The Sacred Book of the Werewolf

Chapter Fifteen


'Afraid?' I asked, glowering at him.
'Ha,' he said. 'I've seen more frightening things.'
I started walking round him slowly. He chuckled and set off in the opposite direction round the same circle, without taking his eyes off me, as if we were a pair of fencers from one of the Japanese action movies that he liked watching so much in his lupine form, clutching on to me with his shaggy grey tail hooked over. Then we both stopped at the same moment. I took a step towards him, put my hands on his shoulder straps, pulled him towards me and, for the first time in our relationship I kissed him on the lips - the way that people kiss.
I'd never kissed anyone like that before. I mean physically, using my mouth. It was a strange feeling - wet, warm, with a gentle knocking of teeth against teeth. I put all my love into my first kiss. And a second later the transformation began.
At first everything looked exactly as usual - Alexander's tail extended (or rather, tumbled) out of his spine, curled over, and an invisible thread of energy stretched between it and his head. After that he usually became a wolf in just a few moments. But this time something went wrong.
He jerked convulsively and fell on his back, as if his tail had suddenly become so heavy that it had pulled him over. Then he began rapidly jerking his arms and legs about in a horrible way (like people with craniocerebral injuries do), and in a few seconds he was transformed into a perfectly ordinary mongrel from the street or the local rubbish tip - a dog.
Yes, a dog. He was as big as an Alsatian, but clearly a mongrel. His plebeian proportions betrayed a mixture of numerous different breeds, and his eyes were clear and almost human in their anger, like the eyes of some wandering dogs who sleep in the entrances of the Metro with the homeless tramps. And this dog was blue-black, in fact purple-black, exactly like Aslan Udoev's beard.
Maybe it was the colour, maybe it was the pointed ears that seemed to be straining after some distant sound but I thought I sensed something diabolical about this dog: thoughts came into my head about crows and gallows, about demonic possession ... I realize that when a creature like me says 'thoughts came to me about demonic possession' it sounds rather strange, but what can I do about it, if that's the way it was. But the most macabre thing was the groan of horror that I either imagined or really did hear from every side - as if the earth itself had groaned.
I was so frightened that I started squealing. He jumped away from me, turned towards the mirror, saw, shuddered and started whimpering. Only then did I recover my wits. At that point I'd already realized that something terrible had happened to him, some kind of catastrophe, and it was my fault. The catastrophe had been caused by my kiss, by that electrical circuit of love that I had closed when I pressed my lips against his mouth.
I squatted down beside him and put my arms round his neck. But he tore himself away, and when I tried to hold him back, he bit me on the hand. Not really hard, but it started to bleed in two places. I gasped and jerked away. He dashed to the door into the other room, slammed his paws against it and disappeared inside.
He didn't come out for an entire hour. I realized that he wanted to be left alone and I didn't intrude on his solitude. I was terrified, afraid that any moment I would hear a shot (he had once promised to shoot himself for an absolutely trivial reason). But instead of a shot I heard music. He'd put on 'I Follow the Sun'. He listened to the song once, then put it on again. His soul was clearly in need of oxygen.
I was left there, sitting on the carpet in front of the divan. As soon as I calmed down a little bit, I began getting ideas about what might have happened. The first thing I remembered was the deceased Lord Cricket and his lecture about the snake force descending through the tail. Naturally, once I heard the word 'super-werewolf', I had regarded all his theories as crazy nonsense, a garland of foul-smelling bubbles in the swamp of profane esotericism. But one aspect of what had happened lent a certain weight to what his lordship had said.
Before his transformation, Alexander had fallen on the floor, just as if someone had tugged on his tail. Or as if his tail had become incredibly heavy. In any case, something unusual had happened, something that had taken him by surprise - and it had something to do with his organ of hypnotic suggestion. And Lord Cricket had said that the transition from a wolf to what he called the 'super-werewolf' took place when the kundalini descended to the very tip of the tail. And as well as that . . .
This was the most unpleasant part. As well as that, he had mentioned an 'involtation of darkness' that was necessary for this to happen, the spiritual influence of a 'senior demonic entity . . .'
Little me?
It was hard to believe it. But on the other hand, what the deceased lord had said could well have contained a grain of truth picked up from somewhere by that Aleister Crowley of his. All sorts of secret gatherings and mystical rituals were held in the world - it couldn't all be absolute charlatanism, could it? One thing was certain - I had played a fatal part in what had happened. Apparently I had been the catalyst for some obscure alchemical reaction. As Haruki Murakami said, the force emanating from a woman is not very great, but it can certainly move a man's heart . . .
The most terrible thing was the realization that what had happened was irreversible - a were-creature never makes mistakes about things like that. I could tell that Alexander would never again be the way he used to be. And it wasn't just supposition on my part, I knew it with my tail. It was as if I'd dropped a precious vase that had shattered into a thousand fragments, and now it could never be glued back together again.
I plucked up my courage, walked over to the door through which he had disappeared and opened it.
I'd never been in there before. What I found behind the door was a small space, like a dressing room, with a table, an armchair and cupboards running right round the walls. There was a small digital recorder lying on the table. It was playing the Shocking Blue song again, promising to follow the sun until the end of time.
Alexander was unrecognizable. He had already changed his clothes - now, instead of a general's uniform, he was wearing a dark grey jacket and a black turtleneck. I'd never seen him dressed like that before. But the most important thing was the elusive change that had taken place in his face - the eyes seemed to have moved closer together and faded somehow. And their expression had altered too - a new despair, balanced by fury, had appeared in them: I don't think anyone else but me would have been able to separate out these components of his outwardly calm gaze. It was him, but not him. I felt afraid.
'Sasha,' I called softly.
He looked up at me and asked: 'Do you remember the story about the Little Scarlet Flower?'
'Yes,' I said.
'I've only just realized what it really means.'
'Love doesn't transform. It simply tears away the masks. I thought I was a prince. But it turns out . . . This is what my soul is like.'
'Don't dare talk like that,' I whispered. 'It's not true. You didn't understand a thing. It has absolutely nothing to do with your soul. It's . . . it's like . . .'
'It's like hatching out from the egg,' he said sadly. 'You can't hatch back into it.'
He had expressed my own feeling with astonishing precision. So the change really was irreversible. I didn't know what to say. I wanted to fall through the floor, then through the ground, and keep going to infinity . . . But he didn't think it was my fault. On the contrary, he made it clear that he thought the cause of what had happened lay in him. What a noble heart he does have, really, I thought.
He stood up.
'Now I'm going to fly north,' he said, running his fingers tenderly over my cheek. 'Come what may. We'll see each other in three days.'
He appeared three days later.
I wasn't expecting him that morning, and my instinct had given me no warning. The knock at the door sounded strangely weak. If it had been the militia, the fire inspectors, the public health inspectors, the district architect or any other bearers of the national idea, it wouldn't have sounded like that - I knew how people knocked when they came for money. I thought it must be the old cleaning lady who cleaned the stand. She sometimes came to ask for hot water. I'd given her an electric kettle twice, but she still came anyway - probably out of loneliness.
Alexander was standing outside - deathly pale, with blue circles under his eyes and a long scratch on his left cheek. He was wearing a crumpled summer raincoat. I could smell alcohol on him - not old, stale fumes, but the way an open bottle of vodka smells. I'd never known him to drink before.
'How did you find me?' I asked.
It would have been hard to think of a more stupid question. He didn't even bother to answer.
'There's no time. Can you hide me?'
'Of course,' I said. 'Come in.'
'This place is no good. Our people know about it. Have you got somewhere else?'
'Yes I have. Come in and we'll talk about it.'
He shook his head.
'Let's go right now. Another five minutes and it will be too late.'
I realized the situation was serious.
'All right,' I said. 'Will we be coming back here?'
'Probably not.'
'Then I'll take my bag. And my bike. Will you come in?'
'I'll wait here.'
A few minutes later we were already walking away from the equestrian complex along a forest path. I was pushing my bike along by the handlebars: I had an extremely heavy bag hanging over my shoulder, but Alexander didn't make the slightest attempt to help me. That wasn't really like him - but I sensed that he could hardly even walk.
'Will it take much longer?'
'About half an hour, if we don't hurry.'
'What sort of place is it?'
'You'll see.'
'Is it safe?'
'They don't come any safer.'
I was taking him to my own personal bomb shelter.
It often happens that preparations made in case of war are actually used by a later age for a different purpose. In the eighties many people had been expecting the Cold War to end in a hot one - there were at least three portents that indicated such a development was imminent:
1. bully beef from the strategic reserves of Stalin's time - which were assembled in case there was a third world war - appeared on the shelves in shops (the cans were easily identifiable by the lack of any markings, the distinctive yellowish tinge of the metal, a thick layer of Vaseline and their completely tasteless, almost colourless contents).
2. the American president was called Ronald Wilson Reagan. Each word in his name contained six letters, giving the apocalyptic number of the beast - '666' - a fact that was frequently mentioned with alarm by the journal Communist, where many architects of the future reform worked at the time.
3. the surname Reagan was pronounced exactly like 'ray gun' - a fact that I noticed myself.
It became clear several years later that these signs did not portend war, but the end of the USSR: the upper rat had chickened out, thereby fulfilling the first part of its great geopolitical mission. But at that time a war had still seemed very likely, and I was thinking about what I would do when it started.
These thoughts led me to a simple decision. I was already living close to Bitsevsky Park and in its secret depths, criss-crossed with gullies, I often came across concrete pipes, shafts and service ducts. It was clear from the different sorts of concrete that these incomplete underground structures came from various periods of Soviet power. Some were elements of a drainage system, some had something to do with underground heat pipelines and cables, and some were simply unidentifiable, but looked like something military.
Most of them were in open view. But one of these boltholes proved suitable for my purposes. It was located in impassable thickets, too remote for teenage drinkers or courting couples to use as a meeting place. There were no forest tracks leading to it, and there wasn't much chance of anyone who happened to be out walking passing that way. This is how it looked: there was a concrete pipe about a metre in diameter protruding from the earth in the side of a gully. The bottom of the opposite slope of the ravine was only a few steps away, so it was difficult to spot the pipe from above. Under the ground it branched into two small rooms. One of them had a power distribution box hanging on the wall, and even a socket for a light bulb hanging on a spike hammered into the concrete - evidently there was an underground power cable running nearby.
When I discovered this place, there were no signs of life in it, only garbage left over from the construction work and a rubber boot with a torn top. Bit by bit I brought in a lot of canned food, jars of honey, Vietnamese bamboo mats and blankets. Only instead of war, perestroika broke out, and I had no more need for a bomb shelter. But even so I still used to inspect the place from time to time, thinking of it as my 'bunker'.
Of course, all my reserves had rotted, but the spot itself had remained undiscovered: only once in the entire democratic period did a tramp attempt to move in (he obviously must have been crawling along the bottom of the gully in a delirious state and then clambered into the pipe). I had to give him a rather severe hypnotic session - I'm afraid the poor man forgot about plenty of other things as well as the gully. After that I hung a protective talisman at the entrance, something I usually avoid doing, since sooner or later you have to pay for magic that changes the natural course of things with your own death. But in this case the intervention was minimal.
When Alexander asked me to hide him, I realized immediately that I couldn't possibly think of any better place than this. But getting there turned out not to be so easy - he was walking slower and slower, with frequent stops to catch his breath.
Eventually we reached the gully, which was concealed by a proliferation of hazel bushes and some umbrella-shaped plants with a name I could never remember - they always grew to a monstrous size here, almost like trees, and I was concerned that the reason might be radiation or chemical pollution. Alexander scrabbled down into the gully, bent over and climbed into the pipe.
'Right or left?'
'Left,' I said. 'I'll just switch on the light.'
'Oho, so there's even light. Real luxury,' he muttered.
A minute later I helped him take off his raincoat and laid him out on the bamboo mats. It was only then I noticed that his grey jacket was soaked in blood.
'There are bullets,' he said. 'Two or three. Can you get them out?'
Fortunately, I'd put my Leatherman in the bag. And I had a bit of medical experience, although the last time I'd practised was a very long time ago, and it wasn't bullets I removed from a man's body, it was arrowheads. But there wasn't really much difference.
'All right,' I said. 'Only don't squeal.'
During the procedure - which proved to be rather long - he didn't make a single sound. After one particularly clumsy turn of my instrument his silence became so oppressive, I was afraid he might have died. But he reached out for his bottle of vodka and took a swallow. Finally it was all over. I'd really hacked him about, but I'd got all three lumps of silver out - there were still black hairs embedded in two of them, and I realized he had been shot when he was . . . I didn't know what to call his new form - the word 'dog' seemed insulting to me.
'That's it,' I said. 'Now we have to bandage it up with something sterile. You lie here for a while, and I'll go to the chemist's. Shall I get you anything?'
'Yes. Buy me a leash and a collar.'
'Never mind,' he said and tried to smile. 'I'm joking. Don't worry about any medicine, dogs heal fast. Buy a few disposable razors and a can of shaving foam. And some mineral water. Do you have money?'
'Yes. Don't worry.'
'And don't go home. Not on any account. They're bound to be waiting for you.'
'You don't need to tell me that,' I said. 'Listen . . . I've just remembered. Mikhalich has this instrument that locates things. From a sensor. What if there's one of those sensors in my things?'
'Don't worry about that. He was just bragging to impress you. We don't have any instruments like that. They found you through the cleaning lady who gets hot water from you. She's been working for us since eighty-five.'
You learn something new every day.
When I came back a few hours later with two plastic bags full of shopping, he was asleep. I sat down beside him and looked into his face for a long time. He was sleeping as peacefully as a child. And standing on the floor was a glass, with three bloody silver buttons lying in it. It's hard to kill a werewolf. Take Mikhalich - the more you smash him over the head, the jollier he gets. The champagne's gone to my head, he says . . . Witty fellow. Of course this was a case of bullets, not champagne - but even so you couldn't get my Sashenka with a little thing like that.
The myth that a werewolf can only be killed with a silver bullet is very helpful to our community.
1. the wounds never fester and no disinfection is required - silver is a natural antiseptic.
2. fewer bullets are fired at us - people economise on the expensive metal and often go out hunting with only a single bullet, assuming that any kind of hit will be fatal.
But in real life the shot is far more often fatal for the hunter. If people would just use their brains for a moment, then of course they would guess who spreads these rumours about silver bullets. People might think a lot, but they think in a perverted way, and not about the right things.
The plastic bags I had brought contained food and a few small household items. As I went down into the gully and dragged them into the pipe, I suddenly thought that basically I was no different now from thousands of Russian girls who were married and whose frail shoulders had assumed the burden of running the home. It had all happened so suddenly and it was so different from the roles that I had previously played, that I wasn't sure yet if I liked it or not.
It is usually assumed that were-creatures are not concerned about spiritual problems. People think you turn into a fox or a wolf, howl at the moon, tear someone's throat out, and all the great questions of life are instantly answered, and it's clear who you are, what you're doing in this world, where you came from and where you're going . . . But that's not the way it is at all. We are far more tormented by the riddles of existence than modern humans. But the cinema continues to depict us as complacent, earth-bound gluttons, nonentities who are indistinguishable from each other, cruel and squalid consumers of the blood of others.
I don't actually think this is a conscious attempt by people to insult us. It's more likely a simple consequence of their own limitations. They model us according to their own likeness, because they have no one else to take as a prototype.
Even the little bit that people do know about us is usually distorted and vulgarized beyond all recognition. For instance, according to the rumours about were-foxes, they live in human graves. When they hear that, people imagine bones and stench, decomposing corpses. And they think - what repulsive creatures these foxes must be if they live in a place like that . . . Something like a large coffin of worms.
Of course, this is a mistake.
A good ancient grave was a complex structure consisting of several dry, spacious rooms illuminated by sunlight, which was directed into them by a series of bronze mirrors (there wasn't a lot of light, but it was enough to work by). A grave like that, situated far away from human dwellings, was ideally suited as a home for a being indifferent to the vanity of the world and inclined to solitary contemplation. There are almost no suitable graves left now: they've been ploughed up, canals and roads have been built through them. And in the modern communal apartments of the afterlife, even the dead feel cramped.
But sometimes even now nostalgia still drives me to a nearby cemetery - simply to stroll along the avenues and ponder the eternal. I look at the crosses and the stars, read the names, gaze at the faces on the faded photographs and feel so sorry for all these people I never met. Mr Keufer understood so much about life . . . And Mr Solonyan understood even more then Mr Keufer ... And Mr and Mrs Yagupolsky understood even more then Solonyan and Keufer taken together . . . They understood everything, apart from what is most important. And the most important thing was so inexpressibly close. Sad.
Long before I came to Russia I lived for several hundred years in a Han period grave not far from the spot where the great city of Luoyang once used to stand. The grave had two spacious chambers in which various items had been preserved - beautiful gowns and shirts, a harp, a flute and lots of different kinds of dishes - basically, everything that was necessary for a home and a modest life. And people were afraid to approach the grave, since it was rumoured that a fierce and vicious demon lived there. Which, if you set aside the superfluous emotional assessment, was quite true.
In those days I practised my spiritual exercises intensively and associated on a regular basis with a number of learned men from the villages round about (Chinese students usually lived in rural areas with their families, travelling to the city to sit their exams and later, after serving their term as an official, they returned to the family home). Several of them knew who I was and they would pester me with questions about the ancient times - were there any errors in the chronology, who had organized the palace coup three hundred years earlier, and so on. I had to strain my memory and answer them, because in return the scholars would give me old texts which I sometimes needed to check my spiritual practice.
Others, bolder in spirit, used to visit me for a little wanton lechery among the ancient graves. The Chinese artists and poets valued a secluded rendezvous with a fox, especially in a state of intoxication. And in the morning they liked to wake up in the grass beside a mossy gravestone, jump to their feet and scream in horror as they ran to the nearest shrine with their hair fluttering loose in the wind. It was very beautiful - I used to watch from behind a tree and laugh into my sleeve . . . And a couple of days later they would come back again. What exalted, noble, subtle people there used to be then! Often I didn't even take money from them.
Those idyllic times flew past quickly, and they left me with the very best of memories. Wherever life cast me up after that, I always felt slightly homesick for my cosy little grave. And so for me it was a delight to move into this little nook in the forest. I thought the old days had come back. Even the floor plan of the double burrow in which we lived reminded me of my ancient refuge although, of course, the rooms were smaller and now my days were not spent in solitude, but with Alexander.
Alexander quickly grew accustomed to the new place. His wounds healed - it was enough for him simply to turn into a dog for one night. In the morning he stayed like that and went off for a walk along the gully. I was glad he wasn't ashamed of this body - he seemed to find it entertaining, like a new toy. What he liked was evidently not the form itself, but its permanent stability: he could only be a wolf for a short while, but now he could be a dog for just as long as he wanted.
Apart from that, this black dog could even speak after a fashion, although the way it pronounced the words was very funny and at first I used to laugh until I cried. But Alexander didn't take offence, and I soon got used to it. During the early days he ran around in the forest a lot, getting to know the surrounding area. I was concerned that his ambitions might lead him to mark too large a sector of the forest, but I was afraid to wound his pride by telling him so. And if anything happened, we could stand up for ourselves. 'We' . . . I simply couldn't get used to that pronoun.
It was probably because our home reminded me of the place where I had spent so many years striving for spiritual self-improvement that I felt the desire to explain to Alexander the single most important of all things that I had understood in life. I had to try at least - otherwise what was my love worth? How could I possibly abandon him alone in the glacial glamour of the progressively advancing hell that began just beyond the edge of the forest? I had to offer him my tail and my hand because, if I didn't do it, no one else would.
I decided to reveal the innermost essence of things to him. This required him to master several ideas that were new to him and then use them, like steps, to ascend to the higher truth. But even explaining these initial notions was difficult.
The problem is that everybody knows the words that express the truth - and if you don't, you can easily find them in five minutes via Google. But hardly anyone at all actually knows the truth. It's like one of those 'magic eye' pictures - a chaotic jumble of coloured lines and spots that can be transformed into a three-dimensional image by focusing your vision correctly. It all seems very simple, but you can't focus someone else's eyes for them when they look, no matter how well-disposed you are towards them. The truth is a picture just like that. It is there right in front of everybody's eyes, even the tailless monkeys'. But there are very few who actually see it. Although many think that they understand it. This, of course, is nonsense - the truth is like love, there is nothing to understand. And what is usually taken for the truth is some kind of intellectual dross.
One day I noticed a tiny grey pouch hanging round Alexander's neck on a grey string. I guessed that the colour had been chosen to match a wolf's fur - so that the pouch would not be visible when he turned into a wolf. But now it stood out against his black fur. I decided to ask him about it that evening, when he was in a benign mood.
He was in the habit of smoking a malodorous Cuban cigar before bed - a Montecristo III or Cohiba Siglo IV. I knew the names, because I had to go to get them. That was the best time to talk to him. In case you didn't know, smoking triggers a discharge of dopamine into the brain - and dopamine is the substance responsible for a feeling of well-being: a smoker borrows this well-being against his own future and transforms it into problems with his health. That evening we settled down in the doorway of our home and he lit up (I wouldn't allow him to smoke inside). I waited until his cigar was half burnt away and asked:
'Tell me, what have you got in that little pouch hanging round your neck?'
'A cross,' he said.
'A cross? You wear a cross?'
He nodded.
'But why hide it? It's okay to wear them now.'
'It may be okay,' he said. 'But it burns my chest when I transform. '
'Does it hurt?'
'It doesn't really hurt. It's just that every time there's a smell of scorched fur.'
'If you like, I can teach you a mantra,' I said, 'so that no cross will ever burn you again.'
'Oh, sure! I'm not going to recite your infernal mantra so my cross doesn't burn my chest. Don't you realize what a sin that would be?'
I looked at him incredulously.
'Hang on. So maybe you're a believer too, are you?'
'What of it,' he said. 'Of course I'm a believer.'
'In the sense of the Orthodox Christian Cultural Heritage? Or for real?'
'I don't understand the distinction. In the Holy Writ it says:
"Even the demons believe and tremble!" That's about us, and that's what I do - believe and tremble.'
'But you're a werewolf, Sasha. So according to all the Orthodox precepts your road leads straight to hell. Tell me, I'd like to know, why would you choose a faith in which you have to go to hell?'
'You don't choose your faith,' he said morosely. 'Just like you don't choose your motherland.'
'But the reason religion exists is to offer hope of salvation. What are you hoping for?'
'That God will forgive my evil deeds.'
'And what evil deeds have you got?'
'That's obvious. I've lost the image of God. And then there's you ...'
I almost choked in indignation.
'So you don't think I'm the brightest and purest thing in your entire lupine life, on the contrary, I'm an evil deed for which you'll have to atone?'
He shrugged.
'I love you, you know that. It's not a matter of you personally. It's just that the two of us live, you know . . .'
'What do I know?'
He released a cloud of smoke.
'In sin . . .'
My anger instantly evaporated. And instead I felt more like laughing than I had for a long time.
'No, come on, tell me,' I said, feeling the bubbles of laughter rising in my throat. 'So I'm your sin, am I?'
'Not you,' he said in a quiet voice, 'it's that . . .'
'Tailechery,' he said in a very quiet voice and lowered his eyes.
I bit my lip. I knew that whatever I did, I mustn't laugh - he had shared his most intimate feelings with me. And I didn't laugh. But the effort was so great it could easily have made a new silver hair appear in my tail. So he'd even invented a term for it!
'Don't take offence,' he said. 'I'm being honest with you, saying what I feel. I can lie if you like. Only then there won't be any point in talking to each other.'
'Yes,' I said, 'you're right. It's just that this is all rather unexpected. '
We sat in silence for a few minutes, watching the tops of the prolific umbrella plants swaying in the wind.
'And have you been . . . a believer for long?' I asked.
'It's five years now.'
'To be honest, I thought you were more into the Nordic gods. You know, Fafnir, Nagelfahr, Fenrir, Loki, Baldur's dreams . . .'
'That too,' he said with a selfconscious smile. 'Only that's external, a shell. A sort of frame, aesthetic decoration. You know, like the sphinxes on the banks of the Neva in Petersburg.'
'And how did you end up in this state?'