The following story was inspired by Daniil Kharms and his most famous story, The Old Woman. Other than it's subject matter it has very little in common with Kharms' works. I wrote this story in December 2000.
Late evening, December 8, 1911, St. Petersburg.
The boy woke slowly, for it was late and he had been asleep a few hours only. He rubbed his eyes and yawned. He was very nearly ready to fall asleep again when a loud swell of laughter came from the group of adults downstairs. Curious, and thirsty (as every young child learns to be when they prepare to leave their room after their proper bedtime), he swung his feet over the side of the small bed and dropped to the floor. He experienced a momentary pang of regret when his small feet hit the bare wood floor, and he considered what steps would be necessary to reach the drawer, high above his head, which contained his thick woolen winter socks, but the room was very dark, and he was not sure he could find the drawer, even with sufficient altitude. He crept to the door and quietly pulled it open. A bit of warm yellow light slipped into the room just as he slipped into the hallway.
Down the hallway and to the top of the stairs, the voices getting louder as he approached. He recognized his father's voice, and the occassional murmur from his mother, but the two loudest voices were unfamiliar men's voices that rose well above the crackle of the fireplace and the normal nighttime drone of adult conversation in the evening. It sounded terribly promising to the boy, and he peeked around the corner and down into the living room to assay the situation.
Three chairs were arranged in a rough semicircle around the fireplace. The boy's mother sat in a fourth which was nearly in the perimeter of the circle formed by the other chairs, but which faced the staircase rather than the fireplace. She had a large pile of knitting work in her lap and a slight extra ruddiness to her cheeks which the boy usually associated with anger, but she did not have the look of an angry mother on this night. The men were facing away from the boy, but only his father had his back fully to the staircase, allowing for a few details to be revealed about the strangers. One was a large man, larger than Papa, with a huge wooly beard spilling down a red shirt. This man was clearly the source of the loudest laughter, a suspicion quickly confirmed after an unintelligible comment from the boy's father sent the man
bursting into laughter again. The second man was slight, and still wearing a large fur cap that covered his ears. His beard was well trimmed, but a bit on the thin side, and his cheeks were red as any the boy had ever seen. This man, too, was laughing, and not quietly, but it did not seem to penetrate and fill the room in the same manner as the first stranger's laugh did. Summoning his courage, the boy tiptoed down the stairs.
Barely a third of the steps had he covered when his mother, without looking up from her work, spoke. "Bed, Daniil," she called, without irritation, "It is well past your bedtime." The men, hearing her voice, glanced at her and then followed her voice with their eyes, up to the staircase where the boy stood fidgeting. "But Mama," the boy protested, "I'm thirsty. And I had a bad dream."
Now his mother looked up from her knitting, a stern look crossing her face. She was about to speak, when the large bearded man spoke up. "Let the boy stay a minute, Maya. We'll cure his thirst properly and scare the monsters from his head." Frowning now, she focused her attention on
the stranger, but relaxed when the boy's father spoke. "Let him stay a minute and meet his uncle, dear. It's been a long time, and if it continues snowing, the men will have to leave before the roads are useless."
She sighed, and motioned for him to come down the stairs, even as she returned her attention to her work. Encouraged, the boy paddled down the stairs and up to the side of his father's chair. The big man leered at
him in a friendly manner.
"Don't remember me, eh? it's been three years. Or maybe you do... your beautiful mother has a memory to rival the Bohemian Steinitz, so anything is possible."
"The last time you called me beautiful, if my bohemian memory serves, you had nearly as much vodka as tonight," said his mother, in a tone of voice the boy could not decipher. The big man laughed and held his arms out to
the boy. "Come sit on Uncle Vasily's lap, Master Yuvachev. Come now, I don't bite unless cornered." The boy allowed himself to slip into the massive arms and be lifted into what was surely the biggest lap ever. The smell of vodka on his uncle's breath was at once warmly familiar and
slightly frightening. His thoughts of concern quickly evaporated when the smaller man across from him asked what had been in the dreams that had frightened him.
"Oh, there were many strange clocks, and none of them could agree on the time. Only the pocketwatches like Papa's could agree on anything, and the others quarreled and fought until a forehead burst open and a bird
came out and screamed and I though it was going to eat me or peck my eyes out. And then I ran and some of the clocks followed me, and..." His uncle cut him off. "Well, that is a strange thing, because we have brought just the thing for a boy who is troubled by angry clocks. Two things, in
fact, if you count Sidor there."
The boy asked what Sidor might do for his dream clocks, and the giant chuckled. "Sidor is a miracle worker, and he can do anything he desires to help you with your problem."
"Please, Mr. Sidor, will you make them go away? please?" the boy begged, forgetting for the moment his usual reserve. Daniil had never before in his memory met a miracle worker.
"No, child, it's much too late for a miracle of that magnitude. I'm afraid after a third vodka things get a little difficult."
The boy stared, unsure whether to accept the defense. "How about a small miracle, just anything. I'm sure that would make it better."
"No, it's late, and I have a strict policy of no work after sunset when it is snowing."
Daniil, was a well mannered boy, but it was late, and petulance was setting it. Seeing a protest forming in the boy's head, his uncle cut him short. "Never mind, boy, we've got another solution. We have three bottles of a tetanus solution. Tetanus is a terribly debilitating disease for a wooden clock. We'll leave you a bottle on your nightstand so you can use it in your dreams as you need it. Fetch that suitcase against the wall and I'll get it for you."
The boy jumped down from his uncle's lap and ran to fetch the suitcase. He quickly found that it was nearly as big as him and much heavier. After a few fuitile efforts to budge the suitcase even a fraction of an inch, and many bemused looks shared amongst the men (but not his mother, who did not seem to be paying attention), Vasily frowned theatrically and said "Silly me. I'm afraid this isn't going to work as well as I thought it would."
The boy had already moved past the tetanus plan to more
pressing matters, "Uncle, why is this suitcase so heavy?"
"Because, dear child, it contains a body. You ought to have learned such things by now. What is your mother teaching you these days?" and a quick apologetic glance to counter the glare that came from under the knitting.
"Why do you keep a body in the suitcase? Is it dead?"
"Of course it's dead, boy, who keeps live people in a suitcase? And you really ought to know why one keeps a body in the suitcase, but since your mother has been neglecting you, I'll tell you now. Try to remember so
we don't need to cover this again when I next see you. One keeps the body in the suitcase so it doesn't crawl all over the house like it owns the place."
The boy recoiled visibly towards the fire and away from the suitcase, eyeing it somewhat nervously. His uncle (predictably now) laughed again and said, "You were thirsty, child? Here, have a sip of my water," and before his mother could object, he slipped the child a small glass, from which the boy took a small sip and sputtered.
"This (koff) doesn't taste (koff koff) like water at (koff koff) all."
His uncle noted the stern look on his mother's face and quickly said "Someday you'll see that it tastes much better. In the meantime, run and get a sip of proper water, and then off to bed, you."
The boy dropped from the lap once more and found his mother. "You're too young for that poison," she noted matter-of-factly, and handed him the water jug. The contents tasted rather the way the boy thought water ought to taste, which is unsuprising as it was the only sort of water he'd consumed. "Now off to bed
with you," his mother said, patting him on the back as he walked away.
As he climbed the stairs, he could hear his father again. "Vasily, check the snow. If it's past the birdfeeder, you won't want to set out tonight." The boy glanced out the window on his way up the stairs. It was still snowing, as hard as it had been all winter, if not harder. He hoped as he climbed into bed that the snow was past the birdfeeder. He'd never seen a miracle performed before.