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Higher than a cloud

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Конкурс фантрассказа Блэк-Джек-21
Поиск утраченного смысла. Загадка Лукоморья
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  • Аннотация:
    A forest dwarf inherited a box of magic eyeglasses. His friend offers him a well-paid job.

  

HIGHER THAN A CLOUD

  
Natalia Markova
  
  
  "Chirp-chirp-chirp!" a magpie chattered. "Hey, Laziel the dwarf! That old lady who lives in the log cabin in the thyme glade, is she your grandmother?"
   Laziel, a forest dwarf, was sitting silently beside a tree stump, deep in thought. Why care for his grandmother when losing a checkers game to his friend, dwarf Calculius?
   The magpie didn't let up, "Hey, Laziel! Yesterday your grandma fell down from the porch, and she's still lying there ever since."
   "So what?" muttered Laziel absent-mindedly. Squeezing in his hand one of the three remaining pine cones that they used as black checkers, he was just deliberating whether it was worthwhile to queen it. He made up his mind and moved.
   "I win!" Calculius exclaimed as he jumped all the remaining black men in one move.
   Laziel gave a sigh, carefully collected the pine-cones from the stump and looked around. The magpie had already left. Anyway, there was nothing else to do. The dwarfs headed for the thyme glade.
   When they arrived at the glade there was no grandmother to be seen. In front of the cabin, a few mice were fussily raising a small hillock and decorating it with turf. A blue jay perched high above in a birch-tree.
   Laziel called confusedly, "Hey, Grandma, where are you?"
   "Her soul is gone," squeaked the mice. "And we've buried what's left of her under the ground."
   They placed a bunch of daisies on top of the hillock and scuttled into their burrows.
   Laziel was perplexed.
   "Gone? Where? Does anybody know?" he asked.
   "I do," the jay chimed in. "It's over there. Look!"
   The bird spread its wing pointing to the blue spot of sky over the glade.
   The dwarf looked up, but the only thing he could see was a gentle white cloud.
   "What should I do now?" Laziel turned to his friend Calculius, who always knew the right thing to do.
   The friend cleared his throat and said, "First, uh..., we must, uh..., mourn the deceased, as the custom is."
  
   It had been long since Laziel saw his grandmother, so he remembered very little of her. Dwarfs' childhood flies by quickly; after which they become self-reliant old men and forget their grandmothers. The only thing Laziel remembered was that Grandma had tried to get him to reading. He also remembered that he'd jumped to every opportunity to escape it. What a fun it had been bounding around the forest with his friends and tossing pine cones at each other! While getting through a thickest book had been such a bore! The dwarf felt so sorry for himself that tears welled in his eyes.
   Calculius comforted him, "Of course, pal, you're expected to shed tears for such a bereavement, but after all, a loss of a grandmother is in no way comparable to a loss of a friend, such as me, or, say, your girlfriend Drony. Anyway, now it's time to see about the inheritance."
   Laziel continued to grieve for his Grandmother in her log cabin, decrepit and mysterious. The walls were decorated with stuffed owls. Several bats hung from the ceiling, their heads down and looking well alive.
   Calculius cast an assessing glance at Grandma's humble abode, muttered, "Hm" and left unobtrusively.
   Laziel settled himself in a sagging armchair facing a stained mirror and began to rummage in Grandmother's chest of drawers. He found nothing but junk - bundles of withered grass, dappled eggshells, dried spiders. In another drawer there was - oh, the dwarf's face contorted with disgust - that boring book from his boyhood. But in the next drawer he found a box, covered in snake skin and containing eyeglasses of different colors. Some of them were very pretty, especially those silver-rimmed. What if he tries them?
   Oh, my Goodness! All of a sudden, the dwarf felt himself light and fuzzy. He found himself floating high up in the sky, his heart singing with elation...
  
  
I'm a cloud
In a snow-white coating.
I'm so proud
Of my daring floating!

As tight as a sail,
As soft as a feather,
Forecasting a gale
Or a good weather.

Taking any form,
A lion or a worm.
Lofty aspiration,
Joy and inspiration.
  
   "Oh, what a pile of junk! Now I get it, there must be some magic in the glasses! But I'm not a bird, I've got nothing to do in the sky."
   Laziel ripped off the glasses and glided down softly into the old armchair.
   "If all the glasses are of different colors, their magic powers must be different, too," the dwarf figured out. "What if I try on these, cheerful rose-colored ones?"
   He put on the glasses. Nothing whatsoever happened. Everything looked somewhat brighter and prettier, that was all.
   "I wonder what sort of magic power they have," mused the dwarf. "What if I wear them for some time, just to see what happens?"
  
  On his way home Laziel ran into his girlfriend.
   "Drony, dear! Glad to see you again! Well, I never! You look really great today!"
   And indeed, Drony's skirt, formerly sloppy and faded, was now shimmering with rainbow colors. Her cheeks no longer resembled withered baked apples but fresh and ruddy ones. Glass beads of her cheap necklace were glittering like diamonds and her eyes were gleaming even brighter.
   Drony coyly stared at her toes her toes, while Laziel could keep his eyes away from her. How come he hadn't noticed it before? She was so pretty and lovable! He burst into compliments.
   "Drony, sweetheart! We must stay together forever! I'm the man to solve all your, uh..." The dwarf cast about for an appropriate scholarly word, "problems!"
   "Come, Laziel, honey, stop kidding! What can you do? The same things as I can. Both of us are nothing more than poor dwarfs."
   "No, Drony, everything has changed! Congratulate me, my Grandma is gone!"
   "What? Congratulate you? I'm so sorry for your Grandma!"
   "Oh, sure, I mean, uh, I'm sorry for her too, but she's left me a fortune. Now that I'm rich I can marry you!"
  
   That was how Laziel got married, unexpectedly but successfully. Drony was always good-looking and agreeable, she never told anything rude or unpleasant. To be sure, sometimes the dwarf noticed his wife silently work her lips and as she did so an annoying buzz could be heard, but who cares for such trifles? Their house was tidy, their children, a son and a daughter, were orderly; there was nothing else to wish for. Laziel enjoyed working hard and earning a good living for his wife and kids. Everything was fine. He even changed his awkward name of Laziel to the sonorous 'Lionel'.
  
   Once Calculius dropped in at Lionel's cabin. He cast an inquisitive glance at the dwarf's dwelling, chuckled contemptuously and asked:
   "Hey, pal, wanna earn some money?"
   "Sure, pal!"
   "Look, the mountain dwarfs are going to buy our forest."
   "What? Our forest? Where shall we live then?"
   "Don't worry, it's only timber that they need. All you have to do is to fell trees and transport the logs. By the way, will you show them where the Underground Treasures are?"
   "Come, come, Calculius! I remember Grandma saying: "From the times immemorial it has been bequeathed to us and to our children to keep these treasures forever."
   "Well, there you have it. The children! See? The grandchildren are already entitled to sell them. You even don't know what they are. And the mountain dwarfs pay with genuine gold."
   "How much?" asked Lionel in a businesslike manner.
   "Say, one per cent."
   "What's that, one per cent? Sort of money?"
   "It's one hundredth ..." Calculius mumbled something like "pinhead", but Lionel didn't hear it.
   "Is that much - one hundredth?"
   "Sure! You're my closest friend, remember? Not enough? All right, I can offer you more, say, one thousandth. Don't make any bones about it, it's a bargain, bud!!"
  
   Every day, early and late, Lionel was busy chopping wood. Trees were large, the dwarf was small, and he got terribly tired. Still, what sustained him was knowing that he did it to support his family. Lionel sawed up tree trunks, loaded them onto a cart, and wheeled the cart to the mountains. Sometimes mountain dwarfs came over and made his work even easier. Lionel, a forked twig in his hands, would search for Underground Treasures. At some places the forked twig would bend in his hands of its own accord, and right away the mountain dwarfs would start digging. Lionel was quite curious to see what those Treasures were, but every time Calculius was there to say, "Back to work, Laziel! Mind your own business!"
   Lionel returned obediently to his axe and saw.
   Busy and tired as he was, the dwarf could hardly notice the changes around him. The sun seemed to shine hotter and brighter, the birds' singing was not as loud as before, chaffinches and titmice became scarce. The dwarf was continually thirsty. Every now and then he noticed Drony and the kids silently move their lips.
  
  One evening Lionel came home completely exhausted. No sooner had he sprawled on the sofa, than Drony came over, silently working her lips. The dwarf, as usual, turned his nose to the wall, but all of a sudden, Drony snatched the rose-colored glasses off his nose with deafening screams.
   "What's the point of breaking your back? Poor we were and poor we are. I can't take this misery anymore!"
   "What's wrong, sweetie? With all the money I'm earning now, what are you worrying about?"
   "All you earn is spent on food and water."
   "What are you talking about? There is enough water in the creek, for free."
   "Ain't you any eyes behind your glasses? The creek has run dry. We have to buy water from mountain dwarfs and food from mice."
   "How come, dear? It's high summer now, the forest is full of berries and mushrooms."
   "Drought has stricken the forest. Berries and mushrooms are all dry with drought. We have to buy grain from mice. Everyone demands to be paid in gold."
   The dwarf looked around - his house, which he had deemed so neat and snug, was miserable and shabby. Drony turned out to be disheveled and feisty, her dress was sloppy, her hands were dirty. The children were squabbling over an elder whistle and squealing nastily. Why hadn't he noticed it before? That must have been the magic of the eyeglasses - they presented everything in rosy color. That couldn't be helped; he had to put up with it.
   Laziel set to work again, and a good work it was - the forest had thinned out notably. The shade was sparse, the sun was striking, dazzling, parching. But business is business. Now he couldn't do without the mountain dwarfs' gold. He had to hew and saw trees, to trundle the cart over and over again.
  
  At dusk, Calculius showed up. Oh, that one looked quite well off - a new jacket, a gold chain draped around his neck, his face swollen with fat, his belly protruding over a belt studded with gold stars.
   "Look, Calculius," Lionel said. "Word has it, the mice have the nerve to demand gold for grain."
   "Do they? Then, they must be called to account. Know what, pal? The mountain dwarfs have got an anti-mice green powder. Could get you a handful. Pretty cheap, one gold coin."
   "Still, I feel sort of pity for the mice. We've been getting on peacefully for years, like good neighbors. They gave us grain, we gave them berries and mushrooms in return. There was enough food for everyone."
   "Now the times have changed. Food and water will suffice either for you and your kids or for theirs. Just think, the fewer the mice, the more water left over. The more water left over, the cheaper it is."
   "Oh, that would be fine. Deal, then. By the way, Calculius, couldn't you raise my pay a little? The sun's so scorching, it gives me bad headaches."
   "I'm really sorry, pal, but I'm broke, too. You'd better wear sunglasses to protect your eyes."
  
   Next day Lionel dropped in at Grandma's log cabin for black glasses from the box. He had forgotten that they might have an unexpected magic power.
   At noon, when the sunshine became unbearable, he put on the glasses.
   Though the pain in his eyes subsided, his spirits went down. Everything was annoying him. He was growing more and more thirsty. Why is water so costly? Too many living creatures here, in the forest, each ready to pay any price for water for their young. It would be great to drive some of them away, especially the mice.
   "Hi, Calculius! Did you bring the powder for the mice?"
   "Sure, pal. Where's your gold coin? Where's you pocket? Here you are. Just sprinkle a pinch of this stuff into each mouse-hole and the mice will be gone as if they had never been."
   "Thanks, Calculius, that's so nice of you!"
   "You're welcome, pal. You know, I'm your devoted friend; my only concern is your well-being. Your job is to ensure production targets are met; and I'll take care of the rest.""
   The green powder killed off mice, caterpillars and worms. Owls ate poisoned mice and died too. Lionel was gloating, "You had it coming, you, crooked-nosed pestilent birds! No more hooting by night now!"
   Next chaffinches and titmice feasted on dead worms and were gone. The red-capped woodpecker, the blue-winged jay and the dandy magpie escaped to another forest, out of harm's way.
   "Good riddance," thought Lionel balefully. "Now with more water left over, our life will take a turn for the better."
  But things were going from bad to worse. Water became even more expensive. The survived caterpillars and mice gave rise to a breed that ignored all kinds of poison and ruthlessly devoured berries, mushrooms and trees. Trees sickened and withered one after another.
  There was no peace for the dwarf, even at home. Drony kept grumbling and muttering, "Just look at your Calculius! So well-dressed, well-fed, and smug! No need for him to count every drop of water and every grain!"
  "How dare you insult my friend and benefactor!"
  Now the son cut in, "You are completely dumb, Dad. And your Calculius is a crook and a slaver."
   "Wha-a-a-t?"
   Lionel glowered with bloodshot eyes at his scruffy wife, at his lazy, cheeky children. A fit of rage came over him, and he gave his son a clip over the ear and a slap in the daughter's face.
  "How dare you abuse the kids!" the wife yelled. "The boys has it right, Calculius is making money on your hard work."
  That was too much for Lionel to take. Shrieking 'I'll kill you!', he chased Drony and the children out of the house. Out of his mind with fury, the dwarf was racing across the forest, squashing what was left of spiders and caterpillars, bees and butterflies, crashing branches and trampling on dry grass.
  Then, all of a sudden he tripped over a root and tumbled to the ground. The black glasses fell off and shattered, and it was as if the scales fell from his eyes. He looked around and saw the devastated forest and crows pecking carrion all over it.
  Desperately staggered the dwarf, hardly aware of the route he was taking. His feet carried him of their own accord to the only place in the forest spared by the drought, the Grandmother's glade, where fiery red butterflies were resting on the mauve thyme. Lionel entered the cabin and dropped into the armchair. There he stayed, brooding in front of the mirror, fumbling eyeglasses in the box.
  "There is no way all Grandma's glasses could be as evil as the black ones. Grandma was so kind-hearted! What if ..."
  The dwarf ventured to try on green eyeglasses.
  There was a crystal chime, the mirror misted up, and lo and behold, Grandmother faded in there.
  The dwarf burst into tears, "Grandma, my dear Grandma, help me, please! I cannot stand it anymore!"
  Out of the mirror, the dear long-forgotten voice came:
  "My dear grandson, it's only you yourself who can help you."
  The dwarf whined,
  
"It's not my fault,
I'm silly and small,
I fell into a pitfall.

I was told lies,
That sounded so nice.
High was the price.

The forest is dead.
And life is so sad.
I've done nothing bad."
  
  The old lady frowned. "Nothing bad? Look at all the mess you've made!"
  
  "Oh, no, Grandma, I ain't done any harm."
  Grandma sounded indignant.
  
  
"Leveled is the forest, deserted is your home.
It's you who has done it, little silly gnome.
Look at the wilted flowers, at the dry creek,
It's you who has done it, so small and weak!"
  
  "Come, come, Grandma! I worked honestly to earn money for my family!"
  "It was Calculius who earned money. And you gave away our treasures, just for nothing. Those treasures were underground lakes, which had supplied water to the creeks. Through underground canals, the mountain dwarfs have tapped the water away to their abandoned mines. Now they are selling it to you for gold. You've logged out the forest you're suffering from the drought. The poison that you gave to mice killed birds, so now there's no one to protect trees from harmful insects. And why did you drive your wife and kids out of your house?"
  "Oh, Grandma, Drony was so nasty, she kept nagging me all the time! And the kids! I worked hard for them, and they were so naughty!"
  Grandma shook her head and said,
  
"Dividing a cake it's easy to stay fair,
But the last crumb is hard to share.
When holidays come, we sing and dance,
But in misery who will prance?

You think, "Poor me, all work and no fun,
No rest, no reward for all I've done."
But aren't your children and your wife
Living the same miserable life?"
  
  "Closer to the point, Grandma, what shall I do?"
  The old woman gave a sigh.
  "For a start, grandson, I think you could do with a little more brain."
  With these words, her hand stretched out of the mirror, picked gold-rimmed glasses out of the box and placed them onto the dwarf's nose.
  
  With the new glasses, his vision grew clear, very clear, much clearer than ever before.
  "Huh, I feel like reading something," thought the dwarf and took Grandma's book out of the drawer. This time the book didn't seem boring. At the beginning, unknown words appeared annoying, but little by little he came to understand their meaning from the pictures, found the explanation of others further in that very book, and guessed the meaning of the rest on his own.
  The book started with numbers. It turned out that every thing in the world could be counted and measured. The dwarf discovered that one hundredth was a very small amount, and one thousandth was even smaller. Soon, despite all the difficulties, Lionel became as good at numbers as Calculius, and even better.
  Then he found out, where the rain came from, where the rivers flow, what the mountains are made of, and what kinds of soils are there. Reading about the forest was most exciting. Having spent all his life there, Lionel didn't know much about it.
  Now he discovered that the foliage of the trees retained moisture. What had been just grass and flowers to him before, now looked like blue forget-me-nots and veronicas, yellow buttercups and greater celandine, mauve thyme and marjoram. He learned that a medicine could be made from poisonous lily-of-the-valley, that ugly caterpillars were born from beautiful butterflies. That butterflies not only picked flower nectar, but also moved pollen around, helping the seeds to set. That worms and caterpillars were meals for sparrows and titmice. That by eating berries and fruit, birds and mice dispersed seeds in their droppings and in so doing spread plants throughout the forest. Droppings, which made the dwarf frown with disgust, rendered the soil fertile. No single thing in the forest was entirely wholesome or entirely harmful. Infinite diversity, continuous turnover - that was the life of the forest.
  And the most harmful creature in the forest was none other than himself.
  What could he do about it? Should he kill off the mountain dwarfs or that crook of Calculius? That wouldn't help to restore the forest.
  He returned to the cabin, put on the green glasses and peered into the mirror again.
  "Grandma, dear, help me!"
  "Only you yourself can help you. You've learnt a lot of things, now put them together. Try to look at the world from above."
  "From the birch-tree?"
  "Higher."
  "From the hilltop?"
  "Even higher."
  The dwarf thought about the silver glasses. No longer scared of heights and flight, he put them on.
  From the sky he could see how badly the forest was damaged. Patches of green gave out underground canals. Lionel memorized the location of bottlenecks in the canals. Then he descended back into the forest and started thinking.
  
  Planting new trees sounds like a good idea, ... but they won't survive this drought. No, to retain the remaining water I need to block the underground canals. Very well. What I need is ... pebbles and ground, a wheeled cart, a pickaxe and a shovel. And manpower. Single-handedly I can do it ..., he totted up promptly, in two weeks. No, the forest may not have that much time. Oh, what shall I do? Grandma, dear, just give me a clue!
  "The only thing I can do is to help you see the world differently. Try the rose-colored glasses."
  "Oh, no, I've put them on once, and it did no good."
  "Those glasses had granted you the most precious thing in the world, love. But you were ignorant, too lazy to think and too weak to dare. That's why your love was blind. Now, that you've learnt a lot of things, have no fear, put on the glasses!"
  With these words Grandma disappeared into the mirror.
  
  The rose-colored glasses filled Lionel with anxiety, joy and shame. Anxiety came from thinking about Drony and the kids, homeless and hungry. Joy was inspired by the love that returned. Shame and regret were the price for all the evil he committed.
  "If the four of us pitch in, we'll get through in ..." he calculated hurriedly, "... less than four days all in all."
  
  Lionel found his wife and kids and asked them for forgiveness. Then the dwarfs took to work. They had to hurry lest the water from the underground lakes would be gone. The dwarfs, worn out with hunger and thirst, were sweating in blazing sunshine. Lionel's heart was bleeding - the forest was drying out. Drony tired easily, and his first thought was to scold her every time she paused to take a rest. His son deserved a good spanking for hiding a shovel or turning over a cart just for fun. And his daughter, oh, she spent every evening hunting fireflies in order to read Grandma's book by their light. The following morning she would get up late, sleepy and sallow, and did her work negligently. The dwarf fussed and riled up about it. But the rose-colored glasses had taught him love, and love had taught him patience.
  
  Calculius was not long in coming. "You, pinhead!" he hissed maliciously, "Haven't you got the mountain dwarfs' gold? Why are you destroying their canals then?"
  "The mountain dwarfs have recovered their gold in pay for my own water." retorted Lionel. "And you've helped them to cheat me, you, crook!"
  " And you're a looser! The water will run away before you block all the canals. And you'll pay dearly for your backsliding; I'll tell everyone that it was you who had ruined the forest."
  The only thing Lionel could do was to clench his teeth and go back to work even harder.
  
  Calculius proved to be right - the dwarfs were late, the underground lakes were drained away. Now only a rain shower could save the forest, but the heat lingered.
  Once the daughter said, "Dad, I've read in Grandma's book that frogs can forecast the weather. Let's go to the swamp and talk to them!"
  The swamp was reduced to a small puddle, where frogs were crawling about in the mud.
  "Brought us any water?" croaked the frogs imploringly.
  "Oh, we're so sorry, we came just to ask you about the rain."
  The frogs sighed in frustration,
  
  
"You came in vain;
No signs of rain.
Nothing to talk about.
We're dying in the drought."
  
  Laziel was hiding from the sunshine in the thin shade of a withered birch-tree. His daughter lay down beside him. The dwarf was stroking silky girl's hair and watching his wife and son doze under a bush nearby. Poor Drony! Grumping, disheveled, tired Drony, she would weep furtively as she could not provide meals and water for her kids. Calculius had made good on his threat, now no one in the forest spoke to the dwarf. No one. No one but his wife and children.
  "Oh, Dad, I love you so much! But you were quite different before," said the daughter thoughtfully.
  "How different? Angry and dumb?" asked the dwarf sadly.
  The daughter nodded yes.
  "But now you are kind and smart. Why? Mom has told me about the rosy and black eyeglasses. Was it eyeglasses that had changed you? Which ones?"
  "The green glasses brought back my memory. The gold-rimmed ones gave me wit, the rosy ones gave me love, and the silver eyeglasses turned me into a cloud and granted inspiration."
  "Turned you into a cloud ..." repeated the daughter and ran away.
  
  In a few minutes the dwarf got enveloped in a heavy mist - a cloud was floating out of the Grandma's hut.
  
  
Winged seeds drift in the air,
Buzzing bees pick honey with care,
Eagles hover in search of food,
Clouds pour rain onto the wood.
  
  "Sweetheart!" screamed the dwarf. "Take off the glasses! Come back! It's my fault! It's me who has to turn into a cloud!"
  But the cloud has already risen into a brilliant sky pouring an abundant rain, filling the underground lakes and reviving the forest.
  
  
Here am I, in the rainbow spray,
In the green of the foliage, in the joy of the day!
  
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