Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 225

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Down to Earth

A long silence followed the words of the beast’s widow. Twilight fell outside the window and the shadows had grown long in the common room. Finally, the merchants became aware of the sound of clattering in the kitchen and the thin crackle and pop of the fire. With some surprise, they realized that the man telling the story was not Dmitri but the old traveler.

“So she did love him after all? Even though he killed all of those women? That’s not possible!” said Sergei, the fat merchant who’d told the story about finding the lost nerve the night before.

“That’s the story,” said the old man with a shrug.

Yevgeny shook his head. “We’re emotional creatures. We do things because we want to. You said she saw good in him. She recognized that he had good inside of him, but that a little bit of good didn’t make him a good man. My father told us he loved us but he beat us every day. I was happy when he died, and I still cried when we laid him to rest. I suppose it’s like that.”

The man called Viktor, the one who had told the story about the Master of the Taiga, leaned over to his neighbor. “When did the liar take over from Dmitri?”

The other furrowed his brow. “He stepped in… It was after the bit about Bulat, uh, the key, you know, ‘Take the key, open the cupboard, drink a glass of vodka, and God speed you.’ ” The regular refrain poured out as smoothly from his mouth as water from a pitcher. “Remember, I asked why Bulat said those things, and Dmitri, he didn’t know, and the old man, I think he was standing in the door to the kitchen, he must have been there for a while, he said, ‘I know.’ And then…”

Viktor nodded. “That’s right. He went on a bit about gaps in the story and then Dmitri started talking again…”

A third man leaned over. “He took over with the maid, the one serving Vasilisa Kirbitievna who had the curse put on her.”

“I thought that was still Dmitri?” asked Viktor.

“No,” said the newcomer, “don’t you remember? Dmitri spilled his beer somewhere in there when they were talking about curses, Vasilisa stopped Bulat from saying something foolish is how I remember it, the maid was a puppet or something, and then the old man started telling the story of Conomor in the voice of Prince Ivan.”

“And Prince Ivan must have heard the whole story from Entendtout.”

“How did Entendtout get there?”

“I suppose the wizard who cursed Conomor would have to be Koschey,” muttered the second man, Akim. He hollered out, “Old man, it was Koschey who cursed Conomor, right?”

“When did the beer arrive?” asked Viktor, as much to himself as to anyone else. The tables at which they all sat were dotted with mugs, pitchers, and plates of bread and cheese. “And the food?”

The door to the kitchen swung open and the bartender stepped through. She controlled the movement of the door with a practiced flick of her foot. “Pig’s nearly ready,” she announced.

“That’s the way I’ve always understood it, Koschey, yes,” the old man was saying to Akim. He stood in front of the fire and tossed another two logs into the hearth’s opening. He rubbed his hands together. The wood popped and spat as the fire leapt from bark to wood, sounding almost like applause.

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