(this fable intersects with DARK FOREST)
An odd sound emerged from behind the swirl of bramble. The beast, shifting in its skin, was sliding against the mud. Suddenly, it shot past the thorns, revealing eight points of majestic splendor crowning its glorious head. The beast snorted and exhaled a halo of steamy breath.
Alexandr stood shocked. The moment had come. His sweet egg had hatched. His beast had arrived! How long he had waited.
He grabbed his rifle and exhaled. The moment had come. Breathe. Focus. Aim. Again. Breathe. Focus. Aim. Exhale. Shoot! Alexandr swiveled round as his nemesis bolted past him and hurdled into a curtain of fog.
He began to run, squinting his body left and right to avoid the branches and trees. Holding his rifle horizontally, two hands on a deadly trapeze about to take flight, Alexandr ran as fast as he could. He ran past the hill pixilated with sheep, past the apple orchard blooming with green fruit, and past the unlucky well, collapsed and hidden with rocks. He eventually entered a clearing surrounded by pine trees. Taking a moment to catch his breath, he lost sight of his prey and scanned the horizon before him. He calmed his breathing just enough to hear the whir of the beast’s hooves in the forest just east of him. Alexandr bolted, every pore awake and ready.
He pursued his prey with a vengeance. As he entered the woods, he found himself surrounded by trees and ground cover sticky with resin. He ran and ran, with no path in site, jumping, and swerving, leaving his minute DNA on thistles, branches and thorns. On and on he continued, occasionally glimpsing a hint of tail, a whoosh of sound, rarely getting a moment to gather the oxygen in his lungs. He lost sight of the time, the sun barely breaking through this forbidden city of pine. And just as quickly as our dear Alexandr lost himself, he found himself standing in front of a very small house. The beast was gone, but the house was there. The moment was here. What was he waiting for?
The cottage seemed perched in meditation, illuminated by a reflective, almost underwater light, as if preserved in green amber, waiting for history to unlock its comatose treasure. No sign of activity; no children’s laughter, no welcoming melodies, no smoke rising from the chimney. Nothing spoke from within.
The front door was made of porous wood with a pattern of rusted iron bands and stars running vertically up the center. The knob was so tiny, as if it waited to be opened by a child’s chubby little hand. Over the archway, an animal’s antlers guarded the door.
Alexandr Popov found himself in a predicament. Should he try and find the beast who had just evaporated or should he enter the cottage? He walked around the side of the building, and peered in through a dirty window. He was able to make out the persimmon silk that dressed the walls. No one stirred. He returned to the front of the cottage and tried the door. Were it not for the iron bands on the door, the wood might have collapsed from his effort. As he entered, he caught sight of a shadow in his peripheral vision, just past the window. A large bird flying overhead, perhaps? An ominous cloud caressing the sun? A passing dark thought?
Alexandr once again exhaled. A wooden bed was perched against the western wall and a colorless bassinet lay just next to it. An assortment of children’s shoes lay scattered on the floor. Each one worn away to perfection, the leather so thin, it crumbled like cheese. A woman’s striped yellow and burgundy dress lay gracefully over the back of a chair. A suitcase lay near the window, half stuffed with decaying cotton stockings and tiny underwear. Near the front door was a table set for five. The ceramic cups and plates filled with nearly a century of dust. Alexandr felt a wave of confusion come over him. He had walked into a world that seemed to have disappeared into the ether…and the beast had disappeared into that same ether. What was this moment telling him? Every pore seemed awake and ready.
Alexandr once again saw a shadow pass the window and was lured by its mystery. As he drifted toward the darkness, he kicked over an envelope, partially hidden by a child’s unraveling beige sweater. A series of letters fanned out, each one brittle and yellowing. Letters in hand, Alexandr took a seat at the table, sifting through them while feeling for his pouch of tobacco. He stuffed the dried leaves into the pipe. Alexandr inhaled the earthy sweetness and exhaled a plume of smoke as he twirled the end of his mustache and began to read.
Irina My Love.
Indeed how many times can I say how sad I am that I am not there with you. I was overjoyed to hear of the birth of my son, Ilya. I only can hope to hold him in my arms one day.
I miss you in such a painful way.
Irina My Love,
As of a fortnight ago, there seems to be no possibility of my getting back to you soon. Our neighbors have filed a second formal complaint against my person, not only suggesting my theft of their apples, but indeed of my poaching a buck near the border of the forest and their property. I have no opportunity to refute this ridiculous accusation and I await my sentence. Each day I wait, Irina, I wait for the sentence, I wait for a miracle, I wait for the buck to reveal itself, alive.
I pray for a miracle.
Irina My Love,
Once again I am overcome by sadness. I miss my wife and my children.
My spirit feels weak and lifeless. I can only dream. But my dreams are dreamt in the dark, no longer illuminated by the faces of those I love.
I have made a decision. Should I ever be set free, I will take my family to America and abandon all of Russia.
Pray for me. Pray for us.
The letters were dated “winter of 1843” and postmarked from the neighboring town of Myshkin. How odd, just over a hundred years old. The mournful letters detailed such a loss of hope. Alexandr continued to read until what little light there was had almost completely faded. The images of love and yearning that this stranger’s letters had conveyed left Alexandr feeling envious and lonely. A dark shadow pervaded his heart. Alexandr had long ago chased away the woman he loved, and the cocoon of loneliness had slowly suffocated his memory.
As he put down the letters and began to reorient himself to the dark, he heard something slam against the eastern wall – one – two – three times. Alexandr dropped his pipe, grabbed his rifle and ran out the front door. In the moonlight, he caught a glimpse of a large silhouette, a man wearing what appeared to be a cap on his head along with a white blouse and dark pants. The stranger sprinted over a large outcropping of rock and disappeared into a mountain of moss. Alexandr dove into the blind darkness that enveloped the forest. He shouted, “Stop! Stop!” The stranger did not respond. As Alexandr chased the man over the outcropping, he lost his footing to a track of mud and suddenly dropped, smashing his knee onto a piece of granite, his rifle taking flight and slamming against the ground – anonymously shooting a bullet into the darkness. Alexandr leaned forward to grab his knee. He could feel the warm wetness that began to envelope his leg. The ripple of pain made him so dizzy that the strange howling in the distance seemed as if it might be delusional. Initially it was a shrill sound, eventually dropping to a more guttural, whale-like, sound.
It took Alexandr a long time to collect himself and to try to stand up. The sound in the distance had died away. He grabbed a branch from a nearby sapling in an attempt to right himself. Gaining his footing slowly, he limped along the crest of the rock, finding his way back to the cottage. Upon entering, Alexandr attempted to lean down to pick up his leather sack and caught a glimpse of the far wall. The silk wall appeared to have transformed into a blue-patterned wallpaper. He felt an odd sensation and quickly turned around to the table, only to discover that the old letters and the family plates had vanished. In their place, sat a bottle of American bourbon and a basket of wild strawberries!
Alexandr swayed his head and began to sweat. The blood from his knee had now completely soaked his pants and his pain was sharp and unrelenting. He took a seat, located by moonlight, and allowed his eyes to adjust, once more. The suitcase was gone; the child’s bassinet, also gone. He noticed a jumble of hair in the corner and realized that there was a dog resting there, staring silently, unperturbed by its visitor. He took a swig from the bottle of bourbon and awaited the transparency of the other world to arrive.
The morning light heated up the room, causing our protagonist to stir. No longer sitting on the chair, Alexandr found himself on the floor. Slowly he rose, the bourbon and the floorboards conjured up pain in his body countered by his throbbing, frozen knee. He quickly gathered his belongings, noted the dog’s continued ambivalence and headed out the door.
He dragged himself past the mound of rock that sat behind the cottage and spotted his rifle at the bottom of a gully. In anguish, he made his way towards the rifle, now splintered and useless. As he picked up the shattered stock, he eyed a buck’s antlers about twenty yards away from where he was standing. He hid behind a bush, watched and waited. After a moment, he inched towards the animal, cursing his shattered gun. As he came closer he realized that the animal was lying on the ground, and as he inched yet closer he discovered that the buck was stiffly laid out on a blanket of red pine needles, a bullet hole gracing its left temple. The mysterious man’s cap lay next to the beast.
And just as quickly as our dear Alexandr lost himself, he found himself once again. The moment had come. His sweet egg had hatched. It had been over a year now that he had been chasing this buck throughout the forest. The buck, forever taunting, had finally been silenced.
Aleksandr, shaking his head, thought to himself, luckily it was the buck and not the man who was shot. He searched the area close by and found a white blouse ripped and billowing on a nearby branch. Or could they be one and the same?
Alexandr picked up the remnants of his gun and bearing all his weight to one side, began his slow sojourn back; past the collapsed well, past the hill covered with sheep, past the orchard in full bloom, and slowly crossed the bridge leading back to his village.
Copyright © 2009 Meike Kopp, All Rights reserved.