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1 R AZ 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 floorfor the micewedged 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 couplefor a new cap. But he didn’t have a stone.
It would be nice to have the meat, too. Mice, mice, and more micehe 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 ovenand 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. Stillwhat 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 firelings, 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 howleeeeennxx, eeeeennxx, eeenx- aleeeeeennnxxbut no one ever sees it. If you wander into the forest it jumps on your neck from behind: hop! It grabs your spine in its teethcrunchand 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 outstretchhed, their fingers fluttering: they’re asleep, but they’re standing on their own two feet. People will find you and take you inside, and someeeeetimes, 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 wayinvisible, 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 steppeyour eyes could fall out from staring. Then beyond the steppethe 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 fistthree 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. Wewell, the boldest of uswent 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. Benedikt 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 hairone 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 fishBlue 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: wheeeeooossshhhh! Then the wind comes up, and those white flowers come raining down on usand 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: shush-shush-shush! ‘What’s that?’ I thought. I lookedno one there. I went on. Again: shush-shush-shush. 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, pitterpatter, 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 waterour river is fast and widesat myself down on them, and off I floated. The honest truth! The women ran down to the bank, there was a hollering and a wailing, like you might expect. Where do you see people floating on the river? Nowadays, I’m told, they hollow out trunks and put them on the water. If they’re not lying, of course.” “No, they’re not, they’re not! It’s our Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. He invented it!” we cried out, Benedikt loudest of all.
“Don’t know any Fyodor Kuzmich myself. We aren’t booklearned. That’s not my story. Like I said, I wasn’t afraid of nothing. Not mermaids or water bubbles or wrigglers that live under stones. I even caught a whirlytooth fish in a bucket.” “Come on, Grandpa,” our folks said. “Now you’re making things up.” “That’s the honest truth! My missus here will tell you.” “It’s true,” the old lady said. “It happened. How I yelled at him. He clean ruined my bucket, I had to burn it. Had to carve out a new one, and a new one, by the time you hollow it, tar it, let it dry three times, cure it with rusht, rub it with blue sandit near to broke my hands, I worked so hard. And for him, it’s all glory. The whole village came out to look at him. Some were afraid.” “Of course they were,” we said.
The old man was pleased. “But then, you see, maybe I’m the only one,” he boasted. “The only one seen a whirlytooth up closeclose as you folks there, he wasand come out of it alive. Ha! I was a real he-man. Mighty! Sometimes I’d yell so loud the window bladders would burst. And how much rusht I could drink at a sitting! I could suck a whole barrel dry.” Benedikt’s mother was sitting there, her lips pressed. “What concrete benefit did you derive from your strength? Did you accomplish anything socially beneficial to the community?” she asked.
The old man was offended. “When I was a youngster, Golubushka, I could jump from here to that hill way over there on one leg! Beneficial! I tell you, sometimes I’d give a shoutand the straw would fall off the roof. All our folks is like that. A real strong man, I was. My missus here will tell you, if I get a blister or a boilit’s as big as your fist. No joke. I had pimples that big, I tell you. That big. And you talk. I’ll have you know when my old man scratched his head, he’d shake off a half-bucket of dandruff.” “Come on, now,” we piped up. “Grandpa, you promised to tell us about monsters.” But the old man wasn’t joking, he was really mad. “I’m not saying another word. If you come to listen . . . then listen. Don’t go butting in. It ruins the whole story. She must be one of them Oldeners, I can tell by the way she talks.” “That’s right,” said our people, throwing a side glance at Mother. “One of the Oldeners. Come on now, Grandpa, go on.” The Chechen also told us about forest ways, how to tell paths apart: which ones are for real and which are a figment, just green mist, a tangle of grasses, spells, and sorcery. He laid out all the signs. He told how the mermaid sings at dawn, burbles her watery songs; at first low-like, starting off deep: oooloo, oooloo, then up higher: ohouuaaa, ohouuaaathen hold on, watch out, or she’ll pull you in the riverand when the song reaches a whistle: iyee, iyee! run for your life, man. He told us about enchanted bark, and how you have to watch out for it; about the Snout that grabs people by their legs; and how to find the best rusht.
Then Benedikt spoke up. “Grandfather, have you seen the Slynx?” Everyone looked at Benedikt like he was an idiot. No one said anything, though.
They saw the fearless old man off on his way, and it was again quiet in town. They put more guards on, but no one else attacked us from the south.
No, we mostly walk out east from the town. The woods there are bright, the grass is long and shiny. In the grasses there are sweet little blue flowers: if you pick them, wash them, beat them, comb and spin them, you can plait the threads and weave burlap. Mother, may she rest in peace, was all thumbs, everything tangled up in her hands. She cried when she had to spin thread, poured buckets of tears when she wove burlap. Before the Blast, she said, everything was different. You’d go to a deportmunt store, she said, take what you wanted, and if you didn’t like it, you’d turn up your nose, not like now. This deportmunt store or bootick they had was something like a Warehouse, only there were more goods, and they didn’t give things out only on Warehouse Daysthe doors stood open all day long.
It’s hard to believe. How’s that? Come and grab what you want? You couldn’t find enough guards to guard it. Just let us in and we’ll strip everything bare. And how many people would get trampled? When you go to the Warehouse your eyes nearly pop out of your head from looking at who got what, how much, and why not me?
Looking won’t help any: you won’t get more than they give you. And don’t stare at another guy’s takings: the Warehouse Workers will whack you. You got what’s yours, now get out! Or else we’ll take that away too.
When you leave the Warehouse with your basket you hurry home to your izba, and you keep feeling around in the basket: Is everything there? Maybe they forgot something? Or maybe someone snuck up from behind in an alley, dipped in, took off with something?
It happens. Once, Mother was coming home from the Warehouse, they’d given her crow feathers. For a pillow. They’re light, you carry them and it’s like there was nothing there. She got home, pulled off the clothand what do you know? No feathers at all, and in their place, little turds. Well, Mother cried her eyes out, but Father got the giggles. What a funny thiefhe not only took off with the goods but thought up a joke, with a twist: here’s what your feathers are worth. How d’ya like that!
The feathers turned up at the neighbor’s. Father started bugging him: Where’d they come from? The market. Whaddya trade them for? Felt boots. Who from? All of a sudden the neighbor didn’t know this, didn’t know that, I didn’t mean, I didn’t, I drank too much rushtyou couldn’t get a thing out of him. That’s how they left it.
Well, and what do they give out at the Warehouse? Mousemeat sausage, mouse lard, wheatweed flour, those feathers, then there’s felt boots, of course, and tongs, burlap, stone pots: different things. One time they put some slimy firelings in the basketthey’d gone bad somewhere, so they handed them out. If you want good firelings you have to get them yourself.
Right at the edge of the town to the east are elfir woods. Elfir is the best tree. Its trunk is light, it drips resin, the leaves are delicate, patterned, paw-shaped, they have a healthy smell. In a wordelfir! Its cones are as big as a human head, and you can eat your fill of its nuts. If you soak them, of course. Otherwise they’re disgusting. Firelings grow on the oldest elfirs, in the deep forest. Such a treat: sweet, round, chewy. A ripe fireling is the size of a person’s eye. At night they shine silver, like the crescent moon was sending a beam through the leaves, but during the day you don’t notice them. People go out into the woods when it’s still light, and as soon as it’s dark everyone holds hands and walks in a chain so as not to get lost. And so the firelings don’t know there’s people around. You have to pick them off quick, else the fireling will wake up and shout. He’ll warn the others, and they’ll go out in a flash. You can pick them by feel if you want. But no one does. You end up with fakes. When the fake ones light up, it’s like a red fire is blowing through them. Mother picked some fakes and poisoned herself. Or else she’d be alive right now.
Two hundred and thirty-three years Mother lived on this earth. And she didn’t grow old. They laid her in the grave just as black-haired and pink- cheeked as ever. That’s the way it is: whoever didn’t croak when the Blast happened, doesn’t grow old after that. That’s the Consequence they have. Like something in them got stuck. But you can count them on the fingers of one hand. They’re all in the wet ground: some ruined by the Slynx, some poisoned by rabbits, Mother here, by firelings . . .
Whoever was born after the Blast, they have other Consequencesall kinds. Some have got hands that look like they broke out in green flour, like they’d been rolling in greencorn, some have gills, another might have a cockscomb or something else. And sometimes there aren’t any Consequences, except when they get old a pimple will sprout from the eye, or their private parts will grow a beard down to the shins. Or nostrils will open up on their knees.
Benedikt sometimes asked Mother: How come the Blast happened? She didn’t really know. It seems like people were playing around and played too hard with someone’s arms. “We didn’t have time to catch our breath,” she would say. And she’d cry. “We lived better back then.” And the old manhe was born after the Blastwould blow up at her: “Cut out all that Oldener Times stuff! The way we live is the way we live! It’s none of our beeswax.” Mother would say: “Neanderthal! Stone Age brute!” Then he’d grab her by the hair. She’d scream, call on the neighbors, but you wouldn’t hear a peep out of them: it’s just a husband teaching his wife a lesson. None of our business. A broken dish has two lives. And why did he get mad at her? Well, she was still young and looking younger all the time, and he was fading; he started limping, and he said his eyes saw everything like it was in dark water.
Mother would say to him: “Don’t you dare lay a finger on me! I have a university education!” And he’d answer: “I’ll give you an ejucayshin! I’ll beat you to a pulp. Gave our son a dog’s name, you did, so the whole settlement would talk about him!” And such a cussing would go on, such a squabblinghe wouldn’t shut up till his whole beard was in a slobber. He was a hard one, the old man. He’d bark, and then he’d get tuckered; he’d pour himself a bucket of hooch and drink himself senseless. And Mother would smooth her hair, straighten her hem, take Benedikt by the hand, and lead him to the high hill over the river; he already knew that was where she used to live, before the Blast. Mother’s five-story izba stood there, and Mother would tell about how there were higher mansions, there weren’t enough fingers to count them. So what did you dotake off your boots and count your toes too? Benedikt was only learning his numbers then. It was still early for him to be counting on stones. And now, to hear tell, Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe, had invented counting sticks. They say that it’s like you run a hole through a chip of wood, put it on the sticks, and toss them back and forth from right to left. And they say the numbers go so fast your head spins! Only don’t you dare make one yourself. If you need onecome on market day to the market, pay what they tell you, they’ll take burlap or mice, and then you can count to your heart’s content. That’s what they say. Who knows if it’s true or not.
. . . So Mother would come to the hill, sit down on a stone, sob and cry her eyes out, soak herself with bitter tears, and remember her girlfriends, fair maidens, or dream about those deportmunt stores. And all the streets, she said, were covered with assfelt. That’s like a sort of foam, but hard, black, you fall down on it and you don’t fall through. If it was summer weather, Mother would sit and cry, and Benedikt would play in the dirt, making mud pies in the clay, or picking off yellers and sticking them in the ground like he was building a fence. Wide-open spaces all around: hills and streams, a warm breeze, he’d wander aboutthe grass would wave, and the sun rolled across the sky like a great pancake, over the fields, over the forests, to the Blue Mountains.
Our town, our home sweet homeland, is called Fyodor- Kuzmichsk, and before that, Mother says, it was called Ivan-Porfirichsk, and before that Sergei-Sergeichsk, and still before that Southern Warehouses, and way back whenMoscow.
Copyright © 2003 by Tatyana Tolstaya Translation copyright © 2003 by Jamey Gambrell Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.