Telling Tales 226
A Matter of Puzzle Pieces
The old man had disappeared into the kitchen and the conversation around the table was dying out even as the flames in the hearth leapt higher. The merchant Viktor was about to take another drink from his beer when he stopped his arm halfway up. “Hey there, Dmitri – why’d you bring this up?”
“Bring what up?” Dmitri scowled. There was something shaken about his appearance that Viktor couldn’t quite place, as if something was on his mind, or maybe he’d seen something in the night, a bad dream perhaps.
“Why’d you…” Viktor searched his memory for the beginnings of the day. Try as he might, there were memories that escaped him. When had the beer arrived? He hadn’t even had a full mug, of that he was sure, and it was warm now, so the pitcher must have been here on the table for some time. “There was a name, you asked us before we sat down…”
“Bulat!” Akim jumped in.
Viktor nodded. Akim was good for remembering details like that. He was a terrible man with whom to negotiate, though, because he never forgot a thing. “That’s right, Bulat. You asked us if we’d ever heard of him.”
It was Akim’s turn to nod. “And then you tried to tell a story without telling one, just a couple of facts strung together.”
“It’s an unusual name,” said Dmitri.
Yevgeny took a seat opposite the man. “Come on, that’s not all there is to it,” he prodded.
Dmitri wavered. They could all see it on his face, his desire not to give anything away. He never wanted to give anything away. With another, Sergei for example, or the more jovial Yevgeny, they would have poked at him, cajoled him, but all knew Dmitri well enough to understand that such behavior would only cause him to shut his mouth.
Finally, Yevgeny snorted in disgust. “Don’t be an idiot, Dmitri. You’re not still sore about the half case of vodka last night, are you?”
“Of course, I am!” he snapped. “That’s not it, though. It’s that old man, his name is Bulat. Like we were saying, Bulat’s a rare name. Reminded me of those stories is all.”
“You’re not saying that this old man, he was the Bulat that knew Ivan? Those are just stories.”
“Absolutely not!” swore Dmitri.
Sergei raised his bulk from where he sat at the table and wandered over toward the fireplace. “Don’t be ridiculous. Our Dmitri doesn’t believe in folderol like that any more than I do. Bulat is a name from the old stories and this fellow says his name is Bulat and one thing reminded him of the other. That’s all there is to it.”
He threw another log on the already full fire and the snow on the wood’s bark popped and laughed.
Akim leaned back. “How can you say it’s folderol? You’re the one who found the nerve in that story you told last night.”
Sergei waved his hand and blustered.
“No, no,” said Akim, leaning forward. Viktor eyed them both, taking in the whole scene. There were too many pieces about the afternoon that struck his as strange. The shaken look on Dmitri’s face. The old man, Bulat maybe, had also seemed out of sorts. The strange noises from the fire. “I know that Anatoly, the one from your story, and he told me something like what you said. I’ve heard the same thing from villagers near that place as well. Don’t tell me it’s just a story.”
“No such thing as ‘just a story,’ ” said the figure at the main door.