Rasputin is Lit by Josip Novakovich
In Grisha’s hungover state, the low sunshine of the mid-May morning glared and hurt his eyes. He cleared his throat and spat. His esophagus still burned as though on fire, and when he exhaled, smoke or steam came out of him. The night before, he had visited an old-style vodka tavern such as still existed only in Siberia (a wooden hut serving nothing but vodka) at the crossroads near Pokrovskoye, his village. He had spent all his money, and in the end gave up his sheepskin jacket, and his shirt, and his bronze necklace with a cross, and he would have given up his pants too, but the barman laughed and said, You’d have to pay someone to wear that! How did you manage to rip a hole like that? Your farts are that powerful?
No, I sat on a rock. And how about the boots? asked Grisha. They are made out of ox hide.
They look terrible and useless, too. They don’t even seem to have soles—you dropped them somewhere?
I’ll give you everything for one more glass of vodka, and you can give me your sackcloth so I wouldn’t go home naked.
Sackcloth? What do you think, what era do you live in? Even an empty potato sack would be worth more than what you have. This is the end of your drinking for the night. One more glass and you’d have to crawl home.
Grisha had woken up in a ditch right outside of his two-story home. He had no recollection how he’d got there, whether he had walked or whether someone had dumped him. A red-eyed, perhaps blind goose, had awoken him, mistaking his hair for grass and pecking at it. As he sat up, she hissed at him and he tried to kick her.
Grisha covered his eyes with his palms, massaged them, and looked after the flying goose. The sun flared up through tiny leaves of oaks, green, and brilliant. The boughs spread out like huge arms; welcoming arms, looming in the light. They were thick black arms, with refracting light thinning them.
He passed by a large possession of a peasant. Geese were honking at him and sticking out their necks. There were tall haystacks, protected with wooden fences from deer and thieves. The wood wasn’t just branches but narrow and hewn round laths. With these laths, one should make something much nicer. If he collected enough of them, he could make a sweat lodge.
He went home, hitched his old, emaciated black horse to a squealing cart, and collected a sharpened axe and a rusty saw. He rode back to the peasant’s field, chopped and sawed the laths into the right size, and loaded them on the dusty cart.
The grass was turning green but was not tall yet. The soil was wet, and his boots got muddied. As he walked, they were sucked into the mud, and when he pulled them out, the mud sucked loudly after them, asking to swallow them again. The mud tried to eat his boots, displaying its bad manners, smacking its lips and slurping, but the boots pulled out, up, and then hovered before hitting the salivating mouth of toothless Mother Earth. The soil succeeded in taking off his left boot. Grisha stood like a stork, a gangly and yet sturdy stork, on one leg. The wet cloth wrapped around his foot unraveled and fell into the mud, revealing his large feet; his uncut nails curved and wrapped his large toes, thus giving them extra protection. Grisha swore, Fuck St. Catherine! He pulled out the boot, which was now filled with water, and emptied the water from it, and then slid his foot back in, as he continued to haul the beautiful wood from the fence to his cart.
The horse waited patiently on the road, dropping steamy dung now and then for entertainment. Grisha carried the wood. One plank gave him a splinter, and his hand bled.
Suddenly, the peasant came out from his house, running. He was clad all in brown and his face was brown too, weathered and creased. He had a long, broad nose with a horizontal crack in the middle. It seemed a sword must have hit him across the nose, cutting a wedge into it.
Grisha was tempted to run, but he looked into the peasant’s eyes—they were pale blue like his. He seemed to be very similar to Grisha—perhaps a remote uncle? Maybe even his father?
You dirty ass, you’re destroying my fences. You’ll have to pay!
I am doing nothing of the sort. I will use the wood for better purposes. It’s a sin to let such beautiful wood rot in the fields, and to keep God’s creatures away from the grass.
I’ll show you sin, you bastard. You come with me to the town court right away.
I am not going.
You better, said the peasant, and he grabbed one wood plank and held it in his hands.
What, you old khui, you are threatening me?
Yes, I’m threatening you, you durak!
Grisha swung his axe and it whistled in the air; he was not really intending to split the peasant’s head, but to ward him off like a horsefly. And if he hit the peasant, he could finish the job that someone had started earlier—cutting through his head.
The peasant also swung and he connected—hit Grisha right between the eyes and over the nose. Grisha went down. Light flickered red in his eyes, warmth enveloped him. He felt very comfortable so bathed in light and blood.
He passed out, though a smile stayed on his face.
He came to as the peasant was feeling his neck, chest, and hands for signs of life. As Grisha opened his eyes, he felt a hard-on coming. It was cold, and he realized that in his fall his pants had slipped down.
You swine, I thought you were dead, said the peasant, both relieved and disgusted. You are a dog, just a dirty dog.
Grisha watched him in a beatitudinous state, in pain and pleasure.
He stood up. Above the brown hair of the peasant, who seemed to be a mirage arising out of the mud, he beheld a sight from before: the boughs spread like huge arms; welcoming arms, looming in the light. They were thick black arms, with refracting light thinning them. The arms of the tree appeared to him to be the arms of Jesus in disguise, resurrected Jesus, who was nailed onto a tree, having come from the trees, as a carpenter’s son.
This was a call from God to go out and worship the wood, the nature that grows out of the ground, the resurrected soil.
From a distance, a bell tolled and the beautiful sound of metal buzzed over the valley. The vibrations of the air penetrated Grisha’s ears and shook his loosened nose bones, so that his nose hurt even more. He snorted out blood, and his horse snorted on the road, in sympathy.
Grisha decided he would be a carpenter, like Jesus, and Jesus would live in him as long as he cut wood.
Why are you staring at me like that? You have brain damage? You damned thief!
You think that my collecting wood is stealing, but it is no stealing.
It’s theft and destruction of property.
The whole land and all the wood belong to God. It’s brazen of people to imagine that it is theirs. The people have stolen from God, and I aim to return the wood to God.
What people? You mean me? The peasant punched him on his left cheekbone.
Grisha saw lightning.
Why are you grinning, fucker! You falling asleep?
Oh, no, on the contrary. This has been an awakening for me.
You call that awakening? The peasant pointed downward. Pack it away, you dog. And wash it. That’s my advice.
Spiritual awakening. I have seen the light.
All right. You’ll get even more awakening at the magistrate’s office. Let’s go. Poshli!
Grisha knelt to the ground, crossed himself with two fingers, and said, Thank you, Lord.
Don’t you have three fingers? asked the peasant. Don’t pretend to be a believer, old or new.
Grisha stood up and said, I will follow you. I am a sinner and I am ready for justice.
Now you are willing?
Yes. And if you want, hit me again with that wood. You can punish me.
I could kill you and that wouldn’t restore my fence.
Oh, you couldn’t kill me. Please hit me again.
I deserve it.
I could, but it wouldn’t do much good. At court, you will pay me back the damages, and you have to build me another fence. And maybe you can work for me as a swineherd.
Gladly. That’s a wonderful job for a prodigal son.
You motherfucker, don’t give yourself no fancy names now. You have nothing to do with religion.
You’d be surprised. I’ve just got a call from the Lord.
The peasant spat. At least you seem strong enough to do some work.
On the way to the courthouse, Grisha kept smiling and seeing visions of naked dancing angels. Most of them were female, and they had wonderfully loose breasts. Oh, thank you, Lord, he said. I thought angels were men.
What the fuck are you talking about? asked the peasant.
I am not talking to you, but to the Lord.
He looked at the trees above them, the boughs embracing the road ahead. He was a sinner, expiating for his sins in his own blood and the blood of Christ. He would be born again through this bloodbath and light; his old self would die, and the new one would be born. This was more complete than St. Paul’s conversion on the way to Damascus, which didn’t include baptism in blood.
He inhaled with delight the blood through his nose. It made strange slurping sounds. The peasant watched him with disgust.
My friend, you are a Godsend to me, said Grisha. You have no idea how beautiful this all is. May I kiss you?
The peasant pushed him and hit him on the nape with his fist.
Oh, thank you. I deserve this and more. I have been truly evil. Do you drink vodka?
Are you offering?
No. God doesn’t want us to drink anymore. It is an evil drink.
How would you know? You look drunk to me.
I was, but Lord has sobered me up through your gracious fist. You know, I am not going to pollute the temple of the Holy Ghost, my body, by eating meat and drinking vodka.
The peasant kicked him in the ass and said, You call this temple?
I will eat only vegetables of the fields.
That’s fine, but don’t steal mine.
And moreover, fish.
He didn’t remember that Jesus had eaten anything but figs, fish, and unleavened bread. Maybe he drank some red wine, but where would Grisha get red wine? The Siberian climate didn’t welcome red grapes.
In order to dedicate himself to the matters of the spirit, he would need a wife, a sturdy one. He had admired the miller on the outskirts of the village who didn’t need anything, other than the nails, from the Czardom. The rest he generated in his mill, and what he couldn’t do, his powerful wife did. He boasted she was better and stronger than the mule—somewhat more intelligent and much more powerful. She could lift a mule, and she could till the ground and grow vegetables. And not only that: she bore him five children, and after each birth, she’d get up in ten minutes and go back to the field to till some more.
Now Grisha asked the peasant, Do you have any daughters? Perhaps I could marry one when I work as a laborer for you.
Yes, I have ten of them. You may not look at them. You touch one of them, I will nail your ass to a spruce—I’ll fucking crucify you.
Grisha inhaled deeply, slurping. A drop of thick blood got caught in his windpipe and he coughed, and as he coughed his nose seemed to be splitting in sheer luminous pain.
Josip Novakovich emigrated from Croatia to the United States at the age of 20. He has published a dozen books, including a novel, April Fool's Day (in ten languages), four story collections (Infidelities, Yolk, Salvation and Other Disasters, Heritage of Smoke) and three collections of narrative essays as well as two books of practical criticism. His work was anthologized in Best American Poetry, the Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Prize Stories. He has received the Whiting Writer's Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Ingram Merrill Award and an American Book Award, and in 2013 he was a Man Booker International Award finalist. He teaches creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal. His latest novel, Rubble of Rubles, is available now from Dzanc Books