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"I said, get lost. Out of my way, I'm trying to watch."
"What're you watching?"
"God, what an idiot.... All right, the sun."
Six-Toes lifted his gaze from the black surface of the soil,scattered with food, sawdust, and powdered peat, screwed up hiseyes, and stared into the sky.
"Yeah ... we just keep living our lives, but what's it allfor? The mystery of the ages. Who has ever truly comprehendedthe subtle filiform essence of the lights of heaven?"
The stranger turned his head and contemplated him with anexpression of curious disgust.
"Six-Toes," said Six-Toes immediately, introducing himself.
"I'm Hermit," replied the stranger. "Is that the way they talkhere in your community? Subtle filiform essence?"
"Not my community anymore," answered Six-Toes, andthen suddenly gave a whistle: "Hey, will you look at that!"
"What?" Hermit asked suspiciously.
"Look, up there! Another one's just appeared?"
"What of it?"
"That never happens in the center of the world. Three sunsall atonce."
Hermit sniggered condescendingly. "I've seen eleven of themat once. One at zenith and five in each epicycle. Of course, thatwasn't here."
"Where was it?" asked Six-Toes.
Hermit didn't answer. He turned, walked away, and pickingup a food scrap from the ground with his foot, began to eat.There was a warm, gentle wind, and two suns were reflected inthe grey-green planes of the distant horizon. In this atmosphereof calm sadness Hermit became so engrossed in his thoughts thatwhen he suddenly noticed Six-Toes standing in front of him heshuddered in surprise. "You again! Well, what do you want?"
"Nothing. I just feel like talking."
"You don't seem any too bright to me. You should get back tothe community. You've wandered too far away. Go on, go backover there...." He waved in the direction of a thin dirty-yellowline wriggling and trembling in the distance. It was hard tobelieve that was how the huge unruly crowd appeared from here.
"I would go back," said Six-Toes, "but they threw me out."
"Really? What for? Politics?"
Six-Toes nodded, scratching one leg with the other. Hermitglanced down at his feet and nodded.
"Are they real?"
"What else could they be? What they said to me was, Herewe are just coming up to the Decisive Stage, and there you arewith six toes on your feet.... Real good timing, they said...."
"What `Decisive Stage' is that?"
"I don't know. All of them milling about with long faces, especiallythe Twenty Closest, and I don't understand a thing. Allof them running around, yelling and shouting."
"Ah," said Hermit, "I understand. No doubt it gets clearerand clearer by the hour? Gradually assuming visible shape andform?"
"That's right," said Six-Toes, astonished. "How did youknow?"
"I've already seen five of these Decisive Stages. Only they allhad different names."
"But how can that be?" said Six-Toes. "I know this is thefirst time it's happened."
"Of course it is. It would be rather interesting to see whathappens the second time around.... But then we're talkingabout somewhat different things." Laughing quietly, Hermit tooka few steps towards the distant community, turned his back to it,and began scraping up the ground with his feet. Very soon acloud of sawdust, peat, and scraps of food had formed in the airbehind his back. He kept glancing round, waving his arms in theair, and muttering to himself. Six-Toes felt a bit frightened.
"What were you doing?" he asked, when Hermit came backover to him, breathing heavily.
"It's a gesture," Hermit answered. "An art form. You read apoem and perform the actions to go with it."
"Which poem did you read?"
"This one," said Hermit:
"Sometimes I feel sad
Observing those I have left.
Sometimes I laugh,
And then between us
There rises up the yellow mist."
"That's not a poem," said Six-Toes. "I know all of thepoems, thank God. Not by heart, of course, but I've heard alltwenty-five of them. That definitely isn't one of them."
Hermit looked at him in surprise, and then seemed to understand.
"Can you remember at least one?" he asked. "Recite one forme."
"Just a moment. The twins ... The twins ... right,well, to cut it short, it's about how we say one thing and we meananother. And then we say one thing and mean another again, onlylike the other way round. It's all very beautiful. At the end welook up at the wall and see a face that puts an end to all doubt andhesitation—"
"Enough!" Hermit interrupted.
There was silence.
Six-Toes was the first to break it: "So, did they throw you outtoo?"
"No, I threw all of them out."
"How could that happen?"
"All sorts of thing can happen," said Hermit. Glancing up atone of the heavenly bodies, he went on in a tone that suggested ashift from idle chatter to serious conversation: "It'll get darksoon."
"Oh, sure. Right," replied Six-Toes. "Nobody knows whenit's going to get dark."
"I know. And if you want to sleep in peace, you just do whatI do."
Hermit set about scraping into heaps the sawdust, peat, andvarious bits of garbage under his feet. Gradually a wall tookshape, about the same height as himself, and enclosing a smalldistinct space. His construction completed, Hermit steppedback, glanced at it lovingly, and said: "There. I call it The Sanctuaryof the Soul."
"Why?" asked Six-Toes."
"I like the sound of it. Are you going to build one?"
Six-Toes began scratching and scraping, but he couldn't getthe hang of it. His wall kept collapsing. To tell the truth, hewasn't trying very hard, because he didn't really believe whatHermit had told him about it getting dark, so when the lights ofheaven wavered and began gradually to dim, and the distant communitygave out a communal gasp of horror like the windrustling through straw, he was simultaneously overcome by twopowerful feelings: the usual terror at the sudden advance of darknessand an unfamiliar feeling of admiration for someone whoknew more than he did about the world.
"So be it," said Hermit. "You jump inside and I'll build anotherone."
"I don't know how to jump," Six-Toes answered in a quietvoice.
"So long, then," said Hermit. Suddenly he pushed off fromthe earth with all his strength, soared up into the air, and disappearedbehind his wall. Then the entire structure collapsed in onhim, covering him with an even layer of sawdust and peat. Thesmall hillock that was formed in this way carried on shudderingfor a little while, and then a little opening appeared in its side.Six-Toes just caught a glimpse of Hermit's eyes glittering in itbefore total darkness descended.
For as long as he could remember, Six-Toes had of courseknown all he needed to know about night. "It's a naturalprocess," some said. "We should just get on with our work," saidothers, the majority. There were many shades of opinion, but thesame thing happened to everyone regardless. When the light disappearedwithout any apparent cause, after struggling briefly andhelplessly against the paralyzing terror, they all fell into a state oftorpor, and when they came to—when the lights began shiningagain—they could remember almost nothing. When Six-Toeswas still living in the community, the same thing had happened tohim, but now, probably because his terror at the onset of nightwas overlaid and doubled by his terror at being alone, the standardsalvation of a coma was denied him. In the distance the communityhad fallen silent, but he just went on sitting there, conscious,hunched over, beside the mound, crying quietly. He couldn'tsee a thing, and when Hermit's voice suddenly pierced the darkness,he was so frightened that he shat right there on the spot.
"Hey, stop that banging, will you?" Hermit complained. "Ican't sleep."
"I'm not banging," Six-Toes answered in a quiet voice. "It'smy heart. Talk to me for a bit, will you?"
"What about?" asked Hermit.
"Anything you like, just make it as long as you can."
"How about the nature of fear, then?"
"Oh, no, not that," squeaked Six-Toes.
"Quiet!" hissed Hermit. "Or we'll have all the rats here in amoment."
"Rats? What are they?" Six-Toes asked in cold fright.
"Creatures of the night. And of the day too, for that matter."
"Life has been cruel to me," whispered Six-Toes. "If only Ihad the right number of toes, I'd be sleeping with all the others.God, I'm so afraid.... Rats...."
"Listen," said Hermit, "you keep on saying God this, Godthat—do they believe in God over there, then?"
"God only knows. There is something, that's for sure, butjust what, nobody knows. For instance, why does it get dark? Ifyou like you can explain it by natural causes, of course. And ifyou go thinking about God, you'll never get anything done in thislife ..."
"So just what can you get done in this life?"
"What a question! Why do you ask stupid questions, as if youdon't know the answers already? Everyone tries as hard as he canto get to the trough. It's the law of life."
"Okay. Then what's it all for?"
"You know, the universe, the sky, the earth, the suns, allof it."
"What d'you mean, what for? That's just the way the world is."
"What way is it?" Hermit asked in a curious voice.
"Just the way it is. We move in space and time. According tothe laws of life."
"How should I know? It's the mystery of the ages. You'reenough to drive anyone crazy."
"You're the one who'd drive anyone crazy. No matter whatwe talk about, it's all the law of life or the mystery of the ages."
"If you don't like it," said Six-Toes, offended, "then don'ttalk."
"I wouldn't be talking if you weren't afraid of the dark."
Six-Toes had completely forgotten about that. He focused onwhat he was feeling, and suddenly realized there was no fearthere at all. This frightened him so much that he leapt to his feetand set off running blindly into the darkness, until his headslammed at full speed into the invisible Wall of the World.
In the distance Six-Toes could hear Hermit's cackling laughter.Placing one foot carefully in front of the other, he began makinghis way towards it, the only sound in the silent, impenetrabledarkness that surrounded him. When he reached the mound inwhich Hermit was ensconced, he lay down beside it without aword and tried to ignore the cold and go to sleep. He didn't evennotice when he finally did.
Excerpted from 4 By Pelevin by Victor Pelevin. Copyright © 1994 by Victor Pelevin.
Translation copyright © 1998 Andrew Bromfield.Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 1996 Zhao Zhenkai.
Translation copyright © 1996 David Hinton with Yanbing Chen.All rights reserved.
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