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FICTION (April 2018)

Firebird 

by Matthew G. Rees 

AT that time Alexander Antonovich must have been about seventy-five years old and it was unusual in my part of Moscow to see a man of that age still around.

Tall (in spite of a stoop), pale and lean, he seemed to me like a bird – a crane of the kind my mother would point at in storybooks.

A port wine stain the shape of Italy traversed his right cheek. When I questioned my father about this he told me it was a war wound that I was never again to mention.

Antonovich wore an astrakhan hat of the type some older men still had, which he bumped every time he got in Dad’s car. His hands were enormous and, compared with my father’s own knotty, stunted versions, seemed like wings. When he removed his sheepskin mittens in winter he revealed fingers and thumbs that had the startling purple-pinkness of new-born babies – so different from the cadaverous rest of him that I’d wonder if they weren’t actually someone else’s: a fare-dodger’s, buttoned-up, secretly, under his long, dark coat.

His teeth were horse-like and mustardy. Sometimes his big, grey tongue lolled over them, like a fish on ice on a stall at our market. Enormous ears drooped from his head like the sails of a boat becalmed on Baikal, while his watery, pale-blue eyes wandered in distant worlds of their own. The back of his neck, which I had opportunity to study at length from my seat in the rear of Dad’s car, was home to a thicket of white hairs which sprouted from cracked, hide-like skin of the kind I thought dinosaurs must have had.

Considering Antonovich now, I can see how the thought of him might have slackened the bladder of any small child alone in their cot at night. But he was only one part of the story. The cause of my night terrors was more complicated than that.

I’d wake up screaming. Blankets and bedsheets bunched over my bottom half, lukewarm and wet. Suddenly the whole room would go yellow as my mother threw the light switch and hurried in: her arms locking around me, my nose snotting the shoulder of her nightdress. She’d set about cleaning me up. My pyjamas she’d throw at Dad who by now would be in the doorway. He’d disappear in search of a clean pair. When he got back Mom would fling him my sheets. Next – tiny as she was­­ – she’d flip my mattress so it was dry side up, squish my pillows and tell me to jump back in.

Apart from a few hushes and shushes Mom would do all this in silence, finishing her tasks in what seemed like seconds (though it was longer than that, of course). In time I came to see that this wordless, beetling precision of hers was, in fact, a statement, as unmistakable as anything bawled hotly in the street, of her fury – her absolute fury – with my father who she’d shoo from my room as if he were some intruding dog.   

Finally, she’d light a lamp by my bedside and pull my door not quite shut as she and Dad retreated into the dark of the hall. Then I’d lie there and wait for the row to begin.

My mother’s voice would be first through the thin walls of our flat: asking (in a way that wasn’t asking) my father why he took me to see Alexander Antonovich, and demanding that the visits be brought to a stop. My father would respond sharply, saying that he took me to see Antonovich because he had to and if she had ever listened to him in her life she would know that he had no choice. My mother would then speak over him. My father – louder – would then speak over her. For a few moments they’d fall quiet. Then my mother would start up again. And my father would start up again, too.

Sometimes a neighbour would bang on the wall and my father would shout or bang back. My mother would then resort to whispers (that weren’t really whispers), telling my father to hush. He’d venture some other loud comment about the neighbour before finally falling quiet. My mother would be on his side – for that moment – telling him to leave it there and to go back to bed.

I’d hear them shuffle from the kitchen to their room, then the creak of their bed as they climbed into it. Softly my father would be saying now, ‘I can’t say no. I have to take him,’ and my mother – I somehow knew – would be turning from him, her face to the wall. Then he would say to her, ‘Marta?’ And then a second time – which I knew would come, with a slightly different pitch – ‘Marta?’ (while I listened and mouthed her name, on my pillow in the lamplight in my room).

My father drove a taxi. He didn’t have a sign that said Taxi and I doubt he had a licence or anything official like that. But that’s how he put food on our table. For a while he drove limousines in the smart parts of the city for a firm that serviced hotels and ran rich folks to their restaurants and shops in Kitay Gorod, Okhotny Ryad and Tverskaya. But he had a tendency to do rough things that, to be fair, he didn’t know were rough, such as blowing his nose loudly and listening to the radio (which he’d turn up if his customers started to speak). Sometimes he put down his window and spat.

The guys he worked with weren’t the nicest and mocked him for, among other things, not having a jacket to go over his shirt. One day he came home with it torn and told my mother he’d been fired. He had a cut on his hand and a lump on his cheek. After that he drove local people to places around our neighbourhood in his own car, Beatrisa (as we called her), and occasionally further. Sometimes they paid.

The reason my father couldn’t say no to Alexander Antonovich, in the way that my mother wanted him to, was because Alexander Antonovich was his best customer by far. Put bluntly, Antonovich paid our rent, with some help from my granny and whatever Mom could scrape from selling bits of junk, like other of our neighbours, on the cut-through to our Metro (when the cops weren’t chasing them off).

The awkward thing was that Alexander Antonovich liked me to go with them on those trips he made with my father. In fact, he sort of insisted. If ever I wasn’t there because of school or sickness Dad would promise I’d be present for the next ride out. My being there also made my father’s life easier. He hailed from peasant stock. Antonovich on the other hand was from gentry (though in truth almost all his money had gone and he lived in a flat in a run-of-the-mill neighbourhood, just like our own). His family had land once and lots of it; one ancestor had been a magistrate. My father didn’t know what to say or how to behave around a man from a background like that. Having me there, on Beatrisa’s back seat, while he drove beside Antonovich up front, took of the pressure. Sometimes, if Antonovich thought I’d made a funny or smart answer  to one of his many questions, Antonovich would say something like, “But of course, professor.” My father would then laugh and nod and say the word professor, several times over, proud of – and grateful for – the juvenile absurdity that I’d uttered. 

It was my father’s practice to drive Antonovich to a farm – it wasn’t even that, really – outside Moscow, which was the last fragment of an estate that had belonged to the old man’s family. There’d been birch forests, hay meadows, pasture and fishing lakes once – not to mention the shooting grounds where my father claimed Tsar Alexander (in some versions of the story, Tsar Peter) had killed a giant wolf. All that was left was a house, a huddle of tumble-down buildings and a small acreage of land grown wild. Sometimes when we were out there we’d see big foreign-made cars crossing ground that was formerly the estate’s: the occupants heading to new houses built in the hills or by the sides of the lakes. At the sight of them Antonovich would frown and move his lips in a whisper.

When we got to the farm Antonovich would disappear inside the old house, leaving Dad and me to our own devices. What he did in there was a mystery and I’m not sure that he actually did anything very much. Once I stood on a trough and looked in through a grimed window. Antonovich was sitting in a wooden chair in a room as big as our flat. Save for him and his chair, the place was empty. He faced a huge fireplace of blackened stone that resembled a cave, and just sat there and stared.

Dad and me usually ended up in an orchard of apple trees that bore sour and knobbly fruit. I seldom strayed from his side. You see, it wouldn’t just be us on those rambles of ours: always – and I mean always – Napoleon would be there, too. I didn’t have to hear the clicking of his feet on the cobbles of the yard, or see his shadow creeping at corners and looming at ledges, to know he was on our heels. I just knew. His aura preceded him. He was, to my youthful eyes and ears, evil personified, if such a term can be used for a farmyard cockerel. He dripped with it: from his brittle pink comb to his scaly-skinned claws, his black, sickle tail to his hooked and spiteful spurs. And, above all, evil in his glaring, staring blood-red eyes, which nothing escaped.

In my fevered dreams Napoleon and Antonovich became one. Their union yielded not a beautiful musical avian like the Alkonost and Sirin of legend, but a different creature entirely. This thing occupied a dank, brambled shed in a shadowed gully, which only the two of us knew. It roosted there by day (the sole sound being the occasional scratching of its hands at its feathers) and came to life at night, when small boys were in their beds.

In my night visions it landed with a heavy clump at the foot of my mattress, the sullen beat of its wings on its flight from the farm having already roused me from sleep. Sitting-up, I would see a huge dinner-plate of a red eye staring at me in the dark. Then, as I sat there too terrified to move, it would stride – one giant claw after the other – towards me, over the bedclothes. When right above me it would bend so close that its enormous beak practically skimmed my cheeks. Next it would lift its great neck, cast sly looks around my room and then shoot out its tongue, on which waved a forest of feathers that erupted into flames before my eyes. At this I would begin the screaming (my hose-like pissing would already have started) that summoned my mother. As she marched out of the dark, the Hellbird would melt into it, beating its wings and winding back into the depths of its pit-like gullet its terrible, flaming tongue. 

‘What does he do?’ I once asked Alexander Antonovich (affecting not to know the bird’s ghastly nocturnal purpose) while holding my father’s hand, as our trio studied Napoleon in the farmyard.‘What he likes,’ said Antonovich. ‘He’s the boss here: it’s his farm.’

When I asked him what he meant by ancient, he said, ‘As old as the plains. As old as Russia. He’ll be here when I’m ashes… when all of us are ashes.’

The bird stood its ground before us as if it understood every word the old man had said… as if it were waiting to see if we had anything to voice by way of contradiction, which we did not.

When the time came for us to leave, with or without Antonovich, depending on whether he was staying at the farm for the night, I’d pull ahead, anxious to get into our car.

Dad would fiddle with his keys, mutter and try to get Beatrisa to start. I, meanwhile, would be standing on the back seat, looking out for Napoleon. Eventually Beatrisa would snort to life and settle to the shudder that would last all our journey home.

Near the top of the track that led from the farm I’d finally find the courage to look back. Without fail, Napoleon would be thundering after us. Even after the thrum of the wooden bridge under our wheels, he’d still be on our tail, squawking and jumping, into the road. I’d watch him, watching us, till a grass bank with trees intervened. From a hillock I’d stare back, and see his speck: defiant.

My mother died first – a tumour that ate through her – fifteen years on from where I’ve begun. My father held his life together for a while, but, in time, fell apart. Antonovich’s trips to the farm – Dad’s sole source of meaningful money, and companionship – grew fewer.

Dad scratched a little cash driving the likes of Irina Budayeva, a fat, malingering woman who wouldn’t walk anywhere, and Father Leonid, who, as a priest, my father was embarrassed to charge: a situation which suited Father Leonid perfectly.

An added problem was that Beatrisa, Dad’s by now heavily patched-up car, started breaking down a lot. One time a wheel flew off so that he and Antonovich careered down a ravine. Antonovich, virtually blind by this stage, stayed in his seat as my father went for help. A farmer put a chain around Beatrisa’s fender and dragged her out with his tractor, like a cow from a river.

By that time I was at university and had a small place of my own. One night, just over a year after my mother’s passing, Dad phoned and said Antonovich was dead. The old man had been found by the caretaker of his block, cold as stone in his his bed, dressed in his coat and hat. After some confused words – my father had been drinking, I could tell – he told me he loved me and put down the phone. Next day he drove out to the farm and gassed himself in Beatrisa. In one hand he held the wooden cross that used to hang over my parents’ bed; in the other a wedding photo showing the two of them smiling.

When I tried to find the farm, the light was failing. I felt sure I must have become lost. I was about to give up when the thrum – my tyres on the slats of the wooden bridge – told me I was there, and had found my way back. I nosed down the track. Tall weeds and grass brushed against the sides of my car. Moths fluttered in the headlamps. As I rolled deeper thorns dragged against the wings, branches raked at the roof. Finally the pitch levelled and splayed into the clearing I remembered. I saw the dark huddle of the house and barns. My lights fell on Beatrisa where the police had left her, tyres flat, in the yard 

The air was cooler than in the city, but it was heavy… still… as if all life and sweetness had been sucked from it. Crickets chorused in the fields: their pulse rising, or so it seemed, as the darkness deepened. A sound – on the edge of the woods, something muffled – disturbed my thoughts. An animal, I presumed: a boar… rabbits, perhaps.

I looked at Beatrisa, and thought of my father in her as she filled with fumes. I wondered if he might have had some last-minute change of heart. Her doors were always sticking. I remembered how if ever I or my mother or Antonovich wanted to get out of her, my father had to do so first. He’d yank open the door in question with a shrug of his shoulders, as if he could not understand what our problem was. I thought of my mother and her tumour: how if it had chosen anywhere else but her brain to take root the doctors could probably have burned it out. Finally, I thought of Antonovich in his chair in the great room of the farmhouse, staring at the mouth of the fireplace, his talk of ashes, the time when all of us would be that.

I reached into my pocket, drew out the box, slid open the drawer and struck the first match.

In that dark emptiness, the rasp of the strike, the eruption of the head, were like cannon and bonfire, or so it seemed. I tilted the match downward between finger and thumb, coaxing the flame to caterpillar up the slender stick. When my fingers felt its singeing heat I let the match fall.

Spits and crackles began at my feet. The brittle weeds and parched grass that had overtaken the farmyard burst open at their stems: tiny, teardrop flames. To begin with, the small beads of fire seemed harmless. But soon I had to step back.

The flames went for Beatrisa first: pulling at her doors, crawling onto her roof, sliding down her bonnet and wings. I left her behind me, ablaze.

I let the second match fall at the foot of the front-door of the farmhouse. Fire quickly embraced its rotten wood. I stood back and watched as flames garlanded the old house with reds and yellows that waved like beds of poppies and corn. The place seemed to sigh and moan: more alive now at its moment of immolation than it had been in perhaps a hundred years. I thought how much better it would have been had Antonovich perished here, smiling and setting his coat aflame with a match from my hand, sitting in his chair in his vast, grey chamber. I heard his bronchial whisper: ‘But of course, professor.’

The house surrendered – no… it rejoiced – as the inferno consumed it. The crickets in the fields beat their wings with thunderous intensity. It was as if – rank upon rank – they were relishing the conflagration: spectating… salivating; the leaping, dancing flames gleaming in their black, bulbous eyes, like those tricoteuse women threshing their needles in the blood-soaked shadows of the French guillotine. For a moment the house seemed to stagger as if shuddering in the ecstasy of the glorious, shimmering destruction wrought by my tiny, awesome torches… my shock troops… my answers.

As I was leaving, over the bridge, something told me to look back. The farm glowed like a village razed. But it was another sight that seized me. For in the dark womb of my car a red eye glared, and a pair of wings raised themselves… triumphant… in the manner of an aquila carried by the legions of ancient Rome. 

I followed the road to that incline beyond the trees where, as a boy, I had looked back on the farm from Beatrisa. I parked and, not unlike my father might have, held the door for Napoleon to get out. With one leviathan step he lifted himself onto the bonnet. With another he planted his huge claw foot on the car’s roof. Massive, ancient, terrifying, he shook from his frame a firestorm of gold and ruby feathers, and drew open his cavernous beak. Then, as the farm burned below us, he crowed and crowed into the night’s cold darkness with such a scathing, steepling, flaying fury that it demanded the ears of everyone and everything. Not just in Moscow, but in Saint Petersburg, in Arkhangelsk, in Vladivostok, in Rostov, in Samara, in all of Russia. The alert and the asleep, the young and the old, the living and the dead: he would have their homage, their adoration, their souls.

Irina Budayeva was the first. 

She was, it appears, gorging cake when our fire insinuated itself under her door. It ate its way along her crumbed carpet, cornered her in her kitchen – that same place, on the ninth floor, where week after week she had had my father lumber her bags without ever giving him even the smallest of tips. Her corpse, when recovered, resembled a charred pig.

Next came our burnings of those houses the fat cats had built on Antonovich’s estate. Twelve in one night: how beautifully they burned. No hope of salvation. The bonfires soared and shone in Napoleon’s approving gaze.

The destruction of a fleet of limousines was something in which I took particular pleasure. Their burnt-out shells were strikingly apocalyptic, like a convoy of incinerated battle tanks.

Ordeal by fire seemed the only way to settle my account with Father Leonid. I set his bell tower alight with a votive candle as he climbed its stone steps: the fire hurrying after him along a rope rail and trapping him neatly by means of the tower’s wooden beams. A priest, you might have thought, would have been ready to meet his Maker. But not greedy Leonid. He leapt from his belfry in a bid to save himself… and breathed his skull-smashed last on the pavement below, as if listening at a crack.

I have abandoned my studies at the university: there is simply too much to be done. I travel the city setting new fires nightly, though to Napoleon my efforts are never enough. I hasten from one appointment to the next: his red eye upon me, his peals from my balcony exhorting me to more. I have come to realise there is something sacred between us, and have long banished my childhood fears.

His flame, of course, is eternal. Mine flickers in the moment, I know. Yet together – until I am ashes – we shall bring our light to the dark.

I am the torch-bearer, the flame-thrower, the fire-starter, taken under His golden wing.

Watch for my work.  

This is my song.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matthew G. Rees, among other things, has been a  journalist, a teacher and a night-shift cab driver. He knows a man who once saw Dylan Thomas order a whisky in a bar and pay for it himself. Recently he’s been undertaking a PhD at the University of Swansea, Wales, on the subject of imagery and fiction. Previously he taught English at a school in Moscow. His published stories include ‘Compass’, ‘Priest’, ‘Dead Wood’, ‘Bait Pump’ and ‘I’ve Got You’. One, ‘The Tip’, has been described as a ‘short, Gogol-esque masterpiece’. A new story, ‘The Word’, has been published as a numbered limited edition chapbook by The Three Impostors / Wentwood Press, of Wales,  as part of an homage to Arthur Machen. A play by Rees, Dragonfly, was recently performed professionally on a three-venue tour of theatres in Wales. He is the editor of Horla. The website for Three Impostors is here: Three Impostors

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