The old Barny

by Andrus Kivirähk

Andrus Kivirähk

Old Barny - a novel in thirty days

November 1st

Just before noon, the sun put in a brief appearance. For several weeks now, such a miracle had not taken place; since the beginning of October the weather had been grey and rainy. Now the sun peeped out  - for ten minutes or so - from behind the clouds, then the wind rose, wafted shut the tiny gap, and the sun disappeared. Sleet began to fall.
In Dog-Kaarel living-room a young man was lounging about the floor, groaning in agony, writhing in bagels on account of the dreadful pain. The women from the neighbouring farms were squatting around the sick man, stroking his head, cooling his limbs which were trembling with pain. Dog-Kaarel himself stopped his pipe with difficulty and eyed his farm hand - for it was his manservant Jaan who was the man now writhing like a snake on the floor.
“They’ve gone and killed him at the manor!” he cursed. “They’ve killed my only farm hand!”
“Can’t you lie on your back?” one of the women asked the patient.
“No, I bloody well can’t!” Manservant Jaan squeezed out from between gritted teeth, as he whimpered with pain. “It feels ghastly... As if I’m being punished from within... Perhaps I’m going to die? Oh, oh, and I’m still so young!”
“Don’t worry, you’re not going to die!” said Kaarel soothingly. “They’ve already gone for help! That fucking manor! May the plague take such swine!”
The women turned away their faces, they did not wish to see from Jaan’s expression how a human being could be so grievously tormented. Even Dog-Kaarel scratched himself and went outside into the rain. Actually, he ran neither hot nor cold in this present crisis; he was simply an unfeeling brute and had a habit of minding his own business.
“The manor has claimed another victim,” said the crippled grandmother who lived across the yard, as she sat there in the corner, into which she had staggered. Despite the soothing words of the host, it seemed that Death would soon overtake the farm hand. Death was already divesting his skeletal presence of his fur cloak out there on the porch.   
“Well, where’s the patient?” said a voice from the doorway. This was the old wise barn-keeper known in the village and beyond as Old Barny, who was expected, and not yet Death himself.  Quite an old man already, but still hale and hearty, and carrying a good-sized stick. He stepped into the room, but on seeing the farm hand shook his head.    “Where did he...” he asked.
“At the manor, no doubt!” Dog-Kaarel explained. “At the manor, where else? The manor is just trouble itself.”
“No need to go off there scoffing their nosh, if it’s really such a hotbed of trouble!” replied Old Barny. “You have to keep within limits, not go shovelling food into your gut by the spadeful. I’ve seen what you get up to in their larder, there at the manor. As if you’d never had a bite to eat in your life, and nothing but one dirty great mouth! What was it you ate then, sheephead?”
“Oh my God, oh my God!” groaned the farm hand on the floor. “Who could know for sure what it is I've eaten. Them fancy baron’s dishes have all got German names. I dunno, it’ll have been sausage and ham and then some sort of oriental sweet that smelt like roses. Never had that before, white and soft and smooth! Ate quite a lot of it, I did.”
“Smelt like roses, you say?” repeated Old Barny. “Well, what on earth did you have to go and gobble it up for, I wonder? Do you eat flowers in summer too? As if they were meat?”
“Oh, but it was fantastic...” sighed the farm hand clutching his stomach, which had begun to ache oddly, with both hands.
“Fat lot of good it was being ‘fantastic’ if you end up under the sod!” said Old Barny. “Yon oriental dessert was soap. That’s what them German barons wash themselves with. You’re not supposed to eat it! Rots your gut. The likes of you’d eat shit if it were for free.”
“But what were they doing keeping it in the larder, if you weren’t supposed to eat it?” whined the farm hand.
"They can keep things where they like, it’s their manor house and their larder. Nor does it mean you should be going around shoving everything into your gob!” said Old Barny. “You really are a fool! You’d be getting your just desserts if the Grim Reaper came along and dragged you off. Good riddance to bad rubbish, is what I say.”
“Oh don’t talk like that!” lamented Dog-Kaarel. “Where the hell would I get a new farm hand, if this one kicks the bucket, with winter coming and all? You know I’m halfway towards being destitute, as it is. Malarial shakes, some days I can’t get out of bed at all, just lie there moaning wrapped up in blankets. Who’s going to do my work on the farm if Jaan’s pushing up the daisies just before Christmas? Go on, Sander, be a good chap and tell me what I’m going to do with my farm hand. A spot of bloodletting?”
“What blood? The shithead’s got pure soap in his veins instead of blood, and he’ll fill the room with foam!” replied Old Barny. “Don’t worry, he’s not going to die. Give him something to make him to puke it up and crap it all out, then get him off to work. Don’t leave the lad there lounging about on the floor. Just ‘cos he’s daft doesn’t give him the right to skive off. Sweat the soap out, then he won’t have to go to the sauna for a few Saturdays running! That’ll save on heat!”
And casting one more withering look at the farm hand, Old Barny set off for home. Outside, it was damp and disgusting, the wind whipped up the sleet into your eyes but this weather was nothing new, it was an everyday affair, and Old Barny simply screwed up his mouth and forged on ahead. A bugaboo crossed his path, hid behind a leafless tree and gawped out from there, his eyes bulging. The old barn-keeper crossed himself in its direction.
“In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost!” he said in a practised mumble.
The bugaboo vanished in sizzle, leaving nothing but a bad smell behind.

***

When Old Barny had arrived home, the ancient goblin Joosep offered him warm gruel and asked:
“Well, what was wrong with that farm hand? Nightmares, or what?”
“Oh, what would that cockroach be doing having nightmares?” said Old Barny shrugging his shoulders. “It’s the old, old story - he went over to the manor and started tasting stuff, and gobbled up something he shouldn’t have done. He ate some soap, the daft bugger!”
“Hi-hii!” chuckled the old goblin with his toothless mouth. “People aren’t half gormless! I’ve seen them do a thing or two in my time! One day I went to bring some wheat flour to the manor and there was a family from the neighbouring village.  Father, mother and six children. They were all busy eating candles. The father was sitting on a barrel, knife in hand, cutting up wax candles as you would a loaf of bread - a good chunk for each member of his family. Funny, I thought, so I says to them: my dear good Christians, you can’t eat candles! Please stop that now, or you’ll stop up your bowels! But did they listen to Old Goblin? Did they heck. So I took my flour and went on my way. Later, I heard they’d all died from eating those candles. The Grim Reaper got a good harvest, he did! People just don’t have any sense in their heads! As I’ve always said: don’t meddle in things you don’t understand! Make yourself a goblin and let him make your mistakes for you. A goblin won’t bring no rubbish home! But nobody believes you, people think what goodies the goblin's leaving behind and they go to fetch the goods themselves. Completely daft, if you ask me!”
“Well, you can go for stuff yourself, where’s the harm in that?” countered Old Barny. “But there are limits. Even I’ve been over to the manor, out of sheer curiosity, but I’ve never had more than a glass of milk, a splash of porridge, a fistful of wheat flour... On rare occasions, a pipeful of the best German tobacco. But some of them here go straight off with the kneading trough! That’s how Imbi and Ärni managed to blow up the walls of their house after they’d whisked through with a troughful of stuff. Afterwards the wind and rain of August lashed in, and both of them ended up with aching bones, so you could cry. Old people, what do they need so much stuff for?”
“Well, they really are the limit, they’d nick the twigs pine needles out of an anthill, given half a chance!” said Joosep the Goblin with a wave of his hand. “They never live anywhere else but in other people’s barns. They’re in yours every day too, by the way.”
“Ach so! But I’ve got nothing to steal!”
“Maybe not, but they whizzed around that barn so angrily, that in the end they pulled the door clean off its hinges. I shouted after them and boxed their ears for that. But they vanished like crickets."
Old Barny had to laugh and went to the door to light his pipe. Someone was strolling past the barn, bag in hand, and greeted Sander. Old Barny recognised Hans the Overseer, a lanky young man and a good friend of his. The Overseer approached and held out his hand in greeting.    “Where you off to?” asked Old Barny, opening the conversation. “In this dog’s weather.”
“Over to 't manor!” replied the Overseer. “If got unfinished business there.”
“Ho-hoh, what you selling ‘em this time?”
“Oh!” laughed Hans,“That’s a long story! Had a good day today, I have. Listen! The Baron invited me and my barn man over this morning and asked why there was so little grain in the granary. Well, I suppose he was right, really, God wit, I’ve seen with my own eyes how ten goblins have been at work at one and the same time, it’s a miracle that the poor barn’s not been cleaned right out. Oskar then explained to the master that it was mice, big Estonian mice. Lots of them this autumn and they’re horribly hungry. Come indoors from the fields, they do, and eat what they can find. The Baron was peeved at that, and asked if there wasn’t something you could do to stop these mice. And it suddenly struck me that there was, so I said to the master that if he were to give me a little money, I’d buy a cat! Barn-Oskar’s face went quite pale, so annoyed was he that he hadn’t thought of it before me, ‘cos otherwise he’s the first to do a spot of stealing and conning the master. But the Baron agreed and gave me a little silver and ordered me to get a cat for the barn that very evening. And I’ve now gone and got one. The master won’t half be pleased!”
“And where did you happen to find a cat?” asked Old Barny.
“I sort of asked Ella the Witch! There are plenty hanging around her place,” explained Hans. “Today really was a good day - a handful of silver for doing damn all! Barn-Oskar was livid, went straight off to the pub. And what’s new with you?”
Old Barny told the Overseer about the farm hand Jaan and his soap-eating adventure. Hans wrinkled up his nose.
“It’s our fault, us Estonians, that there are so many thickos around. The likes of them put our people to shame,” he said. “Being as daft as a brush is a bad business. One shouldn’t go overboard with this stealing business. Take Barn-Oskar, for example… You sometimes have to marvel at just how mean people can actually be.”
They said goodbye and the Overseer strolled on in the direction of the manor, a mewing cat in his bag.
The short spell of daylight had come to a close, dusk was at hand like a groom at a wedding throwing his weight around. There were no stars to be seen, nor was the moon visible, just the odd firetailed goblin and a few thieving creatures rushed across the sky, a bag of swag between their teeth. Now and again, one of them would yell and be extinguished. This meant that his master had caught up with the thief and struck his left foot thrice on the ground, whereupon the goblin would fall with a clatter out of the sky.
You always had to be watchful that no one started laying his hands on your store of things, only the people of the distantly lit up manor house were gormless and didn’t know any tricks for getting rid of ticks and goblins, which meant they were plundered without mercy. But all this meant was that they went and bought new stuff from Germany, and this source never dried up, just as Lake Peipsi never empties, whether you use a bucket or a scoop.
Old Barny put out his pipe and went back inside. The November evening grew dark and slipped imperceptibly over into night.


Translated by Eric Dickens