Chapter OneA WerewolfProblem inCentral Russia
Just for a moment Sashathought that the battered Zil would stop for him: it was so oldand rattled so loudly, and was so obviously ready for the scrapheap, that it should have stopped-if only the law by which oldpeople who have been rude and inconsiderate all their livessuddenly become helpful and obliging shortly before they diehad applied to the world of automobiles-but it didn't. With abucket clanking beside its gas tank with a drunken, senile insolence,the Zil rattled past him, struggled up a small hill, givingvent to a whoop of indecent triumph and a jet of gray smoke atthe summit, and disappeared silently behind the asphalt rise.Sasha stepped off the road, dropped his small backpack on to thegrass and sat down on it. Something in it bent and cracked andSasha felt the spiteful satisfaction of a person in trouble wholearns that someone or something else is also having a hard time.He was just beginning to realize how serious his own situationwas.
There were only two courses of action open to him: either hecould go on waiting for a lift or head back to the village-a threemile walk. As far as the lift was concerned, the question seemedas good as settled already. There were obviously certain regionsin the country, or a least certain roads, where all the driversbelonged to some secret brotherhood of black-hearted villains.Hitchhiking became impossible, and you had to take great carethe passing cars didn't splash you with mud from the puddles asyou walked along the side of the road. The road from Konkovo tothe nearest oasis on the railway line-a straight stretch of 15miles-was one such enchanted highway. Not one of the five carsthat had passed him had stopped, and if not for one aging ladywearing purple lipstick and an "I still love you" hairstyle whostuck her long arm out of the window of a red Niva to give himthe finger, Sasha could have believed he'd become invisible. He'dstill been hoping for that mythical driver, the kind you encounterin newspaper stories and films, who would stare silently throughthe dusty windscreen of his truck at the road ahead for the entirejourney and then refuse any payment with a curt shake of hishead (at this point you suddenly notice the photograph hangingabove the steering wheel, showing a group of young men in paratrooperuniforms against a backdrop of distant mountains)-butwhen the Zil rattled past, even this hope had died.
Sasha glanced at his watch-it was twenty minutes past nine.It would get dark soon. He looked around. Beyond a hundredyards or so of broken ground (tiny hillocks, scattered bushes, andgrass that was too high and luscious for his liking, because it suggestedit was growing on a bog) there was the edge of a forest,thin and unhealthy looking, like the sickly offspring of an alcoholic.All the vegetation in the neighborhood looked strange, asthough anything bigger than flowers and grass had to strain andstruggle to grow, and even when it eventually reached normalsize, it still gave the impression of only having grown underthe threat of violence-otherwise it would have flattened itselfagainst the ground like lichen. It was an unpleasant sort of place,oppressive and deserted, as though it was ready for removal fromthe face of the earth-but then, Sasha thought, if the earth doeshave a face, it must be somewhere else, not here.
Of the three villages he had seen that day only one had appearedmore or less convincing-the last one, Konkovo; the others had been deserted, with just a few little houses inhabited bypeople waiting to die. The abandoned huts had reminded himmore of an ethnographic exhibition than human dwellings. EvenKonkovo, distinguished by a plaster sentry standing beside theroad and a sign which read "Michurin Collective Farm," onlyseemed like a human settlement in comparison with the desolationof the other nameless villages nearby. Konkovo had a shop,and there was a poster for the village club, with the title of anavant-garde French film traced in green watercolor, flapping inthe wind, while a tractor whined somewhere behind the houses-buteven there he hadn't felt comfortable. There was no one onthe streets-only one woman dressed in black had passed him,crossing herself hurriedly at the sight of Sasha's Hawaiian shirtwith its design of multicolored magical symbols, and a man inspectacles had ridden by on a bicycle with a string shopping bagdangling from the handlebars. The bicycle was too big for him, sohe couldn't sit in the saddle and stood instead on the pedals, lookingas though he was running in the air above the heavy rustyframe. All the other villagers, if there were any, must have beenstaying indoors.
He had imagined his trip would be quite different. He would getoff the small flat-bottomed riverboat, walk to the village, andthere on the zavalinkas-Sasha had no idea what a zavalinka was,but he imagined it as a comfortable wooden bench set along thelog wall of a peasant hut-there would be half-crazy old womensitting peacefully among the sunflowers, and clean-shaven oldmen playing chess quietly beneath the broad yellow discs of theblossoms. In other words, Sasha had imagined Tverskoi Boulevardin Moscow overgrown with sunflowers-with a cow occasionallylowing in the distance. After that he would make his wayto the edge of the village to find a forest basking in the sun, ariver with a boat drifting by on it or some country road cuttingthrough an open field, and whichever way he walked, everythingwould be simply wonderful: he could light a fire, he could remember his childhood and climb trees-if, that is, his memoriestold him that was what he used to do. In the evening he wouldhitch a lift to the train.
What had actually happened was very different. It had been acolored photograph in a thick, tattered book that was to blame foreverything, an illustration with the title "The ancient Russian villageof Konkovo, now the main center of a millionaire collectivefarm." Sasha had found the spot from which the photograph thatcaught his eye had been taken, roundly cursed the Americanword "millionaire" and marveled at how different the same viewcan appear in a photograph and in real life.
Having promised himself never again to set out on a senselessjourney purely on impulse, Sasha decided that at least hewould watch the film in the village club. After buying a ticketfrom an invisible woman-he had to conduct his conversationwith the plump freckled hand in the window, which tore off theblue scrap of paper and counted out his change-he made hisway into the half-empty hall, spent one and a half bored hoursthere, occasionally turning to look at an old man who sat in hischair straight as a ramrod and whistled at certain points in theaction-his criteria for whistling were quite incomprehensible,but his whistle had a wild bandit ring to it, a lingering note fromRussia's receding past.
Afterwards, when the film was over, he looked at thewhistler's straight back as it retreated from the club, at the streetlamp under its conical tin cap, at the identical fences surroundingthe little houses, and he shook the dust of Konkovo from his feet,with a sideways glance at the eroded hand and raised foot of theplaster Lenin in the plaster hat, doomed to stride for all eternitytowards his brother in oblivion who stood, as if waiting for him,by the highway. Sasha had waited so long for the truck whichfinally dispelled his illusions that he had almost forgotten what hewas waiting for. Standing up, he slung the backpack over hisshoulder and set off back the way he had come, wondering whereand how he would spend the night. He didn't want to try knocking on some woman's door-most of the women who let peoplein to spend the night live in the same mythical places as nightingale-whistlingbandits and walking skeletons, and this was the"Michurin Collective Farm" (which was actually no less magicalan idea, if you thought about it, but one with a different kind ofmagic, not one that offered any hope of a night's lodging in astranger's house). The only reasonable way out Sasha was able tothink of was to buy a ticket for the last showing at the club andhide behind the heavy green curtain after the film and spend thenight there. If it was to work, he would have to leave his seat beforethey switched on the lights, so that he wouldn't be noticed bythe woman in the homemade black uniform who escorted thecustomers to the exit. He'd have to watch the same dark, depressingfilm again, but he'd just have to put up with that.
As he was thinking all this through, Sasha came to a fork inthe road. Passing this way twenty minutes before, he had thoughtthat the road he was walking along was joined by a smaller sideroad, but now as he stood at the junction he couldn't decidewhich was the road he had come along-they both looked exactlythe same. Probably it was the one on the right-there was thatbig tree by the road. Yes, that must be it-he had to go right. Andsurely there was a gray telephone pole in front of the tree. Wherewas it now? There it was-but it was on the left, and there was asmall tree beside it. It didn't make sense. Sasha looked at the telephonepole, which had once supported wires, but now looked likea huge rake threatening the sky. He went left.
After he'd walked twenty steps, he stopped and looked back.Clearly visible against the dark stripes of the sunset, a bird whichhe had previously taken for an insulator caked with the dirt ofmany years launched itself into the air. He walked on-he had tohurry to get to Konkovo in time, and his road lay through theforest.
It occurred to him how incredibly unobservant he was. Onthe way from Konkovo he hadn't noticed this wide cut openingon to a clearing. When you're absorbed in your own thoughts, theworld around you disappears. He probably wouldn't have noticedit this time either, if someone hadn't called out to him.
"Hey," the drunken voice shouted, "who are you?"
Several other voices broke into coarse laughter. In among thetrees on the edge of the forest, right beside the cut, Sasha caughta quick glimpse of people and bottles-he refused to turn hishead and only saw the young locals out of the corner of his eye.He started walking more quickly, believing that they wouldn'tpursue him, but still he was unpleasantly alarmed.
"Whoa, what a wolf!" someone shouted after him.
"Maybe I'm going the wrong way?" Sasha thought when theroad took a zig-zag that he didn't remember. But no, it seemedright-there was a long crack in the road surface that looked likethe letter "W"; he'd seen something like that the last time. It wasgradually getting dark and he still had a long way to go. To occupyhis mind, he began thinking of ways of getting into the clubonce the film had started-from explaining that he'd come backfor a cap he'd left behind to climbing down the chimney (if therewas one, that is).
Half an hour later it became clear that he had taken thewrong road-the air was already blue and the first stars had brokenthrough the sky. What made it obvious was the appearance ofa tall metal pylon supporting three thick cables at the side of theroad and a quiet crackling of electricity: there definitely hadn'tbeen any pylons like that on the road from Konkovo. Everythingwas quite clear now, but still Sasha went on walking automaticallyuntil he reached the pylon. He stared with fixed concentration atthe metal plaque with the lovingly executed drawing of a skulland the threatening inscription, then looked around and wasastonished to think that he had just walked through that dark,terrifying forest. Walking back to the fork would mean anotherencounter with the young guys sitting beside the road, and discoveringwhat state they had got into under the influence of fortifiedwine and evening twilight. Going forward meant walking into theunknown-but then, a road has to lead somewhere, surely?
The humming of the power cables served as a reminder thatthere were normal people living somewhere in the world, producingelectricity by day and watching television with its help bynight. If it came to spending the night in the forest, Sashathought, the best thing would be to sleep under the pylon-itwould be something like sleeping in a front hallway, and that wasa well-tried move, absolutely safe. In the distance he heard a roaringwhich seemed to be filled with some ancient anguish-hecould hardly make it out at first, and not until it became incrediblyloud did Sasha realize that it was an airplane. He lifted hisgaze to the sky in relief, and soon he could see above his head thetriangle defined by its three different colored lights: as long as hecould see the airplane, Sasha actually felt comfortable standingthere on the dark forest road. When it moved out of sight, hewalked on, looking straight ahead down the road that was graduallybecoming the brightest thing in his surroundings.
The road was illuminated by a weak light, and he could walkalong without any fear of stumbling. For some reason, probablysimply the habit of a city dweller, Sasha felt sure that the lightcame from widely spaced street lamps, but when he tried to spotone, the truth struck him-of course there were no street lamps,it was the moon shining, and when Sasha looked upwards hecould see its crisp white crescent in the sky. After gazing upwardsfor a while, he noticed that the stars were different colors-he'dnever noticed that before, or if he had, he'd forgotten it ages ago.
Eventually the darkness became complete-that is, it becameclear that it wasn't going to get any darker. Sasha took his jacketout of the backpack, put it on and closed all the zips-that madehim feel more prepared for any further surprises the night mighthave in store. He ate two crumpled wedge-shaped pieces of"Friendship" processed cheese-the foil wrapping with the word"Friendship" printed on it gleamed dully in the moonlight,vaguely reminding him of the pennants that the human race isconstantly launching into space.
Several times he heard the roar of engines as cars or truckspassed by in the distance. At one point the road emerged fromthe forest and ran through an open field for about five hundredyards, then plunged into another forest where the trees wereolder and taller. At the same time it narrowed, as did the strip ofsky above his head. He had the feeling that he was plungingdeeper and deeper into some abyss which the road would neverlead him out of-it would take him into some dark thicket andend there in a kingdom of evil, among huge oak trees wavingtheir branches like arms-just like in those children's horrorfilms, where the victory of the hero in the red shirt makes youfeel sorry for the wicked witch and the walking skeleton who fallvictim to his triumph.