Monday, April 11, 2011

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.

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