PREVIOUS NEXT FIRST The Rock Collector. Or, How Prince Ivan Took His Lumps.

The Rock Collector.
 (Or, How Prince Ivan Took His Lumps.)
A Tale of Old Russia.

 On The Road To Success.

Ivan Nabirov came across his most decisive lump,
in the first place, because his Old Dad
finally succeeded in winning for him
a dinner invitation at the home of the girl he
admired most in this world (Ivan Nabirov's Old Dad
admired her, that is), after having insisted on it
one too many times more than he should have--

Hemesfiria Milatoff was the only daughter of
and sole heiress to His Excellency the Right Honorable
Gennadi Milatoff, wealthiest human being somewhere [sic]
between Novgorod and St. Petersburg (although
many people swore that he looked suspiciously like
a well combed orangutan)...

Nevertheless, one who while not even a member of
the aristocracy, by his own always
very professionally maintained records had in his lifetime
only asked exactly three persons, "How much?"
... two of whom were his parents at one time
even as the third one was, currently, still his daughter.

It was to the very splendid country house
of this exceptional being that Ivan Nabirov was merrily
heading on the lonely, breezy stretch of open country road
that led there from the very humble house of his Old Dad,
feeling head-over-heels above it all (and sporting
the brand-new 'fashionably' extra, extra wide-lapeled coat
for which Old Dad Nabirov had sacrificed
the last twenty-five rubles in his cobwebbed purse,
having bought it from a village of self-advertised tailors
located not half a mile outside the ancient city of Novgorod)
... when he was cruelly felled by the aforementioned lump
of slippery hard-packed mud.

Of course, his one-and-only good set of mail-ordered clothes
came out of the acrobatic misadventure as ripped and filthy
as if he'd taken it for a swim in a pit bristling with goopy tar.

The miserable lump had probably waited 'sinisterly'
in ambush for Ivan Nabirov there on that
shamefully maintained road since the dawn of destiny,
and now it had felled him at last --so hard
that it also left his matching brand-new mail-ordered pants
shredded as woefully as if he'd been mangled
by a very overwrought bear.

Times like these the impoverished boy definitely
could've used a horse in the family. And,
in a curious way, that was the whole idea
behind his calling at the Milatoff country house
that afternoon--to see if he might possibly
get himself hitched to a situation
which someday might not only add a beast
(of that class) to his family but lots of other goodies
as well. And now this unimaginable catastrophe!

The untimely fall left Ivan Nabirov with the embarrassing
suspicion that those mail-ordered clothes
which the self-advertised tailors had sold his Old Dad
were very probably not of as high a quality
as their 'pricy' cost had implied...

It also left one of the so very prized extra, extra wide lapels
of which he had been so especially proud
... hanging about his neck like the saddest tail
ever pinned on a wall-painted donkey.

"Twenty-five rubles into the hole!"
What was he ever going to do now?

Well, wet to the bone just then, spitting mud, and
more pressed for time now than ever (for starters),
Ivan Nabirov slowly picked himself off
the treacherous ground, painfully slowly, pulling himself
out of the hole he fell into almost piece by piece of himself.
And then he took hold of the villainous lump of mud...

It had ended up next to him right there on the road,
almost under his very nose (and it had apparently
been trying to pretend that nothing at all had happened
between the two of them).

He stared at it in outrage and shredded clothing,
wondering what could have possibly prompted
the scummy thing
to play such a foul trick
on so blameless a total stranger as he:

The filthy object was just about a fully-formed egg,
chocolaty smooth but tough-looking, and so large
that Ivan could not close his hand completely around it.

So, for a fierce brief moment or two,
he tried furiously to crush it between both hands.

In the end Ivan Nabirov was forced to acknowledge
that it was like trying to mash a slippery piece of coal
between a couple of feathers, and he gave up.

He immediately began giving some serious thought
to tossing it out into the deep and swampy woods
through which that plowed-over stretch of rocky, cold,
and very wet road cut (as if some immense finger
had pressed a groove over a stretch of pebbled mud).

But when it came down to it, so mad was he
at the vicious thing
that just simply pitching it out of sight like that
somehow didn't seem punishment enough
for the high crime it had committed against him.

Instead, reining back his hard feelings
against the terrible lump, and as softly and gently
as if he'd been a grizzly bear being forced
to return to its nest a delicate little egg it had just stolen
from there... gently, and softly, Ivan Nabirov set down
the ball of hard-packed mud
next to a distinctive little white sapling
growing by the side of that primitive lane.

Then he drew himself back up to his full
raggedly lanky length, and solemnly
promised himself, ripped clothes and all,
that he would come back for it... later,
when he had the time (and a very heavy stick
or an even bigger rock) with which to crush
the lousy thing once and for all.

Oh, not so much for what it had done to him, exactly,
but so that never again would it be able to trip
any other unfortunate and horseless traveler
(of that troubled road) as badly as it had tripped him.

 A Man of Decisions.

Suddenly it sunk in on him
just where it was he had been going,
and how late he now was. And,
"Well," he thought, very crestfallen:
"There's certainly no reason now for me to continue
on my way to have dinner with those couple-of
... finicky Milatoffs!" And so, reluctantly,
Ivan Nabirov decided that the only thing
he could do now was return home--

Ah, but, if he did this... those selfsame
goodly born Milatoffs would no doubt believe
he had stood them up: "No!" It would never do
for the very-nearly aristocratic (but uncommonly influential)
Gennadi Milatoff
to think he had been stood up
by a mere pipsqueak of a peasant boy like him:

     Definitely, "Absolutely... not!"

Ivan Nabirov whirled around midstride
his very first step toward home, and then
he was heading back the other way, toward
his dinner appointment with the Milatoffs after all.

However, before he had even taken one single
complete step in this direction
Ivan Nabirov had already realized that he
had absolutely no idea in the world
what he could possibly say to the horrifically
intimidating Gennadi Milatoff (and his
even more horrific daughter Hemesfiria):

What credible excuse could anybody possibly make
to a man who had managed to hold on to
every last single piece of money that had ever
come anywhere within grabbing distance of him?!

"No!" So Ivan Nabirov whirled around
right in the middle of his thought, and again began
heading back the other way, toward his home
... where he could at least try to explain to
his Old Dad--that the old boy's years of dreaming,
scheming, scrimping and begging (while investing
his last cherished kopeck in him)
had been a total and complete waste--?

    "I don't think so...!"

That would never do either:
Ivan Nabirov immediately whirled around
one more time, this time even before he had
finished the thought, and then he was
heading back to the Milatoff country house again.

Only, before he had taken a first step in that direction
Ivan Nabirov had already come to understand
that even if he might be able to explain being late,
there wasn't any way for a nobody like him to
properly explain to those two ultravioletly-blooded
Milatoffs... showing up at their fine country house
looking the way he looked!

So, like some mud-dipped pendulum
splashing mud bits almost in both directions at once
... another complete turnabout for Ivan Nabirov
and back home he started again:

At least at his Old Dad's house Ivan Nabirov
could be relatively assured that
--it was totally impossible to explain anything
whatsoever to his Old Dad, period:
Old Dad Nabirov was strictly a man of action,
not words (and he would probably
take a strap to him on the spot):
Well, naturally, that finally did it right there...

Another quick whirl around for Ivan Nabirov's
almost completely numb and spinning-in-place body
(and mind). And, one way or another, at last
he was able to make some headway in one direction
... namely, towards the fabled Milatoff country house
(finally) no matter what he might have looked like.

 The Noble Milatoffs. 

"Oh well," he mused: It would certainly be
interesting to see whether he would be able to
find a way to explain why he was repaying
the superhuman honor the exalted master
of that extraordinary household (and heiress)
were bestowing on such a penniless peasant boy
--actually allowing him near their dinner table,
mind you--by showing up late, in rags, and
covered head to toes with that much filth!

And, in short, perhaps there might have been
some way he might have been able to explain this,
but he certainly absolutely failed (miserably)
to explain it this time:

"Is this the way you thank our august family
for our unbelievably self-sacrificing charity
to that stupid father of yours!?" Hemesfiria Milatoff
screamed at the grimy, shredded, and tongue-tied boy.

Ivan could only hope that it was merely her
normal way of speaking--all the time he was
bravely hoping it wasn't, of course...

Hemesfiria Milatoff's angry words rained down on
his bare head like boulders breaking off
the Milatoff foyer's so very inordinately high-set ceiling...

"Look at me when I'm talking to you!" She
continued banging away at the boy with every hard,
heavy, harsh word she was able to lay her... tongue on.

But--Heavens! The avalanche
was definitely giving Ivan an even worse headache
than the one he'd picked up off the flipping fall
on that lump of mud on his way there!

Unfortunately, all he could really do now was to
'graciously' shrug it all off; while,
every now and again, picking (off
his so very tattered self) a few
of the drier mud flakes that his loop-the-loop 'ride'
on the (other) slippery ball of scum
had left him covered over with, head to foot.

Hemesfiria's father was slightly more to the point:
Without so much as a word coming or going,
the crusty old ape waltzed down to his front door
and flung it open in one singularly
spectacularly vicious stroke.

One thing must be understood about this door:
It had been especially widened to allow
the always exceptionally bold-striding Hemesfiria
to come in and out of the house without her
possibly knocking out a wall. So you can be sure
that when Master Milatoff flung that door open
the way he did, that grand opening
made one tremendous impression
throughout that whole house, let me tell you!

And, "Well," thought Ivan, suddenly finding himself
amid the 'great outdoors' created in the Milatoff foyer
the instant it was exposed to the outdoors:
"This--is a definite hint that maybe
I should start thinking about leaving."

Only, a hint it was not: As the young man started
on his way, Milatoff, then coming back
from his door-opening spectacular, and
still without uttering a word, unexpectedly (well,
after first moving out of the way to let the boy pass,
and thus to set him up): Old Man Milatoff gave Ivan Nabirov
such a swift kick on the seat of his wind-whistling pants
that poor Ivan Nabirov's feet never had to touch
the ground even once all the time he was 'very
swiftly' exiting past the great threshold
of that vast front entrance (nor for
some considerable distance after he had already
cleared the outside porch altogether).

The last Ivan Nabirov heard from the Milatoff family
(as he was flying out of their country house
courtesy the 'dear old' gentleman's spirited sendoff)
was from Hemesfiria herself... as she warmly
congratulated her well combed father on
the surprisingly youthful vigor of his age-cocked leg:

"Good," were the last words Ivan Nabirov
was ever to hear from his theoretically once
prospective bride: "Now there will be more for us!"

Then it was off to the painfully extensive
if not equally grand Milatoff pigsties
immediately after that--head first.

 Backtracking Down The Road Of Success. 

"Boy," Ivan reflected on his way back home
along the same familiar lonely stretch of open road
that had brought him to such heady ruin
off the foot of the great country gentleman
Gennadi Milatoff: "It's a good thing my clothes
already were as muddy and torn as they were!"

No doubt because that way his ending up so headily
in the Milatoff pigsty, the way he had, hadn't hurt
as much as it would have undoubtedly hurt
had he landed in there with them still clean
and all in one piece.

Passing that criminal lump of mud again,
again Ivan Nabirov picked it up
--It was easy enough to find the thing
(right there by that same distinctive little white sapling).

Almost immediately he gave some more thought to
pitching it out into the savage woods (which
so warmly hugged the whole length of that cold,
wet smear of a muddy road end to end)
as angrily as a rather severely antagonized young man
exactly like him might have--

Only, after the many other awful lumps
he had so recently picked up under the high-set
stately ceiling of the Milatoff family country home
(and right off the sole of the well combed master
of that splendid household), somehow...
the filthy 'little' trick the scummy mud ball had
slipped on him just didn't seem to matter as much
as it had the last time he'd been through there:

Now he even thought it incredibly childish
that an all-grown-up fellow like himself
should have been thinking of taking revenge upon
so insignificant an object, after all.

Oh, not that it would have been less childish
to have been thinking of avenging himself
upon the exalted personage of Gennadi Milatoff
instead--especially since, in place of that moth-eaten
old monkey Ivan Nabirov wasn't all that sure
he wouldn't have been as upset (although
he probably could never have been as free
with the use of his leg).

"No!" Now that he thought better about all this,
managing a kind of cosmic coming-to-terms
(of sorts) with it all, it definitely might be better
--all around-- if he just washed his hands
of the whole ball (of mud) right there and then.

So, with a marked show of disdain for the putrid
little mud egg Ivan Nabirov allowed
'the lowly thing' to just slither slowly
out of the palm of his hand:

It plopped to the mushy moist ground
by the foot of the same little white sapling
as before... as harmlessly as a ball of slosh.

Then Ivan Nabirov continued on his way.
If not merrily, at least with his mind
firmly at peace and forever made up
that never again would he give the slimy matter
any further thought whatsoever at all
for as long as he lived: "Goodbye, you scummy--!"

 The Prodigal Son's Return. 

In any case, he had lots more pressing things
to think about. Things like... now
what was he going to tell his Old Dad?

That poor, sweet, gentle old man
had spent untold months scraping together
the twenty-five rubles price of the mail-ordered clothes
which that 'certain unmentionable object'
had ruined (by tripping him).

And Ivan Nabirov's Old Dad wasn't likely to accept
the so premature ruination of such expensive clothes
as the simple result of extraordinarily rotten luck--

For one thing, Old Dad Nabirov was a firm believer
that bad luck was the only kind of luck there was.
And, for another, that brand-new fashionably extra,
extra wide-lapeled suit (Ivan was apparently going to
have to take the fall for mangling to death) was
his Old Dad's clearly stated lifetime investment
in his future--paid in full.

Well, naturally, that... and the invitation to dinner
Old Dad Nabirov had pestered Gennadi Milatoff
(also for an ungodly length of time) into
granting his son. Again, in the very clearly stated 'hope'
that such a social occasion was absolutely
going to give Ivan a clean shot at Hemesfiria, the
wealthy orangutan's sole heiress (as well as only daughter):

However, "Oh, my goodness!" As things turned out,
Ivan quickly discovered that he would not have to
do much explaining at all to his dear Old Dad:

The instant the old boy spotted 'that lazy, good-for-nothing
son of his' returning home with all his exquisitely expensive
brand-new clothes as muddied and ripped
as if Ivan had been in an all-out brawl half the night
with all the Milatoff pigs (inside their pigsty)
... Old Dad Nabirov must have gotten one truly inspired
insight into exactly what had taken place at the Milatoff
country house, because he came charging after that son
of his apparently with every intention on earth
(and one long, evil-looking strap) of collecting
from Ivan's very hide every last sacrifice
he had put himself through to give him the opportunity
which Ivan 'obviously' must have just chucked down
a bottomless muddy pit without so much as a second thought.

Having younger legs and father-reaching [sic] eyes,
however, Ivan Nabirov not only spotted
his Old Dad coming that much farther away
--he was also quicker at getting his getaway underway:

Taking off like his life depended on it,
it wasn't long before he had put enough distance
between himself and his sprinting Old Dad
to fling out of sight of his father
his already terribly abused body
right back into the (wouldn't you know it)
deeply scummy and sharp-pebbled ditch
that seemed to parallel every inch of that
awful road like an infinite double-sided hole:

Soaked to the soul in the everything-swallowing mud
down there, and shivering as badly as if
every rock around him had been a chunk of solid ice,
Ivan Nabirov still managed to remain undiscovered
by his Old Dad (only his puffy white eyeballs
sticking out of the black/brown gunk at the bottom of
that dirty wet ditch), as the old fellow ran by above him
waving that frightful strap and letting loose with
a whole string of utterly regrettable 'comments'
about the sorry state in which his son's serious lack of
responsibility and concern about his future
had left his humbled purse... all of it
just a fraction of an instant after Ivan's life-saving
and headlong plunge back into the mud again.

Well, once he was safely out of sight of his so
unsuspectingly still quite physically active Old Dad,
Ivan Nabirov slowly dragged himself out of his filthy
life-saving rut and then slowly clawed his way back up
to the only slightly-less slippery wet and muddy road
above (on his hands and knees all the way)
weighed down with as much muck on him
as a human body could possibly pick up
without having done so on purpose.

* * *

Up there, the now almost unrecognizable boy
paused only long enough to get back on his feet
and un-paste apart all his mud-glued limbs.

Then he lost no time aiming himself in exactly
the opposite direction from the one his Old Dad
was even then still very enthusiastically (and capably)
charging over that tricky road
on his but one-and-a-half good legs: "Amazing!"

In any case, 'that was that' for poor Ivan Nabirov.
Now, from this sad place and time,
Ivan Nabirov began the always heavy-hearted task
of running away from home (or, better put,
sadly hobbling off from home), past his
'former' little house... and toward the nearby little village
(at the other end of that same troubled road)
at the slow, sorrowful, ickey pace of
the thoroughly unwanted--and unwashed.

* * *

After another painfully long (and just as
horseless) journey down that cold, wet road, past
the pitifully emptied little paternal shack (he had called home
up to then), Ivan Nabirov eventually managed to
make his dispirited way to the tiny water fountain
that sat over the ancient spring around which had sprung
the nearby little community.

There on the slippery old bricks of that crumbling
little water fountain would he sit now
... not so much to wash up, which would have been
a total waste of time and effort, as bad off as he was,
but just to see if he might be able to fool his stomach
into believing he was having dinner (after all)
by dowsing it with a million tiny sips of water.

Unfortunately for him, Ivan Nabirov's stomach
wasn't even half as foolish as he had hoped.

But no matter how much it may have appeared
to some disinterested passer-by
as if life itself had suddenly developed
something personal against him, Ivan Nabirov
really wasn't the sort to go around
trying to pin blame on anybody (or anything):

He certainly didn't blame his poor Old Dad
for being as upset as he was back there:
As far back as one would wish to remember
such things, the old fellow had always had his heart set
on marrying off his one and only son
to Hemesfiria Milatoff --namely Ivan himself--
the 'sole hope of his old age'
(as Old Dad Nabirov liked to put it).

"Oh my!" So many, many times had he told Ivan
that it would be his last chance to marry money (and
'money' was practically Old Dad Nabirov's
nickname for Hemesfiria),
Ivan had almost begun to believe it himself!

Now the forever-to-be money-less, abandoned (and
downright starving) young man would probably have to
be content to marry Spotia (tiny, penniless,
pigtailed Spotia): All she had going for her were
her soft good looks, a good strong body, and
everything else which, according to Old Dad
Nabirov, would do him no good at all whatsoever.
(Although Ivan could never decide exactly
which of them was the 'him'
Old Dad Nabirov was talking about there.)

"What you need, my boy, is Money Milatoff!"
his Old Dad always kept telling him
and telling him (sunrise to sunset).

Sometimes the old fellow would even
wake him up right in the middle of the night
with a rousing: "That's what you need!" Which,
thank the heavens, the obsessed Old Dad Nabirov
seldom felt he really needed to shed any further light on,
there in that startled middle-of-the-night darkness.

Oh, what a sad fate to look forward to now,
Ivan was daydreaming while he was sipping
... on the smooth bricks of that centuries-driveled
crumbling little fountain, a wave of a growl
in his waterlogged belly and a wink of a smile
on his very dirt-pocked face, for Spotia was
just soft-looking enough for him to consider flowers
in that part of Russia lucky not to have eyes
--for, had flowers eyes, obviously, they too
would have quickly 'wilted with envy
at the sight of her' (or some other such twaddle
... Ivan wasn't that original a poet either).

 The Rock Collector.

Right there and then,
before Ivan Nabirov was even aware
that there was anyone anywhere near him:
"Hear ye! Hear ye!" Sergei Peptodnikoff (village crier,
mayor, high magistrate, lowly everything else etc.)
was suddenly hollering at the top of his
always painfully loud voice into Ivan's burning ears,
janking him out of the beautiful daydream
he had been enjoying (for such a regretfully brief
amount of time) with a deafening start.

All the doors in the little village immediately
burst open and, young and old alike, everybody
that lived in the village suddenly came pouring out
into the second-hand cobblestones
around the tiny community's water fountain
to see what it was their village crier was...
well, crying about.

The assembly no doubt also included Ivan Nabirov's
so very lovely beloved Spotia, somewhere in the bunch;
so, not wishing to miss any chance to admire her
(first hand), Ivan Nabirov immediately began
seeking her out with his everywhere wandering eyes.

Peptodnikoff, meanwhile, and that tremendous beard
of his (that was so much of him
it could easily have been most of what he was all about)
... all of it suddenly shifted aside
and revealed to the villagers one of the most spectacularly
well dressed human beings
any of them had ever set eyes on in their lives:

 "Ah!" They all sighed.

And, "Ah!" Sighed Ivan Nabirov
--for he had finally found Spotia (and
that heavenly red/blue dress which was practically
the only one she ever wore... so perfectly
did the two of them go together).

"Good morning, Spotia!" He called to her:
"Oh!" That dress was also probably about
the only piece of colorful clothing to be found
being worn by anyone living within twenty miles
or more of their little village (and so about
the only real benefit poverty had ever conferred
on any of the men living there).

"It's almost going on nighttime, Ivan!"
Spotia reminded him--Ah, yes.

"This is His Gracious Excellency, the Right Honorable
Milos Myopicovitch," Peptodnikoff announced
very solemnly to the startled villagers:
"A tremendously refined gentleman who has come to us
all the way from the great and powerful city of St. Petersburg!"

Nobody there could remember ever having seen
an actual living human person from the great futuristic
city of St. Petersburg in their nameless little village.
Much less so one so wonderfully arrayed
in the unimaginably expensive clothes
the one before them was simply buried under:

"Oh!" Sighed the crowd at the sight
of such an apparition arriving in their midst.

They could not have been more awestruck
by the colorful stranger
had he just walked off a flying saucer
on rainbows instead of legs:

"Ah!" Went the villagers again, once they were all
satisfied that they had checked out
every last little detail of the stranger's
so convincingly impeccably-tailored exterior.

And, "Ah!" Went Ivan Nabirov, once he was satisfied
that he had done as much for the lovely Spotia's--

As if on cue, the suave stranger from St. Petersburg
began massaging down the pointy tips
of his elegant moustache with his thumbs
pressing against the side of each of
his hand's index fingers... first, of his right hand
and then of his left one (as intensely
as if he had been trying to define infinity's opposite poles
right there in front of the villagers, by turns,
one side of himself after the other one).

To the simple villagers witnessing this cosmic display
of middle class dexterity it was almost as if
the fabulous St. Petersburg gentleman had been
personally signalling 'money' to each and every one
of them... one hand after the other one!

At the conclusion of this fascinating
and successful performance
the spellbound audience broke out into
such tremendous applause that the very air itself
seemed to be bursting into billions of pieces
around the cheering villagers!

Although he was just as impressed as everybody else,
Peptodnikoff managed to take hold of himself long enough
to close his mouth (it'd been hanging open
throughout the visitor's 'performance').
Then he quickly concluded his official speech:

"The Right Honorable Milos Myopicovitch,
standing before you, finds himself half-way
along the life-long, heroic quest... about which
he shall speak further himself," he told them,
with that marvelous artistic flourish required of officials
in high office (mayors, magistrates, and butchers
especially) in villages like theirs. Then he swung
his great beard (and himself right along with it)
out of the way and called out directly to the stranger:

 "Speak, Mr. Myopicovitch!"

The excited villagers rushed forward
like one of those great big waves
that like to sneak in among the tiny ones
every now and again at the beach, bursting
with anticipation while the marvelously entertaining
(and in all likelihood stupendously wealthy) stranger
from St. Petersburg stepped up
and addressed them:

"God bless Czar Nicholas!" He cried out at them.
And all at once they all cried out
with an even better reason
for crying... "God bless Czar Nicholas!"

"I have come a long way..." The stranger began
then. And, "Ah!" the crowd also began
(humming eagerly).

"Bringing with me a great deal
of money..." he went on to say.

And, "Oooh!" The excited crowd went on humming
as well (especially upon 'money' coming out of
the stranger's mouth).

"To pay each and every one of you..." he said next.

And, "Ah-Ha! Ah!" Roared the villagers!
And they all continued roaring like that
throughout the balance of Myopicovitch's
little speech; which concluded with:

 "Money for your rocks!"

Then the villagers suddenly fell dead
(silent), and did nothing but stare
at each other with surprise.

"Money for our rocks?!?"
All the puzzled villagers finally
asked Myopicovitch (in a chorus).

"Yes, money for your rocks!"
Myopicovitch answered the whole chorus of them
(with just a tad of poorly-disguised irritation
at their so crude collective inability to understand
what he was talking about).

"What sort of rocks?" The crowd/chorus asked him.

And, "What sort of rocks you think!?"
Myopicovitch quickly let them know:
"Only the best, the rarest, the most unusual
rocks you have!" Naturally: "Those worth money!"
His voice rising in ecstacy as he spoke:
"Bring to me all of your most curious, all
of your most funny-looking rocks
... and I may pay you quite handsomely for them!"

"Indeed!" The village crier Peptodnikoff pushed
his way forward to offer his big fat
personal testimony about this: "I myself
have already witnessed His Excellency, Milos
Myopicovitch standing here before you,
generously deliver one absolutely genuine ruble
to Old Mrs. Duckashova (whom I am
almost certain all of you know--having known her
all your lives) in payment for a rock
she brought to him just now."

Sure enough... everybody turned around
and looked to Old Mrs. Duckashova (for
official confirmation), and the little old woman
smiled back at everybody with every one of
her phantom teeth; and then she showed them all
the genuine ruble in question.

"Pardon, Your Excellency," the all-chewed-up and
quite disgustingly filthy-looking Ivan Nabirov
suddenly came forward to humbly ask
the so very refined St. Petersburg stranger, "but
... is Your Excellency absolutely certain
that Your Excellency's coat is the latest fashion
in St. Petersburg?" For even as shaken and shredded as
he was, Ivan Nabirov had been growing more
and more chagrined by the minute
at how extra, extra narrow
the lapels were on Myopicovitch's coat.

"Go!" Hollered Myopicovitch
(instead of replying to Ivan Nabirov);
and, in fact, trying his best to ignore
the revoltingly dishevelled young man
(who was quickly pushed back by the crowd,
anyway): "Bring me all of your odd rocks
and even all of your strangest rocks,"
he told the villagers, not without a twang
of nobility in his eloquent delivery:

"All of your speckled rocks and all
of your smoothest rocks too.
All of your crystalline rocks; every last
squarely-shaped rock you can find;
and every other spectacular rock whatsoever at all
you may own--even your most triangular
and your most rectangular ones,
if you've got any of them as well!"

"How strange!" How excited were all the villagers
to hear his marvelous little speech
--and to actually find somebody
willing to pay good money for... rocks!

Naturally, they could hardly wait to rush off
to begin collecting as many (and as dear
a bunch of) rocks as Myopicovitch might
fall in love with deeply enough for him to pay--

"Hold it! Hold it! Hold it!" Mr. Raskinski,
village cobbler, and thus their unofficial poet/philosopher
and wise whatnot, Mr. Raskinski suddenly
stopped everybody right in their tracks
just as they were on the brink of rushing away
to begin fetching their whatever odd rocks
... as he addressed Myopicovitch,
oddly enough, very officially:

"We are but humble villagers here, Your Excellency,"
he began: "I don't believe any of us really has
any valuable minerals or precious stones here,
gold, silver--And not even our beloved and decrepit
Old Mrs. Duckashova, if she will pardon my saying so."

Something Old Mrs. Duckashova, naturally, graciously
did (by sticking out her long... mummified tongue at him).

"Not gold or silver," Myopicovitch assured this so
ironically official village cobbler, "just rocky rocks.
You see," he tried to explain (as patiently
as a big city sophisticate like him might 'lower himself'
to do so just to make sure that be was
clearly understood by a mob of dull peasants
like the one then in front of him): "I am
the greatest rock collector in all of St. Petersburg--"

However, the crowd/chorus suddenly interrupted him
(full of awe): "A rock collector?!"

"Yes, a rock collector!"
Myopicovitch answered them (awfully).

"Your Excellency collects rocks
just to collect rocks?!?" The crowd/chorus wished to
be absolutely certain that they had heard him correctly,
finding the engaging in such an enterprise
by grown-up people somewhat difficult to comprehend:

"Yes," Myopicovitch answered almost hysterically:
"Don't any of you peasants here collect rocks?"

"Well," said the always very cool and collected
Mrs. Kirkonadova (the baker's wife): "I collected
a large pile of them last Spring to help me line
my vegetable garden. Very neat and helpful rocks
they were all, too," she assured everybody:
"Is Your Excellency also interested in 'helpful' rocks?"

Well, "In any case," Myopicovitch tried again
to continue (this time while making every effort
to ignore the baker's wife)... even more slowly
and deliberately now: "I happen to be
the most successful rock collector in all of
St. Petersburg. And why is this, I am asking you?
This is because I do not collect the rocks myself,
I am answering you... I can afford to pay
poor, unfortunate, god-forsaken good people
like yourselves... to collect them for me."

"Ah," Nitrogentski (naturally, the village milkman),
was the next person to be moved by the spirit
to come forward and contribute his
whatever opinion about all this:

"Now I think about it," he told his always attentive listeners,
pounding the palm of one hand with the back
of his other hand for emphasis: "Although I am not absolutely
certain about this, mind you, I believe that my wife
has been keeping a crummy old piece of rock
in our bedroom for years and years now
which to this day she claims looks exactly like
a monkey riding a cow wearing a hat."

"No?!" cried the absolutely befuddled
Old Mrs. Duckashova. And she resolved at once
to resolve the mind-boggling
hat paradox: "The monkey or the cow?"

But, "Never mind! Never mind!"
Peptodnikoff quickly put an end to their little sideshow:
"To save time, simply bring that over as well. In fact,
all of you should just bring whatever rocks you have
(that you think peculiar enough for His Excellency)
... right here, and he will pay you whatever
they may be worth! Is this not so, Master Myopicovitch?"

"That is quite so, Master Peptodnikoff,"
answered the finely tailored rock collector from
St. Petersburg, wearily mopping his brow (after
having had to make all this unforeseen effort
to plow through this field of small-village block-heads)
... with a monogrammed handkerchief so valuable-looking
that it might have almost paid for any of
their modest little homes!

"Oooh!" Sighed the villagers as soon as the fabulous
cutting-edge cloth was waved in front of their faces.

"Now then," Myopicovitch went on to admonish
one and all, nervously. (Not really knowing
what to make of so many spiked peasant eyeballs
rolling up and down his unguarded person.)
"You may now go back to your hovels, or whatever,
and begin bringing me any interesting rocks
you can come up with: I will await you all here!"

Off all the excited villagers seemed to be headed
once again, but, before even a single one of them
could take a step... it apparently fell next to
one Vladimir Botanilaski, barber (and village skeptic),
to keep the whole mob of them from getting on
with the proposed rock hunt:

Vladimir Botanilaski came forward quickly now
to address Myopicovitch (as officially
as any of the other speakers before him):

"Your Excellency!" he spoke, and a deadly chill
rushed instantly through the villagers
... as that only too well known voice of his
froze every person there (everywhere each
and every one of them happened to be)
... for the barber's steely voice just dripped
with all the dread-inspiring and chilling authority
of a person very much accustomed to
speaking to people while holding a
sharp instrument to their throats.

Frothy with suspicion, the disturbingly creepy voice
of the village barber sloshed its way through
to the front of the crowd like an ice-cold viper, and--

"Rocks..." he told the St. Petersburg stranger,
"are practically everywhere in Russia," eerily
matter-of-fact: "Or so I have often heard it said.
Maybe hundreds and hundreds of them all over the place
...  I am left wondering from this --What for
would a fine gentleman like yourself come all the way
from a great and might city like St. Petersburg
just to 'buy' the ones around here?"

"What for--?!" squealed Myopicovitch as irritated
as if the skeptical barber had poured hair crickets down
his spine: "For money, that is what for!"

After which clarification... all the villagers
(including the creepy but still very quickly sidewinding
barber) immediately unfroze themselves
and scurried away at last in all different directions
to see what interesting rocks they might be able to unearth
for this (to them) so very difficult to figure out
big city buyer of... rocks!

 The Village Idiot. 

Everybody hurried away except for Peptodnikoff,
village crier... mayor, butcher, and, apparently,
now also village policeman: He stayed behind
to keep Myopicovitch company (as well as to keep
company with all the cash Peptodnikoff was sure
the big city gentleman was carrying with him).

And, quite unexpectedly, it then began to look as if
that utterly insignificant peasant boy Ivan Nabirov
might also be thinking about remaining behind
... for the boy very calmly sat himself down
on one of the rocky (slimy) edges of the little
village fountain, cool as you please
right there in front of the two men.

As far as Peptodnikoff was concerned, it was as if
the impudent young man had been trying to drop them
the hint that he would 'prefer' the two of them
leave him alone to mind his own business: "What gall!"

Actually, the truth of the matter was that
Ivan Nabirov didn't believe he ought to be stepping outside
the little village just then (especially
on any such flaky rock hunts) ... knowing as he did
that it would not have profited him in the least
at that moment
to have gone out looking for rocky anythings.

Nevertheless, "Young man," the rock collector
was soon coming after the boy, itching
with curiosity: "And why aren't you going home
to fetch your rocks too?"

"Well, sir," Ivan Nabirov apologized:
"My Old Dad and I are not seeing much eye-to-eye
these days, and I am much better off waiting
right where I am. (At least until he calms himself down
enough for me to be able to go home again
and still keep my skin)."

Not unexpectedly, Peptodnikoff immediately stuck
his great big beard into the matter: "This
is only Ivan Nabirov, Your Excellency," he explained
to the rock collector: "We needn't bother about him
--Ivan Nabirov couldn't find a rock in all Russia
if he were hit on the head with one," making
a weird sort of a face as soon as he noticed
the lad's so extraordinarily atrocious physical appearance.

But no matter how much this very negative picture
of Ivan Nabirov (in all his muddy glory) seemed to be
begging for some--any--kind of an explanation, somehow
Peptodnikoff just 'sensed' that it would probably be
a great big waste of everybody's precious time
to get Ivan Nabirov going on about exactly
how he had managed to get himself into
such a ragged and frightful-looking state of mud.

"Ah," commented Myopicovitch, all the time he was making
another sort of a weird face (to mirror the village crier's),
carefully studying the very messy peasant boy more
and more closely now: "That kind of a fellow
--Your village idiot, I take it?"

"Well," pondered Peptodnikoff, while he studied
the terribly chewed up lad with ever greater disapproval
(speaking rather a bit too seriously, though, for Ivan
to find his conclusion at all amusing): "Ours is
a very small village--So he will have to do
until we can find someone more suitable."

The village crier/policeman then aimed that great beard of his
straight at Ivan Nabirov's heart and, "You lazy
no-account Ivan Nabirov--you!" He began to scold the boy
mercilessly: "Why aren't you out somewhere
trying to find a few good rocks
for our dear, kind Mr. Myopicovitch?!"

Apparently having said all he was going to say
(viz-a-viz words), the overly impulsive and oversized
village crier then immediately launched
his very considerable body bulk into an all-out effort
to scrape the cringing Ivan Nabirov off the village fountain's
moisture-polished old bricks
... so he might be able to send him on his way!

"Any rock will do, too!" Peptodnikoff grunted
and groaned at the suddenly quite seriously barnacled
young man... even threatening
to get his Old Dad after him.

"Your Excellency needn't bother about that,"
Ivan Nabirov huffed and puffed back at Peptodnikoff,
absolutely unwilling to be dislodged from
those wet and waxy bricks as easily as all that:
"No matter how many times you tell a man he is a tree
he will still not sprout leaves!" And, quite surprisingly,
actually managing to wrestle the burly village butcher,
policeman (et al) into something of a draw
--at least for the time being.

"Besides," he gasped during a break in their so
very bruising battle, trying to catch his breath:
"Outside of an old lump of mud I know of,
I wouldn't know what rocks to bring to His Excellency.
I only know of rocks like those very rocks there,"
pointing at the handful of pebbles scattered about
their feet (one of which Myopicovitch at that very instant
was in the process of kicking out of the way
with a most ferocious-looking gesture): "And
His Excellency obviously doesn't want to have
anything to do with those sort of rocks!"

 The Stubborn Barnacle. 

"Never mind! Never mind!"
Myopicovitch finally inserted himself
between the two peasants' sporadic but
every now and again quite breathtaking pushing and
pulling contest: "Let's not waste our time with him.
The boy obviously couldn't tell
a good rock from a lousy one."

"That is quite true," the temporarily victorious barnacle
Ivan Nabirov agreed, feeling very certain indeed
that he only knew bad lumps of mud from--

"Say," Ivan Nabirov unexpectedly blurted out
(nearly mystifying the two men): "Do you think
there might actually be 'good' lumps of mud?"
Even as he was busily trying all he could
to preserve whatever last droplet of strength might still
be running for its life anywhere in his
otherwise thoroughly drained body.

Shaking his head, and picking up once again (exactly
where he was always leaving off) his neverending quest
for infinity's opposite poles at the pointy tips
of his moustache, the big city rock collector decided
to quit while even theoretically ahead:

Myopicovitch quickly raced away (to go sit
as quietly as it was humanly possible to do so
in such an unsophisticated and primitive village
on the one public bench in that entire tiny plaza,
next to the baker's), hoping that by doing so
he might be able to put enough distance between himself
and any further brawls that might break out
between the very odd fellow Nabirov and his (perhaps
even much more odd) keeper Peptodnikoff,
both of whom remained by the fountain.

"Excuse me, dear Master Peptodnikoff,"
Ivan Nabirov tried to engage the very beefy village crier
in conversation, if only to distract the bigger man
into any possible truce between the two of them, "but
... how do you suppose they managed to go through all
their 'good' rocks so quickly in St. Petersburg," (taking in
a few more sips of water for the sake of his roaringly
empty belly): "I mean... that such a gentleman as that one
must travel all this way to buy ours?"

The village crier was already preoccupied elsewhere,
however, trying to put approximately equal amounts
of his very heavy beard back on both sides of his great big
head following his string of messy-enough run-ins
with the boy; although he was still able to assure Ivan Nabirov
(curtly enough) that nobody had run out of rocks, good
or otherwise, in St. Petersburg, thank you--

"He is probably a madman then!" Ivan was sure of it,
because: "My Old Dad once told me that one can
always tell when people are about to go crazy
just from all the crazy stuff they begin collecting."

"Don't be ridiculous!" Peptodnikoff shot back,
pacing about very roughly, maybe even
testing his balance... although he was now very definitely,
and visibly, beginning to regret every last muddy
physical contact he'd been forced to make
with the so very, very unwashed boy.

"Lots of people collect rocks," he assured Ivan
Nabirov nevertheless: "Besides, I couldn't care less
what he wants all those rocks for: His Excellency
isn't playing around, you smarty-pants Ivan Nabirov.
You forget that Mr. Myopicovitch already paid
one perfectly good ruble to Old Mrs. Duckashova
for a rock she brought to him."

Then, in a lower tone, "What do I care
if he wants them for his head? You think if people
got it into their stupid heads to go around buying
mouldy old tree leaves all of a sudden, I myself
would then prove as stupid as everybody else by NOT
selling them as many mouldy old tree leaves
as they had money for? I have seen
His Excellency's good money myself!"

After which, "Now!" Peptodnikoff suddenly shouted
at Ivan Nabirov without a fear in the world
of being overheard (even in the next village):
"Be quiet! Or better still--get out of my sight!
Only don't bother important people carrying out their
official duties, if you don't want to be thrown into prison!"

"One whole ruble for a piece of rock!"
Ivan Nabirov was left marvelling (and scratching
his now very rapidly drying flaky head of hair),
not really all that concerned over a threat of prison
--obviously--in a village not important enough
to actually have one:

"My, but that must have been some rock!"
he told the village crier.

"Not all that great a rock, trust me!" Commented
nouveau rock expert Peptodnikoff: "Sure,
it had a few colored bands running through it;
but otherwise it was just another stupid rock,
as far as an honest fellow could tell.
There must be a million like it in that stinking trench
that used to be the trickle of a creek that ran
behind Old Mrs. Duckashova's house alone.
(How the fellow can get money out of rocks
I would certainly like to know myself--)"

Ivan Nabirov too. But what Ivan was really
trying to figure out at the moment was... how
anybody could possibly have enough money to be
so willing to actually pay people, "One ruble
for a rock!" And, in Russia--of all places! After all,
Russia had always seemed like such a
rocky country to Ivan Nabirov!

"Tell me," the boy mouthed next, his brain
off wondering (whether Old Mrs. Duckashova still kept
all those dogs of hers behind that house
in front of the 'stinking' little trench in question),
"kind Master Peptodnikoff, but... how many rocks
do you suppose the good gentleman
would be willing to pay one ruble for?"

"How should I know?!" The village crier Peptodnikoff
answered the village pest Ivan Nabirov:
"If he has millions of rubles, maybe he'll buy
millions of rocks (a ruble a rock)."

And, after a couple of brutally/outrageously loud
laughs: "Do you have a particular rock in your head,
Ivan Nabirov?" Staring at him with those leery
butcher's eyes of his... and they could make anyone,
particularly Ivan Nabirov, feel like a thin slice of bacon
spread in front of him on his butcher's block.

"Not all that particular," the boy answered,
rather uncomfortably... his menaced thoughts
running away (to that strange, even remarkable 'lump'
of mud which had already crossed his path
twice that day--and was now again
sticking so hard in his memory):

That was certainly an odd piece,
by any measure. Who knows, there might even be
some funny-looking rock under all that
hard-packed (mud?) with Myopicovitch's money's
name on it... Possibly even a one-ruble one!

"But it's half way between Milatoff's house
and my Old Dad's," Ivan Nabirov complained, out loud
(unfortunately for him, because his unexplained comment
immediately seem to want to push the already edgy
Peptodnikoff right over the edge):

The annoyed village crier immediately began to badger him
with every kind of question imaginable
about what he'd meant: "What's half way between
Milatoff's house and your Old Dad's?"

But Ivan Nabirov certainly wasn't about to tell him
just like that--That his Old Dad was very probably
still somewhere out there (with a strap) hunting for him?!

"Hardly!" This would have let the village crier know
that he was a man on the run--After all,
Peptodnikoff was also village policeman!

So, no... Ivan Nabirov would keep his mouth shut
about this and 'quietly' pass on his chance to explain
exactly what it was that was half way between
Milatoff's house and his Old Dad's.

What Ivan Nabirov did not count on
was the fact that for the village crier
it was already excuse enough that he
seemed to be acquainted with some (perhaps) 'rock'
(or, whatever) outside the little village:

The village crier lost no time redoubling his efforts
to dislodge the so annoyingly encrusted boy right off
the little fountain's slippery bricks
so he might send him on his way --altogether out of there:

"Go on," he began to pull and push at him all over again,
absolutely convinced that once he kicked Ivan Nabirov out
of the village the disreputable boy would he utterly unwilling
to make any effort to seek out a 'good enough' rock out there
just to be able to return to the village that same day:

"Get out there, you lazy, good-for-nothing boy!"
Peptodnikoff berated him with an almost heroic zest
amid their latest struggle: As far as the village crier was concerned,
it was a safe bet that once he got Ivan Nabirov out of there,
that would be the last he'd have to see of him
--at least for the balance of that day.

So, "Don't you come back without at least one good
solid rock for dear, kind Mr. Myopicovitch!"
He was only too delighted to warn Ivan Nabirov now
(as he fought him body and soul with every ounce of beef
with which he had ever stuffed himself).

And, well... Ivan Nabirov protested (quite a lot actually),
even as he was being forced to push back and pull away
so much now. But, alas (and alack, above all),
in the end, the starved boy just didn't have the stomach
(full of anything) with which to keep fighting
the so much more determined and so much better fed
village butcher as effectively as the bigger man kept
constantly pulling and pushing at him
--this time without even the least letup!

The result of which was that, inevitably,
even as worn out and torn up as he was (from
all the running he had done to escape his Old Dad earlier,
and all this pulling and pushing now against Peptodnikoff),
head-to-toes sore (after the lumps he'd taken
in the Milatoff pigsty and down there in that ditch
he'd been forced to dive into to escape his Old Dad)
... now, just like that, Ivan Nabirov was apparently also
going to have to go rock hunting (of all things).
And for some complete total stranger, too
(even if he was from St. Petersburg): "What a day!"

 The Good Lump. 

Well, needless to say, it was a wearier, dirtier,
and seemingly much, much, much longer
(horseless) trek than ever back to where
he had last run into (or whatever) that stupid lump
of mud... which, not all that surprisingly, Ivan Nabirov
was beginning to wish he had thrown away
into those hopelessly impenetrable swamps
everywhere out there (so he wouldn't have had to
come all this way now--so stupidly--to fetch it).

At least he didn't run into his Old Dad (and that strap
of his) along the way--Although he did hear
his angry voice floating all kinds of
really heavy (but thankfully distant)
outrages... somewhere out there.

And he was able to find the lump of mud again
quickly enough... right there by the same little white sapling
as always, exactly where he had already thrown it away
twice before.

For the third time that day Ivan Nabirov picked up
the slick ball of slime--And now actually spoke to it:
"Ah! What pains you have cost me, O lump
of mud!" ... especially considering how
ever since they had crossed paths
Hard Luck seemed to have hitched a hard ride with him
like some blood-thirsty tick:

"Aren't you ashamed?" He chided the slippery thing:
"I might have been engaged to be married to
the richest heiress somewhere between Novgorod
and St. Petersburg by now--if you hadn't tripped me!"

Ivan Nabirov did shudder at the thought, however,
because no matter how rich Hemesfiria was--to be--
the thought of marrying her was still one thought worth
a good shudder (at least)
... for anybody who had actually met the girl.

In any case, "Right about now I'd probably be resting
on my own warm, dry, comfortable bed,"
Ivan Nabirov had to bemoan... "probably after
a huge, hot, and delicious dinner too," and,
raising that evil lump of mud over his head again
(to match his rising anger), "still friends with
my old Dad," winding his entire body up to a
possible pitch--as if he were again thinking of throwing it
away with all the anger boiling in his chilled and
shivering bones at that moment... out
into the almost impassable boggy woods that went on
and on for miles and miles
down both sides of that deadly desolate road.

Ah, but the village crier's threat
that he would not let him back into the village without 'it'
quickly dissuaded Ivan from going through with
his feverish pitch:

It was still quite up in the air
whether the slippery lump of mud he was holding
really had a rock in it at all, of course. But
there was certainly no getting around the fact that
one way or another he was going to have to bring 'something'
by way of a 'rock' back with him to the village
(if he expected to get anything to eat that evening).

No matter how tightly-packed, the lump of mud in
his hand might very well prove to be nothing more than
just a plain old-fashioned, garden variety, foul-smelling,
scummy ball of mud through and through: Out there,
just then, Ivan Nabirov certainly had no
fast and easy way to find out about this.

It would be a waste of time to scrape the mud off it
without having any truly clean water handy to wash out
exactly what sweet treasure lay at its sour little core.
It was also getting pretty dark now:

With a great deal of care Ivan Nabirov weighed the lump
of mud... first with his right hand, then with his left one
(in case his right hand was off a few ounces).
Very reluctantly though, because, to be honest about it,
the last thing Ivan Nabirov would have wanted to know
was that there wasn't some great big beautiful
special sort of rock inside his filthy ball of mud
just begging for him to bring it out
into the spotless clarity of day...

Sadly, the shiny mud ball felt suspiciously as light
as if it were indeed nothing but scum to the core.
However, the longer he remained out there
the darker the day became (at least in his eyes).

Even now it was beginning to look to him like sheer folly
to give any thought to jumping out into the wilderness
beyond the so ungracefully piled up shoulders of
that primitive (yet safe enough) road
to search out another rocky candidate.

And risk quicksand or worse
just to stumble about blindly hunting down
some only/maybe/possibly 'better' rock?

"Good luck!" That was a deadly swamp out there.
And as far as Ivan Nabirov was concerned:
"Quicksand and darkness don't mix."

For good or ill, that dirty 'bird' in his hand was
going to have to do, whether it turned out to be
the rarest and most valuable rock in the world
or just another lousy lump of (whatever)... because
Ivan Nabirov had definitely made up his steel vault mind now
to... sink or swim with it.

* * *

"Who knows," Ivan Nabirov was soon daydreaming
again, as he headed back to the little village
'through' that still (really quite-a-ways-away) twilight,
merrily fingering the big chocolaty mud egg
as if it had been a rubber ball: "Maybe
Mr. Myopicovitch will think it rock enough
to pay me half of one ruble for it," if not a whole one.
Or two, or three maybe, or even five:

"Why not?" And if the St. Petersburg rock collector was
'already' willing to pay him five rubles for it (at least
in his mind), why wouldn't he be just as willing to pay him ten?

Myopicovitch certainly seemed rich (and crazy) enough
to pay anything for a rock he might want--hard enough.
Why stop there, then? Were his lump of mud to be worth,
say, "Fifteen rubles!" then Old Dad Nabirov probably
wouldn't mind as much that he had failed so miserably
to win Hemesfiria Milatoff's hand in marriage
(in one single slippery dinner fiasco).

"Now, let's see--" Ivan tried to figure all this out
as quickly as possible in that wonderful daydream
within which he now found himself (before he reached
the village): Were he to be paid thirty rubles, say,
for his good ole lump of mud... not only
would his Old Dad then be able to get all his money back
(exactly twenty-five rubles' worth) but
there would also be five extra rubles left over for him!

And what couldn't Ivan Nabirov have done
with five whole rubles all to himself--!

In fact, the way this figuring of his was going,
it might not be too far down that now so very dreamy
road before the hopelessly imaginative boy ended up
the world's greatest and most successful dealer
in fabulous rocks and... lumps!

 The Cat And Mouse Game.

"Heavens, what glory!" (then),
if dozens and dozens of rock collectors from
all over Russia, exactly like the very wealthy Milos
Myopicovitch, thought nothing of paying him hundreds,
thousands, or millions of rubles each
for his remarkable... curious pieces.

And, "Heavens, what an idiot!" Ivan Nabirov was
suddenly startled to hear that old familiar (and
painful as always) voice of Peptodnikoff --of all people--
shouting right into his ear... as usual. For,
without realizing it, Ivan Nabirov had almost tumbled
right into the little village's water fountain,
trying to daydream and walk at the same time!

He had in fact waltzed right through the middle of the mob
of villagers who had gathered in the little square
and were loitering there (quite noisily too) waiting
to have their rocks examined by the mysteriously rich
rock collector from St. Petersburg
--without even so much as noticing a single soul of them!

Now they all burst out laughing at the poor boy
(noisily enough). And very probably with a greater zeal
than they might have... had he gone ahead and fallen into
the fountain head first, including even his own beloved
snickering Spotia (that wonderful red/blue dress of hers
and everything), for she too was also waiting there
for the rock line to begin forming, apparently having found
at least one rock worthy of being brought before
the much-moneyed Myopicovitch.

* * *

"So, young man," the village crier unexpectedly rushed
forward to challenge Ivan Nabirov: "I see
you finally decided to bring a rock after all!"
Then he began trying to corner the lad
by dogging his every step... no matter how elusively
the young man tried to escape
Peptodnikoff's tremendous 'presence.'

"Well," Ivan was thinking, "I brought a 'rock,'"
without actually answering the village crier:
"But certainly somebody else decided,"
as he scurried about among the gathered villagers
like a field mouse... because, for 'some' reason,
the great bearded lion Peptodnikoff
had gotten it into his mangy head to chase him
wherever he went--And maybe even only
on the suspicion that the young man seemed to be
acting... suspiciously!

However, threading his way through the villagers
who had gathered around the little fountain
... Ivan was able to get a good, close look
at all the different rocks which his fellow rock 'merchants'
had brought with them.

Strange, oddly-shaped affairs many of these pieces were
(some even quite brilliant and lovely)...

And every last one of them
unquestionably a rock to its core!

This undeniable fact finally drove home to poor Ivan
Nabirov just how badly he had deceived himself
about the miserable lousy lump--definitely of mud--
that he himself had brought with him: It was almost
as if, face to face now with what real rocks looked like,
there could no longer be any doubt left in his mind
that all he was holding in his muddy hand was indeed
just a pitiful lump of hard-packed... mud!

"Good Heavens!" In a flash, Ivan hid it
from the prying eyes around him
in the only place he could really do so
--right there under the remains of his mail-ordered coat
... If he was lucky, maybe none of the villagers had even
noticed that he had brought anything back with him at all.

Ivan Nabirov wasn't that lucky, of course.
The reason Peptodnikoff was acting so frustrated
--even furious--at seeing him back in the little village
that same day (without being able to kick him right back out
on his ears) was that Ivan had very obviously brought back
'something' with him --even if the obsessive village crier
hadn't yet been able to uncover exactly what the mysterious 'object'
Ivan Nabirov was skulking about with looked like...

Suddenly, however, it was Ivan's own beloved
Spotia (who was herself very much smitten with the boy
in spite of all his painful clumsiness, poverty, and truly
dreadful physical appearance now)... suddenly
it was Spotia who shouted out proudly
to everyone at the top of her voice:

"Look! Look, everyone! Ivan brought His Excellency a rock
too!" For the girl was quite eager not to let pass
this singular opportunity to prove that 'her' Ivan
was not as big a lazy good-for-nothing so-and-so
as everybody there was so certain he was.

Well, to many of the surprised villagers there
this was the first time in memory they could recall
lazy, good-for-nothing Ivan Nabirov
ever accomplishing anything
even remotely connected with actual work.

Naturally, a lot of them were quite properly shocked.
Although, you can bet, not a one of them more so
than poor, flattened Ivan Nabirov himself.

A few of the villagers tried to sneak a peek at the 'rock'
Ivan was so mysteriously keeping under wraps.
But he had already been quicker, of course--if but by
a shade--and the telltale lump of mud was by now safely put away
under what was left of his coat (mercifully, before
any of the very nosy eyes around him could find out
exactly what a lousy lump of mud
his so-called 'rock' really --only-- was).

But, "My Gosh!" what would happen
when the rock expert himself let the whole world know
that the 'rock' he had brought to him that day was only
a crummy ball of shiny wet mud, however hard-packed!

Just thinking about this was enough to visibly age Ivan
an entire lifetime--or two, or three--standing there
incubating that rotten mud egg like some dope (and
beginning to feel rather feverish now): "The pain! The pain!"

Knowing it would be certain death, or very nearly,
to let the rock expert examine his lump (of mud!)
Ivan Nabirov began trying desperately to break it apart
right there under his coat (since there was no way
he could've dumped it now--not with Peptodnikoff
sticking to him like gummed sweat):

He stabbed at it with thumb and nails now,
even as he was forced to keep out-maneuvering
the everywhere pursuing village crier,
clumsily calling out, "Excuse me! Pardon," to everyone
he kept bumping into while twirling his way through the crowd
of 'rock merchants' in his headlong race for freedom.

Then at last there came a moment of reckoning
for Ivan Nabirov... when his thumb
and every one of his nails smarted enough to
force him to give up on the obviously impractical idea
of manually pulverizing the horrid ball of mud
there under his coat.

It was also then that Ivan Nabirov became aware of
the unnerving fact that he had 'somehow' managed to
stumble his way into the line of people forming
in front of the big city rock expert--Well, he'd actually
been (practically) pushed into it by the mangy mouser
Peptodnikoff--Because, frankly, for the longest while now
Ivan Nabirov's main reason for living had really been
to try to subtly (if at all possible, although not at all necessarily)
... to sneak away right out of the village altogether.

Now, under the clumsy pretense that he was that courteous
and considerate, Ivan Nabirov shuffled his way back to
the very last place in the line (with Peptodnikoff after him
every step of the way) until, back there with the last hopefuls
in that hopeless line, Ivan Nabirov's 'freedom run'
at last came to its inescapable dead end--when he
was unexpectedly cut off from any further escape
by that unquitting butcher, policeman and now apparently
also living 'Stonewall' Peptodnikoff:

Intent on making certain that his slippery mouse Ivan Nabirov
didn't get any further out of line, so-to-speak, Peptodnikoff
had quickly out-raced him to the very last last place in line,
where he instantly cemented himself like a dead-end wall,
and cut off Ivan Nabirov very effectively from any further retreat.

The only course of action left to the boxed in young man now
was to... pray that the other villagers should take their money
and run home to count it (before it came down to his turn),
if only to cut down on the number of them
who seemed destined or simply determined to stay behind
in order to be witnesses to his humiliation first hand.

Ah, but, "Garbage! Trash!" Ivan suddenly heard Myopicovitch
handing out at every rock handed to him
(down at the front end of the line):

Instead of even one valuable ruble: "All worthless rubble!
Throw it away! Litter! It's junk! Pure junk!"
The rock expert was telling everybody ahead of him in the line
--so nobody was going home to count his or her money at all!

 The Moment Of Truth! 

By the time the already deadly-short line
had dwindled to just Ivan Nabirov
(with that yellow-belly lump of scum hiding under his coat)
and Peptodnikoff bringing up the rear
... every villager who had been there all along
was still very much there--surrounding the boy, pressing
against him, staring at him without so much as blinking
even once (or so they seemed to Ivan Nabirov), almost
foaming at the mouth, like the very beastly Peptodnikoff himself--

The whole lot of them wallowing deliciously
in a kind of blood-thirsty collective eagerness to see
a mere lump of mud embarrass a poor soul--to death:

"Ah, unfortunate me!" Ivan Nabirov moaned,
shaking his head--

And, "Well?!" Myopicovitch suddenly barked at Ivan,
giving him quite a start: "Let's have it!"

"Let's have what?" The unnerved lad cried back
instinctively, grasping at mental straws by now,
trying to get hold of any means to prolong his miserable
existence on this planet for a few additional seconds...

"What do you think!" Myopicovitch came back at Ivan
Nabirov (too quickly to permit Ivan to recover his senses)
boiling over with frustration--Quite understandably too,
since he had yet to find even one rock there
solid enough to make his trip to the little village worthwhile
(if one didn't count Old Mrs. Duckashova's rock, of course).

"Oh, you mean my rock!?" Ivan Nabirov asked,
trying to buy himself time.

"I don't mean your liver!" Myopicovitch seethed at him
(every impatient hair on him looking like it was getting ready to
shoot right off his skin at any moment).

"But, but--Your Excellency must first tell me something,"
Ivan Nabirov unexpectedly began trying to shoot the breeze
with the great rock expert: "When I hand my rock over to
Your Excellency, will Your Excellency then hand payment for it
over to me--Is that the way this works?"
Doing his desperate best to engage him in a timeless timely little chat:

"Yes! Yes!" Myopicovitch shot back at the young man
quite viciously: "If it's worth something. Now, let's have it!"
he demanded. And then he also began demanding the 'rock'
with an ever faster and faster flapping hand.

And, right here, like some fatal Greek chorus,
the entire assembly of villagers suddenly began echoing
Myopicovitch's impatience in a low, rumbling murmur
that sounded to Ivan a little like: "Let's have it! Let's have it!"

So the game was concluded at last.
This would be as far as it was going to go for Ivan
Nabirov: "Let's have it! Let's have it!"

By the look on the faces of everyone there: "Let's have it!
Let's have it!" It certainly looked like he was going to have to
face the fact he had lost the gamble of his life.

So, resigned to the ridicule that would shortly be coming after him
like witches on broomsticks for being too stupid to know
the difference between a real rock and that impostor mud lump
of his, Ivan Nabirov scrounged about the hollow of his belly
for a moment or two (with that selfsame lump)
trying to scrape up some last minute courage...

Then, with marked regret, he at last brought forth
the miserable thing out from under his muddied and
tattered coat, and he pushed the hard-luck object toward
the rock expert (really, as reluctantly as if he'd been
setting a match to a bomb).

"What's this!?!" Myopicovitch suddenly exploded at him--

"Mercy!" Ivan recoiled, trying to figure out
in that shocking instant... how Myopicovitch could have possibly
found out it was only a ball of mud before even
taking the filthy thing in his own hands.

Stunned as he was, Ivan Nabirov closed his eyes
and hoped it would be a mercifully swift execution.

"So!" Myopicovitch bellowed out--at everybody there,
really ... for his was an attack now not only on
whatever was left of poor unhinged Ivan Nabirov
but upon the very honor and pride of every man, woman, and
child in that entire little village.

Unfortunately for Ivan Nabirov, Myopicovitch's attack
on the villagers left them all staring exclusively (and squarely)
at him... as well as about as harshly as if he'd been the pig
who had killed, cooked, and devoured their sacred sow
(all by himself): Because, obviously, in their eyes, it was far,
far better to shift the rock collector's condemnation upon Ivan
Nabirov alone than to actually take any of the blame for it themselves:

So now Ivan Nabirov knew: It was NOT
going to be a mercifully swift execution at all
--It would be an infinitely slow and lingering one!

"Isn't it enough that I have come all this miserable way
to pay you good money for your stinking rocks?"
The St. Petersburg 'gentleman' was telling them then,
while he went from being merely personally insulting
to, generally, being even more so:

"What sort of an insult is this, I ask you!?" (And,
naturally, not being sophisticated enough to know exactly
what sort of an insult it was, the villagers only shrugged.)

Oh, sure, Ivan Nabirov could have come clean
about the whole thing, thrown the stupid lump of mud away,
and then tried to get himself away as quickly as humanly possible
(and maybe he even should have)...

But he was completely devastated, demoralized
(and unimaginably hungry) now... and he just didn't have
the will, let alone any actual physical strength to do anything
about it other than just stand there, exactly as he was doing,
shaking like a wet dog left out in the cold.

"How dare you hand me something as filthy as that?!"
Myopicovitch unexpectedly asked Ivan Nabirov directly.

The dumbstruck lad could only shudder even worse
(in response), absolutely incapable of even imagining
what it was going to be like when the rock expert finally
got around to letting everybody know...

"I like this!" Myopicovitch yelled next--this time
at the universe, really: "Do they also
expect me to wash them for them?"

 A Clean Lump.

"Wash/what?!" Ivan cried out, still quite dazed,
but cracking open his eyes (a little)
as he asked the people around him: "Did he say... wash?!"

What a shattering picture that made in Ivan
Nabirov's already half broken mind!
Just the thought that he might be forced to
actually wash (a lump of mud!) out there
in front of everybody... expecting a rock to come out of it!

Well, it was certainly enough to make him wish he could
toss himself head first right back into that muddy ditch
which had already once rescued him from the wrath of
his Old Dad. Or maybe... drop to his knees
to pray to all the saints for deliverance--

Not just because his knees felt so wobbly now
but because, let's face it, washing a lump of mud
was totally out of the question--What
could one possibly ever hope to end up with
outside of... muddy hands?!

Whatever happened, though, Ivan Nabirov could
be sure of one thing: There would be no last minute escapes
for him: "The saints deliver me!" Even if this
was mostly due to the fact that he was absolutely
frozen stiff now, dead to the world, as it were, above
and below the neck. A doomed train
speeding down a dead-end track--

"Why, you ungrateful fool!"
Peptodnikoff unexpectedly interrupted Ivan
Nabirov's train of thoughts to make a big loud show of
denouncing him personally before the entire world
(and the rock collector specifically):

"You want to make dear Mr. Myopicovitch think
that we have no respect for him--that there is not even
a single rotten drop of pride in our entire beloved
little village?!" He screamed at the boy
(as he was dragging him aside):

"You want him to go to some other stupid village
and buy their stupid rocks?" He whispered angrily
into one of Ivan Nabirov's ears (as soon as he had gotten him
out of ear-shot of Myopicovitch)... all the time he was
painfully twisting his other ear:

"Go wash that stinking rock right this minute!"
Peptodnikoff ordered: "Before I throw you in prison
for a million years, you rotten,
good-for-nothing Ivan Nabirov, you!"

At which point, right out of the blue, suddenly
practically everybody there began chanting: "Wash
the mud off! Wash the mud off!" Eerily too
... all of them in perfect harmony:
"Wash the mud off! Wash the mud off!"

   "But-but," Ivan tried to object.

And, "Just wash it!" Demanded Peptodnikoff
even more harshly still:

"Just wash it! Just wash it!"
Demanded all the villagers in a deadly monotone.

     "But-but..." Ivan sputtered.

And, "Just wash it!" Everybody demanded instantly.
And, quite unnervingly... audibly: "Just wash it! Just wash it!"

* * *

Finally it was his beloved Spotia (heavenly red/blue dress
and all), who calmly stepped forward
to counsel Ivan Nabirov: "Just wash it, Ivan--Please!"

And, well, that did it: Defeated, condemned, and now
probably soon-to-be shot, hanged, and maybe even
(necessarily) sent away to prison (since there were no
prisons anywhere near the little village), Ivan Nabirov
at last gave in to the combined weight of everybody there.

Harboring that fatal ball of mud under his totalled coat,
Ivan Nabirov slowly started for the ancient little fountain
(an even bigger lump in his throat), knowing full well
that the filthy lump wasn't very likely to stay a lump
for very long under all that clean flowing water
(at least, not so very filthy a one):

"Heavens, Heavens, Heavens!" He prayed, and
prayed (and prayed) with each and every step he took
lugging the now seemingly ten-ton lump of--to wash it!

"Heavens! Heavens! Heavens!" Every eye there on him
as if he'd been some crazed daredevil about to run himself off
a cliff (and not unlike some singularly quaint one-man funeral
off on a bizarre parade)... Ivan Nabirov slowly went through
the motions expected of him, step by step by step
coming ever closer and closer
to the fountain's eternally laughing liquid.

Once he got to the fateful place, he glanced down
upon the hideous lump of mud which for all practical purposes
was about to end his miserable existence (somewhere
between Novgorod and St. Petersburg), and he shook his head,
closed his eyes tightly, and sighed as deeply as if
that one sigh was going to have to last him for a long time indeed.

Resolutely then, although overdramatically so, Ivan
Nabirov plunged the foul object under the mercilessly clean
stream of clear flowing laughter. And, what were Ivan Nabirov's
final thoughts in this cruel, cruel earth... exactly?

* * *

Well, rubbing that dirty bubbling lump... as it slowly
and slowly dissolved under the crystal baptism of
the pure liquid's sinless and all-scouring sinews:
"Wouldn't it be neat," he was thinking, "Wouldn't
it be neat if it turned out to be a miraculous lump of mud,"
(Aladdin's lump, sort of), oh yes, "so I could wish
myself invisible and be able to get out of this
without ever being seen again! Or... if I could fly away
like a bird and never had to look behind me
for any reason whatever--for the rest of my life!"

Yes indeed, ever true to form, even as he was busily
rubbing off more and more of the damning mud
off the blessed ball, Ivan Nabirov was many a mile away
just then, daydreaming, eyes closed... rubbing a bit, and
wishing a bit more. And obviously without a clue in the world
where, how, or why it was that 'things' had turned out
so badly for him in so short a time.

And when, bit by bit by bit, Ivan Nabirov had finally
finished rubbing, wishing, and daydreaming, he opened his eyes
... to find that he was still very much exactly
where he had always been, of course, every bit
as visible as ever, as flat-footed upon this planet (and
still without any clue at all to the mysteries
of his so very charmed existence on it).

But, and this is still quite a substantial but,
but he had managed to rub off enough mud from his
now sparkling clean 'lump' to reveal...
one of the most spectacularly stunning diamonds
anybody had ever set eyes on in all the history of
diamonds--Such a huge gem
that he could hardly even close his hand around it!

Without even thinking about it, Ivan Nabirov raised
the stupendous gem above his head, between the thumb
and index finger of his right hand, for a better look at it
against the rising twilight.

And just like that everybody there suddenly found
themselves staring in absolute shock
at one of the most incredible jewels ever seen in the world
till that instant.
 Ivan The Prince. 

For the longest time
every person there stood frozen like that, as
the huge diamond's thousand-colored sparkle glittered
over their unblinking faces as brilliantly as
the entire sky's sweep of twinkling stars
... only their eyes revealing they were still alive, since
not a single eye there seemed like it would ever stop
growing, every one of them seeming to be
preparing itself to take a bite out of that priceless rock
with ever-looming although always-invisible ogling teeth!

Many of the villagers crossed themselves
religiously at the unbelievable sight...

"Good Heavens!" Peptodnikoff cried out,
as if he had been witnessing a miracle (then
found that he could only utter that and nothing else).

"It's so huge," Myopicovitch said next, his voice trembling
with excitement: "It's so huge that the only person
in this entire world who could afford to buy
such a diamond is the Czar himself!"

At the mention of that awesome personage
all the men, women, and children of the little village
(without exception) quickly crossed themselves and
just as quickly bowed to their very knees, to pray
for any and all possible worldly deliverance
from any and all evil powers loose in this world
(strictly to themselves, of course).

"Yes," Myopicovitch agreed with himself:
"A diamond that large will probably end up in the Imperial
Crown itself! My boy," he told Ivan with unbounded joy:
"Tomorrow you will be the most famous person in Russia!"
And, "If you're lucky, even Czar Nicholas himself
will not be able to afford to buy your great gem
--Then he will most likely have to make you a nobleman for it
instead: A baron, a count maybe, or maybe even... a prince!"

Hearing this, all the villagers crossed themselves for a third time,
shouted (once) with great joy, and then quickly bowed once
again to pray--this time, to pray against the (naturally, highly
unlikely) likelihood that the great Czar Nicholas might
get it into his head to buy their once and future
(perhaps) Prince Ivan Nabirov's almost miraculous jewel
with but a single load of lead balls instead of a load of cash.

And although exactly where such a wondrously magical
diamond as that one might have possibly come from
forever remained as big a mystery to everyone there as
where any diamond comes from...
where Ivan Nabirov came by it, as all of you now know,
was by one of those very special sort of places
as only very special sort of persons (like Ivan Nabirov) ever... trip.

And from such ordinary sort of holes in the ground as
spit out such gems at people (like Ivan Nabirov)
perhaps for no better reason than
that such gems are simply itching at their 'throats.'  

* * *

Ah, but now Ivan Nabirov would have the means
to get himself properly married, and to buy a house
all his own; to buy a second house for his Old Dad; and
perhaps he would even have enough money to buy
a few more of them for any mislaid relatives (which
he now definitely expected would turn up in very short order).

Ivan Nabirov might even be rich enough now to
be able to buy that whole entire village, in fact, from
end to end. And maybe even a hundred villages like it; and...

And, "Now, at last you can marry Hemesfiria Milatoff,
my boy!" The agitated village crier said to his best-friend
-in-all-the-world (now), the (perhaps) Prince Ivan Nabirov,
as painfully loud as ever. Although this time patting him
on his (perhaps) princely back (while trying his darnest
to figure out just what the young man might possibly be
daydreaming about then).

Ah, but, "No," the soon-to-be (perhaps) Prince Ivan
Nabirov was quick to let Peptodnikoff know: "No
... let my Old Dad marry Hemesfiria himself
--if he wants her in our family that much,"
hardly daydreaming now.

Then, taking his true love by the hand:
"Now I can marry Spotia!" Ivan Nabirov cried out
joyfully to everyone: "And make her my--" countess,
baroness, princess, or whatever... depending on
how the (maybe not all that sympathetic, but certainly
still quite absolutely monstrously great) Czar Nicholas
rewarded him for his so spectacularly precious 'lump,'
of course.

Again everybody gave forth a singularly --single--
great shout of triumphant rejoicing. Then
everybody there quickly crossed themselves... in case
it should turn out to be sacrilege to go around
rejoicing that much in this world of flesh and blood.

All the villagers bowed again.
This time to pray for their future (perhaps) Prince Ivan
Nabirov... as well as for Spotia, now
definitely his future (perhaps) Princess.

And although this so very special 'lump' wasn't the last one
Ivan Nabirov was ever to pick up during the balance
of his life, by any means--Still, as you might imagine,
not one of the many other 'lumps' that crossed paths with him
thereafter... ever again had quite the same impact (on him)
as the one with such a tremendous 'rock' in it.

However, for the longest time after this
so curious coincidence of Ivan Nabirov's lump of mud
having had a diamond in it, you wouldn't believe
how strong a tradition it became in that part of Russia,
somewhere between Novgorod and St. Petersburg,
to wash all sorts of absolutely, utterly filthy lumps (of mud
only, unfortunately, for not one of them was ever again found
pregnant with any diamond in it whatever at all)
... in the miraculously crystal waters of
that nameless little village's tiny fountain--

And what a nuisance it all quickly became
to the poor villagers for whom up until then
that little fountain had been their main source of clean
drinking water. (Which, in no small measure, is why
the nameless little village is still trying to remain nameless
to this very day.)

But when, still in quite hot pursuit of his so very
recently lazy, good-for-nothing son Ivan Nabirov,
his still absolutely livid Old Dad (and strap)
unexpectedly rushed into the tiny little village plaza
with that (now) so filthy famous fountain in it,
the poor old man was stunned to discover everyone there,
including even such a sophisticated and philosophically
mustachioed gentleman as the marvelously tailored Milos
Myopicovitch (obviously also caught up in the spirit of
the moment)... down on their knees, all of them, actually
paying homage to
that lazy, good-for-nothing son of his--Ivan Nabirov!


But, in spite of the fact that he wasn't altogether quite certain
just what this might be all about, Old Dad Nabirov
decided to err on the side of caution after all and also bowed
himself (down to his own two ancient and cricky kneecaps)
before his lazy, good-for-nothing son, the once
and future (perhaps) Prince Ivan Nabirov, because...
frankly, by now the old fellow had lived long enough
to know that if there was one thing
one could always know (one knew) it was
that one j-u-s-t never knows in Russia.