Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Jamey Gambrell
We first drive along the highway, then turn onto a narrow road. The road stretches through woodlands, then crawls into the taiga. We ride silently. Pines, firs, and deciduous trees surround us, heavy with snow. But the sun is already heading toward sunset. Another hour or so and it will be dark. We drive about ten versts. Our Zhu-Ba-Ze turns onto a snow-covered country road. My city Mercedov would get stuck right away. But the Boar couldn’t care less—the one-and-a-half-arshin tires chew up the snow like a meat grinder. The Chinese boar barges through the Russian snow. We continue on for a verst, then another, and a third. And the age-old taiga suddenly opens. We’ve arrived! A fantastical tower rises over a wide clearing; it’s built of ancient pines, has fanciful turrets, latticework windows, carved window casings, a copper-tiled roof, and is topped with a weather cock. The tower is surrounded by a ten-arshin pike fence made of incredibly thick logs sharpened at the top. Neither man nor beast could crawl over those pikes. Perhaps the stone Yermak Timofeevich might try, but even he would scrape his granite balls.
We drive up to the plank gates coated in forged iron. The Zhu-Ba-Ze sends an invisible, inaudible signal. The bolts slide back. We drive into the courtyard of Praskovia’s estate. Guards in Chinese attire surround the car with swords and cudgels. All the clairvoyant’s inner guards are Chinese, masters of kung fu. I get out of the Boar and climb the steps of the carved entrance, decorated with Siberian animals carved out of wood. All the beasts here exist in loving harmony. It’s not a portico, but a wonder of wonders! Here you have a lynx licking a roe deer’s forehead, wolves playing with a boar, hares kissing foxes, and grouse sitting on an ermine. Two bears support the pillars of the doorway.
Inside everything is totally different. Here there’s nothing carved, Russian. Smooth, bare walls of marble, a granite floor illuminated green from below, a ceiling of black wood. Lamps burn, incense smokes. A waterfall streams down a marble wall, white lilies float in a pool.
The clairvoyant’s servants approach me silently. Like shadows from the afterlife, their hands are cool, their faces impenetrable. They take my weapons, mobilov, caftan, jacket, hat, and boots. I stand there in my shirt, pants, and goat-wool socks. I stretch my arms back. The noiseless servants dress me in a silk Chinese robe, button the cloth-covered buttons, and give me soft slippers. That’s the way it is for everyone who comes here. Counts, princes, lords of the capital from the Inner Circle—all change into robes when they visit the clairvoyant.
I pass into the interior of the house. As always, it’s empty and quiet. Chinese vases and beasts chiseled out of stone stand in the dim light. Chinese characters recalling wisdom and eternity adorn the walls.
A Chinese voice speaks.
“Missus awaits you near the fire.”
That means we’ll talk near the fireplace. She likes to carry on conversations in front of the fire. Or maybe she’s just freezing? Staring at a fire is a great pleasure, though. As our Batya says, there are three things you want to look at continuously: fire, the sea, and other people’s work.
The silent guards lead me into the fireplace chamber. It’s dusky in here, quiet. The only sound is the logs burning, crackling in the wide fireplace. And it’s not only logs, but books as well. Books mixed in with birch wood, as always at the clairvoyant’s. Next to the fireplace there’s a pile of logs and a pile of books. I wonder what the clairvoyant is burning today? The last time it was poetry.
The doors open, I hear a rustle. She’s here.
I turn. The clairvoyant Praskovia moves toward me on her invariable shiny blue crutches, dragging her emaciated legs along the floor, staring at me with her immobile but cheerful eyes. Russ, rush, rustle. That’s her legs sliding across the granite. That’s her sound.
“Hello, Praskovia Mamontovna.”
She moves smoothly, as though she were sliding on ice skates. She comes quite close and stops. I look into her face. Unusual, it is. There’s not another one like it in all Russia. It isn’t female and it isn’t male, neither old nor young, neither sad nor happy, neither evil nor kind. Her green eyes are always cheery. But this cheeriness is not for us, simple mortals, to understand. Only God knows what stands behind them.
“You flew in?”
“I flew in, Praskovia Mamontovna.”
I sit in an armchair in front of the fireplace. She lowers herself onto her chair of dark wood. She nods to the servant. He picks up a book from the pile and tosses it on the fire.
“The same old business?”
“The very same.”
“The old is like a stone in water. Fish splash around the stone, above the sky birds fly, in the white air playing high, birds long-winded, like people intended. People spin and turn, but never return. Their life is civil, but they gibber-jabber drivel, they topple in waves, surround themselves with graves, retreat far into the earth, from women again are birthed.”
She falls silent and stares at the fire. I stare quietly, too. A kind of shyness overtakes the soul when you’re with her. I’m not as shy with His Majesty as I am before Praskovia.
“You brought hair again?”
“And the shirt?”
“I brought the undershirt as well, Praskovia Mamontovna.”
“The shirt that’s under is always asunder, smarter ever after, avoids disaster, sours, turns baldish, in the wash is scalded; once dried and smooth, from beloved don’t remove, pressed to the skin, good will in the end.”
She stares into the fire. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky’s Idiot is burning. It started with the ends, now the cover is smoking. The clairvoyant again signals the servant. He tosses another book on the fire: Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; it lies there awhile, then suddenly flares. I watch, bewitched.
“What you looking at? You never burned books?”
“We burn only harmful books, Praskovia Mamontovna. Obscene and subversive books.”
“And you think these are useful?”
“The Russian classics are helpful to the state.”
“Dovey, books should only be practical: about carpentry, stove-building, contracting, electricity, shipbuilding, mechanical engineering, artificial hearing, on weaving and sheaving, on casting and basting, on foundries on boundaries, on plastic and mastic.”
“Why so quiet?”
“What . . . should I say?”
“Well, tell me what’s going on in Moscow?”
I know that the clairvoyant’s home has no news bubbles and no radio. That’s first of all. And second—she doesn’t like us, oprichniks. But then she’s not alone in that. And thank God . . .
“In Moscow life is good, the people live and prosper, there are no rebellions, a new underground highway is being built between Savelevsky Station and Domodedovo—”
“I’m not talking about that, dovey,” she interrupts me. “How many people did you kill today? I can tell—you smell like fresh blood.”
“We suppressed one noble.”
She looks at me intently and speaks:
“Suppressed one, but took out ten. Blood never covers blood. Blood in blood ends. Weary is the ending, sweat it out—then comes mending. What heals with scabs will turn to rags, crack and burst, in new blood birthed.”
Again she stares into the fire. You can’t figure her out: last time she almost kicked me out when she heard that six clerks from the Trade Department had been whipped on Lobnoe Mesto in Red Square. She hissed that we were dark bloodsuckers. And the time before that, learning about the execution of the Far Eastern general, she said it wasn’t enough . . .
“Your monarch is a white birch. On that birch there’s a dry branch. And on that branch is a black kite, pecking a live squirrel in the back; the squirrel gnashes its teeth—if you listen with a pure ear, you can make out two words in that screak: ‘key’ and ‘east.’ Understand, dovey?”
I remain silent. She’s allowed to say anything. She hits me on the forehead with her wizened hand.
What’s there to think about? You can think and think and you still won’t understand a damn thing.
“What fits between these words?”
“I don’t know, Praskovia Mamontovna. Maybe . . . a hollow trunk?”
“You’ve got a sorrowful excuse for a brain, dovey. Not a hollow tree, but Russia.”
That’s what it is . . . Russia. Since it’s Russia, I lower my eyes to the floor at once. I look at the fire. And see The Idiot and Anna Karenina in flames. I have to say—they burn well. In general, books burn well. Manuscripts go like gunpowder. I’ve seen many book and manuscript bonfires—in our courtyard, and in the Secret Department. For that matter the Writers’ Chamber itself burned quite a bit on Manezh Square, purging itself of its own subversive writers, thereby cutting our workload. One thing I can say for sure—they always make for a special fire. It’s a warm fire. It was even warmer eighteen years ago when people burned their foreign-travel passports on Red Square. Now that was an enormous fire! It made a strong impression on me, since I was an adolescent at the time. In January there was a deep freeze, but at His Majesty’s call people brought their foreign-travel passports to the main square of the country and tossed them into the fire. They kept bringing them and bringing them. From other cities they came to Moscow, the capital, to burn the legacy of the White Troubles. They came to take an oath to His Majesty. That fire burned nearly two months . . .
I glance at the clairvoyant. Her green eyes are fixed on the fire, everything forgotten. She’s sitting there like an Egyptian mummy. But business won’t wait. I cough.
“When did you last drink milk?”
I try to remember:
“The day before yesterday at breakfast. But I never drink milk separately, Praskovia Mamontovna. I use it with coffee.”
“Don’t drink cow’s milk. Only eat cow’s butter. You know why?”
I don’t know anything, for crying out loud.
“Cow’s milk at the bedstead sings: in the heart I’ll sit fast, poison amass, blend with water, with myself swaddle, pray to the calf, my other half, the calf’s bones come home, do nothing but moan, bones of white, lazybones smite. They’ll thunder, expire, sink your strength in the mire.”
“I won’t. I won’t drink any milk.”
She takes my hand with her bony but soft hand:
“But eat butter. Because cow’s butter strength does utter, gathers churning all ’round turning, forms a ball, falls in the hall, fat delivers, enters the liver, spreads under the skin, strength bringing in.”
I nod. I like cow’s butter. Especially on hot rolls, with a bit of beluga caviar . . .
“Well, let’s hear your business.”
I reach into my inner pocket and take out the blue silk pouch embroidered with Her Highness’s initials. I draw a man’s undershirt of the finest make from the pouch, and, in a piece of folded paper, two locks of hair: one black and the other fair. Praskovia takes the hair first. She places it on her left palm, runs her fingers through it, examines it, moves her lips, and asks:
She whispers something over the hair, mixes the two locks together, squeezes them in her fist. Then she orders:
Her almost identical servants stir. They bring a clay bowl with cedar oil, place it on the clairvoyant’s knees. She throws the hair in the oil, takes the bowl in her bony hands, and lifts it to her face. Then she begins:
“Stick like glue and dry, for ageless ages, the heart of the goodfellow Mikhail to the heart of the beauty Tatyana. Stick like glue and dry. Stick like glue and dry. Stick like glue and dry. Stick like glue and dry. Stick like glue and dry.”
Praskovia takes the shirt of the young lieutenant of the Kremlin regiment, Mikhail Efimovich Skoblo, and places it in the oil. Then she gives the basin back to her servants. That’s it.
She turns her clairvoyant eyes to me:
“Tell Her Highness that today, close to dawn, the heart of Mikhail will adhere to her heart.”
“Thank you, Praskovia Mamontovna. The money will come, as always.”
Read on in Day of the Oprichnik, by Vladimir Sorokin, translated by Jamey Gambrell
Read Jamey Gambrell on the forces arrayed against Sorokin, and this was back in 2003.
Think this translation is mind-blowingly good? Try this one.
For more Russian Little Star, see Conversations at the End of the Avant-Garde, Leonid Lipavsky
Day of the Oprichnik, to be published March 15 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2006 by Vladimir Sorokin. Translation copyright © 2011 by Jamey Gambrell. All rights reserved