The Death of Peter Stonewood

Story by Matt Mills · Estimated Reading Time: 20 Minutes

It all happened in our village many years ago, beginning on the night the stranger stumbled into the Yellow Canary, driven by the wind and sleet. A few of the inn’s usual patrons were sitting by the fire, and when the door opened, letting in a gust of cold air, they turned in surprise; our village rarely had visitors, least of all in the winter.

The stranger was thin and tall, his boots caked with snow and mud. He carried a large rucksack on his back, and wore a fine wool overcoat that surely indicated wealth. There was a scarf wrapped around his mouth and nose, but peeking up over it, framed by his flushed cheeks and wild hair, the whole inn could see his eyes: they were large and bright and the fire in the fireplace made little dancing shapes in them.

He looked around at us for a moment, then unwrapped the scarf. We saw, to our further amazement, that he was very young. A student from the university, someone whispered, or some new accountant come to balance the village books.

The stranger said nothing. He did not even address Mr. Golovin, the Yellow Canary’s owner, who was standing behind the bar. Instead, he took the rucksack off and moved over towards the fire. There was an empty chair by the hearth, and as we all watched he knelt before it. The flames cast strange shadows on the wall.

With the utmost care, the young man reached into his rucksack and removed two items. The first was a smooth, round stone the size of a melon. It was sea-green, flecked with swirls of white. The second was a piece of driftwood, burnished black. It had two twisting knots, and was about the length of his forearm. He set them each on the chair, gently.

“There,” he murmured, and the whole inn heard him. “Now you will be warm.”

I was only a bus boy in the Yellow Canary’s kitchens in those days, decades before I became the proprietor. But even now, all these years later, I can picture his face. I think of it sometimes when I am wiping down the tables or cleaning the whisky glasses. Almost always I picture it in the slow, dark nights of winter, the nights when the sun cannot bear to stay in the sky for long. On those nights, I remember his red cheeks, his murmuring voice, the look in his eye.

Most of all, I remember how we killed him.

“I hear there is a rich young stranger renting the finest room at the inn,” my mother said the next morning. She was washing dishes, and out the window the Yellow Canary was visible up the hill. “I hear he paid with gold, too.”

“Who told you that, mother?” I asked.

“Why, Darya the maid, of course. She came by last night with leftover chicken broth. Did you see him, Abram?”

“Yes,” I said. “I saw him.”

I left without another word, pulling my scarf up over my nose. I knew that, by the end of the day, there would be no one left in the village who hadn’t seen the stranger.

Our village was a mining village, up in the mountains. It was called Dusha. There were only two roads leading out: one that went south, down the mountain, and one that went north into the cliffs. There was not another village nearby for fifty miles. It was a hard life up here, as hard as the frozen pine trees encrusted with frost that never seemed to thaw, as hard as the rocky, uneven ground of the mountain itself. In the mornings the men of the village—some thirty souls—would take their pickaxes and head up the northward path, where they would hew ore from deep under the rocks. It was a grim life, and a simple one.

It was no surprise, then, that the stranger’s arrival caused no end of curiosity. When he came out the door of the inn that second morning, standing in the fresh, cold air, I’m quite certain we were all watching. He was wearing his fine wool coat, we noticed, but had left his rucksack behind. Under his right arm, he carried the green stone; under his left, the black driftwood. As he looked up towards the snow-capped peak of the great mountain, his eyes glowed and he spoke to the objects in his arms.

“Look!” he said. “There is the very top of the world.”

For the rest of the day, he went around like this. He peered over cliffs and turned over rocks with his shoe, exploring every inch of the little village. He did not say a word to anyone. He spoke only to the piece of stone and the piece of wood.

From my little window in the kitchen at the Yellow Canary, I watched him.

And as the shadows grew long, the village began to grow more and more uneasy.

That night in the inn, the stranger sat by the fire. He held the wood and the stone in his arms. He was singing to them, under his breath. The men of the village, returned from their work in the mines and drinking their dark beer, looked at Mr. Golovin. The proprietor sat on a stool, his forehead creased.

Finally, the oldest of the miners, Mr. Levich, stood and walked over to the fireplace.

“Good evening,” he said in that low, bassy voice I remember so well. “I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced.”

The young man looked up. His face broke into a smile. “Ah, of course, my good sir! I have been most rude to all of you. My name is Peter, Peter Stonewood. Please, allow me to introduce my parents.”

Mr. Levich looked at him over his gray beard. “Your parents.”

“Yes,” he said. He indicated the stone. “This is my father. And this,” he raised the driftwood, “is my mother.”

The inn was very quiet. Mr. Levich stared at him. Then he turned and went back to the bar.

By the fire, the stranger kept singing.

“What kind of idiot game is this young fool playing?”

It was the following day, and I was cleaning out the fireplace. Across the room Mr. Levich was arguing softly with Mr. Golovin, and if I kept my breathing steady I could hear every word.

“He’s rich,” said Golovin. “You know how the rich are.”

“I assure you, I do not.”

Golovin waved a hand. “They live in their own little worlds.”

“In their own little…? Curse it all, Golovin! The boy thinks that that rock and log are his parents!”

“He was just having a little joke…”

“No, he wasn’t. You saw the expression on his face. He believes it, sure as I’m standing here. That goes far beyond ‘little worlds.’”

Golovin frowned and put down his washrag. “What are you suggesting, Levich?”

“You know what I’m suggesting.” Levich’s little eyes peered out from deep folds of flesh, heavy and dark. “The boy is insane.”

There it was: the word had been spoken. It only took once. It was a puncture in the dam, a germ in the water. It spread, fever-like.

“Have you heard?” came the whispers. “The rich stranger is insane.”

Soon, doors were being locked that had had no occasion to be locked before, seals sealed and latches latched.

The very next morning, twenty-seven souls took their pickaxes and trudged into the cold cliffs; the other three—strong, young men—stood on their front porches, the smoldering ends of their cigarettes little spots of red against the white snow. They were still standing there when Peter came out and stood on the steps of the Yellow Canary, as he had done every morning. They watched him walk through the town, watched him buy carrots and beets at the grocer, watched him go back to the inn. They were still watching when the men returned from the mines that evening, and the next day, three others took their place.

All over town, we were peeking out our windows, up the slope to where the lights came from the Yellow Canary.

“Why doesn’t he just leave?” my mother said one night. “Surely he must realize he isn’t welcome.”

I said nothing.

At the inn, the atmosphere was one of mounting pressure, the taut feeling of a growing storm. During the day, it was only Mr. Golovin and Darya the maid and me. Most of the time, our unwelcome visitor kept to his room. In the mornings he went to the grocer, and sometimes in the afternoons he walked brisk laps around the town, his wool coat unbuttoned like he wanted to let the cold in. But the rest of the time he stayed upstairs while we cleaned and cooked, always with our ears tuned to the ceiling. Sometimes we could hear him pacing. Sometimes we could hear him singing.

Every day at lunch, Mr. Golovin gave me a bit of ham and cheese wrapped in paper to take to him. I would climb the steps, feeling the blood in my ears as I went down the hall to the heavy oak door of the inn’s biggest room. I would place the food on the floor, knock, then turn and run. But when I got to the stairs, I would stop and look back.

The door would open and the stranger would stoop down and pick the ham and cheese up off the floor. When he noticed me, he would give a little wave.

“Mother, father,” he would call back into the room. “The boy has brought lunch.”

Then he would close the door.

Finally, the town could bear it no longer.

A secret meeting was called, in the home of Mr. Levich. Almost everyone in the village was there, crowding into the little cabin. Those who couldn’t fit inside listened at the window. I stood next to my mother, in the very back, smelling the body odor and pipe tobacco and fear all blending together. Voices were kept low, but there was no mistaking the temperature in the room: Peter, it was clear, would have to go.

For a whole hour, they talked and argued about how to do it. They had nearly settled on seizing him forcefully and driving him out of town when Mr. Golovin stood up. A hush came over the cabin.

“Friends,” he said, “why do this thing? Peter hasn’t hurt anyone. His hands are soft, without calluses. He never raises his voice.”

“But his eyes, Golovin,” someone said. “You have seen them. Wild eyes.”

“Yes, I have seen them. But I say again, Peter has hurt no one. And what’s more, I don’t believe he will.”

That, as it turned out, was the end of it. They argued for two hours more, but gradually the plan came undone and everyone went home dissatisfied. Soft-spoken though he was, no one wanted to cross Golovin. He was the closest thing we had to a mayor.

After that, the town was like a pot removed from the fire. We steamed for a long time, steam so thick you could hardly see through it, but then, gradually, the heat began to subside. The lookouts were still posted every morning, and the villagers still averted their eyes when they saw Peter in the streets. But, as the days went by without incident, the tension began to creep out of the air.

Then, as happens with storms, the wind suddenly changed directions.

A carriage came into town.

It rolled up the stony path with considerable effort, bumping and jostling. When it finally groaned in relief and came to rest outside the door of the inn, the door opened and a plump man in a blue overcoat got out. He had a big, drooping mustache and a top hat on his head, and his old eyes were sharp. He took in the snowy mountaintop in a glance, then turned to help a squat woman wearing a fur coat out of the carriage. Last of all, from behind the woman, came a bald man with spectacles. When he saw the peak, he gasped.


“Yes, doctor,” said the man in the overcoat. “I have visited this place once before, when I was boy. I still remember the smell of the pines.”

“The air certainly is fresh,” said the doctor.

“Gregory,” murmured the woman. Her face was pinched and her eyes red. “Oughtn’t we…?”

The plump man patted her hand. Then he paid the carriage driver, who waited outside while the three of them went into the inn.

I was mopping the floor when they came through the door. Darya was dusting the mantle, and Golovin was behind the counter. I could see the look of surprise on his face.

“Sirs, madam,” he said. “Can I help you?”

“I hope so, my good man.” The plump man removed his top hat and passed his fingers through his gray hair. His fingers were thick, like sausages, and his face was tired. “I am looking for my son.”

At that, we went quiet. Darya gave a little eep sound.

Before we could say anything at all, we heard a door opening upstairs. In stunned silence, we listened at the sound of footsteps creaking on the floorboards, moving through the hall and down the stairs, until finally the tall, thin outline of Peter came into view. Under each arm were the stone and the driftwood.

When the woman in furs saw the young man, she began to cry.

“Peter,” said the man. “We have been looking everywhere for you.”

To this day, I’m not sure if anyone else saw what I saw in Peter’s face at that moment. It was like shock, as if someone had just plunged him into cold water.

But there was something else, some brief moment of nakedness: it was as though he recognized them.

Then, like a cloud covering up the sun, the moment passed. His expression went white with fear and his fingers clutched the stone and the driftwood a little tighter.

He said: “How do you know my name?”

The woman gave a little moan. The plump man’s face fell. “Peter,” he said, very soft, “I am your father.”

The young man began to tremble. His fingers gripped harder, and he turned to Mr. Golovin and Darya and me, the onlookers, as one turns to address a jury. “I assure you, I don’t know this gentleman.”

The man in the overcoat reached out with his sausage-sized fingers, brushing gently against the young man’s arm. “Peter…”

“No! Get your hands off me! I tell you, I don’t know this man!” He thrust the stone forward. It’s smooth edges reflected the sunlight coming through the window. “This is my father! I am Peter Stonewood!”

“Peter, still? Why do you insist on this folly? Your name is Peter Ivanov. It always has been. Please, Peter, come home…”

“No!” Peter drew himself up to his full height. “Sir, if you don’t unhand me…”

At the threat of violence, Mr. Golovin stepped forward. “Gentlemen, please! I’m sure we can get to the bottom of this.”

Peter’s feral eyes fixed on the innkeeper, and a change passed over him. He became focused, and stepping in front of Golovin he pled with him in a low voice, as if they were the only two people in the room.

“Innkeeper,” he said, “you must help me. There are strangers in the town. They want to take me away.”

Golovin was caught off guard. I could see in the dim light behind the swirling dust that he was moved.

“All right, Peter. That’s all right, now. You go back up to your room; we’ll sort this out.”

The young man held his gaze for a few more seconds, then he nodded and went back upstairs, shaking.

“Sir,” said the man in the overcoat after Peter had gone. “You must see my son isn’t well.”

“Yes…” said Golovin. He was thinking. “I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”

“Gregory Ivanov. I work in the magistrate’s office, in the capital.”

“Yes? That is very far away.”

“Indeed,” said Gregory Ivanov. “We have been searching for a long time. We expected the worst.”

The woman was hiccuping under her breath. The doctor patted her on her shoulder.

“Forgive me,” said Golovin. “You must be exhausted. Please, sit here, and let me get you something to eat. Abram!”

I hurried to the cabinets. I knew without being told that I was to bring out the very best we had. Mr. Golovin took out two glasses and began filling them with dark beer.

“Thank you, sir, for your kindness,” said Gregory. He did not sit down, and he did not take the beer. “But I would ask something else of you. Please, help me convince my son to return with us.”

Mr. Golovin stopped. Even with my head in the cabinets, I knew the air in that musty old inn well: I could feel it shift.

“Sir,” said Golovin, very slowly and very carefully, “you say that you are Peter’s father. But, may I ask: have you any proof?”

Darya and I stood quiet. The strangers from the city looked curiously at Golovin.

“Proof?” said Gregory. “What are you talking about?”

“Only this. You say you are Peter’s parents. Peter says that stone and piece of wood are his parents. There must be some way we can determine who is telling the truth.”

They stared at him. I held my breath. Then, like the rumble of boulders falling down the mountainside, Gregory Ivanov cleared his throat. “Innkeeper, may I speak with you in private?”

They went back to the supply room. I do not know what they talked about, but when they emerged Mr. Golovin, grim-faced, brought a little metal key over to the bespectacled doctor. The doctor took it and his bag and went upstairs, and Mr. Golovin went back behind the bar and began to move things around as if cleaning. I hid in the kitchen with Darya, peeking out through the crack in the door at the plump man and the squat woman. He was holding her hand and speaking to her in low, soothing tones while she cried. The glasses of beer sat on the table, untouched.

A while later, the doctor came back downstairs.

“There is nothing wrong with his mind,” said the doctor.

“What?” said Gregory. “How can that be?”

The doctor shrugged. “He is in perfect mental health. Only he insists that the rock and the log are his parents.”

Gregory Ivanov’s face became very dark. His big lips quivered and his sharp eyes flashed. “Doctor,” he said, “I did not bring you five hundred miles to the most desolate wasteland in the world only to have you play into my son’s delusions. The boy is insane. Declare it so, that we may take him home.”

“I’m sorry, Gregory, but the tests don’t lie. He is not insane. He has simply chosen.”

Gregory Ivanov stood. “This is outrageous! Innkeeper, bring me my son immediately!”

“I will not,” said Golovin. “I am not yet convinced he is, in fact, your son.”

The plump man stood quaking in the center of the room for a long moment. Then, without another word, he took his wife by the arm and went out the door, the doctor hurrying after him.

And, just like that, an incredible change came over the town. The villagers, who just weeks ago had been ready to drive Peter off the mountain, now stood whispering together, their voices shaking in anger.

“Abram, did you see them?” my mother asked that night. “Did you see those pompous bureaucrats from the capital with their top hats and furs?”

“Yes,” I said, “I saw them.”

“The nerve of them! Who do they think they are, coming up here and refusing to drink Mr. Golovin’s beer? And now they want to drag away poor Peter, Peter who would never hurt a fly!”

To make matters worse, the Ivanovs refused to pay for a room in the inn. Instead, they forced their way into Mr. Levich’s home on the strength of Gregory’s government title. Mrs. Levich, an old, sickly woman, did her best to wait on them while Mr. Levich looked at them out of his small, wary eyes.

The next morning, when we came to our windows, we saw the carriage standing still in the center of town.

The message was clear: the Ivanovs were not leaving without Peter.

It was two days later, when the winter days were at their shortest and coldest, when the second meeting was called. This time it was not in the home of Mr. Levich, but in the Yellow Canary. The day was a bright one, the sun blinding white on the snow. The whole village crowded into the Yellow Canary, standing pressed against the back wall, and Darya and I bustled among them with water and coffee.

In the far corner, in the chair by the fireplace, the same chair he had so lovingly knelt before on that blustery night weeks earlier, sat Peter. His knuckles were white as he clutched the wooden armrests, and his eyes had a glazed look. Opposite the fireplace, in the far corner of the room, the Ivanovs sat at a table with the doctor. Mrs. Ivanov was already dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. The doctor was watching everything with a bemused curiosity. But beside them, Gregory Ivanov sat very still, like a bear in a rushing river, hunting for salmon.

Last of all, in the very center of the room, on a table, sat the sea-stone and the piece of black driftwood. The dust swirled around their shapes, and a fleck of light from the eastern window fell on them.

Mr. Golovin was behind the bar. We watched him, and when he stood, his voice was solemn.

“Thank you all for coming,” he said. “Much unrest has come upon our small town in recent days. Well, the time has come to settle it. The purpose of this meeting is simple: the village of Dusha will decide, once and for all, on the matter of Peter’s parentage.”

Across the room, Gregory Ivanov’s enormous form shifted in his chair, and we could all hear it creak.

“If the Ivanovs can prove their claim,” Golovin continued, “then Peter will return with them immediately. However, if Peter can prove his claim, then he will be allowed to stay in Dusha as one of our own. Mr. Ivanov, you may begin.”

Gregory Ivanov stood. He looked around the room, his sharp eyes passing over each of us in turn. When they went past me, I flinched.

Then he spoke, and though his voice was slow, it burned with controlled rage.

“You are out of your mind,” he said. “All of you. This trial is a sham, these proceedings a lunacy. You see this stone; you see this hunk of wood. They are dead things. There is no life in them, and life cannot come from them. You stand now at a precipice, and beyond the edge lies only madness.”

We grumbled at that. From among the bodies pressed against the wall, my mother shouted: “You think you’re too good to drink our beer?”

Gregory was unaffected. From within the pocket of his large overcoat, he produced a piece of paper tied with string. “But enough of this. I have here a document that should put everything to rest.”

He set the paper on the bar and unrolled it. Mr. Golovin took it, squinting, then held it aloft for everyone to see.

It was birth certificate, stamped with an official stamp. The name on the certificate said Peter Boris Ivanov.

We were silent. Mr. Golovin studied the paper, then he looked up.

“Peter,” he said.

Across the room, the young man licked his lips. His expression was far away. “Yes?”

“Peter,” Golovin said again, “would you please tell us your name?”

Though the fireplace was dark and cold, something red and hot smoldered in his eyes. “My name,” he said, “is Peter Stonewood.”

The crowd murmured.

“And,” said Golovin, “would you please point to your parents?”

Peter stood. With a slow, deliberate motion he raised his hand and pointed. His finger formed an arrow at the end of which were the sea-stone and the black driftwood.

“As for this gentleman and this lady,” said Peter, “I do not know who they are.”

“Very well,” Mr. Golovin said. He looked around the room, meeting all of our eyes. “Then it is decided: Peter’s parents are this bit of stone and this piece of driftwood. The village of Dusha will allow him to stay.”

Mrs. Ivanov wailed and fell to her knees. Gregory Ivanov’s face turned ashen white in shock, and for a moment great wrath surged up in him, and he looked as though he would strike someone.

Then he put his head in his hands and wept.

That afternoon, the whole village watched the carriage drive away down the southern road. Then, in the evening, we held a great celebration. It was a festival the likes of which the village had not had in years. Mr. Golovin even went into the cellar and brought out the good cider, and the fire roared in the fireplace as we ate and drank and cheered.

At the center of all of it, a garland on his head, was Peter Stonewood. He laughed and danced, and we danced with him.

In the firelight, seated in a chair, the stone and the driftwood sat watching.

After that, Peter no longer stayed confined to his room. He wandered the town freely, and when we saw him we would raise our hats and address the things he carried.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Stone,” we would say. “You are looking fine this evening, Mrs. Wood.”

Peter would smile, very pleased.

Then, one morning while I was sweeping at the Canary, I heard him talking with Mr. Golovin behind the bar.

“I just don’t think it’s right,” he was saying. “You all have accepted me as your own, but here I am, being waited on hand and foot, while all the other men in the town break their backs in the mines.”

Mr. Golovin, who was counting the beer bottles and frowning down at an inventory checklist, did not reply right away. Then he blinked at Peter.

“Eh? What was that?”

“I just don’t think it’s right—”

“Peter, Peter,” said Golovin, “think nothing of it. Enjoy your freedom! Listen, run along and I will send Abram up with your lunch.”

That afternoon, I knocked on the oak door upstairs, holding ham and cheese wrapped in paper. I no longer ran anymore, but stood waiting at the door until it opened and Peter smiled at me.

“Good afternoon!” he said.

I looked at my shoes, feeling shy, and handed him the plate.

But that day, Peter did not take the food right away. Instead, he lingered at the door, looking at nothing in particular. At last, he said: “Boy, what are they saying about me in town?”

I didn’t have an answer. Peter continued, as if he hadn’t really been waiting for one.

“It isn’t right, you know,” he said. He was staring far away. Then he looked at me, and I could see my reflection in his clear eyes. “What do you think?”

I said, “I don’t know.”

He nodded. Then he took the food.

“Mother, father,” he called. “The boy has brought lunch.”

And he closed the door.

It was a spring morning, when the snow had just begun to thaw, that Peter stepped out onto the porch of the Yellow Canary for the last time. He had his rucksack on his back, and he carried a pickaxe in his hands. When he emerged from the door he hefted it, feeling its weight as he looked up to the mountain peak.

“Yes, this is the way,” he said into the air. His cheeks were flushed. “If we are to live here, I must do my part.”

Then, taking one last breath full of the pine-scented air, he hiked up the mountainside.

He had told no one his plan: the rest of the men had already gone. He went up the northward path alone, and there was a strong wind going all through his hair.

After some time—I do not know how long—he arrived at a mineshaft. It was an old one, and the support beams creaked at the yawning mouth.

For a while Peter stood, peering into the darkness.

Then he stooped down and took off his rucksack. With the utmost care, he reached inside and removed first the smooth, round stone, and second the black driftwood. He set them on the ground, gently.

“Wait here for me,” he said to them. “I will return by the evening for dinner.”

He gave each a kiss, then went inside.

No one heard the tunnel collapse. But when we found his body days later, it was pinned under a large boulder, his hand reaching up towards the entrance. The cave-in had not killed him: he had stayed alive for a long time, trapped under the rocks, calling for help.

And there, at the entrance, standing cold and silent, were the sea-stone and the piece of burnished driftwood.

They had not heard his call.

I am the proprietor of the Yellow Canary now. Every morning I wake up while it is still dark and cut firewood for the hearth. I prepare food and polish drinking glasses. I sweep the floors and wash the windows. It is the same, year after year. I am growing old: soon someone else will become the proprietor. They will sweep these floors and polish these glasses. My time is nearing an end.

But even now, as my eyesight fades and my muscles grow weak, I have not forgotten Peter. Most of all, I have not forgotten the day of his funeral. It was a mountain burial, the only kind we could offer him. Mr. Levich and Mr. Golovin carried his body, draped in a blue blanket and sprinkled with pine needles. We wore black, and we watched as they carried him up and up, towards the precipice. There were hot tears in my eyes and they stung in the cold wind.

“We did this,” I said to no one in particular. “We killed him.”

“Hush,” said my mother. “Keep quiet, Abram.”

I did. I didn’t say a word, not to her and not to anybody. I stood there with silent tears coming down my cheeks as Mr. Levich and Mr. Golovin gave a great heave and threw the body off the side of the cliff, where it disappeared into the frozen pine trees far, far below.

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