The overloaded donkey-cart treads sluggishly through the densely packed
snow. An elderly man perches on top of it; huddled against the sniping
wind from the North. He lifts his head and looks at the dirt-blue sky.
His keen eye notes that it will be dark within an hour. Thoughtfully he
touches his grey beard.
He is a sturdy man, slightly overweight, and the years had already
carved deep lines on his face. But his crisp, intelligent eyes
contradicted his age.
"Krupskaya, your laziness will cause me to leave you here for the
He clicks his tongue and strikes the imperturbable animal on its
hindquarters, without much effect. Frowning, he stares at the dark woods
around him. Something is wrong. A secrecy is pregnant in the air. In all
his years of travelling he developed an instinct that can taste
weirdness, smell the unknown and feel the hidden. There were times when
he was brushed by the clammy hand of Death, but thanks to this talent he
had always managed to turn and walk away unharmed.
The tedious progress of the donkey-cart starts to frustrate him.
Novgorod is still at least ten miles off and he did not feel like being
an easy prey for the thankless nocturnal hunters.
"Ivor Grigorich Nevsky is a traveller of note; his wide knowledge and
expert salesmanship was cultivated through years of toiling. He will not
allow a stubborn ass to obstruct him!" he says bombastically, and
alights from the donkey-cart, with a grunt. He grabs the ass's reins and
presses forcefully ahead.
After making a few miles headway, a gentle snowfall started.
"Curse it", he sighs dejectedly and halts. A vague feeling of alarm
asserted itself. The woods still seem foreign. Already he should have
encountered some landmark, and twilight had arrived sooner than he
Is it possible that he, the intrepid Ivor Nevsky with the senses of a
homing pigeon, had inadvertently taken the wrong route? Never! What a
disgrace it would be to lose his way like a mere child...
He tries to pierce the gloom with a fierce glare. His own indecisiveness
is nerve-wracking. He feels like a rabbit caught helpless in a snare.
The unknown is waiting behind every tree, every bush, every mound of
The sickly silence is broken by the morbid howl of a wolf; too far to be
of immediate danger, but close enough for him to release a torrent of
curses. Why is his guardian angel now turning her back on him? He
presses desperately ahead with the stubborn ass. As he staggers over a
particularly steep incline, he loses his footing and tumbles down the
other side. Wheezing, he remains inert on the cooling surface of the
The lone wolf had gotten a partner, which was howling from a much closer
position. Or maybe it is just the same wolf that had picked up his
Should he do the unthinkable and leave the donkey-cart? He wrestles a
while with the idea. Regardless of the financial loss it would
represent, it went against his grain to arrive in a major city like
Novgorod with empty hands.
Then something caught his eye.
Deep in the forest, sheltered behind a cluster of bushes, he noticed a
flickering light. A weight lifted from his shoulders.
"Krupskaya, it seems that you survive another day, you shiftless
creature," he said with a grimace. Rejuvenated, he started towards the
The hut was built with stout logs. Ivor Nevsky moves to the window and
peers in. He sees a stocky man with a clean-shaven head working at a
table. Against the one wall is a huge rack, on which rows of bottles
filled with coloured substances and other oddities are arranged.
"Ah, an alchemist," he thinks and goes to the door. He beats his fist on
the solid wood until the stocky man opens the door to a crack. He
regards Ivor Nevsky with an analytical eye before he opens the door
"What is your business, stranger?", he asks in a husky voice, laced with
a weird accent.
"I do beg your pardon, sir. My name is Ivor Grigorich Nevsky; traveller.
I am in need of lodging for the night, as well as shelter for my ass."
The man hesitates.
"I will pay, of course," Ivor Nevsky added hastily. The man's face
twists into an uncomfortable smile.
"You are welcome. My name is Andrei Ilyich Bulganin. There is shelter
for your donkey at the back."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, and thank you.”
Ivor Nevsky nods his head and leads his donkey and cart to a paddock at
When he finally put his heavy overcoat over the chair and warmed his
hands in front of the cheery log-fire, he had already calculated which
wares he was going to ply on his host.
"Are you an alchemist, Andrei Ilyich?"
"Indeed, Ivor Grigorich." He is busy at the bottles again.
"Oh." Ivor Nevsky slowly nods his head. He will have to put the man at
ease. Maybe...a story. Yes, that usually works. Always the same story,
generally just slightly adapted to his specific audience.
He pulls a heavy wooden chair to the table and seats himself. For the
first time he takes a closer look at the brawny man. The odd bald head
on a fleshy, thick neck; the powerful, calloused hands and the strange
scars on the wrists.
As if he sensed the prying eyes, the man turns slowly and meets Ivor
Nevsky's gaze. His face reveals nothing, his eyes even less.
Ivor Nevsky averts his stare and feels a bit embarrassed.
"Long ago I knew an alchemist. His name was Vladimir Petrovich, of
Pliny. Maybe you know him?"
"No, Ivor Grigorich. Do you want coffee?"
"That would be nice."
Only when Andrei Bulganin placed a cup of steaming coffee in front of
him and seated himself, did Ivor Nevsky continue.
"Vladimir Petrovich, as I have mentioned, was an alchemist in my
hometown, Pliny. You know, I have had many bizarre experiences in my
life, but his case remains the most peculiar."
Ivor Nevsky takes a sip from his cup and casts a distant gaze into the
crackling fire. Andrei Bulganin bores with his index finger into his
nose, looks at the prize, and then folds his hands.
"I wouldn't label him as my best friend, but we did finish quite a few
bottles of vodka together. In those days I was still a young man; full
of romantic ideals. He was a boisterous individual, which had little
time for women. So it is ironic that it was he and not me, that
eventually was led to ruin by a woman."
Ivor Nevsky takes out his pipe and patiently fills it.
"The whole thing started at this wedding celebration that we both
attended. It was a spirited occasion and the vodka flowed liberally.
Vladimir Petrovich was, as is customary, drinking passionately; with
dedication. Of course, I was the poor sod that had to suffer his
excesses. As the evening wore on, the more rowdy he became. He was on
the verge of molesting a cocky soldier from St. Petersburg, when he
suddenly grabbed me by the arm. He had the most quaint expression on his
face and his blood-shot eyes were fixed upon a girl that had just
Who is she? - He whispered hoarsely in my ear.
That is Piotr Sverdlin's daughter, Kalinka - I said, somewhat amazed.
I would sell my soul...to have her.
With those words Vladimir Petrovich remained quiet for the rest of the
evening. His eyes followed her like a magnet, and I could see an
uncommon desire simmering in their depths."
Ivor Nevsky takes a long, pleasureful drag from his pipe and lets the
smoke roll leisurely over his lips.
"After that episode, his whole being was focussed only on one thing, and
that was Kalinka Sverdlin. She was indeed a work of art: enormous dark
eyes and the daintiest figure. I did not believe Vladimir Petrovich to
have the remotest chance of seducing her, but he proved me wrong. He
stopped drinking and started to behave like a proper gentleman. With his
new-found charm, he gradually became a regular visitor at Old Sverdlin's
I could only shake my head: to witness the change that love can wrought
in a man."
Ivor Nevsky takes a sip from his cup and feels how the liquid folds like
a warm blanket around his insides. Amicably, he turns to his host.
"Have you known love, Andrei Ilyich?"
Andrei Bulganin rubs pensive1y over the scars on his wrists.
"Yes, I have known it. Only too well."
Astounded, Ivor Nevsky beheld a sudden change in the man's impervious
countenance. A burning amour crept through in Andrei Bulganin’s husky
"I know love better than any man. It is not the superficial love for a
woman; no....it is the passion to caress my bottles. To create, yes!
Like a god, with substances which confound the most. The elements are my
lovers; my eternal companions."
Ivor Nevsky watches him amusedly. What a peculiar fellow, he thought.
Andrei Bulganin’s face became impenetrable again.
"Proceed, Ivor Grigorich."
Ivor Nevsky clears his throat, a contented chuckle threatening to
"So. The Big Day finally happened for Vladimir Petrovich. The wedding
was a happy affair. It was as if the people found this perfect love
contagious. Even I was light-headed from the exuberance and the vodka. I
also used this occasion to bid my hometown and my friends a tearful
farewell. I left Pliny that same day to become a soldier of fortune. (I
was still romantic in those days.) The harsh times that followed turned
my ambitions into daydreams. After years of wandering; of hard work and
lost loves, nostalgia made me return to Pliny.”
Ivor Nevsky sighs melancholically.
“I was distressed to see how the place had changed. There was hardship
everywhere and past acquaintances were thinly spread. Naturally, I
enquired about my old friend, Vladimir Petrovich. At first, no-one knew
whom I spoke of. When I mentioned Sverdlin’s daughter, an old man with a
knowing stare directed me to a secluded hut at the edge of the woods."
Ivor Nevsky noticed that his pipe had gone out and with infinite care he
starts to fill it again. The whole time he slyly watches Andrei Bulganin
out of the corner of his eye. Satisfied, he lights his pipe.
Andrei Bulganin is sitting forward in his chair; staring intensely at
him. It seems as if he is trying to hasten the procedure of the pipe
with his eyes. Ivor Nevsky relished it. His unhurried actions is
deliberate, an art which he applies at the right moment. It does wonders
for building suspense.
Eventually he continued.
"On my arrival at the humble cottage of Vladimir Petrovich and his fine
wife I was regally received. My old friend seemed genuinely elated to
see me. He could not stop talking about the 'good old days'. I had a
fantastic meal and I marvelled at their happiness. She was even prettier
than the day she got married and he was more subdued, but in apparent
good health. There were no children, but I was not so impudent as to ask
questions about it. Much later that evening I departed. With the
farewell, Vladimir Petrovich squeezed my hand for what seemed to be a
very long time. It appeared as if he wanted to tell me something, but he
appeared too choked up to speak - so I gave the matter no further heed
(I had indicated that this was probably my last visit to Pliny).
After I had travelled a few miles, being in a melancholy mood, I found
out to my embarrassment that I had absent-mindedly left my prized felt
Idiot! - I scolded myself and turned back to Pliny. An hour later I
reached the cottage and noted with relief that there was still light
emanating from the window. (It would have been unforgivable to wake them
at this hour.) I was about to announce myself, when a voice in the back
of my head warned: beware. Call it my sixth sense, or my guiding spirit,
whatever. It was the one thing that always saved my skin. So, instead of
knocking, I turned and peeked through a slit in the curtains. There I
saw something that froze the very blood in my veins.
Vladimir Petrovich was on his knees in the middle of the floor with an
expression of absolute resignation on his face. Over him Kalinka, or
something like her, towered. Her eyes were red rubies and smoke billowed
from her nostrils. And where her dainty feet should have been, there
were the hooves of a goat....
It was diabolical.
I fled with raw fear gnawing at my gut. Maybe I was a coward, who knows?
But there were Vladimir Petrovich's long forgotten words that exploded
into my mind: I would sell my soul...to have her mine."
Andrei Bulganin sits immobile. He is staring fixedly at Ivor Nevsky
consuming the last of his coffee.
Then his face twists into that uncomfortable smile. "So she was the
devil, Ivor Grigorich?"
"The one and only, Andrei Ilyich."
"You are really an exceptional storyteller, Ivor Grigorich."
“I must thank you for listening, Andrei Ilyich.”
Andrei Bulganin begins to laugh.
"Now I want to tell you a story." There was a mischievous sparkle in his
"Have you heard of that alchemist that escaped out of a death cell in
Uzbekistan a few years ago?"
Ivor Nevsky frowns as he tries to think.
"Indeed, Andrei Ilyich. He was never recaptured. The worst thing is that
he had poisoned fifteen people in cold blood, and who knows how many
more innocents he will...murder."
Ivor Nevsky ceases talking. He glances panic-stricken at the cup that is
still in his hand.
And he sees the green slime at the bottom.
And he sees, for the first time, the lunacy in Andrei Bulganin's
© Etienne A. Marais – 1991