By Lina Dee
Edited by Helen Borodina
Translated by Helen Borodina & Igor Stepashkin
Illustrated by Monaskrel`art
“Direville” is a collection of 9 short stories about the life of a fantasy city in Western Europe in the first half of the XX century.
Direville is an ordinary – even though a bit strange – town – woven out of mysteries that don’t meet the eye of a chance observer who would most likely note a dire presence speaking through the town’s blissful ambiance at a closer look…
Each person living there is unusual, and has a special part to play in the life of the community.
However, everyone in Direville – like anywhere else in the world – has their vices, is tormented by fears and is driven by passions.
Life seems quite measured when suddenly, the people’s unusual abilities seem to vanish: no one senses the approaching danger that knocks on their door on the day of the city’s annual Festival.
Her hand had a life of its own
She slowly stretched out her hand, the swaying palm opening like a fan, starting with the pointing finger.
The fingers, long and well-groomed, with nails of a scarlet shade that was a perfect match to that of her lipstick, tickled the air, recoiling as the forearm pulled the palm back, and froze in an indefinite gesture.
The Doll — who was in perfect control over her independent hand — had an incredible fancy for Hollywood chic that she proudly paraded, with her elegant silver dress reaching the floor, and the gorgeous waves of crispy locks falling over her shoulders. Her arched eyebrows perfectly matched the curve of the upper lip, and immaculate eye-liner, interplaying with the thick eyelashes, made her gaze magnetic.
The girl looked like a porcelain figurine on top of a music box as she stood by the window in the same position for hours on end, waiting for something — or someone — perhaps, her Puppet Master, while life pulled at her threads.
At such times, she was very quiet. Her head slightly bent to the side, she listened to the ticking of the clock as she watched its gilded arrows move. She considered this an activity that had a sacred meaning — but what that meaning was exactly, she hadn’t been able to figure out for years. Her milk — white skin, free of wrinkles or bruises, was immaculate.
Approaching her dressing table, she would meet her own reflection in the mirror as if it were someone else — with arrogance and pride. Her manner never changed, as if she was aware of something no one else had any knowledge about…
Someone knocked on the door. The Hollywood Doll turned her head and slowly stretched out her hand, letting the swaying palm open like a fan, starting with the pointing finger, and reached to open the door… But then, stopped, uncertain…
A dwarf in a box
The sea storm has started; the wind raged, and the waves tumbling over each other reached over twenty feet in height.
No ships, vessels, or liners could be seen from the shore — only enormous water giants threatening to swallow the flickering beacon again and again.
The wind pushed the waves onto the sand to lick away the remaining footsteps. The family that had left them were hurrying home, away from the onsetting storm.
Two little girls were running ahead of two adults. Their loose overalls swung in the wind that filled them like sails and made the children’s hair dance.
Their mother in a tight lilac dress ran after, her thick long wavy hair gathered into a braid. Playfully chasing her daughters, she laughed, happy that finally their family had managed to spend a free day together.
The pensive father walked quickly behind the three. He was a zeppelin pilot. Even off duty, he had his blue uniform on. His jacket was adorned with golden buttons and emblems; he was wearing his service cap, too. Looking adoringly at his wife and daughters, he thought of his own childhood.
The pilot’s name was Peter, his wife’s, Stephanie, and their daughters, — Rosa and Vera.
The wind wouldn’t cease. They were about to start ascending the slope when the wind snatched the father’s blue cap off his head. Making a circle in the air, it landed in the nearby bushes.
Startled, Peter put his hands over his head, while his daughters ran, overtaking each other, to get the cap.
A roar of thunder came from the distance, and a seagull flying over their heads let out a series of hysterical cries into the darkening sky.
Happy as they were about the day so well spent, now they couldn’t wait to return to the safety of their home and get warm.
Wet splashes weren’t licking the necks, arms and other open parts of their bodies with their cold tongues anymore, but the rain that had begun threatened to turn into a shower at any moment.
The eight-year old Rosa, slipping awkwardly, stretched out on the wet grass, trying to get the cap that was now in her reach.
She had a big scratch on her elbow, and was on the verge of tears as she rose from the ground, her father’s cap in her hand — but suddenly, a dirty box that lay on its side deeper in the bushes caught her attention.
Rosa slowly approached the object. She suddenly wanted to know what it could contain. She squatted, grabbed the box, opened it just enough to see inside, and discovered a cellulose toy dwarf.
— A little dwarf! — she exclaimed, happy at the find, forgetting all about the scratch on her arm and even her Dad’s cap.
Once colourful, the dwarf, now covered in soil and sludge, had been obviously brought by the sea — but how did it get to that place so far from the shore?
— Perhaps, some big dog brought it here… — Vera, who was two years older Rosa, suggested. She carefully checked her sister’s clothes, and also started looking at the dwarf, wondering how it could have gotten into those bushes, and who had owned it before.
There was something unusual about the dwarf, and the girls sensed it.
If not for the strong wind, the gathering darkness and the unraveling storm, the girls would hardly have succeeded in persuading their parents to allow them to take the dwarf home: the adults disliked the idea, saying that whoever it had been that had thrown the toy away, simply hadn’t bothered to go all the way to the trash heap. However, the father decided, that, since his daughters wanted the dwarf so much, they were to wash it and get rid of the box in the morning — on that condition, it could stay and share a shelf with the other toys in their room.
As the family reached home, the children, tired, cold, and soaked to the bone, took the box to their bedroom to clean the dwarf right after they would wake up.
Before going to bed, Rosa and Vera checked on the dwarf a number of times each, fearing that, like a naughty kitten, it could disappear unless properly looked after.
Hours into the night the wind finally began to subside. Soon the storm was over, the sea had calmed, and a full blood moon came out to shine in the black night sky.
Vera muttered something in her sleep and turned over to the other side.
More time passed.
The box rustled; a bright amber light with a scarlet shade enveloped it; the lid lifted, and the dwarf, now alive, climbed out. The little fairy-tale man checked his hazel-colored hat, took a quick nimble stroll about the house, and, returning to the children’s bedroom, hurried to the window, the heels of his tiny dirty boots tapping on the floor as he walked. Reaching the wall, the dwarf sneezed and, shaking off the remaining dust and sludge, jumped up on the windowsill.
Pushing the frame, the dwarf paused, yawned lazily, and then, hopped out. He had to get back to the shore while the Blood Moon still shone, for it was that very night when he could cross the vast sea, return to his ship, and avenge himself on the young sailor boy who had thrown him aboard.
The morning came.
The first rays of the sun touched the children’s beds and danced on the walls.
Rosa, who was the first to wake up, ran at once to the box. Not finding the dwarf inside, she noticed tiny footprints and chunks of sludge on the floor, leading to the crack-open window.
Rosa cried bitterly, pressing the box to herself, and her sister awoke, hearing the noise.
— We’ll be waiting for you! — Vera said as she approached the window and put her arms around her little sister’s shoulders.
— We won’t close the window, I promise! — Rosa added softly.
Rosa and Vera stood by the window, greeting the new day. Their parents were, apparently, still in their beds, the house wasn’t filled with the smell of cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate the girls were used to waking up to.
The morning smelled of the sea.
An old woman in a gray hat
I had heard many different things about her. Some people said she was a dark witch who cursed entire families; others revered her as a herb-wife, a healer who had helped many to recover from different ailments. Yet no one living in Direville would venture to visit her old cottage that stood on the edge of the town, by the forest, without a good reason.
At any time of the year, the old woman wore a large gray hat with shabby brims, her messy gray-haired curls sticking from under it. Her gaze that sometimes showed was heavy, her brown eyes were always tearing, perhaps from old age; her skinny body and face were covered in wrinkles that gathered on her cheeks, around the thin lips, and on the arms. The old woman’s dresses were always dark; her stretched knitted jackets and woolen shawls, rather worn. Little twigs, leaves and even burdock thistles hung on her clothes and hair. She could rarely be seen smiling, but people said that her teeth were crooked, yellow and ugly.
She led an unremarkable life, spending most of her time in the forest with a wicker basket, gathering stems, leaves and roots of plants, berries and mushroom, picking up bird feathers, and, it was rumoured, corpses of small animals, too, — or worked in the garden and brewed new potions in her kitchen.
She rarely attended public places, and only if she had a need to. I often saw her at Saturday food markets, where my parents sold the best goat cheese and milk in the county. She’d buy those from us, meat, from old Albert, and then, went to the other rows, where she also bought something — always from the same merchants. I ran away from our stall and followed her, as if hypnotized, but always kept at a distance, or acted as if I was going my own course, knowing how important it was to remain unnoticed. Loading her shopping on the back of a clunky bicycle, she always hurried to leave the market before it got filled with people.
The story I want to share with you happened in mid-September, after a long rainy summer. Having returned after a vacation at my aunt’s at Blisshill that I had spent mostly reading in her cosy living room, I realized how much I had missed my gloomy hometown — and the old woman in a gray hat… I wasn’t sure if she had survived the summer — according to my calculations, she was supposed to be extremely old. But early on Saturday morning, on my way to the market, I saw the familiar shabby figure rolling the screeching bike in the direction of the bridge that led to the forest road. I was glad. At once I wanted to learn more about her. Perhaps, because, like her, I was lonely, and had no friends who would be glad that I was back. I was curious to know how she cast spells and worked her dark magic.
I wasn’t popular at school, and, perhaps, by that very reason, as I planned my visit to the old woman, I decided to ask her upfront to teach me how to cast different spells. I was sick of being strange and uninteresting to everyone. What if magic could help me seem completely normal to others — and even be liked? Or, perhaps, the old woman knew something I was completely unaware of… something that could make my life easier?
My parents worked hard at the small farm our family had owned for centuries, and had no time to follow what I was doing between school and house chores. They knew that Oscar — that’s me — could spend hours walking around Direville when not at the farm helping them. I knew everything about my hometown and its neighbourhood. The only place I wasn’t allowed to go to was the seashore on the other side of the forest. But I went there too, especially on weekends. I liked to leave the house very early and watch the sunrise there.
My life was all about learning. I remembered every bush, every house, every tombstone in the churchyard, the concrete ties on the railroad, all the cracks and chips on the intricate ornament of the school facade, the austere contours of the factory building, the jewellers’ house that looked like a castle to me… I even walked inside the hospital, where I watched the discharge of patients. I went to many different places…
But my favourite pastime was being by the pond, where I felt completely at peace. There I relaxed, looking at the tranquil water surface, ducks swimming by, and the reed that I would sometimes break, and, rubbing the dark brown cocoon between the palms of my hands, throw the white floss into the air.
In the evening, with a simple travel backpack of thick material on my shoulders containing the chocolate bar my aunt had given me, an old flashlight and a folding pocket knife inside, I headed towards the forest.
The cold ground was covered with autumn leaves, and their musty smell filled me with hope of good change ahead. I wanted to stop and kick the leaves about, or find a stick and look for funny worms and snails in the muddy puddles. But my plan possessed me, not letting anything side-track me.
On those days it started getting dark earlier than in summer, so I had to hurry. In about an hour, an entire horizon of yellow leaves spread out before me.
I wondered to myself if I would have the guts to start talking to the old woman at all — or she’d perhaps cast some spell over me before I had the time to say anything.
I felt a little uncanny. But Direville is a somewhat unusual place, and I am just one of many in it who were afraid or ill at their ease every now and then.
The hedge around the old woman’s house was rickety, so I easily climbed onto the witch’s territory, and, having hid myself behind an apple tree, started watching the kitchen garden with baited breath. Time passed, but nobody came. The harvest was abundant — heavy cabbage heads, large orange pumpkins and other season vegetables filled every bed. Lit by the evening September sun, it all looked like a picture. I squatted, and started thinking. Do pumpkins — or cabbages — have a soul? If so, perhaps, it is contained in the stalk? I bent down to take a closer look at a cabbage head, as if I had never seen one before. At that instant, something soft touched my foot — so gently that it wasn’t even frightening. A cat was rubbing its side at my ankle — most likely, the very one that lived with the old woman in a gray hat. People talked a lot of it, too. I found the cat very beautiful. I was charmed by the sandy shade of its fur. The neck and the stomach were white, and the face, the paws and the tail had a golden tint. Above the pink nose sat a dark ginger spot that looked like a large freckle, and the ends of the ears were dark too, like those of a bobcat.
The feline looked at me with round blue eyes, and I suddenly realized that it was the most adorable cat I had ever seen. I patted it, and, as if in response, it touched my forearm with its gorgeous fluffy tail. This made me very happy.
Feeling braver now, I picked the cat up, and, together, we looked into the window. The green curtains were slightly drawn apart, but the light wasn’t on, and it was too dark to see anything inside. The front door was crack-open, beckoning me; I had more confidence with the cat in my arms, so we walked in. However, while the cat was entering its own house, I was an unannounced guest.
The first thing I became aware of in the darkness of the house, was the smell. Not an eerie stench like that of a decomposing corpse, but a sharp, sobering aroma of different herbs and medications. The instant I switched on my flashlight, I heard a noise coming from the attic.
I had been uncomfortable before the sound came, but now, I quickly put out the flashlight, and, before I could distinguish any other objects besides an old chest in the hall, I ran — as fast as I only could. I thought I heard steps approaching behind me as I reached the door, but I rushed out without turning around, and, catching full speed onto a low-hanging branch of an apple tree, I stumbled out onto the road and sank at once in a heap of autumn leaves. They stuck to my face, not letting me see clearly, but I kept running on like a madman. Even though nobody was chasing, or even shouting, after me. I was a mere coward.
Then, finally, I got home.
Exhausted, I fell into my bed, feeling as if something heavy was pressing me into the mattress. The neighbour dogs howled, not letting me sleep; the large and pale full moon that seemed to be looking directly into my window made me restless. I tossed and turned, until — I didn’t notice when — sleep received me into its embrace…
…This time the cat didn’t come out to encourage me, and there was nothing left for me to do but knock on the closed door. I was beginning to regret having come.
It seemed like an eternity before the door finally opened with a quiet moan. The old woman looked at me from under the rims of her gray hat with mistrust. Then, saying nothing, she threw the door open and limped back into the room. I followed her.
The bright spots of light from an old-fashioned hanging lamp and a kerosene lantern dissolved the dusk that filled the place. The dry floor planks screeched like my own soul. We didn’t stop in the living room, walking straight into the kitchen. Different jars, bottles and even laboratory tubes stood on the wooden shelves, filled with substances of unusually bright colours.
She asked me no questions, and her eyes didn’t express surprise anymore, as if she had already understood what I had come for. Perhaps, her cat had told her of me the night before — or else, she was reading my mind. Thinking of that, I suddenly realized that I was ill.
The stooping old woman chuckled, took a transparent glass and put two spoons of a powder of an emerald shade into it. The colour seemed unnatural to me. It was cold inside the house, and I shrugged. Muttering something, she added a dash of a milled dried herb. I was about to ask her what it was, but on second thoughts, what did I care, as long as it could help me? Then she boiled water in an aluminum pot on an old two-burner stove and poured it into the mix she had made in the glass. A smoke rose from it, and a pleasant aroma filled the kitchen…
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