CHAPTER 1 OF MANIKIN AND THE SAINTS: THE SIBERIAN TRACT, YEAR 7109 SINCE THE CREATION OF THE WORLD
The village of Pathlessness was founded by the twins Nolike and Nogood. These intrepid grave robbers from out west of the Great Rock showed up in the Midnight Lands wearing bast shoes, but after a year ransacking Tatar kurgans they had a musket, leather boots, a well-greased wagon, and two chaldonkas, bought in the Baraba steppe for thirty silver kopecks.
At an inn along the tract, the brothers overheard the prating of a tipsy fremder recounting tales of the untouched grave of a prince. “It’s a month’s walk from here North, toward Midnight, then toward Sunrise,” he told another drunken outlander. “But don’t go. Shoshkups live there, bad people!”
The brothers chose closer seats, connived in thoughts and words, forfeited two cups of strong spirits to the fremder, and heard out all his wistful grunting. The three left the inn together, but under cover of night the brothers carefully shoved the bag of words into a ditch and trampled him into a bag of bones, ensuring that no others would set out for adventure among the Shoshkups.
They headed off. Had some fun on the way. One would drive the wagon while the other fooled around with the girls. Then they’d switch. Soon they couldn’t even remember which one was Nogood and which was Nolike. Days passed, as like as grass blades in the steppe, as dust motes in your eye. You blink, and it’s gone. But at least you’re alive.
In those days, Siberia belonged to neither the Russians nor the Tatars. It was a land of freedom. You had to have heart and imagination. Couldn’t last long on just your strength. Always somebody else around the bend who could best anything, even a bear. The twins were quick to pick up on when to be eagles and when to be vipers, whom to rend like a wolf and whom to flee like a rabbit, so they made it to the Ob with their skins intact, only to find that no hard roads went on from there. Now their path wound down along the big river first, and then, two hundred versts later, back up a tributary.
They exchanged their cart and horses for a boat with four oarlocks. Their pricey little ladies happened to be from river-dwelling stock, so they could row no worse than the twins. They went along the river, weaving their song. The chaldonkas’ song was strange, as though they each had a small animal rustling inside their mouths, but it was beautiful, as though that small animal was actually a noble ermine. Slowly, so slowly the brothers didn’t notice it, they entered into conversation with the girls.
“Hey, listen!” Nogood explained to Nolike. “Their language, it’s not devil-talk, it’s people-talk! Our ‘well met’ is ‘beewell’ in their tongue. ‘God keep you’ is ‘farewell.’”
It was just the names he couldn’t understand.
“What are you called?”
It’s true that they were as like in the face as the moon and her reflection. Except that one of them was always joking, while the other was always deep in thought.
“Which one you want today? Masska or Masska?” laughed Nogood, poking his brother in the ribs.
Nolike frowned. The river’s bouncing made him feel queer and sick, as if he was being shoved out of the boat.
“You’re small bait, cretin,” he ground out through his teeth.
They made it to the convergence of the tributary and the Ob, then took the river’s right-hand channel. Hard going against the current. No time for songs. Two weeks later they dropped anchor at a high cliff bank, at the very place the fremder had described as worm-eaten. The bank was full of holes, like the best bits’d been gnawed clean. Bank-dwellers peered out of the holes. Nolike lit his fuse and fired a shot. “Beewell, Shoshkups!” They all popped back into their holes. But the marksman was too slow ramming his next bullet: a shout went out across the taiga, and everything went still.
Turns out that’s what a Samoyed village is: tunnels bored through the earth. So they can jump in the river if an enemy comes from the taiga, or melt into the forest if a foreign force rows up the water. If they’re left no way out, with enemies standing guard over both ends of the burrow, the Samoyeds light a fire underground and roast themselves. This releases their small spirits, which settle in a bird, an animal, a fish, an ant, a tree, a mushroom, and an unseen evil force. Then they are seven, instead of one, and all take revenge against the wrongdoer and hound him to death. So said the Masskas.
The twins laughed at the fairy tale. Nolike took the musket and climbed up the steep bank. Nogood took his short lance and a lantern into the burrows to find fine things the masters had left behind as they fled. He found pike-skin boots and an elk-udder cap.
Nolike fared worse. He came across a god. A small-bore god, master of spiders and the dying embers of lightning-struck trees. That was all the Samoyed-Shoshkups, alone in the great forest, had managed to wheedle out of the spirits’ storehouse for themselves. Still, he was strong all the same. Had eight arms. Nolike was obliged to fight.
The god struck first, clawing Nolike under the ribs and letting the blood out from there. But the man had his fuse lit and got off a shot to the god’s belly, so his power leaked away out the hole. Nolike pulled his knife from his boot and chopped off his adversary’s hand. He cut six off, leaving two, like people have. That place has been called Godhands ever since. His brother heard the noise and ran over with rope, and the two of them dragged the weakened god into a burrow and propped him up in a dark corner.
Later the Masskas showed them how to feed him, but first the girls tended the eight wounds on Nolike’s chest. They sucked out the spider venom the god’s claws had been smeared with. They applied eight burdock leaves to Nolike’s body. They chewed dreambark and gave it to him from their own mouths. By autumn Nolike fell into slumber. He slept a hero’s sleep.
The next morning, the Shoshkups crept on all fours back out of the forest, bringing gifts. They wanted to trade, get their idol back. Only Nogood didn’t give it them. He kept it for himself, as a hostage. The Shoshkups turned docile, obeying the newcomer’s every wish, but would not reveal their prince’s resting place.
Never mind, no matter. No need to hurry. That prince won’t escape his grave. This place isn’t bad. We’ll stay.
Nogood axed down trees, built up a house. He moved his brother to the upper chamber, then whiled away the days with the lively Masskas, learning their funny ermine words. Love is kikika. What next! And soon both gave birth…
They didn’t birth babies the regular way, they birthed them so: in late autumn, when the pancake ice had formed on the river and the sleepy bear was rolling and rustling in his windfall, the Masskas chose Chinese silk scarves, woven by worms, from the twins’ loot and made of them shirts with flowing sleeves. They plucked birds’ green and yellow feathers, and each carried an armful into the banya. Nolike was curious, so he watched through a crack as the chaldonkas shaved the hair under their round bellies with a knife, then glued feathers over their thighs and shameful parts. They clothed themselves in their new shirts and approached the brothers, explaining that they were now leaving for the forest, and would not return until spring.
The joking Masska pointed toward Midday and said, “In the land of no winter our children will come forth, on the bank of the great river we’ll give them life.”
“Is it far from here to the land of no winter?” asked Nolike.
“It takes half a person three years,” Masska answered. Nolike understood this: two would set out on the trail, but only one would reach its end.
“Teach us to fly!” Nogood shouted shrilly.
“He only flies who knows not winter, nor the kiss of frost. But you are men of the cold. The cruel keep of your veins will stay your upward leap. Your innards will burst.” They said this, bowed to the brothers, and headed into the forest.
Nolike and Nogood had never before wintered so close to Midnight. Thus they didn’t know that robes fit for kings were bounding from branch to branch, whole roundelays of ermines and martens. Then they got the knack of landing arrows in squirrels’ and sables’ eyes, to leave the furs whole, and they forgot to think about their Masskas until that spring day when the ice cracked and they suddenly heard overhead the raucous quarreling of birds.
They looked up into the sky. Wings fluttered down all around. So many wings that it seemed as though the great river herself had come to visit this dark corner from the land of no winter, where humans serve the sun and write books for their dead. The springtime cries of birds make a northerner’s heart skip a beat, cause a trembling in his throat. His soul grows anguished that he’ll be lost after his death. For in those parts, there’s only a handful of folk who’ve mastered the art of making eternal dolls out of human bodies, and they only serve princes. The rest rot in pits. The brothers donned soft boots and sought out the bewinged bedlam. In the forest there was a round glade where the snow had melted. The girls stood naked on a pile of feathers in the middle of the wet earth. They wore black, long-beaked masks. The earth smoked under their feet and they each held a baby. They were breathing hard, but their eyes sparkled with joy through the slits in their masks.
“Take them,” said the Masskas.
Nogood reached out his hands, but Nolike was enraged and shouted, “Bird’s bastard!” He dashed one child to the ground. It cried, then grew still.
“What are you doing, monster!” Nogood fell on his brother.
“I’m chasing this foulness away! These aren’t women. It’s evil witchcraft. It shall not happen, that birds bear us children. And you, brother, I won’t let you spend your seed in a bird’s nest.”
“What do you mean, you won’t let me?”
“I’d rather kill you, brother!”
“I’ll kill you first!” roared Nogood, and smashed his iron gauntlet into Nolike’s forehead. Nolike fell. The Masskas flew over and pecked him to death. They lived for many years after that, both with the same husband. His strength increased, and they grew fruitful and multiplied, and they all flew each year to winter in Egypt.
ANDREY FILIMONOV (b. 1969) is a native of Tomsk, the 400-year-old “Athens of Siberia” and center of White Russian resistance during the Russian Civil War. Filimonov trained as a philosopher and journalist; his poetry and stories have appeared in Nestolichnaya literatura, Antologiya russkogo verlibra, Sibirskiye ogni, Vavilon, and elsewhere. Filimonov’s 2016 novel Manikin and the Saints and his 2018 novel Recipes for the Earth’s Creation (Retsepty sotvoreniya mira) were both nominated for the Big Book and National Bestseller prizes. He was also nominated for the NOS prize, and Recipes won a Reader’s Favorite award in the Big Book prize competition. Filimonov’s latest book is the 2019 fiction collection I Walk A Loon Along the Road (Vykhozhu 1 ja na dorogu). This is his first work to appear in English translation.
ANNE O. FISHER’s 2019 publications include “Monitor-1” by Shura Burtin (winner of the inaugural True Story Award for long-form journalism); “Nervous,” a one-act play by Julia Lukshina (Asymptote); and poetry and prose by Ilya Danishevsky and Dmitry Kuzmin in the folio Fisher co-edited, Life Stories, Death Sentences: Contemporary Russian-Language LGBTQ+ Writing (In Translation). Fisher is a past recipient of NEA and NEH translation grants and her translations have been recognized by the Northern California Book Awards, AATSEEL, and Academia Rossica. With poet and husband Derek Mong, Fisher co-translated The Joyous Science: Selected Poems of Maxim Amelin, winner of the 2018 Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation. Fisher teaches remotely for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Translation and Interpreting Studies program and is the Vice-President of ALTA (American Literary Translators Association). She lives in Indiana with her family.