When a painter is going to do a really important work involving elements they haven't done before, they'll do what's called a “study.” It's a series of drawings or miniature paintings on an element of the painting they're unfamiliar with. I've recently considered reviving a horror idea I had a few years ago. Since I'm not typically a horror writer, I've decided to do a few studies of horror. Obkakat is one of those studies.
The feedback I've gotten from my friends is that it's not actually horror. It's dark fantasy. I love that sort of feedback even though it hurts. Haha. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.
Just so you know, it doesn't take place in Russia despite the Russian references.
Our brothers went to war.
The youngest were the last to go. Our fathers and grandfathers had already gone.
In that deep and biting winter, I heard a rap on the door.
“Obka!” little Mariya shrieked and jumped behind the chair we hadn’t yet burned for warmth.
She meant obkakat. ‘Ghost.’ All the children had been told not to let spirits in of the dead in. I knew what they really meant.
A muffled cry came through the door. “Mariya!”
Mariya sobbed, “obkaaaa!”
I was disgusted. How could one of my brothers—
It might not be one of them, though. Mariya was a common name and the world was too thick with blowing snow.
I hesitated for a moment, and then marched to the door. The howling wind whistled through every crack.
“Who are you, ghost?” I shouted through the closed door.
“It’s Anton! Please let me in, Olena!”
Who had cursed me with the ghost of my cousin? I spat and cursed the name of my aunt. She loved her little ghost—her little deserter—too much to let him go, but not enough to take him in herself.
He was eight the last time I saw him. No more than nine now. Why had she cursed me with him? I didn’t have enough food for Mariya as it was.
I fought back tears. I would claw Aunt Svitlana’s eyes out if the old bitch made it through the storm.
I unlatched the door and opened it a crack. Immediately, Anton squeezed through the crack and rushed to the fire.
His brown hair was matted and disgusting. His clothes were almost nothing. How did this little ghost make it to my house? This little soldier who looked so much like a boy. Tiny desperate coward.
After a second, I realized his shirt didn’t reach his neck. His skin was as white as a well-bleached shirt.
“I don’t have food for you, ghost. There isn’t enough food for Mariya let alone me, you squirrel dung.”
He didn’t answer. I walked close to him. I spun him around and made him face me. “I said there’s no food for you here, you pathetic deserter!”
His eyes never left his fingers. He muttered some marching song in between the repeated word ‘cold.’ “On the morrow—cold—we march to glory—cold—We are men, we—cold—fight for our Nation’s Glory!—so cold…”
I let him go and he slowly turned back to the fire. I grabbed the chair and set it in front of the cupboard that held the last of our food.
Mariya hid behind the bed. I sat on the chair and fell asleep.
When I woke up, it was almost completely dark in the house. Anton stood in front of the faint glow of the fire. He waved his hands in front of the coals slowly.
If the fire went out, I wouldn’t be able to set it again. I stood up and pulled a leg off the table. It wrenched and splintered and the table toppled over.
Mariya squeaked. I’d woken her up. I shoved the leg in the fire. Anton didn’t seem to notice. Even in the dark, she seemed impossibly pale.
“Why did your mother send you here, little ghost?”
“So cold—” was his only response.
I desperately needed to go out with an ax and find some wood to burn, but I couldn’t trust Anton. Even before the war, I wouldn’t have.
For the first time in months, I thought about my father. I never let myself think about him because I knew I would break down. But he would know what to do.
Tears streamed down my face. “Have you seen my father, ghost? Did you abandon him on the field of battle or did he die before you left?”
I may have read too much into it, but he seemed evasive as he hummed, “—we march to—so very cold—glooooory.”
I sprung up, turned him by the shoulders and shook him. “Anton! What happened to my father?!”
He could have the damned house for all I cared!
I let go of him and grabbed Mariya. She was bundled up tight and I added the meager rag that had been left on the bed and carried her out into the night.
“Where are we going, Lena?” she cried in my ear.
“We’re going to Auntie Svitla’s house.”
Then I saw a long thick line of red dots that bobbed in the night. They surrounded us. “Shhh, Mariya,” I whispered.
I put Mariya down and strained to see. They were men. Men and boys. Dressed in their tattered white undershirts, red glowing eyes in the night. They marched all around us, toward us.
“What do you want?!” I shouted.
Faintly humming, I could make out pieces of the tune. “On the morrow, we march to glory.”