The Otchka

Noah Weisz

On a windy autumn morning in the city of Gholàr, Par and his mother set off for the Otchka. They left their small apartment pushing and pulling a massive old cart that shuddered and groaned at every cobblestone bump. Objects bounced, straining against the ropes that tied them down—a frayed velvet armchair, a wide wooden bench, a bicycle, two mattresses, a pair of brass candlesticks, several empty picture frames. So much more. They’d been packing the cart all night. As dawn broke, Par had started tossing in pretty much everything he could find, everything he had known for all fifteen years of his life; they didn’t have time to sift any longer. The Otchka opened early. By seven o’clock all the best spots would be taken.

Neither of them said a word. Par had nothing to say, only questions no one could answer. Why do people hate us so much? Couldn’t we just wait to see if things get better? What if I assassinate Muntaro? What will it be like in Velingen?

His mom had finally found a man who would forge passports for them, for a price. Their appointment was that evening. They would have to sell everything. This should not have felt so awful; Par had known they would have to leave everything behind anyway, once they got their train tickets. But the idea of selling that armchair, where he used to sit and read books in the early morning before school and wait for the clink of the milkman delivering his jug at their door, the idea of trading it in for anything, of knowing that someone else would get to sit in it from now on—somehow, that was too much.

“Who’s going to want this old junk anyway?” Par muttered as they turned a corner.

“Consider it junk, and no one will,” said his mother. “Now hurry, it’s after seven.”

They rolled the cart faster, winding down the narrower roads leading to the outskirts. His mother’s polished heels clicked on the stones; she always dressed well, always stood proud, no matter how little money they had. No matter that they were only going to the flea market.

The Otchka came into view.

It was an enormous grassy expanse at the very edge of Gholàr, the last human thing before the red-gold forests at the base of the mountains. It was already crammed with people. Twisting row upon twisting row of people buying and selling wares, some in rickety wooden stalls, others in wagons, others on sprawling blankets on the ground. The noise was frightening—the smell, much worse. Horse manure and chickens were the least of it—the sweat of thousands of desperate people hung in the air, mingling with the thick sweetness wafting from the baskets of the grinning cherry vendor at the entrance.

Par’s stomach turned. They guided their cart through the throngs of people, scouting for an available spot.

“Dirty roach,” a voice shot at them.

Someone spat at Par. It landed on his cheek. Another man whistled at his mother.

Par spat back, as usual. Several people backed away.

Roaches. That was a term invented by President Muntaro. It meant the Tovari. The people with yellow eyes. The people who had come down from the mountains five hundred years ago, speaking a strange lilting language and worshipping unpronounceable gods, and who, Muntaro insisted, were fouling up the beautiful culture of Gholaria.

“There,” said Par’s mother.

She was pointing to a narrow patch of grass and dry leaves between two blankets. On one, an old woman was selling tarnished silverware. On the other, a young Tovari man was sitting on a stool, tuning a violin. Across from them a large man at a large stall was selling lottery tickets to a long line of hopefuls.

Par set down the wheelbarrow in the free spot. Together, he and his mom began unpacking their lives onto the grass. The old woman sat stonily on her blanket, crosslegged, ignoring them. The violinist was bending his ear so close to the strings, Par imagined there was a beetle there whispering some secret.

“Outstanding antique picture frame,” Par’s mom called out, somehow putting on a wide, bright smile, “solid mahogany, one hundred and seven years old!”

Par knew perfectly well that the frame was made of stained oak, and though it certainly looked ancient, it was probably younger than his mother.

“Satin pillow, authentic Eastern design, just fifty kriblers!”

The deep blue pillow was actually satin, and it was the fanciest thing they owned. It had been a wedding gift from Par’s father’s parents. Par had never met them. He’d never met his father either, for that matter. He’d died from a blow to the head during a vicious street brawl with a man who’d insulted the Tovari.

Par sighed. The violinist had lifted his head now and was doing something to his bow, rubbing the hairs with something that looked like chalk. Par had never been up close to a violin before. It gleamed golden-brown in the early sunlight. Probably the violinist polished it as often as Mom polished her shoes.

“Fifty kriblers for that thing?” said a middle-aged woman, approaching them. “Now that’s a roach deal if I ever saw one!”

“Good morning to you, miss,” said Par’s mother, still smiling. “It’s quite a bargain, actually. Here, feel it.”

She tried to hand the woman the pillow, but the woman recoiled.

“Don’t come near me. I wouldn’t buy that thing for a penny more than twenty-five kriblers.”

“That’s all right. I can assure you, someone else will buy it for fifty. Have a good day, miss.”

The woman paled slightly. “Thirty.”

“Forty-five and not a penny less.”

Finally, the woman reached out and stroked the pillow with a single delicate finger. “One would think,” she said, “that a desperate roach family trying to escape the country illegally would be a bit more flexible.”

Par saw his mom waver then, and he knew she was in the woman’s power. He felt like he was going to throw up. He hated everything and everyone in this city. Ever since Muntaro had been elected and started consolidating power, piling up laws against the Tovari, encouraging employers to fire them and neighbors to attack them, all Par had wanted was to find some way to fight back. He’d heard rumors of a resistance forming—underground newspapers, secret meetings, small acts of sabotage and violence. But instead, here they were, selling away his childhood piece by piece and trying to abandon the only place he’d ever known.

His mom gave the woman the pillow for thirty-five kriblers and Par closed his eyes, trying not to scream. That was when the violinist started playing.

Music bloomed in the air. It was a dark, brooding melody that seemed to contain three or four voices at once. They rose up together, soaring around each other and clashing like eagles, their talons ripping into each other, then drawing apart. Faster and faster the music beat, the eagle wings beat, and Par felt his anger meld with the music, then lift off until it was no longer part of him. The music had absorbed it. The music throbbed with it now.

Then, just as the song reached its climax, the melody slowed again. Par saw the violinist’s fingers lighten on the strings, just grazing them instead of pressing them down. The music changed instantly, as though he were suddenly playing a different instrument. Each note came out with the sound of glass—not the sound of rubbing a glass, or blowing into a glass, but glass itself, the substance transformed into sound. High-pitched, pristine, unbearably fragile, the eeriest and most beautiful sound Par had ever heard.

Then it was over.

Par blinked, coming back to himself. He was sure he had just experienced something supernatural, some real-life version of magic. Yet the Otchka still buzzed with business. People pushed and shoved. No one even seemed to have noticed the violinist.

As Par watched, the violinist took out a dirty handkerchief and wiped his forehead. Then he looked up and caught Par’s eye. Feeling stupid, Par made a clapping gesture without any sound.

The violinist grinned and raised an eyebrow, nodding toward the empty violin case lying open at his feet. Par glanced at his mom—she was talking to a young man, probably a university student, who was examining a handful of old books. Par reached into his pocket, found a handful of coins, and tossed them into the violin case. It wasn’t even half a kribler.

The violinist took an elaborate bow, still grinning. Par quickly turned away. The university student left without buying anything.

“YES!” someone cried.

Across the grassy aisle from them, at the lottery stall, a balding man was jumping in the air, practically dancing with joy, and waving an envelope. “YES YES YES!”

The old woman next to them finally opened her mouth and drawled, “Lucky bastard.”

People were stopping to stare. The group that had been present for the drawing of the winning ticket was doubling, tripling in size. The man seemed to notice the violinist and plowed toward him through the crowd.

“You! Roach!” The man’s face was bright red and glistening. He wrenched his wallet out of a pocket and presented a crisp bill to the violinist. “Play!”

The violinist paused for a moment, the bill outstretched in front of him. Par could see the purple wolf’s head marking it as a fifty-kribler note.

The crowd had gone quiet. Finally the violinist took it. He smiled widely. He rolled up the bill into a tight little cylinder and stuck it in the upper tip of his bow, so that it poked out sideways between the wood and the horsehair.

Then he bowed, his hand sweeping below him dramatically. And he started playing again.

This time, it was a gleeful song, a bouncing rhythmic explosion of notes—and the violinist milked it. He bent and leaned into the music, closed his eyes, tapped his feet, even started cantering around, nosing up to the man and several of the women, that roguish grin playing on his face. And all the while, the fifty-kribler note zipped through the air, faster and faster and faster as the musical notes climbed in dizzying whirls until they ended with three resounding chords and a flourish.

The crowd lost it. Whoops and whistles and cries of “Encore!” almost buried all the applause. “That roach can play!” someone shouted.

Par was crying.

If anyone had told him that a piece of music would make him cry one day, he’d have shoved that person to the ground. But it wasn’t just the music. It was something else. The anger had come back ten times stronger than before, flooding in like an unstoppable river.

He slipped into the crowd. The red-faced man was grinning and shouting, sweat pouring off his forehead. The envelope with his winning lottery ticket was clutched in his right fist, his name, address, and ticket number neatly handwritten in ink.

Par cut around and approached him from behind. A foot between his legs was all it took. The man went down with a cry. In the split-second before the man realized what was happening, Par yanked the envelope free.

“Thief!” the man was screaming, struggling to get to his feet. “Dirty little roach thief!”

Par turned and caught his mother’s eyes. They were wide with pure shock.

And then Par was weaving between people. He had no idea what he was doing or where he was going. The envelope felt like it would singe his fingers any second. All he knew was that he had to escape and draw the furious crowd away from his mother.

When he broke through the edge of the mob, he started running down aisles, darting between wagons and barrels and old furniture, deeper and deeper into the heart of the Otchka, then out again toward the far side.

Finally he found himself at a quieter edge of the market. No one seemed to be chasing him anymore. He spotted a tree stump hidden behind a run-down yellow stall and collapsed there, out of breath. The fiery-colored woods loomed over his shoulder.

He knew he couldn’t use the ticket himself. Tovari were forbidden from entering the lottery, just like they were forbidden from entering most shops and most theaters and the nicest parks and all the libraries. He could try to sell it, but since he wasn’t even allowed to have the ticket in the first place, everyone would know he’d stolen it. Someone would turn him in.

The more he thought about it, the more Par realized the stolen ticket was useless. He wouldn’t have stolen it if the man had earned it. But it was just luck. Why did luck come to people like that? Why didn’t it come to people who were forced to sell all their belongings just to escape from a place where they were hated?

“Hello, thief,” said a voice.

Par looked up, heart pounding.

The violinist was standing over him. He was grinning.

“Quick fingers you got there,” said the man. He set his violin case down, then lay down on the grass, stretching his long legs out and propping himself on his elbows. “I’ll wager you’ve done this before.”

Par felt his face heating up. He’d never stolen anything in his life.

“I’m looking for someone like you,” the violinist went on, lowering his voice. “We need a talented thief for all sorts of missions.”

Par’s heart somehow sped up even more. “Who’s we?”

“Don’t be stupid, kid. What’s your name?”

“Why do you care?”

The violinist sat up suddenly, his face only inches away from Par’s. “Tell me, do you like being spat on?”

“No.”

“Do you like being looked down on by pathetic brainless sheep on the street?’

Par shook his head, startled.

“Do you like being treated like a cockroach?”

Par inhaled sharply. He finally understood.

“You’re the resistance.”

“And you can be one of us,” said the violinist.

A gust of wind blew through the Otchka. A curled-up dry brown leaf scuttled like a crab across a blanket. To join the resistance was all Par had wanted, but suddenly he felt terribly alone.

“I can’t,” he said. “I’m leaving with my mother as soon as we get enough money. We’re trying to sell everything today.”

“Oh,” said the violinist, smiling again. “My apologies. I mistook you for a man.”

He shifted backwards as if to leave.

“What?”

That was when the violinist laughed. It was a bright, glimmering, ruthless sound, like a sharpened icicle in the sun. “Only cowards run, kid. Real men stay and fight.”

That stung much more than Par would let on. “You consider that fighting?” he said. “Playing a song for anyone who gives you fifty kriblers? You let them treat you like a circus animal.”

The violinist’s eyes flashed, but he didn’t seem angry. He seemed—excited.

“You’re wrong,” he said softly. “That was Tovari music. The most expressive and energetic musical tradition in this country, and probably the world. Playing that song for that blubbering lackey—and him enjoying it—that’s like spitting in his ears. Every note, every bow-stroke is a weapon as sharp as a knife.”

Par said nothing, but a great bell was chiming inside of him. He hadn’t even realized Tovari music was different from any other. Was that why he’d been so affected by the music? Because it was part of his own culture? To do battle with music—it was a radical idea, and a thrilling one.

“Please,” the violinist said. “The resistance needs you.”

“I’m sorry,” Par said at last, rising from the tree stump with a great effort. “I can’t abandon my mother.”

“Wrong again,” said the violinist, standing as well. “You can’t abandon your people.”

Par’s breath caught in his throat. Unexpectedly, anger sparked to life again inside him, anger at this man who had cornered him, forcing him into this impossible dilemma. What on Earth was he supposed to do?

He must have hesitated too long, because the violinist shrugged. “You give me no choice,” he said. Then he tilted his head back and bellowed to the sky, “HERE! The thief is here!”

A jolt like an electric shock sliced through Par.

The violinist grinned again. “Your only hope is to run to the woods. My resistance cell is camped there. We’re one of countless cells in a network spread out across the country. Find the juniper tree with two trunks and climb up the deer trail. They’ll protect you.”

And with that, the violinist lifted his case and sauntered off toward the trees.

Par stood for just another moment, too stunned by the betrayal to move. Then he bolted.

Not toward the woods, but back into the Otchka. He was faster than just about anyone he knew; he would have to rely on that. Footsteps and screams were already chasing him, gleeful laughter and hideous curse words, but the Otchka was a labyrinth.

He made turn after turn after turn, nearly knocking over plum towers and flimsy carts of chestnuts, until the buildings of Gholàr came back into view. He barreled toward them without looking back, heading for home.

 

“You almost got us killed, do you understand me?”

They were having dinner on the floor. They had no table or chairs anymore.

After Par stole the ticket, while everyone was chasing him, his mom had packed up as much as she could and found a different spot in the market, slipping away before the crowd realized she was connected to the thief. She’d spent many more hours selling their wares on her own, once she was convinced that Par had escaped, and now she was livid.

Her trembling hand clutched her knife like a dagger. She could barely spread her cheese.

Par knew she was right, but he still couldn’t feel remorse for stealing the lottery ticket. He felt terrible for putting his mother in danger, though, and then for making her pull the cart all the way back on her own.

“And as if stealing that ticket wasn’t enough, you then attract the attention of the resistance?” She hissed the last word. “And let that smiling double-crossing weasel almost talk you into joining their ranks?”

Almost. At first, he’d trusted that man. He’d even admired him. But the truth was, part of him still did. And right beside that feeling of betrayal, roiling in his stomach like a restless snake, was the question, What if the man was right?

“This is what I’ve been telling you,” Par’s mother went on, her voice softening slightly; she finally managed to spread some sour cheese on a slice of stale bread. “There is no resistance. There’s only a band of hooligans with a new justification for violence.”

“I don’t think so,” Par ventured. He cracked his teeth through the bread, feeling a dull pain in his jaws and ears. “The violinist was fighting with music. He was proving something to them. Our music is the best in the world.”

“Par!” She was looking at him fiercely now over the rim of her chipped teacup, which they hadn’t managed to sell. “Par,” she repeated, setting it down, “that was a sentence that could have come straight from Muntaro’s mouth.”

He could feel his face heating up: shame and indignation.

“Yes, we have a culture,” his mother went on. “Just as old and complex and valuable as anyone’s. But be careful of placing too much pride in it. That was the downfall of your father. You be proud of your achievements, Par, your qualities, your choices. Your determination. Your good marks in school. Your capacity for emotion. Your sense of justice. That’s where your pride belongs.”

She stood up and carried her dish to the small washbasin, where she set it down with an uncharacteristic clatter. Then she turned and sat back down cross-legged, facing him. For a long time, it was quiet. At some point, she shook her head and smiled. Then she reached out with her calloused fingers and touched his cheek. He let her stroke it.

“You’re just a boy,” she said gently. “You’ll fight when you’re older, if you choose to, once you’ve finished your education, when you’ve figured out who you are and how to put your skills to use. In the meantime …” She checked that the sheet they were using as a window-curtain was closed, then reached into the pocket of her skirt and pulled out two small, dark green documents. “We leave tomorrow at dawn.”

The passports glistened in the candlelight. Par took his reluctantly, reverently, and touched the fine leather. Inside was his school photograph from the year before. He was obviously in mid-laugh. Anyone would think he was a very happy fourteen-year-old.

Only he knew the truth. The photographer hadn’t noticed the large furry spider descending from the ceiling directly above his bald head.

 

Night passed slowly. Par’s body was exhausted but his mind wouldn’t rest.

He was wrapped in a blanket on the hard wooden floor, the shapes and shadows of his gutted, empty home unrecognizable. He was trying to take stock of all he was leaving behind, ingrain it into his mind forever. The puppet shows in Greywolf Square on St. Hovart’s Day, when the heady smells of grilling lamb and stuffed pepper wafted from the bonfires and food carts. The laughing creak of the wooden stairs as he and his friends ran down from their musty classroom to play streetball during recess. The invigorating, crystal-clear air of fall in the mountains, when the trees seemed reckless with passion, bursting with all their pent-up fire—blushing, yet proud.

Of course, these memories had been tainted by Muntaro. This year, for the first time, Tovari weren’t allowed at the puppet shows. This year, for the first time, Par had no friends. People he had once thought he’d be close to forever picked him last for their streetball team. They stopped asking him to join them for sweet rolls and yogurt after school. They looked away when he met them on the street.

At least Muntaro couldn’t take away the mountains.

He rolled over, his back aching almost as much as his heart. Damn this floor, damn these people who could take away his own bed, damn this country that could reduce him to tears in the middle of the night.

What had Mom said about his sense of justice?

Only cowards run. Real men stay and fight.

Those words, not his mother’s, resurfaced in his mind, clear and sharp as though chiseled from stone. They grew in his head like a reverse echo, gaining volume and power with every repetition.

Real men stay and fight.

Stay and fight.

Fight.

Par threw back the blanket. His rucksack was already packed. He wrote a note to his mother and set it on the floor beside her. Outside, haloes of mist glowed around the gas lamps. The air smelled of horses and rain. As he flew like a ghost over the cobblestones, hardly believing what he was doing, the sound of the violinist’s music came back to him unbidden, like a steady breeze in his head, urging him onward: toward the outskirts, toward the Otchka, toward the forest.

He found the apartment easily. It was only blocks from the Otchka in a rundown part of the city where cats slunk through piles of trash.

He slipped through the door into the musty stairwell. Gaslight angled through a single high window clouded with grime; it wasn’t even enough for Par to see the stairs beneath his feet. He spiraled slowly up to the third floor. There: a rusty door-plaque with the number 33 barely visible. He knelt down on the threadbare mat and slipped the envelope with the winning lottery ticket under the door where it belonged.

It didn’t feel like a defeat. It just felt like a relief.

He crept back outside. Through the dead lanes and alleys of the Otchka, past the place where he and his mother had set up their stall, on and on across the grass until the shadows deepened and the trees took over.

The moon was only a sliver and it took him a long time to find the two-trunked juniper tree where the deer trail began. But then, at last, he was climbing, leaves crunching softly beneath him, the chuckle of a creek keeping him company. On distant slopes, in an ever-rising chorus of longing, wolves.

Par smelled the fire before he saw it. And then, he was there: a ring of people—maybe twenty—around the remains of a campfire, some sleeping, some whispering, guns in their laps.

“I knew it!” said the violinist, jumping to his feet. “The thief.”

“I’m not a thief,” said Par.

“I knew I could trust you,” the violinist went on, taking Par by the arm and seating him on a rock close to the fire. A few men and women were stirring. “Here, have some tea.”

The sky in the east was just starting to lighten. Par pictured his mother sitting up, rubbing her eyes. Putting on her slippers because the floor would be so cold, crossing to the basin to wash her face, and telling Par to wake up. She would call at least twice before checking his pile of blankets, rustling them gently, then firmly, and perhaps only then finding the note on the floor.

I’m joining the resistance. I’m so sorry, Mom. Maybe you’re right about everything, but I have to do this. Please, please, please take the train to Velingen. I’ll find you there when this is over, I promise.

The sky was turning pale grey and pink now; a few people polished their guns.

Par sipped linden tea without tasting it and stared into the embers. He was going to resist Muntaro. So why did it feel, at the same time, as though he’d given in to some even more powerful, even more terrible force?

“You’re a fighter,” said the violinist, putting an arm around Par’s shoulders.

This time, Par recoiled. He didn’t want that person to touch him. His head whirled; if he hurried, he could probably still catch his mother at the train station. There was still time to change his mind.

“A true Tovari,” the violinist continued. “One of us.”

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Jason Fowler, curated by Dana Lyons.

Noah Weisz received his M.F.A. in Fiction from the New Writers Project at UT Austin. He has been shortlisted for the international Bath Children’s Novel Award and a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature. His fiction for readers young and old can be found in Highlights, Lunch Ticket, F(r)iction, Cosmonauts Avenue, and other publications. Currently, he teaches creative writing at St. Edward’s University and elementary-school language arts in Austin, Texas. You can learn more at https://noahweisz.wordpress.com.