The Bear Fight
In his den.
Deep in the Moscow forest.
Beside his father, the Bear.
Who was warm. Shaggy. Brown. His own kith and kin.
The mixture of bear and human blood in Emelya circulated in the enclosed space of his body more slowly than in humans, and had not come out yet to puzzle people. He slept, giving no thought to his second father, Volos, whom Emelya had left at the place of his execution in the holy city of Suzdal, entwisted and entwined in the numerous rubbery roots of the sacred oak tree, he slept unaware that Volos had long since seeped drop by drop, with the spring sap, into the crown of the oak and was living there near the top, taking the place of new branches, and regretting that he could not go down, waiting, rocking, stirring, rustling, and muttering a prayer with his green lips, waiting to see if Emelya would return, stand below and talk to his father.
And Leta, Emelya's mother, burned at the stake, drifted as a cloud above Moscow, like a puff of smoke unlost in the sky, and gazed down, searching for her son and his sacrificial fathers, regretting that only Gord was still alive and rejoicing that at least Gord remained. The happiest, and consequently the most vital of them was the Bear, sleeping the bear's usual, earthly, winter sleep of dormant nature. Yet without disturbing winter or hurrying spring, nature was awakening slowly the way the body of a swimmer leaves the sky and enters the water, the way the snow falls into fire and is extinguished, like wind touches the sea and whips up the waves, the way a star drops to earth and is burnt up, the way night turns into morning yet does not cease to be night and, finally, the way grain buried in the ground rises to heaven as ears of corn. Still, praise be to God, following laws unknown to man.
For Emelya, however, the Divine Night was ending as the festival of the Awakening Bear approached, heralding the Divine Day. Unlike nature, Emelya did not possess the gift of natural transformation and he could not wake up, as he should have deemed necessary and understood clearly and obviously. Yet again he was dreaming the same dream, on the other side of human transformation. Reproducing himself, splitting up, dividing and multiplying, like the meander round the collar of his shirt, like the refrain after a solo, like the ritual movements of dancers circling clockwise round a bonfire on the day of the Awakening Bear. The faces blurred, flashed past and reemerged in this round dance, one after another, sometimes forming a single countenance, sometimes splitting into a myriad visages.
Their movements, voices and bodies kept dividing and merging, and whether there were four of them or forty times four, no one could tell, even if the tellers were more skilled at counting than Euclid, Lobachevsky or King Solomon, no one could tell how many people had passed through the earth since man was created.
The Moscow forest was quiet.
The den breathed with their double steam, Emelya's and the Bear's.
Meanwhile Prince Boris's huntsmen roamed through the snowdrifts, their caps catching the fir branches, as the wild beasts fled, flew, cantered and crawled away from the human noise into the wildernesses of future streets: Petrovka, Yakimanka, Sretenka, Tverskaya, to go on living their measured, calm, unconstrained lives.
The first to follow in Prince Boris's tracks was Chang Shi.
In the preceding year of 11008 in the month of March on the 21st day Chang Shi, the nephew of Lin Ben, who ruled the province of Tsin, was still in the village of Chaotsiun never dreaming that fate would part him from his teacher Se Chen, the brother of the famous Se Bao, both pupils of Din De Sun, himself the disciple of the famous Chou Tun, who in turn had learnt precision blows from Li Yun, the pupil of Men Kan, a monk of ruined Shaoling and one of the few in whom the school of Shaoling lived on in all its precision and truth to the models of the school.
The reason why Chang Shi unexpectedly found himself in the retinue of twenty-year-old Prince Boris of Rostov, the son of Prince Vladimir and the Greek princess Anna, and had ventured into the Moscow wilds on this bear hunt, was both simple and highly reprehensible.
When his father's murderer Yu Yung, son of the provincial ruler Shandung, spat contemptuously in his face in public, Chang Shi broke the basic rule of Shaoling. Instead of begging Yu Yung's pardon and retiring with the words: "Forgive me for getting in the way of your spit", he cracked Yu Yung's chest open with one blow of his palm, tore out his warm and beating heart, and flung it down before Yu Yung fell to the ground.
After this Chang Shi was struck off the list of names of the Shaoling school which links the age of Sung and the age of Ming so strongly, as if since the day of the destruction and the revival of Shaoling not a single day had passed, not a single event taken place and not a single tactic defiled the image. Chang Shi had committed more than a sin. He had violated not only an external tactic, but also an inner law of the life of a pupil of the Shaoling school, and had therefore to flee not only from Chaotsiun, but also from the Celestial Empire: from the village because he had killed a man, and from the Celestial Empire itself for he had killed God.
Which explains why Chang Shi, now in the retinue of Prince Boris of Rostov, fought more often, morosely and eagerly than the prince's other bondsmen. He wished to blind his soul with blood and evil, so that it would not see him kill God. And Emelya, who had been chased out of the den by the dogs after the Bear, was for him a means of attaining if not purification, then oblivion and distraction. Although at first the early spring March morning had made even him, Chang Shi, feel less morose than usual.
He had slept soundly in the house of Gord, Prince Boris's man and Emelya's sacrificial father, who had built his dwelling a mile from the temple of Veles and the Moscow River where another tribe already lived and where Gord was now a stranger, but the spot was dear to him and the memory of Leta drew him there, like a crazed horse its rider, and Gord went home, albeit only once a year, usually in summer, on the day of his sacrificial wife's death.
The Bear's den was on the spot where the Church of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Divine now stands in Bogoslovsky Lane, where it crosses Bronnaya Street, just opposite Post Office No. 103104.
Chang Shi smiled out of the corner of his mind at the sight of Emelya, confused and sleepy, who had been chased out of the den by the dogs a minute later during which time four dogs, black, white, red and yellow, sank their teeth into his Father Bear's fur and then, dragging his intestines across the snow and staining it with blood, began their farewell chorus, while the Bear, who now looked like a hedgehog with a dozen arrows sticking out of him, collapsed in the snow and closed his wise bear's eyes.
So, driven out of the den Emelya stood there, rubbing his eyes and squinting at the sunlight, seeing neither the snow and the fir trees nor his Father Bear lying in the snow, waiting for the world to grow clear and distinct, not possessing the gift of transforming nature nor having learnt the art of transforming man.
Sleep still clawed faintly at his memory and muttered mockingly: "Tell your son Ivan that the world is bogged down in deceit which is why every large and small matter ends in war", and the new era had already raised its pen to inscribe a row of dots and divide his forest life of a free beast from the life of a warrior, bondsman, bodyguard or slave, or however it is given to a man to see, sense and call it, like the life of Chang Shi standing opposite him in the sun.
Chang Shi could have strode up to Emelya, drawing two knives from his belt, as the Invincible Cobra was to do later, falling upon a German platoon and killing half of them. He could have picked up two whips like Hu Yang Cho's octagonal, finely carved, with twelve thongs in the left hand and thirteen in the right. He could also have taken the cudgel wielded so expertly by Yu Sun, who with his bare hands had killed a tiger with bulging eyes and a white spot on its forehead in the Tsin Yang Gang pass.
But Emelya, who had crawled out of the den yawning and rubbing his eyes, although tall and stalwart and clearly of remarkable strength, was no more of a threat to him than a year-old bull to a toreador, or a rider on horseback to a machine gunner, or a boy on a bicycle to a soldier in a tank. At least so thought Chang Shi, and he was undoubtedly right within the logic of the school of Shaoling, and he was also right when, dealing a few light blows to the head, shoulder and stomach of the ever battle-ready Emelya and running over Emelya's pain points like a pianist over the keys, he realised that his opponent possessed the bear style, which he himself knew, loved and practised and was, therefore, protected against this style more than against others.
Chang Shi was inwardly reassured, and at that very moment received a blow from Emelya's elbow, collapsed, burying his face in the Bear's blood-streaked fur, and rose grimly to his feet, now with a different attitude to Emelya.
The elbow blow was not part of the bear style, so he had to find out whether it was unexpected, accidental or another school which deserved to be studied and, like a jazz improviser, produce his own version of this borrowed tactic.
This was not hard, for Chang Shi controlled his body no less than Yoka Sato the bow and strings of her violin, so he made a few easy and graceful movements within this blow and sent Emelya face down in the Bear's blood, noting that after his fall Emelya got up somewhat more quickly than he, Chang Shi, master of the secret blow, who could catch the power of the earth's revolutions, turn it into the movement of his hips and through the tips of his fingers cast the whole earth upon his victim as he grunted all the air from his lungs.
Herein lay the enigma, for no one ever got up after this blow.
Yet he had the feeling that the earth's power sent through him into Emelya had been extinguished by the movement Emelya made as he pushed himself off with his hands from the Bear's warm, kindred, still living body. Like a grasshopper claps its legs, resembling two lovers lying in a meadow, and flies up in the air. The power of the blow by his two feet on Chang Shi's chest was so great that only the snow, the Russian snow, stopped Chang Shi from ever regaining consciousness.
Prince Boris and Gord, who did not know yet that the man before him was his sacrificial son, and the other seventeen bondsmen clapped their mittens of soft embroidered deerskin.
They were glad that at last the morose and invincible Chang Shi had for the first time received a blow that would take him down a peg and knock out of him at least some of the scorn and contempt that he felt for his fellow bondsmen. Whereas for eastern and southern people deceit is valour, the basis of combat, renown and heroism, for the ordinary northerner it is base, foul and demeaning. Since Chang Shi always came out on top in any skirmish, it followed that baseness had the advantage over valour, and this was not only indisputable, but invariable and obvious.
Now Emelya's direct spring blow had changed their attitude to these qualities. It was not that in watching the fight they had felt any sympathy for Emelya, but because they did not like Chang Shi they were glad that he too could be humiliated.
Chang Shi immediately pulled out two knives, and the mill turned its sparkling circles in the March sun, but soon the circles grew dull as Emelya's blood separated the steel and the sun. The wounds were painful, but not dangerous.
Boris's retinue was bored, the Prince also. This was the work of a butcher.
It became clear that Emelya had no more than a minute to live. This was obvious to everyone except Emelya and, of course, Chang Shi. Emelya's movements resembled everybody else's and yet were never repeated, just as the motion of flames in a fire or of waves in the ocean or clouds in the sky is never repeated. Emelya did not have a school in the Shaoling sense, but his blows contained an animal element with a human finish and vice versa, and you could never make out where one movement ended and another began.
What is more, something happened that made Chang Shi shudder. He could easily, particularly with knives in his hands, have fought a dozen of Prince Boris's men and not necessarily have perished. He could easily have overcome his opponent, who, well-versed in the Shaoling technique, was now reproducing himself into two, three and four and could have reproduced himself any number of times, but, being a multiple person, he remained similar in his knowledge and movement and law to the original. Yet here something happened of which Chang Shi knew very little.
It was a miraculous vision of the god Fukuruma, who is known to every Russian from the tale of Koshchei the Deathless, whose fate is in a coffer, and in the coffer is a hare, and in the hare is a duck, and in the duck is an egg, and in the egg is a needle in the tip of which is the end of the wicked king's immortality. Known from the embroidery on an ordinary towel which shows Bereginya (the protectress) in her house, and inside Bereginya is a smaller house with a smaller Bereginya in it, and inside the smaller Bereginya is an even smaller house with an even smaller Bereginya... and so on ad infinitum, like candles placed between two mirrors during fortune-telling are reflected endlessly, or like each matryoshka doll contains a smaller matryoshka in the endless line of which Bereginya is immortal.
Now a mass of little bears, each one smaller than the one before, sprang up around Chang Shi, from a Emelya who looked like a grown-up bear to a Emelya the size of Tom Thumb who was about as big as a bullet, and they all revolved in a circle round Chang Shi.
But the whole of Emelya stared at this broad cheek-boned squint-eyed face and reflected that although he had fought many a dragon, wolf, stag, wild boar and bear at the Bear's behest, he had never fought a man, and fighting a man turned out to be more interesting than a wild beast, because a beast's range of movements was restricted by instinct and habit. They were predictable, and easily too. But a man was formless. Although in Chang Shi there was both a system and restrictedness, they were quite different from those in an animal, and herein lay Chang Shi's vulnerability.
You could not learn anything from any of the Emelyas, because none of Emelya's movements were repeated. Each Emelya was the same as the combat and also slightly different. By standing above himself and observing the combat, Emelya became invulnerable for Chang Shi. Nevertheless the combat would have continued for a long time due to Emelya's insatiable curiosity had not an inadvertent blow from the biggest Emelya's left heel landed on Chang Shi's neck, causing the latter to collapse onto the Bear and both his knives to sink into the Bear's first shuddering, then motionless body.
This decided the outcome. Peace retreated, giving way to myth. The lightest Emelya rose into the air, and the bare heels of the almost invisible Emelya, who was more like a bullet than a human being, began to dive down.
These calloused heels with their sharp stony spurs were intended to pierce Chang Shi's back to the right and left of his backbone and stop within a millimetre of the skin on his chest on the inside.
But on its way this blow encountered the resistance of the Bear's behest, his first behest which Emelya repeated in the morning at sunrise: that a murdered man's death lives on in his killer.
And the second behest, which he repeated when the sun was at its height, that a murdered man's pain lives on in his killer, softened Emelya's blow.
And the third behest arrested the blow at the very beginning of the movement. Emelya repeated this behest when the sun was sinking into the nether regions of the earth and streaming along the horizon like spilt blood: that today's enemy is always yesterday's or tomorrow's friend.
As a result, the Emelya who was the size of a bullet turned aside, barely touching Chang Shi's back, and gave way to the medium-sized Emelya, who did a somersault and, falling down on him from both sides, with the sides of his hands directed the weight of the heavens merged with the weight of Emelya's body into Chang Shi's head and brought his hands down to the right and the left of his temple so hard that Chang Shi's Spirit shot out like toothpaste from a tube, leaving the live Chang Shi on the snow with his face pressed into the Bear's fur. After this blow all through the 21st day of March Chang Shi's spirit and reason existed separately from his head, which was carried together with his body into Gord's house and left by the warm stove on the floor, next to the spot where Emelya swaddled in the prince's strength was also to sleep. But that comes later.
For the moment Chang Shi's spirit flew off over the whole of Moscow and what would later be Vyatka, crossing the Urals which divide the alien West from the native East and the alien south west from the native south east, then over Siberia and Lake Baikal, to his native village of Chaotsiun, remembering on the way not the battle that had just taken place, not Yu Yung, his father's murderer, and not that for some strange reason Emelya's spirit had proved to be stronger than the Spirit of Chang Shi, but, of course, how lucky he had been that day when, drugged by a potion, he lay on the chopping table in the inn of Dai Hei and the man-eater Sun Er Nian, preparing to become minced meat for Yu Tsian or to be baked into pie fritters and sold in the markets of Tzin region, when Sun Fu, the future pupil of Dzin De Sun, had recognised Chang Shi and saved him, thereby enabling him to take vengeance on his father's murderer Yu Yung, and as a result of this Chang Shi's Spirit eventually received the right to return for one day to his gods and relatives in his native province, and when he was flying over Siberia it seemed as short to him as the space between the dots in omission points or as the distance in an instant from the age of Sung to the age of Ming.
Thus into a body similar to that of the Apostle Matthias, who took the twelfth place vacated by Judas Iscariot on the ninth day of August in the year 10063 after Judas was stoned in Jerusalem, into the body of Chang Shi, which lay next to the Russian stove, on the floor, returned the new, revived spirit of Chang Shi, the future devoted friend of Emelya, having visited his native land by Emelya's will and power.
Emelya stood there, leaning against the knotted trunk of the oak tree, warm compared to the snow, his loyal friend of today, and vented on it the boredom which he felt each autumn before withdrawing to the den and becoming a sleeper destined to wake when the time comes.
The string of little bears inside Emelya that had toppled out before Chang Shi's eyes in all their different shapes and sizes, now slipped back invisibly into the one big, shaggy, beast-like Emelya, who walked slowly up to his Father Bear and looked into his eyes. The Bear's eyes opened slowly, goggling and red, reflecting Emelya's face, and were slowly extinguished, ceasing to see life ever again.
Emelya pulled Chang Shi, like a wet shirt, away from the Bear's blood-stained fur, put his arms round the Bear and buried the Bear's blood in the blood of his father, weeping, or rather howling long, quietly and hopelessly, as Veles's grandsons had once wept, the brothers Rus, Varangian and Sloven, who loved war more than heaven and earth, in their house in Bel Grad over the body of their father Troyan, who was as huge as the Bear, and as shaggy as the Bear, and as strong as the Bear, and as tough as the Bear when he led his men to the slaughter, and was stabbed to death on the night of the 24th of March in the year 10621 by four bondsmen on the orders of his middle son, the accursed Kii, when Rus, Varangian and Sloven were sailing to the Greeks. And the next year Prince Boris standing here now opposite Emelya would also have wept over his father Vladimir, on his death in the city of Kiev, if it were not for Boris's brother Svyatopolk, who had Boris murdered by four assassins, one of whom was Torchin, and the second Putsha, who are now standing at Boris's right hand and looking at Emelya, and the hands of each of them reach for their belts on which hang swords, the blades buried in the snow, because Torchin has an average sized sword, and Torchin himself is small, whereas Putsha himself is average, but his sword is too large for his height. It is not his own sword. Putsha took it from a dead Greek.
But Emelya does not see Prince Boris, or the Hungarian Gergy, whose head Putsha will cut off so as to take from his neck the gold pendant now glittering in the rays of the March morning sun. Nor does he see Dan, or Boris, or Putsha, or Gergy, because...
Emelya has already begun to live a new life without his last father, although of course Gord, his sacrificial father, has already recognised Emelya by the scar on his left shoulder and, bending down to Prince Boris, explained to the prince that Emelya is Volos's long-lost son, and his own son also, and that Gord would make a warrior of him fit to adorn the prince's retinue with his strength.
How and where they carried Emelya, he neither heard nor saw. His memory abandoned him, so as not to interfere with his grief, not to sap his strength for this futile activity.
The sun had already turned its gaze from the top of the ancient Moscow fir trees to the middle and, its eyes still not touching the ground, spread warmth over a shaggy fir branch on which a blue tit was singing and turning its head, taking no notice of the humans' vain doings and thankfully stretching its neck towards the sun's gaze.
The morning passed, and the battle, which continued until midday, struck its six hours out of the quiet, calm, slow, measured, smooth-running chaos and the now peaceful life of the remote Moscow forest that once lived at the intersection of Bogoslovsky Lane and Great Bronnaya Street, which became shorter than Little Bronnaya Street after the various reshapings of the former forest and subsequent capital city, that in time was to wipe the forest here from the face of the earth, just as a ruler with one stroke of the pen obliterates human names and tribes from life, and time, and memory, and history, and only human memory does not notice this power and this authority and this right and this endeavour, as the ocean does not notice the cliffs, or the shallows, or the ships which are inside and outside it and are of no concern to it, and it would be easier to move a mountain, or quench thirst with imaginary water, or stop an elephant in heat, than change this divine immutable law.
A pace behind Prince Boris came his bondsman Perse, from the town of Kyata, flowing from the tips of the toes on his left foot through his body into his right heel.
Twelve years had passed since the time when Perse, after the Shah of Khoresm Abu Abdallah, whom he served loyally for a full five years, passed through friendship with Mamun, who took Abu Abdallah's power and life in Kyata, fell out of favour with Mamun and fled with the help of friends of his friend Ishak ibn Sherif Abdul Kasim Mansur.
Then, after learning by heart the first few chapters of Ishak ibn Sherif Abdul Kasim Mansur's Shahnameh, he quarrelled with him as well one day and, like a leaf driven by the wind, fled on until he came to Prince Boris's retinue, where he learnt to speak Russian reasonably, received the nickname of Perse, and served the prince sadly and indifferently, saved from total indifference, in other words, death, by the names of his family which included Bizurdzhimirkh who composed the Vamik and the Asra, and even Bakhramgur himself.
There is not nor can there be in the south, which is called the east by people of the west and the south by people of the north, anyone who does not know the story of Bakhramgur and his beloved Dilaram who, replying to her beloved slowly and rhythmically in converse, revealed the beauty of harmony at the end of a phrase. Many years later this was called rhyme.
The birch trees, and the fields, and the endless forests, the forests of Suzdal, and Moscow, and Tver, and Vladimir, and Novgorod, were alien to Perse. He would not have survived in this beautiful white and green northern land, were it not for the names of his native parts, towns and rivers, which he put into his strange prayers. Before he went to sleep, sometimes all night, he would repeat them, bowing, nodding his head and rocking.
When he repeated them the sounds evoked visions and mirages, and Perse wandered at length and in detail along the streets of Sheikh Abbas Veli, together with Abu Abdallah, then gazed hard and long at the black waters of the Polvan Ata and repeated to himself in an order which only he understood:
Hazevat shah abat
Yarmysh ilych niyaz,
Bai yangi bazar aba,
Mangyt yarna yan su taldyk.
His invisible hands touched the invisible leaves of the giddi, the chingil, the kendyr and the turang and, casting his eyes over the yellow waters of the Magyt Yarny, and the brown Shah Abat, and the black Yarmysh, he repeated aloud these words, sharp as the tip of his curved knife with its four grooves for blood to run down and just as cutting, and began slowly to fall asleep, sailing away from the white, cold and alien Russian shore, where the only thing that saved him, a stranger, was the fact that all strangers in Russia were welcome, whereas all Russians were treated as strangers.
The other thing that saved him was his skilful blows and his courage, which was indifference to life, but was seen as indifference to death.
Striding step by step after the prince, Perse, eyes cast down, saw not the prince's red leather boots and not the pitted March snow melting in the March midday sun, but a green field on the feast day of Navruz, another name for the New Year, which was today, because it was the twenty-second day of the month of March. And in the Moscow land it was the year 11010, whereas in Kyata it was the first day of the sowing, the coppers were steaming, the meat was stewing and there was a fragrant smell from the freshly baked flat bread that lay on an earthenware dish decorated around the edge with flowers and leaves of which there was such an abundance.
The whole field, covered with carpets and brightly coloured dresses and kerchiefs, was singing and dancing to the jingling of silver beads, earrings and necklaces, the sound of the zurna and the banging of the drums.
But here there was snow, fir trees, silence, the back of beyond. Moscow. He wore mittens on his hands and a green quilted coat on his shoulders bound by a strong red belt bearing black swastikas along the full length of the narrow path that ran round him, a silent spell against disasters on a long journey, in which Perse felt like a horse constricted by a belly-band far less comfortable than a normal sash.
Perse dreamed and watched Navruz and listened to its voices, while Boris's huntsmen drove the Bear out of his den and pierced him with arrows and a birch stake which now lay, in clots of still unfrozen blood, on the snow next to the Bear, who lay on his right side with his paws drawn up, like a child in its mother's womb, preparing to come out into the light of day, like Tsar Pavel of Russia on the bloody-red carpet, edged with a black meander, who was bludgeoned to death by four assassins on the mute orders of his son who at that moment became an ordinary patricide or degenerate, to be more precise.
Perse came to only when Boris tapped him on the shoulder. The prince had noticed that the longer Perse served him, the more frequently he returned in his thoughts to his former life and that he came back only when a big fight was about to begin.
Perse started up and saw Emelya standing in the snow. The sun was shining over Emelya's head, there was a birch tree behind his back, a knife in his hands, and Zhdana's white shirt on his shoulders, with a red ornament round the collar, hem and cuffs to stop evil spirits from entering Emelya's body. Emelya's bare feet shone in the sunlight on the pitted, thin-crusted, heavy March snow.
Perse drew out his knife and walked over to Emelya taking his time, the way a master goes to the fold for a lamb to cut its throat with a knife and, after bleeding it, hands it over to his sons to skin it and carve up the fresh meat properly and zealously.
Perse walked over to Emelya, not even allowing the thought to enter his thoughtful other-worldly head that this lamb was capable of anything except Russian combat. For twenty-two years Emelya had spent each spring, summer and autumn in movement, striking, defense and licking his wounds: the latter forms part of Russian combat, as bone forms part of the body and the soul part of bone.
Of course, Emelya knew each tree in the Moscow forest by name, knew which day, hour and month the spring current rose in the trees, which his hands and skin could sense. And every creature on earth and every bird in the sky answered his call and voice.
When you live for a long time in the forest, as in the country, each other creature is either a friend or an enemy, and every third a relative, but everyone knows one another and even at night everyone can recognise everyone else, for each beast, bird, tree and flower has its own smell, just as each man has his own name.
But that is just life, not an occupation or a profession, whereas Russian combat is a different matter. His Father Bear had instructed him for many years, it was like collecting water in a bucket drop by drop. Eleven years had passed, and the bucket was now full. When he was sleeping in the Den in winter he had hardly any other dreams. As long as the dream lasted Emelya would run up the trunk of the oak tree, as a bear does, up to the lowest branches, the oak tree which stood on the very spot of the future Execution Place, jump from branch to branch until he reached the top, grasp the last branch and swing on it, then fall down, as if by accident.
He would slide down from the very top with relish, skilfully and surely, holding his body back slightly as he fell, as if resting on the branches that came under his fingers; then, breaking his fall by holding on to the last branch, lower himself gently to the ground, onto the green and yellow grass, as none of his other bear brothers could. This he repeated a hundred times a day until the yellow grass turned white, under an early snowfall, until, as in the case of his ancestors, it was the time of the Divine Night which follows the Divine Day, where the elders of Rosha recorded their secret sacred Vedas, which are as familiar and comprehensible to the initiated now as they were three thousand years ago.
It was then they discovered that when reality becomes part of the Divine winter sleep it is multiplied, transformed and dissolved in the soul, memory and reason and, returning to wakefulness, makes a man more than a man, even a man who has the dark, heavy, viscous blood of a wild beast flowing in his veins.
From his Father Bear Emelya received the knowledge that Russian combat skill, which outwardly was nothing but running, jumping, crawling and striking, defence, flexibility, resourcefulness, agility and alertness, is polished and whetted and becomes reality only during the long divine sleep. Like a grain goes to sleep in the ground and wakes above it as an ear of corn, and bread, and life, so a jump, and a blow, and a leap are made in sleep in the manner of Russian combat, and the sleep may last 33 years or even longer, depending on the length of life in store for them.
For it is in sleep, and in sleep alone, that the miracle of transformation takes place. Thus a master transforms a piece of marble into Venus de Milo with the face of a man and the body of a woman, making it impossible for even a musician to divine her sex and meaning, Venus, languishing there in the alien lower hall of the Louvre, blind and naked before the blind who walk past her. Only in sleep is human experience forgotten and memory handed over not to the mind, thought and logic, but to blood, breath and motion.
Only in the long and too frequently repeated Russian divine sleep of the night do running, and jumping, and movement become what the world calls Russian combat, which has neither logic nor system, just as the sea does not, shifting in variously-shaped live waves from shore to shore and splashing on the shore, nor can there be any resistance to it, and which is as simple as the steel that the Persians tempered in the blood of captive youths, plunging the blade into their live bodies.
Sleep, and sleep alone, makes Russian combat such that the warrior who has mastered it lives in a different dimension and barely comes into contact with a warrior who deals him a blow. So fine weapons and excellent techniques are helpless in the face of Russian combat because it has no desire to kill and resist, Russian combat born of sleep, desires to travel from the Elbe to Alaska, to teach the earth its language and its song, its patience and its sleep, its fear and its love, and to build houses on this earth that have no roofs or walls, but have a glimmering and a looking out into the always, and have support and all that can replace walls, a roof and a floor when there is cold, hunger and strife outside, that is to say, they have the way to go and the reason why to go, and the way always, and this is the very essence of Russian combat for the ear of the initiated and the ear of the listener for whom such infidel questions as "What is to be done?" and "Who is guilty?" do not exist, just the one and only universal question -- "When?" and the one and only answer -- "Always".
Always -- in pain, and fear, and joy, and sacrifice, and tenderness, and rapture, and faith, and madness, and power, and revolt, and freedom, and dirt, and prattling and outrage and, the endless "and", in which you can fit as easily as a rabbit in a cage, a dog in a kennel, a hand in a pocket, or a cork in the neck of a bottle, all human life and all human immortality, which have their end and beginning neither here nor there, but outside here and outside there.
At that moment Emelya started up too, either at the crunch of Perse's footsteps or from the sun which had appeared over his head, and the first straight, almost perpendicular rays of the midday sun stared into his eyes. The fur coat on the prince's shoulders was of white sheepskin, his beard and moustache were not as fine as Emelya's, but thick, broad, trimmed and touched with frost.
Emelya stretched and smiled. He was enjoying the first rays of the sun, the air and the paws of the fir trees, furry as a bumble bee. A man who lives above the Arctic Circle, where the Divine Day lasts for six months and the Divine Night for the other six, has the same feelings on his main feast day, the first sunrise after the Divine Night.
At this moment Emelya's thoughts and words seemed to freeze, as if a bird, resting on air, had ceased to flap its wings so as not to prevent its eyes from seeing: for movement always prevents us from seeing what is there and shows us only that there is movement, which is quite unlike what is there.
Then Emelya's eyes stopped smiling at the sun and the trees, for apart from firs, sun and snow they could now see his Father Bear lying on the ground and the blood on his brown fur, and although his hand immediately grasped his knife, Emelya was not ready for battle. Parallel to the observation of reality by the eye and mind, his body itself performed some inner movements as if touching the keys of each muscle in his hips, arms, legs, back and stomach to test them.
The muscles responded to the touch of strength inside, and the music of his body was light and harmonious, as the Bear had said it should be, his body was indeed always ready for Russian combat, and now the strength which was testing its co-warriors inside Emelya returned to his mind, and everything -- mind, strength and experience -- came together in Emelya, like military commanders assemble before a battle.
The commander in charge of arms persuaded Emelya to put away his knife because it occupied his hands. Today's battle, in accordance with the law of future causes, would be short, and the knife would have nothing to do, so it could rest. Emelya stuck the knife back in his belt in its home-made leather case embroidered by Zhdana of the forest, who had given him the case last autumn, without recognising him in the forest or understanding why, impelled only by a forgotten memory of their love.
The commanders went off to their posts again, and as always, Emelya turned into many different Emelyas, although there had been just the two of them together, the man and the bear.
At the sight of Emelya putting his knife away, Perse laughed. Placing his legs apart and hunching slightly, he turned the blade of his knife downwards. The March sun touched the steel and flowed onto the snow.
Emelya heard a sunbeam ring quietly along the blade.
He too hunched his shoulders, slightly less than Perse, and spread out his arms like a bear about to get down on all fours.
Perse leapt at him, lifting his knife. Emelya took an invisible step backwards.
Perse lost his balance and fell in the snow. His knife plunged into the back of the prostrate Bear. The Bear jerked. Although blinded, he could still feel pain.
Perse pulled out the knife and got up. Blood ran from the blade. There was no sun on it now. Each of them took a few steps. Perse's steps were easy to calculate. They either corresponded to his thinking or were opposed to it, but not asymmetrical. Thinking played hardly any part in Emelya's movements. Now only the commanders, each one separately, were busy with their charges, but there was still no perfection in their movement. One of the blows from Perse's knife struck Emelya's shoulder, ripping his shirt. The blood gushed out, mixing with the Bear's. The retinue cheered. They approved of Perse. So did the prince.
Emelya hunched even more. His bare foot trod on something sharp under the snow. Emelya moved his foot, and at that moment his thinking saw Perse's movement and, moving his foot away, Emelya placed it simultaneously like that, just there, and moving his body slightly he put one arm just below the other and one shoulder just above the other, as if he had wound up a spring and found it hard to keep it in position so that he could use it when he began moving.
When a boat is carried along in the current, it need only be properly directed, and no movement is necessary to increase its speed. In the same way Emelya, having allowed Perse to get within an inch of him, used the movement of the spring and directed this force through his fingers. The fingers of his left hand lay obediently and accurately on Perse's long black hair that had escaped from his cap when it slipped off as Perse fell to the ground, and simultaneously the fingers of his right hand tightened the taut belt round Perse's waist. Using his strength, the natural movement of the spring, and merging with the force of Perse's fall, Emelya's hands redirected this movement, helping Perse's body to fly over Emelya's head and turning its movement into flight towards the trunk of the oak tree which stood by the prostrate Bear, sending it not crosswise, as the Bear might have done, but along the trunk, so as not to break the body.
Perse went limp and dropped his knife. The hem of his coat caught on a sharp branch and he hung there upside down, like a pendulum on a clock that has stopped.
Like the Apostle Peter, who became first among equals and was crucified upside down in Rome by Nero in the year 10064 on the 29th day of June to atone for denying his teacher, in whose name Emelya was christened with Volos in the year 10988 in the northern capital of Russia, the Great Novgorod, or New Town, by his uncle Dobrynya.
You could hear a woodpecker working away monotonously with its beak.
The spot where Perse had fallen and where the sacrificial oak stood was exactly half-way between the future wooden Church of the Great Ascension, which lies on the Tsarina's Road from Moscow to Novgorod and was burnt down on the 22nd day of the month of March in the year 11629. Fifty years later Natalia Nikolayevna Naryshkina was to build a stone church on this spot, and the cathedral by Bazhenov and Kazakov was erected a century later. The second point which was the same distance from the sacrificial oak was Grenade Yard, which burnt down a century before 11812 after an explosion and which would be clumsily resurrected on easy money by masters from Suzdal on the eve of the one hundred and twenty first century.
The Moscow sun peered curiously into the open eyes of the stunned Perse, dividing into two reflections. His knife lay beside him in the snow blade upwards, his left leg was twisted, the right one also, and out of his nose and mouth trickled two thin streams of black blood, barely visible amid his beard and moustache.
Perse now looked more like Psayev who would have his throat cut in the Chechen mountains five versts from Shali by the Cossack's son, Esaul Danila, who killed him to avenge his father, also an Esaul and also Danila, who had been killed by Psayev, before he himself fell onto the damp earth on the sacrificial day of 20th July in the year 11995 pierced by the shot of Psayev's brother like a partridge on a spit.
Emelya straightened up. The commanders dozed. Who could say how long they would have to go on serving, so even a moment of respite was welcome.
His thoughts turned to the prince and his suite. And this was the moment, the dividing line, beyond which lay a different, new life for Emelya, unlike his life in the forest, his new life in Boris's retinue right up to Boris's death. Emelya would be the first to see the already saintly Boris still alive, and Boris would be the last to be seen by Emelya, blinded with impotence and helplessness. But between these events lay many others, and the first one was taking place now.
"Get him," said Prince Boris.
A few seconds later ten men were pinning each of Emelya's arms. Emelya was tied and bound and thrown crosswise onto the saddle of Boris's horse. And the half mile from the future Church of the Great Ascension by the Nikitsky Gate to the house of Gord, Emelya's sacrificial father, which was next to the future Patriarchs' Ponds, in the future Yermolayev Lane, later Zheltovsky Street, near the future palace, designed by Zheltovsky, a copy of an Italian palazzo dating back almost to Emelya's time.
So, Emelya travelled this half mile in a role in which he had lived during his apprenticeship, bound to a tree with ropes, but unlike his apprenticeship, he was not touched by wolves' fangs, so life was quite bearable, and the new always evoked surprise and curiosity in Emelya.
The technology of friendship was simple, or so it appeared to the bondsmen. For forty days Emelya was starved. He was kept in a barn with strong doors and no windows. The prince himself came to bring him food and drink, while the others watched through a narrow window, spat at him and pointed at him mockingly.
In reply Emelya only looked at them curiously. Fairly soon he understood what was being offered to him: hatred of everyone and loyal devotion to the prince.
Outwardly he subjected himself to this. And when he was let out and dressed as a bondsman, Emelya knew each member of the retinue inside out and saw not only their actions, but also their motives and the variations of their behaviour as clearly as we see the sun and moon above us or the movement of fish in a crystal clear aquarium.
Thus a man, finding himself in the castle of Franz Kafka, who has long been lying in a cemetery under a thick layer of gravel made smooth by water and time and brought to the grave by his living admirers in accordance with the old superstition, having mastered, absorbed, and digested the task of penetrating the labyrinth of the castle and ascertained the triviality, mediocrity and tedium of the castle's dead routine, doomed and calculated for a hundred years ahead, -- if he still retains albeit a grain of honour, wit, talent and life itself, and, finally, if he lifts up his eyes and does not see but at least feels the handle of the door which will take him away from there, and, having at last, thank the Lord, escaped from the confines of the castle, meets others who are hurrying to the place he has left, sees and understands down to the finest nuance how people live there, by what they are guided and by what they themselves and their motions are determined.
During his period of taming and training this understanding was mostly instinctive, of course, but at the time when Emelya made these events the text of a book, the ritual, routine and mechanism of the castle were as easy as pie for him or, I repeat, as clear as the sun and moon in good weather.
He also understood the measure of the prince's patience and goodness against the background of even Gord's ritual spite, which was in fact, -- for Gord had recognised him from the scar in the middle of his solar plexus, on the second day, -- a way of helping Emelya to survive in the retinue.
This understanding was more important than Emelya's love for Boris. The whole retinue and the prince taught Emelya primitive loyalty -- it was the easiest thing in the world to please them and persuade them that their eternal ritualistic methods were right and effective.
Although in fact Emelya continued to live his own independent life, the retinue and the prince saw the effect of their training on him and were perfectly content with these good results. In time Emelya actually forgot what Prince Boris was really like then.
When Emelya, living in a monastery after the murder of Boris by Svyatopolk the Accursed, was to write about the prince, about his meekness and mildness, his piety and goodness, he would not be lying, for the prince was indeed warm-hearted and forgiving.
For in the course of a man's lifetime memory changes shape as often as the lines on a man's hand or the roots of a tree as it grows, and in the same way a man's soul also changes shape. For the soul and memory always change: in some because of time, in others because of a chance encounter, while in others the transformation takes place irrespective of people, ideas and time. This is inevitable, for future saints were just ordinary people at one time. Each person has the right to be transformed, although many do not make use of it, and some use it to their own detriment.
So with his new future soul transformed Boris was meek and devout, whereas with his present soul of an ordinary prince, he was the embodiment of power. Father Bear had always taught Emelya: submit to the power that is stronger than you and master the power that is weaker, and your soul will never be troubled. Boris was stronger than him, but each of his men was weaker than Emelya taken separately, and Emelya could only be mastered by Boris.
So Emelya became Boris's friend and the head of his retinue. But very occasionally he would go off into the forest again, walk along his path between the pine trees, listen to the birds singing while a thrush he knew perched on his shoulder, on his homespun shirt, and a squirrel took a ride on the other shoulder, holding on to his hair, and he experienced once more that forgotten feeling of unity with the forest, and with the birds, and with the sun, and with the grass, and sang his bear's song.
He sang that summer was fine, and autumn and spring were fine too, but in winter the wind blows and the snowstorms rage, so the king of the forest seeks out his den and sleeps until the day of the Awakening Bear, which men celebrate as the resurrection of their god and their hope that their affairs will prosper, that the harvest will be great, and that there will be increase in their families and in their flocks, and whenever this is -- be it on 24 March, 11 September, 23 October or l May -- is surely of no import.
Emelya had become a man but he could still see people only from the forest, from that freedom of greenery, birds, sky, clouds and air which were of one blood with him, the forest that smelt of fir and pine and in spring, if you notched the birch bark with a knife, out gushed the sweet juice that he liked to drink when he woke from his winter sleep, catching the transparent white birch blood in a birch-bark vessel, and the juice ran over his face burnt by the light, and the drops trickled down his blond hair onto the awakened earth of the melting Moscow spring forest, which with time men would cover with asphalt and stone, murdering the forest, the water and the air.
Translated by Kate Cook
From Glas 16, CHILDHOOD
Leonid Latynin, born in 1938 in a small town on the Volga, has several collections of poetry to his name. His highly original novels, The Face-maker and the Muse, Sleeper at Harvest Time, Stavr and Sarah, were only published in the post-Soviet times. Sleeper at Harvest Time also came out in translation in France and in the USA where it had an enthusiastic press. The hero of "The Bear Fight", Emelya, is the same Emelya who is also the hero of Sleeper at Harvest Time, half-boy half-bear, born of a sorceress and a bear in the deep pagan past. "His incantations possess a magic power... This is a pagan Genesis," said Magazine Litteraire about Sleeper.
See also Latynin's stories in Glas 1 and 6.