Telling Tales – Chapter 4
Koschey the Deathless
Who is Koschey the Deathless? What kind of question is that?
Fine, if you say you haven’t heard of him, then you haven’t heard of him.
I can answer some of your questions easily enough. Why is he called Deathless? Because he can’t die, now, can he? I suppose he could die if you could find his heart, but that’s the source of the problem, if you get my meaning.
It’s like this. Koschey doesn’t have a heart. Without his heart, he can’t be killed, but a heart is just a heart, easiest thing in the world to damage. Stick a fork in it, he’s done. So that’s the question. Where’s his heart, exactly, if it’s not in his chest? That’s what everyone wants to know. If anyone knew, he wouldn’t very well be Deathless anymore? He’d be well and properly dead, instead of evil and improperly Deathless.
You think so? I guess I’d turn that question back on you, I would. What would you do if you had all of the time in the world?
Money? Yes, I expect you’d start off with that. Koschey certainly did, but he left that behind years, centuries ago. To what end money? You and I, we have need of money every day. Me, I can barely feed myself, and sometimes I can’t. Money comes in handy for a fellow like me. There comes a time, though, when you start asking yourself what money is really for. Once you’ve got your house and your food taken care of, once you’ve accumulated more than you can spend in a lifetime, in two lifetimes, what’s the point?
Power, you say. Yes, now we’re getting somewhere. Except that money doesn’t guarantee power. It helps. It gets you access. You might buy the best weapons, the best armor, the best army money. Here I go again – except – that army isn’t yours. Yes, yes, you’re paying them, of course, no one’s saying you’re not. You’ve never had someone go back on a contract? You’ve never had someone turn on you? Loyalty, obligation, those are social bonds, and they’re liable to give out at the worst time. They do in all of the stories.
There’s Koschey. There he is. He’s done what you and I would have done, he’s amassed more money than he knows what to do with until he realizes it’s all in the pursuit of power. At that point, he starts working on power properly speaking, but he keeps finding weak points in his armor and in his army. He’s powerful but he’s dependent. What he wants, the light he sees at the end of his tunnel, is independence.
It’s knowledge what he’s after. Knowledge is power, they say, and he’s got all the time in the world to educate himself.
How long has he been at it? That, I have no idea. He’s a thousand years old if he’s a day, the older cousin to that wicked old Baba Yaga, and she’s no spring chicken. There’s a joke there, her hut with legs… Chicken… Get it? No?
Where was I? What Koschey’s after, that’s right, thank you. He’s a wizard of the first order. He’s wealthy beyond your wildest imaginings. The army? I don’t know if he’s kept them or not. He surely doesn’t need them, if he does. He’s not all-powerful, but he can’t really die, so he can’t really be stopped. Why does a man like that do anything anymore?
I expect he’s mad.
How did it happen? Well, there’s a tale to be sure.
* * *
Once upon a time, there was a family who ruled their lands with cruel delight. They said, “We are your Monarchs. We are given dominion over you, and it is to us that you should show obeisance, gratitude, and humility.” One after another, kings and queens alike, treated their subjects as toys, playthings, or possessions. They had an army of magical officers that spied upon their people, told them when revolution was planned, and whichever Monarch ruled would stop it in its tracks.
In this land, on the edges but no less suffering for their distance, stood a small inn where the owners, not unlike our hosts, struggled to make ends meet. They knew that they could never plan to revolt, for the mere utterance of words was enough to warn the Monarchy. They knew that in order to defeat their cruel rulers, they would have to devise a plan that would seek its own fulfillment without their guidance. No easy feat, to be sure.
As it happens, this couple had no children of their own, and they deeply desired to be parents. They had never discussed their hatred of the Monarchy, for they knew where such talk led, but they spoke often of their desire for a baby. It must be said that sometimes, occasionally, it was that they talked about the one and meant the other, or talked about the other and meant the one.
Well, the husband was clearing space around their small inn so that he could build a stable. He chopped down tree after tree, each of which would be useful for him in the building. Wood here, wood there, but the stumps, they were a question. He couldn’t use them, for they will rot with time, and infect a structure with their own failings. Water. Termites. Mold. So he dug and he dug and he pulled out stump after stump, each one bigger than the last. The man was strong and hardworking, though, and he did not shy from hard labor. By the time he reached the last stump, he was in fine form. With his pick and hoe and shovel and axe he would cleave through the earth and strike through a root with one blow. One two three and the stump was free. One two three and the second stump came loose. The last to go was small in body but long in root. One two three four five and he pulled it out from the ground.
The man was near to throwing it away when he realized something remarkable. With its little root arms and little root legs and tiny root fingers and toes, this stump looked a great deal like the child that he and his wife did not have. He cleaned the wood of the murk and earth, polished it up with oil, and brought it into his wife, saying, “If we are not to have a child of our own, let us care for this.”
His wife was unimpressed. She was dubious. To allay her concerns, every day her husband took his knife to the stump and gave it more definition. He gave it ears first, so that it could hear them talking. Then he gave it eyes, then a nose and a mouth. He carved its fat little arms and fingers, its fat little legs and toes, and its belly, not yet plump for of course, being a stump, they did not feed it. And while he carved, he spoke to it, and told it how greatly it would be loved.
Until it opened its eyes.
The stump-baby tried to look all around, but his neck was a solid piece of wood and couldn’t move. Only his eyes could shift, side to side and up to down.
“Can you hear me?” asked the father. “Blink if you can understand what I’m saying.”
The stump-baby blinked.
By now it looked a great deal like a small child, albeit a smooth and polished light green one with gray burls at his joints and the grain growing outward in the direction of his limbs. The innkeeper’s wife had not seen the carving that her husband had done in some days, so it was with surprise and fear that she discovered him with his carving knife, drawing a line across an infant’s neck. “What are you doing?”
“Come here,” he said without stopping his task, and completed the cut across the front, ear to ear, before proceeding with the back. “It’s our baby, the one that I found for us.”
The woman approached slowly, for a madman with a knife is not someone to be ignored or taken for a fool. He is unpredictable. Her concern vanished, however, when the stump-baby blinked again. “He’s alive,” she said.
“Of course,” said her husband, and completed the cut across the back of the baby’s neck. “Can you move your head now?”
And across the cut – paper-thin for it was a fine, sharp knife – the stump-baby turned his head. Left and right. Up and down. The wood creaked with its movement, protesting across the grain. “You need some oil to soften you up,” said the mother, “not just to give you clean skin.” She went inside and returned with small cloths and fine oils and rubbed it deep into the cut along the baby’s neck. By now the father had made further cuts at the shoulders and legs as well, and she oiled those, too.
She worked the oil along his joints and along his throat. The father made a cut for the stump-baby’s mouth, right between the lips, and the mother tucked an oil-soaked rag into the opening, forcing it farther open every day, until one day it was wide enough for the stump-baby to cry.
And cry he did. Long, loud cries they were, almost unbearable for the emotion they carried.
“He’s hungry,” said the mother. “Look how big he is, and he’s never eaten so much as a scrap of food.”
“He’s thirsty,” said the father. “He hasn’t had a drop to drink.”
While the mother searched for something for the baby to eat, the father poured – very gently for a man who’d only days before cut a line across the stump-baby’s neck – in fact, he dripped water into the stump-baby’s mouth. The baby drank greedily, until his little belly was just as fat as his father had carved his little arms and legs. By the time the mother returned with bread and mashed vegetables and milk, he was beginning to cry again.
“What did you do to him?” she asked.
“I gave him water to drink,” said her husband. “Look at all that food! He can’t eat all that!”
“We don’t know what he’ll eat, now, do we?” she retorted. “He doesn’t have teeth, that’s clear enough, but he’s bigger than a newborn. He’s sitting up on his own.”
Which was true. The stump-baby was sitting up on his own. He rejected the bread. He accepted the vegetables. He drank the milk. He didn’t seem satisfied, but even stump-babies get tired.
“What will we feed him when he wakes?” they wondered.
* * *
They named him Koschey, of course, an old family name. At first, he was not a kind child, and he was amazingly strong. Once he could crawl around on his own, he would go out of the house. “Mama,” he would say, “get me some food!”
“If you are strong enough to crawl out of the house,” she would answer, “you are strong enough to get your own food.” And he was. And he was a clever and cunning hunter. Snakes could not bite him, for his skin was too hard. Deer could not smell him, for he was made of wood. But he did not kill cleanly, and would cut out the meat of the dying animal and leave it alone in the wood. “You should kill things that you hunt before you butcher them,” said his mother.
The stump-boy was puzzled. “But why? That is a waste of movement.”
It grew worse when travelers came through, which they did, the mother and father being proprietors of an inn. They told young Koschey to keep silent and stay out of the way, and he did, for he was very mindful. He sat unmoving, where everyone thought he was a remarkable statue. One trader in particular thought the stump-boy was amazing. “Ha ha!” he laughed. “Look at this lanky figure. He’s the spitting image of my nephew, the little brat.”
“Leave that alone,” said the mother. It broke her heart to say “that” and not “him,” but she did not want to give Koschey’s secret away. The father took the stump-boy and moved him behind the bar.
The trader was not to be denied, and he made a game of throwing things at the statue. Small bits of food, bones from dinner, and any trash he could glean from the tables around him. “It’s only good fun, don’t get so worked up!” he told the innkeepers. “I’d never do this to my nephew, but a man can dream, can’t he?”
The trader did not dream that night, and in the morning everyone wondered at his early departure. He had drunk a great deal. No one expected that he would gone so quickly and before breakfast. But look – his room is empty, the bed made. His horse is gone from its stall. His cart and goods are gone from the barn. All this, and the innkeepers are only just now emerging to begin making breakfast themselves. And where is the statue of the stump-boy? The innkeepers do not know, and for some reason, they are nervous. Perhaps they themselves have had bad dreams.
Koschey grew quickly, as one will from eating a great deal of meat. When I said he was not kind, I was not being fair, although that is true. It makes it sound like the boy was cruel. He was not. Or if he was, it was out of neglect, ignorance, and disregard, not out of malice. He was too strong for his parents not to do anything about him. When they told him to stay out of the new neighbor’s cabbage patch, he did. When two officers appeared to investigate the disappearance of a trader, the innkeepers were surprised and had not a chance to give Koschey instruction.
The officers disappeared, their magic notwithstanding. Koschey grew.
In their desperation, the couple turned to old Baba Yaga, whose hut marched through the wood. She cackled with delight. A problem of this order came around but once a lifetime, and Baba Yaga is very old indeed. “He needs a heart, of course. What about my payment?”
* * *
The kindest thing that the young man Koschey ever did – and you won’t believe me because it doesn’t sound possible, but I’ll say it again for emphasis – the kindest thing that the young man Koschey ever did was kill his parents.
Old Baba Yaga told them what they needed to know, that young Koschey needed a heart. He wasn’t a kind boy. He wasn’t cruel. Trees and stumps and roots aren’t like the rest of us – people – you see. Well, the solution was not an easy one, but they both loved the stump-boy and they both wanted to be a part of him, so they each gave him half of their heart. Which left the other half for old Baba Yaga, who demanded a full heart as well.
So here we are, Koschey – no longer a stump but a boy, with a heart of his own, half from his mother and half from his father, the way you expect a child to be. And he’s got two parents, the way you’d expect, except that neither of them has a heart any more. They told him what to expect when they gave him their half-hearts. “We’ll be like you afterwards,” they said, but Koschey didn’t understand. He didn’t understand when he didn’t have a heart, and he barely understood when he did. People with and without hearts, they speak different languages. They don’t translate. Words are nothing more than noise.
They didn’t abandon their child and they didn’t abandon their business. They took care of the things that they owned, and as far as they were concerned, they owned their child. Not because he’d been a stump at one point, but because he was theirs. Koschey did what they said – they no longer asked, but commanded – and he did it well and fully. He was still as strong as several men. He was still conscientious.
He loved his parents. Their two half-hearts still loved one another, and that loved was reflected inside Koschey’s chest back to his parents. He loved them as a child loves a parent and as a person loves a couple in love. It grieved him deeply that they no longer loved one another. They were partners, tied together by the bonds of family and the bonds of business and they moved forward shrewdly and it was from them that Koschey learned his first lessons in how to make money. But where he was generous and might trade food for labor, his heartless parents were demanding. “Work first,” they would say to an old traveler who might show up at their door in a snowstorm, exhausted and weak. “Work first, food later.” Koschey knew that people work better when they’re not hungry and would give some food to an old man, have the work, and then finish with the last of the food.
Of course, his parents no longer loved him. They knew they had sacrificed a great deal for him and demanded that he repay them. Not love them. “Can love put food on the table?” asked his father. Koschey could not debate the true answer, “No,” but it seemed to him a cheap argument coming from a man with a larder full of food.
One day he returned half of his heart to his mother. “You must take it back,” she wept. “You must have a full heart to live, and I, now, see what I have become.” With the heart, she was sick at what she had become without it.
More and more, his parents railed against the injustices of the Monarchy. More officers came. They expected free lodging. They expected free food for themselves and for their horses. They were arrogant and casual in their abuse of the inn. Koschey cared for their mounts and said nothing. He rarely talked at all, but he watched.
His mother and father could barely keep up with the repairs and the needs of the larder, as officer after officer came through. “Make yourself useful, boy,” swore his heartless father. “Do something about these horrible men!”
Koschey looked at him.
“You know what we mean,” said his heartless mother. “What you did to the trader, to the others. Give me your heart, if you’re too soft, I’ll hold it for you until after the deed.”
Koschey looked at her.
He did not give her his heart. She had warned him when he gave her half of his heart that he must never split his heart again, especially not if she or his father asked for it. She told him that no good would come of it. “No matter how we plead or command, you must keep your heart to yourself.”
One day he disappeared. There were no officers that day, weaving their magic, nor had there been any that week. Work had not been bad. There was nothing for him to be angry about, were Koschey to have ever become angry. He had simply run away. His parents were furious, but what could they do? There was no boy for them to punish for disobedience. Until he returned, weeks later, as quietly as he had vanished. “Where have you been?” his mother screamed at him. “Look at the state of this place!”
Koschey said nothing. He did the work that they assigned to him. He waited. Eventually, as he knew they would, more officers came.
“You are not welcome here,” were the words Koschey used to greet them outside before they had even dismounted.
“Not welcome?” said the first.
“Not welcome?” repeated the second.
“You and yours will no longer be able to stay here. You will not sleep in the beds. You will not eat the food. Your horses will not enjoy the stables.”
“We are here on official business,” said the first, who recognized that the figure in front of him was but a young man. He alit to the ground, the better to show the youth that he was larger, broader, and stronger. “Two of our number came this way once, and we will discover what happened to them.”
“What will happen once you know?” asked Koschey.
“We will bury their bodies. If they died of natural causes, then that is that. If they fell afoul of some trickery, then we will take our revenge. We serve the Monarchy, and the Monarchy is absolute.”
“Koschey, don’t be an impudent boy!” said his mother as she emerged from the inn. “We don’t stand in the way of the law.” She did not like the officers, but she feared the repercussions of disobedience more than she loathed their presence.
Koschey looked at her.
It was a different look than it had been before, and she stepped back, unsure of the boy.
“I have a message for the Monarchy,” Koschey announced.
The officers drew their swords and prepared their magicks.
“They and their representatives are not welcome here. They will not be supported, not here, not anywhere. Not any longer.” He looked at the officer on horseback. “You will tell them.”
“What of me?” scoffed the first.
Koschey looked at him.
* * *
You have to imagine a cave, wide and dark. In front of you is the light and the way out and you’re running for the entrance. Because something is chasing you. You’ve got a sword. You’ve got a gun. You’ve got your magic. You can’t hear footsteps, but you can hear the breathing. It’s coming from all around you. And you hear something like a heartbeat, one-two three-four.
You’re in a dream. As fast as you run – and you run very, very fast – you are getting farther from the light. That’s how you know this is a nightmare, because this can’t be happening. It doesn’t make any sense. But there it is, the light is smaller and smaller and the cave is a tunnel now, and you’re running up hill and it’s getting steeper and steeper. You’re running forward, but every step forward is one step back.
You’re scared. Of course, you’re scared. One-two. Three-four. Footsteps. Heartbeat.
But it’s just a dream. You keep telling yourself. It’s just a dream. I’m going to wake up now. I’m going to wake up any moment now. There is going to be a sound, a sound that will remind me I’m only asleep, because this can’t be happening.
SNAP went Koschey’s mouth.
Koschey raised his head as his jaws shut to look at the second soldier. There was no sign of the first. There was no sign on Koschey’s face to indicate that he had swallowed the first man whole. His body wasn’t big enough. He wasn’t even as large as the soldier, but they had seen it. They had all seen it with their own eyes.
“You have a message to deliver,” said Koschey. The horse screamed almost as loudly as the man did as they careened away into the forest.
The boy that used to be a stump turned to look at his mother who used to have a heart.
It’s just a nightmare, she told herself.
Afterwards, Koschey laid his parents to rest, his last kind deed, and went in search of the Monarchy by the slowest means possible. He did not aim himself directly for their capital, no. He began in the villages, seeking out their every representative. He liked the officers best of all. Not only did they travel in pairs, which made sending ongoing messages back to the Monarchy simpler, but they tasted better than mayors and tax leviers.
The Monarch sent a platoon of men to deal with the upstart. They sent a company. Koschey dealt with them all.
“Surely if there are many men, he cannot simply eat them. What a monster this boy must be!” They were partially right. Koschey could not eat them all. But he always ate the first and he always spared the last. And Koschey had learned tricks beyond devouring men whole. The roots of the plants in the ground rose up to bury the platoon alive. A whirlwind swept the company into the sky, horses and all, and if they have ever come to earth, it is in a place I have never heard of.
The young man Koschey walked the perimeter of the Monarch’s land in a giant spiral, always at the edge, always proceeding toward the center. He had an army of his own, now. Not that he commanded them. He couldn’t have cared less about the people behind him, but they sought the freedom that his rebellion promised. Not that he promised them a word. They read the tea leaves. They thought they understood. They were the luckiest army in history. They never fought a battle.
When the Monarch sent his – or her? – first army, Koschey removed the bones from the bodies of the soldiers.
He transformed the second army into terra cotta and left them to stand in ranks for the rest of eternity.
He flooded the third army and they sank beneath the waves of a sea that had never existed before.
Many of the people following him began to wonder who, exactly, they were following. “Are we not trading one monster for the next? At least under the Monarchs we knew the horrors of daily life. Oppressive. Constant. Will we exchange the devil we know for this one? Who can say what evils he will unwrap once he has taken command?” And so they planned.
When Koschey turned the fourth army into birds, one and all, the rebels in his own camp attacked. They knew he would be distracted and at his weakest when he was already preoccupied with his dread magic.
They were wrong. He ate the first, the same as he did with every army the Monarch sent. He spared the last. The rest turned into water and became a river, flowing away from the camp and down toward the sea that had not existed before.
Koschey had no care for disobedience. He demanded no loyalty. He brooked no attacks on his person. With Koschey, everything is personal, for good and ill.
How did he become so mighty?
His question for Baba Yaga was not like his parents’, “How can we make our boy more human?” No. Koschey asked, “What do I need in order to solve all of my problems?”
And she told him.
Well, if I knew the answer to that, would I be sitting here talking with you now?
What I can tell you is that before Koschey returned home, before he ate the first officer, he had tucked his heart away for safe keeping and put something new in its place. A wasp’s nest.