()
-
  (tm):
...


Hermit and Sixfinger

Translated from Russian by Serge Winitzki and Sergey Bratus © 1996

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Notes

1

"Get lost."
"???"
"Like I said, get lost. Let me watch."
"But what is it you are watching?"
"Oh God, what an idiot... The Sun, OK?"
Sixfinger looked up from the black turf covered with food, sawdust and peatcrumbs. He squinted and stared upward.
"Well... We live and live -- but what for? A mystery of ages. And did anybody even begin to grasp the thin, thread-like nature of the suns?"
The stranger turned his head and stared at Sixfinger with disdainful curiosity.
"Sixfinger," he immediately introduced himself.
"I am called Hermit," the stranger answered. "Do they say that in your Socium? About the thin, thread-like nature?"
"It"s not `my Socium" any more," Sixfinger said and suddenly whistled: "Look at that!"
"What?" Hermit asked suspiciously.
"There, look! A new sun just appeared!"
"So what?"
"In the center of the world it never happens. Three suns together..."
Hermit chuckled condescendingly.
"Once I saw eleven at once. One was in the zenith and five more in each epicycle. Although it wasn"t around here."
"Where was it then?" Sixfinger asked.
Hermit kept silence. Turning away, he went aside and chopped off with his foot a piece of food from the ground, and ate. A gentle warm breeze and the reflection of the two suns in grayish-green planes of the distant horizon made for such a serene and sad mood that the ponderous Hermit twitched when he saw Sixfinger again.
"You are back. What do you want now?"
"I just... wanted to talk."
"Well, but I think you are stupid," Hermit answered. "You"d better go back to the Socium. You"ve wandered too far, really, go back..."
He waved his hand toward a narrow, slightly undulating and trembling, dirty-yellow stripe -- amazingly, that was what the huge, roaring crowd looked like from here.
"I would go," Sixfinger said, "but they expelled me."
"Really? And why? Political reasons?"
Sixfinger nodded and scratched one foot on the other. Hermit looked at his feet and shook his head.
"Are they real?"
"Of course, what else... They told me outright: the most, one could say, Decisive Stage is coming, and you have six toes on your feet... Couldn"t I find a better time for that, they said."
"What is this `decisive stage" about?"
"I don"t know. Everybody is on the edge, especially the Twenty Closest, but nobody makes any sense. They all just run around screaming."
"Ah, I see," Hermit said. "This Stage, is it perhaps getting more and more distinct by the hour? And its shape more clearly seen?"
"Exactly," Sixfinger was surprised. "How do you know that?"
"Well, I have seen about five or so of these Decisive Stages. They called them differently each time, though."
"No way," Sixfinger said. "This is going to happen for the first time."
"Oh sure. I would be curious to see how it could happen for a second time. But we are talking about somewhat different things."
Hermit laughed quietly, walked away a bit, then turned his back toward the far-away Socium and started scratching the ground energetically with his feet, until a cloud of garbage and dust hung in the air behind him. Meanwhile, he was looking back, waving his hands and muttering something.
"What are you doing?" asked a somewhat frightened Sixfinger when Hermit returned, breathing heavily.
"This is a gesture," Hermit answered. "Kind of an art form. You recite a poem and make the corresponding action."
"And which poem did you just recite?"
"This one:
    At times I feel sad,
    looking at those I abandoned,
    At times I do laugh,
    and between us then rises
    a cloud of yellowish fog."
"Why, it isn"t a Poem," Sixfinger said. "Thank God, I know all the Poems. That is, not by heart, of course, but I have heard all twenty-five of them. This one is surely not one of the Poems."
Hermit regarded him in bewilderment but then seemingly understood.
"Do you remember any of those Poems?" he asked. "Say it."
"Just a minute. The twins... the twins... Well, anyway, we say one thing, and we mean another. And then we again say one thing, and we mean another, but the other way around (1). It"s very beautiful. Finally, we look up at the Wall, and there..."
"Enough," Hermit said.
There was silence, until Sixfinger broke it:
"Listen, what about you -- where you also expelled?"
"No. Actually, it was I, I expelled them all."
"How could it happen that way?"
"Things happen in many ways," Hermit said, looked at one of the celestial bodies, and added, as if he meant to stop chatting and start talking seriously: "It"s going to be dark soon."
"Stop that," Sixfinger said, "nobody knows when it"s going to be dark."
"Well, I do know. If you want a good sleep, do as I do." And he began to shove pieces of garbage, turf and sawdust that lay on the ground. Gradually he made a wall about his own height that encircled a small empty space. Hermit stepped away from the finished structure, gave it a loving look and said:
"Here. I call it `Refuge of the Soul"".
"Why?" Sixfinger asked.
"Just so. Beautiful words. Are you going to build one for yourself?"
Sixfinger started picking at the garbage, but he couldn"t manage it -- the wall would collapse. Frankly speaking, he didn"t try very hard, because he didn"t believe any of what Hermit said about the darkness. But when the lights in the Heaven flickered and slowly began to fade out, and he heard the people"s terrified sigh from the Socium, like the rustle of wind in hay, he felt two strong feelings form in his heart: the usual fear of sudden darkness and a previously unknown feeling of reverence toward someone who knew more about the world.
"You got lucky," Hermit said. "Jump in. I will build another one."
"I don"t know how to jump," Sixfinger answered quietly.
"So long, then," Hermit said and, suddenly pushing the earth away with all his might, dashed upwards and vanished behind the wall. It immediately collapsed, covering him with a layer of sawdust and peatcrumbs. The resulting mound shivered for some time, then a small hole emerged on its surface. Sixfinger just managed to catch a glimmer of Hermit"s eye -- and all became completely dark.
Of course Sixfinger knew all one needed to know about the night since he could remember himself. "It"s a natural process," some people would say. The majority, though, judged that "one must mind one"s duty." There were many shades of opinion, but the same feeling was shared by all: when the suns, for no apparent reason, went out, everybody struggled briefly and hopelessly with the agony of fear, fell into a stupor and didn"t remember much until the suns lighted up again. The same thing used to happen to Sixfinger while he was living in the Socium, but now, perhaps because the fear of darkness combined with an equally strong fear of being alone and therefore doubled, he didn"t fall into merciful daze. The moan of the people already died out, but he still crouched beside the mound and cried softly. He couldn"t see anything, and Hermit"s voice in the darkness frightened him so much that he had a bowel movement.
"Listen, stop this pounding," Hermit said. "I can"t fall asleep because of you."
"I can"t," Sixfinger answered quietly. "It"s my heart. Talk to me, please?"
"What about?" Hermit asked.
"About anything you want, but talk more."
"Let"s perhaps discuss the nature of fear?"
"No, not that!" squeaked Sixfinger.
"Be quiet!" hissed Hermit. "Or all the rats will be here in a moment."
"What rats? What are they?" Sixfinger asked in a chilled voice.
"They are creatures of the night. Actually, of the day as well."
"I have such a bad luck in my life," whispered Sixfinger. "If I only had the right number of toes, I would be now sleeping with all. My God, what a fright... Rats..."
"Listen," Hermit said after a pause, "why do you keep saying "God" all the time? Do all of you here believe in God or what?"
"Nobody knows. There is something of that kind, that"s for sure, but nobody knows what. For example, why does it get dark? Of course, one could explain it by natural causes. But if one thinks about God, one won"t do anything in one"s life..."
"I wonder, what is it that one can do in one"s life?" Hermit asked.
"What do you mean? Don"t ask such silly questions, as if you don"t know yourself. Everybody wants to get to the Feeder, as close as they can. That"s the law of life."
"Got it. Then why is there all this?"
"What `this""?
"Well, the Universe, Heaven, the Earth, the suns -- everything."
"What do you mean, why? That"s how the world is."
"And how is it?" Hermit asked with interest.
"It"s just like that. We move in space and time. According to the laws of life."
"But where do we move?"
"Who knows where. It"s a mystery of ages. You know, one really could get crazy talking to you."
"No, it"s you who makes one crazy. Talk to you about anything, you"d say it"s the law of life, or a mystery of ages."
"So don"t talk if you don"t like it," Sixfinger said, offended.
"I wouldn"t, but you were too afraid of being silent in the darkness."
Sixfinger somehow completely forgot about that. He examined his feelings and suddenly noticed that he didn"t feel any fear at all. This frightened him so much that he jumped and ran away blindly into the dark, until he bumped headlong into the invisible World-wall.
He heard Hermit"s screeching laugh from far away and cautiously wandered toward these only sounds in the surrounding total silence and darkness. When he reached the Hermit"s mound, he lay down silently and, despite the chill, tried to fall asleep. The moment when he succeeded escaped him.

2

"Today we are going to climb over the World-wall, you understand?" Hermit said.
Sixfinger was just about to jump into the "Refuge of the Soul". Now his Refuges were about as well-built as Hermit"s, but the jump itself still required a long running start, which he was practicing at the moment. The meaning of Hermit"s words struck him right when it was time to jump; as a result, he rammed into the flimsy edifice so hard that peatcrumbs and sawdust, instead of covering his body by an even and soft layer, got all piled up over his head, while his feet lost ground and hung in the air. Hermit helped him out and repeated:
"Today we shall climb over the World-wall."
During the last few days Sixfinger has heard so many strange things from Hermit that something in his soul was continually creaking and thumping. His former life in the Socium now appeared to him as a naive fantasy or as a nightmarish farce -- he hasn"t quite made up his mind yet. But this was still too much.
The Hermit went on, though:
"The Decisive Stage comes after seventy eclipses, and yesterday was the sixty-ninth. Numbers rule the universe."
He pointed to a long chain of straws stuck into the turf right under the World-wall.
"But how? You cannot climb the World-wall -- it is a World-wall! The name itself... There"s nothing beyond it, nothing..." Sixfinger was so flabbergasted that he missed the dark mysticism of Hermit"s explanations, which otherwise would have certainly upset him.
"Well, so what that there"s nothing there? We should actually be quite happy about it."
"But what are we going to do there?"
"Live there."
"Why, what is so bad about this place?"
"Just that very soon there will be no `this place", you fool."
"What will remain here then?"
"Stay here and you shall find out. Nothing."
Sixfinger felt that he had no certainty whatsoever left in him.
"Why do you have to scare me like that all the time?"
"Stop whining, will you?" muttered Hermit, anxiously eyeing something in the sky. "It"s not that bad there, over the World-wall. Suits me much better than here, anyway.
He walked over to the ruins of Sixfinger"s `Refuge of the Soul" and started leveling them out with his feet.
"Why are you doing this?" Sixfinger asked him.
"Before one leaves a world, one has to generalize the experience acquired in it and then destroy all traces of ever having lived there. It"s a tradition."
"Who invented it? "
"What does it matter? Well, I did. You see, there aren"t any others around here. That"ll do..."
Hermit surveyed his work -- the place where the ruins have been was presently as smooth as the rest of the desert around them.
"That"s all," he said. "Now we"ve got to generalize the experience. Your turn, climb this hummock and get to it."
Sixfinger thought he was short-changed: he was given the harder and, moreover, a completely unclear task. However, after the first eclipse he knew better than to argue with Hermit. He shrugged, looked around (in case somebody from the Socium has wandered here) and climbed the hummock.
"What should I say?"
"Everything you know about the world."
Sixfinger whistled.
"Going to take us quite a while."
"I don"t think so," Hermit dryly replied.
"All right. So, our world... That"s one idiotic ritual, by the way..."
"Don"t get distracted."
"Our world is a regular octagon moving in space uniformly and rectilinearly. Here we prepare ourselves for the Decisive Stage, the crowning moment of our happy lives. At any rate, this is the official formula. Around the perimeter of the world stands the so-called World-wall, which has objectively appeared as a result of the Laws of Life. In the center of the world is the two-tiered Feeder, around which our civilization has been living since ancient times. The place of an individual with respect to the Feeder is determined by his social worth and services..."
"Haven"t heard this before," Hermit interrupted him. "What are services? And social worth?"
"Well... How should I say... It"s when someone gets really close to the Feeder."
"And who gets there?"
"Like I said, those with most services. Or social worth. I, for example, had very few services before, and now none at all. Are you saying you don"t know the People"s Model of the Universe?"
"No, I don"t," Hermit said.
"Are you nuts?.. But then how were you preparing for the Decisive Stage?"
"I"ll tell you later. Go on."
"Well, that"s almost all. Outside the zone of the Socium lies the Great Waste, bordered by the the World-wall. Near it is the place for renegades like us."
"Clear enough. And where did the log come from? Meaning, all the other things?"
"Hey, relax. Even the Twenty Closest wouldn"t know that. A mystery of ages."
"So. And what is this mystery of ages?"
"The Law of Life," Sixfinger said, trying to speak soothingly. Something about the tone of Hermit"s question worried him.
"OK. And what is the Law of Life?"
"That is a mystery of ages."
"A mystery of ages?!" Hermit asked with a strangely shrill voice and started slowly edging towards Sixfinger.
"Hey, what"s wrong with you? Stop that!" Sixfinger was genuinely scared. "It"s your ritual after all, not mine!"
But Hermit already came back to his senses.
"All right, I got it. Get down."
Sixfinger climbed down from the hummock, and Hermit took his place. Serious and concentrated, he kept silent for a some time, as if listening to something. Then he raised his head and spoke.
"I came here from another world, in the days when you were very young. To that world I came from yet another one and so on. Altogether I have been to five worlds. They are much the same as this one and can hardly be distinguished from each other. The universe where we all live is a huge closed space. In the language of the Gods it is called the `V.I.Lenin Broiler Factory"(2), but the meaning of this name is unknown."
"You know the language of the Gods?" Sixfinger asked in bewilderment.
"A little. Don"t interrupt. There are seventy worlds in the universe, and we are now in one of them. The worlds are all attached to an unfathomable black band which is slowly moving in a circle. Above it, on the visible surface of the sky, are hundreds of identical suns. Thus they do not move over us, but we are moving under them. Try to picture this."
Sixfinger closed his eyes. His face showed signs of strain.
"No, I can"t," he said at last.
"All right, listen on. All seventy worlds in this universe are called the Chain of the Worlds. At any rate they may be called that. Life exists in each world, but not at all times. It emerges and vanishes. The Decisive Stage occurs in the middle of the universe, through which all the worlds pass one by one. In the language of the Gods it is called `Shop Number One". Our world is just about to enter it. When the Decisive Stage is finished and the renewed world leaves the Shop Number One, everything begins anew. Life appears, goes through the cycle and in due time is again thrown into the Shop Number One."
"How do you know all this?" the awed Sixfinger asked in a quiet voice.
"I traveled much," Hermit replied, "and collected bits of secret knowledge. In one world one thing was known, in another something else."
"Then maybe you know where we come from?"
"I do. What do they say in your world?"
"That it is a given objective reality; such is the Law of Life."
"I see. You are asking about one of the deepest mysteries of the order of things, and I even doubt I can entrust it to you. But since there"s no one else to share it with anyway, I"ll tell you. We come to this world from white spheres. Actually, those are not quite spheres, they are somewhat oblong, and larger at one end, but this is not important now.
"Spheres. White spheres," repeated Sixfinger, and fell to the ground as he stood. The weight of what he has just learned was so great that for a moment Sixfinger thought he would die. Hermit sprang to his side and shook him violently. Presently Sixfinger came to his senses.
"What happened to you?" Hermit asked, a bit frightened.
"I.. I remembered! Just like that. We were those white spheres and lay on long shelves. That place was moist and very warm. Then we started to break the spheres, and... From somewhere below our world was brought and then we were inside it... But how come nobody remembers it?"
"There are worlds where it is remembered," said Hermit. "Fifth or sixth prenatal matrix, big deal. Not so deep, and it"s only a part of the truth. But anyway, they hide away those who do remember, so that they don"t interfere with getting ready for the Decisive Stage, or whatever it is called. In my world they used to call it `Completion of the Construction", although no one was building anything."
Obviously, memories of his own world upset Hermit. He fell silent.
"Listen," Sixfinger asked after a while, "where do those white spheres come from?"
Hermit glanced at him approvingly.
"I needed much more time before I could ask this question. But it is very complicated. In one ancient legend it is said that these eggs come from us, but this may well be only a metaphor."
"From us? It"s not clear. Where did you hear it?"
"I made it up, of course. As if you can hear anything around these parts," Hermit said with unexpected melancholy.
"But you said it was an ancient legend."
"Yes. I simply made it up as an ancient legend."
"How? And why?"
"You see, one ancient philosopher, or one can even say a prophet (this time Sixfinger realized who that was) remarked that it is not always important what is said, but who says it. Some of the meaning of what I said was that my words were to play the role of an ancient legend. But you won"t understand anyway..."
Hermit looked at the sky and interrupted himself.
"Enough of this. We must go."
"Where?"
"To the Socium."
Sixfinger stared.
"I though you said we were going to climb the World-wall. What do we need the Socium for?"
"But do you know what a Socium really is?" Hermit asked in return. "It is actually a means of climbing the World-wall."

3

In spite of a complete lack of any objects behind which to hide, Sixfinger walked through the desert furtively, and the closer they got to the Socium, the more criminal his gait became. Gradually the huge crowd, which seemed an immense stirring beast from afar, split into separate bodies, and one could even see the surprised faces of those who saw Hermit and Sixfinger approach.
"The main thing," Hermit was whispering his last instructions, "is to be arrogant. But not too arrogant. We must infuriate them -- but not so that they tear us apart. Just keep looking at what I will be doing."
"Look, Sixfinger"s back!" someone shouted cheerfully. "Hey, you bastard! Who is it with you?"
This stupid shout brought on Sixfinger a nostalgic wave of childhood memories, unexpectedly and for no reason. Hermit, who walked behind him, seemed to feel it and prodded Sixfinger"s back.
At the outer edge of the Socium they had no trouble getting through, it was easy to walk around the crowd-avoiding Observers and the disabled who lived there. But further on the crowd was thicker, and very soon Hermit and Sixfinger found it unbearable. They could barely move forward by constantly barking at the people around them. When they spotted the vibrating roof of the Feeder over people"s heads, they were unable to make a single step forward.
"It always amazed me," Hermit was quietly telling Sixfinger, "how wisely it is all organized. Those who are close to the Feeder are happy because they remember the others who want to take their place. And those who spend their lives waiting for a space between the ones ahead of them, are happy because they have hope in their life. This is indeed the harmony and the unity."
"So you don"t like it?" asked a voice from their side.
"No, I don"t," Hermit answered.
"And what exactly don"t you like?"
"Well, everything," Hermit made a wide gesture toward the crowd, the grand dome of the Feeder, the yellow glimmering lights in the Heaven and the distant, barely visible World-wall.
"I see. And where do you think it"s better?"
"Nowhere, that"s the tragedy of it all! That"s the point!" shouted Hermit passionately. "If it were better someplace else, would I be discussing this with you here?"
"And your buddy -- is he also of the same opinion?" the voice asked, "Why is he looking at the ground?"
Sixfinger raised his head (he was trying to minimize his involvement by staring at his feet) and saw the owner of the voice. His face was obese from overeating, and one could distinctly see the anatomy of his throat when he spoke. Sixfinger understood at once that the voice belonged to one of the Twenty Closest, the very and utmost Conscience of the Epoch (3). It seemed that he was leading a clarification meeting there, as it was done sometimes, just before Hermit and Sixfinger arrived.
"You are upset, buddies," he said in an unexpectedly friendly tone, "because you don"t participate, with all others, in our preparation for the Decisive Step. If you did, you"d have no time for such thoughts. Once in a while even I get such crazy stuff in my head that... And, you know, my work helps me at those times." And in the same tone of voice he added: "Take them."
There was a movement in the crowd, and at once Hermit and Sixfinger were held tightly from all four sides.
"Oh, we couldn"t care less about you," Hermit said, his voice just as friendly. "Where are you going to take us? There"s nowhere to take us to. Well, you could expel us again. As they say, one can"t throw it over the World-wall..."
Then Hermit"s face expressed astonishment, and the fat-faced one lifted his eyes to meet Hermit"s stare.
"Hm, an interesting suggestion. We haven"t done this before. Of course, there is this saying, but the will of the people is stronger."
This thought seemed to excite him. He turned and ordered:
"Attention! Line up! We are going to have an unplanned event."
Very soon after that the procession that lead Hermit and Sixfinger approached the World-wall.
The procession was impressive. The fat-faced one marched first, then the two assigned to be Old Mothers (nobody, including the fat-faced one, knew what that meant, it was just a tradition). The tearful Mothers shouted invectives to Hermit and Sixfinger, weeping over them and condemning them at the same time. After them the criminals themselves were guided, finally followed by the mob of the People.
"So," the fat-faced one said when the procession stopped, "the frightening moment of retaliation has come. I think, my brothers, that we will all squint when these two renegades dissolve in the void of non-being, won"t we? And let this touching event serve as a beautiful lesson to us all, to the People. Weep louder, Mothers!"
The Old Mothers fell onto the ground and wept so inconsolably that many of those present had to look away and swallow hard; but once in a while they would stand up from the tear-strewn dust and, with gleaming eyes, assaulted Hermit and Sixfinger with terrible and irrevocable accusations, whereafter they would fall back exhausted.
"So," the fat-faced one said in a short while, "have you repented? Have the tears of the Mothers put you to shame?"
"You bet," said a worried Hermit, who was watching the ceremony as well as some celestial bodies, "but how are you going to throw us over it?"
The fat-faced one pondered. The Old Mothers fell silent, too, then one of them stood up, from the dust, cleaned himself up and said:
"A ridge?"
"A ridge," Hermit said, "would take about five solstices, and we are rather impatient to hide our exposed shame in the void."
The fat-faced one squinted slyly, looked at Hermit and nodded approvingly.
"They understand," he said to one of his men, "they just put up a pretense. Ask them, maybe they will suggest a way themselves?"
In a few minutes, a live pyramid rose up almost to the very brink of the World-wall. Those standing at top closed their eyes and hid their faces lest they, God forbid, catch a glimpse of the place where everything ends.
"Up," was the order, and Hermit and Sixfinger, supporting each other, walked up the shaky ladder of shoulders and backs to the brink of the Wall.
From above they could see the whole of the quietly observing Socium and discern some previously unknown details of the Heaven. The thick pipe which went from the infinity down to the Feeder did not seem as grand as it did from the earth. Hermit easily jumped on the brink of the World-wall, helped Sixfinger to sit beside him and shouted:
"All done!"
From his shouting, someone in the living pyramid lost balance; the pyramid faltered and collapsed -- but nobody, thank God, was hurt.
Sixfinger clutched the cold metal of the Wall and stared at the tiny upturned faces, at the grayish-brown expanses of his Motherland; he looked at the large green spot on the World-wall where he spent his childhood. "I will never see this again," he thought, and although he didn"t have much desire to see it again, he felt a lump in his throat all the same. He clasped a small piece of turf with a straw glued to it, and mused about the swift and irreversible changes in his life.
"Farewell, our dear sons!" the Old Mothers cried from below, bowed low and, still weeping, started throwing heavy peatcrumbs up in the air.
Hermit stood on his tiptoes and cried loudly:
    "I always knew
    that I will leave
    this merciless world..."
Then a big piece of turf hit him, and he fell down, arms and legs asunder. Sixfinger looked around for the last time and saw someone from the distant crowd below waving him farewell -- and he waved back. Then he closed his eyes and stepped back.
He tumbled in the air for a few seconds, and then suddenly bumped painfully into something solid and opened his eyes. He lay on a black, shiny surface of unknown material next to the World-wall which looked exactly the same as from the other side. Hermit stood beside him, his arm extended to the Wall, and finished reciting his poem:
    "But little I thought
    the parting happens thus..."
Then he turned to Sixfinger and curtly motioned him to stand up.

4

Now, marching alongside the huge black band, Sixfinger finally believed in the truth of Hermit"s words. The world they had left was indeed carried by this band which was slowly moving with respect to other cosmic objects whose nature was quite unfathomable for Sixfinger; and the suns were stationary. It became quite clear once they left the band. Their former world was approaching the green steel gates under which the band disappeared. Hermit told him that this was the very entrance to the Shop Number One. Curiously, Sixfinger hardly felt any awe in the face of the many mysterious objects that filled the Universe; quite on the contrary, a disappointment and even a slight annoyance were rising in his soul. "And that is all...?" he thought disgustedly. Afar Sixfinger saw two more worlds moving with the band, looking rather shabby from his vantage point. At first Sixfinger thought that one of these was their goal, but halfway through Hermit ordered him to jump from the stationary border of the band on which they were now strolling into the bottomless black chasm below.
"It"s soft there," he said, but Sixfinger took a step back and shook his head. Then, without a word, Hermit jumped down, and Sixfinger had to follow him into the blackness.
This time he almost hurt himself, smashing against the cold stone surface paved with large brown slabs. The pavement stretched as far as Sixfinger could see, and it was beautiful.
"What is it?" he breathed.
"Ceramic Tile," Hermit replied with a strange word and changed the topic. "It will be dark soon," he said, "and we have to reach those parts over there. We will have to walk in the dark.
Hermit looked seriously worried. Far away Sixfinger glimpsed many cubic cliffs of a tender yellow hue (`crates", as Hermit called them); between them were valleys with hills of golden wood shavings. From here it looked like a happy childhood dream-land.
"Let"s go," Hermit said and briskly trotted forward.
"Listen," Sixfinger asked, trying to keep his pace on the slippery tiles, "how do you know when the night comes?"
"By the clock," Hermit answered. "It is one of the celestial bodies. Now it"s to the right, up there -- that disk with black zigzags."
Sixfinger looked at the fairly familiar detail of the firmament which he never paid much attention to.
"When some of these black lines take a specific position, sometime later I"ll tell you about it, the lights will go out. It will happen very soon now. Count to ten."
"One, two," Sixfinger started, and suddenly it was dark.
"Don"t fall behind," Hermit warned, "or you"ll get lost."
He could have spared his warning -- Sixfinger was right at his heels. The only light left in the Universe was a yellow ray slanting down from under the green gates of the Shop Number One. The place where they were now heading lay not far from those gates, but, according to Hermit, it was the safest one.
Only the glowing crack beneath the gates far away and a few adjacent tiles were visible now. Sixfinger was lost in weird feelings. It seemed to him that the darkness around them was squeezing them, just as the crowd did not long ago. Danger was everywhere, he felt it with all his skin as a chilling draught from all directions at once. When fear was about to take the better of him, he raised his eyes from the advancing floor tiles to the yellow band of light ahead, and was reminded of the Socium, which looked almost the same from the distance. He imagined that they were going to the realm of fire spirits, and he was going to tell that to Hermit, when the latter stopped abruptly and raised his hand.
"Quiet," he whispered. "Rats, to the right."
There was nowhere to run -- all around them stretched the tiles, and the band of light was too far away. Hermit turned to the right and assumed a strange posture, motioning Sixfinger to hide behind his back. Sixfinger did just that, with surprising willingness and alacrity.
At first he didn"t notice much, but soon he felt, rather than saw, the movement of a huge, powerful body in the darkness. It stopped right on the brink of visibility.
"She waits," Hermit said quietly, "for our next step. If we move, she will attack."
"Yeah, right," the rat emerged from the darkness, "with the rage of evil incarnate. As a true creature of Night."
"Oomph," Hermit sighed in relief. "One-Eye! I thought we were really in trouble. Meet my friend."
Sixfinger apprehensively looked at the clever conical snout with large whiskers and two black beady eyes.
"One-Eye," the rat said and wagged her obscenely nude tail.
"Sixfinger," he introduced himself and asked, "Why are you called One-Eye?
"My third eye is open," she replied, "and there"s only one. In some sense all those with the third eye open are one-eyed."
"But what is the..." Sixfinger started but he was interrupted by Hermit.
"Shall we enjoy a stroll together," he gallantly proposed, "to those crates? Night road is dull without a conversation."
Sixfinger felt deeply insulted.
"My pleasure," agreed One-Eye, and, turning her side to Sixfinger (only now he realized how huge and muscular her body really was), trotted alongside Hermit. He had to quicken his step considerably to keep up with her. Sixfinger ran in the rear, glancing at the rat"s hind legs and the movements of her powerful muscles and thinking about what could have happened to them, had not One-Eye been Hermit"s chum. He tried very hard not to step on her tail. Judging by how fast their conversation began to sound like a continuation of some old dispute, they knew each other long indeed.
"Freedom? My God, what is it?" One-Eye was asking sarcastically. "Is it when, alone and afraid, you run around the entire factory and for the tenth or umpteenth time avoid the knife? Is that freedom?"
"You are again confusing everything," Hermit answered. "This is only search for freedom. I will never agree with the infernal picture of the world you are painting. Perhaps it"s because you feel alien in this Universe created for us."
"But the rats believe that it was created for them. It"s not that I agree with them; you are right, of course, but not entirely right, and not where it really matters. You say that this Universe was created for your folk? In reality it was created because of you, but not for you. Do you understand?"
Hermit hung his head and strolled silently for some time.
"Alright," said One-Eye. "I only wanted to say goodbye. I thought you"d show up a bit later, but we met anyway. I am leaving tomorrow."
"Where to?"
"Beyond the borders of everything one can talk about. An old burrow brought me into a hollow concrete pipe that leads so far away that I find it hard to think about it. I met a couple of other rats there -- they say it goes deeper and deeper, and there, far below, opens into a different Universe. Only male gods in identical green clothes live there. They perform complex rites around huge idols standing in deep shafts.
The rat slowed down.
"Here I must turn right," she said. "And the food in there is beyond any description. This Universe could fit into just one of those shafts. Listen, why don"t you come with me?"
"No," Hermit said. "Down is not our way."
It seemed that he remembered Si1xfinger for the first time during this talk.
"Well," said One-Eye, "then I wish you luck on your way, whatever it turns out to be. You know how much I love you."
"I too love you a lot, One-Eye, and hope that the thought of you will sustain me. I wish you luck."
"Farewell!" said the rat, nodded to Sixfinger, and vanished into the darkness as quickly as she appeared.
Hermit and Sixfinger made the rest of the way in silence. They reached the crates, crossed a few hills of wood shavings and finally came to the end of their journey. Waiting for them was a little depression in the shavings filled with many long and soft rags, dimly illuminated by the light from the Shop Number One. Close by at the wall stood a vast many-edged structure; Hermit said that once it was radiating so much heat that it could not be approached. Hermit was definitely in bad spirits. He kept turning in the rags preparing to sleep, and Sixfinger decided not to bother him with any more talk, the more so that he was sleepy himself. He quickly wrapped some rags around him and sank into oblivion.
He was awakened by the sounds of screeching steel, of pounding against wood, and cries filled with such unspeakable despair that he immediately rushed to Hermit"s side.
"What"s that?!"
"Your world is passing through the Decisive Stage," Hermit replied.
"???"
"Death has come," Hermit said simply, turned away, pulled a rag over himself and slept.

5

Hermit woke up, glanced at a shivering, sobbing Sixfinger in his corner, chuckled and searched through his rags. He soon produced about a dozen identical iron objects which resembled pieces cut from a thick hexagonal pipe.
"Look at this," he said to Sixfinger.
"What is it?" Sixfinger asked.
"The gods call them `nuts"".
Sixfinger wanted to ask something else, but suddenly waved his hand and started weeping again.
"Say, what is it with you?" Hermit asked.
"They all died," muttered Sixfinger, "all of them..."
"So what," Hermit said. "You shall die too. I can even assure you that both you and they will remain dead for an equal duration of time."
"It"s a pity, all the same."
"Whom do you pity? Maybe, the Old Mothers? Or maybe that one, from the Twenty Closest?"
"Do you remember when they threw us off the Wall?" Sixfinger asked, "Everybody was ordered to close their eyes. But I waved to them, and somebody waved back to me. When I think that he is also dead... And what made him wave is dead, too..."
"Yes," said a smiling Hermit, "this is in fact very sad."
The silence was broken only by mechanical sounds behind the green gates into which Sixfinger"s home world had disappeared.
"Listen," Sixfinger said after he was done crying. "What happens after death?"
"It"s hard to say," Hermit answered. "I had many visions about that, but I don"t know how reliable they are."
"Would you tell me, please?"
"After death we are, as a rule, thrown into Hell. I have found at least fifty varieties of what happens to us there. Sometimes, our dead bodies are dissected and fried on huge pans. Sometimes we are baked whole in iron chambers with glass doors, by a burning blue fire or by white-hot metal rods that radiate searing heat. Sometimes we are boiled in monstrous pots painted in many colors. At other times, we are frozen in blocks of ice. In other words, nothing too comforting."
"But who is doing that to us?"
"What do you mean, who? The gods."
"Why do they need it?"
"Well, you see, we are their food."
Sixfinger shuddered and carefully regarded his trembling knees.
"They like legs the best," remarked Hermit. "Well, and hands, too. I was actually going to talk to you about our hands. Lift them up."
Sixfinger stretched out his hands -- thin and powerless, they looked rather pitiful.
"A long time ago we used our hands for flying," Hermit said, "but then everything changed."
"And what is `flying""?
"Nobody knows exactly. The only known fact is that one must have strong arms. Much stronger than yours or even mine. That"s why I want to teach you an exercise. Take two of these nuts."
With great effort Sixfinger dragged two enormous weights to Hermit"s feet.
"Good. Now put your hands through the holes."
Sixfinger complied.
"Move your hands up and down... Like this."
In a minute Sixfinger was so tired that he couldn"t raise his hands no matter how he tried.
"That"s it," he said, lowering his hands, and the nuts fell on the floor.
"Now look at me doing it," Hermit said and loaded each hand with five nuts. After holding out both hands for a couple of minutes, he did not seem tired in the least.
"What do you think?"
"Outstanding," mouthed Sixfinger. "But why do you hold them still?"
"Otherwise, a difficulty appears at some point in this exercise. You will later understand what I mean," Hermit answered.
"But are you sure that one can learn to fly that way?"
"No. I am not sure. On the contrary, I suspect that it is a useless activity."
"Then why do you need it? If you know that it is useless?"
"How should I say... Because I know many other things, and one of them is: if you are in the dark and notice even a weakest ray of light, you must follow it instead of pondering whether or not it might make sense. Perhaps, it doesn"t in fact make sense. But sitting in the dark and doing nothing doesn"t make sense anyway. Do you understand the difference?"
Sixfinger was silent.
"We are alive while we have hope," Hermit said. "And if you lose hope, you should never let yourself realize that. Then something might change. But one shouldn"t seriously hope for that."
Sixfinger felt somewhat annoyed.
"All this is great," he said, "but what does it really mean for us?"
"For you it really means that you shall do exercises with the nuts every day, until you can do the same as I. For me it means that I shall watch your progress as if it is indeed important for me."
"Isn"t there anything else for us to do?" Sixfinger asked.
"There is," Hermit answered. "We could be preparing ourselves for the Decisive Stage. But in that case you"d be on your own."

6

"Listen, Hermit, you know everything. So tell me, what is love?"
"I wonder where you picked up that word," Hermit asked.
"When they drove me away from the Socium, someone asked if I loved the right things. I said I didn"t know. And then One-Eye said that she loved you very much, and you said that you loved her."
"I see. It"s actually hard to explain. Let"s take an example -- imagine you fell into a water barrel and are drowning."
"OK."
"Then imagine that for a second your head came above the water, you saw the light, gulped in some air and something touched your hands. And you grabbed it and held on to it. Now if your whole life is like drowning -- and it is -- then love is what helps you to keep your head above the water."
"You mean the love of the right things?"
"What you love is not really important. Of course, one can love the right things even under water. Whatever it is you love and hold on to, it must hold you. The worst is when you love someone else -- you see, he can always withdraw his hand. To make a long story short, love is what puts everyone where he is. Except maybe the dead. Well, actually..."
"I think I never loved anything," interrupted Sixfinger.
"Oh yes, you"ve been there too. Remember how you cried all day thinking about the guy who waved you back when they threw us over the wall? That was love. You don"t know why he did it, do you? Maybe he thought he was mocking you in a much subtler fashion than others. And I personally think he was. So your crying for him was pretty foolish, but absolutely right. Love gives meaning to what we do, although it isn"t really there. "
"So is love cheating us? Is it something like a dream?"
"No, love is something like love, while a dream is a dream. All the things you do, you do them because of love. Otherwise you"d just sit on the ground and howl in horror. Or in disgust."
"But many people do what they do not at all because of love."
"Come on. They do nothing."
"And do you love something, Hermit?"
"I do."
"What is it?"
"I don"t know. It comes to me sometimes. Sometimes it"s a thought, or a nut, or the wind. The important thing is, I know it when it comes to me, in whatever disguise, and I meet it with the best I have in me."
"How?"
"I grow calm."
"Do you mean you worry the rest of the time?"
"No. I am always calm. It"s just the best I can be, so when what I love shows itself to me, I meet it with my calmness."
"What you you think is best in me?"
"In you? I think it"s when you sit silently somewhere out of sight."
"Really?"
"I don"t know. Seriously, you can find out yourself what is best in you, because this is how you meet what you are in love with. What did you feel thinking about that guy who waved? "
"Sadness."
"Well then, sadness it is. That"s the best you have, and you will always meet the things you love with sadness.
Hermit looked around and stood for a moment, listening.
"Want to have a look at the gods?" he asked unexpectedly.
"Please, not now," Sixfinger was visibly frightened.
"Don"t be afraid, they are stupid. Look, there they are."
Two huge creatures walked quickly beside the conveyor belt. They were so huge that their heads were hardly visible in the dusk under the ceiling. They were followed by another similar creature, somewhat lower and fatter, carrying a conical vessel with the narrow end down. The first two stopped not far from the place where Hermit and Sixfinger sat, and started emitting low rumbling sounds ("They speak", guessed Sixfinger), while the third creature reached the wall, put its vessel on the ground, dipped in it a long pole with bristles on its end, and drew a fresh line of dirty gray on the dirty gray wall. The smell was funny.
"Listen," whispered Sixfinger as quietly as he could, "you said you understood their language. What are they saying?"
"Those two? Wait. The first is saying `I wanna slug", and the other, "Don"t you ever come close to Dun"ka!""
"What"s Dun"ka?"
"A region of the world."
"Uh, and what does the first one want to slug?"
"Dun"ka, of course," Hermit said after giving it some thought.
"How can he slug in a whole region of the world?"
"Well, they are gods, aren"t they?"
"And this fat one, what does she say?"
"She is not speaking but singing. About how after death she wants to become a willow. My favorite divine song, by the way. Some day I"ll sing it to you. Unfortunately, I don"t know what a willow is."
"Do gods die?"
"Of course. That is their main business."
The two gods moved on, their heavy footfall and low rumbling voices receded, and it was quiet. "What greatness!" thought a shaken Sixfinger. Small particles of dust were stirred up by a draught and swirled over the tiled floor. Sixfinger suddenly felt as if he was looking down from an incredibly high mountain peak at a strange stony wasteland below, the wasteland where nothing changes in a million years: the same wind blows and carries remnants of people"s lives, which from afar look like pieces of straw, shreds of paper and chips of wood. "Some day," thought Sixfinger, "someone else would look from this place down and think about me, not knowing that he is thinking about me. Just as I am now thinking of someone who felt what I am feeling, God knows when. Every day there is a moment connecting it to both the past and the future. Why is this world filled with so much sadness?..."
"And yet there is something in it that justifies even the saddest kind of life," Hermit said suddenly.
"When I die, I want to become a wee-ee-llow," quietly sang the fat goddess near the bucket of paint. Sixfinger, his head rested on his elbow, was submerged in sadness, while Hermit was perfectly calm and looked into the void, as if above thousands and thousands of invisible heads.

7

While Sixfinger was busy exercising with the nuts, as many as ten worlds passed into the Shop Number One. Something creaked and pounded behind the green gates, something was being done there. A mere thought of that made Sixfinger shiver in cold sweat, but it also gave him strength. His arms were noticeably longer and stronger now, like Hermit"s. Yet nothing came out of their exercises. The only thing Hermit knew was that flying was done with one"s arms, but it was unclear what exactly it was. Hermit thought that it was a way of instantaneous transport in space: one needs to imagine the place one wants to be, and then give one"s hands a thought order to transport one"s whole body there. Hermit spent days on end in meditation trying to transport himself even a few steps away, to no avail.
"Perhaps," he would tell Sixfinger, "our arms are not yet strong enough. We must continue."
Once, as Hermit and Sixfinger were sitting on a pile of rags between the crates trying to discern the essence of things, an extremely unpleasant event happened. The light darkened a bit, and when Sixfinger opened his eyes he saw a huge unshaven face of a god looming before him.
"Look at them here," said the face. Enormous dirty hands grabbed Hermit and Sixfinger from between the crates, transported them with incredible speed over a vast expanse and dropped them into one of the worlds not too far from the Shop Number One. At first, Hermit and Sixfinger took it calmly and even with a bit of irony. They settled near the World-wall and began to build Refuges of the Soul for themselves. But suddenly the god returned, took Sixfinger out and, after examining him, whistled in surprise. Then the god wound a strip of blue adhesive tape around his leg and threw him back. In a few minutes, several gods came by, took Sixfinger out and examined him one by one, making excited exclamations.
"I don"t like this at all," Hermit said when the gods finally put Sixfinger down and left. "We are in trouble."
"I think so, too," answered a frightened Sixfinger. "Maybe I should take off this piece of junk?"
He pointed to the blue tape around his leg.
"No, don"t take it off yet," Hermit said.
They sat in gloomy silence for a while. Then Sixfinger said:
"It"s all because of my six toes. Even if we escape from this place, they will be looking for us again. They already know about the crates. Is there any other place to hide?"
Hermit became even more dejected and, instead of answering, suggested visiting the local Socium to improve spirits.
But it appeared that a delegation from the far-away Feeder was already approaching them. About twenty steps away from Hermit and Sixfinger, the delegates prostrated themselves on the ground and continued on all fours; judging by that, they clearly had serious intentions. Hermit told Sixfinger to move back, while he stepped forward to straighten up matters. When he returned, he said:
"I haven"t seen anything like this before. They seem to have a religious sect here. At any rate, they have seen you communicate with the gods, and now they think you are a prophet and I am your disciple or something of that sort."
"So what is happening now? What do they want?"
"They are asking us to join them. They said that a `pathway was straightened", that something was `braided out" and so on. I didn"t understand a thing but it seems we should go."
"Let"s go," Sixfinger shrugged indifferently. Gloomy premonitions filled his mind.
On their way, the people insistently tried to carry Hermit on their shoulders, and this was avoided with much effort. As for Sixfinger, nobody dared to look at him, much less come near him, so he walked at the center of an empty circle.
After they arrived, Sixfinger was put on a high knoll of hay, while Hermit remained below and engaged in a conversation with about twenty of the local high priests -- one could easily recognize them by their paunchy, obese faces. Then he blessed them and climbed the knoll to join Sixfinger, who was so ill-spirited that he ignored Hermit"s ritual bow; although it must have looked quite natural for the congregation.
It turned out that everybody was long expecting the advent of a Messiah. The impending Decisive Stage, which they called the Great Judgment, was on everyone"s mind, but the high priests became so fat and lazy that they merely nodded toward the sky in answer to all questions. The appearance of Sixfinger with his disciple was well timed.
"They are waiting for a sermon," Hermit said.
"So make up something for them," grunted Sixfinger. "Don"t you know that I am just a stupid fool."
His voice trembled at the word "fool", and he seemed close to crying.
"They will eat me, these gods," he sobbed. "I feel it."
"There, there. Calm down," Hermit said. He turned to the crowd beneath the knoll and assumed a prayerful posture by raising his head and hands high.
"Hey you!" he shouted. "Soon, all of you will be thrown into Hell. You will be roasted, and the most sinful of you will be marinated in vinegar first."
A terrified sigh swept over the Socium.
"But, by the will of the gods and their messenger, my master, I wish to teach you how to be saved. For that, you must overcome sin. But do you even know what sin is?"
Silence was the answer.
"Sin is excess weight. Your flesh is sinful, for it is for your flesh that the gods afflict you. Think, all of you: what draws the Deci... Great Judgment nearer? Nothing but the fact that you grow fat on your bodies. For the skinny ones shall be saved, but the fat ones shall perish. Truly so: none of the blue-skinned and scrawny will be thrown into the fire, but the fat and the pink-skinned will all be there. Anyone who fasts from now on until the Great Judgment will receive new life. Aye, oh Lord God! Now arise, go forth and sin no more."
But nobody stood up: they all lay silently on the ground and gazed into the abyss of the sky or stared at Hermit who was waving his hands. Many were crying. It appeared that only the high priests did not like Hermit"s speech.
"Why did you tell them all that," Sixfinger whispered when Hermit returned and sat on the straw. "They believed you, after all."
"Well, I hadn"t lied to them, had I?" Hermit answered. "If they lose a lot of weight, they will be given a second feeding cycle. Then, perhaps, even a third. Forget about them, we"d better take care of our business."

8

Hermit often talked to the people, teaching them how to acquire the least appetizing looks, while Sixfinger spent most of his time on his knoll of straw pondering the nature of flight. He rarely took part in Hermit"s sermons other than absent-mindedly blessing laymen who crawled up to him on their knees. the former high priests clearly didn"t plan on losing weight and hated him, but their hands were tied: more and more gods paid visits to the world, took Sixfinger out and showed him to one another. Once there came a senile and flabby gray-haired sage accompanied by a large and extremely respectful retinue. While being held, Sixfinger spitefully moved his bowels into the sage"s cold, shaking palm, and was immediately and rather roughly returned to his usual place.
Everyone in the Socium fasted and by now looked almost transparent. Hermit took the Feeder apart. Every night, while all others slept, he and Sixfinger desperately continued to train their arms. The less they believed that their exercises would lead to anything, the harder they tried. Their arms grew so much that even practicing with the metal pieces of the Feeder became impossible. One sweeping movement of the arms made their feet lose the ground, so they had to stop the exercise. That was the difficulty Hermit had warned Sixfinger about, but they circumvented it -- Hermit taught Sixfinger how to develop the muscles with static exercises. The green gates were already looming beyond the World-wall, and, according to Hermit"s calculations, the Great Judgment was only a dozen eclipses away. Gods did not scare Sixfinger much -- he got used to their attention and accepted it with a squeamish submissiveness. He reconciled himself with his position and, mainly to entertain himself, delivered dark and obscure sermons. His speeches literally stunned the flock. Once he remembered One-Eye"s tale of the underground universe and described the cooking of a soup for one hundred and sixty green-clothed demons with such inspiration and blood-curdling detail that by the end he not only got himself scared to death, but also freaked out Hermit, who at the beginning of the speech would only chuckle. Many in the congregation learned this sermon by heart, and it became known as the "Revelation of the Blue Band" (such was Sixfinger"s sacral name). After that even the priests stopped eating and ran around the disassembled Feeder for hours on end to burn their fat.
Since both Hermit and Sixfinger always ate with great appetite, Hermit had to introduce a special dogma of infallibility, which quickly stopped various whisperings.
But while Sixfinger has fully recovered from their ordeals, with Hermit something was amiss. It seemed that Sixfinger"s depression passed on to him; he grew more reclusive with every hour.
Finally he told Sixfinger:
"You know, if we don"t succeed, I will go to the Shop Number One with the rest."
Sixfinger opened his mouth to object, but Hermit continued:
"And since it seems clear that we won"t succeed, you may consider it decided."
Sixfinger realized that what he was going to say was irrelevant. He could not change the other"s decision, only express his fondness for Hermit. Whatever he could say would have mattered little beyond that. Some time ago Sixfinger would have said many unnecessary words, but now he too has changed. He just nodded and went away to meditate. After a little while he returned and said:
"I will go with you."
"No," Hermit said, "you should not do that. You know almost everything I have known. And you should go on and find a disciple. Maybe, he will master the art of flying."
"You want me to remain alone?" Sixfinger was annoyed. "With those blockheads?"
He gestured towards the congregation lying on their faces since the beginning of their prophet"s conversation. Trembling, emaciated bodies, all alike, covered almost all visible space.
"They are not blockheads," Hermit said. "They are more like children."
"Retarded children," Sixfinger pointed out. "With many inborn vices."
Hermit glanced at Sixfinger"s feet with a grin.
"I wonder if you remember what you were like before we met?"
Sixfinger thought about it, embarrassed.
"No," he said finally, "I don"t. Honestly, I don"t remember."
"All right," said Hermit. "Do what you will."
They did not return to this conversation.
The days left before the Judgment went fast, and one morning, when the flock was still half asleep, Sixfinger and Hermit noticed that the green gates that had seemed so far away yesterday, were already right above the World-wall. They looked at each other, and Hermit said:
"Today we"ll make our last attempt. It will be the last one because tomorrow no one will be left to try. Our arms are so big that we cannot even wave them in the air, they sweep us from our feet. We will now go to the Wall to get away from all this racket, and from there will try to transport ourselves to the roof of the Feeder. If we fail, we will say our farewells to the world."
"How does one do that?" asked Sixfinger out of habit.
Hermit looked at him, surprised.
"How do I know?" he replied.
The flock was told that they are going to talk to the gods. Soon Hermit and Sixfinger stood at the World-wall, their backs against it.
"Remember," said Hermit, "you must imagine that you are already there, and then..."
Sixfinger closed his eyes, concentrated on his hands and thought of the rubber tube connected to the top of the Feeder. Presently he was in trance, and felt that the tube was very close, within his reach. Before, when he had achieved that feeling of being where he wanted to fly, Sixfinger used to hurry and open his eyes, only to find himself back where he started. This time he decided to try something new. "If I bring my arms together slowly so that the tube is between them, what will happen then?", he thought. Carefully, trying not to spill the achieved awareness that the tube is near, he moved his hands. And when they came together and felt the tube where only emptiness has been, he couldn"t bear it any longer and yelled with all his might: "I"m there!", and opened his eyes.
"Quiet, you fool!" said Hermit whose leg he was clutching. "Look!"
Sixfinger scrambled to his feet and looked up. The gates of the Shop Number One were open and their world was slowly sailing through.
"We are there," Hermit said. "Let"s go back."
On their way back both were silent. The conveyor belt was moving with about the same speed in the opposite direction, and the Gates remained right over them all the time while they walked. As they reached their honorary places near the Feeder, the entrance swallowed them and moved on.
Hermit motioned a member of the flock to him.
"Listen," he said, "keep calm. Go and tell the rest that the Great Judgment has come. Do you see how the sky is darkened?"
"What are we to do now?" the latter asked with hope.
"Tell all to sit on the ground and do this," Hermit covered his eyes. "And don"t look, or we cannot vouch for anything. And keep quiet."
At first, there was commotion and noise, but it quickly ceased. Everyone sat on the ground and did what Hermit had told them.
"Well," Sixfinger said, "should we now say goodbye to the world?"
"Yes," said Hermit. "You go first."
Sixfinger stood up, looked around, sighed and sat down again.
"Are you done?" Hermit asked, and Sixfinger nodded.
"My turn," Hermit said. He rose, threw his head up and yelled as loudly as he could: "Farewell, world!"

9

"Look at that one cackling away," a thunderous voice said. "Which one was that again? The one cackling?"
"Nope," another voice answered. "The one next."
Two enormous faces loomed over the World-wall. They were gods.
"What crap," the first face remarked ruefully. "No idea what to do with them. They are half-dead, all of them."
A huge hand in a white, blood-stained and fluff-covered sleeve rushed over the world and touched the Feeder.
"Semyon, you bastard, where were you looking? Their feeder is broken!"
"It was all right," a bass answered. "I checked it the beginning of this month. So, are we going to do them?"
"No. Get the transporter going, take another crate, and fix this feeder by tomorrow. They could all have starved..."
"Fine."
"And that one, with six toes: shall I cut both feet for you?"
"Both."
"I wanted one for myself."
Hermit turned to Sixfinger who was listening carefully but understood almost nothing.
"Listen," he whispered, "it looks like they are going to..."
But at that moment a huge white hand dashed across the sky again and grabbed Sixfinger.
Sixfinger could not make out Hermit"s words. The palm grasped him and took him up, then he saw a huge chest with a pocket pen, a collar, and finally two large bulging eyes which stared squarely at him.
"Look at its wings. Like an eagle"s!" said an incredibly large mouth with yellow uneven teeth.
Sixfinger was long used to being held by gods. But this time the palms holding him vibrated strangely and frighteningly. He barely understood that the gods were talking about his arms or his feet when he heard Hermit shout madly from below:
"Sixfinger! Flee! Peck him right in the mug!"
For the first time of their acquaintance, a real desperation was heard in Hermit"s voice. This frightened Sixfinger to such an extent that his actions acquired a somnambulistic precision. He struck the bulging, staring eye with all his might and started hitting both sides of the god"s sweaty face with his hands.
The roar was so strong that Sixfinger felt it not as a sound but as pressure on his whole body. The god loosened his grasp, and in the next moment Sixfinger found himself hanging in the air just below the ceiling, unsupported. At first he could not understand it, but then he realized that he was still waving his hands -- that supported him in the void. He could now oversee the Shop Number One: it was a separated area of the transporter with a long wooden table covered by red and brown stains, fluff and feathers, and piles of clear bags. The world he had left was simply a big octagonal container filled by a multitude of tiny unmoving bodies. Sixfinger could not see Hermit but he was sure that Hermit saw him.
"Hey!" he shouted, making circles around the ceiling. "Hermit! Get up here! Wave your hands as fast as you can!"
Something flashed in the crate below and grew in size as it was approaching, and then Hermit appeared. He followed Sixfinger and shouted, "Get down over there!"
When Sixfinger flew close to a square spot of muddy whitish light, he saw Hermit already sitting on the windowsill.
"A wall," he said when Sixfinger sat down next to him. "A luminous wall."
He appeared calm but Sixfinger knew him well and could see that Hermit was dazzled by all the events, as was Sixfinger himself. And suddenly he saw it.
"Listen," he shouted, "this really is flight! We were flying!"
Hermit regarded him for a while and nodded.
"Yes, perhaps," he said. "Even though it is too primitive..."
In the meanwhile, the commotion below settled down somewhat; two figures in white gowns held the third who was clutching his face with his hand.
"A bitch! He killed my eye! A bitch!" the third one was bellowing.
"What is a bitch?" Sixfinger asked.
"It is a supplication to one of the elements," Hermit answered. "This word does not have a separate meaning. But it seems we are in deep trouble."
"And which element is he trying to address?" Sixfinger asked.
"We shall see."
As Hermit was saying these words, the god freed himself from the hands that were holding him, ran to the wall, snatched a red fire extinguisher tank and hurled it toward the windowsill. He did it so quickly that nobody could stop him, and Hermit and Sixfinger barely managed to fly away.
The fire extinguisher broke through the window with a loud crash and disappeared, letting in a stream of fresh air. Only then the heady stench that filled the room became apparent. It was unbelievably bright.
"Come on, fly!" Hermit shouted, suddenly shedding all his composure. "Get going! Off!"
And then he flew away from the window to take a running start, folded his wings and disappeared in the ray of hot yellow light that gushed from the hole in the painted glass. A wind blew from it, and new, unknown sounds could be heard.
Sixfinger sped up his circling. He caught the last glimpse of the octagonal container below, the blood-stained table and the gods waving their hands, as he rushed through the hole with folded wings.
For a moment, he was blinded by the brightness of light. When his eyes got used to it, he saw above and ahead of him a disk of such a furious yellow glare that he could not look at it even with a side glance. Higher above he saw a black dot -- it was Hermit who was turning around to let Sixfinger catch up. Soon they were flying side by side.
Sixfinger looked back, at the large and ugly gray building far below. It had only a few oil-painted windows, one of them broken. The clean and bright colors of everything around them were driving Sixfinger crazy, and he decided to look up.
Flying was amazingly easy, not any more strenuous than walking. They soared higher and higher, until everything below became colorful squares and spots.
Sixfinger turned to Hermit.
"Where to?" he shouted.
"Southward," was the short reply.
"What is that?" Sixfinger asked.
"I don"t know," answered Hermit, "but it is that way."
And he waved toward the huge blazing disk, which only in color resembled what they used to call suns.


Translators" notes

(1) A reference to a widely known stanza from V. Mayakovsky"s poem "Vladimir Ilyich Lenin":
    Lenin and the Party are twin brothers.
    Who is more valuable for Mother History?
    We say "Lenin", and we mean the Party,
    We say "The Party", and we mean Lenin.

V. I. Lenin (1870 - 1924) -- the founder of the USSR and of its Communist Party.

(2)In the USSR, many government-operated organizations such as factories or schools were named after prominent political leaders.

(3) An allusion to an often-quoted formula: "The [Communist] party is the mind, the dignity and the conscience of our epoch" (V. I. Lenin).







: 26116