I took the pot off the fire and put it on the ground. The soup steam did not mix with the campfire smoke, it rose over the pot in a separate foamy column. The dusk visitor did not move closer to the soup; he was settled firmly, apparently waiting for Andy.

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"The Knifer"

by Yuri Koval
(published in Moscow News, 1/10/2001)

In my erratic peregrinations about forever evening-darkened September fields I came across people with knives, too. The one who approached my campfire in the dusk did not have a knife on him.

"Baking taters, are you?" he asked settling himself down some distance away from the fire.

"And cooking fish soup, we are," I supplied in the plural, even though I was alone, not a companion in sight, for two hundred miles around.

"So I'm saying - fish-catchers. It's the kind of smoke to your fire - fish-catching. I said to myself, soon as I saw it from afar: Them is fish-catchers... And where's your mate now?" For some reason I did not feel like telling him the truth.

"Me mate? He's over there," I jerked my chin in the direction of the river. Some sounds were indeed drifting toward us from that side: women's voices, or was it gull shrieks? It was perfectly feasible that over there, among those voices, some mate of mine also found room for himself.

"And what's he doing, your mate? Fishing?"

"Well, no," I replied trying hard to figure out what kind of mate I might have yonder amid the distant sounds, in an effort to visualize him. "Me mate, now, he's... you know... looking for his knife."

"Is he really? Lost 'un, then?"

I don't know where I got that "mate" from and why I said that he was looking for a knife. Utter hogwash that had suddenly occurred to me. I had to give some answer, though, and the simplest answer would be to say that "my mate" had lost his knife. Oddly enough, I did not want "my mate" to lose one.

"No, no, he hasn't lost his knife," I said, waving off the smoke, and ladled out a potato from the pot. "That knife..."

I broke off, because I didn't have a clue what he might possibly be doing with that knife, this "mate" of mine. Could he be sitting on the bank whetting it on a boulder or something?

"... to him is like a new toy to a kid, something special, you know," I finished the sentence somewhat vaguely and grumpily. I was sort of annoyed with "my mate" who had got under my skin with his silly fads, and especially with his knife.

The man who had come up to my campfire read some meaning of his own into my words and edged a little closer. I did not like that. A trifle too intrusive for the late hour. My dusk visitor, thin as a shadow, did not excite any confidence or friendly feeling, to say the least. What did he want, roaming about other people's campfires?

"Yours ain't a bad knife neither," he said nodding at my bowie knife covered in silver bream scales that was lying by the fire.

"That's nothing, just a bowie," I said dismissively, to imply that my mate's knife was in a different class. Only what could he have done with it? Why was he looking for the blasted thing? Perhaps he had been throwing it? What at? A tree? What for? Was he a perfect nitwit? Could be.

But no, I did not want my mate to be the kind of nitwit who would throw knives at trees. Probably he threw his knife at a big fish that had surfaced? At a chub? And the knife was attached to a piece of string? That's better. At least it was pretty unorthodox, to have a mate who threw knives at big fish as they surfaced. I quite liked the sort.

"A bowie knife... I used to have one too..." said my dusk visitor picking up my knife and testing its blade against the pad of his thumb. "Nice an' sharp..." "Put it back."

"I ain't doing no harm. Can't a guy touch your knife?"

"No. It belongs ... to my mate."

My mythical mate seemed to be positively cluttered with knives. One he threw at chub, another was lying by the fire.

"He's got two knives, then?"

"More," I said. "I haven't counted them. Do you have one?"

"They took it away," he waved his arm forlornly.

"Took it away?"

"When they nabbed me they took it away, and I ain't had the time to get me a new one..."

Oh, super. He'd been nabbed, had he? I knew there had been something like that.

My dusk visitor was silently staring at the fire; he seemed lost in reverie about the happy times when they had not yet taken his knife away. What had he been doing with that knife, I wondered? Nothing very jolly, it seemed. I was enjoying the knife conversation less and less.

"What's he want with so many knives, your mate?"

"Andy, you mean?" I asked to make quite sure.

I felt that it was about time "my mate" was given a name. And the name emerged effortlessly - Andy. A big redhead, huge even, slightly on the bald side. He had thrown his knife at a chub and missed.

And the knife, though attached to a string, had sunk in the river, so now Andy was diving in the midstream looking for the knife. I had a clear mental picture of huge Andy diving in the middle of the slow river groping all over the bottom.

"So what's he do with them knives? Pickle them or what?" the dusk visitor sniggered for some reason.

"He throws them," I said concisely. And added by way of explanation: "At chub."

The man whose knife had been taken away fell silent musing over the method Andy might employ to throw his knife at chub. The cogitation process was hard-going, and I added to help his efforts:

"He's that sort, you know... a knifer."

The word hadn't clarified the matter much, and I took a few steps away from the fire and hollered toward the river: "Andy-y-y... Andy-y-y!"

There was no reply. The voices of women or gulls had long since ceased.

"I hope he hasn't drowned," I muttered.

"He won't, never fear," the knifeless man reassured me. "He'll be here directly."

"He'd better," I grumbled. "The fish soup is done... Okay, let it cool for a while."

I took the pot off the fire and put it on the ground. The soup steam did not mix with the campfire smoke, it rose over the pot in a separate foamy column. The dusk visitor did not move closer to the soup; he was settled firmly, apparently waiting for Andy.

"Right," I said, "it's cooling off... let's spoon up the pottage, shall we, while he's not here. We'll leave some for him." I offered a spoon to my dusk visitor.

"Go on, taste it."

"You wait for your mate, buddy," he said. Then he got up and strode away from the fire in the direction of the village.

"Hey, hold on a second. Come and taste the fish soup, there's enough for three here..."

"Nah, it's okay," he waved his hand without turning back. "I don't want any fish soup. "

Night was setting in fast, and his gaunt form was vanishing as it receded into the field. Soon I could not make him out at all. I took a sip of the soup, added some salt and a pinch of pepper. Then I walked a few paces from the fire and again yelled toward the river:

"Andy-y-y... Andy-y-y-y!"

It had grown quite dark when I heard a distant shout: