Sakoiya the Skeleton: A Tale about Murder & Matryoshka.
The short story you are about to read is a tale spun from Russian tradition, Crime and Punishment, and my own imagination. It pays homage to Dostoevsky's work, so I will post an article in the near future about writing homages and vague retellings. This story was original posted on Wattpad in July 2019 in my short story collection, Dagger and Cloak. I will link it, if you are interested.
Matryoshka- nesting doll
Tante- means aunt in French. French was the language of the Russian uppercrust.
Sanka Petra- a twisted version of Saint Petersburg
Thanks for reading!
I ALWAYS crave the sweetness of sugared tea cakes. The warmth of a treat fresh from the fires is constantly calling to me. I want to lick the snowy dust from my fingers and inhale every morsel of the golden dough. If it is particularly well-crafted, honey will drip from the sides, glinting in the always pale light. There is nothing grander than the feel of a pastry settling deep within your gut.
There is little money for indulgence. Every coin I get for slaving over hot laundry must go towards bread crusts and hard cheese. I am poverty incarnate, but mostly I am hungry. All I want is to feel chocolate melting against my tongue and sweet butter soothing my soul.
I shouldn't think of such things. Not when there is still work to be done. This is different from the usual push and pull of cloth into water. I have never attempted something like this before, but the hunger has never panged so deeply.
My dreams have been filled with Tante Danchenko's Trinkets. All of the riches that lay inside, waiting for fat purses to snatch them up. Every morning for seven years, I have passed this shop and glanced at the treasures inside. Sometimes the aunt of antiques herself will stand in the doorway, her golden hair tightly coiled and her fair cheeks braving the wind.
Three mornings ago, I looked Tante Danchenko in her blue eyes and saw a feast lingering in those shards of sky. In that moment I knew that I must rob her. I must break into her shop, steal what I could and then sell it, far across the city. There would be coins in my pockets. There would be food in my belly.
It is dark now. The moon hangs low and the air is crisp and cool, whispering that spring is near. I linger near the back of the shop, rubbing my gloved hands together. My fingers are bony. They have always been bony. Some of the other girls at the wash have taken to calling me Sakoiya the Skeleton. It is cruel, but not far from the truth.
Behind the shop, my only company are hickory barrels and a stray tabby. The cat looks at me with little interest, surveying my huddled form and saunters off. I hope that creature was not guarding the shop. It looks mangy and mean, but it is plumper than me. Hopefully Danchenko has not been feeding the tabby in exchange for protection.
I slip into the shop with only a hint of trouble. The door creaks, but the lock is old and suddenly I am enveloped in a new darkness. I have never been inside the shop before. Everything is unfamiliar to me, but I breathe in aged treasures and speckles of dust.
I will only take enough to survive. It is not in my nature to thieve, but my stomach aches. I am sick of always being cold and starving. Thoughts of warm cakes and sweet honey begin to creep into my mind once more, but I push them away. The darkness does not present time for daydreaming. I must get to work.
The floor creaks ever so slightly as I creep along. The backroom quickly leads into where all the items are kept. The curtains in the front windows have been drawn closed, preventing moonlight from splashing across the shelves. My hands run over the nooks and crannies, each filled with shadows. I do not know what I should look for.
I hear the groans of a floorboard, but my feet are firmly planted. The sound rings out once more and I freeze. Suddenly, there is a shift in the air. I know the presence of another. My hand curls around something gilded. I can feel with old wealth seep between my fingertips.
From the corner of my eye, an orange glow appears. I turn around with patience and fear. Standing in the threshold of the back and the front is Tante Danchenko. Her body is wrapped in a heavy dressing gown. Her blonde tresses are loose and curling, almost glowing in the candlelight she holds. Danchenko's cheeks are blushing apples and her eyes are chips of ice.
She looks at me. I look at her. She is a brave woman, for daring to face a burglar. I daresay she expected a young man of great cunning and violence. Her forehead creases at the sight of a skeletal woman with sallow skin and darting eyes. I know I must be a different kind of fright.
Danchenko sets down the candle upon a small table. She does not seem very bothered. I feel my chest rising and falling with tremendous anticipation. I did not know that Tante Danchekno would be here. I suppose she must live above the shop. I should have planned this with greater care, but hunger makes a mind dull.
She walks towards me with small, graceful steps. I cannot breathe. Something is far too haunting about her blue stare. She is reaching. Not for me, for an object. I do not let her reach whatever she needs. I am still holding onto the gilded item, which I now realize is a small samovar, and I pick it up. She grasps outwards and I shriek and throw the golden samovar at her.
The woman makes a noise and barely ducks out of the way. In a new panic, I shove past her and know I must get out. I am afraid of being arrested, but I am more frightened of Danchenko. The pangs in my stomach urge me to run as fast as I can, away from this shop. I will survive on bread and cheese.
Danchenko grasps my wrist and pulls me back. Something horribly cold races through me and I cannot help but shout. In the flickering light, she continues holding onto me and she is saying something, but I cannot concentrate. My head is spinning. I must get out. I must flee into the bitter night.
I shove against the woman and she shoves back and I push her into a table. She drags me down with her, my head barely scraping the edge of a curved leg. She must be something that I am not. Her fear is neither wild nor calculated. It is a feeling I have no words for. I have always thought she was the eccentric aunt of antiques, but now I do not know what is up and what is down. I am too weak to fight. I am too weak to understand.
This is all wrong. I must stop this. Danchenko is speaking once more, furiously, and spit flies upon my cheek. My temper flares and I shove the woman off. Every muscle inside of me protests. She is shouting, threatening, losing her mind. I am also losing my mind. The air is stifling and my plan is foiled and I am nothing but confusion.
Underneath the small table, tucked away between the legs, is a rounded figure. If I can throw this at her, it will distract her. The samovar almost worked. I will try once more and make my grand escape. I lean over and pull the object out. It is curved and I grip it with both of my hands. Danchenko makes to grab me once more, but I am quick.
She bends down. I bring the object up. There is a horrible crack. I have brought the object up too fast and smashed Danchenko in the head. The object is heavy and her bones are delicate and she screams. I scream as well, as she falls over. Her fingers are grasping at my ankles and I do not like that. I bring the object down against the back of her head.
I hear a crack. Danchenko stops moving. It happens slowly, then rapidly. She is not moving. Crack. Crack. Crack. With shaking hands, I hold the object up to the dim light of the flame. My breath hitches as I see that it is a matryoshka doll.
It is exquisitely painted. Underneath the painted headscarf, golden curls peek out. Two eyes of everlasting blue stare at me. I dropped the doll and it falls upon the hard floor. It breaks as it hits the floor, but I do not care about an old doll. I grasp onto Danchenko and roll her over. Her eyes are open and finally widened in frozen fear.
Not fear for me. Fear from seeing the Reaper.
For I have killed Tante Danchenko.
Dawn is now creeping over the horizon. I am huddled in an alley, clinging onto a cold wall and watching my breath escape in petrified little clouds. I cannot feel my toes. Everything that happened in the last few hours keeps playing over and over inside my mind.
I have murdered a woman and left her body sprawled across the floor, her skull dented in. The flash of her eyes is boring into me. My breath begins to come faster and faster, my chest rising and falling with no discernible rhythm. I didn't mean to. I have never done anything so horrible in my entire life.
I ran from the shop, nearly tripping over the broken matryoshka, and fled out of the back. I barely remember dashing through the empty streets, letting my feet slam against the rough cobblestone. Every shadow seemed to loom at me and I curled up into a ball, in this alley, and prayed for salvation.
When I woke, the sun was peeking up. It now seems too bright a morning for what I have done. I wrap my arms around my flat stomach and try to control myself. I do not know what happened last night. All I can recall is that I did not steal anything but a life.
Right now I am supposed to be at the wash. I am supposed to be filling the tubs with boiling water and pulling out dirty shirts to scrub. If my theft had been successful, I could be blazing across this wretched city and selling my wares. I could be clutching a tea cake, munching happily, and wondering what else my new fortune would bring me.
However, I have torn myself apart. I have joined the lowest members of society. I may be poor and stupid and starving, but I am not bad. I bite down on my bottom lip and chew. Beyond the alley I can hear the square bustling with morning life. Everyone in Sanka Petra is going about their business, not knowing a murderer cowers in this alley.
The guilt will eat me alive. I push myself off the wall and stumble down the alley. Even though spring is near, the air still nips through my shabby coat. As I wander into the square and begin pushing past the people, I am aware of where my feet carry me. I will go to the police house and hand myself over. I will throw myself to the mercy of prison.
I must pay for my crime.
The crowds begin to shift and weave. I hear guttural cries of trade. Everything is blurred inside of my ears, where nothing but my guilt screams at me. I rub my ears, noticing there is another hole in my sleeve. I duck around an indigo stall and find myself in a thinner stretch of the morning market. The police house will only be three streets away, if I cross the canal.
All of a sudden, the hair on my neck stands up. I let an old woman bumped into me and then turn around, my teeth chattering. My eyes dance across the crowds until they settle on a woman dressed in white and blue. She is tucked between two stalls and she is staring at me. It takes a moment to understand Danchenko is staring at me.
I blink, but the woman is still standing there. It is clearly Danchenko. The golden hair and piercing blue eyes and rosy cheeks are all her. The face is identical, but the body...something is not right. I am seeing ghosts. I stifle a scream and turn around, letting my feet break into a run. I am pushing past people at a furious pace. My eyes are blurring with tears.
I do not know the shops I pass or the canals I cross. All I know is I am suddenly in front of the police house, but I cannot go in. My head is too rattled for prison. I cannot tell the police what I have done. Not when there is a ghost after me, glinting in the sunlight. No. No. I cannot do this.
I turn on my heels and head for church.
From the palaces to the ports, winter rules this city. She is a cruel thing, bitter and biting everything she can wrap her winds around. No corner, canal, or commoner is free from her terrible reign. Every year is the same, and everyone grumbles about it, but we bow to the cold anyway.
Sanka Petra is a hellish place, but is also filled with so many beautiful, wondrous things. There are palaces floating by on every canal, each island like a gem trapped in the freezing water. Soaring bridges connect all of the islands and jutting pieces of the mainland, creating a maze of rich colors and gorgeous designs.
There are towering cathedrals, their domes twisting in elegant swirls. The grand homes stretch on, some further than your eye could see. On the northern side of the city, ships from around the world would dock, their flags waving proudly against the flat, grey sky.
The poor is woven against the rich. We cower in boarding houses and markets and alleys, propped up against the elegance of the wealthy. As I slowly starve to death, steps away is a palace filled with rich foods. I am not resentful. This is the way things are. I loathe the cold and the hunger but it is apparent I can do nothing to change those things.
As I scurry along the canals, water nips at my heels. I must watch my step. One wrong move against the cobblestone and I will tumble into the freezing depths beside me. Sometimes I wonder what that would feel like, to be engulfed in the canal and then frozen. I cannot imagine it would be pleasant, but sometimes the most unpleasant things make you the happiest.
Oh. That is not true. I have suffered the most unpleasant thing and I am not happy. I did not wish to kill Danchenko. I did not wish to be haunted by her. I can feel the market ghost's eyes upon me. It had clearly been my victim, but her stature had seemed not quite as grand.
They say that one is smaller in death.
I find myself falling into the nearest church. It is a building that looks like a cake and my stomach yearns for something. The dark red walls and white trim are mouthwatering. The rounded windows glare down at me as I hurry inside and relish in the sudden warmth.
At this time of day, the inside is nearly empty. There is a man and his child praying in the front pew. I glance around at the interior. Everything is painted in pale pinks and golds, accented by white. I slid into the back pew and bow my head. It has been a long time since I have truly prayed.
My lips move silently. I am begging for salvation. I am insisting that I am not a killer. This was an accident. I am not evil, but I am just so hungry and tired and cold. I pray for the beauty of Sanka Petra to bless me. I beg for mercy. I am shaking. My bony hands are clasped together in hopeless yearning.
Someone has sat in the pew in front of me. I raise my eyes and see blonde curls tumbling down rounded shoulders. My hands freeze in prayer. The curls turn around and a beautiful face of ivory and blue is staring at me. Those eyes bore straight into me. Danchenko does not blink once.
Danchenko is not right. She is smaller still, almost a girl. But her eyes and her face are exactly the same and I find myself clambering over the back pew. More ghosts means more trouble. I cannot stand this. I cannot let this happen. Sanka Petra is filled with intrigue, but I want none of it. I only want salvation.
I flee the church, sobs racking my hollowed bones.
I have spent this day wrapped in fear and confusion. I do not know where I am going or what I can do. It has been hours since the church and no more Danchenkos have emerged, for which I am grateful. In an attempt to hide, I have found myself inside of a tavern.
It is noisy and crowded, filled with raucous drunks. The sun has already begun to set, but the one window in front does not allow much light. I am cowering at a table in the drink. My head is clutched in my hands. I have no money on me. My throat is dry and my gut far too empty, but it is my thoughts that are the most painful.
I try to tell myself that I am not a killer. I am just lowly Sakoiya, a washer woman with nothing to her name. Then the shadows edge closer and closer, whispering that I am a murderer. I broke a woman's skull. She is dead because of me. Now, my visions are haunted by her.
Am I to live out the rest of my life in this manner? At this stifling thought, I stand and get out of the tavern. The stench of liquor is doing nothing to soothe me. I burst out the door and amble along the crooked cobblestones. The canal twists and turns to my right. A little ways away, a pale green palace looms. As night drifts in, the air is even colder. Winter still clings to her crown.
Nothing makes sense anymore. My head spins and spins. Whispers of witches and ghosts and sinners grab a hold of me. I am trembling. I am always trembling. I stand at the edge of the canal. A lantern hanging off a butcher's shop lights up the water. It is dark. Not blue, not black, but dark. My toes curl around the edge of the cobblestone.
I want to fall in. I want death to consume me, as it consumed Danchenko. As I gaze at my murky reflection, barely visible in the lantern light and rippling water, I have never felt more famished. I blink several times, rocking on my heels. Perhaps I will tip myself in. I rock forward once more, but a golden reflection appears beside me.
Wearily, I turn my head and see a girl standing beside me. She comes up to my ribs, but she is Danchenko. She gazes at me, with such emptiness in her eyes. Her porcelain face is serene. This is the exact same woman I have seen three times now. The shop, the market, the church. Now the canal. Smaller and smaller still. I back away and Danchenko does not move. She keeps her eyes on me.
I must flee once more.
As midnight falls across Sanka Petra, I am lost. My breath will only come in short bursts. I have run for so long, but now I am finished. I cannot move anymore. Witches seem to whine from every corner. Shadows threaten to engulf me. I am sin and misery and exhaustion. I am haunted.
My head feels cracked. No. Danchenko's head was cracked. Not me. I don't remember what is what. Churches and canals are convulsing in my mind. I blink. I blink again. I have fallen around a corner and in the ongoing darkness there is a shop. At first, my vision twists it into Tante Danchenko's Trinkets. But it is not. There is a dim light from inside.
My legs are weak. I am nearly crawling to this shop, heaving myself into the doorway. I am sobbing. I am waiting for death. I cannot live with the guilt that has overcome me. I cannot stand to be haunted for the rest of my miserable life.
All I wanted was something warm to eat. All I wanted was the comfort of cake.
I huddle in the doorway, as the winds pick up around me. Everything is dark, save for this shop. I want to go inside, but I cannot face anyone. My vision is dotted with black and white.
Crack. Crack. I can hear it. My stomach is stabbing me. I sob and sob and sob until the tears freeze upon my cheeks.
Sakoiya the Skeleton. It is true. There is no soul left within me. I am skin and bone.
The door opens. I smell something sweet. I lift my head and see there is a child standing in
the doorway. She is illuminated like a saint, in a halo of golden light. I realize the light is coming from inside. My bleary eyes adjust. She is not a child.
She is the smallest Danchenko. Her little hand stretches out and my thin hands reach out. Sugar dust my fingers. I gaze into those blue eyes and gasp for salvation. She does not blink or move, but I feel the treat within my hands. It is a tea cake. It is warm and dripping with sugar and honey.
I savor the sweetness, cramming the cake between my chattering teeth.
It is everything I dreamed of.