Shortlisted entry in the Fiction section of the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2022.

Now it happened that Dimitri sent a package home, by way of Belorussia. It arrived reinforced in brown cardboard and plastic strapping – and once unwrapped, what a marvel it was! Gifts aplenty for his family: bottles of medovukha and vodka for his father and uncles, fur coats for his mother and aunts, a package wrapped secret for his young wife glowing in the early months of her pregnancy, and the finest thing of all—kept safe in packing foam, a set of machines, shining and bright like fresh snow.

A washing machine, Ekaterina marvelled. No doubt a blessing when the baby arrived. With it, a dryer, a hot water heater, a television, an air conditioner, new electrical lights.

These were glad gifts indeed, for no one had wanted Mitya to be called into military service – but there was no money for university (or the bribe to enter it); he was of sound health; he was not yet a father; and with no money for university, there was also no money to bribe his way out of the military. But with these gifts, there was good cause for Mitya to have joined. They might have toiled in the fields for another lifetime and never hoped to own even one of the wonders like what Mitya had sent.

The only one not overjoyed was his old grandmother, who made the sign of the cross upon seeing such things.

Throw it away, she implored. The mark of evil is on them.

But they paid her no mind: the old grandmother was near-deaf, near-blind and lived stubbornly alone with only her cats. There had been no gifts solely for her, so what could her words mean but envy?

Across the village, many such gifts had arrived from young men in their service, but nothing as fine as the washing machine Mitya procured. His family was the talk of the village for such a thing—and his grandmother too, for being so ungrateful to these gifts.

(Other grandmothers agreed with her, as is the wisdom of old women to know such things. No one paid any mind to them either.)

When the gifts were installed, how the house glowed! – warm and as bright as a candle-lit house on a Christmas card, and modern and shining like a Muscovite home. 

For a time, all was well. Dimitri could not send letters or call home, though there were more parcels. News did come of other young men from the village – grief touched families, but not Dimitri’s, and it was agreed that he might have been born under a lucky star that had not shone until now. The spring grain was planted; Easter passed and Christ was risen; Ekaterina’s baby began to kick. 

The old grandmother had been busy in all this time, leaving out bread and milk for the domovoi of the household, sweeping the house with a besom made of white birch, and praying at every hour in church. She was readying a cage of pigeons for her fool-headed son, for old beliefs said they brought good luck into the home, when a neighbour’s chicken crowed at her, thrice, and it was not yet noon.

She loosed the pigeons and watched them vanish into the sky. There was no undoing it. A hen crowing in the manner of a rooster meant a death in the family.

Then she lured the hen into the empty cage and took it home to kill.

Soon, there was fussing about the village over the missing chickens. The old grandmother paid it no mind (for all old grandmothers were paying it no mind) and went to bring Katya into her own house. Her son’s house was cursed, and would stay as much, while the stolen machinery hummed and heated in its walls, but her beliefs were the old beliefs. If they swapped houses, if she sprinkled holy water about the home with birch branches, if she coaxed the domovoi to return… the misfortune might be avoided.

Ekaterina pleaded not to go, for the baby would not stand the cold of the grandmother’s house. Dimitri’s mother and father cast her out, decrying the beliefs of foolish old women.

The old woman returned home to her cats, and there she may be to this day, for the story no longer concerns her.

Dimitri’s father recalled the story to friends over the gifted vodka. Delusions, they laughed, for they too had the nagging of old women in their ears. The night passed with talk of missing chickens and the many days it had been since their sons sent word that they were alive, and once the vodka was gone, Dimitri’s father set off for home. The night was clear and as black as iron. An owl flew overhead, cooing absent-mindedly to itself. 

Foolish thing, he said, and laughed on thinking of it. Foolish – all of it, the talk of old women, the nonsense of chickens bringing bad luck or blood being found in their eggs. He was laughing so hard, warmed by the heat of the vodka, that he did not hear the crack! from an aspen tree as he passed beneath its boughs. That was the end of him.

It was, everyone knew, a bad death. The aspen tree that felled him was burned and its ashes buried at a crossroads. His burial was quick and quiet. His widow in her funeral black grieved and did not leave her home.

A parcel did arrive from Mitya, while the soil on his father’s grave was still fresh – another coat, this one of black sable fur. Ekaterina secreted it away from her mournful mother-in-law. There was still a household to maintain while her father-in-law’s soul lingered on earth for forty days after his burial – and between Ekaterina, exhausted by her mother-in-law’s care and the baby that kicked all the more harder, and the mother-in-law herself lying in bed with the quiet stillness of one already dead, it was easy to forget of things like fur coats. 

While Ekaterina dozed away an afternoon, her mother-in-law rose from the bed and found the coat, laying in the cupboard, still in its packaging. The label bore Mitya’s hand. The postal office stamp announced it was sent out on the day of his father’s death.

My darling, she said. Surely her husband’s soul, flitting about the house, could hear her. You sent me such a wonderful thing.

The sable coat dripped from her shoulders like a sheet of ink, and with it donned, she followed what she could see of his soul out of the house.

The villagers found her in the clear early morning. They did not know how a woman could vanish in such bright spring daylight, or how such a fine light fur like sable could weigh a body down in the river, but they did know that this was a bad death and the task of burying her would fall upon them. No one would ask this of Ekaterina, when there was ill luck for her unborn baby to look on a corpse.

And so, her husband’s inheritance had become Ekaterina’s. She became mistress of a house that hummed and heated with its wonderful modern machines, full of fine things that shared with no one, for not even Dimitri’s aunts and uncles dared come near the place. Food was brought over to keep Katya and the baby well, but little was spoken to her.

The misfortune brought grief and a headache. Ekaterina lay down, tired by the baby and what she could see were her father-in-law’s and mother-in-law’s souls flitting about the house. Her vision spun; she was dizzied by their flying around her head, restless in their deaths. 

Dimochka, she sobbed, my dearest. Come home soon.

And someone answered, when she had thought herself alone in the house. It sat in the corner, and then it began to crawl towards her on its broken legs. It smelled of the grave as it leaned over Ekaterina; its bed had been the earth instead of a coffin.

Katka, it crooned. Its hand reached forward to close Katya’s eyes. Mitka will come soon. But you will leave first.

The villagers broke down the door when Katya had not been seen for days. She lay as though sleeping, like a tsarevna from a fairytale, still and red-cheeked on the couch. It was grief that killed mother and child, they decided, and she was taken to the house of her grandmother-in-law to ready her for burial.

Of this, Dimitri knew nothing about when he returned only days later. It was a long and hard journey from where he had started (and the way home was always longer than you think it is). What he had seen, he would not put words to. So it was that he came home in the night after travelling without pause, for redeployment always came too soon.

His home was empty. The front door, forced upon, swung unevenly on broken hinges. What was inside lay untouched – no one dared rob a house of a family so cursed, though Mitya knew nothing of that.

He went room to room, calling for his father, his mother, his dearest Katyusha with their baby. There was no reply, although his gifts had certainly arrived – a bottle of opened medovukha here, a coat on the back of chair there. With little to do, he found vodka to pass the night. In the morning, he would go to his grandmother and ask what had passed in his absence.

To our health, he said, by way of habit.

And to yours, came the voice from the corner. It sat as though it had always been in his house.

Mitya dropped the bottle. It shattered into a thousand pieces as he dragged himself back. He could not walk, for on seeing that thing, the strength was gone from his legs. It crawled through the glass in its path towards him, for it could not walk with bones jutting through its legs. 

You can’t be here, he stammered. It has been more than forty days. You should be gone. How are you here?

(But he remembered her death – a bad death. She was of the unclean dead now, and her soul would walk the earth without rest.)

The dead travel fast, it laughed. I travelled with your gifts, Mitka. I spat in the vodka that your father drank. I sat on your mother’s shoulders when she wore her fur coat. I am the bad air from the dryer your Katka breathed.

It pounced to weigh him down. Its body above his was a bag of skin and bones, and yet he could not move.

Do you remember this, Mitka?

It wasn’t me, he babbled. It was my battalion that did it—I only wanted to survive, I didn’t join them, I didn’t kill you.

You wanted to survive, it jeered, and you did. You wanted to thieve and you did. You wanted to burn my home to ruin and you did not stop. And I am here to return your kindness.

It leaned towards him, its mouth opened wide like the gaping pit they had thrown her body into. Inside, it was the darkness of a grave.

Open wide, oh earth, it said, and receive him, and Dimitri screamed and screamed and screamed.

Now it came to pass that Dimitri’s house burned to ashes overnight. The villagers suspected a fault in the electrical wiring from all those new machines running at once, though no one knew what they would tell Dimitri when he returned. 

But he never returned, and for a long time, no one would go near that house where an entire family had come to ruin. Out of the ash grew a field of sunflowers, with seeds as bitter and black as iron, and it came to take root and spread over the village until its inhabitants were driven away, and there it may be to this day.

This piece was an entry in the 2022 Honi Soit Writing Competition.