By: Doug Dorst
December 27, 2018

One in a 2018–2019 series of posts reprinting stories originally written — by 12 HILOBROW contributors and friends — for Josh Glenn and Rob Walker’s 2009–2010 anthropological-literary experiment SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS. See below for more info about this ongoing project.


Russian Figure

This is an icon of the fourteenth-century Saint Vralkomir of Dnobst, the patron saint of extremely fast dancing. Handcrafted in a snowbound convent by the nimble-footed Sisters of the Vralkomirian Order, it was given to my grandmother—then a nine-year-old girl — as she boarded the ship that would take her to America from Dnobst, a narrow pie-wedge of land bounded by the Dnobst River, the Grkgåt Mountains, and the Great Western Fence of Count Pyør the Litigious.

Vralkomir was a competent cobbler, but he was brusque and taciturn, conversing only to the extent he was required to for business. His fellow citizens found him odd, and they would hurry back out into the year-round cold as quickly as they could. Some said his towering jet-black hat, which he’d knitted of his own hair, would trigger vertigo in those who stared up at it for too long. Many were annoyed by his incessant tuneless humming.

In the autumn of 1347, in response to a perceived slight from a Dnobstian maiden, the recently enthroned Tsar Nÿrdrag the Irascible (also known as “The Cowbird Tsar,” a Scandinavian foundling whom the previous Tsar and Tsarina unknowingly raised as their own) issued an edict banning fire in Dnobst. His armies confiscated every piece of flint and all the available kindling. When winter blew in, it was as cruel as Nÿrdrag himself. Icy gusts sent massive musk-elk rolling out of the forest like tumbleweeds. It snowed for weeks on end. Desperate and frostbitten, the townspeople (minus Vralkomir) huddled in the mayor’s house, which at least still had a roof. The temperature kept dropping. Death was coming, and they could do nothing but wait.

From a high window, someone saw Vralkomir leave his shop, glance around the empty village square, then trudge into the forest. He returned hauling a freshly cut tree. In the square, he sawed the wood into discs like the one you see on the icon. Vralkomir then hopped onto one of the discs and began dancing, dancing, dancing to the tuneless music in his head. He danced faster and faster. The villagers watched as he wheeled and spun and tappatapped, his legs and feet a blur in the subarctic gloom. A plume of smoke rose from under his feet, and he kept dancing, and then there was more smoke, and he danced on, and soon the wooden disc was ablaze. Vralkomir leapt to the next disc and set it alight, and the next, and the next, and the Dnobstians came out and gathered round the fires, drinking in the precious warmth, happy to be alive. The bearded man danced all winter, they say, as no one else in the village could duplicate his feat of terpsichorean ignition, and he died of exhaustion in mid-April, a beloved martyr. Some say he had stitched contraband flints into his soles; others claim he lit the fire with dance alone. My grandmother preferred the latter, and so do I.

My grandmother said that on frigid and moonless winter nights, effigies of St. Vralkomir may come to life and begin dancing, throwing sparks from their wooden pedestals. This was why she always kept the icon under a glass cover (which stylishly followed the contours of the saint’s mighty hair-hat). Unfortunately, I am a clumsy person, and I broke the glass last weekend while dusting. My wife now insists that I sell it, calling it “at best, a tacky, dust-collecting tchotchke, and at worst, a tacky, dust-collecting fire hazard.” There is no reasoning with her; she is descended from an unimaginative people who know nothing of heroes.

I hope someone will give St. Vralkomir the home he deserves. The icon is probably not a fire hazard, although for obvious reasons I can make no express guarantee.


ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE: Ben Greenman on SMILING MUG | Dean Haspiel on KENTUCKY DISH | Doug Dorst on RUSSIAN FIGURE | Kurt Andersen on SANTA NUTCRACKER | Matt Brown on CRUMPTER | Chris Adrian on KANGAMOUSE | Nicholson Baker on MEAT THERMOMETER | Rachel Axler on FORTUNE-TELLING DEVICE | Sean Howe on PABST BOTTLE OPENER | Susannah Breslin on NECKING TEAM BUTTON | Tim Carvell on ROUND BOX | Susanna Daniel on SHARK AND SEAL PENS

SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 series (4Q2017) | FLAIR series (2Q2018) | FOSSIL series (4Q2018). 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE . ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.

CURATED SERIES at HILOBROW: UNBORED CANON by Josh Glenn | CARPE PHALLUM by Patrick Cates | MS. K by Heather Kasunick | HERE BE MONSTERS by Mister Reusch | DOWNTOWNE by Bradley Peterson | #FX by Michael Lewy | PINNED PANELS by Zack Smith | TANK UP by Tony Leone | OUTBOUND TO MONTEVIDEO by Mimi Lipson | TAKING LIBERTIES by Douglas Wolk | STERANKOISMS by Douglas Wolk | MARVEL vs. MUSEUM by Douglas Wolk | NEVER BEGIN TO SING by Damon Krukowski | WTC WTF by Douglas Wolk | COOLING OFF THE COMMOTION by Chenjerai Kumanyika | THAT’S GREAT MARVEL by Douglas Wolk | LAWS OF THE UNIVERSE by Chris Spurgeon | IMAGINARY FRIENDS by Alexandra Molotkow | UNFLOWN by Jacob Covey | ADEQUATED by Franklin Bruno | QUALITY JOE by Joe Alterio | CHICKEN LIT by Lisa Jane Persky | PINAKOTHEK by Luc Sante | ALL MY STARS by Joanne McNeil | BIGFOOT ISLAND by Michael Lewy | NOT OF THIS EARTH by Michael Lewy | ANIMAL MAGNETISM by Colin Dickey | KEEPERS by Steph Burt | AMERICA OBSCURA by Andrew Hultkrans | HEATHCLIFF, FOR WHY? by Brandi Brown | DAILY DRUMPF by Rick Pinchera | BEDROOM AIRPORT by “Parson Edwards” | INTO THE VOID by Charlie Jane Anders | WE REABSORB & ENLIVEN by Matthew Battles | BRAINIAC by Joshua Glenn | COMICALLY VINTAGE by Comically Vintage | BLDGBLOG by Geoff Manaugh | WINDS OF MAGIC by James Parker | MUSEUM OF FEMORIBILIA by Lynn Peril | ROBOTS + MONSTERS by Joe Alterio | MONSTOBER by Rick Pinchera | POP WITH A SHOTGUN by Devin McKinney | FEEDBACK by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FTW by John Hilgart | ANNOTATED GIF by Kerry Callen | FANCHILD by Adam McGovern | BOOKFUTURISM by James Bridle | NOMADBROW by Erik Davis | SCREEN TIME by Jacob Mikanowski | FALSE MACHINE by Patrick Stuart | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | UNBORED MANIFESTO by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen | H IS FOR HOBO by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FRIDAY by guest curators