When Pavel reached the house, he took the axe from behind the door and began to sharpen it. His mother looked up from the hearth, where she was cleaning out the ashes.
“What are you doing home? What’s wrong?”
Pavel looked at her, hesitated. “Wolves,” he said.
He stayed home all day, sharpening knives, watching, and fidgeting, until his behavior began to frighten his mother and he left. No one from the mayor’s manor came to summon him, which both relieved and worried him at the same time.
Night eventually came and Pavel and his mother sat silently in front of the fire—her with her mending and Pavel staring into the fire, the axe on his knees. He looked up to see her gazing at him.
“Do you think you will need that here? Do you think the wolves will come into the village—break into our house?”
“I—I’m not sure,” he said.
“It’s not wolves you’re worried about, is it?” she said.
There was a clattering outside, like wood falling off the pile. Pavel jumped, then went to the small window by the door. The moonlight was shining on their small path and garden but there was no movement.
At that moment, the chickens behind the house began to scream. Pavel had never heard them make such sound—did not know they could make such a horrible, rending shriek. He put his hand on the door handle but could not will himself to open it.
“Well, are you going?” his mother cried suddenly. “You got the axe. If wolves are at the chickens, you’d better go now or they’ll all be killed.”
Still, Pavel could not make himself open the door or explain why. He felt paralyzed. The chickens stopped abruptly and there was total silence for a space of several breaths. Just when he thought it was safe, there was a thump against the door. It came again. Someone, or something, was knocking with heavy, irregular strokes on the outside.
Thump . . . thump . . .
“Are you going to open it?” his mother asked. “Pavel, are you okay? What’s wrong? If it were wolves, they wouldn’t be knocking. Pavel, let the poor person in and out of the cold. Pavel?”
His hand was still resting on the door handle, but all he could think of was some way to barricade the door. Pull the beds across and push them against it. Block the window. Anything and everything to keep the evil outside. He looked up to see his mother next to him and before he could do anything, she pushed him aside and threw the door open.
A gust of frigid wind burst into the room, causing the fire to gutter. Pavel heard a rasping, croaking sound and then that hideous deformed face he had seen in the dungeon emerged into the light of the fireplace. His mother gasped and stepped back. The creature shuffled over the threshold.
Pavel stepped in front of his mother, brandishing the axe, but he was too transfixed with horror to strike. Now that he could see the monster in better light, he saw that it looked like a man, although one shriveled and twisted by some evil force. Its skin was yellow and thin and its eyes were bloodshot and roving. They latched onto his mother’s face and the mouth opened.
“Ah . . . An . . . Anca.” Pink spittle dribbled from its mouth as it expelled the word. Pavel’s mother was staring at the creature, her eyes growing wider and wider until she started to scream. She fell back on the floor, covering her face with her hands and screamed and screamed. Even when she fell into a coughing fit, she continued to writhe and tear at her hair.
“Mother!” Pavel ran to her side, trying to make her stop. He kept his eyes on the monster. It pulled itself a little closer.
“Pa . . . vel,” the monster rasped, staring at Pavel with its bulging eyes. And then, in a moment ghastly revelation, Pavel knew what the slavering ghoul in front of him was. It was his father.
It had been, at least. Now, one could hardly call it human. Pavel felt nothing but loathing for it and he wished he had the resolution to cut it in two with the axe. But he could not. Not now.
The monster that been his father saw the swaying of the axe in his hand and moved closer. “Kill . . . me,” it said. “The axe . . . will do nothing. In the high . . . tower there is . . . a dagger. Only it . . . can . . . kill me. I will . . . meet you . . . there.” It stopped and started to hack in short, sharp croaks. Pavel could barely look at it. “Kill me . . . son,” it said again and then, suddenly, it pulled itself around and was gone through the open door.
Pavel shut and locked the door. The fire had sunk low and the room was dark and icy. “Mother, sit up. Please,” he said, going to her and helping her up. All the strength seemed to have left her, but she got up, unresisting, and let him guide her to her chair by the fire. She picked up her mending and started to cry. The sobs came, stronger and stronger until they were shaking her thin body. The dam she had built triple-strong against the grief of her life had finally broken.
Pavel stayed by her until she finally quieted. He was putting more wood on the fire when she finally spoke. “You must do it, Pavel. You must kill him.”
“I don’t want to go near that thing again,” he said. “That is not my father. He died when I was a baby.”
“You must!” she said again. “I said good bye to your father a long time ago, and I cannot live now, knowing he is being tortured like that every moment of the day. You must kill him or I will never have peace. Do it for me, if not for him, son.”
Pavel nodded slowly. “I will go now,” he said.
(to be concluded tomorrow)