"Lower My Eyelids: The Day of All the Outcasts" - the 7th novelette of the fantasy novel-cycle "The Songs of Peter Sliadek"

By Henry Lion Oldie

Fantasy, Action & adventure, Horror, Historical fiction


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CHAPTER SEVEN: Lower My Eyelids

The icon of Cassian the Jinx, also named Costyan the Chiller, must not be in a temple in plain view but above the doors only; thus people will come in whilst not casting their eyes upon it but bowing to it already whilst leaving. Icon-makers should depict this image terribly, as black as sooted iron; his eyelids must reach to his knees and thus he cannot raise them on his own, because everything that he glances at withers. He is given two red-hot pokers to hold in his hands. Cassian’s year is a leap one, his month is Sechen, or February; his day is a rare one, the 29th. Working on such a day is a sin; till midday, one should sit in his house and keep still. Thence the Jinx, unmerciful and vindictive, is honored with three secret services on Thursdays: on Lent, on a Pancake week, and on Pentecost.
“The Supplement of Solemn, Praising and Didactic Words to the ‘Chetyi Minei’ Code by St. Dimitry of Rostov,” written by Xenophont Mogila

My eyes overgrow with dreams.
I'm blind.
I fade.
What is it that with us creeps
From dust?
From hell?
Neru Bobovay

...Hey, from this Sunday till the next Sunday
Let’s drink, drink, my friend—what can the harm be?
Cossacks sang in the pothouse.

The grizzled Yavtukh twirled his hanging mustache. A tear, as heavy and opaque as a gallon of local moonshine, flowed out of the Cossack’s eye. “A witch! Upon me cross, she’s a witch! She ruined such a lad, that long-tailed louse! He was a student, a philosopher ; he could read in clerical books all sorts of things better than any deacon does! And how he danced! He’d start dancing Trepak at dawn and ain’t stop till midday! Great! To the memory of his soul, brothers!”
The Cossack was old, bulky, and resembled a jug of milk; however, he preferred vodka to all kinds of artsy-craftsy, cow-derived stuff. His nickname was Gobbler, which he confirmed by gobbling a mug of the strongest pepper vodka with the dexterity of a toad seizing a midge with its tongue.
And he would have it with fiery-hot pepper, too… Devil of a man.
“To his memory! May good God cook dumplings for him!” replied the other Cossacks unanimously. The company consisted, except Yavtuch, of four honorable and quite sobriety-challenged individuals.
Father Onopriy from the Resurrection Church, who had performed the burial service for the deceased student, did not reject the memorial cup either, and neither did his faithful companion, the deacon Zylurik (his full name was known to everyone, since the deacon was very talkative on this concern, yet was somehow always forgotten). Three fellow countrymen of the “accursed witch,” namely the residents of the Sklyarov farm Ivan Golod, Michailo Dryga, and Taras Prykusyteben, grunted distinctly, adding their voices to the common cauldron of the dirge. All three of them represented a true example of compassion to their fellow man and also the renouncement of the foul witch’s deeds. Even if the devil’s progeny lived side by side with honest Christians—no, she would never find compassion in their hearts, which were burnt with sorrow and moonshine!
All the while on the outside, Mother Winter was passing away into Heaven in a shroud of quiet snow. Walk around, go dancing, wander about for the last time, you false friend, the fierce leap month; leave the absurd twenty-ninth day, which is fit for nothing but a funeral, behind you.

Hey, our vodka’s better than honey—
Let’s drink, drink, my friend, also on Monday!

Being born in Opole, Peter easily understood the local dialect—the “Surzhyk,” a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian—as the mixture of wheat and rye that was called in this country. It was braided thickly from threads of different languages. Still as a boy, while roaming with the vagrant musician Voitush, he often wandered to the left shore of the Dnieper River, getting as far as the free Cossack settlements. That was a long time ago, but his fingers recalled at once “the days of auld lang syne” and were daringly flying over the strings. The lute was going all out, chiming with the blind kobza player—a squabbling, ill-tempered old man who peered at the direction of an uninvited assistant with his blind eyes.
With assistants like that, who needs enemies? the kobza player’s appearance expressed. His face was swollen from troubles and weary of the sun and cherry infusion. Oy, nobody needs this boy, really! May the Devil stretch his navel to his forehead! He’ll strum for a grosz and snatch a ruble! But the old man did not dare to argue with the severe pothouse keeper, who had ordered with her personal decree that both of the musicians should sing together; nevertheless, be it to plaintive songs or to merry dances, he was cursing the impudent intruder with the foulest words under his breath. And he did not want to adapt himself to anyone, leaving this job to his competitor.
Whereas, Peter now loved the entire world. Were it his will, he would kiss the skies! His throat gurgled valiantly with the song and hinted at the possibility—no, necessity, obvious urgency!—of sprinkling it, his strained throat, with a good portion of varenukha alcohol after everything was finished. Why not? the lutenist reflected, overcoming some difficulty in his head, which came, apparently, from the combination of the funeral feast and the merry Hopak that the sorrowful Yavtukh started to dance, together with the pothouse keeper, Odarka Sokochykha.
Am I not a Cossack? Am I not a… how does it go, devil take his mother? Kharzyzyaka ? No, something else… A demon, Bald Granddad? Why is he bald, by the way? Look at Yavtukh! He’s bald, you might say, yet he dances… he dances fine! thought Peter.
At this point, the thread of his reflections tore off, leaving after it only the confidence in something big and bright that perfectly combined with a foaming mug.

Sliadek arrived to Kharkov in the late winter. The town was small but tenacious. It was founded half a century earlier by migrants from beyond the Dnieper River; they were daredevils lead by Ivan Kharkach, who had set a fence of wood and earth around the settlement. The baby town grew by leaps and bounds, gaining population fast: military Cossacks, civilian Cossacks and their farm-hands, heads of the regiment with their workmen, free peasants, clerics, students of the Latin collegium, guilds of craftsmen—smiths, brewers, copper-smiths, fullers, saddlers, and carpet-makers, and so on. There were even two Greek merchants in store for greater glory. About four thousand men, and also a great lot of women and girls.
By the way, to Sliadek’s joy, musicians were considered honest craftsmen here, too, and not some spongers or drones, since they played at weddings, making their living by their craft.
The town outskirts—Klochkovsky, Lopansky, Chugayev—swelled with domes of churches, protruded with the crosses of the Pokrov Monastery, overflowed the brim like yeast dough in the hands of a negligent housewife, and ran down the hills and ravines with suburban farms the likes of Chaikin, Svistunenkov, Shugay, Moskalevka, which were scattered without any plan, about a mile from one another.
It was at the Moskalevsky farm that Peter found himself shelter. The pretty and pert widow Horpyna was glad to shelter the guest in her hut, and she quickly shut the wicked mouths of her neighbors.
Horpyna was considered to be a genuine witch, so the guest was informed beforehand, “You’ve got no time to live at all, lad, the bitch will wear you out; and if not that, she’ll decant your blood through your belt, and if not that, she’ll tie your masculine power in a knot, and girls will laugh at you!”
Luckily, the vagrant realized that every other woman here was said to be a witch. This by no means prevented all of them from gathering in the church at the matins, crossing themselves “to all sides,” and kissing the priest’s hand.
Maybe the unlucky student who was so zealously commemorated in the pothouse this day had also died of some illness. And the witch from Sklyarov, who was accused of the lad’s death, was perhaps sobbing from the unjust offence at that very moment, poking her white face into a towel. Or maybe she was flirting with some dark-browed, young fellow, having forgotten even the name of the deceased.
“Petro! Sweet bandurist o’ mine! Lemme kiss ye!” Spyrid Yenokha, a friend of Yavtukh who was preoccupied with Hopak, heartily kissed the “sweet bandurist.” Even Peter’s ears rang. Then Spyrid wiped his lips, threw his hat on the ground, trampled on it with his heels, and chimed in, out of tune:

Sell what you got to some Pole for forty—
Let’s drink, drink, my friend, also on Thursday!

As he played for the truly spirited Cossack, Peter was laughing and recalling how the superstitious Horpyna had dissuaded him in the morning from going to the pothouse to earn his coin. “Today’s a bad day,” the widow bent down to the musician; she was dressed only in her undershirt, extremely alluring with her plump shoulders and sumptuous bosom, and was tickling Sliadek with her loose hair to persuade him. “Today, once in four years, Saint Kostyan the Chiller is led out from under the earth for a walk! ’Tis ordered for all honest people to stay at home till midday and do no work. If Kostyan glances at you, priests ain’t gonna help you with their prayers, healer women with their spells won’t do you no good! Calm down, you fool! Look at you, how sweet ye are!”
She, however, after she had amused herself hastily with the languid vagrant, dressed up, arranged her hair under a bonnet, and left so imperceptibly, as if she flew out through the chimney, straddling an oven fork. Peter idled next to the oven, drowsy, as if wrapped into warm cotton wool; then, he made up his mind, took his lute, and headed for the pothouse.

Why was this month called a fierce one? Peter pondered as he passed by a flock of wattle and daub huts; they were paled with wicker fences, and in some places, even with high wooden ones. Snow was falling softly; there was no wind. The sun was bright and warm; Peter’s sheepskin coat was unbuttoned.
Spring is close, he thought. A nice woman, she is, Horpyna. May she have her hands full of happiness. I’d like to live here forever. And as for her running to the yard every so often at night and not returning for a long time… that’s nuts. Maybe she has a sick stomach. Moreover, there’s always dairy in her hut, though the widow has no cow. Evidently, some good people bring it to her while I play in the pothouse. Maybe I should stay? We’ll make children… Peter's thoughts were light and deceitful. He knew that he would not stay here and make children. Spring was close, indeed. And spring meant the road.

Black and sorrowful willows, sown with clamoring crows, loomed on a steep. The crows’ cawing made Peter’s nape ache. The snowdrifts at the roadside sparkled brighter than fireworks in Krakow and glittered like crystal. Here and there in the skies, like blush on a maiden’s cheeks, shone that tender, amorous clarity that only occasionally surprised the end of winter, refusing to wait for the frolicsome March; the air smelled of sliced cucumber and pranks. Trampled snow creaked under Peter’s boots. The wide road beyond the outskirts doubled as if he were drunk; its left side turned towards Odarka’s pothouse, while the right one, ploughed by the runners of sledges, led past a mill and to the Shustryachenkov farm. On a hill behind the huts, the tooth of the St. John belfry of the monastery stuck out. Peter skirted an old, hollow willow and walked further, whistling “Sweetest Laura” by Carrozo the Italian.
Soon, he stopped whistling because he reached the cemetery. Somebody was being buried at the graveyard—quietly, solemnly, with neither screams, nor sobs, nor inquiries of how it came to be that the deceased had left this earth. The fresh hole of the grave was dark. The priest was singing in a low-pitched, sonorous voice; then, the goat-like voice of a deacon soared in a falsetto. The lutenist recalled Horpyna’s words and quickened his steps; yet the day was so wonderful and the funeral so ordinary and plain that his heart calmed down quickly: All of us will be there, sooner or later.
Rest in peace, brother deceased! Be so kind; save for the vagrant a place close to the harps.

In less than an hour, Peter got caught in a whirlpool. The squabble with the kobza player, the intervention of Odarka, who favored the modest and quiet musician, the crowd of guests overwhelmed with the desire to commemorate the deceased to their hearts’ content, a mug of vodka, and rejecting that cup meant losing your head as the reticent Cossack Dorosh grabbed the hilt of his saber. The Spanish composer Negrino’s “Ricercar,” somber and sorrowful, the heavy stalk of the basses, the sobbing of a high voice… “Great! A grand foreigner he is! Gets to me very liver!” the languished Yavtukh cried.
A second mug, pork ears richly spiced with garlic; a mug of sloe infusion had to be washed down with beer. The beer was bitter and strong, since Spyrid had already poured something into it; he was laughing, a devil of a man, but there was fear and sorrow in his eyes. Their steel was cracked and dented, horrible was the Cossack’s stare, and Peter’s heart skipped a beat.
The priest sang a dirge in a bass voice. Peter was to join in because the kobza player was late… Spyrid drowned the priest, singing, “Oy, in Tsargrad, in the market … Galya carries water!”
Dorosh still kept silent and drank a lot. Someone was telling Peter about the witch that had put a hex on the deceased student in summer…in the dead heat.
Another song sounded: “Oy, my curly periwinkle!”
Peter took a gulp of wormwood vodka with a dumpling, while the storyteller went on, “There were vacations in the seminary, and he was going past the farm to freelance…”

Leave you, my friends, your work, all and sundry;
Let’s drink, drink, my friend, also on Friday!

The story of the tragic hex was drowning in alcohol and songs.
Peter had gotten used to listening to others’ stories during his wanderings. Yet this night, he grew sober each time when one of the Cossacks or farmers sat down by his side. Everybody wished to share the true and horrible story with the only stranger. Everybody was overfull with sweet horror. The first beauty among the farm maidens, the modest Hannusya, turned out to be an inveterate witch.
Did anyone know that before? No one did!
She lived quietly and peacefully with her mother and her lame father. Their hut was poor but neat, and the girl used to smile at everyone, and so kindly, as if kissing them on Holy Easter. A rich old man, either a company officer or even a colonel, proposed to Hannusya, being allured by the maiden’s beauty. He threw golden coins to her white feet and spread silks before her. Yet she rejected him, gave him a pumpkin as a sign of her refusal.
She said, “Money’s nothing. I want hearty love, and ancient passion is wild.”
Soon after that, Ivan Golod and Michailo Dryga saw how Hannusya smiled at a young student. He asked for water, so she gave him a drink with a smile. One word followed another; the lad winked at the maiden, sang something religious for her, threw a loaf of bread into his sack, and went on his way. But in autumn, Yavtuch the Gobbler rode by the pothouse and stopped there to recover his breath with the help of vodka. “D’ye remember the student, good men? He’s ill.”
Doctors wrinkled their brows, old women crossed themselves: there was a hex upon the lad. Someone had taken his footprint out and hammered a nail into it, or maybe weaved a braid with a spell. Only Hannusya was guilty, of course; who else could it be? Because the lad was a distant kinsman of that very company officer or colonel! What for? Why? That was the best thing for a witch—to ruin an honest soul just like that: to disgrace an old man with a pumpkin, or to drive a youth into the grave.
The farm was big, and people were watchful and talkative. Witnesses were found who saw Hannusya flying out of the chimney at night. Women started talking by the well, saying that their cows grew sickly and milked with blood. And they—the women, not cows—cast glances to a certain side and made fig signs behind their backs.

On winter’s eve, the reticent Cossack Dorosh was sitting in the pothouse. So damn silent he was, the son of a bitch, that everyone nearly fell off their chairs! The student appeared to be in very bad shape. He was delirious in broad daylight. “Hannusya!” he was begging. “My little fish! My dear heart! Let my soul go free!”
Then things only went from bad to worse. In the end of the fierce month, February, the pale and exhausted student appeared at the Sklyarov farm. By the infamous hut, he fell down crying. Till dark, he was sobbing like a madman. They called him to enter the hut but received no answer.
In the morning, he was found dead: blue, cold, with his neck twisted aside just as if he had been strangled. People decided that the witch had strangled him. She could turn into a swine and hop on his back. Or she could ride on his back along hills and ravines till his spine was broken!

“…drink to the memory of the innocent soul!” someone proclaimed.
Peter shuddered. He drank more to gain courage. What kind of lutenist was he if his hands were shaking? He imagined weird things—he would enter the hut, and Horpyna, in the form of a swine, would climb up on his neck to ride...
Now Peter saw many doors in the pothouse, and Yavtuch, dancing and waving his gray forelock, was walking out of each of them. The pothouse keeper, Odarka, turned into Margrave Siegfried; then, she jumped over the table and became a shaggy faun in a bonnet with candles. Imps in sheepskin coats scrambled out from under the benches, aiming to blow their noses into the porridge.
Am I not a Cossack? Shall I not go home? Definitely, I shall! At night, through a snowstorm, trampling the wretched imps with my boots! Peter thought.
“Oy, goodness! Hannah, that wicked witch, she decided to kill herself! They just got in time to catch her near the ice hole! She fought off like crazy! Now she’s locked at home… her mother hid all the ropes from her, and belts, and towels!” A fat woman was puffing while spitting out the news; Peter distinctly saw horns on her head.

“Petro! Hey, Lutenist! Where ye goin’?”
“Am I not a Cossack?”
“Cossack, Cossack… Spyrid, let the fellow go. Maybe he needs to make water.”

The weather outside was almost like on Christmas. White fluff was falling majestically and stately out of the torn feather bed of the sky. It was not falling in lumps, nor was it whipping one’s face with wicked snow pellets. The snowflakes were coming down imposingly, like leaves from autumn oaks. Stars twinkled in the gaps between the clouds, and the moon also rolled out from behind the clouds like a silver grosz, lighting Peter’s way. And what a moon it was! A bright one, full… not a bit gnawed. The windows of the pothouse spread cozy light. Far away, in the settlements, dogs barked lazily. The frost was light and funny, and after the well-heated pothouse and vodka—have a good time, my soul! The sheepskin coat unbuttoned, the hat cocked. Peter waited a bit, holding onto the wicker fence, and cried out daringly, resolutely diving into the night.
Horpyna, make the bed! I’m coming!
His boots cheerfully raked the powdery snow. If only the damned road did not jump under his feet, trying to rear! Who laid it? The fellow who did it was definitely drunk! Home, home… Horpyna’s waiting at home, at home…
“Trom… ta-ra-ra-rom, ta-ra-ra-tee-dee, tee-dee-tee-dee, tee-dee-tommm…” While murmuring some free improvisations, the vagrant got to the familiar fork in the road. Now we’ll go straight on, and after a hill with a gnarled willow that resembles a hand sticking out of the ground, we’ll make a turn. Past the cemetery. Do I care about the cemetery? Is Petro the Cossack afraid of the dead? No way! The dead lie in their coffins. They don’t disturb anyone. Moreover, we Cossacks can fly to Tsargrad on their backs. While imagining with delight the flight on the deceased’s back, Sliadek passed by the willow that reached out to the sky and daringly cut off a corner along the virgin snow. At once, it became harder to walk and easier at the same time.
One might say, “It cannot be!” Yet it was really possible. Sure, Peter’s feet got stuck in the snow; but the road became sober, lay down to sleep, and the trees stopped darting at him, making him feel dizzy.
Peter came to the cemetery unexpectedly. A minute ago, he was in the open field, and then, all of a sudden, he saw graves covered with snow shrouds, gloomy crosses, and tombstones—in snow hats. They squinted at the lutenist disapprovingly, cutting the white winter cheese with the sharp knives of shadows, and whispered to each other.
Peter stopped still, listening. No, nonsense. He must have imagined all of that because he was tired. He decided to pass the graveyard; after that, half the road would be done. Then he would go down the hill easily, and he would come to Moskalevka in no time. Kind-hearted Horpyna would scold him but then let him in. A hut was not a grave, and a woman was not a coffin: Peter could come in and out.
This grave was located separately from the others. It was fresh, steaming. The soil on it was loose, black, barely sprinkled with snow. Was the snow melting on this hillock? All around was white, and here, everything was wrong.
Hey, evidently that’s the poor student lying here! Peter guessed. So what does it mean? I’ve played for everyone, I’ve eaten and drunk at the commemoration; yet, I haven’t humored the deceased! That’s not good, I must say, not fair.
The idea of humoring the deceased with music looked extremely alluring—even better than the flight to Tsargrad. Sliadek sat down on the edge of the grave hillock and drew his lute out of its cover. He turned the pins thoughtfully, tuning it up, and glanced at the sky without any particular sense. The precious sliver of the moon sparkled in response as if to say, “Go on, I’ll listen to you, too.”
A sober and reasonable thought sat down next to Peter: Have you gone mad? Get up, you blockhead! The thought had Horpyna’s nice and hearty voice; yet, the vagrant threw the obstinate thing out. Don’t you see? I’m playing for a good man here! You should understand!

Oh my lady, in a boat
I sail,
And my face is white,
My horse
Is pale,
And a scythe is in my hand
What a gentleman was made
In Heaven.

The “Quiet Ballade” came to his tongue by itself. The plaintive chords advanced timidly along the cemetery, stumbling upon the crosses; yet, little by little, they grew stronger and shot up to the moon in the mournful “Requiem.” Tears of drunkenness started to fill Peter’s eyes. Melancholy coiled up in his heart like a viper. Sliadek did not like melancholy, yet what could he do? He could not play Hopak to the deceased, could he? Or sing about vodka that should be swilled throughout the week, without a break? Then again, why not? It was sad and lonely to lie in the coffin, so was it a sin to cheer a poor fellow up?

Let’s drink, my friend, while we are alive—
We won’t have vodka in the afterlife!

The merry dance soared up over the stunned graves like a snowstorm. Peter Sliadek will raise anyone to his feet! Hey, dead fellows, come on and dance! The grave started stirring like a shaggy dog shaking the sparse snow off through its dream. Frozen lumps of soil rustled. So that’s why there was no snow on it. Get up, my dear, we’ll dance! Peter Sliadek is such a fellow, he will raise…

…What can the harm be!

The next moment, Peter’s drunkenness shrank in fear and his fingers froze to the strings. It was silence. The horrible silence of a cemetery. Only the final echo of the lute, gone astray, was fading in dismay among the crosses. And—the rustle. The rustle of crumbling earth. You son of a bitch! You have played and danced until you got it! You have drawn it upon yourself! Unable to move, as if bewitched, the cemetery desecrator was watching how the grave mound shuddered in birth pangs, opening up and gradually changing its form. A dead man! There was an undead down there! Peter’s fingers groped convulsively for the cypress cross on his chest and clutched at it in a deadly grip as at the last hope.
The earth! The fresh earth from the grave!
Horpyna had tried to convince him that if one ate it, a vampire would not touch him.
Sliadek fell to his knees, trying to thrust his hand into the grave mound. You wish! The soil only seemed crumbly. In fact, it was frozen into lumps. Only with difficulty he managed to grind one of them in his palms. Peter put his prize into his mouth, nearly vomited but overcame it, forced himself to swallow it, and reached for another lump.
A dirty hand with flat, dented nails stretched out towards him from under the ground. The hand was shimmering in the moonlight like metal. A scream stuck in Sliadek’s throat, together with the half-chewed earth. His head went around. It seemed to him that he was trying to crawl aside, yet he was only jerking his feeble legs. Meanwhile, the dead man was already getting out of his grave! It was black, horrible, steaming. Its face was rusty and swollen as if forged from iron. Its monstrously long eyelids crawled up with a distinct creak. The undead was tearing them from its cheeks with a visible effort, snorting like an exhausted jade.
Peter poked his forehead to the hillock’s edge and bit the nearest lump, trying to chew it up quickly.
“Wh-what… wh-what are you doing? H-hungry?” the undead asked suddenly.



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