The author says, “I’ve published science fiction, literary fiction, mainstream fiction and literary criticism. A complete bibliography is at www.peteralterman.com.”
Yetta and the Beast
by Peter Alterman
From deep in the forest on the other side of the river, the side that used to be her country, she hears the tolling of the distant church bell announcing Christmas morning. It is a bitter cold night and she is dressed in rags. She bends and kisses the ground at the base of the twin-trunked pine tree that marks the site of her husband’s and daughter’s bones. It is the place where the Beast won her from his comrades after killing her family. As she does every year at this time she collects two cones from the tree as memorials.
Soon it will be light. The Beast and the twins will be returning from his mother’s dacha. Her heart warms at the thought of the boys he fathered on her. As she does every year, she will give each a cone as a Christmas present. It is her secret way of binding the two halves of her life together.
She must be back before them to light the fire and cook their meal lest he know she can escape. So she makes her way in the darkness among the trees along the path that only she remembers to the wood-slatted bridge that replaced the fine stone one that crossed the river between their countries before the invasion. The ringing has wakened the guard who usually sleeps in the box at the far end of the bridge so she must slip into the freezing water and glide beneath the span slowly, silently, hiding behind the fallen trees that clog the river, then creep out and crawl along the abutment until she can steal away through the brush to the invaders’ village that has long been her prison.
In the shabby house she strips off her wet rags. Naked, she bends and starts a fire in the kitchen hearth. Her knees protest as she pushes herself to her feet. She arrays her clothes near the flames to dry. The room slowly warms as the wood turns to coals and she boils a mug of water into which she drops a piece of pork fat. When the fat is completely dissolved she gulps it down and her shivering stops. At peace in the still and empty house she waits until her rags are dry, then puts them on.
Through the cracked window first light reveals the Beast’s village. Surrounded by pine and birch, thirteen similar houses are scattered around the low stone church. Flickering firelight appears in the windows of the houses and kitchen smoke begins to rise into the air. She is relieved she returned in time for hers to be the first.
The village is rooted in frozen mud and stinks of animal shit. Ewes and goats and pigs cluster around feeding troughs. The Beast keeps no livestock other than she. What meat he eats comes from poaching and hunting. What meat she eats she gnaws from the bones he leaves behind.
The church bell sounds again, this time calling the villagers to celebrate Christ’s birth. It is time for her to retrieve carrots and cabbage and onion from the root cellar, add water and fat and groats and salt, mix it in the black iron pot and set it on the coals to cook. By the time they arrive the porridge will be ready.
He will beat her anyway. By now she doesn’t even try to avoid it. Her fearlessness infuriates him and the back of his hand has knocked out most of her teeth. One day, he swears, he will kill her like he killed her husband and child. One day, she vows silently, she will kill him as he sleeps. It is an old ritual often repeated.
Two hours later the porridge is ready. The church bell announces the end of the service. The house is filled with the aroma of onion and cabbage. The twins will be hungry when they return. She sets spoons on the table and places the pine cones by their seats.
The Beast barges through the front door alone. Her heart, mostly stone, pounds with fear.
“Food!” he roars. He is tall and fat and has to duck to get through the doorframe. He wears an embroidered green wool shirt under his open fur coat. A Christmas gift from his mother; she knows because she has never washed it before. His shirt presses against the gut that flops over the embroidered belt his mother’s slaves made for him last Christmas.
He stinks of vomit and he staggers as he walks. He holds a glass bottle of vodka loosely in one hand. There is straw in his hair. She has never seen him this drunk.
He sags against a kitchen wall. “Food, Cow.” His face is red, his eyes unfocused.
“Where are the boys,” she says. Inside her, banked rage begins to burn.
“Food, Cow!” He raises his hand in threat.
“Where are Josip and Alexander?”
He takes an unsteady step towards her but stops. The effort is too much for him. He sneers. “Gone to the militia. I took them myself.”
Her heart sinks. That’s where he got the money to buy the costly vodka. He sold his sons to the army. Her sons.
“But they are still boys.”
He staggers another step towards her and stops, swaying. “Men. They are men.”
“They are boys.”
He swings the bottle at her face and knocks her down but he is drunk and there is little force behind it. He says, “Less work for you, lazy cow. Jus’ me to look after now.” He staggers to the table and sits heavily on the bench. He slams the bottle down on the rough wood. “Food!” When she doesn’t respond fast enough he pulls his dagger from his belt and slams it, too, into the rough oak tabletop.
She struggles to her feet and fetches him a bowl of porridge. While her back is turned he passes out, cheek down on the table beside the dagger.
She stands over him with the bowl of steaming porridge. A thin line of drool leaks from the corner of his open mouth. He has taken her babies from her again, this time to die in the never-ending war that is all these animals know. Without the twins there is nothing holding her there any more.
She puts the bowl down carefully so as not to wake him. Terrified at herself, her heart pounds in her chest. She retreats to the hearth and lights a twig which she uses to set the pine cones alight. They flare up inches from his face. The Beast’s eyes open and fix on them. He tries to push them away but the potent liquor has unmanned him. The Beast lies motionless as the cones spit burning sparks at his face.
She works the dagger back and forth until it comes loose in her hand. Once it is free she begins to shake and she fears she will drop the weapon. So she waits, poised over him, until her strength returns.
Unwilling to wait for her mind to resolve, her body acts and slams the dagger up to its hilt into the side of the Beast’s neck. His head jerks up. Blood vomits from his mouth and seeps out around the blade. The cones send thin lines of smoke into the air.
“Cow” he mouths.
His eyes find hers and as they glaze over into death she spits in his face. His head thumps onto the tabletop and lands in a pool of blood.
Yetta stands over the Beast’s corpse and wipes blood splatter from her face with her forearms. She eats porridge slowly, all she wants, looking down at the Beast as if she’d never seen him before. Stripped of his malice he is merely a thing.
She could try to steal away into the nearby forest and hide among sheltering trees but they would hunt her down within minutes; there is no freedom for her that way.
Outside it is Christmas day. Soon his friends will be coming for him. She understands what she can do with her freedom.
The key that unlocks the closet where he keeps his gun is tied to his belt. She places the empty bowl down carefully and pulls the dagger from the Beast’s neck. It comes out with a faint sucking sound, as though the blade was slurping up a last taste of blood. She wipes the blade clean on the embroidered belt, then cuts the key loose. She goes to the cabinet and unlocks it, taking out the gun and a cartridge pouch. She lays them down on the table and shoves the Beast’s corpse onto the floor.
She goes to the fire and lights a handful of kindling which she brings to the table. The bottle of vodka is half full. She picks it up in her free hand and pours it around the door and the window, then lights them. They burst into bright blue flame that turns yellow-orange as the wood underneath catches and starts to burn. Smoke begins to fill the house and pours out into the village. His comrades will see the fire and come.
Yetta hears noises outside. Someone is pounding on the door. She spills cartridges on the table then picks up the gun and aims it at the door. Before her the pine cones are ash. It pleases her to think that the tree marking their graves will outlive her. She smiles her toothless smile. She will kill as many as she can.
Copyright 2023 by Peter S. Alterman