by Joe B. Sills
Little by little I am entering into a fantastic world.
The first snow of winter falls on The Taganrog Gymnasium for Boys. Students exit from a wide doorway, each of them uniformed in a dark blue tunic with a long row of copper buttons. A first-grader removes his cloak and sits on it, then demands that someone pull him. An icicle is plucked from the corner of a windowsill, is sucked on, stolen, and hurled at a sparrow. The Greek instructor removes half a sausage from his pocket and inspects it. He gives it a nibble and walks homeward, weaving through a row of skeletal elms.
Anton waits until there is no one left to follow him. He shapes snow into five tiny spheres and assembles them along a low railing. Once he has eaten them, he makes five more. Under white skies, the plastered walls of the Gymnasium are nearly invisible but for the black voids of its windows. In the wake of Anton’s classmates, gashes of mud seep through the thin dermis of snow.
Anton fastens his cap. His hair is recently shorn and betrays a disproportionate head. His mother has reassured him that a big brain requires a big skull. There is a boy in his class who calls him The Tadpole.
He is thirteen years old.
He is wondering if Karina will allow him to kiss her. Perhaps on the back of her hand. He might be more successful if he does not ask for her permission. Maybe she would prefer that – not to be asked. He imagines her skin on his lips and the flavor it might make on his tongue, but these thoughts catalyze a hot alchemy in his belly. It is humiliating to be taunted by this braver version of himself, and Anton replaces this feeling by counting the houses, old and welcoming like benevolent grannies. The snow has melted on the roofs of those who can afford coal.
In Karina’s yard, he finds a town official armed with a bucket and a large twig broom. The official curses and sweeps up a pile of human dung. He knocks on Karina’s door and an old grandmother answers, holding a steaming bowl.
Anton watches them from behind an unevenly clipped hedge. Karina waves to him from the window on the second floor. She mouths, “What are you doing?” The glass near her mouth blossoms in fog.
“I told the child to go to the docks, to empty it in the sea,” croons the grandmother to the official, and she hands him a piece of food that might be a fig. The official hesitates, then places it into his mouth. His face darkens. Neither he nor the grandmother acknowledges Anton as he slips between them.
The house is hot and pungent like a stranger’s breath. Karina stands at the top of the stairs in a wilted dress dotted in pills of green cotton. Her hand waits, palm-up. Anton places three kopecks upon it, then follows her into her bedroom.
“Granny is in love with him,” Karina sighs. She is two years older and half a foot taller and when she sits on her bed, Anton is witness to a naked crease of scalp. “He only humors her because she is old and will die soon. Her heart is weak and nervous, like yours.”
Anton sits beside her and sets his hand on hers. “I’m not nervous.”
“Then stop sweating on me.”
Anton wills his hand to become dry. He clears his throat, logged in mucus. Each morning, when he wakes, tears leak from his eyes. His soul was assigned a hand-me-down vessel. At night, he argues with his body, then apologizes and caresses it, trying to cheer it up. Downstairs, the official asks the grandmother for a tip.
A slender insect glides across the floor. Karina taps it dead with the toe of an exquisite slipper. She asks, “What do you do all day in school?”
“There are different classes. Mathematics, for example.”
“Is that all?”
Nothing else comes to Anton’s mind – it seems that his life has begun just now, at the moment he sat on Karina’s bed. “There is history also,” he guesses.
With a fingernail, Karina scrapes the bug from her sole. “Eight hours a day for that? Do you think that makes you smart?”
“I’m not smart,” says Anton. His stomach gurgles. Idiot, he tells it. “I don’t go everyday. I share a spot with my brother. We share the same uniform.” He picks at one of his buttons.
Privately, he has made her fall in love with him by all sorts of tactics – riches that he hasn’t earned, sonnets he hasn’t written, adventures that could never occur. He once dreamed up a series of tragic events that would deliver them into a warm carriage as an angry mob receded into the horizon. All day he has imagined Karina’s room and how she lives within it – what she does with all that time between his visits. Inking a new face on her wooden doll, drawing animals into the condensation of her window. She owns two dresses and each morning she must lay them on her bed and decide between them. She exists as a series of perfect moments until Anton arrives to contaminate them. He wishes it were possible to let others act out his desires while he watches his own life from a safe distance offstage. At school, he writes instructions for pranks on paper scraps and leaves them on the floor for his classmates to discover and perform.
He looks at Karina’s hair, fallen jagged across her back from her attempts to cut it. Maybe she will not charge him for a lock.
When he leans in to smell her, she looks at him as if he has wandered away from his caretakers. “Three more kopecks, if you want to stay.”
The butcher’s apprentice drives his hand deep into a goose. Its organs are collected in a neat pile on the table. When the apprentice has Anton’s eye, he pinches an intestine and uncoils it as if it were a skein of yarn.
Anton stands at the counter. It is smooth and smells pleasantly of brine.
“Eh?” says the butcher from a stool.
“I need a duck, but…” Anton looks upward. Three smoked ducks hang from hooks in a low ceiling and sway gently in a draft. A sign says they are thirty kopecks apiece. “I need a smaller duck.”
The butcher rises. His size is mythic. “How much do you have?”
Anton empties his pockets onto the countertop. Twenty-four kopecks. The creases of the butcher’s palms are like valleys. As the butcher sweeps the money into his hand, it assumes the value of crumbs.
“A moment,” says the butcher, and walks to the back of his store. He lowers his arms into a basket woven from strips of bark.
If Anton returns home without a smoked duck, his father will beat him. A small voice screams from the deep compartment of his heart, but Anton has disciplined himself to react to this with curiosity rather than alarm. He wonders if his father will send him to the backyard to retrieve a length of birch. Or maybe his father will use an umbrella. Maybe he will use nothing. When his father slaps him, Anton is commanded to stand to attention and look him in the face.
“Twenty-four kopecks,” says the butcher. He places a live duck on the counter. It is not fully grown, and tufts of down sprout from immaculate green feathers. Below it appears a coin-sized puddle of urine.
On the walk home, the duck is silent and purposeful, hopping over ox cart ruts. Anton guides it with a leash he has improvised from the lace of his boot.
I was robbed, thinks Anton, trying on excuses in the way ladies try hats. A tramp took everything. He hit me with a rock. Anton passes a wall of stones and considers running into it, face first. He drops the makeshift leash and prods the duck away with his toe.
Suddenly, he realizes there is nothing to worry about, that he will be beaten regardless of what he tells his father. He decides that he might as well feel relieved. He continues down the street, the duck at his heels. When it develops a limp, Anton swaddles it in his grey cloak and finds a sliver of ice embedded in the soft pad of its foot. When he touches the sliver with his finger, it melts.
“You are cured,” says Anton.
Joe B. Sills is a medical student at Tufts University. He holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Virginia, where he was a Poe/Faulkner Fellow. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, and Zoetrope, in which he was the winner of the 2010 Short Fiction Contest.