He Lover of Death

HOW SENKA FIRST SAW DEATH

Of course, that wasn’t what she was called to begin with. It was something ordinary, a proper Russian name. Malaniya, maybe, or Agrippina. And she had a family name to go with it, too. Well everyone’s got one of them, don’t they? Your lop-eared mongrel Vanka doesn’t have a family name, but a person’s got to have one, because that’s what makes them a person.

Only when Speedy Senka saw her that first time, she already had her final moniker. Nobody ever spoke about her any other way –they’d all forgotten her first name and her family name.

And this was how he happened to see her.

He was sitting with the lads on the bench in front of Deriugin’s corner shop. Smoking baccy and chewing the fat.

Suddenly, up drives this jaunty little gig. Tyres pumped fat and tight, spokes painted all golden, yellow leather top. And then out steps a bint, the like of which Senka has never seen before, not on the swanky Kuznetsky Most, not even in Red Square on a church holiday. But no, she wasn’t a bint – a lady, that’s what she was, or, better still, a damsel. Black plaits in a crown on top of her head, a fancy coloured silk shawl on her shoulders, and her dress was silk too, it shimmered. But the shawl or the dress didn’t matter, it was her face, it was so . . . so . . . well, there’s just no words for it. One look, and you melted inside. And that was what Senka did, melted inside.

‘Who’s that fancy broad?’ he asked, and then, so as not to give himself away, he spat through closed teeth (he could gob farther than anyone else like that, at least six feet – that gap at the front was very handy). ‘It’s plain to see, Speedy,’ Prokha said, ‘that you’re new round here.’ And right enough, Senka was still settling into Khitrovka back then, it was only a couple of weeks since he’d taken off from Sukharevka. ‘That ain’t a broad,’ says Prokha. ‘That’s Death!’ Senka didn’t twig straight off what death had to do with anything. He thought it was just Prokha’s fancy way of talking –like, she’s dead beautiful.

And she really was beautiful, no getting away from that. High clear forehead, arched eyebrows, white skin, scarlet lips and o-o-oh –those eyes! Senka had seen eyes like that on Cavalry Square, on the Turkestan horses: big and moist, but glinting with sparks of fire at the same time. Only the eyes of the damsel who got out of that fancy carriage were lovelier even than the eyes on those horses.

Senka’s own eyes popped out of his head as he gaped at the miraculously beautiful damsel, and Mikheika the Night-Owl brushed the baccy crumbs off his lip then elbowed him in the side: ‘Ogle away, Speedy,’ he says, ‘but don’t overdo it. Or the Prince will lop your ear off and make you eat it, like he did that time with that huckster from Volokolamsk. He took a shine to Death too, that huckster did. But he ogled too hard.’

And Senka didn’t catch on about Death this time either – he was too taken by the idea of eating ears.

‘What, and did the huckster eat it, then?’ he asked in amazement. ‘I wouldn’t do that, no way.’

Prokha took a swig from his beer. ‘Yes you would,’ he said. ‘If the Prince asked you nice and polite, like, you’d be only too happy to do it and you’d say thank you, that was very tasty. That huckster chewed