My Domovoi

My Domovoi

O fathomless cat,
secret police
of human chambers

                                                          -Pablo Neruda

Elmer stopped living alone after he saw the girl for the first time. Well, nothing about that statement’s quite right, since he didn’t really see the girl and he didn’t really live with another person either. And it was nothing like how it is in the movies. It wasn’t dark when he saw her and there was nothing truly terrifying about the situation, except for the girl herself. And, as mentioned, he hadn’t really seen her.

It was a Tuesday afternoon and Elmer was dancing around in the shower while listening to a New Orleans jazz CD. He was off from work because he’d worked on the Saturday before. It was light in his bathroom, as he had a large window in there and the door to the hallway was open. It was a crisp and lovely day.

He washed and scrubbed his face and hair, fumbled the shower head, which was detachable, or masturbatory, as his pal Milton called it, and as he rinsed the soap out of his eyes he noticed a little girl in the doorway of his bathroom. The shower curtain was clear, thick plastic, so he couldn’t really see her. In fact, he rinsed his face again to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. But she was there in the doorway, looking at him. He could tell that her hair was brown and that it hung around her shoulders. He could tell that she was dressed for spring even though it was fall. And he could tell, somehow, that she felt apologetic about being there at that moment. As if it was all a huge mistake of some sort.

He never told anyone what happened next. Some guys have it and some don’t. Flee or fight, that is. Elmer’s not a fighter. He jumped back and reached to cover himself with something, which ended up being a shampoo bottle, and when he looked back out through the curtain she was gone. He stood for a long moment, and came to when he felt the water running over his toes go from hot to warm to cold. He shut off the tap and opened the curtain. Nothing. He toweled off and took a step out into the empty hallway. He checked behind every door, checked the balcony and the front door. Nothing.

He put on pants and slippers and then a T-shirt and walked around his flat in complete silence. Nothing.

Elmer lived in a fortress. His flat was on the fifth floor of a secure building and there were two locks on his front door. If he stepped out without keys, he needed to call a locksmith. His flat was so secure, that it was almost secure from him. So when his friend Milton suggested that it might have been a neighbor’s kid, Elmer threw out the possibility. It was simply impossible. He was alone in there.

On Friday of that week he and Milton met at the small pub for their weekly beer and goulash date. It was near Prague’s old town, but down a meandering side street that nobody seemed to notice. The beer was cheap and cold, and the goulash to die for. It was late when he brought it up for the first time. He felt weird about it, though Milton was a very trusting man. He never entertained the notion that someone would lie to him. He was also an effective problem solver with an aptitude for brainstorming sessions. Elmer loved him for this.

“Tell me,” Milton said, and spit flapped from his mouth with glee. “How did you feel when you saw this entity?” His eyes were two marbles floating in their ovular sockets.

Elmer wanted to say that he’d felt terrified, as it seemed the thing to say when relating a story such as this, but the truth was he wasn’t sure how he’d felt that day. “I don’t really know,” he said. He sat back and tried to remember. “I was surprised.”

“Well, I can certainly understand that.” His lips were gigantic and pink, like two horizontal salmon flapping against one another every time he spoke. “Did you feel frightened?”

Elmer frowned. “I don’t think so.” And the truth was that he hadn’t been frightened.

“How big was this entity?” Milton drank at his pint and then rubbed the film of foam off the top salmon with the back of his forefinger.

“Small,” Elmer said. “Yeah, she was a really small girl.” He stuck his hand out, palm down about two and a half feet from the floor. “Like this, maybe.”

“Ah,” Milton leaned back and created a pyramid with his fingertips. Then he thought for a long moment and took a breath. “Sounds like you have a Domovoi.”

“A Dom…What?”

He sat forward, excited. “Yes, a Domovoi. It all makes sense.” He nodded and drank again, as if toasting his successful self-brainstorm session. “Well, they call it a Dědek in this country. But it’s essentially, well, it is, a house spirit.”

Elmer let out a sigh. “Explain further, please.”

“Ok,” Milton lived for this stuff so he was really into it now, the juice flying off of his lips in all directions. “Every house or flat has a Domovoi, they guard the house, keep the residents safe and the place clean. For the most part, they’re harmless.” He went back to his beer.

“For the most part?”

“Well, yes, you can anger them. But it’s usually because of slovenliness, bad language or neglect.”

“How do you know about these, these…this stuff?” Elmer was still trying to pronounce the word in his head.

“Books, my friend. Books and a lifelong fascination with Slavic folklore.” His eyes gleamed and Elmer knew he wasn’t being ironic. “You know, Elm, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

“Do I or do I not have a ghost living in my flat?”

“Both,” Milton said. His gangly arms ate up most of the table. His long legs took up most of the space under the table; his knobby knees were almost level with the table top. “You have a ghost, but she’s not really bad. She’s not a negative spirit, so to speak.”

Elmer shook his head, which had begun clouding with the amber liquid. “So, this little girl, or these little girls guard our homes?”

“In fact, they’re often hairy little men, but a hairy little woman isn’t out of the realm of possibility.”

“It was a she and she was hairy.” The pub filled in and the chatter joined the buzzing in Elmer’s head. “But why would she come to the shower?” A famous American rock song was playing in Czech. Elmer recognized the tune, but couldn’t place it. “I think I was more embarrassed than frightened.” He paused, remembering the thick, brown hair and the half-hocked stance. “I think she might have been too.”

“It’s possible,” said Milton. “Get a cat.”

Elmer stared. “Did you just tell me to get a cat?”

“I did. Cats are seen by the Russians as creatures that keep the Domovoi in their place.”

“I see.” Another American song came on, this time Elmer recognized it and sang along in his head. Everything buzzed and his voice sounded smooth and velvety inside.

The cat’s name was Zuzka and Elmer had nothing to do with that. He’d gotten her through one of the secretaries at work. Zuzka was a squat, white and gray six-month old and resembled her prior owner to a disturbing degree.

Zuzka refused to leave her carry box for three days, no matter the enticement that Elmer dreamed up. He tried to coax her out with tuna fish, a jingly ball on the end of a short fishing rod and a talking toy sardine named Frido. He tried catnip and wind-up toy mice. Nothing worked. To render her invisibility complete, Zuzka seemed unable to meow. The most she managed were toneless, chirping sounds—that sounded like lips smacking—from inside the box. Whenever she did, Elmer brought her a handful of dry food and went back to his couch and his book.

One time, when he heard the dry, crackling sounds of her meal he dropped his book and bent at the waist to look inside her box. The chewing stopped and Zuzka disappeared back into the swirl of blankets that his coworker had provided.

“And you’re supposed to protect me from a ghost?”

After three days, Zuzka ventured out at night and spent the day under the couch in the living room. Elmer left his door open at night and left a bowl of cat food and water out for Zuzka. He also continued his almost daily search for the Domovoi. He’d stop mid sentence in his book and pace around the apartment, looking in each room, closets, behind doors and in cabinets. He had yet to see the girl again, but heard light giggles and the occasional soft shuffle of feet that he knew weren’t from another flat. And every morning as he walked out the door, he said goodbye aloud, convincing himself that he was only talking to the cat.

It was a Friday evening. Elmer walked into his flat, said hello, and then put away the groceries. He grabbed a beer from his fridge and sat at the kitchen table with a grunt. He gulped at the beer and let out a long, cathartic sigh. The week was over.

Something was happening, though, and he couldn’t place what until he noticed that sitting across from him in the other chair, was Zuzka. She viewed him with a flat gaze and opened her mouth in three soundless chirps.

“Hey there,” he smiled. “Nice to finally meet you.”

Chirp, chirp, chirp.

Elmer drank at his beer and let Zuzka come to him. He stayed perfectly still, allowing her to watch him for extended moments. She then finally placed a paw against the table, then watched him, then stepped onto the table. It was excruciating and slow. By the time she’d made it to him he was well-finished with his beer and needed another. His lips were dry and his bladder full. Back and forth, she rubbed herself against his chest and teased his nose with her tail.

Then she peed on the tablecloth.

For two weeks, their relationship cultivated as one of fascination. She followed his fingers with wide eyes and leapt at his sneezes. She lapped at the water that beaded on his toes while he shaved after showers and roamed under the kitchen table like a shark. Elmer drank beer and watched her stalk and attack yogurt cups, dish sponges and anything else he left on the floor to guarantee entertainment.

On Thursday in that third week, she visited his room for the first time at night and urinated on his sheets. He cursed and changed his sheets, brought her out to the couch and shut his door behind him.

At 3 a.m. Elmer opened his eyes. He was staring out the windows at the birch tree past his balcony and rolled onto his back. The moonlight projected a white film on the wall.

She was in the corner of his eye. In the moonlight and shadows he could just make out the dark, soft ringlets of her hair and the flowered pattern of her dress. Elmer didn’t move; Elmer couldn’t move. He could have sworn that she’d been straightening a stack of papers on his night table. He couldn’t bring himself to look at her directly, instead taking a deep breath that wavered on the intake. Her face was shadowed by her hair and her gaze was focused on the night table. They were both paralyzed.

Zuzka scratched at the door and when Elmer blinked, the girl evaporated into the dark recesses of his room. He stared at the spot where she’d been and then opened his bedroom door for good, turned on every light in the house and sat on his couch, where he stayed until morning staring at Zuzka sleeping on the corner of his bed.

He didn’t take a shower before work and on his way out the door he muttered goodbye and Zuzka sat on the chair in his den and scolded him without a goodbye chirp.

“I’d say you’ve got to give her free roam of the flat, old sir,” said Milton. He hadn’t touched his tea, but gleamed at Elmer as he unfolded the tale of the evening before. “Keep every door open,” he said. “Remember, cats are the silent guardians of houses.”

“This one’s really silent.” He’s loving this, Elmer thought.

“It’ll be fine,” Milton said. “The cat’s on your side. Take care of her and she’ll take care of you.”

On his way home Elmer bought a box of liver treats and a fresh pack of dish sponges. As he walked down the street to his flat he was unable to take his eyes off the lace curtain in his darkened living room window. When Zuzka did appear on the sill, he was almost sure that she was leaning into strokes from a vague figure standing behind her.

Over the following weeks every light in the flat stayed on until bedtime, when Elmer shut off all of them but for a lamp in his bedroom. Every door was left open at all times, giving Zuzka free reign of the flat. Nevertheless, his sleep was tortured and flimsy, and he lurched up at the slightest sound; his heart beating like a thump drum. He refused to close his eyes in the shower. But as Zuzka began her guard duty he did find himself progressively calmer and he warmed at the tip of her tail gaiting between the chairs and past his bed. She darted off to rooms for unknown reasons and Elmer accepted it as her daily guard duties and maneuvered himself to a well-lit room. As for what she found when she got there – she didn’t tell, and he didn’t ask.

Elmer was in bed on a Saturday morning, the light streamed in through the large window and he read with his back perched against two pillows. She came in; he scanned the grey-striped tip of her tail dance past the top line of his book and went back to reading. She popped onto the window sill and watched the outside for a long while, licking her chest and stomach at casual intervals. Elmer became lost in his book, and Zuzka began chasing a matchbook around his floor, pawing it like a tenured boxer and rolling onto her back.

It was the shock that got him and not the pain, so much. Zuzka had sneak-attacked him and planted her teeth and both paws-worth of claws into the roof of his left foot. He kicked forward and felt the solid contact knock her to the ground. He sat up rubbing his foot and staring at the ground at the blinking cat.

“Zuzka!” he shouted at her. Droplets of blood appeared on his foot and smeared onto his fingers and palm. Zuzka dashed into the living room and slid under a chair, her back stretching into a push-up position as she did so. He went to the bathroom and rinsed his foot off in the tub with cold water. The foot throbbed and red welts rose in streaks around the cuts. “Dammit,” he barked.

He made himself lunch and sat on the couch to read, looking up when Zuzka sprinted from the room as if she were being chased. He went back to reading, presenting an air of parental irritation and then dozed on the couch. He awoke on the couch as the dim light of afternoon advanced into dusk. He sat up and rubbed his face, looked up with bleary eyes and glanced at his phone: Three text messages.

“Zuzka,” he called.

He didn’t expect a reply and wasn’t disappointed. He leaned up with a start and snapped on the standing lamp above his head. Then he stood and switched on the wall light. As he snapped on the kitchen light he yawned and shuddered as it left his body. He poked his head out of the kitchen and looked down the long, dark hallway to his bedroom. The doors of the shower and toilet were closed and his eyes couldn’t penetrate the darkness of his bedroom. He flipped on the hall light and started down the long hallway.

“Zuzka,” he called as he moved along, and only heard his own breathing in response. His breath quickened and he opened the doors to the bathroom and toilet, flipping on the light with a rush, expectant of something he couldn’t place. Maybe next time she’ll be in the bathroom or the toilet? Elmer tried to laugh, but it didn’t come.

When he got to his room he reached around the corner and flipped on the light. The room was in its ordinary state; clothes scattered on the floor, a robe on his bed, papers next to it. He released his breath and listened for the cat. Nothing.

He straightened his trousers and turned to the living room, yawning as he did so. Thirty feet away, his mirrored self and the well-lit flat gazed back at him in the reflection of the living room window. Everything was silent. But as he took a step he thought he caught the patter of tiny feet. He focused his gaze on the window, keeping his eyes intent on the room behind him.


The light in his bedroom went out. He jolted and made an inverted sigh. Now he was sure he could hear the patter of tiny feet behind him. He prayed it was the cat. Outside, a car drove down the street, its muffler not doing its job. Elmer felt alone. Without turning, he stepped away from his bedroom, towards the living room. His eyes remained fixed on the living room window and his reflection and the dark room behind him.

Something passed beyond the door, beyond reach of his sight, he was sure. Elmer quickened his pace down the hallway.


The light in the bathroom went out as he passed it. The hallway was dark now, the light of the living room sneered at him from ahead. He couldn’t move fast enough. The living room light was like the secure light from a house that he couldn’t get into. He was in the dark and forced himself to breathe regular, audible breaths.

He slowed as he passed the toilet and looked into the tiny room. The toilet lid was up and it embarrassed him. Snap. The light was out; the lid was hidden in its dark embrace. He moved into the living room and didn’t have to look at the kitchen to know the light had snapped off. He ran behind the brown armchair that faced the flat. In the window, everything was dark except for the living room. He turned in time to see a striped tail dart into the toilet. He heard the sliding of fabric on plaster and reached into his pocket for his mobile phone. Three messages. He fumbled with it and saw the first.

If you take care of her, she’ll take care of you – Milt.

He glared at the light and heard the approach. From the darkness of the long hallway came the patter of tiny paws and a shadowy form. The cat leapt onto the chair opposite him and sat on her haunches. The form came from behind her, but dare not enter the light of the room. She stood on the periphery of the living room, looking, for the first time, directly at Elmer. He waited for it to happen, and then put down his phone. The cat looked sad for him and as the girl moved into the room, the light in the lamp next to him snapped off.

And then she spoke to him for the first time.











  1. #1 by Andy on November 2, 2011 - 9:32 pm

    You do have a certain flair for humor, but I caught the hair on my neck rising as I neared the end of the story. Good cliff-hanger!

    P.S. Milton and Elmer, eh?

  2. #2 by Damien Galeone on November 3, 2011 - 10:04 am

    Andy, thank you! Any feedback on how can I make it funnier or spookier?

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