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The Path through the Graveyard

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Ivan was a timid little man---so timid that the villages called him "Pigeon" or mocked him with the title "Ivan the Terrible."

Every night Ivan stopped in at the tavern(酒馆,客栈) which was one the edge of the village graveyard. Ivan never crossed the graveyard to get to his lonely shack on the other side. That path would save many minutes, but he had never taken it---not even in the full light of noon.

Late one winter's night, when bitter wind and snow beat against the tavern, customers took up the familiar mockery(嘲弄,笑柄) . Ivan's mother was scared by a canary(金丝雀) when she carried him in her womb. "Ivan the Terrible---Ivan the Timid One."

Ivan's weak protest only encouraged them, and they jeered(嘲笑) cruelly when the Cossack captain flung his horrid challenge at their victim.

"You are a pigeon, Ivan. You'll walk around the graveyard in this cold---but you dare not cross it." Ivan murmured, "The graveyard is nothing to cross, Captain. It is nothing but earth, like all the other earth."

The captain cried, "A challenge, then! Cross the graveyard tonight, Ivan, and I'll give you five rubles---five gold rubles!"

Perhaps it was the vodka. Perhaps it was the temptation of the five gold rubles. No one knew why. Ivan, moistening his lips, said suddenly: "Yes, Captain, I'll cross the graveyard." The tavern echoed with their disbelief. The captain winked to the men and unbuckled his sword.

"Here, Ivan. When you get to the center of the graveyard, in front of the biggest tomb, stick the sword into the ground. In the morning we shall go there. If the sword is in the ground---five rubles to you!" Ivan took the sword. The men drank a toast: "To Ivan the Terrible!" They roared laughing.

The wind howled around Ivan as he closed the door of the tavern behind him. The cold was knife-sharp. He buttoned his long coat and crossed the dirt road. He could hear the captain's voice, louder than the rest, yelling after him, "Five rubles, pigeon! If you live!"

Ivan pushed the graveyard gate open. He walked fast. "Earth, just earth… just like any other earth." But the darkness was a massive dread.

"Five gold rubles…" The wind was cruel and the sword was like ice in his hands. Ivan shivered under the long, thick coat and broke into a limping run.

He stopped the large tomb. He must have sobbed---that was the sound that was drowned in the wind. And he kneeled, cold and terrified, and drove the sword through the crust into the hard ground. With all his strength, he pushed it down to the hilt. It was done. The graveyard… the challenge… five gold rubles.

Ivan started to rise from his knees. But he could not move. Something gripped him in an unyielding hold. Ivan tugged and lurched and pulled---gasping in his panic, shaken by a horrible fear. He cried out in terror, then made senseless, gurgling noises.

They found Ivan, next morning on the ground in front of the tomb that was in the center of the graveyard. He was frozen to death. The look on his face was not that of a frozen man, but of a man killed by some nameless horror.

And the captain's sword was in the ground where Ivan had pounded it---through the dragging folds of his long coat.


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