Rublieuskaja’s new novel is set in the decadent years at the end of the nineteenth century, but opens in our times. The young journalist Sierafima is setting off to inspect a flat that she wishes to rent from a young man, the biologist Haljash, with whom she is secretly in love. He is getting ready to leave for the USA, where his fiancee is waiting for him in one of the universities there. The two of them are sorting things out in the flat when Haljash discovers among his grandfather’s papers a daguerreotype and a diary that belonged to an unknown woman… Mysterious events dating back to the 1890s unfold before the reader. The owners of a photographic studio in a small provincial Belarusian town – the beautiful, independent-minded Bahuslava and her father Varaksa Nichiel – specialise in portraits of the newly deceased; they have to set off on an expedition to photograph a unique ethnographical collection on the remote, sinister estate of Zhuchavichy. The current owner of the estate, Prince Shymon Kahaniecki, is believed by the local villagers to be a werewolf. The novel encompasses elements of the Gothic, the horror story, a passionate love affair in spite of everything, and the merciless baseness of humanity. A solution to this romantic and terrifying story is found only in our day.
The wrought iron gates were decorated with rusty wolves’ heads; they squeaked as if begging not to have to admit the suspicious guests. The manservant who came to the gates looked like a wolf himself. He was a swarthy gloomy type with a broken nose, in a white shirt and leather waistcoat, his hair tied at the back of his neck in an untidy ponytail. He made no show of even trying to listen to the complaints of the old metal. Unhurriedly he opened both halves of the gates in turn, and nodded indifferently to the new arrivals as if to say “Come on in”. He didn’t even bother to turn his head after them.
After all, what was there to look at? The britzka was covered in mud and looked as though it had just been dragged out of a swamp, and the passengers were just as muddy – two young men, one of them in a student overcoat, the other in a short sheepskin coat and an embroidered shirt, and a bright-eyed young miss in a gabardine overcoat and a woollen travelling skirt, so dirty that something could have been planted along the hem. Only the grey-headed gentleman with a neatly curled moustache, wearing glasses and a hat with a wide brim, managed to look respectable in spite of the fact that he was mud-spattered up to the waist
So, they had counted all the pools and ponds they had passed, they had brought their foul mood to the attention of every single hedgehog by the colourful language they used to describe the journey, even though there was a lady present. She, by the way, spoke quietly, scarcely opening her mouth, but was the most expressive of all. It is not without reason that the roads in autumn hereabouts were deemed the worst anywhere, just as the forests were the tallest and densest. For centuries past the local forests had provided people with income from the manufacture of ash.
The best pine-trees went for ships’ masts; their fate was to stand proud above the waves of distant seas. By contrast, the smaller puny trees were doomed to be turned into a black, weightless substance – ash ¬– not for sprinkling on the heads of the prophetesses of antiquity, but packed into ordinary barrels and shipped off in flat-bottomed boats to distant southern markets and then used to fertilize alien soil that could never be used for growing the tall pines from which ships are built. Many of the inhabitants of the small but proud town of N were descendants of those ash producers. Their smudged faces made them look like blackamoors. Their hands were large and rough; eaten into them was the resin that had not had time to turn into amber.
At one time there was no shortage of hunters here… Mighty aurochses and leopards roamed free. But by the sixteenth century Kryshtof Radzivil, the owner of these parts, was writing to Kansta?cin Astro?ski, requesting him to obtain from his retainers, the young princes Sapieha, a leopard for his private zoo. A lion he already had – it had been brought from over the sea – but the local leopards had all been killed.
That should not come as a surprise. What could better adorn a dragoon or a winged hussar than a golden yellow skin with black spots rakishly slung across the shoulder?
Just think of everything that had been exterminated in the depths of the local forests – phoenixes, unicorns, rebels… Many a year had passed since the forest paths were last trampled by aurochses or leopards. It was no easy matter even to encounter an ordinary lumbering Litvin bear. This is what Michal Klakocki, who had recently obtained his master’s in archaeology, told Bahuslava with a serious look on his face. He spoke clearly, hoping to calm any fears that the young miss entertained about wild animals attacking. Bahuslava immediately replied in a cold voice, expressing regret that she would not have the opportunity to practise throwing her stiletto… Just to emphasise the point she drew the blade from her sleeve with the speed of lightning, leaving a sparkling circle of silver in the air. She was too eager to remind the upright youth of the person with whom he had chosen to involve himself, otherwise he would be unable to decide whether his travelling companion was a wild beast of prey or an eccentric, but attractive young lady.
To be perfectly honest Bahuta did not feel herself quite so liberated in the forest; the territory of wood goblins was for her an environment both hostile and unknown. Right from the moment she left her girls’ private school she had been travelling around cities and towns with Nichie?. The past for her was a series of rooms in roadside hotels that reeked of cigarettes, smoke-filled apartments with patterned wallpaper and an antimacassar for well-oiled heads that someone had left hanging on a pier-glass. And as for her childhood memories of the Siberian taiga – it was a snow-covered hell where fugitive exiles disappear, only for their wolf-chewed remains to be discovered the following spring.
It was then that the painfully thin Davyd leapt to his feet and launched into a speech on something ethnographical, his favourite topic. He claimed that the animals around Zhukavichy had disappeared because – as the locals maintained – of the werewolves that haunted the region. He went on to cite a dozen or so fairy tales about shapeshifters that he had written down from the accounts of various talkative old men and women. In each of his horror stories there was an enchanted belt that would be placed across the path of anyone who was destined to be turned into an animal, and from five to twelve enchanted knives that a werewolf would have to roll over in order to regain his human shape. There would be silver bullets whistling, each of them marked with a cross, and a church window shattered by the body of some powerful animal – it had been someone’s idea to drag an unfortunate shapeshifter into the building… At this point Davyd, whose sunken cheeks were now burning bright red, made some comparisons between what he had been talking about and foreign myths. For example – in a Serbian manuscript Nomocanon of 1262 we read “The Moon and the Sun were consumed by werewolves”, thus permitting us to draw a parallel with the Solar Myth and to compare the werewolf as archetype with the dragon… In the Old Testament Jeremiah wrote of a “wolf of the desert”, and elsewhere we read of Nebuchadnezzar who was half-turned into an animal because of his sins. Some of the fanged two-souled beings were compelled to remain in their human skin until the curse was lifted, others were from time to time covered in fur. There were many ways of discovering whether someone had been cursed. The person will attempt to cook meat on an open fire that shepherds have forgotten to put out. He will press his muzzle into the dewy grass – this is his way of washing himself. He will howl sadly towards the east – this is his way of praying. He will always be alone. If he is killed and flayed, rotting human clothing will be found underneath. If he does regain his human form, his physiognomy will always be twisted, he will fear silver and refuse to emerge when there is a full moon, and a loathsome stench will come from him. The local werewolves have one more special feature: they hate attackers who come from foreign lands. When the Swedes came werewolves gnawed their way through a whole garrison. One day the Tatars made camp – that night they all had their throats gouged out by the monstrous beasts. The Muscovite army arrived at the walls of the town – they were all eaten. Then the French appeared – fang marks were found on their bodies… Davyd Masievich explained all this as the archetypal function of the totem: protector of the tribe. The wolf was invariably the totem of the local people; this is confirmed not only by the Chronicles of Herodotus, but also by several coats of arms of the local nobility…
In other words, once he started spouting he would keep going until the Crack of Doom.
The forest was dark, the road consisted of nothing but mud and in those places where crooked, twisted aspens hobbled forwards to replace the tall pines it became even worse – a real swamp. The road became a sort of watercourse where you needed to row. There were marshes on both sides on which the trunks of pine trees had once been laid and then strewn over with earth. Bahuta had never once had to travel across marshlands, and for this she was eternally grateful to Fate.
Thank God they reached ?ukavi?y while it was still light.
In the dark it would have been even more terrifying… Dense forest all around, a fence of rusty iron railings with tips fashioned like wolves’ heads baring their teeth. The squire’s grey stone house loomed at the end of the driveway where a lone orphaned lantern shone. It had been lit specially. Just as well that one of the owners had thought of planting lime trees among the pines lining the driveway, but even these trees – usually so welcoming – here had the appearance of merchants’ wives reduced to wearing old tattered garments. In desperation they raised their hands to the heavens with the remnants of the now brown foliage of autumn that had forgotten it was once golden.
translated by Jim Dingley