Content warnings: mild body horror

The morning after his seventy-fourth birthday, Iosif Stolyarenko woke up dead. He found this somewhat inconvenient, as he had not planned to die. He had planned instead to wake up precisely at dawn, hobble towards his radio-set, and howl for his grandson to prepare his morning tea (taken black), as the arthritis had long ago rendered him incapable of operating his Kashmiri kettle. This was his routine. From there he would hobble through the village market howling at strangers about his hatred of stairs, or the discourtesy of the sun's glare, or else about how everyone in the old Imperial army would be walking around with faces full of shrapnel were it not for him, spitting out chunks of metal into their morning porridge.

"Egads," they'd supposedly say. "Praise be to Stolyarenko, glorious carpenter, temporary saviour of the empire!"

The old man had spent most of his twenty-year retirement pontificating about such escapades. His favourite unsolicited story was that of Galicia, where in a single day he fashioned a barricade over two hundred yardsticks high, a trench two hundred yardsticks deep, and an inter-continental ballistic missile only two yardsticks wide (despite the obvious anachronism). This he would say while popping tobacco snuff on his porch and petting his darling Anastasia—a whimpering, tumour-stricken terrier named after his late wife, which he insisted on keeping alive despite its myriad sufferings.

The task of caring for Stolyarenko fell unfortunately upon his grandson, Gregor, as his daughter, Ivanka, was too old herself to look after him. Even if she had retained some vitality into her middle age (which she hadn't, on account of the pneumonia), she would not have lifted a finger.

"Bless your babushka's wandering soul," she'd say to Gregor, "when I was a babe, that man never once cleaned my crap. I will not clean his now."

In an effort to pass on his duties, Gregor sought out caretaker after caretaker from the village, each demanding a higher wage than the last. It was all for nought, however, as none could long bear the affliction that was Solyarenko. The man himself, notorious for his thrift, could likewise not bear the expense of burdening a stranger with his care when he could easily burden his family for free. In his day, he often said, working women expected no more than a handful of rubles and a slap on the bum. Gregor asked for neither. Unable to bear the squalor of communal housing in St. Petersburg, Gregor had no choice but to accept no more than the musty childhood bedroom he once called his own.

This was the duty of a grandson, and he expected nothing of it. He would wake before dawn to change the station on Stolyarenko's radio, or clean the dog's various fluids, and he would do so with no hope of recognition, nor promise of a government-mandated inheritance.

"Like the Tsars and Pharaohs before him," Gregor thought (often in tears), "my dedushka will carry what little he owns into eternity. He will see his home decay and his meagre horde burn before ever acquiescing to the grave or the state."

The only foolish dream Gregor and his mother allowed themselves was that one day he would die, as all men do in their time. Like an old-growth tree, Stolyarenko was girthier and more grizzled than any man had any right to be, and so—when the village doctor revealed that their unbeloved dedushka was just as cancerous as his beloved dog—they awoke each morning in anticipation of his felling.

Stolyarenko, however, was not as keen on the idea of his death. He had already sacrificed so much: his youth, his dreams, his hands. All upon the altar of a long-dead nation. He had earned the right to sit on his money and do absolutely nothing of consequence.

And so, on the morning the cancer finally took him, Stolyarenko simply decided he would not go. His heart had stopped, but his will beat stronger, and it drove him to continue with his daily routine of news shows and loose-leaf tea, death be damned.

When Gregor finally entered the parlour sometime later, he found his dedushka. The old man was nestled in his favourite recliner, radio in his lap, almost unequivocally dead. His terrier, Anastasia, had already begun stripping the flesh from his heel as he stared into space, pale and indifferent. At this Gregor felt a strange tug in his heart. A feeling he could not describe. It was, however, soon replaced with the very recognisable feeling of disappointment, as he noticed Stolyarenko's hand still fiddling with the knobs on the radio. As if sensing the presence of his favourite grandson, the corpse turned his head, cracked his lips with a smile, and expectantly raised an empty porcelain teacup. After a beat, he thumped his fist against his chest and spat out a murky chunk of his own black lung, which landed very neatly inside the glass.

How rude, Gregor thought.

After waking his mother, the two absconded to the kitchen for hugs and a brief discussion of strategy. There they ruled that, while their dedushka was free to ignore his own death, he was, nevertheless, still dead. In the eyes of both God and the state, they had no moral or legal obligation to entertain his delusions. And so they decided to believe that Stolyarenko had passed peacefully during his sleep, and they would go about their lives as if it were really true.

To start, Gregor's mother covered every mirror in the house—a traditional funerary practice. She was not a superstitious person by nature, but it was well known in those days that after a death, the first to see themselves reflected in a mirror would be the next to die. And so Ivanka went carefully from room to room with a dishrag over her eyes and tablecloths in her arms. This she did not for herself, but for her son, who did not believe in the old magic.

Befitting his personality, Gregor gave himself a far more practical task: grappling the great rotting heartwood that was his dedushka. By then the old man's head had taken on a bluish hue as the remainder of his blood settled into his lower abdomen, but this did little for his hot-headed nature. After rising from his recliner and adjusting his suspenders, he swung his arms wildly at Gregor, who struggled in vain to push his grandfather in the direction of the morgue.

"Deda, please!" Gregor said as the old man assumed a squatting position. "Why can you not be decent?"

Ultimately, Stolyarenko would not be felled. He outmatched his progeny in both military training and sheer girth. He was thus free to go about his daily death with reckless abandon, spreading pestilence in everything he touched.

He went for his Tuesday bath in the nearby spring and contaminated the village water supply.

He fed his toes to pigeons in the park while polishing cataracts from his enucleated eyes.

He remedied the lack of available seats at the local kabak by burping a torrent of methane gas in the direction of his favourite booth.

And finally, he examined the artisan cheeses at the local food market by hand, holding each truckle towards the light at various angles, and then returned some days later to buy them all on discount, as the resulting mould seemed to bother him very little.

For many days it was like this, Stolyarenko happily hacking his lungs into the street and walking ever lighter with each rib fed to his terrier. In many ways, he came to see death as a new kind of life. No longer did he have to endure the endless tonics from dear Gregor, as he was now incapable of digesting them. No longer did his joints ache, as his nerves felt no sensation of any kind.

Gregor's life, however, was remarkably unchanged. He had wasted much of his twenties reluctantly doting upon Stolyarenko, and now he found himself doting still, wiping up bile and stray teeth so the man could continue berating farm kids without inconvenience. If Gregor could not convince his grandfather to go, he thought, perhaps someone else could.

The village doctor, to his credit, admitted that Stolyarenko's current state was very untoward and that he was, indeed, dead. "However," he said, "with his army pension, I see absolutely no reason he shouldn't live a long and happy afterlife." He then got out his pen and scribbled a referral to the local embalmer, along with a prescription for a bottle of formaldehyde. "To be applied topically," the doctor said, nodding solemnly.

At this prospect, Gregor and his mother were particularly aghast. They felt, reasonably, that people who have died should at least have the decency to decay. Carrion should not carry on in such a manner. And so they ran to the switchboards for help, telephoning the local soviet, the magistrate, the militsiya—anyone of importance.

Stolyarenko knew all such men from his army days, however, and delighted in the realization that many of them were dead as well, and impeccably embalmed. Together they pretended to drink black tea (as they could no longer digest it) and reminisced about all the men in their company who likewise refused to die, even under direct orders to do so.

They instructed Gregor to pour the wasted tea into the garden, and as Gregor did so, it struck him that so much of the pestilence of the world could be explained by the simple fact of these dead men. Those who told him what to do and who to love. When he died he would take his place among them, and together they would go on and on, hobbling over the old decay with boney stumps.

Rot upon rot.

It was fortuitous, then, that on the fortieth day—the day of his embalming appointment—Stolyarenko found himself unable to arise from his bed due to the remarkably late onset of rigor mortis. All through the house his familiar moans rang until, finally, Gregor was at his side.

"Carry me," he said.

Gregor stared blankly at his grandfather's shattered visage. The old man quickly turned toward his daughter, Ivanka, who was still very much recovering from her pneumonia.

"Carry me," he said. "It will take the both of you."

At this Gregor wordlessly left the room, only to return a moment later stringing the garden hose along behind him. With this he blasted the old man with a torrent of water, starting from his waist, until all the remaining flesh had been stripped from his legs. Amid Stolyarenko's groans and his mother's protests, Gregor yanked a thick white tablecloth from the closest mirror, wrapped it around his grandfather, and secured him with a belt.

Dedushka was finally light enough to be carried alone, Gregor thought. And so he would carry him. Not to the embalmers, but down the street to the Orthodox Church.

There the priest was quite aghast at their putrefying patriarch. Not for the fact of his death, but for the impropriety of it. And so Stolyarenko received a lecture on his Christian responsibility to properly die.

"How else will you be resurrected?" the priest said.

When he bent over to better shame the dedushka for his sinful use of language, the old man seized the opportunity to kick the priest in the mouth with his bare skeleton leg. For this heresy, the holy man ran off to alert the local bishop while shouting verses from Revelation.

Thus Gregor took it upon himself to grab a spade from behind the altar and dig a hole in the corner of the church graveyard. It faced east, toward the rising sun. His mother prepared a funerary dish of boiled wheat and fruits, which they ate in silence after setting the cadaver in the grave. Far too much had been said about their dearly undeparted over the past several weeks, they reasoned; the screams now issuing from his grave would be eulogy enough.

Ivanka left soon after eating, as she was unable to help with the internment and unwilling to watch idly as her son buried her father. Anastasia also needed to be fed, and she felt it was only right for the dog to partake of the wheat as well. This left Gregor to carry out the last rites alone. As he shoveled clumps of dirt back into the hole, he muttered something about dust and ashes.

"Open wide, O earth, and receive him that was fashioned from thee."

Once the cries were muffled and the ground reasonably level, Gregor made the sign of the cross and produced a pot of consecrated black tea. With this he anointed his grandfather's new tomb, saturating the loose soil with darkness.

For many days and months did Dedushka Stolyarenko lie within the earth contemplating his new place in the totality of things. When he awoke in the morning, he heard nothing. When he slept at night, he saw nothing. In truth, his eyes had rotted through his sockets some time ago, but on account of the darkness, he had little way of knowing. While he was not entirely happy with his predicament, the consistency of his days soon became a comfort, as they were his comfort before. As the years went by he melted away into the surrounding soil, tendrils of him growing out in all directions, giving forth to new life. It was good to not be bothered, he thought. It was good to once again be of use.

On the morning of the arbitration for his grandfather's estate, Gregor awoke precisely at dawn, just as he always had—stirred not by the blare of the radio or the whine of the kettle, but by the sound of absence. The stillness of morning.

He did not fall back asleep.

Trenton McNulty is an emerging writer, artist, and narrative designer with a love for speculative fiction. He is a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo, where he studied English Literature and Creative Writing. While he’s published work on Harry Potter’s death-mirror symbolism in Mythlore, a journal of fantasy scholarship, this is his first published work of fiction. He’s currently hard at work on his quarantine-born dream project: ROSETIA, a science fiction role-playing game about first contact with a race of tree-hugging turtles. Moral conundrums ensue. You can follow his work on Instagram @terrulean.