Authors: Tatyana Tolstaya
Tags: #General, #Literary Criticism, #Classics, #Literary, #Fiction, #Russian & Former Soviet Union, #Fantasy
by TATYANA TOLSTAYA
TRANSLATED BY JAMEY GAMBRELL
pl): large, thin pancake, rather like a crepe.
(f): my dear, my good fellow, often used ironically. In the novel it is used as a form of address, like "comrade."
small cottage or peasant hut, something like a log cabin.
fermented drink, slightly sweet.
shoe or slipper made of bast, usually worn by peasants.
Tatar feudal lord.
mansion or large house, often several stories high.
Benedikt pulled on his felt boots, stomped his feet to get the fit right, checked the damper on the stove, brushed the bread crumbs onto the floor--for the mice--wedged a rag in the window to keep out the cold, stepped out the door, and breathed the pure, frosty air in through his nostrils. Ah, what a day! The night's storm had passed, the snow gleamed all white and fancy, the sky was turning blue, and the high elfir trees stood still. Black rabbits flitted from treetop to treetop. Benedikt stood squinting, his reddish beard tilted upward, watching the rabbits. If only he could down a couple--for a new cap. But he didn't have a stone.
It would be nice to have the meat, too. Mice, mice, and more mice--he was fed up with them.
Give black rabbit meat a good soaking, bring it to boil seven times, set it in the sun for a week or two, then steam it in the oven--and it won't kill you.
That is, if you catch a female. Because the male, boiled or not, it doesn't matter. People didn't used to know this, they were hungry and ate the males too. But now they know: if you eat the males you'll be stuck with a wheezing and a gurgling in your chest the rest of your life. Your legs will wither. Thick black hairs will grow like crazy out of your ears and you'll stink to high heaven.
Benedikt sighed: time for work. He wrapped his coat around him, set a wood beam across the door of the izba, and even shoved a stick behind it. There wasn't anything to steal, but he
was used to doing things that way. Mother, may she rest in peace, always did it that way. In the Oldener Days, before the Blast, she told him, everyone locked their doors. The neighbors learned this from Mother and it caught on. Now the whole settlement locked their doors with sticks. It might be Freethinking.
His hometown, Fyodor-Kuzmichsk, spread out over seven hills. Benedikt walked along listening to the squeak of fresh snow, enjoying the February sun, admiring the familiar streets. Here and there black izbas stood in rows behind high pike fences and wood gates; stone pots or wood jugs were set to dry on the pikes. The taller terems had bigger jugs, and some people would even stick a whole barrel up there on the spike, right in your face as if to say: Look how rich I am, Golubchiks! People like that don't trudge to work on their own two feet, they ride on sleighs, flashing their whips, and they've got a Degenerator hitched up. The poor thing runs, all pale, in a lather, its tongue hanging out, its felt boots thudding. It races to the Work Izba and stops stock-still on all four legs, but its fuzzy sides keep going
huffa, puffa, huffa, puffa.
And it rolls its eyes, rolls 'em up and down and sideways. And bares its teeth. And looks around ...
To hell with them, those Degenerators, better to keep your distance. They're strange ones, and you can't figure out if they're people or not. Their faces look human, but their bodies are all furry and they run on all fours. With a felt boot on each leg. It's said they lived before the Blast, Degenerators. Could be.
It's nippy out now, steam comes out of his mouth, and his beard's frozen up. Still--what bliss! The izbas are sturdy and black, there are high white snowdrifts leaning against the fences, and a little path has been beaten to each gate. The hills run smooth all the way up and back down, white, wavy; sleighs slide along the snowy slopes, and beyond the sleighs are blue shadows, and the snow crunches in colors, and beyond the hills the sun rises, splashing rainbows on the dark blue sky. When you squint, the rays of the sun turn into circles; when you stomp your boots in the fluffy snow it sparks, like when ripe firelings flicker.
Benedikt thought a moment about firelings, remembered his
mother, and sighed: she passed away on account of those fire-lings, poor thing. They turned out to be fake.
The town of Fyodor-Kuzmichsk spreads out over seven hills. Around the town are boundless fields, unknown lands. To the north are deep forests, full of storm-felled trees, the limbs so twisted you can't get through, prickly bushes catch at your britches, branches pull your cap off your head. Old people say the Slynx lives in those forests. The Slynx sits on dark branches and howls a wild, sad howl--
eeeeennxx, eeeeennxx, eeenx-a-leeeeeennnxx!
--but no one ever sees it. If you wander into the forest it jumps on your neck from behind:
It grabs your spine in its teeth--
--and picks out the big vein with its claw and breaks it. All the reason runs right out of you. If you come back, you're never the same again, your eyes are different, and you don't ever know where you're headed, like when people walk in their sleep under the moon, their arms outstretched, their fingers fluttering: they're asleep, but they're standing on their own two feet. People will find you and take you inside, and sometimes, for fun, they'll set an empty plate in front of you, stick a spoon in your hand, and say "Eat." And you sit there like you're eating from an empty plate, you scrape and scrape and put the spoon in your mouth and chew, and then you make to wipe your dish with a piece of bread, but there's no bread in your hand. Your kinfolk are rolling on the floor with laughter. You can't do for yourself, not even take a leak, someone has to show you each time. If your missus or mother feels sorry for you, she takes you to the outhouse, but if there's no one to watch after you, you're a goner, your bladder will burst, and you'll just die.
That's what the Slynx does.
You can't go west either. There's a sort of road that way--invisible, like a little path. You walk and walk, then the town is hidden from your eyes, a sweet breeze blows from the fields, everything's fine and good, and then all of a sudden, they say, you just stop. And you stand there. And you think: Where was I going anyway? What do I need there? What's there to see? It's not like it's better out there. And you feel so sorry for yourself.
You think: Maybe the missus is crying back at the izba, searching the horizon, holding her hand over her eyes; the chickens are running around the yard, they miss you too; the izba stove is hot, the mice are having a field day, the bed is soft... And it's like a worrum got at your heart, and he's gnawing a hole in it... You turn back. Sometimes you run. And as soon as you can see your own pots on your fence, tears burst from your eyes. It's really true, they splash a whole mile. No lie!
You can't go south. The Chechens live there. First it's all steppe, steppe, and more steppe--your eyes could fall out from staring. Then beyond the steppe--the Chechens. In the middle of the town there's a watchtower with four windows, and guards keep watch out of all of them. They're on the lookout for Chechens. They don't really look all the time, of course, as much as they smoke swamp rusht and play straws. One person grabs four straws in his fist--three long ones, one short. Whoever picks the short one gets a whack on the forehead. But sometimes they look out the window. If they spot a Chechen, they're supposed to cry "Chechens, Chechens!" and then people from all the settlements run out and start beating pots with sticks, to scare the Chechens. And the Chechens skedaddle. Once, two people approached the town from the south, an old man and an old woman. We banged on our pots, stomped and hollered up a storm, but the Chechens didn't care, they just kept on coming and looking around. We--well, the boldest of us--went out to meet them with tongs, spindles, whatever there was. To see who they were and why they came.
"We're from the south, Golubchiks," they said. "We've been walking for two weeks, we've walked our feet off. We came to trade rawhide strips. Maybe you have some goods?"
What goods could we have? We eat mice. "Mice Are Our Mainstay," that's what Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe, teaches. But our people are softhearted, they gathered what there was in the izbas and traded for the rawhide and let them go their way. Later there was a lot of talk about them. Everyone jabbered about what they were like, the stories they told, how come they showed up.
Well, they looked just like us: the old man was gray-headed and wore reed shoes, the old woman wore a scarf, her eyes were blue, and she had horns. Their stories were long and sad. Ben-edikt was little and didn't have any sense at all then, but he was all ears.
They said that in the south there's an azure sea, and in that sea there's an island, and on that island there's a tower, and in that tower there's a golden stove bed. On that bed there's a girl with long hair--one hair is gold, the next is silver, one is gold, and the next is silver. She lies there braiding her tresses, just braiding her long tresses, and as soon as she finishes the world will come to an end.
Our people listened and listened and said: "What's gold and silver?"
And the Chechens said: "Gold is like fire, and silver is like moonlight, or when firelings light up."
Our people said: "Ah, so that's it. Go on and tell us some more."
And the Chechens said: "There's a great river, three years' walk from here. In that river there's a fish--Blue Fin. It talks with a human voice, cries and laughs, and swims back and forth across that river. When it swims to one side and laughs, the dawn starts playing, the sun rises up in the sky, and the day comes. When it goes back, it cries, drags the darkness with it, and hauls the moon by its tail. All the stars in the sky are Blue Fin's scales."
We asked: "Have you heard why winter comes and why summer goes?"
The old lady said: "No, good people, we haven't heard, I won't lie, we haven't heard. It's true, though, folks wonder: Why do we need winter, when summer is so much sweeter? It must be for our sins."
But the old man shook his head. "No," he said, "everything in nature must have its reason. A feller passing through once told me how it is. In the north there's a tree that grows right up to the clouds. Its trunk is black and gnarled, but its flowers are white, teeny tiny like a speck of dust. Father Frost lives in that tree, he's old and his beard is so long he tucks it into his belt.
Now, when it comes time for winter, as soon as the chickens flock together and fly south, then that Old Man Frost gets busy: he starts jumping from branch to branch, clapping his hands and muttering doodle-dee-doo, doodle-dee-doo! And then he whistles:
Then the wind comes up, and those white flowers come raining down on us--and that's when you get snow. And you ask: Why does winter come?"
Our Golubchiks said: "Yes, that's right. That must be the way it is. And you, Grandpa, aren't you afraid to walk the roads? What's it like at night? Have you come across any goblins?"
"Oh, I met one once!" said the Chechen. "Seen him up close, I did, close as you are to me. Now hear what I say. My old woman had a hankering for some firelings. Bring me some firelings, she kept saying. And that year the firelings ripened sweet, nice and chewy. So off I go. Alone."
"What do you mean, alone!" we gasped.
"That's right, alone," boasted the stranger. "Well, listen up. I was walking along, just walking, and it started getting dark. Not very dark, but, well, all gray-like. I was tiptoeing so as not to scare the firelings when suddenly:
'What's that?' I thought. I looked--no one there. I went on. Again:
Like someone was shushing the leaves. I looked around. No one. I took another step. And there he was right in front of me. There was nothing there 'tall, and then all of a sudden I seen him. At arm's length. Just a little feller. Maybe up to my waist or chest. Looked like he were made of old hay, his eyes shone red and he had palms on his feet. And he was stomping those palms on the ground and chanting:
pitter-patter, pitter-patter, pitter-patter.
Did I run, let me tell you! Don't know how I ended up at home. My old lady didn't get her firelings that time."
The children asked him: "Grandfather, tell us what other monsters there are in the forest."
They poured the old man some egg kvas and he started. "I was young back then, hotheaded. Not afraid of a thing. Once I tied three logs together with reeds, set them on the water--our river is fast and wide--sat myself down on them, and off I floated. The honest truth! The women ran down to the bank,