The Death Inspector General's Report by Irene Zabytko
This is not a very smart boy. Stupid really—pockmarked and hungry. I could barely get two straight words out of his mumbling mouth.
Reminds me of that other filthy- haired vagabond I had my man Grusha chase yesterday. That rag-tagged little snipe leaning on his crutch begging outside my building. A government building! What has the world come to when the rabble believe they have a right to beg there? I see old women and their chickens, and Gypsies and filthy boys all in rags and muck with their greasy hands out every day. Please, please, please. Give, give, give. It’s those liberals—those intellectuals that gave them that idea! Next thing you know, they’ll be stealing the coats off our backs.
But the one I couldn’t stand most out all of that rancid mob was the boy with his wretched, annoying crutch. The nerve of that little snot—after begging on the front steps of my office, he followed me home last night. There he was--a blight on my doorway. How he got there so quickly on that crutch I don’t know. Scared me out of my senses, hobbling there on my stairs, his filthy palm waiting for a coin. He smelled worse than horse manure. Smelled as bad as this boy Semyon and the little corpse he is pointing at.
This boy here--Semyon –no crutch, but has a bit of a limp. I noticed that his right knee collapses and retracts when I question him on what happened to the deceased. I can’t help noticing such particulars even in serfs. I have quite the eye for such details.
The boy mumbles. Speaks a broken Russian—ah, it’s Little Russian I think. My wife is half that, and her insufferable relations all talk in that dialect I find so incomprehensible. I will not allow it in my house. Of course when we go to Poltava for the trout fishing, then I cannot stop their jabbering. One thing about the Little Russians--their music is better. I’ll give them that. They have songs and melodies with more pep and vigor than we do. I am a full-toned baritone and I can mouth their lyrics well enough because it’s usually about threshing wheat, or magic flowers, or chasing wenches and breaking their hearts. “Why Vasily Vasilievich,” the women chirp especially that Tamara, my wife’s half sister. Quite a lusty girl. “Why Vasily Vasilievich, you sing like a stag!” Silly folk saying that is, but I know what they mean. Means I have a manly voice! I do. Watch me yell at that boy.
“You! Tell me again what happened in simple Russian. Simple Russian for a Little Russian simpleton. Understand? Now, he was your master? Is that correct? Speak up!”
“Yes, sir,” the wretch says. I believe he is crying. I hate that.
“Stop that now. How old are you?’
“When I was fourteen, I never cried. Not allowed! I was already being groomed for government work as an apprentice to a well respected titular councilor. Look at me now-- I am the Inspector General. The top of the line.” Actually, the “General” part is a joke my chief made one day in front of the entire office, and he thought it was so damn funny, and everyone busted a gut laughing, so it stuck. Something to do with a play. I don’t care. I like the way it sounds and it looks official on my documents, and nobody complains. In fact, everyone I inspect—that is, the families of the deceased-- are awed by it. Sometimes I will sign my title as the “Death Inspector General, First Class,” but only for royalty. Not necessary today.
I look over to the corpse. Still on the bed. A handsome bed. A beautiful room. Much to admire in this home. More like a dacha. These counts live well. I know the owner of this house--Count Oleksander Tolstoy. I knew him when he was the Provincial Governor of Ostend and I was an officer in training. Of course his highness wouldn’t remember me. I am not allowed to see him yet although I’ve been here well over an hour. He is not to be disturbed I was told. His highness is at prayer! Prayer! This was the same Tolstoy I saw at public houses when he should have been at vespers. What a prig! We officers had curfews and were treated like bandits under arrest because of his tyranny, and I was thrown out of the military because of him. Meanwhile, the Apostle, as we dubbed him, was out and about wooing three women that we knew about, one being the priest’s wife who must’ve been at least twenty years older than he was, and three times as big.
We’ll see if he remembers me when we meet. I won’t bring up anything he doesn’t want to remember. It would only delay my time here and I want to wrap up this report and then get on to some whist tonight. My wife’s idea, although I rather like these people who are coming for dinner…
This is the part of my job I so dislike.
The body smells of camphor or something medicinal and a peasant flaxen sheet is pulled over his face. At first, I thought it was a child because the body was so small, but no—this is indeed a full grown man. He looks gnome-like, with a height of four feet if that. An ugly man in death with a long, very long nose that almost touches the tip of his upturned chin. On the wall reflected by the candles, his face has the silhouette of a cradle. Odd. He is pockmarked too, although those were craters on his sunken cheeks look recent. His moustache is very straggly and brittle from old wax. His chin is sprouting a miserable beard. His eyes are closed, thank goodness, but I opened one to record any oddity. The eye looked quite alive as though it had it had a secret. I have seen such eyes before –one was a magician’s and the other a defrocked priest’s. What was his eye telling me? It seemed to want to wink, but I dropped back the lid and proceeded to note the other details I found interesting: brown stringy hair, a caved-in chest, and horrible ribs as thin as icicles.
From the welts on his face I believe leeches were hung on that sorrowful nose. Leech welts everywhere. Everywhere! It made me cringe to think of it, but I continued my inspection. The boy was watching me.
I prodded around and found that a loaf of bread was still propped beneath his clawed feet. Bread, leeches! I see them all the time. We have so many strange cures in Russia. I have seen hot loaves of bread pressed against bodies in the most unholy of ways. Sometimes coal, but a hot loaf can sear you just as badly. If a person is not already dying, these cures will surely kill him. I suspect that’s what happened to this puppet of a man.
Those nails were not clipped in weeks and his toes were blue—that familiar grayish-blue of death. I told the boy to remove the bread, but it took the two of us to dislodge the thing. The little dead man had the grip of an eagle with those blue talons.
“Don’t eat it,” I told the boy. “Throw it away.” Of course I didn’t believe he would. I returned to the drawing room and sat at the large desk to begin my report. I called for the boy who took his time coming and when he did, he was holding a silver hair brush. Disgusting! He was brushing the dead man’s hair.
“Come here!” I said. “Stand straight. All right, you. Who is this man, when did he die and did you – (pointing my pen jib at the snipe for great effect)--did you have anything to do with this?”
“He is my master, Pan Mykola,” he said in a mewly voice too high pitched for his size. Tall boy. Lanky. I don’t like that size boy. That size grows too fast, eats too much. I am always finding one of his type sleeping in stables with a girl.
“He died this morning. Eight o’clock. I was told to leave him alone. After he burned his book, I brought food to him up to the last day, but he refused. He threw out the food after me and locked the door. I saw the doctors come and go. But I wasn’t allowed to be of service to him. Count Tolstoy said not to go in.”
“That’s all?” I yelled writing his stupid words on my official parchment.
“No sir,” he said.
“Sir, I mean, I mean he acted dyki…crazy. He burned his book. The book killed him.”
“His book—what book?” Oh, this was going to be a long evening I can tell.
“His big work. His masterpiece. His second book on saving Russia.”
Book. So another writer then who is saving Russia. I am sick of them. I wish Russia would save us from the writers! They cause too much trouble like that Belinksy I had to inspect a few years ago in Petersburg. Terrible looking man and still a trouble maker even in death. Another liberal. They should burn his books and send the ashes to Siberia along with his body.
Well, I must report this death in some official wording without the mewls and sobbing and Little Russian gutturals from that guttersnipe or I will never get out of here.
Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, Little Russian, Writer, died in Moscow on 21, February 1852, 8:00 a.m. of…
The boy didn’t really know, he muttered. He pressed the brush against his lips, the bristles outward with several clinging strands of dead brown hair. I shall have to ask the physicians—a bother because that will take more time, and there will be an inquest and more reports, and more inquiries and travel around this freezing city. I hate it…
He removed the brush from off his lips and like a stop gate, all these words flooded out, quicker than I could write:
“If I may, sir. I will tell you. My master was visited by the monk, Father Matvei. He came often to give my master instruction in the faith. They had a terrible visit. I heard screams, and Pan Mykola crying. I thought it was a confession so I did not listen. They were arguing all night, and praying.
“Then, my master was sad after the monk left. He was in thought. He thought a lot and I waited for his orders. I watched him write letters to his mother which I posted. When I returned, I found him in deep prayer. He must have been praying for a long time because I fell asleep. He woke me at around 3:00 in the early morning.
‘“Semyon. Is it warmer in the drawing room?”’ he asked me.
‘“Chilly, sir,”’ I answered.
‘“Give me my cloak. Let’s go. I have an important thing to do.”’
“We were here, in this room. He crossed himself, and held the candle. Then he said, ‘“Semyon, listen to me carefully. Be quiet. Don’t wake anyone. Open the flue to the stove as quickly and quietly as you can. And get my satchel from the closet.”’I gave him the bag. He took out his sheets of papers wrapped with a ribbon. His book! He put it in the stove, and lit it with the candle.
‘“Master, please, please don’t do it!” I fell on my knees. I begged him! This was his great work he was doing for years!
‘“Mind your business,”’ he said. And then he ignored me and prayed again.
“I was praying that the fire wouldn’t take. And it didn’t. Just the corners were burned. My master took it out, untied the ribbon and burned it himself page after page. He sat down and watched and waited for it to finish. Some fell away and I gathered them up and hid them from my master. Why? I don’t know.
“He cried. It was a death for him! He crossed himself, went back to his room, kissed me, and lay on the sofa and cried some more. I sat near him, about to tell him of the few pages I saved. But he turned to me and said, ‘“Semyon, some of it should’ve been burnt. Not all! But they, they ought to have prayed for me! Never mind—when I am well again from my sickness, I will put it back together again!”’
“He told me to run and find Count Tolstoy and bring him to the room. I was to wake him because my master said this was too important for sleep.
“It was hard. The Count did not like my knocking on his thick door. My knuckles were bleeding by the time His Excellency awoke, and he almost beat me. But he came once he realized that something was wrong with my master.
‘“Look at what I did,”’ my master told His Excellency. ‘“I only wanted to burn a few things I decided to burn a long time ago, and now I’ve burnt it all! You see how tricky the devil is? That’s what he made me do! And there was so much there that would have explained so much. It was the best I have ever done. From it, everyone would have understood what was obscure in my earlier writings. I was going to send it to my friends. But now—everything is lost!”’
‘“That’s a good sign,”’ His Excellency said. He was very calm. ‘“In the past you used to burn everything, and then wrote much better. So don’t think of dying now. You musn’t Nikolai Vasilievich. You of course can remember it all anyway. Can’t you?”’
“My master put his hands to his face like this. ‘“Yes. I can remember it. I can. It’s all in my head.”’ He said. He calmed down and stopped crying
‘“That’s a good man,”’ His Excellency said. He yawned. ‘“Sleep now. “’
“But my master did not sleep. All the next day, he locked himself in his rooms in his dressing gown, not seeing anyone. Every time I went in, I saw that his feet rested on a stool, his eyes open and strange. And he refused all food. I tried to feed him and he told me to go away. That started on February 13. I marked the days.”
He starved himself? Oh no! This makes it complicated. That means more paperwork. More inquiries…I will never leave tonight. I am yearning for my cognac. It is cold in here. I suppose we need to light another manuscript before we get any heat…
“I am Count Tolstoy,” Ah, that reedy voice behind me. I knew it before he entered the room.
I stood up and clicked my heels and bowed in the Russian style. “Honored, Your Excellency.” I wasn’t really, but one does these things. I told him my name and title which seemed to bore him. No recognition. No respect at all.
“What is your verdict? May we have the certificate? We must make burial plans,” he said. He didn’t sit and so neither could I.
“We must have a cause of death, Your Excellency.”
“Yes, that is why you are here.”
“But you see, if the deceased starved himself as the boy said, then we have a problem.”
He seemed ruffled by my statement, but only for a moment. This is usually about the time when I am offered a bribe for the problem to disappear.
“He suffered from all sorts of diseases,” the Count said. “Malaria, hemorrhoids. What else—stomach ailments. Couldn’t you choose the best one out of those?”
I coughed. The room was cold. Ever since he entered the room, the temperature seemed to have dropped twenty degrees. No one was lighting a fire. No one offered a brandy let alone a bribe. My stomach growled. I thought of our dinner party with that delightful young colonel and his new wife. A beauty! A terrible card player but…
It was his turn to cough.
“Well, stomach may be the most logical since he didn’t eat…,” I proposed.
“Yes, that should work,” he said turning his entire attention to the little female servant who had come in disrupting my delicate negotiations.
“Your Excellency! Your Excellency,” the little tart squeaked into his ear. He bent down far lower than he needed to. “The representatives of Moscow University are in the east room They want your permission to take the body away. To the University.”
“Why there? I won’t pay for it! Nothing but scoundrals and liberals there!” He turned to me. “Excuse me, I have pressing matters,” he said. “Make your report and we will deal with the rest.” He left the room followed by the flouncy skirts of his girl.
The boy Semyon was gone as well—into the corpse’s room no doubt shaving his chin by now I wager. I saw him sneak away as soon as that other corpse, the Count came into the room. Now he should ask me about Liberals. I know enough about them. I declared Belinsky dead, didn’t I? Liberals all look the same when they die. More sanctimonious than a priest. Royalty always look surprised when they’re dead. Scholars look inquisitive. Priests look relieved. Whores from all the classes look happy.
Where is that boy? I will need someone to move the body to the dining table. I could do it alone since the corpse barely weighs a fig, but I won’t. Better to have the undertakers lay him out. Not my job after all. Wretched boy. Wretched night.
The stove was cold. I saw a decanter of rum sitting on top of some books. It smelt fine. I wiped the glass with my handkerchief for someone had left it there a long time, and poured myself a few drops. My report will take as long as the bottle is full I decided. If I had to miss my dinner and card game and staring at the delightful bosom of the colonel’s new wife for this loathsome task, then I had better keep warm.
© Irene Zabytko 2012
Irene is the author of The Sky Unwashed (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), a novel about the Chernobyl evacuees, and the short story collection When Luba Leaves Home (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) which is based on the Ukrainian community in her Chicago neighborhood. She is currently producing, writing and co-directing a documentary about the real life Chernobyl survivors called Life In The Dead Zone and writing her next novel. The Death Inspector General's Report is an extract from a forthcoming novel.
The Death Inspector General's Report was read by Jon Sprik on November 7th 2012