There was once a man named Volkavich who had a foul temper. He beat his servants, his wife, and his son, never caring which, so far as they were near enough within reach. His anger would come upon him much as a temper comes over a child. But as he was a large man, formidable in strength and prone to displeasure, these tempers were horrible to all those around him.
It happened that he had a loyal servant named Orin, whom he had taken in one cold winter on the whim of a moment, when he had thought it might do good for his soul. Orin was a young man, very plain, and when no other could calm his master, it was custom for the family or the other servants to send him. It seemed he stilled the master’s ire by simply going about his business, but in those moment Volkavich thought about how he was not a good man, and yet how he had done one good deed and that was to rescue Orin that winter’s night.
But, as is too often the case when mortals let their tempers fly, it inevitably happened that one night Volkavich was in his study and in a foul mood and Orin was close by preparing tea, and Volkavich struck his servant and the tea was spilled all over the hearth rug.
“Apologies, sir,” said Orin, as if only his carelessness had dropped the tea. “I will clean it up immediately.” He had a habit of saying what he would do before he did it, so as not to startle a rage out of his master. He immediately fetched a bucket and scrub brush, and he set to scrubbing both the rug and the floor, toweling up the water so as not to damage the boards. The scrub brush hissed against the hearth rug and the floorboards: brush-brush-brush, soft and steady.
But Volkavich’s temper was not yet satisfied. So annoyed was he at this interruption to his evening ritual, and so irritated at the simple necessity of the hard brush bristles scrubbing at his floor, that he took up the iron by the fireplace and with it began beating his servant over the hearthstone. He called the man all manner of terrible names and heaped insult upon insult and blow upon blow on him.
There is no kind way to say it, but that beating in the end cost Orin his life and left a horrible bloodstain on the hearth rug and the floor around it for days afterward, so that no one would go into the study. Orin’s wretched body was taken away and buried by strangers.
As this was the first time a man had died from the master’s blows, the household of Volkavich was in a fit. The wife took her son and went to live with her mother. The servants one by one found new employment. Those left behind shuddered and lost all sleep at the thought of how angry these losses made their master. Gradually, and good for them, Volkavich was left behind and the house became very, very quiet.
For some time, Volkavich was at a loss how to remedy this. He went about his business simply because he had no other thing to do. It seemed at first that he might manage, but it soon became evident that with none to clear ashes from the hearth or cook his food, and none to launder his clothing or lay out his suit for the morning, he was gradually becoming less and less a competent person, and his place of employment noted this askance.
Volkavich was distractable. He tore off his suit one evening and said, “Let it be taken care of,” and ate the last of the bread and cheese in the pantry and cried, “Let it be stocked.” He was so used to the life of a master, he indeed had no way of telling himself to do anything. Perhaps therein some morbidly curious soul might understand the source of his affliction and how by it he afflicted others. All this to say, however, Volkavich went to sleep thinking the devil couldn’t care less than he.
It was morning soon enough, and a fine one, though cold, and Volkavich woke and dressed himself at his mirror. He went to the pantry and found bread and jam and so ate it. He took up his walking stick and put on his hat and went to work. None commented on his appearance. It is a rare thing to do so when a man doesn’t look anymore like he is falling apart. The other men at his employment remarked one to another that Old Volkavich must have hired himself new servants at last.
“They must not be from these parts,” some added to one another. It became a whispered joke that day, that Volkavich had hired foreigners, as no local would stake his skin in that house.
Volkavich came home, indifferent to all of this, so used to how things had been, and he dined on a supper left ready for him, and drank from a tea service as he did every evening, and at last considered he ought to remember who was still here. He went to his study to look into his ledgers.
Turning page after page, however, he soon realized that all his affairs were out of order. His accountant had left off tending his investments. His wife had kept the private accounts and she, too, was gone and her records blank. There was none to order for the cook, and no cook to prepare what was ordered. The launderer had not been billed. No housework was accounted for.
It was nearing midnight, and Volkavich was at the end of these books of black and red ink when he noticed a strange thing about the rug in front of the hearth of the study. There was a stain on it, very dark. It spread quickly and then stopped suddenly, and the shape it made was very much the shape the blood had made beneath poor Orin the night he had been beaten into his grave.
“What is this?” said Volkavich aloud. He spoke for his own comfort, to wake himself from some delusion.
But he was answered:
“Apologies, sir,” said a voice. “I will clean it up immediately.”
The great bear of a man, Volkavich was sent shaking like a leaf. It was the voice of Orin, his servant. He could heard the brush-brush-brush, soft and steady, of a scrub brush on the floor. Brush-brush-brush, and the stain was cleared away.
Volkavich left the study and immediately locked the door. He lit every candle in the house as he hurried up the stairs. He shied away from every shadow, and he did not sleep but an hour that night.
The next morning was as before. The clothes were lain out. The shoes were shined, the hat buffed. Even his jacket was brushed. There was bread on the table fresh from the oven, and hot coffee in its carafe. Afraid, but not wanting to spend another moment in the house, Volkavich hurried to work and even forgot his cane, but by that afternoon he had convinced himself:
“My servants are having a laugh at me. This is all a game. They are coming by night to do these things, and throwing their voices and playing games with disappearing inks and who knows what else!”
And so Volkavich went home an hour early and checked every crevice and closet. Then he rang for a locksmith and had him change all the locks in one afternoon, quite the task for a single man, who was left breathless by the end of it. He was fortunate Volkavich had taken a cab into town to leave him to it, or his employer’s temper would have gotten the better of him with impatience.
Volkavich made a complaint to the police that he suspected someone had broken into his home by day. He did not mention the dusted suit or the coffee pot, not wanting the officers in any way to think his intruder kind. Instead he described a state of disarray and claimed his family was visiting his wife’s parents on holiday, and so he would be alone in the house that night.
That evening, with the police on patrol along his street and himself assured by the weight of new keys heavy in his pocket, Volkavich marched to his study with his tea. He paced and he looked out the windows. He eyed the hearth and he stirred the ashes and the hands of the clock rolled towards midnight.
At last, in defiance, he threw the cup on the floor, now convinced his servants had hoodwinked him. Had he not been in such a rage, he would have regretted it, as it belonged to his late mother’s service.
Suddenly, as before, that horrific stain appeared on the carpet amid the broken porcelain. Volkavich threw the rug back and said, “Ah hah!” and felt a right fool for it, for the stain on the flooring was also as fresh as it had been the night Orin died.
Stumbling back in fear, he cried, “Stop! Stop this at once!”
And again, the only answer to his orders was the voice of poor, beleaguered Orin, saying, “Apologies, sir. I will clean it up immediately.”
And so Volkavich was once more forced to watch the stain scrub itself away.
Had he not been so exhausted, Volkavich would not have slept that night. He did not undress, but went to bed in his clothes with every candle lit as before. He should have woken to lamps out of oil and candles burned down to stubs, but instead every wick was trimmed and every candle replaced.
Volkavich did not go to work that day, but changed quickly into a new shirt and hurried out to the church.
“I need an exorcist,” he told the priest. “There is a ghost in my home. I have locked every door and turned on every light, but each night things have moved around.”
The priest, who was aware of the kind of man Volkavich was, nevertheless took the station of his office seriously and questioned the other man calmly about his spiritual predicament. Volkavich refused to mention whom he thought was haunting him, but described in horrific detail the ever spreading bloodstain that cleaned itself.
The priest, whose name was Father Moishikh, arrived at Volkavich’s residence not long after noon and brought with him the Holy Scriptures and the Book of the Hours. In the study, the halls, and all the rooms of the house, he chanted the holy prayers and extended liturgies and did all things necessary for the vanquishing of unclean spirits. He bid the devil flee before the name of the Almighty. He invoked the Holy Trinity’s perfect union. He appealed to the Holy Mother and to all the Saints to pray on behalf of the afflicted. Volkavich followed doggedly in Father Moishikh’s steps all the while, muttering under his breath half-understood litanies from the Septuagint and the Hours and so forth, in case his second voice might add to the potency of the exorcism.
At last the rites were over and Volkavich donated a large sum to the charities Moishikh suggested and then went home, now at ease.
This time he locked the study door and went to the kitchen for supper. He sat at the cook’s breadboard, as it was bare enough now to be used as a table. And then he went to bed.
It was in the middle of the night when the candles were low that Volkavich woke and at first did not know what had awoken him. As he strained in the dark to understand it, he heard as if from another room the faint sounds of a scrub brush and sloshing water. Fear seized his limbs and despite his blankets he felt a cold dread spread over him. The candles of his room went out, and he was alone.
It seemed to him the scrubbing moved, first along one wall, then the next. At last the brush-brush-brush, soft and steady, faded down the staircase.
Volkavich did not close his eyes again that night, and did not dare move his gaze from the ceiling, for he feared what he might see going about its business in the night hours of his house.
The following morning, Volkavich fled the house without looking left or right to inspect it. He did not stop until he arrived at the safety of his workplace. His manager was in a foul mood, as he had lost time and money the day before when Volkavich, with no explanation, had not showed up for work, and the day before when Volkavich had left early. Volkavich insisted he had been ill and his bedraggled appearance served him in that respect, but most of his coworkers agreed he did not look ill so much as mad.
Volkavich returned to the priest, who assured him that all the rituals had been done in the prescribed manner, and that if Volkavich had confessed his sins he need not fear for his soul. Volkavich did not perceive any sins in need of confessing—that is, he would not even admit he had murdered his servant, only claim no control over his terrible rage. He staggered into the street and walked the lanes and alleys so long as there was daylight. He had supper at a cheap eating house and then turned his steps towards home, pushing his way, he felt, through heavy shrouds of dread hanging unseen but smothering in his path.
At a corner, he came upon an old woman with one good eye and one milky one, and when she saw him, she pointed a finger like a crooked twig and said, “Ah, there is Volkavich, but where is Volkavich’s house?” Volkavich did not know what to make of this, and so he hurried onward and locked his door the instant he arrived home. He felt accused, but he knew not of what, and assured himself the bolts would keep such troubling stares and questions out.
Again, Volkavich lit every lamp, giving extra attention to the wicks. He struck a match for his largest candles and all around the house he lit flame after flame until the whole of the residency blazed gold and hot like some terrible amalgamation of heaven and hell. Then he carried his teacup to his study, and its saucer was nearly full of tea when he set it down. He stared at it and did not dare drink it, for fear his paroxysms would spill this personal cup of trembling and Orin would appear.
The tea went cold. Just as Volkavich feared, come midnight the stain appeared on the hearth rug. With a roar of rage and terror, Volkavich snatched up the rug and threw the whole thing into the fire, where its aged fabric was quickly eaten by the flames, which smoked and popped as they devoured it. Volkavich staggered back in fear, for the stain had not gone. It still spread on the floorboards as it had on the rug. He took up the iron poker from the fireplace and stabbed it, but this had no effect. The stain merely seemed all the more like a wound, and the iron was lodged in the floor.
And the trembling voice of poor Orin said, “Apologies, sir. I will clean it up immediately.”
“No, no, let it burn!”
Volkavich clawed at the floor, grasping uselessly where he heard the brush-brush-brush, soft and steady, of the scrub brush and its unseen sopping water. Volkavich tore off his shirt and fine coat and threw these in the fire, for now these seemed to him part of some pact of service he could no longer endure.
A madness took him completely and he ran from room to room, seizing in his rage anything other he could think which the servant might attend. The fire consequently grew and grew, and soon the ashes spilled out, and his account pages, now littering the floor before his overturned desk, became traveling tinder. The aged curtains, the glued wallpaper—every part of his house was caught by hearth fire. Candles dissolved and tottered.
Volkavich did not notice the fire, such was his fear. He pulled at his own hair and stared all around him at the light and flame, fearful his eyes would fall on a ghost and yet searching still for more to burn away.
And then he saw Orin, the poor servant he had killed in untempered rage, standing at the door and shivering.
“Orin,” Volkavich demanded, “What is the matter? Why are you shivering as if you are cold? I’ve given this whole house to hell.”
“Oh, you have, master, you have,” Orin said, and wept. He stood pale and wan and blue amid the orange flame. “You have made this house a hell and so all the innocent were sprung from it, as if Christ our Lord Himself had descended with the trumpet blast.”
“It is your fault then, Orin!” Volkavich declared. “You should have gone to heaven. Instead you stayed.”
“I have stayed to scrub clean the stains you left behind, master,” said Orin. “You saved my life that cold winter and I owe a debt. Would you rather I go?”
“This house is burning,” said Volkavich. “You cannot stay.”
“How I wish it wasn’t so,” wept Orin.
“Are you so ungrateful? I’ve set you free,” boasted Volkavich. “I will go and I will leave this place and I will never think of you again.”
But the specter of Orin solemnly said, “My master, for the good you did for me, I would have cleaned the sin from your soul, for your soul is like this house and your guilt harrows you to repentance as every night you recall your unforgiving deed. But you refused to hear me and you refused to confess, so now this house burns around you, but so, too, does your mortal body.”
And with that, the weeping ghost vanished with a wail, freed from what bound him to the place of his demise. And Volkavich realized the fire was eating up the walls and the floors and the curtains, and he was left with no way out of the disaster his murderous temper had set ablaze. So by his own heavy hand, the man Volkavich died.
And who can say where he went? Not any I’d wish to meet.
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