Pavel’s hands were sticky with drink. His fist slammed the bar. Another pint. “That’s how you kill a rabbit,” someone said. The pronouncement, made in a loud baritone, broke through the haze of Pavel’s third ale. The owner of the voice, a well-dressed man built like a bear, joined him at the otherwise empty bar. Pavel unclenched his hand and hid it in his lap, returning to his drink. Beneath the counter Pavel saw the shined leather of an Italian shoe. It had been a long walk to the pub, through the most unloved parts of Rybensk. Pavel had sensed, not seen, the small faces peering from half-collapsed blocks on his way. His few rubles had jingled guiltily in his trouser pocket. Reserved for ale. “Getting low, my friend,” the stranger said. “Ale?” A moneyed pinch to the word. From the City. Pavel liked this pub for its dark and its grime, but mostly for its silence. He waited for the shoe to disappear. “You like?” the stranger asked. “Milan. Custom-made.” Pavel noted that his near-empty pint had replenished itself. He drank, studying the stranger from the rim of his glass. A round, buoyant face, ashen curls gathered at the neck. An enormous fur coat sat on his shoulders, its hem skimming the floor. “Ah, my coat,” The man thumbed his nose and settled onto the stool beside Pavel’s. “This, this, I made.” He winked. “I see there, in your eyes, you are envious. Enraged. The cruel mistress Life smites you with one hand while she fondles me with the other, yes?” “I suppose,” said Pavel. “’S just luck.” In truth, Pavel was afflicted with luck of the worst kind. Everyone told him so. “Just luck,” was the response when the farmland outside Pavel’s home was ravaged to make way for the first railway in Rybensk. “Just luck” when the stray bullet of a youthful revolutionary was lodged in his son’s temple. Luck that his wife, kneeling before a broken stove, wiped her eyes with a snotty handkerchief just as a passing train captured a pebble in its front gears. Luck that Pavel was walking back from town as the train careened off its track and set a new course for Pavel’s cottage. Luck that all Pavel heard of the efficient destruction of both wife and home was a far-off whistle, and a crack. Pavel’s life was now small enough to fit in a single flat on the other side of town. He spent his days eating tinned potato skins and his nights counting drinks. To this stranger, he could only shrug. The man tsked. “I used to be this way, too. Drowned in my own misfortunes.” He leaned in close, gripping Pavel’s shoulder, breath hot and stale in his ear. “I’ll tell you a secret, druzhishya. Luck comes in pairs.” The man grinned, revealing a gold-capped tooth. He released Pavel and resumed his booming speech. Bare hands on a drum. He told Pavel he was famous in the City; a tailor whose deft fingers proved man still triumphed over machine. The young governor had just paid him handsomely for his latest commission, he said, a coat very much like the one he wore tonight. He swept it grandly from the floor. “I hate to see an envious man,’ the stranger said, after another round was cleared. ‘It withers the soul. You believe what I say, about luck?” Pavel did not believe a word, but they were the same words buying the drinks. He nodded. “Then let me ease your soul, my Pavelovich.” And, with a glint of gold, he told Pavel what to do. Two words, and luck would be his. Later, Pavel recited the words aloud in his empty flat, just as the stranger had instructed. Not because he believed, but because the taste of cheap beer was sour on his tongue, and the cloth of his shoes chafed his skin. “Rabbit, rabbit.” Nothing happened. Pavel’s soul withered. The next morning, Pavel woke to find two rabbits at the foot of his bed. Live, breathing things, pelts black and shiny as the stranger’s coat, with long, pointed ears that twitched towards the sky. Pavel clambered from his mattress and crouched low. Animal eyes followed him. Pavel studied their tender stomachs; their broad, fluttering chests. Before, when Pavel rose every morning to kneel beside the cow’s swollen udder and tend to the slow-emerging seedlings of beet, he cooked. His favourite was kubya. Small salted pastries, filled with rich meat. Served hot with butter. He used chitlins, mostly; sheep kidney or pig liver. Whatever was spare. The rabbit on the left itched its head with its foot. Pavel knew how to skin an animal; how to pull flesh from bone, how to cleave a ribcage to get to the heart. But a creature so small – how to kill? Any incision, by knife or shot, would waste what little meat clung to those fine bones. The stranger’s advice again proved wisely dealt. A closed fist, swiftly delivered just behind the ears, and the first rabbit went limp. Pavel worried the second would flee, but it remained still, its watchful eyes on Pavel’s fist. In the coming weeks, as more arrived, Pavel came to understand stealth was unnecessary. The rabbits were his. They watched as he killed their brothers and still they waited their turn. Word of Pavel’s rabbit kubya spread quickly. Women from the nicer neighbourhoods requested a dozen at a time. An order from the City, even, sent in fat ink on heavy paper. Rubles lined his pockets. Soon, Pavel moved into a large house with a kitchen made of fine stone. He caught sight of his reflection in the oven door. His face, but with dark, blank eyes, without white or iris. Stretched wide like prey in a hunter’s trap. Pavel hosted dinner parties. His guests toasted his good health, his good fortune, and his fine Italian shoes. Rybensk’s mayor dined on his cooking and honoured him with a medal. Pavel had to keep his hands twined together during the ceremony, he so badly wanted to scratch the top of his head, and the two soft points that had emerged there. One morning when it was still dark, only one rabbit came. Pavel knelt as he had a hundred times before, surveying his solitary visitor. The rabbit had the same black eyes of a stranger in a bar, a lifetime ago. He could hardly remember it. He gripped the long ears with his left hand; his right tightened. He looked up at the stars as he brought his fist down on the crown of the rabbit’s soft head. How very lucky he was.
About the Author
Natasha Bonfield is a writer of short stories. Originally from the United States, Natasha is now based in the UK. Her work has been shortlisted for the 2020 Grindstone Literary Short Story Prize and appeared in Mulberry Literary and Sapphic Writers Zine, among others.