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Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday 4


  Eventually, when he was totally exhausted, he sat down on his tail and stayed there for a while, hanging his head. Then he gave a final quiet, desolate meow, picked up the psaltery under one front leg, and hobbled off slowly on the other three across the dewy grass.

  As I got down off the windowsill I dropped the book. I remembered quite clearly that last time it had been The Creative Work of the Mentally Ill, and I was certain that was the book that had fallen on the floor. But what I picked up and put on the windowsill was Crime Detection by A. Svensson and O. Wendel. I opened it, feeling rather stupid, ran my eye over several paragraphs at random, and instantly got a strange feeling that there was a hanged man dangling from the oak tree. I looked up warily. Hanging from the lowest branch of the oak tree was a wet, silver-green shark’s tail. The tail was swaying heavily in the gusty morning breeze.

  I started back and banged my head against something hard. A telephone began ringing loudly. I looked around. I was lying sprawled diagonally across the sofa, the blanket had slipped off me onto the floor, and the morning sun was shining through the leaves of the oak tree and in at the window.

  3

  It occurred to me that instead of the usual interview with the devil or a magician, an ingenious use of scientific patter might with advantage be substituted.

  —H. G. Wells

  The telephone was ringing. I rubbed my eyes and looked out the window (the oak tree was there, all right), looked at the set of hooks (it was in the right place, too). The telephone kept ringing. There was no sound from the old woman’s room on the other side of the wall. I hopped down onto the floor, opened the door (the latch had been on), and went out into the hallway. The telephone was still ringing. It was standing on a little shelf above a large water tub—a very modern piece of equipment in white plastic, like the ones I’d seen in movies and in our director’s office. I picked up the receiver.

  “Hello . . .”

  “Who’s that?” asked a piercing woman’s voice.

  “Who do you want?”

  “Is that Lohuchil?”

  “What?”

  “I said, is that the Log Hut on Chicken Legs or not? Who is this?”

  “Yes,” I said, “this is the hut. Who do you want?”

  “Oh, damnation,” said the woman’s voice. “I have a telephonogram for you.”

  “All right.”

  “Write it down.”

  “Just a moment,” I said. “I’ll get a pencil and paper.”

  “Oh, damnation,” the woman’s voice repeated.

  I came back with a notepad and a pencil. “I’m listening.”

  “Telephonogram number 206,” said the woman’s voice. ‘To citizeness Naina Kievna Gorynych . . .’”

  “Not so fast . . . Kievna Gorynych . . . OK, what’s next?”

  “‘You are hereby . . . invited to attend . . . today the twenty-seventh . . . of July . . . at midnight . . . for the annual . . . republican rally . . .’ Have you got that?”

  “Yes, I have.”

  “‘The first meeting . . . will take place . . . on Bald Mountain. The dress code is formal . . . Mechanical transport is available . . . at your own expense. Signed . . . Head of Chancellery . . . C. M. Viy.’”

  “Who?”

  “Viy! C. M. Viy.”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “Viy! Chronos Monadovich Viy! You mean you don’t know the head of the chancellery?”

  “No, I don’t,” I said. “Spell it out for me.”

  “Damnation! All right, I’ll spell it out: Vampire, Incubus, Yeti. Have you got that?”

  “I think so,” I said. “I’ve got ‘Viy.’”

  “Who?”

  “Viy.”

  “Have you got adenoids or something? I don’t understand!”

  “Vile, Inconceivable, Yucky!”

  “Right. Read back the telephonogram.”

  I read it back.

  “Correct. Transmitted by Onuchkina. Who received it?”

  “Privalov.”

  “Cheers, Privalov! Been in harness long?”

  “Horses wear harness,” I said angrily. “I do a job.”

  “You get on with your job then. See you at the rally.”

  The phone started beeping. I hung up and went back into the room. It was a cool morning. I rushed through my exercises and got dressed. It seemed to me that something extremely curious was going on. The telephonogram was somehow associated in my mind with the events of the night, although I didn’t have a clue exactly how. But I was beginning to get a few ideas, and my imagination had been stimulated.

  There was nothing in what I had witnessed that was entirely unfamiliar to me. I’d read something about similar cases somewhere, and now I remembered that the behavior of people who found themselves in similar circumstances had always seemed to me extremely exasperating and quite absurd. Instead of taking full advantage of the attractive prospects that their good fortune presented to them, they took fright and tried to get back to ordinary, everyday reality. There was even one hero who adjured his readers to keep as far away as possible from the veil that divides our world from the unknown, threatening them with mental and physical impairment. I still did not know how events would unfold, but I was already prepared to take the plunge enthusiastically.

  As I wandered around the room in search of a scoop or a mug, I continued with my deliberations. Those timid people, I thought, were like certain experimental scientists, very tenacious and very industrious but absolutely devoid of all imagination and therefore ultracautious. Having produced a nontrivial result, they shy away from it, hastily attempting to explain it away by experimental contamination and effectively rejecting the new because they have grown too accustomed to the old that is so comfortably expounded in authoritative orthodox theory . . . I was already mulling over several experiments with the whimsical book (it was still lying there on the windowsill, but now it was Aldridge’s The Last Exile), with the talking mirror, and with sucking my teeth. I had several questions to ask the cat Vasily, and the mermaid who lived in the oak tree was an especially interesting prospect. Although there were moments when I thought I must have dreamed her after all. I’ve got nothing against mermaids, I just can’t imagine how they can clamber around in trees . . . but then, what about those scales?

  I found a dipper on the tub under the telephone, but there was no water in the tub, so I set out for the well. The sun had already risen quite high. There were cars droning along somewhere in the distance, I could hear a militiaman’s whistle, and a helicopter drifted across the sky with a sedate rumbling. Walking up to the well, I was delighted to discover a battered tin bucket on the chain, and I began winding out the rope with the windlass. The bucket sank down into the black depths, clattering against the sides of the well shaft. There was a splash and the chain went taut.

  As I turned the windlass I looked at my Moskvich. The car had a tired, dusty look; the windshield was plastered with midges that had been flattened against it. I’ll have to put some water in the radiator, I thought. And all those other jobs . . .

  The bucket seemed very heavy. When I stood it on the wall of the wooden well, a huge pike stuck its green, mossy-looking head up out of the water. I jumped back.

  “Are you going to drag me off to the market again?” the pike asked in a strong northern accent. I was too flabbergasted to say anything. “Why can’t you just leave me alone, you pest? How many more times? I’m just getting settled, just snuggling down for a bit of a rest and a doze—and out she pulls me! I’m not a fit young thing any longer; I must be older than you are . . . and my gills are giving me trouble too . . .”

  It was strange to watch the way she spoke, exactly like a pike in the puppet theater—the way the opening and closing of her sharp-toothed jaws coincided with the sounds she pronounced was very disconcerting. She pronounced that final phrase with her jaws clamped shut.

  “And the air is bad for me,” she went on. “What are you going to do if I die? It’s
all because of your stupid, peasant meanness . . . always saving, but you have no idea what you’re saving up for . . . Got your fingers badly burned at the last reform, didn’t you. Oh yes! And what about those old hundred-ruble notes you used to paper the inside of your trunks! And the Kerensky rubles! You used the Kerensky notes to light the oven . . .”

  “Well, you see . . .” I said, recovering my wits slightly.

  “Ooh, who’s that?” the pike said in fright.

  “I . . . I’m here by accident, really . . . I was just going to wash up a little.”

  “Wash up! And I thought it was the old woman again. I can’t see too well; I’m old. They tell me the index of refraction in air is quite different. I ordered myself some air goggles once, but then I lost them and I can’t find them again . . . But who are you, then?”

  “A tourist,” I said tersely.

  “Ah, a tourist . . . And I thought it was the old granny again. The things she does to me, you wouldn’t believe! If she catches me she drags me off to the market and sells me. For chowder, so she says. So what else can I do? Naturally, I tell the buyer: It’s like this, you let me go back to my dear little children—only what little children could I have at my age? Those that are still alive are all grandparents by now. You let me go, I say, and I’ll grant you a wish: you just have to say, ‘By the pike’s true command, at my urgent demand.’ And they let me go. Some out of fear, some out of kindness, and some out of sheer greed . . . So there I go, swimming back along the river, swimming along, and it’s cold and I’ve got rheumatism, until finally I get back into the well, and there’s the old woman again with her bucket . . .”

  The pike ducked under the water, gurgled a bit, releasing a few bubbles, and stuck her head out again. “So what are you going to ask for, my fine soldier boy? Only keep it simple—folks keep asking for televisions and transistor radios and what have you . . . One fellow went absolutely crazy: ‘Fulfill my annual quota at the sawmill,’ he says. But I can’t go sawing wood at my age.”

  “Aha,” I said. “But you could manage a television, then?”

  “No,” the pike confessed honestly. “I can’t manage a television. And I can’t do that . . . music center thing with a record player either. Keep it nice and simple. Something like a nice pair of seven-league boots, or a cap of darkness . . . Eh?”

  My hopes of getting out of changing the oil in the Moskvich wilted and died. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “There isn’t anything I need, really. I’ll just let you go.”

  “Good,” said the pike calmly. “I like people like that. There was one not all that long ago . . . He bought me at the market, so I promised him a king’s daughter. There I was, swimming along the river, feeling so ashamed I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t see where I was going and I swam into these nets. So they pull me out and I’m thinking, now I’ll have to start lying all over again. But what does the man do? He grabs me around the jaws so I can’t open my mouth. That’s it, I thought, they’ll boil me for soup. But no. He clips something on my fin and tosses me back in the river. Look!” The pike rose up out of the bucket and held out a fin with a metal tag clipped around its base. On the tag it said, “This specimen released in the Solova River in 1854. Return to His Imperial Majesty’s Academy of Sciences, Saint Petersburg.”

  “Don’t tell the old woman about it,” the pike warned me. “She’ll rip my fin off to get it. She’s so mean and greedy.”

  What could I ask her for? I thought frantically. “How do you work your miracles?”

  “What miracles are those?”

  “You know . . . granting wishes . . .”

  “Oh, that! How do I do it? I was trained when I was little, so I just do it. How should I know how I do it? The Golden Fish used to do it even better, but she still died all the same. You can’t cheat fate.” I thought I heard the pike sigh.

  “From old age?” I asked.

  “What d’you mean, old age? She was still young and full of life . . . They got her with a depth charge, my soldier boy. Turned her belly up, and sank some submarine that happened to be there as well. She’d have bought them off, but they didn’t bother to ask—the moment they saw her, they just dropped the bomb . . . That’s the way it goes sometimes.” She paused for a moment. “So, are you letting me go or not? It’s feeling a bit close; there’s going to be a storm.”

  “Of course, of course,” I said with a start. “Should I throw you in, or use the bucket?”

  “Throw me in, my fine boy, throw me in.”

  I carefully lowered my hands into the bucket and lifted out the pike—she weighed at least eight kilograms. She muttered, “Right, then, and if you should happen to fancy a magic tablecloth or a flying carpet, you know where I am . . . I’ll see you all right.”

  “Good-bye,” I said, and released my grip. There was a loud splash.

  I stood there for a while, gazing at the green stains on my hands. I felt rather strange. Every now and again I was visited, like a gust of wind, by the realization that I was sitting on the sofa in the room, but I only had to shake my head and there I was back beside the well. Then it passed. I washed up in the fine icy water, filled the car radiator, and had a shave. The old woman still hadn’t put in an appearance. I was hungry, and I had to go into town to the post office, where the guys might already be waiting for me. I locked the car and went out through the gate.

  I walked slowly along Curving Seashore Street, with my hands stuck in the pockets of my gray bomber jacket from the GDR, looking down at my feet. The old woman’s copper coins jangled in the back pocket of my favorite jeans, crisscrossed all over with zippers. I thought things over. The thick pamphlets of the “Knowledge” Society had accustomed me to believe that animals were not capable of speech. Ever since I was a child folktales had assured me of the opposite. Naturally, I had agreed with the pamphlets, because I’d never seen any talking animals, not once. Not even parrots. I had known one parrot who could growl like a tiger, but he couldn’t talk like a human being. And now I had the pike, the cat Vasily, and even a mirror. But, then, inanimate objects talked all the time. That was an idea that could never have occurred to my great-granddad, for instance. From his point of view, a talking cat would be nowhere near as fantastic as a shiny wooden box that wheezes, howls, plays music, and speaks all kinds of languages. As far as the cat was concerned, the situation seemed more or less clear. But how did the pike manage to speak? A pike doesn’t have any lungs. That’s certain. True, it must have an air bladder, the function of which, as far as I’m aware, is still not entirely clear to ichthyologists. One ichthyologist I know, Zhenka Skoromakhov, even believes that this function is in fact entirely unclear, and when I try to argue, using the evidence from my “Knowledge” Society pamphlets, Zhenka starts growling and spitting and entirely loses the power of human speech . . . I have the impression that we still know very little about what animals are capable of. Only recently it was discovered that fish and marine mammals exchange signals underwater. What they write about dolphins is very interesting.

  Or take the monkey Raphael, for instance. I’ve seen for myself. True, he can’t actually talk, but he did develop a reflex response: green for a banana, red for an electric shock. And everything was just fine until they switched on the red light and the green light at the same time. Then Raphael started behaving the same way as Zhenka does. He got terribly worked up, started squealing and growling, made a dash at the little window where the experimenter was sitting, and started spitting at it. And then there’s that joke—one monkey says to another, “Do you know what a conditioned reflex is? It’s when the bell rings and all those pseudo-monkeys in white coats come running across with bananas and sweets.” It’s all highly complicated, of course. The terminology hasn’t been developed yet. In such circumstances, you feel absolutely helpless when you try to answer questions about the psychology and potential abilities of animals. But then, on the other hand, it doesn’t make you feel any better when they give you, say, th
at stellar statistics–type system of integral equations with unknown functions under the integral. The important thing is to think. As Pascal said, “Let us learn to think well—that is the fundamental principle of morality.”

  I emerged onto Peace Prospect and stopped, my attention claimed by an unusual sight. There was a man holding children’s toy flags in his hands walking along the road. Creeping along slowly about ten steps behind him with its engine roaring came a large white MAZ truck towing a gigantic, silverish tank that was giving off smoke. The tank bore the words FIRE HAZARD, and creeping along just as slowly on the right and the left of it were two red-painted jeeps bristling with fire extinguishers. From time to time a different sound mingled with the even roar of the engine, sending an icy shower down my spine, and then yellow tongues of flame erupted from the hatches of the tank. The firemen’s helmets were pulled down tight above their grimly courageous faces. A crowd of little kids swarmed around the cavalcade, screeching piercingly, “Swing him up and swing him down, they’ve brought the dragon into town!” Adult passersby apprehensively pressed themselves back against the fences on both sides, their faces clearly expressing the desire to protect their clothes from possible damage.

  “They’ve brought my sweetheart,” a familiar rasping voice boomed right in my ear.