At church Larissa went to confession, admitting to not obeying her mother on two occasions. As she appeared to pray her eyes passed over all the regular parishioners. When she confirmed Pan Kravchuk was not among them she could not but help feel relief, followed immediately by guilt at the thought.
After church she and her mother began preparations for the family dinner. Soon Dyid and Baba Rudenko arrived. This week they brought Vovk, much to the delight of Max and Taras. Vovk was mostly Shepherd, crossed with some other unknown large breed, and given his size (his name meant ‘Wolf’ and he carried it well) he was more resilient and willing to engage in the boys’ rough play than was Boba.
The grandparents entered the back hallway with Vovk in the lead. When Anna opened the kitchen door Vovk bounded in. He ignored the pats of Max and Taras, passed by the diffident Boba who seemed to be full of shame, and began sniffing along the walls, very alert. As the grandparents exchanged greetings and kisses with the family, Vovk completed his survey of the kitchen and moved to the next room, the parents’ bedroom, sniffing all along the wall and under the bed.
Taras said, “Look at Vovk! What’s he looking for?”
Vovk returned to the kitchen, lifted his head for a moment and pulled his ears back. He crossed the kitchen toward the living room.
For several hours the tiny Pankrat Kravchuk had been sitting beside the floor grate in the living room, warming his naked body in the column of hot air that rose from the hole in the floor. From time to time a family member would pass through the living room but no one ever noticed him. Snowman slept nearby next to the grate, for the very same reason as Pankrat: to warm his backside.
When Pankrat heard the back door of the house open he sensed trouble. There were dog sounds much too lively and aggressive to belong to the idiot coward dog they called Boba. And there were new voices that sounded older and less stupid than Yuri and his family. He remembered these voices. From where? From…church? Yes, that was it, but ‘church’ was only a word to him, he still could not remember what the place signified.
The clinking of a dog collar and the snuffling inhalations of a dog snout drew near. Pankrat knew that he was too exposed sitting there on the ground. People might not see him but a smart dog surely would. Not to mention his scent, which appalled even him. As his human qualities awakened Pankrat sensed how inhuman his smell was, almost like a mold, leading him to doubt his own humanity and wonder what stuff he was actually made from. To a dog he must represent a blaring lighthouse of scent, of unknown and probably foul intent.
He needed to take cover fast. A large houseplant sat on the ground nearby with its pot resting in a shallow drip pan. Pankrat would sometimes climb into the narrow gap that separated the pot from the lip of the plastic pan to drink the muddy water that gathered there. In the present situation this looked to be the closest hiding spot and Pankrat broke into a run to cover the several inches to the plant.
The dog padded into the room. Pankrat took a quick sideways glance at him and knew he was not one to be cowed like Boba. This dog was large, belligerent and brave. The dog took a sniff and instantly detected Pankrat’s being. He ran toward the potted plant but Pankrat got there first. He jumped into the pan and lowered his body into the pooled water up to his neck to try to cover his scent.
The dog barreled into the plant and butted his nose against the base, trying to get at Pankrat, pushing the whole plant along the floor in the process.
Taras entered the room. He laughed and said, “Now what is Vovk doing?!”
The dog darted his tongue into the crevice. When the meat of the tongue struck water it created a wave that picked up Pankrat and threw him out onto the hardwood floor just behind the cat. Luckily for him the dog did not notice that he had been ejected and was still working his tongue in the crevice.
Snowman, as a matter of pride, had not yielded his patch of ground when the dog appeared in the room. He now pretended that nothing was happening. The cat represented the only shelter for Pankrat at the moment, and he leapt into the fur of the cat’s behind.
But the dog saw Pankrat’s move and he rammed his snout into the cat’s rump. Pankrat, crushed between the rubbery black flesh of the dog’s nose and the cat’s skin, had the wind knocked out of his tiny body. The dog gave a blast of hot, smelly air through his nostrils, then inhaled, creating a roaring suction that would have pulled Pankrat into his sinuses had he not kept his hold.
The dog licked the fur. The cat hissed. A pink wall of slime descended upon Pankrat and the roughness of the dog’s tongue nearly dislodged him. He knew the dog would soon root him out unless he could get the cat to do more than complain indignantly.
Pankrat flipped over onto his belly and bit hard into the cat’s rump. His mouth took in a mix of cat skin and a chunk of dander like salty cake, causing him to impulsively vomit. But the bite had the desired effect. The cat shrieked and whipped around to swat the dog’s face with his paw. The force of the cat’s motion hurled Pankrat off of his body and to the floor again. The dog was surprised and while he pondered how to respond the cat swatted him again.
Taras cried out with delight, “Snowman punched Vovk!”
As the cat and dog fought Pankrat covered the distance to the next hiding place available to him, the floor grate. The metal apron of the grate was warm under his bare feet and looking down into the hole he found the louvers were almost completely closed; Anna kept the living room grate shut so that most of the heat would flow to the bedrooms. Pankrat crawled out onto the metal grate and found the temperature tolerable. If the louvers were similar he might just be able to wait out the dog’s visit down there under the safety of his own private cage. He jumped off of the grate, landing on his knees on a louver slat.
The louvers proved to be much hotter than the grate. Pankrat’s knees began to burn. He rolled to a sitting position, burning his butt. Not knowing where else to go he ran the length of the slat. In the semi-darkness he spotted a gap where the grate rested on the wood sub-floor. He leapt and landed perfectly on the dusty wood surface, where it was tolerable. At last in safety he massaged the burnt skin on the soles of his feet, his knees and his backside.
On hearing the commotion Dyid Rudenko stomped into the living room and took Vovk by the collar without a word. The big dog went still under his stern hand and allowed himself to be led away, taking one furtive look back at the floor grate and the invader within. As Dyid led him past the family Vovk looked like an unrepentant man at the gallows. He cast a final disparaging look at Boba before Dyid dragged him through the door to the back porch, where he remained.
Dyid returned to the kitchen. “It was probably the cat who started it, but I don’t have time to sort it out.”
Yuri took a bottle of Black Velvet and two shot glasses to the table. His father sat down beside him. A platter of pickles, sliced hardboiled eggs and rye bread was already set on the table. Baba Rudenko went to the stove to inspect the dinner Anna was preparing. The children stood to either side of their grandfather, while Boba went under the kitchen table to be near his feet.
Taras said, “Dyid, why did Snowman fight with Vovk? They never fight.”
“Cats get stupid ideas in their head.” Dyid noticed that his granddaughter was hanging back. “Larissa, whose fault do you think it was?”
“It was the evil cat Snowman,” she said, and drifted out of the room.
Yuri filled the shot glasses to the rim with whiskey. “To your health, Tato.”
Dyid sipped half his glass at once, then ate a slice of egg and pickle. He was not a tall man, but stocky from years of labor, with a full head of barely gray hair that he kept in a brush cut.
Yuri said, “So, I got a job.”
“That’s good that you did,” his father said.
“That’s wonderful news,” Baba Rudenko said from the stove. “And so soon.”
“It’s at Hemstrought’s, the bakery,” Yuri said. “But at the main baking plant. I can get the baked goods cheaper than at the store. The kids will like that.”
By the time dinner was ready Dyid Rudenko and Yuri had grown boisterous on the whiskey. Yuri and Anna sat at the heads of the table, the grandparents on one side, and the children crammed in on the other. Anna put out borscht with sour cream, followed by the main course of stuffed cabbage. All were in a lively mood, especially Taras, whom they indulged in his extravagant tales of wandering about the nearby woods with Boba. Only Larissa was taciturn.
After dinner the men relaxed on the couch smoking. Larissa passed by the living room on the way to her room. Her grandfather called out to her, “Larissa, come sit with us.” She gave a faint smile and complied, settling onto the couch beside him. “You look sad today,” he said.
“I don’t think I’m sad,” she said.
“Are you doing well in school? Are your brothers bothering you?”
“School’s fine. My brothers don’t bother me.”
“Ha. Brothers always bother sisters.”
Yuri said, “I’m going to have a highball. Do you want one, Tato?” Dyid nodded and Yuri went off to make the drinks.
Grandfather and granddaughter sat in silence for a time. Larissa suddenly turned to him. “Dyid, do people come back after they die?”
“You mean to heaven? Of course they do.”
“No. I mean back here—to earth.”
“No, of course not,” Dyid said mildly peeved. “That’s the sort of nonsense silly old women make up—ghosts. I don’t know why they do. Just to scare children. All nonsense.”
“You never saw anyone come back?”
Yuri returned to the room with two glasses. “No,” Dyid said. “I’ve been in the world for sixty-eight years and never saw a ghost. I promise you.”
Larissa seemed embarrassed before her father. “What’s this about?” Yuri said.
“I have to do homework.” She pushed off from the couch and fled the room.
Settling back into his seat Yuri said, “Oh, right.” He set the drinks down on the coffee table.
“What?” Dyid said. “Why is she talking about ghosts? Did she see something bad on the television?”
“No, I could deal with that,” Yuri said bitterly. “She had a bad dream about—of all people—Pankrat Kravchuk.”
“Yes. That he was in her room.”
“How strange. I’d be scared too if I was a girl.”
“Even dead that bastard can’t leave my family alone.”
“Yuri, the man is dead. There’s no good talking like that about him anymore.”
Yuri took a slug of his highball. “Ekh, he is just as vile alive or dead.”
“Yuri, forget it.”
“You know what he said about Anna. That she was a…”
“Yes I know,” his father said, putting his hand on Yuri’s arm to stop him. “But you were fighting, and you were drunk too at the time.”
“Oh, you never wanted to punch him?”
“I probably did at some time. But the Devil was in him, and why argue with the Devil? And why be angry at a dead man? What’s the use of that?”
“I’m angry at him because he’s come back to haunt my family.”
“Yuri, you’re talking nonsense.”
“Nobody will miss him. He earned the funeral he got.”
“No. He was a member of our church. You should have gone to his funeral.”
At that moment, right beneath where they were sitting, Pankrat seethed in the dusty darkness. During the dinner he had climbed out of the floor grate and crawled under the couch. He lay upon one of his makeshift beds, formed from a mixture of the fluff that descended from the underside of the couch plus a sizeable clump of Boba’s lost hair. He was hungry, and the smelly dog fur made him sneeze from time to time, producing a tiny percussive sound that would have been audible in the room had anyone stopped and tried to notice. His feet and backside were red from his encounter with the louvers, and his rubbing of the raw, singed skin did not give him succor.
Reason was returning to Pankrat in a flood.
“Ah, how nice, none of you bastards came to my funeral,” he said. “We’ll see how well-attended your funerals are. Yours will be first, Yuri, if God—or the Devil—can help me to it.”
The day progressed. The grandparents eventually left; the children prepared for and went to bed; and Anna finished cleaning the kitchen and turned in herself. Throughout, Yuri drank. He was treating himself to a little celebration. Tomorrow he would start his new job at the bakery. He had been laid off from Chicago Pneumatic but had succeeded almost immediately in getting a new job, and there would be no gap in the family income. For this he was proud. Yes, the pay was less, but he would work hard and be sure to get raises to build up his salary again.
He sat in his recliner watching The Rockford Files, with some difficulty. His poor English, combined with his inebriation and sleepiness, made the show hard to follow. But he persevered in a contented stupor.
He emptied his drink and judged he could fit in one more before bed. At the next commercial break he stumbled out to the kitchen and topped a long pour of Black Velvet with an equal amount of cold ginger ale. A bare quarter inch of whiskey remained in the bottle so he went ahead and poured the rest into the glass. In the living room he set the drink down on the edge of the coffee table and dropped his body into the recliner.
In the course of the television program a character—whose face was doubled—used the word ‘derogatory.’ Yuri struggled to recall what the word meant. Was it ‘untrue?’ He took another slug and returned the drink to the coffee table. But he was not watching where he placed it: only part of the base of the glass overlapped with the coffee table, the rest hung in the air. He removed his hand.
He was startled by a crash off to the right. He moved his eyes to the space between the recliner and the coffee table and once his vision stabilized he saw shards of glass on the hardwood floor mixed with the puddled remains of his drink.
He lowered the leg rest and pushed on the chair arms in an attempt to raise himself. But suddenly overcome with great weariness he let his body sink back into the recliner. With the side of his face resting against the seat back he let his eyes close. He would rest just a moment before cleaning up the mess.
Upon hearing Yuri’s snoring Pankrat stepped out from under the couch. Far above him Yuri’s face loomed with mouth agape, having slipped down the seat back and now hanging over the arm of the recliner.
Pankrat remarked, “You dumb-ass…”
He had not drunk since the incident in the planter and was parched. At the edge of the puddle of Yuri’s lost drink he dropped to his knees and held his face in the liquid. The drink was sweet—much more flavorful than the water strained through the houseplant dirt, or splashed from Boba’s bowl—and cold, yet tinged with a fire that stirred his memory. He drank, slurping like a dog, other times cupping the precious liquid with his hands and tossing it into his mouth. As he drank a certain hard edge in the depths of his head seemed to soften. Oh, the wonderful burning. What was it?
He cried to the heavens:
He drank his fill in the shadow of the snoring Yuri. He stopped when he came upon a shard of glass, its edge curving up from the liquid and catching the light like a sliver of moonlight. Pankrat raised this shard from the puddle with his outstretched hands. It was from the lip of the glass. The edge closest to his chest was polished smooth, while the edge pointing away from him was nasty and jagged. The shard was heavy but he found he was able to wield it, now jabbing with it, now swinging it like a scythe, its sharp edge slicing through the air. Staggering on his tiny legs he waded out of the puddle with his prize.
His lips and teeth were numb, and he thought this to be a pleasant feeling. Then Yuri’s snore far overhead broke out of silence, sending Pankrat into a quick rage.
“Ekh! Look at the…b-big man!”
He stabbed his glass shard skyward at Yuri’s face, missing it by a mile.
“Dumb-ass Yuri! Let’s see if I’m really all that small…”
The sound of Yuri’s own snore startled him awake. His eyes opened onto the scene on the floor, where there was a puddle of some sort littered with broken glass. He had a vague thought, I should clean that up.
But then a motion caught his eye, on the dry floor beside his bare feet. He believed he saw a tiny man, less than an inch tall—an oldish man, naked—running while carrying before his little chest a thing that gleamed like crystal.
Oh, I’m dreaming, still asleep. I can clean up the mess when I wake up. Or maybe I dreamt the mess and it isn’t even there. Succumbing to that contenting thought he let his eyes droop closed again.
Pain woke him, sharp enough for him to cry out. At first he could not localize it in his generally numb body but a fresh wave of pain from his extremities told him it was coming from his foot. He leaned over to see blood trickling down his ankle.
His bewildered stupor was broken by the entrance of Anna. “Yuri! What’s wrong? You shouted.” She saw the broken glass on the ground, and then gasped at his foot. “You’re bleeding! What happened?”
“I don’t know,” he replied truthfully.
She dropped to her knees in front of him. “You’ve cut your ankle. Did you break a glass and step in it?”
“I…” He could not discount her explanation. “Yes I think so.”
“Come to the bathroom. I’ll bandage your foot.”
Yuri took her offered hand and let himself be pulled out of the recliner. He followed her to the bathroom, dripping blood along the way.
Immediately after his slicing attack Pankrat had taken shelter under the recliner, and he now emerged triumphant. He stepped among the drops of Yuri’s spilled blood and selecting the largest of the drops he fell to his knees and lapped it up, adding an element of nutrition to the puddled highball he drank.
A wave of dizziness overcame him and he fell into a sitting position on the floor. He ran his fingers across the blood smeared on his face and upper chest. He thought of the woman he had just glimpsed from beneath the recliner.
“Anna, she’s not such a bad sort,” he said. “Very, very kind. Why should Yuri have such a woman? And not I?”
“And such good, sturdy hips…”