Short Story Wednesday! Today we’re going to read Nikolay Leskov’s 1881 novella, “The Steel Flea“, which you can read in full here. Apparently the full title is “The Tale of the Cross-Eyed Lefty From Tula and the Steel Flea“, but that wasn’t what was printed on my baby Penguin edition, so I’m going to err on the side of brevity.
The story is set long before 1881, just in case you’re confused by the timeline.
THE STEEL FLEA
IMPERIAL RUSSIA, YO.
Emperor Aleksandr the First decides to travel around Europe and learn things. He brings with him this dude called Platov, who wants nothing more than to go the goddamned hell home, because other places are the worst and Russia is the best, and I guess the Russian mindset hasn’t evolved very much today, has it?
So the Emperor goes all around, marveling at new things and embracing multi-culturalism, and Comrade Buzzkill is just wringing his hands in the corner going, “Your majesty, whyyyyy are you sampling their local cheese? We have cheese at home!
“Your majesty, whyyyyyyyyyyyyy are you trying to learn from their various industries? We have industry at home.
“Your majesty, whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy are you enjoying the Alhambra? We have Alhambras at home. Well, it’s less of an Alhambra, and more of a thousand-square mile icy popsicle tundra-hell, but STILL.”
Platov then decides that the English are the worst, and they’re using the Emperor’s puppy-like exuberance in order to gain power over him. So Platov makes a cunning plan and drinks some grape vodka, which sounds ass-nasty, and goes to bed, ready to wreck international shenaniganry.
I don’t even know why this dude is on your trip with you, Emperor, but it’s like having a whiny teenager who refuses to eat anything but pizza on a fancy, exciting vacation and moans about how he’s missing his Xbox back at home. I keep expecting the Emperor to go, “Don’t make me turn this landau around!”
They go to an English military museum and the Emperor is all into it, and Platov isn’t. They’re just like the brothers from Jurassic Park 4, and Platov getting eaten by a dinosaur would most DEFINITELY push this into my top 10 favorite short story list.
The Emperor is like, “Does NOTHING impress you?” and Platov goes, “Nah, because there is nothing here that we don’t do better in Russia.”
The English guides go, “We have this amazing gun that you will never be able to craft yourselves and you’ll never be able to get the gun open to study its mechanisms, aren’t we so great?”
The Emperor is all like, “PRETTY PRETTY PRETTY” and Platov reaches into his pocket and pulls out a gunsmith’s screwdriver, that he apparently carries around in case just such a one-upsmanship emergency occurs, and he immediately opens the gun and shows the Emperor a maker’s mark that says a dude named Ivan Moskvin in Tula Town made the gun.
The English guys are like, “Whoops, we fucked that up royally,” and even the Emperor is like, “Why do you always have to embarrass people? Platov, you dick.”
So Platov’s weird plan (that wasn’t really a plan) didn’t work, so he goes home and drinks even more grape vodka, because grape vodka makes you think. Sadly, it does not make you think about your life choices, but only about ham-fisted, half-cocked ideas that will hopefully result in you being banished, executed, or unexpectedly chewed by a velociraptor.
The next day the English dudes want to show the Emperor a sugar refinery, but Platov goes, “Don’t have any Molvo sugar? No? Don’t know what that is? Well, in Mother Russia sugar refine you we have loads and loads of it and it’s the best thing ever and I bet you’re super jealous.” The Emperor scolds Platov again.
At this point, I’m hoping the Emperor eats Platov. That would also be an acceptable ending, if no dinosaurs can be acquired on short notice.
They next take the Emperor to the natural history museum and Platov is all happy because the Emperor hasn’t found a single thing to be amazed by. Yay, you broke his spirit! You’re a monster! Yay!
They get to the very last room, and a workman comes up to the Emperor with a seemingly empty metal tray. On the tray is a perfect mechanical wind-up replica of a microscopic flea. This type of flea has a powerful bite you can feel, but you can hardly see it with the naked eye. Someone has come up with the genius idea of turning this thoroughly reprehensible little fucker into a steel robot.
Guys, this IS turning into Jurassic Park. The scientists only see what they can do, not what they should do. Is this going to turn into some horrible weapon that will plague Russia? [Spoiler: no. Even though they sell it as some really powerful, dangerous piece of technology, it’s 100% just a toy. Okay.]
They have the Emperor wind up the little clockwork flea, and it does a dance. The Emperor immediately goes, “SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY.” So he gives them a million silver pieces, and gets the flea, but the Englishmen say that the Emperor can’t get the special carrying case for the flea, because the carrying case is government property.
Platov is enraged at what he views to be a swindle. The Emperor pays them more, and they give him the carrying case. Platov pockets the nitroscope (which is kind of like a microscope) that they had used to see the flea. Although I suppose it’s not petty larceny if you have just dropped a cool million on something.
They finally go back to Russia and the Emperor keeps the little flea safely locked up in its carrying case until he DIES. I don’t know when the Emperor dies, or how, but apparently he does. RIP, the only character I liked. Not that I had a lot of options, but still.
All his personal belongings go to his Empress, but she’s too concerned with widowing to ever feel even mild amusement again. So the flea goes to the new Emperor, Nicholas the First. He doesn’t pay it any attention for a long time, but when he discovers it again one day, he’s like, “What the shit is this shit?” They call in a pharmacist, of all people, to figure out what the flea is. When in doubt over a steampunk insect, call the guy who dispenses medicines.
Somehow the pharmacist is able to tell BY TASTING THE FLEA, 1.) It’s this weird type of microscopic flea, 2.) It’s not a real flea, but a metal flea, and 3.) It’s not Russian handiwork.
Most delicate palate EVER.
So the court goes ape shit trying to learn everything they can about this mysterious speck of metal, and Platov is STILL hanging around, fuming over God knows what, and he shows up at the court and is like, “I can answer all of your questions and be super helpful. Well, it’s not so much ‘being helpful’ as it is a blind jingoistic incitement of hatred towards everything European. Here, wind up this little bug. NOW GO AND FETCH THE BEST WORKERS IN THE COUNTRY SO WE CAN OUTDO IT.”
And the Emperor goes, “Okay. My brother, the last Emperor, was really into foreign shit, but I’m a bit more ethnocentric. Take this bug and bring it to Tula (to the dude who made that gun that time from earlier in the story) and have him inspect this and see if he can do better.”
The Tula gunsmiths have the AUDACITY to say, “This is neat, we need to learn more about it before we can hope to make a better one. Leave the flea here and give us some time.” There is no time for REASON and PLANNING in a haze of furious patriotism!
Two weeks later, Platov comes back to see what they’ve accomplished. In the time he’s been away, the three gunsmiths working on the project have dealt with it in such secrecy that they’ve boarded themselves up inside a hut to work. In fact, they’ve shut themselves up so well that they can’t get out again—the villagers have to RIP THE ROOF OFF THE HOUSE for them to get out. Guys. It’s a goddamned animatronic bug. Not the Enigma Code. Get over yourselves.
They deliver the box to Platov, who opens it to reveal the exact same English steel flea he brought them two weeks ago. He decrees this fuckery most foul and wants to have their heads off. They tell him they’ve done something amazing with the flea and that he should deliver it to the Emperor right away.
So Platov grabs one of the gunsmiths and makes him ride all the way to St. Petersburg under Platov’s feet in the carriage, like the weirdest carpet ever.
Platov shows up and immediately goes to the Emperor and says, “THEY DONE FUCKED UP.”
And the Emperor goes, “Well, my people are awesome, so that is just patently not true. Give me the flea, I bet it does something totally dope.”
He winds up the flea, but it doesn’t do shit. So Platov, instead of bringing in the gunsmith and asking him to explain what’s happened, just brings him in and starts beating the ever-loving hell-fire out of him and tearing out chunks of his hair. When Platov finally stops beating the dude, the dude just stands up, cool as a cucumber, straightens his tie (okay, he probably isn’t wearing a tie) and says, “You done? Because if you’re done, I can show you the hella rad modifications I’ve made.”
The gunsmith shows the Emperor that he’s put teeny tiny flea shoes on the feet of the flea, and this tickles the Emperor so much that he kisses this smelly, blood-covered peasant. Then the gunsmith says that’s not the only thing he’s done.
(oh, thank god)
He says that he and the other gunsmiths have inscribed their names on the flea shoes that they’ve made.
Only this particular gunsmith did NOT write his name on the shoes, because he’s done even tinier, more impressive work than that.
(oh thank god)
He says that HE actually made the teeny tiny nails that fastened the shoes upon the flea’s feet, and that the nails are so tiny that they can’t even be seen under the nitroscope. He just has really, really good eyesight.
You, sir, are full of shit.
Also, I ask you, what’s cooler: a tiny mechanical flea that can dance a jig? Or really, really small nails?
I’m sorry, but if I were Emperor, I would not be impressed. I would be very, “This does not please me. Good day to you, sir. I SAID GOOD DAY.”
But apparently THIS is the thing that impresses Platov. Not all the wonders of Europe. Nope. Tiny Russian nails. So he gives the gunsmith a hundred roubles and starts kissing him all over his general facial area.
The Emperor goes, “This will really stick it to those English bastards. Let’s send this back to them as a gift!” and he makes the gunsmith learn some basic hygiene and go with the flea to England.
They rush as quickly as possible to England and don’t stop to eat ONCE between St. Petersburg and London. They only drink vodka. But it’s okay, because as everyone knows, vodka is made from potatoes, and you can get all your nutritional needs from potatoes. #logic #blessed
Word gets out about the flea and everyone is suddenly dying to talk to this magical craftsman. The gunsmith drinks some wine in his hotel with some journalists, but what they find truly amazing . . . is that the gunsmith is left handed. UNPRECEDENTED WOW FACTOR.
The English dudes discover that he managed to be left-handed AND a skilled craftsman without much by way of formal education, so they say, “Stay in England and we’ll learn you up real good, and then you can stay here and do work for us and be a total rock star metal worker. That’s probably a thing.”
The gunsmith says no, he has old parents in Russia that he must take care of, and plus, English religion is totally lame. Orthodox Church 4 LIFE.
The English men try to tempt him by saying they’ll hook him up with some sexy English women, but the gunsmith is having none of it, because English women dress like dweebs.
They try to tempt him with all sorts of things, but there is literally nothing in England that he likes, and ohhhhh Christ, this guy is just as bad as Platov. Just when I thought I’d finally shook that mopey fucker, the gunsmith comes along and turns his nose up at everything.
They finally find two things that impress him: that the common worker is way healthier, happier, and generally better off in England than in Russia (but then again, most things are better than serfdom), and that English people take better care of their old guns than Russians do.
He finally demands to return to Russia, even though it’s a dangerous time to travel by sea. He quenches his homesickness and boredom with alcoholism. I mean, if it was good enough for him to go on a bender the entire way from Russia, it’s probably fine to do the same on the way back.
He makes a bet with a man on the ship (who the author started calling the Thirst Mate, because he’s funny like that) to see who could drink whom under the table first.
And they just keep going. They drink non-stop from London to Croatia. By this point, they’re both so drunk that they have a shared hallucination of a devil climbing out of the sea.
But then the Thirst Mate (hehe, gets me every time) says, “No, wait, that’s not a devil. That’s a deep-sea diver. I’ll prove it to you! I’ll prove it to you by chucking you over the side of the ship. Because if it is a deep-sea diver, he’ll rescue you.”
This is the most irresponsible thing a character has done in, ohhhhh, probably the last 10 minutes.
The gunsmith is all for it, because he’s Russian and has a very cavalier attitude towards death. Thankfully, some sailors see the Thirst Mate (giggle) carrying the gunsmith towards the railing, and they have to act like Mom and tell them NO, and the captain has them locked in their room. But the Captain also, inexplicably, keeps giving them rum and wine so they can keep testing their bet about who can drink more.
I bet that room was as trashed as a hotel room that Guns N’ Roses had dropped acid in.
Anyway, they each drink an equal amount and nobody wins, except maybe the rum industry.
Also, was is a devil or a deep-sea diver? THESE ARE THE QUESTIONS.
When they land, the Thirst Mate gets shipped off to the English ambassador, while the gunsmith is left to rot in a police cell for being drunk as shit. The Thirst Mate was, unsurprisingly, at death’s door, and went in for some serious rehab with people fussing all around him. He was treated like Lindsay Lohan after a bender.
The gunsmith, however, was just robbed by the police and then kicked out and taken to a free hospital. He’s transported in an open sleigh, in a Russian winter, without a blanket or coat.
The next day, the Thirst Mate wakes up, fit as a fiddle, without even the decency of a hang-over, and decides to find his Russian buddy. He finds him eventually, and yells as the hospital staff for leaving the man to lie on the floor all night without a blanket. The hospital staff take umbrage and say, “We’ll have none of that radical talk about common decency here!’ and kick out the Thirst Mate.
The Thirst Mate runs around, trying to find a decent doctor for the guy, and by the time he gets a decent doctor to go to the hospital, the hospital staff have accidentally brained the poor gunsmith by dropping him head-first on the pavement, and now he’s dying.
With his dying words, the gunsmith begs the doctor to tell the Emperor that the English take better care of their old guns, and that they don’t clean them with brick dust like the Russians do. The gunsmith says that if the Russians keep that up, and ever fight a war against England, they will lose.
The gunsmith dies.
The good doctor rushes back to court and begs an audience with the Emperor to tell him this news. The courtiers say, “Buddy, stick to prescribing laxatives. You know nothing about guns.”
The message never gets delivered, and the Crimean War happens decades later, and the Russians lose purely because they clean their guns wrong.
A potent metaphor for European-Russian relations that is still apt today!
But in other news, what in the sweet, sweet hell did I just read?