The Sacred Book of the Werewolf

Chapter Twelve


'I'll come. Only let's do it real fast. It's already time we were going. And don't you bite through any of my clothes today, I went to a lot of trouble to buy new knickers, all right? Not all of them suit me.'
'And one more thing, while you can still talk . . .'
'Tell me why every time you have to introduce that apologia for fatuous militant ignorance into the conversation?'
'How do you mean?'
'Like all that about Little Red Riding Hood and psychoanalysis. It sometimes seems to me that you're trying to shaft the whole of history and culture in my person.'
'As far as culture goes, there's something to that,' he said. 'But what's history got to do with it? What are you, a Sphinx? Just how old are you, anyway? I'd give you sixteen years. But what's your real age?'
I felt my cheeks getting hot, very hot.
I had to come up with something to say.
'You know,' I said, 'I once read some poems by a public prosecutor in an obscure journal published by the ministry of justice. There was one about a young defender of the Motherland that began with the words "I would never have given him more than fifteen".'
'I get it,' he said, 'the son of the regiment. So what have these poems got to do with anything?'
'I'll tell you. When a man in your uniform says "I'd give you sixteen years", the first thing you wonder is - under what article of the criminal code.' And the second thing is - how big the pay off might be.'
'If you find this uniform irritating,' he said, 'take off your stupid dress, and soon there'll be soft fur instead of shoulder straps. Yes, that's nice. What a good girl you are today . . .'
'Listen, are you going to get them a pass for the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour?'
'No? You're right, too. We've just written a reply to that Brian. Although . . . Do you want to stick it to him in really aristocratic fashion?'
'If after this letter, where you explained everything to him, you still got him a pass anyway, that would be really high class.'
'So we'll do it, then?'
'Good. I'll remind you later . . . What a fool you are, eh? I told you not to bite through anything! Buy yourself a plastic bone in the dog shop and chew it as much as you like, when I'm not here. Cutting your teeth, are you. You big bad wolf . . . And get a move on, we have to be in the forest in an hour.'
The car stopped at the edge of the forest, not far from the section-built six-storey house I had noted as my initial reference-point.
'Where to now?' asked Alexander.
He was acting in the condescendingly buddy-buddy manner of an adult being drawn into a meaningless game by children. That irritated me. Never mind, I thought, we'll see what you say in an hour's time . . .
I picked up the plastic bag with the champagne and glasses and got out of the car. Alexander said something to the driver in a low voice and got out after me. I set off towards the forest at a stroll.
In the forest it was already summer. It was that astonishing period in May when the greenery and the flowers seem immortal, as if now they are victorious for ever. But I knew that in just another two or three weeks there would be a presentiment of autumn in the air.
Instead of admiring the natural surroundings, I watched my feet - my stiletto heels were sinking into the ground, and I had to be careful where I stepped. We reached a bench standing between two birch trees. That was the next reference point. From there it was only a few short steps to the forester's house.
'Let's sit down,' I said.
We sat down on the bench. I handed him the bottle and he opened it deftly.
'It's nice here,' he said, pouring the champagne. 'Quiet. It's still spring, but everything's in full bloom already. Flowers . . . But up north there's snow everywhere. And ice.'
'Why did you suddenly remember the north?'
'Don't know, really. What are we drinking to?'
'To good hunting.'
We clinked glasses. When I finished my champagne, I smashed my glass against the edge of the bench and used the sharp edge to cut through the strap of my dress above my right shoulder. He followed my movements with dour disapproval.
'Are you going to pretend to be an Amazon?'
I didn't answer that.
'And listen, why are you all in black? And dark glasses? Is it a spoof on The Matrix?'
I didn't answer that either.
'Don't get me wrong. Black really does suit you, only . . .'
'I'll go on from here on my own,' I interrupted.
'And what do I do?'
'When I start to run, you can run after me. But somewhere off to one side. And I beg you, please don't interfere. Not even if you see something you don't like. Just keep out of it and watch.'
'And keep your distance. Or you'll frighten the people.'
'What people?'
'You'll see.'
'I don't like any of this,' he said. 'I'm worried about you. Maybe you shouldn't do it?'
I stood up with a determined air.
'No more. We're starting.'
As I have already said, the goal of chicken hunting is supraphysical transformation, and the correct preparatory procedure is very important. In order to trigger the transformation, we put ourselves in an extremely embarrassing situation, the kind in which your own idiocy is so breathtaking and you feel so ashamed you wish the earth would open and swallow you up. That is precisely what the evening dress and the high-heeled shoes are for. We take the situation to such absurd lengths that we are left with no other option but to transform into an animal. And the chicken is required as a biological catalyst for the reaction - without it the transformation is impossible. It is extremely important for the chicken to remain alive until the very end - if it dies, we rapidly resume our human shape. And so it's best to select the bird that is healthiest and strongest.
When I reached the chicken coop, I looked at the forester's house. The sun was reflected in the window, and I couldn't see if there was anyone there behind the glass. But there were definitely people in the house. I could hear music coming from the open door, with stern male voices (I think it was a monks' choir) singing: 'The good night . . . the peace of God . . . the mantle of God above the sleeping earth . . .'
I needed to hurry.
The chicken coop was a planking hut with an inclined roof made of plywood covered with polythene. I drew back the bolt, flung open the door, which scraped across the ground, and immediately spotted my prey in the foul-smelling semi-darkness. She was a brown chicken with a white side - when all the other chickens made a dash for the corners, she was the only one who stayed put. As if she was waiting for me, I thought.
'Co-co-co,' I said in a hoarse, insincere voice, then quickly bent down and grabbed her.
The chicken turned out to be very meek - she twitched once to adjust a wing that was caught awkwardly, then froze. It seemed to me, as it always does at such moments, that she understood the nature of what was happening perfectly well, and her own role in it. Pressing her against my chest, I backed out of the chicken coop. One shoe got stuck in the ground, twisted over and slipped off my foot. I kicked the other one off as well.
'Hey, daughter,' a voice called to me.
I looked up. There was a man of about fifty, wearing a tattered, old padded work-jacket, standing on the porch. He had a thick, drooping moustache.
'What do you think you're up to?' he asked. 'Are you off your head?'
A younger man, about thirty years old, appeared behind the first. He had a moustache too - he was obviously the first man's son. He was wearing a blue tracksuit with the large letters
'CASC', for 'Central Army Sporting Club'. I noted that they were both too thickset to be fast runners.
The moment of truth was nigh. Looking at them with a mysterious smile, I opened the zip on the right side of my dress. Now it was only held on by the left shoulder-strap, and I easily slipped out of it, letting it fall to the ground. I was left in nothing but a short orange nightdress which didn't hinder my movements at all. A light breeze caressed my semi-naked body.
A third spectator came out on to the porch - a boy of about eight, carrying a plastic sword. He stared at me without the slightest surprise - to him I probably looked like a picture from the television, come to life, and he'd seen more amazing things on TV.
'Aren't you ashamed of yourself?' asked the head of the household with the droopy moustache.
He'd hit the bull's eye there. At that moment my soul was overflowing with shame. It was no longer shame - it was disgust with myself. I felt as if I were standing at the very epicentre of global infamy and it was not only the offended chicken-owners who were looking at me - all the hierarchies of the heavens and myriads of spiritual beings were gazing at me from their fathomless worlds with furious contempt in their eyes. I began slowly backing away from the chicken coop.
The father and son exchanged glances.
'You let go of that chicken,' the son said and stepped down off the porch.
The boy with the sword in his hand opened his mouth in anticipation of a bit of amusement. And now I realized, not with my mind, but with every last cell in my body, that there was only one way out of this cocoon of intolerable indignity - the track leading away into the forest. And I turned and ran.
After that developments followed the classical sequence. The first steps were painful because the branches and stones stuck into my bare feet. But after a few seconds the transformation began. First I felt my fingers fusing together. It became harder to keep hold of the chicken - now I had to press it against my chest as hard as I could, and I had to avoid smothering it accidentally at the same time. Then I stopped feeling any pain in my feet. And another few seconds after that I was already rushing along on three paws without any feeling of discomfort at all.
By that stage it was impossible not to notice the changes that had taken place in me - and they had been noticed. I heard voices hallooing behind me. I glanced round and bared my teeth. Both chicken-owners, father and son, were chasing me. But they were falling a long way behind. I slowed down a bit to disentangle myself from the night-dress (it wasn't difficult - my body had become lean and flexible), allowed them to get a bit closer and then ran on.
What makes a man run after a fox in a situation like this? Of course, it's not a matter of trying to recover the stolen property. When the fox undergoes the supraphysical transformation, her pursuers see something that demolishes all their ideas about the world. And then what they run after is no longer the stolen chicken, but that miracle. They are pursuing the glimmer of the impossible that has illuminated their dull lives for the first time. And that is exactly what makes it so difficult to get away from them.
Fortunately, the track into the forest was empty (throughout the entire chase I didn't meet anyone coming the opposite way). I knew Alexander was somewhere nearby - I could hear branches cracking and leaves rustling as they were parted off to one side of the path. But I couldn't see anyone - just once or twice I thought I glimpsed a shadow through a gap between the bushes.
The older chicken-owner began falling behind. When it became clear that he would never manage to close the gap, he gave up and dropped out of the race. His son kept up a good pace for about another kilometre, and then slowed down a lot. I shifted into an easy trot, and we ran about another five hundred metres. Then my pursuer started panting for breath, and soon he had no strength to run any further - I suspect he was a smoker. He stopped, with his hands propped on his knees and his dark eyes goggling at me, and I was immediately reminded of the deceased Sikh from the National hotel. But I suppressed my personal feelings - they were inappropriate here.
If my goal had been to escape, the chase would have ended there (thus does the miraculous disappear from human life). But I had another goal - the hunt. I stopped. There was no more than twenty metres left between us.
As I have already said, if the fox releases the chicken, then a minute later, at most, all the supraphysical changes disappear. Naturally, the fox can no longer run faster than a man. And so the manoeuvre I had decided to perform was risky - but I was spurred on by the awareness that Alexander was watching what I was doing. I let go of the chicken. She took a few faltering steps across the asphalt and stopped (during the hunt they go into a special kind of trance and their reactions are inhibited). I counted to ten, grabbed her again and hugged her against my chest.
My pursuer couldn't bear to be mocked like that - gathering all his strength, he came dashing after me again, and we ran another three hundred metres at a very good pace. I was happy - the hunt had definitely been a success.
And then something unexpected happened. As we ran past a fork in the track, where the trees were marked with blue and red arrows (probably for skiers - although I don't know what Alexander would have thought), I heard my pursuer shout out:
'This way! Help!'
Glancing round, I saw him waving to someone. And then two mounted militiamen rode out of the sidetrack that we had just passed.
I don't know how to express the terror and the majesty of that moment. There's something similar in Pushkin's 'Bronze Horseman', but there was only one rider there, and here there were two of them. Like a slow-motion sequence from some terrible dream, they swung round, pointed their four faces - two belonging to the militiamen and two to the horses - at me, and came dashing in pursuit.
Why do we hate English aristocrats so much? If, for just a few seconds, you had been in my skin (and at this point I was already covered by it, but rather unevenly, in patches), you would never need to ask that question again. Cops are stupid and they do what they're told, what can you expect from them? But how can you excuse educated people who have turned another creature's agony into entertainment and sport? That's why I don't condemn my sister E - although, of course, I would never do the things that she does.
It was almost a hundred years since the last time I'd had to escape from mounted pursuers (that was near Melitopol during the Russian Civil War). But when I heard the heavy hoof-beats behind me, I immediately recalled that day. The memory was vivid and terrifying - I even thought for a moment that I had simply imagined the entire twentieth century owing the heat and the oxygen deficiency, and in reality I was still running with all my might from a group of drunk Red cavalrymen who were pursuing me along the dusty road, intent on killing me. An appalling feeling.
The fright lent me strength. And as well as that, fear made my supraphysical transformation go very far, much farther than during an ordinary hunt. At first I thought this was an advantage, since now I could run faster. But then I realized that it would be the death of me. The paw with which I was clutching the chicken to my breast changed into a normal fox's limb, which is useless for holding anything. And I had lost control of the process. I was slipping inexorably towards the edge of the precipice: a few more seconds of agony, and I dropped the chicken. It somersaulted through the air and landed on the side of the track, clucking in outrage. I had already become an absolutely genuine fox - but now I wasn't going to stay that way for long.
And at this point I suddenly noticed something very strange.
I suddenly realized that my tail, which wasn't supposed to be doing anything, was working.
A fox will understand immediately what I mean, but it's hard to explain to a human being. Alexander once told me a joke about a certain libertine whose penis was so long that he could scrape it along the windows of the nightclubs. 'Ooh, I think I'm in love with someone . . .' Take away the erotic connotations, and what I felt was something similar.
Apart from that, I realized that I had always done this. The clandestine stream of hypnotic energy that I was broadcasting into the world around me had not changed in such a long time that I had completely stopped being aware of it: it was like what happens to the hum of the fridge - you only notice it when it suddenly stops. I followed the direction of the beam, to see who the suggestion was aimed at - and I realized it was directed . . . at me.
BANG, as they write in the comic books.
My self-control didn't desert me at that moment. I remained as aware as ever of what was going on - both around me and inside my own mind. One of my internal voices recited in deep bass tones the words that Laertes spoke to Hamlet after the fatal hit with the rapier: 'In thee there is not half an hour of life . . .'
'Why half an hour? What kind of poison was it on the rapier?' another voice enquired.
'It would be interesting to discuss that with the Shakespeare scholar Shitman,' a third remarked, 'only the poor fellow's no longer with us . . .'
'Then you'll get a chance soon enough!' barked the fourth.
I felt afraid: there's a popular belief among foxes that before they die, they see the truth, and then all their internal voices start talking at once. Was this really it? No, I thought, any time but now . . . But I didn't have thirty minutes, like Hamlet. I had thirty seconds at most, and they were quickly running out.
The forest came to an end. The track broke off at its edge, along which, as always, there were women from the local houses strolling with their prams. They spotted me and began squealing and screaming. With a desperate final effort I tore past the strolling women, spotted another track leading back into the forest and swerved on to it.
But my body was already betraying me. I started to feel pain in my palms, stood upright and started running on my hind legs - actually on my only pair of ordinary girl's legs. Then I trod on an especially prickly pine cone, squealed and fell to my knees.
When they reached me, the militiamen dismounted. One of them took hold of my hair and turned me to face him. His face was suddenly contorted in fury. I recognized him - he was one of the spintrii from the militia station where I had done my 'working Saturday'. He had recognized me too. We stared into each other's eyes for a minute. It's pointless even trying to tell the uninitiated what takes place between a fox and a man at a moment like that. It's something you have to experience.
'What a fool I am,' I thought despairingly, 'there's a saying, after all - don't screw where you live, don't live where you screw. It's all my own fault . . .'
'Got you now, you bitch, haven't I?' the militiaman asked.
'Do you know her?' the other one asked.
'I should say so. She worked a subbotnik at our place. I still can't rid of the herpes on my arse.'
The militiaman demonstrated an inability to understand the link between cause and effect that was exceptional even for his species, but I didn't find it funny. Everything was happening exactly the same way as that other time, near Melitopol . . . Perhaps I really was still there, and everything else was a just terminal hallucination?
Suddenly there was the deafening roar of a shot somewhere nearby. I looked up.
Alexander was standing on the track in his immaculately ironed grey uniform, with a pistol in his hand and a black bundle under his arm. I hadn't noticed him appear there or how.
'Both of you come here,' he said.
The militiamen walked meekly towards him - like rabbits towards a boa constrictor. One of the horses whinnied nervously and reared up.
'Don't be afraid, don't be afraid,' I whispered, 'he won't eat you.'
That was actually an assumption on my part: Alexander hadn't shared his plans with me. When the militiamen got close, he put his gun in its holster and said something in a quiet voice, I thought I heard '. . . report on the situation'. First he listened to them, and then he started talking himself. I couldn't make out any more words, but it was all clear from the gesticulations. First he held out his open right hand, as if he were tossing a small object up and down on his palm. Then he turned it palm-down and made a few circular movements, flattening something invisible. This had the most magical effect on the militiamen - they turned and walked away, forgetting not only about me, but about their horses too.
Alexander looked at me curiously for a few seconds, then walked up and held out the black bundle. It was my dress. There was something wrapped in it. I unfolded it and saw the chicken. It was dead. I felt so sad that tears sprang to my eyes. It wasn't a question of sentimentality. Not long ago we had been a single whole. And this little death seemed to be half mine.
'Get dressed,' said Alexander.
'Why did you . . .' I pointed at the chicken.
'What, was I supposed to let it go?'
I nodded. He spread his arms in bewilderment.
'Well, in that case I don't understand anything at all.'
Of course, it was stupid of me to reproach him.
'No, I'm sorry. Thank you,' I said. 'For the dress, and in general.'
'Listen,' he said, 'don't ever do that again. Ever.'
'Don't take offence, but you don't look very good. I mean, when you turn into . . . I don't know. Anyway, it's not your thing.'
'Why don't I look good?'
'You're pretty mangy. And you could be three hundred years old at least.'
I felt myself turning red.
'I see. Like a woman driver, is that it? Every second word you speak betrays the repulsive chauvinism of the male . . .'
'Let's not have any of that. I'm telling you the truth. Gender has nothing to do with it.'
I got dressed quickly and even managed to tie the cut shoulder strap in a knot above my shoulder.
'Will you take the chicken?' he asked.
I shook my head.
'Then let's go. The car will be here in a moment. And tomorrow at twelve hundred hours, be ready to leave. We're flying up north.'
'What for?'
'You showed me the way you hunt. Now you can take a look at the way I do it.'
I'd never flown in any planes like the Gulfstream Jet before. I'd never even seen any - life had never taken me to the special airports for the upper rat. I felt nervous because there were so few people in the cabin - as if the safety of a flight depended on the number of passengers.
Maybe that's true, by the way. After all, everyone has his own guardian angel, and when you get several hundred passengers crammed into an Airbus or a Boeing, if the hordes of invisible winged protectors don't actually increase the uplift of the plane's wings, they must at least insure it against falling. Probably that's why there are more crashes involving the small private flights used by various newsmakers heavily burdened with evil (even if some victims don't belong to this elite niche, they become newsmakers when they crash).
The passenger cabin was like a smoking room with leather armchairs. Alexander sat beside me. Apart from us, the only person in the cabin was Mikhalich - he'd made himself comfortable in the armchair furthest away and was shuffling through some papers or other. He hardly spoke to Alexander at all - just once he turned to him and asked:
'Comrade lieutenant general, it says here in a document "Do you know what that means?'
Alexander thought about it.
'I think that's from forty kilograms of plastique and upwards. But check it out just to be sure when we get back.'
'Yes, sir.'
Moscow floated down and away, and then it was hidden by the clouds. Alexander turned away from the window and took out a book.
'What are you reading?' I asked. 'Another detective novel?'
'No. This time I took a serious, intelligent book, on your advice. Do you want something to read too?'
'Yes,' I said.
'Then take a look at this. So you'll understand what you're about to see. It's not exactly the same case, but it's pretty similar. I brought it especially for you.'
He put a tattered volume on my knees. The title Russian Fairy Tales was written in red letters - it was the same book I'd seen on his desk.
'The page is marked,' he said.
The bookmark was at the story called 'Little Khavroshka'. It was a long time since I'd held any Russian children's books in my hands, and I noticed one strange thing immediately - because the print was so large, I perceived the words quite differently from in adult books. As if everything they denoted was simpler and purer.
The fairy tale turned out to be rather sad. Little Khavroshka was a northern clone of Cinderella, only instead of a fairy god-mother she was helped by a brindled cow. This cow did all the impossible jobs that Khavroshka was given to do by her stepmother. The wicked sisters spied on Khavroshka to see how she managed to keep up with all her work and they told the stepmother about it. The stepmother ordered the brindled cow to be slaughtered. Khavroshka found out and told the cow. The cow asked Khavroshka not to eat her meat and to bury her bones in the garden. Then an apple tree with jingling gold leaves grew out of the bones, and the tree made Khavroshka's fortune - she managed to pick an apple, and the reward for that was a fiance . . . I found it interesting that the stepmother and the sisters weren't punished, they simply didn't get any apples, and then they were forgotten about.
I had absolutely no desire to analyse this fairy tale from the positions of the asshole-amphetamine discourse or rummage about in its 'morphology'. I didn't need to guess what it was really about - my heart understood. It was the eternal Russian story, the final cycle of which I had witnessed only recently, at the end of the last century. As if I personally had known the brindled cow to which children complained about their woes, who worked simple miracles for them and then quietly died under the knife, only to grow out from under the earth as a magical tree - a golden apple for every boy and girl . . .