Book 3. The Space of Love (1998)
“Okay, that’s enough,” I interrupted Alexander. “For me, Anastasia is just a recluse. Maybe she’s got some unusual abilities, but I would say she’s human, she’s Man. Let’s hope so, anyway If I think about everything too much, I could go nuts. So start up that old rattletrap motor of yours and let’s go.”
It took us about four hours to get to the remote settlement. After I had set foot on the familiar stretch of shoreline, Alexander also got out of the boat and once again tried to persuade me:
“Anastasia’s gone, Vladimir. Really give it some thought — you can still change your mind about trying to reach her glade. You won’t make it.”
“I’m going.” I was hoisting my backpack to sling it over my shoulder when I suddenly noticed Alexander unsheathing a large hunting knife.
I threw the backpack down and rifled about on the ground for something I could defend myself with. But Alexander, having bared his right arm to the elbow, suddenly slashed his own arm with the knife and covered the gushing blood with a white linen scarf he had. Then he asked me to fetch the first-aid kit from the motorboat and bind his wounded arm. I did this, still in a state of bewilderment. He handed me the bloodsoaked scarf, saying:
“Tie this around your head.”
‘At least that way the hunters won’t touch you. They will not fire at a wounded man.”
“You think those hunters of yours are dumb or something? They only have to come close and they’ll see right off it’s a prop.”
“They won’t come close. Why take the chance? They’ve all got their own territories and pathways. If someone needs to go into the taiga for a good reason, he’ll talk to the hunters first, tell them about himself and what he intends to do, and co-ordinate his route with them. If they think he has a good reason, they’ll help him, give him advice and may even provide an escort. But they know nothing about you. They may shoot first and ask questions later, but they won’t fire at a wounded man.”
I took the bloodsoaked scarf and tied it around my head.
“I guess I’m supposed to say thank you, but somehow I don’t feel like thanking you.”
“No need to. I didn’t do it for thanks. I just wanted to do at least something for you. When you get back, light a fire on the riverbank. I’ll be passing close by from time to time, and if I see the smoke I’ll come pick you up — if, that is, you manage to get back.”
As I was walking along, I noticed a couple of dogs about a hundred metres away Probably from the settlement, I thought. I wished they would come closer, as dogs had a quieting effect on me. I even tried to attract their attention, but they didn’t approach, only kept a parallel course to mine. And so we went deeper into the taiga.
It was pointless for Alexander to try and scare me, I thought. The taiga didn’t seem hostile to me at all. Maybe it was because I knew at the back of my mind that here amidst the trees and moss-covered logs lived Anastasia, and even if she was strange, she was still a kind person. I held to the notion that here in the taiga with all its tangled undergrowth, its sounds and air so unfamiliar to city-dwellers, lived my very own son. This thought made the taiga feel just a bit more like home to me.
The twenty-five kilometres from the riverbank to the glade presented much more of a challenge than walking along an ordinary road, since there were fallen trees to climb over and thickets to go around. The time I had been walking with Anastasia I hadn’t noticed all these barriers, immersed as we were in conversation. The main thing now was not to lose my sense of direction on account of them, and I began checking my compass more often, all the while thinking: How did Anastasia find her glade with no compass? It certainly didn’t look as though there was any kind of pathway.
Stopping to rest after every hour, by noon I got to a shallow stream about two metres wide. Anastasia and I had also forded a stream, I remembered. I decided to go across and stop for some time in a glade just on the other side. I made my way along the trunk of a partly rotted tree which had fallen into the stream. The tree didn’t extend all the way across, so after tossing my backpack, I made a jump for the shore. But something happened. My leg fell on some kind of protruding snag and got twisted, or sprained somehow. I felt a searing pain through my whole leg and it even spread to my head. I lay there a few minutes and then tried to get up. I realised I couldn’t walk. So I lay there, reflecting on what to do next. I tried to remember what you’re supposed to do when you twist or sprain your leg. But I had a hard time remembering, probably because the pain was so intense. Then I decided I would lie still for a while, have a bite to eat, and maybe the pain would go away. If need be, I would light a fire and spend the night there. Maybe by morning my leg would even be better. After all, everything with Man heals itself eventually
It was at this point that I caught sight of the dogs again. There were four of them now, and two more on the other side. And they weren’t going anywhere. They took up their
positions on either flank, about ten metres from me. The dogs were of various breeds: one was an Airedale, another was a Boxer, the remainder were mongrels. And there was a little lap-dog among them. Their coats were ragged, they were terribly thin, the Airedale’s eyes were festering. I remembered hearing my captain’s first mate telling about dogs like this. And my sudden awareness of the precariousness of my situation made even the pain in my leg disappear temporarily
The first mate of my headquarters ship told how people who didn’t want their pets around any more would take them off somewhere and abandon them. If they dropped them off within the city limits, the cats and dogs would hang around various scrap-heaps and at least get a little something to keep them going. When dogs were taken out to a remote area, far outside of town, they would group together in gangs and get their food by attacking a living creature. Including people, especially people all by themselves.
These dogs are actually more frightening than wolves. They’ll lie in wait for a wounded or exhausted victim and then attack their prey simultaneously Another thing that makes these gangs of homeless mad dogs more frightening than wolves is their superior knowledge of human habits and their hatred of human beings. They have it in for people. They have no experience hunting for wild game, but people are their prey
It’s especially frightening when the gang includes at least one dog who’s been trained to attack human beings. I once had a dog, which I took to a private obedience school. The training programme included attacking a person on command. The instructor’s assistant would put on a padded coat with long sleeves and the dog would be taught to attack him viciously. If the dog carried out the command properly, he would be rewarded with a treat. They sure went through their paces, those smart-asses!
I wonder if there is any other creature on Earth, apart from Man, that finds it necessary to teach another species to attack one of the teacher’s own kind.
The dogs around me began to tighten their circle. I needed to show them, I thought, that I was still alive, that I could move about and defend myself. I picked up a short stick and chucked it at the closest mangy bitch. It managed to dodge the stick and take up a new position. There weren’t any other sticks within reach. Then I got a couple of tins of preserves out of my backpack. As I was getting them, the smallest of the gang — the lap-dog — stole up from behind, tore a piece out of my trouser-leg with its teeth and then jumped back. The other dogs watched — probably to see my reaction.
I took one of the tins and chucked it at the nearest large pooch; the other I threw at the lap-dog. There was nothing else to throw. My consciousness was overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness.
I began imagining how the dogs would tear apart my body and eat it in pieces and how I would still be conscious for some time and witness it all and writhe in pain, since the dogs wouldn’t be able to finish me off all at once. And I had nothing with me to bring on a quick death and escape extended torture.
One thing I felt especially bad about was that I wouldn’t be able to deliver my backpack containing the gifts for Anastasia from my readers, along with various kiddie items a young child would need.
Half my backpack was taken up with readers’ letters full of questions and requests. A lot of letters. Most unusual letters. They wrote from the heart, they wrote about their lives, and there were lots of poems. Maybe not too professionally crafted, not always rhyming, but still there was something good about them. And now they would all be lost, rotting away here in the taiga.
And then a thought struck me, out of the blue. I decided to write a note and place it in the plastic bag with the letters. A note! If anyone found my backpack, they could take all its contents and the money too. And they could send the readers’ letters back to my daughter Polina. I told her in the note to publish them once there were enough royalties from my book to cover the expense. It would be a crime for so many soul-inspired poems to be lost forever. Many of their authors were likely writing the first poem in their life, something that came straight from their heart. And now the only poem they ever wrote in their life would be lost.
It was quite a challenge writing the note. My hands were trembling. From fear, most probably. And just why does Man cling so tight to life even in a situation where it is absolutely clear that it’s all over? But I managed to finish the note and put it in the plastic bag with the letters. I tied the bag tight so moisture wouldn’t get in.
And then all at once I noticed that the dogs, which had already come quite close to me, were beginning to execute a rather strange manoeuvre. One by one they started crawling away from me. Some of them were sitting up on their haunches looking in the other direction, away from me, and then lay down again, as though in ambush. I managed to get up on one leg to take a look and see what had distracted them. And then I saw... I saw how along the stream, with leaps and bounds, came running none other than Anastasia, her magnificent golden hair trailing in the breeze. And her sweeping stride was so utterly beautiful that I completely forgot about my own danger in admiring the scene.
And all of a sudden it hit me: the dogs\ They were no doubt under the impression that their prey might now be taken from them, and they were getting set to attack the newcomer running so determinedly toward them.
These starving dogs, brutalised by the wilds, would viciously fight for their prey to the end. Anastasia would not be able to do anything about them all by herself. The dogs would tear her apart, and I cried out as loud as I could:
“Stop, Anastasia, stop! Dogs! Wild dogs here! Don’t come this way, Anastasia! Stop!”
Anastasia heard me, but didn’t let up her bounding stride for a moment. But while she ran she waved her hand in the air. What has she done now? — I thought. The extraordinary phenomenon she could call upon wouldn’t be able to help her now As quickly as I could I pulled out of my backpack the little glass jars of baby food. I started throwing them at the dogs, trying to attract their attention to myself and away from Anastasia. One of the jars hit its mark, but the dogs paid no attention to my efforts.
No doubt they realised who their real threat was. No sooner had Anastasia entered their circle than the dogs attacked her from all sides at once. And then...
Oh, what a sight it was! You’d have had to see it to believe it. Anastasia transformed all the energy ofher run into a spin. All at once she broke her stride and spun about sharply like a top, or a ballerina twirling on stage, only faster. Upon striking Anastasia’s rotating body, the dogs flew off in different directions without causing her any harm, but then, once she had stopped spinning, they got ready to launch a new attack.
I crawled over toward Anastasia. She was wearing her short, light-weight dress. If only she’d been wearing her quilted jacket, it would have been harder for the dogs to bite through.
Anastasia got down on one knee. As she knelt there in the circle of the vicious dogs that were half-crazed by hunger, her face betrayed no fear. She looked at me and said briskly: “Hello, Vladimir! Only do not be afraid. Just relax a little. Let go. Do not worry, they will not do anything to me, these starving little dogs. Not to worry.”
Two huge mutts once more launched an attack on Anastasia from either side. Without getting up and without ceasing her talking, a lightning-fast movement of her hands caught each dog in mid-air by its front paw and spun it around. Moving her body slightly to one side, she let the two dogs crash into each other and drop to the ground.
The other dogs had once more taken up a position, no doubt getting ready for a new attack, but this time they stayed put.
Anastasia stood up and swept her hand up into the air. Lowering it, she slapped herself twice on the thigh.
From behind the nearby thickets there suddenly sprang out four mature wolves. There was such determination in their headlong dash that it seemed they would not think to take account of the numbers or strength of the foe before them. They were spoiling for a fight.
The dogs put their tails between their legs and headed off lickety-split. The wolves ran right past me, practically spraying me with their hot breath. Right on their heels a young wolf cub breezed past in a flicker, trying with all his might, in spite of his shorter stride, not to fall behind the pack. When he reached the spot where Anastasia was standing, he suddenly braked with all four paws, and even did a somersault. Then he jumped up and gave two licks to the fresh scratch on Anastasia’s bare foot.
Anastasia abruptly grabbed the cub by his torso and hoisted him up in the air.
“Where are you off to?” she said. “It is not your time yet. You are still too little.”
The cub began squirming all over in Anastasia’s arms and whining like a puppy He managed to escape — or, rather, she herself let him go. Once more on the ground, the cub gave one more quick lick to Anastasia’s scratch and set off to catch up with the pack.
“But why?” I began questioning Anastasia as she headed over to me. “Why didn’t you call in the wolves right off? Why?”
Anastasia smiled, and proceeded at once to feel my arms and legs. With her pure, calming voice she said:
“Please do not worry I needed to show the dogs that Man is always superior to them. The wolves they will fear in any case. But the dogs have begun making attacks on Man. Now they will no longer attack Man.
“Not to worry. I felt your presence and could tell you were coming. I ran to meet you. Why did you take such a risk in coming into the taiga all by yourself? At first I could not find you, and then I guessed you must have set out on your own.” Anastasia ran off to one side and plucked up some kind of grasses. Then she looked in a different place and did the same. She rubbed the grasses between her hands and carefully soothed my sore leg with her moist palms. And she kept talking non-stop:
“It will go away It will pass quickly. Before you can say ‘Jack Robinson’.”
I noticed Anastasia frequently used proverbs and sayings, and I asked:
“Where did you pick up these sayings?”
“I sometimes listen to how various people speak. To learn how to express a greater meaning in just a few words. That displeases you?”
“Well, sometimes they’re not quite apropos.”
‘And sometimes they are, well, ‘propos’? It is good when they are ‘propos’?”
“How do you mean, ‘propos’?”
“That was your word. I was just repeating it.”
“Tell me, Anastasia, is it still a long ways to your glade?” “You have come halfway. Together we shall get there quickly.”
“It probably won’t be very quick, as long as my leg hurts like this.”
“Yes, it may still hurt a bit longer. Let your leg rest, and I shall help you walk.”
Anastasia hoisted the heavy backpack onto her shoulders. Then, turning her back to me, squatted down on one knee and invited me to climb on.
“Take hold of me and climb onto my back.” She said this with such briskness and determination that I immediately obeyed, clasping my arms around her neck. Anastasia promptly rose to her feet and skipped off at a sprightly gait. And throughout our journey she kept talking on the run.
“Not too heavy for you?” I asked after some time.
“One’s own burdens are light,” replied Anastasia, adding with a laugh:
“Tm a horse and I’m an ox, Fm a wench and Fm a jock!*”
“Stop. Let me down. I’ll try walking on my own.”
“But you are not too heavy for me. Why do you want to try on your own?”
“What’s that about a jock? Tm a wench and I’m a jock’, you said?”
“Just another saying. It was not apropos, eh? Did it offend you?”
“It’s okay. I simply want to try walking on my own. If you could just carry my backpack a little while longer.”
“If you want to walk on your own, you will have to rest your leg at least another hour...” she advised as she gently lowered me to the ground. “You sit there for a bit, I shall return before long.” At that Anastasia ran off for a little while on her own. She presently returned with a bundle of various grasses and once more began rubbing them into my leg near my ankle. Then she sat down beside me, and smiled as she slyly eyed my backpack. All at once she asked:
“Vladimir, please tell me, what is in your backpack?”
“Some letters from readers. Also gifts they sent me to give to you. And I’ve bought a little something for the baby” “Could you show me the gifts now while we are resting?” And will you show me the baby — our son? You’re not going to tell me that he can’t see me until I’ve cleansed myself?” “Fine. I shall show you our son. Only not right away. Tomorrow I shall show you. The first thing you need to do is to learn a bit about how to converse with him. You will learn quicldy once you see him.”
I undid the backpack and began to take out its contents. First, the gifts for Anastasia. She took each item carefully in her hands and looked at it with interest, caressing it. She started playing on the Valdai Bells1 — a present from Olga Sidorovna. And when I handed her a beautiful large, colourful shawl — a gift from another very kind woman, Valentina Ivanovna, I realised right off: women are women, and they all have a lot in common.
Anastasia took the shawl and turned it over in her hands. Then she performed a whole series of manipulations with it. She tied the shawl around her head just like in the picture on
the Alionushka chocolate bar label, and then in other variations as well.
Then, with a laugh, she tied the shawl around her waist in gypsy fashion, before throwing it over her shoulders and parading before me in some kind of folk dance. Then she neatly folded the shawl and placed it over the presents spread out on the grass and said:
“Please, Vladimir, say thank you from me to each person, thank these women for the warmth of their heart that they sent along with each of these things.”
“I’ll thank everyone I see. But I have nothing more to show you. The remaining things aren’t for you. They’re for our son. All the things he needs. Ton can’t use these things — I’ll show them to you on the spot when we get there.”
“Why do you not want to do this now? We are just sitting here and resting. I would be most interested in seeing what you have.”
I didn’t want to show Anastasia right off what I had bought for our son, since I remembered what she had said back the first time we met: “You will want to get our son all sorts of senseless toys, but he will not need them at all. You are the one who needs them for your own self-satisfaction, so you can say: £Oh, look at me, I’m so good and caring!”’ But then I still decided to show them to her, since I myself was interested in how she would react to the achievements of our civilisation in matters of child-care. I started showing Anastasia the diapers I had brought, explaining how effectively they absorb moisture when the baby wets them, so he doesn’t perspire. I told her everything I had seen in the TV commercial. I showed her the baby food.
“You see, Anastasia, this baby food is simply a marvel. It contains all the substances a baby needs — vitamin 3 supplements too. The main thing is, it’s so easy to prepare, lust dissolve in warm water, and the food’s ready. Got it?”
“I ‘got it’.”
“Well, now, you see the factory chimneys of our technocratic world aren’t just blowing smoke for nothing. We’ve got some factories producing baby food like this, and the packaging for it. You see that beautiful baby pictured on the package, all smiling and rosy-cheeked?”
Finally I showed Anastasia my last gift and commented: “This is a children’s construction set. A construction set’s not like a senseless noisemaker. It says here it’s specially designed to help the child develop. He can build a car with it, like in the picture, or a steam engine, or an aeroplane, or a house. Well, maybe it’ll suit our son a little later. Right now, of course, it’s still early for him to make sense of what moves and flies and how.”
“Why early? He can make sense of all that right now,” replied Anastasia.
“YDU see, the construction set will help him in this,” I observed.
“Do you think so? Are you certain about that?”
“I’m not the only one who’s certain, Anastasia. There’s a whole bunch of scientists and psychologists who study children’s mental development. You see, their endorsements are printed right here on the box.”
“Fine, Vladimir, fine. Not to worry. You will do everything the way you feel you should. Only I would ask you to take a look first, observe how our son lives. Then you will be able to determine what his first priorities are.”
“Right. Whatever you say.” I was glad that Anastasia did not argue with the need for the things I’d brought. I would be able to have a look for myself and decide.
“In the meantime let us hide your backpack here,” she said.
“Then, once you determine what thing is needed first, I shall run and fetch it, or I shall fetch the whole backpack if necessary. Right now it is heavy to carry Your leg still hurts after all, and you do not wish me to carry you.”
“Well, okay, let’s hide it for the time being,” I agreed. “Only we’ll take the letters with us. There are a lot of questions in them tot you. I didn’t memorise them all.”
“Fine, we shall bring the letters,” Anastasia agreed, taking the package. Once she had hid my backpack in a safe place, I leaned my arm on her shoulder, and the two of us headed off in the direction of her glade.
It was late at night by the time we arrived.
As before, the glade was empty No structures, not even a lean-to. But somehow I got the feeling that I had come home. Even my mood was uplifted, and a sense of calm had set in. I felt like going to sleep. Probably because I had been talking all the previous night with Alexander. Wow! I thought — there’s absolutely nothing in this glade, and yet I get the feeling I’ve come home.
Evidently, one’s sense of home is not in the size of one’s living space or even a castle, but in something else.
Anastasia at once took me to her lake and recommended I bathe. I really didn’t feel like bathing, but I thought I should be obedient to her in everything, at least for now, so I’d get to see my son sooner.
When I came out onto the shore after bathing, it was colder than in the water. Anastasia dried me off with the palms of her hands, wiped me with some kind of grasses, and my body began to feel warm, even hot. Then she handed me her dress and said with a laugh:
“Please put it on, Vladimir. It will be like a night-shirt for you. I shall soak and wash your clothing, which has a strong odour coming from it.”
I put on Anastasia’s dress. I knew the odour must be eliminated, and that was that.
“So our son won’t be scared off?”
“For him too,” Anastasia replied.
“But it’ll be cold for me to sleep in nothing but a dress.” “Not to worry, I have already arranged everything. You will have a good night’s sleep, and you will not be cold. You can put the packet with the letters under your head for a pillow. I have thought of everything — you will have a good night’s sleep, and you will not freeze.”
“With the bear to keep me warm again, eh?... I will not sleep with a bear. I’ll manage somehow on my own.”
“I have made up your bed so that you will not be too cold or too hot.”
We went to the dugout where I had slept before. Anastasia pushed aside the branches hanging over the entrance. I caught the pleasant aroma from the dried grasses, and crawled into the dugout, lay down amidst the grasses, and felt the sleep of sweet languor envelop me all around.
“You can cover yourself with my cardigan, but even without it, you will still not be cold. If you wish, I shall also lie down beside you and keep you warm.” I heard Anastasia’s words through a half-sleep and responded:
“No need. You’d better go to our son, keep him warm...” “Not to worry, Vladimir. Our son is already capable of handling a great deal on his own.”
“How can he do things on his own? He’s still too young...” But that was all I could say I was already immersed in a deep and calm, blissful sleep.