Anets was visible from every point of the earth. Tall, strong, and powerful, She radiated calm and confidence, although She also demanded constant attention like a capricious woman. Anets shielded us from everything foreign, unknown, and unfamiliar. She reached up to the broad blanket of the sky and supported it.
That morning was overcast. Grey clouds bunched up, heralding rain. I studied one of them as I went on my way—it looked like a sheep. The whole charm of watching clouds lies in them being a sheep one minute and a dog the next, or a pig, or a downy pillow, or something with no name at all. Besides, what else is there to look at other than the sky? That’s clear to everyone and we all walk the streets, craning our necks. Except for children, of course. I have a daughter—I called her Anets, in honor of the Great Anets. So I know firsthand how hard it is to teach a child to walk, especially on narrow sidewalks. There’s no time for clouds: one moment of inattention and you land on foreign ground, and that, as everyone knows, is a fault. And not a minor one, either. The main thing in bringing up children is to teach them to walk without fault. Adults, too, should look down at the ground from time to time. Every full-fledged inhabitant of Earth is able to walk all its alleys and sidewalks without stumbling, even when blindfolded, but caution is the best policy because freak events can still happen.
One particular issue had been under discussion at the Global Morning Meeting constantly for several years. As Deputy Master for Restoration and Reinforcement of the Great Anets I was often called on to speak. I love making speeches, and people love to listen. It’s not so much to do with the skill of conducting a monologue as with the ability to show convincing emotion with whatever you say. And this was a painful issue affecting not only the constructors but also the lower levels of society—the tradespeople, farmers, doctors, teachers, overseers, and all others without the right to participate in the Meeting.
I strode up to the rostrum:
“Esteemed Constructors, like every citizen of Earth beneath the Great Anets, I am afraid. I’m not ashamed to admit it. The constant growth in the number of Indifferents is terrifying. More than a quarter of the population of Earth has been infected with this awful disease, among them our colleagues, friends, wives… As we all know, Indifferents can now be found everywhere: in all sections of society and occupational cliques, and among both sexes. Unlike with absentees, ordinary disciplinary measures have no effect on Indifferents. Not only do they stay away from work, which, as we know, is punishable one to one under the Comprehensive Code of Faults (one day’s absenteeism—one year’s imprisonment), but they also neglect their domestic duties (1 to 0.3), don’t participate in the upbringing of children (1 to 0.8), and fail to fulfill their conjugal duty (1 to 0.1).
“After consulting with specialists, I must inform you of the disconcerting conclusions: indifference is a serious, infectious disease conveyed by droplet infection. We are the descendants of the Great Constructors who erected Anets. Although we do not know what exactly led them to perform their great deed, one thing is clear: Anets is now guarding us from some great threat that is incompatible with life on Earth. We cannot afford to take any risks. As Deputy Master for Restoration and Reinforcement of the Great Anets, I propose that the death sentence for Indifferents passed at yesterday’s Meeting be commuted to banishment beyond Anets. May the Great Anets protect us, as She protected our ancestors from all manner of misfortunes. Amen.”
There were whispers in the Great Hall. Many did not agree, particularly relatives of those affected. That was understandable: the death sentence was certainly a little unpleasant, but being sent beyond Anets…
My proposal was carried unanimously. I was now the acting Master, after all, and had the Constructors ever once failed to support the Master? Besides, that would have been mutiny—1 to 0 (the death sentence).
* * *
Of course it was a contagion. But how was it conveyed? By droplet infection?! In that case all the supervisors would have fallen ill too, which seems not to have happened. Then again, supervisors are a special type of people, trained to take orders literally. They only have two facial expressions: one sullen and threatening, which is necessary when carrying out their official duties, and the other a look of utter perplexity in all remaining situations. Talk about the hoi polloi! But after all, they’re human too, from a physiological point of view. The supervisors were not infected, and that dispirited me. I mean, if this had been smallpox or chicken pox it would have been possible to infect a few dozen for political reasons. But no, this disease was indifference, damn it. How on earth was it transmitted? What if it wasn’t a contagion at all? On the other hand, if this epidemic of indifference hadn’t come at such a strategic time in my career I’d still be stuck as a Deputy.
“Supervisor! Go to the prison tower and bring me the Master for Restoration and Reinforcement of the Great Anets.
* * *
Great Anets, how vile these Indifferents are! Their eyes are lifeless like a corpse, their hair is dirty and disheveled, their skin is pale, their gait is sluggish, and they’re silent as if they’d swallowed their tongue.
“I have news for you. This morning the Meeting voted to commute the death sentence of all those ill with indifference: you are to be exiled beyond Anets. I’m very sorry, but since you’re infected we can’t take any risks.”
His eyes stayed glued to the floor. Had he gone deaf as well? How loathsome he was.
“Listen, perhaps you think I acted out of self-interest in proposing this decision, but that’s not true. It’s not true! You must believe me!”
He didn’t as much as glance my way, the rat. I had to keep calm. I reached out and touched his hand. It was deathly cold like a corpse’s.
“The Comprehensive Code of Faults stipulates that your son will not now become Master as he would have in the case of the death penalty. But I promise to take care of him as if he were my own. And you, in turn, must promise me this: tomorrow at dawn you’ll be collected at the gate and let out, and if you’re still alive after twenty-four hours you must return to the gate. A supervisor will be waiting. Tell him what it’s like out there… Perhaps it’s time for us to build a second reinforcement. Come on, don’t look so glum—these measures were dictated by necessity. I have the whole Earth to worry about. As of tomorrow I will be Master. Supervisor, take him away!”
* * *
“Supervisor, are you there?”
“Listen to me: I was sent here expecting a fate worse than death but what did I see? There’s life here! Anets is just a wall. Do you hear me, supervisor? Anets is only a wall—huge, admittedly—but beyond it everything’s the same. No, better! Here there’s sky. It continues beyond the wall. The world goes on as far as the eye can see. It’s huge! There’s lots of land, enough for everyone. And grass! The grass grows all by itself. And lots of food, and no one has to grow it! And animals—also all by themselves. And water, directly on the surface like after rain, but it’s clean and there’s plenty of it. Really! They thought they were sending us to our deaths—but here there’s freedom! Do you hear me supervisor?”
“Don’t you believe me? Come out and see for yourself!”
“Don’t be afraid, come out. It’s not dangerous. We’ve all recovered!”
“Then open the gate and let me back in! I want to tell everyone! I’ll grab everyone by the sleeve! I’ll drag you all out! You must tell the Master to open the gate! There’s nothing to be afraid of anymore! They must free my son, he has to see this! Supervisor, do you hear me?! TELL THEM!
* * *
“Permission to report, Sir.”
“Well, did he come?”
“So he’s still alive, then.”
“For the time being, Sir.”
“And had his condition worsened?”
“He was delirious, Sir.”
“What did he say?”
“Er… it was basically gibberish, Sir. He was raving, I didn’t understand.”
“Come on, man, what did he say?!”
“Er… he said Anets wasn’t Anets. And the sky had no end. And there was lots of land and plenty of water. And nothing needed to be grown—it all happened by itself somehow. The same with the animals…”
“Gibberish—that’s the word. Anything else?”
“He asked for the gates to be opened.”
“Meaning, he begged to come back?”
“No, Sir, he wanted all of us to go out…”
“Well how about that: he wants to take revenge. I guess that’s understandable.”
“No, Sir, he asked for his son to be let out.”
“What would he want his son for?! He’s obviously gone half crazy. Call the secretary: we’re going to draw up an order for building the second reinforcement.”
* * *
Why don’t the clouds form shapes anymore? People are like worms. They toe the line, walk the straight and narrow, and swarm like flies… They make me sick. What’s happened to Anets? It’s as if she really is just a wall. I’m not going to work, I hate it. But I hate sitting around at home as well. They’ll think I’m an Indifferent—but to hell with them. They’ll dismiss me, but they can give me 1 to 0 for all I care. Why don’t the clouds form shapes anymore?
Full to the brim,
Water icy cold,
Salty, black and grim,
Its depth is untold.
On its bed they all seek—
Never to find,
They beg and pray so meek,
But here they will stay, confined.
The leader in his gown
And the loser with his frown
Both vanish in its depths—
Doomed to drown.
How its bed beckons
And its mute dread repels,
A note on YEKATERINA MIKHAILOVSKAYA by translator Will Firth:
In 2010, I spent two months working for a Russian NGO in St Petersburg as a way of refreshing my active Russian and getting to know that part of the country better. I also put out my feelers to discover new writing, and my acquaintance with the author Dmitri Novoselov stems from that time. One of the other writers I came across was Yekaterina Mikhailovskaya. I hadn’t heard anything about her; I simply found a collection of her stories while browsing through one of the main St Petersburg bookshops and, being a fan of short stories, bought it without hesitation. The book is entitled Ya lyubila gil’otinu, eshafot i palacha (I Loved the Guillotine, the Scaffold and the Hangman) and was published in 2007. It consists of seventeen rather melancholic, intimate short stories, each of which also contains a poem. I decided to translate one of the stories I like best, “Anets”.
But there’s one awkward thing: despite considerable efforts, we’ve been unable to contact the author or the publisher through any of the channels given in the book and mentioned on the Web. Who knows, perhaps the small Moscow publisher (Boslen) has folded, or Yekaterina Mikhailovskaya is just a pseudonym, or the author is a recluse living in a log cabin in Siberia, or she’s since been devoured by a bear out in the taiga… This really is a bit strange because almost all of the living writers from Eastern Europe I’ve translated have been outright communicative and helpful when they hear there’s a chance of some of their work being published abroad. It feels eerie when I muse about the author being incommunicado like this, and for me this feeling fits with the cleverly crafted, cold dystopia in the story – an anti-utopia by an elusive Russian. So thank you, Yekaterina Mikhailovskaya, whoever and wherever you are! If anyone has information about the identity of the author, please get into contact with B O D Y.
About the Translator:
WILL FIRTH was born in 1965 in Newcastle, Australia. He studied German and Slavic languages in Canberra, Zagreb, and Moscow. Since 1991 he has been living in Berlin, Germany, where he works as a freelance translator of literature and the humanities. He translates from Russian, Macedonian, and all variants of Serbo-Croat. His website is www.willfirth.de.