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House Guest

Michael Everson

Flash. A plane of silver, in the dark, catches the moonlight. Flash. Brown lips curl back from sharp white teeth. A whisper: Ngaæershhh. A growl, low rumbling. Fine, strong fingers lift the silver up, a tongue tastes at it, then scrape, scrape, scrape with a soft, bright screech against the teeth. A shiver dances down the hairy neck, bringing a smile, bright against the dark face. Fingers reach out into the darkness, groping, then drawing back into the moonlight. Flash.


Mikhail Sergeevich turned on the radio in the bedroom and went into the bathroom, lathering his face. “Good morning, comrades. Today is Thursday, the 7th of August, 1952, and this is the morning news. Today in Moscow, wide support was given to the President of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet when he announced his plans to – ”

“Damn!” cried Mikhail. Dabbing his neck with a tissue, he called to his wife. “Rasha, look at this blade. I’m sure I threw the old one out yesterday when I started using this one, and look, it’s full of pits and edges. See, I’ve cut myself.” Raisa Georgievna came into the bathroom to look.

“You must have thrown out the new one instead. Here, Mishka, stop that. Let it dry or you’ll be bleeding onto your shirt all day.” She turned and went back out to the kitchen. “Do you want some breakfast? There’s the coffee-cake I bought yesterday, and some tea and milk.”

“Sounds fine. I’ll be out in a minute.”

He came into the kitchen as his wife was hastily finishing her tea and putting down the morning Pravda. “Early day at school today,” she said, getting up, kissing her husband as he sat down, and going to get her coat. “But I’ll get off early, too. Mama asked me to stop by, so she could give us a few things for housewarming. Maybe after I see her I’ll get a chance to shop for some new blades for you.”

“Well, enjoy your day,” said Mikhail. “I’ll be spending mine listening to farmers complaining about the weather. Again. What can I do? I wish it would rain just as much as they do.”

Raisa smiled. “Such a good man,” she said. “Tell them not to worry. It’ll rain. It always does. See you!”

He sighed and drank some tea and ate a cake, absently looking at the back page of the newspaper. Finally he noticed the time, hurried to get his coat and briefcase, and stopped to check his neck in the mirror. He glanced at the breakfast table before he left, and thought he’d leave it for Raisa to get when she got home. Then he thought better of it, quickly rinsed out the tea things, and put the cake and milk back into the refrigerator so they wouldn’t go bad. He hoped he wouldn’t be late for work.


“Kawn? Síyef avléffmi ny míyuk,” said a raspy thin voice from behind the stove. The small, blondish thing peeked out into the kitchen, looking with enormous eyes at the chairs under the table. Swift as lightning it clambered up them to look over onto the top. Empty. It ran its long, thin brown fingers over the table, picking up the few crumbs left of the sweet cake. Gen nou míyuk, gen nou kehk. Fta tícham gen !” With a shout, the little thing leapt through the air to the refrigerator, and pulled on the door handle, again and again, until, furious, it spat on the floor with a cry and ran out into the next room. It stopped suddenly in front of the fireplace, sitting back on its heels and rocking back and forth. Looking from side to side, it sighed a deep sigh, and pawed a bit at the hearthstone. It was hungry. It went back into the kitchen, and eyed the dishes in the sink, especially the empty milk glass the woman had used. It was hungry.

But it would try once more.


That afternoon Raisa came home whistling. She’d hardly had to wait in line at all for the blades which had just arrived at the store. Earlier her kids at school had been in really good form; even little Styopa was getting the hang of his times tables. She put the bag down on the kitchen table, went over to open the window above the sink. It was a beautiful day. A breeze stirred the bright yellow curtains and a lock of her brown-red hair; the rooftops on the hills outside were small and clear against the green. Everything was clean and good today. She smiled again when she saw that Mikhail had done the breakfast dishes and wiped off the table. She put a new bottle of milk in the refrigerator and went into the study to grade papers and listen to music.

When Mikhail came home he was pensive, “I wish I could make it rain,” he said. “I guess it must’ve been easier in the old days, when folk could just pray to their saints for rain. Now there’s no one left but the government to ask, and we can’t give.” He ran his fingers back across his forehead through his hair. “How was your day?” he asked.

“Full of success, I’m afraid.” Raisa laughed, Mikhail with her. “What do you say to us going out to see a play tonight? There’s a new one opening at the Stavroteatr. Might be just the thing to get your mind off of the day.” She got up and went into the kitchen.

“What’s it called?” asked Mikhail after her.

“Red Dragon’s Wings. They say it’s very good. Won awards at Kropotkin and Novopokrovskaya. ‘Best play of 1952’, said the critic in the paper.”

“Sounds like just the thing. How about if we eat light for now, and then go out for coffee afterwards?”

“Just what I was thinking,” said Raisa, returning with a board of bread and cheese.


Not long after they had left for the theatre, it came out again, slipping from a crack in the wall underneath the window. It stretched its arms above its head, and yawned a yawn like floorboards creaking. Then it caught a scent, and stood still, sniffing. Bread. Black bread. It stepped forward, paused, then dashed into the study. There on the table was the end of the loaf that Raisa and Mikhail had snacked on. The little thing grabbed for the bread, and gurgled as it bounced off its hands onto the floor. Picking it up, it tore at the bread with its teeth, tasting the pungent rye and giving a small, contented growl. When it finished, it ran its fingers over the table, and licked all the crumbs that caught in the fine hair which covered both sides of its hands. “Avléffmi prett!” it snapped, with a chuckle. “Dinn fkéttmi. Kovásh gen!” Laughing, taking the board and napkins, it went into the kitchen, where it washed things and put them away. Then it darted back behind the stove and vanished into the wall.


That night Raisa and Mikhail came home late, and went straight to bed. In the morning, Raisa asked her husband: “Did you get up last night?”

“No, slept straight through. Why?”

“Kitchen looked funny this morning, and I thought...”

“What?” He put down the Pravda.

“Well, it’s silly. I thought you’d gotten something to eat and put things away, that’s all.”

“What if I had? I’m a twentieth-century man. I don’t expect my wife to do all the cleaning up after me.”

Raisa stood behind her husband and put her arms around his neck as he sat. “Yes, Misha, I know. It’s just that twentieth-century men don’t seem to know where to put things after they’ve cleaned them.”

“But I didn’t –”

“Look, don’t worry about it, it’s fine, really.” She looked at her watch, frowned. “Oh, no. I’ve got to get out of here or I’ll be late. See you tonight, Misha.” She kissed him, grabbed her coat, and hurried out the door.

“But I didn’t....” Mikhail smiled, shook his head. Before he went to work, he made sure to clean up the kitchen.


 It came out and looked around at the clean kitchen. A growl began, deep inside its belly. “Man fkéttmi. Fta tíchim.” It started shuffling into the next room, toward the fireplace. It was angry, and sad. Things had changed so much since the Old Times; sometimes it was as hard to understand as it was to bear. Where was the friendship it was once so used to having? Where was the fun, and the laughter? Things were so different now.

It remembered the times when it had followed the Daughters, the excitement of weddings and the new house, the joy everywhere when the Daughters joined the Mothers. Then the Great Change had come, and the Sons had insisted on their own strong hearths. That was strange, and seemed kind of backward; but things had always stayed pretty much the same, so the differences didn’t really matter. The womenfolk still used to leave it milk and honey in the corner by the fire; the menfolk would keep a bed of straw for it to sleep on. Whether they thought that the house was the man’s or the woman’s didn’t really matter: the woman always made it her house anyway. But now, the Sons and the Daughters both were forgetful, and mean. They kept teasing, hiding and destroying its food, and this was too much for it to bear.

“Fta tícham,” it said, rearing back off its heels, out of its meditation: remembering its hunger. The morning sun shone through the windows, bright and clean. It blinked its large, moist eyes. Soon. Soon, this house would be darker.


After dinner that evening, Mikhail turned on the television. They rarely watched any television; Mikhail used to call it “the opiate of the masses.” But today he had been specially interviewed for the news by a reporter from Moscow, and was to appear on tonight’s broadcast.

“I wonder what I’ve said to the Soviet people today,” he said, rubbing his chin. “They said I’ll be on just before the weather.”

Raisa folded her fingers together. “Did they ask you about the drought?”

“‘We are not to use the word “drought” during the interview,’” quoted Mikhail. “I don’t know. It wasn’t a long interview. And they told me beforehand that I was going to be on just before the weather.”

“What did you say?”

“I tried to be vague.”

Raisa thought for a moment, half-listening to the end of a report that the quality of paper stocks was improving. “They should be pretty pleased, then, I guess, since after all – ”

“Wait, this looks like it.”

“...feed brought from Ukrainian surpluses to the Northern Caucasus, where many animals have experienced discomfort due to recent warm weather conditions. We spoke recently with the First Secretary of the Stavropol Regional Party, Mikhail Sergeevich Gor–” The screen went black, but for a tiny blue-white dot in the center.

“Oh, not now!” cried Mikhail, springing up to see what was the matter.

“Is it the set, or the station?” asked Raisa.

“The set, I think, though I can’t imagine what could have gone wrong with it. I thought sure we made sure it was from an early-month lot.” He twisted some knobs. It stayed black. “Maybe it’s the plug.” He followed the black cord from the set to the wall. “Oh, damn, it looks fine.”

“Hit it.”

“Rasha!”

“Don’t be such a technocrat, hit it!”

He hit it. The blue-white dot flickered, the screen flashed blue, went out, then flashed blue again as the set warmed up. From out of the static, a woman’s voice could be heard: “...front will bring rain to most of the western parts of our country, especially in the southern provinces. Temperatures will continue to cool in the Baltic republics, with high temperatures in the low teens from Vilnius to Leningrad. In Moscow... ”

“Damn,” said Mikhail as he twisted the off knob. “What a day.” He got up and stretched. “I sure hope it rains tomorrow,” he said.

“It was on the news,” said Raisa. “If it’s not the truth...”

“Then at least it’s the news.” Mikhail grimaced a smile. “Tomorrow is full of a lot of meetings that I should do some reading for. But I think instead that I will take a hot shower, get into bed, and hide from the world.”

“Shirker,” said Raisa. “What about me?”

“You can hide, too, if you want.” He held out his hand.


He was cold. He lay still, on his back, in the ice. I must’ve been asleep for a long time, he thought. Why is it so cold here? He tried to get up, couldn’t. Everything around him was cold. Why can’t I move? He tried to open his eyes, but found that the ice had frozen them shut. Ice? He felt, and realized that the ice was all around him: his hands were frozen, his legs. Somewhere far off there was laughter, small, and faint, and words he couldn’t understand. He wanted to shout, to cry, to breathe. He could not. I am dead, I am dead, I am dead, I am cold, I am alone, I am hungry, oh God no, help me, someone, I’m dying –


“Misha!” Raisa called. “Misha, what is it?” He started, bolted upright, panting. “It’s a dream, Misha.” She moved to hold him, stroked his face.

“Ice – can’t breathe – I’m frozen, I – I couldn’t breathe, Rasha, it was horrible....”

“Hush, Mishenka, shhh. It’s all right now, the dream is gone.”

“No, it’s here, Rasha. It wants me, tried to get me.”

“Nonsense, Misha. It was a dream. You’re here now, not there. You’re safe.”

“I am?” asked Mikhail, calming now. “Yes, I am. I’m here, we’re here. Oh, what a dream, Rasha it was horrible.” He shuddered. “I was frozen, in ice, it was like I was drowning, I couldn’t breathe....”

“Let it go, don’t keep it, Misha. Think of warmth, let your mind be quiet, hush. Take a deep breath.”

He did, and he felt better. “Rasha – ”

“Shhhhh.”

“Good night. I love you.” They held each other, drifting together, quietly, warm in each other’s arms. Listening to the comforting rhythms of each other’s breathing, they fell asleep.

Neither heard the quiet snorts of suppressed giggling from the next room, by the hearth.


In the morning, Raisa woke long before Mikhail. She took some coffee out of the refrigerator. “Good thing I stopped by the beryózka yesterday afternoon,” she thought. “If ever Misha deserved his coffee, it’s today.”

He woke up, terrifically thirsty, feeling dehydrated and hungover. He knuckled his eyes, yawned and rubbed his face. Smelling the smell of coffee, Mikhail smiled, realized that it was Saturday, and lurched out of bed for the shower.

“Morning, Misha,” called Raisa, hearing him. The sound of showering answered her. Opening the kitchen window for the morning breeze, she took a deep breath and listened to the early morning silence. The sky was grey and overcast, and looked to promise rain. Raisa smiled, and nodded, two fingers to her lips. Suddenly an enormous black crow lighted on the window sill, holding something in its shiny beak. Raisa started, her heart skipping a beat. The crow dropped a dead green lizard on the sill and croaked a loud, raucous Caw!

“Shoo! Get out of here!” cried Raisa, waving her arms at the crow to scare it off. It cawed again, flapping its wings at her, and moved to bite at her hands. Raisa cried out, pushed the bird off the sill into the air, and quickly moved to shut the window. The crow flapped in the air, then moved off. On the sill, the lizard’s tail twitched. “Uh! Some ‘good morning’!” She shivered, and stared after the crow as it flew out over the hills. The pale grey-white of the early morning sky held her stare.

 A cry of pain from the bathroom brought Raisa out of her daze. “Misha, what is it?” she called, running to him. He turned from the mirror to her, shaving cream on his face, two rivulets of blood running down his neck: bright red mingled with white into a diffuse pink. “Misha!”

“I’m all right, Rasha. It looks worse than it is. It’s these damn blades.” He took a towel and wiped his neck, wincing on the upstroke. “They’re ruined. I don’t understand it.”

“They were new! I looked at them, and they were fine and new, all of them!”

“They aren’t any more. I don’t know. Damn. How’s the weather?”

“Looks like rain, I think,” said Raisa.

“Good!” Mikhail beamed. “We can only hope it really does.”

“Will you be staying home today?” she asked.

He looked from her to the mirror, and frowned. “I’d probably better go into town and make myself available in case anyone needs me,” he said. “Did you have any plans? It’s just that with the news yesterday, and if it rains today.... If you wanted to do anything, I’m sorry. Whatever it is, we can do it tomorrow, if you want.”

“No, really, there’s nothing, Misha, it’s just fine. I was thinking of going over to my mother’s for a visit anyway. How about some coffee and breakfast before we go? And let’s both make sure to take our umbrellas – just for luck!”


Raisa was glad to walk up the puddled path to her mother’s house. It was a small house in a copse of trees, usually full of swallows in summertime, but now silent with the drip of the early afternoon drizzle. From the pond back behind the house, a duck came waddling toward her. She quacked hello to it. At the door, Raisa was met by her grandmother. “Your mother’s gone into town for the day, I’m afraid, Rasushka,” she said. “There’s just me to visit with today.”

“Babushka, you know I love to see you when I come here!”

“Yes, well, come in, then, come in out of the wet!” She hugged her granddaughter. “A lot of young people don’t go and see their grandparents much, you know.” She took Raisa’s coat and umbrella, and led her into the main room to sit on the sofa across from the hearth. A small fire was burning there; Raisa’s grandmother had always liked to keep a fire alive, rain or shine, summer or winter. “Never know when you might have need of it,” she’d always say.

“Tell me, Rasha, how are you living? How is your husband?”

“We’re both very happy now it’s started raining. If only it keeps up. It’s difficult for Misha, you know, being in charge of things during a drought.”

“You look tired, Rasha. Worrying about the rain last night? You shouldn’t worry about the rain, you know.”

Raisa thought for a moment, considering what to say. Her grandmother looked at her with clear brown eyes. All at once, Raisa began talking about the razor blades, and the crow, about the kitchen, and Mikhail’s dream, and even the television. She felt a bit embarrassed, even silly, talking about all these things, the weird coincidences, but her grandmother kept on listening, not saying a word, until Raisa was finished.

“Well, Rasha, I don’t know what to say. I know what we would have said when I was small. Such things were not so uncommon then. I remember my grandmother, she used to tell us about the domovói, and his importance to the house.”

“The what? The domovói? What’s that?”

“It’s a sort of goblin. He lived in the house, inside the walls. When one attached himself to a family, he took on an obligation to take care of their house – but he also expected that he would be taken care of for his troubles.”

“Grandmother, I don’t think – ”

“When we left him a saucer of milk, and some bread or cake or honey – good things to eat, you know – then he was happy, and so was the house. But if we hadn’t kept him fed, much bad might have befallen us. He might give bad dreams, or he might suffocate someone. They used to be quite common, you know, and each family had one. But people stopped believing in them, and they mostly vanished away; went to live elsewhere, I suppose. I wonder how this one found you and Mikhail.” She looked thoughtfully toward the fire. “Well, they’re not all gone, of course. Maybe it’s not so surprising after all.”

Raisa looked long at her grandmother, and at her hearth. There was a small wooden saucer there, beside the kindling. “You’re serious, aren’t you? Yes, yes you are. Babushka, well, I don’t know. It’s not sensible. I can’t go home and tell Misha that – no, it’s just too – strange. You – ” Raisa began to smile. “Oh, Babushka,” she laughed. “You tell a wonderful story!”

“Yes, Rasha. But there’s truth in any story, especially in the old ones. I remember how bright and smart you were when you were just a little girl. Always seemed to understand what a story was about. Even when it was just a story to me.” One of the small logs in the fire broke in two, fell, and cast up a small shower of sparks. “Rasushka, are you hungry? Would you like some cake? Take some tea with me.”

“Yes, Babushka, that sounds wonderful.”


That night before bed Raisa told Mikhail what her grandmother had said. He laughed.

“Well, I don’t know, Misha. I know it isn’t sensible, but you should have heard her. It was spooky.”

“She’s your grandmother, Rasha. She was born a long time ago, and her grandmother a long time before that. A lot of old superstitions are still alive in older people today. But we don’t need to keep them alive, now, do we?”

“No, of course not, Misha. I didn’t mean that.”

He kissed his wife. “Good night,” he said, and turned the light out.


“Mi-kha-iil! Mi-kha-iiil!” came the soft whisper, again and again. “Mi-kha-iil!” The man started, grunted in his sleep, and rolled over. It was cold, so terribly cold; he was alone, standing alone out on the middle of a frozen lake: and all around him he heard the terrible sound of the ice, groaning and cracking. He felt himself fall, deep into the freezing water, and cried out “No!” as he grabbed for a handhold, and felt the ice slice into his fingers.

“Misha, Misha,” came a soft voice now, “Misha, wait, it’s a dream, you’re all right, don’t be afraid, Misha.” He opened his eyes and saw nothing, nothing but black. Then he felt her fingers on the side of his face and neck, heard her again: “What is it, Misha?”

“Dream – ngunh – it’s the dream again,” he said.

“The ice?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want anything?” She wiped his brow.

“No, just to breathe. To know I’m still here.” He hid his face in her shoulder for a moment. “I’m all right now,” he said, and the two settled down again under the covers. “Thanks.”

“Misha?”

“Yes?”

“What is this? Remember what Babushka said? About the domovói and the dreams, and what it can do if – ”

“Rasha, don’t be silly! Yes, I’ve had a bad dream. I’ve had a bad week, a lot of stress. I should expect to find some of that in my dreams. Let’s not start getting superstitious, OK?”

“OK, Misha. But that’s not what I – um – oh, I don’t know.” She laughed weakly. “These dreams of yours upset me.”

“I’m all right. Don’t worry.”

“Good night, Misha. No more dreams.”

“Good night, my love.”

Sleepiness returned, surrounding the two in a blanket of warmth and silence. As Mikhail was drifting off, there came the sound of distant thunder, and the drizzle sounded like it was falling harder. Raisa stared at the blackness of the ceiling with wide-open eyes.

“Misha?” she asked after a while.

There was a pause. Mikhail’s deep, slow breathing answered her. “Never mind.” Raisa got up quietly, and groped her way through the dark to the kitchen. She stood outside the kitchen door, waiting, listening, watching the dark. It thundered again, distantly. She took a breath, and slowly pushed the door open, stepping into the kitchen. She took down a bowl from the cabinet, and put it on the kitchen table. Then she took the bottle of milk out of the refrigerator, filled the bowl, and put the bottle back.

And then she went, quickly, back to bed.

Los Angeles, 1987-01-26. From Enigma 2.2, 1989, pp. 3-6. Art by Spidra Webster.

 
HTML Michael Everson, Evertype, 73 Woodgrove, Portlaoise, R32 ENP6, Ireland, 2002-09-09

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