Thursday, October 27, 2011

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Bleeding Draighor



Afanasy was making his way to the kvas wagon with his bees, but the idea of arriving before dusk was ruined by the blood and the shallow breathing. The poor guy! Somebody was propped up against a larch tree, barely breathing, with blood on the front and some nearby like he had tried to spit it out but there wasn’t enough pep to get the spit more than a few inches away. Sad, obviously.

This guy was blending into the evening better than anyone Afanasy had known in the forest. The whole bodily form was like a charred ember from an old fire that you find, absorbing sunlight for some future use, and withdrawing into the shadows like some kind of Original Shadow.

Not that he knew a whole lot about healing, but he tried applying some honey and some bloodwort to the burns and the missing pieces of this guy. If only he had some kvas, or something stronger. He was just getting ready to do his special Alnus Rugosa call, wot sounded like a bunch of pea-hens rutting, when he saw something in the brush about a verst out. Not just something, really, since he saw the pewter eyes that weren’t eyes. Dmitri Shemyaka! What a miserable son of a peat bog. The same cretin that blinded the eyes of Ivan’s pa, Vasily. Now he hides out here in the woods, all palsy-walsy with Baba Yaga and her half-sister Baba Ghannoush. Those eyes of pewter, staring at the poor guy leaning against the larch tree, just waiting for the moment to administer the killing blow. What a jerk!

Afanasy grabbed a handful of sod and root-ball, which made a nice improvised whip. He gave it a couple whirls around his head, distilling the rich soil from within the root ball, and then let it fly toward the nasty pewter eyes. Those eyes couldn’t see anything pretty. They were made for fighting. The rootball hit him square between the eyes and knocked him flat. The bees got there first, then Afanasy. Dmitri was obviously expecting him, and blew some kind of bladder full of mustard fumes on Afanasy, which was perfectly terrible for someone trying to see things. There was nothing else after the mustard, except for a whole bunch of snow. The snow made everything worse, and before long Afanasy was just guessing what anything in front of his face even looked like. He could see exactly nothing but white.

White isn’t so bad, he reasoned. Everything is snow. Like I stuck my head in a snowbank. He could still hear everything OK, except everything he saw was white. White bear. White bees. Forget it, he couldn’t see. His eyes gave up for now.

But then he saw the Moon. Beautiful! The moon was all grey and serious against the white of the blindness he was absorbing. So the moon was kind of dark against the white of everything else white. A reverse moon. The moon was hanging there in the sky, the only shape Afanasy could make out against the blind white landscape. And the moon relaxed into a pearl shape. The world was a cool, dead, white world, and the dark moon was dropping into a perfect pearl shape, and the pearl shape was an earring on a perfect woman. The woman was some sort of classical temptress. Afanasy was lost in nostalgia and projection: the pearl shape of the moon had become an earring on a woman who was perfect.

When he got his vision back, this would be very hard to explain to anyone.

Friday, May 20, 2011

FLORG


Florg
licked the inside of his glass helmet, and tasted salt. It reminded him of his days in the briny deep, glaring upward through the shadows of fishing boats and grinding his fangs. The helmet never fit exactly right, and he could always get his forked tongue out through the burst seals, and taste the brack and kelp. There was always a little seawater sloshing around his purplish catcher’s-mitt face, which he couldn’t empty out since one hand was a huge mechanical lobster claw and the other hand was tightly gripping his cleaver. So the seawater just sloshed around his chin and lower lips, like a plague of blowflies.

After he crushed his first trawler with his insane claw, and gnawed the good meat out of the fishermen, he was convinced that his divine purpose on Earth was to find more good eatin’. He spent a few minutes choosing his favorite scimitar from the pile of relics he had foraged from the ruins of Hy-Brazil, and wrangled it angrily into his belt. He also folded the enormous Sig Sauer P210, which he had found in the unrealistically gigantic undersea colony of genetically modified Danish Jægerkorpset, into its custom-made holster at his belt.
And began to surface.

Surprisingly, he found himself in Lake Huron. There began a terrifying roiling of the lake’s surface, as though the lake were in a pot that had been set to boil. To make some boiled ham, for instance. Or boiled potatoes. Men, children, even women pointed from various directions at the terrifying roiling of the lake’s surface. Even the six members of the failed D12 posse, Bizarre, Artis, Kuniva, Swifty McVay, Eminem, and Fuzz Scoota, pointed at the terrifying roiling of the lake’s surface! They began to compose a multi-layered rap about the terrifying roiling of the lake’s surface, but a giant mechanical claw as big as the Guardian Building surfaced before they even finished their rap, and separated all the rappers into little segments that rained down on the picnic table where they had been rapping like pinata candy. Detroit was in trouble! Florg was about to destroy the "the great arsenal of democracy"! Florg, stop!! Florg, what the crabs!!!! KNOCK IT OFF!!!

The two deceased members of the D12 posse, Bugz and Proof, set up a Lasonic iPod Ghetto Blaster: old school boom box with built in ipod dock in heaven and played The Dirtbombs’ Ultraglide in Black and some other crazy crabs that Florg was just not ready to hear. His glass helmet kind of twisted on the broken seals, and then some of the smelly old seawater escaped, FINALLY, and he knew he could get that annoying glass helmet off at last. Then he could really hear the Dirtbombs and stuff, even without external ears or anything, and he used his scimitar from Hy-Brazil and his enormous Sig Sauer P210 to rebuild Detroit into a great arsenal of democracy, which it really always was.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

That is One Brilliant Snake

“There is the well-known story of the snake 120 feet long that was killed in the River Bagradas during the Punic Wars by the Roman general Regulus: 
he used catapults and ballistae as if he were storming a town.”

Pliny the Elder Natural History: A Selection, p. 113. Translated with an Introduction and notes by John F Healy, 1991


“Hey Afanasy!”

“Who is that?”

“I think that’s Ivan.”

“That is terrible news. Ivan the guy who runs the place? He never talks to anyone unless he needs something. He’s going to send me to go kill Swedes or something.”

“Afanasy!”

“Yep. How can I help you, Ivan the third, ruler of all Rus? Are we killing Swedes or somebody? Cause I’m more of a beekeeper and a wrestler. I’m terrible at Swede killing, and there are hundreds--”

“Afanasy, I need you and your creepy forest buddies to go kill a snake.”

“No really”

“No, seriously, there is some kind of snake as big as a village and it is not going away. Go kill it, and we will drink merrily and eat like Vikings.”

“Ivan, if you’re in there, I owe you. Don’t even worry about the eating and the drinking, cause I will just take care of this snake and you can rest easy, okay?”

“It is as big as a village, according to reports.”

“Mmm hmm. You need anything else while I’m out? Some firewood? Mushrooms? A vest?”

“The snake was in Gorodslavl’ yesterday, so it’s probly in a village nearby, and if you are wondering if you’re in the right town, look for terrified villagers and missing cattle.”

“Yep! Okay. See you at dinner, Ivan.”

Afanasy left the high walls of the Kreml’ without having even seen the Tsar of All Rus, Ivan III. There was a high window overlooking the gardens and the spot where the bedpans got emptied, and the voice of the Tsar sang out reedily over the sounds of the girls playing inside. Ivan had paid for Afanasy’s education and a whole bunch of his meals at the Kreml’, and Afanasy had always felt sort of endebted to the old creep. If he needed a snake killed, he would just drop what he was doing and take care of it. How hard could it be?

“That is some snake.”

“Where?”

“Past the birches and the haybales. It looks like a village.”

“The thing with the tunnel behind it? That’s a snake? It looks more like a pilgrimage. Like a bunch of things that happened separately, except that they’re all in the same place.”

“Yep. How are you going to kill it?”

“I’m going to tell it to leave.”

“SNAKE!”

The snake was like a prosperous villager’s entire life moving around, swallowing up goats and cattle and slow-moving babushkas. At least the babushkas were grateful for a change of routine. The goats and the skinny cattle protested loudly. Afanasy enjoyed tearing out a big ol’ birch tree and swinging it round, contacting the snake’s snout with a wet “pock.”

The snake didn’t stop moving forward, but it gave a neat look to the fat man with the tree. It was calculating how many calories the fat man contained, and if it was worth re-routing itself to the other side of the birches and swallowing the striped bald guy with the tree.

That was a terrifying eyeball. Just a sliver of pupil up the middle, and a solid acre of death all around it.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Afanasy Nikitin and Baba Ghannoush


Afanasy and Olga were crouching in the tall grass, waiting for their chance to steal more food from the soldiers. They already had a sack of meal, a box of plums, and a hogshead of hog's heads. The soldiers were smashing open another crock of vodka and many were beginning to drop like cordwood into the clay. Something moved in the hedges a few yards east, and a branch broke loudly.

"Foma must have gotten out of the bag - probably smelled the meat cooking on the campfire. You keep an eye on the aide-de-camp with the blunderbuss, and I'll go quiet him down." Afanasy began commando-crawling across to where Foma was hiding.

The aide-de-camp set his blunderbuss down and began singing atrociously with a half-dressed Cossack. "The Song of the Volga Boatmen" I believe. Olga quickly dashed, ferretlike, from the grass across a clearing and into the dusky camp.

Afanasy froze. Did Olga see the sentry in the tree with the damascene cuirasses? Perhaps not. She came to a stop directly beneath the sentry and hid herself behind the very pin-oak tree he sat in.

"Lord, our deliverer and holiest of holies, please deliver that beautiful woman. Amen."

A long leathery arm reached down from the branches, bundled a handful of Olga's cassock, and yanked her abruptly up into the tree.

Afanasy lunged at the spot where Foma hid, hoping to use the besotten serf as a projectile. When he cleared away the grass, however, he discovered not Foma but a group of six or seven hungry brigands also waiting for an opportunity to steal food from the soldiers.

"Pardon!" he hissed, as he turned tail and ran pell-mell toward the tree where Olga and the sentry were tucked away. "The Song of the Volga Boatmen" immediately ceased. The blunderbuss exploded and Afanasy heard a carcass of one of the highwaymen drop heavily behind his sprinting feet. The explosion brought the attention of the entire reeling camp of soldiers on to Afanasy and the team of thugs behind him. The thugs drew bows and a soldier fell as a whistling passed Afanasy's cocked ears.

Only feet from the Olga tree, Afanasy tripped over a drunken private and spun, shouting, into the clay. A soldier with an oak barrel over his head made a phlegmy roar and another boozer came at him with a rusty javelin. Afanasy rolled deftly to his left, kicked at the shins of the barrel-holder and rolled backwards over his own head. The javelin came down and sank into the barrel, and Afanasy sprang up, catching the javelin-tosser across the jaw with a solid right hook. Two of the stinking brigands leapt onto his back and began to pummel him about the head with something like brass candlesticks. Afanasy began quietly singing his own setting of Psalm 37, tugging both assailants off him by the ankles, neatly bouncing their skulls off one another and then collected the candlesticks.

"Hmmm. Venetian, I'd guess."

He sent one spinning end-over-end at an archer as another arrow clipped his chest, tearing a hole in his jersey. The blunderbuss fired again, and a toothless thief with half a beard and half a baked pig spun and fell over Afanasy's left shoulder.

Afanasy yanked the rusty javelin from the cask, causing a foamy geyser of Bavarian aspic ale to gush up. With this the brigands ceased to take any interest in our hero, and descended upon the cask. He picked up an abandoned leather shield and lunged back toward the tree. A shower of arrows began to descend upon him as more soldiers were rousted from their drunken nest, and he crouched for a moment under his rattling shield. He prayed once again for Olga, who had now been captive for a full three minutes. There was a momentary pause in the archery, and instantly the strains of the Volga Boatmen's song began again. Using the javelin, he pole-vaulted elegantly up into the branches of Olga's tree.

"Olga! Olga?" he shouted, as the arrows began to shudder into the trunk and boughs. He looked furiously at the branches above him, below, and then scrambled, snapping the haft of an arrow from his shoulder, looking to holes in the trunk where the cur could have hidden. Another arrow buried itself in his leg, and a third penetrated through the chain mail over his ribs enough to take his breath away. The branch beneath him slipped away and he felt himself tumbling through space as the night overtook his eyes. 

                                                                ♒
He knew before he opened his eyes that he was back in Dmitri Shemyaka's crappy stone fort. It always smelled like ozone and burnt cabbage, and he kept all the windows bricked up so the air felt suffocatingly close. He could also tell that the arrow shafts had been taken out, with great skill, doubtless by the blind surgeon himself, and the wounds dressed with something like gunpowder. He felt shot through with melted candlewax. 

"Hey great! You're alive! Now I can blind you. Welcome back."

"Where are my bees?"

"In bee jail. What'd you think - I'd let them go back to the Kreml and get your toadies for you?"

"I don't suppose you know where Olga is."

"You'd best thank your glauenfraupt I don't. I'd have killed you, and saved her for blinding! Is she lost?"

"One of your guys took her. He was in a pin-oak, with some expensive-looking cuirasses."

"Sounds like she's with Fergamont. He's some sort of half-Saxon half-Swede whelp. He's not very careful with women though. Baba! You should hear this!"

"Baba Yaga!? She's here in your crappy little hideout? Come on..."

"No, no. Baba Yaga's getting old and tired, and getting far too friendly with Ivan and his milquetoasts. Yaga's days are numbered, babe. This forest belongs to Baba Ghannoush."

There was silence, then a rustling of heavy crushed velvet and heavy tread of a jungle cat. 

More than six feet tall, and redolent of musk and orchids and loam. She walked slowly, barefoot, the better to hear her panther's pads and claws on the pumice floor. Her legs, bare to mid-thigh, were unmistakably shaped like an athletic woman's, but covered with radiant patterned fur like a panther's. Her strange velvet robe was slung over one ivory shoulder like a toga, and her arms were unnaturally long and lithe, like gently undulating asps. Most peculiar of all, her iridescent gray hair and her ivory face were simply out of focus. Stare as Afanasy might, he could get only the faintest idea of her appearance. He couldn't take his eyes off of her.

"Fergamont has one of the Shuisky girls - she's probably with him at the Vydischchii camp tonight, if she's even still breathing."

"Whatever is left of her will be here by nightfall," she breathed. She sounded like gas escaping from a vent.

A great pestle, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and a pair of sapphire eyes, sauntered into the cramped hall on what looked like peacock legs. 

"Hey! It's Baba Yaga's pestle!"

"It's much nicer than hers. Hers is old." she gasped, bounding effortlessly up and into the wooden bowl. The pestle took a step back and vanished through a doorway. The whiff of musk and orchids and loam lingered for a moment, and then the crappy burnt cabbage and ozone smell was all that was left.

"Any other information for me before I remove your beady little eyeballs?" croaked the pewter-eyed wretch.

"Not really. Why are you blinding me, again? I thought you had it in for Ivan. You think he's going to trade his eyes for mine? A swap?"

"I just like reminding him I'm out here, every once in a while. I thought it'd be a nice excuse for Ghannoush to introduce herself at Ivan's oh-so-regal court, with a sack of your eyeballs." Shemyaka was efficiently sharpening a nasty-looking little dirk with an s-shaped blade, drawing it against a strop while he spoke.

"Ideomenes! Bring the sack for the eyeballs please. And some cotton balls for the sockets. And I'd love a glass of aqua vitae and coriander." He turned to Afanasy. "Ivan's father had my eyes put out many years ago. Or did you know that already?"

"I've been told. You were going to poke my eyes out the last time you captured me, remember?"

"It's coming back to me. How did you escape that time?"

"My idiot Foma was hiding in your galley and snuck out under a serving dish. You thought he was a suckling pig when you smelled him. Then he bit your - "

"Yes! The roast pig. Ideomenes! No roast pig, you understand? None! None at all!"

Ideomenes bobbed into the hall, hunchbacked and hooded. He was pushing a heavy wooden cart missing a wheel.

"No pig, master."

"Good!"

"Why is your voice different, Ideomenes? Why do you sound like a woman?"

"I'm not Foma, master."

"I know that. Foma only speaks when he wants something, am I right?"

Afanasy and Dmitri chuckled together at this, and shook their heads as they silently recalled how awful Foma is.

"Ha... no, but really. Do you have a cold or something?"

At which point, of course, Olga took the burlap eyeball-bag and pulled it firmly over Shemyaka's disbelieving head, then pulled the drawstring tight and secured the knot with the nasty little zig-zag dirk. She drank the aqua vitae and coriander, and parked the broken cart and the cotton balls on top of the villain. With the two damascene cuirasses, she flayed the linen cords binding Afanasy, and together they ran into the stables where a pestle awaited. Shemyaka, head still bound, shook his fist at the sky as they soared into the clouds.

The Time that Afanasy Nikitin and Alnus Rugosa Wrestled!

Doris had some sort of brass and glass contraption on her head, and wore only a sash with jewel-encrusted daggers ensheathed. She wore black silk armbands. She looked like some sort of Chinese martial artist.

"Doris, Das. Das, Doris." and she too touched foreheads.

"Let's avaunt to the mezzanine, before the wrestling begins!" sang out Anna. We were in a warmly appointed drawing room of some indiscriminate style. The walls were parqueted in rich amber wood panels, and the scents of exotic perfumes, powdered liquid and unguent hung heavy in the air. Great heads of pre-Cambrian animals hung on the walls, their titanic racks of antlers streaking madly through the air overhead. Anna was already bounding up the wooden stairs, drawing the hems of her gown up above her knees so I was for the first time aware of her dazzling limpid form. She was barefoot, and her dirty feet left mud in her wake. The two orangutans bounded joyfully after. I swallowed hard and took to the stairs.

We came to a landing, then another flight, then a second landing. We moved through a hallway, past a room that smelled of the sea, and into a narrow room with a thick knotted rope hanging in the center. Anna swiftly climbed up through a hole in the ceiling into the attic, or whatever it was, and the two orangutans swung effortlessly after. When I emerged into the sunlight, we were among a dozen or so characters on a veranda, quaffing drinks and spitting tobacco off the roof. We had an exalted view of the glade below, where Afanasy and Alnus were just beginning to square off amidst the teeming masses, the broken bagpipes, the hurdy gurdy, and the smell of charred elkmeat.

Anna sat on a carved wooden bench of dense hard wood that I would have thought to be tropical, next to a brooding Arabic scholar and a passed-out Viking. I sat next to her, and she pulled an enormous fur around us. I recognized FVMMA talking agitatedly with some very filthy young boys in sweaters. Some of Afanasy's bees had joined the group as well.

Afanasy lurched, swung Alnus around and crushed him into the mud. Alnus seemed to disappear altogether. Then a pair of muddy webbed feet emerged, encircled Afanasy's neck, and pulled him entirely into the mud as well. The crowd cheered, and jeered, and danced. For a minute or two there was nothing to watch save some bubbles. Then a nearby tree began to shake, and jerk to one side and then another, and then it caromed down into the mud. Momentarily it sprang back up with Afanasy trailing one side like a heraldic banner hanging from a coronet. He dropped to the ground, performing a neat handflip, and plunged a forearm into the earth like a magician feeling in his hat for... taa daah! Alnus was yanked thence and resolutely grabbed Afanasy by the neck (such as he had) and thrust him upside-down and backwards.

Alnus' limbs are very elongated and thin, like pipe cleaners. There is no clear musculature or articulation to them. They're like cobras. Except they stretch a little bit too. His head, which resembles nothing so much as a great molar covered with club moss, features a pair of unlidded eyes which always seem pleasantly surprised at what he beholds, and a great satchel mouth with two fangs. He is shrouded in robes like a Turkoman. His nimble webbed feet, like folded umbrellas, slap hearteningly across the field of battle, like fish slapping against seaweed-covered rocks.

The two heroes paused for a quick kvas and a puff from their respective pipes. Some jugglers and a trained wolf on a chain, the size of a horse, made the rounds. Children placed their heads in the wolf's mouth and pelted his loins with coins.

Then the battle was enjoined again. They both executed a neat pas-de-deux and collided with a bone-rending crunch and slap. A roundhouse kick to the face! Jiu jitsu! A neat escape from a double nelson by the beyond-double-jointed Alnus! Alnus thrown like a discus into the woods!

And then the screaming began. A belch of acid from the great cirro-cumulus clouds, which burnt off the beard of an elder. Then the pointing at the clouds, and the bagpipe guy ran, and the kids ran, and the wolf. Because there was a great castle-sized wooden beast in the sky, with great horrible wooden wings and three goggling heads coughing out acid and sulfur. And screaming.

Then it was gone.

Then some trees were on fire, just over the horizon. Then it was back. Low, now, blocking out the sky.

"Why's the Ghugguk here? It's spring!" quoth Alnus, still winding his pipe cleaners around Afanasy's neck.

"GHUGGUK!!" screamed a couple of the goggling heads. Some acid hissed diabolically in the mud next to the wrestlers.

The benches and furs and such were getting dragged into a roll-up shelter on the roof next to us. "We should get inside. This is going to get worse," said Anna. The orangutans rolled the cover down and bounded back down the rope ladder.

Svetok is Found, Under a Linden Tree

Under a linden tree, only 45 minutes away from the bee hives, we found a wicker basket. Foma went clear past it, but Afanasy was alert to the need of a tiny toddler in a wicker basket and always ready to provide aid and love (as he did for me).

"Wot is this?" he cried, cradling the wicker basket in his arms as Foma dragged the sledge imperceptibly past. After seven hours, we were only a few hundred feet from the birch stand.

"O Ho! A babe!" he cried, and truly there was an adorable little dark-haired child asleep in the basket, nursing on its thumb.

"Das, what does this note say?"

"S-V-E-T-O-K? I don't know."

"That means flower. She is a flower."

"How beautiful" quoth Foma, the idiot.


"Well, let's bring the child to the Kreml. Through the gates, to the most secret and innermost parts."

"Yes, let's." quoth Foma, the idiot. I pursed my lips.

Das Brick and Carl, the Orangutang

I was about ready to spend some time outside Afanasy's bag and see where we were. I could hear voices, more and more of them, lots of kids and livestock, even some music. Some kind of hurdy-gurdy and cymbals. The rain has stopped. Afanasy stopped walking and dropped me abruptly as he took up conversation with what sounded like a flirtatious girl. I heard bees hovering around expectantly.

"Seen any highwaymen yet? I'm looking for some hose and doublet."

"Hardly yet, Fana. I heard that Cherny took everything they had from that legate from Burgundy. He was dressed nice... I expect Cherny will be here at lunch break to sell the clothes. You don't wear hose and doublet though - let alone French. What're you up to?"

"Ahh spring! A young man fills his pate with wet earth, and budding grasses and wants to take up some stolen French gabardines. For the ladies, if you will."

"I'd suppose rather that you need clothing for the poor will-o' you got in there sack. He naked?"

I suddenly was gazing up from the leather satchel at the prettiest face I'd ever laid eyes on.

"O he's not bad, Fana? I'd say you let him out for some air. He does need clothes tho. Wot do you call that ye've got on?"

"It's... it's from Sarai..." I lied. I still had on my red t-shirt from El Pelon, and some green Levi's. Foma had loaned me a few pairs of lice-ridden wool socks, and I still had the squirrel-fur cloak from the Pine Cone.

"Of yes you're from Sarai: all right. And I'm from St. Brennan's Isle. What a cute one! Can I keep 'im?" She had taken my doughy face in both hands and was sniffing my forehead. How dearly I wanted to get out of the sack!

"Found that one in the woods. Bees found him first. He's from some nemets town out west, apparently."

"He's an angel from God's heaven."

"Could be. He sure can't fight for nothing. I'm keeping him hid til we can get him to look like he ain't a spy. I hear there are spies avaunt."

"Spies are all around, indeed. Ivan's been dunking everyone at the Kreml to see what they know."

"Great. I'm in need of a good thrashing and a bath."

"That you are. Can I help him change?"

"You're a friendly one alright. Das, this is Anna. She'll be your best mate until she spies someone else wot interests her. Speaking of..."

He quickly yanked the tarred bowline that closed the top of the sack, and I was surrounded again by darkness. I heard a sound like a washerwoman beating a wet quilt with a pair of swim fins. Even through the walls of the sack I picked up an agreeable scent of herring.

"Yer here to fight at last!" bellowed a very wet, boisterous voice in a strange accent like French and Hindi. It was a magnificent, booming voice like a great wooden instrument, with ringing laughter hanging from it like golden tassels. It reminded me of hearing Louis Armstrong's solos from the 1920s.

A throng of children seemed to come running at those words. "Alnus is gonna fight Afanasy! Get your sausage and elk meat!" "Kvas!" "Kvas!" they shouted.

"I'll take 1/3, you take 1/3. Winner gets 1/3. I get sole distribution rights for kvas, elk meat, and stimulants. You get sole distribution rights for wax, honey, hand-carved tchotchkes. We kick Foma for rights to Anna at the end. Ne ves?"

"I have forever wanted to wrestle the great Alnus Rugosa! No, I say! No! No rights and no money! Only fight for to see whom God favors and who is wrestling rex imperator!!" Afanasy shouted, beating his chest thunderously. The crowd, which sounded like it was growing rapidly, cheered rapturously.

"Kvas! Kvas! Elk meat! Get your elk meat!"

The cymbals and broken bagpipe swelled to an enthusiastic horrible din. The sack was suddenly being pulled over many pointy objects that bedevilled my lower ends. I puzzled over this, and wondered if it was wise to spring from the sack to escape my captor, or feign being a pile of laundry. Just as I was remembering that escape was utterly futile, I felt a hand kneading my buttocks through the sack.

"Anna?"

"Don't try to escape. I'll let you out in a minute." and the dragging continued, through what sounded like deep mud and an array of feral pigs.

"The hetmen are now accepting bids for Alnus at 13 to 1, and for Afanasy Nikitin against. Please place your bets at this time. Are there any bets from the stinking pit?"

"NO!" shouted a chorus of voices from some sort of stinking pit.

"Doris! Carl! Open up!" hissed Anna. After a moment there was a heavy rattle of chains and the sound of well-joined wood squeaking. I was dragged up several stairs that seemed to break my bones. I heard heavy agitated sounds of primates.

"Oh yes, Carl, we loves you too! Doris! Yes! We loves you! Mmmm." said Anna. "Open the bag, won't you Carl?"

And a kind, reflective orangutan peered into the sack at me. He had a wide face with a tasseled velvet cap and a brocaded jacket that looked immaculately tailored, or Italian or both. He grabbed my head and we touched foreheads.

"Carl, this is Das. Das, Carl."


Das Brick Chews a Piece of Cinnamon Gum

"Bees!" quoth Afanasy. It was obvious from his entire face and physique that he was in love with the colony of bees here in the depths of the birch stand. They swarmed around him and he gestured, slowly, allowing the bees to coagulate around him. When a Queen approached, he knelt and prayed for her fecundity.

I was less enthusiastic. I felt around for a window control, so as to roll up the windows. Barring that, I tried to seem as unlike a flower or a hive as possible. The air was thick with vigorous bees. I saw Foma burying himself in the mud, which I had seen him do at various points in our voyages. Now, at last, it did make sense. I remembered a disc of cinnamon gum in my pocket from before I fell into Tver, and I tossed it into the middle of the sledge. Afanasy turned to me and signalled his gratitude. He was in the bee network.

A raven descended from the treetops and alighted on the post at the head of the sledge. It groomed its wings and waited for acknowledgment. Afanasy moved to the head, standing in the mud, and crooked his head as the raven crooked his. There was a brief, forgettable exchange of verbal sounds, but Afanasy's demeanor changed immediately.

"We must to the Kreml! Post haste!"

He seized upon a canvas sack of honey and drew a ceramic urn of pollen from his sledge, which he shattered on a stone and left for the bees to enjoy. They all quieted to a clear "bow" to him, then we shipped off to the Kreml.

He reached into the canvas sack of honey and drew out a handful of amber wax, which he tossed at Plyed. For the first time, I saw both eyes open, and Plyed's generous tongue extended to drain the honey from the wax.

Foma, who had disappeared into the birch stand, appeared when Afanasy rubbed two coins together. He took up the reins and dragged the sledge, honey, bear, raven and all, Kremlward.

Until we reached the sad orphan beneath a tree.

The Man with No Face

At which the sandals of FVMMA began to pedal feverishly up the walls of the serene garden, as he grasped a terra-cotta shingle atop the wall, which crashed to the ground, and then another. At long last he scrambled over the top of the wall and disappeared.

"What's wong wif that man?"

"Nothing, Bella. He's a godly fellow and an earnest friend. Pray for his safety."

Olga and Bella prayed for Fivim's safety, then Olga arranged Bella's curls behind her ear and they moved back into the Kreml proper. Past a mound of brass artillery shells, stacks of cordwood, and sacks of flour they moved, enjoying the smells of the stone halls of the Kreml.

"Miss Olga?"

"Yes Princess Isabella."

"What is a spy?"

"A spy is someone who needs to find out all about what goes on here in the Kreml, and then tells all about us to people who want to take the Kreml away from us. Do you know Dmitri Shemyaka?"

"Is he the guy in the woods with the wolf eyes and the claws?"

"No, love, that's Prince Vseslav. He's a good and godly man, when his claws are gone. Dmitri Shemyaka is a man with no face."

"I'm scared of that."

"Yes, well we're all a bit put off by him. He has a face, of course, but it's made of bass-wood, and his eyes are pewter."

"What's pewter?"

""Shiny metal, like a coin." They were passing a kitchen, where heavy women labored over a stove the size of a large plot of land. The air rang with the smell of potatoes and onions, butter and meat.

"What does the coin eyes man want?"

"He is Grand Prince Ivan's cousin, and he thinks the Kreml should be his. If he takes the Kreml, he'll probably feed us to the Ghugguk."

"I don't like vat. What's the Ghugguk?"

"The three-headed dragon. Baba Yaga's. Don't worry about Baba Yaga. She doesn't eat children so much anymore."

"I want to go back to Castile. Nobody eats children in Castile."

"You'll only be here until the end of summer, sweetheart. Probably nobody will eat you before then."

There is a Spy at Large, Somewhere.

Isabella cried. Olga gave her comfort and a ball of sticky sweet rice.

They swept into a large stove room with tapestries and a very animated lur player laboring in the corner. Ravens were croaking and drying their wings next to a healthy warm fire in the center of the broadest wall. A woman was giving orders to a lady-in-waiting next to the fire.

"Maria!"

"Olga! Why aren't you at the monastery?"

"I spoke with Fivim a few moments ago. There is a spy from Dmitri abroad."

Maria rolled her eyes and tugged at her queue with both hands, behind her neck.

"Olga, when has there not been a spy at the Kreml? Everything we do here is known at the courts of the Sultan, and Poland, and the Horde. Nothing is private!"

"Fivim got word from Boris and Gleb themselves. This spy is working for Dmitri and Baba Yaga and is part of a plan to open our gates to them."

"I don't like vem. Vey want to eat me." quoth Isabella. "Spain, please? Anyone?"

"Where is Boston, ma'am?"

"Where?"

"Boston? East of England? Apparently Afanasy is travelling with a fat bald man from Boston. He could be the spy."

"Why would Fana travel with a spy of Dmitri and Baba's? He's not recently bounced from the turnip wagon."

"No one ever knows where Boston is. I encourage you to have one of Ivan's generals go kill him forthright."

"Olga! We welcome envoys from away. Boston may well be arrayed against Poland and Lithuania, and the Horde."

"El Pelon means 'the bald guy'" quoth Isabella.

"Well there you have it. He represents himself."

"Ask Afanasy to bring him hence. I would Ivan meet this Das Brick and form his own opinion."

"And we will be mindful of spies."

"As always, lovely sister. How is Isabella prospering here in Rus?"

"I wov it" quoth Isabella of Castile.

Maria gestured to a raven, and whispered to it. It flew from the window out into the spring sunshine, away from the ringing notes of the lur player.

OMNIS ECHINUS ASPER

Edderbreche Shuisky stepped on to the sledge.

"Mr. Nikitin I would like you to move your sledge out of Tver' this instant. You are disrupting the orderly God-ordained order of things in this town. Avaunce!" The beedle and the executioner stood by, away from the sledge.

"Master Shuisky, I am making my way to my bee hives, away from Tver'!"

"That is out of order! To wit! I have a challenger to strip from you your wrestling crown! My son Fernigo will wrestle you this day! Step down!"

"As I have said afore, I shall wrestle any and all who come hence to take me on. I remember Fernigo as a pip! A lad! Has he grown, perhaps?"

"Aye, he has returned from his schooling in Allemania and has learnt to write as the gods themselves!"

"Please," quoth Afanasy, passing me his pipe Khoshchei. The glare of that pipe's face hardened into a heart-stopping glower that chilled me to my bones. Still, with trembling hands, I bore down upon the pipe with my jaw.

There were throngs of darters (daughters) gasping and cheering at Afanasy, and at the fellow with long silken hair and a Roman toga, a broken nose and high cheekbones who was piercing songbirds with arrows from his ivory bow.

"Fernigo! Haven't seen you since we found the clay pit together in '51!"

"Hold my slave," quoth Fernigo, passing him evidently weighty ivory bow to a fainting young miss. He tossed his ringlets away from his penetrating eyes and tightened his ascot. "I today claim the belt of REX ET LUX VIVENS."

"Waaal... I'll wrestle you gladly. I don't any Rex or Lex, and I don't plan to give you any money..."

"I would be the greatest wrestler in Tver', and reign alongside my father," he mused, clapping chalk between his beringèd fingers.

"I would gladly wrestle you, but there is no greater wrestler in all Rus than Alnus Rugosa and I would offer that Grand Prince Ivan rules here rather than your wonderful Dad."

"You will eat thy words, peasant!"

At which point Afanasy moved off his sledge and onto the town square, muddy and trampled. He shrugged his shoulders, accepted a few kisses from children and girls, and knelt. He drew his Bible from his belt, muttered a Psalm, and then stood to take his belt off.

I took his belt, ax, Bible, and money pouch. He asked for a last puff of Khoshchei which of course I indulged.

Fernigo hefted his father, Edderbreche, onto his shoulders. Edderbreche held a golden key of some kind aloft and shouted "Literae patentes regis erunt vacuae!" at which point Fernigo tossed him onto the grassy knoll and dove at Afanasy's knees. Afanasy toppled forward into the mud.

It was at that moment that the end of Afanasy's belt flew from my hands and I turned to see Foma hurtling off tavernward with Afanasy's possessions in hand, mud flying. I was at a loss. "Plyed!" I called. The bear raised its giant skull, resting its chin on the fo'c'sle of the sledge. "Can you get the belt back?" He stared at me, dumbly, with only one eye open.

Edderbreche sauntered next to me. "Is that Foma stealing Afanasy's belt again?"

"He trusted me with it."

"Ravens! You!" he shouted, and seven jet-black ravens soared after the fleeing idiot.

Just then I heard a heart-rending crack of bones from the field of battle - Afanasy was sitting atop Fernigo, and pulling his left arm athwartward (to port), and there was a mighty crushing of bones. I smelled death, and my heart sank.

"Should I then be wearing a cage of antlers as well?" Afanasy cried, pulling a rack of splintered reindeer antlers from under the robe of Fernigo. "Or should only one of us be covered with armor?" He tossed the antler cage, theatrically, toward the crowd of darters. They dove, cooing, at the relics.

"Foma, saddle up for the Red Ermine! For there we shall find Boris and Gleb!"

"Ummmm... Foma's gone, he took your belt," I replied, as Fernigo twisted Afanasy's head hard to lee, and pressed him vigorously into the mud. Afanasy sprang from the cold mud, sending Fernigo hurtling skyward, with a shower of flecks on the onlookers.

"Well when the ravens bring him back, have him saddle up for the Red Ermine, for - "

And Fernigo then delivered a mighty kick to Afanasy's trachea, and one of Afanasy's linen shrouded "boots" flew toward the stand of birches yonder. The children and darters clamored thence. Fernigo, pressing his not-insubstantial mass against this denuded foot emerging from the mud, proclaimed "REX ET LUX VIVENS!"

And there was silence. A few bubbles emerged from the mud, alongside the denuded foot.

"And I proclaim Tver' in the name of my father, REX ET LUX EDDERBRACHE, and I proclaim my crown and belt as wrestling's lord and master unto Alnus Rugosa, keeper of the belt of OMNIS ECHINUS ASPER I take on thee!" (The whole hedgehog is prickly.)

At which point Afanasy neatly delivered a kick to the solar plexus, driving Fernigo and his wishes into the stand of birches.

"It is my opinion that Ivan III of Moscow provides greater security for thou, my children, thy well-being, and thy places of business that the well-esteemed and beloved Edderbrache. I, too, welcome the tournament which shall allow me to vanquish the greatest wrestler of all Rus, Alnus Rugosa, and make the name of Ivan III more lovingly enthroned in all Rus. Unless anyone protest against me..."

At which point he disappeared in a flurry of mud, grunts, willpower and revenge. A triangle of ravens appeared overhead, carrying the dispirited form of Foma the idiot and Afanasy's belt, blotting out the clouds overhead and cawing triumphantly. He fell, heavily, into the mud in front of me, whereupon I yanked the belt from him, Bible, ax, money bag and all.

Fernigo's face was firmly squashed into the mud and weeds, with bubble and wrath occasionally surfacing. Oleg, the bartender from the Pine Cone, emerged as the referee and declared the wrestling match over.

Boris and Gleb in the Red Ermine

Das Brick: Edderbrache is a villain, then? Why'd you not vanquish him?

Afanasy Nikitin: He's no villain, rather, a man of honor. The former liege of Tver', before Ivan made Tver' part of Rus. Muscovy. I grew up, truly, with his lovely daughters in Muscovy!

DB: Not Fernigo?

AN: No, he sent his daughters off to the Kreml once Ivan married his oldest daughter Maria. Maria, Olga and Anna were my playmates at the Kreml.

DB: Not Fernigo?

AN: No, Fernigo he sent off to Greece, Turkey and Scythia for training to wrestle.

DB: How did you come to be raised at the Kreml?

AN: No real idea. Just the Lord's plan for me. I was found by Bukol, the hermit, up in the hills behind the Kreml and delivered to the doors of the fort back before Ivan. It was Vasilii who took me in as a babe. Ali Qushji, the great scholar from Samarkand, raised me alongside the Shuisky sisters inside the walls of the mighty Kreml.

DB: So how'd you come to wrestle?

AN: Mostly tales of Alnus Rugosa - the greatest wrestler in all Rus. He wrestled against all comers - even Mongols. He wrestled the Kazan guys: Mahmudek, Yakub and Kasim. It's a wonder he survived! Some even say he lives to this day, driving a kvas wagon thru the woods from land to land. He was seen in Venice last.

DB: Would you wrestle him?

AN: I'd wrestle the Lord God himself! I love to wrestle! I envy Jacob wrestling the Lord's own angel in Genesis 32:24. It is to live, to wrestle. Touch the hollow of his thigh.

And I saw, surprisingly, a kvas wagon coming thence, with a samovar in front, and with the sounds of the lute coming beforehand. A mighty wind blew the grass serially across the entire meadow as in Tarkovsky's The Mirror. And yet the kvas wagon did not meet Afanasy on that day. It moved unnaturally quickly, like Nosferatu's carriage did in that silent film.

And the sledge came slowly unto the Red Ermine, as evening crept up upon the land of Tver'. And Afanasy tied his steed (Foma the idiot) to a stout post theirinfrontof. And in the dark, unpleasant recesses thereof, did he find two vodka-shrouded prophets. Leaning one against the other, as in days of old. Boris against Gleb, and Gleb against Boris. And bothe of them were Schnookered.

"What Ho?" quoth Afanasy.

"Must be Afanasy Nikitin!" quoth Boris and Gleb.

"Coming from Victory against Fernigo, we know! And with a voyager from betwixt I-95 and I-495 with ye? What ho?"

"I brought ye a snipt of vodka." Afanasy hurled a container of vodka thence.

"Hope ye heard of Dmitri's spies hence!"

"Not a word. Where might I find 'em?"

"Couldn't tell ye. Baba Yaga and Dmitri Shemyaka got a hold of a foreign spy who's making tracks into the Kreml. May be your friend, may be?" they said , leering at me.

"I'm no spy."

"Well that's wot spies say!"

Fortunately, I had my ignorances. And FVMMA thought well of me when he saw me.

We first saw FVMMA hopping a fence outside of Edderbrache's villa. He was in mid-breach when we seen him.

"Feev! What ho!" saith Afanasy.

FVMMA stopped, with one foot on each side of the stucco fence.

"Meet Das! He's from hence, like Boston."

So FVMMA tramped hither, wringing his hands. His skin was dark, like an Ethiopian.

"God's blessings! What brings ye thus to Tver'?"

"No idea, actually. I was in bed, and the bed sort of dropped into Tver'. Is this Russia?"

"May be. We're still part of the Mongol Hordes. Can I get you a glass of cold water?"

Olga Shuisky Drinks a Glass of Cold Water


Feev climbed over the terra-cotta partition outside the garden and dropped, breathlessly, to the ground next to the alstromeria. He paused, straightened out his robe and cloak, and looked around. There was only his own sweating self, and the quiet babble of a brook. There were columns of stone with trays of fire on the peak. The air smelled sweetly of ferns and a wooden bench called to his posterior to sit and meditate upon the Lord.


"Mayhaps I should sit... just for one moment. To pray." And he knelt, praying and cupped a mouthful of cool water into his hands.

"Fivim! Why aren't you at the monastery?" sang a joyful voice from a bank of reeds. "As this was said, a singularly handsome and youthful face was thrust through the opening in the leaves" (Deerslayer p 19)

"Olga Shuisky! Would... can I get you a glass of cold water?" he said, thrusting his hands at her.

"Thank you kindly Feev. I might as soon ask you if you've had breakfast?" she stepped out of the reeds, alongside a tiny bard with ringlets of gold and a serious expression.

"I have... who is this, so serious?"

"This is Princess Isabella, from Castile. She has been sent as an envoy from Henry IV."

"I'm firsty."

And lo, FVMMA did give Princess Isabella a handful of cold water. And it was good.

"I... I need to speak with you... alone!" quoth Feev, looking nervously at the cherubic visitor.

"Of course, Fivim. What is it?"

FVMMA took Olga's hand and drew her abrubtly into the reeds from which she had come.

"I hear word of spies abroad, possibly from Dmitri himself!"

"Why, Dmitri is always sending spies. There's nothing so awful about such news. But enough of that! Why did we leave the Princess behind?"

"I was concerned about her... that she might be a ..."

"A spy?! Fivim you are too bold! She's a child! A three-year-old. Have you ever heard of a spy too young for schooling?"

"I've not heard of such, Ma'am. Your excellency, your..."

"Are the vespers upon us at the monastery? I don't want to keep you?!"

"No... it was with news that I sought you out."

""of spies, and babes-in-arms. You need some breakfast, mayhaps."

"No! No... I met a fellow on the highway from the Red Ermine. From Boston or some such..."

"English, then?"

"From farther west he said. In the ocean I imagine. He is your spy! I fear. I fear he is your spy. Be careful Lady Olga. I must avaunt."

"Does this spy have a name, or an appearance?"

"Das Brick. He is bald, and wide in girth. He wears cotton breeches and a red cotton El Pelon shirt. And a coat of fur, and a plaid cap."

""How do you know he's a spy, Fivim?"

"Because he's from Boston. Farewell!"

Das Brick Meets Khoshchei the Deathless

"What Psalm shall we begin our day with, Das? Have you a favorite?"

"Number 55 I think."

"Excellent choice!" I noticed the severely chiseled features of the bone pipe, in the form of a malnourished scowling ancient. I was immediately called to mind of an old testament prophet with only sorrowful news - Jeremiah, perhaps. The face of the pipe had thin lips and wisps of facial hair, a prominent ugly nose and beetling brows. It glared at me, and I witnessed its pupils constrict and the corner of its mouth furl in distaste at me.

"This, Das, is Khoshchei the Deathless. A pipe who rather more owns me than I it. Bukol believes this pipe to be older than Rus itself - brought here by Norsemen or some such. Ali believes it may be of Mesopotamian provenance. What say you?"

"He does appear deathless. Looks older than Death." The expression on the pipe's face seemed to deepen with rage, and redden. I was profoundly grateful that it had no limbs to thrash me with.

Afanasy fished his Bible out of a pouch on his belt and we read Psalm 55 together. Presently Foma appeared with a massive dark oaken sledge, and I was greatly relieved to find a mound of furs under a beam in the back. I enjoyed my first feeling of warmth since leaving my hotel bed, and piled onto the sledge alongside Plyed the bear and a cloud of bees.

"Lo, then would I wander far off and remain in the wilderness (Ps 55:7)."

The sledge moved very slowly across the uneven logs, as Foma sang a cheerful chant about how much he despised his job, and occasionally pulled the sledge a few feet. I noticed, beneath a rough blanket in the back of the sledge, a pair of horses chewing contentedly.

"Wouldn't we get there faster if the horses pulled instead of Foma?"

"Mayhaps..." drawled Afanasy, squinting at the scudding clouds overhead. "But the crowberries aren't moving anywhere, nor are Boris and Gleb, and I expect we'll be thence by nightfall. And Foma needs to be kept busy or else he gets into the Devil's own business, eh Foma?"

"Oh ho ho, I'll cut you to ribbons with a stolen scimitar!" he sang back, cheerfully.

The morning passed cheerfully as we passed several storefronts and a ring of dancing barefoot children kicking a skull hither and thither. Afanasy, reclining on a wooden bench and Plyed, crossed his legs and waved at passers-by, whittling at a wooden gargoyle with his ax.

Afanasy Nikitin is a Great Big Guy

Afanasy and I would take up a subject, often about Boston or cable TV or other miscellanea about life in the New World, only to stop when we realized Foma had fallen asleep or stolen away to molest a prostitute, and that the sledge had been completely still for several minutes. Afanasy would then raise a stubby finger to pause the conversation, then take a pair of coins from a purse on his belt. He would hold them in one hand over his lap, cupping his other hand around them, and rub them together for a few moments. Although I could not discern a sound unless I pressed my ear against Afanasy's hands, Foma would invariably come running from behind a tavern or brothel, splashing through muddy puddles in his bare feet and gathering his robe around his thighs. He would often astonish me by appearing even more filthy and disheveled than when I had last seen him, which I took to be as unbecoming as a young man could possibly be. Equally amazing was the train of lovely women who pursued him, giggling merrily and waving fresh-picked wildflowers.

Foma appeared to be 18 or 19 years old, with straw-like hair cut in a bowl shape which was plastered down at right angles atop his craggy skull like an eagle's eyrie. Although Afanasy and everyone else called him Foma, the Idiot, he was not at all slow-witted but rather cunning, only completely lacking a moral compass, ambition and even the hygiene expected of a housefly. He was enormously proud, and defiant, and apparently committed to leaving his post as Afanasy's idiot until he heard the coins. I never once witnessed Afanasy actually paying him anything, however, and he seemed to subsist entirely on whatever he stole or received from his bedazzled female adorers. If he was ever sober, I never noticed it, and he was seldom without a tiny stub of grimy, handrolled cigarette which smelt like a fish's entrails. He seemed to believe in washing himself in honey, which added to his overwhelming atmosphere of stickiness, and resulted in Afanasy's loyal cloud of bees forever nettling him and leaving a constellation of beestings.

Plyed, by way of contrast, was as well-groomed and polished as a cashmere sweater. His name, which I came to understand means "rug," suited him perfectly, as he opened his eyes only when Afanasy produced an urn of freshly-minted clover honey for him to lap up. His breath, which I came to know intimately from sleeping next to him every night on the sledge as we made our way out of town, smelled like a freshly baked butter croissant, with a hint of nectar and pollen. His coat, and iridescent velvety black, radiated warmth like a coal-fed oven made of lard. I anxiously looked forward to spending a winter in his proximity.

Afanasy himself, the center of the whirling solar system of admiring honeybees and dissipating tobacco puffs, stood almost seven feet tall, a giant blood pudding of a man. His blond hair looked curiously like a butterfly which had alighted on the peak of his haystack-shaped head. He stroked his beard more of less incessantly, busied himself laconically with his ax and his Bible, and was forever ready to hail a friend or potential customer from the slowly-moving sitting room of his open sledge. Children seemed especially drawn to him, and would decorate the sides of the sledge with charcoal drawings, and weave flowers into the hempen rope that lashed down various articles in the bed of the sledge. Since the sledge moved so glacially, there were frequent guests who would step aboard, as one might step on to a canoe next to a pier, take a seat and share in some tobacco or honey-infused wax, and news, then doff a hat and step leisurely off the sledge a few yards later.

He wore a mess of linen leggings around his calves and feet, like bandages, rather than shoes. He wore a vest of sorts, with wide red-and-white vertical stripes, over sleeveless chain mail which came to his knees. His bough-like arms were bare, even in the Russian spring. He frequently fashioned a long, whimsically-themed toothpick and tended to his wide, uneven teeth. His eyes were filled with mischief and his beard crackled with electricity.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Das Brick - You Could Just as Well be Him!

I awoke from dreams of flight, to a rush of cold and fragrant air outflapping the hotel sheets at my face. I moved unhappily to close the window, but of course it was sealed and warm rain rolled down the glass. The hotel's parking lot was lit, the air conditioning humming. I shut the AC off. There came another gasp of cold air, carrying the hay scent of pine needles, and muffled voices from far off. The sheets parachuted out a third time and my heart tripped with the sound of a tree ripping apart. A spray of cold wet earth and leaves freckled the warm bed and pillow where I had just lay. I reasoned that I should pull my corduroys back on, and grabbed my wallet and keys from the top of the hotel's TV.

"KNOCK IT OFF!" I shouted at the wordless voices in the bed. The voices stopped, yet there was a burrowing up through the mattress - a prison escape, most likely. I found my shoes with my toes and hurled myself out into the rain-polished parking lot.

There was no one in the hotel office - it must have been 10:30 or 11 at night. I passed several hotel windows before stopping in front of a room flickering with blue TV. I rapped my shaking, wet knuckles against the door. The TV went out. I rapped again, and the door pulled away from my hand. A short guy with olive skin was as scared as I was. "Help? I need the..." I coughed, hoping I was still asleep. "Stay outside! I call police!" the guy shouted, too loud, with an Indian accent. I realized if he called the cops on me, instead of for me, it would do just as well. I heard another crash of splintering wood, and two bellowing voices laughing. I ran back to the hotel room, feeling braver with some sense of reason and shared reality beneath my flapping shoes. The open door to the hotel room wasn't damaged or mud-streaked in any way. My heart pounding, I looked into the room - and saw the same hotel room I remembered checking into the afternoon before. The TV was off, the sheets askew but uninteresting. The cops would haul me off if the figured I was hallucinating. Then an angry girl in a college sweatshirt stepped to the door.

"What the hell are you doing in here?" The girl ran off.

I was in the wrong room.

I heard the two incoherent voices again, coming from the room next door. The fluorescent light on the terrace outside the room was reflecting off thousands of diamonds in piles. There were gusts of frigid wind blowing the curtain out where the front window had been. The mirror hung by a single screw, and it seemed to have snowed in the room. Twisted knurls of shattered wood left traces in the snow on the surfaces of the furniture.

An older guy was running from the terrace and throwing himself on me. DON'T MOVE he grunted. A cop, but in a football jersey. He came down on me, pinning me in the snow at the foot of the bed and knocking the wind out. He weighed as much as a piano and smelled like gin.

The bed frame jerked into the air and the metal frame came down on both of us. His jersey ripped and began to sponge up his blood. I wrenched his limp dresser-sized form from on top of my crushed unbreathing lungs, and everything stopped.

I woke up standing over the man's body, and arctic lungful of air drowning me. I blacked out again.

I came to. I had fallen on the mattress, and into an icy bog.

Das Brick Is Not in a Hotel Room Anymore

It was a full minute before I could fill my lungs again. I spent the entire time completely uninterested in the icy bog, and the sharp gusts, and the enormous shattered pine tree next to me. I only wanted to breathe air. When air was inside me, I checked to make sure I still had my wallet and keys. I fell down in the frozen mud, and something flapped away. I saw a heron or something, flying into the piercing morning sun. I took another breath. The sun was actually intense enough to warm the dry parts of my body, and I began to crawl out of the mud towards a patch of sunlit pine needles. A frog splashed, and then another. I lay, breathing, on the dry warm brown needles and watched the sun through my eyelids. Everything was pink inside my eyelids and my heart pounded in my ears. The gusts froze me and the sun warmed me. I began to shudder uncontrollably. I heard the loud sound of a bee in my ear, and jerked around to see where it was. Nothing. Closed my eyes and was buzzed again. I waved my arm and saw two large bees bobbing around my face. My jaws were shuddering so that I couldn't see straight. I watched the pink through my eyelids turn to dark.

I kept shuddering as the thick smoke woke me. I couldn't move my arms or legs. I was bound. A fire raged, only inches from my face. I wrestled with the winding sheets and screamed for help. A giant bearded face kissed my forehead and jerked the sheets from me, such that my body spun like a rolling pin on the ground. A roomful of voices cheered and a jar of something musty and warm was poured through my lips.

"Another drink for Lazarus! Mary Mother of God has delivered you to the Pine Cone!"

Another cheer, and another dusty mug of dishwater warmed my parched throat. I spasmodically coughed the liquid out onto the fire, putting it out. Another great cheer.

"Bravo Lazarus! You want God to set the soakèd altar on fire again as He did for Elijah on Mount Carmel! Bravo!" Another cheer.

I vomited again, and the room was gone.

"Peradventure he sleepeth, and must be wakened - I Kings 27."

Das Brick is Just Plain Old Confused

"Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain - I Kings 41."

I was warm again, listening to the rain fleck against the windows in the hotel room. There was no arctic wind, no sawdust, no bleeding policeman. There was a gentle piping of spring frogs outside, and a slow rhythmic breathing of a giant creature next to me. I felt its warm breath on my neck. I retraced my thoughts... what warm creature had I brought to bed with me here, in Lancaster MA?

I carefully felt for the switch to turn on the bedside lamp. There was no lamp, and no table, only a drunken idiot next to me with his cloak pulled over his head. My keys? My wallet?

"Hey! Hey!! Hey?" I shouted, pulling the sheets from my naked form. "Where is this?!"

I felt a bear paw move over my face, and a very heavy ursine forearm rest across my face so that I could shout no more.

"Rest easy, there, nemets. We're at the Pine Cone. There'll be time enow for talking when the sun come up."

Das Brick Awakens at the Pine Cone

I passed an uneasy night between the bear and the snoring flatulent idiot, who inexorably rolled all the coverings from me, save the bear's arm. When at last the sun began to limn the outlines of the room, I knew I was still asleep.

There was a smoky fire taking shape at one end of the room, and a giant bearded creature holding some kind of bread in the fire. There was spring sun beating through a small diamond-paned window in the opposite corner.

"You're alive! Lazarus lives! I hardly expected the good Lord to draw you away once't he'd raised you, but it's fine to get a good look at you. Ready to put out another fire, or can I get you some kvas?"

I boggled at the realization that the visions of last night were not melting away. "Where is Lancaster?"

"England? You're English?"

"American. Where's my wallet?"

"I imagine Foma already sold all your stuff. Sorry. I'll get him to bring it back after we get him up."

I drank some of the dusty mug he offered.

"This is Russia, isn't it."

"We're outside Tver'. Are you lost?"

"Worse than lost. I seem to have lost my mind."

"How's your sense of humor?"

"Heh."

"Heh heh."

"O glory. Where'd you find me?"

"Some bees brought me to you next to Rostropovich's mud farm. Looked like a tree fell on you, or some such. God has been very kind to you."

"Where can I get something to eat?"

"I'm making a khleb. After that, it's fast day for St. Vyatoryzlebovich."

"I'll have another drink, thanks."

"I'm Afanasy Nikitin. I keep bees. I don't usually sleep in rooms like this, excepting when I find a half-dead fellow traveler. What do people call you?"

"Das. Das Brick. I'm a writer outside of Boston."

"Never heard of you! Or Byaston. That's in England?"

"America?"

"That's Polish then?" he said, worried.

"Farther west."

The bear began to slide, sleeping, from the bed to the floor in front of the fire. It seemed to ooze like a bag of molasses.

"Bed's nice and warm where the bear was."

"Enjoy it! We're moving out in about four minutes. They rent the room by the hour and we're out of money. Put this on," he said, flinging a ball of clothes to me. I hastily pulled on some bright red leggings and a canvas potato sack of some kind. It was just the right size for the bear.

There were sounds of women's laughter outside the door, and pounding on the wall.

"Coming!" the giant shouted. He tossed the bread to me, wrapped his giant palms around the ankles of the bear and idiot, and flung one over each shoulder. He opened the door latch was the idiot's head and we left the fire burning as the harridans moved in with their moustachioed guests.

"Morning Masha, Greta, Nunka."

"Morning Fana. See you at the kvas wagon!"

"Good day ladies." We shambled down a decrepit hallway and out into a tavern bustling with life. It was dawn.

"Welcome to Tver', Das!"