Book 1. Anastasia (1996)
Without a word to anyone, I arranged to have the ship stop not far from the place where I had met the old men the previous year. Then I took a small motorboat and reached the village. I gave orders to the captain to continue along the trade route.
I hoped I would be able, with the help of the local residents, to look up the two old fellows, see the ringing cedar with my own eyes and determine the cheapest way of getting it back to the ship. Tying the motorboat to a rock on the shore, I was about to head for one of the little houses close by. But spotting a woman standing alone on the riverbank, I decided to approach her.
The woman had on an old quilted jacket, long skirt and high rubber galoshes of the kind worn by many residents of the northern backwoods during the spring and fall. On her head was a kerchief tied so that the forehead and neck were fully covered. It was hard to tell just how old this woman was. I said hello and told her about the two old men I had met here the previous year.
“It was my grandfather and great-grandfather who talked with you here last year, Vladimir/’ the woman replied.
I was amazed. Her voice sounded very young, her diction was crystal clear. She called me by my first name and right off used the informal form of address. I couldn’t remember the names of the oldsters, or whether we had introduced ourselves at all. I thought now we must have done so, since this woman knew my name. I asked her (deciding to continue in the same informal tone):
‘And how do you call yourself?”
‘Anastasia”, the woman answered, stretching out her hand toward me, palm down, as though expecting me to kiss it.
This gesture of a countrywoman in a quilted jacket and galoshes, standing on a deserted shore and trying to act like a lady of the world, amused me no end. I shook her hand. Naturally, I wasn't going to kiss it. Anastasia gave me an embarrassed smile and suggested I go with her into the taiga, to where her family lived.
“The only thing is, well have to make our way through the taiga, twenty-five kilometres. That's not too much for you?”
“Well, of course, it's rather far. But can you show me the ringing cedar?”
“Yes, I can.”
“You know all about that, you'll tell me?”
“I shall tell you what I know.”
“Then let's go!”
Along the way Anastasia told me how their family, their kin, had been living in the cedar forest generation after generation — as her forebears had said, over the course of several millennia. It is only extremely rarely that they find themselves in direct contact with people from our civilised society. These contacts do not occur in their places of permanent residence, but only when they come into the villages under the guise of hunters or travellers from some other settlement. Anastasia herself had been to two big cities: Tomsk and Moscow. But only for one day each. Not even to stay the night. She wanted to see whether she might have been mistaken in her perceptions about the lifestyle of city people. She had saved the money for the trip by selling berries and dried mushrooms. A local village woman had lent her her passport.
Anastasia did not approve of her grandfather and great-grandfather’s idea of giving away the ringing cedar with its healing properties to a whole lot of people. When asked why, she replied that the pieces of cedar would be scattered among evildoers as well as good people. In all probability the majority of the pieces would be snatched up by
negative-thinking individuals. In the final analysis they might end up doing more harm than good. The most important thing, in her opinion, was to promote the good. And to help people through whom the good was accomplished. If everyone were benefited at random, the imbalance between good and evil would not be changed, but would stay the same or even get worse.
After my encounter with the Siberian oldsters I looked through a variety of popular-science literature along with a host of historical and scholarly works describing the unusual properties of the cedar. Now I was trying to penetrate and comprehend what Anastasia was saying about the lifestyle of the cedar people and thinking to myself: “Now what if anything can that be compared to?”
I thought about the Lykovs — a true story many Russians are familiar with from the account by Vasily Peskov of another family that lived an isolated life for many years in the taiga. They were written up in the paper Komsomolskaya Pravda under the headline: “Dead-end in the taiga”, and were the subject of television programmes. I had formulated for myself an impression of the Lykovs as people who knew Nature pretty well, but had a rather fuzzy concept of our modem civilised life. But this was a different situation. Anastasia gave the impression of someone who was perfectly acquainted with our life and with something else besides that I couldn’t fathom at all. She was quite at ease discussing our city life, she seemed to know it first-hand.
We walked along, getting deeper into the woods, and after about five kilometres stopped to rest. At this point she took off her jacket, kerchief and long skirt, and placed them in the hollow of a tree. All she was wearing now was a short, light-weight frock. I was dumbstruck at what I saw. If I were a believer in miracles, I would put this down to something like extreme metamorphosis.
For now here before me stood a very young woman with long golden hair and a fantastic figure. Her beauty was most unusual. It would be hard to imagine how any of the winners of the world’s most prestigious beauty contests could rival her appearance, or, as it later turned out, her intellectual prowess. Everything about this taiga girl was alluring, simply spellbinding.
“You are probably tired?” asked Anastasia. “Would you like to rest for a while?”
We sat down right on the grass, and I was able to get a closer look at her face. There were no cosmetics covering her perfect features. Her lovely well-toned skin bore no resemblance to the weatherbeaten faces of people I knew who lived in the Siberian backwoods. Her large greyish-blue eyes had a kindly look, and her lips betrayed a gentle smile. As indicated, she wore a short, light-weight smock, something like a night-shirt, at the same time giving the impression that her body was not at all cold, in spite of the 12-15-degree temperatures.
I decided to have a bite to eat. I reached into my bag and took out sandwiches, along with a travel bottle filled with good cognac. I offered to share it with Anastasia but she refused the cognac and for some reason even declined to eat with me. While I was snacking, Anastasia lay on the grass, her eyes blissfully closed, as though inviting the sun’s rays to caress her. The rays reflected off her upturned palms with a golden glow. Lying there half-exposed, she appeared absolutely gorgeous!
I looked at her and thought to myself: “Now why do women always bare to the limit either their legs, or their breasts, or everything at once with their mini-skirts and decolletage? Is it not to appeal to the men around them, as if to say: “Look how charming I am, how open and accessible!” And what are men obliged to do then? Fight against their fleshly passions and thereby denigrate women with their lack of attention? Or make advances toward them and thereby break a God-given law?”
When I had finished eating, I asked:
“Anastasia, you're not afraid of walking through the taiga alone?” “There is nothing I have to fear here,” replied Anastasia. “Interesting, but how would you defend yourself if you happened to encounter two or three burly men — geologists, or hunters, let's say?” She didn’t answer, only smiled.
I thought: “How is it that this so extraordinarily alluring young beauty could not be afraid of anyone or anything?”
What happened next still makes me feel uncomfortable, even to this day. I grabbed her by her shoulders and pulled her close to me. She didn't offer any strong resistance, although I could feel a considerable degree of strength in her resilient body. The last thing I remember before losing consciousness was her saying: “Do not do this... Calm down!” And even before that I remember being suddenly overcome by a powerful attack of fear. A fear of what, I couldn’t grasp — as sometimes happens in childhood when you find yourself at home all alone and suddenly become afraid of something.
When I woke up, she was on her knees, bending over me. One hand lay upon my chest, while the other was waving to someone up above, or to either side. She was smiling, though not at me, but rather, it seemed, at someone who was invisibly surrounding us or above us. Anastasia seemed to be literally gesturing to her invisible friend that there was nothing amiss going on. Then she calmly and tenderly looked me in the eye:
“Calm down, Vladimir, it is over now.”
“But what was it?” I asked.
“Harmony's disapproval of your attitude toward me, of the desire aroused in you. You will be able to understand it all later.”
“What's 'harmony' got to do with it? It’s you! It’s only that you yourself began to resist.”
'And I too did not accept it. It was offensive to me.”
I sat up, and pulled my bag over toward me.
“Come on, now! 'She didn’t accept me! It was offensive to her...' Oh you women! You just do everything you can to tempt us! You bare your legs, stick out your breasts, walk around in high-heeled shoes. That's very uncomfortable, and yet you do it! Yon walk and wriggle with all your charm, but as soon as... 'Oh, I don't need that! I'm not that way...' What do you wriggle for then? Hypocrites!
I’m an entrepreneur and I’ve seen a lot of your sorts. You all want the same thing, only you all act it out differently. So why did you, Anastasia, take off your outer clothes? The weather’s not that hot! And then you lolled about on the grass here, with that alluring smile of yours...”
“I am not that comfortable in clothing, Vladimir. I put it on when I leave the woods and go out among people, but only so I can look like everyone else. I just lay down to relax in the sun and not disturb you while you were eating.”
“So you didn’t want to disturb me... Well, you did!”
“Please forgive me, Vladimir. Of course, you are right about every woman wanting to attract a man’s attention, but not just to her legs and breasts. What she wants is not to let pass by the one man who can see more than just those things.”
“But nobody’s been passing by here! And what is this 'more’ that must be seen, when it’s your legs that are front and centre? Oh you women, you’re so illogical!”
“Yes, unfortunately, that is the way life sometimes turns out... Maybe we should get along, Vladimir! Have you finished eating? Are you rested?”
The thought crossed my mind: is it worth going on with this phi-losophising wild woman? But I replied:
“Fine, let’s go.”