Violet Swans, by Vladimir SorokinTranslated by Max Lawton

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Illustrations by Darya Shnykina

[Story]

Violet Swans

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Crooked November moon. The sky’s belly, torn open. The snow, spilling out and coming down. The first snow. Onto the midnight streets of Moscow.

“Ash.”

Wind. Flakes. Blizzard, whiteout.

“You can’t grasp at what’s gone.”

Stuttering down the streets. The inhuman streets. Trash sleeping in squares. Frozen corpses in the frightened mouths of gateways. Found. In the courtyards: people, campfires, whispers.

“Forty-eight black cranes. Rose up. They made three circles around the Kremlin.”

“Black magicians . . . ”

“The entire inner circle.”

“Did they fly away?”

“The patriarch was with them, too.”

“And waved a wing at us . . . ”

“They roasted a bishop on a spit on Yakimanka Street; they extracted his lard and made candles from it. They use ’em for Black Masses.”

“Chechens and Chinese. A new contract. Signed in Russian blood.”

“And the Dzerzhinsky Division swore an oath . . . ”

“They saw a two-headed dog on Ostozhenka today.”

“They stole for twenty years!”

“It leaked.”

“Of course it leaked. At a temperature not lower than five degrees paracelsus, as they called it. They knew it at the plenary session, of the lower-basement ward through the gray majority, the last time the president sang through the Moscow windows. Sang in the orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre . . . The criminal demolition of all heating plants. The black wings, the president’s administration and the new elite, don’t dare to fly out over the fatherland . . . It is urgently indispensable to drill all of the anti-aircraft complexes . . . and to launch grand, intelligent, and grateful schemes. . . . Anti-aircraft guns from the Second World War fill the throats with lead . . . but flight makes a man freer . . . ”

Evgeny opened his eyes. The helicopter had started to descend.

He yawned, then took off the headphones and microphone. “Black cranes . . . ”

“What, Evgeny Borisovich?” his assistant was shouting over the sound of the blades as he also took off his headphones.

“Dreams.”

Evgeny fastened his seat belt and rolled his sharp shoulders.

“Shall I continue?” his assistant shouted, holding up the tablet. “The elder, the ascetic we’re going to see. He turned water into lamp oil eighteen times, and they’ve gotten so used to it at the monastery that they’ve started to sell the oil. Everyone knows about the three people he brought back to life, and I’ve already told you about the woman with the brain tumor. All of this has already become old hat for them at the monastery. Seven and a half months ago, a monk forgot to eat his prosphora after communion. And by the time he remembered to eat it, it had turned to stone. Transformed. That’s how his elder punished him for his worldly engagements.

“What kind of stone was it? Granite? Marble?”

“I don’t know. The abbot has it. I only received this information yesterday, Evgeny Borisovich. The mind reels!”

“A day late . . . ”

“Excuse me, what?” His assistant hadn’t heard him. “Can I continue?”

“You can’t! That’s enough yelling!”

The helicopter landed. Evgeny pulled out a thin cigarette from a narrow golden case and looked out the window: cliff, sea, monastery. A white helicopter with an image of a six-winged seraphim on its fuselage began to take off nearby.

“What the hell?” Evgeny arched his black eyebrows.

His assistant glanced at the tablet.

“The patriarch is leaving, Evgeny Borisovich. He didn’t accept the patriarch!”

“How wonderful . . . ” Evgeny took a drag from his cigarette and laughed, exhaling smoke.

“It’s . . . unbelievable!” his assistant shook his head.

A flight attendant came out from behind a screen, opened the door, and put down a ramp. Two guards came out right behind him and walked down the ramp. Hot southern air tore through the open door. Evgeny stepped down onto the stony earth, which was covered with grass that had been burnt by the sun, and, squinting through the sunlight, looked up at the patriarch’s rising helicopter.

He looked around with the cigarette in his mouth. It was hot and bright. It smelled of the sea and of dry sagebrush. The sun beat down. He got out his dark glasses and put them on. There were two buses waiting nearby: one was blue and belonged to the monastery and the other was greenish-gray and belonged to the National Guard. There were two sparse groups of people standing around them. They were cordoned off by the National Guard. A little farther away, he could see a massive military apparatus, reminiscent of a crane with a telescoping boom. Four sentries with machine guns were patrolling its perimeter.

Surrounded by his guards and his assistant, Evgeny moved toward the buses. Two people moved away from the buses to greet him: the general and the abbot of the monastery, Abbot Kharlampy. The abbot was wearing black and the general was wearing a summer field uniform.

Evgeny threw his cigarette forward like a dart, then stepped on it with his pointed boot as he walked. The general was the first to reach him, walking sweepingly over to him and extending his long arm, which was as thick as a log.

“He didn’t accept the patriarch, Zhenya!”

“So I’ve heard,” Evgeny held out his narrow palm and bowed to the abbot as he approached.

The abbot bowed his black-hooded head in response.

“Yesterday, the president, and today, the patriarch. How’s that possible?” the general shrugged his sloped shoulders. “Any idea, holy father?”

“I’m not a holy father, I’m a priest,” the abbot corrected him, calmly fingering his rosary. “And I’ve been telling you that the elder hasn’t accepted government officials or hierarchs for four years.”

“Then he won’t accept us either!”

“That’s possible. It’s up to him.”

“Did you tell him about us?” Evgeny asked.

“I don’t have to tell him. He already knows. And he follows his own rules, which we have no right to interfere with.”

“So, he doesn’t listen to you?” the general grunted.

“He doesn’t listen to anyone down here,” the abbot spoke, turning his calm gaze toward the cliff.

Evgeny and the general turned and looked. It was low, like all of the foothills, but still almost sheer. A narrow wooden staircase moved in a zigzag across its grayish-pinkish-yellow face in three flights, resting on pieces of rebar cut into the stone. The staircase looked flimsy. Instead of a railing, along the edge of the zigzag was a rope that the climber was supposed to hold on to. The zigzag ended at the pharynx of a cave, reminiscent of a human face with one eye. From down on the ground, one could see how the entrance was covered up by stones, with only a small space left open.

“The ascetic has been walling himself in from the inside for a year now,” Evgeny’s assistant whispered into his ear. “He cuts the stones, then hews them. He only has one stone left to put in.”

“And they bring him cement from down here?” Evgeny asked, almost laughing.

“Instead of cement, the elder uses his own excrement.”

“That’s . . . wise. Who are those people by the bus, Boris?” Evgeny asked the general.

“Ah, the people!” an evil smile lit up the general’s sweaty face. “Those people, Zhenya, are our beloved public. The info leaked! Looks like they already know everything, huh? Government secrets don’t exist anymore? Why the hell’d they come to us, huh?! What a leaky country! Right, Zhenya? And why is that?”

“Are you asking me?”

“Who the fuck else would I be asking?!”

Evgeny took out his cigarette case and opened it.

“It’s better not to smoke here,” the abbot pronounced. “And much better not to swear.”

The general waved his hand.

“We get it . . . ”

“And what does this public want? When did they arrive, Father?” Evgeny put away the cigarette case.

“This morning.”

“And what do they want?”

The general laughed.

“What do you mean ‘what’? The public wants an audience! They’ve already been fed twice.”

“Okay, then let’s go over to them.” Evgeny made out some familiar figures in the assembled company.

“Let’s go!” the general grunted angrily and stepped forward. “But, Zhenya, all of this is already, like . . . ” He chopped his broad neck with the edge of his palm as he walked. “Too much!”

“Calm down, Borya.”

“Yes, calm! I am calm!” the general snapped.

Illustrations by Darya Shnykina

Tall, healthy, and narrow-shouldered, the general looked like an insomniac bear driven out of his warm den by problems springing forth outside. His arms expressed the maximum possible discontent: long and strong, they dangled menacingly as he walked, as if they were inertial balances accumulating the energy to eventually deliver the blows of a professional boxer, blows with which the general would reward this entire Moscow public, which had flocked here for whatever bullshit reason, with great delight.

The ring of National Guard soldiers parted, letting them through, and a solid man in bright summer clothing with a handsome white mustache and a sleek, tanned face broke off from the gathered company to walk over to them.

“Zhenya! Zhenechka! My dear! Finally! We’ve waited so long!” he cried out in a high voice.

He embraced Evgeny, softly wrapping his arms around him, pressing him into his broad chest, then kissed his thin cheeks three times, tickling him with his mustache. He’d already managed to hug and kiss the general. Evgeny was entirely passive in his embrace.

“My darlings, my precious dears, what on earth is this?” Without letting go of Evgeny, the white-mustached man moved off to the side. “Zhenya! Borya! What’s going on? Why have these good fellows with machine guns come here? To make arrests? To detain? To divide? Us?! To divide at this precise moment? My dear friends, have you lost your minds? If all of this is truly happening, if it’s not merely gossip, and I can already feel, can sense right here, right here,” he poked at his broad chest with his finger, “that it’s true, true, true, that it stinks of truth, then how can this be?! Wherefore this division? What in the hell is this cordoning-off?”

A potbellied man with a face reminiscent of a potato tuber and an icon depicting Yuri Gagarin with a golden halo on his stomach walked over to them and began to mutter loudly, gesturing as he spoke with a short-fingered hand, which was bent into the shape of a trowel.

“Russia has pupated! Its chrysalis has cracked! The dazzling butterfly of Russian statehood breaks free to reveal itself to humanity in all of its spiritual splendor! It soars above the world as a shining missile carrier, marking a new era of humanity! The physiognomies of Sergius of Radonezh and Joseph Stalin upon its wings! It emits unfabricated rays of Russian spirituality! They penetrate the earth! The voice of a trumpet rings out over the world: peoples and states, now ’tis time to repent, to gather up underneath the banners of the Fifth Empire and behold the earth’s grand transfiguration!”

He was handily pushed off to the side by a man with a stern face in a dark-blue silk two-piece suit, a black bow tie, and jockey boots. He was clutching at a cane, the knob of which was shaped like a snake’s head.

“Dear sirs,” he began to speak, manipulating his facial muscles with courageous affectedness. “You know that I’m a cynic, and a villain. Up until yesterday, I’d spew a daily Niagara of bile out onto our church and its ministers, but, today, I get down onto my knees before it,” he gently fell to his knees, “and am prepared to be the first to crawl up this staircase to the great elder. I’d even do so naked, sprinkling my head with the dirt from the side of this very road.”

“We are dealing with an incredible lack of mutual trust and elementary common understandings!” a thin man with watery eyes, a prickly beard, a disorderly mass of white hair, who was wearing a carmine sari with a slanted collar, embroidered with Russian Orthodox crosses, and displaying a medal awarded for the defense of donbass, pronounced in an almost singsong voice.

“Who are you?” the general grunted.

“URA!”

“What?”

“A representative of the Union of Russian Art,” Evgeny’s assistant clarified.

The man crossed his thin, sinewy arms across his chest.

“We can and should talk about everything, not just whisper off in the corner like liberal mildew, we should talk every day, every night, every hour, and every second in order to understand just what a great country we live in and how much we can do together, how much lies before us, what a wonderful president we have, what wonderful warriors, generals, elders, and saints, fathers, mothers, brothers, wives, and children we have, we’ll overcome and solve everything only if we talk, talk, and talk!”

“I agree entirely! We must talk!” a man with glasses, a gray mop of hair, the bearded face of a wise goat, who was wearing a checkered shirt and a nankeen vest raised his index finger significantly.

“And what’re you doing here?” the general grunted discontentedly. “Reporters aren’t allowed.”

“We’re here, Mr. General, as ordinary citizens of our country,” the shaggy man answered with a cocky half-smile, two of his front teeth protruding past his lips. “And we have an equally keen concern in all that which concerns you.”

“Evgeny, please just tell us honestly,” a woman of athletic build with an enormous red head of hair asked in a voice that sounded like the Russian Pinocchio’s in the old children’s film, “is it all . . . true?”

Everyone froze. Evgeny paused, then began to speak.

“It’s true.”

Everyone standing around them was entirely still for a moment. Then began to stir—each in their own way. The paunchy man fell to his knees, crossed himself, and muttered, “I live to serve the Most High.” The man with the cane, on the other hand, leapt ably to his feet and exclaimed, “Wonderful! Fantastic! I was certain! Let’s go up the stairs!”

“We’ve lived to see it, you bastards!” the shaggy man pronounced loudly, shaking his gray head of hair.

The man from the URA grabbed at his sari with his knotty fingers and his eyes rolled back into his head. “Everything! Everything! We can overcome absolutely everything so that everyone can be happy and healthy—fathers, mothers, wives, children, even sheep . . . ”

The curly-red-haired woman chuckled nervously. And the white-mustached man began to cry out. “Hold on, hold on, Zhenechka, if that’s so, if that . . . if that’s true, then, ladies and gentlemen, my dear, darling compatriots, citizens, and fellow subjects, they’ll simply grab us by the throats as a wolf grabs a lamb,” he grabbed himself by the throat with his tanned hand with its two intricate golden rings, “and they’ll choke us, choke us all the way to goddamn hell!”

His mustache trembled and tears glittered in his dark eyes.

“Let’s go up there, my friends! It’s only by a miracle that Russia has survived thus far; let it also be saved by a miracle.” The stern-faced man gesticulated with his cane. “Let’s all of us, everyone, go up there together, Evgeny first, then everyone else. Forward! Upward!”

“Shut up!” the red-haired woman screamed so loudly that everyone turned to look at her.

She wrapped her arms around her torso trying to calm herself down, but couldn’t manage to.

“That’s enough! Enough playing the holy fool. Enough of this squabbling, these disagreements, these shitty ambitions, all of this BS—vatnik, liberal faggot, European agent. We need to get rid of all this and rally ’round our president! Rally ’round the Kremlin!”

“It’s too late, darling. Too late,” the man with the cane retorted spitefully, brushing the dust from the knees of his silk pants. “We have to rally ’round the general now. And just for a little while.”

The general was silent. His bearish little eyes watched what was happening just as warily as they always did, even when he was drunk or lost his temper, but in his soul, with each passing minute, a black tower of fear was piling itself up, building itself forth from swirling black cubes. And it was growing because the general, having lived through three actual wars and a single long career, having grown steel fangs of character all the while and been reinforced by a shell of strength and spikes of glory, having raised himself up onto one of the peaks of Russian authority, didn’t understand what was going on for only the second time in his life. The last time this had happened had been in his early childhood, when he was five years old, and had seen a cow giving birth in a village stable. Everything that he’d heard in the last few days—from soldiers, officials, scientists, the president, and, now, from these clowns—called up in him a singular desire: to destroy all of it with cannons and machine guns, to riddle it with bullets, to break it up into little bits so that those bits flew even further away, to douse it with napalm, then to get into the helicopter himself and fly beyond the three seas where, on the sandy shore, he’d be met by his beloved wife, his children, and a swarm of coconut crabs.

He opened his sweaty lips so as to say something rude, but a stone suddenly fell to the ground nearby.

Everyone looked at it. The abbot walked over and picked up the stone. And shifted his gaze up to the opening in the cave’s masonry. The stone was no bigger than a tennis ball. And it wasn’t simply a stone, but a chunk of white bread, which had been turned to stone by some force of will. The abbot picked up the stone. A dial and an arrow glittered inside of it. An old, cracked compass had been kneaded into the stone.

“A compass?” Evgeny asked as he walked over.

“It’s his compass,” the abbot corrected him. “Please, let’s all stand in a circle.”

Without any quarreling, everyone obediently formed a circle. With the stone in his hands, the abbot got into the center. The compass’s arrow began to spin, then stopped. The abbot raised his eyes and saw Evgeny’s assistant.

“The elder is ready to receive you,” the abbot said.

Everyone standing in the circle stared at Evgeny’s assistant. His young, lively, intelligent face didn’t express anything in particular.

“Well, well,” Evgeny grinned and sighed. “Looks like you’ve got a bigger role to play than I do, Sasha.”

He pulled out his cigarette case.

“I’m gonna go have a smoke.”

And he walked over to the buses.

“What the hell is this . . . ” the general glanced spitefully at Sasha, turned away angrily, then began to follow Evgeny with his sweeping gait.

The red-haired woman rested her hands on her muscular hips, then nervously slipped them into the pockets of her trousers.

“Sasha . . . Alexander . . . ” she sighed and shook her head, her curls swishing sharply. “You . . . you . . . I don’t know . . . strategically . . . I don’t know how to . . . ”

“Yes! You don’t know!” the white-mustached man said, half-embracing Sasha. “So be quiet! I don’t know either! And they don’t know! And Father Kharlampy doesn’t know! And no one knows! So be quiet!” he half-sang out in his thin voice. “Sasha! The elder chose you. This is the finger of God. What a blessing! Don’t you understand, my dear? Hmm?”

Sasha was silent.

The white-mustached man’s chin trembled.

“There—up there—in that cave, lives our savior. The savior of Russia! It’s a mystery! Which should enter you, enter me, enter them, enter all of us,” he knocked his finger against his tanned Adam’s apple, “right here! And we should accept it! This mystery! Sip by sip! And if it doesn’t enter us, if, if this sip of . . . this draft of truth, this draft of God’s grace . . . if we can’t swallow it, if it gets stuck here, then . . . ” he began to sob, “then we’ve no reason to live anymore! No reason. We shall choke. We shall suffocate. This shall be the end of the entire country! The end of everyone and everything! Do you understand? The Russian sun shall set once and for all.”

Tears spilled forth from his eyes.

“Dmitry Donskoy, Peter the Great, and Georgy Zhukov are walking with you, Alexander!” the paunchy man shouted, spraying saliva and stretching out his hand folded into the shape of a trowel almost all the way to Sasha’s face. “Don’t be afraid of anything! Here and now, next to this cliff, the fate of the Fifth Empire shall be decided! The rays of Eternal Russia have made the sign of the cross on you! You will help to bring our History into being and our History shall sing and make every atom in your body shine. It’ll shine when the great visionary accomplishes that which he’s destined to! Long live our great Celestial Russia!”

“Run along, Sashenka,” the white-mustached man whispered very quietly.

“Go with God,” the abbot made the sign of the cross over Sasha and handed him a small plastic bottle. “Give him some water.”

Sasha took the bottle and walked over to the military apparatus. The sentries didn’t even glance at him. The captain slid out of the big green cabin and nodded to another soldier sitting in another cabin next to the telescoping boom. There was a metal cube of imposing dimensions at the end of the boom; its doors were locked. The apparatus started up and loudly released a burst of glaucous exhaust. And it was only then that Sasha noticed how the entire apparatus was resting slightly above the ground on six powerful supports. The thick telescoping boom began to move, unhinging itself, and the cube moved down toward the rocky earth. The captain walked over to it, unlocked the doors, and opened them. Inside the cube was a round, white plastic table. There was a black cone on the table.

“There’s a button here on the right wall,” the captain showed him. “When you’re done, push the button and we’ll lower you down.”

The captain walked away.

With the bottle and the tablet in hand, Sasha entered the cube. The ceiling of the cube was a little higher than his height and it was very hot and humid inside. But the air conditioner immediately began to run.

The cube moved upward toward the cave. Sasha put the tablet down on the table and glanced at the earth as it receded. The people standing on the ground silently watched his ascent, shielding their eyes from the sun with their hands. It seemed to Sasha that these were pioneers saluting him.

‘Transcendental.’ For some reason he thought of this word from Moscow to the End of the Line, the novel his recently deceased father had so loved quoting and rereading.

The cube approached the cave and delicately docked against the cliff, like a spaceship, leaving only a small gap between the iron and the stone. The masonry of the cave became like a sixth face of the cube. And it grew dim inside of the cube. Right away, the lamps on the ceiling flashed into brightness. Sasha stood on the iron floor staring at the masonry with its single dark opening. It was neat; all of its stones had been hewn and fit together evenly, even though they were of various sizes. And there was only a single stone missing in this masonry. Through the opening, it was dark and quiet.

Sasha took a breath, then began to loudly speak.

“Hello, Father Pancrus!”

“Amen,” a muffled voice rang out from within the cave.

Sasha stuck his hand holding the bottle through the opening.

“Father Kharlampy sent this water for you.”

“God bless you,” the voice rang out in response and a cool, invisible hand took the bottle from him.

Through the opening, he could hear rustling and movement. Then silence. Then the elder’s eyes appeared along with the upper part of his face. The face didn’t seem old. The eyes were distracted and didn’t focus on the visitor.

“What has brought you to me, Sasha?” the elder asked.

“A great woe, Father,” Sasha began to speak, then hesitated.

“Has your father died?”

“Yes, Father, he has.”

The elder was silent. Sasha wasn’t at all surprised that the elder knew his name and that his father had recently died.

He licked his lips.

“I . . . I haven’t come to you on a personal matter. But with a very important . . . how to say it . . . on a matter of state. A matter of life and death for our state, for our great . . . our one and only country . . . our motherland.”

‘I’m such an idiot . . . what am I saying?’ he thought.

“You’re not an idiot,” the voice said from the opening.

‘How . . . shameful.’

“It’s shameful if you’re caught with your pants down. And your pants aren’t down.”

This statement brought Sasha to his senses. Reaching his hand out toward the black cone on the table, he began to speak.

“Father, before you is a nuclear warhead from an RS-36, a Russian intercontinental ballistic missile. There are as many as ten of these things in every RS-36 missile. In Russia, there are forty-three such missiles kept in a state of operational combat readiness. This is our country’s nuclear shield, a guarantee of state security. As I’ve just said, each of them contains ten nuclear warheads. And yesterday, something happened that science isn’t capable of explaining. Each of these warheads has two stages: a primary and a secondary. First the primary triggers an irradiated fission explosion, which powers the secondary’s fusion compression, which is . . . ”

“An uncontrolled thermonuclear reaction,” the elder’s voice came from inside the cave.

“Yes, a thermonuclear reaction. And there’s an explosion . . . the explosion of a hydrogen bomb . . . five hundred kilotons in each warhead . . . So, yesterday our personnel realized that all twelve of the missiles in the Far East had stopped emitting X-rays. Which is to say they were no longer radioactive. Upon dismantling one of the warheads, it became clear that all of the warheads made of uranium-235 and lithium deuteride had turned into refined sugar. Robust, transparent refined sugar. All one hundred and twenty warheads had become . . . ”

“Sugar-heads.”

“Yes,” Sasha licked his lips and stopped talking.

The sound of the elder’s chewing came forth from the cave. He’d begun to eat something loudly and to sip water from the bottle with audible pleasure. Sasha stood silently, listening to how patiently the elder ate and drank.

“Father Pancrus,” Sasha began again. “Nobody understands what happened. No one could’ve switched out all of those warheads. It’s . . . simply inexplicable. And there’s something else: in the areas where the RS-36 missiles are kept, many people saw flocks of strange birds . . . strangely colored birds. It might have been cranes or seagulls, strangely colored seagulls or cranes, orange and blue . . . Both civilians and military personnel saw them. The locals’ve never seen birds like this in their area.”

The elder chewed.

“This incident is a threat to the security of our country and could expose all of us to a terrible catastrophe. Russia could lose its nuclear shield and, with it, its guarantee of state security.”

The elder stopped chewing, took a drink, then cleared his throat.

“Can you explain it?” Sasha asked.

The elder was silent.

“Can you help? Everyone knows that, with divine aid, you’re able to create . . . to do . . . to accomplish incredible things.”

The elder was silent.

Sasha sighed.

“We have no one else to turn to, Father Pancrus.”

The ascetic’s face popped into the opening in the masonry.

“What do you have there on the table?”

Sasha looked at the table.

“These are fragments of the former warheads. Now it’s just sugar. In order to demonstrate, we’ve brought . . . ”

A gurgling sound came forth from the cave, then a hand appeared holding an enameled mug.

“I haven’t had my tea with sugar for a long time. Break me off a bit, Sasha.”

Sasha took the dirty blue-enameled mug, the edges of which were peeling. It was filled with water from the bottle he’d just given the elder. Dry tea leaves floated on its surface, having apparently just been dropped into the mug by the elder. But just as Sasha turned to the table, the water in the mug began to boil.

Sasha froze and stared at the boiling water. The water was really boiling. The mug began to heat up. Sasha carefully put the mug down onto the table. The water came to a full boil, then calmed down.

Sasha stared fixedly into the blue mug.

“Break off a piece and drop it into the tea.”

Coming to his senses, Sasha picked up a piece of the translucent sphere and tried to break off a small fragment, but wasn’t able to. The sugar was robust. Sasha hit the table with the sugar. Two fragments broke off of it. He dropped them into the mug. Picked it up. It was hot. Sasha proffered the mug through the opening. The ascetic’s hand took the mug. The ascetic looked down. Sasha heard him blowing on the tea. He took a sip.

“How glorious . . . ”

As the elder drank, blowing on the water and snorting, Sasha stood staring at his face through the opening in the masonry. The ascetic kept looking up, then looking down. But even when his eyes were looking straight through the opening, they were still not focused on Sasha, as if he were looking straight through him.

Time passed. The air conditioner in the cube continued working, exuding cold air. Its current blew directly onto Sasha’s back, but this didn’t make him more comfortable; it actually bothered him. The stream of air, the plastic table with the black warhead and the bits of sugar, the hastily welded iron walls with four bright lamps on top of them, and, yes, even Sasha himself in the blue suit he wore to work, his ash-colored French tie, and his English shoes, all of this was somehow stupid and ridiculous in front of the rough masonry, the missing stone, and the elder’s face.

The ascetic kept sipping at his tea, smacking his lips, mumbling something, sipping again, smacking again, mumbling again . . . And with each sound he made, a feeling of helpless irritation grew in Sasha. He hadn’t slept last night—a crazy night full of stressed people, unbelievable commotion, endless texting, and conversations that turned into shouting matches. What was now happening in this foolish cube felt like a dream falling forth directly from the night.

Sasha really wanted to wake up.

But suddenly he fell to his knees.

He began to speak loudly.

“Listen, Father Pancrus! You know where we live, in what country, under what state. Everything here is as it were. Calm, as it were, will, as it were, law, as it were, order, as it were, the tsar, as it were, boyars, as it were, servants, as it were, nobles, as it were, the church, as it were, kindergarten, as it were, school, as it were, parliament, as it were, court, as it were, hospitals, as
it were, meat, as it were, planes, as it were, vodka, as it were, business, as it were, cars, as it were, factories, as it were, roads, as it were, cemeteries, as it were, pensions, as it were, cheese, as it were, peace, as it were, war, as it were, motherland, as it were.”

The recluse stopped sipping at his tea.

Sasha continued, his voice filled with bitterness and trembling.

“The only real thing we have is this warhead here. Only this uranium, only this lithium deuteride. It does what it’s supposed to do. But if it also becomes as it were, then we won’t have anything at all. There’ll be an enormous empty space. You . . . you can transmogrify matter. You have unbelievable abilities. You’re a great ascetic. I’m begging you: turn this sugar back into uranium, back into lithium deuteride. So that we can be as we were before. All of Russia asks you to do this.”

He stopped speaking and continued to tremble.

It became quiet in the cave. Then the hand with the mug popped back into the opening.

“Come on, Sashok, have a drink!” the elder pronounced loudly.

Sasha got up from his knees with some difficulty. His legs were trembling. He took the hot mug with both hands, afraid to drop it. His hands were shaking violently. He brought the mug to his lips and took a sip, banging his teeth against the peeling enamel of its rim. The tea was terribly sweet. And very delicious. Like it was in his childhood. The tea calmed him down.

Sasha took a deep breath. And another sip.

“Finish it!” the elder ordered.

Sasha finished it both dutifully and eagerly. Proffered the mug through the opening in the masonry.

“Keep it for yourself,” the recluse pushed the mug away.

Sasha pulled his hand holding the mug out of the cave. It became quiet in the cave once again.

“What are we to do?” Sasha asked.

The elder was silent for a moment, then asked Sasha a question.

“What is your missile’s name?”

“The RS-36.”

“I’m asking you what its name is.”

“It’s name is . . . Satan. Yes. Satan. That’s what its . . . designers named it.”

The elder was silent. Long minutes passed by.

“Father Pancrus,” Sasha stuck his face through the opening. “What’re we to do?”

There was a heavy smell in the cave.

“Sleep!” the elder replied out from the darkness.

“What do you mean . . . sleep?”

“Sleep.”

“Why?”

“So that you have more dreams.

Sasha took a deep breath and came to his senses. Opened his mouth to ask what that meant, but the elder spoke first.

“Run along. Go to sleep!”

In the cave, he heard fussing, grunting, and muttering. Then everything went quiet. Sasha simply stood there with the mug in hand, staring through the warm opening. Some time passed. A stone suddenly appeared in the opening. And closed it up entirely.

He stood with his gaze fixed on the cave’s dull masonry. The foolish air conditioner kept humming and blowing, air flowing right onto his back. Sasha banged the mug against the stones.

“Father Pancrus.”

No sound came from behind the masonry.

“What do I do?” Sasha sighed helplessly, his hands falling to his sides.

The wall stood dully before him. He wanted to spit on it.

“Tell me!” Sasha cried furiously, smashing the mug against the stones.

He heard a faint, dull murmur behind the wall. It was barely audible. Sasha put his ear to the stones. And couldn’t precisely make out the murmuring. The elder was saying something in a singsong tone. Sasha put the mug to the masonry and put his ear to the mug, remembering the last time he’d done this as a teenager, listening in as his older sister gave herself to her classmate, a bearded, thin, cross-eyed guy who taught Sasha how to drink vodka and always played the song by Sergey Nikitin, “Take Me Across the Maidan,” on his guitar.

The elder was singing something in his dull cave, a soft, indecipherable couplet. Then went completely quiet.

Sasha hit the mug against the wall again. And realized there was nothing more to wait for. He looked around and pressed the button on the wall.

The cube shuddered and began to move downward. Floated down to the ground. The light went off in the cube.

Sasha was in total darkness. With the mug in hand, he stepped out of the cube and onto the ground. And saw that night had already fallen. The apparatus stopped humming. There was a light shining in the cabin. One soldier was visible. But the light soon went out there as well.

Sasha tried to see his surroundings through the pitch-black southern darkness. The air was simultaneously warm and chill. Cicadas were singing in the bushes. The surf rustled in the distance. The moon came out from behind a single cloud and illuminated everything around him: the cliff and the apparatus. And people sleeping on the ground.

Sasha walked over to them.

The general was lying down on his back, his legs and arms outstretched, and snoring loudly and evenly. The paunchy man’s head was resting on the general’s left leg. He was snoring noisily, mumbling and squelching his lips together, and the moon illuminated the icon on his stomach. The white-mustached man’s head was resting on the general’s right leg. He was moaning quietly and plaintively, his body shuddering periodically. Evgeny was sleeping next to him. His legs were wrapped tightly around the goat-bearded man, who was whistling through his nose. The man from the URA was lying here, too, pressing his cheek against Evgeny’s hip. Next to him, the man with the stern face was spread out, his palm positioned beneath the general’s head and his feet in their jockey boots positioned over the white-mustached man’s back. The red-haired lady was sleeping on the goat-bearded man’s buttocks, as if they were a pillow. The National Guard soldiers, the captain, and the general’s adjutant were sleeping off in the distance. The abbot was sleeping leaned against the rock of the cliff.

A ray of sun rising over the Ionian Sea touched the tips of the feathers of the slumbering leader of a flock of swans. It brought its head out from under its wing. Opened its lilac eye with its black pupil. The sun began to play over the swan’s plumage, which flashed with every shade of violet: from blue-violet to yellow-violet. The swan began to slowly raise its head: a pink-violet beak with a crimson edge and a blue-violet neck, each feather of which shimmered in the sun.

The leader of the flock lifted its head and shook it. The sun flashed into its pupils. It let out a cry. All twenty-two swans sleeping on the water began to wake up and shake their plumage.

The leader of the flock let out a second cry. The other swans began to cry out in response.

It shook its head and opened its wings, as if to greet the sun. The sun shined onto its red-violet and lilac feathers.

The leader of the flock shot off into the air. Its wings flapped against the water and its emerald-violet webbed feet beat into it. The leader began to accelerate. The other swans jerked into action behind him, noisily knocking against the sea, which had served as their abode for the night, and stretching out their blue-violet necks.

The leader was the first bird to tear itself from the smooth surface of the sea’s morning mirror. The flock followed it up. Having taken off, the swans made a large circle around the place where they’d slept. Beneath their violet wings, which were dancing in the sun’s light, the sea stretched out emptily, except for a lone white, double-masted ship and the island of Ithaca, green-blue in the distance.

The leader of the flock let forth a third cry. The swans replied and began to get into formation behind their leader. A smooth violet wedge rose up in the morning sky. Having completed another smaller circle, the wedge turned around and began to head north.

 is the author of numerous novels, short stories, and plays. His novel Telluria will be published in English by New York Review Books this month.


 

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