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In the ruins of Moscow two centuries after the apocalypse, inhabitants dwell in primitive, frequently brutal conditions in which mice are a source of food, clothing, and commerce and books are banned by the ruling tyrant, although he plagiarizes the works of the old masters in order to make his own wise pronouncements.
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Jamey Gambrell has been translating Tatyana Tolstaya's fiction and nonfiction since 1990
A great-grandneice of Leo Tolstoy, Tatyana Tolstaya was born in St. Petersburg. She is the author of two collections of stories and Pushkin"s Children: Writing on Russia and Russians. Her work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, the New Republic, and other periodicals. Tolstaya has taught at Princeton University and, for many years, Skidmore College.
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 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 howl—eeeeennxx, eeeeennxx, eeenx-
aleeeeeennnxx —but 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 teeth—
crunch—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. 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 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
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
We asked: "Have you heard why winter comes and why summer
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 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: shush-shush-shush! "What"s that?" I thought. I looked—no 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 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, 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
"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
"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 sand—it 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
"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 close—close as you
folks there, he was—and 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 shout—and 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 boil—it"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
"Come on, now," we piped up. "Grandpa, you promised to tell us
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...
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