When Yuri Rudenko reached the end of the driveway he felt a pair of mild thumps strike his Buick Skylark. Fragments of a snowball radiated across the windshield. He turned off the engine to several more thumps. Getting out the car he said, “Not tonight, boys.”
Max let go of his snowball, but Taras still held his cocked and ready, smiling broadly at his disobedience.
“I mean it,” Yuri said. Taras dropped the snowball.
In the outer hallway Yuri stood on the mat and unlaced his work boots. He was fair of complexion with dirty blonde hair, not large of frame, but wiry and strong. His face was clean-shaven and marked with worry lines. Snowman appeared and curled his tail around Yuri’s calf while rubbing his muzzle against the other leg.
Yuri passed into the kitchen, and Anna put the teakettle on to boil. He gave her a quick kiss on the way to the cupboard, where he picked up a mug and a jar of instant coffee. He dropped into his chair at the kitchen table and waited for the water to boil. After observing the price of the coffee he opened the jar and scooped out two teaspoons of crystals.
“Larissa has a question for you for some homework,” Anna said. “And I have to take Max to the drug store later to buy construction paper for his Bicentennial project.”
The teakettle whistled and Anna poured boiling water into Yuri’s mug. She was darker than her husband, with better features that he was glad were propagated to their children more than his own. Yuri stirred his coffee and lit a cigarette.
“How was work today?” she asked.
“In the night the second forge finally got fixed. All day long they tried to make us catch up. Then at the end of the day they fired me.”
“They laid off another two hundred twenty, and I was one of them.”
“Oh Yuri…” She sat down at the table. “What will we do?”
“They gave me two weeks, and I already paid the rent. I’ll find something else this month.”
“But what if you can’t find something this month? I can go back to cleaning…”
“That won’t be necessary,” he said with some annoyance.
She said, “And Alex?”
“Him too. And Prymak, but not Voynarchuk. Also Walt gets to stay. They made him a foreman.”
A door opened in another part of the house and footsteps approached. Yuri put his finger to his lips. Their daughter entered the kitchen. “Tato! I’ve been waiting for you to come home.” She leaned down and presented her cheek to him to kiss. At twelve she was the eldest of the children.
“Why is that, Larissa?”
“For English class I have to write a story about something exciting that happened to me or my family. I want to write about the time the wolf was stalking the village back home. Can you tell me the story again?”
Anna returned to the stove to stir a pot of boiling potatoes. “Your father just came home from work. Why don’t you let him rest?”
“I was hoping to start writing tonight…” she said.
Anna interjected, “Well I have a story for you! Involving another beast—our own Snowman. I went into the cellar to get potatoes. I reached into the potato bin and in the corner of my eye I saw something move. Who do I see but Snowman! Sitting at the bottom of the potato bin staring at me. Of course I screamed! What does Snowman want in the potatoes?”
Larissa laughed. Anna said, “He must be very hungry today. Why don’t you give him his food now?”
Larissa opened a can of cat food. The boys passed through the kitchen door shedding snow along the way. Anna shouted, “Boots off in the hallway!”
Yuri stubbed out his cigarette and sighed at the chaos around him. He knew he could not afford one more night at Spilka’s, but did he perhaps deserve it?
The spore that had begun as a single cell continued its division, growing at a geometric rate into a microscopic blob. After two days of growth the mass crossed the threshold into visibility to the naked eye—at least under good light and if the eye was right up against the potato. At this point the blob began to differentiate in form. Five nubs grew out from the center, one a bit shorter than the rest. This nub grew rounder, while the two nubs on the opposite side lengthened and grew into a V shape, until the mildewy blob became recognizable as a creature with four limbs and a head, clinging to the side of the potato like a flea. An hour later one of the proto-limbs managed to unstick itself from the skin of the potato, rising once before slapping back down. It was followed by the other limbs and the head making similar tentative motions until the spore creature raised itself on all fours and began its first halting crawl across the surface of the potato planet.
The creature detected a softer section of potato and dropped its head to the surface. It began to eat through the skin, after much effort reaching the starchy interior. It could sense already after several bites that this was a meager source of food, that something essential to its being was lacking in this meal, and that it was destined to be always hungry living on the potato.
At that moment Snowman reappeared outside the potato bin. He had not been in the basement since, advertently or not, inoculating the potato with the spore. Something compelled him now to return. He leapt inside the bin and sniffed along the edges, detecting moldiness but no scent of mice. One spot in the corner warranted closer inspection and he crouched down and sniffed deeply. While doing so the cat’s ham pushed again the potato that hosted the creature.
The creature found itself surrounded by warm white fur, a more promising environment than the cold potato skin. It released its grip on the potato and clamped onto the strands of fur, holding tightly as the cat jumped out of the bin.
Whatever compelled Snowman into the cellar now sent him back. He ran across the cement floor and up the stairs to the main house.
Taras snuggled against his mother in his bed. She was reading him his favorite book, The Mitten, wherein a boy loses his mitten in the forest and it becomes home to a steady parade of forest animals of increasing size. It was his favorite part, near the climax of the story, where preposterously a bear attempts to live in the mitten.
Across a narrow gap his brother lay in the other bed. At ten Max read his own books, which contained far fewer pictures. But at the moment his eyes stared unfocused at the page as he secretly listened to his mother tell the story. Boba, the elderly mutt, made himself into a neat pile next to the radiator and waited for the kids to go to sleep.
As Anna reached the end of the story, Snowman sauntered into the room. He jumped onto the foot of Taras’s bed and nestled atop the comforter.
Taras sighed with satisfaction as he pictured the bear, the raccoon, the owl and all the other animals scurrying away from the shattered remains of the mitten lying in the snow in a forest somewhere. “Can you read another, Mama?”
“No, Taras, that was three already. You have to sleep now. You too, Max. Lights out.”
Max said, “Why do I have to go to bed now? I’m older than him.”
“He’s the one who stayed up late, and now it’s your bedtime too.”
She turned out the light and passed through the door, leaving it open a crack in case Snowman wanted to come out. Looking back she could just make out Snowman sitting on the bed watching her, his eyes glowing red.
Two days later, the boys had just come home from school and were donning snowmobile suits to go climb the snowbanks. Taras hiked up the leg of his suit and pushed down his sock so that he could scratch his ankle. Anna caught a glimpse of a red splotch on the exposed skin.
“What’s that, Taras?”
“What Mama?” He was done with scratching and struggling to put on a boot.
“On your ankle?” He wasn’t listening, anxious to get out the door. “Just stop for a second.” She pushed him back into his chair, took off his sock and rolled up his suit leg, revealing a streak of raw red skin running from his ankle up his calf. “How did you get this?”
“I made it myself by scratching,” he said, almost proudly.
“Why were you scratching?”
She looked more closely. Roughly in the center of the streak was a precise scab. “This is where it itches?” she said, pointing at the scab.
“It itches all over,” he said.
“Well you have to wait a minute. I need to put iodine and a band aid on it.”
Max, fully suited, smirked at the exasperated Taras as he himself passed freely out the door.
“Sit, Taras,” his mother said.
“But Max gets to go out.”
Later that evening Anna and Larissa were cleaning up after dinner. While Larissa washed dishes her mother noticed that from time to time she would put down the sponge and scratch a spot on her forearm. Anna said, “Turn off the water and show me your arm.”
Larissa turned over her forearm. In the soft inner part there was a wound similar to Taras’s red streak, also with a small scab in the middle. “Where did you get that?”
“I don’t know,” Larissa said, “I must have scratched at it in my sleep.”
“Does it itch?”
“I’ll put calamine on it. But first I want your father to see it.”
They went out to the living room where Yuri sat in his recliner looking through the classified ads. He hastily put down the paper when they entered.
“Look at this on Larissa’s arm,” Anna said.
Yuri took Larissa’s hand and turned her arm from right to left. “Okay,” he said.
“Do you have any other marks?” Anna asked.
Anna sent Larissa back to the kitchen. When she was alone with Yuri she said, “Taras has the same kind of wound on his ankle. I’m worried it’s chicken pox.”
“Wouldn’t the marks be all over if it was chicken pox?”
“Yes, but this could be just the first one, and there will be more.”
“What else could it be?” he said.
“It looks like a mosquito bite.”
“In the middle of winter there are no mosquitos.” A look of disgust passed over Yuri’s face. “Could it be bedbugs?”
“I haven’t seen bedbugs since the DP camp. Never in this country.”
“Well with our luck we’ll be the first to get it in this country…”
“I’m really worried it’s chicken pox.” She hesitated. “I should take them to the doctor.”
“Can’t it wait?”
“No, Yuri. They’re sick.”
“They’re not sick. Not yet.”
“How can we know? Only a doctor can tell.”
Yuri stubbed out his cigarette. “Anna, I don’t think we can pay for a doctor right now.”
“Let’s give it a few days. See if the chicken pox grow.”
Anna cast her eyes down to the ground. “Yuri? Did you go to the Unemployment office today?”
He waved the newspaper at her. “I’m looking for a job and I’ll have one soon.”
“But what if you don’t? Shouldn’t you sign up for Unemployment in case you don’t get a job fast enough?”
His eyes flashed. “Will you be the one to tell Father his son is on the dole?”
“It’s not the dole. You pay for it. From your paycheck.” After asserting herself she cringed.
He inhaled sharply in preparation for an outburst of words, but then sighed. “I’m sorry. I’ll get a job soon…But we’ll wait a few days with the doctor. And if you still need to take the kids after that, you can.”