grandmother. This is an evil place; let's leave now.”
Agrafina laughed quietly, and took my hand as though I were a child. “Well then, my boy; I have what I need. We can go, now.” We left the grove, and turned onto the small trail that led to her cabin. Agrafina looked up at me. “If only you knew what powers you possess. The spirits of this forest would worship you and serve you as their Tsar.”
* * *
Spring turned to early summer, the air grew humid, and the muddy riverbank filled with clouds of gnats and mosquitoes. At times, moist winds blew over the Volga and the sky would turn green, streaked with yellow flashes of lightning. Then thunder rumbled and rain would come down in torrents and flood my little shelter. When the woodshed became unbearable, Agrafina let me sleep in a corner of her cabin.
On one such evening, I sat on a small bench before the hearth, staring into the crackling yellow flames. Agrafina walked over and sat beside me; I barely noticed her presence until she broke the silence. Speaking in a low voice, she said, “I've seen the future, my boy. We're both going on a journey, but we will travel different paths.”
I turned to look at the old woman. Without her scarf, her snow-white hair hung down from her tiny skull in long, straggly locks. She frowned, and tears ran like rivulets through the deep wrinkles of her face.
“What's wrong, grandmother?” I exclaimed. “You look so sad.” I stared at her for a moment, and she did not answer. She turned away to look into the fire, and I added, “Why can't we stay where we are? I'm happy here.”
Without looking back at me, she murmured, “My time has come to leave this world, and you must go to fulfill your destiny.”
I was confused. Her talk of leaving this world could mean only one thing; the old woman was going to die. What, I wondered, did she mean about my “destiny?”
Agrafina must have sensed my troubled spirit. She placed her hand on mine and turned to look at me. The tears were gone, and she smiled as she had the day we met. “We must part soon, and I want to give you a gift. You must ask me for something. Look deep into your heart, and tell me what you want, most of all.”
I stared at Agrafina; I believe she already knew what I wanted. Could it be that this old woman had powers equal to, or perhaps greater than Frankenstein? “Grandmother,” I stammered, “I... I want to be like other men. I want to look like them so that I may live among them.” I stopped for a moment, coughed, and composed myself, choking back my tears. I continued in a hoarse whisper, “Please take away this curse of ugliness, so that I may find a woman to share my life.”
Agrafina placed her hand on my scarred cheek. “I've already prepared the spell. I'll call upon all the spirits in this forest, and upon the great Volga and even the wind and the sky above. It will be the last and greatest conjuring of my long life.”
Agrafina got up from the bench and waddled to the center of the cabin. There, she raised her withered arms above her head and began to walk in a circle while she chanted an incantation in a language unknown to me.
Round and round she went muttering her spell, and as she did the storm outside grew in violence and intensity. Thunder boomed, lightning flashed, and rain battered the rooftop and walls. The wind tore branches from nearby trees and hurled them at the cabin. One stout limb crashed through a glazed window, hurtled past my left ear and flew into the flaming fireplace where it sizzled, then exploded in a great cloud of red sparks and white steam. The cabin shook, and at one point, I thought the roof would fly up into the sky and the timbers would shatter and splinter into a thousand pieces.
As I watched Agrafina casting her spell, I remembered how I had once raised my fist in defiance of the stars and cursed nature. Now I shook with terror at nature's fury. Yellow, white, and blue flashes of light blinded me, and my limbs quaked and trembled with electric shocks. I felt the electricity tearing my spirit from my body and I howled like a flayed animal. The pain was unbearable, and I shouted, “Have mercy, and let me die.” At that moment, a great bolt of lightning struck the cabin. There was a brilliant flash, a deafening roar, and then darkness, and silence.
* * *
I awoke on the floor. The storm had subsided; there was a soft patter of raindrops on the roof and the cabin's interior was drenched with rainwater that blew in through the broken window. The room was dark; the fire had gone out. I shivered in the early morning chill.
I got up onto my feet. I felt dizzy, and I shook my head to clear my senses. My limbs and joints ached as though I had been beaten with a club, and I had only a vague memory of Agrafina conjuring and the storm. I stumbled to the center of the room and saw the old woman sprawled face down on the plank floor. I knelt by her side, turned her over, and held her in my arms. “Grandmother, can you hear me?” I whispered.
Her tiny body seemed little more than a skeleton clad in sallow, wrinkled skin. Most of her clothing had burnt away, and wisps of smoke rose from the still smoldering shreds. I felt a slight twitch in her bony limbs; her dry thin lips parted and emitted a faint sigh. I saw her closed eyelids flicker and then open. The bright blue eyes were gone; all I could see were cloudy whites.
“My son,” she gasped. “Is that you?”
“Yes, grandmother; I'm here.”
“There's not much time. The spell's work has begun. You'll notice the changes, soon.” She took a deep breath and reached up to stroke my cheek with her feeble hand. “Take my body to the enchanted grove and bury it beneath the ancient oak. You must do this...” She coughed, and I held her close to me. Her desiccated body felt as though it would crumble into dust and blow away. With her last breath, she whispered in my ear, “You must bury me there, for the spell to be complete. When you're done, travel south, toward Moscow. There, you'll meet...”
Those were her last words. I clutched her to me and sobbed, “Grandmother, don't leave me.” My words were useless; Agrafina was gone from this world.
I wrapped her in a clean, white sheet, took a shovel, and carried the tiny body to the secluded grove. I buried her in the place near the gnarled oak where I had dug up the mandrake. I could sense the presence of spirits, but I had no fear. Frankenstein had made me physically strong, but he left me weak in my despair. Agrafina had given me hope and courage, and I remembered what she said about my destiny. I stood for a moment beside her grave and bid the old woman farewell. Then I turned and continued on my journey.
* * *
On one particularly bright, early summer morning I sat by a clear, swiftly running brook, grilling a fat trout over an open fire. A few wispy clouds drifted through a pale blue sky. Gentle breezes rustled green grass-stalks near the streambed, carrying the scent of wildflowers to me, mingling floral perfume with the piquant tang of sizzling fish. Sitting in the shade of a tall oak, I looked upward, smiling at the sound of sedge-warblers singing in the branches.
While holding the stick-skewered fish in the crackling fire, I noticed something unusual about the back of my hand. The flesh and veins seemed remarkably transformed. Lifting my left hand, I saw a slight difference from the right; however, both appeared to be changing from my own peculiarly ugly sallow transparency to a more humanly pleasant tone. Agrafina's spell was working. I pondered this strange phenomenon while chewing the crisp, smoky-sweet flesh of my grilled trout.
About three days following my intriguing discovery near the stream, I entered an unoccupied cottage and helped myself to food and drink. There, I made an amazing observation. I looked into a mirror and the reflection startled me; my once hideous face had transformed into that of an ordinary man. My watery, cloudy yellow eyes had become clear and amber; my yellow, translucent skin had thickened and darkened with exposure to the elements, giving me the coloration and skin texture of Asian sailors I had seen in my travels; I had grown a black beard to go with my long black hair. The scars from Frankenstein's surgery were still there, but they seemed less prominent and were no worse than those I had seen on men who had been in knife fights. Moreover, my hairline and beard covered most of the scars on my face, and my clothing covered the rest. Overall, I did not appear much different from any Russian of the steppes. As for my size, I was never the eight-foot giant of the Frankenstein tales.
Once I made this discovery, I became determined to follow my instincts and risk making contact with humans. Since the night I had left Frankenstein's laboratory, I wanted to be normal: to have my fellow creatures accept me as one of them. Agrafina's spell made it possible.
I headed south and west of Yaroslavl until, in the summer of 1800, I came to a village near Moscow and dared to enter in daylight.
It was July, the sun an orange fireball in a cloudless sky. The peasant clothes Agrafina had given me were soaked with sweat, filthy and torn in several places. The heels of my boots were flat, the soles flapping and full of holes. A scrawny dog waddled ahead of me and staggered into a ditch, where it lay panting. As I passed, the dog turned its head slightly and glared at me with glazed yellow eyes.
I heard loud squeals; the noise came from a butcher's yard on the village outskirts, where a man held a wriggling pig while another stuck it with a knife. Bright red blood spurted into a large puddle. Slaughtered carcasses hung outside the butcher's shop, and blood-gorged bluebottles swarmed the meat and crawled over the gore-soaked earth.
I turned a corner in the road. An elderly man walked ahead of me, and I came abreast of him. “Pardon me, grandfather. Do you know if there's any work to be had in this village?”
He looked up at me and seemed about to answer, when suddenly, I heard the sound of galloping horses behind us. I shoved him aside and got myself out of the way; we barely escaped trampling. The horses raced down the road, hooves pounding and kicking up a dust cloud. One rider turned back to look at us. He laughed, then faced forward and whipped his horse on. The old man had fallen into a ditch; he was covered in muck and choking with dust. I helped him to his feet.
“Are you hurt, grandfather?”
He coughed to clear his throat and spat several times. “I'm fine, thanks to you, and no thanks to those bastards.”
“Who are they?”
“Tsar's police, may they rot in hell.”
I helped the old man dust his clothes, and we continued our walk together. He was talkative, and I soon learned he was the uncle of the village headman. There were about two hundred people in the village proper, mostly serfs who worked for the local Baron. The old man took me to the inn, little more than a shack, and treated me to a greasy tankard of warm kvass. We sat on wooden benches at the end of a long table; the tavern's interior was dark and dusty, buzzing with flies and reeking of acrid tobacco smoke, spilled vodka, and unwashed humans. Mice scampered on the dirt floor, sparrows fluttered overhead, and tiny, wriggling things dropped from the thatched roof onto the tabletop.
Smiling at me with a toothless grin, the old man said, “You saved my life, young fellow. Anything I can do for you, just name it.”
“I'm a free man, and I need work, grandfather. I'd be obliged if you could help.”
“No problem. I'll talk to my nephew, Matvey.” The old man placed his bony hand on my thick, muscular forearm and smiled admiringly. “There will be plenty of work for a big, strong ox like you. By the way, son, I didn't catch your name?”
Until that moment, I had had no name. I took the Christian name and patronymic of my creator. “My name is Viktor Viktorovich.”
* * *
Matvey found a place for me to live and put me to work. My home was a dirt floored hut with a pile of straw for a bed, little better than Agrafina's woodshed. After my first night, I awoke covered in red, itching bites from mosquitoes, fleas, and other common, bloodsucking parasites. At least it was better than sleeping in the open or the sewage-running, rat-infested Archangel alleys.
As for the work, it was hard physical labor: cutting wood and breaking and moving rock to clear the edges of the Baron's fields. My great strength was perfectly suited to such work, and it soon became apparent that I could do as much as five ordinary men. Villagers gasped when they saw me lay into the trunk of a massive oak tree. The silver axe-head flashed through the air, striking and slashing deep and sending chips flying in a cloud. My powerful shoulders, arms, torso, hips, and legs worked in tireless rhythm like the pistons and gears of the new English steam engines.
One fellow crossed himself, and exclaimed, “That's not a man; it's a demon!”
This led Matvey to say, “Slow down, Viktor-you make the rest look bad.”
I listened to Matvey and learned to pace my production to that of the next best worker, the village strongman, Kolya. Kolya was nicknamed the Bear: He was huge, almost as big as I, and three times as hairy. He saw me as a rival and it was not long before he challenged me to a wrestling match.
Our match was on a Saturday just before sunset, in a cleared field outside the village. Grass-stalks waved in the mild breeze; cicadas chirred and chirped in the undergrowth. Sweltering in the muggy twilight, the crowd slaked their thirst with jugs of kvass. A circle formed around us, and, as we stripped to the waist, I heard people shouting.
“My money's on the Bear.”
“Nonsense; Viktor will take him in three.”
When I stripped off my shirt, there were murmurs in the crowd. “Look at those scars. Viktor's seen some serious fighting, that's for sure.”
For a moment, I was self-conscious about the scars on my chest and back, but the crowd had provided their own explanation. If anything, this would enhance my reputation as a dangerous man.
Finally, Matvey, acting as referee, led Kolya and me to the center of the circle formed by the village spectators. Standing between us, he shouted, “Remember: no biting, scratching, eye-gouging, head butting, or grabbing or kneeing the privates. Let's fight fair and well.”
Matvey slapped us each on the shoulder and walked away. When he reached the edge of the encircling crowd, he turned to us and yelled, “Begin!”
Kolya and I circled each other, and then came to grips. I could feel and smell his hot breath on my face. His eyes blazed, and his mouth slobbered as his great hands dug into my flesh. He was tough and aggressive: Grunting and sweating, using all his might and wrestling skill, he almost succeeded in bringing me down.
I clutched his arms and bear-like torso and pulled clumps of coarse hair, making Kolya howl in pain. That spurred him to even greater effort. I had never encountered such strength in a human. After a few minutes of grappling, he used a skilful tripping maneuver and tried to throw me, but I grabbed his massive wrist, twisted his arm and flipped him onto the ground.
In the second round, Kolya seemed tired from the effort of the first, and I threw him quickly. In round three, he got a second wind, and I danced with him for a while, now sure I could win at will. Suddenly, I made a quick feint as though falling, and the onlookers gasped as I dropped to one knee. Kolya lunged forward, and I used his momentum to hurl the big man over my head. He went flying into the crowd and brought half a dozen down with him. People made way as I walked over to him; he was lying on his back staring at the sky. He began to pull himself up, shaking his head as though stunned. I held out my hand, saying, “Friends?”
He seemed confused, and gazed at me with wild eyes. Then he smiled, took my hand, pulled himself to his feet, and answered, “Yes. Friends.” We embraced and Matvey proclaimed me the winner. The crowd closed around us, cheering, laughing and clapping us on our backs .
One scorching summer day I worked alongside a road with Kolya and a gang of men clearing a drainage ditch of weeds and rubbish. We labored under a blistering sun, thirsty, sweating, and tormented by clouds of mosquitoes, gnats and flies. I swung a heavy scythe with tireless, machine-like precision, though I was careful not to out-produce Kolya. A pair of riders approached us on horseback: it was the baron and his lady. We stopped our work, gathered at the roadside, and bowed our heads in respect.
The nobles had the sun at their backs, the rays lending them an aureate majesty. I straightened up to get a better look at them. I could not see their faces, but I noticed their dress, their mounts, and their demeanor.
The baron wore a cocked hat, a high-collared bottle-green jacket with shining brass buttons, white breeches, and black boots polished to a sparkling finish. His lady rode sidesaddle and wore a small tricorn hat with a veil to protect her delicate skin from dust, sun, and flies. The hem of her claret-colored velvet riding habit rose just enough to reveal a fringe of white linen petticoats and tiny, black, high-heeled boots with sharply pointed toes. The baron rode a large, pure-white Arabian gelding, and his lady a graceful chestnut mare. They each carried leather crops, which they occasionally flicked at the animals' hindquarters to keep them steady and to gain speed. The nobles looked neither to the right nor the left, but straight ahead and a bit upward, as though we who bowed to honor them did not exist-or rather, that our existence was not worthy of their acknowledgement. They reminded me of Frankenstein, and his wife Elizabeth. After they passed, my friend Kolya smiled, spat in their direction, and muttered, “Damned aristocrats.”
Kolya was my first true friend and my village mentor. He taught me to sing peasant and gypsy songs, to dance, drink vodka, smoke, swear, and gamble. He also introduced me to women, and I found a girl to share my hut. Her name was Marfa. She was fifteen or so, with long, light-brown hair, dark blue eyes, healthy skin and teeth, and a sweet, alluring smile. We met at the harvest home festival.
A cool breeze blew across the wheat-fields on the evening of the dance; twilight clouds turned shades of red, and patches of blue sky deepened into purple, then black. The great yellow, pockmarked Harvest Moon rose, and stars glittered like jewels on an aristocrat's velvet dress. A few warblers flew overhead into the moonlight, circled for a moment, and then disappeared into the shadows.
Kolya walked beside me. As we neared the clearing where the young people gathered, he said, “Viktor, tonight you find a girl, or you can stop calling yourself my friend.” He smiled, but I took him seriously, and cold, anxious sweat ran down from my armpits, staining my clean shirt. Soon, we heard clapping, shouting, and the twanging thrum of balalaikas; I saw several young men and women dancing in the moonlight. Kolya took a flask from his pocket, handed it to me, and said, “For courage; drink up.”
I took a swig of vodka; it burned like liquid fire going down my throat, warming and calming my quivering insides. I handed the flask back to Kolya. “Thanks; that helped.”
A toothy grin spread across his hairy face. “You need all the help you can get, you oaf.” Kolya walked to a group of his friends, leaving me to suffer alone on the fringe of the festive crowd. Trying to look happy, I noticed a young woman laughing and chattering with three other girls. She stopped talking, stared at me, and smiled. Leaving her friends, she walked in my direction, and I noticed her companions covering their mouths, giggling furtively, glancing at me and then looking away. I almost bolted into the woods; my apprehension of becoming the butt of crude village jokes outweighed my fear of the little creature approaching me.
Marfa stood before me, about one and a half feet below eye level. I towered above her, silent and rooted to the spot. I, who had railed at Nature and my Creator, could barely dare to look her in the face. She laughed, “Viktor Viktorovich, are you going to stand there like a great, dumb oak tree, or will you ask me to dance?”
I mumbled something in response, and she led me by the hand. People pointed rudely and laughed; I wished I were somewhere else. In the midst of the clearing, I heard the balalaikas, and began clomping about in crude imitation of a Barynya.
At the end of the dance, she took me to a dark spot on the edge of the fields, looked into my eyes and smiled. “I didn't think it possible; you dance worse than Kolya the Bear.”
I believe I blushed, and mumbled, “I'm sorry, miss. I'll take you back to your friends now.”
“Don't you want to kiss me, first?”
She tugged at my sleeves; I bent down and she stood on tiptoe, gently brushing her lips against mine. Her mouth was soft, like sweet apple dipped in honey and spice. We returned to the crowd holding hands; when I saw Kolya, he smiled and winked. I smiled back at him.
From that evening, Marfa and I became inseparable.
The first night I took her to my straw bed, we were both virgins, and drunk on vodka. We groped each other in the darkness, and then I coupled with her as I had seen animals do. She did not seem to mind.
Afterward, we lay in each other's arms, and she stroked my scars and kissed them. It was as though something horrible and loathsome had transformed into an object of love. Marfa whispered, “You've had a hard life, Viktor. Don't worry; I'll be good to you.”
I stroked her soft cheek with one of my great, rough hands, and tenderly kissed her warm, flushed throat. I smiled and looked into her sparkling eyes. Suddenly, a chill ran through me as I recalled the night I killed Elizabeth Frankenstein on her wedding bed. I trembled, and broke into a sweat.
“Are you troubled, Viktor?” Marfa exclaimed. “You look like you've seen the dark god.”
Trying hard to control myself, I mumbled, “It's nothing. I... I once had to fight off a pack of wolves. That's where I got the scars. The memory comes back to me, now and then. Forget it and go to sleep.”
Marfa nestled in my arms and whispered, “You're safe, darling. There are no wolves to harm you here.”
* * *
Months passed and I became accustomed to life in the village. I should have been happy, but I was not. I did not like the hard labor, the dirty hut, the coarse clothes and food, the monotony, and I particularly disliked bowing to the nobles, and making way for the police. I had good friends and a woman, but it did not seem enough to satisfy me.
Previously, I had been alienated from the society of men by my hideous and outlandish appearance. Agrafina's spell had transformed me, and her talk about destiny encouraged me. Village life held little hope of improvement, except for religion's promise of resurrection and a better world beyond the grave. My dissatisfaction grew until an incident occurred that moved me to act and seek a change for the better.
It was April, and we had just finished sowing the spring wheat. Most of the villagers were at home, including Marfa and Kolya. I took a job pulling stumps near the Manor to earn some extra cash and was gone from the village for a couple of weeks. When I returned to my hut late one evening, Marfa's aunt and sister were tending her. The women were weeping, and the aunt looked at me and exclaimed, “Thank God you are back.”
Marfa lay on our straw mattress, groaning and half-conscious. Her face was swollen and purple, her eyes shut. She was naked, her body covered with bruises and welts. Her aunt told me what happened.
Wiping tears from a face that looked like a red potato with eyes, the aunt blubbered, “A policeman named Ilya has been eyeing Marfa. I wasn't aware of the bastard's interest, or I'd have been more careful about leaving her alone. Your absence gave Ilya his chance. He rode into the village, waited until Marfa was asleep, entered the hut and tried to rape her. Marfa screamed and fought him. Ilya beat her with his whip. Her screams awakened the whole village, and Kolya ran to the hut to save her. Kolya knocked Ilya down, picked up Marfa, and carried her out of the hut. Ilya followed and shot Kolya in the back of the head. Kolya died instantly-Ilya got on his horse and fled.”
The aunt shuddered, buried her face in her apron, and bawled like a baby. I put my hand on her shoulder in a vague attempt to calm her. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose in her fingers. “Matvey complained to the baron and there was an inquiry, but Marfa was too hurt to testify. That lying pig Ilya claimed Marfa was a whore who agreed to do it for money. Ilya told the baron that your friend Kolya found out what was going on behind your back, entered the hut, struck him, grabbed the whip, and beat Marfa. The dog didn't explain why Kolya carried Marfa out of the hut, or why he shot Kolya in the back of the head, but the baron ruled for Ilya, saying there was no rape and that Ilya acted in self-defense.” The aunt sniveled and shook her soggy potato head. Then, hearing Marfa groan, she walked over to the straw-pile to tend her battered niece.
Matvey and the villagers were outraged, especially Kolya's and Marfa's relatives who demanded revenge. I spoke to Matvey about it and agreed to kill Ilya. I would make it look like an accident, and Matvey promised assistance from a policeman named Semyon.
I sat with Matvey at a small table in the village tavern. The pale light of a full moon shone on Matvey's leathery black-bearded face; his green eyes blazing with anger fueled by indignation and a thirst for revenge. After taking a swig of vodka he wiped his purple lips on his sleeve and then whispered, “Viktor, my boy, Semyon and Ilya will be the only police on duty at midnight. That pig Ilya's a heavy drinker who never lets the obligations of his office stand in the way of vodka. Semyon swears by his mother that he'll have Ilya drunk within an hour. Once Ilya's seeing double, Semyon will leave the station, telling the pig that he's riding to town to fetch more vodka and a woman. In truth, Semyon will remain hidden in the woods, waiting for you.
“The station's on a small road that runs through the forest into town and then merges with the main road heading south to Moscow. About thirty yards behind the building there's a low bluff overlooking a stream.” Matvey stopped to pour more vodka; after taking a drink, he continued, “The drunken pig likes to stagger over to the edge of the bluff and watch the moon while he pisses into the stream. The ground is muddy and the footing treacherous.” His eyes widening, Matvey placed his hands on my shoulders, pulling me close so I could both feel and smell his hot vodka breath, “See to it,” he hissed, “that the bastard has an accident. Avenge Kolya and Marfa; the village will bless you, and God will reward you.” Matvey kissed me on both cheeks, his tears wet against my face. He called me “Brother,” and made the sign of the cross over my head.
For my part, I would receive some money from the village and identity papers from Semyon as it would be safest for all if I left the village after. I prepared for the evening by washing all over, cleaning and combing my hair and beard, and burning my old, vermin infested rags. I put on clean new clothes and a fine pair of leather boots, a gift from the village. I bid farewell to Kolya's family, Matvey and his uncle, the old man I had saved from trampling.
I embraced the little old man. “Good-bye, grandfather, and God reward you. I came here a stranger, and you gave me a home.”
Tears streamed down his cheeks into his scraggly white beard; his upper lip quivered over his gaping, toothless mouth. Holding me in his scrawny arms, he sobbed, “God go with you, Viktor. We'll never forget you.”
I went to say good-bye to Marfa. Her aunt was still at our hut, caring for her. Marfa was young, strong and beginning to recover from the beating. Her eyes were open, and she was fully conscious. Her welts looked painful, and her swollen jaw ugly. She had lost a few teeth and talking was difficult. I stroked her hair gingerly, since it was greasy and unwashed. She knew I was leaving and would not return. Her eyes filled with tears, and I tried to make her feel better.
“You will be well soon, and I swear Ilya will pay for what he did.”
Rather than make her happy, these words brought on more tears. She pulled me close, which must have hurt her, and mumbled in my ear, “I will always love you. God keep you safe wherever you go.”
I am not sure I knew what she meant by the word love, and I wondered if it was the emotion I had felt when Agrafina died in my arms. I did not feel that way now, but I thought I should answer in kind. “I love you too, Marfa. Keep safe and well-good-bye.”
This brought on more sobbing, and I pulled away as gently as I could. As I left, I noticed aunt potato-head crying into her apron.
I met Semyon about an hour past midnight. I ran swiftly through the woods: it was my natural element. There was a full moon, partially obscured by drifting clouds, and I kept in the shadows. I could hear the hooting and flapping wings of an owl seeking its prey. I too was a predator, and the other animals acknowledged my presence by running and hiding at my approach. Soon, I encountered a squat figure in gray uniform, sheltering in the purple shadows of a thick, tall tree.
“Semyon,” I whispered, “is that you?”
“Yes, brother; and you are Viktor?”
“Of course I am. Do you have the papers?”
“Here they are. Viktor Viktorovich, free laborer. Good throughout the empire.”
Semyon and I crouched behind a large oak and he brought me up to date. Ilya was dead drunk, as expected. He would soon need to relieve himself; it was only a matter of time. We did not wait long; Ilya stumbled out of the station, bottle in hand, and staggered toward the bluff overlooking the stream.
“Semyon-wait here and don't make a sound. I won't be long.”
I moved quickly and with great stealth. Ilya seemed completely unaware of my presence. When he reached the edge of the bluff, he took out his prick and pissed. He gazed at the moon, mumbling a song about lovers at harvest time. I sprang from the shadows like a wolf. Ilya finished his love song thirty feet below, face down in the streambed. I went back for Semyon.
“It's done, brother. Let's make sure he's dead.”
Semyon led me down a path to the muddy bank. Ilya lay motionless. He had cracked his skull on a rock, and his red blood stained the swiftly running waters. Nevertheless, I held his head under for a while just to make sure.
I turned to Semyon and grinned. “Looks like an accident to me.”
Semyon laughed softly and smoothed his thick brown moustache. “I'll go for help soon. Good luck, brother, and don't worry about Ilya. He was a bastard. Nobody will miss him.”
As far as I know, nobody did.
I walked through the forest in the direction of the Moscow road and considered my future. I resolved not only to survive, but also to flourish and rise: to improve my condition and status among men. With Agrafina's spell of transformation, my life had changed and now I began to see the destiny and purpose in my life that she had promised. I had had enough of bowing and moving aside; I wanted people to bow and make way for me. Thus, in the spring of 1802, I set off to seek my fortune in the great city of Moscow.
Copyright © 2008 by Gary Inbinder