The St. Petersburg Zadushnik

30 Apr

Police Detective Sergei Dukov had learned over his years of service not to be surprised at the strangeness of many of the cases assigned to him in the great Russian capital. He was acquainted with almost every quarter of the St. Petersburg of 1896 and believed himself ready to handle any crime of violence that might come his way.

But the reports that he read on the death of an obscure merchant named Pavel Matsky were full of riddles and unanswered questions. There were no marks of attack on the fat man’s neck, yet the medical examiner suspected the occurrence of some form of smothering or asphyxiation. Was the refusal to put it down as a natural death a result of some unreasoning intuition on the part of the doctor who dealt with the corpse found in the apartment of the middle-aged businessman?

Sergei took an electric street car to the middle class neighborhood where the deceased had lived, getting off a block away from the site and walking along the sidewalk enveloped in morning fog, still thick and extremely opaque. The large investigator smiled to himself. As one born in this northern metropolis, he was used to its snow, ice, and sharp winds. It was the fog that rolled in from the western waters of the Baltic Sea that never failed to make him feel a sort of uncanny magic had fallen from the sky. Was there anywhere in the world that experienced such a dreamlike blanket of entrancing white? He wondered what the fogs of London or fantastic San Francisco might be like. They were surely not as pure or solid as those that shrouded his native St. Petersburg.

Finding the apartment building where Mr. Matsky had made his home, Sergei rang the bell of the cellar flat where the tending janitor lived and told the old man who he was. “It is important that I make a thorough search of the rooms of the late tenant,” he explained. “There are important questions about the death of this unfortunate merchant.”

“Merchant? What kind of merchant did that lazy idler claim to be?” said the superintendent of the structure. “I never saw him go to any work of any kind. What kind of a merchant was he when he spent most of his time up in his flat sleeping, reading, or drinking coffee?”

The stringy old man climbed up to the top fourth floor with the detective, unlocked the apartment door, and left him to enter and explore the rooms on his own.

Where does one begin a search of a dead man’s digs and possessions? Sergei thought that fifteen years of on-the-job experience gave him the eight guidance in this matter. He started to rove through the high mahogany writing desk in one corner of the apartment’s front parlor. There had to be something worthy of interest in one of the drawers.

Several years worth of bills and receipts indicated that Mr. Matsky was involved in the purchase and sale of expensive art objects of various kinds. Where the gentleman kept his stock was not clear at all, for it was certainly not here in this modest flat of his.

The explorer went on to a second, then a third drawer before stumbling upon a item that appeared to reveal something of immediate importance and significance. It was a personal letter from a male who wrote in the tone of an intimate, extremely close and longtime friend. Sergei found that it concerned a shared interest in the plant life of the Russian North, particularly the many forest parks and public gardens of the St. Petersburg region.

“Can you accompany me on the Sunday after this one? My plan is to take a long walk through the Nizhny and Verkny Parks out at Peterhof. We would be taking the local railroad line out to that belt of white birch forest, my friend.”

So, grinned Sergei, Pavel Matsky was something of a nature-lover, an amateur student of the trees of the North. And who was his companion going to be on this future excursion out of the city? Sergei looked at the envelope in which the latter was still kept. The name there was Lev Tremsky and the address was in the Ivanovsky area of the Nevsky District. I had better go and question this individual, the detective said to himself.

The comrade of the deceased dwelled in an old wooden house that had been broken up into separate apartments, Sergei discovered. A lot of that had occurred in recent years, the city having grown by over a quarter million new residents in just the last five or six years. The detective knocked at the entrance, hoping to find Mr. Lev Tremsky at home at midmorning. He noted that the fog had mostly lifted and evaporated.

The young man who appeared was small and thin, with a large black beard that gave him the look of an intellectual.

“Are you Lev Tremsky?” said Sergei, studying the shadowed appearance of the man’s face and eyes.

“Yes, and who might you be?” insolently replied the other.

The police detective identified himself. “I am sorry to have to inform you, for I take it you do not know this, that your friend and close acquaintance, Pavel Matsky, has very recently died. The circumstances surrounding that event have not been too clear and I am now in the process of looking into the manner in which he lost his life. May I come in and speak with you about this tragic matter?”

Tremsky, without a word, stepped back to allow him to enter, then closed the door behind his unexpected visitor. He did not ask the detective to sit down anywhere.

“Have you known Pavel Matsky for a long time?” began Sergei.

“Since I first came to St. Peterburg from Pskov. That was four years ago.”

“I understand that the two of you had a shared interest in observing nature in the parks and gardens about the city.”

“Yes, that is correct. We found that we were both fascinated by the trees and vegetation of our northern forests.”

“And how did you first meet him, may I ask?”

Tremsky seemed to look away. “As I recall, we were both looking at nature guides in a book store. We began to converse about this and that, and Pavel asked if I wanted to accompany him on a Sunday excursion that he planned to make. Yes, we went together down to Gatchina to see the Zvennets Garden. It was quite enjoyable for both of us.”

“Have you ever noticed your friend suffering any illness or pain in his breathing? Did he ever complain to you about his lungs, or any shortness of his breath?”

“No. I have no recollection of anything of that nature, none at all.” Lev seemed absorbed in some thought for a few seconds. “I should tell you that in our wanderings in the forests, Pavel and I met a most interesting fellow with a wide knowledge of nature. His name is Ivan Antov, and he is the one who first interested the two of us in the activity of bird-watching. We both read a lot of the guides and books that he lent to us, and soon we became a trio dedicated to aviary observation, as it is called. He taught us how to carry out our own bird census. Yes, it was Ivan who recruited us into a hunt for some of the rarer species”

“That is interesting, because I myself have spent hours and hours in the parks and forests on the lookout for different types of birds,” confessed the investigator. “Tell me, did the three of you happen to have a specific one that you concentrated attention upon?”

Young Lev grinned with inner joy for a moment. “Yes, indeed. It was the golden oriole. The male is a brilliant yellow with dark eyes marks. It is a private, secretive bird that keeps to the highest branches of trees like the aspen, the alder, and the bird cherry, although its nest can also be found on spruce, pine, and fir. I myself have spotted a golden oriole nest on a birch tree once.”

“You appear to have learned a lot about bird-watching from this man, Mr. Tremsky. Tell me, where can I find Mr. Ivan Antov should there be a need to contact him about matters connected with the death of your common friend?”

“He lives in the suburban village of Rebatskoi, where he works in an apothecary shop. I have his address over there on my desk.” He pointed to the other side of the parlor. “I will get it for you.”

Once Lev fetched and gave it to Sergei, the detective excused himself and departed outside, where the fog had disappeared and a bright sun was illuminating the cobbled streets of St. Petersburg.

Sergei had little sleep that night, concerned whether he might be wasting his time investigating what in all probability was a natural, though unexpected death. But deep inside him something unseen impelled him to try to learn more about the small group of bird-watchers who loved to roam the parks and forests about the capital.

He decided to take an early steam tramway out from the city to Rebatskoi at the hour of summer dawn, hoping to find the man called Ivan Antov at home before leaving for work. The air outside turned out to be crystal clear, devoid of any trace of fog. The tram took him along Nevsky Prospect, into the newer industrial belt of the suburbs of St. Petersburg. The peasants aboard with him were well-dressed and well-behaved persons, on their way to industrial jobs.

From the window at which he sat, Sergei could see the government porcelain plant, a paper mill, an iron foundry, a linen factory, and a building where playing cards were printed. Riders got off at each of the scheduled stops that the vehicle made. At the end of the line at Rebatskoi, Sergei exited along with the remaining passengers.

Asking for directions from a passer-by, the detective soon found the small cottage made of brick where he had been told that Antov lived. He open the front gate and went up to the door, knocking several times before a tall, skinny man in his thirties opened it. His sleepy sky blue eyes stared at the early morning visitor, trying to judge who the stranger might be.

Sergei decided to identify himself at once with direct candor. “My name is Detective Sergei Dukov of the St. Petersburg Imperial Police. I am looking for one called Ivan Antov for questioning concerning the recent death of a man named Pavel Matsky, a close friend of his. Do you happen to be the person with whom I came to Rebatskoi to speak?” He gazed at the apothecary assistant with authoritative self-assurance in his dark brown eyes.

“I am the one you seek, sir,” meekly said the other. “What you say about Pavel is shocking news for me. I did not know about anything like that. Please step into the parlor where the two of us can talk. How was it that dear Pavel came to his end?”

Sergei said nothing until he was seated at a small, low table inside the cottage. Then he gave Ivan, still standing, a terse explanation.

“Your friend, Pavel Matsky, passed away suddenly under unusual circumstances that I am at present looking into. Our medical examiner concluded that his breathing stopped all of a sudden, without any visible or obvious cause. It is certain that the man had not been previously ill in any way. There were no marks of having been choked to death about his neck or anywhere else. There is, in my mind, a question whether his breath may have stopped because of external obstruction of some sort that suffocated the unfortunate man. The event remains unexplained, and that is why my superiors have assigned me to clearing up the confusion concerning the cause of his death.

“Yesterday, I had an interview in St. Petersburg with his friend Lev Tremsky. He informed me that together with Pavel and himself, you were a member of a trio of friends who took hikes through local forests in order to attempt seeing Golden Oriels and other rare birds. Is that so, Mr. Antov?”

The latter looked down at the uncovered wooden floor. “Yes, that is the truth. The three of us were drawn together by our deep curiosity about the world of nature that surrounds the capital. All three of us were curious to see it to the extent of our intellectual powers and abilities, sir.”

Sergei stared at the long, thin shaven face of the figure standing in front of him. How was he to handle this man who lived and worked out here in this industrial suburban village?

All at once, Ivan began to move forward, until he stood directly in front of the surprised investigator.

“You say that you have spoken with Lev Temsky, sir?”

“Yes,” muttered Sergei. “He was the one who gave me your address and told me about the outdoor activities of the three of you. I am sorry to have to deliver bad news to you, but it is obvious to me that Mr. Tremsky did not come here to inform you of what has happened to the third member of your small group. I can understand how shocking what I said was to you.”

Ivan turned his head away, to one side. “You cannot understand, because you do not know what happened the last time we were on a walk together. There occurred an unexpected quarrel, and poor Pavel quit the trio, telling us that he no longer wished to participate in hiking or bird-watching as before.”

Sergei felt a surge of excitement. “You quarreled with Matsky?” he said sharply.

“Not, it was not that way. Pavel began to argue with Lev Tremsky, not with me. I was only a bystander, that was all.”

“What did this dispute concern, may I ask?”

Ivan looked directly into the eyes of the visitor. “A minor matter, but it grew into a serious rift between the two of them. It seems that Pavel said that birds do not have souls like humans do, while Lev held that they do. It was that sort of religious or philosophical division between my two comrades. Both of them became quite bitter, though. At the end, they shouted and insulted each other.

“I recall how Lev walked away from us, appearing to be boiling and foaming with anger.” Antov frowned, making an ugly grimace. “It looked to me as if those two would never be able to reconcile in any way.”

“Did you fear that there might be some form of physical combat between them?”

All of a sudden, the long head of Ivan began to tremble from side to side. “I realized then what the truth was, what my friend in reality was. What you said about the death of Pavel only confirms what I believe that I saw.”

“I fail to understand…” murmured the perplexed detective.

“Let me explain, sir. Have you ever heard of a being called a zadushnik?”

“No, I do not believe that I have, or know what it might be,” answered Sergei in confusion.

“It has always been called a creature of Russian folklore in our Far Northern reaches, but the zadushnik actually exists. Some people say that it resembles a vampire, yet it does not drink the blood of humans. No, it is a killer that brings sudden death by swallowing the breath out of its victim. The zadushnik can suffocate a person without laying a hand on him or her. It need not touch one in any way, even mouth to mouth or with a kiss.

“The breathing of this monster is so strong and overpowering that it can suck away one’s breath at a distance of several meters and leave a body without air in its lungs, throat, or mouth. The breath is pulled out of the victim and cannot return, so the result becomes an instant stroke of death.

“A zadushnik such as Lev Tremsky is driven to kill out of an uncontrollable passion such as anger or vengeance. But the strange thing is that the creature commits the crime without having consciousness of doing it. The drawing out of another’s breath is like a reflex that the zadushnik is unconscious of being possessed by. For a brief moment, one like Lev becomes someone else, than quickly returns to their conscious, everyday identity and self.”

Ivan drew a deep sigh. “It is an uncanny phenomenon, but it is true and real. I perhaps saw it coming, but how could I have prevented what was in the cards to occur?”

After a lengthy pause, Sergei thanked Antov, excused himself, and left the cottage.

The return to St. Petersburg and the remainder of the day was like living in a dream for the police detective.

Had he heard an ages-old Russian superstition or was it credibly true? If the latter, what could he do about it? What could any human being accomplish in such a situation?

Sergei wandered along Nevsky Prospect and streets of the city center for a number of hours, gazing at the summer sun as it set over the Neva Delta and the capital. He returned to his flat and went to bed without an understandable answer in his mind. It became plain to him that he would have to confront Lev Tremsky the following morning and somehow wring out the truth.

The small, thin figure with the black beard opened the door in his sleep gown, his dark eyes tired and drowsy.

“I may have awakened you, Mr. Tremsky. Forgive me, but I came here early because I had to see you. May I come in and speak with you?”

Without a word, the young man moved out of the way and let Sergei in, closing the door behind him.

The two stood, facing each other directly.

“I talked with Ivan Antov yesterday. He told me about your group of bird-watchers and your activities out in the forests. Certain questions came up that you perhaps have the answers to.” Sergei stared into the face of the rapidly awakening Lev Tremsky, as if hunting for a trace of another identity, an invisible one.

All at once, the police detective felt as if he had skipped a breath without taking it. He sensed some kind of interference into the automatic systems within his mind and body. Could it be…?

As he fell to the floor of the flat, did Sergei Dukov realize that a zadushnik had stolen away his breath and it would never return to him again?

Did he know that it was too late to prevent the creature from turning him into its second corpse?

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