It was the year 1992. Peter Ivankov’s life was never the same since then – firstly, because his home country had gone through a massive transformation following the dissolution of the Soviet Union the previous winter.
Secondly, 1992 was the year Peter went blind.
Early that year, Peter’s mother began sending Peter on regular trips outside their house in St. Petersburg early that year. Despite the mundane nature of these trips Peter never got tired of them – a trip to the marketplace for potatoes felt like a great quest. To him, it was proof of his manhood, that he was finally of age to bear the responsibilities of an adult. His mother also sent him on trips to deliver foodstuffs to neighbors. Those he certainly didn’t mind – their neighbors were nice people, and Mrs. Kuznetsov next door, whose husband had died from esophageal cancer years before, routinely lavished on him her home-made cookies.
There was a particular house, however, that Peter’s mother had never instructed him to visit. To Peter, that house was a mystery – in all his years, he had never seen anyone exit or enter it, and had never before laid eyes upon its occupants. However, he knew that someone was living inside it for his mother made routine visits to the house every morning, always bringing a bowl of porridge with her and returning with an empty bowl. Once he had tried to spy on whoever lived inside through a window to no avail, for all the windows of the house had been, and still were, covered up by impermeable white curtains which were stretched tight over the windows. In his recollection those curtains had never been lifted before.
Then, one day, Peter’s mother fell ill. Peter awoke that morning to find her lying on the sofa and pointing at the bowl of porridge set on the kitchen table once he entered the living room.
“Take this to Mrs. Popov, dear,” she instructed Peter. When she saw the puzzlement on his face she added, “She lives two houses to the left of ours, the house which I visit every morning to bring her her food.”
Peter, curious and excited that he finally had the opportunity to learn more about the strange house, grabbed the bowl, said goodbye to his mother and went out. The weather was cold outside but Peter didn’t feel it. He was too busy speculating what this Mrs. Popov would look like, as well as marveling at the bowl of porridge his mother had given him. For starters, it was big – the bowl was more like a small tub and was quite heavy. Secondly, the porridge in the bowl was nothing like anything he had seen – it was unusually white, and looked more like white paint than porridge.
Whatever she may have turned out to look like, Mrs. Popov didn’t seem like a very warm and welcoming person. After pressing the doorbell three times and knocking on the door, Peter decided that Mrs. Popov probably hadn’t heard him and let himself in. The door wasn’t locked, which was peculiar. Peter stepped in, and saw that the interior of the house was even more unusual.
Upon setting foot into the house, Peter had the urge to cover his eyes for a moment – alike the porridge, the inside of the residence was painted stark white. All the furniture and all the walls and the staircase and the doors were white, with not a speck of color to be seen anywhere. It was as if all the colors and all the textures had been drained out of the house.
A shuffling noise came from behind an open door on the second floor. Peter figured there must be someone inside. Climbing the stairs was no easy task – with the steps painted white Peter was essentially blind and had to grope his way upstairs while not tipping the bowl of porridge over.
The open door was slightly ajar. Peter stepped in front of the door, bracing himself to enter.
“Peter?” A gravelly, scratchy voice asked from behind the door. He jumped.
“Who is it?” Peter managed to reply. He had spilled porridge on the floor – not that it was very obvious. Actually, it was barely noticeable. The floorboards had also been painted white.
“It’s me, Mrs. Popov,” the voice answered. “I believe you have my food? Come in, dear, there’s nothing to be scared of. You and I are safe in this house. He who must not be named cannot harm you in here.”
Peter had no idea what the voice was talking about. Nonetheless he obeyed, and walked in with the bowl of porridge clutched between his perspiring hands.
Alike the rest of the house, everything inside the room was painted white as snow. Not a speck of color could be seen. In a corner of the room sat a shriveled old woman facing the bleached wall. Her stature was small and skeletal, and a strong sweet and sickly smell seemed to emanate from her. She was wearing a dress, which, queerly enough, was also stark white. The dress was not the only article of clothing on her – the white gloves on her hands and the white bandages that wrapped up every inch of her body save her face made her practically invisible against the white background of the walls. It was as if there was nothing but her dismembered head floating in the air.
“I’ve brought your food, Mrs. Popov,” Peter said, holding forth the bowl.
“That’s wonderful, dear,” The floating head replied. “Please move closer so I can take it.”
Peter moved forward a step. Mrs. Popov, without turning around, grabbed the bowl with two bandaged hands from behind. Holding the bowl in front of her, she began to slurp noisily.
Peter stood still, observing the skeletal old woman eat. She was awfully scrawny for her age, and her hair was just as white as everything else in the house.
“Tell me, Peter,” the old woman said, still busy slurping up porridge from the bowl. “How is the weather outside?”
“It is… rather cold and windy, I guess.”
“It is good to know,” Mrs. Popov said. “I have not been outside in a long time. Your mother keeps me informed of whatever is going on outside. Is it true that the Soviet Union is no more?”
“It is true,” Peter replied. “Don’t you read the news, Mrs. Popov?”
“It has been a long time since I read anything,” Mrs. Popov replied. “Reading is dangerous. Words and pictures consist of so many colors and so many lines and so many shapes and so many patterns. He who must not be named is everywhere, and his eyes lurk among these details. One must be very careful.”
Peter was 10, but he knew enough to understand that Mrs. Popov wasn’t exactly in her right mind. His mother had told him how old people turn senile and less sane as their minds degenerated. He figured this must be the case with Mrs. Popov.
“I must seem quite unusual to you,” Mrs. Popov said, startling Peter. It was as if she had read his mind. “I seem quite unusual to a lot of people. I understand why. After all, why would anyone live a life alike mine, if they haven’t truly opened their eyes and seen what I see?
“People in the outside world think that I am crazy, shutting myself inside this strange white house. That is because they do not see the terrible dangers that surround them every day of their lives. They do not slow down to observe the small and seemingly insignificant details. Ironically, it is in these small and insignificant details that the greatest dangers lie.
“The devil is in the details, Peter,” Mrs. Popov finished. “The devil is in the details. Never forget that.”
Without turning, she handed the empty bowl back to Peter. Peter took the bowl and walked out of the room, and out of the strange white house.
On his way home, Peter thought about what Mrs. Popov had said. He had not the slightest idea what she might have meant.
That night, Peter and his mother had borsch for dinner. As he stirred the thick blood-red soup with his spoon, he couldn’t help but notice little shapes and patterns in the viscous stew. A piece of carrot floating on the surface made him think of a rowing boat. A few blobs of grease formed the shape of an elephant’s head.
He noticed a pair of eyes in his soup in the form of two spots of grease. Squinting, he observed that the eyes had slits for pupils, quite alike the eyes of a cat.
Suddenly, the eyes blinked. A mouth appeared below the eyes and stretched out into a great big bloody grin.
“Peter? Honey?” Peter’s mother said, concerned. “Is everything alright? You seem quite upset.”
“Everything is fine,” Peter replied, absentmindedly. His face had gone pale, and he was shivering. He forced himself to look away from the bowl of soup. His gaze fell upon the tablecloth instead.
The threads that composed the tablecloth had been sewn in a crisscross pattern. All these lines and all these patterns create vivid imaginary shapes in the minds of children. Peter’s eyes focused on the cloth for a moment, and the eyes from the soup reappeared. The grin materialized once again. This time, Peter saw, the grin had razor-sharp teeth.
“I need to use the bathroom,” Peter said. Without waiting for a reply, he bolted upstairs and ran into the upstairs bathroom.
The walls of the bathroom were covered in tiles of marble. The gray specks among the white parts of the marble formed shapes and patterns without form. Peter caught a glimpse of one of the four walls. The face had returned, and this time the mouth was no longer grinning and had transformed into a great big gaping hole. Peter saw with horror that the razor-sharp teeth were not only present on the gums – layer beyond layer of needle-like teeth covered the entire mouth cavity and stretched into the creature’s throat and into its esophagus. The mouth of the creature on the wall got bigger and bigger and bigger, and its terrible catlike eyes were somehow grinning.
Screaming, Peter lunged for a pair of scissors lying near the washing basin. He knew, with a certainty that allowed no doubt, that if he could not stop seeing the creature on the wall, that terrible mouth would expand and devour him.
He knew there was only one thing that he could do.
Credit: Thaddeus Yeung
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