Tick Constellations

Andrei Dichenko

Artwork by Lee Wan Xiang

It first happened at the end of August. Pasha brought home a bucket of some nice and firm bolete mushrooms smelling of moss patches and pine. Little Pavel’s father was military, so the whole family lived in a smallish town surrounded by dense thickets, where the multistory apartment buildings were greatly outnumbered by scary roaring vehicles with thick tarps on them.

Pasha’s entertainment options were quite limited. Sometimes he would go to the checkpoint and hang out with lonely soldiers who came from every little corner of the country. The boy would offer condensed milk to some sad serviceman with a buzz cut, and in response, the guy would kill time telling stories from his far-flung hometown. Sometimes the town was visited by fat and sweaty old people in officer caps. On days like that, the soldiers would go and hide in their different barracks and go outside only if it was absolutely necessary. If he spotted the “fat caps,” Pasha would grab a tin bucket, at the bottom of which was a sharp combat knife with a shining blade, and he would go to the woods to gather mushrooms.

One sunny fall day, closer to evening, Pasha—along with the boletes—brought home a small black tick that had secretly bitten him on the foot. After taking off his rubber boots and his black canvas pants, the kid stared at the little creature for a long time. The tick looked like a miniature crab with pincers. It seemed as if some unknown force had engineered it out of fine coal dust and then brought it to life.

The boy lightly touched the insect’s thorax, blew on it, and dipped his foot into cold water, but it was as if that didn’t matter to the insect. The tick was just living its life; it was almost as if Pasha was the one that didn’t exist. Soon, Mama returned home. As he was showing her the tick, the boy got curious about how he’s supposed to live with this bug now. Without saying one word, Mama took a thick piece of nylon thread, wrapped it a couple times around the living little stump, and carefully extracted it from her son’s foot. The tick was now smashed, and Pasha took a look at the little red wound and the almost invisible specks of blood, which reminded him of a constellation.

“This is a real present from the Fates!” the kid thought, and he immediately redrew the layout of the little stars on a yellowed page from his notebook. Then he went to a pile of stolen library books layered with dust, and found an old book of star charts. Inside the completely black cover were thick pages of cardstock, and in the depressions of the pages, the images looked sort of like a network of blood vessels or dried Martian canals.

“Auriga,” Pasha said, comparing his schematic drawing with the precise astronomical map enhanced with a drawing of a bearded elder. “This means that somewhere in the Auriga constellation, there’s an entire planet of ticks!” With that thought, he headed to bed, imagining oval spaceships, squadrons of them besieging gigantic enemy planets of sapient ticks.

A few days later, the boy found out from Mama that there are hundreds of species of ticks. It turns out, all of them have their own planet and a highly-developed civilization. After that, Pasha lost interest in the checkpoint and stories about city life and the soldiers. He would wake up earlier and dress more warmly. Then he would cross the wire fence out of town and go as deep as he could into the woods. Exposing his feet, he would lie down in the tall grass and look at the sky, trying to pick out his favorite new tick shapes in the clouds. By the end of the day, he’d manage to gather sometimes five, sometimes ten little ticks, which he’d carefully remove with a piece of thread, and then he’d add the patterns to his own catalog of tick constellations.

Auriga never came back; Cassiopeia reappeared three times; and Pegasus crisscrossed his legs over ten times; but the most impressions belonged to Orion. That was probably where the main planetary system of the entire tick civilization was located.

There was this one morning, the military town was thick with fog, and Pasha went to take a walk with his father, who by chance was getting ready to go to headquarters. As soon as they were past the yard, they ran into two tired soldiers with worn-out helmets who had just gotten off duty. Pasha stared at their machine guns for a long time, and then he spent all evening imagining ticks the size of people. Every tick was carrying machine guns, just like those, in a few of their bristly hands, struggling for world domination alongside their brethren. The boy became frightened. Well, if these gigantic ticks were no different than their earthly cousins, except for their size, then how much blood would be needed to feed these creatures? An ocean, an entire ocean of nothing but congealed blood, resembling cold fruit compote.

translated from the Russian by Slava Faybysh