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Victor Pelevin - Виницки - Hermit and Sixfinger (transl.Winitzky,Bratus)

Фантастика >> Russian sci-fi in English translation >> Victor Pelevin
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Viktor Pelevin. Hermit and Sixfinger

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© Copyright Victor Pelevin

Translation into English © 1996 by Serge Winitzki and Sergey

Bratus

Моужулчй ыпмжм пеиъпч очънмймтел нм чдоеъя http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/5344/fun/friends.html#translations

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1


     "Get lost."

     "???"

     "Like I said, get lost. Let me watch."

     "But what is it you are watching?"

     "Oh God, what an idiot... The Sun, OK?"

     Sixfinger looked up from the black turf covered with food, sawdust and peatcrumbs. He squinted and stared upward.

     "Well... We live and live -- but what for? A mystery of ages. And did anybody even begin to grasp the thin, thread-like nature of the suns?"

     The stranger turned his head and stared at Sixfinger with disdainful curiosity.

     "Sixfinger," he immediately introduced himself.

     "I am called Hermit," the stranger answered. "Do they say that in your Socium? About the thin, thread-like nature?"

     "It's not `my Socium' any more," Sixfinger said and suddenly whistled: "Look at that!"

     "What?" Hermit asked suspiciously.

     "There, look! A new sun just appeared!"

     "So what?"

     "In the center of the world it never happens. Three suns together..."

     Hermit chuckled condescendingly.

     "Once I saw eleven at once. One was in the zenith and five more in each epicycle. Although it wasn't around here."

     "Where was it then?" Sixfinger asked.

     Hermit kept silence. Turning away, he went aside and chopped off with his foot a piece of food from the ground, and ate. A gentle warm breeze and the reflection of the two suns in grayish-green planes of the distant horizon made for such a serene and sad mood that the ponderous Hermit twitched when he saw Sixfinger again.

     "You are back. What do you want now?"

     "I just... wanted to talk."

     "Well, but I think you are stupid," Hermit answered. "You'd better go back to the Socium. You've wandered too far, really, go back..."

     He waved his hand toward a narrow, slightly undulating and trembling, dirty-yellow stripe -- amazingly, that was what the huge, roaring crowd looked like from here.

     "I would go," Sixfinger said, "but they expelled me."

     "Really? And why? Political reasons?"

     Sixfinger nodded and scratched one foot on the other. Hermit looked at his feet and shook his head.

     "Are they real?"

     "Of course, what else... They told me outright: the most, one could say, Decisive Stage is coming, and you have six toes on your feet... Couldn't I find a better time for that, they said."

     "What is this `decisive stage' about?"

     "I don't know. Everybody is on the edge, especially the Twenty Closest, but nobody makes any sense. They all just run around screaming."

     "Ah, I see," Hermit said. "This Stage, is it perhaps getting more and more distinct by the hour? And its shape more clearly seen?"

     "Exactly," Sixfinger was surprised. "How do you know that?"

     "Well, I have seen about five or so of these Decisive Stages. They called them differently each time, though."

     "No way," Sixfinger said. "This is going to happen for the first time."

     "Oh sure. I would be curious to see how it could happen for a second time. But we are talking about somewhat different things."

     Hermit laughed quietly, walked away a bit, then turned his back toward the far-away Socium and started scratching the ground energetically with his feet, until a cloud of garbage and dust hung in the air behind him. Meanwhile, he was looking back, waving his hands and muttering something.

     "What are you doing?" asked a somewhat frightened Sixfinger when Hermit returned, breathing heavily.

     "This is a gesture," Hermit answered. "Kind of an art form. You recite a poem and make the corresponding action."

     "And which poem did you just recite?"

     "This one:


     At times I feel sad,

     looking at those I abandoned,

     At times I do laugh,

     and between us then rises

     a cloud of yellowish fog."


     "Why, it isn't a Poem," Sixfinger said. "Thank God, I know all the Poems. That is, not by heart, of course, but I have heard all twenty-five of them. This one is surely not one of the Poems."

     Hermit regarded him in bewilderment but then seemingly understood.

     "Do you remember any of those Poems?" he asked. "Say it."

     "Just a minute. The twins... the twins... Well, anyway, we say one thing, and we mean another. And then we again say one thing, and we mean another, but the other way around1. It's very beautiful. Finally, we look up at the Wall, and there..."

     "Enough," Hermit said.

     There was silence, until Sixfinger broke it:

     "Listen, what about you -- where you also expelled?"

     "No. Actually, it was I, I expelled them all."

     "How could it happen that way?"

     "Things happen in many ways," Hermit said, looked at one of the celestial bodies, and added, as if he meant to stop chatting and start talking seriously: "It's going to be dark soon."

     "Stop that," Sixfinger said, "nobody knows when it's going to be dark."

     "Well, I do know. If you want a good sleep, do as I do." And he began to shove pieces of garbage, turf and sawdust that lay on the ground. Gradually he made a wall about his own height that encircled a small empty space. Hermit stepped away from the finished structure, gave it a loving look and said:

     "Here. I call it `Refuge of the Soul'".

     "Why?" Sixfinger asked.

     "Just so. Beautiful words. Are you going to build one for yourself?"

     Sixfinger started picking at the garbage, but he couldn't manage it -- the wall would collapse. Frankly speaking, he didn't try very hard, because he didn't believe any of what Hermit said about the darkness. But when the lights in the Heaven flickered and slowly began to fade out, and he heard the people's terrified sigh from the Socium, like the rustle of wind in hay, he felt two strong feelings form in his heart: the usual fear of sudden darkness and a previously unknown feeling of reverence toward someone who knew more about the world.

     "You got lucky," Hermit said. "Jump in. I will build another one."

     "I don't know how to jump," Sixfinger answered quietly.

     "So long, then," Hermit said and, suddenly pushing the earth away with all his might, dashed upwards and vanished behind the wall. It immediately collapsed, covering him with a layer of sawdust and peatcrumbs. The resulting mound shivered for some time, then a small hole emerged on its surface. Sixfinger just managed to catch a glimmer of Hermit's eye -- and all became completely dark.

     Of course Sixfinger knew all one needed to know about the night since he could remember himself. "It's a natural process," some people would say. The majority, though, judged that "one must mind one's duty." There were many shades of opinion, but the same feeling was shared by all: when the suns, for no apparent reason, went out, everybody struggled briefly and hopelessly with the agony of fear, fell into a stupor and didn't remember much until the suns lighted up again. The same thing used to happen to Sixfinger while he was living in the Socium, but now, perhaps because the fear of darkness combined with an equally strong fear of being alone and therefore doubled, he didn't fall into merciful daze. The moan of the people already died out, but he still crouched beside the mound and cried softly. He couldn't see anything, and Hermit's voice in the darkness frightened him so much that he had a bowel movement.

     "Listen, stop this pounding," Hermit said. "I can't fall asleep because of you."

     "I can't," Sixfinger answered quietly. "It's my heart. Talk to me, please?"

     "What about?" Hermit asked.

     "About anything you want, but talk more."

     "Let's perhaps discuss the nature of fear?"

     "No, not that!" squeaked Sixfinger.

     "Be quiet!" hissed Hermit. "Or all the rats will be here in a moment."

     "What rats? What are they?" Sixfinger asked in a chilled voice.

     "They are creatures of the night. Actually, of the day as well."

     "I have such a bad luck in my life," whispered Sixfinger. "If I only had the right number of toes, I would be now sleeping with all. My God, what a fright... Rats..."

     "Listen," Hermit said after a pause, "why do you keep saying "God" all the time? Do all of you here believe in God or what?"

     "Nobody knows. There is something of that kind, that's for sure, but nobody knows what. For example, why does it get dark? Of course, one could explain it by natural causes. But if one thinks about God, one won't do anything in one's life..."

     "I wonder, what is it that one can do in one's life?" Hermit asked.

     "What do you mean? Don't ask such silly questions, as if you don't know yourself. Everybody wants to get to the Feeder, as close as they can. That's the law of life."

     "Got it. Then why is there all this?"

     "What `this'"?

     "Well, the Universe, Heaven, the Earth, the suns -- everything."

     "What do you mean, why? That's how the world is."

     "And how is it?" Hermit asked with interest.

     "It's just like that. We move in space and time. According to the laws of life."

     "But where do we move?"

     "Who knows where. It's a mystery of ages. You know, one really could get crazy talking to you."

     "No, it's you who makes one crazy. Talk to you about anything, you'd say it's the law of life, or a mystery of ages."

     "So don't talk if you don't like it," Sixfinger said, offended.

     "I wouldn't, but you were too afraid of being silent in the darkness."

     Sixfinger somehow completely forgot about that. He examined his feelings and suddenly noticed that he didn't feel any fear at all. This frightened him so much that he jumped and ran away blindly into the dark, until he bumped headlong into the invisible World-wall.

     He heard Hermit's screeching laugh from far away and cautiously wandered toward these only sounds in the surrounding total silence and darkness. When he reached the Hermit's mound, he lay down silently and, despite the chill, tried to fall asleep. The moment when he succeeded escaped him.
-------- 2


     "Today we are going to climb over the World-wall, you understand?" Hermit said.

     Sixfinger was just about to jump into the "Refuge of the Soul". Now his Refuges were about as well-built as Hermit's, but the jump itself still required a long running start, which he was practicing at the moment. The meaning of Hermit's words struck him right when it was time to jump; as a result, he rammed into the flimsy edifice so hard that peatcrumbs and sawdust, instead of covering his body by an even and soft layer, got all piled up over his head, while his feet lost ground and hung in the air. Hermit helped him out and repeated:

     "Today we shall climb over the World-wall."

     During the last few days Sixfinger has heard so many strange things from Hermit that something in his soul was continually creaking and thumping. His former life in the Socium now appeared to him as a naive fantasy or as a nightmarish farce -- he hasn't quite made up his mind yet. But this was still too much.

     The Hermit went on, though:

     "The Decisive Stage comes after seventy eclipses, and yesterday was the sixty-ninth. Numbers rule the universe."

     He pointed to a long chain of straws stuck into the turf right under the World-wall.

     "But how? You cannot climb the World-wall -- it is a World-wall! The name itself... There's nothing beyond it, nothing..." Sixfinger was so flabbergasted that he missed the dark mysticism of Hermit's explanations, which otherwise would have certainly upset him.

     "Well, so what that there's nothing there? We should actually be quite happy about it."

     "But what are we going to do there?"

     "Live there."

     "Why, what is so bad about this place?"

     "Just that very soon there will be no `this place', you fool."

     "What will remain here then?"

     "Stay here and you shall find out. Nothing."

     Sixfinger felt that he had no certainty whatsoever left in him.

     "Why do you have to scare me like that all the time?"

     "Stop whining, will you?" muttered Hermit, anxiously eyeing something in the sky. "It's not that bad there, over the World-wall. Suits me much better than here, anyway.

     He walked over to the ruins of Sixfinger's `Refuge of the Soul' and started leveling them out with his feet.

     "Why are you doing this?" Sixfinger asked him.

     "Before one leaves a world, one has to generalize the experience acquired in it and then destroy all traces of ever having lived there. It's a tradition."

     "Who invented it? "

     "What does it matter? Well, I did. You see, there aren't any others around here. That'll do..."

     Hermit surveyed his work -- the place where the ruins have been was presently as smooth as the rest of the desert around them.

     "That's all," he said. "Now we've got to generalize the experience. Your turn, climb this hummock and get to it."

     Sixfinger thought he was short-changed: he was given the harder and, moreover, a completely unclear task. However, after the first eclipse he knew better than to argue with Hermit. He shrugged, looked around (in case somebody from the Socium has wandered here) and climbed the hummock.

     "What should I say?"

     "Everything you know about the world."

     Sixfinger whistled.

     "Going to take us quite a while."

     "I don't think so," Hermit dryly replied.

     "All right. So, our world... That's one idiotic ritual, by the way..."

     "Don't get distracted."

     "Our world is a regular octagon moving in space uniformly and rectilinearly. Here we prepare ourselves for the Decisive Stage, the crowning moment of our happy lives. At any rate, this is the official formula. Around the perimeter of the world stands the so-called World-wall, which has objectively appeared as a result of the Laws of Life. In the center of the world is the two-tiered Feeder, around which our civilization has been living since ancient times. The place of an individual with respect to the Feeder is determined by his social worth and services..."

     "Haven't heard this before," Hermit interrupted him. "What are services? And social worth?"

     "Well... How should I say... It's when someone gets really close to the Feeder."

     "And who gets there?"

     "Like I said, those with most services. Or social worth. I, for example, had very few services before, and now none at all. Are you saying you don't know the People's Model of the Universe?"

     "No, I don't," Hermit said.

     "Are you nuts?.. But then how were you preparing for the Decisive Stage?"

     "I'll tell you later. Go on."

     "Well, that's almost all. Outside the zone of the Socium lies the Great Waste, bordered by the the World-wall. Near it is the place for renegades like us."

     "Clear enough. And where did the log come from? Meaning, all the other things?"

     "Hey, relax. Even the Twenty Closest wouldn't know that. A mystery of ages."

     "So. And what is this mystery of ages?"

     "The Law of Life," Sixfinger said, trying to speak soothingly. Something about the tone of Hermit's question worried him.

     "OK. And what is the Law of Life?"

     "That is a mystery of ages."

     "A mystery of ages?!" Hermit asked with a strangely shrill voice and started slowly edging towards Sixfinger.

     "Hey, what's wrong with you? Stop that!" Sixfinger was genuinely scared. "It's your ritual after all, not mine!"

     But Hermit already came back to his senses.

     "All right, I got it. Get down."

     Sixfinger climbed down from the hummock, and Hermit took his place. Serious and concentrated, he kept silent for a some time, as if listening to something. Then he raised his head and spoke.

     "I came here from another world, in the days when you were very young. To that world I came from yet another one and so on. Altogether I have been to five worlds. They are much the same as this one and can hardly be distinguished from each other. The universe where we all live is a huge closed space. In the language of the Gods it is called the `V. I. Lenin Broiler Factory',2 but the meaning of this name is unknown."

     "You know the language of the Gods?" Sixfinger asked in bewilderment.

     "A little. Don't interrupt. There are seventy worlds in the universe, and we are now in one of them. The worlds are all attached to an unfathomable black band which is slowly moving in a circle. Above it, on the visible surface of the sky, are hundreds of identical suns. Thus they do not move over us, but we are moving under them. Try to picture this."

     Sixfinger closed his eyes. His face showed signs of strain.

     "No, I can't," he said at last.

     "All right, listen on. All seventy worlds in this universe are called the Chain of the Worlds. At any rate they may be called that. Life exists in each world, but not at all times. It emerges and vanishes. The Decisive Stage occurs in the middle of the universe, through which all the worlds pass one by one. In the language of the Gods it is called `Shop Number One'. Our world is just about to enter it. When the Decisive Stage is finished and the renewed world leaves the Shop Number One, everything begins anew. Life appears, goes through the cycle and in due time is again thrown into the Shop Number One."

     "How do you know all this?" the awed Sixfinger asked in a quiet voice.

     "I traveled much," Hermit replied, "and collected bits of secret knowledge. In one world one thing was known, in another something else."

     "Then maybe you know where we come from?"

     "I do. What do they say in your world?"

     "That it is a given objective reality; such is the Law of Life."

     "I see. You are asking about one of the deepest mysteries of the order of things, and I even doubt I can entrust it to you. But since there's no one else to share it with anyway, I'll tell you. We come to this world from white spheres. Actually, those are not quite spheres, they are somewhat oblong, and larger at one end, but this is not important now.

     "Spheres. White spheres," repeated Sixfinger, and fell to the ground as he stood. The weight of what he has just learned was so great that for a moment Sixfinger thought he would die. Hermit sprang to his side and shook him violently. Presently Sixfinger came to his senses.

     "What happened to you?" Hermit asked, a bit frightened.

     "I.. I remembered! Just like that. We were those white spheres and lay on long shelves. That place was moist and very warm. Then we started to break the spheres, and... From somewhere below our world was brought and then we were inside it... But how come nobody remembers it?"

     "There are worlds where it is remembered," said Hermit. "Fifth or sixth prenatal matrix, big deal. Not so deep, and it's only a part of the truth. But anyway, they hide away those who do remember, so that they don't interfere with getting ready for the Decisive Stage, or whatever it is called. In my world they used to call it `Completion of the Construction', although no one was building anything."

     Obviously, memories of his own world upset Hermit. He fell silent.

     "Listen," Sixfinger asked after a while, "where do those white spheres come from?"

     Hermit glanced at him approvingly.

     "I needed much more time before I could ask this question. But it is very complicated. In one ancient legend it is said that these eggs come from us, but this may well be only a metaphor."

     "From us? It's not clear. Where did you hear it?"

     "I made it up, of course. As if you can hear anything around these parts," Hermit said with unexpected melancholy.

     "But you said it was an ancient legend."

     "Yes. I simply made it up as an ancient legend."

     "How? And why?"

     "You see, one ancient philosopher, or one can even say a prophet (this time Sixfinger realized who that was) remarked that it is not always important what is said, but who says it. Some of the meaning of what I said was that my words were to play the role of an ancient legend. But you won't understand anyway..."

     Hermit looked at the sky and interrupted himself.

     "Enough of this. We must go."

     "Where?"

     "To the Socium."

     Sixfinger stared.

     "I though you said we were going to climb the World-wall. What do we need the Socium for?"

     "But do you know what a Socium really is?" Hermit asked in return. "It is actually a means of climbing the World-wall."
-------- 3


     In spite of a complete lack of any objects behind which to hide, Sixfinger walked through the desert furtively, and the closer they got to the Socium, the more criminal his gait became. Gradually the huge crowd, which seemed an immense stirring beast from afar, split into separate bodies, and one could even see the surprised faces of those who saw Hermit and Sixfinger approach.

     "The main thing," Hermit was whispering his last instructions, "is to be arrogant. But not too arrogant. We must infuriate them -- but not so that they tear us apart. Just keep looking at what I will be doing."

     "Look, Sixfinger's back!" someone shouted cheerfully. "Hey, you bastard! Who is it with you?"

     This stupid shout brought on Sixfinger a nostalgic wave of childhood memories, unexpectedly and for no reason. Hermit, who walked behind him, seemed to feel it and prodded Sixfinger's back.

     At the outer edge of the Socium they had no trouble getting through, it was easy to walk around the crowd-avoiding Observers and the disabled who lived there. But further on the crowd was thicker, and very soon Hermit and Sixfinger found it unbearable. They could barely move forward by constantly barking at the people around them. When they spotted the vibrating roof of the Feeder over people's heads, they were unable to make a single step forward.

     "It always amazed me," Hermit was quietly telling Sixfinger, "how wisely it is all organized. Those who are close to the Feeder are happy because they remember the others who want to take their place. And those who spend their lives waiting for a space between the ones ahead of them, are happy because they have hope in their life. This is indeed the harmony and the unity."

     "So you don't like it?" asked a voice from their side.

     "No, I don't," Hermit answered.

     "And what exactly don't you like?"

     "Well, everything," Hermit made a wide gesture toward the crowd, the grand dome of the Feeder, the yellow glimmering lights in the Heaven and the distant, barely visible World-wall.

     "I see. And where do you think it's better?"

     "Nowhere, that's the tragedy of it all! That's the point!" shouted Hermit passionately. "If it were better someplace else, would I be discussing this with you here?"

     "And your buddy -- is he also of the same opinion?" the voice asked, "Why is he looking at the ground?"

     Sixfinger raised his head (he was trying to minimize his involvement by staring at his feet) and saw the owner of the voice. His face was obese from overeating, and one could distinctly see the anatomy of his throat when he spoke. Sixfinger understood at once that the voice belonged to one of the Twenty Closest, the very and utmost Conscience of the Epoch3. It seemed that he was leading a clarification meeting there, as it was done sometimes, just before Hermit and Sixfinger arrived.

     "You are upset, buddies," he said in an unexpectedly friendly tone, "because you don't participate, with all others, in our preparation for the Decisive Step. If you did, you'd have no time for such thoughts. Once in a while even I get such crazy stuff in my head that... And, you know, my work helps me at those times." And in the same tone of voice he added: "Take them."

     There was a movement in the crowd, and at once Hermit and Sixfinger were held tightly from all four sides.

     "Oh, we couldn't care less about you," Hermit said, his voice just as friendly. "Where are you going to take us? There's nowhere to take us to. Well, you could expel us again. As they say, one can't throw it over the World-wall..."

     Then Hermit's face expressed astonishment, and the fat-faced one lifted his eyes to meet Hermit's stare.

     "Hm, an interesting suggestion. We haven't done this before. Of course, there is this saying, but the will of the people is stronger."

     This thought seemed to excite him. He turned and ordered:

     "Attention! Line up! We are going to have an unplanned event."

     Very soon after that the procession that lead Hermit and Sixfinger approached the World-wall.

     The procession was impressive. The fat-faced one marched first, then the two assigned to be Old Mothers (nobody, including the fat-faced one, knew what that meant, it was just a tradition). The tearful Mothers shouted invectives to Hermit and Sixfinger, weeping over them and condemning them at the same time. After them the criminals themselves were guided, finally followed by the mob of the People.

     "So," the fat-faced one said when the procession stopped, "the frightening moment of retaliation has come. I think, my brothers, that we will all squint when these two renegades dissolve in the void of non-being, won't we? And let this touching event serve as a beautiful lesson to us all, to the People. Weep louder, Mothers!"

     The Old Mothers fell onto the ground and wept so inconsolably that many of those present had to look away and swallow hard; but once in a while they would stand up from the tear-strewn dust and, with gleaming eyes, assaulted Hermit and Sixfinger with terrible and irrevocable accusations, whereafter they would fall back exhausted.

     "So," the fat-faced one said in a short while, "have you repented? Have the tears of the Mothers put you to shame?"

     "You bet," said a worried Hermit, who was watching the ceremony as well as some celestial bodies, "but how are you going to throw us over it?"

     The fat-faced one pondered. The Old Mothers fell silent, too, then one of them stood up, from the dust, cleaned himself up and said:

     "A ridge?"

     "A ridge," Hermit said, "would take about five solstices, and we are rather impatient to hide our exposed shame in the void."

     The fat-faced one squinted slyly, looked at Hermit and nodded approvingly.

     "They understand," he said to one of his men, "they just put up a pretense. Ask them, maybe they will suggest a way themselves?"

     In a few minutes, a live pyramid rose up almost to the very brink of the World-wall. Those standing at top closed their eyes and hid their faces lest they, God forbid, catch a glimpse of the place where everything ends.

     "Up," was the order, and Hermit and Sixfinger, supporting each other, walked up the shaky ladder of shoulders and backs to the brink of the Wall.

     From above they could see the whole of the quietly observing Socium and discern some previously unknown details of the Heaven. The thick pipe which went from the infinity down to the Feeder did not seem as grand as it did from the earth. Hermit easily jumped on the brink of the World-wall, helped Sixfinger to sit beside him and shouted:

     "All done!"

     From his shouting, someone in the living pyramid lost balance; the pyramid faltered and collapsed -- but nobody, thank God, was hurt.

     Sixfinger clutched the cold metal of the Wall and stared at the tiny upturned faces, at the grayish-brown expanses of his Motherland; he looked at the large green spot on the World-wall where he spent his childhood. "I will never see this again," he thought, and although he didn't have much desire to see it again, he felt a lump in his throat all the same. He clasped a small piece of turf with a straw glued to it, and mused about the swift and irreversible changes in his life.

     "Farewell, our dear sons!" the Old Mothers cried from below, bowed low and, still weeping, started throwing heavy peatcrumbs up in the air.

     Hermit stood on his tiptoes and cried loudly:


     "I always knew

     that I will leave

     this merciless world..."


     Then a big piece of turf hit him, and he fell down, arms and legs asunder. Sixfinger looked around for the last time and saw someone from the distant crowd below waving him farewell -- and he waved back. Then he closed his eyes and stepped back.

     He tumbled in the air for a few seconds, and then suddenly bumped painfully into something solid and opened his eyes. He lay on a black, shiny surface of unknown material next to the World-wall which looked exactly the same as from the other side. Hermit stood beside him, his arm extended to the Wall, and finished reciting his poem:


     "But little I thought

     the parting happens thus..."


     Then he turned to Sixfinger and curtly motioned him to stand up.
-------- 4


    

... ... ...
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