“What shall I write?” said Marco, and he dipped his pen in the ink.
Vasilisa had not seen her daughter for four years. Her daughter Yefimya had gone after her wedding to Petersburg, and had sent them only two letters. Three years ago she seemed to vanish out of their lives; not a word from anymore. And, whether the old woman were milking her cow at dawn, or heating her stove, or dozing at night, always Vasilisa’s thoughts returned to the same thing: was Yefimya dead or alive, and if alive, what was she doing? Vasilisa should have sent a litter, but neither she nor her husband, could write.
Now, with the onset of Christmas, Vasilisa could bear it no longer. She went to the tavern where Marco, the brother of the innkeeper’s wife sat day after day. It was said he could write letters well if properly paid and Vasilisa prayed for his help. She talked to the cook at the tavern, then to the mistress of the house, then to Marco himself. They agreed upon fifteen kopecks.
And now, on the second day of the holidays, sitting at a rough table in the tavern kitchen, Marco held the pen in his hand. Vasilisa stood before him, a look of anxiety and woe etched on her face as she struggled with her thoughts. Pyotr, her husband, a rib-like thin, old man with a brownish bald patch, had come with her, and he stood staring straight ahead like a blind man. On the stove a piece of pork simmered in a saucepan. It spurted and hissed, and seemed to be saying flu-flu-flu. The kitchen blazed with heat.
“What am I to write?” Marco asked again.
“What?” asked Vasilisa. She eyed him with suspicion and anger. “Don’t you worry me,” she said. “You’re not writing for nothing. Have no fear, you’ll be paid. Come, write: ‘To our dear son-in-law, Andrew Hrisanfitch, and to our only beloved daughter, Yefimya Petrovna, with our love we send a low bow and our parental blessing abiding forever.'”
“Written,” said Marco, “fire away.”
“‘And we wish them a happy Christmas. We are alive and well, and I wish you the same, please the Lord…the Heavenly King.'”
Vasilisa pondered and exchanged glances with the old man.
“‘And I wish you the same, please the Lord the Heavenly King,'” she repeated and begun to cry.
She could say nothing more. And yet before, when she lay awake thinking at night, it seemed her thoughts could fill a dozen letters. Since the time when her daughter had gone away, much water had flowed into the sea, Vasilisa and Pyotr felt bereaved and sighed heavily at night as though they had buried their daughter. And how many events occurred in the village since then, how many marriages and deaths. How long the winters had been. How long the nights.
“It’s hot,” said Marco, loosening his tie and unbuttoning his collar. “It must be a one-hundred degrees. What else shall I write?” he asked.
The old couple was silent.
“What does your son-in-law do in Petersburg?” asked Marco.
“He was a soldier, my good friend,” the old man answered in a weak voice. “He left the service at the same time as you. He was a soldier, he read penny dreadfuls, and now to be sure, he is at Petersburg working as a porter for a hydropathic establishment. The doctor treats the sick with water.”
“Here it is written down,” said the old woman, taking a letter out of her pocket. “We got it from Yefimya, goodness knows when. Maybe they are no longer in this world.”
Marco thought a little, then began rapidly writing:
“At the present time” — he wrote — “since your destiny through your own doing allotted you to the Military Career, we counsel you take up the rifle against the undead which plague our town. Clawing up from the muddy ground in Spring, these ravaged men, women, and alas, children, have overrun the churchyard, dismembering the village priest as his prayers carried heavenward.”
He wrote and kept reading aloud what was written, while Vasilisa considered what she ought to write: how great had been their want the year before, how their corn had not lasted even till Christmas, how they had to sell their cow. She ought to ask for money, ought to write that the old father was often ailing and would soon no doubt give up his soul to God…but how to express this in words? What must be said first and what afterwards?
“Take note,” Marco went on writing, “Father has been holding the door against the undead. In the yard, they ripped apart the cow. Her screams filled the afternoon. Our crops have been trampled and the corn ran out before Christmas. We ask not for money. We ask for your bravery. For your strength.”
The old man stirred his lips and said softly:
“It would be all right to have a look at the grandchildren.”
“What grandchildren?” asked the old woman, and she looked angrily at him; “perhaps there are none.”
“Well, but perhaps there are. Who knows?”
“And who knows how long we shall last,” Marco hurried on, “what is the enemy without and what is the enemy within. The foremost of our enemies within is Bacchus. Outside, it is the zombies. Their faltered steps. Their peeling fingers scraping against doors and window sill. The strangled cries as they range through the streets.” The pen squeaked, executing upon the paper flourishes like fishhooks. Marco hastened and read over every line several times. He sat on a stool sprawling his broad feet under the table, well-fed, bursting with health, with a coarse animal face and a red bull neck. To Vasilisa, he was an affront: conceited, invincible, proud of having been born and bred in a pub; and Vasilisa quite understood the vulgarity, but could not express it in words. She looked angrily and suspiciously at Marco. Her head began to ache and her thoughts were confused from the sound of his voice and his accented words. The kitchen was stuffy and hot. She said nothing, though, just waiting for him to finish scribbling. But the old man looked on with full confidence. He believed in his old woman who brought him here, and in Marco; and when he had mentioned the hydropathic establishment it could be seen that he believed in the establishment and the healing power of water.
Having finished the letter, Marco got up and read the whole of it through from the beginning. The old man did understand, but he nodded his head trustfully.
“That’s all right; it’s smooth,” he said, his words wandering into a sigh. “God give you health. That’s all right…”
They laid on the table three five-kopeck pieces and went out of the tavern; the old man looked immovable straight before him as though he were blind, and perfect trustfulness was written on his face; but as Vasilisa came out of the tavern she waved angrily at the dog and said:
“Ugh, the plague.”
The old woman did not sleep all night; she was disturbed by images of her daughter and of skeletal hands grasping for her own neck. At daybreak, she got up, said her prayers, and went to the station to send the letter.
It was between eight and nine miles to the station. The dead rested peacefully in their graves.
Dr. B.O. Mozelweiser’s hydropathic establishment worked on New Year’s Day exactly as on ordinary days; the old difference was that the porter, Andrey Hrisanfitch was standing at the door, reading the newspaper. Just at ten-o’clock there arrived a general, one of the habitual visitors, and directly after him the postman. Andrey Hrisanfitch helped the general off with his great-coat and said:
“A Happy New Year to your Excellency!”
“Thank you, my good fellow; the same to you.”
And at the top of the stairs the general asked, nodding towards the door (he asked the same question every day and always forgot the answer):
“And what is there in that room?”
“The massage room, your Excellency.”
When the general’s steps had died away Andrey Hrisanfitch looked at the post that had come, and found one addressed to himself. He tore it open, read several lines, then, looking at the newspaper, he walked without haste to his own room, which was downstairs close by at the end of the passage. His wife, Yefimya, sat on the bed, feeding her baby. Another child, the eldest, stood by and lay his curly head on her knee. Their third child was asleep on the bed.
Going into the room, Andrey gave his wife the letter and said:
“From the country, I suppose.”
Then he walked out again without taking his eyes from the paper. He could hear Yefimya with a shaking voice reading the first lines. She read them and could read no more; these lines were enough for her. She burst into tears, and hugging her eldest child, kissing him, she began saying —and it was hard to say whether she were laughing or crying:
“It’s from granny, from grandfather,” she said. “From the country…The Heavenly Mother, Saints and Martyrs! The snow lies heaped up under the roofs now…the trees are as white as white. The boys slide on little sledges…and dear old bald grandfather warms by the stove…and there is a little yellow dog…My own darlings!”
Andrey Hrisanfitch, hearing this, recalled that his wife had on three or four occasions given him letters and asked him to send them to the country. But, some important business had always prevented him; distracted by a serialized horror story folded in his coat pocket. He had not sent the letters and somehow they got lost.
“And little hares run about in the fields,” Yefimya went on chanting, kissing her boy and shedding tears. “Grandfather is kind and gentle; granny is good, too—kind-hearted. They are warm-hearted in the country, they are God-fearing…and there is a little church in the village; the peasants sing in the choir. Queen of Heaven, Holy Mother and Defender, take us away from here!”
Andrey Hrisanfitch returned to his room to smoke a little till there was another ring at the door, and Yefimya ceased speaking, subsided, wiped her eyes, though her lips were still quivering. She was very much frightened of him—oh, how frightened of him! She trembled and was reduced to terror by the sounds of his steps, by the look in his eyes, and dared not utter a word in his presence.
Andrey Hrisanfitch lit a cigarette, but at that very moment there was a ring from upstairs. He put his cigarette out, and, assuming a very grave face, hastened to his front door.
The general was coming downstairs, fresh and rosy from his bath.
“And what is there in that room?” he asked, pointing to Andrey’s own door.
Andrey Hrisanfitch put his hands down swiftly to the seams of his trousers, and pronounced loudly:
“A horror story, your Excellency.”