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A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia and Other Stories

Victor Pelevin

  A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia and Other Stories

  By Victor Pelevin

  Translated by Andrew Bromfield


  Available from New Directions

  The Blue Lantern

  4 By Pelevin

  Omon Ra

  The Yellow Arrow

  Table of Contents

  A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia

  Vera Pavlovna’s Ninth Dream


  Tai Shou Chuan USSR (A Chinese Folk Tale)

  The Tarzan Swing

  The Ontology of Childhood

  Bulldozer Driver’s Day

  Prince of Gosplan

  Back Cover Text

  Copyright Page

  A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia

  Just for a moment Sasha thought that the battered Zil would stop for him: it was so old and rattled so loudly, and was so obviously ready for the scrap heap, that it should have stopped—if only the law by which old people who have been rude and inconsiderate all their lives suddenly become helpful and obliging shortly before they die had applied to the world of automobiles—but it didn’t. With a bucket clanking beside its gas tank with a drunken, senile insolence, the Zil rattled past him, struggled up a small hill, giving vent to a whoop of indecent triumph and a jet of gray smoke at the summit, and disappeared silently behind the asphalt rise. Sasha stepped off the road, dropped his small backpack on to the grass and sat down on it. Something in it bent and cracked and Sasha felt the spiteful satisfaction of a person in trouble who learns that someone or something else is also having a hard time. He was just beginning to realize how serious his own situation was.

  There were only two courses of action open to him: either he could go on waiting for a lift or head back to the village—a three mile walk. As far as the lift was concerned, the question seemed as good as settled already. There were obviously certain regions in the country, or a least certain roads, where all the drivers belonged to some secret brotherhood of black-hearted villains. Hitchhiking became impossible, and you had to take great care the passing cars didn’t splash you with mud from the puddles as you walked along the side of the road. The road from Konkovo to the nearest oasis on the railway line—a straight stretch of 15 miles—was one such enchanted highway. Not one of the five cars that had passed him had stopped, and if not for one aging lady wearing purple lipstick and an “I still love you” hairstyle who stuck her long arm out of the window of a red Niva to give him the finger, Sasha could have believed he’d become invisible. He’d still been hoping for that mythical driver, the kind you encounter in newspaper stories and films, who would stare silently through the dusty windscreen of his truck at the road ahead for the entire journey and then refuse any payment with a curt shake of his head (at this point you suddenly notice the photograph hanging above the steering wheel, showing a group of young men in paratrooper uniforms against a backdrop of distant mountains)—but when the Zil rattled past, even this hope had died.

  Sasha glanced at his watch—it was twenty minutes past nine. It would get dark soon. He looked around. Beyond a hundred yards or so of broken ground (tiny hillocks, scattered bushes, and grass that was too high and luscious for his liking, because it suggested it was growing on a bog) there was the edge of a forest, thin and unhealthy looking, like the sickly offspring of an alcoholic. All the vegetation in the neighborhood looked strange, as though anything bigger than flowers and grass had to strain and struggle to grow, and even when it eventually reached normal size, it still gave the impression of only having grown under the threat of violence—otherwise it would have flattened itself against the ground like lichen. It was an unpleasant sort of place, oppressive and deserted, as though it was ready for removal from the face of the earth—but then, Sasha thought, if the earth does have a face, it must be somewhere else, not here.

  Of the three villages he had seen that day only one had appeared more or less convincing—the last one, Konkovo; the others had been deserted, with just a few little houses inhabited by people waiting to die. The abandoned huts had reminded him more of an ethnographic exhibition than human dwellings. Even Konkovo, distinguished by a plaster sentry standing beside the road and a sign which read “Michurin Collective Farm,” only seemed like a human settlement in comparison with the desolation of the other nameless villages nearby. Konkovo had a shop, and there was a poster for the village club, with the title of an avant-garde French film traced in green watercolor, flapping in the wind, while a tractor whined somewhere behind the houses—but even there he hadn’t felt comfortable. There was no one on the streets—only one woman dressed in black had passed him, crossing herself hurriedly at the sight of Sasha’s Hawaiian shirt with its design of multicolored magical symbols, and a man in spectacles had ridden by on a bicycle with a string shopping bag dangling from the handlebars. The bicycle was too big for him, so he couldn’t sit in the saddle and stood instead on the pedals, looking as though he was running in the air above the heavy rusty frame. All the other villagers, if there were any, must have been staying indoors.

  He had imagined his trip would be quite different. He would get off the small flat-bottomed riverboat, walk to the village, and there on the zavalinkas—Sasha had no idea what a zavalinka was, but he imagined it as a comfortable wooden bench set along the log wall of a peasant hut—there would be half-crazy old women sitting peacefully among the sunflowers, and clean-shaven old men playing chess quietly beneath the broad yellow discs of the blossoms. In other words, Sasha had imagined Tverskoi Boulevard in Moscow overgrown with sunflowers—with a cow occasionally lowing in the distance. After that he would make his way to the edge of the village to find a forest basking in the sun, a river with a boat drifting by on it or some country road cutting through an open field, and whichever way he walked, everything would be simply wonderful: he could light a fire, he could remember his childhood and climb trees—if, that is, his memories told him that was what he used to do. In the evening he would hitch a lift to the train.

  What had actually happened was very different. It had been a colored photograph in a thick, tattered book that was to blame for everything, an illustration with the title “The ancient Russian village of Konkovo, now the main center of a millionaire collective farm.” Sasha had found the spot from which the photograph that caught his eye had been taken, roundly cursed the American word “millionaire” and marveled at how different the same view can appear in a photograph and in real life.

  Having promised himself never again to set out on a senseless journey purely on impulse, Sasha decided that at least he would watch the film in the village club. After buying a ticket from an invisible woman—he had to conduct his conversation with the plump freckled hand in the window, which tore off the blue scrap of paper and counted out his change—he made his way into the half-empty hall, spent one and a half bored hours there, occasionally turning to look at an old man who sat in his chair straight as a ramrod and whistled at certain points in the action—his criteria for whistling were quite incomprehensible, but his whistle had a wild bandit ring to it, a lingering note from Russia’s receding past.

  Afterwards, when the film was over, he looked at the whistler’s straight back as it retreated from the club, at the street lamp under its conical tin cap, at the identical fences surrounding the little houses, and he shook the dust of Konkovo from his feet, with a sideways glance at the eroded hand and raised foot of the plaster Lenin in the plaster hat, doomed to stride for all eternity towards his brother in oblivion who stood, as if waiting for him, by the highway. Sasha had waited so long for t
he truck which finally dispelled his illusions that he had almost forgotten what he was waiting for. Standing up, he slung the backpack over his shoulder and set off back the way he had come, wondering where and how he would spend the night. He didn’t want to try knocking on some woman’s door—most of the women who let people in to spend the night live in the same mythical places as nightingale-whistling bandits and walking skeletons, and this was the “Michurin Collective Farm” (which was actually no less magical an idea, if you thought about it, but one with a different kind of magic, not one that offered any hope of a night’s lodging in a stranger’s house). The only reasonable way out Sasha was able to think of was to buy a ticket for the last showing at the club and hide behind the heavy green curtain after the film and spend the night there. If it was to work, he would have to leave his seat before they switched on the lights, so that he wouldn’t be noticed by the woman in the homemade black uniform who escorted the customers to the exit. He’d have to watch the same dark, depressing film again, but he’d just have to put up with that.

  As he was thinking all this through, Sasha came to a fork in the road. Passing this way twenty minutes before, he had thought that the road he was walking along was joined by a smaller side road, but now as he stood at the junction he couldn’t decide which was the road he had come along—they both looked exactly the same. Probably it was the one on the right—there was that big tree by the road. Yes, that must be it—he had to go right. And surely there was a gray telephone pole in front of the tree. Where was it now? There it was—but it was on the left, and there was a small tree beside it. It didn’t make sense. Sasha looked at the telephone pole, which had once supported wires, but now looked like a huge rake threatening the sky. He went left.

  After he’d walked twenty steps, he stopped and looked back. Clearly visible against the dark stripes of the sunset, a bird which he had previously taken for an insulator caked with the dirt of many years launched itself into the air. He walked on—he had to hurry to get to Konkovo in time, and his road lay through the forest.

  It occurred to him how incredibly unobservant he was. On the way from Konkovo he hadn’t noticed this wide cut opening on to a clearing. When you’re absorbed in your own thoughts, the world around you disappears. He probably wouldn’t have noticed it this time either, if someone hadn’t called out to him.

  “Hey,” the drunken voice shouted, “who are you?”

  Several other voices broke into coarse laughter. In among the trees on the edge of the forest, right beside the cut, Sasha caught a quick glimpse of people and bottles—he refused to turn his head and only saw the young locals out of the corner of his eye. He started walking more quickly, believing that they wouldn’t pursue him, but still he was unpleasantly alarmed.

  “Whoa, what a wolf!” someone shouted after him.

  “Maybe I’m going the wrong way?” Sasha thought when the road took a zig-zag that he didn’t remember. But no, it seemed right—there was a long crack in the road surface that looked like the letter “W”; he’d seen something like that the last time. It was gradually getting dark and he still had a long way to go. To occupy his mind, he began thinking of ways of getting into the club once the film had started—from explaining that he’d come back for a cap he’d left behind to climbing down the chimney (if there was one, that is).

  Half an hour later it became clear that he had taken the wrong road—the air was already blue and the first stars had broken through the sky. What made it obvious was the appearance of a tall metal pylon supporting three thick cables at the side of the road and a quiet crackling of electricity: there definitely hadn’t been any pylons like that on the road from Konkovo. Everything was quite clear now, but still Sasha went on walking automatically until he reached the pylon. He stared with fixed concentration at the metal plaque with the lovingly executed drawing of a skull and the threatening inscription, then looked around and was astonished to think that he had just walked through that dark, terrifying forest. Walking back to the fork would mean another encounter with the young guys sitting beside the road, and discovering what state they had got into under the influence of fortified wine and evening twilight. Going forward meant walking into the unknown—but then, a road has to lead somewhere, surely?

  The humming of the power cables served as a reminder that there were normal people living somewhere in the world, producing electricity by day and watching television with its help by night. If it came to spending the night in the forest, Sasha thought, the best thing would be to sleep under the pylon—it would be something like sleeping in a front hallway, and that was a well-tried move, absolutely safe. In the distance he heard a roaring which seemed to be filled with some ancient anguish—he could hardly make it out at first, and not until it became incredibly loud did Sasha realize that it was an airplane. He lifted his gaze to the sky in relief, and soon he could see above his head the triangle defined by its three different colored lights: as long as he could see the airplane, Sasha actually felt comfortable standing there on the dark forest road. When it moved out of sight, he walked on, looking straight ahead down the road that was gradually becoming the brightest thing in his surroundings.

  The road was illuminated by a weak light, and he could walk along without any fear of stumbling. For some reason, probably simply the habit of a city dweller, Sasha felt sure that the light came from widely spaced street lamps, but when he tried to spot one, the truth struck him—of course there were no street lamps, it was the moon shining, and when Sasha looked upwards he could see its crisp white crescent in the sky. After gazing upwards for a while, he noticed that the stars were different colors—he’d never noticed that before, or if he had, he’d forgotten it ages ago.

  Eventually the darkness became complete—that is, it became clear that it wasn’t going to get any darker. Sasha took his jacket out of the backpack, put it on and closed all the zips—that made him feel more prepared for any further surprises the night might have in store. He ate two crumpled wedge-shaped pieces of “Friendship” processed cheese—the foil wrapping with the word “Friendship” printed on it gleamed dully in the moonlight, vaguely reminding him of the pennants that the human race is constantly launching into space.

  Several times he heard the roar of engines as cars or trucks passed by in the distance. At one point the road emerged from the forest and ran through an open field for about five hundred yards, then plunged into another forest where the trees were older and taller. At the same time it narrowed, as did the strip of sky above his head. He had the feeling that he was plunging deeper and deeper into some abyss which the road would never lead him out of—it would take him into some dark thicket and end there in a kingdom of evil, among huge oak trees waving their branches like arms—just like in those children’s horror films, where the victory of the hero in the red shirt makes you feel sorry for the wicked witch and the walking skeleton who fall victim to his triumph.

  He heard the sound of an engine up ahead once again, but this time it was closer, and Sasha thought that he might actually get a lift somewhere where he would be enclosed by walls, with an electric lightbulb above his head, where he could fall asleep without feeling afraid. The sound of the engine grew closer and closer, then suddenly died away—the car had stopped. He started walking more quickly, and soon he heard the engine again—but this time it was far away, as though the car had taken a silent leap a mile back and was heading back over the journey it had already made. He realized he was hearing another car that was also traveling in his direction. In the forest it’s hard to tell just how far away a sound is, but when the second car stopped, Sasha thought that it must be about a hundred yards away: he couldn’t see any headlights, but there was a bend ahead.

  This was very strange indeed—two cars one after the other suddenly stopping in the forest in the middle of the night. Just to be on the safe side Sasha went over to the edge of the road, ready to dive into the forest if circumstances required it, and then walked on stealthily, stari
ng hard into the darkness. His fear gradually evaporated and he felt sure that he would either soon be getting into a car or he would just keep on walking the way he was. Just before the bend in the road he saw faint gleams of red on the leaves and heard voices talking and laughing. Another car drove up and stopped somewhere close by, slamming its doors. Since whoever it was ahead was laughing, there was probably nothing very frightening going on. Or perhaps just the opposite, he thought suddenly. He turned into the forest and moved on, feeling his way through the darkness with his hands, until he reached a spot from which he could see what was going on around the bend. He hid behind a tree and waited for his eyes to adjust to the new level of darkness, then he took a cautious peep.

  Ahead of him there was a large clearing: about six cars were parked haphazardly on one edge, and the whole area was illuminated by a small campfire, around which people of different ages were standing, dressed in various ways, some of them holding sandwiches and clutching bottles. They were talking to each other and generally conversing like any group gathered around a fire at night—the only thing lacking was the music of a tapedeck straining against the silence. As though he had heard what Sasha was thinking, a thickset man walked over to a car and stuck his hand in through its window, and suddenly loud music began playing—only it wasn’t the right kind of music for a picnic: it was the howling of hoarse, dark-toned horns. The group made no gesture of complaint—in fact, when the man who had switched on the music came back to the others, he received several slaps of congratulation on the shoulders. Looking closer, Sasha began to notice other things that were strange.

  Standing alone by the fire was a military figure—he looked like a colonel. Everybody kept their distance from him, and sometimes he raised his hand in the direction of the moon. Several other men were dressed in suits and ties, as though they had come to the office, not the forest. A man in a loose black jacket wearing a leather hairband around his forehead came over to the near edge of the clearing and Sasha pressed himself tightly against his tree. Someone else turned a face distorted by the dancing firelight in Sasha’s direction. But no, no one had seen him. He thought how easily it could all be explained: they’d probably been at some formal reception and had headed off into the forest out of boredom. The Colonel was there to protect them, or maybe he was selling tanks. But then why that music?