Forthcoming from V–A–C Press is ‘Tales of Riots and Truffles’, an anthology of little-known science fiction and fantasy by Russian authors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. To learn more about this anthology, listen to a podcast featuring the translator and the writer Vitaly Timofeevich Babenko, who compiled the book.
Today’s issue of Sreda online magazine brings you a short story from the anthology, ‘The Tale of a Dead Body Belonging to No One Knows Whom’, by Vladimir Odoyevsky, a fairy-tale writer, Romantic thinker, and pioneer of Russian musicology. Ben McGarr’s English translation of the story is published here for the first time.
It is true that the village scribe, coming out of the brandy-shop on all fours, saw how the moon, without any apparent reason, danced in the sky, and took his oath of it before the whole village, but the distrustful villagers shook their heads, and even laughed at him.
Rusty Panko, in Evenings on a Farm
The following announcement was issued by the District Court for the attention of the market villages of Rezhensky Uyezd:
“On behalf of the Rezhensk District Court it is hereby announced that within its jurisdiction, on the pasture lands of the village of Morkovkina-Natashino, on the 21st November last, a dead body was found, belonging to no one knows whom, of the male sex, dressed in a shabby grey woollen greatcoat; wearing a cotton sash, a cloth waistcoat of red and partly green colour, and a red shirt of course fabric; on the head a cap made of motley old rags with a leather peak; the deceased was about 43 years of age, 2 arshins and 10 vershoks in height, with light-brown hair, a pale complexion, smooth-faced, grey eyes, clean shaven, a chin streaked with grey, the nose being large and somewhat to one side, and slight of build. The purpose of this announcement: Should the former relatives or owner of this body come forth; such persons are kindly requested to make themselves known in the village of Morkovkino, otherwise known as Natashino, where the corresponding investigations are underway concerning the body belonging to no one knows whom; and if none such be found, that this kindly be made known in the same village of Morkovkino”.
Three weeks passed in which no word was received from the owners of the dead body; no one came forth to claim it, and finally the Assessor and the District Physician went to pay a call on the landowner of the village of Morkovkino; and the clerk Sevastyanych, likewise seconded to the investigation, was quartered in an escheated property close at hand. The dead body had been placed in the same wooden house, in the cold cellar, to be opened up and buried the next day by the Court in the customary fashion. The considerate Landowner, to comfort Sevastyanych in his solitude, sent him a goose with gravy from the manorial farm, along with a flagon of homemade liquor to aid his digestion.
It was already getting dark. Sevastyanych, being a conscientious pains-taking type unlike most of his peers, did not make haste to climb up onto the plank bed by the just-fired and recently-stoked stove, — but rather thought it better to make a start on preparing the papers for the next-day’s meeting and, to further add to his praiseworthy conduct in this matter, though nothing but bones now remained of the goose only a quarter of the flagon had so far been emptied; he first adjusted the wick in the little iron night lamp, purposefully kept for use on such occasions by Morkovkino’s village headman, and then pulled out a greasy old notebook from his leather knapsack. Sevastyanych could not but look at this without affection: it contained copies of all manner of Decrees concerning local affairs, passed on to him by his father, that Scrivener of blessed memory, thanks to having been dismissed from office in the town of Rezhensk for slander, bribery and indecent behaviour, the charges against him being such as to render him unemployable anywhere and guarantee the rejection of any petitions made in his hand — and for which he enjoyed the respect of the entire district. Sevastyanych then involuntarily recalled how this notebook was the sole codex by which the Rezhensk District Court was guided in all its procedures; that Sevastyanych alone could act as interpreter of the mysterious symbols contained in this Sibylline Book; that by means of its magical power, he had been able to keep both the Chief of Police and the Assessors in the palm of his hand, and force all the inhabitants of the district to resort to him for advice and guidance; he thus took care of it as though it were the apple of his eye, showing it to no one and only taking it out from its place of concealment in cases of extreme need; smirking, he paused over those pages where, partly in the hand of his late father and partly in his own, various insignificant particles had been either blotted out or re-written, such as: not, but, and and so on, and the thought naturally occurred to Sevastyanych: how stupid people were, and how clever were he and his father.
Meanwhile he had knocked back the second quarter of the flagon and set to work; but while his practised hand quickly scrawled out the swirls on the paper, his sense of pride, piqued by the sight of the notebook, likewise came into operation: he remembered how many times he had conveyed dead bodies to the boundary of the neighbouring uyezd and thus saved his Chief of Police from unnecessary trouble: and how in general: whether it had been appropriate on a given occasion to make a ruling, to draft an official statement, to apply certain laws, to contact petitioners, or whether to notify the authorities of the impossibility of carrying out instructions he had been given — in all places and in all matters there was Sevastyanych; with a smile he recalled the various means he had come up with: to divert any general search in whatever direction he wished; he recalled how, quite recently, he had employed such innocent means to save one of his personal acquaintances: this associate having performed certain actions that could easily have resulted in him having to undertake a not entirely pleasant journey; an interrogation had been carried out, a general search proclaimed — but on this occasion Sevastyanych had had the good sense to question first of all a particular literate fellow on behalf of his friend; according to the words of this lettered individual, they composed a document, to which the literate young chap affixed his sworn signature, upon which Sevastyanych himself proceeded to address one neighbour, then another, then a third with the same question: “¿And you too, and you too?” and so quickly was he able to arrange things that — while the townsfolk were still scratching behind their ears and making their oaths, preparing to give an answer — he had managed to ask the same of each one of them down to the last man, and then the literate one once more, owing to his fellows’ inability to read and write, signed their unanimous testimony while making the sign of the cross. With no less pleasure Sevastyanych recalled how, when an irregularity in the Chief of Police’s accounts involving a considerable sum of money had come to light, he managed to entangle as many as fifty people into the affair, spread the shortfall across the whole body of them, and then have them all placed under an official amnesty. — In a word, Sevastyanych had seen to it that in all prominent cases brought before the Rezhensk District Court he was the sole culprit, the sole instigator and the sole executor; that without him the Assessor would have been done for, the Police Chief likewise, the District Court Judge and the Marshal of the Nobility too; that he alone had kept unsullied the venerable reputation of Rezhensky Uyezd, — and a sweet sensation of his own self-worth ran unbidden through Sevastyanych’s soul. True, from afar — as if from the height of the clouds — the baleful eyes of the Governor flashed into his vision, and the interrogating face of the Secretary of the Criminal Chamber; but he looked at the blizzard-battered windows; he thought of the three hundred versts that separated him from this terrible spectre; to cheer himself up he drank the third quarter of the bottle and — – his thought grew much jollier in tone: he pictured his happy home in Rezhensk, all acquired through his own wits; the liqueur bottles on the window sill between the two flowerpots with their busy Lizzies; the cupboard full of crockery and there in the middle in the place of honour, a crystal pepperpot on a porcelain saucer: here comes his plump, white-faced Lukerya Petrovna; in her hands a rich, gritty loaf of bread; here the heifer, fattened for Christmastide, looks at Sevastyanych; the large teapot and samovar bow to him and move towards him; here his warm stove-couch, and by the couch a feather bed with a damasked linen blanket, and under the feather bed a folded sheet of motley fabric, and in this fabric a roll of white canvas, and in the canvas a leather satchel, and in the satchel those grey paper banknotes; — and here his imagination carried Sevastyanych off into the years of his youth: he imagined his former poverty-stricken life in his childhood home; how often he used to go hungry from his mother’s stinginess; how they sent him to the sexton to learn to read and write — he laughed heartily recalling the day he and his comrades had climbed into his teacher’s garden for apples and how he gave such a fright to the sexton who took him for a real thief; the whipping he earned for this and how in revenge he slipped some forbidden meat into his teacher’s dinner on a fast day, and that on Good Friday no less; then the picture appeared before him: of how he finally overtook all his classmates and reached the point where he could read out the Apostle in the parish church, starting in the deepest bass and ending in the shrillest of high-pitched tones, amazing the whole town; how the Chief of Police, marking the boy’s usefulness, assigned him to the District Court; how he began to hone his cunning; married his beloved Lukerya Petrovna; obtained the position of Provincial Registrar, which he remained in to that day and in which he had done so well for himself; his heart melted with emotion and it was with great joy that he drained the last quarter of the bewitching beverage. Then it struck Sevastyanych that not only was he entrusted with the Registrar, but that he was the sort who could turn his hand to just about anything: how people listened agog whenever he might start talking in the merry hours of an evening about Bova Korolevich, about the adventures of Vanka Kain, or about the merchant Korobeinikov’s journey to Jerusalem — the incessant strumming of the strings of enchanted gusli, and much more besides! — and so Sevastyanych began to dream: how wonderful it would be if he had the strength of Bova the King’s Son and could simply take a man by the hand — and tear their arm off, or grab another by the head — and rip their head off; then he was filled with a desire to see what kind of place Cyprus is, that island which, as Korobeinikov relates, is so rich in lamp oil and Greek soap, where people ride donkeys and camels, and he began to laugh at the local inhabitants who lacked the sense to harness them to sledges; then he began to consider something: — it occurred to him that either books were filled with lies, or that the Greeks must be a very stupid people after all, because he had asked Greeks in person — the ones who came to the Rezhensk fair with their soap and gingerbread, and who it seemed ought to know what goes on in their own country, ¿Why did they take the city of Troy — just as Korobeinikov writes — while losing Tsargrad to the Turks? — and he had been unable to get any sense out of these people: what exactly this Troy was, the Greeks could not tell him, saying that they had probably built and taken this city in their absence; — and while he was pondering over this important issue, the following passed before his eyes: Arabian bandits; and the Putrid Sea; and the cat’s funeral procession; and the Palaces of King Pharaoh, all gilded inside; and the bird Strophocamilus, as tall as a man, with a duck’s head and a stone in its hoof….
His reveries were interrupted by the following words uttered by someone close beside him:
“My dear Ivan Sevastyanych! I come to you with a most humble petition”
These words reminded Sevastyanych of his role as Clerk, and, as was his custom, he began to write much faster, bowing his head down as low as possible and, without taking his eyes off the paper, answered in a drawn-out voice:
– ¿What can I do you for you?
“You issued a summons on behalf of the Court for the owners of the dead body that was found in Morkovkino”.
– Ye-e-s. –
“Then, if you please — it’s my body, you see” –
– Ye-e-s. –
“¿So you wouldn’t be so kind as to hand it over to me as soon as possible?”
– Ye-e-s. –
“And you can be certain of my gratitude in this…”
– Ye-e-s. — ¿What was the dead man, a serf of yours, perhaps? ......” –
“No, Ivan Sevastyanych, not a serf at all, it’s my body, my very own .....”
– Ye-e-s. –
“You can imagine what it’s been like for me, being without the body. — Be so kind as to help me as soon as you can”.
– Everything is possible, Sir, but there are minor difficulties to deal with when it comes to rushing such a thing, — after all, this is no pancake that you can just wrap around your finger; inquiries must be made, if only to grease the wheels a little........ –
“Yes, but have no doubts about this, — if you would just hand over my body, I would happily furnish you with fifty rubles for the trouble…”
At these words Sevastyanych raised his head, but on failing to see anyone he said:
“Do come in, there’s no need to stand out in the cold”.
– But I am inside, Ivan Sevastyanych, I’m standing right next to you. –
Sevastyanych adjusted the dinky little oil lamp, rubbed his eyes, but still seeing nothing, he muttered:
“Tfu, what the devil! — ¿have I gone blind or something? — I don’t see you, Sir.”
– And no wonder! ¿How could you see me when I haven’t got my body? –
“I’m afraid I can’t fathom what you’re getting at, but do at least let me take a look at you”.
– If you would bear with me, I can appear to you for a moment or so......... it’s just that it’s very difficult for me ...... –
And on these words, a formless face began to appear in a dark corner; it flickered in and out of sight again — like a young man at his first ball — he would like to go up to the ladies but is shy, so he thrusts his face out of the crowd and then goes back into hiding again......
– Forgive me, Sir — the voice said meanwhile — please excuse me, you can’t imagine how difficult it is to show yourself without a body! — have pity on me, and give it me back as soon as possible, — I repeat, I will gladly furnish you with fifty rubles. –
“I would be delighted to serve you, Sir, but I fail to comprehend the meaning of your words here........ ¿do you have a petition?......”
–¿Pardon me, — what petition could I have? how could I write one without a body? do have mercy on me, and write it out for me. –
“It’s easy to talk about writing things out, Sir, but I tell you that I don’t understand a damn thing about what’s going on here.....”
– Just write, — I’ll tell you what to put down. –
Sevastyanych took out a sheet of officially stamped paper.
“Tell me, if you would be so kind: ¿do you at least have a rank, name and patronymic?” –
– Why, yes. Naturally! — my name is Zweyerlei-John-Louis. –
“¿Your station, Sir?”
– Foreigner. –
And so Sevastyanych wrote on the official sheet in large letters:
“To the Rezhensk District Court from the foreign young man of noble origins, Savely Zhaluyev, a declaration:
– If you would just permit me to dictate, — I will tell you what to put; write this: I am possessed of…. –
“¿You are in possession of some landed estate?” asked Sevastyanych.
– No, Sir: I am possessed of an unfortunate weakness........ –
“¿For strong liquors? — oh, this is hardly very commendable.....”
– No, Sir: I have an unfortunate weakness for leaving my body… –
“What the hell?!” cried Sevastyanych, throwing down the pen, “you’re playing the fool with me, Sir!”
– I assure you that I am speaking the honest truth, — just write it out, and be certain; you will have fifty rubles for the petition alone, and fifty more once you’ve successfully dealt with the matter……. –
And Sevastyanych took up his pen once more.
– On this October 20th, I rode out in a covered wagon, in pursuit of my affairs, along the Rezhensk Tract, on a single cart, and as it was cold outside, and the roads of Rezhensky Uyezd are especially bad……. –
“No no, forgive me for interrupting” objected Sevastyanych, “but that won’t do at all; this is all quite subjective, and Decrees forbid the insertion of subjective opinions in petitions….”
– As I dictate, if you please; well, let’s simply put it like this: it was so cold out that I was afraid it would freeze my soul, — and I was so anxious to reach my evening accommodation...... that I could resist it no longer…. and, according to my wont, I jumped out of my body...... –
“Lord have mercy!” — cried Sevastyanych. –
– Not at all, not at all, please continue, — what else could I do, given that I have this habit… ¿there’s nothing illegal about it, is there? –
“We-e-ell” answered Sevastyanych “¿what next?”
– If you would, please write: I jumped out of my body, and tucked it well away inside the wagon……. to prevent it from falling out, … I tied its hands with the reins and went off to the way station…. in the hope that the horse would come trotting back to its familiar yard by itself… –
“I must say” Sevastyanych remarked, “that you acted very imprudently in this instance”.
– Having arrived at the stagehouse, I clambered up onto the stove to warm my soul,...... and at the time, according to my calculations, …. that the horse ought to have returned to the hostelry..... I went out to check if it was there, and yet that whole night passed without the return of either the horse or the body… the next morning I hurriedly made my way to the place where I had left the wagon…. but it had already gone…. I suppose that my lifeless body had tumbled out as the wagon bumped along and had been picked up by the Chief of Police as he was passing that way, and that the horse had plodded off somewhere else with the cart...... after a vain three-week search, I, having by that point been made aware of the announcement issued by the Rezhensk District Court calling for the owners of the found body, … I humbly request that my body be submitted to me, as its rightful owner...... and I also add a humble request that the above-described Court would go so far as to instruct..... that this afore-oft-mentioned body of mine should first be lowered into cold water so that it might thaw out… and that if there should be any damage to the afore-mentioned body..... or that it has deteriorated in any manner due to freezing...... that the District Physician be summoned to correct it at my expense and that all be arranged in accordance with the law, and I thus sign my name..... –
“So, if you would please make your signature here” said Sevastyanych, having finished the document.
– Sign it! easier said than done! I tell you, I haven’t the hands to do it — they’re still with the body; could you sign for me, in view of this lack of hands… –
“No! forgive me, objected Sevastyanych, but that won’t do at all and is quite against the established practice — and it’s forbidden to accept petitions not written according to form; but if you’d like: it could be done in view of your inability to write.....”
– As you see fit! It’s all the same to me..... –
And so Sevastyanych signed: “in view of his inability to read and write, at the petitioner’s own request, the Provincial Registrar Ivan Sevastyan’s son Blagoserdov appends his signature to this declaration”.
– I am most earnestly in your debt, esteemed Ivan Sevastyanovich! Well, now you can see about getting this matter resolved as soon as possible — you can’t imagine how inconvenient it is to be without a body!… and I’ll be off now to look in on my wife..... rest assured that I will recompense you profusely…. –
“Wait, wait, Your Honour, Sevastyanych cried, there is a contradiction in the petition… — ¿how did you manage without hands to tie the…. or tuck your body up in the wagon?… tfu, damn it, I don’t get it at all”.
But no answer came. Sevastyanych read the petition through once more, and began to run it over in his mind, he thought and thought…
By the time he woke up, the night lamp had gone out and the morning light was shining through the fish bladder membrane stretched across the window. He looked with annoyance at the empty flagon that stood in front of him… and this annoyance knocked the night’s goings on clean out of his mind; he took up his papers without so much as glancing at them and went over to the Landlord’s house in the hope of getting something to take the edge off his hangover there.
The Assessor, having gulped down a shot of vodka, began to sort out Sevastyanych’s papers and came upon the petition from a foreign young man of noble origins......
“Well, Brother Sevastyanych” he cried out after reading it “you really did get down to work before you went to bed last night; You’ve heaped up a right old pile of nonsense here… listen to this, Andrei Ignatyevich”, he added, addressing the District Physician, “and hear what kind of petitioner Sevastyanych has brought us”, and he read out the curious petition word for word to the District Physician, half dying with laughter as he did so. “Come along now, gentlemen, he said at last, let’s go have a look at this chatty corpse, and if it doesn’t have anything to say for itself, we’ll have it buried while the going’s good, — it’s high time we got back to town”.
These words reminded Sevastyanych of his nocturnal experience and — strange as it seemed even to himself — he suddenly remembered the fifty rubles promised him by the petitioner if he were to procure the body, and in all seriousness he began to urge the Assessor and the Doctor not to cut open the body, for fear of spoiling it thereby and leaving it no good for anything — and that the petition should be recorded with other Incoming Matters in line with usual practice.
It goes without saying that the response to Sevastyanych’s demands involved a recommendation that he sober up, that the body was subjected to an autopsy, nothing was found amiss, and it was given burial.
After this incident, the dead man’s petition began to do the rounds. It was passed from one person to another, being copied everywhere, added to, embellished, read out aloud, and for a long time to come it kept the old women of Rezhensk crossing themselves in horror as they heard it.
The popular legend is incomplete as to the conclusion of this extraordinary affair: in one neighbouring uyezd it was said that at the very instant the doctor touched the body with his scalpel, its owner jumped back into the body, the body jolted up and ran off, and that Sevastyanych chased it all the way through the village, shouting with all his might: “Catch him, catch the dead man!”
In yet another district, it is claimed that the owner still comes to Sevastyanych every morning and evening, saying: “¿Ivan Sevastyanych my dear fellow, what about my body? ¿When will you turn it over to me?” and that Sevastyanych, still trying to look on the bright side despite the mishap that had occurred, replies with: “Inquiries are still underway”. Twenty years have passed since then.
Translated, from the Russian, by Ben McGarr