My knife is dirty and dull as the grease paper sky. Dull from carving burrows, carving throats. Spilling raw wet gut on the always icing pepper earth. Like me, with me, as me; the knife struggles. Chilled to a ghost and thin as invisible.
A year ago, or maybe a thousand years ago, I’m not sure; I was a postman.
I wept when I found him. The tears froze instantly on my cheeks. No happiness is permitted here. It has been banished with hope and sanity. Together the three of them walked hand in hand into the black, blizzard night.
The big Russian lay on his back in the snow, frozen to indigo. A mortar had blown off half his head. The heat of the shell cauterized the wound into the stringy black satin of All Hallows Eve. Rats had chewed off his remaining ear and the soft flesh of his throat. Rats, or dogs.
Or a man.
“It’s only a matter of time” the others used to say.
They are dead now. And they are wrong.
I will never eat human flesh. It’s the only shred of humanity I have left to cling to. Few horrors I have not enjoyed. And few have I not enjoyed. I am doomed to this frozen hell, beyond redemption. Beyond imagining.
My soul is a bleak and broken harpsichord, strummed by mad musicians and monsters.
So long since any real food. Since I’ve eaten actual meat.
“You will” they whisper. “You will.”
Dead they are. And wrong.
The material of the Russian’s uniform yields as easily as honeycomb spider web. I tear the weary fabric up past his purple knees.
But his flesh shaves stubbornly, hard grey crayon beneath the warmth of my dead blade.
I think of the first time I used the knife. On a boy of just eleven. I know his age because his mother screamed it me over and over until I ended her as well. The others pulled me aside to have their way with her body before the warmth left it. While I vomited.
Then joined them.
I use rock to smash the Russian’s shins. I have no strength to saw bone.
Only the need to wear his valenki. His winter boots.
Only the crazy desperate need to get his dead feet out of them. And my dead feet into them.
I salivate at the thought, and that too freezes, on my wind cracked lips. Or am I drooling because the flesh softens under the friction of my final cuts? Because perhaps it could be mutton the former postman sees. Or venison.
Meat is meat is meat.
No! I yell it to the wind and the nothing at the end of the earth. I stagger back, nearly into the fire. And now I laugh. Laugh at the fire I can’t remember building and out of what I can’t recall. Laugh at my dizzy starving insanity and my dead Russian friend.
His dead fucking feet in his dead fucking boots.
I laugh at us. All of us. You included. The demented mosaic of mankind.
His reluctant skin finally gives way. The severed legs look wrong, like they don’t fit the body I’ve sawn them from. I press them up against the stumps to reassure myself. Of course they fit. I release the breath I’ve been holding just in case.
I place them near the fire, the beautiful valenki facing me. Soon his skin begins to bubble, the sharp smell biting through the grey night. I poke the severed legs with my knife as they soften. The skin curls and crackles.
My shrunken stomach violently uncurls in lust at the smell. It feels as though I’m being torn in half. A surge of adrenalin rushes through me, screaming at me to have my meal. It floods my withered muscles, sending me into convulsions. When they end I barely have the strength to move my head.
I roll to the side and see one of the boots has worked loose.
My threadbare fingers slowly scrabble their way to it. The Russian’s lower leg slides out with surprising ease. I push it into the fire, which flares as it swallows the limb. My gut cartwheels as the leg blackens. It begs me to reach into the flames. Insists that I do.
I’ve thrown away lobster and kept the shell.
It smells like roast pork.
I focus on my prize. The precious boot is too close to the fire and I move it away so it warms but doesn’t burn. Then I move it again, and again. A matter of inches each time. Too close. Too far. The sinew in my forearm tightens with cramp, my dulled brain eventually signaling my body to save its fading energy for a more important task. The other boot.
But the Russian’s other foot likes its warm valenki boot. Loves it. I poke and pry at it with my tired knife, my tired arms. A quarter of a dead Russian is more than a match for an ex-postman; chilled to a ghost and thin as invisible. I can see the fire clearly through the transparent flesh of my withered arm.
Feebly, finally, I wrestle the shin bone free.
I drop it into the fire, almost stumbling in after it. I smile at my own slapstick. I must look hilarious dying.
But they are mine. I place the precious valenki lightly on the ground next to me. My sharp breath is scarce and sandpaper sour as I struggle to remove my old boots. They are cracked and parchment thin. Brittle. Another even contest. An eternity passes before I coax them both off.
I pull the valenki on over blackfrost feet. The stories were true. They are much warmer than ours. Heavenly.
But one of them bites. There is something sharp inside. I tip out a heart shaped pendant and slip the boot back on.
I unfold the small locket. The Russian’s wife and daughter look back at me.
His bride glares at me accusingly as her husband’s legs bubble like pork in the fire.
But his daughter smiles sadly, pitying me as I stand shakily in her father’s boots.
They stare at me and I stare back. In this place only God looks away.
My stomach roars and shrieks. It demands that I fill it. Begs me to.
You will, you will, you will. You will. You will. It is no use now. My triumph to take the Russian’s boots has taken all of me. Every last drop.
And they were wrong.
I can do nothing now but fall to the icing pepper earth. The permafrost rushes up to greet me, smashing my face to splinters. My gasps rattle out of a broken mouth, clearing a small spot on the ice of its miniature debris.
My life does not rush before my eyes. I’m much too tired for that. The shiny patch my breath creates on the ice is soothing somehow. A tiny perfect paradise in the middle of hell.
I tuck the locket into my boot and close my eyes, grateful for the young girl’s forgiveness.
At least my feet will be warm.