The Sacred Book of the Werewolf

Chapter Thirteen


The fairy tale contained a strange truth about the very saddest and most mysterious side of Russian life. How many times that brindled cow had been slaughtered. And how many times it had returned, either as a magic apple tree or an entire cherry orchard. Only where had all the apples gone? You couldn't find them anywhere. Except maybe by calling the office of United Fruit . . . But no, that was nonsense. 'United Fruit' was last century, but now any call you made would get lost in the wires on its way to some company in Gibraltar that belonged to a firm from the Falkland Islands that was managed by a lawyer in Amsterdam in the interests of a trust with an unnamed beneficiary owner. Who, of course, is known to every dog on the Rublyovskoe Highway where the upper rat lives.
I closed the book and looked at Alexander. He was asleep. I carefully took the serious, intelligent book from his knees and opened it:
No, the Money Tree looks different from the way certain frivolous writers of the last century thought of it. It doesn't fruit with gold ducats in the Field of Miracles, as they assumed. It sprouts through the icy crust of the permafrost in a blazing fountain of oil, a burning bush like the one that spoke with Moses. But although there are many a Moses crowding round the Money Tree today, the Lord remains significantly silent . . . The reason for his silence must be that he knows the tree will not be allowed to flutter its smoky flames in freedom for long. Calculating men will haul a slaking apparatus on to the crown of fire and force the Tree's black trunk to grow into a cold steel pipe stretching right across the Country of Fools to the port terminals, to various Chinas and Japans - so far that soon the Tree will be unable to recall its own roots . . .
After I'd read a few more paragraphs in the same fussy, obscure style, I began to feel sleepy. I closed the book and put it back on Alexander's knees. Then I slept through the rest of the flight.
I slept through the landing as well. When I opened my eyes, there was the snow-covered airport terminal building, looking more like a railway station, drifting past outside the window of the Gulfstream as it taxied along the runway. There was a long poster hanging on the building: 'Welcome to Nefteperegonievsck!' There was snow everywhere, as far as the eye could see.
At the bottom of the steps we were met by several military men in winter kit without any badges of rank. They greeted Mikhalich and Alexander like old friends, but they glanced at me, or at least I thought they did, in bewilderment. Nonetheless, when Mikhalich and Alexander each received an officer's greatcoat, I was also issued with warm clothing - a military padded jacket with a light-blue collar of synthetic fur and a cap with ear-flaps. The jacket was too big, and I literally drowned in it.
Three cars had come to meet us. They were black Gel?ndewagens, just like the ones in Moscow, except that they were driven by soldiers. There was hardly any conversation at all when we were met: the men limited themselves to greetings and a brief discussion of the weather. It seemed like the local men knew all about why their visitors from Moscow were there.
The town that started immediately outside the airport had a rather phantasmagorical appearance. The buildings in it reminded me of cottages for the middle class outside Moscow. There was only one difference - these cottages were raised above the ground in an absurd fashion, on stilts that were like the hut's chicken legs in the fairy tale. That was the precise association evoked by the combination of the piles hammered into the permafrost and the red crests of the tiled roofs, and it was impossible to free myself of it: the houses became rows of chickens with their hindquarters raised high to display the black openings of the doors. Evidently I was still under the impression of the previous day's hunt and the resultant shock.
In between the 'eurohuts' I could see figures of street traders selling something from pieces of oilcloth spread out directly on the snow beside their Buran snowmobiles.
'What's that they're selling?' I asked Alexander.
'Reindeer meat. They bring it from the tundra.'
'Don't they ship supplies up here?'
'Yes, of course they do. It's just that reindeer meat's in fashion. It's stylish. And then, it's an environmentally clean product.'
I was very impressed by the Calvin Klein boutique, located in one of the cottages on piles. Its very presence in this place was impressive - it was probably the most northerly outpost of lesser Calvinism in the world. And apart from that, the sign over its door fulfilled several functions at once - shop name, geographical reference point and advertising concept:
I couldn't help noticing a large children's playground crowded with structures that looked like the frameworks of tents - the children hanging on them, swaddled in warm clothing, were like fat little sloths. The playground reminded me of an ancient hunters' camping ground preserved amongst the snow. The entrance arch was painted with snowflakes, baby animals and red-nosed clowns, and above them there was a jolly inscription:
It was hard to understand what this was:
1. a nonsense rhyme intended to put the children in a good mood.
2. a list of sponsors.
3. a protest in Aesopian language (are we coming back to that so soon?) against the oppressive tyranny of the authorities.
Everything in Russian life had shifted around so much that it was hard to reach any final conclusion. And I didn't have the time: we didn't slow down anywhere and soon this tapestry of the north had dissolved in the white dust behind us. The snowy expanses of evening closed in on us from all sides.
'Put on my favourite,' Alexander said to the driver.
He looked sullen and intense, and I thought it best not to distract him by making conversation.
An old song by Shocking Blue came on:
I'll follow the sun
That's what I'm gonna do,
Trying to forget all about you . . .
I couldn't help thinking that 'trying to forget all about you' referred to me - the female psyche does that sort of thing automatically without bothering to consult its owner. But I thought the oath to follow the sun, confirmed by the words 'that's what I'm gonna do', in the manner of the ancient Vikings, had a certain exalted beauty to it.
I'll follow the sun
Till the end of time
No more pain and no more tears for me.
Naturally, when I heard the end of time mentioned, I recalled the caption under the picture of a wolf that I'd seen at Alexander's place:
FENRIR: Son of Loki, an immense wolf who pursues the sun across the sky. When Fenrir catches the sun and devours it, Ragnarek will begin.
That changed the picture somewhat . . . What a child he is after all, I thought with a tenderness that I was still not consciously aware of, what a funny little boy.
Soon it started getting dark. In the moonlight the landscape outside the car window had an unearthly look - it seemed strange that people should fly to other planets, when they had places like this right here beside them. The ground only a metre away from the invisible road might well never have been touched by the foot of man, or any foot or paw, come to that, and we would be the first . . .
When we reached our destination, it was already completely dark. Outside the car there were no buildings, no lights, no people, nothing - just the night, the snow, the moon and the stars. The only thing interrupting the monotony of the landscape was a nearby hill.
'Out we get,' said Alexander.
It was cold outside. I raised the collar of my padded jacket and tugged the fur cap further down over my ears. Nature had not designed me for life in these parts. What would I have done there, anyway? The reindeer herders don't seek amorous adventures among the snows, and even if they did, I doubt if I would be able to spread my tail in frost like that. It would probably freeze immediately and snap off, like an icicle.
The cars lined up so that their powerful headlights lit up the entire hill. Men began bustling about in the pool of light, unpacking the equipment they had brought with them - instruments of some kind that were a mystery to me. One man in the same kind of padded military jacket I was wearing, with a black bag in his hands, came up to Alexander and asked:
'Can I set it up?'
Alexander nodded.
'Let's go together,' he said, and turned towards me. 'And you come with us too. The view's beautiful from up there, you'll see.'
We set off towards the top of the hill.
'When did the pressure fall?' Alexander asked.
'Yesterday evening,' one of the officers replied.
'Have you tried pumping in water?'
The officer waved his hand dismissively, as if that wasn't even worth mentioning.
'How many times is it that the pressure's fallen in this well?'
'Five,' said the officer. 'That's it, we've squeezed it dry. The reservoir, and the whole of Russia.'
He swore quietly.
'We'll soon see about the whole of Russia,' said Alexander. 'And watch your tongue, we have a lady with us, after all.'
'Oh, a new member of the team?'
'Something of the sort.'
'That's good. We can't expect much from Mikhalich . . .'
We reached the top. I saw low buildings in the distance, pinpoints of blue and yellow electric light, latticework metal structures, smoke or steam rising in some places. The moon lit up a labyrinth of pipes extending across the surface of the ground - some of them plunged into the snow, others stretched all the way to the horizon. But all this was too far away for me to make out any details. I didn't notice any people anywhere.
'Are they on the line?' Alexander asked.
'Yes,' the officer replied. 'If anything happens, they'll let us know. What are the chances?'
'We'll see,' said Alexander. 'What point is there in guessing? Let's get ready.'
The officer put his bag down on the snow and opened it. Inside there was a plastic case about the same size and shape as a large melon. Catches clicked, the melon opened and I saw a cow's skull that looked very old lying on red velvet. In some places it was cracked and held together by metal plates. The bottom of the skull was set in a metal frame.
The officer took a black cylinder out of the bag and opened it up to form something like one of those telescopic sticks for trekking. It had a round flange at one end. He took a swing and thrust the pointed end of the stick in the snow, then checked to make certain it was secure. It was, very. Then he picked up the skull, set its metal base over the flange on the end of the stick and connected them with a faint click.
'All set?' asked Alexander.
He hadn't been following the manipulations, he was watching the distant lights and the pipelines, like a general surveying the site of an imminent battle. The officer turned the empty eye sockets of the skull towards the oilfield. I couldn't understand what he was intending to film with this weird camera.
'Yes, sir.'
'Let's go,' said Alexander.
We walked down the hill towards the men waiting for us by the cars.
'Well then, Mikhalich,' said Alexander, 'why don't you go first? Give it a try. And I'll back you up if need be.'
'Straight away,' said Mikhalich. 'Just give me a couple of minutes, I'll just pop into the car to make sure I don't freeze my ass off.'
'You mean you can't manage at all without ketamine?'
'Whatever you say, comrade lieutenant general,' said Mikhalich. 'Only I'd like to do it according to my own system. And I've already switched to injecting into the muscle.'
'Well, do it your way then,' Alexander muttered in annoyance. 'Go on. We'll see. It's time you learned to walk without crutches, Mikhalich. Have faith in yourself! Let it all out! Wolf-flow! Wolf-flow! What will you do if your dealer gets banged up? Is the whole country going to pay the price?'
Mikhalich cleared his throat, but didn't say anything and walked round behind the cars. As he walked by, he winked at me. I pretended not to notice.
'One minute to go,' said a loud voice amplified by a megaphone. 'Everybody withdraw behind the perimeter.'
The cluster of men in the light of the headlights walked quickly away into the darkness behind the cars. The only one left standing with us was the officer who had helped Alexander install the skull on the hilltop. I didn't know if the command meant me as well and I looked enquiringly at Alexander.
'Have a seat,' he said, pointing to a folding chair nearby. 'Mikhalich is going to perform now. Just be sure not to laugh, he's sensitive. Especially when he's taken a shot.'
'I remember,' I said and sat down.
Alexander settled down on the chair next to mine and handed me a pair of field binoculars. The metal casing was searingly cold to the touch.
'Which way do I look?' I asked.
He nodded in the direction of the pole with the skull, which was clearly visible in the headlights.
'Fifteen . . .' said the megaphone behind the cars. 'Ten . . . Five ...Start!'
For a few seconds nothing happened, then I heard a dull growl and a wolf appeared in the pool of light.
He was very different from the beast that Alexander changed into. So different, in fact, that he seemed to belong to a different biological species. He was smaller, with short legs, and entirely lacking in the dangerous charm of a deadly predator. The elongated barrel-shaped trunk of his body was too cumbersome for life in the natural wilderness, especially under conditions of natural selection. This corpulent body put me in mind of ancient outrages, of Christian martyrs and Roman emperors feeding their enemies to a wild beast. What he looked most like . . . Yes, most of all, he resembled a huge overfed dachshund with a wolf's skin transplanted on to it. I felt frightened I wouldn't be able to stop myself laughing. And that made everything seem even funnier. But fortunately I managed to restrain myself.
Mikhalich trudged up the hill and stopped beside the skull on the pole. He paused deliberately, then raised his face towards the moon and started howling, wagging his stiff tail like a conductor's baton.
I got the same feeling as I did when Alexander transformed: as if the wolf's body was a false appearance, or at best merely an empty resonator, like the body of a violin, and the mystery lay in the sound produced by an invisible string stretched between the tail and the face. The only real thing was this string and its appalling appassionato, everything else was an illusion . . . I felt my kinship with this creature: Mikhalich was doing something close to what foxes do, and his tail was helping him to do it in exactly the same way.
His howling roused a poignantly meaningful echo, first at the base of my own tail, and then in my conscious mind. There was meaning in the sound, and I understood it. But it was hard to express this meaning in human language - it resonated with such an immense number of words, that it wasn't clear which I should choose. Very approximately, and without any claims to accuracy, I would have expressed it as follows:
Brindled cow! Do you hear, brindled cow? It is I, the vile old wolf Mikhalich, I am whispering in your ear. Do you know why I am here, brindled cow? My life has become so dark and terrible that I have abandoned the Image of God and become a pseudo-wolf. And now I howl at the moon, the sky and the earth, at your skull and all that exists, so that the earth may take pity, open up and give me oil. You have no reason to pity me, I know. But even so, have pity on me, brindled cow. If you do not have pity on me, no one in the world will. And you, earth, look on me, shudder in horror and give me oil, for which I will receive a little money. Because to lose the Image of God, become a wolf and not have money is unbearable and unthinkable, and the Lord, whom I have denied, would not allow such a thing . . .
The call was full of a strange, enchanting power and sincerity. I felt no pity for Mikhalich, but his plaint sounded perfectly justified in terms of all the central concepts of Russian life. If I can put it that way, he was not demanding anything excessive from the world, everything was logical and well within the bounds of the modern metaphysical proprieties. But nothing happened to the skull, which I was watching through the binoculars.
Mikhalich howled for another ten minutes or so, in pretty much the same vein. Sometimes his howling was pitiful, sometimes menacing - I even felt a bit afraid. But then I didn't know what was supposed to happen, if anything - I was waiting for it, because Alexander had told me to watch the skull. But from the brief comments exchanged by Alexander and the officer, it was clear that Mikhalich had been unsuccessful.
Perhaps the reason for that was a certain unnatural, chemical tone in his howling. It wasn't noticeable at first, but the longer he howled, the more clearly I sensed it, and by the end of his performance it was so strong that I felt an unpleasant lump low down in my throat.
The howling broke off, I lowered the binoculars and saw there was no wolf on the hill any longer. Instead, there was Mikhalich, down on all fours. He was clearly visible in the headlights - right down to the last crease in his greatcoat. Despite the cold, his face was covered with large beads of sweat. He stood up and trudged down the hill.
'Well?' he asked when he reached us.
The officer held a walkie-talkie to his ear, listened for a while and lowered it again.
'No change,' he said.
'Because this is the fifth time we've worked this deposit already,' said Mikhalich. 'The second time round I always make it work. And the third time almost always. But the fifth . . . It's kind of hard to think of what to howl about.'
'Guys, we have to think of something,' the officer said, concerned. 'Almost all the wells in the sector are on their fourth cycle. If we don't get the fifth moving, then NATO will cut us in three pieces in two years, the maths are as simple as that. Any ideas, Alexander?'
Alexander got up off his chair.
'We'll soon find out,' he said. He stood there, looking at the skull through narrowed eyes and estimating the distance. Then he set off up the hill. Halfway to the skull he tossed the greatcoat off his shoulders and it fell in the snow with its arms outstretched.
'Like Pushkin walking to his last duel,' I thought, then looked at the greatcoat and thought: 'or like Dantes . . .'
The military uniform made the second seem more accurate. I suddenly understood that Pushkin was killed by a homonimic shadow of Dante - though the coincidence of names wasn't complete, it still looked eerie. As if one poet served another as a guide to the beyond again, I thought, this time with full board accommodation . . . But I had no time to reflect on this insight properly before Alexander reached the pole.
He cautiously set his hands on the skull and turned it through a hundred and eighty degrees so that it was staring directly at me - through the binoculars I could clearly see empty eye sockets and a metal cleat holding together a crack above one of them.
Alexander started down the hill. When he reached his greatcoat he stopped, raised his face to the sky and howled.
He started to howl when he was still a man, but the howling transformed him into a wolf faster than amorous arousal. He arched in a bow and tumbled over on to his back. The tranformation occurred so rapidly that he was almost completely a wolf when his back touched the greatcoat. Without stopping its howling even for a second, the wolf floundered in the snow for a few moments, raising a white cloud all around itself, and then got up on to its legs.
After the barrel-shaped, flabby Mikhalich, it was particularly striking just how handsome Alexander was. He was a noble and terrible beast, one that the northern gods might really be afraid of. But his howling wasn't fearsome, like Mikhalich's. It sounded quieter and seemed sad, rather than menacing:
Brindled cow! Do you hear, brindled cow? I know I must have lost all sense of shame to ask you for oil yet again. I do not ask for it. We do not deserve it. I know what you think of us - no matter how much you give them, Little Khavroshka won't get a single drop, it will all be gobbled up by all these kukis-yukises, yupsi-poopses and the other locusts who obscure the very light of day. You are right, brindled cow, that is how it will be. Only, let me tell you something . . . I know who you are. You are everyone who lived here before us. Parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and before that, and before that . . . You are the soul of all those who died believing in the happiness that would come in the future. And now see, it has come. The future in which people do not live for something else, but for themselves. And do you know how we feel swallowing sashimi that smell of oil and pretending not to notice the final ice-floes melting under our feet? Pretending this is the destination towards which the people have striven for a thousand years, ending with us? It turns out that in reality only you have lived, brindled cow. You had someone to live for, but we do not . . . You had us, but we have nobody apart from ourselves. But now you feel as miserable as we do, because you can no longer grow apples for your Little Khavroshka. You can only give oil to ignominious wolves, so that kukis-yukis-yupsi-poops can shell out to its lawyer and the lawyer can give the head of security a kick-back, the head of security can grease his hairdresser's palm, the hairdresser can grease the cook's, the cook can grease the driver's, and the driver can hire your Little Khavroshka for an hour for a hundred and fifty bucks . . . And when your Little Khavroshka sleeps off the anal sex and pays off all her cops and bandits, maybe she'll have enough left over for the apple that you wanted so much to become for her, brindled cow . . .
I felt as if the cow was looking at me with its empty eye sockets. And then, through the binoculars, I saw a tear well up on the edge of one of those sockets. It ran down across the skull and fell off into the snow, and then a second one appeared, and then a third . . .
Alexander carried on howling, but I couldn't make out the meaning any more. Perhaps there no longer was any - the howling had turned into weeping. I started to weep too. We were all weeping . . . And then I realized we were howling rather than weeping - Mikhalich, the officer who had set up the pole on the hill, the men in the darkness behind the cars - we were all howling, with our faces turned to the moon, howling and weeping for ourselves and for our impossible country, for our pitiful life, stupid death and sacred hundred dollars a barrel . . .
'Hey,' I heard someone say, 'wake up!'
I opened my eyes. Alexander and the officer were standing beside my chair.
'That's it,' said the officer. 'The oil's flowing.'
'How you howled!' said Alexander. 'We were simply spell-bound. '
'Yes,' said Mikhalich, 'the girl came in useful all right. I didn't understand why you brought her at first, comrade lieutenant general.'
Alexander didn't answer - one of the men who had stood behind the cars during the performance had come up to him. He was dressed in a military uniform without any badges of rank - just like all the others.
'This is for you,' he said and handed Alexander a little box. 'The medal for Services to the Motherland. I know you have a lot of these things. We just want you to remember how highly the country values you.'
'Thank you,' Alexander said indifferently, putting the little box in his pocket. 'Glad to serve.'
He took me by the arm and led me towards the car. When we'd moved away from the others, I whispered:
'Tell me honestly, wolf to fox. Or if you prefer, were-creature to were-creature. Do you really think kukis-yukis is to blame for Little Khavroshka not getting an apple, and not that rotten fish-head that sometimes pretends to be a bull and sometimes a bear?'
He was flabbergasted.
'What kukis? What fish-head?
It was only then I realized just how crazy what I'd just said sounded. Yes, it was stress - I'd stopped feeling the difference between the world and what I was thinking about it. Alexander hadn't actually said anything - he had simply howled at the cow's skull, and all the rest had been my personal interpretation.
'And you threw in a bear too,' he muttered.
Yes, indeed, it was really stupid of me. I hadn't even discussed the bear and the fish-head with him.
'It's the fairy tales that did it,' I said guiltily. 'The ones I was reading in the plane.'
'Ah. That explains it.'
However, there was one question I could ask without being afraid it would sound crazy. This time I gauged the impression my words might make in advance, before I opened my mouth:
'You know, I have the feeling that you showed me to the skull as Little Khavroshka. Am I right?'
He laughed.
'And why not? You're so touching.'
'Take a good look at me,' I said. 'What sort of Little Khavroshka am I?'
'You could be Mary Magdalene,' he said. 'What difference does it make? It's my job to get the oil flowing. And for that, the skull has to cry. What's to be done if it doesn't cry for Mikhalich any longer, even when he injects five cc's of ketamine?'
'But then it . . . It was a lie,' I said, bewildered.
He chortled.
'So you think art should be the truth?'
The only answer I gave was to blink several times. The absurd thing was that I really did think that. Suddenly I could no longer tell which of us really was the cynical manipulator of other minds.
'You know what,' he said, 'you try selling that concept to the Saatchi gallery. Maybe they'll put it on show beside the pickled shark. Or maybe Brian will buy it. The guy who offered me a thousand pounds.'
Alas, Brian couldn't buy anything any longer . . . But then, that commonplace about someone who is dead is outmoded nowadays. Sometimes a client dies and his brokers carry on playing the stock market. And when the sad news finally reaches them, a computer program everyone has forgotten about carries speculating for a long time in cyberspace, buying and selling the pound and the yen when they reach the threshold levels . . . But Brian probably really couldn't buy anything from me. And certainly not the idea that art should be the truth.
Moscow greeted me with the sad news. The article on the site, whose address had mysteriously written itself back into my home page, had the following headline:
A feeling rather like nausea prevented me from reading the entire article - I only had the strength to run my eyes over it diagonally, picking out the substance from under the journalistic cliches: 'the grimace of inexpressible terror frozen on his face', 'the tears of the inconsolable widow', 'the representatives of the embassy', 'investigation of the circumstances'. I wasn't concerned about what would happen to E Hu-Li- this was all business as usual for her. The investigators of the circumstances were the ones to be concerned about - in case that grimace of inexpressible terror froze on one of their faces too.
I should have felt sorry for Lord Cricket though. I concentrated, but for some reason instead of his face, all I could recall was documentary footage of a fox hunt - a little bundle of red-brown fur dashing across a field, totally defenceless, quaking in horror and hope, and riders in their elegant caps in pursuit . . . But I recited the requiem mantra anyway.
The next thing that caught my eye was a column heading:
This magnum opus contained one incredibly impudent paragraph that concerned me personally:
The fox, covered with numerous bald spots or, more precisely, still covered with fur in places, inspired in those who witnessed the incident not only an intense feeling of pity, but also the suspicion that there was a radioactive waste dump somewhere nearby. Perhaps the old, sick animal had come to people, hoping for the coup de grace that would put an end to its suffering. But one cannot expect even that kind of favour for free from the hardhearted Muscovites of today. Two mounted militiaman set off in pursuit of the sick animal, but how the chase ended remains unknown.
What a filthy liar, I thought, it's obvious that none of the witnesses said anything about a radioactive waste dump, and he made it all up himself, just to have something to fill up his column. But then the Internet columnists write about everything in the same vile way - about politics, culture, and even the conquest of Mars. And this time about foxes. This particular rumour-monger had a special trick of his own. When he wanted to cover someone in shit from head to foot, he always mentioned an intense feeling of compassion. I had always been amazed by this ability to take the most exalted of all human feelings, and turn it into a poisonous barb.
But then, if you just thought about it, there was nothing surprising about that. What was an Internet columnist, after all? A creature somewhat more advanced than a prison-camp guard dog, but very, very inferior to a were-fox.
1. the similarity between an Internet columnist and a prison-camp guard dog consists in the ability to bark into a strictly defined sector of space.