Viktor Bokaryov

Short Story


The river drifted slowly, nearly stretching to the horizon, here and there mud flats, with ragged cattails tracing lines against the sky. The water brought with it refuse from the cities, sometimes: a milk carton or a piece of rope, bobbing in a sheen of oil. 

Viktor Bokaryov lived here by the river. It was to him a beautiful place, with its bank of sticky mud that turned to brilliant pale-blue shimmering bands whenever it rained, the sky diffuse with light. 

It was times like this that Viktor would stump down to the river’s edge and count the geese and cranes as they wheeled above and came to land in the shallows, honking and making that strange noise that cranes make, their reflections shattered and multiplied in the waters. Everything would be pink before the sunset, and quiet and still, and sometimes Viktor Bokaryov would even smile. 

This night was particularly pink, and Viktor had brought his warm wool coat with him to the river’s edge to watch the cranes landing. He could see the hazy industrial towers visible in the distance, on the dark bank where the river joined the sea. It was almost warm for this time of year, and he allowed himself to gaze across at the metal scaffolding now lit in its evening glitter.

The delivery man, Klaus he thought his name was, something foreign, was late again. Viktor supposed he would be there in the morning. He whisked away some small flying insect and adjusted his coat, settling comfortably into his chair. The evening was so still he could hear the bobbing of refuse by the shore. 

He turned his gaze back to the horizon, to a lone ship steaming its way slowly across the edge of the world. Perhaps it was heading to Europe – to France, or to Germany, to trade its cargo. Perhaps it was an oil ship. There was enough of that here. He squinted but could not see what type of a ship it might be. 

For a moment he recalled Pyotr’s face, many years ago, when the other houses were full of families and the sea was full of fishing boats. “Papa, Mama, may I go down to the harbor?” 

Viktor turned away from the ship and the glittering city and set his gaze on the sunset. 

As the pink turned slowly to purple, he heard a small splashing sound coming from the muck at the edge of the river. There the garbage from the cities often collected, and sometimes a fish would get stuck and thrash until it freed itself. Viktor’s vision had been clouded for some time now, and he blinked, looking for the source of the noise. 

He saw nothing. Viktor sighed and adjusted his coat around the bulk of his shoulders. The cranes were settling in for the night, and the mud was making sucking noises as the river lapped across the edge of the flats. He allowed himself to gaze across at the glitter once more. 

Then the noise came again – a small, unfamiliar splashing, and now a tiny pathetic cry. 

He looked toward the water. The light was almost gone. There was something small there, something struggling weakly. He had taken it for garbage. 

Viktor pulled his coat tighter and got slowly out of his chair, then trudged down into the ankle-deep water, grimacing at the cold. His old boots were not much better than stiff woolen oversocks, and the muddy water began to seep in.

The small object was a bedraggled ball of gray fur. Two bright green eyes blinked up at him. 

A kitten was trapped in a tangle of fishing line and what he thought was another of those horrible milk cartons. The oily water sloshed and the little animal bobbed up and down, desperately clinging to the carton.

Viktor Bokaryov stared at the little creature. Its tiny pink mouth opened and a mew emerged. 

“How did you get in there,” he said gruffly. “You’ve ruined my boots.” 

The kitten’s paw moved, restricted by the fishing line. 

Viktor huffed and shook his head. “You can’t stay there,” he muttered. “It’s getting dark.”

He reached for the kitten. It dug a claw into his fingers as he lifted it out of the water. He grimaced but did not let go. It mewed in protest but clung to his large fisherman’s hand as he unwrapped the line, the water making unpleasant sucking sounds. 

When the line snapped free, the kitten tried weakly to struggle out of his grasp. It mewed angrily. Viktor looked at it skeptically for a moment, then wrapped it in his coat and ignored its squirming as he made his way back up the incline to his small house. 

Viktor Bokaryov lit a fire in the grate. The kitten, exhausted, had stopped struggling and was curled up shivering on his wool coat, which he had placed on the table. It was a pale gray with a white face and paws, and was soaked through so that it looked like a small alien creature. 

He stoked the fire. Coals leaped up and flared out, reflected in the window. Before him he could see the sea and the glitter of the oil city across the way. He held his hands to the heat. The inside of the bars glowed red in the window, and he saw his own craggy face reflected in the orange light. He looked old, he told himself. He had not looked this old before Pyotr had left.

He lifted the kitten carefully from his coat, wincing as it sank its claws into his exposed hands, and wrapped it carefully in a dry warm cloth. It blinked, still shivering. 

He carried it over to the fire. Reaching back with one hand, he grasped a rough-hewn stool and pulled it near to the window. He sat as close to the fire as he dared and held the kitten to his chest, soaking in the heat. 

Viktor Bokaryov watched the lights of another ship as it drifted south from the port. The heat was very high, and he felt himself nodding off. The ship took a very long time to disappear from his view, and he imagined this one was heading for Europe as well. 

The kitten had stopped shivering, and Viktor examined it. It was very small, not much older than several weeks, he thought – though Viktor knew very little about cats – and though it had scratched him it seemed now to be contentedly sleeping. 

He thought about his ruined boots, and wondered if he could fix them or if he would have to go into the city. 

The morning was cold and gray, the kind of light that Viktor liked for a morning stroll. The gulls might be out and the fog might be on the river, rolling in from the sea. He thought perhaps he would go collect driftwood for his fire while he waited for his supplies. 

As Viktor stumped through the kitchen, the dim light shining on the rough wooden floor, he heard a small mew. He nearly jumped. He had forgotten the small animal he had rescued the night before. 

A little head appeared around the corner of the table, followed by a furry gray-white body and four legs and a stiff tail. The kitten stood there, eyeing him, mewing loudly. 

“Pshh – what do you want.” Perhaps it wanted food. He had nothing fit for a cat. 

He made his way past it and retrieved his woolen coat from the table. The fire had died to ashes and he stirred them, trying to find a spark. Nothing. He sighed. 

The kitten followed him across the wooden floor, mewing insistently as he donned his coat and carefully bent to put on his boots. He grumbled at it as he chipped away at the mud left from the river. “This is your fault, little one.” 

He pushed the door open and stepped out into the damp morning. The kitten attempted to follow him and he hastily pulled the door shut. Then he worried he had trapped the creature’s feet and carefully opened the door to check. The little animal eyed him disdainfully from some distance away. He muttered something apologetic and shut the door. 

Viktor trudged along down by the water. The wind carried what felt like rain, and the salt from the sea stung his weathered face as he peered along the shore. Further down, the cattails receded and the riverbank became more like the edge of the sea. He could see a long red boat pulled up on the sand. 

Klaus was pulling boxes out of the boat. He straightened up and waved to Viktor, shouting a greeting in badly accented Russian. 

Viktor greeted him brusquely with a wave of his arm, then peered out across the sea. Storm clouds were moving slowly across the water, bits of light peeking through and painting the sea with gold. Masha had loved this type of sky. It was beautiful, but he did not smile. 

Klaus dragged one of the boxes up the sandy hill, puffing. He looked up at Viktor, one pale eye squinted shut against the stinging salt. “Funny morning, eh?”

“Looks like a storm.” Viktor inspected the supply parcel. Klaus came once a week, rain or shine. Viktor supposed a storm would not keep him from his route. 

He eyed Klaus. The young man with his suntanned face and wool fisherman’s cap was too cheery for this early. Germans, he thought. He tapped the parcel. “Brought any fish?”

Klaus looked surprised. “I’ve got some here I use as bait, want to buy it?” 

Viktor looked at it. It was dried and looked less than appetizing. He supposed the little animal would like it. He dug around in his coat and found an extra few coins. 

“Going fishing?” 

Nyet.” 

Klaus shrugged. “Here you are.” 

Viktor waited until Klaus was well offshore before turning to the task of collecting driftwood for his fire. He didn’t trust anyone who smiled that much. 

Having made his selection, he made his way back up the beach. His eyes were watering from the salt and he could feel a chill in the air. He thought he had better start his fire. 

First, though, he walked a short distance up the hill behind his hut. Here the sea grasses had been cleared a little and he had built a small bench overlooking the sea. The wind soughed through the grasses, mournful, beautiful. He sat and watched the whitecaps out on the water, small silent white lines falling over and over again, and smiled, remembering. 

One of the seashells outlining Masha’s grave was broken, probably a seagull. Viktor carefully brushed away the shards and noted their color so he could find another one. 

He gazed out at the horizon for a long moment, wondering where his son was now. 

The wind picked up, cold and flinging bits of sand. Viktor Bokaryov stood and stumped down the hill.  

When he reached the hut, he remembered the kitten. He carefully opened the door and peered inside. 

Two bright eyes stared at him across the room. He stared back. The kitten jumped to its feet and started toward him, mewing loudly. 

Viktor shooed the small animal away with one booted foot. It retreated, then returned, watching his every move. He was afraid it would try to run out the front door. He waved it away with one arm as he carried the wood in with the other, grumbling as his muscles protested. 

“Go back over there, you little troublemaker,” he muttered to the kitten. It ignored him, sniffing the parcel. He lifted it and carefully set it down on the table. It did not take kindly to this indignity and yowled. 

Viktor shut the door firmly, then stood, hands on hips, and looked down at the kitten. “Well?” he grumbled.

It stared back. 

He cleared his throat and dug about in his coat pocket. The packet of fish was still there. He opened it carefully and peeled off a strip, then, unsure, held it out to the kitten. 

The kitten sniffed it, then sneezed and almost slid off the table. 

Viktor’s face twitched, and he discovered that he was almost smiling.

“Well?” he said, a little less gruffly this time. 

The kitten announced its displeasure with a loud mew, then hesitantly tasted the fish.

The storm was a big one. Viktor retrieved his chair from outside his hut and carefully tied all the windows shut as the wind began to rise outside. The kitten was restless, moving from spot to spot and finally settling near the fireplace, where it could see the raindrops pelting the window. Viktor, too, was restless. Normally storms calmed him, his silent hut an island in the midst of the rain and the waves that were pushed up the river from the sea. But now he was thinking about Pyotr, and how they had waited in the city each week for his letters from university.

Viktor stood and paced, hearing the wind, the kitten’s eyes following him back and forth like the pendulum of a very slow clock. His feet had worn tracks in the shiny wooden floor from years of this type of pacing. Masha had told him once that he lost track of time when he paced.

The rain was flung against the window with rising intensity, and the city was no longer visible through the fog and spray that were blowing in off the water. Viktor added more driftwood to the fire, then sat and tried to read. He gave up and picked up a piece of paper and a pen. 

He glanced at the kitten. It was watching him silently. “What do you want,” he snapped. 

Its mouth opened in a silent mew. 

Viktor sighed and dug about for another piece of dried fish. “This, little troublemaker?” 

The kitten perked up. He tossed the scrap towards it.  

It finished the fish, then groomed its fur, flinching a little as thunder sounded outside. He watched it for a moment longer, then turned his attention back to the blank paper in his hand. 

Dear Pyotr, he wanted to write, but he recalled Masha’s face and he could not bring himself to write the words. 

The kitten stretched, then trotted over to him. It mewed. He looked at it, surprised. “What now?” 

It backed up, then scooted forward, then backed up again. He watched, nonplussed, then the kitten made a flying leap, digging its claws into his leg as it landed, and curled up on his lap. 

Viktor Bokaryov had not been truly surprised in some time. He still clutched the blank paper in his hand, and his other hovered over the little ball of grayish fluff. He frowned and blinked, watching it. It showed no signs of leaving. 

He shifted his leg experimentally and the kitten’s ears twitched but it did not move. 

Viktor self-consciously put his hand back on his leg and looked hard at the paper. The kitten was still there. He glanced at it, suspicious. No more claws dug into his knee. He tentatively reached out a rough hand and touched the kitten’s fur very lightly. 

Its tail flicked, but otherwise it did not move. 

Viktor Bokaryov drew away his hand and set it on the armrest, watching the rain and writing nothing. 

 They settled into a routine. Viktor would work around the hut, the kitten following him everywhere, getting the occasional scrap of fish until it stopped yowling for food. It seemed fascinated by his woodworking and would stand on his table watching him carve patterns into the pieces he made to trade to Klaus. Once it jumped on his shoulder soundlessly, claws digging in, and he nearly flung it off in a panic, his mind flashing back to the days when he had been in the Great War. 

In the evenings, the kitten would leap onto Viktor’s lap and curl up, always facing the same direction, purring loudly. It was an irritating sound, but Viktor could not bring himself to put the kitten back on the floor. Besides, he had tried, and the kitten had leaped right back up. He settled for reading his books and ignoring the presence of the little animal. 

Week after week, month after month, he thought of telling Klaus about the kitten, to see if he could send it to a home on the mainland, but somehow he always forgot. 

Then one day he received a letter from Pyotr. 

Viktor had brushed off the over-curious Klaus and gruffly accepted the letter along with that week’s supplies. He supposed the German couldn’t be blamed, for who would be sending a letter to an angry old man who lived on the mud flats alone, after all the others in the fishing village had left for the oil city, who avoided the company of others and shouted at the gulls when they interrupted his fishing? It was a wonder, he thought, that Klaus still tried to make conversation with him after all this time.

The outside of the letter had said “Viktor Pyotrovich Bokaryov” and that was all. But it was handwritten and in a hand Viktor knew well. He took the letter carefully into his hut and set it on his table.

The kitten, now a sleek, gray-white cat, looked up when he entered the room. He greeted it brusquely and began to unload the supplies. It leapt from the chair and approached the table, eying the parchment corner that protruded over the edge. 

Viktor snatched the letter and put it carefully into his coat pocket. “Nyet.” The cat looked at him reproachfully. 

Later, when his driftwood had been stacked and the fire had been built, for it was November again and the frigid winds were blowing in off the sea, Viktor sat down to read the letter. His son, always the showman, had written in a sweeping hand.

Dear Papa,

I have returned from abroad. I am in the city and have heard that you are still living out on the flats in our old village. I plan to visit you soon.

Your son,

Pyotr

Viktor looked at the letter for a very long time. 

The cat curled up in his lap and for once he did not try to push it away. He recalled the last time he had seen Pyotr’s face, young and enthusiastic, the sea-blue eyes inherited from his mother bright as he boarded the ship that would take him to Europe for his university education, for which Viktor and Masha had saved from Viktor’s time in the navy and what little he could scrape as a fisherman. Viktor had thought the university unnecessary – he had been a fisherman and so had his father and grandfather, though Pyotr showed little aptitude for it – but Masha had been so proud of their son. She had saved and bought Pyotr a small travel case from the city. Viktor remembered her standing there in her coat, embracing her tall son, handing the case to him, her deep blue eyes and slight gap-toothed smile lit up in the sunlight. 

Then had come Masha’s sickness and Viktor’s pained stoicism, and Pyotr’s increasingly anguished letters blaming his father for being stuck in the “old ways” and, as he wrote, for not trusting modern medicine to help her. He could not return and so his letters were full of misery. 

Then the cold, anger-filled letter from Pyotr after he had received the news, saying he planned never to return, that he “could not succeed” if it were known he was the son of a fisherman, that Viktor should not try to look for him. 

Viktor thought of burning this latest letter, but instead he held it carefully, inspecting it with his clouded vision, noting the thick parchment, the quality of the ink. Pyotr appeared to have succeeded as he had wanted. Viktor wondered what he wanted now. 

He looked down at the cat. It was not purring for once. He got up and stoked the fire again, then stared out the window at the slate-gray sea.

Viktor waited for several days. Each morning, he would get up and pace by the window, squinting, looking in vain for Klaus’ boat to come across the blue-gray waters. The cat followed him around the house, yowling, until he released it outside just to get rid of the noise. It would come back in the evenings, dusty and once sporting part of a mangled seagull’s feather, and clean itself for hours on the small rug before the fire while Viktor sat in his chair. 

But Klaus did not come.  

Pyotr did not come. 

The weeks went on and the days darkened, the light growing bluer in the evenings until the oil city was a string of gold, shimmering in the dark. Klaus came and went, but no Pyotr.

Viktor Bokaryov had wrapped himself in a thick wool blanket and stood watching the fire. It was burning steadily, and his blunt fisherman’s hands lost a little of their faint tremble as he held them to the coals. The blanket was scratchy but it was warm against the December chill. Even if Klaus did not come tomorrow, Viktor thought he might have enough firewood to last another two days. He grimaced when he thought of asking the German to help him gather wood.

The cat had enjoyed its now-daily outing and had taken up residence next to the fire, where it was purring loudly. He could hear it over the crackling fire and the faint rush of the sea. 

“Shush, you,” Viktor frowned at it, but gently. It just blinked slowly at him in the way that cats do, and went back to warming itself.

Viktor got to his feet and prodded at the fire. The cat’s tail flicked, but it did not move. Bits of coal leapt upward and shattered, spraying brilliant orange sparks into the pan below.

The evening outside was a deep, beautiful blue, the color Masha had always loved. For a moment Viktor allowed himself to look once more across at the lights, now glimmering faintly through the fog rolling in off the sea. 

One of the lights appeared to be bobbing, and Viktor blinked, supposing it was his eyesight beginning to fail him at last. It wove its way across the fog, coming in and out of focus. 

The cat looked suddenly alert, ears pricked and making a low growling noise, and Viktor realized he was looking at a lantern.

He stepped back, nearly tripping on the long blanket, and immediately looked around for his old firearm. Perhaps it was robbers. There was no one here but him, no one left on the flats but him and his cat. Part of his brain screamed at him that the Germans were coming for him. 

The cat sat up, back arched, tail puffed out, hissing angrily as the lantern approached the window nearest the door. 

Viktor watched, unable to move, as there was a hesitant knock and a long pause, and then the door swung open to reveal his son.

Pyotr was almost exactly as Viktor Bokaryov remembered: tall and well-built, broad-shouldered, with swept-back blond hair and a still-boyish face, though it was more worn and with a careless set to the jaw. His eyes were still the same: the brilliant blue of the sea.

Pyotr was well-dressed; his shirt appeared to be of some kind of pressed linen and his broad wrist sported a shiny watch. Viktor was a good half a head shorter than his son, but Pyotr seemed to shrink before the fisherman, frozen, taking in his father’s face. 

Viktor stared back. The cat hissed again, wildly, and darted out the door. Viktor numbly watched it go. 

“Pyotr.” The word came out, unbidden, rough with years of pain. 

Pyotr flinched at the tone in the older man’s voice and looked away. “Papa.” 

“Pyotr.” Viktor blinked as if to clear his vision. “Is it you.”

Da, Papa. Da, it is me.”

They looked at each other for another long silence. Then Viktor seemed to wake and, clumsily, stepped aside and gestured for his son to enter the room. 

Pyotr brushed off his boots, set the lantern on the table, and looked around. “It’s as I remember it,” he said. “The little cottage by the sea.” He smiled slightly. “And you are the same, Papa.”

Viktor looked away, toward the window, where the oil city’s lights were still visible through the heavy fog. “You’ve come back,” he said flatly. 

“I —” Pyotr sat heavily, the stool making a creaking sound, and put his hands on his knees. He was bigger, more solid, than Viktor recalled. His hands were Viktor’s hands: large, square, but smooth with years of what Viktor guessed was office work, not rough from pulling on nets or making wood-carvings. His startling eyes met Viktor’s. 

He cleared his throat. “I am sorry, Papa, that I did not come when Mother died.”

Viktor did not meet his son’s eyes. “Why have you returned, Pyotr?” 

“I have a child, Papa.” Pyotr rubbed his hand through his hair wearily. “I am here to make amends.”

“What amends,” Viktor said gruffly, looking at the wall. The sky outside was nearly black now, and the lantern cast oddly dancing shadows in the hut. 

“You’ve still not got electricity, Papa.” Pyotr stood and looked carefully at the table. “And this old thing. Let me get you a new one. From the city.”

“That table I made for your mother,” the old fisherman snapped. 

Pyotr looked pained. “Yes, I know, Papa.” He stood, fished around in his pants pocket for a thick leather wallet. “Look, Papa. This is Elena, my wife. And Masha, my daughter.” He held the worn photograph out, one hand awkwardly going to his hair. 

Viktor still did not look at him, but reached out and carefully took the photo. In the dim lantern-light he inspected it. Little Masha was a laughing child, dark hair and eyes, sitting in a pretty woman’s lap. She looked a little like her grandmother, but only in her smile. He half-smiled, but all he managed was a grunt.

“Well, if that’s the way you want it.” Pyotr smiled bitterly and sat back on his stool. “I told you, I’ve come to make amends, Papa, and I want to give you a house in the city, near me and my family. We’ve returned to live here. Elena is from this region and wants to be near her parents.” 

Viktor looked up. “I need no such thing.” 

His son’s face twitched. “Papa.” 

“Did you not hear me, Pyotr.” The old fisherman’s voice was slow, measured.

“You want what?” Pyotr stood again, glaring down at the older man. “This hut? The sea? Where you have no firewood, you have no electricity, nothing modern, just the gulls to keep you company?” He gestured wildly. “Look, Papa. Everyone is gone. Everyone but you.” 

Viktor stared at him. 

Pyotr continued, voice rising. “I have come back because I have succeeded, though you said I could not do so. I have enough money to take care of all of us, you and my wife and daughter. And now you don’t want it?”

“Pyotr,” Viktor said, more quietly. “Please. I congratulate you on your success. But my life is here. Your mother is here, near the sea she loved. I have no place in that city.”

The lantern flickered, and Viktor realized that the door was slightly open. The cat had still not returned. He glanced at the door, then back at Pyotr, whose face seemed to have changed, his jaw set differently.

“Pyotr.” 

“You know nothing of success.”

“You were my success, Pyotr. You and your mother.”

His son snorted, but it was a pained sound. “Me? You told me every day what a poor fisherman I was, then berated me for trying to seek success outside the village. And Mother -” He stopped, cleared his throat.  

The fisherman’s eyes flickered, but he returned a steady gaze to his son. 

Pyotr continued. “And you never wrote to me, Papa, never.” 

Viktor was silent for a long time. Pyotr looked exasperated, but stood waiting, impatient as he had ever been as a boy, tapping his hand on the table. Then, as the younger man began to pace, the old man said slowly:

“You told me not to seek you out.”

“Did you really think I – ” The younger man took a deep breath. Viktor could see the lines in Pyotr’s forehead from what he guessed were years of stress. 

“Petya, I am glad you have come,” Viktor said hesitantly. “I have missed- ” 

Pyotr stopped moving as if struck. He stared at his father, face wan, and suddenly looked much older in the shadows from the lantern. “I am here only out of duty,” he said harshly.

He turned toward the door, then stopped and turned back to the old fisherman, voice tight, controlled. “Do not let me keep you, Papa. Klaus has agreed to bring you extra supplies from time to time.” 

Viktor looked at his son, fully, seeing the age-lines in the younger man’s face and the gray hairs appearing among the blond strands. “Wait, Petya. Please.” 

Pyotr’s knuckles were white. “Do not cal—” He took a breath. “What more is there for me to say? I accept that I was never the fisherman you wanted. Apparently I still have nothing you approve of.” He drew himself up, towering above Viktor. “Though you did not approve of it, the education you paid for afforded me a decent life. I thank you for that.”  

He went on. “But do not think that my being here means I am your Petya, or that I have forgiven you, Papa. Not for Mother.”

“Neither have I, my son,” Viktor said quietly. “Please, sit.”

Pyotr stared at him. “You? You let Mother go without a doctor until it was too late because with you there could be no change, nothing modern, no – ” 

Viktor tried to speak, but Pyotr seemed unable to stop himself. “You wonder why I ran? Because you never loved anything, Papa, nothing but your hut and the sea.”

“Sit down, Pyotr.” Viktor Bogaryov’s voice was harsh.

The younger man’s face was flushed with anger and his hand was halfway to the lantern, ready to storm out as he had done many times as a youth, but at his father’s sudden change of tone he wilted. He looked helplessly at the fisherman.

Viktor Bokaryov got to his feet and made his way over to a small black hinged case beside the stove. It had clearly been used often – the golden hinges had faded to silver and the paint on the lid was chipped. He opened it carefully and held it out to Pyotr. 

Inside was a small stack of letters. The first said only Dear Pyotr. So did the fifth. And the tenth. 

Pyotr’s face was like stone.

Viktor watched Masha’s expressions flicker across Pyotr’s face, watched his own stubbornness in the set of the younger man’s jaw. 

Slowly, he said, “Listen to me. We had no money. The fishing was not enough. But your mother did not want to leave. She loved the sea, she hated the pollution of the oil refinery. So we stayed. And…there was -” Viktor faltered, looked down at his rough hands. “There was…a surgery, Pyotr.” 

Pyotr looked up, sharply. 

“I tried to persuade her to get it, but she would not hear it. She insisted that we should fund your education first, our brilliant son, at the expense of her health. She made me promise not to tell you, not when you were so young and might blame yourself,” the old fisherman said quietly. He paused, looked at Pyotr. “It is not true that I loved nothing but this house and the sea.” 

His son’s face spasmed, and suddenly Pyotr was sinking onto the stool, big hands clenched into fists. 

Viktor let him sit. He tried not to look at his son. His own chest felt hollow, cold, as if someone had thrown him in the Russian sea outside. Pyotr’s whole face was white. His hands were shaking. Viktor looked away. 

Suddenly he felt confused. “Where is my cat?” he asked aloud. Something felt very wrong. He sat down, hard, his head pounding, arm tingling. His face felt half-numb. Strange.

 “Papa?” Pyotr, face still pale, was on his feet. “Papa!” 

“Where is my cat?” the older man repeated, looking blankly at Pyotr’s face.  

“Don’t move, Papa.” Pyotr rushed to fill a mug with water and gave it to his father. “Please, drink.” 

The old fisherman’s hand was shaking and Pyotr held the water to his lips. He ran to the door. “Klaus!” he shouted frantically into the night. “Klaus!”

An answering shout came from the shore. Pyotr turned back to the old man. “Klaus is coming, Papa. Let us take you to a hospital.”

“Where is Petya?” 

“I’m here, Papa.” Pyotr looked confused at the use of the affectionate version of his name when they had been arguing just moments ago. 

“No, no, my cat, my Petya.” Viktor’s face was alight with fear. He tried to stand, half-tipping. Pyotr’s eyes were wet as he pushed his father back into the chair. 

“Papa, let me look for your Petya.” He tucked the older man’s blanket around him and grabbed the lantern, then ventured out into the frigid night. 

The cat was found quickly and brought back to the cottage, hissing wildly, bundled in Pyotr’s coat. He held it well away from his face and pushed the door shut behind him, dropping the animal, which bolted across the room. Viktor scooped it up and cradled it like an infant.

Klaus appeared at the door, a second lantern in his hand, breathless. “What is it?” 

“My father needs medical attention.” 

“I am fine, Pyotr.” Viktor had sunk back into his chair, holding the loudly purring cat.

“The boat is ready, we can go now.” Klaus hovered in the doorway, as if afraid to enter. 

Pyotr looked between his father and the boatman. “Papa, shall we go.” 

“Sit, Pyotr. I am fine.”   

“No, we must get you to a doctor.” Pyotr gently pulled his father to his feet. Viktor looked around the room. Pyotr smiled. “Papa, the house has lasted this long. I imagine it will be here a few days from now.”

The two younger men extinguished the fire. Viktor did not let go of the cat even as they bundled him into a warm coat. They took him down to the boat and got in carefully, the cat unhappily yowling at the unfamiliar bobbing sensation. The fisherman shushed it. 

Klaus shoved off from the shore and hopped into the boat, the lantern illuminating a bright circle around them in the dissipating fog. They turned toward the glittering string of lights on the horizon.

It was silent out on the sea, the clunk of the oars the only sound, and the boat rocked gently as the water splashed against the sides. The night was freezing, and Pyotr pulled a blanket out of Klaus’ utility box and wrapped it around his father. 

Viktor looked over at his son. “Pyotr.” 

Pyotr turned toward his father apprehensively. Viktor’s craggy face was inscrutable in the light from the lantern. He took one arm from the cat and gestured toward the city. 

“Tell me about your Masha.” 


Read more by S Z. Attwell:

An underground city, built centuries ago to ride out the devastating heat. A society under attack. And a young solar engineer whose skills may be the key to saving her city…if she doesn’t get herself killed first.  

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