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THE BURNED TOWER (Chapter 1)
You never know where trouble will await you.
Rolling down from the bridge, the van caught a wheel in a pothole. Its old body shuddered, and Guy distinctly heard the crash of an overturned cage. There was nothing to do but curse and stop the car.
It was a June morning and the smell of fish wafted from the river; not a rancid smell like in a shared kitchen, but fresh and invigorating, as if he were on a fishing trip, when the water stands placid like a mirror and the elastic body of a fish is flopping in the dewy grass. An unfamiliar, greenish bird sat speaking its mind in the shrubbery by the roadside and its monologue put him in a peaceful mood. Guy squinted at the sun low in the sky and thought with satisfaction about the long and quiet day he would have from that morning until late at night, the entire day a leisurely road because there was nowhere to hurry to...
Guy didn't know that the cage which had fallen over in the back of the van from the blow had lost its cover and a lustrous black beaver, denoted in the invoice by a number with a string of zeros, was therefore halfway to freedom. Guy didn't know this and carelessly flung open the steel doors to the back of the van; the valuable beast tumbled to Guy's feet and, running off a few paces, froze between its startled jailor and the bank of the narrow river.
The beaver was still stunned from the jolt and the clatter, and so upon finding itself at liberty, it didn't immediately come to its senses. To his misfortune, Guy came to his senses even later.
"Rat," he said with false tenderness, taking a step towards the fugitive. "Good little rat..."
The next moment he lunged frantically, as if wishing to be crowned the best goalkeeper in the world; he attempted to grasp the naked black tail, but only caught air and a tuft of grass. The beaver, no fool, bolted to the riverbank and slipped into the water without a splash. Guy could see its head for a time, and then the head vanished underneath the bridge.
For a few minutes, he just sat on the shore feeling utterly helpless. Then, clenching his teeth, he got up and returned to the van; the empty, coverless cage lay on its side. The others were intact and nine yellow-toothed creatures eyed Guy gloatingly.
Returning to the shore, he lay down on his stomach and peered under the bridge. Patches of sunlight played on the moss-covered rocks; under the very belly of the bridge it was utterly dark - just like Guy's spirits. Because a minimum of half his earnings...the earnings for the whole summer...had vanished into the water. Literally and figuratively...But it's no use grieving now...damn my luck!
"Did you lose something?"
Even on desolate roads you can happen upon travelers, sometimes even the inquisitive kind. There was nothing strange in that voice, but Guy tensed. A second later he realized that he really, simply really didn't want to turn around and answer. But not to answer at all would be impolite; therefore, after hesitating, he responded, still lying on his stomach:
"A beaver got away..."
The stranger laughed softly.
Guy turned over onto his side and saw narrow bare feet and khaki pants; an ant was crawling up the right pant leg. Guy abruptly sat up and raised his head.
It seemed to him that two piercing green searchlights looked at him from two compressed slits. He had time to notice a shock of blond hair and to make out a leather case hanging around the stranger's neck - and then he hurriedly looked away. All at once. That's how it goes, all your troubles come at once...
"I hadn't heard that beavers bred in these parts," the traveler informed him, reflecting upon it.
Go away, Guy silently begged. I didn't do anything to you. Go away.
The traveler didn't heed his pleas - he was waiting for something; then Guy muttered gruffly:
"Beavers...I've got them over there...an entire van full."
The traveler walked off in order to peek into the open back of the van and chuckled in surprise - or maybe gleefully:
"Heh heh...a prison break. What do they do, gnaw through the bars?
A large black beetle made its way from a blade of grass to a ribwort leaf. I just won't look, Guy repeated to himself. There's no reason to look at this...person. So all their talk about his...reappearance...wasn't for nothing...I thought it was just a lot of hot air, but no...
The traveler left the beavers to themselves. Apparently he thought it was more interesting to talk with Guy:
"Why the long face?"
The beetle lost its footing and disappeared from sight, falling from the leaf, beyond hope.
"What's your name, chatterbox?"
What's it to you, Guy thought, and hunched his head between his shoulders.
"What did you say your name was?"
"What are you going to do?"
A length of lead pipe lay under the front seat of the van 'just in case'. No, that idea's completely uncalled-for.
"What will I do? I'll take my pants off and crawl under the bridge."
"Do you expect to catch him?"
"No, I don't expect to," Guy grumbled to one side.
"Do you want me to help?"
Guy jumped up as if he had been scalded. He ought to drive away immediately, but to leave the valuable animal to its own devices seemed unthinkable. So all there was left to do was to pop the hood and stare blankly at the motor, thus making it clear that the conversation was over.
The traveler, however, had another idea and didn't hurry to set off:
"And why not exactly?"
"Thanks," Guy forced out, "but there's no need."
The minutes dragged on; Guy realized with horror that the design of the engine had completely slipped his memory, and what's more, everything was becoming a blur before his eyes, yet somehow he had to feign vigorous technical repairs...
"What are you afraid of?" the traveler asked unexpectedly gently. "I want to help you. Really."
"I didn't do anything to you," Guy forced out.
"Actually, neither did I...You're going to Lur, right? To the fur farm I take it...Where they'll tear the clothes and skin off your back for that rat. So why don't you want me to help you?"
Guy slammed the hood with a bang:
"Because you never do anything for nothing."
He shouldn't actually have said it so directly and impertinently, but luckily the traveler only laughed:
"Exactly...But since you know that, you ought to know something else too: I settle on the price beforehand. If the price is too high for you, don't agree...But I keep my promises, and therefore I require the same from others."
He gently stroked the case hanging from his neck. Guy took a half-step backwards:
"I don't have anything."
"I don't ask for what you don't have...Give me a ride to Lur and drop me there, you're going anyway."
Guy was at a loss for words, which allowed the traveler to continue on as if nothing was amiss:
"Like that it's not even payment, but an exchange of services. I'll fetch you that water rat, and you give me a lift. Fair enough?"
Guy was silent, biting his lip.
If only that pest weren't so expensive. If only...Now I'll have to wear myself out the whole summer, just to pay for that rotten beast skulking under the bridge?
On the other hand, it would be a long, long day. In the company of this.... Actually, if Guy were smarter, he would have made off long ago, abandoned the car and the beavers, but no...he had to start a conversation, idiot...
"Aha-a," his interlocutor drawled reproachfully. "A college boy from the capital, yet afraid of rumors, gossip, and fairy tales...Did some old lady stuff you full of horror stories? That I'd eat you en route? Huh?"
Guy swallowed, mentally weighing reasonable prudence against enormous temptation. He wouldn't actually be promising much of anything.
"To Lur? That's all you want? No...nothing?"
"No nothing," his interlocutor assured him solemnly. "Because frankly it's not hard for me to catch your rat...Come on, think about it."
Guy thought about it, and the back of his head started to itch unbearably.
"Make up your mind," his interlocutor said archly, pressuring him. "Well?"
"Son," Old Tina used to say, "God forbid you start a conversation with the Pied Piper. And if you make a deal with him - it's the same as if you'd sold your soul to the devil."
"Do we have a deal?" the Pied Piper asked with a broad smile.
"Yes," Guy said. He couldn't hear his voice and repeated it louder this time: "Yes."
Stories about the Pied Piper had even reached the capital, but out in these barren and dismal parts, what kind of tales wouldn't they tell on that account. The story of missing children had been repeated with many variations, but the old farmer Tina, in whose house Guy was renting a room for the third summer - this particular farm lady favored the more horrifying stories. And what was called "contemporary folklore" in university lecture halls and served as a topic for seminars, in these wastelands took on a meaning that was not at all academic, but downright sinister.
Tina told her "true stories" expertly, as they ought to be told: in a low monotone, rocking to and fro, and staring into the fire:
"And whoever the pipe summons will break through the oaken door, plunge into the abyss, and walk into the fire like a river...You'll forget your mother and abandon your bride, you'll serve him until you rot..."
Twilight gathered in the room, and the glow of the fire transformed the old woman's face into a copper ritual mask:
"And the rock settled down, and closed up the crevice, and they say that their voices are still heard to this day...Just no one wants to listen - lest he appear to claim his due...
...the hand of the Pied Piper was tough, a perfectly human hand with a perfectly friendly handshake: the symbolic gesture to clinch the deal which everyone knows is worth more than gold.
"Give me the cage, pal."
Now I'll see how he does it, Guy thought with trepidation.
"Fasten the door with something..."
Guy hastily nodded. He fussed about with a roll of wire, busying himself so as not to see how the Pied Piper's hands unclasped the lock on the leather case. Nonetheless, he snuck a tiny look every now and then.
"Don't shoot me looks, come over...Take a look...how beautiful it is."
No one will believe it, Guy thought distantly. No one will believe that I saw it.
The pipe was...truly beautiful. Its dark coat of varnish with minute cracks looked like living skin: tan and smooth. The impression became stronger when the piper ran his fingers over it:
"Is it really something to be afraid of?"
They're not afraid of it, but of you, Guy thought darkly.
The Pied Piper raised the pipe to his lips.
The note that stretched over the river sounded like anything but music. It resembled more the voice of a sick, very old, and very forlorn beast; Guy's knees weakened.
The beaver's black head appeared from under the bridge without the slightest splash.
The eerie sound broke off; the beaver hesitated, but then the sound came again, louder and more insistently, and the fugitive headed to the shore, climbed onto the sand and then the grass, and waddled obediently, dragging its naked wet tail. The stunned Guy required a meaningful look from the Pied Piper to come to his senses and slam the door behind the captive.
"Well, that's it...What, you aren't glad, pal?"
Pied Piper wiped his pipe with a colorful rag; even without glancing at him, Guy could feel his mocking gaze upon him.
"We can go," he said, looking down.
"Let me into the front seat - or do passengers ride with the beavers?"
Guy exhibited a poor excuse for a smile.
The road to Lur, nicknamed the Rusty Track due to the invariable, ubiquitous orange clay, had known better days. Once it had been a bustling road, even crowded; once campsites and eateries clustered along the roadsides and every pothole was immediately licked smooth, as if by a tongue; possibly the trail still remembered those bygone days - unlike Guy, who was too young to have known them. Now the road had changed: you could drive all day and meet neither person nor car. It was actually for this chance at quiet solitude that Guy loved the Rusty Trail.
Rushing to meet them came groves and woodlands, hills, fields, and barren ground; occasionally they happened across abandoned cemeteries with crosses sunken into the earth, but more often they saw the iron skeletons of roadside buildings. Sometimes a rabbit would kick up its heels, the back of a fox could be glimpsed in the grass, or goats left to grow wild grazed in fields. The clouds changed their form, trees distant and close danced a circle dance, and only the horizon remained constant. The river meandered on their right, now pressing close to the road, now cutting away to the side. Guy loved the Rusty Trail and even now it had a calming effect on him, like that of a friendly hand - don't be afraid, it said, you'll be fine...
At first the travelers rode in silence. Guy sat hunched and tense and pretended he was totally absorbed in the road. But, as luck would have it, the day was so clear and bright, the sky so impossibly blue, and the world around them so blessed with sunshine, that all his fears and apprehensions gradually withered, faded, and became irrelevant and almost laughable. All those legends, Guy thought cheerfully, are good for a night by the fire, but at noon don't trouble me with "contemporary folklore", it's wasted on me...Reassured by his own composure, Guy cheered up, stopped frowning, and began to surreptitiously examine his fellow traveler.
The stranger sat with his long legs tucked under him - the front seat was a bit small for him - and his elbow thrust out the window; it seemed he had completely forgotten about Guy. He was staring out at some point in the sky and the mocking, distant half-smile hadn't left his face. A bag lay on his khaki-clad lap, and for some reason the bag looked burned - not much, just a little. The Pied Piper rested one hand on the flap of the bag and the other absently stroked the case with the pipe, causing a red stone embedded in a ring on his little finger to flicker. The wind tore through the open window and ruffled the Pied Piper's blond hair, pulled at his faded plaid shirt, and fiddled with his patchwork scarf. Only then did Guy realize where the nickname Pied Piper came from...
"Watch the road."
Guy started. He grasped the wheel more firmly.
The road slipped away from the river only to return to it again; an oncoming truck - a rare sight! - filled the air with dust and the unknown driver gave him a friendly wave. Guy waved back and watched the retreating red cloud for a long time in the cracked mirror.
"You don't get bored, alone in the van all day?" the Pied Piper asked casually.
Guy shrugged. Most likely his traveling companion had no understanding of either the pleasures of solitude or the fascination of the endless road; Guy by no means wanted to explain, so he just gave a short sigh:
"And you don't get scared?" the Pied Piper continued just as casually. "What if suddenly the engine stalled, or there was an accident, or you had a heart attack? Although you're perhaps a bit young for a heart attack."
Guy looked at him suspiciously out of the corner of his eye. He wanted to say it was much more dangerous to drive with questionable traveling companions - but of course he didn't. He also didn't say that he knew the Rusty Trail like the back of his palm. He had gotten used to it, like old clothes. Nor did he confess that he was more easily bored by noisy crowds...
Guy was a hopeless outsider among the local youth, as indeed he had been a hopeless outsider among his fellow students. He could tell jokes and knew how to fit in at parties, and the farmers' daughters even liked him - but the locals still did not regard him as one of their own. It seemed they were even a little afraid of him and no one offered him friendship; to be sure no one caused him any problems either, because he didn't hesitate to rush into the fray and fought like a cornered beast. Even lads bigger, stronger, and more quarrelsome steered clear of him: "that one...who's crazy? Leave him alone, guys..."
Guy preferred the company of old Tina to raucous parties - even when young girls were in attendance. He would sit staring into the fire, just listening and was silent. The story ended - and he still remained silent. Even the old woman realized then that his mind was elsewhere, but where it was, she dared not try to guess...
Guy started. The Pied Piper was no longer staring at the sky, but was looking sideways at him, Guy, and that look made his palms resting on the wheel begin to sweat.
"How did you end up on this road?" asked the piper softly, as if talking to himself.
Guy fluttered his eyelashes:
"Working...Well, I work here. Why?"
"Nothing." The Pied Piper snorted, as if in disappointment, "Go ahead and work...What's new in the city?"
"Nothing," Guy echoed and was immediately frightened that his answer might have sounded derisive, "Well, the students there are...rioting..."
"And you? You don't riot, even though you're also a student?"
You know everything, Guy thought drearily. He muttered through clenched teeth:
"I have no time for that. If I don't earn money during the summer, what'll I eat in winter?"
"What, you'd starve to death?"
A branch grazed the roof of the van, then another. The road narrowed and dipped into a small grove.
"Is there really nowhere else for you to earn money? You're a student of a splendid university..."
"What's the meaning of 'splendid' these days?" Guy muttered morosely. "There's nothing splendid left in the world..."
"Why not work as a tutor? It's not difficult work and it's decent, but here...you'll choke to death on dust..."
"I like it better here."
Guy felt anger rising. Damn this pest! It wasn't part of the deal that we would chat the whole trip...
"The pay is good." He forced out reluctantly. He paused, and to his complete surprise, he added: "And then, I'm from around here."
What kind of power had forced his generally taciturn tongue?
The Pied Piper hemmed in disapproval. He shifted, settling himself more comfortably:
"Now that's interesting...You're from Lur?"
"From Crooked Corners. It's to the west."
"Really? That's quite close...Do you visit your parents?"
Guy wanted to lie, but didn't dare:
He tried as best he could to make this "no" sound like a big fat period; the Pied Piper, however, couldn't care less about punctuation marks.
"No? But your parents are still alive, I hope?"
"I also hope so," Guy muttered wearily.
"So where are they?"
Again they were silent, but the Pied Piper didn't turn his gaze away. He was looking at Guy and through Guy and into Guy, into his very innards until finally Guy couldn't endure it any longer:
"I don't want to talk, that's all! What does this have to do with...Was this the deal? Did we agree to swap life stories?"
Guy broke off. The van squealed to a stop by the curb. Guy clenched his teeth. He felt like a sealed jar with a burning liquid inside, and the seal was about to blow because that something which filled the vessel up to its very neck was rising and building, looking for release...
He was bursting with words. He restrained himself as best he could, but the words were already in his throat.
"Well...alright, don't hold it in. I'm listening, pal."
And like a child on whose shoulder lay the hand of a stern adult, Guy began speaking slowly and haltingly at first, and then all the faster and more freely, even with a strange kind of relief:
"Well...my mother is from the capital. Twenty years ago there was kind of a mess, the first one...She was visibly a northerner and they treated northerners worse and worse with every passing day. She had to flee...and ended up settling in Crooked Corners. My father was also a newcomer, from the foothills. He had a vision, or something like that, that he ought to save...mankind...So when I was born, my father was already gone- He was a man with a mission...That's no joke. He couldn't stay too long in any one place...He went off to do good, leaving my mother alone. I think she had a rough time of it. I managed to survive, so they say, only because I was born an unusually large child, about ten pounds. I don't remember myself for a long time; I can't remember myself at five or even at seven...And then Il showed up."
"He was...well, generally speaking he was red. When he went into the house, it was like a torch had been brought in. He too had run away from the capital at one time, because northerners are one thing, but redheads...They didn't just dislike them then - they hated them with a passion, as if they were to blame for everything...And so he came to Crooked Corners and became like a father to me. With him around my mother calmed down, cheered up, and stopped yelling...at everyone...I don't know what he'd done in the capital; he kept quiet about it...But he certainly wasn't just a regular guy, that's for sure. He taught me to read and write and to invent fairy tales...Toy boats in puddles, kites with tails like dragons, and he talked and talked - about far-off lands where it's summer year round and others where it's winter year round...With him around, I felt secure as if I were in a fortress, and my mom felt the same way too. He smelled of tobacco - not too strongly, but pleasantly; he only smoked a little...He had a scar above his left brow. Every morning he bathed in a tub, even in the cold, and he taught me to...And he was very kind..."
Guy fell silent. Old forbidden memories that he had relegated to a far corner of his mind still retained their power over him.
Guy swallowed a lump in his throat:
"Then we went to a fair, and a little boy stole a purse from someone, and they caught him...the boy...and kicked him to death. That is, they only began to kick him, and suddenly Il turned white as a sheet, even his freckles...disappeared. And...he rushed over to fight them off from...that kid. He was a redhead, and they all hated redheads...still do to this day. If he'd just stayed in the shadows...without drawing attention to himself...but he rushed over. So they also beat him - lots of them, an entire mob, women too. Everyone wanted to kick him. When they brought him home, we could only recognize him...by his hair."
There was a dead calm.
The sun was covered in a haze, and something gray and sinister crept over it from the west and drew closer; in the back of the van the beavers were quietly shuffling around.
"And how old were you?"
"Do you remember it all clearly?"
"What else should I remember?" Guy even began to laugh at this thought, but not out of good humor. "There's absolutely no reason to remember what came next. My mother didn't say a word for a week after the funeral, and then she gathered up her things and me. We moved on, to the middle of nowhere, to the cheerful city of Gyeil...At first we almost starved to death, and then mother found a decent job and things got better. Still later we became rich suddenly, and my mother started wearing a lot of fancy dresses, and for days on end...well, she wouldn't be around. Then she placed me in a boarding school, something like a shelter for the privileged; and here things really turned sour. I ran away once, but they caught me and flogged me. I ran away again...I don't know how it would have ended, but my mother was left penniless again. She quit her previous job and moved with me to the outskirts...And I found myself in a free school for the poor. And there was a teacher named Kim."
"He was...There was nothing red about him - he was completely bald like an egg - but he was the first person who reminded me of Il. He lived at the school...He had a globe with a hole in the side. Dust...book dust, but it wasn't really dust; it was as if...as if time had left its residue. In fact, if not for my teacher Kim, damned if I'd be at the university. He had a daughter...Olga. She wrote poetry; that is, she not so much wrote poems, as they simply flowed from her. She'd wake up in the middle of the night, and cry and shake with a high fever...a hundred and one degrees...until she had written them down. Once she'd written them - that was all...Then she burned them. And she tore them up, yet they still tormented her. She said to me: What is this? Maybe something's wrong with me?"
Guy stopped. He caught his breath: dusk, the gap in a dilapidated fence, and a white face behind the fence, gray eyes round like a globe, framed by short, light eyelashes...
What a strange creature. Her frock gray like her eyes...and a neck so slender he was afraid to touch it, lest it break...A shadow, just a shadow, a gray moth on the bottom of a white china teacup; it's alive, and even seems to be warm, unafraid...
Guy rested his elbows on the steering wheel:
"Well, then two guys from the sawmill raped her in a dark corner. The neighbors found out about it and told everyone she was a whore...Those guys - she couldn't even remember their faces...They were hired workers: here today, gone tomorrow..."
He smiled wryly: whether it was those ones or others, they gave him a good beating. He remembered the frenzy of blood lust, when bursting into a village pub, he grabbed the shirt of the first big lout he came across - it must be him, yeah, that's him! - and he wiped the table with his face; and he remembered what came next: how he stopped feeling any pain and how his fists were smashed to raw meat, yet still he spewed hatred and thirsted for revenge until finally the world shrank to the size of his palm and everything went dark...
"In short, the teacher and his daughter moved away. Because...well, she couldn't even go out onto the street anymore. They moved away and their address...at first they wrote, then...well, it was a confusing time. I lost track of them..."
Guy looked down. He sighed:
"This is when my mother...met her true love. Luckily, I was almost grown. I understood...I would never have dared...never in my life...well, to judge."
He fell silent. The compulsion ended just as suddenly as it had begun - now he was empty. An empty vessel, hollow, calm, and even the bottom had managed to dry...
Yet not only was none of this intended for other's ears - it was not even material for one's own idle reminiscences! Scraps and pieces - yes, those would come back once in a while, there's nothing that could be done about that, but never the whole story consecutively like this, as if on paper, like some kind of confession or memoir, damn it!
He clenched his teeth, stifling his annoyance:
"Some story! Have I entertained you? But you know what, it was all hog-wash, I'm really the illegitimate son of a Duke. I was dumped at the walls of a convent...wrapped in diapers emblazoned with a coat of arms. Heraldic diapers...also get peed and pooped in...And the coat of arms...is the worse for it. My august father..."
He broke off. His interlocutor was silent; Guy sat for a bit, leaning his elbows on the steering wheel. Then he said perfectly calmly:
"My august father once gave a lecture at the university. Last year. "The Paths to Salvation". I saw him there...It's a good thing I remembered his name. I, the idiot, even wanted to approach him...Then, thank God, I thought better of it and changed my mind. I didn't even get drunk on account of it...on principle."
He laughed. When a person laughs, he doesn't look miserable; in any case, if it's a good laugh, natural and sincere. But Guy lacked sincerity and the laughter stuck in his throat, because he remembered.
It was precisely that day, when he "didn't get drunk on principle" that Guy had the first of his remarkable dreams.
He dreamed of a place he had never been before - neither a city nor a village, with freakishly narrow and winding streets, overhung by the grey hulks of blind, windowless buildings. The sky above the city was unnaturally yellow; under that yellow sky he, Guy, was dragged by a faceless mob, dragged with a low deep-chested wail, and he knew where they were dragging him, but he couldn't break free from the clinging, many-fingered hands; yet that wasn't what was most horrifying. More terrible were the moments when he began to recognize faces in the crowd; his mother shouting curses at him, his teacher Kim threatening him with a heavy stick, his school friends wearing evil grins; he glimpsed Old Tina's face contorted in hatred - and Olga, Olga, Olga...Guy tried to catch her eye, but tears prevented him from seeing, and he only tried not to fall under the feet of the crowd.
The mob dragged him and carried him to a square, in the middle of which a stone finger thrust upwards; Guy felt iron ropes bite into his body and he could not move, bound to that pillar, and they piled up fagots higher than his eyes; he woke up with a scream that drove his roommates leaping from their beds...
The dream was recurring: it came more frequently, then less; it bristled with new details; it went away and was forgotten only to return again despite all hopes. And not herbs, not spells, and not desperate efforts of will were any help...
His fingers cramped around the steering wheel.
"Did you remember?" his traveling companion asked him softly.
Guy glanced at him briefly - and turned away.
Why this question: 'remember'? What was this sick preoccupation with the hidden memories of others?
"Maybe better not to ask about that," he uttered, staring at his palms, white and unusually calloused. "Now perhaps I'd better not speak about that..."
"Well you don't have to," his traveling companion agreed with unexpected ease. "The weather's turning...Shall we go?"
Guy looked at his watch and exclaimed:
"Oh my, holy cow..."
He started the engine.
A gust of wind came, and the red dust rose in a column; the Pied Piper removed his elbow from the window and rolled up the glass. The sun had disappeared. Guy sat at the wheel, wanting to merge with the car, to become the car, to know nothing and remember nothing except the throbbing of the engine, the smell of gasoline, the small pebbles tickling the tires and the large ones disappearing between the wheels, and the potholes from which the van body shuddered...
"Don't drive so fast," the Pied Piper requested. "If you don't feel sorry for me, think of your beavers."
I'm such an idiot, Guy thought, clenching his teeth even tighter. I'm a complete moron...How did he crack me open so easily!
"This is some road, I have to say," and here the Pied Piper almost hit his head against the roof of the van. "And some driver. A driver from hell! Is this what they pay you so lavishly for? And it's probably a competitive selection, droves of candidates?"
"No," Guy forced out.
"What, nobody else needs money?"
Why won't he leave me alone, Guy thought almost plaintively. What else does he want?
"You can see for yourself what the road is like...No one wants to drive here...Not past a certain place...the one they call Empty Village..."
The Pied Piper perked up noticeably:
"Empty Village? Pal, you're a real student of literature, a philologist, a folklorist. 'Contemporary Folklore in Its Evolution', right? Buy a topic from me, I'll sell it cheap, or if you want, it's free for the taking...They'll applaud you: 'Insightful research by a young, promising scholar', 'Young man, a place is already waiting for you in graduate school'..."
Guy sighed intermittently. Alright, go ahead and laugh...
"Walking trees!" the Pied Piper continued to poke fun. "Giant spiders! Flying bloodsuckers! Creeping things-that-bite-your-finger-off! No, are you serious? Is there really a place called Empty Village, or is it the beginning of some university lecture?"
Guy hemmed noncommittally. The irony of the situation was that the most obvious representative of "contemporary folklore" was riding with him in the same car.
"Alright," the piper said when he had finished laughing. "Okay...Empty Village. What's so scary about it?"
Guy was silent. He was staring at the road.
"It's empty - so what? I wouldn't have thought you'd be afraid of emptiness?"
Guy shivered. All sorts of things were said about the Village, and so graphically that if the Rusty Trail didn't have a bypass route - well, nobody would ever drive here. Not Guy, at any rate
"But seriously, pal. Have you been to Empty Village?"
Guy choked. The Pied Piper shrugged:
"Didn't you say you drive past it? It's on the way, have you really never been there?"
"A direct route," Guy said pedantically, "Isn't always the shortest."
Now the Pied Piper choked:
"Really? Well-well...'This lad was clever, he didn't ask for trouble...This lad was fearless, not with a sword but his tongue'..."
Guy sighed heavily. The Pied Piper joked, laughed, and teased, and there didn't seem to be any reason for alarm, but for some reason, all Guy's old fears stirred in his soul; and perfectly in keeping with his spirits, clouds gathered in the sky. The day shrank as the darkness of a coming storm fell - and at that very moment, a fork in the road appeared up ahead.
The old road headed deep into the woods without changing direction and became lost among the tree trunks; the new road turned sharply to the right towards the river, intending to squeeze between the cliff and the river bank, thus running perilously along the river bank's very edge rather than subject the traveler to a trip through Empty Village. Guy turned decisively.
A signpost streaked by outside; a distant flash plucked the barely legible word "Detour" out of the haze. The Pied Piper suddenly laughed softly, and this laughter made Guy uneasy.
"You're a good boy," the piper informed him, still laughing. "Do you want me to make you a present of a little legend? A jewel of contemporary folklore? About this Thing that lives underground and feeds exclusively upon travelers. It appears at random, seizes its victims by anything it can - and drags them deep down, under the roots, deep, deep...And it leaves ruts - like an excavator...You haven't heard of it?"
The earth trembled.
There was no thunder and no lightening, but rather a muffled subterranean rumble; the van hopped up and its front wheels left the ground momentarily.
Braking, Guy nearly slammed his forehead into the glass.
"Easy, pal!" The Pied Piper barely had time to grab his bag.
"What was that?" gasped Guy.
The Pied Piper smiled from ear to ear:
"I appears the subterranean beast is running amuck...Are you scared?"
Guy felt the taste of his own saliva. It was disgusting. Metallic.
"You'd make fun of anything," he said dully.
The Pied Piper raised up one long forefinger:
"Remember something, once and for all. With me around, if there's anything to be afraid of...It's me. It's stupid to be afraid of anything else, and I feel like you're...an old friend. That means, my young driver is safe and it also means that we must be on our way. We can't hang around here forever. Soon it's going to rain..."
He winked, and as if wishing to affirm his words, not far away thunder rumbled and lightening flashed, splitting the sky.
...It was a short stretch of the road, where it was pressed to the river by an almost vertical clay wall, strewn and speckled with the burrows of sand martins as if with raisins; now the sand martins were rushing to and fro above a shapeless pile of stone and clay, which was once a part of that wall but now blocked the road from curb to curb, not leaving the slightest chance of passage for even a bulldozer, let alone a van.
Guy hopped down to the ground.
Stones tumbled down and fell into the darkened river; the possibility of a landslide had been much talked about, but to strengthen the wall would have been insanely expensive, and why bother when so few drivers ever passed here. Maybe a couple of trucks a day, and occasionally a young fellow with van full of beavers...
Guy shivered as he saw in his mind's eye how the section of the road under the wheels would slide into the river and how the water would gouge out the glass...Actually, he would have no reason to try and swim to the surface. One beaver he could pay for, but not ten...and certainly not with the car to boot.
But not this time. There was nothing to worry about. Guy caught his breath and turned around blithely - and only then did he suddenly realize.
The Pied Piper was in the cab. He was silently watching and baringe his impeccably white teeth in a smile.
So that's how it was. That's how one promise given in hopes of an easy way out turns into a completely different promise. He should have known better. It's no use crying now.
To hell with that rotten beaver! It could have lived under the bridge and Guy could have paid for it. It would have been a struggle but doable.
But instead, what exactly had he promised? To deliver his passenger to Lur today. And how must he get there if the road is blocked? Through Empty Village, that's how!
A downpour began.
The deluge of rainfall had long waited for this moment and now it seemed to beat down with almost malicious joy; his shirt became soaked immediately and stuck nastily to his body, water flowed along his hair and poured under his collar, and the wind raged. His legs slid apart in the red mud, and raindrops pounded against his cheeks, hiding his shameful, angry tears from prying eyes.
"Why?" he asked the Pied Piper. "What did I do to you? And why beat about the bush? Wouldn't it be easier just to break my neck and be done with it?"
The Pied Piper's lips twitched and Guy more saw than heard: "Get in the car."
But he didn't budge - he just stood there, feeling the cold streams of rain run down his back.
"Get in the car," the Pied Piper repeated, and Guy realized that he wasn't going to disobey. He didn't have the guts.
He slowly climbed into the front seat; the rain was pouring down the glass, obliterating the world outside, but Guy didn't want to look outside - he huddled, hugging his wet shoulders with his wet arms.
"Now, look at me," the Pied Piper ordered him softly.
Guy shrank up even further.
"Look at me!"
Guy turned his head with difficulty, like a nut on a rusted thread. He stared at the flute case.
"In my eyes!"
Thunder crashed right above the car - over the very roof, it seemed. The Pied Piper took Guy by the chin:
"Look me in the eye!"
Guy struggled, broke free, and desperately, with suicidal courage looked straight into the narrow, piercing green slits.
The rain hammered on the roof of the car; it seemed as if a couple of years had passed before the Pied Piper was the first to turn his gaze away, and then Guy fell back limply against his seat and shut his eyes, slowly his tension slowly abating.
"Now listen to me," the piper began quietly. "I'm not out to destroy random students or hunt seasonal drivers. And it is unlikely that the forces of heaven and earth have conspired to prevent ten beavers from arriving in Lur. No one is going to take your life away. Before you understand that there's no point in talking."
The Pied Piper paused expectantly. Guy was cold and his wet clothes stuck to his body. His moment of desperate bravery was gone and in its wake Guy felt chilly and weak almost to the point of fainting.
The piper sighed. He opened his bag, pulled out a flat metal flask, and filled the screw-cap up to the top:
"I don't want to."
"Don't be a fool...It's not poison. Drink it."
Guy took the cap, nearly spilling the thick dark liquid; resignedly he tossed the drink into his mouth, choked and started to cough. With this, his troubles mercifully seemed to be over - a wave of tranquil heat swiftly invaded his body, his ears flushed red, and his shirt instantaneously dried.
"Are you going to panic anymore?" the Pied Piper inquired in a no-nonsense tone of voice.
"No," Guy replied, but he sounded uncertain.
The windshield, bathed by the torrents of rain, was no longer transparent. The wipers had given up the fight and froze, listless like the wet appendages of a recently deceased bug.
What does he want with me, Guy mused to the incessant rumble of thunder. Me of all people. I'm like an ant on his palm. There are hundreds of thousands of them in the anthill, but it had to be me. Just my luck! Maybe he'll just toy with me and let me go.
The Pied Piper watched him, and it was perfectly clear that not a single thought of Guy's could escape his scrutiny; Guy sat before him, as easy to read as an open book or the village idiot; the answer to his grim sideways glance was yet again that smile - a row of immaculate, gleaming teeth.
"What's so funny?" Guy asked dully. "Aren't you ever serious?"
"Sometimes," the Pied Piper replied good-naturedly. "But this isn't a pretty sight."
The thunderstorm was running out of steam.
The thunder no longer boomed like a cannon. It grumbled tiredly from across the river, which now in turn had become brazen and swollen, fancying itself a mighty stream. The downpour became a drizzle, and the road was now a mass of reddish mud.
"What now?" Guy inquired grimly.
"Now," the Pied Piper absentmindedly scratched his brow. "Now...Can you turn around here?"
The rain had stopped entirely.
The car kept skidding, and Guy painted himself horrifying pictures of stalled engines and stuck wheels - what then? Would he have to carry the piper on his shoulders to keep his promise?
"Listen, pal...This so-called 'contemporary folklore' - do you really intend to study it seriously? Or is it just a coincidence - an old lady said something and your imagination went wild...Huh?"
"Here's what I'm getting at with all this - there's one story, a very curious one, that just so happens to be about these parts- but you don't know it. Do you want to bet that you don't know it?"
"The road is bad..." Guy muttered wearily. "Let me concentrate."
"Concentrate...I won't bother you. I'll just tell you a story, in a reserved and respectful way. Imagine many hundreds of years ago there raged an epidemic in these parts. Some villages died out completely, others fled in horror...People were dying in the field, from beasts, and of starvation...You just concentrate, concentrate, and pretend I'm talking to myself...Well then, in one village there appeared a man who had come up with a cure. Not a vaccine, back then nobody knew of vaccines...But this fellow was the apprentice to a healer, an herbalist, and a talented scholar in general - he had concocted a potion and he had done it on intuition alone...And behold, he cured half of the village, although it has to be said he risked his own hide...Facing fear, despair, exhausted ignorant people...Yes, the fellow was brave. And stubborn. And he did his part - the bell that rang for the dead...rang day and night...that bell was silent at last. And the time came to thank him...
Guy didn't take his eyes from the road. Guy drove carefully around potholes that had been hollowed out from the rain, but he listened; and he listened with rising tension, and therefore the long, dangling long pause forced him to ask:
"Did they thank him?"
"Yes. And how. They declared him a sorcerer. And you know how they've always treated sorcerers?"
"They didn't treat them well..."
"That's for sure. What's good about a fifteen-foot high torchwood bonfire?"
The car bounced, hitting its wheel on a rock.
"They wanted to burn him at the stake?"
"They did. They wanted to and they did, rest assured, because they were also thorough people with character, and they liked to finish what they'd started."
Guy was silent. For some reason he felt very sad, filled with a strange melancholy regret.
"Did my fairy tale make an impression on you?"
The car jolted again.
"No," said Guy slowly. "Fairy tales are just. If it were a fairy tale - the residents would bow at their savior's feet and appoint him prince...But what you've told me sounds more like a true story."
"What's the difference," the Pied Piper smirked. "It was all so incredibly long ago..."
"All this has repeated many times, moreover, quite recently," Guy carried on in the same vein. "That's exactly how they treat their saviors...But surely you know what I'm saying better than I do..."
"Listen, I like you," the Pied Piper said, completely serious. "By the way, the lad I was talking about was quite young, and he looked even younger than his age - but not child enough for them to have mercy on him, and not an old man they could respect...and he wasn't a local. A stranger; who knows, if he had grown up among the villagers, maybe..."
Guy narrowed his eyes at the piper suspiciously:
"You talk as if you'd seen him with your own eyes."
"Yes, well I'm also kind of a...folklorist. Alright, stop the car."
Guy started. During the conversation, they had driven up to the fork in the road; the sun pierced its way through the thinning clouds and the wet grass glinted with rich, colorful lights.
"You're dragging me to Empty Village," Guy said rather than asked, merely stating a fact.
"Look, we had a deal, remember? Come on now, I'll show you something."
The Pied Piper jumped lightly to the ground, and Guy followed him, although his whole being resisted. Air and sunshine make a fabulous cocktail, and another time Guy would have heaved a sigh and smiled foolishly. Even now he succumbed to the charms of this day, but only for a second, no longer...
"Over here," the Pied Piper called him.
He was standing two steps away from what Guy was accustomed to thinking of as a road sign. In reality, it was a six foot high tree stump with a rotten board nailed to it.
"Let's read it," the piper said solemnly. "What does it say?"
The word "Detour" in oil paint was now brightly lit by the midday sun. A crooked arrow directed the traveler towards a heap of stones and clay - there on the river bank where the alarmed sand martins scurried...
"It says here," Guy said dully, "That you shouldn't meddle where you have no business to go."
"Good," said the Pied Piper with obvious satisfaction. "So we shouldn't go where we have no business, and we certainly can't have any business there...Who put this sign up?"
Guy touched the stump with his fingertips. The cracked bark was wet.
"Watch," the Pied Piper smiled slyly.
Guy jerked his hand away.
The inanimate sign had come to life. At first it seemed to be covered with a continuous layer of scuttling insects, but there were no ants on the wet bark - the stump was rapidly rejuvenating, as if a film were being played backwards at an accelerated pace; the sign in white oil paint vanished and another one in yellow was revealed, and then another in white again, and yet another...After a few seconds, "Detour" had entirely disappeared, and out of the cracks, chinks and spots an entirely different sign emerged: dark, rather indistinct, and in a tongue that at first glance seemed unfamiliar.
"Well, pal, you're the college boy, just a stone's throw away from your Bachelor's degree...Read it."
"I don't..." Guy was about to begin and stopped short. He realized what language the sign was written in - his native one. From nearly a thousand years ago.
The smell of lecture halls. A professor of philology, posters and charts, phrases written in chalk on the blackboard...
Guy was a good student. Only he couldn't have imagined that he would have to apply his learning in this way.
"'Traveler,'" he began in a trembling voice. "'You are entering the land of the community'..." Here there was a name.
"Which one?" asked the Pied Piper, as slyly as before.
Frowning from the strain, Guy read out:
"'Burned..' Something like Burned Belfry. No, 'Burned Tower'..."
"Bravo!" the piper bared his white teeth in delight. "Does that name tell you anything?"
Guy frowned. A light shadow passed along the bottom of his memory - but a sudden insight prevented it from surfacing. The new thought was stronger.
"Something else does," he said slowly. "Judging by the characters, this writing is about a thousand years old."
"A bit less. But something like that."
"Well?" Guy looked up expectantly.
"Well?" The Pied Piper appeared not to understand.
"So what kind of tree stands for so long? That kind of time turns rocks to dust, let alone people. People have long forgotten...Yet this rotten stump still stands, can you believe it?
The Pied Piper burst into laughter. Guy watched him laugh for a long minute, frowning.
"Oh...Good job. You make a sound argument and your logic is flawless..."
In a split second, the sign returned to its former state; Guy sprung backwards.
"And now tell me, young man," the piper's face grew at once serious. "Have you heard of the word 'curse'?"
Guy felt chills once more.
"I see that you have...What do you think has more longevity - a piece of wood or a curse?"
"I think the curse," Guy replied gruffly.
"And you think rightly," the Pied Piper paused, then smiled once again, and Guy was almost glad to see that smile of his. "So, shall we go now?"
Guy turned around and looked at the road leading into the forest.
It was picturesque. It was really very pretty, this road, with its patches of sun and shade, so easy, wide, smooth and virtually without potholes - an excellent road...
"You won't change your mind?" he mouthed.
His traveling companion shook his head with a smile.
"Oh well," Guy said almost inaudibly.
At the last moment, the thought struck him - what would happen if the van broke down in the middle of the forest? But there was absolutely no point to such thoughts - because he had no choice, and because the first branches had already closed up behind them.
Of course, there was nothing terrible in this forest, except perhaps that it was extremely, even preternaturally dense, and a bit dark. There were neither clearings nor paths. The road was straight and narrow, and abnormally smooth - no tree would dare fall here, no bush would cross that invisible line. It was a clear road, as if road workers slaved away here by the sweat of their brow every night...
Guy shivered. He envisioned shaggy green wood spirits with shovels and cigarettes between their cracked wooden lips...
Careless creatures, thought Guy, once again pressing down the accelerator and peering at the roadside. Careless creatures live fearlessly, never thinking about such things as curses...And why am I here? Even if this country is cursed through and through, wholesale, and we are all to blame...No, that isn't right. We'll leave the sermons to my father. The Burned Tower, so...in every village there was a watch tower, a belfry, and a guard post...Hmm, in the woods? But had there been a forest here then? A fire...the watch tower had burned, maybe along with the village...Hence the name: Burned Tower.
"By the way," the Pied Piper spoke suddenly. "Returning to the story of the ill-fated healer...Wouldn't you like to know what happened next to his, hmm, patients?"
"I would," Guy replied slowly. "I would like...to know."
"You see...It so happened they were not forgiven for what they had done, and they...in short, they were punished."
"By whom?" Guy asked mechanically and immediately bit his tongue; the Pied Piper grinned, rolled down the window and happily thrust out his elbow.
"So, what," Guy began cautiously, "did the disease come back?"
"The disease did not come back," the Pied Piper replied casually. "They went somewhere instead...Yes, they formed a single-file line and set out to a certain place. I won't tell you about that place, but believe me, it would have been better if they had simply died."
The Pied Piper paused expectantly. Guy felt like a little boy peering into a dark well without permission, and from the abyss there came a gust so cold and so horrifying, that his hands went numb on the wheel.
"They were summoned and they went," the Pied Piper continued slowly. "Was it cruel, do you think?"
"That's not for me to judge," Guy uttered with some effort.
"Not, it isn't," the Pied Piper confirmed curtly. "But I asked now for your opinion - kindly answer."
"They were poor, backward people," Guy forced out. "Blinded...by ignorance."
He glanced at the Pied Piper and fell silent, as if he had been gagged. He saw quite clearly that someone different now peered out from the Pied Piper's eyes, someone for whom those slits were only the eyeholes of a mask. The illusion lasted for only a few seconds, and then the Pied Piper smiled wryly and became himself again. Guy saw a slanting white scar, previously unnoticed, stand out against his forehead.
"Are you making excuses for them?" the Pied Piper asked with an ironic smile.
Guy forced himself to not look away:
"I'm not...excusing them. But are they...sufficiently guilty...for a horrible punishment...apparently?"
"'Apparently'," the Pied Piper mocked him with a smirk.
"I'd watch the road," the piper grumbled, and Guy came to his senses.
They drove one hour and then another. The forest didn't change and it was teeming with life: things flapping their wings; darting across the road; rustling in the bushes, hunting or running for their lives; or wooing a mate with a song. Patches of sunlight danced about the tree trunks, but not one of them could reach the ground, try as they might. Branches drummed against the roof of the van from time to time, and the Pied Piper sat humming city melodies from ten years ago, his elbow thrust out the window, and he accompanied them with funny comments, distracting Guy from his thoughts; in the end, he got what he wanted: Guy laughed.
At first he sniffed, trying to keep his lips as straight as a ruler; then he began to turn to the side to giggle, but finally he gave up and laughed out loud until tears rolled from his eyes, unable to either think or fear, fully surrendering to the slightly hysterical gaiety and now and then coming very close to crashing the van. Who would have thought the day before that he would whinny like an ill-mannered horse as he drove along the way to Empty Village?
The laughter awoke a hunger that had previously been drowned in fear. I'm not afraid, Guy thought in surprise. I'm not afraid and I'm ravenously hungry - so either I'm very brave, or I've gone completely crazy...Lunch, lunch, lunch!!
In response to his thoughts, an opening flashed up ahead. A minute later, a vertical pillar of sunlight rose up in the semi-darkness of the forest - the first clearing they had seen so far along their journey.
"Stop," the piper said matter-of-factly. "We'll have a little picnic here. Gentlemen tourists, evacuate the vehicle."
Guy hesitated a second, then gave in, and climbed out into the sunlight. The grass stood knee high - if you were the Pied Piper - and reached almost up to Guy's waist. Inhaling greedily, Guy was suddenly keenly aware that he was alive, and the heady taste of life blotted out all his other senses for a while.
The grass was wet. It parted before him and then closed up behind him again. He ran without realizing he was running, simply his legs tossed him five feet into the sky every now and then, and the sky began right at the tips of the grass.
"A-ha...Just like a rabbit in the field. Or a thin-legged gazelle...Run, run, don't be shy. Yes, run, what the heck..."
The Pied Piper sat with his long bare feet tucked under him. His bag lay on the grass in front of him, and next to it there was a clean tablecloth the size of a towel; the next half hour treats, delicacies, and various entrees migrated from the bag to the tablecloth one after the other.
Speechless, Guy watched as the bag dispensed portion after portion, and at first apprehensively, then all the more eagerly he partook of culinary wonders which not only had he never tried, but he had never even heard of before. At first he ate politely, then greedily, and then he began forcing himself. He drank the dark liquid from the flask and chased it with the stories told by his host - for the host of this sumptuous spread was of course the Pied Piper.
"Chefs," the Piper said, narrowing his eyes carnivorously, "are, in fact, the best part of humanity. I've always been on a good foot with chefs. They are the priests of the altar we call the stomach...Once an amusing story took place. In a far-off land, in a wealthy city, there was a certain cook named Mustafa in the luxurious palace of the local sultan..."
Guy no longer sat, but lay resting on his elbow chewing on a blade of grass; as the story about Mustafa the cook flowed on, it enveloped and lulled him.
"And then what happened?"
"Then came the most interesting part. I returned exactly three years later, as I had promised...Listen, we've sat here too long. It's time for us to go."
The Pied Piper raised his head and looked directly at the sun. Guy saw that he stared without squinting, with wide open eyes, and he looked straight at the solar disk without blinking, and Guy once again felt uneasy.
Before setting off, the Pied Piper shoved a substantial sheaf of juicy grass into every cage. Guy was going to protest, having been told not to feed the beavers on the road, but then he gave up. His excitement and euphoria had given way to indifference and a sleepy stupor.
"So let me finish the story about the cook," continued the Pied Piper, shifting around in the cramped front seat. "When I returned, the poor guy had lost heart...and still couldn't decide what to do - to flee, or perhaps try to win back favor...You know, they don't have prisons there, but they have plenty of torturers with whips and sticks. Punishment is entirely by beating, and if the crime is serious, then they'll beat you to death...And so, when the horns sounded at dawn...
There came a long, drawn-out wail with a resounding echo that drowned out the rumbling of the motor, the jangling of the cages, and the voice of the narrator. The brakes squealed; Guy struck the steering wheel heavily, but did not feel any pain.
"Did you hear that!"
The Pied Piper broke off in mid-sentence, frowning.
"What was it?" Guy whispered, struggling with the shameful spasms in his stomach.
"It's the forest," the piper said reflectively. "The forest, you see. It's complicated...Let's go."
"Go-go. Step on it."
Guy obeyed; the van crept forward, and Guy wanted it to duck down, pull in its wheels, and burrow down into the ground. But even more intensely he wanted to be far, far away, even in a bar, even with people laughing at him, or even in a fight...
He suddenly tensed, leaning forward; there on the side of the road in a jumble of light and shade he thought he saw a dark object. No, he wasn't seeing things...or...was he...
"There's something there," he said coarsely. The Pied Piper raised his eyebrows, and he looked in the same direction as Guy.
"There's something there," Guy repeated desperately, "Over there..."
Ahead on the edge of the road, a person lay among the dirty heaps of last year's rotting leaves.
A dark blue, well-worn cloak was gathered in a bunch on her back, half covering her head and leaving visible a slender leg in a brown stocking and the tangled hair on her head. The woman's right hand, thrown forward, had been clawing the clay just a minute ago; on her fragile wrist was a massive bracelet of yellow-colored metal. It looked like gold.
"God," Guy muttered dully. The van jerked forward; the Pied Piper tipped back in his seat. Guy was already braking, throwing open the door while still moving, and with the other hand groping for the first aid kit under the seat, his hands shaking:
"Where are you going?" the piper snapped.
Guy had already jumped to the ground. He feverishly looked around in search of a possible enemy - he didn't see anyone and turned to the body on the ground. For a moment, he felt horribly nauseous - what is this strange woman doing in the middle of the forest? Is she dead? - but Guy wrenched himself free from this sudden weakness, clenched his teeth, bent down, and stretched out his hand, intending to draw away the cloak...
He was grabbed roughly by the collar, raised above the ground, and given such a toss that he flew six feet and collapsed on the road.
The Pied Piper's eyes burned like green flames; sizing Guy up with a cold look, he pushed the fallen first aid kit aside with the toe of his bare foot:
"Well, you're some kind of..."
In a second the pipe appeared in his hands; Guy clamped his hands over his ears.
The sound forced its way past his fingers. It was a wicked sound, the kind of sound that turns one inside out, pure torture; Guy wanted to open his mouth, but he had no time to scream.
Without ceasing to play, the Pied Piper turned to the lying body; it shuddered. The body twitched convulsively and ceased to be a body: the bunched up cloak stirred, and it was no longer a cloak, but a huge membrane, and under it was not a woman's body, but a blind tube, looking like the stump of a snake's body and a bag of skin with a cluster of thin, jointed tentacles that had so believably simulated black human hair...And the leg in the brown stocking became a pulsing intestine, and where Guy had imagined a knee, there opened up a turbid eye, as if smeared in fat. The golden bracelet on the "wrist" turned into a bone disk.
Guy recoiled like a spring. He crawled to the van, hid behind the wheel, and clamped his teeth on his hand.
"Life in all its manifestations," the Pied Piper remarked derisively. "We live by our instincts, and this plays upon two at once - a kind-hearted boy will rush to rescue an unfortunate woman, and a greedy one will want to remove the gold...Look how skinny it is. It's going to die of starvation any time now."
The leathery side of the strange creature was rising and falling; Guy nearly vomited from the gurgling wheeze this produced.
"It probably eats snails...because I think no people have been here for a very long time. And among those who do happen here, fear will overcome both greed and, what do you call it...noble instincts...It's hopeless. Hopeless," he concluded, addressing the leathery bag, which twitched and turned up its paws. Guy, close to fainting, could see a wide maw on the creature's side like the zipper on an over-packed suitcase; the maw encircled the bag, and Guy suddenly remembered a farmer who disappeared a year ago in the vicinity of the forest, a cross-eyed bashful lad, taciturn, a bit strange, a little bit "off his head"...
Guy sobbed. The first aid kit lay on one side, having lost in the dust a jar with ammonia, a bottle of iodine, and a bandage sealed in paper.
The many-footed leathery creature suddenly stiffened, raised its body almost vertically, and its round eye blinked; Guy shrieked hoarsely - the Pied Piper lifted his brows in surprise:
"Well, look at that..."
He threw up his hand and then lowered it; the terrible body turned over, sunk down, and writhed in convulsions. The Pied Piper raised his hand again - and the creature groaned in an almost human voice; his hand fell - and the creature flattened itself among the leaves, and the round eye on the intestine-like growth dimmed even further. The Pied Piper raised his hand a third time and held it aloft, and then said with a sigh:
"Get out of here!"
The creature twitched and the Pied Piper lowered his arm:
"Get out of here, I say!"
The creature vanished instantly - one minute it was twitching in a pile of leaves - and the next it was already gone, flying up a tree trunk and melting into the branches.
"That's all," the Pied Piper informed him absently.
Guy sat leaning against the wheel and watched as the piper rubbed his pipe with his gaudy rag; having finished this ritual and stowed the pipe in its case, the Pied Piper bent down to unhurriedly and carefully collect the contents of the first aid kit. Then he sighed, walked over in two broad steps and stopped beside Guy:
"Why did you do it?"
"I didn't do anything," Guy answered from the ground.
"No, you did. You stopped the van and grabbed that ridiculous little case...Do you think iodine would have helped you? After an encounter with that...creepy-crawly?"
"You didn't think at all. You grabbed and ran...Now tell me - why?"
Guy wanted to open his mouth - but stopped short under the gaze of the Pied Piper. Because under this gaze, any words would sound ludicrous, childish, and nonsensical.
"Look at me," the piper ordered.
Guy raised his head. The forest swayed and swam - only the two green slits remained motionless; then the lids slowly lowered over them. The Pied Piper had shut his eyes.
"Do you know," he uttered, without opening his eyes, "What the world would be like if all those so-called good deeds...received an immediate reward? Well, if at least they weren't punished, huh?"
Guy didn't know what to say. He felt stupid and pathetic.
The piper snorted and looked at the sky.
"We've got to go," he said in his usual tone of voice. "Come on."
After another hour's drive, the forest crashed against a red brick wall. The gates were strong, as if unaffected by time, and stood wide open: come in. The road did enter and got lost somewhere there in the depths; Guy slowed down and looked around helplessly in search of a bypass - to no avail. The forest locked around the walls of the village, as if guarding it. Above the black pandemonium of buildings loomed a distant tower. The watchtower: the Burned Tower...
"Well?" the Pied Piper quietly both asked and ordered.
The motor howled.
In childhood this was where he would flip past the scary pages in books: if you do it fast enough, nothing will happen to you, faster...
The van had slowed to a crawl.
The motor roared, yet the van struggled like a bug stuck in resin. Shaking, Guy clutched the steering wheel and watched the main street of Burned Tower drift towards him. Empty Village was so obviously, entirely, and for so long empty that even the nettle didn't dare to take root in the shadow of the local fences. Even the mighty forest was unable to move beyond the wall - not a blade of grass, not an ant, not a bird, no living things at all: it was sterile, vacant, and clean. Guy sensed this void; it had the taste of ruined water, over-boiled and driven repeatedly through a distilling tank - the taste of dead water in which there was nothing at all...
"Look around," the Pied Piper requested as quietly as before. "Just look around and maybe you'll want to remember something...to talk about something, or to ask. Look well, aren't you curious?"
Guy wasn't curious. There was nothing interesting about human habitation from which the people had been seized abruptly and by force; the minute, subtle details of human presence made the universal emptiness even eerier: the print of a wooden clog in the mud by an open gate; a wagon loaded with golden hay - fresh as if it had never known the rain; a well with a perfectly unblemished pail - come and drink...It seemed the water in the pail was still circling, as if it had just been placed on the ground a second ago...Guy was convinced that if he touched the well's pulley, the handle would be still warm. Warm having preserved the heat of a hand for a thousand years...
The place reeked of human presence and at the same time it reeked of desolation - an unbearable cocktail. The van crawled along as if in a dream, every second overcoming invisible obstacles...
"Guy, stop the car."
It seemed the Pied Piper called him by his name for the first time.
Without a moment's hesitation, Guy slammed the accelerator to the floor. The van jerked forward - and then the motor choked and died. The van bounced awkwardly, rattling the cages in the back; it swerved and drove into a low fence around someone's front garden.
Immediately it became quiet, as if inside cotton wool.
"Well, Guy...Come on."
"This wasn't part of our deal," Guy stared straight ahead at a corner of the dark wooden house, under which perhaps a live rooster had been placed at ground-breaking.
"It wasn't," he repeated in a whisper, "It wasn't what we agreed on."
The Pied Piper sighed:
"You would never have agreed. Not to this part."
"What do you care if I agree or not?"
"Stop your whining. There's someone who wants to see you. Today. Now. For this person it is very important, and I'd like you to act like a man. Do you know how?"
Guy was silent, trying to comprehend the depth of the abyss that had swallowed him up; an abyss that he had taken for a puddle and boldly jumped into, and now he was flying, flying, and there was still no bottom in sight...
Guy only had one plausible excuse left on his lips, but at least it was a completely honest one.
"I know you are."
"I don't want to!"
"But what can you do..."
Yes, what can I do, Guy thought in anguish.
The Pied Piper jumped lightly to the ground; his bag was left lying on the seat, and slow-witted Guy had just enough time to wonder - what do you know, the entire trip he guarded it like a treasure, and now he's leaving it...The steel steps down from the van seemed high to him and impossibly steep, and so he crawled out of the van awkwardly, like a louse smeared with oil.
The worn cobblestones of the road burned his feet. The feeling was so real and intense that he sucked air in sharply with a hiss; fortunately, the burn existed only in his imagination. The roadway - Guy bent down especially to touch it with his hand - was perfectly cold, as befitted a corpse.
The piper nodded at him - and silently headed into the alleyway, as if he had no doubt Guy would follow him. And Guy did follow, like a dog on a leash. The Pied Piper strode boldly and calmly, as if it were the street he lived on, as if he was walking there for the thousandth time on his way to familiar work; to work, Guy thought, catching glimpses of his guide's bare heels. To work...he must be rearing some horrible creature in the belfry and feeds it with travelers...That's drivel. No, but what is this brand-new cottage with gleaming windows doing amid these mighty, museum-like buildings?
The sight was so bizarre that Guy slowed his steps. On an elegant bench by a high porch lay a pornographic newspaper, its pages spread out. The day before yesterday's - Guy took a good look - yes, the day before yesterday's date was on the corner of the page...
He set off almost at a run. He had almost caught up to the Pied Piper and wanted to shout, but no shout came. His guide walked with a light and measured step; he didn't walk even - he strode, as if conducting an unknown ritual, and his straight back exuded such solemn tranquility that Guy didn't dare to approach him
Then, to fight off the numbing horror, he began to count his steps aloud:
"One hundred thirty seven...one hundred thirty eight..."
The Pied Piper turned.
Another street, darker and narrower: walls, buildings, fences, more walls, and still fewer windows, as if the buildings' faces had no eye sockets.
"One thousand two...one thousand three..."
Guy's tremulous voice grew softer and softer until it became a whisper, then a croak, and then stopped altogether.
There it was, the square by the base of the bell tower: a strangely large, irregularly-shaped cobblestone square, and in the middle of it...
Guy froze in his tracks.
In the middle of the square a stone finger thrust upward. The ropes biting into his skin, the jeering crowd...
The stone pillar was covered with a layer of soot, and the platform around it was strewn with ashes.
At some point, Guy even felt relieved - so that's what it is, just a painful variation of his familiar dream. It was wretched that the dream had returned, but one can slip out of a dream: flee, wake up, get away...
He bit his wrist savagely. Wholeheartedly he hoped that the illusion would come crashing down, that he would wake up in Old Tina's walk-through room, look at the clock, and confirm he was late for work...
"You never know what a person will dream," said the Pied Piper, without turning around. "What if you dreamed that you were a student? That you were working? That you were delivering beavers?"
In the final words of that phrase said in complete seriousness, a sudden mockery hatched; Guy stared blankly at his hand - with its white tooth marks. Before his eyes, the marks flushed red, and blood even seeped out...
"No such thing," he said, overcoming his chills. "I exist. I was born, I grew up, and I exist, damn it. I didn't dream it all up. And I haven't been here before. Ever. Not once."
"Are you sure?"
Guy saw the Pied Piper take his pipe from its case. He even wanted to say something like "don't", but the words just stuck in his throat.
"Come here...Stand next to me. And don't you dare slouch!" The Piper's voice suddenly filled the entire square, and in place of his guide, Guy saw a shadowy hulk, a monstrous silhouette against the background of the suddenly darkened sky. He saw this and recoiled - but he was seized and abruptly hoisted up onto the platform.
There came the sound of the pipe.
Nothing in this world could produce such a sound. It wasn't even a sound - you didn't hear it with your ears, but your skin, your pulse, your heart; and upon hearing it, the world cracked.
On one side of this crack remained the villages and the capitals, churches and prisons, bazaars and cemeteries, hospitals and brothels; on the other - the deserted square, which was no longer uninhabited.
There were hundreds of them, many hundreds of them; they spilled out from the narrow streets, or they came from under the earth, or maybe they had always stood here, waiting for this day. Now that day had come, and for them there was nothing more terrible than to be late when the summons came. The square was already filled, yet still they came. Guy writhed from the sound, which penetrated his skin, and just when he no longer had the strength to endure - the sound broke off.
Not a rustle or whisper. Hundreds of feverishly glittering eyes.
On Burned Tower the bell rang resoundingly and terribly.
"Is everyone here, torturers?"
It wasn't the voice of the Pied Piper, and it was hardly a human voice at all. Guy looked up - and immediately regretted it, because in place of the Pied Piper towered a figure that belonged only in a nightmare. It had green blazing beacons for eyes, and its jagged shadow fell in black folds, eating through the space, and when the figure raised its hand in an imperious gesture - a bolt of red lightning flashed from the ring with the gem.
"All here," a voice from the crowd replied - a sound like a knock on wood.
"Do you remember?" asked the One Who Was The Pied Piper.
"We remember," said another dead voice.
The terrible hand suddenly stretched out, pointing directly at Guy:
"Here he is,"
Guy wanted to breathe - but the muscles that controlled his breathing cramped and would not obey. There was nowhere to run; it seemed his legs had sunk to the knee into the stone platform. Somewhere deep in his head the voice of the former Pied Piper murmured:
"Calm down, pal. Calm down, lad. It's only me!"
Hundreds of tormented eyes stared directly at Guy.
"Do you recognize him?" asked the inhuman voice, at the same time as a strong and fully human hand grasped Guy above his elbow as a precaution.
"Yes," swept across the square like a sigh. "Yes, yes, yes.... That's him..."
It's not me, Guy wanted to shout and tried to break free, but the hand restraining him immediately transformed into a steel trap. Guy went limp, and then the square quivered, sighed, and sank to its knees.
"Release us," came from the kneeling crowd. "We've been punished enough."
"It's not I who can forgive you," said The One Who Was The Pied Piper. "Now it's only he who can," and the black hand with the red flare again pointed at Guy, and it seemed that the extended finger painfully pierced him right through the heart.
The crowd quivered again - and froze. Guy could make out their faces now: young, old, thin, and puffy faces, and faces with the traces of former beauty; from under hoods, hats, scarves, and even metal helmets, there stared inflamed, swollen eyes and bright, almost childish ones - all with the same expression: this is how a miserable, long-desperate dog looks at its cruel master.
"Now look," slowly said The One Who Was The Pied Piper to Guy. "Take a good look...because their fate depends on you."
"What do I have to do?" asked Guy inaudibly, but The One Who Was The Pied Piper heard all the same. The dark figure shifted:
"You don't have to do anything. You can forgive them, but you can also not forgive them. It's your right...but before you decide, make sure you look carefully. Do you understand?"
"There's time. So look."
Silence again descended on the square. Guy stood and it seemed to him that all these faces were floating in circles, floating without breathing and without giving up their frozen plea. Again he felt chills crawl down his spine - but this time he did not fear for himself. But for whom - he could not tell.
Unfamiliar faces, yellow like wax. Where did they come from? And what had they endured there? 'Release us, we have been punished enough'...The measure of their punishment is determined by whom?
"If I don't forgive them..."
"They'll be sent back where they came from."
"Is it...because they burned me at the stake?"
"Yes...but look for yourself."
Guy began to look again, and this time in the mass of faces he thought he saw movement. Someone's frightened, trembling eyelids, someone's darting, teary eyes...
He staggered backwards.
"Come on! Let me through, let me...!" - "Fucking redheads, bastards" - "Out of my way, scum..." - "Who wants honey, who wants sweet, sweet honey!" - "Rearrange his kisser, fix his fence" - "You bastards, get away from him, you bastards!" - "You want some, you little mutt?"
The market square. The fair: harsh light in his eyes, colored canopies, golden hay, tomato juice...Il's fiery hair, blood, more blood, and their heavy, bloodied boots...
Guy clutched at his throat. The memories were so vivid. Like it had all happened...just yesterday.
"Bastards," he whispered through his tears, and he saw the eyes grow dim and the imploring faces turn gray. A silent, doomed scream.
There was movement in the genuflected square. The green beacons flared in the face of The One Who Was The Pied Piper:
Guy swallowed, because there was already no need to look - he saw as it were.
A ripped skirt. The jumping lips of a girl named Olga, a rope clumsily hidden behind her back - "I'm not going to live...all the same"...The stifling darkness of a summer evening, he didn't see it, but knew how it was - "Quiet, quiet, we won't hurt you..." - "Hold her tight, the bitch bites" - "Quiet, quiet, or else we'll hurt you, do you hear?" The shining tracks of tears, eyes dull and glassy from despair...
Guy slowly ran his hand over her tangled hair and over her hot forehead, existing only in his mind's eye. It's not right to kill, but if I had found you then...
Where did this haunting feeling come from that they were also here? That they too, whose faces he couldn't remember, were kneeling with the rest of the crowd, and that a thousand years of atonement had also passed for them...And now they also were repenting and pleading...These! Pleading for what?
"And why should I forgive them? Am I God - to forgive?"
"Don't forgive like God. Forgive like yourself...or don't forgive. As you wish."
"I don't want to forgive like anyone..."
Guy turned around, diverting his gaze from the waxen, pleading faces. Staggering, he turned and went up to the pillar. He ran his hand over it and his fingers became coated in soot. Slowly he lowered himself onto the stone platform. He reached for the collar of his shirt, but the shirt wasn't there. His hand touched sackcloth - the garb of a prisoner condemned to die.
"They were poor, backwards people...Blinded...by ignorance." -"Are you making excuses for them?" - "No, but..."
"This isn't fair," he said dully, "It isn't right at the same time...on the same scale...to weigh the poor, frightened, ignorant people...who didn't know what they were doing...and...these. It is not right to judge them all in one trial, not right at all..."
"We don't do retail." It was the voice of the former Pied Piper, quiet and sarcastic, "Everything is wholesale here...on a grand scale. No matter whether they "knew" or "knew not." People, generally speaking, are people precisely because they are supposed to know. Judge for yourself...I'm not pressuring you."
Guy threw his head back, resting it against the pillar. He closed his eyes, but the stares of those gathered in the square seemed to break through his lowered eyelids.
So that's what it is...It's that dream.
Neither a city nor a village, with freakishly narrow and crooked alleyways, and above them...the sky...unnaturally yellow...a faceless crowd...with a low, deep-chested wail, and he knew where they were dragging him, but he could not tear free from those clinging many-fingered hands, but the most terrible thing was...he began to recognize faces: his mother shouting curses at him, his teacher Kim threatening him with a heavy stick, his school friends wearing evil grins; he glimpsed Old Tina's face contorted in hatred - and Olga, Olga, Olga...Guy tried to catch her eye, but...
...Iron ropes, he couldn't move, bound to the pillar, and they piled up fagots higher than his eyes...
Stop. That's not right. Why among the crowd...
He rose. He walked to the edge of the platform, and stared into the crowd intently, greedily. The bloodshot eyes of the accused did not dare to cry for mercy any more - in the silent depths of their eyes lay understanding. Of their own doom, and of the justice of the sentence passed...
Guy continued to stare. He couldn't have imagined it - in his dream he saw among them his mother and his teacher, and he also saw Olga, and if he did...
He peered and stared, and from time to time his heart leapt in his throat - he thought he recognized the bald head of the teacher - but no, it wasn't him; he thought he could see Olga's bashful eyes peeping from behind the wall of other people's backs - but no, it wasn't her, he was seeing things, imagining things...A cloak exactly the same as Tina's, and who is that, mom? No...
"An illusion," he said silently, but he heard The One Who Was The Pied Piper once again:
"I can't...No, I can't. Not like this."
"No one is demanding the impossible...So, they are all doomed."
A groan passed over the square: an eerie sound, transient and barely audible; it passed, rolling like a wave - and ceased. And they all began to lower their eyes.
One by one. Gradually. Soundlessly. Just a moment ago a person's eyes were gleaming with hope for mercy - now his eyes have been snuffed out like a candle. He lowered his gaze to the ground: "If you have thus judged, the decision is just."
"If you have thus judged, the decision is just."
"If you have thus judged..."
In the entire square, all throughout the huge square with many hundreds of people, lights were dying in one pair of eyes after another. Their hoods fell over their faces, their heads were bent down, and there was complete silence.
"How are they punished?" asked Guy quickly.
The black figure almost imperceptibly swayed:
"None of your business."
"But I should..."
"Why me exactly? Why?"
"It is how it is."
Guy started. The impassive black hulk, the square numbed by despair - and this mocking, deliberately sarcastic reply...
He returned to the pillar and sat down by its base. The square looked down. All their eyes were on the ground, and it seemed this ground was covered in rotting fates, rolled-up in a tube.
"I think they have repented," he said hoarsely, "I forgive them."
The words cost him dearly; having said them, he felt simultaneously both a heaviness and a release. And now...
He looked at the square - and saw the same lowered heads. The same stooped backs, and the silence went on and on...
Nothing had happened. Nothing had changed.
"To say it is not enough," slowly replied The One Who Was The Pied Piper. "You said it...but you haven't actually forgiven them."
"That means I can't do it," Guy whispered. "I'm...no saint, to..."
Silence. Above the bowed heads wafted the distinct smell of earth - recently overturned and smelling of clay. Such that Guy saw without difficulty the pit into which they lowered the coffin with the mutilated body of Il...
"...No, the darkness isn't scary, imagine that it is afraid of you...Not you - of it, but it - of you, you know, so go ahead and say it - darkness, I'm good, I won't hurt you..."
It was all in vain. There was nothing, but an ode to impotence, hopelessness, despair, and death. The crowd languished in silence, and he - what could he do? Forget?
And how is it possible to forgive without forgetting?
But then again, what good is forgiveness, if you don't remember?
"I forgive you," he said almost inaudibly.
Nothing happened. The heads only bent lower.
"...No, the darkness isn't scary...Don't be afraid of the dark, Guy. After all, you know your house is on the other side and that we love you and are waiting for you..."
"You goddamn bastards," Guy said through his tears. "How I hate you, Why are you doing this to me...Why do I need this, what for...What vermin you are, what...but I..."
He covered his face with his hands. And whispered, choking with tears:
The earth trembled.
The next second the buildings around the square began to fall.
They collapsed soundlessly, less crashing down than simply crumbling into dust - first their frames were exposed, and then all that remained was a slowly settling cloud of dust. Guy was on his knees, watching the world end until the stones beneath him began to shake and move apart; the grimy stone finger tilted and fell, disintegrating into nothing. The bell tower held out longest of all, but it too finally dropped its silenced bell and transformed into a mound of moss-covered stones. The disintegration was over.
Empty Village, once called Burned Tower, was no more. Instead there were ancient ruins crisscrossed with tree roots, and overgrown with bushes, and conquered by the forest. Most of the ruins were indistinguishable among the lush greenery, and the only sign of civilization was the van, waiting nearby in the middle of a narrow path overgrown with grass.
Guy sat on a rock sunken into the ground amid yellow pine needles that had accumulated for years. He breathed in the smell of the needles and a leisurely forest breeze cooled his burning, inflamed cheeks.
The Pied Piper matter-of-factly shook the clay from his faded khaki pants. He sat down next to Guy, found a small pebble among the pine needles, tossed it high into the air, and deftly caught it. Then he handed it to Guy:
Guy took it and held it in his hand. He asked:
The Pied Piper shrugged:
"You never know...See, there's a hole in it. It's a talisman..."
On the remnants of a hundred-year-old tree stump alighted a fearless titmouse. Somewhere a cicada chirped, and its voice was the voice of the hot, halcyon summer. Another cicada chirped back to the first - and now they were chirping a duet.
Without thinking, Guy felt himself over - his shirt, pants...and the memory of the sackcloth robe. His fingers remembered...his body remembered the feel of it...
"How are you?" the piper asked softly. "Are you alright?"
Guy hid his face between his knees and started crying: choking, sobbing uncontrollably, and with abandon; only the titmouse and the Pied Piper heard him. The cicadas didn't count - all the cicadas in the world only listen to themselves...
The titmouse squeaked in surprise. The Pied Piper was silent.
The sun was setting beyond the forest.
"I'm sorry," Guy said, having cried himself out. "Too much...I'm sorry for this world...I don't like it. I don't want to...in it to..."
"Think about it," the Pied Piper replied slowly.
The slanting rays of the setting sun illuminated the tops of the pines. A furry green caterpillar was crawling up Guy's knee; a bird flapped its wings.
"Will I be forgiven those words?" Guy asked in a whisper.
"You've already been forgiven. You've had a lot forgiven today...Well, let's go. Your pets are waiting..."
The sun set. The pine tree candles had gone out. The titmouse flew up and into the forest.
"Where are they now?" Guy asked quietly.
"Don't ask stupid questions. That's not for you to know."
"I don't understand one thing..."
"It's not just one thing, there are many things you don't understand...Get up, there's no more time to sit around. Let's go..."
The Pied Piper was already walking to the van. Guy helplessly said to his back:
"But if all this did happen to me, and if the term of their punishment has ended, and the curse is lifted...then shouldn't I have also...gone with them?"
The Pied Piper stopped. He slowly looked back over his shoulder:
"Do you really think you understand anything about it? Folklorist...Stop devouring me with those eyes, you're not going to learn anything more. Get up, let's go."
"So...yes or no?"
The Pied Piper sighed. With obvious reluctance he muttered:
"Yes. By law - you should have."
"Be quiet. Not a word. Let's just say a friend of yours bailed you out."
When the van had left the forest and rejoined the well-worn Rusty Trail, dusk had already fallen.
"Do you think you're late?" the Pied Piper inquired.
As before, he sat next to Guy, his elbow thrust out the window.
"It's still early..." Guy mumbled uncertainly. He turned the headlights on. It was an hour's drive to the farm, at the most.
"Look, the moon is rising..." the Pied Piper squinted contentedly at the heavy, reddish-yellow disk.
"A full moon..."
"You're the specialist," the Pied Piper winked. "A full moon, yes..."
Guy was silent. There was too much he wanted to say and to ask, but he was silent for almost half an hour, until the Pied Piper touched his shoulder:
"Stop...I'll get out here."
The van stopped; the doors swung open simultaneously on both sides. Guy silently walked over to the piper.
"Look," the Pied Piper pointed in the direction of where, barely visible in the dusk, several dead trees stood by the road. "Do you know the story of those trees?"
The dark, massive figures hung over the grove and the road, stretching their broken branches towards the moon. Guy smiled uncertainly:
"They call them 'Praying Trees'. That's what they're called..."
"Yes," nodded the Pied Piper. "They were people, a powerful, strong tribe. One fine day, they refused to worship the forest god and appealed to Heaven. But Heaven is on high, and the forest god lived amongst them, and he became furious and told them: 'You will pray to Heaven eternally for mercy, but Heaven will not hear you.' Then they put down roots into the earth and ever since they have stretched out their arms in prayer, but Heaven is deaf to them...That's how it is, Guy. I'll say goodbye to you now. Don't be afraid of anything - everything will be fine. Godspeed."
He turned and walked into the darkness, lightly and noiselessly, bathed in moonlight. Guy stood and watched him go, and then he mechanically thrust his hand into his pocket - his hand touched the pebble from the walls of Burned Tower.
"Wait!" Guy shouted and ran to catch up.
The departing figure turned around; in the moonlight Guy saw that the piper was smiling.
"I just wanted to say..." Guy took a deep breath. He didn't know what to say. But he had to say it, and the Pied Piper waited, smiling. Guy finally forced out something barely audible:
"I'm grateful. Farewell."
"Goodbye," the Pied Piper once again flashed his white teeth.
"Can I ask a question?"
"Perhaps Heaven will hear them someday, after all?"
They both looked at where the dead branches stretched to the sky in mute supplication.
"Maybe it will," said the Pied Piper. "Maybe it will."
THE BURNED TOWER Copyright 1999 by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko