Over the next few months, Denobis and the Creative Writing Club will be publishing one chapter of a “communal story” every Thursday at 3. Each chapter will be written by a new member of Denobis. The story is set in both Soviet Russia and the US during the 1950s. It features the Soviets, mysterious deaths, and a demon—what’s not to like?
By Amanda Bertsch
There is an old story, from a time when Russia was little more than wilderness, of a demon who feared only one thing. One inescapable malady haunted him like a silent shadow, always creeping behind him, waiting. Always waiting. This demon’s name was Koschei, and he was terrified by the cold grasp of death.
Driven mad by his obsession, Koschei tore his soul from his body and hid it inside a needle, indistinguishable from a common sewing tool. Freed from concern about a deadly injury, Koschei rested, for a while. Yet his pride and his fear would not let him rest for long. What if another saw the needle, and recognized it for what it was? What if it snapped, and killed him? No, Koschei did not rest easy for long.
There was only one thing left for him to do. Carefully, Koschei encased his needle in a small brown egg; the only hint that it was unnatural was the needle inside. Surely no one would think to look for his soul in an egg, and so the demon was reassured—for a while. But a soul holds a certain power over its owner, even protected as Koschei’s was, and he was tossed around as the egg was tossed. Any who held the egg had him in their power. A panicked Koschei knew he needed to go further.
Where else to put an egg but a duck? Koschei was pleased with his creativity, for the animal seemed like any other. Surely no one would kill a wild duck, and so his secret was safe, and Koschei was happy for many years. Yet something still nagged at him. A duck was the lowest of animals, without the cleverness of the fox or the speed of the hare, and the winters were harsh in his Russian home. Could he really trust his immortality to the food chain?
Koschei’s people had always regarded the hare as a wise and quick creature, and it seemed a fitting host. With the duck encased securely in a hare, Koschei was confident he could outrun death at last. Finally, he would be safe.
But still the animal was exposed to the world, running about in a wild land. Yes, his duck could fly off if the hare died, but Koschei was nothing if not thorough, and he disliked leaving his life to chance. It cannot be denied that his pride, too, disliked having his soul in something as weak as a lesser animal.
And so Koschei made his final journey, far from his home, to the island of Buyan, which comes and goes with the tides. There, beneath a strong green oak, he encased the hare in an iron chest and buried it deep. Here, at last, he rested, for finally his soul was protected. On the impossible island with his impossibly separated soul and body, he knew at last that he had achieved immortality.
Koschei the Deathless has ravaged history since, fearing nothing. He takes many guises—a creeping shadow, a mysteriously cloaked figure, a whisper in the dark—but more than anything, he mocks death with the guise of an old man. Oft it has been said that no one can stop him, now that he has escaped death itself.
Yet some still say, if you sail to the modern day island of Rügen on a midnight high tide, you will find yourself on the fabled spot. There, the oak still stands and the chest beneath it waits for Koschei’s vanquisher.
As he finished his tale, Nikolai Zhukov smiled a fatherly grin from behind his coarse, thick beard, directing it at the frightened look on his youngest son’s face. “Relax, Oleg,” he said soothingly. “It’s just a story.”
“Plus, Koschei only goes after beautiful women,” Nikolai’s wife Vera added laughingly, “so you’re safe.”
She smoothed over Oleg’s hair with another reassuring smile, and he finally relaxed back into his bed. The two crept out softly as the young boy drifted into sleep, but Vera stopped her husband outside the door.
“You have to stop telling him all this mythology,” she scolded. “You’re scaring him. He’s only six, after all.”
“He likes it,” Nikolai protested. “And stories never hurt anyone.”
* * *
September 16th, 1955
Port of New York City
There’s no place in the world quite like the hustle and bustle of New York’s massive waterfront. It’s all at once a land of businessmen with slickly oiled hair negotiating deals and hardworking individuals trying to make a living. Burly sailors chat on the docks whilst giant cargo ships unload an endless stream of wares from around the world. Above it all cut the ever-present smells of salt and fish coming off the ocean waters.
It was to this tumultuous scene that the freighter San Maria arrived on a chilly September afternoon, coasting smoothly to a dock. Her crew, buzzed with both the prospect of shore leave and a hearty draught of ale, fidgeted on the deck as a sharply dressed customs officer spoke to the captain.
“Sam!” the captain called, and a short, sandy-haired lad turned regretfully from the rest of the crew and loped over to the officers.
“Yes, sir?” he asked, carefully censoring all but a hint of his displeasure. Being insolent at sea was playing a dangerous game; being insolent at the docks, with a customs officer watching, was nothing short of suicide.
“Start unloading the aft, would you,” the captain said with a lazy gesture of his hand to the ladder.
Sam curtly intoned a “Yes, sir,” but he groaned internally—the aft was the more difficult half of the boat to unload by far, and of course, the captain delighted in picking him, the youngest member of the crew, to do all the work. As he passed his friends, they shrugged in commiseration.
“Bad luck, Sam,” one added.
“You could help,” Sam offered hopefully, but they laughed him off.
“Builds character, y’know,” one added, snickering to himself.
Real funny, Sam thought as he shot the other man a glare. He walked on and slid down the ladder with a practiced ease, born of months at sea. Immediately, he was assaulted with the rich, earthy scent of hundreds of boxes packed with spices. He hoisted one, turning for the ladder, before he heard it: a small rustling from behind him.
“Probably just a rat,” he muttered, but a louder rustle caused him to set down the box with a sigh. “Stowaway, are you?” he called out into the dim hold. “Better come out, then.”
There was no response from the darkness except another whisper of something against the floorboards. Sam took a step forward, and the sound ceased. Pausing, he waited a moment, but heard nothing. Perhaps it really was just a rodent. He had once more turned to trudge up the ladder before the sound came again.
“Oh, come on,” he said, exasperated. “The captain won’t be terribly pleased, but catch him in a good mood and he might even let you go.”
Sam continued along the narrow pathway, peering into even smaller aisles between boxes. “Should have brought a light,” he muttered. The darkened hold offered no response.
He was about to give up when he heard the rustling again, from closer to the exit this time. “Hey, get back here!” he ordered as he turned sharply.
A very old man regarded Sam calmly, leaning against one of the boxes. Sam thought he looked like a sailor who’d been at sea too many years, so long that his face was lined with wrinkles that would make a raisin jealous. His nose was bent at an odd angle, and his thin white hair went out in every direction. A fraying old coat over his faded button down seemed to give him some sort of dignity, but the man still unnerved Sam for some reason he could not express. Perhaps it was the eyes: their crisp, piercing blue seemed at odds with the rest of the disheveled man.
“You—you can’t be here,” Sam said with as much firmness as he could muster.
The man said nothing, merely watching the sailor with an unsettling intensity.
“You need to leave,” Sam said, backing away nervously. His foot caught the edge of one of the boxes and he fell to the ground. He started to rise to his feet but froze when he noticed the man; somehow, he seemed to grow taller every second, taller than anyone, let alone an elderly man, should be.
“I don’t think so,” the man said coolly. His smile was unnaturally wide as he swept toward Sam.
There was a scream, and then silence.
Check back next Thursday for Chapter 1!