Short fiction horror story: “Malysh” by Emily M. Clarke
When I read “Malysh” by Emily Clarke, a first-year student in the Honours Bachelor of Creative Writing & Publishing, I was immediately struck by the number of difficult techniques Emily had pulled off, while making it all look effortless. In just a few stark details, Emily provides a fully developed world. The characters are complex and sympathetic, which makes this story stand out, because often stories set within horrifying realities can easily tip into caricature. Last, I was so impressed by how economical Emily’s plot is. A seemingly small opening detail that looks to be just a fluorish — Torvald’s desire to be useful — returns at the end of the story to seal everything up with grim meaning. Amazing!
— Prof. Thea Lim, Introduction to Creative Writing
Emily M. Clarke
As he did every day, Tolya Ustinovich stumbled through the streets, looking for something to eat. Tolya was hungry. The comforting feeling of food sloshing about in his stomach was no longer familiar, and hadn’t been in a very long time. His beautiful city was now falling to pieces. Enemy soldiers had besieged the city months ago, and now food was growing scarcer every day.
Tolya was an old, sick man. He had wanted to enlist alongside the other men from Stalingrad and go to war against the enemy, but that was not to be. Great Russia’s military had deemed him much too weak to be of any use to the troops and concluded that he was not worth wasting the time and supplies on. As such, he was left like trash behind in the city; left to starve with all the woman, children, and infirm waiting for the siege to end.
Tolya knew in his heart that the military was right to find him useless. He knew that those left in town said about him as he made his daily walk through the city’s main square.
“Look at him,” they’d say. “Look at that pathetic old man scavenging for scraps of food. I’m out here trying to find food for my children. He only has himself to feed. I wish he’d just die already. Leave more for the rest of us.”
Then another would chime in. “He’s a coward. If he were a real man, he’d be with the brave men of this city right now, fighting for our freedom.”
At first, the townspeople whispered it to themselves. But after months under siege, they stopped trying to hide their harsh words about Tolya from him. Now they spoke loudly and confidently. When people are starving, they no longer care about niceties or politeness, Tolya reckoned.
That day, behind a burnt-out shop that had been looted at the beginning of the siege, Tolya found half a discarded shoe and a slip of paper covered in mud. He hungrily devoured them both. The shop was just out of sight of the city square, at the far end of an alley, so he hoped that those in the town square wouldn’t see his meal. Without doubt, they would insult him for eating while they continued to starve, but that wasn’t what worried him. People get violent when they’re hungry, and they see someone else with food.
Tolya kept his head down and walked past the gossipers and towards his home. He lived in a four-room boarding house that had seen better days. Like most buildings in town, it had taken significant damage throughout the war and siege. As Tolya neared the door, he hopped over a piece of debris that had once been part of the building’s roof that nobody could be bothered to clear away.
“Good morning,” came a voice. Tolya looked to Yeketerina, walking towards his side. He hadn’t noticed his neighbour until she spoke.
“Good morning,” Tolya replied. He bowed his head down again.
Yeketerina, about fifty years Tolya’s junior, had been a beautiful young woman before the war. When the war began, her husband had proudly enlisted with the other men in town to fight, leaving Yeketerina alone and pregnant. He was killed in action just before the siege began. The grief and stress took its toll on Yeketerina’s body. Her beauty wasted away, like everything else in the town did. She had delivered her son alone, in her room in the boarding house. Tolya had heard her screams the night she gave birth, but had ignored it.
Despite everything that she’d been through, Yeketerina always had a smile on her face and a greeting for her neighbours. “Just arriving home now?” Yeketerina asked.
“Yeah,” Tolya said curtly.
“Did you have a nice time out?”
“Mmm,” Tolya grunted. A baby wailed. Tolya glanced over at Yeketerina. He hadn’t noticed the tattered blanket she was holding. Wrapped within the ragged cloth was an infant, Pyotr Volkov, named for the father he never met.
“Hush, my baby boy. Hush, my malysh.” Yeketerina cooed at the child. While she was distracted by her baby, Tolya took the opportunity to brush away from his neighbour. He moved past the doorway, through the small, creaky hallway and retreated into his room in the boarding house. “Good da—” Yeketerina called to Tolya, but he had already shut his door.
Tolya’s room was dark. It contained no furniture except for a horrid-smelling straw bed. He had pawned all his furniture for food after the siege began. More than once, he had considered eating his straw bed, but could not part with the one belonging he had left besides the decaying clothes on his back. Tolya sat on his bed. He felt his stomach rumbling. Everything in his body ached.
Food. Food. Food. It was all Tolya could think of. Not just at that moment, but at every moment of his life since the rations ran out. I need food. Real food. Not shoes and paper.
Pyotr cried out from the Yeketerina’s room.
I need meat. A horrid thought creeped into Tolya’s mind. Pyotr cried out again. The baby.
No, no not that. It’s horrible. It’s unthinkable.
Pyotr wailed again.
No. I shouldn’t do it. I won’t do it.
Still, he’d be easy to grab. He’s helpless. And Yeketerina might even be happy to not have another mouth to feed.
Tolya closed his eyes and pictured the baby roasting on a spit. The delicious aroma of fresh meat. It would be intoxicating, refreshing. Drool trickled down Tolya’s mouth. He needed it. Everybody in town needed it.
Imagine what the people in town would say if I brought them fresh meat. Savory, wonderful meat. They’d love me. I won’t be useless anymore.
His mind was made up. Tonight, he was having meat.
Tolya waited for Yeketerina to lull her son into a nap. He could hear her cooing to the child from his bedroom. When he heard Yeketerina’s door open and close, Tolya peeked through a hole in the wall and watched as she walked down the hallway and out of the boarding house, trowel in hand. Before the war, Yeketerina had planted a garden outside of the boarding house. It was one of the first things plundered when the food ran out, but still she diligently dug in it every day with the faintest hope of finding seeds or roots to eat. The baby was left alone.
Once Tolya knew she was outside, he whisked himself into Yeketerina’s room. The doorknob didn’t have a lock—those were an expensive luxury—so Tolya made his way inside with ease. Tolya crept up to the rickety wooden crib pressed into a corner. Tolya hesitated, but his mouth watered. Temptation took over and he snatched up the baby. The infant awoke with a start and wailed.
Tolya clutched the baby’s waist with one hand and leg with another. He raised the child above his head. He pictured himself smashing the infant’s head down into the crib railing. Basing it over and over until there was nothing but pulp left. Blood and brain tissue splatted everywhere. Then he’d bring the body to the town square and cook the boy. He would bring the townspeople the first meat they’ve had in months. He closed his eyes and motioned to slam the baby headfirst into the crib.
Yeketerina plunged the trowel into Tolya’s skull. His eyes rolled back in his head. Yeketerina lunged for her arms and took her still-crying child into her arms as Tolya collapsed to the ground. Yeketerina looked away to comfort her child, unable to watch as Tolya’s badly bleeding body twitched. After a moment, he stopped moving. He was dead.
The baby’s screams attracted the townspeople. They found Yeketerina, stunned, standing over the old man’s body. The townspeople dragged Tolya’s remains to the town square, with a blank-faced Yeketerina following. They started a fire and set the body to roast.
Tolya had provided them the first meat they’ve had in months. He was very useful.