Sunday, April 10, 2011

Afanasy and Bukol Take a Bath

Afanasy waited at the usual rendez-vous point, a rotted and mossy table in an overgrown garden. There were stone blocks, home to great sheets of lichen, for sitting on. Plyed lay behind him on his back, sniffing. Afanasy worked on a wooden sea monster with his ax, and communed silently with Khoshchei the Deathless.

It was raining in spurts, so that circles formed on the punky flaccid table irregularly. Bees lifted off and set down, sometimes in pairs. A heron stared from a stand of birches across the clearing. Afanasy was slowly regarding the entire overgrown garden, taking note of promising gangs of mushrooms and fruiting berries. 

The heron spread its giant wings whenever the sun chose the stand of birches to warm. Afanasy made a toothpick and worked at his canines. Plyed's pupils constricted and dilated. The heron exploded to the top of a birch and exchanged ideas with another heron far hence. The bees appointed an ambassador to debrief Afanasy regarding some abandoned ermine traps they had discovered on the other side of the creek.

Afanasy set the sea monster down on the table and sized it up. Felt around in his leggings until he drew out a few dried smelt, two of which he sent arcing over Plyed's mug so that they neatly disappeared into his jaws, and one which he worked himself. 

Exactly one hour before sunset there came a pair of doves and an enormous iridescent moth the size of a raven. The doves hung in the air, hovering and speaking to one another at treetop level just outside the garden. The moth drifted across the clearing in slow arcs like a piece of paper falling from a great height, and settled restlessly on the table. The bees formed a reconnaissance party to confer with the moth. The doves departed, and a heap of quilts came humping across the clearing.

"Happy Birthday, Papa!" sang Afanasy to the shambling mound. "Let's take a bath!"

Bukol, the hermit, emerged from the quilts one at a time, leaving a trail of parti-colored felt and wool across the clearing. At last, as he approached the rotted table, he threw off the last quilt and threw his hands up, silently. He was a tiny creature, the size of a five-year-old boy, with matted locks of blond hair and garish ochre and canary-yellow face paint. He hobbled, keeling to one side, and rattled with animal bones as he lurched ahead. Mutely he embraced the giant at the table, and they remained in silence, arms locked around one another. while another rain shower clapped for them. 

The hermit then slowly drew a giant sleeve of pemmican from a pouch on his back, and placed it reverentially before the dozing bear, with a deep bow and a flourish of his arms.

He cupped his hands together for a full three or four minutes as bees took turns alighting on his hair, his arms, his fingertips, and clouded around his form.

"Let's get the bath going! My skin's a bit parched!" enthused Afanasy, getting up from the table. The sun was falling asleep in the west. The bats were emerging, curlicuing in the treetops.

Afanasy and Bukol left the garden through the stone wall, down a pine needle-strewn path through the thin woods, to an irregularly-shaped boulder next to a sleepy creek. The boulder was cracked from top to bottom so that a great blancmange like Afanasy could just extrude himself through the fissure and into an interior wood-lined, moss-floored tomb filled with steam. There was no light, but a wonderful heavy smell of boiled stones, sweet hay ferns, and pine pitch. Both of them shrugged off their clothes and used them to stuff the fissure closed, and found seats in the dark around the deep cellarhole where the echoing churning sounds of a distant boiling tidal pool began. 

The only visible feature were two fuming pinpoints of deep amber, the eyes of Khoshchei ever raging and gnashing his ivory teeth.

After an hour or two:

"Great to see you, Papa. You look sharp. The Lord has been good to you since I seen you last year."

Bukol responded with some low guttural rasps, like someone choking on a bone fragment. 

"No kidding! How long have you been in here, Yaga?"

"Since Shrovetide. I've not been feeling well." replied a low, honeyed woman's voice. "I'm surprised you came looking for me, Bukol."

"Don't flatter yourself, Yaga. This is Bukol's birthday and we're here as we are every year, celebrating the gift the good Lord gave us, of this handful of man. My dad."

"Happy Birthday, Bukol. Did you get the monkey fingers I left you?"

"Of course! His spells are just as good as yours, still, and none of them turned into flesh-eating monkey slaves at all. They're all collecting sap, living in trees behind the Kreml, working for Alnus."


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