Fern Flower

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic

Just a story.

 

 

Crackling harshly, the bonfire demanded more nourishment for its insatiable flesh. After some wood was added and the flames expressed their gratitude by sending a few flocks of merry sparks into the ebony height of the night, Andrew went on with the story that all his three companions seated round the fire had been carefully listening to.

"On Ivan Kupal's Day, people poured water over each other. For that purpose they used pails, jars, pots, buckets - whatever they could find at hand. Then everybody came to the nearest river, where the young girls let beautiful flower garlands float away and the lads kindled a big fire on the bank and showed off their prowess by jumping over the high flame.

It used to be the funniest folk holiday of the year. Ivan Kupal is the folk name of John the Baptist who baptized Christ in the waters of the Jordan. But I guess they started celebrating this kind of holiday in the old heathen days, long before Christianity came to this land. The most interesting thing about the holiday has nothing to do with Christ's teaching. The ancient belief says that the fern can bloom one night a year - on the night of Ivan Kupal's Day. And those who are lucky enough to see a fern flower are going to be happy for all the rest of their life. Nowadays people keep on celebrating this holiday. They especially like to throw water over their friends, but I guess nobody now believes in the fern flower and its magic power."

"Why, it's so exciting and mystic!" exclaimed Nina. "I wouldn't mind spending a couple of hours in the dark woods in search of good luck."

"Well, we all can do it tomorrow night," said Andrew. "Ivan Kupal's Day is celebrated on the seventh of July. Tomorrow's the sixth. The very time to look for good luck."

"But, darling," intervened Oksana, Andrew's wife, "Tomorrow's my birthday and we're going to have a party."

"Yeah, but after the party, at midnight, we could drive to a nearby wood and try to find our fortune."

"A nice idea," Michael said joyfully. "Now let's drink to the fern flower."

A bottle of vodka was picked up off the ground, its contents were poured into the four glasses, which were then clashed together over the fire flames along with the four exclamations: "To the fern flower!"

"Andrew," said Nina after she put her emptied glass down on the trampled grass, "can you say what kind of happiness the fern flower brings?"

"It depends. Everybody's got his own idea of good luck. Someone may want to get something which another person needs to get rid of."

"Well, Andrew," Oksana took hold of her husband's hand, "I think it's time to go to the tent."

"You're right, honey," assented Andrew. "I'm gonna get up early tomorrow. I'll try some fishing. Michael, don't forget to put out the fire."

"We're not going to linger on, either," Nina said and rose to her feet. "Okay, Michael, let's go to our tent, too."

"You can go, darling, but I'll take a little swim before going to bed. Just got a slight headache - hope the water will wash it away. I'll be with you in a couple of minutes, dear."

"Just don't  be too long. I'll be waiting for you," Nina smiled and headed for one of the two tents pitched not far from the fire.

Once alone, Michael got up, undresses and walked over to the edge of the pond on the bank of which they had set up their picnic camp. He entered the water to find it warm and tender. He dived, appeared on the surface again, turned over and with steady strokes swam on his back, his gaze directed into the infinity of the starlit sky. He was enjoying the blissful sensation the water was bestowing on him and he enjoyed the water itself, this wonderful substance that made the law of gravitation lose all its significance, no matter whether it was an endless ocean or this small pond, similar to thousands, or posibly millions of ponds scattered all over Ukraine.

Michael was grateful to Andrew who'd made him and Nina get out of the noisy and smoggy St Petersburg and spend a week of their vacation in Andrew's native place, a small and quiet Ukrainian town.

Having reached the reed wall on the opposite side of the pond, he turned around and swam back to the camp. On getting out of the water, he noticed a lonely angler sitting on a log.

"Any luck?" cried out Michael.

"Not a bite," was the reply, "the fish have gone to sleep."

"Why are you fishing then?"

"Insomnia. Just while it away by fishing."

"Guess you live not far from here," Michael walked closer to the man.

"Yeah, quite near."

"Then let me ask you something. You see, our liquor's gone, but I'd like a little bit more to relax finally. So, maybe you know a place where I can get something at this hour?"

"Yeah, I know such a place. You guys probably drove here from town."

"Yes, we did."

"And did you see a cemetery close to the woods?"

"Yeah, I saw it."

"There must be a gravedigger there. His name's Grigory. I suppose he's got something for you."

"It's late, I guess he's asleep now."

"Don't worry, he'll be glad to see a guest. But wait, look there," the angler pointed out at the nervously twitching float. With an abrupt jerk of the rod he extracted a small perch out of the water. After the catch was hurled over into the creel, Michael witnessed a worm being ruthlessly put on the hook and sent into the black depth of the pond to finish its life as appetizing bait for the angler's next victim.

"Thanks for the advice and good luck," Michael turned round and walked up to the dying fire. He picked up a towel from the scattered about belongings, rubbed himself, pulled on his clothes and sneakers and hurried away from the camp.

The route was not a long one, about half a kilometer. The narrow, dusty track cut its way to the horn-beam woods through the tall and thick formation of a maize field. Before long Michael came to halt against the dark bulk of the nocturnal forest, which murmured mysteriously in the strange language of rustling leafage. The cemetery was a hundred paces to the left, between the woods and the highway. In a short while Michael was striding along the iron fence, looking for the entrance.

The space where the local residents found their last refuge was peacefully sleeping, snugly clung to the woods and covered with the hush of the Ukrainian night. Having come through the open wicket, Ivan stopped and looked around. The moonlight was bright enough to let him make out the only building - a low hut, driven into the corner by the crowd of gloomy tombs and crosses. The lighted window indicated the host's being awake. Michael walked over to the hut and knocked on the door. There was some noise inside, then heavy steps drew close to the door and it swung open.

"Who's that?" In the doorway stood a well-built man of about forty-five, dressed in pants soiled with fresh earth and a faded shirt, which could not hide the bulging strength of his brawny arms.

"I beg your pardon," Michael pronounced timidly, "are you Grigory?"

"Yeah, it's me."

"I've been told I can get some liquor from you."

"Well, come in. This way, please. Here's my chamber."

If it had not been for a worn-out sofa and a shelf with kitchen utensils, Michael would have called the room a cluttered shed rather than a chamber.

"Take a pew," Grigory motioned the guest to a wooden stool. "And by the way, what's your name, Mr. Unexpected Visitor?"

"Michael."

"And how much booze d'you need, Michael?"

"I guess a bottle will do," Michael, having seated himself on the stool, continued surveying the modest interior of the room. "Excuse me, but d'you really live here?"

"Course not - this is my office," Grigory smiled. "I live in town, got a pretty good house over there. Sometimes when the job needs it I stay overnight here, but not too often. The villages are small, the population not too large, not so much work for me. I've just finished the grave for Fedor the beekeeper. He was eighty-two. Tomorrow's his burial."

Grigory walked up to a large chest standing in the corner, lifted the lid and started rummaging inside.

"Grigory, and what can you offer me?" asked Michael.

"The only thing that I have - horilka." With those words Grigory dragged an enormous bottle out of the chest.

"Horilka?"

"And what d'you expect in a place like this - champagne or cognac?" Grigory grinned and set the bottle on the table.

"But I guess it's too much for me and to be truthful I can't remember if I ever tasted this kind of beverage."

"Never mind, I'm gonna take no money from you. Are you alone?"

"Not at all, but..."

"Okay, just keep me company for a while, then you may go wherever you want. I, as well as you, need a drink tonight."

"But I won't be able to drink neat horilka."

"Need a chaser? No problem!" Soon on the table there appeared two tumblers, a jar of water, a loaf of bread, a wisp of spring onions and a long tube of sausage. "In the jar there's spring water, very healthy. The sausage is home-made, my mother makes it. Well, what d'you say to all that now?"

Michael pondered for a few seconds, then waved his hand:

"Okay, let's have something of a party. Hope your horilka's worth tasting."

"Good lad." The gravedigger joined Michael at the table, uncorked the bottle and filled the tumblers.

"So, let's go ahead." Grigory lifted his glass and downed it in one gulp.

Michael, having done the same, let the tumbler fall from his hand as soon as the last drop of the burning liquid had migrated into his mouth and then straightaway grasped the jar with both his hands to quench the fire in his throat with greedy swallows of the cold water.

"How d'you find it? I distil it myself and therefore guarantee the quality. Well, try it," Grigory broke off a piece of sausage and offered it to Michael.

"Yeah, it's got it," mumbled Michael, chewing his snack. The drink really proved to be of high quality and it did not take him long to perceive that his attitude of mind was becoming somewhat different.

Grigory took a noisy swallow from the jar and said:

 "I see you're a stranger here."

"Yeah, a friend of mine invited me to spend my vacation here."

"And where d'you come from?"

"St Petersburg."

"A nice city. My daughter's studying there. A beautiful girl, eighteen years old."

"Where does she study?"

"I can't remember what they call it exactly, but she's gonna be a musician, a piano-player."

"You mean a pianist?"

"Yeah, I guess that's the proper name."

"Strange, I used to think that at such places they educate children whose parents..."

"Whose parents what?" Grigory suddenly interrupted Michael. "Please go on! Whose parents don't dig graves? Is that what you mean?"

"No, not at all," Michael felt awkward, "I didn't actually mean that."

Grigory thumped the table. "You did mean that. But what d'you know of people like me?"

"I'm sorry, but believe me I didn't wanna say anything offensive."

"Okay, now I'll explain to you," Grigory's voice became calmer. "You think I'm a nobody, a gravedigger, a dung-beetle. But you're terribly wrong. I'm the most important person on this planet. Tell me, what does distinguish you from an animal?"

"I've been taught that labor made Man out of the ape. Engels, a German philosopher, seems to be the first who said so."

"Bullshitter, that's the name for your Engels. The beaver works building the dam and the ant, too, works hard and the bee works all day long, but still they are all unintelligent creatures. But what actually distinguishes you from a beast of the woods is that when you're dead, you won't be lying somewhere in the bush, stuck all over with flies and rotting with a terrible stench. But you will lie washed like a cucumber, dressed in clean clothes, in a nicely-made coffin and gradually decaying under a beautiful tomb, where all your children, grandchildren, the children of your grandchildren will keep on coming and speaking well of you. And who's gonna do all that? Me!" Grigory poked his finger at his chest. "Ain't that true?"

"No doubt that's true," agreed Michael.


"Alright, Michael, now tell me how long are you gonna live? Let it be a hundred years. Even such a period of time can't be compared to the world's whole history. It's only a miserable moment. But in the grave you may lie for millions and millions of years, just as long as the earth's gonna exist. See the difference - an instant and eternity. They say a doctor is the most important and noble of professions. Nonsense! You may cure a man or not, but in any case he'll die sooner or later. Or let's take a teacher. No matter if you were perfectly taught at school or you're the most ignorant, but the only thing every one of us is doomed to is the grave. So, who's more important - doctor, teacher or me? Okay, boy, we'd better drink to my job."

Michael' second tumbler went down his throat with surprising ease and a similar easiness took possession of his mind, putting an end to such a dull and sober thing as self-control.

"You, Grigory, ain't a gravedigger, you're a philosopher," said Michael after he had some sausage with onions.

"Michael, I know the only philosophy - everybody should love the things they do for living. I've been digging graves for twenty years and I love doing it."

"Yeah, Grigory, I see you're a real master of your business. But can you, for instance, bury two people in one grave?"

The gravedigger's tanned face gave a cunning smile. "If it's necessary, I'll be able to bury forty bodies in one common grave."

"No, I don't mean that number of dead but only two. You said you were burying somebody tomorrow and the grave's ready."

"It ain't somebody - it's Fedor the beekeeper. Everybody used to love him. What a nice man he was. May he rest in peace, let's have a drink in good memory of him."

"Wait a bit," Michael lowered his voice to a whisper, "now let's suppose that tonight somebody makes that grave a little bit deeper, then puts a corpse on the bottom, covers it with earth restoring the grave to its previous depth and after that, tomorrow, you bury Fedor in the grave. What do you think, will anybody be able to guess that in the grave there are two dead bodies instead of one?"

"You've gotta not only restore the depth but make the bottom look its natural way." said Grigory.

"Is it possible for you to do such a thing, Grigory?"

"Why the hell d'you ask me this? You know there's nothing I can't do when it comes to my job."

"Grand! In that case I suggest we have another drink and then I'll tell you something interesting."

The next draught of horilka saturated Michael's flesh, dissolving the last remnants of all that could be called sobriety.

"Well, what d'you wanna tell me?" asked Grigory as he put his tumbler back on the table.

"You're my fern flower," pronounced Michael.

"What?"

"Yeah, you're my fern flower 'cause it's only you who can help me."

"Can you make yourself a bit clearer?"

Michael paused and then slowly uttered:

"I need to kill some person."

"You wanna kill a man?" Grigory exclaimed, astonished.

Michael, pinned to the stool by the pair of scornful, scrutinizing eyes, started to stammer: "Please, don't.., I.., me.., Grigory.., just don't get sur.., surprised. Yeah, it's long ago that I decided to do it but I had no idea how to get rid of the corpse. You see, it's the main piece of evidence. But if there's no corpse, there's no murder."

"And who's gonna be your victim?"

"The victim, as you say, is now not far from here, sleeping in a tent."

"So what?"

"It's so simple, I've already explained it all to you. Now we'll go and kill "the victim" and then hide the body in the grave."

"What makes you think that I'll do that?"

"I'll pay you good money."

"To talk of money you must first tell who you're going to kill."

"Does it matter?"

"Yes, it does. You think you can give me heaps of money and after that I'll be able to kill anybody, even my mother."

"It ain't your mother, Grigory, calm down."

"Then who? Your friend?"

"A guy like me does not kill his friends."

"And who is supposed to be killed by such a guy?

"Well, it's my wife."

"Your wife?"

"Yeah, I gotta kill her."

"Why?"

"I can no longer allow that dirty bitch to keep on ruining my life."

"Why don't you divorce?"

"Believe me, it's far easier to kill her."

"Maybe you're right and your wife's the worst bitch in the world, maybe she's the Devil in flesh, but I've never murdered nobody and not gonna do so. I just bury people after they die."

"Grigory, I'll give you lots of money, a great deal. I'm a successful businessman,I can afford it."

"Please try to solve your own family problems without my assistance."

"Okay, let's do it this way - I'll kill her myself and you'll bury her."

Grigory shook his head: "Nope, it's complicity in a crime."

"Wait," Michael went on, his voice growing more determined, "it was you who just now said that you bury dead people. If the murder's discovered I won't give you away. I'll just say it was me who secretly buried the body while you were sleeping in the hut. And then, when you buried Fedor, you weren't aware of the other body n the grave. No sense in betraying you. That wouldn't change my sentence. Murder will remain murder no matter if I've hidden the corpse or not. Do you get it?"

"Yeah, I got it and I think you'd better hide the body yourself."

"I've just no time for both killing and digging. But we can distribute the work - you will dig and I will kill."

"You see, I just got no wish to sin against the Lord."

"Where the hell do you see a sin? You yourself said that Man's doomed to die. Why should you care about the way my wife will leave this world? Imagine she died of some disease or an accident. You'll do your usual job you've been doing for so many years. I guess at this graveyard there lie quite a few people who were murdered. Did you ever refuse to bury them? No, you didn't. Because burying people is just your way to earn money. Now it's the same situation. I pay - you bury."

"Wanna buy me over?"

"Not at all. Just going to pay you for a piece of work which you do almost every day. Digging with a spade can't be considered as a crime. It's your job."

"Hiding traces of a crime ain't my job."

"Well, of course there's a minor risk, but the sum I'm going to give you is much greater than the ordinary pay for your work."

"What do you mean by "much greater"?"

"Okay, good question. Well... I guess I can afford to give you something about three thousand American dollars. Alright not about, let's set it accurately. I'll give you three thousand dollars exactly. Who else will ever give you such a sum for digging a small hole that can't even be called a grave? Tell me, maybe you think I'm going to deceive you, or you're afraid that I'll kill you as well, just to get rid of the witness."

All of a sudden Grigory seized Michael by the shirt with both his hands and drew him close to his face, which smelled of horilka, sausage and onion. "You, son of a bitch, there's nobody I'm afraid of, including such a snotty bastard like you."

"Well, well, Grigory, let's forget all I said," Michael tried to remedy the situation. "Just let me go."

"Just got no wish to get my hands smeared with crap," Grigory unclenched his huge fists to let Michael lower himself back onto the stool.


A tense, edgy silence occupied the room. The thoughtful gaze of the gravedigger was glued to the tabletop strewn with bread crumbs, while his guest, his head turned away, stared into the dark distance through the small square of the only window. Then Michael looked at the gravedigger and ventured to break the deadly hush.

"Okay, Grigory, thanks for the horilka and I think it's time to go."

Grigory slowly lifted his eyes, fixed them on Michael's face and asked:

"Is she really such a bitch?"

"There's no worse one."

"Maybe there's another way out, without a crime. Have you thought it out?"

"Yeah, I have and it's my final decision."

"I once, too, was about to kill my wife with an axe. I was all boozed. Now I thank God I failed to do it. And I'd strongly advise you against it."

"Grigory, I need your help much more than your advice."

"You see, I need no money, my requirements are small. But I do love my daughter. I just wanna see her well educated. You're right, she lives among alien people who don't have much respect for guys like me. Money is the thing that can help her live in a foreign place."

"Grigory, if you agree to kill my wife, I'll give you even more money."

"No," the gravedigger shook his head, "but I will do the thing I'm used to. I'll bury her. And remember what to say to the cops - I was sleeping, you were burying."

"No problem, you can fully rely on me. But I'm absolutely positive it won't come to that."

"Then don't waste your time," said Grigory, "I'm getting sleepy."

"Alright," Michael got to his feet, "I'm off right away."

"And how are you gonna carry the body over here?" inquired Grigory.

"Don't worry," Michael replied cheerfully, "I'll manage it somehow. And don't be afraid, everything will be done to a T." He turned around and staggered over to the door.

After Michael left the hut, the gravedigger stood up, took a spade from the tool rack, switched off the light and went outside.

 

Michael did not come that night. When dawn was about to gleam, Grigory, having realized the inanity of further waiting  and unable to shake off his drowsiness any longer, pulled the spade out of the earth hillock by Fedor's grave and strolled over to the hut.

At noon, when the old beekeeper was being buried, no one paid attention to the fact that the grave was a little deeper than it had to be. After the ceremony was over and the cemetery again became deserted, Grigory took a fishing rod and set off for the pond to bathe after a dusty and sweaty job and then while away a couple of hours by angling.

On the bank he saw a group of people playing beach ball. Michael was among them. Grigory walked closer and hailed him.

"Michael, who's that?" asked Nina in surprise after the company stopped the game.

"Just.., I don't know.., wait a little, I'll be back soon," Michael answered and jogged over to Grigory.

"Hi, buddy," Grigory greeted him.

"Hi, let's walk away a little," Michael took the gravedigger aside. "Well, Grigory, how are you?"

"Fine. See you haven't forgotten me yet."

"Of course I haven't. Specially I remember your horilka. It's not so easy to play ball after that sort of beverage. Damn hangover!"

"Away with your hangover. I've come to get my dough."

"What dough?"

"The three thousand bucks you promised to give me yesterday."

"What for?"

"I made the beekeeper's grave deeper to let you bury your wife in there."

"What nonsense," Michael shrugged his shoulders. "Why should I bury my wife?"

Grigory spat. "Don't make a fool of me. You were gonna kill her."

"Who? Me? My wife's alive, look - there she stands by the water. That's my wife and I was never going to kill her."

"Yesterday you didn't talk about her like that."

"I was drunk, maybe I said something foolish, but I can't be responsible for all I say while being intoxicated, especially with your horilka."

"Intoxication doesn't belong to extenuating circumstances and you can't put blame upon my booze."

"Damn it," Michael shook his head, "you talk like a lawyer not a gravedigger."

"Just had a chance to stand trial in court."

"Well, even if I actually said anything stupid, I wasn't able to kill anybody. You saw me leaving, I literally crawled on all fours to the tent."

"I'm not interested in the way you got to your tent. To kill your wife wasn't my intention at all. It took you so long to persuade me to help you. You promised to pay me if I'd made the grave deeper. I've done so, but haven't received the money yet. It's a mere fraud and I don't like it."

"But how can I give you the money if my wife's alive?"

"It makes no matter, alive or dead. You promised me to pay not for murdering your wife but for working with a spade. I did do what I was asked to and now I want to get my deserved pay."

"Look here, you're paid for burying dead people, not for digging just holes in the ground. If my wife ain't buried, how can I pay for her burial?"

"There was a case once. I dug a grave but it happened to be unnecessary. However I was paid the whole sum I'd been promised."

"You wanna say that the deceased refused your service?"

"The deceased was half Jewish, and at the last moment her relatives changed their mind and decided to bury her at the Jewish cemetery, but they paid me as if I'd buried her."

"My wife ain't a Jew and what's more I've simply no such a sum, here on the beach."

"That's no excuse. You promised to pay - you must pay."

"Okay, Grigory, I think I can give you a certain sum of money for the trouble, but certainly it can't be three thousand bucks."

Grigory cast a scornful glance at Michael.

"I need only what I've been promised and if you're not gonna pay the right sum, I'll go rightaway to your wife and tell her the story she's not gonna be happy to hear."

"She won't believe a word of your story. It's nothing but dirty blackmail."

"Now we'll see her reaction," said Grigory and took a step toward the tents.

"No, you won't do that," Michael barred the gravedigger's way, spreading his arms out.

"Only the money you owe me can stop me."

"Alright, let me think a little," Michael dropped his arms. "Just give me a few minutes to think it over."

"I see you wanna play for time. Alright, so be it. I'll give you some time, but not too much. I'm gonna take a little swim and when I get out of the water, I want my money here, waiting for me, otherwise I'll go to your wife straightaway."

Grigory turned around and slowly walked along the bank, looking for a spot to enter the water. Michael, petrified and bewildered, was following the gravedigger with his eyes and only after the latter got undressed and took a running dive into the pond, did he dart his look in the opposite direction. Andrew, Oksana and Nina had resumed the game and seemed to have forgotten him. He dashed up to them, seized some item from the stuff scattered about the camp, dropped it, picked it up again and wildly threw it back onto the ground.

"I say everybody, strike the camp, pack up and drive away immediately!" Michael shouted in a mad voice as he put all his energy into pulling the tent pegs out of the ground. "Andrew, get the car started!"

"Michael, I don't understand you."

"What's up?"

"What are you doing?"

All the three stared in astonishment at their friend, who was furiously wrestling with the tent, trying to bring it down.

"Why are you standing like idiots?" Michael yelled. "I say pack up and get away, I'll explain all later!"

 

There came evening. No one wanted to die, there was nothing to do and Grigory decided to go home. He caught a bus to town and in twenty minutes alighted at the stop by the Cellar, a local pub. The heat, which had not yet abated, would not allow him to pass by. Grigory descended the flight of stairs and entered the faintly lit room, which was filled with an alluring mixture of damp coolness and beer aroma.

He was sipping his second draught when his old pal Mickola came in.

"Hi, Grigory"

"Hi, fella. How doing?"

"Fine. I'll get some beer at the bar and then join you."

Mickola came back to the table with a mug of foaming drink and took the seat opposite Grigory. "What's up, buddy? You look real gloomy."

Grigory took a long swallow from his glass and looked at his friend. "Just been fooled today."

"Really? Tell me all."

"I was asked to do a piece of work. I did it but got no pay."

"Why?"

"The fella just refused to pay and I was stupid enough to let him go away."

"And who's the bastard?"

"Some guy called Michael, came here from St Petersburg."

"Why, it seems I know him. Of course, I know him. That's the friend of my neighbor Andrew Sitko. Andrew now lives in St Petersburg and he brought that guy and his wife over here for their vacation."

"Yeah the fella's got a wife," sighed Grigory.

"Well, if he really offended you, we can settle everything now. First let's finish off the beer and then we'll go straight away to Andrew's. He knows me very well. When a kid, he used to steal apples from my garden, but now he's a nice fella. He can honestly solve any problem between you and Michael. And if his friend's really done something wrong to you, he won't shield him. Okay, what d'you say to my suggestion?"

"I say no good wasting time here!"



Having walked through the small, neat garden, the two friends halted on the porch of Andrew Sitko's house and rang the bell. The answer was not long in coming. Andrew, dressed in denim shorts and a yellow T-shirt, came out.

"Good evening Mickola."

"Evening, neighbor. Gotta have a talk with you."

"What about?"


"You see, my friend Grigory wants to see a mate of yours named Michael."

"Michael? I was sure he knew nobody around here. But wait, yeah, it was you, Grigory, who talked to him this morning near the pond. I must confess I didn't recognize you then. For so many years I haven't seen you, perhaps since I buried Dad. Well, come in. Today's my wife's birthday and we're about to start a kind of party for four persons, but you can join us and have a couple of drinks."

Michael, who had been busy setting dishes and cutlery on the table, at once became motionless when the guests entered the room.

"Hello, Michael!" Grigory pronounced loudly and came up to the table to lower himself onto the chair that was evidently intended for the host of the feast. "You thought you could run away from me, didn't you?"

"Michael, what does this man want of you?" Nina got up off the armchair, which was then immediately occupied by Mickola.

"Ma'am, in case you don't know this man yet, I can introduce him to you. This is my best friend Grigory. Please be kind and polite to him," said Mickola and drew a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. "I hope smoking ain't banned here."

"Andrew," Oksana looked disapprovingly at her husband, "can you explain what all this means?"

"I can explain," Grigory said in a calm tone. "You see your friend owes me three thousand dollars and I'd like him to pay off his debt right now and right here."

"Three thousand? Dear, tell me - what's going on?" Nina jerked Michael by his arm.

"I don't know what he's talking about. I owe him nothing," mumbled Michael.

Nina turned to Grigory. "Then you, sir, be so kind as to tell me what money you want from my husband."

"Well, last night, when you were asleep in your tent, your husband asked me to dig a grave. And he promised to give me three thousand bucks for it."

"Three thousand for a grave? You must be insane. What's more my husband doesn't need any grave, he's not going to die."

"You're right, it wasn't him I dug the grave for."

"So you see, my husband couldn't ask you to do such a stupid thing as digging graves at night, so he can't give you any money."

Grigory crossed his legs. "In that case it's you, ma'am, who should pay me for my night  labor."

"Why should I?"

"'Cause it's you who I dug the grave for."

"What did you say?"

"I said that last night I dug a grave where your husband was going to hide your body."

On hearing the news Nina just opened her mouth wide and grasped the table edge with her trembling hand.

"Oh, my God!" The burning match that was about to light the cigarette in Mickola's mouth suddenly dropped from his hand and fell onto the floor. "So, he not only cheated my friend but wanted to murder his own wife. Grigory, why didn't you tell me all?"

"Wait, guys, I don't get it," intervened Andrew. "Let's sit down to table, take some drink and try to get to the bottom of the matter."

At last the wish to know the truth overcame Nina's shock and she slowly, in a tremulous voice, said to the gravedigger: "Please repeat all you've just said."

"Okay," Grigory sneered. "Last night your husband came to the cemetery where I work as a gravedigger. We had some drink, then he started persuading me to help him kill you but I, of course, refused to. At last he decided to kill you without anybody's assistance, but promised me three thousand bucks if I'd bury you in the same grave with the old beekeeper."

"What the hell beekeeper?" Nina exclaimed indignantly.

"His name was Fedor, everybody used to love him," explained Mickola.

"Thank you, but I don't need such an honor as to be buried together with that favorite of yours. Darling," Nina addressed her husband, "I know that all this psycho, whatever his name is, says is a lie, but don't be silent, tell us something."

"I was drunk, so..," Michael faltered, "yeah, I was drunk and I can't remember a thing."

"Wonderful!" Nina cried out. "So you were drunk and you're not going to contradict his words!"

"I can't tell anything about this man and his words, whatever," replied Michael. "Very likely he's saying a lie to blackmail me but, as I said, I remember nothing."

"What do you mean by "very likely"?" inquired Nina. "Aren't you going to deny that you wanted to kill me?"

"And I wanna ask your husband what he means by "blackmail"?" added Grigory, staring sternly at Michael. "Don't you remember you called your wife a bitch?"

"Michael, you couldn't say that," Nina shook her head.

"Of course, I couldn't."

"Well, Michael, try to recollect everything," Nina approached her husband, who pressed himself against the wall. "Were you really at the cemetery last night? If not, please explain how this man got to know you."

"Yeah, that's true, I was at the cemetery." Michael replied nervously.

"And what were you doing there?"

"Drinking horilka with this man."

"Why didn't you tell me anything in the morning? And what the hell made you go there?"

"I just wanted to have some more drink and was told by some angler that I could get some liquor at the cemetery."

"Well, then remember this morning,' Nina went on with her interrogation. "Why did you leave the place in such a hurry after the talk with this man? You haven't explained it to us yet."

"I simply forgot."

"You forgot!" Nina exclaimed. "Now I understand all. You wanted to get drunk to be brave enough to kill me. And how were you going to murder me? Strangle me, or maybe cut up my throat? But I don't understand one thing - why? D'you realize what you've done? How dare you look in my eyes now? Is that your gratitude to me, the woman who made a practical man out of the sissy you used to be?"

"Exactly! A practical man!" Michael, like a beast at bay, suddenly roared. "But I never wanted to be a practical man in your sense of the word."

"And what d'you wanna be? Maybe a loser?"

"No, I'm not a loser. The thing I am is much worse. You've managed to convert myself into your slave. I'm not a human being, I'm a machine for making money, the only thing you need and love. You always lack money and I'm always bad at making it and somebody else always lives a better life than ours. What devilry I go through every day with only one purpose - to oblige you."

"Great!" Nina clapped her hands. "So, that's why you decided to kill me. And how were you going to live after my death, you nonentity?"

"You know very well, I've always dreamt of becoming an author. The only thing that prevented my dream from coming true was my marriage to you."

"An author! Well, has anybody ever read his novels?" Nina addressed everyone in the room. "Have you ever read that delirious nonsense, that idiotic rubbish? And his stupid thoughts of life, the thing he could never understand himself, but tried to teach everyone. No, Michael, with an author's job you wouldn't earn a penny."

"Nina, here's the difference between me and you!" Michael started gesticulating nervously. "Wouldn't earn a penny! That says it all. You won't ever be able to understand what makes an author write, you won't ever experience the pleasure of creative work, and you don't know what happiness it is when a creation of yours causes a keen response, even if only in a single soul in the world. But people like you are only interested in the money that art can bring."

"Michael," said Nina, a sneer flitting over her face, "I felt that you didn't love me any longer, but I couldn't imagine you wanted to kill me. And I know who that single soul of yours is. It's Maria, ain't I right?"

"Yes, you're right. And unlike you, Maria knows and values my true vocation."

"She's just a silly girl."

"But I would marry that silly girl just not to be as unfaithful to you as you are to me."

"That's too much!" Nina shook her head. "Please explain your dirty statement."

"Nina, I'm quite a decent man and not gonna produce any proof of your sexual debauchery in public. I'm just aware of everything."

"Guys, let's calm down," Andrew tried to placate the both spouses. "Nina, you know Michael very well, he's so fond of mystery, detective fiction and has always dreamt of writing something of his own. Yesterday he got drunk and let his imagination run away with him, just inventing a plot for one of his novels where a husband wants to kill his wife and hide her body in a graveyard. But I'm absolutely sure he wasn't going to do that dreadful thing himself. It's just fiction."

"This Conan Doyle of yours will write his next thrillers in jail," Nina took a bottle of wine from the table and filled a glass.

"Andrew, no need defending me," Michael said to his friend, "I was going to do what I really wanted to do. It was her who made me forsake my friends and betray them. Remember the time we both started our business, remember our first deal? I mean our first contract with that construction firm to supply them with materials. I had a real chance to swindle you of most of your income. I didn't do it, although she insisted I should. Her reason was that you didn't need such a sum 'cause you had too much money in contrast to us."

"What?!" Andrew spread his hands. "I've got too much money? Nina, do you really think so?"

Nina gulped her wine, took a pause to draw breath and then shouted:

"That's the limit! Who am I'm talking to? Murderers, drunkards and gravediggers! I've no wish to stay here any longer. I'll collect my stuff and go home straightaway. Goodbye!

The last word was drowned out with a door slam as Nina left the room.

"No doubt she's a bitch," Andrew poured some wine into a glass and held it out to Michael. "Have a drink and relax. Don't be afraid, we're fully on your side. We'll help you divorce, everything will be okay. And she won't be able to send you to jail. You haven't committed anything."

"What do you mean - "haven't committed anything"?" rebelled Grigory. "He deceived me!"

"Damn you all!" Michael pushed Andrew away and hurried over to the door.

"Where are you going?" exclaimed Andrew as he shook drops of spilled wine from his T-shirt.

Michael halted and turned round. "Don't you remember? It's the night of Ivan Kupal's Day. I'm gonna look for the fern flower. Maybe its magic will be able to help me."

Soon after Michael left the room the garden resounded with an engine roar and a car rolled away from the house.

Oksana darted to the window. "Andrew, he's gone! He drove away in your car!"

"Of course in mine, there was no other car at the house."

"But how did he get the keys?"

"He simply forgot to return them to me. Today I asked him to drive to the store and get some food for the party."

"But he can't control himself now. He's sure to smash the car."

"Never mind," Mickola stood from the armchair. "He'll drive around a bit, then roam in the woods, find nothing and come back. And you, Grigory, what are you gonna do now?"

"What am I gonna do? I don't care about his family affairs. He may divorce his wife, he may kill her, he may look for the fern in bloom, but in any case he must pay me for my job. So I stay here until he comes back. Hope he won't be gadding about in the woods too long."

"If so," Mickola rubbed his hands, "it's no use wasting time. I think Andrew doesn't mind if we have a little drink."

"Sure, guys," Andrew made an inviting gesture toward the table. "Make yourself at home, take anything you like."

Grigory stood up, stretched his hand for a bottle of vodka and, knocking his elbow against a vase with roses, made it fall down onto the floor with a loud crash.

"You clumsy thing!" yelled Oksana. "What have you done, idiot?"

"Don't worry, lady, I'll pay you for this broken thing as soon as your friend settles accounts with me," muttered Grigory, busily collecting the crystal splinters scattered all over the floor.

"Andrew, I'm tired of all this," Oksana said after she picked up the flowers and threw them onto the sofa.

"What are you tired of?" Andrew gave his wife a look of reproach.

"It seems you've completely forgotten that today's my birthday. And you did everything to spoil it."

"Me?"

"Why in the first place did you take that idiotic couple with you on vacation? They managed to destroy my birthday party with their stupid family melodrama. Now that psycho's is going to smash our car somewhere in the woods while these two bumpkins be breaking up everything in the house."

"And what do you suggest now, dear?"

"I want these two men to get out of here right now."

"Look here, Oksana," flared Andrew, "Michael's my friend and he can take my car any time he needs it and he can crash it if he wants to. And this is my house, and these men are my countrymen and they will be sitting here and breaking up everything they like as long as I wish. Or maybe you wanna turn me into the sort of man that Nina managed to make of her husband? No way, dear."

"In that case you can sit here and booze with these yokels as long as you wish, and as for me I'm going to bed."

"Then I say good night to you, Oksana. I won't hold you here."

After Oksana left the room, Andrew sat down at the table. "Well, guys, I see tonight we gotta amuse ourselves without women. Well, they all can go to hell and instead of my wife's birthday, I'm gonna celebrate Ivan Kupal's Day. We shouldn't forget our old folk traditions. The reason for many problems is that we don't know our roots, don't remember our ancestor's customs. So, let's drink to the ancient holiday, to Ivan Kupal! Cheers!"

 

A series of long doorbell rings forced Andrew to wake up and find himself lying on the sofa, his head resting on a teddy bear. The unique symphony of snoring and wheezing sounds coming from somewhere near pointed to Grigory's body, sprawled in the armchair. The wall clock said four. Sunlight, gradually gathering fresh energy after a short summer night, highlighted the spot of the recent party. Andrew got up to his feet and tried to get dressed, but then realized that there was no need in doing so because of his not taking off his clothes before going to bed.

"Damn it? Who the hell can be there?" He cursed, kicked off an empty bottle that lay on the floor and staggered over to the entrance.

On the porch he found Michael, holding a shaggy bundle of fur in his hands.

"Good morning, Andrew."

"Morning, and what's this?"

"This is the corpse of the dog that died only an hour ago," explained Michael.

"What nonsense," uttered Andrew.

"Is Grigory still here?" asked Michael.

"Yeah, sleeping."

"I need to see him immediately."

"Okay, come in and try to wake him up."

Michael entered the house, passed through the hall and when in the room, carefully put the lifeless animal onto the floor.

"Grigory, get up," Andrew started shaking the sleeping guest by his sleeve. "Come on, buddy, get up."

"What? Who?" Grigory opened his eyes with a startled expression on his face.

"It's me, Andrew, and here's Michael. He wants to talk to you."

"Let him speak," whispered Grigory and closed his eyes again.

"Wake up, Grigory," Michael rapped the gravedigger on his shoulder. "I want you to listen to me."

"Okay, but don't be too long," Grigory grumbled with displeasure as he rubbed his drowsy eyes with his fists.

"First I'd like to get even with you and give you all I promised you. Here it is," Michael drew a folded sheaf of green notes out of his jeans pocket. "Take it. Here are thirty hundreds, three thousand altogether."

"What's that?" Grigory asked, puzzled.

"It's yours, you've earned it," Michael declared. "Don't you remember?"

"Oh, I remember now," Grigory snatched the money from Michael's hand and counted it twice. "Yeah, it's alright, three grand. But where's Mickola?"

"Probably at home," replied Andrew, vainly endeavoring to open a bottle of beer with a fork.

"Wait, everybody," exclaimed Michael. "I haven't said all yet. Grigory, I give you this money on condition that you will do a little thing for me. Here's a dead dog lying on the floor before you. It was me who killed him."

"You? Why?" Andrew gave his friend a look of disapprovement.

Michael sat down on a chair and gave out a deep sigh.

"I was under nervous strain. I drove the car like a madman and had no idea where I was going to. Suddenly a dog appeared on the road just before me. I had no time to brake and ran over him. He was still alive when I got outside. He whined and writhed in agony. He died in my hands. I never killed any living creature before. Now I know how terrible it is to be a murderer."

"Michael, you're falling into sentimentality," said Andrew after the bottle cap at last flew off. "Here's a good example - Mickola regularly slaughters his pigs and there's nothing horrific in that for him."

"Andrew, you're talking of a different thing," protested Michael. "Before Mickola kills a pig, he feeds it up and, if it were not for him, the swine would die for sure. As for me, I had no right to kill the dog. I've no right to take anyone's life, no matter whether it's an animal or a human being. Life is a wonderful thing, granted to us by God and only God knows who ought to be deprived of that gift. But how could a scum, a scoundrel like me, hit upon the idea of killing an innocent woman, even if he considers her an utter bitch?"

"All you say is right, but what d'you want of me?" asked Grigory as he rose to his feet.

"I want you to bury this animal. This is the condition on which I give you the money. Please promise me you'll bury the dog somewhere near the cemetery and, if it's possible, make a sign with some inscription like this: "An innocent victim of human insanity."

"What's going on here?" in the doorway appeared Oksana. "Still drinking? Didn't you have enough booze overnight? Oh, you've come back, Michael. Hope nothing happened to our new Audi."

"Don't worry, the car stands beyond the garden gates, safe and intact." Michael reached into his shirt pocket, extracted a bundle of keys and cast it onto the sofa.

"Oh, holy crap, what's that?" Oksana cried out just as she was about to step on the dead animal.

"You see, honey, it was an accident. Michael ran over that poor creature," explained Andrew.

"Take away that muck from here!" Oksana shouted.

"Oksana, calm down please. We're going to bury him," said Michael. "And by the way, has my wife gone yet?"

"Not yet," Oksana snapped. "Just sleeping in the next room."

"Wait," Grigory groped for something in his pockets, pulled out a hundred dollar bill and put it on the table. "This is for the broken vase. Don't need no change. Guess it's enough. I don't want you to think of me as a sort of miser. I only demanded the money I had earned. I wanted everything to be fair and upright. And don't worry, I'll bury this here dog. Of course I might ask some more money for that, but I've got a heart as well as all of you here."

Grigory picked up the dead animal, tucked it under his arm and turned to Michael.

"Be sure buddy, I'll bury this cur. But first I'll just drop in on Ksenia. She's very old, about ninety. She's about to die, been suffering for too long. I'll just make sure. Perhaps it's time to dig the grave. So, goodbye."

After Grigory left the house, all the three left in the room walked up to the window, drew the curtain aside and watched the gravedigger stroll slowly through the garden.

"Here's our life," sighed Andrew, "we're always in a hurry trying to gain more and more. We're always rushing somewhere, we urge on time, but what for? Just to see the moment when such a type of man knocks at your door and asks: "Are you still alive? Not dead yet? But your grave's ready, it's time to go."

"A loathsome fellow,"' sniffed Oksana and stepped away from the window.

"But I envy him," Michael announced.

"No doubt you envy him," smirked Andrew. "To get three grand for nothing is not a bad thing at all. I hate to meddle with your business, but you certainly overdid it by giving him such a sum. Anyway, it's your drinking too much alcohol that I must put to blame."

"No, Andrew, I don't envy him his money. Unlike us, who live in a world of illusions, which we made up ourselves to call it the purpose of life, he's got the luck to deal every day with the only existing reality - death. He sees death smash up all our dreams and hopes without any mercy, just in a trice. If I ever become a successful author, I'll surely write a novel about him. But you're right, I've been drinking too much these days. It's high time to stop."

"I keep wondering why it is," said Andrew, "that you, Michael, are always saying very intelligent things, sometimes too intelligent to be comprehended, but you haven't become a successful author yet. It's strange."

"Look!" exclaimed Oksana, "Look here! This bill's fake."

"What? Give it to me," Andrew snatched the one-hundred dollar bill from his wife's hand and started scrutinizing it. "Yeah, it's a crude fake, everybody can see that. Have a look, Michael."

"I know, the money's indeed counterfeit," Michael said placidly and turned round to face Andrew. "Remember two days ago we were at your friend's, I mean Peter. He told us about his mate, a forger. The guy's now in jail and Peter's got some pieces of his work. Yeah, they're done very clumsily. That evening Peter asked us what he could get in exchange of that money. You said that for such rubbish he could get nothing but a couple of good blows on his face or a term in jail. Yesterday, after I drove away in your car, I came over to him and persuaded him to sell me three thousand bucks, forged bucks, just for a mere trifle. And what's more - I killed no dog. It was Peter's dog. He died yesterday. Your friend fears all dead, even animals. When he saw the stiff body of his four-legged guard lying by his kennel, he said he'd give me that forged dough for nothing, if I only promised to bury the dog."

"But sooner or later the deceit will be revealed," Andrew, having lost interest in the bill, let it fall down from his hand.

"By the time Grigory knows it, I'll be far away from here. I'm leaving for home now."

"Had no idea about your being such a joker!" Andrew burst into laughter. "I say, everybody, let's have some fun. It's Ivan Kupal's Day today after all!"

Andrew filled a glass with beer and all of a sudden splashed it into Michael's face.

Michael wiped his face with his sleeve and quietly pronounced: "A piece of crap, this is what I am. Not a joker."

 

Grigory left the garden, shut the gate and straight away set off for Ksenia's house, which was about ten minutes walk down the narrow lane, buried under the foliage of numerous orchards. Having passed a few houses, he halted before one of them, looked around cautiously and then hurled the dead dog over the fence.

"Let somebody else take care of you," muttered Grigory after the hairy body landed on the other side of the fence. He looked around one more time to make sure that no one had seen him, drew a cigarette out of his pocket, lit it up and proceeded on his way.

Ksenia was a distant relative of his and as he thought he had the right to call on his countless relatives any time he needed to he kept on pressing insistently on the doorbell trying to get an answer. At last the door was opened by an elderly, grey-haired man with a sleepy look on his face.

"What's up, Grigory? Why all this waking me up at such an hour?

"Morning, Igor. Don't be cross. How's your mother?"

"Thanks God she feels better. Yesterday came to consciousness."

"Glad to hear that. May she live twice as long. Sorry for breaking off your sleep, but I do need a phone. Just gotta make a call."

"Well bud, I might send you to hell, but I guess it'll just make you wake up somebody else. So come in. There's a phone in the kitchen, you know the way."

Grigory entered the house, walked over to the kitchen, picked up the phone receiver and dialed.

"Hello, Mickola, is that you?"

"Yeah, it's me," replied a hoarse voice. "How are you, Grigory?"

"Fine, and you? I see you got up already."

"Yeah, just finished feeding my pigs."

"That's good. By the way, I didn't see you leaving yesterday."

"You mean today? My wife came, wonder how she managed to find me. She took me away."

"To be frank I remember nothing. But I call to say I've received the money we were demanding. The whole sum."

"Money? What money?" inquired Mickola, trying to recollect the essence of yesterday's events.

"Three thousand bucks."

"Oh, I remember now. So, he's killed his wife already?"

"No," Grigory chuckled, "The bitch is alive. Anyway, look here - I'm gonna give the money to my daughter, she's coming in two days for the summer holiday. But today's Ivan Kupal's Day and I'd like to celebrate it together with old pals of mine. So I'm gonna throw a party in the Cellar tonight. I'll invite Vasily, Stepan, Petro and, of course, you, old chap. All drinks are on me. I haven't seen the fern flower, but been lucky enough to let my friends have some fun today."
 


Submitted: February 19, 2009

© Copyright 2020 Gennady Borisanov. All rights reserved.

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Chimeron

I really liked this story. It kept me riveted. I feel bad for poor Grigory now though. :(

Fri, February 20th, 2009 12:10am

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