I know that short stories are not really in demand on The Chariot these days but after reading a few Russian novels I decided to throw up a fable set in the Motherland. I wrote it quickly as I was Russian to finish it in time for tea. There are a few modern influences in the tale though the joke is an old one. However, as the story takes place in the 1850s maybe this was its first airing. Apologies for any grammatical errors in advance. I know what you lot are like.
Read it or don’t read it. You have your choice. I have a massive back catalogue of blogs on MYT with no views and no comments so I’m not bothered if this is sent to Siberia.
Pass me the wooly hat.
* * * * *
Vladislav Dmitriyevich Kuznetsov was showing off his party trick in the run down bar. He was brandishing a poker that he had pulled out of the house fire. The poker glowed red in the dimly lit tavern. Not content and loudly shouting that it was not hot enough he plunged the poker back into the fire. It sizzled and simmered. Quickly pulling the branded metal from the furnace Kuznetsov licked the hot end and then threw it to the ground. He stuck his drunken tongue out and triumphantly said.
“I can eat fire.”
“Sit down, you buffoon.”
The man that dampened Kuznetsov’s fire was Ruslan Mikhailovich Blokhin. Of all the poor folk in the bar only “the Lion of V-” could have got away with this insult. A formidable man of immense strength he was holding court at the cleanest table in the bar. Acolytes hovered around him like lice. One man not in his party – though he loomed near the lion – was the timid, stammering, simpleton Pastukhov. The word buffoon is more commonly used in these parts when referring to Pastukhov. Pastukhov was three and thirty and only had the one name. Pastukhov. The mists of time had made him lose his other names and no one cared about him, his other names or where he came from. He was simply called Pastukhov. The joke. Blokhin begins to tell a story and the room goes quiet.
“I walked past the pawn shop today and in the window was a big notice that said. Talking centipede for sale. Twenty copecks. Now Blokhin knows a bargain when he sees one. A talking centipede could change my life. I could join a circus with my new tovarich.” A few sounds of merriment and agreement were hushed by the self-governing Lieutenants in Blokhin’s Blackguards. The Lion went on.
“I bought the centipede and took it home. I told my wife Claudette that we were going to be rich. I said to the centipede that I was going to the bar and does he want to come with me. There was no answer. This is not good. I thought this thing could talk. I waited ten minutes then asked it again. And again, no answer. Ten more minutes passed and I said to Claudette that if this thing doesn’t answer me this time I’m taking it back to the pawn shop. Right centipede, I’m going to the bar are you coming? There was a slight pause and then the centipede shouted, “I heard you the first time. Hold on, I’m putting my shoes on.” ”
Mad screams of laughter peeled the flaking paper from the walls. Eyes were rubbed and sides were stroked as the partygoers try to outdo one another in their admiration for the wit of Ruslan Mikhailovich. A voice rose above the clouds to counter the tale.
“A-and, imagine if someone s-said to the c-c-entipede. One of your l-laces is l-loose.” It was Pastukhov.
“Get him out of here.” demanded the Lion, upset at Patukhov’s intervention.
Pastukhov is manhandled from the table and led to the door. He is harangued all the way. A few boots were aimed in his direction but mostly he was subjected to verbal assaults. Tis a pity he was not in Napoleon’s Grande Armee, was heard, he could have won the Legion of Dishonour. The door is opened and Pastukhov iss ejected, dishonourably discharged, into the C- night.
From outside he could hear the men shouting and laughing. One of the revellers began to sing an old folk song. The one about the bear with the bridal hat. But here was Pastukhov out in the cold. It was just another day in the Garden of Eden for him. His nights with the pack inevitably ended with him being on the receiving end of insults and violence. He took a few steps away from the bar and heard barking followed by the frightened wails of a child.
A stray dog had its teeth wrapped around the leg of a ten year old girl. The girl was in agony as the dog, as hungry as the wolf, scented blood and flesh. Pastukhov’s insides were curdling before something -a pang of humanity, a sense of bravery- deep in his soul rose to the surface. With all the force he can muster he hits the dog on the head. All was quiet for moment as the three participants in this drama were in a state of surprise. Pastukhov for his one and only act of chivalry in his godforsaken life, the dog dumbfounded at being struck and the little girl’s pain eased by the unclasping of the cur’s bite. The dog made haste while the girl felt the agony of her wound. As it louted, she began to wail.
Her shrieks alerted some of the men in the bar and they stumble outside to see what was the cause of the screaming. Pastukhov had his hand on the girl’s leg in a vain attempt to stop the bleeding and give some comfort. He’s touching a little girl said a drunk. Soon the rest of the tavern is informed of Pastukhov’s crime. They come barging out as one with the indomitable figure of Ruslan Mikhailovich Blokhin at the forefront of the crowd.
“Now you were alright for playing the fool. Pastukhov, but this is too much. We’ve all spoken before of how we thought you were strange. Interfering with a devotshka. Pah. You disgust me”
“N-n-n-no-n-n. T-that’s not-” His explanation is ignored as the Lion knocks Pastukhov to the ground with a single blow. This is just the start of the simpleton’s ordeal. The assembly rain kicks and punches on his supine body. Vladislav Dmitriyevich goes back into the bar saying he will heat his poker up and let the idiot lick fire.
“Stop what you’re doing. I saw the whole thing. The boy never touched her.” From across the road and speaking from an open window is an old woman. “I swear by all that I hold dear. He saved her from a savage-”
“Shut up you old hag”, Blokhin cuts her off her protest, “No one believes a word you say.” Stones are thrown at the old woman who closes the window only for it to be smashed to pieces. That’s for getting involved, you old crone, is heard over the bombardment. The angry mob turn their attention back to Pastukhov. Murderous intent is in their minds. It is decided to throw him in the River S-. He is dragged through the road in the direction of the river. His pleas for mercy are overwhelmed by the loud voices of the vengeful drunks. Through a gap in their number Pastukhov has a last glance at the little girl. She cowers further into the ground. Soon, she disappears from his sight as the pack of wolves carry him to his fate.
Kuznetsov emerges from the bar with his red hot poker but there is no one around save the little girl still sobbing in the gutter. Under her breath, she whispers, angel, angel. Kuznetsov. angry at missing out on the bloodshed throws his poker away and re-enters the drinking den.