Rewrite: Petya i volk, for 2nd edition of Through the Glass Darkly

18 Jan

This short story first appeared in Through the Glass Darkly. It will be retold in Through the Glass Darkly II, which I hope to publish this spring. It is somewhat rewritten and edited. I will continue to edit and fine tune over the next days and weeks.

Tell me what you think?

 

 

 

 

Illustration by Ray Ferrer

Illustration by Ray Ferrer

 

 

Petya i volk

an adaptation of the children’s story,

Peter and the Wolf

originally written by Sergei Prokofiev

 By L. Stewart Marsden

 

 

Isak and Petya Zaslavsky lived a very simple life. Their cabin and small bit of land was tucked into a valley pinched by two ridges that edged down the east slopes of the Carpathians. Isak was Petya’s grandfather, and extraordinarily protective of the boy. Petya, who approached twelve years old, was filled with curiosity and bravado. That made life for him all the more intense because of his grandfather’s strict oversight. The boy spent his days completing a variety of duties that included milking their cow, gathering the hen and duck eggs, and splitting and stack­ing wood for the coming winter. All other time he spent daydreaming about a life of adventure, and devising ways to make those dreams come true. Isak Zaslavsky made sure there was not a lot of free time for Petya.

The first snow brushed the ground and nearby woods powdery white.  It clung in clumps to the high branches of the thick groves of elm and oak and hickory, dropping and spattering softly below whenever a gust of mountain wind swooped down into the valley to play the trees with a soft moan.

With winter came increased vigilance, for foxes and wolves and the occasional bear would often forage at night around the cabin. Wolves followed the deer and mountain goats that descended from the higher altitudes into the valleys looking for flowing water and fodder.

Petya had never seen a live wolf – volke. In the pivnaya – town saloon – were the stuffed heads of many animals fallen by a rifle ball, or captured in one of the many iron jawed traps set by local trappers. They were mounted on the walls of the saloon, peering wide-eyed with surprise, mouths slightly agape.

Petya, who was not allowed in the saloon, viewed them from outside, his nose pressed against a pane of glass. His grandfather warmed himself with a glass or two of the local vodka, and grumbled about the cold with other patrons. When Isak came out of the saloon, Petya would pum­mel him with questions about the various heads mounted on the wall.

“That was a wolverine,” he would answer his grandson with a hint of irritation in his voice.

“And the one next to it? It looked like a rat – maybe a squirrel.”

“Ermine. Wealthy women love its fur. But I call it a weasel. They eat chicken eggs.”

And so the inquisition continued with his grandfather all the way home.

Once there, they would both eat a boiled egg and a slice of bread, then prepare for bed. The ritual included washing behind the ears and scrubbing their teeth with the splayed end of sassafras root, then jump­ing into itchy nightgowns made of burlap they had rubbed smooth with large pebbles from the nearby creek.

The two shared a bed constructed from pine, with a hemp rope mat­tress and a bedsack filled with corn husks. Huddled together, they cov­ered themselves with a down-filled comforter, their most prized pos­session other than the animals. A low fire of mostly hot embers glowed a few feet away in the stone hearth. It was Petya’s job to stoke the fire, which he did whenever he awoke from cold during the night.

On frigid nights, the ones with no clouds, Petya would shoo the small goats into the cabin. On nights of the full moons he also brought the goats in at his grandfather’s request.

“The wolves,” his grandfather would whisper, pinching together his two massive white eyebrows with a scowl.

Schastlivwy – Lucky − was their dog, whom they inherited with the cabin. At his prime, the dog must have been a formidable hunter – pursuing and keeping bears or raccoons or wolves at bay until his master, a hunter and trapper, could catch up and dispatch the beast with a well-aimed shot.

After one such hunt, Schastlivwy limped into the village broken boned and sliced up. His master did not return. The hunter’s body was not found immediately, which was not surprising, seeing that no one went out to look for him for months. The dog was cared for by the various patrons of the saloon with bits of bread and meat, and a wooden bowl of vodka laced water to ease the pain of his wounds.

When spring came and his master still had not returned to claim the dog, a small party of men ventured into the woods near the cabin, and for a few kilometers up the mountain, to no avail. There were no signs of the man, and the scent was long erased by melting snows and spring rain. He was later found by a hunter farther up the steep slope. A shriveled corpse – mostly eaten and bones scattered, perhaps, by scavengers. He was buried in the back yard of the home, a wooden marker the simple monument to his existence.

When Isak and Petya Zaslavsky arrived looking for a place to live they were directed to the abandoned cabin where the dead man and Schastlivwy had lived. No one else dared to do anything with the property, so superstitious were they.

After Isak and Petya moved in, Schastlivwy limped from the saloon out to the cabin and flopped down near the stone steps at the front door, from where he rarely moved, except in winter. Petya gave him the name. Other than his ability to scare a fox away through his ferocious barking, Schastlivwy was useless. But he was a welcomed com­panion for Petya, and the limp wag of his tail every once in a while far exceeded the friendliness of Petya’s grandfather.

“One more mouth to feed,” Isak complained.

Year round Petya crawled onto the straw-baled roof, making sure to step only where he knew the rafters were so he wouldn’t plunge through into the cabin. Grandfather had forbad it, as re­placement straw was hard to be had – especially in winter. No mention of worry over Petya injuring himself.

Petya shinnied up a poplar sapling that grew next to the cabin, and then clambered atop the roof whenever grandfather was away. Laying flat near the chimney for warmth, he could peer into the valley, and then up the mountain which disappeared into blurred grayness. Winter denuded the leaves and brush that blocked the view deep into the woods during the summer.

He wanted someday to climb to the top of the mountain and hike along the ridge. Possibly to hunt a wolf or bear and shoot it, then drag its burly body back down to the cabin where he would skin it and hang its hide to dry. Then he would take its severed head to the saloon to be hung on the head-studded trophy wall. Perhaps he would to take his first taste of vodka in celebration of his feat.

From the roof he could also keep an eye on the road that ran a few meters away from his house to the village. Schastlivwy lifted his lethargic head and sniffed the air whenever anyone approached on the road, and released an apathetic bark. Normally Grandfather Isak would first appear on his way home. That bark gave Petya time to scurry across the cabin roof to the sapling, and down into the back area where he grabbed the feed bag and began scattering partially ground corn on the ground for the hens.

Grandfather was not fooled by Petya, and continued to warn him.

“I smell your pee at the side of the house where you relieve yourself from the roof. I know that you disobey me, Petya. One day your foolishness will be your undoing.”

On a particular day Petya was lost in reverie on the roof of the cabin, dreaming of killing an incredibly large bear. Schastlivwy barked. It was not his normal tired and disinterested bark – but one filled with alert. Petya looked up and saw men riding along the road. He slid his body down the backside of the roof, then slowly pulled himself to the top of the roof to peer out at the road. Schastlivwy rose to all fours and stepped out into the yard in front of the cabin. His barks were a mix of low-throated growls and fierce yelps.

The men came into better view. There were four of them, slowly riding in the direction of the village. Each was bundled in fur coats and hats, with leather breeches and knee-length boots. Various bags and gear were tied onto the horses behind their saddles. Each had a rifle sheathed away on the flanks of their rides, within easy access. The lead rider slowly reined his horse to a standstill at the house, as did his company.

“Hallo?” he voiced with deep resonation. It was directed towards the cabin. The word echoed like a howl as Schastlivwy increased his warnings, was nearly rabid in his barks and growls. Petya had never seen the dog behave this way before.

One in the group pulled out his rifle and aimed it at the dog.

“Shall I silence this cur?”

Nyet,” the leader responded, holding one hand up. “Wait here.”

With that he dismounted and walked the short distance from the road to the cabin. He approached Schastlivwy directly, his gloved hand extended palm up. Schastlivwy cowered to his belly, and turned on his back, presenting his undersides in obei­sance. He pulled one glove off, crouched and scratched the dog’s belly. Then he stood and looked around.

He was taller than his companions. His shoulders were wide and his arms long. His hands, large with thick fingers. And he was hairy. The hairiest man Petya had ever seen. Only his nose and thin lips and small areas under his eyes did not bristle with black hair. His eyes were deep-set and dark, and peered like an animal’s, darting back and forth. When he opened his mouth once more to call out, his white teeth stood out in stark contrast to his dark face – even and nearly perfect in shape.

“What big teeth you have,” thought Petya, remembering one of the tales his mother used to tell him.

The man’s upper torso was burly – barrel-chested, his grandfather would later describe it after his had seen the man. But his waist was trim, and his legs, long and lithe.

“Hallo!” he called out again. This time Schastlivwy did not respond, but crept off silently to the edge of the cleared area, and squeezed into the underbrush.

The man tipped his head back and closed his eyes. He sniffed loudly.

“I know you’re there,” he announced with assuredness. “I can smell you!”

“What a big nose you have,” thought Petya, trying to make himself as small as possible.

“That’s all right,” said the man after a time, turning slowly and walk­ing back to his horse, “I will be back, and you and I shall have a chat then. I can wait.”

His entourage laughed at the comment. He remounted and the group continued down the road toward the village, geeing their horses to a trot and then to a gallop.

Trembling, Petya peeked back over the rooftop at the road. Nothing but slowly settling dust marked where the pack of men and just moments been. His heart beat madly, and his palms were sweaty. He wanted down off the roof. He had felt like a treed animal when the big man spoke. He felt hunted. He wanted some­place to feel and be safe. And he never wanted to have that feeling of being hunted again.

“They were like wolves,” Petya thought. And was reminded of another time. A time he thought he had forgotten.

* * *

            It was night. A large moon hung lamp-like in the sky. He was in a tow­er – a temple – the steeple. He crouched near the cast iron bell, which hung limp. Earlier it had rung out – an unanswered plea to the rest of Kiev.

“Come and help!” it rang out. “Save us!” it implored.

But the windows of the houses in Kiev were shuttered tight, muffled from the shrieks and screams of the hunted and the slaugh­tered. The doors of most houses were bolted shut against the night­mare that frothed in the streets only short distances away. Like the Passover, as if the sides and tops of the doorframes had been painted with blood. Only it was God’s will that those who could have helped — should have helped — instead stay within their homes and be passed over by the horror without.

From his vantage Petya could see the flames of houses on fire in Kiev, could hear the cries for help arise from the streets and float over the rooftops. He covered his ears from the horror, yet was compelled to look down from the steeple onto the dark street below.

There, four men on horseback clattered to a stop on the cobbled street and looked up to where he hid. The leader, big and burly and hairy and bearded, dropped from his mount and leaped to the wall of the church, staring, glaring up at Petya with deep-set dark eyes. He climbed up the plastered surface, long claws protruding from his thick fingers.

Petya retreated behind the bell, cold to the touch, and awaited the dark one to reach the steeple.

“Help!” he screamed, knowing no one would hear. Knowing few would care. But screaming, nonetheless, as the dark one – the thing with hairs and eyes and claws – clawed and crawled closer and closer up the steeple wall.

“One last look,” he thought. “Perhaps he’s fallen. Perhaps he’s gone,” and stealthily crept from his crook behind the bell, and slowly neared the edge of the steeple where he could look. His heart, beating; his palms, sweating.

Nearer and nearer. What big eyes…What big teeth…Nearer and nearer.

“PETYA! WAKE UP! WAKE UP!”

* * *

            Petya opened his eyes to a cool, damp cloth bathing him, refreshing him; to the soft touch of his grandfather’s hand on his forehead, and the reassuring whisper, “You’re okay! It was a dream. A nightmare. It is over and we are safe. You have nothing to fear. It was only a dream.”

But not all of it was a dream.

It was a time that crept back into his awareness, from a remote crevasse in his mind. It was the pogrom – the days of horror when he was much younger. In Kiev. And his mother and his father – Jews – had fallen in a spate of horror too awful to ever want to remember – too penetrating to forget.

They were murdered and beheaded. Like the trophy heads in the village saloon. And sometimes Petya dreamed of their preserved heads mounted on the wall of the saloon, among many other human heads, pale with lifeless eyes. Fallen at the hands of the hairy man and his entourage – his henchmen.

An evil man. A wicked man. A beast.

Petya wanted to tell his grandfather of the man who had called “Hal­lo,” who had said “I smell you,” but was afraid. He didn’t want to admit he had climbed back onto the roof in disobedience. He didn’t want to admit that, had the man discovered him, he would have had nowhere to run. That he had been “treed” like an animal. Like he near­ly had been when his grandfather rescued him from the bell tower.

It was his grandfather who brought the man up over their supper.

“There is something you need to know.”

Petya didn’t answer, but looked up from eating his soup.

“There are men here. Ohotniki, if you believe what they say.”

“Hunters?”

“They are here for the winter, and will be setting traps in the moun­tains, and hunting as well. They will stay in the village.”

Petya sopped his piece of bread into his soup.

“I want you to stay away from them, Petya. I want you to not go into the village anymore, either.”

“Why not?”

“Until they have left, you should not go into the village. When they do, all right. You will do this for me? You will obey me? Not like the roof, Petya. I am very serious about this.”

“Who are they?”

“It is enough to say they are not entirely who they say they are.”

“They’re not hunters?”

“Well, yes. They are ohotniki. And they are trappers. But not the kind you think.”

“What other kinds of ohotniki are there?”

His grandfather stopped and looked at him wistfully, as though think­ing carefully about his answer.

“One day you will know, Petya. Today is not that day. Stay away from the village, and if they ever come here, hide yourself.”

Petya knew that already. He would never willingly expose himself to that band of hunters. He would never willingly come out at the call of the beast-man. He would, in these particular matters, obey his grandfa­ther.

* * *

            That winter was as harsh as it was strange. Large snowfalls and icy winds bore down on the region, freezing life to a standstill. In addi­tion, attacks on the livestock of the villagers were reported much more than ever before.

“The wolves are starving in the mountains, and their natural prey has left,” explained Grandfather Isak explained when Petya asked. “A cow or goat is an easier meal. You need to be careful whenever you go out, Petya. Skinny as you are, you are still a feast to a hungry wolf!”

“I have Schastlivwy, Grandfather.”

“As good as having nothing,” he answered. “I think it is time for you to learn how to shoot the rifle.”

Petya was delighted with the an­nouncement! Not only was it recognition that he was growing older, but it meant Grandfather would be focusing attention on Petya!

The boy relished every moment of instruction his grandfather gave him. Every word, every touch, every wince of his eyes, every commendation – was as a rare drink as from a cup of pure cool water to this thirsty boy.

The rifle was an old one – one his grandfather had used when he was a boy. Not modern, it required reloading after being discharged.

“Everything about this rifle is hard to come by. Gunpowder, wadding, bullets. So everything must be done intentionally, my boy, with an eye that you must make every shot count. Do you understand?”

It was another way of saying that firing the rifle would be a rare thing. Loading, shouldering and aiming the firearm, then going through the motions of reloading and firing, were the primary and singular elements of his training for days. Over and over, until Petya could do everything by rote. Load the rifle with a bullet, in­sert the wad, pour the gunpower into the small opening. Stand, feet slightly apart, right foot planted back and left foot forward and toward the target, slightly bent. Raise the rifle slowly, butt on the right shoulder, left hand under the barrel stock. Cock the hammer. Slide the right forefinger over the trigger. Take a deep breath, aim, breathe out and squeeze.

Petya was allowed to fire the rifle one time only. That day came after many days.  Isak stepped back from his grandson and announce, “So we will see what you have learned.”

His grandfather tacked a squared piece of dried racoon skin onto a large oak that stood in front of the cabin. This was after days of non-firing practice.  His grandfather then stepped off ten paces from the tree and drew a line into the dirt with a twig.

“Stand here.”

“Isn’t that too close?”

“You will soon see how close it is. Stand here. Now, everything I taught you. Stand tall, your right foot planted and back, your left foot toward the target and forward, slightly bent. Raise the rifle slowly, butt on your right shoulder, your left hand out under the barrel. Cock the hammer slowly. Take a deep breathe, aim, and as you let the air out, slowly squeeze.”

The rifle erupted with a blast and a large puff of smoke, sending chick­ens and goats and even Schastlivwy running. The barrel swung up and back with the blast, knocking the surprised boy to the ground and onto his back. His grandfather doubled over in laughter, wheezing and tearing up in his eyes, red in the face.

It was the first time Petya had ever seen his grandfather laugh.

Petya picked himself up off the ground and dusted the dirt from his trousers. He was still pale from surprise, and his shoulder and backside ached. When he finally got composed, he looked at the target on the oak. It was untouched. As was the tree.

“So you see, Petya, you were not too close, yes?”

“Yes, I was not too close.”

Grandfather Isak then stepped halfway to the tree from the line he had drawn in the dirt.

“To make sure, you shoot from here.”

“What if I miss from here?”

“Depending what you are shooting at, if you miss, you are dead.”

* * *

            Petya’s bad dreams recurred with increased frequency, and seemed to be more and more real as well. He could feel he cold and moisture of the night air, of cobblestone and wood and ground. He heard things he ordinarily never heard, like his own breathing and the pound­ing of his heart, and of others – like the man-beast who stalked him. He smelled sweat and trees and water and animals. He even smelled fear. That seemed to feed a  strange hunger – an energy – that attracted the man-beast relentlessly to him. Hunting. Chasing. Closing in.

The dreams moved from the bell tower – away from the screams and closed shutters and doors with blood smeared on the top and sides of the doorframes; away from cobblestones and streets. The scenes were now the cabin and the village and the saloon. In each dream, he was trapped. Trapped on the roof of the cabin, the four beastly men riding at slow gallop through the mist; the man beast gripping his reins in large paws, claws extended, eyes glowing, slowly approaching, approaching, approaching. In the village, run­ning through the streets, passed cloaked and faceless beings, shrouded by the dark and the mist. In the saloon, backed up against its wall of mounted heads that stared out blankly and gaped wide, blood streaming down the wall. Among them, the heads of his father and mother and the head of his grandfather.

Himself, with the old rifle that smelled of steel and gunpowder and time-worn oak stock; cocking the hammer and slowly raising the barrel, then siting down the barrel at the beast bounding out of the dark – eyes blazing red – fangs bared and salivating white foam – claws extended – and hair, everywhere hair, black and thick and wiry hair.

He would awaken doused in sweat, his grandfather bathing and soothing him. Assuring him. Calming him.

* * *

            One of the hunters, one of the trappers, one of the thugs – was found dead at the edge of town. His head was missing. It had not been sliced off with saber or axe or saw. It had been ripped off. By an animal. By a beast. By a monster. It was the day after the first full moon since the ahotnik had arrived a few days previously.

Speculation was rampant in town. It joined to other rumors also circulating. The speculation to the questions who were they? Why were they here? What were they after?

The hunters asked a great many questions. A great many questions. Theirs weren’t the type that one asks when new to an area. Where is the hunting best? Where can we get supplies? Who can stable our horses?

Theirs prompted suspicion from an already suspicious community that prided itself in privacy while respecting the privacy of others.

“When did they come to town?” and “What else do you know about them?” and “Is that their real last name?” and “Do you know if they’ve been baptized?” and “Do they attend church ser­vices?”

The dead hunter was not terribly disturbing to the village. There were enough furtive looks and glances in the village to know that one less ohotnik was not a tragedy to them.

The question on most minds was would this convince the one-time quartet and now trio to shorten their intended time of stay.

But the gruesome way the man was killed drew much speculation. After all, this was not the first time a man had been torn apart by some­thing in the area. It happened five years earlier. In fact, it too was preceded by the killing of livestock.

A hunter had been brought in to track, find, and kill what­ever the beast was.

He was the same man who had occupied the cabin where Isak and Petya lived. The man who went missing and was later found.

The village assumed both he and the beast killed each other. The killings had stopped.

Until now.

* * *

            The second ohotnik was found outside the saloon early the next morn­ing. The body had been dumped into a large wooden barrel butt first, its arms and legs protruding. Again, the head had been ripped off and was gone.

“He went outside the back to pee,” said the owner of the saloon when asked by the burly man. The Alpha Man, as the villagers had come to call him, was visibly up­set – angry – at the lack of information from the mute bystanders.

“Someone must know something!”

If that were so, no one came forward. The Alpha Man and his one sur­viving companion went from house to house, looking for anyone who could shed light on or any evidence that would reveal the murderer.

“Who knows that it’s not him?” murmured the saloon owner under his breath. “He even looks like volk.”

“Why would he search for the truth, then?”

“Because the truth will not be found. And the suspicion is directed elsewhere in his mad activity.”

“Why would he kill his own men?”

“Maybe he cannot control who he kills. It is the time of the full moon.”

The village employed no police – no authority to conduct an investigation. The villagers themselves were the enforcers, but there was never – or hardly ever – a reason to enforce anything. Petty thefts. Some property damage, maybe. But those were attributed to the hand­ful of village children who sometimes played pranks.

These murders were more complicated than the ability of the villagers to solve them. It was as if the Alpha Man and his henchmen had brought this upon themselves with their nosiness and their persistent questions. There was a sort of justification at these gruesome acts.

Isak introduced that thought at the saloon after several shots of vod­ka. He slurred out his thoughts why the men had come to the village, and why the murders were occurring.

“When I left Kiev with Petya, men like these roamed the streets like barbarians. They tore good Jews from their homes – yes, I use the words “good Jews!” The Jews never bothered me. They were honest and worked hard and also believed in their God as I believe in mine.

“The night we left was full of horror. Like I say, good Jews jerked from their homes, beaten – the women, raped — just because they were Jews! By men like these! They were also called ohotniki. They had also set traps to ensnare and imprison. And behead them. Yes, behead!

“And I saw it, and could no longer live among so savage a people.

“So these ‘hunters’ show up here. Looking for what? Volki? Bears? They do not hunt animals, I think. They hunt humans. They are exactly like those beasts in Kiev! Mark my words.”

“Isak,” interrupted another villager in the saloon, “they asked about you and the boy. Where you are from. How long you are here. If you are Jews.”

“See! Hunters of animals? Hunters of men, I say!”

“Are you Jews? Are you and your grandson Jews?”

“My friend, I tell you I am come from a long line of Russian Or­thodoxy. Petya and I are not Jews.”

“Then, why do you not come to church?”

“Because I will not be called a hypocrite. The god I believe in would not allow the things that happened in Russia! He would not suppress and starve the poor and the lowly. He would not massacre thousands of people because they are Jews, or gypsies! He extends his arms to all.”

“Even the hunters?”

“No. Not hunters such as these. Even God has his standards. We are talking about izverg — monsters, not humans. These men are monsters! They deserve what they get! Hell cannot come too soon where they are con­cerned.”

And so, Isak Sazlovsky’s words, uttered foolishly among his “friends” and loosed unthinkingly by three shots of vodka, made their way out of the saloon and down the streets and into the houses and into the church until, finally, they reached the ears of the Alpha Man.

* * *

            Grandfather Isak made his own bullets. He melted lead in an iron cup in the hot embers of the fire, then carefully poured the liquid lead into a bullet mold, which he let cool. Tonight, however, he did not have lead in the iron cup, but bits of silver – his wedding band and a small silver menorah that he and Petya used during Chanukah.

“Grandfather – the menorah?”

“This time God will look the other way.”

The fire had to be stoked to build very hot coals, which was Petya’s duty. He used a hand bellows to blow on the coals, raising the heat to the point the items began to slowly liquify around the edges, then, finally, into a silver pool.

“It must be very hot, Petya! Much hotter to melt the silver than lead,” Isak prodded him.

“But why silver?” Petya asked as his grandfather carefully poured the lava-like silver liquid into the mold.

“It is pure. It will not only kill, but purify as well. It will overcome evil of great size and strength and power.”

“What are we going to shoot that is so evil? Where will we find such a thing?”

“Evil has found us, Petya.”

* * *

            The January moon had just begun its short ascent into an otherwise clear and cold night sky. It beamed brightly, and illumined everything in a ghostly pale blue tint. Grandfather Isak donned what he wore on Passover: his black pants and white shirt. For tonight he also wrapped himself with a prayer shawl, and, lastly, put on his yarmulke, and then sat down at their small table.

“Is the rifle loaded with the silver bullet?” he asked Petya.

“Yes, Grandfather.”

“Good. And you, Petya, are you ready?”

“I am, Grandfather.”

“Also good.”

With that he bent his head and began murmuring a melancholic tune, his old eyes closed, and the thumbs of his interlaced hands rubbing each other continually.

Lucky bayed loudly and interrupted the peace. The dog was just outside the door, and Petya could tell by the sound that the hound was standing. His barks were interspersed with deep, guttural growls. The sounds of hoofbeats on the road from the village reached their ears.

Petya stood to get the rifle, but his grandfather motioned him to sit.

“Patience, Petya.”

The horses stopped just outside the cabin, and stamped the ground nervously. Lucky continued his defensive stand. A horse snorted, and then whinnied.

“Hallo!” a deep, reverberating voice called out. It was the Alpha Man.

Grandfather sat still, and motioned Petya to do the same.

Lucky growled and barked incessantly at an uncontrollable level.

They heard a loud blast – a gunshot – and Lucky yelped – and then, si­lence.

Petya jumped from his seat and grabbed the rifle and ran to the door before his grandfather could stop him. He swung the door open and stood in the doorway.

On the ground before the doorstep was the body of Lucky, bathed in moonlight. Just beyond were the two riders and their horses, silhouett­ed against the gray-blue sky. The rider just back of the Alpha Man had his rifle resting on his legs across his saddle, the barrel still smoking.

Grandfather Isak stepped up behind Petya, and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and gently squeezed.

“Let me,” he said quietly, and stepped around his grandson and stood between him and the riders.

“Ah, Zaslovsky, I believe. So, we finally meet again.”

Grandfather Isak said nothing, but stepped down the stone steps onto the ground, and knelt by the side of Lucky and stroked the dog’s side.

“An unfortunate event,” remarked the Alpha Man. “I could not hear for all that barking. But, he is old – and in a better place.”

Grandfather Isak stood slowly and faced the Alpha Man.

“Yes. We meet again.”

“Grandfather, you know this – this man?” Petya was incredulous in his tone.

“A few years ago – Petya, is it?” the Alpha Man responded. “Kiev, right, Grandfather?”  he smirked.

Grandfather stood still and raised his head a bit at the moon. As if he were basking in its light.

“The pogrom. You were a part of it,” the words seethed from Grandfa­ther’s lips, through clenched teeth.

“I don’t deny it. Why should I? You Jews are an inconvenience to the advancement of humanity.” The Alpha Man glared through his black, hairy face – his eyes picking up the yellow light of the moon.

He continued, “We discard the deformed and the tragically flawed, don’t we? It is our practice to cleanse humanity of its dregs and draw­backs. To be purified – like silver.”

Petya remembered the silver bullet, and raised the rifle to waist level. The second hunter noticed, and slipped his rifle off his saddle with one hand, raising the barrel vertically to point in the sky, the butt on his saddle.

“You are a rabbi? I see your vestments.”

“No, I am not a rabbi. But, as you said, I am a Jew. And that is why you are here, yes? To finish the business of Kiev? To severe my head as you did that of my son and my daughter-in-law. To deprive my grand­son of his legacy? Perhaps, to deprive him, also, of his life?”

The Alpha Man laughed heartily, as to a very funny joke. His horse snorted and stepped back as Grandfather edged forward with his words.

“I am no fool, Zaslavsky! I know what you are – what you really are.”

“And what is that?”

“You are izverg!”

“Coming from a man who has decapitated and raped and burned, I find that more than ironic. And how is it I am the monster?”

“You ripped the head off one of my soldiers in Kiev. At the temple that night. Under the glow of the full moon,” the Alpha Man said, and looked up in the moon-bathed sky.

You cut off the heads of my son and daughter-in-law,” the old man answered in a voice that sounded hoarse.

“After you killed him,” the Alpha Man continued, ignoring the response, “you scaled the tower and disappeared with your grandson. I vowed to find you and to avenge my friend.”

“Avenge a friend’s death. Again, how ironic. How did you find me?”

“It was not hard – but it took time. I knew you were an animal. I knew you could not control the effect of the moon and would need to hunt every month for the rest of your life.

“I knew for you to hide in Kiev, or another large city would not be a wise thing. Your killings, whether animal or human, would arouse the suspicions of your neighbors sooner or later.

“So the best place to hide, and to redirect your hunts from human to animal, would be in a remote place where you would be able to both range and kill without being noticed. And what better place than the Carpathians? Even if a human kill were discovered, it would be attributed to a wolf or a bear. But I daresay you kept your victims to cattle, or deer or goats.

“I searched to the south and worked my way north along the mountains until I heard about a village where a hunter had been called in to rid the area of a beast.”

“And you thought of me,” Isak growled.

“Yes, I thought of you. It was not you, of course. Another izverg. But I reasoned you heard the tale as well, and thought it would be the safest place. The competition was gone, and there have been no killings since.”

“Until you came.”

“Yes. And you tried to shift the blame on me and my men. Clever, but a drastic and fatal error. Volk, I believe you called me.”

“An accident. The vodka talking.”

“Which fortunately led me straight to you. But I long ago sus­pected my prey lived here when we first arrived. I came to call, but no one was at home. Still, I could smell you!”

“What a big nose you have! And now you’ve come.”

“Yes. For you. And your grandson − if the blood of his grandfather flows in his veins as well.”

“He’s pure.”

“And I’m the Tsar! Keep an eye on the lad,” he commanded his compatriot.

The man pulled his gun down and aimed at Petya.

“If he is not pure, my friend, then our silver bullets will purify him, too,” continued the Alpha Man. He unsheathed his rifle and climbed down from his horse to face Grandfather, his rifle held in both hands at the ready.

In the moonlight, Petya watched.

This is the way things stood:

Lucky lay dead on the ground in the moonlight;

Grandfather Isak stood between Petya and the two men, the prayer shawl on his shoulders, glowing a gentle blue;

The Alpha Man stood by his horse, which was getting increasingly nervous, stomping about and snorting, his eyes rolled up in fright.

The second “hunter” held his aim on Petya from his saddle, swerving the barrel to compensate as his horse jolted nervously about under­neath the saddle.

All three rifles were loaded with silver bullets.

Grandfather Isak slowly raised his arms out horizontally, palms up, as if basking in the moonlight. He tipped his head further back and breathed in deeply, exhaling with a growl. Before Petya’s eyes, the thin, frail man increased in size – his shoulders expanded and bulked up. His hands cracked loudly, fingers extending, sharp claws emerging from their tips. His prayer shawl and clothing ripped apart along the seams, and dropped to the ground. In a blink, he was covered in thick hair, his balding head covered. Petya was stunned, yet mesmerized by the sight in the cold blue light of the moon. The hunters were as transfixed.

In another instant he suddenly leaped at the second hunter, barreling past the Alpha Man to throw his arm in a huge circular motion towards the startled man’s neck. It cracked with a loud pop, and the head flew backwards, bouncing off the hindquarters of his horse onto the ground. The horse, startled by the head, reared with a cry and vaulted forward, crashing into the Alpha Man’s horse. That horse reared in fright and dropped the Alpha Man to the ground as the second horse galloped off down the road toward the village. The decapitated hunter somehow remained astride, bouncing violently in the saddle.

The Alpha Man stood quickly and turned to face the huge wolf, who was now merely feet away. As he raised his rifle to shoot the wolf, Petya also raised his rifle to fire at the Al­pha Man. But Petya was too slow. The wolf lunged with an angry yowl as the Apha Man shot, spinning his grandfather in mid-air, who landed with a thud on the ground at the feet of the hunter.

“One down, and one to go,” he sneered, turning his toward Petya, who held his sites on the burly Alpha Man.

“He’s too far away,” Petya could hear his grandfather’s voice in his mind, and held his fire.

The Alpha Man approached, speaking as he stepped towards Petya.

“You never knew? All that time? You thought I was the beast that came up the tower after you, didn’t you? I’ll bet you were scared to death. I’m going to do you a favor, Petya. You may not be a wolf, but you are a Jew. And to cleanse the earth of Jews is as good a deed as riding the world of wolves. They are both dangerous and unnecessary to human­ity.”

Petya trembled with the rifle, keeping aim at the chest of the Al­pha Man. He heard the man’s beating heart, thumping, pumping blood throughout his body. Petya’s own heart pounded in his ears. The combination of the beats were a driving frenzy, and he surged with excitement as he cocked the hammer of his rifle and slid his finger onto the trigger.

“Ten paces. He is too far. If you miss, you will die,” his imagined grandfather’s voice instructing.

Eight paces.

Seven.

Six.

Just as the Alpha Man’s foot trod out the distance with his own rifle aimed squarely at Petya’s head, the wolf sprang out of the dark, fangs bared and claws splayed, growling so fiercely and suddenly that the hairs on Petya’s neck stood up. The beast fell upon the surprised man hunter, who in turning about, exposed his neck to the wolf. Petya heard a loud crack, and the Alpha Man lay still on the ground.

The beast stood on it’s four legs and glared at Petya. He seemed to im­plore Petya with his eyes, “Shoot me.”

“No, Grandfather!”

The wolf crouched low and advanced slowly, the blood of the Alpha Man on his fangs, and of the other hunter on his claws. His eyes said, “Kill me or be killed.”

When the wolf leaped at five paces away, Petya squeezed the trigger.

* * *

            Petya Zaslovsky was taken in by one of the villagers. His grandfather Isak and  Schastlivwy were buried in the yard near where they fell, a short distance from the grave of Schastlivwy‘s original owner. The bodies of the hunters were buried in the woods, along with their heads. The owner of the saloon sarcastically remarked he should have mounted the heads on the wall along with the other animal trophies col­lected there.

Petya’s grandfather’s death was ruled accidental by a passing magis­trate who came through the village many months later.

Petya escaped unharmed, with the exception of a slight scratch on his leg, which mended after a few days of an intense fever. An infection from the scratch, no doubt.

When he was almost twenty, tall and handsome, with thick black hair and beard and penetrating eyes, Petya left his foster family to make his way in the world. Rumor has it that he crossed the Carpathians into Transylvania to become a hunter and tanner of hides.

But no one really knows for sure.

 

 

 

Copyright © by Lawrence S. Marsden, 18 January, 2015

 

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