Hermit and Sixfinger
Translated from Russian by Serge Winitzki and Sergey Bratus © 1996
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Notes
"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
The stranger turned his head and stared at Sixfinger with
"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!"
"In the center of the world it never happens. Three suns
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
"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
"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?"
"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
"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
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,
"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
"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?"
"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
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
At times I feel sad,
looking at those I
At times I do laugh,
and between us then rises
cloud of yellowish fog."
"Today we are going to climb over the World-wall, you understand?"
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?"
"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
"What should I say?"
"Everything you know about the world."
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"Hey, relax. Even the Twenty Closest wouldn"t know that. A mystery
"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
"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
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
"I traveled much," Hermit replied, "and collected bits of secret
knowledge. In one world one thing was known, in another something
"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
"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."
"To the Socium."
"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."
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
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," 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
"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
"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:
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
Hermit stood on his tiptoes and cried loudly:
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:
"I always knew
that I will leave
Then he turned to Sixfinger and curtly motioned him to stand up.
"But little I thought
the parting happens
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
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
"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
"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
"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."
"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
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
"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.
"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.
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
"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
"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
"Good. Now put your hands through the holes."
"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
"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
"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
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
"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."
"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."
"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,
"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?"
"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."
"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
"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? "
"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
"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!""
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"Retarded children," Sixfinger pointed out. "With many inborn
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
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
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!"
"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
"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..."
"And that one, with six toes: shall I cut both feet for you?"
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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.
(1) A reference to a widely known
stanza from V. Mayakovsky"s poem "Vladimir Ilyich Lenin":
Lenin and the Party are twin brothers.
is more valuable for Mother History?
We say "Lenin", and we mean the
We say "The Party", and we mean Lenin.
V. I. Lenin (1870 - 1924) -- the founder of the USSR and of its
(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).
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