Skip to content
Congratulations to 2021 Ottaway Award winner Naveen Kishore! Learn more.
from the December 2009 issue

From 2017

That night, under the muffled, machine-like sound of the rain, the professor dreamed that this woman had come to him. Naked and very skinny, she was as perfect as a Latin letter, a sample of a special human typeface. Tucking up her angular elbow, she lay on her back, and her belly was as white as a mug of milk. There was nothing special in the lizard-narrow creature, but all the beauty on the banks of the corundum river had been a preface to this body, to the maddening shadow under her breast, like a delicate half-moon. For some reason the woman was crying, her bright temples were wet, her eyes underlined with moisture, Egyptian. In his dream, these soundless tears aroused Anfilogov incredibly. At the same time he was aware that the woman was by no means a stranger to him; moreover, it was very definitely one of his distant relatives, a decent, ordinary young girl whom Anfilogov occasionally slipped a little money and who, in gratitude, in thanks, dashed over to clean his inviolable apartment and once broke a delicate porcelain teacup that had lived a grand life.

Anfilogov awoke with an unresolved anguish in his loins. Tears had turned the hair under his creased cheek into a wet clump. Kolyan, sprawled out, was snoring, and his open mouth gaped like a dark rabbit hole. The professor went down to the fogged-in river, where the distant bird cherry trees looked like bouquets in tissue paper. Having done the necessary with his cupped red hand, Anfilogov released a hot, luxuriant spot into the water, like the fortune-telling wax from an entire burned-down candle. Then he splashed himself with fistfuls of icy water, and buttoning his pants, tried to clear his head. The beauty focused on Anfilogov was straining to achieve maximum concentration, but the professor's mind was working clearly. He understand all the hints and instructions that gave the Mistress of the Mountain away in the humanitarian girl. Even the arbitrary fact that the girl was Anfilogov's third cousin was inherent in this dangerous scenario because according to the legend, the Mistress of the Mountain and her chosen one are seen by people as similar, like brother and sister.

This was simply too much! Anfilogov knew that there were plenty of ladies around who were much more attractive—even, if it came to that, some of his numerous female relatives. But at the thought of this schoolmarm of a woman, always dressed in crummy little sweaters and stupid jean skirts that looked like they'd been dyed with ink, his heart for some reason contracted.

After the chilling freshness of the early morning, it was as stuffy as a rubber boot in the tent. Kneeling, Anfilogov shook Kolyan, who was reedily gurgling some mosquito-y song.

"Huh? What's up? Hell, right away, I'm coming." Kolyan tried to open his cloudy, senseless eyes, opened and shut them, but just couldn't wake up.

"We're leaving today. Time's up. We've got a lot of work and a climb," Anfilogov said jerkily, dragging the twisted sleeping bag off Kolyan.

"What's wrong with you, Vasily Petrovich? Where the fuck are we going? Did you get up on the wrong side of the bed?" Kolyan tried to push the looming Anfilogov away and collapsed onto his back again.

"Where? Home! To the grocery store! You'll croak here, you idiot!" roared Anfilogov right in his small, drawn face.

"Na-a-ah . . . Not on your life . . . You're the one, Vasily Petrovich, you shouldn't . . ." wagging his wild head, Kolyan crawled out, got up on his shaky legs, and as if testing which was shorter, meandered over to the wet, silver-gray bushes.

Anfilogov shrugged and dragged their two backpacks, which were now compressed and covered with mouse droppings, out of the tent, left them there to air out, and unfastened the polyethylene fly, letting the yellow water spill onto the grass.

"I'm alive! Alive!" The shout came from the glistening bushes.

Anfilogov, trying to be unflappable, busied himself with the campfire, where the damp twigs would only smoke, not burn, and the homey stove-like smell of the campfire stirred his soul.

"I'm not croaking, Vasily Petrovich, see?" Kolyan, tottering, collapsed in the tent again, and the tent started rocking.

At last the fire was crackling, emitting blue, messy fumes, like an old engine, and the transparent water had begun to tremble in the sooty pot. Trying to figure out what to make the most satisfying breakfast possible from, Anfilogov headed toward the tent, and at the entrance his nose was struck by the smell of rotten flesh. Kolyan, kneeling in front of a savagely opened can, was chewing greasy tinned meat. At this Anfilogov realized he didn't know whether there was any tinned meat left. The hollow lightness of the sack when the professor, cursing softly, found it in the corner, left him with no illusions on that score. Kolyan, smirking in the half-dark with his glossy maw, held the can with the remains of his feasting out to the professor, but the crudely hacked lid, the sucker of congealed fat, and the putrid smell that wafted from the tin nearly made Anfilogov throw up.

Instantly, Kolyan's cheeks puffed out and he bent over completely. Anfilogov barely managed to pull him out, bowels gurgling, to the tent opening. Kolyan vomited tortuously, the unchewed meat coming out of him along with the bile of his many days' hunger. The liquefied tinned meat even spurted out of Kolyan's nostrils. At last, after long convulsions, he calmed down, in tears, stretched out on his sleeping bag, which Anfilogov had thrown down near the quaking, almost extinguished campfire.

After making him drink some watery, almost yellow tea, Anfilogov forced Kolyan to swallow through his tears and snot another mug, into which he'd tapped the sugar dust from the empty box. Then, ordering his fellow worker to join him, he went off to camouflage the prospecting pits, which looked from the river and their camp like large dark anthills. It started to drizzle again. The sky seemed to be spraying its silver paint on the winking leaves, the moss, and the stiff bilberry bushes; the path that nonetheless was left trampled from the camp to the prospecting pits and now would give their work away to a close gaze was brighter than the dormant grass, and it reflected the raw boulders, as in a stream.

It was very quiet. The noise of the river reached them like a wind-blown stream. Suddenly Anfilogov imagined the sound changed, as if the river had turned around. Simultaneously he noticed next to the first prospecting pit, which the rock hounds had long since abandoned due to the meagerness of the find, a woman's silhouette as if through tissue paper. The woman was standing under a deep umbrella, and he couldn't see her face, but Anfilogov recognized her by her slender legs and her laced boots sunk in the clay. The woman turned around very slowly and began walking uphill, where last year's leaves gleamed next to each birch, like next to a hairdresser's chair; before the creature vanished, without reaching the limit of visibility but simply dissolving in the thickening drizzle, and the birch branches whistled sharply a couple of times on the wet umbrella fabric.

Anfilogov stood there a moment collecting his thoughts. He was insulted that he was being taught an additional lesson, as if he were a little boy. Trying to walk decisively, feeling his heavy heart grow heavier with each step, he climbed up to where the Mistress of the Mountain had lingered a few minutes before. There, in the diluted clay, the traces from her heel prints were distinctly visible. Pretending as if nothing special was happening, Anfilogov descended into a hole with a small amount of scree that gurgled loudly into a large, dirt-filled puddle. Anfilogov had been planning, actually, to collect the tool he'd left on the wall—but when he grabbed the pick-axe, he mechanically struck a friable outcrop that had bothered him for some reason.

The piece of rock came off easily, like a spout off a pitcher. Unremarkable on the outside, inside it was the image of a hedgehog. Large crystals strained by their efforts at growing, stuck out crudely from the dolomite, and in the crack that had formed from the blow he could see others baked into the rock and burning a deep crimson. The next piece to come off was as red as a banged-up knee from the corundum. Behind it he discovered something absolutely incredible. Not believing his own eyes, Anfilogov let out a triumphant holler, which echoed weakly in the milky overturned space, like the far-off howl of a locomotive. He suddenly felt he couldn't hold onto the slippery pick-axe. Scrambling out of the hole over the icy, ragged rocks, Anfilogov kept shouting and felt the damp sky on his face, like an ether-saturated gauze mask. From far off he saw Kolyan running, dark in his silvery shroud, like a water-gauge on the rippling bright surface of the water. When Kolyan jumped up, plastered all over with some wet vegetative kasha, in his worn boots, Anfilogov felt a weakness come over him, as if all his blood had gone into the formation of the crimson fissure, this coagulated subterranean beauty.

What Kolyan accomplished once he had realized the dimensions of the find is something one rarely gets to see in life. He beat his chest against the stone wall and fell, slipping, into the clayey swill; he screeched; in the corundum hole he was like a wet fledgling in an eggshell. Anfilogov observed him seated on a slippery old log; he couldn't understand why this sadness had overtaken him. It felt as if as much of his soul had been ripped out of him as he had found in the corundum vein to which the woman's blunt boot tracks had led him. These distinct tracks on the difficult hillock, where Kolyan's boots left a greasy waffle, spoke to Anfilogov of his loneliness and his long waiting under the whispering drizzle that developed the landscape like a faded photograph of a watery path leading into emptiness; several times he thought he heard a recalcitrant umbrella shaving through the glossy spruces.

After a short time, Anfilogov had to shout to Kolyan not to waste his strength on barbaric dances that had turned his clothes into a clinging peel. Coming to his senses, his insane eyes squinting toward the bridge of his nose and a cut on his forehead, Kolyan grabbed his tool. Before dinnertime, which no longer referred to a meal but merely to a time of day, he shattered the precious vein without letup, this paradisiacal subterranean tree, which to the rock hounds was one miracle after another; losing his balance over and over, thereby tumbling out of reality, he would fall into the puddle or spin around with his hack raised like a butterfly net.

As he took the crimson hunks up from below, Anfilogov wondered at their outlandish booty and then ceased to wonder at anything at all. Figures started lining up in his mind, the chains of business that now would have a serious load to withstand—but all this was an entirely other world and had nothing to do with the heart pangs that made the stones being cleaned out of the rock fade oddly right before his eyes. After "dinner"—ten minutes of sitting with bowed heads by the damp campfire—Kolyan, in his now dry, clayey armor with a Morse code of midges next to his protruding red ear, stretched out on his litter. Anfilogov set about sorting their booty, throwing out everything they had collected before. Of today's he packed away only what staggered the imagination; comparing stones, holding them between his thumb and pointer like coagulated, broken stars, he chose between the happiness of possessing them and survival on the hungry return trip, when every extra gram could be fateful. Nonetheless, he ended up with a considerable paper bag, which dragged down his framed backpack handsomely. He buttoned four crystals that on the larger scale of things would have been a sin to be let cut rather than preserved as witness to nature's incredible generosity into the pocket of his sweated-through checked shirt, and through the fabric their little angularity felt like a bird's foot on his full-to-bursting heart.

All the rest Anfilogov wrapped up in a warped scrap of polyethylene, and dragging it to the corundum pit, he dumped the raspy bundle into the jumbled vein, the way all the innards get tossed into the corpse's yellow belly after an autopsy. Leaning with exhaustion against the wall, from which groundwater was seeping like from a lymph gland, Anfilogov had the distinct feeling that his incredible find had made the place's attraction nearly insurmountable. The mysterious magnetism that had kept the expedition to the bank of the corundum river, the powerful force that each morning had put the starving muscles on their aching bones into motion, had now come so close that Anfilogov, shaking, felt a physical need to take up his work pose in front of the wrinkled corundum, red in the broken section, like crude coal. The vein demanded that the rock hounds die alive, that they burn the last calorie there was to burn in their human bodies and, emptied, remain here, so that they would always—with their dead sight—see this terrible beauty, this light mountain sketch, like a fold of transparent sky fabric, and the river, winding up under the precipice, and the dark, burnt-looking cliff granite. The obsession was so strong that time seemed to stand still for Anfilogov; deprived of the alternation of satiety and appetite, his biological clock had stopped, and the damp birds in the heavenly window opened from below seemed to be feeling out the solid air with a stuck feather.

Anfilogov was dragged out of his oblivion by a staccato splash. Of the clumps of clay that had been copiously spit out into the puddle, one turned out to be a snake: its rhombic head glistening, making long water ribbons with its invisible body, the creature was heading for the professor's chilled feet. Anfilogov immediately flew up, as if up a flight of stairs. Both his puckered hands swelled and ached, but his right hurt more. Bringing it to his eyes, Anfilogov saw that hanging from it, having latched on with its tiny maw, was a bat that had come from out of nowhere. There was something perversely attractive in this flimsy rag, in its tightly frowning little face, like a sinister velvety flower. The professor grimaced and tossed the creature away, and it hovered over the hole, emitting a silent SOS, and suddenly slipped from view; for a little while there was a curve in the air that looked like it had been chopped out by mad scissors, a dark hole.

There was an ulterior motive to all this, and it had to do with the Mistress of the Mountain. The forest where the specter had gone this morning had plunged into the damp whiteness, and the trees close by were distinct, but the ones that came after them looked like their unfilled-in shadows on a white wall. Distracted, Anfilogov tried to remember the name of the humanitarian girl. Irina? Inga? He thought it started with an I. The names that collected in his mind seemed artificial. "Ekaterina," a distinct, honey-filled voice said at the professor's ear. Instantly the professor felt the charms of the corundum river recede and how much room there was everywhere. Pushing himself away from a moldering log, Anfilogov stood up and looked around. There, to the southwest, beyond the thick, fur-like forests, beyond the modest, two-peak range, beyond the sleepy station with the closed store, beyond the three hundred kilometers of his humming railroad journey, in a city filled to the roofs with people figurines, there was a real woman for whom the professor was now experiencing a passionate and painful curiosity. He realized that the Mistress of the Mountain was herself dragging him out and back to life but he still couldn't imagine how he would be able to take advantage of this.

Things worked themselves out with amazing ease, though. To camouflage the prospecting pits, Anfilogov kicked down the clumps of dug clay that stuck out and immediately soaked up the ground moisture and swelled in lazy bliss, sealing the treasure; then he chopped down flexible young spruce that jumped under his ax and hid the blurred holes in the earth with a luxuriant deck of poison-green moss. After descending cautiously to the river, Anfilogov was satisfied that from the water the remains of their enterprise could barely be spotted.

The next morning the expedition, which now consisted of two millionaires, started on its way back. The wet air snuffled in stooped Kolyan's throat and his half-empty high boots. Time and again he ran his bony hand over his back to feel the corundum sack, as solid as if it were frozen, in his backpack. Anfilogov, who was going second, had the feeling that there was someone left standing stock-still at the prospecting pit, watching the treasure's seekers leave, waiting for the expedition to drop from view. After many very approximately counted days, during which the expedition passed the first sandbar, spread with the rotted remains of blossoms, like old nets, and that rift, as indefatigable as a washing machine, beside which Anfilogov had discovered the first corundum, the professor retained the sensation that that figure had not budged once.

From 2017. Copyright 2010 by Olga Slavnikova. Forthcoming from The Overlook Press in 2010. By arrangement with The Overlook Press. All rights reserved.

Read more from the December 2009 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.