Пучеглазов Василий Яковлевич: другие произведения.

The Table in the Ocean

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Конкурс фантрассказа Блэк-Джек-21
Поиск утраченного смысла. Загадка Лукоморья
  • Аннотация:
    The novel is a breathtaking story about the travel of the hero-poet and his beloved-actress on his writing-table over the great Ocean in the reality of his imagination and about their passing through the seven closed worlds-traps of this "life in fantasy". By its character, it is a kind of literary play with elements of grotesquely allegorical horror, referring the reader to Swift with his "Gulliver's travels". ABOUT ME: The author is a professional writer and playwright, and in Russia, he occasionally worked as a stage-director in dramatic and musical theaters during thirty-five years. "The Table in the Ocean" - англоязычная версия романа автора "Окно в океан".

   Copyright 2017 - 2020 Vasily Poutcheglazov (Василий Пучеглазов)

    A novel-adventure

    by Vasily Poutcheglazov



    "How might I choose?"


    "What a caprice his fantasy is!" Elizabeth Choosy sighed, entering the courtyard of the former "House of Actors".
    After this sigh of inexpressible sorrow, she gave a look at that window of the attics, behind which five years of her youth (maybe the best years) had irrevocably flown by in the not very remote past.
    A dazzling rectangle of the broiling July sun shining against the dark background of the drawn curtain was what she saw whenever she found herself between the two tumbledown pedestals of gates (without any gates already) on the way to that room of the pretty dilapidated tenement. There the one, whom she called "He", dwelt hitherto, aging as before in his arrogance and solitude. "He" was implying her first husband, former by now too, alias her "recalcitrant dreamer", "eremite", and "genuine poet". (The editors of his occasional publications would define such a dubious mode of his life vaguely as "a man of the pen".)
    "How foolish it is!" Mrs. Choosy exclaimed indignantly as she was crossing the neglected square yard (for some reason deserted today), stumbling among potholes of dusty asphalt and skirting the branchy acacias with ragged crowns that towered above an old-fashioned summerhouse entwined with convolvulus. "To be so stubborn in his age it is foolish! It is simply ridiculous and selfish!"
    To tell the truth, she could hardly explain what, strictly speaking, seemed so foolish to her in the way of life of her beloved, who, despite the divorce, remained under her guardianship, and whose hermitage she visited as a friend when opportunity offered. However, not relinquishing her right to be his muse, she considered herself too charming and sensible a woman to accept the life proposed by him--the life for "words", "fantasies", "meanings", and other "belles-leper-letters", as he at times mocked himself not without bitterness.
    Why would she have had to shoulder his cross and waste her life on some nonsensical fables? Why was it she who had bad luck to share his fate, and nobody else? No, no, God forbid! Save her from such a destiny and self-renunciation!
    Yes, indeed, love is necessary, and perhaps in youth your love does come first, but it is so only in youth. By her thirty-five, she had been quite satisfied that she acted very rightly and expediently about ten years ago, when she had overcome her remorse and hesitation and dissolved their marriage having no prospects in order to part with her self-opinionated unfortunate and hook a man who proved, true, rather mediocre but, instead, far staider and much more practical.
    Of course, she forfeited the adoration and deification tasted by her in those days there, in their poky little room, yet in return for her loss she had obtained her spouse's trivial sensuality materially supported with something substantial. Since she quitted the stage and ceased vegetating in the capacity of a "utility actress", she exchanged the destitution of her histrionics and precarious living for her well-paid sitting in his office, and most of her problems had passed by itself, while all the others had been solved as if by magic. Become a bit duller her existence had acquired a consoling stability, which was, naturally, more important with age than any amorousness, in particular for an average woman, not in the least dreaming of being a "heroine" or a "devotee of art for art's sake" and at the same time accustomed to a certain comfort and treatment.
    Especially as for the time being, both her hubby and she were loath to have trouble with babies, and had she conceived a desire for fornication, she would have found as many "admirers" around as she wanted....
    Having passed by the crumbling variegated walls daubed with chalk and crayon, Mrs. Choosy stepped over a cracked concrete slab with a rusty steel corner, and keeping away from the ever-open besmeared plywood door hanging crookedly on its hinges wrenched out, she came in the scantily lit entrance-hall smelling of dampness and cement.
    Aforetime it was the main entrance, and till now, it showed remains of the past splendor in everything--in the patterned tiled floor speckled with gray dents and in the worn-down marble steps of the broad principal staircases ascending, flight after flight, on both sides of a square well with a skylight above. Its glorious past was perceptible even in the many-figured stained glass windows of landings being either colorless or a chaotic mosaic of veneer, painted pasteboard, and panes of various shapes and textures ever since she could remember them.
    The old inscription "E + P =?" scratched with a nail on the dingy plaster among other scribbled obscenities was in its place near the doorway as well. During all these ten years, she was going to scrape off this nonsense, and now, as ever, she lingered a little before the inscription, but smiled and went upstairs.
    In the same pensiveness, Mrs. Choosy reached the fifth upper storey, where she tidied herself up by the open-work cast-iron frame of the banisters broken off as unwanted long ago and took breath at the spacious landing lit with the sunshine streaming through the skylight. Only after she smartened up and restored her normal state of mind did she push the two-leaved semi-transparent sash door in places plugged with harlequin patches just as the stained glass windows were.
    Again, she stood in the gloomy long corridor with many shut doors.
    The doors were of wood, in imitation "bog oak", and upholstered with leatherette, now black now yellow now richly crimson; they were of khaki plastic or of iron for safes, plain and tacky, fresh-colored and soiled to the last degree, and had letterboxes, coppery doorplates, and numbers nailed to them.
    Beside the doors, there were some tables, kitchen or expanding, discarded because of its decrepitude on the backyard and exposed for show, as well as some rickety wicker chairs for summer-cottage, some bookstands, spring-mattresses, and chests for properties.
    In addition, some electric hotplates and more imposing stoves with sets of scarlet gasbags, bicycles, child's scooters, flowerpots and faience pots, oval tin washtubs, and enamel basins were piled up about, together with swabs, hardened boots, and the doormats of wet motley rags, which were in former times someone's working jeans, alluring dressing-gowns, unpretentious shirts or splendid evening dresses, not to mention empty buckets, perambulators on springs, ironing-boards, and other belongings, lumber, and domestic appliances of the lodgers of the endless passage that seemed to be desolate at the given moment.
    And the same half-withered dusty palm spread a tattered umbrella of leaves over a zinc vat in the remote corner by an anonymous shaky door with a hook, which imparted a somewhat equivocal restaurant's air to this squalid tunnel.
    "As always," Mrs. Choosy hemmed peevishly. "No room to turn in this sty."
    Past the lodgings ranging on either side, she directed her steps to the middle of the slovenly-encumbered corridor and stopped before the door distinguished by its unthinkably sky-blue color. There was nothing by the door but a foil stuck in the floor and slightly vibrating on her every stir.
    The celestially azure paint and the antique gold nielloed hilt contrasted with the surrounding junk and utensils so incompatibly, and such an incongruous combination was so corresponding to the nature of her "visionary" that Mrs. Choosy's heart missed a beat, and she felt disquiet.
    Just here, while their parting (forever as he supposed) he had at last told her one chief thing never voiced by him till then.
    "Life in fantasy," he confessed to her. "Life in fantasy--that's what I want to create. Life--up to the last cell; and Death, too. Both Life and Death should be there, in that world of imagination, where you are first! And perhaps only this is really life, for me--only this."
    "Only this," Mrs. Choosy repeated aloud, and an unpleasant chill ran down her spine.
    Since her appearance in the gateway, she had not met a single soul.
    There was no one anywhere, either on the benches or in the summerhouse, either on the landings or in the corridor.
    The ominous sultry silence flooded the space of a quadrangle of the ramshackle house being, as a rule, so noisy and overfilled with bustle and brawls. All the windows--now it had dawned upon her--gaped like black breaches ("like black blanks", as he would have said with the inclination to puns natural for him), all of them except his window glaringly shining among those dark holes.
    The shabby rookery was now uninhabited from top to bottom, and only some gentle lapping in the clinking rhythm of the foil's blade was heard behind his door, as though somewhere not far off, the waves were washing upon the shore.
    She cocked her ears, attentively listening to the enigmatic sounds, and suddenly someone's voice pronounced distinctly in his study:
    "Just so it must be!"
    "Just so it must be!" the voice declared, and (she could not mistake!) it was the voice of a woman!
    Frankly speaking, Mrs. Choosy was extremely jealous of her "recluse" even today and felt instinctive animosity towards all his "passions" followed her. That's why she was disinclined to catch him at unawares whenever she called on him, and up to this minute, she hadn't had occasion to encounter any of his concubines, especially in their "garret", which was so touchingly and innermostly memorable for both.
Yet here is an evident proof of his infidelity! Her profligate already permits himself to bring home some reprobate wenches and indulge in vice with them in the defiled refuge of her first love, and it is all the same to this betrayer whether she is in the world or not!
    Certainly, it would be most reasonable to turn and go away from here. Questionless, she ought to leave him immediately and converse with him nevermore, for he deserves nothing but consigning to oblivion! Yes, yes, she has decided--she abandons him disdainfully without any delay! He will live to regret his unfaithfulness sooner or later--there is no doubt about that!
    However, no, French leave is not to her liking, it must be admitted. She would not mind informing him of her abandonment and contempt incidentally; otherwise, his conscience won't be properly imbued with his guilt, right? Thank God, she is able to make him feel guilty, be sure.
    Besides, she wonders what "sweetheart" he dares to prefer to her.
    Curling her lip, Mrs. Choosy put her arms akimbo and knocked resolutely at the door three times.
    Behind the cerulean door, somebody rushed away, as if a big bird flushed up there. A flurry of two-voiced hurried whispers ended with a short rapping of the beech ringlets of the curtain, and someone's slow furtive footsteps rustled across the room.
    "Stealthily," she flew into a rage. "Without me he wallows in lechery with some wantons, and after that, he is sneaking!"
    The key creaked in the lock, and the door opened slightly.
    In the shadowy semi-darkness of the narrow room, she made out his writing-table standing alongside of the wall on the right, the lit white desk lamp on this table cluttered up with papers, and the drawn dark blue curtains behind it.
    Almost adjoining the window, the same parti-colored ottoman straddled on the left under two portraits hung on in days of yore, and the warped wardrobe with peeled varnish and with a dim mirror on its carved door occupied the left corner at the threshold.
    She saw him, too, and he looked confused and embarrassed, covering the lower part of his face with his palm.
    "He is stained all over with lipstick," she twisted her mouth with disgust. "What's the matter, my virgin pigeon? So besmeared that now you are ashamed to show your ugly mug?"
    Haughtily and proudly, she moved him aside and came in.
    At once, she smelt some subtle scent tickling her nostril--a whiff of someone's perfume: the titillating humid fragrance of silver lily-of-the-valley being very familiar to her and inseparably connected with this room, with him and her, with their mutual past and transient youth, passed, alas, so swiftly and irretrievably.
    She craned her neck and inhaled the scent.
    Yes, yes, it was something utterly intimate and unforgettable. Only of what was it redolent?
    Holding his palm on his brazen face as before, he waited. He waited for her leaving!
    "Not for the world!" To herself Mrs. Choosy cocked a snook at him and tossed up her head to assume a dignified air. "You should have thought before, my thievish tomcat."
    Causally, she pulled off a small paunchy pouch of golden-lilac straw from her shoulder; in passing, she put in order the airy many-tiered wings of her smart sumptuous sun-frock; and the click-click of the stiletto heels of her elegant gold pumps resounded in the empty room while she approached the writing-table.
    In a circle of the strange blue light, she noticed a page covered with writing.
    "In a circle of the strange blue light...," read she, and here, to her horror, she found the following letters appearing on the page, as though they were developing on the paper, and undoubtedly, just his hand wrote the text, "...she noticed a page covered with writing...."
    "Oh, my God!" she mumbled under her breath.
    She clutched at the polished edge of the table and went on reading these appearing manuscript lines: "...and went on reading these appearing manuscript lines...."
    As thereon the page ended, it slipped off a stack of papers and lay down beside several scattered sheets covered with his flying fine script.
    Mrs. Choosy's feet went pit-a-pat. Weakening she leant on the table, and at the very beginning of the first page, under the significant title "THE PAST", she spelt out:
    "What a caprice his fantasy is!" Elizabeth Choosy sighed, entering the courtyard of the former "House of Actors...."
    "Gracious me!" whispered she. "What does it mean?"
    "All is written." Something must have happened to him: the timbre of his voice sounded strangely changed. "Remember!"
    She ran through the page and began to read the next, but here she stumbled upon his parting cue and backed warily from the table. She had remembered.
    "Life in fantasy--that's what I want," Mrs. Choosy muttered, turning to him. "Life in fantasy."
    His white face stood out distinctly against the background of the dark wall between the portraits of young curly-headed Pushkin and adult bald-headed Shakespeare, his open riant face without a vestige of lipstick.
    "Have you shaved off your beard?"
    "That's not the point."
    By the illusory light of the desk lamp, he seemed to be one of the portraits scrutinizing her out of the frames and smiling openly and youthfully like him.
    "Yes, Life in fantasy," he continued in a changed clear voice. "For all that, it came true."
    "It came?" For the life of her, she could not understand what so struck her in him, particularly in his face. "How it came? When it came? Where and what came?"
    "Only just, here," he answered placidly. "The chief thing came."
    To all appearances, he hid his face in the shadow purposely. Beyond doubt, he hid it!
    "I live," he grinned. "Just so it must be."
    "She said this!" Mrs. Choosy started, roused with his reminder. "She is still here!"
    She again sensed the scent pervading the stuffy air of the bachelor's den--it smelt of the vast, sea, spring forest, and happiness.
    Trying to take no notice of the sheets self-recording what was going on in reality, she forced a smile and laid her well-groomed small hand on the knob of the door of the wardrobe to glance habitually in the mirror.
    To her surprise ("Oh, my God!") there was no reflection there! The mirror reflected nothing; only somewhere in its depth, some glowing sparks were scintillating in the fathomless vacuum of the infinite space.
    Mrs. Choosy held out her hand to touch the glass--and her fingers penetrated freely into the space. She recoiled.
    "Are you going to do conjuring tricks to me?"
    She clenched her teeth and tugged at the gaping door.
    The wardrobe was empty.
    Or rather, it was far worse than empty: inside it contained the same infinite with the same fiery dust twinkling in the distance.
    "So she's there," she turned to the curtained window.
    Surely, she was there--not under the ottoman, after all! By the way, she had heard a rapping of the ringlets when they drew the curtains. Moreover, the very fragrance was now close to her, so close....
    "You've changed," he remarked pensively, without opening his lips. "You seem not quite yourself."
    The gaze of his bright gray-green eyes was getting now pale-blue now leaden in the spectral light of the lamp.
    Naturally, he wanted to apologize to her, and extricating himself out of such a farcical situation, he tried to divert her attention and prevaricated on purpose, but she was nowise affected by his ruses and tricks now, as she did not intend to forgive him for this insult.
    Crumpling the thick violet cloth and plucking up her courage, Mrs. Choosy squeezed the curtain in her fist, and suddenly--at one go--threw the curtain aside.
    She who stood before her was SHE!
    It was she herself--she was such in her twenty, in the prime of her life: svelte, sunburnt, sportive, wearing her flowing red mane loose and that flimsy pert sundress baring her still angular shoulders defiantly and seductively. Although she had those cheap heel-strap sandals on, she was still young (ah, how young she was!), glamorous, fascinating, loving, beloved, in that carefree age of deeds, plans, and recklessness, which falls to your lot only once in your life or does not come at all.
    Even the sky outside the window was night and starry as then, in the first night of their love, in their first night in this room.
    The scent was, of course, the fragrance of that perfume presented by him (ah, how much she liked it in those years!), and everything--up to the happy grin of this perky graceful minx--was in her exactly as it was at that time, in the very beginning....
    She was facing her own reflection, but the reflection that had disappeared long ago from all her looking glasses and photographs and now seemed almost unlike her such as she became after fifteen years.
    Taken aback she glanced perplexedly at him once more and saw him anew, with his then leather jacket and boots for hikes on, and he was still that sturdy scoffer of twenty-two years, still her lighthearted blithe poet, still her only man so passionately beloved....
    Shielding herself, she lifted her trembling hands to her face opposite.
    "Don't!" he cried.
    However, transported with terror, she impulsively pushed her laughing reflection away and touched the revived past--the returned young double standing in front of her by the window.
    A blinding discharge pierced her with a dry crack.
    Her body shuddered in a momentary fiery convulsion, and thrown back by a paralyzing reciprocal stroke Elizabeth Choosy toppled backwards and fell flat insensible on the ottoman.


    "The author set out."

    He cast a sidelong glance at Mrs. Choosy's body and looked at his wristwatch.
    Instead of three hands of different calibers, there was a big phosphorescent figure 7 shimmering on the dial.
    "It is time!"
    He smiled encouragingly on her.
    Only just, after the whole decade of his attempts and failures, he had succeeded at last in creating her and led her out of the dimness of the mirror suddenly cleared under his look. Only just, returning to him, she had arisen from the nearing nebula and gone out into the reality of his imagination, and thus Mrs. Choosy, who had set foot on the dirty asphalt of the courtyard at that very moment, was doomed being unaware of the unavoidable lot fallen upon her.
    He brushed the needless sheets off the table and switched off the lamp.
    In the darkness, they again heard the muffled rote.
    Snorting and spattering the windowpane with cold drops, the Ocean was heaving higher and higher outside the brittle porthole of their garret.
    The gently rolling foamy waves were beating against the walls of the former "House of Actors". Striking through the chinks of the casement, the thin trickles were flowing across the windowsill and falling down, running over the floor into small puddles and flooding the legs of the table and the feet of the ottoman with Mrs. Choosy lying supine in a dead faint....
    "It's time to depart."
    Having guessed right what to do, she took his snow-white desk-lamp in the form of an upside-down goblet hafted, as if for a draftsman, on a steel rod with a massive cast base.
    He tore the wire out of the lamp and pulled the first drawer stowed with his useless manuscripts out of the table. He flung it away in the corner between the ottoman and the wardrobe and pulled out the second and the third one.
    The drawers plumped like walruses, dipping into the salt water, and the voluminous batches of papers fastened together with rusty clips were scattering. The pages covered with the texts of his lucubration were getting wet and dark, sinking, and going to the bottom.
    The table was prepared for a departure; he only had to turn it over.
    The water already came up to their knees, and there was the tang of sea air in the room.
    "We launch out?" she asked in a low voice.
    "Yes. Let's embark."
    The upside-down table weightily slapped its desktop on the water and invitingly swung its four legs lifted up to the heaven.
    She climbed onto the table, and at once, the lamp in her hand lit up like a searchlight.
    "Take it," he threw his checked plaid on her back. "The voyage will be long."
    The water was rising, and the table was floating now level with the submerged windowsill.
    A lifeless face with the eyes rolled up was staring blindly at them from the ottoman through the greenish thin layer--the face of Mrs. Choosy buried in the flood.
    A many-ton decuman wave gathering speed in the night dashed thunderously against the wall of the house. The window leaves flew open with a clinking crash, and the billow burst seething into the room.
    The turbulent torrent tossed the table up and banged it against the famous portraits above the drawers full of his waste archives. Then, rushing back, the water pulled their turning box straight into the breach of window.
    The next wave that gushed into the hole dragged the scraping table out of the room and pushed it up, tempesting, onto the crest mounting over the roof of the former "House of Actors".
    The lights of the town flashed below, sinking into the black abyss, and the wide strong current caught up their boat and carried it away to the Ocean.
    Now only the stars could see a dot of that tiny cockleshell wandering over the dark expanse and that pair of a man and a woman cuddling together under the wet plaid in their strange four-legged vessel rashly drifting at random with a shaft of the bright light piercing the pitch-dark night before it.
    Only the eternal stars....


    Still embracing her, he caught half-sleeping some remote incessant roar gradually swelling and drowning the fizzing of the foam sweeping past overboard.
    He heard it--and opened his eyes.
    The sun was already shining, and the blue vast of the Ocean was flying toward them, while the table was gliding rapidly and soundlessly on the smooth surface of the unknown world.
    The salt spray was in the air above them, and the warm head wind was blowing about her loose copper-colored hair flaming in the sun: now swashing on the bottom now fluttering over the Ocean, its fiery foam fell and flew up again, and this caressing wave was stroking his eyes, his breast, and his hands.
    Without stirring, he gazed in a blissful drowse through the sunny breeze of her luxuriant hair at her serenely changing face--at her high tender forehead, at her chiseled small nose, and at her lips slightly pouted in her sleep. Admiring her, he mused spellbound how beautiful she was, and how he was enamored of her....
    Meantime the roar was growing louder and louder.
    The table rode on faster and faster, from time to time bouncing and softly flopping down, and a foamy wash was already trailing astern.
    Carefully--lest he should awake her--he crawled out from under the plaid.
    Menacingly enlarging and covering the most part of the horizon, an enormous bean of some barrel-like island engirdled with a white strip of surf was lying ahead on the wide bosom of the calm Ocean. The bulging greasy slopes, webbed with dark blue veins, closed up, and they could enter the island only through the inlet of a cove that he descried in the middle of the growing keg.
    Just there, towards that somber gulf, the current drove their frail ark insuperably and imperiously, so that it headed straight for the whirlpool belching the hoarse growl of the falling water while they drew nearer and nearer to those hollowly rumbling jaws unceasingly swallowing the Ocean....


    The table flew up and plopped on the water so hard that she woke up.
    "Where are we?"
    She threw the plaid off and raised herself on her elbow.
    In the distance, she saw, surprised, an approaching gigantic boulder besetting their way.
    "Here as yet." In a hurry, he was turning over all the available variants in his mind. "Look out!"
    They bounced up again--the table tore along like a speedboat. The wind blew their words away and forced them to cry.
    "What's written there?" she cried out.
    Indeed, the letters of some inscription were discernible on the gray slopes in the interlacement of the blue veins, and he knew the language.
    "It is Latin!" he cried bending forward to her. "I'm reading!"
    The table gave a jerk, and plunked against the surface.
    Listing, it went on skimming along on the edge, brushing against the small crests and sometimes cleaving the slight ripples with its plunging blunt nose.
    "GASTEROID!" he read the name of the island aloud. "I have it!"
    Keeping the balance, he rose and began to break out one of the legs of the table.
    Just now, when the wave raised by their high-speed craft almost rolled over them, he had understood that the table was moving much faster than the current; therefore, they had a chance to avoid the collision and shoot past the great bulk of the island roaring so fiercely and dolefully.
    "Don't rise!" he shouted out, breaking the leg. "Or else it'll capsize!"
    Lying on the bottom, she looked at him with fear and admiration.
    Balancing, he thrust the leg wrenched off into the hole between two metal grooves for drawers, and leant all his weight upon it.
    Before the island the current forked: the strongest middle part--the rapid--ended in the thundering whirlpool of the gulf, while two side races apparently skirted the barrel and rushed further. Hence, they would have escaped the imminent danger if they could have altered the course and broken away from the inexorable rushing in order to double the insatiably gluttonous belly gobbling all in succession--everything and everyone.
    Scudding along on one rib as before, the table turned slowly to the left.
    "It comes!" Exerting every effort, he pressed on his homemade scull. "We are doubling it!"
    Standing on the edge almost upright, the table was riding obliquely to the left flank of the gray cask, deviating more and more from its excessively straight course leading to the abyss.
    "We'll pass by!" he yelled, outvoicing the animal bellow of the waterfall and digging his heels in the ledge. "We'll do it!"
    Unfortunately, as soon as the table got into the side current it reduced speed and fell on the water. Although it kept on spanking along to the foamy border, yet its advance became slower--however hard he tried to turn aside, it was impossible to pass by the barrel in any way.
    With their roundabout route, they were no more than a few seconds late, but these seconds were just decisive.
    "We'll be smashed," he thought. "We'll strike against the rock at full speed."
    Trying to cushion the blow and gain some meters before the indivertible collision, he drew his steering oar aside as far as possible, only not parallel with the stern, and their flatboat was going to the prominence of the island at an extremely acute angle, but the very island was too near.
    "We haven't time!" he cried to her. "Hold tight!"
    Splashing the greenish foam, the table ran amain into the gray salience of the barrel, and cut into it.
    But for some reason the impact was soft, as if the prow had gone into dough, and lying with her closed eyes upon the bottom and holding on to the ledges, she felt her hands go through something pulpy and damp as the table was ripping the extremity of the island.
    Then their toy-ship dived into the water on the other side and remained so, on end, its stern stuck fast in the dough-like thickness bleeding red viscous drops....
    A toss flung him out of the table forward at the wet wall, and his body rebounded like a ball to the central whirlpool, as though the wall was rubber.
    Striking out as fast as he could, he began to swim trying to overcome the stream, but it was sweeping him down to the gulf despite all his frantic efforts.
    The rapid current was carrying him away insurmountably to the roaring of that wheezing throat, and the dark open mouth was intaking him more and more confidently whatever he did.
    Some miscellaneous items, masts with rags of sails and rigging, maimed air-chairs, and crumpled kegs for fuel were disappearing in the seething chasm.
    Some flopping fishes with purple fins shortly sparkled at times in the current among some seals flapping their flippers desperately and vainly.
    Some powerless pallid fingers and faces distorted with cries would turn up for a moment out of the churning water and drown helplessly in the pandemonium of the swirl forever.
    Apart from flotsam and jetsam, he even caught a glimpse of some antique ebony bookcase filled with carnations and peeping swallows, its glazed doors adorned with bucolic inlay and golden lintels, that had emerged no one knew from where and plunged into the deep like a sounding whale.
    "What a pity!"
    He jerked at the last effort and gulped down the air before his end.
    Then a sudden ferocious rage twirled him, stunning, in the tempestuous maelstrom of a well and sucked him in under the water with a bloodcurdling deafening snort.
    His body whirled away along a smooth shuddering tunnel and went off like a shot from a gun.
    He bumped his head against the resilient vault of the barrel, turned a somersault in the air, and flew head-over-heels down....


    To his great surprise, he landed fairly well.
    His body bounded several times on the springy moist ground, whereupon he set his elbows against a satiny hummock and rolled over on the back.
    The delicately pink, translucent cupola intersected with those pulsing dark blue veins was now overhead instead of the sky.
    Likewise everything around--both the curves of the walls, into which the dome turned, and the waffle ground that was divided into pads of hummocks and cut through lengthwise from side to side with long gullies--had the same rich flesh-colored hue, though the nearby veins seemed to be thicker, pulsing more palpably when he touched one of them full of a faint hollow drone resembling the hoarse roar of the waterfall in the gulf that had swallowed him some seconds ago. Nevertheless, a strange thing, here he heard neither the very roar nor any reverberation of it: the air within the barrel consisted altogether, to the last atom, of the pulsing silence loaded with some sour reek.
    In addition to this nasty smell, someone's low industrious champing in the regular rhythm of the pulsing was heard out of the gullies.
    "Champ-champ... Champ-champ..." the gullies were snuffling assiduously. "Champ-champ..."
    He got up. He was still dizzy after his flight, but overall he felt not bad.
    To be precise, he would have felt but for a keen hunger suddenly aroused in him. Unexpectedly he got hungry--and how! His stomach cramped; nasty nausea rose to his throat; his legs gave way. Doubled up with pain, he squeezed his revolted tummy and sank to his knees.
    "Devour!" his starving stomach was howling. "I want to d-e-v-o-u-r!"
    Meanwhile, the measured champing wafting to his ears from the gullies continued to tempt him. It seemed to be befuddling his brain, overwhelming him with its sluggish warm waves and bringing him to his knees repeatedly.
    "Devour!" such was the only urgent request of his importunate insufferable hunger. "Devour--immediately! Devour--uninterruptedly! Devour--indiscriminately! Devour! Devour! Devour!"
    As though being attracted by magnet, he went as he was, on his knees, towards the call of that sensual chewing.
    The first thing he noticed when he climbed onto the streamlined bank of the gully was a hole, a slightly grunting hole about a meter in diameter, encircled with a contracting pink ring. In all probability, just through that orifice he had got into the island.
    "But then where is the water?" he asked himself. "Where are the wreckage and the Ocean?"
    A second later, he forgot all about the hole, because on the gentle slope he saw a small loaf sticking up straight out of the blushful flesh of a pad.
    It was indeed a real loaf with its crackling brown crust and with its porous crumb breathing rich warmth in a fresh fracture. He could have sworn it was an absolutely real hot loaf!
    He fell flat and dug his teeth into the bread. Bolting without masticating and choking with pieces, he dispatched the unexpected scrumptious food in the twinkling of an eye.
    After he finished with it, the excruciating pain in his stomach abated a little. Now he could stand erect to start his more unbiased survey of the island.
    Some odd anthropoid beings munching with unconcealed relish were lying on their backs upon the bed of the gully around the hole up to the walls of the Gasteroid like fallen warriors upon the battlefield.
    In part, they had quite human appearances except for a monstrously distended belly swollen like an enormous pink balloon over each of them and nearly covered his face, arms, and legs--in short, all that could be evidence of his human origin.
    The others were already at some intermediate stage: their heads and limbs, though remaining in its own places, atrophied, and their mouths were open up to their ears, while their bellies took up at least four out of five parts of their barrel-like bodies.
    The process of making the third category inhuman was closing: their hands and feet had disappeared--their heads had turned into mouths--their trunks had entirely transformed into barrels, and all of them in fact became the spitting images of the island as it had hatched out of the Ocean--an immense corporation blocking any way to the horizon.
    However, the oddest thing was the sense that had gripped him as he watched those wights munching, the sense that seemed to be the direct continuation of his deadened sense of hunger.
    He was eager to be there, upon the bed, with them and lie sprawled on his back alike, chewing vacuously without thinking about anything or anybody and delighting in this ruminant monotonous bliss, the genuine primordial perpetual bliss of flesh.
    "But she?" a sudden thought struck him.
    Stepping on the greasy slope, he slipped and, falling on his side, stuck his nails accidentally into a tough bulge of the bank to avoid slithering down.
    The thin skin burst, and some scarlet jets shot out of the pink pulp onto his hand. Then the pulp began to swell and grow, getting darker and quickly changing its color and form.
    Scarcely had he shaken the red drops off his fingers and had the blood soaked with a fizzle in the soil when on the skinning wound he found a fried hen's leg grown out of the hummock, its golden skin appetizingly sizzling and smoking.
    A new kick of the same keen spasm doubled him up.
    Greedily, he grabbed the leg and shoved it into his mouth. Or rather, he was just on the point of shoving it in.
    "But how's she?" it occurred to him. "She's not eaten yet...."
    Hardly averting his eyes from the odoriferous tidbit, he pulled his wet notebook out of the right pocket of his jacket and tore out ten pages to roll the hen up in the paper.
    "Later... later on...." Annoyed, he thrust the hot parcel into his pocket. "Have patience! Can you wait some time?"
    Here he looked at his wristwatch. Quite indifferently, the watch registered the time of his stay at the island--five days.
    Yes, time was passing rapidly, but it was so only outside, whereas everything inside went on as before and the paunchy barrels were champing on the dry bed of the gully, which glossy slopes were glistening under the net of the translucent concave cupola.
    "Endure! Endure as far as you're able to!" The spasms of colic were tearing his stomach. "I must find my way out of here."
    It was clear that he would never manage to get out without solving a riddle of the island with its excessively hospitable soil and too binding abundance. To the best of his judgment, he just approximated now to the guess.
    The champing suddenly ceased. Ascending the slope, he glanced back.
    The bed of the gully burst with a watermelon's crack from the walls to the hole, and a smoking--growing--shaping billow of eatables of every sort and kind came pouring out of the bleeding pulp of the chap all over the empty bed.
    To wit: buns, hams, frankfurters, and rings of sausages; roasted chickens, baked hazel-grouses, and smoked ribs; pork chops, veal cutlets, and shashliks with ringlets of onion between pieces of lamb spluttering with crimson juice; geese with apples, ducks with rice, beef kidneys, pig heads, calves' brains, and saddles of muttons.
    Round loaves, patties, and rolls with poppy-seeds, or cabbage, or sultanas vied with gherkins, pickles, and cucumbers, mildly salted and spicily savoring with dill, succulent tomatoes, mellow sweet-scented melons, cracked coconuts, and pineapples.
    There were also bunches of radish with bare rat's tails and clusters of amber- or amethyst-colored grapes amidst this copiousness, not counting pulpy pears and inky plums, cherries and tangerines, mango and violet burnished aubergines stuffed with red pepper and garlic for high seasoning.
    Velvety peaches, juicy apricots, figs burst with ripeness, and gold-cast pimply lemons were setting off the sallowness of ponderous round slabs of wax cheeses, while sucking pigs on spits were complementing the ponderability of sliced salmons, ginormous sturgeons, and caviars--now granular black small shot now orange gluey big corns.
    Red crayfishes and lobsters with weighty nippers contrasted with honey in comb, sprats in oil, butter in bales, dried cod, bloater, and marinated eels, to say nothing of steamed yellow corn-cobs, bacon, rump-steaks, filet, black pudding, elephant's grilled legs and trunks, disheveled parsley, and shriveled octopuses.
    Gingerbreads, candies, and lollipops came as supplement to many-cellular sunflowers, bars of chocolate and porous chunks of rye bread with caraway, whipped creams, crisp biscuits, and many pies--with liver, or mushrooms, or curds.
    The heights of bliss were regally splendid light cakes resembling starchy petticoats, China minced snakes and French boiled snails, turkeys and turtles, larded rabbits and hares stewed in antelopes, quails in partridges, chamoises in bulls, swans in pheasant's iridescent feathers, crabs in its shells and eggs in omelets.
    Lastly, this horn of plenty dished up the dainty tawny New Zealand gamines skittishly crackling in sizzling grease and playfully spitting odor of barbecue out of their enchantingly chapped simpers, steeped by local gourmets as a preliminary with their fractured bones in the crystal-clear ice-cold water of a purling streamlet....
    Bubbling, all the glistening flavorful oily mass was running out of the chap and creeping on the corpulent bodies like slow lava laving boulders.
    As to the bodies, they, regaling, were heartily imbibing the eatable billow rolling down into the gaping mouths and disappearing with long gurgles in these open hatches without leaving a trace or smell.
    At length, the last morsels and crumbs of the lavish viands disgorged by the inexhaustibly fertile earth flitted from the narrowing cleft to the hatches.
    The guzzling mouths closed up with a smack--the lips of the crevice glued together--the scar smoothed out, and again before him the same idyllic pink gully proceeded to lull the masticating potbellied persons noticeably rounded after the repast.
    Only the heads, which had been protruding out of some gluttons up to now, started to diminish in time to their champing, as though the brains were flowing from the skulls into the bellies correspondingly distending over the bodies. The crania continued to shrivel until small hollows appeared in the places of the heads and the chewing lips closed softly over the deepening pits in one of chaws. In the same way as the noddle, the fingers, palms, elbows, shoulders, thighs, knees, and feet were being drawn little by little into the barrels bloating out more and more.
    "It's time to make off, buddy!" he concluded alarmed. "There's something wrong here."
    A slightly stirring dark spot was visible from afar on the pink surface of the wall, and it was the only moving thing around.
    Without thinking twice, he made for that remote corner of the island, springing on the resilient satiny hummocks.


    He was halfway to the wall when the quilted ground gave a shock.
    The shock was imperceptible and therefore unheeded, but the ground shook again, much more strongly, and then such earth tremors began to recur, much fiercer each time.
    Suddenly his foot slipped, and he all but sat down into "the splits", after which he, naturally, stopped.
    Some yellowish droplets stood out like perspiration on the quivering tumid pads reddened as from rush of blood.
    He lifted up his head and understood that the scarlet mist clouding his eyes was by no means a consequence of the unbearable stomachache torturing him.
    The vault, walls, and hillocks of the island were being convulsed, flaming crimson; everything was quaking and beating in the rhythm of the dark blue veins strained like boa constrictors.
    The maddened hands of his watch were revolving so swiftly that the minute hand became a solid silver circle, while the second-hand vanished as such, and the yellow figure 7 spread out of the display of days over the dial like a fluorescent axe.
    "Seven it means the seventh day. It is rather a portentous sign."
    He flicked one of the drops off the watch glass--and it stung his finger. He licked the finger--it tasted tangily sour.
    The other drops dripped on his back, on his (thank God!) waterproof leather jacket.
    "It is acid!" he guessed and broke into a run, throwing off his protective hide to flung it on his bare head and slipping from time to time on the bedewed pads dotted with the beads of acid enlarging and interflowing into small puddles and brooklets.
    The same big drops were coming off the threateningly purple dome and falling more and more frequently on him, as if it was spotting with rain before thunderstorm.
    Through the haze of acrid vapor and drizzle, he could make out what he had mistaken for a stirring spot from a distance at first view. The familiar leg of his table was moving diagonally now up now down in the rent of the wall sticking together behind it.
    Meanwhile, after a short limbering-up, the sprinkling pungent rain was intensifying: pattering hard against his shoulders, the caustic drops were burning many dotty holes in the cloth of his trousers, and whitish blots spotted his bespattered boots.
    "Faster! Faster!" Covering himself with his jacket, he was splashing his way through the fumy spate, sloshing through the puddles of the overflow while the blind biting shower was drumming against his leather awning. "Come on!"
    There was quite a little way to go to the wall, maybe about fifty meters, when he ran up the shaking sloping bank and found himself before a broad ravine, one of numberless ramifications of the central gully.
    The perishing barrels wallowed helplessly upon the bed in the sputtering sulphureous pools.
    The acid was corroding their bodies, and they, squirming and resting the stumps of their extremities on the unsteady bottom exuding it, were endeavoring to rise and escape the dissolution impending over them, but in vain. Writhing under the drops burning his flesh through, each of them suddenly subsided, as though he let the air out, and sprawled in a boiling lakelet, becoming rose mucus and wildly flinging up his still living disintegrated pieces out of the frothing medley.
    The island digested them voraciously, and there were heard only the splashes of the dissolving flesh in the fizzing acid eating it and the squelching tap dance of the pelting rain--and not a sound else anywhere, save the measured rumbling that was shaking the Gasteroid and swelling with every second.
    He imagined himself treading on those floundering jelly-like parts of the agonizing bodies-bags--and shifted hastily to the left along the bank trembling under his feet.
    "Near by the wall.... Across the shoal...." He could hardly breathe: the suffocating gnawing steam was singing his lungs. "There I can pass."
    Indeed, a narrow dam partitioning the ravine off from the flank of the island stretched alongside the wall, and it was necessary to seize an opportune moment when the pulsing wall swung back outside.
    The all-consuming streams were running down the slopes, and it was too late to cross the ravine by fording.
    "Come, now in three jumps!"
    A jump--and he was on the dam (the wall just recoiled and made way for him); the second jump and the third at once--and the returning wall pushed him bluntly onto the further bank of the inundated ravine.
    He rushed to the wooden leg nervously fidgeting in the wall's thickness, and something like a tooth erupted under his sole.
    A microscopic bluish-gray bead bulged in the center of a purple knob. Its twin was on the next top, and the same palpitating diminutive blisters studded all the protuberances of the gemmating fecund lumpy soil around.
    As soon as each of them was detached, it leapt up like a frog and dashed at its neighbor with its mouth stretched into a pipe of gullet. An instant--a gulp--and the enlarged winner attacked the other winner, while that swooped in its turn upon the next.
    "Cloop-cloop"--one after another the blisters were being swallowed by those which were bigger, and the survivors pounced on their rivals.
    As the same clooping resounded much more menacingly in the depth of the ravine, he gave a look there.
    The anthropoid tubby beings, apparently digested by the giant maw, had evaporated without any remainder, and some huge blue-gray bladders were skipping now instead of them in the smoking lakes upon the bed. The one that managed to bolt its competitor got still grayer and huger, and the greater they grew, the less the number of them was there.
    Meantime something so enormous that it occupied almost all the free space under the cupola secreting acid profusely was growing and jumping at the hole in the middle of the island, where he recently had such a canine hunger and ravenous appetite. Pushing its way through the misty murk of the pouring rain, a lustrous inflated balloon was expanding straight towards him.
    Some tenacious blister-grasper sprang to him with the obvious intention to gulp the sleeve of his jacket, but he kicked up this cheeky carnivorous toad with the toe of his boot, and it plunged in a blink into someone's gaping gullet.
    He pulled the leg of the table, and from the outside, somebody pulled it back.
    He moved it aside--and through the bloody slit of the ripped wall he glimpsed the sky and her hand gripping that end of the leg.
    Without hesitation, he wedged his shoulder in the slit and began to squeeze himself sideways through the rent, parting the lips of this laceration as if it were two valves of an oyster shell.
    He had time to see the puddles, pools, brooks, and rivulets of the flood inflame in the beams of the daylight and the rain catch yellowish fire and burst into clouds of sulphureous steam, which rushed into the shrilly-squealing jaws of the glossy balloon sucking in the inner space of the island.
    He screwed up his eyes and thrust his head through the tear.
    His face went through the warm pulp and slipped out of the wall.
    He was half-free, and she seized him by his hand to drag him out to her, but here something slippery jammed his elbow and shoulder inside.
    The island drew him back in its bellowing belly, and the wall was parting yieldingly to let him in the throbbing bag, while his body was losing its steady position more and more....
    "Pull me!"
    She set her feet against the slantingly standing table and tugged with all her strength.
    Torn by her out of the clingy embrace of the island he sprang out and fell plump into the roily water together with her.
    After they emerged, he hung on the ledge of the table, and their ship flopped down to them.
    The current, skirting the barrel, caught their frail raft, and it started floating past the reddening shaking slopes of the Gasteroid to sea.
    She tucked the corner of the plaid and waited for him on deck, but he kept on swimming beside, holding on to the table and washing off the remains of the rain corroding his eyes.
    "What's there?" she asked him as he perched, snorting and hawking, onto the table. "What's inside?"
    "Grub," he dropped an apt word and looked at the huge bean gradually receding and beating in rhythmical trembling.
    Then he remembered what he had laid aside for her.
    "Surely you are hungry, aren't you?" he took the parcel out of his pocket.
    However, instead of the hen's leg, there was a gray tiny bubble impatiently jumping in the wet paper.
    Having a mind to swallow them, the bubble leapt with its stretched lips to him, but he knocked it up on the fly.
    The bubble somersaulted, squeaking, in the air and plopped into the waves, where it immediately began to bustle about, noisily gulping the Ocean and bloating.
    "I don't feel peckish." Amazed, she watched the enlarging islet enlaced with blue veins. "You have been absent no more than five or seven minutes."
    "Really minutes?" he asked puzzled. "You say--this took only seven minutes?"
    It was just as she said. The hands of his watch had revolved back in the opposite direction on his going out and returned to its starting point, reading the very last instant of the last--seventh--minute.
    The Gasteroid distending far behind them turned apoplectically purple with strain, and then it suddenly jumped up and banged frenziedly against the Ocean.
    After the thunder that fell upon them, they saw a gigantic greenish glistening billow with foamy crests rising astern.
    Covering both the island and the horizon and sparkling effervescently in the sunlight, the billow was rolling soundlessly and merrily towards them....


    "Captivity is the greatest evil..."

    As though intending to stop the approaching wave, he shielded her with his body from the billow, and she gave a giggle, pressing herself to him.
    Indeed, the forthcoming struggle was too unequal and rather preposterous, while she was very risible.
    Plunging under them, the lively wave threw the table up in passing onto its steeply arched slippery back and carried it along on the crest, towering above the Ocean higher and higher.
    From the giddy height they overlooked the infinite expanse of waters that spread before them the unruffled clean surface with the dark blue blurs of the deeps, glittering in the sun and caving in under the advancing huge water ridge, on the very top of which their immovable table was soaring like a bird.
    Far below them some black animals, small enough from here, now sounding now breaching, blew white spouts from time to time and shifted slowly forward. Like every living thing, the whales tried to escape the tidal wave, but having run down them, it went on rolling, devouring the crushed remains and sweeping off everything on its way.
    Hugging one another, they were scudding on the rebelliously triumphing comber across the Ocean.
    The salt wind was lashing their faces, disheveling her fluttering unruly red mane and whistling in their ears, and they heard only this whistle and the smooth rustle of the water mountain lightly running in the sky.
    "We're flying!"
    Laughing, she was embracing him, and he was kissing her beaming, rapturous, wet face.
    "We're flying!" she shouted, exulting, and the white albatrosses with glittering bowsprits of beaks, squawking throatily in reply, spread their whizzing narrow wings wide to cut off the foam from the crest in their daring darting gliding.
    Her lithe body was clung with her wet sundress flopping like a slatting sail, and the Ocean, shining with a radiant iridescent nimbus of the festive rainbow in front of them, was bearing them swiftly and solemnly on its lathery croup over the deeps....


    That crag turned up literally from nowhere.
    It looked as if some titan poked his stone digit from the depth into that round neat cloudlet capped like a fur hat on the top.
    They had scarcely espied a white lifebuoy of a harmless bagel cropped up right across the course of their flight when the whole forefinger rose cautionary on the horizon.
    The nearer the wave drew to the solitary cliff, the more it grew up and in width: from being the pointing finger it became a tower, and then the tower turned into something shield-shaped, looking like the gray cyclopean-grandiose wall of a feudal medieval castle, against which the less waves were breaking.
    A white turban of the cloud was shifting together with the peak from the skyline upwards, and soon it was curling whitish almost opposite their table riding on the crest as before straight to the lofty rock dominating over the seashore.
    They could discern the rocky chappy bluff furrowed with clefts and landslides that seemed perfectly impregnable from the Ocean.
    The sandy beaches of some unknown continent already appeared golden on both sides of the sullen unassailable bulwark behind the edge of the water rolling back before the last rush, and the boundless green steppe suddenly unfolded before their eyes, bestrewed with bright spots of scarlet poppies, yellow buttercups, red tulips, and blue cornflowers.
    The airy cotton wool of the cloud nearly overcast the sky over them, but before they were ready to be cast ashore, the mounting wall of the dashing wave ran across the bare bottom and collided frontally with the wall of granite.
    A crushing impact of incredible might shook the cliff.
    Deafened and blinded with violent foam, falling, they felt their table thrown up, and instantly it crashed into something solid.
    They tumbled out of the capsized table, and rolled--hand in hand--across a quaking flat ground....


    Leaning his back against some stone, he lay motionless, stroking the damp moss and listening to her heart's beating.
    "A-live..." her heart was throbbing, "a-live..."
    "A-live!" his heart returned at once, and his body, not believing in their miraculous escape, started in time. "We are still live!"
    In the coming silence, he heard the last tinkle of the lamp dying away at his feet and a discontent grumbling murmur of the wave receding somewhere underneath.
    He stretched himself.
    The stone yielded unsteadily behind him and vanished.
    Only a faint plop came from far below a few seconds later.
    There was a breath of cold at his back.
    "Caution," he whispered. "Don't budge."
    He released himself from her embrace and rolled over her.
    They were lying on the very brink of a precipice.
    Although the wave had failed to destroy the cliff, nevertheless, it was crushing enough to split the rock, and on the brink of the split that had divided the peak in two, they were prostrate after their wreck.
    "Look at this...."
    Now that she had recovered from her fall, she saw all of it with her own eyes: a jagged zigzag of the rift seven meters wide, the other side of the riven flat ground, and the clouds of dense fog concealing the real borders of the stony patch.
    They looked round.
    An impenetrable foggy ring encompassed the patch, and apparently, they had landed right in the core of that round cloud.
    She came up to the rift to cast a glance in--and he seized her hand hurriedly.
    Anyway, the Ocean had remained there, in the dark fissure with a remote gurgle and rustles of the debris still rolling down the steep.
    She took a step back.
    "What is this mountain?"
    "I have no idea."
    "We are on the top?"
    "Probably," he answered. "I wonder where the deuce has brought us."
    Indeed, "the deuce has brought" them. Their lame table rested lopsided, abutting against the white veil, and thus their flight ended up--quite ingloriously.
    "Maybe we'll climb down?"
    She again stepped to the brink enveloped in the fog, and he again seized her by her hand.
    "Leave it to me."
    He bent to the cloud and passed his fingers along the sharp mossy edge under the white wreaths.
    "No, it is the same precipice here."
    What in essence was so strange in that? Naturally, it would have been sheer lunacy to descend such a precipice without special equipment and insuring the safety. Of course, provided they had a rope, he perhaps could venture to abseil, but even in that case, he would scarcely decide to imperil her life.
    The train of his thought was suddenly broken, and it was because something tough stopped his rising hand.
    He stared with astonishment at his hand, and tried to lift it once more.
    He did not accomplish his movement for the second time, too. Something blocked the lifting, some hard blunt obstacle.
    "The cloud!" he gasped with surprise. "The cloud is opaque!"
    He pulled out his palm from under the wreaths, which adhered to the edge, and slightly pushed the cloud.
    The fog had not dispersed nor even fluctuated--his palm ran against a tough piled felt-like wall. He punched it--and his fist bounded back. He footed the fog--and had the same effect. Then he grasped at a cotton wool bulge and hung on the lumpy felt.
    She cried with amazement.
    "Don't worry!" He grinned cheerfully and jumped down on the ground. "We have a way!"
    Yes, now they indeed had the suitable way, and it was not a way down, from the top, but on the contrary--upwards, higher, to the rift in the clouds, to the cloudless gap edged round with an ephemeral felt halo, to the hole of the bagel suspended over the peak.
    The way was only one--to the sky.


    He set the table on end, and rested it against the cloud, pressing the fog to test the strength of its stuff. The fog was firm enough.
    Hardly believing her own eyes, she crossed the ground and knocked the foggy wall in her turn. Her fist also bounded back.
    "Like a ball," she said with a laugh, certainly implying a punch ball. "Shall we climb up?"
    "Shall, definitely," he assured her. "I am first."
    He sprang dexterously onto the top of the table and unbent.
    Unexpectedly, he banged his head against something hard that recoiled and thundered like a sheet of tinplate. He shied from it and squatted.
    "What's there?"
    "It's above me. That's like a roof."
    Holding on to the white wall of veil, he began to straighten his back slowly, and suddenly, the fog wreathing before his eyes got cut off: his head came up above the cloud. He tried to lift his head a little more--and again his pate bumped against some roof that emitted a short roll.
    "What a devil?" he exclaimed, flabbergasted by such an oddity.
    Stooping, he turned his head.
    Only the clear blue sky was over him: the high serene sky open to the sun and to all the winds. He reached for it--and his fingers touched tinplate.
    "It's a can," he muttered in bewilderment, passing his fingers over this queer tin heaven. "It is an illusion."
    Now he understood: both the sky and clouds were artificial, excellently made out of cotton wool and of laminated metal, glued together and skillfully painted. His groping hand even found the sharp burrs of the jagged edge torn off from the cloud by the splitting that preceded their appearance here. (Otherwise, they would have had no chance to get into the center, into the very heart of this Olympus, on its empyrean top).
    "All is a fake. A colorable imitation," he explained to her. "Come here."
    She put her arms round his neck, and a second later, she was beside him, feeling the invisible jarring edge with an air of proprietress.
    "How shall we go further? By the leopard crawl?" she motioned to the felt curling before them up to the horizon.
    "Presumably we haven't another choice."
    Doubling up, he clambered onto the cloud and made for the skyline on hands and knees.
    However, the farther he crawled away, the higher the sky hung over him: soon he rose to his full height, and now he could hardly reach the blue vault. Touching the tinplate of the sham heavens with his fingertips, he went straight--along the radius--across the ring, and the firmament began to lower.
    Most likely this was some round corridor roofed with the false azure and fixedly stuck on the rocky top like a steering wheel, and a red-haired disheveled chrysanthemum of her head showed up gaily against the heavenly background in the corner of the inside horizon not very far from him.
    She put her elbows on the cloudy floor and looked with interest after his almost ritual gesticulation, which was very funny and rather wild for a detached observer.
    At length, he lowered his hands and turned back.
    "Well, how's everything?"
    "That will do."
    He picked up her and pulled her easily out of the corner onto the rammed felt.
    "By the by," he reminded her. "The table may be useful to us, as well as the lamp."
    He raised the rumbling tinny vault and, slipping off the felt, jumped down on the ground. Then he threw their source of light and the crumpled bundle of the plaid on the cloud, heaved the table without effort, and shoved it into the corner.
    Lacerating the low loose azure edge melting into the natural sky, the table squeezed through the rent with an awful rolling and rasping. He gave a jump and, pulling himself up, scrambled out of the break.
    With the lamp and plaid in her hands, she was just going to set off along the corridor, while he shouldered the table to follow her, but a strange remote sound made them prick up their ears.
    "Do you hear?"
    Some rapid patter of hoofs was nearing from far down the passage--as if a flock of goats was running downhill.
    "Hide here!"
    She rushed to him, he--to her, and even as they shielded themselves with the table a marching close column of "Them" popped out from round the bend of the celestial sphere.
    It was hard to say who were these "They", but outwardly "They" looked exactly as small white birch billets on short goat's legs, such stocky cylindrical billets about two feet long with pairs of supple branches instead of arms, their blue cloaks flying. To crown it all, a gold butterfly of a winged capital letter "V" was fluttering on the robe of each of them.
    Stamping their caprine hoofs, the billets ran up to the hole of the horizon and began to bustle about it in excitement, jabbering some gibberish and searching for the culprit of such vandalism.
    One of them, the nimblest of all, leapt to the table and rapped on the desktop, but inasmuch as a response of any perpetrator did not ensue, he considered the inspection completed and attached himself to his colleagues.
    In the meantime, two of his associates already pulled the thundering firmament down to the fleecy floor, and another pair of the animate cudgels seized the sixth one by his branches as if crucifying him.
    The seventh teammate--who was free from the holding--began to unwind the crucified sufferer.
    "To unwind" in the literal sense of a word--like a roll: stripping flimsy sheets of thin sticky paper off that scapegoat, whereas the others immediately set to sealing all the ceiling's cracks and ruptures with this plaster.
    The billets worked so coordinately and deftly that they put a whitish patch on the joint of the sky and cloud in a trice. Then all seven waved their cloaks and started flapping these blue wings very quickly.
    The patch grew azure, and the fusty smell of dust pervaded the air around.
    Now the billets had the way to the top stopped up, therefore they wrapped themselves up in their mantles with great satisfaction. Bearing the remains of their valiantly fallen comrade-in-arms, they went trotting at the same goat's pace backwards up the corridor.
    The instant they disappeared from view he also flung his hands and sneezed violently and sonorously.
    Then he sneezed once more, and again--three times in succession. After that, he burst out sneezing frequently, deafeningly and unrestrainedly, being exhausted with his unceasing "atishoo".
    From childhood, he could not bear smell of dust, of book dust in particular.
    At last, he was through with his allergic intolerance. Having wiped his eyes and nose, he hoisted the table again onto his back.
    As they should have eschewed meeting with those wooden kids (judging by their manners, the birch brethren just ruled the roost here), they had to take the way in the opposite direction.
    Screening themselves with a shield of the table, they went wending their way away from the vanished column along the hollow ring smelling stale.
    They measured off no more than seventy steps when an unusual building barred their crooked path.
    Two partitions of the same cloudily tough stuff formed an appendix, like a sheep-pen, protruding out of the outside horizon athwart the beaten track. The partitions were not very high, about a meter, and both had their own protuberances with some odd Empire inscriptions. "Lames" and "Anapaests"--such definitions traced in gold were written on the protuberance projecting at their feet, and as he leant over this fold open from above, on the second one he read aloud--"Metaboles" and "Pleonasms".
    Besides, a wondrous big flower resembling a half-open blue rose grew within the appendix by the outside divide of the ceiling's canopy of heaven and the felt cloud of the floor. Both the stem of the flower and its rigid leaves twisted as scrolls were also pale blue shot with unearthly turquoise tin tint.
    He bent to the flower, but the stuffy smell of a dusty room made him shrink back, which was for the better.
    "HARMONIS!" a man's voice said unexpectedly beside them.
    "Harmonis!" a woman's voice confirmed buoyantly.
    The voices were exclaiming beyond the vault, very close to them, but how could any voice arise there? What had become of the precipice, then?
    Nevertheless, the voices sounded quite distinctly.
    "Who is first?" the cantankerous one asked crustily.
    "It's me!" the chest-voice answered with a ripple of laughter. "Be on the alert! Take care lest they should shove you aside."
    "No man alive can oust me!" the cross one croaked. "Come in only in turn!"
    At this point, the meaty dialogue ceased buried in a noisy avalanche of voices of different sexes, exclaiming-denouncing-objecting-convincing and being equally harsh, irritated, and shrill.
    "Let me! Let me! Let me!" the voices were clamoring vociferously behind the sky. "I! I! I!"
    The azure parted above the flower with a soft ring, and someone's nose thrust promptly through the slit, a sharp rosy nose with the beads of sweat indelicately stood out on it through the coat of powder.
    The nose inhaled the flower's fragrance loudly, went blue and plunged down as though pecking.
    The next ring--and the second nose, shiny and turned up, pierced the tin serenity, turned sky-blue above the flower, and dived nervously into the cloud.
    Then the third one (red and aquiline) did the same, and after it--the next...
    Meanwhile, the first transformed neophyte already jumped out of the oval hollow at the roots of the blue rose.
    This was a woman, as it appeared from the elegance of a genuine fair lady, with which she threw off her foggy cocoon. But it should be observed that all the rest of this wisp of a beauty was not so winning in her willow-like slim supple body and slender flexible twigs-arms as she slid, wriggling like a snake on its tail, to the protuberance under the caption "Lames".
    The second specimen that tumbled out of the cocoon was a round wide flat chap, also legless and colorless, his body translucent as a sucked round sugarplum. He hatched out of his pupal chamber and rolled briskly under the heading "Pleonasms".
    Thereupon it began! No sooner did the noses in sequence rip the heavens melodiously ringing on every penetration and dart down than now the weak-willed colubrine Lames now the broad-chested flat Pleonasms now the tubular lanky Anapaests standing erect like glass pencils now the horizontally round-flat Metaboles spinning like a top would either rise, or jump up, or roll out of the oval bed.
    One after another, they whisked into their entitled protuberances, and it seemed incredible how many folk those narrow stumpy-tailed blind alleys could hold.
    In a hurry, some entrant poked his fleshy nose in farther than the established order permitted, and plunging, this hairy purple plum pecked at the whimsical petals.
    The languorous petals gave a clang--the flower nipped the plum with hatred--and the hapless applicant started back with a scream from the walls of the Harmonis, while his impudent nose remained in the blue cup opening to meet the next convert.
    Finally, the brawls of the outside crush little by little died down. The diving of the protruding sniffing noses was up, since all the modified types of novices had skulked in the bulges of the proper accumulators.
    The flower, sucking the blood from its prey, closed the petals tiredly and defenselessly. The oval bed was empty, and the dusty silence reigned pensively within the pen.
    Impatiently disturbing this stagnant dead silence impregnated with senility, the tinplate of the firmament began to rumble--at first barely audibly, then louder and louder....


    As if it were at the command, the New Year's crackers of bulges suddenly burst with a pop, and the pairs of "Children of Harmony" gushed full-flowingly out of the four smoking vents through the opened blunt ends into the ring for beginners.
    The brittle spindly Anapaests were jogging stiffly beside the frail Lames blowing some whining melody out of their flutes very diligently and tearfully, though discordantly, and, in time, plucking the rusty strings of their lyres responding with nervous moans.
    On the opposite side, the uprightly revolving hearty Pleonasms were thumping against the abraded hide of their huge drums, and the buxom Metaboles, sliding on one side, were enthusiastically tinkling thousands of bells hanging on their poles twined with yellow ribbons.
    And everyone in the jangling improvising band, endeavoring to exceed the others, was bashing out with all its might and main--piping, twanging, beating and clashing, so it was very difficult to recognize the simple tune of "Chopsticks" in their importunate whimpering cacophony.
    Playing more and more heartbreakingly, confidently, and consonantly, the procession set out up the ring in two different directions, being led away by the swelling common leitmotif.
    Brushing the table, the inflexible Anapaests had toddled together with the wobbling finicky Lames past them, and the wagging tail ends of the procession disappeared in single file round the two opposite bends.
    Without losing time, he dashed up to the vacant pen.
    Holding his nose with his two fingers, he bent over the dozing blue flower, and thrust his palm into the narrow slit of the sky, pressing his face to the opening.
    A bright green hillside sprinkled with parti-colored specks of flowers sloped down gently before him up to the very horizon.
    Instead of the cloud and cliff, there was a wide expanse of steppe on the other side of the wall. The vast plain resounding with grasshoppers' chirring was here and there silver with the streaming crests of feather grass and bathed in the sunshine of the welkin flowing down into the boundless green sea and tenderly clinging to the earth breathing the flickering haze of heat.
    Having forgotten all about the biting rose in his joy, he inadvertently relaxed the grip of his fingers, and immediately the archives' dusty odor poured into his nostrils.
    Strange to say, now the odor seemed to him so delicate, mysterious, and luscious that he unexpectedly wanted to scent this smell a little longer, nay, he fancied breathing this frowsty air into his lungs endlessly in order to absorb it with his every cell and in every fiber of his being, as though its staleness was the brisk crisp air invigorating him.
    Hundreds and hundreds of some irreproachably apt comparisons and epithets, perfect metaphors and inimitably neat turns of speech soared multiplying-jostling-infesting like a fussy swarm in his longing brain.
    A germ of a cherished multistage sentence in Tolstoy's manner sprouted and began to grow like honeycomb in his introspecting consciousness: "...he believed that what he did was necessary, because if he wanted something to be necessary (which was necessary if he wanted to believe that what he did was necessary) he had to believe..." and so on.
    The masterly--never used--delicious rhyme "Ave roses--Averroes" came buzzing sweetly in his temple, and in his thoughts he was already beyond the verge, in the downy bed of the hollow, in the cocoon softly withering his wistful soul to a discarnate shadow, effetely puny and craving-hankering-yearning for greatness....
    And here someone's hand with a thin ringlet on the fourth finger suddenly intruded into his divine dream and pushed him away tactlessly and untimely from the sacrosanct flower, frustrating all his elevated projects.
    "Hey, come to yourself!"
    The curtain of the firmament closed with a faint chime.
    He gave a sneeze.
    "Damned dust!" he sneezed once more. "I was a bit carried away, it seems...."
    Only a breath divided him from the lamentable lot of those staff-like Anapaests that had marched past him a minute ago, only one breath.
    "It was so stupefying that I even began to twaddle and write some balderdash...."
    Sneezing, he was shaking his head to dispel the sugary flattery of his haunting, ingratiatingly smarmy dreams.
    "Excuse me for goodness' sake...."
    Thus, they were to decide what they proposed to do, properly speaking: whether to force their way through the slit, where a palm could hardly squeeze, or to go after the procession to search for a real exit.
    Were it not for the scandal with the blood-sucking rose he would have had the sense to twig that nothing "real" might be in this ring-shaped Harmonis with its counterfeit tin heavens and felt clouds. It was understandable, too, that every circle had a tendency to its complete outsiders-proof closing, consequently even an entry was sheer luck here, not to mention an exit.
    But his exhausting sneezing and the book smell being exhaled by the blue vampire apparently stupefied him indeed, and his mind got pretty much depressed after their stay within such a limited space; anyway, his former acumen did not suggest such a simple thought to him.
    Shielding themselves with the table to take cover in case of need, they followed the personifications' example and struck out up the round passage ringing with the mellifluous wails and moans of chanting.
    The band was playing nearer and nearer--they were just gaining on it when they heard the remote thumping of drummers and the tinkling of numberless bells in front of them.
    The disconnected halves of the closing circle were about to meet, and "Chopsticks" sounded in the united peal sonorously, solemnly, and peremptorily.
    The instant of the final concord almost arrived, but, on a sudden, a bolt from the blue drowned the peal, and the fallen hush cut off all sounds.
    Putting the table forward, they turned the bend--and nearly swept the sluggish tail end creeping along round the corner.
    In this place, the corridor abruptly widened to the right into a spacious high hall, and the silent strolling musicians were sliding now on its smooth blue floor.
    Under the shelter of their shield, they stole up to the very entrance and peeped in the audience chamber.


    With its cerulean pellucid floor and cloudy ceiling, the oval commodious hall resembled a hard-boiled egg cut in two, especially due to a tarnished yellow small oval situated in the middle of this bottomless skating-rink.
    The central yolk, enclosed with a low lacy fence, had two shut wickets: the first--opening on the side of the players crowding by it, the second--looking on the steps of an oval dais made of the same cloud.
    And a golden Voltaire armchair (viz. having only right angles) with two levers on its arms and with a short thick bar protruding out of its very high straight back was set on the dais. There was a big-breasted capital letter "B" cut through on the back, its outlines copying the shape of the armchair in profile.
    Through the slots one could see the birch saw cuts of someone's pupils, the blue cloth of the familiar cloaks and some chippy rusty blades, which wooden fingers were hiding habitually under the unspotted vestments as if before the beginning of a performance.
    The firmament (or rather, it was the floor, because the sky was shifted now under feet) rumbled shortly for the third time and became coal-black.
    In the gloom, a bright sunbeam fell from above, out of the clouds, to the central oval, whereupon the oval lit up golden and illuminated the hall vividly and festively.
    By the dais, they saw those goat-legged billets draping themselves in their romantic blue cloaks and showing the golden "V" boastfully to the present uninitiated nonprofessionals (for that purpose, the flaunting priests of sublimity had to turn their backs upon the orchestra of lay apprentices).
    Their fugleman sitting in state in the armchair was a lofty log appareled in a robe embroidered in gold and glittering with a lot of the stamps of aureate letters "B" imprinted everywhere on the azure ground. The eminent head of the elect was in effect the same wooden block as his companions, but his nibs made himself conspicuous by his supernatural whiteness and more imposing build: his massive body completely covered the slots behind him.
    Right above this nonesuch, there was a gleaming sharp woodchopper without axe-helve seeming suspended in the air--so thin was the thread by which it hung from the bar.
    To reinforce the supreme magnificence, some inscrutable gold inscriptions embellished with old-fashioned clerkly flourishes of all sorts were shining on the sunlit clouds, such as "Beauty is a pledge of success!", "Versificarious signifies the most worthy!", "Let's satisfy a demand for the beautiful by 107, 7 per cent!", and "To everyone--his own harmony!"
    The billets (or "Versificariouses" according to their own appellation, whence there came a letter "V" on their cloaks) broke into a tittup, pattering their hoofs friskily, towards the bandsmen and instantly stopped dead in the middle of the hall.
    As it turned out, an invisible proof partition reaching the very yolk divided the hall, and one could pass to the pedestal of the chieftain's armchair only through the wickets remaining shut.
    Having run slap into an unforeseen obstacle, the disarrayed Versificariouses burst out into hysterical jabber, and for a while, their bellicosely formed ranks went disarranged, but then they discovered the real reason of the holdup.
    They turned sharp round and dashed without a word to the dais.
    The most broad-shouldered of them, bending his bovine neck and drawing some steel thing from under his cloak, darted behind the armchair.
    The absentminded log that had missed due moment suddenly twitched pinned to the holey throne with a stab in the back, and the sword of Damocles started swinging over the pate of the remiss laggard.
    "Brachycolumn!" the Versificariouses barked at him in chorus and stamped their hoofs against the night starless sky.
    At once, the lethal instrument of execution came off.
    In the momentary darkness, a smacking crack of cleaving wood resounded under the canopy of heaven, and after the sound of lumbering all heard a thud of fallen timber.
    To a blast of a blaring trumpet, the oval relumed this castle in the sky.
    Instead of that felled sluggard the next cudgel-like leader-"Brachycolumn" mounting the throne was wrapping up in the gained chasuble on the vacant seat and getting bigger and whiter in conformity with the size of the chair.
    Extending, the Versificariouses went at a gallop in line to the partition and seemed to have passed through it--so imperceptibly it lifted.
    Yet as soon as one optimistic fidgety Pleonasm moved forward by mistake on that elitist half, the glass wall fell and swatted him like a fly, so that his flat oval body rolled into a pipe and the agile sprightly fat chap was transmuted into a dry peevish Anapaest.
    Meantime, clattering and clicking their tongues benevolently, the Versificariouses were distributing some fluffy wads of cloudy stuff among the claimants, and the tyros, being agog for their shares of spirituality and zealous for a chance to prove their proficiency in art, were instantly setting to work on the material lent to them and beginning to knead-squeeze-crumple-pinch the pieces with feverish haste.
    "Competition," he whispered in her ear. "It is, most likely, a competition for the best sculpture. Look what a diligence."
    Meanwhile, the members of the prelusive musical procession, having piled up their instruments aside, were entirely engrossed in their work.
    The cloud in their hands was transfiguring in a brace of shakes and becoming now an Old-Russian monastery now a manor-arbor filled with delightful nosegays of narcissi and lily-white daisies.
    Doves of Peace and some blanched standard town blocks in a starched ring of highways and soapsuds of suburbs were giving place to a whitewashed small kitchen with its miniature shelves and a winter garden behind the window or to a rimy spring forest with frosted grass and flowers.
    A paper school model of galaxy, where a snowy sun was cradling tennis-balls of planets on the gossamer of its beams, was crowning various chimerical nightmares, such as the bared porcelain fangs sinking into a tousled (that is to say "flaming in fire") cotton wool heart or some prodigious albinos: giraffes and horses.
    Lattice icy globes, icicles-rockets and limestone bricks (of the universe or for a private cottage) with an author's derisory subscription "Absurdness" alternated either the mileposts of virginally unblemished exclamation marks or the marks that were equally sterile but interrogative.
    The romantic brigantines and frigates salted by imaginary storms were sailing into the sinful alcoves enveloped in the bashful tulle of valances, while some bleached wee factories were ejecting the fleecy smoke through their chimneys, and some ivory towers without windows and doors were rising above some irreproachably clean boskets and meads (of course, tidily-cream and lifelessly snowy).
    Mostly the masterpieces presented the credulously innocent alabaster arms (up to its elbows), chalk legs (but no higher than its knees), bloodless lips, pale ears, fair locks or milk pupils of the object of someone's innocuous affections.
    Ossifying and calcifying, these separate colorless worlds were arising from the whipped albumen of cloudy clay being modeled right before the onlookers' eyes with uncommon eagerness and verve.
    For a minute, there were only the ringing smacks of the squelching fog and the industrious panting of the competitors in the hall. Even the Versificariouses had somehow noiselessly cleared off behind the shatterproof glass of the dividing wall and were shifting from one foot to the other in cluster by the dais, pending their hour.
    At last, the minute of creation had expired.
    The Brachycolumn touched the felt steps with his hoof, and the black mirror of the ebony floor shook in anticipation with a hollow rumble.
    A ray of light, reluctantly rising out of the oval to the clouds, grew like a golden pillar in the center of the heavenly abyss, and the hall sank into the darkness.
    The gold wicket of the admitting stage squeaked, and the first Anapaest appeared on the shining arena with an immature fruit of his ingenuity in his hands.
    In a flash, the parts of his magnum opus, which had not gone in the pillar, were chopped off with a short crack by the rigid light.
    "Enjambment!" the Versificariouses shouted in a stentorian voice, and that blockhead in the armchair pulled the left lever.
    The petals of the oval opened down with a click, and when it closed up again, the Anapaest was not in the all-seeing eye of the empyrean.
    "Enjambment..." The sudden death penalty gave her a shiver. "Nice rules are here, I'd say."
    An energetically spinning flat Metabola was now in the highlight within the encompassed space; from a distance, she looked like a glistening drawing pin. To do her cosmos justice, it did not go beyond the fiery limits of the pillar, but at the same time, it could not reach these limits with the best will in the world.
    "Enjambment!" the pernickety judges roared out gleefully.
    As they pronounced their verdict, the Metabola cringed under the weight of their sentence and came down into the trap forever.
    "What a slashing criticism!" she resented in a low voice. "For every trifle you may be thrown into the pit!"
    "Selection," he whispered. "No one meets the requirements."
    Only the tenth author managed to succeed in coinciding with the normative size of the light column.
    It was a brilliant round Pleonasm glittering as a polished copper coin, with a dandelion of the globe-shaped construction of his crafty imagination, within which he had placed an ideal diminished copy of the hall and the Brachycolumn together with the Versificariouses framed (to make assurance double sure) with the fur radiance of aureoles.
    Resorting pat to cunning, the obsequious slyboots hit the mark unerringly.
    However quickly the picky shaft of the sunny oval narrowed or widened the mobile sphere, now contracting now dilating, contrived to come up with it every time.
    "Licet!" the Versificariouses belched out a positive award with unconcealed abhorrence.
    "It is permissible," he translated automatically. "They mean "Quod licet Iovi--"
    This time the Brachycolumn, very grudgingly, stroked the right lever.
    The central searchlight threw its petals open up, as if lapping the Pleonasm in the glowing orange skin, and then unclenched its fist.
    Instead of the former resourcefully fawning rouge, a new-minted freshly whitened billet-Versificarious ran out, his hoofs clattering, through the squeaky opposite wicket to the displeased bunch of the connoisseurs of art.
    The Brachycolumn's dry paw dived behind the back of the throne and stretched patronizingly over the newcomer to fling a secondhand blue cloak on the legitimate "son of muses" crowed over the stern examiners.
    Yet this genius-victor was the last lucky dog, on whom the inhospitable hosts bestowed such honors.
    One after another all the pretenders disappeared in the chasm of the test oval, and in vain they endeavored to correct their worlds not corresponding with the proper dimensions: not a work had the flexibility and completeness that were necessary here, and the same judging "Enjambment" accompanied their complaints and irreversible flops.
    She who closed the enrolment of new members was an emaciated timid Lame.
    Kowtowing to the fastidious rigorous Olympians, she submitted her thoroughly made marble library in chaste antique style reminding of the Pantheon.
    In a twinkling, the pitiless light lopped off the columns, dome and a good deal of the shelves crammed with some large volumes in the bindings of tanned leather powdered with the flaky dust of centuries.
    The rueful Lame threw up the twigs of her thin arms despairingly and, in accordance with the crack of doom condemning her to division, followed the others resignedly and ashamedly downwards.
    There was nobody to try his fortune in the throne-room, and the luminaries of holiness extinguishing the irrelevant emulative spirit of some upstarts by dint of fails looked quite content with their victory.
    As the glaring eye of the central Procrustean bed went out, the floor grew blue, and the Versificariouses began to scurry about the hall, gathering and sorting the public property: cithers, flutes, drums and poles with bells.
    A new gold motto shone now on the clouds over the trap: "Beauty it is beautiful!"
    By now, he ran out of patience.
    "Hey, you there!" he called out, stepping forward from behind the table. (In a blink, that firewood fled away as if blown by a gust of wind; only the summarizing slogan reflected dimly in the glass partition fallen between the minions of fortune and him.) "You, kids!"
    He pushed the table away--and she appeared before the perturbed judges with a white lily of the lamp in her hand.
    Against the light, she seemed haloed all over with the fascination of her youth, which her nut-brown lambent eyes were radiating, with which her bronze wet skin was glistening, and which was playing in the wavering flame of her luxuriant red locks loosely falling on her bare angular shoulders.
    "Beauty?" he asked sarcastically and continued his harangue with the greater and greater fervor. "Look at beauty! Here it is, pray! You can see what your beauty is as such!"
    To whom did he appeal? Who else in the upside-down hall had the eyes to view the bewitching exultant halo of this perennial miracle of life and femininity and perceive this unlabored--incomplete--full-blooded beauty conditioned by no canon?
    Pawing the ground, the nonplussed Versificariouses were chattering in a dither by the pedestal of the highest glory, discussing agitatedly what to do with this unbidden tribune fulminating against them and how to act under the circumstances. Until then, the fog, steep and steppe had been protecting them from any unpardonable intrusion of foreign bodies in the coterie of their Harmonis, and the present situation was delicate enough.
    At length, they came to a decision.
    The Brachycolumn put out his paw-bough and pointed kingly at the vacant oval.
    "An entrance exam," she guessed what the gesture stood for. "They want to ascertain if I am beautiful from their point of view."
    "From their point?" he repeated her words, scrutinizing the fenced space with great suspicion.
    Then he suddenly seized one of the drums lying about and drove its side into the trap at one stroke.
    The petals were broken down, and a whiff of rot came out of the pit.
    "It is for the waste."
    He let the drum go--the flabbily dangling petals scratched the drumhead, and the drum crashed into the well, after which the petals closed up with a snap.
    "There is a refuse pit there!"
    A thin jet of some dark smelly liquid hit him almost in his eye and spattered his face.
    Having shed their uniform cloaks, the Versificariouses were charging.
    Unwinding long sticky strips off themselves, they time after time threw back the upper part of their trunks (for they had nothing like heads) and, as though spitting, shot out threadlike ink jets through the wee holes that served them as mouths.
    "Retreat!" he told her hastily, lifting the table. "Run away!"
    Covering his eyes with his hand from the rapid firing of the attacking literary fraternity and seeking safety in flight, he flung away to the exit.
    "Skedaddle! I follow you!"
    Lugging the table on his back, he scuttled after her down the low corridor going away from them.
    With harsh creaking, the wheel of the cloud was slowly revolving on its rusty axis--in all likelihood for the first time for many years.
    "If only they won't outrun us, then we get out of the scrape," he was panting, winded by running, while the corners of his cumbersome burden were catching the sky rumbling behind him. "If only to be in time..."
    They arrived at their terminus in the very nick of time. Nearing the pen with the blue flower, he outdistanced her and threw the table off on the floor.
    "Fall down!"
    Hooting and bawling out "tally-ho!" a squad of the Versificariouses bounced out in fighting trim from round the bend with the ribbons of stickers in their paws.
    The instant she fell headlong into the table he took a run on the felt floor and rammed the clear blue sky with the front of his carriage.
    The table ruptured the artificial sky, sprang out of the Harmonis, and darted down the green grassy slope....


    All that they heard in their skimming down was the swift soft rustle of the thick grass, over which their table was swishing, ripping along and leaving a swath behind.
    All that they felt was the hard pressure of the expanse of field being torn in half by the speed.
    All that they breathed in was the wormwood's tang of the wide steppe intoxicated with the effulgence of the sun and with the fragrances of flowers.
    Washing their faces, Life was flying again like a rapid hot torrent of the headwind sweeping them down and blowing the remains of the fluffy dust out of their lungs.
    Behind them, on the top of the sloping hill, the white dense cloud, gradually dwindling in the distance, dropped the felt steps of its roundish small letters downhill, and a dark breach emitting bluish fumes gaped unexpectedly as a shot hole in the cloudless azure of the firmament above the vertically lying "HARMONIS" moving with the cloud to the right.
    Overcoming the wind, he bent and glanced at the dial of his wristwatch.
    "Seven!" he let her know. "We've spent exactly seven minutes there!"
    Seven minutes-just so much time had passed from the impressing moment of their alighting on the cloud-capped peak, the seven minutes, which seemed to be seven hours.
    The table scorched on to the horizon.
    The slope was little by little flattening, and the odorous sunny flood of motley grasses spread towards some sparkling strip stretched across the far-flung spring flowering of the rolling yellowish-green waves from side to side.
    Soon, there was a transition from declivity to an imperceptible rise in the plain, but the table kept on gliding as rapidly as before, without changing the former rate of movement and direction.
    The top with the ring of the Harmonis was deviating slowly to the right, as if sinking into the freshet of greenery.
    When its drawn fur crown dipped wholly into the wavy sea of vast undulating steppe, the table flew up onto the highest point of this declivous rise-on the verge-and they started with surprise, since father in front of them they saw some level plateau mantled with the very strange parti-colored iridescent snow playing in the sunlight.
    The table leapt from the grass onto the snow cover and continued to slide, sometimes screeching perplexedly and scratching against the crunching mosaically pressed crystals, yet the contrary wind, which had been lashing their faces while they were racing here, seemed to have run into the verge and dropped: as before, they tore along, but there was no stir in the air.
    The heat flooded the plateau was flowing together with their fast wooden sleigh and squeezing them tightly in the blazing furnace of the scorching noon. Every breath singed the breast, and the sweat, transpiring, baked on their skin into crust of salt.
    Sweltering, they were opening their dry mouths tragically; meantime the shining heaven was pressing them unrelentingly with its fierce dazzle swimming by rainbow blots before their inflamed bloodshot eyes.
    "Snow-," he thought drowsily. "The snow doesn't thaw."
    He put out his hand overboard, to scoop up a handful of this kaleidoscopic snow, and only abraded the fingertips for nothing-the firm frozen crust burning with frost and speed was as good as petrified.
    "I'd drink something," she mumbled, hardly parting her parched lips. "A sip... A thimbleful...."
    Alas, there was nothing to drink about at the snowbound wold.
    In the deathly silence of the torrid desert, they slid on and on, stifling with the sultry oppressive heat, as viscous as tar, and taking no heed of the precious glitter of the diamond-deposits extending around like an immense saline.


    Saving her from the merciless sun, he began to stretch the plaid on the three intact legs of the table.
    Even as, sitting on the ledge and tearing the third woolen corner, he was just about to finish making his improvised awning, the speeding table cut slap-bang into a low small snowdrift that was altogether indistinguishable among the carnival glare of the crystals.
    The crust suddenly sagged under the table and came down.
    Thrown head over heels out of his winged bark, he banged his back against a hard ice border and slipped off with his feet forward into a dark hole under the blanket of snow, whereas the stopped table, not going in the diameter, listed over the masterly masked pitfall of a deep well.
    Having struck against the slat, she tipped out of the table on the snow and lost consciousness....
    Excepting his slightly hurt soles and a light nervous shock, his falling upright down ended quite well-the bottom proved soft as real snow.
    Groaning, he got up and threw back his head.
    The hole was too high and barely visible in the scintillation of the frosted walls.
    "Halloo!" yelled he, and the draught blew his voice instantly out of this chimney-he heard no echo.
    He looked round.
    The arches of the entrances of some narrow adits were on the left, on the right, behind and before him, and some phosphorescent greenish letters were twinkling above these galleries with its glimmering greenish cut-glass walls, which intersected here, in the circle of the central shaft.
    "DELIRIA," he read the letters. "And here's again Deliria. So there's Deliria everywhere."
    The galleries were so similar that he could not say with certainty which of them was a second ago on this side and which-on that; however, the orientation was of no importance, for he did not intend to go deep into this mine, did he? He only meant to cast a glance at what was there and then to start his climb, considering that it would be very difficult to scramble out here, and he should have taken a short rest.
    "I wonder if there are springs inside, and it is my sole purpose."
    The pleasant humid coolness was coming from the adits, while just at present, in the watery greenish dusk on the bottom, his throat was parched with thirst as never in his life.
    "I ought to find out that, right?"
    Indeed, he needed not hurry somewhere up-now he had invented a valid reason and plausible excuse for himself.
    "Besides, she is thirsty. It is for her, too...."
    He slipped on the glassy floor and took a step.
    There was a fluctuation of the shimmering emptiness between the greenish facets, as if he had dived into the depth of the stagnant still stream filled the pipe of gallery.
    Seven steps more-and he got lost in the timeless cool deep.
    He looked back, but the exit had vanished.
    He sped down the pipe in the opposite direction, yet for some reason no exit was there either.
    He could not find it after seven steps and after seventy-seven: wherever he bent his steps, he faced the same emptiness and bottle-green glass walls.
    He turned abruptly-and the facets opened on new adit. He turned again-and plunged into the same greenish vacuum of the next horizontal well.
    He had got into a labyrinth.
    "Drat!" he rapped out an oath and went on to seek the exit at haphazard.
    His throat was dry as emery; his knees were shaky; his heart was pounding. He was going along the endless glass tunnel, cursing himself-his own curiosity and imprudence, but his reproaches, late castigations and anger, wandering about the maze, time after time became enmeshed in the intricacy of the galleries and evanished in the flickering silence without bringing any reverberation, hope, and deliverance from his roaming....
    Not that this spring came in sight, revealed to his eyes, or appeared anywhere-it simply turned up before him all at once and as a whole, placed in a snug cave of the wall.
    A singing life-giving little waterfall was running down into a sparkling crystal bowl out of an ornamental tracery of vine leaves fringing a symbolic figure of the laurel-wreathed man that stood genuflected before his own spring also engraved upon a big emerald installed on the glass brim of the bowl.
    He stumbled over a heap of some black brushwood and burst into the recess.
    Flabbergasted, he flopped down on his knees and hugged the frostily glistening silvery goblet. Somehow, by itself, his head ducked into the bowl, and he began to drink quaffing such an opportune cup.
    He was swigging the ravishing Arcanum, lapping and gulping it, and could not drink his fill, as the whetting icy well water was tickling his lips so teasingly, and his tongue was tingling so palatably, and his imbibing throat was slaking the thirst so unremittingly.
    Some indolent languor was swamping his weakening disobeying body and flooding his heart hardly floundering in the deluge that overwhelmed his brain sinking into the fanciful twinkling of the mosaics lazily mixing its varicolored live coals and scattering the trumpery of innumerable spangles of embers in the chilly whirling of unconsciousness....
    He tore himself away from the spring and looked up.
    What he saw made him feel creepy all over.
    The vine leaves framing the bas-relief were quivering, and the limpid streamlet of the emerald stone spring was gurgling through the flat pebbles.
    The man wreathed with laurel bent over the spring. His lips kissed the flowing water, and the thirsting wanderer gave a swallow.
    As though burning in some invisible fire, his bays curled up and covered with some spreading dark brown spots. Then all the leaves suddenly fell off and flew up like black shavings of ashes.
    The man swallowed again.
    His chest lit up with the greenish fire breaking through it from inside, and the ominous tongues of flame started dancing between his ribs.
    The man swallowed once more.
    A wave of the furious green blaze swept over his figure-wriggling, he was writhing like a live bonfire by the spring.
    The spurts of flame transpierced his crooked body and shot up into a spiral column, after which the fire subsided and lay down, slightly puffing within the charred skeleton.
    He spat on his finger and poked it into the cinder of the bas-relief. It got sizzling.
    "Already warmer," he smirked contentedly. "It's burning."
    He moved back from the magic bowl and stood up.
    New and new compositions of the mosaics besotted his brain unendingly, so all the rest had receded and lost any sense. Only the soundless waves were heaving now in his soul, cradling him and carrying him away nowhere.
    Obedient to these waves, to these wavy urges, he got out of the recess and, as if swimming down the stream of his inebriation, plodded sluggishly along the gallery deep into the maze in quest of new lures....


    She came to herself from a strange keen sensation-her body had split.
    The front of her breast, elbows and legs were numb with cold, while her back, shoulders and calves made itself felt as scalded.
    Luckily, her face had been covered with her palms at the moment of her fall, and it did not contact with the snow, but everything else was burning unmercifully: with frost from below and with the broiling sun from above.
    She leant on her numb elbows and attempted to rise, but something did not let her get up.
    She jerked and heard a zip of tearing fabric.
    Her dress had frozen to the glacier, and the crust held it tenaciously; meanwhile, by now, she did not feel the half of her body.
    With her stiff fingers, she began to unstick her sundress from the crust, little by little unbending. At length, the skirt came unstuck, and she rose to her feet, chafing her cold knees and hands.
    Had she remained prone ten minutes longer, she would have been unable to stir at all.
    This time the heat did her a good turn: soon the numbness passed, and the blood, pulsing merrily in her arteries, flushed to the frost-bitten parts to stick thousands of red-hot needles into the chilblains of her skin, though her feet were benumbed as before in her summer open-toe sandals.
    She rocked the table several times, to make sure that it was steady enough, and bent over the hole of the well.
    "Where are you?" she called into the hole.
    The well did not respond.
    "You-u-u!" she cried. "Answer me!"
    There came not a sound from the bottom.
    It was necessary to descend. Something must have happened to him there, some misfortune befell him in the well, and she could not turn him adrift.
    The question was how to rescue him? What she had for her descent? Neither a rope nor a cord, and her dress (she stroked the fine-spun print disappointedly) would not bear even her weight.
    "But the plaid!" she had a brain wave.
    The plaid rather suited her. She gripped two ends of the slightly torn corner, tugged at it, and rent the wool.
    She took the other corner and noticed a small sharp metal plate dangling on the nail in the hollow of the leg wrenched by him-it was just what she needed.
    Breaking off the plate, she scratched her finger until it bled, yet she tensed the plaid bound by him to the leg and began to rip the wool into narrow strips, helping herself with her blade.
    The sun was scorching, and the sultry air was searing her bare skin, but she disregarded the blinding shine and devilish glow.
    She tied the strips together, tightened the knot on the table's leg, and lowered her rope into the well.
    The rope hung loose, slightly knocking against the walls and evidently not reaching the bottom-in her haste she, of course, forgot to sound the depth of the mineshaft.
    She pulled a thread out of the flounce of her dress, fastened one of her sandals to it and the very thread-to the rope. Undoing the lace, she hove her lead down into the dark pipe.
    Before long, there was an almost imperceptible tap far below, and she drew out the plaid together with the thread.
    There remained a fair distance to the bottom. Even if she had ventured to jump down she wouldn't have climbed from there in any way, not to speak of helping him to get out of the underworld.
    Her head was splitting. Squeezing her temples and brooding on such an insuperable difficulty, she was winding a long red lock habitually round her finger.
    The glaring celestial sphere was melting soullessly up to the horizon, and the snow armor of the plateau was sparkling and blazing iridescently in the sun.
    She was sitting all alone in the burnt epicenter of the scorching desert, and she had nothing at hand to cope with her insoluble task.
    "What's now?" she racked her brain, poring at the lock, which she twiddled. "What to do?"
    Here a very odd idea came into her mind. She smoothed out the ringlet and twisted it into a rope.
    Yes, her hair-it was the only possible solution. Out of her luxuriant mane, she had to make the last lacking meters, maybe out of the most endearing in her loveliness....
    She gave a sob and slashed the curl resolutely with the plate. Her razor was too blunt, whereas the hair was too thick, so she set to work anew.
    Weeping, she was sawing and tearing the strands of her fluffy red tresses, and its fiery shock was mounting quickly at her feet until a fox brush of the last lock curved in the air and fell to the ground.
    Gritting her teeth, she twisted it, added two other ones, and proceeded to plait a tight lengthening braid out of her cut hair, splicing the ends of the strands.
    After having joined all the links, she tied her hair chain to the woolen rope and, testing the tensile strength of every knot, sent it down into the well.
    Salt drops were falling from her eyelashes on the braid, and if it were not for the mist before her eyes, she would have seen the knots cementing with her dropping scalding tears and setting firm, which gradually made her unreliable bit of string a strong resilient hair hawser.
    After the hair, the warm strips of the plaid had gone into the hole, and now there came her hour.
    Having wiped her face with the knitted flounce, she threw off her sandals and began to descend into the silent narrow pit, her bare soles sliding down her homemade cable.
    The icy cold of the frosted walls pierced her every time as her back touched them, while the coarse knots excoriated the skin of her palms, but for all that, she kept on abseiling: the twinkling of the hoarfrost already closed over her head, and a light spot of the bottom could be vaguely seen far beneath her.
    The plaid ended, her feet slipped off the hair rope, and her palms were burnt with a jerk.
    She flew down-not from the very dangerous height, though, and the very bottom was soft as a feather bed.
    Four lit entrances with its greenish winking inscriptions above were round her.
    "Deliria"-undoubtedly she once heard this word somewhere, this or something of the kind.
    "I believe, it has bearing on dipsos," she remembered its meaning.
    Clearly, he was there, in one of the similar galleries-twins, from which there came promising saving coolness.
    Strange it was that on the bottom she felt like drinking even more than in the full blaze of the sun: dying for a drink of water, she licked her parched lips.
    The nearest doorway was silent.
    "H-e-e-y!" she cried out again in the other direction.
    The next was mute, too.
    "He-e-e-e-y!" she repeated her cry twice. "Are you there?"
    Only the same emptiness and the same shimmering of the greenish facets were in front of her everywhere.
    "Well, then I go to search."
    She looked in the gallery, and one sudden thought stopped her on the very threshold.
    Who knew how far his thirst might lead him with his love of knowledge-it would do no harm to secure herself against all risks.
    She bound a red thread of her half-undone lace to the hair end of her hawser and took a step on the wet glass floor, unwinding it out of the shortening skirt....


    Although, as a reasonable girl, she directed her steps straight on, nevertheless, a scarlet trickle of the thread turned an indistinguishable bend at once, and the exit vanished among the glimmering facets.
    She had come in the maze.
    Unhesitatingly, she strode on down the glass adit, calling him from time to time and knocking on the cut walls, but she only became hoarse and abraded her knuckles.
    Indeed, how could he avoid losing his way here when as long as she was going, the same passage of gallery was affably open ahead, while the thread was continually disappearing behind?
    The niche, which emerged unexpectedly before her (it looked as though the wall suddenly presented this spring respectfully to her), contained a big crystal cup with a bas-relief above the purling frolicsome streamlet flowing down, and at the sight of water, her abated thirst roused so violently that she got trembling all over with impatience.
    Hardly realizing what she did, she found herself in the small grotto and clung to the glass basin filled with the playing effervescent liquid tickling her grazed palms.
    Then she scooped up the cold pure water to splash on her head and in passing cast a perfunctory glance at the bas-relief....
    God bless her training of observation in her actor days!
    The carved man bowed his laurel wreath to the spring engraved on a green stone, and the bay leaves on his head got a bit darker.
    "It's amusing."
    She raised her hand to touch the revived emerald-the water slipped out of her palms-the man stood erect, and the wreath became greener.
    "It's curious."
    She dipped her hands into the water-the head of the man drooped, and the wreath darkened. She took her hands out-the laurels grew green, and he drew himself up.
    There was a certain connection between the semi-transparent green slab of the bas-relief and the liquid in the basin; therefore, she should not have hurried to drink this suspicious water.
    With reluctance, she moved back from the spring and nearly tripped over a black piece of wood. She kicked it angrily and stopped.
    Where could wood have come from? On all her way in the maze, she had not sighted even a speck of dust.
    She reached for the find and picked up a small charred twig of strange shape-straight and with two knobs on both ends. The whole mound of the same piled black branches, thick or thin, long or short, was nearby.
    She poked her twig mechanically in what she had mistaken for a pile of firebrands, and as soon as she stirred it, someone's sooty skull rolled out from there, baring its decayed teeth feeblemindedly.
    Tapping with its floppy dislocated jaw and strewing ashes out of its black burnt eyeholes, the grinning skull was rolling to her over the clean mirror floor.
    Now she understood what it was, this pile.
    It was a skeleton-a disintegrated charred skeleton covered with greasy smelly soot and left lying as a heap of black bones by the spring in the corner of the bay.
    She recoiled horror-stricken from the skull and dropped the firebrand.
    With a scream, she bounced out of the grotto and broke into a run like mad down the gallery.
    Luckily for her the thread was unwinding by itself, because she forgot all about it and overlooked the fact that just as she flung out of the horrible cave, the spring with the skeleton disappeared without a trace, and now she could not determine where it was situated a minute ago.
    However, she did not try to determine anything at present: beside herself with fear, she was running away-no matter where to.
    The oscillating greenish emptiness was gaping ahead, absorbing her run, and the gleaming facets were streaming past. Her bare soles were slapping against the wet floor of the pipe stretching further and further before her, and her cries, beating desperately against the blank glass walls, faded without reverberation in the lit passages of the Deliria.
    New and new springs would turn up inside cozy niches, luring her into the cool of its secluded caverns, where the murmuring brisk crystal freshness was filling all sorts of iridescent vessels, now refined-bizarre now rough-hewed like a primitive glass tumbler. New and new bas-reliefs, now inlays of malachite now engravings on emerald or jasper, were arising within vine foliage over the uniform cascades.
    Some strapping brawny fellows were mauling the roaring lions high-handedly, breaking the horns of the butting ferocious bulls, and jumping onto the backs of the unbridled stallions, flying on their gallant steeds across ravines and rivers. The other ungovernable chaps, no less sturdy-hefty-dauntless-daring, were caressing the streams of women's naked bodies pining for them, as well as-cutting a dash-hurling gold ingots dashingly from their treasuries at their foes and cleaving the countless hordes of mailed courageous knights valiantly with their slaying swords.
    Some damsels of indescribable beauty and overpowering charm were treading proudly on the necks of their longing inamoratos prostrated themselves with their beating bitten hearts in their hands before these goddesses and, so to say, kissing the ground with invocations on their lips. The other seductresses, enshrouded in oriental luxury-languor-sensuality, were lying as embodiments of voluptuousness and temptation among sumptuous carpets, sables-ermines, and rubies-pearls-adamants, while the most attracting of these paragons of perfection were racing recklessly in their magnificent gold chariots being drawn by the winged wild white fillies and accompanied by the promiscuous constellations of some anthological-laurelled men captivated by their enchantment.
    Wreaths of laurels crowned most of the heads on the pictures flashing before her eyes as if in a dream, and on each of them-now by leaking trickles now by the intoxicating beverage spilling out of jugs, jorums, amphorae, long-necked bottles, and patterned flasks-the same treacherous silvery rills were sparkling at the dry mouths, inveigling everyone.
    All was well save that everywhere with inextinguishable horror she struck the same black sooty heaps hideously sneering at her from the corners of the numberless ossuaries.
    Again recoiling from a sinister grin, she would take to her heels, continuing her journey in the endless circle of the underground labyrinth and drawing her alarming scarlet trace along the walls.
    The bas-relief in this niche represented a God-like thoughtful thinker sitting on a mount of books and rapt in meditating on something transcendentally universal, who also wore a laurel wreath and tried to catch with his open mouth the invigorating fount spurting out of his ethereal multi-paged top of the world.
    She had no time, however, to investigate the entire picture in detail, because in the cave she saw a man arrayed in threadbare jeans and too familiar a leather jacket kneeling before the bas-relief with his back to her and nestling to the chill pool of spring.
    "You?" she gasped out.
    The man did not budge. His face buried in the lamp-shaped bowl, he was drinking.
    "Do you hear me?"
    In reply to her question, there were only the same silence and the gurgling fitful gulps of his hunched back shuddering with enjoyment.
    "Hey, what's happened?"
    He took a long sucking swallow and smacked his lips. Then he reclined his head, sat down on his heels, and stared at the bas-relief.
    She stepped in the niche, seized him by the shoulders, and turned him.
    The watery pupils of his bleary eyes were glimmering glazing on his slightly darkened puffy face.
    "What's the matter with you? What a sight!" she shook him, perusing his face. "Do stop it immediately!"
    The vacant expression of his eyes did not change.
    Pushing and clapping him, she was shaking him, trying to lift his body, crying right in his ear, expostulating with him, appealing to his reason, pinching him to bruises and reminding him about the past.
    She was stroking and kissing him, persuading him to come to his senses, giving some promises, scolding, cursing him like hell, thrashing him and lashing his inscrutably concentrated physiognomy, bursting into tears and violently sobbing.
    Meanwhile he, fastening his blissful vacuous gaze upon the bowl, turned again and again to the bas-relief to eye the fountain of wisdom playing over the voluminous pedestal, which the laurelled sage was trampling under foot so contemplatively and contemptuously, and she was nonexistent for him as, in principle, all the rest either. The real outer world was scattering in his brain into some chilly particolored kaleidoscope, and these scintillating ice bits of stained glass were the only thing interesting him henceforth.
    "So such is your attitude to me?" She pushed him away, and he reeled like a tilting doll. "All right then, if you like it...."
    Black specks suddenly swam before her eyes. The flushed blood hammered in her temples. Her heart wrung with anger, hardened like a fist.
    She was worrying about him and running about here; she had lopped her hair looking now like a matted mop; she herself became a ludicrous red-haired scarecrow-and what for? It turned out that all her trouble was for the sake of some sot lapping his swill and already thirsting for nothing else.
    "Drink," she muttered between her teeth, boiling with rage. "Do as you please. Remain here."
    He swung acquiescently like a metronome and flopped down into the bowl, as if falling on his face.
    What was strange-there were no splashes after his fall: without spilling a drop over the brim, the water rolled over his neck and fixed so-without running or dripping, as though the surface had flung its translucent frozenly-shining bag on his head.
    The spring embraced him!
    His bow, his servile puppy's nuzzling into the nursing breast was so pitiful, and so keenly she felt the sudden piercing chill of the freezing hug that for an instant she imagined herself in his place. It seemed to her that she, parched with the same gnawing unquenchable thirst, knelt humiliated before this chalice, her dry lips catching the merciful insidious streamlet disastrously, and that the same bag flung on her head was distorting the reality waywardly and deformedly.
    Being just on the point of stepping on the slippery floor of the gallery, she clutched at the streamline glass jamb of his personal sepulcher in fright what if this nook would also disappear as all the others with those blissfully grinning bones by its full cups did every time.
    "Full," she thought unexpectedly. "They are always full."
    Why was she so blind before! The playful cascades inexhaustibly pouring out of the slabs, in accordance with all laws of nature, would have been bound to fill all the vessels to overflowing long ago, since there were no drains nor waste pipes nor openings upon the slab and glass.
    "With all that, they are full-to the brim."
    Now she knew what to do.
    He snorted loudly and tossed his head. His face was still darker, and the tiny forks of greenish flame flared up in the depth of his pupils.
    She understood that she had not very much time to fulfill what she conceived.


    "Glass, glass," she repeated while her eyes were roving all over the niche. "Glass-it means breakable."
    In this glass kingdom, there was not a solid thing around-as to spite her! Nothing of what might do for her purpose.
    Perhaps, by chance, he has something in his jacket-why not to check it?
    She patted on his pockets, and indeed, some iron thing jingled in one of them.
    "What is it there?"
    She fumbled in his right pocket and took out the whole bunch of keys-of his room-study, writing-table, letterbox, and besides, of something else that did not matter here.
    She swung her arm back and struck the thin glass of the bowl with her clanking bunch.
    A winding green crack engirdled the iridescent font, and she hit it once more.
    The glass of the bowl was now wreathed in an interlacing net of green cracks webbed the convex transparent bottom.
    She slashed with all her might for the third time-and the glass broke into smithereens, into many fine fragments-crystals, into dust of glass rime. The weighty liquid fell heavily from the height and gushed forth into the gallery.
    The bas-relief above the spring darkened, and the thinker's bays curled. The tumulus of bookish sapience shook unsteadily.
    Looking in puzzlement now at the twittering waterfall now at the garrulous brooklet running down over the floor, he got up.
    He was in a quandary, but she pushed him-and he went like a sleepwalker downstream.
    Flowing over the maze, the brooklets forked into new and new branches, and yet, since the same murmuring silver was streaming in front of them, along the way of her guiding red thread, he was shifting where she led him-in the direction of going out of the Deliria.
    Soon she felt the water rising, creeping up to her knees and clothing her legs with gooseflesh of bubbles.
    The maze was being flooded.
    The fluorescent greenish rivulet was swashing higher and higher, while the walls and ceiling of the gallery were getting more and more opaque.
    The chilly shimmering river had already reached her waist; meantime he was bending to the water more and more frequently and drinking it with more and more shortening intervals. She marked that after every libation his face grew darker and darker.
    "Presently we'll be out," she persuaded him vainly. "Wait a little."
    Now, she herself sometimes bowed unconsciously to the deathly-freezing attracting stream incinerating him.
    Some scrappy fragments of variegated mosaics burst from time to time through the smooth facets flowing past her, and her thirst seemed unbearable, but anyway, she had no right to give up the struggle, succumbing to panic, and so she only quicker and quicker fingered her scarlet string piercing the rising depth.
    As to him, he kept on drinking. By luck, they met no longer with the hospitable feretories harboring those guileful sources of delight-the element overflowing the maze had sealed up all the openings of these shrines.
    The flood came up to her breast-she was unable to advance further.
    Here both of them were doomed to choke with the greenish fire of oblivion, in this poky dungeon, in the inundated catacombs of some senseless subterranean labyrinth. Here they were to drown like rats in a hold-prematurely and fruitlessly....
    Out of despair, she punched the cursed black wall-and her fist passed through the air.
    There was no wall before them-simply she did not make out the needful doorway in the pitch-darkness.
    Shoving him forward, she stepped after him, and instead of the solid black ceiling above, she saw a light circle of their airshaft.
    Under such conditions, seconds might be decisive for their fate: he was ducking and swilling the waters of forgetfulness almost without pauses, nodding his drooping head and squatting like Punch on his feebly bending legs sliding apart. At any moment, he was liable to dive into this Lethe forever, and then he would never have emerged back to her.
    She grasped the flexible hair hawser hanging down up to the very bottom and entwined him with it under his arms.
    Her hair suddenly interlaced by itself round his breast and tied into a knot. A tight loop took the weight of his dropsically bloated body.
    "But he can untie it."
    The flounce was useless without its lace, for her dress was spoiled, and she ripped off the flounce and twisted the wet ribbon into a twine. After that, she found the slackly floating sleeves of his jacket in the water and bound his arms gropingly on the wrists.
    The phosphoric coolness slightly nipping her bare burnt shoulders closed under her chin.
    Never mind! In the well, those fuddling mosaics went on scattering in her brain not so invitingly, and her tipsy consciousness functioned soberly enough.
    The letters over the entrances were out-the deluge had filled the galleries up to the top.
    She caught hold of the rope (at once it curved helpfully in her hands), pulled herself up, and set her knees on his leather shoulders.
    Right before her eyes, she saw his greenish head of hair smoldering and crawling with igniting greenflies.
    Clutching with unexpected strength at the hawser curving into hair rungs under her feet, she began to climb.
    She would not have been very tired after her clamber but for the strips of the plaids, which she was overcoming without any miracles-swarming up her rope and breaking her nails against the knots preventing her from coming off.
    At last, she rolled over the ledge of the table and stood up, trembling all over with fatigue. Then, without lingering, she wound the plaid round her arm, laid her free hand upon it as low as possible, and pulled it, roping him.
    At first, the rope went easily. She flung its coil on the legs of the table and pulled it again-and her back nearly broke from the weight of his body tearing the rope out of her hands.
    Straining, she proceeded to fling the strips creeping out, meter after meter, on the posts of the legs. Without a respite, she was drawing him out of the well flooded with liquid fire.
    The plaid came to its end, the first hair loop threw itself on her wooden bollards, and instantly-as if someone started an engine-the bending hawser began sliding like a red snake out of the hole so that she only had to put its coils on the legs.
    The hawser became as tense as a string, and a muttering stupid mask of his dark face with the unseeing slitty eyes appeared above the well.
    Although he was soaked to the skin and stoned, he still nodded, trying to take a drop of that desirable nectar flowing below, and beckoned his imaginary boon companions, genuflecting before the missing cupful of life and pushing away the reality blighting his enjoyment.
    Ignoring his inarticulate exclamations (such as "Drain the cups!" and "No heeltaps!"), she heaved the flaccid body of her sozzled drunkard onto the table, shoved her feet into the sandals, and took off a pair of the hair coils from her bitts.
    Having harnessed herself in these traces, she lugged at them and dragged off the table from the hole on the snow.
    The snow, which was so parti-colored and festive before, had faded and a bit thawed, whereas the sun had hidden somewhere behind the gloomy firmament hanging low over the dark vastness of desert.
    She went squelching through the snow-broth, and shortly after, her wet dress froze and stiffened starchy like an icy bell rumbling and burning her whenever it touched her body.
    She mended her pace in order to warm, slopping on and on through the slush and hauling the heavy table, but even so she was shivering with cold in the furious gusts of the beginning ground wind. The frost was cramping her legs, and her hands and feet were numb; only her hair strap, clinging to her breast, was warming no worse than a good heater.
    The snow became black, and the sky loured as if by night. In the dark, the wells began glowing under the black crust all over the plateau, as though many pitiless green eyes of a hungry wild beast lit up on a charred muzzle of the immense site of fire.
    Meantime flakes of snow, as black as soot, were already falling from above thicker and thicker. As soon as the ashen snow came down on the circles of light, it flared up greenish, as if caking, and bound into the former iridescent crystals that instantly disappeared under the crape cloak of the melting glacier in the cold fire filling the labyrinth of the Deliria.
    The desert ended as unexpectedly as it had once begun.
    The table was still there, in the snow thickly falling at arm's length, while she, turning her head from side to side, already stood astounded beyond the snowfall in the warm dust of some sunlit gentle slope.
    Sunning herself, she felt her frozen dress thawing and going limp, her running blood rushing hot to her feet, and her crooked stiff fingers relaxing its close grip and unclenching.
    She jerked for the last time, and the table slid from under the funereal veil of snow.
    Exhausted to the last degree, she dropped beside his dead drunk body....


    She woke up from his indignant exclamation.
    The table was gliding across some bleak and barren wasteland.
    Leaning against the leg of the table, he tried to undo the knot of her flounce with his teeth, but without success.
    He was unscathed and looked quite normal, except that he became a bit peaky and older since their wooden sledge had leapt over onto the ice emery of the Deliria.
    "I wonder who has bound me!" he was biting the knot of his ties impatiently. "Where is it from?"
    "From here," she smoothed the disfigured skirt of her dress. "It was I who had hobbled you-who else might be there?"
    In bafflement, he gawked at her.
    "Did I sleep?"
    "Like a child."
    She couldn't help smiling, for he looked very comical: half-asleep, disheveled and baffled, his hands tied with her lace.
    She bent to the knot to unbind his bonds-and he gave a gasp:
    "Where is your hair?"
    "My hair?" she returned his question, untying his hands.
    "Yes. What has become of it?"
    "This," she motioned to the twisted-spliced braids lying at her feet. "I had to lop it."
    "Had to? Why?"
    "It is unimportant." Truth to say, she had no wish to remind him of what happened there-after all, he acted too wretched a part in that episode. "I think we had better change the subject."
    He squeezed his forehead with his fists, remembering what he did under the ground, but after his fall into the well, only a blackout with some glimmering greenish blurs gaped in his memory. He had a feeling of something foul and shameful for him showing through what betided him there, but he failed to clarify the incident.
    "Much have I done?" he asked guiltily.
    In addition to his doings, he wanted her to tell him of them. No, thanks, she has had enough of it!
    "Let's talk later... Not now," she said imploringly. "Don't ask me, please."
    She was sore afflicted as it was, sorrowing for her hair, which had proved so sentient and so devoted to her in the minutes of danger.
    "Had it really taken only minutes?" She lifted his wrist with the watch to her eyes. "Incredible!"
    The watch testified impassively that they did not stay longer than seven minutes anywhere, whatever adventures befell them, and whatever cataclysms the discovered worlds underwent.
    "Seven?" He stroked her bobbed boyish head hesitatingly.
    She said nothing-he again reduced her to tears.
    He took her hands contritely (she winced with pain) and saw her palms-grimy, scratched, covered with abraded bleeding galls. He began to guess....
    Meantime the dust swirling behind the table like a wash astern widened into a growing triangle, thickening and embracing the steppe in anticipation of its hour. The brisk sea breeze was fanning their faces, but a brewing squall, gathering strength, was retreating menacingly behind them before its decisive assault.
    A stormy blast of hot wind whistled past them and threw their box forward.
    The warning had effect: floundering in their carriage that all but capsized from such a jerk, they parted at last with each other-and very timely.
    A shaggy clayey-brown cloud already spread over the larger half of the horizon and continued to swell in the distance.
    "Fasten!" he cried out, pulling off his jacket. "It'll sweep us!"
    She understood him. To creep under her hair traces-it took no more than five seconds.
    He was flinging the coils of the rope crosswise round the three legs of the table, interlacing it hurriedly into a relatively strong net over her.
    Small rollers of dust, sweeping impetuously past the table, were driving the weightless wiry balls of tumbleweed, and the threatening cloud already surrounded them from three sides.
    "Okay, we'll hope for the best...."
    Like a hooting locomotive, the cloud was rushing to them.
    He plunged under the net and pulled his jacket on their heads. Then he tucked the leather sleeves in, hugged her, and pressed her shoulders tight to the bottom sometimes scratching against the stones.
    "That's all," he whispered. "Now hold-"
    The next moment the squall caught them.
    A dusty long wave of the hoarsely roaring hurricane swept over them and tore the twirling table out of the terrible crashing of boulders and sand intermixed with the heartrending death squawk-howl-bellow of the animals overtaken by the destroying wave.
    The table rocketed up and flew in the violent whirlwind of the frenzied tempest furiously whipping it up....


    The table dived whizzing and flopped down on the water.
    The touchdown tossed them up, but their resilient net laid them back on the bottom.
    Only just their magic carpet bore them wallowing in the suffocating dust in the very heart of the devastating tornado hurling stones and flints at the sky and stripping the arid loam soil off the earth. While the wild all-consuming roaming of the sandstorm was flaying the earthen fruit-bearing peel and skinning its withered flesh, they were choking and spitting, either banging against the sides or, having fallen in one of the air holes, catching one at another in panic fear of the last inevitable smashing collision.
    Only just some stray thoughts and sensations, broken phrases and snatches of conversations were rattling in their consciousness like chinking coins, like some bright desultory scraps of their instantaneous reactions to the life flying topsy-turvy around....
    Then suddenly-the calm, the sluggish lapping under them, and the rocking of their table not yet settled down after its unimaginable flight.
    "Let's get up," he coughed. "We've arrived."
    He rose (streamlets of brown dust ran down his back), drew the rope net aside, and threw off his jacket heavy with sand and fragments of limestone and shells.
    The table was rocking in the middle of a lake, rather small but very wide.
    Behind him, the cloud, which had brought them over here, was crawling away, curling to the horizon, and in front of them, on the further shore, they saw some wonderful garden enclosed with the box hedge taller than two meters.
    The dark blue conical candles of cypresses towered above the splendid plumes of hairy palms spread out like beach umbrellas. The fleshy magnolias were blooming beside the orange glowing persimmon and bare-buttocksed mellow apricots. The sweet crimson cherries were swaying alternating with the scarlet big apples and hands of bananas.
    All that richness was intertwined with roses and buried in the lush verdure of vine hung all over with bunches of greenish-translucent or violet-lustrous grapes, tweeting in various voices, chirping, cooing, warbling, piping and singing exuberantly, flowering like peacock's-pheasant's feathers, and effusing divine fragrances.
    In a word, the genuine Paradise was before them on that shore.
    An airy arch of chastely white roses spanned two antique ribbed columns sticking out of the water and twined with the same roses, and several purple impassioned letters of fresh buds crowned the triumphal entrance.
    "SEXVILLE," she read and inhaled a sensual luscious aroma with visible delight.
    "Sexville"-so it was called, this seaside garden that was cut off from the steppe by the narrow deep pinkish lake with the marble steps leading to the hedge and with the pink statues of comely Cupids hiding something bashfully in their quivers on the landings of stairs.
    As the thick dust and sand still coated the table, they shook off the remains of the tempest from their clothes and began to rake it out of their resting self-propelled car: he-with his hands, she-with his battered lamp.
    Then she wetted the strips of the plaid and wiped both the table and his jacket properly so that everything around would get shining with freshness and cleanness.
    "Look here," she said after her cleaning was finished. "I wouldn't mind having a bath."
    She pulled off her dress over her head and glanced at him with irony.
    "I am not on the stage, by the by. There's no necessity to devour me with your eyes."
    Smiling, he turned away.
    He heard she shift from foot to foot, undressing. The table took a list, and at once, a sudden fountain splashed on him.
    Smacking against the water at times, she was dabbling and paddling with shrieks of happy laughter in the lake. She could swim like a fish; therefore, he had no reason to be anxious about her.
    The table listed again-she was getting out. He waited for her leave.
    "Hey, man!" her suddenly coarsened voice asked behind his back. "What about you?"
    He turned to her.
    With her hands on her hips, she stood thus, stark naked, before him.
    The fragrant pink water was rippling down her wet short hair and dripping on her glossily shining bronze breast with a white strip of the trace from her bikini. Then it was running across her flat tummy with a golden fluff in the vertex of a milk-tender triangle and flowing down her slender legs, slipping off her slim ankles and spreading softly over the bottom.
    Never was it so inviting, the wondrous beauty of her appealing seductive body that he adored like an idolater. Never was its flesh as attractive and alluring as at this moment.
    He gulped in excitement and pulled the collar of his shirt.
    He tried to smile, but his fingers were trembling, and he could not utter a word. The passion had blinded him like a blow in face.
    "Get a move on, darling," she said to him in the same-not her-gruff voice. "Don't keep me waiting."
    Here he seemed to have woken and got aware that she was no longer graceful and fond of him as she had ever been. Neither her lustful gaze nor her rough intonations nor her defiantly vulgar pose were hers now.
    "Put on," he held out her dress to her.
    Beyond doubt, there was something amiss with her after her swimming.
    "Why should I?" she pushed away her garments. "I am willing so! More agreeably...."
    By that time, her former refinement and easiness died off absolutely: her lids voluptuously narrowed, she leered shamelessly at him, sticking out her bust and sniggering.
    "Bathing!" it dawned upon him. "It is a consequence of her bathing! The lake has washed off something essential."
    He lost any desire to bathe in that deceptively peaceful moat.
    Keeping an eye on her lest she should push him by accident into the lake to have the same affusion, he took one of the three legs of the table.
    Under her guarded look, he wrenched out the leg and, paddling with it, headed for the shore, not losing sight of her for a moment.
    At the very stairs, she leant back, holding on to the other legs, and jerked the table, but he knocked up her hands, and she plumped on her back into the water.
    The instant she emerged she grasped at the ledge, yet her attempt to turn his raft over was unsuccessful, for he already jumped onto the steps with a bundle of his jacket and her clothes-footwear and with his cudgel in his hands.
    Angrily she shoved the table aside-and it floated slowly alongshore, drifting further and further and doubling the marble piers and moorages with the stairs, pink Cupids and colonnades of marble clubs leading from the water to the flat-clipped box.
    Dragging the untwisting hair coils, she was going out of the lake.
    Her wet skin was lustrous, and with the sun behind her, she looked a nice bronze statuette, but whenever she turned her lynx's eyes upon him, he met again with the same set leer following him.
    Not allowing her to come nearer, he stepped back to the hedge and was very disquieted at sight of her trailing braids wriggling and twitching like red-scaled boa constrictors.
    His shoulders touched the box-and the bushes parted unexpectedly before him. The hedge was admitting them inside.
    He thrust his cudgel into the bundle and waited until she approached.
    Then he seized her hand holding the live hair lariat and plunged sideways into the bushes, into the solid sharp-leaved belt enclosing the seaside health-resort's garden with its strange half-French name.


    The hedge let them in cordially and closed tightly behind.
    Some silky leaflets fluttered down from the shrubbery and glued his eyes up, but-oddly enough-they did not blind him.
    By the silvery spectral moonlight he could quite clearly see the glade clad with the soft carpet of grass, the white marble steps descending into the pinkish water of a long swimming pool faced with marble opposite, and many white and pink statues having wreaths of natural ruby vivid roses on and placed around the pool yonder.
    Long festive garlands of virginally snow-white roses twined the stone figures draped round with short togas and thin tunics.
    The clear-cut, anatomically-perfect muscles were bulging on the athletic torsos of the youths, and their left shins were advanced and crossed with narrow rawhide straps of Roman sandals, while their right arms were bent in elbows and seemed to be pointing at the heaven.
    The girls resembled the youths by the same curly ringlets under the crowns of roses, by their straight noses, and by the blind globes of their marble eyes. Baring their trained bodies with undeveloped busts and tough sloping hips, they squared their shoulders quite matching with the masculine, holding the laps of their Attic attires lowered almost to their knees.
    It seemed that some multiplied copies of Venus and Apollo were standing, crowned with coronals and wreathed with garlands, in the fairy glade.
    But no, the first impression was wrong-they did not stand!
    To the soft tuneful strains of the music streaming out of the box and from the branches of the clumps of palms and magnolias, the statues were sailing slowly without straightening their bent arms and grouping into new and new bunches.
    As soon as the youths' garlands caught on the fingers of the pretty dames, the passionless likenesses of Apollo began to move in a circle as if on a tether.
    As soon as the women's flower chains flew up and fell on the cavaliers' proud gestures, the nonchalant Venuses began to turn together with their wooers, drawing nearer and nearer to them; and the more audible and sweeter the melody was the closer the separate figures crowded and the more compact were their gathering flocking into one white-pink sculptural group.
    The wall of box was in the full bloom of some bursting rose buds, while the palms were dropping their ripe coffee-colored dates, and the two-horned crescent was shining like a wedding crown of orange blossoms in the starless, velvety, dark blue sky in the place of the disappeared sun.
    Behind the pool, in the middle of the other round grassplot strewed with white petals, he could see the third marble-pink pond, and it was a round fountain flatly cut on top and looking from afar like an executioner's block.
    A fragrant clinging garland lashed his cheek moistly and wreathed his throat caressingly. He recoiled, flung the flowers off on his shoulders, and swung to her.
    Petrified she was moving to the left, lowering her semi-transparent tunic with her chiseled marble fingers, and her cold bulbous eyes under a scarlet crown set spellbound in a fixed sightless stone gaze.
    The adhesive garland was drawing him, and he was already circling together with her in the mutual lulling minuet.
    Again, he could not recognize her: she became a statue.
    Dancing, they were little by little shifting. Inarming him, she was leading him to the crowd of the demigods clustering by the pool, and at the same time, the flower noose was constricting him tighter and tighter.
    "Braids... It is her braids!"
    He tried to start back.
    Her marble face with two unseeing eyes was very close to his face, and the hard nipples of her stone breast stuck into his chest: breaking his cracking ribs, she was cuddling up to him. The garland wasn't letting him lean back, whereas the bundle in his hand hindered him to struggle in earnest.
    He dropped it and began to push her away, but her polished faultless body, crushing his undisguised resistance, kept on hugging him.
    To entreat her and beg for mercy-it would have been useless: the same marble putty had bunged up her pointed small ears under her hardened pink frizz.
    He thrust his cudgel between their stomachs and made an effort to separate them, pressing on it, albeit unsuccessfully. Even his lever did not help him: the leg was jammed, and the wooden rib had sharply come into his muscle.
    Squeezing his live body, she was pressing him to her stony bosom, and they were to go two or three rounds at most before joining the company of the uniting statues.
    "They'll squash me!" This thought gave him the willies. "They are stone!"
    She poked her cold straight nose into his chin.
    He cast up his head instinctively-her crown of thorns bloodily bristling on a level with his pupils grazed his face-and a sharp prick scratched his right eyelid.
    He blinked and opened his eye to make sure, if it was safe.
    Through a pink nimbus of a lacerated wound, he again behold the copper-colored locks of her wet fringe scattered over her uncrowned forehead and the sun shining on high above the dark green ridge of box, and immediately, the frenetic beating rhythm gushed down on the glade.
    Her shaking flushed twisted face with two green leaflets upon her eyes was sweaty with passion; her half-open mouth was expectorating some wild inarticulate hoarse screams; her wet breast was shuddering desperately with feverish passionate sighs.
    He looked with his left eye-the rhythm subsided forthwith and came flowing by the former prim grave minuet in the mysterious luminescence of the new moon instantly taken the place of the dazzling sunlight, and the marble stuck bluntly into his ribs.
    The leaflets-just the fig-leaflets were the cause of all the changes! Everything depended on them!
    He opened his right eye wide and began to pick off these patches of his rose spectacles, feeling her impassioned perspired body struggling agonizingly in the loop of her hair mooring-lines, her wet locks lashing his lips, and her nails clawing his back unmercifully.
    The adhered leaflets had knitted with his face, and he had to scrape it off from the brows and cheeks. His bleeding skin was burning, but he tore away the leaflets from his eyes, wiped the blood with the sleeve of his shirt, and laid his palms on her shoulders.
    She was twitching and raving as before, still blindly, still unable to see what he saw now.
    By a ditch full of some liquid muck, some stocky, shaggy-legged, ugly males overgrown with tufts of brown hair were stamping in clayey mud, squealing and clasping in their arms some slackly shaking, repulsive, bony females with the dangling matted greasy manes imparting an air of Witches' Sabbath to their gyrating.
    All the dancers of the promiscuous company were pawing each other with their clammy palms as passionately as they could, and crimson thick snakes, winding and quaking with strain, were pulling the riotous crowd together into one mixed mass.
    A flat-pressed, blunt, tiny head would turn up from time to time from the bacchanal revelry of the boisterous flesh and jab its forked tongue into the green plugs of someone's fig-blind eyes. The leaflets instantly reddened, and scarlet small worms slipped out of the tousled hair and gimleted these bloodshot goggles, penetrating into the eye-sockets, distorting the bestial faces, and depersonalizing the bodies of the orgy more and more noticeably.
    The rhythm was beating, and the lascivious multitude was stamping and vociferating.
    The juicy red apples were falling from the blossoming branches and splitting in two, while the trunks of the twisting trees were colliding with a crash in the collective ecstatic dance of passion.
    One of the apples rolled down to her. A titchy vermilion snake wriggled out of the maggoty fruit and slid to her foot, but he smashed the blunt-noised jaws with his heel.
    The ropes of her tresses were stirring insinuatingly behind his back--the drops of sweat dripping from her raging voluptuous flesh on these feigningly sleeping constrictors were soaking in and resuscitating them more and more perceptibly.
    He gripped her sweaty hot forehead, which was already without any ennobling roses, picked up the leaflet with his nail, and tore it away.
    She flinched and shied away from him, but--no matter--he picked off the second one, too.
    The blood blinded her, and the rhythm deafened her: she cowered in his arms and stopped shaking and panting. The loosened loop of her braids fell lifelessly to her feet.
    He wiped the blood off her face and slightly kissed her quivering eyelids.
    In response to his kiss, she sighed with relief, straightened her supple back, and opened her eyes.
    "All right?" he asked. "Are you all right?"
    From the expression of her frightened look, he understood that now she saw everything just as it was. Forgotten her passion and nudity and blanched with horror and disgust, she pressed her body to his.
    With her eyes glued to the sight of those possessed hirsute maniacs lustfully kneading clay, she stared in consternation at the well-aimed quick stabs of the flashing flat heads and at the wormy apples pregnant with teensy venomous asps. She was shifting her gaze from the ditch to the heaven and to the crazy trunks hopping near the grappled flock tied round by the swollen serpents--and her pupils, widening, were quickly losing the former wild glitter.
    How did it come that she had fancied some statues, Apollo, and antiquity? What sort of devilry was this? She--majestically strutting and going in ceremonious minuet across the heavenly garden; she--divinely perfect, inaccessible, peerless, unique among likenesses, copies, and imitations; she--honored with a wreath and garland: a fairy, Venus, the highest personification of femininity, magically magnetic and captivating, matchless and masterful; she--triumphant, weightlessly ascending to the empyreal felicity....
    God Almighty, what was it in reality?
    She blushed and moved from him.
    "Don't look at me."
    "Well, please..."
    He stepped in passing to the hedge and pushed it with his shoulder.
    Contrary to expectation, the box was hard as the granite of a rough fresh-painted prison wall.
    The way back was blocked.
    Having squatted by the bundle, she was pulling on her wet sundress.
    Meantime the rhythm was swelling.
    Twisting and striking each other with their branches, the trees surrounded the group rioting on the very brink of that fosse.
    The lined paling of trunks covered the squash of the dancing freaks--the clay, slipping down, uttered a squelching smack--and a raucous animal yell shot up, ringing victoriously, from behind the hopping paling....


    Even as she was fastening the second sandal, something blunt nudged her. She would have fallen in the mud but that he caught her.
    Watching the convulsions of the bacchanalia, they paid no heed to the six trees, which sidled up from three sides and attacked them in the rear. These were lindens with the white-pink fountains of lime-blossoms redolent of springtime and with the big balls of overripe red apples on its overhanging limbs.
    Dodging, she picked up the hawser of her hair, while he grabbed his jacket and cudgel, and both of them rushed to the ditch, for the trees, splashing at dancing gait through the mud, were pressing them just there.
    The trunks followed them with outstretched arms, not letting them out of an attacking square and waddling like ducks on its gnarled roots.
    Wherever they threw themselves to the opening gaps, they ran into the rustling crowns meekly bowing to the very ground, and the trunks, swinging, were clashing so frequently and quickly that they had not the faintest chance to slip through the interstices between two wooden anvils.
    Like hunting beaters, the trees were driving them straight to the pitfall, as if they were two bolting antelopes or two hares fleeing away.
    The shaking paling before them parted and closed with the lime-trees pursuing them. All at once, they found themselves at the end of a shortening passage, on a slimy patch ploughed up with bare soles, in immediate proximity to the ditch.
    The boisterous lewd conglomeration roaring with desire was scrambling for possession in the slobber-like slurry of the mud bath.
    The purple snakes plunged into the gaping mouths choking with screeches of passion and thrust themselves into the throats, whereas the mouths, reddening and bubbling with slaver, were vomiting sobs of exultation.
    Bespattered with the wonder-working mucous mud, the leaflets gradually accreted with the yellow-crimson faces, smoothing out into bleeding scabs, while the noses, fidgeting and rubbing blindly against lumps of yellow fat, emerged for a while from the depth of brown muck, more and more flattening and eventually becoming pig's snouts.
    The nails of the insatiably crooked fingers were growing and turning down into claws digging into the bodies frantically copulating in the seething slime and into the serpentine reptiles being gulped by the guffawing brutishly-bellowing welter of the raunchy unbridled flesh roistering in lust at their feet.
    Viscous splashes might already reach them--they were no more than a meter away from the fatal brink, and the lindens were pushing them insistently from behind.
    "No!" She leant her back against the trunks--and her heels went sliding on the mud. "I don't want!"
    It is understandable that he was unwilling to bathe in the foul mire, too, but unfortunately, hardly anything depended upon their will in the local paradise. They had only half a meter to decide what and how.
    "Do invent something!" she was supplicating him. "I pray you!"
    He was cudgeling the trees wrathfully, yet the dry furrow bark was only crumpling mockingly, and the paling was waddling lubberly nearer and nearer, showering the apples upon them so that the appetizing forbidden fruits would be falling like small bombs bursting around them.
    In a transport of rage, he gave a butt at a gap between two pleats of this jauntily unfolding accordion, however his sortie produced an undesirable effect: one of the rollicking lindens stooped abruptly and dealt a blow on his pate with a huge apple.
    The ground disappeared under his feet--falling, he snatched at the coppery cables in her hands and cast up his head.
    Unexpectedly, two things combined in his mind into one word, into a word that was, one would think, quite inapt in the present situation.
    "The swing!" it was linked together. "A rope and a branch--it is a complete set."
    A second later, the hair loop was flung on a thick dry bough motionlessly (apparently because of its decrepitude) projecting far over the ditch.
    "Catch at it!"
    She clutched at a knot of the rope by close grip. The strip of slimy clay had narrowed up to the size of her foot.
    "You spring over and let it go," he hurriedly explained a task to her, edging himself into the neutral zone between the rhythmically jerking trunks and her strained back and gripping the rope. "But right off.... Do you get me? Then fly!"
    He clasped her to his breast and pushed her away.
    She flew over the ditch, let go of the rope, and landed on her knees, excoriating them, undoubtedly, against the flinty shingle on the opposite bank.
    Anyway, she was already there, in the safe treeless part of the garden, on the other side of the trench teeming with the faceless truculent bodies fighting to the death for their love ecstasies.
    The toes of his boots hung over the uproarious carnality.
    Now he had not an inch left for him here, and were it not for the rope he would not have kept his feet.
    The soil stirred under his heels: the roots, plucking itself out of the clay, were inviting him urgently down to indulge in that overmastering general original sin.
    He reeled back and leapt dashingly over the ditch.
    As he sprang to his feet and pulled the rope from the cracked bough, the trees tore out its roots and jumped heavily down from the bank into the mire.
    Flagellating the sensual mob with its ropy roots and limbs, the lindens went clumsily in united rank across the bottom.
    Howling and grunting with pleasure, some slobbery gruesome creatures, made altogether equal by their co-bathing, began to creep on all fours out of the ditch onto the shingle.
    The snotty snouts were snorting rhythmically on their equally blind mugs; their equally fat, greasy, yellow bodies looked sexless; the brown varnish of sleek hair pasted the blocks of their viper-like flat heads.
    The shambling uncouth lime-trees, scourging and flogging the reprobates, were squeezing them by force out of the thermae of their saturnalia, and the draggled creatures were clambering up the shingly slope, gritting their claws edgily.
    He was winding the rope hastily into a coil (for it was supposed to be useful to them), while she, backing to the fountain, gazed aghast at what had been concealed under the guise of Apollo and Venus.
    Alas, no exit was on this side either.
    The small pebbly yard with a marble scaffold of the truncated fountain in the middle looked like a pound for animals fenced with the concretely set box wall, and the piggish wingless harpies went on slinking from the carnal baptistery towards them....


    The vibrating yard already resounded loudly with gritting, snuffling and puffing, and retreating, they were forced in the end to climb on the marble parapet of the fountain going down like a crater to a pink marble pillar with a narrow bottomless crevice at the base.
    The pillar was tapering up, and its trunk was fancifully engirded with drawings and inscriptions in unknown languages. True they could guess the contents of the inscriptions without any translation: the many-figured compositions very inventively varied a theme of love plays in a meadow, with the indispensable insertion of a black rabid bull and some osculating carnivorous marmosets in the entrancing round dance of this picturesque depravity.
    "Be careful," he put his arm round her waist. "The stone is slippery."
    She seized a red coil of the rope lying on his shoulder, and balancing on the low marble rim, they watched the vulturous creatures crawling separately, one by one, round the fountain. By now, they in sooth had nowhere to draw back.
    The rhythm issuing from the very depth of the crater--from the obscurity round the pillar--was shaking the parapet, and the shivers of pebbles flying up from under the claws plowing the ground every now and again hit against their legs.
    Smelling about, the sensitive snouts were moving up and down, and the blindly praying four-footed herd reeking of sour sweat continued to jog bowlegged round the waterless fountain.
    The rhythm was quickening, and accordingly, the perspiring flushed backs were increasing their pace. The movement of the sniffing snouts was getting more and more frequent, while the harsh grating sound of the scraping claws passed into one uninterrupted jarringly sharp rasp--as if a thousand of motorcycles were skidding rapidly at an abrupt turn of a macadamized road.
    They were also whirling in the increasing excitement of the united merry-go-round: their pink pedestal was slipping away from under them, and they were standing on the moving narrow wedding ring only by some miracle.
    The box wall rushing past them stretched into a continuous green stream cutting off the ditch with the fruit-bearing lindens in blossom.
    The circle was closing, and the roaring muzzles cleaving the nauseating cloud of perspiration were directed up, not dropping anymore.
    The racing bloated bodies distended, trembling, as some enormous fleshy leeches, their scars of eyes spattering bloody lather, and a shrilling scream arisen in the very heart of the rhythm rose piercingly to a deafening pitch, causing the other--responsive--one in those sweaty porkers galloping in a circle.
    At the top of the utmost efforts, these two shrieks, becoming one ultrasound, thrust their sharp forked tongue up into the blue sky--and a hot dazzling wave splashed out from the sky into the yard.
    In the instantaneous convulsive deafness, the dumb herd stopped short, braking furiously with its scratching claws against the pebbles, and behind them, in the crater, they heard a slow gurgle of the awaking fountain.
    A scarlet jet spurted up, pulsing above the obelisk of pillar, whereupon the crevice began to fill with gurgling, and a choking howl of despair made him turn his head.
    Two creatures had caught the third one, and now they were flaying the poor thing with their claws.
    A yellow-crimson bag with a tuft of hair, a snout and two torn gloves half stripped off was baring three bloody stumps, and one of the stumps, foaming with a scream, was swinging from side to side, trying to reach the executioners and nip them.
    The creatures pulled the hide and threw the empty flabby overalls away into the crevice, while the stripped carcass flew up shrieking and fell on the pulsating shaft of jet.
    They shielded themselves with their hands from splashes, but there was no reason to do it.
    The jet transpierced the carcass without spattering, running through the flesh like a bayonet, and the beast without skin, as though sticking itself on the spit of pillar, slid down with a death rattle to the foot, into the bloodily boiling chasm.
    Meantime the yard was yet seething with the same animal agonizing shrieks, wild howls and roars of the ebulliently ruthless murderous fights baring the bodies to the very entrails.
    After hurling the crumpling loose bags of flayed hides into the crater, the bleeding red carcasses pierced by the jet would impale itself one by one with the death rattles upon the pillar, and the blood was rising slowly under the weight of the torn flesh, which the fountain swallowed insatiably time after time.
    Less and less there remained the butcherly pairs sporting around in the sanguinary shambles, and the greasy shingle could hardly absorb the plentiful blood cascades washing it so sacrificially.
    She felt faint, and her legs were bending, slipping off the clammy bespattered parapet.
    He put her arms into the coils of her hair hawser and made a good rein to hold her in case of her fall. With his cudgel in readiness, he vigilantly watched the irrepressible creatures zealously reveling in the atrocities of their slaughter.
    The last clawing couple finished with their victim, lifted the bloodstained snouts, and started rushing on all fours about the yard.
    "Look out!" he warned her.
    He was late. A sharp-clawed forepaw, apparently committed a mishit, suddenly slapped against the marble close by her bare shank.
    She stepped back, stumbled, and flew off the brink into the fountain, and at once, with lightning speed, the paw dug its claws into his boot.
    She dipped into the rich scarlet liquid that filled the crater up to the brim and came over her head, but he pulled the rope, and after her pallid senseless face appeared by the parapet, he fetched a blow of his cudgel on the paw clutched him.
    The claws of the withdrawn paw broke, yet two other ones hit him from the side and ripped his trouser-leg.
    In a fury, he swiped the paws with the wooden leg and threw back the impudent raptorial voluptuary.
    Yelping and limping on the fractured arms, the creature went hobbling to the quarry once again, but that first predator, sensing the powerlessness of the partner, pounced on the second like a cat and began to work with its claws in rabid obsession.
    He got a respite: as long as the ferocious brute was skinning the screaming fat body of its swinishness-mate there was no danger of an assault in the rear.
    He tugged at the hair, which did not let her go down, and with a cry, she came to her senses.
    Since she had sunk in the blood, she was again in the Paradise.
    The blissful ecstasy had pierced her like a sensual convulsion. She--goddess, angel, perpetual spring--was sailing incorporeally upon a cloud of petals over the mortal world, and the moonlit soft wings of the celestial passionate cherubim clinging to her were caressing her soul thrilling with happiness, transported with rapture, free from any covers and troubles, devoid of compassion, and shame, and fear....
    "It hurts me..."
    She twined her arms round his neck, and--it was strange--there was not a drop of blood either upon her face with two disappeared wounds round her eyes or on her dress and hands; even her hair was dry and clean after her immersion, as if the blood did not wish to make it wet.
    He raised her, put her on the marble socle, and turned to the creature untiringly stripping the remains of corporal garment off the victim of sex solicitation.
    "Jump down and run to the hedge," he ordered her, preparing for an attack of the inflamed swine. "This brute won't leave us in peace."
    She jumped down and cried once again. The rope reeled on his fist pulled him off the parapet.
    "Fling off the ropes at last!"
    He needed the lasso, for the beast moved very nimbly.
    "I cannot..."
    With an apologetic smile, she held the unplaited shortened cables flowing up into her red mane.
    Strictly speaking, there were no cables as such in her hands: their strands had inosculated with her hair and adhered to it, and what was more, each of them--to its own stump, in its former place, each had grown together with its severed flesh cut off so selflessly.
    "Do you see?"
    Of course, he saw it--only could not believe. However, he should not have relaxed his vigilance.
    The shrilling flayed carcass slipped down the pillar, and the blood spilt over the brim on the pebbles.
    Forthwith, he sprang aside and hardly repulsed a quick tiger's rush of the wild animal swooping upon him.
    He forestalled the next attack by his lunge and landed a wallop on the brainless flat head--full on the snorting snout.
    The creature raised a howl and started spinning on the spot. It could not behold anything libidinous with its scarred eyes, while its nose was completely hurt.
    He went backwards heading for her voice. He waited for a continuation of the chase, but the creature kept on spinning like a fly with the wings torn off, shrieking more and more insufferably.
    Then the fervid hog ran amuck and suddenly fell on its back. Having dug its claws into its own porky mug, it began to lacerate its flesh, tearing the skin off itself and writhing with pain and voluptuousness.
    The shreds of bristly hide splashed into the crater. The bleeding carcass jumped onto the marble rim, reared up, and was impaled squealing on the spurting fountain.
    The jet of blood, which had been rising higher and higher with every sacrifice, became a red brush and spread a scarlet quivering semi-sphere over the circle of bubbling abyss. The blood filled the crater to overflowing and poured down in the ensanguined yard.
    The box was impenetrable, but it would have been much worse to flounder in the warm flood of the carnage; that's why he cast his wooden weapon accurately on the shrubbery.
    Not a leaf bent.
    "Climb!" he commanded, putting his cupped palms under her foot. "Or else we shan't get out."
    She climbed without demur on his hands and straightened herself, holding onto the hedge. He heard her exclaim with surprise.
    The blood licked his soles, came up to the wall, and began to swell.
    He hoisted her, and she perched onto the green rampart, whereas he jumped up, caught hold of the hard prickly edge, and pulled himself up to join her.
    The Ocean lay before them.
    They were on the very brink of the sheer bluff falling into the boundless white-foamy aquamarine expanse rolling below.
    Their long-suffering two-legged table with a tiny lily of the lamp on its bottom was rocking on the waves there like a lost matchbox.
    Judging by that fact, the lake bypassing the garden was running down the precipitous slope hereabouts.
    The blood was rising, and the fountain was hardly gurgling through it.
    Standing on the hedge, they gave a cursory glance at the flooded fountain welling up above the butchery, at the blooming marvelous orchard behind the circle of yard and at the lake with white marble columns under the inscription turned to them with its incarnadine reverse. They cast a glance at this inexorable Garden of Eden and averted their eyes.
    "Are you ready to embark?"
    She made no answer and, smiling mirthlessly, stepped fearlessly from the steep.
    The blood reached the top of the hardened hedge, but instead of flowing over the brim of the bacchic font, it started vacillating and unexpectedly got lighter and pinker, as if fading in the daylight.
    Then the dilute blood, being sucked in by the fountain, began to subside and suddenly scattered into swan's down of many tender roseleaves, which softly bestrewed the green grassy bride-bed of a hillock with a round heavenly-clear pond in the center.
    The circle of bushes opened freely and friendly.
    The vacant glade with the Roman swimming pool and cypresses straightened its spring grass carpeted with the same light fragrant flesh-colored petals falling from the branches and instantly interlacing into long garlands.
    The box belt came unfastened, welcoming some festively naked, concupiscent crowds entering the garth from the side of the lake baptizing them for carnal pleasures.
    The flying fig-leaflets fluttered like venomous moths from the shrubbery to the eyes burning with desire, but here, the hedge under his feet uttered a rapturous many-voiced nightingale's trill and went limp.
    "Damn it!" he swore and leapt down....


    "The depths were congealed..."
    Exodus 15:8, KJV

    Soon after, they already scrambled into the table, and their self-propelled boat immediately resumed the motion.
    The abrupt shore of the mainland with the green garden of the Sexville between the two pinkish waterfalls running down into the surf was spreading its brown wings and moving gradually to the left behind the horizon while, being carried away by its own aspiration, their table was riding over the curly white horses of the ripples God knew where.
    Huddled up under his jacket, she gazed silently at the deserted steep sinking into the rippled sea until it disappeared and melted away in the dusty haze floating above the hot midday steppe and even the haze cleared away in the gray sky threatening the storm.
    He kept silence, too.
    Both of them had passed through the coercion of those conversions and had a narrow escape from self-destruction there, and both were nearly crushed by that ruinous baneful power which had rushed into their souls and almost destroyed their closeness, so uncanny, pitiless and tremendous was its might.
    She sighed--brokenly and despairingly, and he took her hand.
    Her unseeing eyes directed to the horizon, to the past, she was sobbing to herself, weeping soundlessly and bitterly--without tears, without relief, without any reply to his compassion and to the faltering words with which he was quieting her.
    Her pale face was twitching, and suppressing sobs, she was biting her lips, trying to soothe a twinge of remorse in her heart and restrain the cry hysterically breaking from her breast.
    All had collapsed. That savagely stunning rhythm had smashed all and trampled it under foot into mud, screams and beastliness, into some bloody stink, howl and frenzy, and those scenes, unimaginable and humiliating yet obtrusively real, were rising with perfect clearness before her mind's eye.
    It was simply incomprehensible how she could become like them, like those impersonal monsters! A little more--and she would have found herself among those raving blind animals which were grappling with each other in that foul ditch; a little--and she would have been one of them, the same possessed beast, squealing and lustfully faceless. What right did she have to expect him to love her after he saw what kind of creature an accidental infatuation made her sometimes?
    All had collapsed shattered. Such a paradise crossed out the very possibility of his love, which was so different, so human and selfless, so unlike that wallowing in the filth of depersonalized mating and that bloody battle for the last baring....
    "Lie! Lie! Lie!" she was crying mutely to him. "It is lie! Do you hear me?"
    Whether he heard her cry or was it something else, but he bent to her eyes and again, as then in the garden, his lips touched her eyelids.
    His tender kiss seemed to erase the obscene scenes from her memory without a trace. She cuddled up to him like a little girl and put her head on his shoulder. Then she sighed--already freely and peacefully--and fell asleep.
    Meanwhile, the table was going ahead.
    The plywood bottom was spanking against the disorderly wavelets, and the breeze blowing at the stern was getting up, driving their vessel carefully further and further.
    She was dozing quietly, her tear-stained face buried in his shoulder, and guarding her sleep, he was sitting so--face to face, in the streaming rain of her flying hair drying in the wind.
    The skin in the places of the leaflets scraped off by him was slightly burning with salt spray, and the dispassionate watch on his numb arm supporting her was ticking off the eighth minute after their landing on the waters of Dionysus's ablutions before the bewitching oasis of sensuality....



    Some curious frolicsome dolphin tagging after them was frisking overboard, now cleaving the waves with its dorsal fin in swift movement now easily flying over the Ocean.
    Feasting his eyes on the flights of this capering jovial fellow traveler, on the placid tenderness of her features and on the dance of seething foam in the wake of the table, he did not notice that not very big blot-shaped spot which was running azure in the midst of the Ocean.
    Even after he caught sight of the spot, he attached no importance to it, as it lay at a distance aside from the course of their ship.
    He also paid no attention to the sky blue protuberances flatly spread around the spot like octopus's tentacles on the wavy surface, though one of the tentacles, hiding among the whitecaps of the choppy sea, already crossed their path.
    When they were within close range of the light radiant strip, the gamboling dolphin outdistanced the table at one arched excellent leap, and diving, its fin cut into the azure.
    A second later, their prow came softly and deeply into the protuberance beside the denizen of the deeps.
    He sprang to his feet and glimpsed the former fear flash wildly in her open eyes.
    The dolphin was struggling overboard, sticking in the azure more and more hopelessly, as though being bogged down.
    The poor animal time after time threw its tough glossy body out of the water, flopping about and almost standing up on its tail. Opening its long-nosed narrow jaws, the dolphin was knocking its large head against the side of the table, whistling piercingly and gutturally and looking at the people in the boat out of its wide-placed deep eyes glistening with terror.
    The tentacle began to shrink and harden.
    The spot was drawing it in, and it was pulling both the dolphin and their table fast frozen in the tacky azure duckweed.
    It reminded him just of duckweed, this thin rustling film, and it was none other than the muddy duckweed of the stagnant Ocean, this bright oily slick on the surface.
    "Save him!" she held out her hand to the fin stuck in the protuberance.
    "Don't touch it!"
    At one tug, he wrenched the next leg out of the table, thrust it under the dolphin's back, and leant his weight upon his lever, tearing the strained gray side out of the hard film crunching as cellophane.
    Stripping bleeding rags off the flinching back, the duckweed was bit by bit coming off, and helping him, the dolphin was pushing off from their punt, driving the table unintentionally deeper and deeper into the tentacle.
    Cheering himself with a whoop "Put more vim into it!" and levering the massive body up, he yanked--and the film came unstuck with a gluey crack.
    The dolphin inhaled the air at one gulp into an opening on its nape, took a long leap as far from the dangerous circle as possible, and went heavily into the water. Diving panic-stricken among the waves, its sharp fin started moving hastily away from them.
    The tentacle kept on carrying the table to the spot that seemed to be tautened over the crater of some underwater extinct volcano, the jagged dark circle of which was indistinctly visible through the slick, delineating the bounds of the spot.
    Straining every nerve, he was trying to move the table back with the help of the wooden leg, but the crackling film was crumpling and clinging to the sides, and his lever plunged every time into the azure.
    "No! It is no good straining!" He pulled the leg--it stuck, too. "There is no fulcrum there!"
    As the case stood, she could see everything without his explanation: the sky blue sweep-net had caught them in, as if they were fishes swum into a seine, and now the spot was hauling this trawl together with its catch out of the Ocean.
    The shortening tentacle reached the submarine ridge.
    Still hoping for God knows what, he tilted the leg and set his quant against the sunken rock looming dark below (supposedly it was basalt).
    For an instant, the motion ceased, but then the ridge suddenly broke off like a brittle sugar candy. The table jerked, and some branchy, pimpled, whitish piece resembling an antler flew out of the open water and plumped down on the bottom.
    "It is corals!" He hardly kept his balance. "It is a coral reef there!"
    The table passed the barrier of corals, which fenced the space of the crater off from the Ocean, and continued to drift on to the center of the ring in the thickness of the spot.
    "Where is it dragging us?" she questioned him from the corner, pressing the lamp to her breast. "What now?"
    If only he knew what!
    Shifting along the radius the table crossed the peripheral light-azure part and came in the circle of the uncovered dark water in the middle. Free from the film, the leg bobbed up and was again in his hand.
    The table ironed the flat surface with its desktop and ran against some antenna that was crowned with a translucent small ball-button and looked like a training rapier. Attracted to it, the table adhered to the thin rod and went melancholically round with stern to the outside circle.
    The mistily glimmering ball of the antenna hypnotized them, and circling on their roundabout's boat, they contemplated it more and more intently, eyeing the blear silhouettes arising from the depth of the turbidity filling with life as the rotation was lasting.
    They described circle after circle, while the mysterious quaint phantoms of the fluctuating forms gradually revived, swarming in the illusorily growing glob that seemed to be getting inflated by their imagination.
    Some people wearing medieval chlamyses and cowls were hovering like angelic bats on the momentary fireworks of their flaming wings.
    Quite a few of them, with their faces simply copied from icons, settled themselves down on the beams of their precious crosses set in silver and were busy pulling the knitting needles of silver-plated nails out of their soft palms.
    Somebody with a seditious air, invested in a chiton and taken his seat in his warm barrel upholstered with feather beds, was striking the matches, which were instantly going out.
    The most of the ghosts (to wit, the plump lads with Socratic skulls and the sluttish maidens with Mona Lisa's smiles), standing mischievously on their heads, were beating back the cobbles hailing on them, and all kicked so adroitly that each of the mutinous daredevils hurled the stones every time straight at the pates of the fellow-sufferers.
    Whirling and blurring, growing turbid and springing again, they were sweeping past, these specters appearing from nowhere, these shadows replacing the same shadows, these sketches being effaced by the impassive whirligig of time.
    Watching the whimsical metamorphoses of the turbidity, they drew to the antenna very close, almost brushing the enlarging orb that arrested their attention with compelling force.
    The outlines of the inviting spirits stood out nearly in relief against the dimness of the milieu, and it would have become quite clear and altogether come to life to open its compact sphere and admit them in its supercilious shockingly-grotesque world if they had consented to give themselves wholly to this world of absolute unrestricted personal freedom.
    Unexpectedly, the magic ball got dim and slowed down its turning.
    Perhaps it were they who began stopping, not this Fairyland, but anyway, the main thing was not to let the all-embracing globe stand--not to allow the opened space to fade out--not to kill the blob of all-begetting protoplasm by immobility....
    "Do come on!"
    Spurred with her exclamation, he grasped boldly at the ball to quicken the revolution round the axis of attraction.
    The button of the foil flashed up azure.
    A stroke of lightning flung him back and paralyzed them for a few seconds.
    The duckweed swelled around with a dry rash, and crawling over them like a cupola, it came flowing from all sides to the ball alarmingly twinkling and squeaking by Morse code.
    "Don't stand up!" he wheezed out. "It's a snare!"
    He forced his battered, disobediently wilted body to rise and, keeping off from the stealthily smiting rod, struck the dimly gathering film with his wooden lever.
    What had happened to him he understood anon but late.
    His pole stuck to the forming hood and tore him out of the table.
    In a tick, the duckweed clapped itself on him from above, coping him with its cellophane landing net, and drew him confidently into the crater, sinking deeper and deeper.
    Compressing his lips lest he choke drowning, he was struggling to break out from the bag, but the film, which had packed him up with his hands pressed to his sides, held him standing strictly upright, at attention, pushing him down to the bottom.
    He was lacking air: a hot intoxicating wave was overflowing his lungs, rising higher and higher to his nearly extinct brain.
    "A breath--and the death... A breath--and it's the end... A breath-"
    His feet went into something cold and jelly-like.
    The landing net, turning inside out, shoved him through some blue-gray vault that closed softly over his head. A square of the vault, pulling itself on his body, clothed him in a filmy gelatinous cupola (just as the duckweed before) and carried on settling--down, down, down....
    The lessening breach patched with his rag of the film was already far overhead when some hose adhered by suction to the cupola from above.
    Unable to endure the suffocation and resist any longer, he closed his eyes before death and took a breath.
    For a wonder, instead of the deadly salt bitter, only the usual air filled his mouth and nostrils.
    Although the air was marsh, foul and stale, with all that, it was the very real air!
    Gasping, he got a lungful of this saving air and began to inhale the unexpected space streaming out of two holes above him. Whatever reason, he could breathe; in spite of everything, he had survived!
    A small lever fell out of the milk-white wall of the cupola comparatively transparent on the top, and its sharp handle pricked him under his heart.
    He threw the lever away, but it fell back and pricked him again.
    He cast away this piece of iron once more--and the returning lever jabbed him quickly in reply.
    He pressed it with the ill-fated leg of the table, and as he was about to draw a deep breath, he felt the space around quite perceptibly narrowed. He was suffocating: the air began to escape swiftly from under the cupola and indraught from without was no more.
    He took the leg away--the lever pricked him, and the air recommenced hissing in the holes.
    In a word, if he did want to live, he had to push the rusty-azure lever, which had suddenly sprung from somewhere (no one knew where from) and was meant, almost certainly, to set something in motion (no one knew what).
    Naturally, he was against his untimely decease; on the other hand, to hang about here, spending all the rest of his life on pushing, was no less absurd.
    On mature reflection, he stopped the lever and cuffed the wall to test its solidity.
    A sudden stroke of an electric discharge burnt half his arm, and with a curse, he withdrew his hand indiscreetly stretched out for freedom.
    "A jellyfish..." he thought listlessly and pushed the lever.
    As it followed from the situation, he had nowhere to get away from here and no choice but to reiterate pushing henceforth without end.
    "It can't be helped!" he said darkly to himself and pushed this blasted goad.
    After that, he repeated his push, did the same once again, and then, swearing, went on with his forced labor confoundedly harassing him and exasperating his embitterness more and more....


    Clasping the lamp to her breast as before, she was trying to evade a fatal touch of the film creeping over her.
    The film, rustling and hardening, was gathering to the center, and its packing cellophane already pasted the greater part of the table. While the antenna was signaling behind her, a gray circle of the heaven was shrinking over her, and the azure duckweed was reaching persistently for her face.
    Ultimately, she acknowledged defeat. Now that this flypaper had pulled him without effort under the water, and he had drowned, the death as such was in essence rather desirable to her, for it was inconceivable to live without him, without her love and any meaning of life, existing lonely in the all-absorbing unbounded vast of ocean. What would she have been tarrying for in this desert?
    "What for?" she asked aloud, dodging a snatch of the swooping film, and lost her balance.
Immediately she tumbled overboard, the film, lowering, closed over her into an azure butterfly-net.
    Up to her neck in the water, she was floundering, holding the lamp and still having his heavy leather jacket on. Getting weaker and weaker, she looked at the duckweed slowly falling upon her and constricting its ring round the dumb ball--and could not decide to depart, following him into the cold dark chasm, even from this vale of misery.
    The water was lapping at her mouth, and the film was whispering soullessly around. Defending herself, she lifted the lamp at the last effort.
    The film shrank back from her.
    The lamp lit up again, and the light raised the sticky shroud, illumining a clear circle of the moldy rusty inner side. Switched when the light of the ball had gone out, the lamp had the more luminous intensity, the lower the azure dusk was deepening.
    Thus, the salvation was in their hands, but he could not avail himself of it, and she turned the lamp away.
    "It is too late," the suicidal thought flashed through her mind. "Too late..."
    The duckweed, enveloping her, pushed her down.
    Still struggling, she inhaled the sea air before the end and held her breath. Then as she was--standing in her swelling sundress with open eyes and with the shining lamp clasped in her arms--she went straight to the bottom.
    The bright light seemed to be scaring away the clinging film.
    In a white searchlight circle, she descried far below some dimly-milky semi-sphere, a lattice dome (of a hangar or of a hothouse--she had not made out), and some silvery-blue letters, undoubtedly English, were discernible on the roundish squares, the letters barely drawn on the dome as if on a tortoiseshell and constituting a hissing, swampily bubbling word.
    "DISSIDENTARIUM!" she read the word.
    No, no, of course, the building was neither hangar nor hothouse--it was an aquarium! Soldered to the base of the coral barrier and half-covered with silt, a huge round aquarium was bulging towards her out of the crater of some dormant volcano become a swamp in the days of yore.
    Her feet pierced one of the squares.
    It yielded compliantly, parted, and closed again like an everted jellyfish over her head, enfolding her body in its jelly-like bell and falling with her out of the dome-shell down, while the film sealed up the blank space.
    The light transpierced the opaque walls too, and sinking within her shining bladder, she took a parting glance at gatherings of the same milky bells resembling gray pimples, which contained some misty silhouettes, visible only through the transparent vaults.
    The bells, placed in strict radial order, stood round an enormous, fungoid and spotty cap of a wide stump with the rod of antenna sticking up in the center of the cap and with scores of some long tubular feelers stretched from the spots of silvery mold to the tops of the vaults.
    Passing by this fly agaric, she saw a hose of one of the feelers coming unscrewed out of one of such blots that covered the airdrome-like cap like a cellular pattern.
    Desiderating an atmosphere to inbreathe, she landed on the slimy miry bottom, and the agonizing suffocation made her dizzy. Throttling, she threw back her head and watched the flexible hose adhering to the top of her vault for some time. Then she choked and screwed up her eyes....
    Joy was nothing to what she felt as the long-awaited (even if muggy) air gushed rottenly from above through two holes.
    She had not enough time to recover her breath before a short rusty lever suddenly fell out of the wall and pricked her painfully under her heart.
    Having uttered a cry of surprise, she pushed it back, but it fell again. She shielded herself hurriedly with the lamp, and the lever butted against the metal.
    At once, she had a new fit of suffocation and cast up her head to the vault.
    The lever slipped off the lamp to prick her, and the mushroom replenished the lethal vacuum with the fusty air flowing out of the hose.
    There was only the stagnant water outside the walls of her air chamber. The long seaweeds swaying in the ray of light and a small cloudlet of silt not yet settled after her fall on the bottom of the crater--all of it left no doubt that she was buried deep enough in the notorious still waters.
    Pushing off the bothersome lever perforce and inhaling the fetid musty air streaming from the mushroom, she began to point her lamp at all the bells in succession, throwing light on the contents of those private cells and searching for him among the spooky persons encased in the capsules of their bubbles.
    Here and there, she found some comparatively human figures pushing their levers in their cells just as she did, except that a pair of curved miniature horns already stuck pointedly out of the poll of each of them under the holes of the hoses. At the same time, from the expression of their ghastly, gloatingly wry faces, one could infer that the pushing gave them a certain hardly-concealing pleasure.
    The other prisoners had the pushing as a kind of mania: their clothes turned into mold slipping off them, and their livid phizes set in fixed jeering grimaces, while their levers were moving with frequency of a good telegraph key.
    Those who reached the third stage looked wizened and rotted throughout, with dark blotches of putrefaction on their bodies and with masks of hatred in the places of their faces eaten by worms. They were pushing their levers with such energy that the rebounding daggers stabbed the blades of handles deep into their chests between the ribs, but instead of blood the same worms were oozing earthily out of their deliberately-open appalling wounds.
    Someone of the wicked was worm-eaten to the last degree: his body covered with silver mold was completely reduced to rot, so the worms were gnawing the very skeleton, and his putrid remains were dangling powerlessly, like a rag doll, on the lever, attempting to push off from the air, since its short legs lost any foothold.
    Nevertheless, even at this point the decay did not cease, for there were cells containing some formless pieces of this horned wormy putridity spitted on the spikes, which the still functioning hearts were pushing, while in few separate refuges, only the hearts, gray and rotten, were beating on the handles incessantly swinging in the empty receptacles.
    She observed one of those hearts shrivel, getting phosphorescent and slipping off the spit, and flop down in the slime like a dead slug. The lever ran into the wall, cut through it and fell to the ground, raising a dark cloud of silt. Filling with water, the bladder tucked in the edges of the walls, picked up the slug, and rolling up inside, sealed the vent-holes of the vault with this plaster. The feeler of hose gave a sob and came off, whereas the bladder flew up, flattening, and then stuck in one of the intersections of the lattice. The flat patch squeezed itself in the Dissidentarium's tortoiseshell between the squares of the big dome as their blue-gray indistinguishable twin, after which the hose screwed itself into the cap of the huge toadstool, and thus, all was over.
    That was what eventually awaited the captives respiring with this marsh air trickling from the death cap into their bells, which they, poisoned with toxins, evidently took for tocsins.
    Meantime the pricking pick got on her nerves--growing more and more heated, she was pushing it with increasing irritation.
    Ah, how vexing it was, the nasty lever spurring her grievous inconsolability! How it was enraging her! How all the rest angered her as well--both the lamp and the aquarium!
    Besides, in this dire plight, she bore an especial grudge against him, through whose slip she was condemned to putrefy here, on the bottom, immured in some sucking blister of slough inflated with stench, together with the thrice-idiotic life and her hopeless despair. He had brought her to grief, and only he was the culprit of her misfortune, of her ruin, of her transmutation into a final slug of her exhausted embittered heart! Yes, yes, just he was guilty towards her--it was entirely his fault!
    Flying into a tantrum more and more often, she was pushing the lever spitefully. Deeper and deeper was she breathing in the putrid fuddle seeping through the vents and festering in her soul.
    "To hell with them... all of them... them who are there!" the malice was pulsing wrathfully in her brain. "Curse it! Hang it all! Damn, damn!"
    Just then, at the height of her inveighing against the ruiner of her life responsible for her confining to this cage, behind the wall of the next vault pierced with her light she saw his face distorted with fierce hatred.
    Deeply and frequently breathing, he was pushing his lever....


    Chafing at his incarceration here more and more, with inexplicable animosity, he kept on pushing the handle, which was annoying him as though intentionally--to spite him and try his patience with such an unavailing and pointless drudgery.
    What an outrage it was after all--to prick him without the slightest cause! The worst of it was that he had no chance to escape such a gratuitous punishment and dodge the pecks of this rusty bayonet--of this thorn goading him, infuriating him and driving him mad by pricking him with insensate cruelty!
    Everything left by him there, above, on the surface, had receded into the background and become insignificant in comparison with his present undeserved torment. Everything was unimportant in the face of the impending compulsory sleepless torture for life.
    For his part, he rather hated everything existing somewhere on the firm ground, because it was not going to rescue or help him, being unaware of him--of his disaster and his call for help, and because he could not find a gleam of hope for returning to that overground "everything" lost once and for all.
    Everything continued to live there as ever, not in the least attending to him who was perishing in the stinging bag of his outcast's shell, doomed to reiterate his pushing perpetually, and for that reason, his smoldering hatred, incensed by the general aloofness, at times got him blazing with fury.
    From the fits of anger intensifying with every breath his brain seemed to be swelling like rising dough, which made his skull literally burst with pain. There were only two numbed dots remaining cold on the very crown and tickling him promisingly in his endless suffering.
    Two chilly needle-like currents of air blowing out of the air holes were stroking his splitting head, ruffling his hair standing on end. The points of two icicles freezing the skin were drilling the bone becoming thinner and thinner, whereas the brain was squeezing itself out to meet the currents into two knobbles with the hollows of two future holes on the tops.
    He felt the icy drills of the deadening chill hollowing out two dimples and deepening these marks of his forthcoming deliverance from the detestation and indignation seething in his soul being racked by hopelessness. Their coldness was cooling his mind so soothingly, assuaging his ire and reconciling him with his monotonous pushing, that he already was about to resign himself to the inevitable and accept his solitary confinement in the cocoon supplying him with the air for breathing.
    Freezing from top downwards, he regarded his soul nursing the bitter hatred for the whole world as a focus of genuine spirituality inherent just in sufferers and outcasts and always imbued with righteous indignation.
    Anyway, he will avenge. No live soul has rendered assistance to him in proper time, and now, entrapped, he has every reason to revenge himself on them for all--both for the anguish of body and mind and for his devilish bad luck and failure. He will never forget what he has forfeited owing to the fact that they have not even taken the trouble to warn him of a danger in order to prevent his collapse. He will never forgive the offence rankling in his heart at them who refuse to extend a helping hand to him to save his life entombed here.
    For their culpable negligence and disregard, he will pay them back in their own coin, all of them and in every possible way, by all available means, which are within of his reach....
    Not feeling the steel spike going into his breast, almost victoriously he pushed quite obtainable a handle time after time. One--so be it! Two--revenge on them! Three--may they swear off vilipending him! Four--the day of reckoning will come!
    A shaft of light struck point-blank in his eyes.
    He shielded his new inner sight with his elbow, but the light lashed his heart and cut through the wall, making it transparent and casting light upon hundreds of the same inflated jellyfishes-doubles planted in the miry silt, upon some immense mushroom with long feelers, and upon the standing black ribbons of seaweeds.
    Then the shaft leapt over onto the waffle-like roof-cupola and brought to light the azure letters silvering above him.
    "Dissidentarium," he turned the inscription as if in a mirror. "It is in all likelihood a kind of a pond for breeding."
    Meanwhile, the light sliding across the bottom seemed to be removing the surface layer of the rich rusty silt, and the device of the Dissidentarium's nickel entrails revealed itself before him in all its dim brilliance.
    The incessant working of many small levers being exasperatedly pushed by hundreds of human beings were setting in motion--through an intricate system of gears--several flywheels fastened to the coral reef, and those, revolving, were swinging by turns a gigantic lever-piston which, reciprocating, was plunging obliquely along its bed into some gloomy tunnel under the crater.
    "Craftily," he hemmed and pushed his lever. "Here's a mechanism of extra class."
    She lit on--and all the stages of rotting and decomposing passed alternately before his eyes--from the barely-shown tiny horns washing a brain with freezing hostility and from the revengefully twisted faces to a slug of a decaying heart flopping down in the silt.
    The next emptied bubble tucked in its skirt, incurving and picking up a grey palpitating spit, and soared flattening to the squares of cupola.
    Directing her spotlight at him, she lifted the lamp level with her face so that he could see her, just her first.
    Their cells were side by side, not far from the rocky walls of the crater, the shelves of which ascended to the joint of the reef and the dome covered outside with a dark mass of slime, sand and wracks. In her shining capsule, with a sunny gloriole of her red hair, she looked like a fiery pearl in its thin iridescent nacreous shell, like such a fragile precious pearl suffocating in surrounding rot.
    He was obliged to release her immediately, before the infiltrating oyster's rottenness soaked in her heart, enmeshing her conscious brain in its poisonous net and little by little ulcerating her lovely face being eaten away with its wormy malice. He had to do it before the bitterness entirely stifled all his other senses, including his love to her, and he might get incapable of appraising the situation soberly enough....
    He collected his thoughts.
    "My jacket!" he mouthed, articulating exaggeratedly and showing her to fling his jacket on her head--and the sharp prod pricked him. "Damnation!"
    His interjections, of course, he nowise addressed to her.
    "Don't be angry! Keep your temper!" he was restraining himself, fuming with rage and trying to concentrate on his task. "My shell I shall raise with it."
    He cast a glance at the leg of the table, which he held in his cold fingers.
    "Then I run to her--it'll take about twenty seconds. Then we climb up the wall to the roof--it is twenty or thirty more. Besides that, no one knows how much time we shall be breaking through the cupola. Plus we are to come to the surface...."
    After the addition, it turned out that time was very short: under water, he could stay one minute and a half at most, and she--still less. "Very short"--it was in the case that they had broken through the dome, but what if not.
    "So what--did we have to decompose alive? To peg out here?" he got into a wax. In outburst of petulance, he threw the handle back frenziedly and again felt the chill stings of quagmire gouging two holes on his crown.
    "Quiet!" he commanded himself, gritting his teeth. "Keep your head! Don't lose self-possession!"
    This notwithstanding, his rage was bubbling like molten magma rising from under the earth's crust into the granite crater of a volcano, and the fury might any moment sweep over him and swamp his consciousness.
    At last she pulled on his jacket ("What a slowpoke!" he flashed a vicious glance at her), and now the stinging touches of her jellyfish were not so dangerous.
    He pushed the lever away and waved his hand. She nodded assent.
    "Well, let's chance it."
    He wiped his palm against his shirt, which was almost dry on the very shoulders, and pushed a hatchet of his pendulum-metronome counting off the time of his execution. He was also ready for action.
    "Come, come," he appealed to himself. "Try out it...."
    He inhaled as much the stuffy air as he could and stopped his pickaxe with his foot, levering the edge of his pod up with the wooden leg at the same time.
    The resisting jellyfish emitted an indignant squeak and came unstuck from the bottom with a sucking sound like an applied cupping-glass.
    The water burst into his diving bell, displacing the remainder of air, and his bladder, flying up, slipped off him without touching his body, threw out a silvery bubble, and hung droopily on the lead of its hose. Soaring to the Ocean's surface, the bubble breached one of the squares of the roof on its way, while the shuddering hose spat out the jellyfish and sealed the breach tightly with it.
    It goes without saying that only she had time to watch the soaring of his gelatinous straitjacket, for he walked hurriedly to her, sinking waist-deep into the silt and dodging the feeler blindly fumbling for its kicking refractory prey among the tangles of seaweeds.
    She took a gulp of dead air, and the silt smacked. Then the hood of her solitude cell slipped off her, and the warm water depth embraced her body.
    He jerked his jacket off from her head.
    His gesture was expressive enough.
    Evading the avaricious palp, she pushed off from the bottom and started swimming up and obliquely after him to the corner of the dome, scaring off the sluggish hose with the light of her lamp and catching in passing at the mossy slimy projections of lumpy petrified lava.
    Dragging his jacket, he pressed on upwards, paddling with the table's leg and counting off the seconds inexorably running out.
    He had obviously overestimated both his strength and the suitability of that bad air for respiration, yet it was not a matter of his abilities or the properties of some gas. She followed him, trusting him and relying on him, and he would do therefore his utmost for her sake. He must rescue her... He must....
    His head ran against something tough.
    The slimily dark corrugated ceiling covered with lacy rust was now above him, and a rib of the clinker was rubbing roughly against his back. Pointing the lamp at the dome, she was hanging in the water a little lower, close to him.
    He flung his jacket on her and, sitting weightlessly on the ledge, jabbed his wooden bayonet without a swing into the nearest square.
    Apparently, he hit it spang in the center.
    The square flew out so unexpectedly that he dropped the leg and plunged by his own momentum into the hole, the naked lips of which grazed his breast.
    An electric shock shook him--and his smitten body toppled down from the ledge.
    Instantly, her hands caught him and shoved him quickly through the aperture into the soft sediment, which poured down out of the hole made by him.
    Hardly perceiving what was the matter with him and where he was, he rose slowly through the oozy layer.
    She edged, too, after him into the breach widening from the light that seemed to be scalding the paralyzing lips.
    As she was above the roof, she turned the lamp to look what ensued there in consequence of their unauthorized release from custody.
    Flowing down through their break, the troubled marsh was flooding the turbid space of the Dissidentarium.
    The whitish pustules of small cells were falling under the pressure of the mire, and the air bubbles spat out by the fluttering jellyfishes were flying up, holing the pattern of the dome.
    Amid this havoc, the remains of the forlorn rebels once gotten into the strange submarine aquarium of utter alienation were choking with the silt of the azure morass on the bottom, entangled in the hoses and seaweed that kept them down.
    The ooze thickened, and she urgently needed to take a breath.
    Lifting the lamp, she dashed in the direction of his body helplessly floundering higher in the roily water....


    They emerged together by the coral ridge, though the last meters she had been towing him by his shirt, and he had gulped a good deal of the dreggy brine.
    She took a long-awaited breath and sat puffing on a white branch of the reef almost protruding out of the water.
    Dipping his face and shaking his head, he was hawking and blowing his nose, but could not recover his breath.
    The azure film tautened over the circle of the aquarium before their immersion was riddled by dozens of the bubbles popping out through it. The bright cellophane torn to pieces and shredded to rusty lace of formless rags had become ordinary marsh duckweed, and the sickening stench of noisome effluvia was now in the air above the former tacky spot of lure.
    Their maimed table, its only intact leg set forth, slid on through the duckweed from the middle straight to them.
    "Take it; I'll be back in a jiffy."
    He bent over the corals and ducked his head into the Ocean, into the open water, rinsing his hair and washing off shreds of duckweed, silt and sand.
    When the table reached the barrier, it knocked against something invisible and turned left to go circling along the coral boundary.
    She got hold of the ropes wound round the leg to stop the table and chucked his jacket and lamp into it. Then, after his example, she threw her legs over the ridge beyond the reef into the restless dance of the foamy crests to wash herself, too.
    "Maybe, we'll take a swim?"
    Some swift blunt-nosed shadow slipped out from behind the coral wall and darted from below to her sinking body.
    His head was just immersed in the water when he saw the white belly of a huge shark turning very near before the last rush.
    At that very moment, her feet flew up, and he fell plop together with her into the stagnant bubbling water of the crater.
    "Shark," he explained laconically and pulled the table floating away. "You'd indeed take a swim there--without your nice legs."
    Deprived of its quarry, the shark was rushing furiously back and forth behind the brittle enclosure of their coral corral, which was just level with the surface.
    Having caught her breath, she watched the rapid black fin cleaving the waves outside.
    "Scramble onto the table!" he told her, seeking solution and not seeing how to get rid of that man-eater.
    Counterpoising their saving raft while she was perching onto it, he hung by the side. The hunting was only in the very beginning: the shark's body was seven meters long at least, and for such a giant they were none other than two small insects, a tidbit for one bite, so to speak.
    Gathering speed, the shark went attacking frontally to their dam, and like a black torpedo, it rammed the thin ridge at full tilt.
    The corals broke, and at once, a slashing stroke of the tail swept away their insecure defenses.
    They heard long whining beeps coming from the center of the circle, and climbing onto the table, he looked back.
    The antenna had gone under water up to the ball, and the very ball was revolving hastily on the point, uttering its hysterical distress signals and flashing alarmingly. The duckweed drawn in this revolution was gathering to the antenna, and the thicker--firmer--more radiant the azure smooth surface became, the more confidently and insistently the peripheral current dragged the table along the reef in the narrow ring of the open water.
    "Shark!" her cry rang out behind his back.
    A seething wave dashed on them.
    A little missed, the shark shot past their ship, brushing against the table with its emery-like side, and then cut into the light afresh-spread azure. The lipless jaws snapped and bit the edge of the film, and the tail started thrashing in frenzy against the slough.
    Yet the duckweed, getting harder and stronger, was loath to let its prey go.
    It flung itself on the shark, clinging to the convulsively curving body and tightly swaddling the netted predator, and pushed the shark upright, like a twitching snapping pile, down under the film, into the dark depths of the volcano, from which there was no return.
    The film closed with a dry cellophane rustle over the fresh dent and began to spread, filling the circle, towards them.
    He jumped down on the ridge.
    The table, knocking against some invisible obstacle, was rocking beside him, and balancing on the barrier, he led it against the circular current of the slow whirlpool to the gap made by the foolhardy shark, which had paid for its carelessness with conversion of a chaser into game.
    The azure circle was widening more and more, and the way out was open to them, but without the table they would have perished in the gloomy heavy Ocean already foaming the great gray waves rolling on the former playful short lop.
    "Get off!"
    He stood with his legs apart over the gap and suddenly felt a slight stir under his sole. He bent and found the coral reef growing.
    Pointed pimples were quickly proliferating and stratifying one upon another, forming new and new layers of white small horns, twigs, antlers and branches, as if the demolished part was granulating with lime flesh.
    He stamped his foot and smashed the growing branches--new sprouts arose immediately in place of the crushed ones.
    She leapt out on the reef to him and tried to bring their boat into the cicatrizing break, and here it occurred to him that the table would not go through the submarine embrasure because of its leg sticking up.
    "Hold it!"
    She caught the ropes in the air, and he broke the leg at one go out of the corner.
    The approaching film nearly licked the stern, but he pressed the side, and the table scooped the water, becoming heavier, and sank into the whirlpool.
    "Direct it!" he set his pole against the stern.
    She directed the sunken table in the breach--he enhanced the pressure of his quant pole from behind--and their punt crossed the ring of the reef and fell flat out of the crater, slowly going to the bottom.
    "Watch out here!"
    He cast the leg to her and dived into the water, swimming down under the table.
    The film, stretching to the gap, was whispering dryly at the very reef.
    He pushed the table up, and after it came to the surface, he tilted it to pour out the marsh water. Then he put his shoulder under the prow of their long-suffering craft and began stopping up the broken corner with his crumpled jacket when she, pressing the lamp and the wooden leg to her breast, plopped into the water from the reef on her back like a scuba-driver with an aqualung.
    The slick of the azure reached the ridge and adhered to it, welding on its inside to the corals. After that, the duckweed shot rustling the first oily-azure protuberance out of the restored spot smoothing out the Ocean around.
    To great regret, they could not regale their eyes with restoring the former brightness by the regenerating film.
    By that time, they both were already swimming outboard, holding on to the side of the table speeding away from the garish covering of putrescence.
    Neck deep in the heavy swell, he was bailing the seawater methodically out of the table.
    The Ocean, angrily roaring, was rolling its surging billows around them, and the gray drizzle clouded the somber sky from side to side.
    In the early dreary twilight, she noticed how worn-out his haggard face looked with its stubble-covered sunken cheeks.
    "Enough!" For a while, he checked their ark excessively animated by liberty. "Or else you'll freeze."
    Indeed she was freezing in the water becoming colder and colder, but the sharp searching wind that pierced her in her wet sundress on deck was not any kinder to her, and she was shaking with cold.
    "Stir, baby, stir," he exhorted her, untying the knots of the woolen ropes with a view to shield her somehow from the adverse wind. "Cheer up!"
    Splashing out the water, she was swinging her arms, rubbing and slapping herself yet shivering as before.
    He flung the wet wool of the plaid on her back, but the whirlwinds scouring among the breakers were blowing all the accumulated warmth out and chilling to the marrow.
    Shaking as well, he was skipping on the deck of their boat uncontrollably careering along, risking every second to fall overboard into the water mounts rising out of the unexpected depths and leadenly sloping down under their bobbing light shallop, if one might call it so.
    "It's storming," his teeth were chattering. "W-what-t-t wretched weather...."
    She was going to answer--to support him a little, but suddenly she espied some pointed top that had appeared in the distance.
    "Mountain!" she exclaimed as good as jumping for joy, though it was unlikely he could hear her in the bluster of the strong wind and rough sea. "It is a shore!"
    One of the billows raised the table.
    She cried again, and he turned to her.
    Clearly standing out against the background of the raw inhospitable sky and as though growing out of a snowy parapet of surf pressing the storm around it, a violet peak was outcropping higher and higher from the billowy waves like an darkling floating lofty rock.
    No, it was neither shore nor mountain!
    An enormous ink-colored iceberg, pushing a mounting breaker of crushing foam before it, was going threateningly towards them, steering its steady course due east....


    In the chaos of the raging billows, they lost sight of the surf, and when one of the greenish-leaden mountains carried them up onto its crest, the rampart of that rampageous roller towered over their lifting helpless cockleboat too near.
    Unexpectedly, he was knocked down to her feet, and the table, being attracted by the tip of the violet iceberg and skimming along against the wind, went like a rocket into the seething of the tempestuous foam.
    Blinding and stunning them, the surf rolled on their ship with waterfall's thunder, but the speed of the rushing table added to the velocity of the iceberg was too great--having broken in a fraction of a second through the water wall, the table burst out of the surf, flashed over a strip of the smooth surface, and came smash into the violet rock....


    While the finishing flying to bits they weren't on the table, because even as the flight across the zone of calm began, their bodies were swept off the deck by the foam, so all that they found, staggered, on their coming to the surface were some floating flotsam and the lamp hanging on a half-open ink door half sunk into the water. His crumpled leather jacket was here too, slowly spreading in the water.
    "Maybe you'll put on the jacket?"
    She shook her head--the water in this nook behind the thundering waterfall of surf was warm for a wonder.
    By the by, the very iceberg was not cold at all, on the contrary, the narrow doorway was breathing a machinelike smell of hot lubricant and kerosene.
    He put his hands in the sleeves of his jacket and swam to the door.
    The measured smooth drone being intermitted by frequent clangs was filling the iceberg--as if some engine worked inside, setting in motion the enormous bulk of mountain and advancing it across the Ocean.
    Treading water, he stretched out his hand for the lamp, but he was not tall enough to reach it. He shifted to the right, and then to the left, yet everywhere one could see the same blank wall of a huge graphite socle of some inaccessible base covered with mussels and winkles and in places overgrown with tatters of oil-stained algae under the water, and at intervals, the same ink seals of doors adorned it.
    He dived again, but the base extended down for a kilometer at least, and probably all the entries of the iceberg were either unattainable or shut to. All of them save this leaf flung open by the last ramming attack of their shattered heroic table.
    He tried to reach for the lamp once more--and something rapped on his shoulder.
    She had fished the last intact leg out of the water, and that was just what he looked for.
    He threw off the lamp with the leg, caught it, and brought all his weight to bear on the door without a moment's hesitation.
    Overcoming the water resistance, the door opened.
    Some dark meandering passage was in front of them--very narrow, very high (he directed his lit magic lantern up) and very deep (at any rate, he could not discern any bottom). Most likely, there was no bottom anywhere: the water of the fissure was warm only superficially, and the deeper, the colder was this chasm apparently mixing with the Ocean far below under the base.
    "Fiord," said he, for some reason in an undertone. "Sink or swim?"
    She shrugged her shoulders.
    How otherwise would they penetrate into the heart of the iceberg? The smooth sheer rim of the graphite bulwark about seven hundred meters in height walled the floating mountain quite impregnably, and just this battlement seemed to be raising the surf foaming on all sides in such a way that from the moat of their backwater they were unable to determine the direction of the movement.
    The fiord was the only road to the inner regions, and she slipped through the doorway after him.
    The superficial warm layer grew hot, almost scalding them and giving off the whitish puffs flowing to the exit as though in a sweating room, and the door slammed to under the pressure of the steam. It shut slowly and clicked the lock that had not attracted their attention in their haste.
    The water got colder, and the steam settled down, whereupon the measured whirr recommenced far off.
    Thus nothing remained but to go forward.
    Illumining the dark meanders of the bottomless canal, they started swimming along the gloomy fiord.
    Gradually, the drone and clanging were growing louder, as if they were nearing the rumbling emptiness of a factory shop.
    Then his shaft seemed to have torn a black backdrop and went out.
    They found themselves in a spacious round cave, which was flooded with the flickering light of the rays frequently winking through many slits of a pyramidal dome.
    Thousands of steel paddles were revolving on long needles soldered to a wide cast-iron smoke stack in the middle of the noisy hall and opening the strips of the sky intermittently flashing all over the dome.
    Some big gear wheels, mating one another and making an awful din by that, were descending from somewhere (where a look could not reach) down into the water slowly churning under the paddles, and the lower, the more such wheels were being engaged: the cogs of every upper one were gearing two lower of them.
    The thinner pipes were converging with some gradient from the walls of the cave to the central stack.
    She perched onto the next to her and settled herself on it, dangling her legs in the water smelling of kerosene.
    The empty fissures of fiords cut the graphite walls through with geometrical regularity, and there were fire escapes leading up on both sides of each of the fissures instead of the revolving paddles.
    Of course, they could have tried to clamber up by the needles densely crossed the space over the inside pond, but, by God, they had been jeopardizing their life too much before, while those arrows stuck into the ink trunk looked like straws and deserved no credit.
    He thrust the leg of the table in his belt, placed the lamp under his half-fastened jacket, and seized a rung of the nearest fire escape.
    "Upstairs?" She slithered from the pipe to him. "Be sure I'll keep pace with you."
    When scaling he heard her low cry and cast a glance down.
    The radii of the pipes divided the pond peripherally poppling beneath their feet into sectors, and the blurred iridescent flourishes of some inscription, visible only from above, were running within each of them.
    "HIERARCHIUS!" the pond breathed out a machine smell of spilt oil, with which the air under the cathedral dome of the hall was permeated.
    "Hierarchius"--such was the name of this mountain, this iceberg with a raging roller of foam round it, with the locked doors in its impenetrable people-proof base, with the transmission paddle wheels and the warming Ocean inside its cored hull.
    "Hierarchius", they agreed unanimously, harking to the ceaseless chunking with some uncaused premonition.


    After they climbed up and passed safely through a turnstile vertically blocking the way out, they plunged into the second dark passage barred with the second turnstile, and suddenly went out on the very top of the graphite rampart.
    Narrow bulkheads (apparently over the fissures of fiords) partitioned a deep gorge of the waterless moat, the outside face of which was a smooth sheer wall of the massive graphite rim, while the stirring surface of their cone-shaped slope served as the inside one.
    The slope was clad all over with a slightly clanking chain mail woven of some violet spider's armors and steel ladders stretched between them, and the ladders of this hauberk for a helmet ran up and down, to the left and to the right, forming a steel net of shrouds quite suitable for ascent and descent.
    He sighed with relief. Such shrouds afforded them an ample opportunity to scale freely up to the top and then--if necessary--to come down, back to one of these exits.
    Frankly speaking, he prepared for the worse--for the next "suddenly" and surprise that was fraught with new surprises, risk, danger and adversity.
    Here, however, they should only beware of their own inadvertence.
    From there, from that cloud-kissing peak, they would see what they had vainly been seeking for until then--their land, their continent, not discovered as yet and unexplored by anybody, but great and uniting, which would be worth enduring all their losses, ordeals, hardship, striving, living for, and dying...
    "And dying," realized he with the utmost clarity, and she--still young and reckless, believing in him as ever--clung to his back, embracing him, as if she was shielding him with her body from new misfortunes and blows.
    Standing on the brink of the stirring, discontinuously droning mountain, they were silent, thawing at last after that mad Marathon, after those relentless revelations, flights, scrambles and falls and feeling how inseparably and closely the vicissitudes of fate experienced by them had connected them with each other...
    "Eagle!" she was the first to understand what it was that dot appeared high in the overcast sky among the scudding cumuli, and she pulled him to the doorway to be on the safe side.
    Alas, there was nowhere to retreat--the turnstile jammed, refusing to turn and occluding the passage.
    However hard they pushed the iron paddles, it did not move.
    Defenseless without any shelter on the narrow bridge of bulkhead, they would have become still more vulnerable if they had got over on the slippery open graphite ring or on the net of ladders.
    He unsheathed the leg of his writing-table.
    The eagle was sailing over them, describing circle after circle through the racking clouds and descending little by little to look out for a prey upon the lifeless slopes of the iceberg. At last, the eagle spotted what it quested.
    The bird stopped wheeling over the peak.
    He pressed her with his back to the turnstile and lifted his wooden sword, the only weapon he had at hand at this moment.
    The eagle sized up two creatures below and decided to attack.
    The four-fingered, golden, scaly claws with crooked pounces were set in the direction of the rapacious hooked beak shot with metal; a small tongue began to quiver with screaming in the depth of the half-open mouth; the yellowish film covered the round amber eyes for an instant.
    Then the feathers, ruffled up as a goffered collar on the neck, fell smooth and streamlined, while the spread big wings, tile-like from above, were withdrawn back into an attacking triangle to the short tail.
    In an almost sheer dive, the eagle darted down.
    The eagle was swooping down on him, and he threw his club up above his head to take a whizzing deathblow of the striking talons on his two hands.
    "Eyes!" she cried out.
    The wide wings flew up noisily.
    To save his face from the beak aiming straight at his crown, he hid his head into his shoulders and even squatted a little under the weight of the pouncing huge bird.
    "Land!" an independent thought flashed across his mind. "Eagle--it means land!"
    Averting his face, he froze, waiting for a stroke of the raptorial bird, but for some reason it delayed its finishing short shrift.
    The lingering eagle seemed stiffened above him--with the pointed beak already raised to strike, with the gray wings vigorously spread in the last flap, and with the strong claws dug into the wood of the leg.
    Withstanding this suspended attack, he was waiting for a second, and two, and three, yet the bird was immovable as before.
    He shook the leg--the claws holding the eagle in the air broke off, after which the motionless body gave a lurch and unexpectedly toppled down from the roost into the moat as it was, without changing its pose or quivering a feather, like an earthen dummy.
    The eagle's body banged against the graphite bottom and smashed into smithereens, and the pieces of its crocks slid down into five holes of drainpipes: two at each end of the sector and one in the middle.
    "Porcelain," he stammered out, plucking the stumps of the friable talons crumbling in his fingers. "It is clay."
    By some inexplicable miracle, the eagle had petrified and become clay. In a trice, it had turned into a fragile sculpture, into a raw statuette, and thus someone's intervention --of Fate? Providence? Chance?--had warded off danger once again.
    "Look at it." She never took "Providence" on trust for granted. "Door..."
    One of the violet armors, hinging above them, was moving slowly over the floor of the upper horizontal ladder to the surface of the slope.
    Door--naturally, this was a door!
    There were a great number of the doors twitching as the knobby backs-shells of some lurking spiders in all the meshes of the steel cobweb! Just past those shields, they were to go up.
    "What a shabby trick... Keep still!" he held her up.
    He stepped warily on the gridiron of the next floor and brought forward his club. He wanted to verify his surmise to make sure of it.
    Judging by the transmogrification of the wrecked eagle, the way to the top did not bode well--liberty or safety.
    There was only half-pace to the door when the violet armor burst open and hit the protruding leg so impetuously that if he had been unready to recoil, the heavy cast slab would have swept him off the grating.
    He imagined himself clattering down from such a height into that dark damp gorge, and a chill of belated fear ran down his spine.
    The disappointed door was closing vacating the passage, but the leg in his hand became much lighter and acquired an unpleasant clayey color.
    Slightly tapping with his staff on the violet-gray annealed rods, he began to steal to the door. As soon as he dabbed his probe at the first rod before the armor, the door flew open again, and he sprang back, while the brittle leg broke and rolled downhill, flying to pieces.
    Whenever even the smallest bit brushed against the doors or the rods before those watchful flappers, the armors swung open with a clang to meet such a shiver and throw it away.
    Watching the fall through the grating, they could see some cubes of dark space between the graphite slope and armors, lit through its opening doorways and roofed with horizontal ladders, and there were some skipping armchairs of all sorts nestled within the cubes. The back of armchair stretched up to the floor played in fact the part of door, and the door, shutting, immersed the cube into the ink darkness despite the fact that there were no roofs over those sentry boxes.
    "Maybe upstairs?" asked she.
    He tapped on the rungs with the end of his clay walking stick.
    In the vertical direction, nothing seemed to hinder their advance, except the uppermost length that was at the same time the central part of the horizontal grating lying right before the back.
    "Now then, we don't touch it and shift over there," he passed the shortened leg across the holey floor between two doors. "Then we go up to there and up again."
    While explaining his scheme he did what he told her, bit by bit shifting up.
    "All right!" he waved at her. "Only be careful and shun restricted areas."
    She stepped on the ladder.
    A short ascend, then diagonally, a movement of her body--and she was on the next horizontal tier of the lattice floor, at the next ladder, as high as a man, leading to the next storey.
    "Clay--you may feel it," he produced the stump of the leg. "At a touch..."
    She felt the piece of potter's clay.
    As it appeared from this, the probability of brushing accidentally against one of the backs and breaking to shivers-crocks was more than real. Such prospects did not allure her in the least; therefore, in their subsequent ascent it behooved them to move across the cobweb with the utmost attention and circumspection, as though on a chessboard, without crossing the horizontal lines perpendicularly, and to eschew any right angles. Fortunately, the ladders' rods lay thickly, so they had the landings to stand on.
    "What is it there?" she pointed at the dark square gaping under the lattice.
    "I don't know. I hadn't time to make out."
    "But what is the lamp for?"
    Indeed, it somehow passed out of his mind.
    He took the lamp out of his jacket and directed its bell deep into the murk of the cube, holding on to the rod for safety. The lamp lit up.
    In the solitude of a cubic closet (or rather, that private office was a little rhombic owing to some inclination of two sides), a clumsy armchair with a solid back was skipping on the floor going down from under its legs.
    "Paddles," he guessed. "It is those paddles. Like milk-wheels..."
    Undoubtedly, the paddles of the gear wheels revolving within the iceberg's womb were the unsteady floors on the surface, presenting the only shaky support for each of the armchairs.
    Now they saw the whole mechanism of the Hierarchius quite clearly. The skipping armchairs were pushing the paddles, and those were rotating the wheels transmitting the rotation in descending order and moving the cored mountain at sea wherever it headed for.
    "Then what does move the armchairs, in your opinion?"
    She never forgot to ask about the chief thing.
    She was right: without setting in motion the armchairs, the system would not have been working. He looked more attentively at the contours of the oak representative running on the spot and immediately found a source of energy.
    "What does move it?" he questioned in answer to her inquiring look and lit the cube. "This."
    Indistinctly standing out against the ink background of the back and seat, a dark blue shadow of someone's torso half-sunk into the upholstery could be seen in the armchair, the shadow of a faceless and lifeless suit with somebody's hands grown into the armrests and with somebody's feet, which the legs had on, monotonously hopping on the wheel....


    Higher and higher they clambered up the ladders squeezed with the violet doors, more and more heavily sagging above the secluded cubes, whereas the lamp fastened to the belt of his jacket brought to light new and new official armchairs, more and more capacious and magnificent, now polished now gilded, with the suits embedded in their backs.
    Sometimes a white oval of face showed above the necktie, but in the end, an adhered armor-spider sucked the last drops of life out of someone's effaced features. Hereupon the emasculated face began shrinking and flattening, while the ink bile flushed it, coloring the pallid inanimate mask lilac, and then the primary complexion changed quickly in its mimicry to the bluish-dark and to the stereotype violet-black paint of the doors.
    Soon there remained only a melting shadow of a flat coat distinguishable on the refreshed varnished-glossy back, and this wraith, evanescing, melted completely--to its relief--in other armchairs.
    The last remains resolving and fading into the indelible ink were the tumid neckties, the grasping hands turning into elbow rests, and the stamping shoes put on the muscular wooden legs.
    However, most of the seats, still well groomed and vigorous, took part in the race almost empty, insensibly reducing the speed of the turning of the numberless paddles.
    Through the misty drizzle, they discerned the white surf subsiding by degrees according to vacating the places, and as they felt, the very iceberg barely perceptibly slowed down the pace.
    When they halted above the office of one of those satiated-emaciated engines, he dropped the useless end of the leg there. He bargained for merging the clay into the armchair and supposed it would also melt sucked in by the spider, but he had miscalculated.
    The seat cast away the leg through the half-open door, and after describing the final arc, it disappeared from sight much earlier than its scattering fragments rolled down the slope to the bottom of the gorge. Disregarding the destiny of the rejected material, the flinging armchair went on jogging on the wheel.
    "It is squeamish," he remarked on such conduct of this caviler. "It doesn't assimilate anything unacceptable."
    He had committed a blunder, joking so inopportunely.
    Just at that moment passing from the vertical ladder to the horizontal floor, she grasped--through diverting her attention--at a rod in front of the door a little father than it was permissible.
    The opening door banged an inch from the floor and covered the whole section up to the left armor together with the vertical innocuous rungs, yet as soon as the alert back started, she let go her hold of the signal rod.
    Her body obliquely hanging between the ladders doubled and fell into the cube.
    The seconds he overcame the ascent were nonexistent for her.
    She slumped uncomfortably--with her legs on the elbow rests--into the armchair, and it clung to her, attempting at the same time to eject her body out with its nervously shuddering springs, whence it appeared that, notwithstanding its protests, the armchair could not bear to part with her. Ensconcing herself cozily in the springy corner of her cubbyhole and sinking into the ink oblivion, she clutched the polished props and stared with hope and breathless attention at the space infinitely unfolding before her.
    At first furtively--neutrally and blearily showing through the gray background--some bowed figures with burnouses or fells on (or even stark naked) came crawling up the worn-down steps of a sacred unshakable pyramid. They fell prone before her domineering on the pedestal of an ensanguined altar of the high priestess surrounded by her sanguinary, head-shaven, swarthy suite brandishing the curved sacrificial knives covered with gore that were in their hands imbrued with blood.
    Then, ringed round by praying cowls (now white now black now merely fool's caps), she ascended soaring over a divinely-scenic heavenly vale, where some human bodies, either writhing in tortures on the rack or burning in bonfires of auto-da-fe, in spite of this were singing their united lauding "Ave!" to her as harmoniously as a powerful organ.
    Then, in the midst of some boundless snowy wilderness, at one spurn of her shining despotic high boot on the obedient greatcoat's backs she jerked up striped barriers with the stretching bags of some hanged rebels.
    After that, there were barbed wire and watchtowers of her concentration camps, the dense heavy smoke of stinking incense rising out of the crematoriums' chimneys, and a stadium thronged to capacity with the yelling mouths of the vanquished multitude extolling her to the skies and acclaiming her dictator.
    She beheld, too, the Ocean thickly crossed with the operational strategic arrows piercing the blazing bounds and some mushroom bloody push buttons flopping down on the towns with the crowds evaporating in the blinding infernal fire of her severe ruthless retribution.
    In conclusion, as a deserved reward of hers, she received blessed an entirely conquered submissive globe hung by a thin thread, which was bobbing adulatory up and down in her omnipotent hand and dipping obsequiously into outer space.
    The more grandiose and gorgeous were those already tangible, stereoscopically lustrous, flamboyant pictures, the more instinctively and pitilessly she squeezed the clingy arms.
    To rule--to subdue--to model all this shapeless clay as she would think fit in order to become their Fate and God was now her single purpose, and in sooth, she could not compared it with anything else!
    "Over", "over", "over"!" it was dinning in her brain. "I merit reigning over this mob-rabble, over humanity, over all the elements! Who else is so great and so worthy of such an enthronement?"
    The unquenchable thirst for supreme power and domination over life and people (for some all-embracing, omniscient, undivided, unprecedented supremacy!) cramped her body with convulsive stupefaction, amalgamating her with the assiduously stamping legs, with the reliable hard elbow-rests, and with the protective cast back covering her rear.
    Indissolubly linking to her jolting rickety throne, she was jumping, attached to it, on the gear wheel slipping away from under her half-wooden body.
    Listening tensely to the neighbors' hum and footfall, she prepared to repel any infringement upon her rights with her sharp elbow, or rebuff any pretension, or nip in the bud any attempt of encroaching upon her territory and penetrating into her space, into the intimate desired sphere of her--exclusively her--influence...
    He directed the lamp down and lit her face blindly staring at the graphite wall--the featureless, officially reserved face of a predator mercilessly self-seeking and indifferent to everything and everyone--the righteous pious face of a functionary making his career deadpan with hard-heartedness and unscrupulousness.
    The armchair's jolts were still tossing her arms, but her dress already clammed to the seat, and her hair, scattered over the back and dyed dim-plum hue, was melting, sinking one by one, into the ink polish.
    "That's because she has no necktie," he thought feverishly, lying down on the ladder and catching the toes of his boots on the rungs to lean over the cube as low as he could. "She has no suit on."
    Yes, of course, just her absolute non-typicality still saved her from transmuting into a live motor, for the armchair hesitated to accept her bare forearms, her unofficial legs and her flesh that was felt excessively human through the thin print dress. For the time being, she was in the land of the living, but nonetheless, the dissolution of her hair lasted on.
    There was no time to wake her and no use of calling her under the circumstances, so he bowed her head and tore off the tinted locks.
    She seemed to have sensed neither pain nor his hands bowing her. In response to constraint, she reeled back like a nodding China joss to stick again to her throne, yet he picked up her hardened body and pulled her out of the armchair.
    The shreds of her skirt ripped out of the frivolous lacy pleats swelled violet and soaked in the upholstery of the seat.
    She offered no resistance, allowing him to turn her as he liked. Holding her hands on the imaginary armrests and keeping her rigid legs bent in the shape of the armchair left by her, she, lethargically stiffened, gazed at him, and her dull bureaucratic gaze was so cold and vacuous that it gave him creeps.
    Only when her knees knocked against the rods, and the forehead of her poker face bumped against the ladder, did she wake from a stupor and go limp, so unexpectedly that she would have plumped into the cube once more if he had been off his guard.
    "I hope you haven't hurt yourself?"
    At last, she looked more or less normally.
    "No." She smoothed out her sundress and glanced at the tattered flounces in some astonishment. "Where had I done it?"
    "Below," he answered vaguely. "What did you scrutinize there?"
    She peeked in the cube.
    Although by the color and oak durable build this armchair was like all those, situated lower in accordance with their position in the cobweb's meshes, however the ink gilt and large soft seat distinguished it advantageously from the subordinates. Judging by these signs, they were on the approaches to the very top.
    "Do you say--there?" she repeated, remembering, and that warm servile ball bobbed easily in her hand. "Nothing special..."
    Again, just as then, but now, on the perilously narrow holey floor at the giddy height of the whirring cone, she felt the same tremendous gnawing might of power arousing in her soul.
    The whole world was her oyster--she only had to ascend to the peak of the blood-sucking pyramid, and the world, crushed and ironed with the great base of the iceberg dependent on her will, would be subject to her as to its chief. She could warrant she would be able to make it grovel, since she had enough ambition, hardness and firmness to intimidate, force, and subjugate it, and she was ready to do her utmost for such mastery...
    He saw the same leaden-ink ice covering the freezing ice-holes of her glazy pupils.
    "We go up. Look spry!" she commanded him brusquely, consumed with her itch for leadership, and seized the rungs leading to the top.


    Without a mistake or a misstep, with phenomenal agility and rare skill, she was shifting invulnerably, regardless of danger, across the net of the lethal cobweb, clambering purposefully up--to the uppermost tier of the armors, where the four floors surrounding the peak of the Hierarchius roofed the four doors menacingly clanging over inferiors.
    The last tapering vertical ladders were set inclined like four pointers towards the angles of a lattice square, and now all that they needed was to overpass one of these spearheads propping the podium of the top.
    Their heads were already above the ladder, and she stretched out her hand to the horizontal grating of the last storey.
    "Hands off!" he pushed her arm away. "Are you out of your senses?"
    An unwieldy violet cube with shield-like knobby sides was skipping awkwardly on the square platform, and the four sides of the cube bunged up the doorways in all directions.
    As it was to be expected, the upper armchair held all-round defense (if such an armchair was inside the hulking box at all).
    "Finish," he muttered. "We've come."
    The lowering sky brooded, dismally dribbling, over them.
    Not reaching the warm ladders the fine rain turned into vapor, shrouding the mountain in mist, and there was nothing higher but the bulky glossy dark chest, while the shuffling slope spread down cheerlessly and impassably, furnished with the thrones-cannibals hopping in ambush behind their shields.
    "You must do something!" she stamped her heel in a huff. "Do it at once!"
    She was so craving to be above all and sundry! She was simply dying for what was inside, in that unachievable fairy casket! If one shut door happened to be an obstacle in her way to the final altitude, he was obliged to take all appropriate measures in order to place the prize of the rule at her disposal! It was his sacred duty--to secure her success!
    "Okay." He reckoned up all feasible variants in his head. "It is awfully dangerous, but as the saying is--courage overcomes all obstacles."
    She cast a scathing look at him and twisted her mouth disdainfully.
    What did any danger signify in comparison with her cherished goal and the colossal scale of her gigantic plans! What else could be the meaning of his life, which was in effect so petty and insignificant, one of thousands, of millions, of the whole ocean of the same trivial worthless lives!
    "Forward!" she told him curtly in a gelid peremptory tone with a fleer. "It is my order!"
    He peered amazedly into her bellicosely glistening eyes shot with the same ink luster of climber's lunacy.
    Her short stay in the armchair had passed not without consequences: while she was on the iceberg, something kept on working in her soul as if connected with the system of all those meshing wheels, armchairs, ladders, and doors.
    She aspired to power and was determined to succeed in attaining her object that consisted in seizing the very top, and it was impossible to keep her from climbing there. Her choice was predestined, and she had either to usurp that place in the sun, above everything and everyone, or to roll down into the moat as a piece of clay, inasmuch as the Hierarchius did not acknowledge another dilemma and option.
    "Squat a bit," he clapped her on the back ("unceremoniously" as she thought indignantly of this "paltry boor"). "And don't linger then."
    By the scheme, her accession to the throne was to be easy enough.
    The open doors did not slam to at once, closing quite unhurriedly, and before the door could occlude the passage, they might have profited by the occasion to slip through the doorway (though he wondered very much if any entrance was passable). Furthermore, he would have liked to know whether the armor was active from inside or not, but in his plan, he envisaged this eventuality, too.
    He unfastened his lamp and pressed it to his breast with his chin, trying how quickly could he perform the operation conceived by him. Everything did turn out well.
    "Deign not to meddle in, lovey."
    She vouchsafed him no answer, and he bowed her head again. Her new fall into that spider's den was extremely malapropos at present.
    "Well, so to speak, all or nothing."
    With a wry smile, he poked the lamp in the corner rod, but at first--from below in order to test the reaction of the armor.
    The door did not react to his prod because the gratings protected it quite dependably from invasion of such a kind. Shuffling scornfully, the four-shelled spider continued its skipping.
    "Why are you so intrepid?" he gave a baleful look at the door. "What, loftiness entails hubris?"
    He squatted down and bashed the floor from above with his lamp.
    The three-meter side of the cube hurled itself instantaneously upon the foreign outside object, and it would not have missed, were he a bit slower.
    Then, just as he planned, he set the base of the lamp on the grating and propped up the shutting door with the steel stem.
    Metal gritted against metal. The rungs under the cast base sagged a little, yielding to the violent pressure, and the end of the stem pressed in the violet plating of the inside, yet remained standing. The stem did not curve nor break and the door, having run against the tempered steel, stopped shaking with strain.
    "Here goes!" he jumped onto the grating and held out his hand to her. "Nothing venture, nothing win."
    Although the doorway of the missing side was open, from above still a flat roof covered the cube like a shed, and were it not for his resourcefulness, they would never have got to the stuffing of the black box reigning here.
    Within the cube, a huge armchair in Empire style, with bandy legs and without back, was jumping with elephantine grace on two simultaneously turning wheels at once, wholly occupying the ground round a hot-breathing orifice of the central pipe.
    It would be true to say that the backs (alias the doors-armors) defended the inner space from all four sides, and they could mount the uppermost throne only in case of their coming in the doorway through which they peeped in.
    There was no room to stand on the top: three armors adjoined close to the floors, and as to their fourth door forcedly open, it might overcome the resistance of iron and bang to at any second.
    Apparently, she imagined this summit of desires quite otherwise, as the acme of perfection, and she was on her mettle, pursuing her own object and doing her best for that.
    With an air of finality, she stepped to the armchair and condescendingly caught hold of the seat subtly embroidered with gold paragraphs and being just level with her face.
    The ink silk winced, and the springs pushed her hands back. It looked as if the armchair did not bear the slightest touch of anything living and bare.
    With maniacal insistence, she grasped at the gilt legs--and flung up her arms again. The top did not admit her.
    "Ah, you dare jostle me away?" she gnashed her teeth with hatred at such an iniquitous rejection. "Do you think I'm unsuitable? Unworthy?"
    Utterly incensed by such rigmarole she clutched at the touchy upholstery, willing to wield the higher authority anyhow.
    The fractious armchair jumped up with resentment and, flinging like a restive horse, kicked her in her stomach.
    She recoiled, choking with pain and balancing on the brink in such an unstable equilibrium that she would have fallen from the grating into the lower-ranking cube but for his timely support.
    Insults like this she never forgave.
    "Well, then I'll show you how to refuse," livid with wrath, she promised the baulking testy furniture in a barking whisper to eradicate such a crying injustice.
    Then, taking advantage of his care, she footed the oak gilt with all the autocratic ardor of her wounded conceit.
    One of the legs slipped off the paddle right into the wide socket of the pipe, and the listing armchair moved slantwise.
    The second leg stepped into the same emptiness after the first, and suddenly, the ink backs fell apart like a house of cards. The armchair overturned, its short bowlegged extremities kicking the rain, and dived into the central hole upside down.
    The roof of the collapsed office remained hanging over the ownerless paddles in the air, while the fallen doors covered with a bang the four cubes of the lower previous tier.
    The crashing of the precipitated armchair was fading degradedly somewhere at the foot of the iceberg, and thus the single combat had issued for the present in her complete victory.
    "Triumph of restored justice!" he commented on this great event with a chuckle. "The enemy is deposed, overthrown, routed and reduced to dust!"
    Here the wheels decelerating their rotation while the armchair's fall was lasting stopped, and the habitual drone ceased.
    The iceberg gave a start.
    The white-foamy surf fencing the pyramid of supreme power subsided and came to naught. The movement was broken, and they sensed a smell of burning spreading over the heated burnished metal of ladders.
    Meantime the steam of superheating already started wreathing below.
    The water in the narrow ring of the outside moat, getting hotter and hotter, was opening by force the heavy gates of the fiords--not for long to make the idle mechanism accessible to new ambitious pretenders to the throne.
    Overlooking the multitudinous vast, they could get an eyeful of the ships of all sorts, now lifting, pitching and rolling on the weltering billows now capsizing and being swept by stormy rollers, but, however, keeping in immediate proximity to the Hierarchius--such as ocean liners and steamers, aircraft carriers and cruisers, trawlers and schooners.
    Besides those titanic passenger vessels, or tankers, or formidable men-of-war there were squadrons and flotillas of variegated-winged yachts, cutters, yawls, barges, barks, launches, scows, canoes and boats, now flat-bottomed now rubber inflatable, dancing around, apart from gatherings of homemade rafts, tarred barrels, sailboards, automobile tires and life-buoys bustling about among the crafts.
    From everywhere--off sides and masts, out of holds, deckhouses and conning towers, through portholes and down ropes and ladders--hosts of tiny human bodies were rushing over the others' heads to the eminence of the magic magnetic mountain and diving into the unfriendly waters. Each of them was imposingly arrayed in an official coat and had an ink necktie on, though many future dignitaries had no time in their haste to finish their equipping, and these were forced to carry their white shirts, pressed trousers, hats and shoes in their teeth like trained dogs.
    Struggling with the commotion of the rough sea and with the squally wind (by the by, this gale was not in the least felt here on high) and breasting the heavy waves, shoals of coats were swimming to the smooth surface of the open peaceful backwater.
    The first party of underlings outdistanced all the others and reached the boundary of the steaming stagnant water that cut off the storm of the raving Ocean.
    The encompassing calm got seething with spawn of somebody's furiously punching-kicking-pushing-striking hands and legs, butting baldheads, glaring spectacles, slapping files and banging briefcases, which were spoiling for a fight, striving for victory, and seeking fame.
    The jams of those who wished to boss the show gathered in a moment by the entrances leading in the warm hold of the iceberg. Hustling in the melee and drowning their buffeting rowdy neighbors, the most pushing chaps succeeded at last in barging in the fiords, and a few seconds later they appeared on the bulkheads of the inside dry moat, on the top of the graphite base. There they instantly began to clamber up the steel shrouds, flashing quickly as monkeys in the meshes and flopping like toads into the cubes invitingly suffused with daylight.
    The throngs at the gates continued to bunch and grow, and the feeling of the frantic scrimmage ran higher and higher--a smoking silvery crush of the bodies jostling for power crammed the outside moat resembling a trawl thickly teeming with sprats.
    The same bodies broken away from the initial muddle poured in plentiful streams out of the doorways onto the ladders of the Hierarchius, scurrying nimbly over the steel net of the ring-mail.
    When each of them attached himself successfully to some unoccupied armchair, he began to skip overbearingly, endeavoring to wind up his stopping wheel, whereas the latecomers were speeding downhill while the cobweb on the graphite ashen slopes became red-hot and went on glowing.
    Four of the most dexterous contenders (in spite of their respectability, paunches and monkish tonsures) scaled the peak after all and climbed onto the very pedestal of the supreme throne, but here they were exceedingly disappointed with absence of something deserving their attention. Two useless individuals without armchairs were, quite naturally, unworthy of note.
    Having no other choice, the four enterprising place-hunters hung on the rungs, swinging, and suddenly broke the armored roofs of the cubes through at one stroke with their massive callous buttocks as if it were four sheets of cardboard.
    Bristling with jags of breaches, the cubes went wobbling uphill like spiders, pushing their way through the gratings parting over them.
    He pulled her from the complaisantly plunged floor onto the warm brim of the pipe in the middle and dropped the lamp picked up by him into the hole.
    "Very good," he said, listening to the sounds within the fathomless pipeline and hearing nothing. "Let's try to slide down--on the off chance."
    Now the whole cone of mountain, spanking the ink armors against the graphite surface and breaking the incandescent cobweb spitting sparks, was scrambling up to occupy the vacant places, but, as it was understandable, there was a certain shortage of the seats vacated by the superiors for new posts on this scale of ranks.
    The tussling armchairs clashed fiercely, hacking one another caddishly and tripping their rivals up underhandedly with the nefarious purpose of knocking the contestant off his feet with their kicks, of upsetting the despicable scoundrel with their backheels, of throwing the defeated failure off the paddles, which, strictly speaking, all of them were contesting as theirs.
    Meanwhile below, at the very bottom of the gorge, where all the shells, armchairs, and coats were rolling down, smashing to flinders, the other suits, already stuck like limpets to the slippery slope in half-sitting poses, were skipping fitfully on the sinking steps, their violet backs becoming chitinous and gradually hardening into oak.
    The outside ring was boiling.
    The scalded scatterbrains were howling and choking with puffs of steam in the desperate scuffle, but kept on hewing their way heroically through the fray and took the entries by assault.
    Two rejuvenated highest armchairs with its inimically protruded bellies collided beside them. Four arms went crushingly one into another and made a two-backed equine hybrid, such a wooden centaur with two pairs of shoes twisted in the opposite directions.
    The centaur gave a jump on the paddle--the wheel gave a turn--and she jumped up with a warlike air on the rim of the pipe too steady for her quick promotion.
    The second horse tandem became a single whole and stamped its four hoofs on the second wheel.
    The dark walls-backs shielded the top from two sides, beetling over the self-building sites left unoccupied, and they found themselves squeezed with two elbow-rests in a narrow gap between these cavorting destriers.
    The pipe under their feet was getting colder and colder, as though by contrast with the wrathful heating of the iceberg, so that they could improve the opportunity.
    Or rather, their distressful situation necessitated it, because scarcely had the paddles of the upper gear wheel started when the foamy ring of surf rose superciliously before those who loitered at sea. The gates of the fiords slammed, squashing the floundering small fry, and the broken steel ladders laid down repaired, driving the presumptuous testaceous impostors into the proper ranges of duties.
    The former utter darkness flooded the new-built cubes, and again there was heard the same clanging drone issuing from the armchairs hopping behind the closed doors.
    The last duffers-ignoramuses lagging behind and vainly hoping to join the fraternal alliance rushed to the shut doors with a cry, "Give me a chance!", and the armors, opening without a hitch, threw the petrified simpletons back into the moat as pieces of broken crockery rattling down with their fading lamentation, "It's unfair!".
    Everything around was retreating to its own original state, everything excepting them who became neither furniture nor clay.
    Keeping her from engaging in battle with the four-headed stallions, which had self-contemplatively turned face to face, adapting their pace zealously to the rotation of the directive circles, he stood astride on the mouth of the pipe that was fanning them with the airflow getting warmer and warmer.
    To depart there, moreover of his own will, he had not the slightest wish, but here, it was clear, they were doomed to be trodden down: the united armchairs grew twice as big, and the main--culminating--consolidation might crown their merger at any moment.
    The centaurs hoofed against the slippery foundation of domination, and their forelegs leapt onto the next paddles.
    "Crisscross," he understood. "Crisscross--and it will be a cube. Well, hope dies last."
    The reared centaurs were prancing impatiently upon the springboards for their decisive skip to the last transfiguration, and the dirty matting of their bottoms were visible from below as well as the shabby gilt of their legs curved for flinging.
    By now, these rampant monsters shaded the small patch of the peak completely, and they could no longer protract their stay among these prevailing authorities.
    "Anyway we are together whatever betides..."
    He peeked once more in her impenetrably lustrous pupils and, hugging her jibbing, combatively stiff body, stepped with her down from the diminished dark top of the Hierarchius....


    During a solid hour, they were tearing along through this pipe.
    Perhaps their endless rush was lasting not so long--not for an hour, but only for a minute, or, maybe, on the contrary, it had taken a month or even a year.
    It was very difficult to ascertain the duration of their movement here, because the instant their fall had undergone a sudden change in the elbow of the pipe and passed into the present almost horizontal inconceivable flight time had stopped its own flight for them.
    The hands of his watch had met on the figure 7, which was shimmering phosphoric in the obscurity flying in their faces.
    Blowing their embracing bodies with head wind, the darkness carried them along in the middle of its steady current.
    At times their feet cleft the small galaxies of crocks outdistanced them, and passing swiftly through the scattering remains, they went on whirling away further, while long fiery ribbons suddenly cut through the gloom here and there--those were the numberless falling fragments grazing the walls and burning like a match struck by an invisible hand.
    "Bobsleigh!" he cried out, choking with the whizzing wind. "What a speed!"
    She was silent, afraid of drawing back a bit to pull down her dress ridden up to her shoulder blades.
    Streaming along her body, the flying aerodynamic blackness was washing off the false prospects of those debunked picturesque illusions from her eyes, and her soul was purifying from the fits of those tenacious spider's cramps, whereas she was gradually recovering her former sober view of things.
    However, the same gloom seemed to be fanning her remote fear that had been smoldering before in the background, in the refuse of her bad moods, indispositions and ever-present extraneous speeches, nestling stray in the most secret recesses of her heart, in the depths of her unforeseen associations and dreams.
    The leavened dough of this apprehension was rising inwardly like some smoking bubbling tar swamping her consciousness with its suffocating pitch-dark hopelessness.
    Only a disaster was ahead, only an unavoidable total catastrophe--calamity, collapse, outer darkness and apocalypse; and both of them were none other than the same fragments-crocks discarded by their fate into the unknown and dumped to unborn generations, to corrupt epochs and lost lives, where they were involved forever in this suicidal fall, in their flight nowhere--into the dark abyss and non-existence.
    Then maybe she had better brush in passing against the wall to flare up fleetingly in the current? It would be much more logical than to wait for the inevitable and wail in vain, anguishing overwhelmed with perpetual horror while helplessness preys on her mind.
    She could merely move back from him and touch the bank of the stream, flying past, as though accidentally.
    One casual touch--and she will vanish in the vacuum... One touch is all that she needs... One desired touch....
    Her hands grew weak.
    "Steady!" he shouted at her.
    She was slowly falling back, and the wind pressure being wedged in between them was dragging them apart, separating their bodies and trying to snatch her out of his arms.
    "Don't! I'm with you!"
    Without response, she was surrendering herself to the gloom carrying away her perishable flesh, and he was unable to keep her from her willful fall.
    "Don't give in to dejection!" he was crying with affected cheerfulness--in order to smother the dark fumes of despair in his own soul. "Let's fly further!"
    The dissociating speed of the unending fall estranging her was alienating her from him, and reclining, she was on the point of slipping away out of his embrace, obviously willing to lapse into ruinous apostate resignation to her cursed destiny.
    A dot of light, which had flashed up sharply in front of them, enlarged to a circle. The brightly shining, upside-down lamp turned up out of the dark and nuzzled to their feet with a dog's devotion.
    The squalid dull zinc wall of a rubbish chute was gleaming some meters away from them.
    She saw the wall and the earthen shivers around and again caught hold of his jacket.
    As the lamp slipped along his leg up under his arm, he pressed it with his elbow and began to pull her body--very carefully lest the trajectory of their flight should change.
    "It is a tunnel," whispered she. "We are in a tunnel. It is simply a tunnel and nothing more."
    Their flight grew slower.
    Flying at breakneck speed as before, they were scudding horizontally through the darkness.
    A luminous speck appeared in the distance and started to grow, quickly approaching.
    Then all of a sudden, they flew out of the pipe through the circle of light, slid over some wire net, and bumped into a zinc barrier, which put a stop to their movement willy-nilly....


    They were lying on the bottom of a huge crescent-shaped sieve.
    The pipe opposite them was coughing out some clayey remains of coats, neckties, trousers and baldheads, and through the wire meshes, they could see all the waste falling into a great crater giving off clouds of whitish smoke and casting a lurid light on the environs.
    The crater was so vast that only its middle part--a patch of its slope--was within sight, while the center below was beyond field of vision, covered with the very high, three-layered, inside wall of the crescent, and the monolithic sheer face with the mouth of the pipe hid the upper brim.
    The same three giant convex layers towered above their steel screen, and thus, in the aggregate, there were seven blind gray storeys in this edifice with the zinc box.
    The outside concave wall with the pipe was considerably less than the inside skyscraper--its size was just corresponding to the twenty-meter height of the box.
    The sky was calm though overcast, and the air was still, but judging by the welkin of this place, the day was declining.
    The black hole fringed with gray scallops spewed an armchair, splendid enough and quite safe, except that it was three-legged and pretty cracked. The suit grown into it was already without any head and arms broken off, yet still with a battered paunch proudly stuck out. So recently, the swagger climber had started full of a great number of grandly conceived plans and remarkably ambitious aspirations, and now (woe was him!) this weaker vessel contained only clay offal.
    As soon as the armchair went spinning over the sieve, one of the wire meshes dilated, and the rejected throne plumped soundlessly on the cloudy slope, rolled somewhere deep into the crater, and got out of sight.
    "Don't hurry..."
    Supporting her, he got up and rocked for a while on a crossing of the steel net. The springy mesh tensed and contracted.
    He bent to take the lamp--and the wire-gauze in the place of its fall widened to sift the pieces of crockery expectorated by the zinc throat.
    The choosy riddle did not let them through, and in all probability, it was forbidden to screen anything intact at all, in particular--those who had become neither a mold of armchair nor a scattering of collapsed individualism.
    Groping for junctions of the springing net, they waddled over the contracting meshes to the seven-meter outlet of the pipe framed with such a goffered cuff embedded in the gray monolith.
    The zinc scallops enabled them to scramble out of the bast-box (or rather "cast-box") onto the high border without hindrance, and they were not slow to do it.
    When they rolled over the hard ribs of the metal ruffle, they stood up on a triangular gray ground resembling a flat broad field, the continuation of which was a thick caterpillar of the pipeline tapering in the distance and turning up to the sky on the obscured horizon.
    Just there, in the murky space of firmament, the gray gut disappeared, piercing the remote upper corner, though it was fair to say that the skyline as such was nowhere. The same space surrounded them on all sides, and the pontoon, on which they stood, was in the air, within the boundless sphere without top and bottom.
    In a word, it looked as if the Ocean was now far higher than the immovable heaven.
    The flat horns of the ground led to the seven layers of the crescent sieve, to the lofty solid girders a good hundred meters thick, and they made for that strange erection along one of the horns.
    "We're riding," she said stopping. "The iceberg pulls us."
    He also felt the steady smooth motion of the lever moving both the ground and the building opposite.
    The work of the wheels and gears of the Hierarchius was not futile: floating across the Ocean, the iceberg was towing the pipe, which was in effect a lever persistently pushing the enormous mass of the zinc ladle (or the colander to be more precise).
    They came to the point of the horn that had the breadth of a good avenue, turned the corner, and unexpectedly went out to the very brink by the joint of the box and building.
    The girders clamped with log-like staples rose sublimely on the left, while before, above and under them some disks of different colors a kilometer wide were revolving in the grooves of the girders, and these platters did not allow them to survey the top and bottom of the sphere.
    The disks were flat to such an extent that one could use them as gramophone records, extremely long-playing, if one would have discovered a turntable to play those vivid circles, thin as razor.
    There were seven disks (or circles) there--according to the number of the girders.
    The uppermost of them was black, the lowermost--pink; the second from above was violet; after it came the golden, then--in the middle--the azure; and further down there were consecutively the green and crimson ones.
    It was interesting that the lever was pushing all the disks to the right, but in spite of this, they were turning in different ways and with different speeds.
    The black and the golden went with the motion and very quickly, the azure and the green--with the motion as well, but a little slower, whereas the crimson and the pink--against, only the pink was revolving hastily with jerks, while the crimson was hardly dragging itself.
    Unlike all the others, the violet circle did not rotate in any way--either quickly or slowly, either with the lever or against it.
    Meantime the lever was moving horizontally aside, opening the space behind the gramophone sandwich, and there was the second lever stretched to the disks from the loured space.
    It was the same long caterpillar with a percolating strainer and a huge crescent on its tail, and from afar, they discerned some small twigs, pencils, drawing pins and round fishes falling out through the distant bolter into the crater.
    "It is the Harmonis!" She had not forgotten that hall yet. "Apparently it's a supply of fuel."
    As they say, she hit the nail on the head.
    Probably having come to the extreme point, the Hierarchius's lever stopped.
    The middle clamp supporting the pile of the girders squeaked wearily and drew back into a slot on the butt-end of their horn, releasing the disks that hung immobile, and at that instant, the Harmonis's holder recoiled, too.
    The fixed circles were now up in the clouds, poising without any suspension brackets and support.
    A passing ominous flash of lightning shot up from under the sandwich to the sky, and the smoking crater threw out a blow of heat, emitting fiery eddies.
    The surface of the middle disk that was azure a second ago got brown in the center.
    Then a small spot began to bulge there, expanding up into a pink upside-down cone, and this translucent funnel pierced the golden plane above it. The cone was growing up from the identical cone (only with its upward top) transfixed the round green field beneath it; and by its shape, it looked like a sandglass that set its two bases against the uppermost and lowermost disks of this whatnot.
    The fluidly flowing glass of the conical retorts was lit pinkish with the flame bursting from below, while the upper part continued to grow through the circles like a gigantic transparent symbol of infinity, drawing the lower pink record through the eye of a needle in the center of the azure mirror.
    At last, the flowing ceased. Having pinned all the disks, the symbol attained the equality of its halves and swayed totteringly, intending either to settle or to rise much higher.
    Here it happened.
    An agonizing shriek suddenly broke the still of the infinity and died away in the space, and instantly a swarm of sparks ran streaming down like sand in the retorts.
    She grew pale. The cry had rung out right above them, and it was a cry of a child.
    The fiery streamlet of sparks was running down, playfully measuring off the expiring seconds.
    "Seven," she finished counting. "Did you hear?"
    The sand ran out, and with the fall of the last spark, the retorts began to move.
    The lower of them seeped diminishing through the transition point and with a wag of its slipping pink udder vanished in the gold of the higher disk.
    At once, a sudden blow of a sledgehammer from heaven drove the stunned disks into the crater.
    The interspaces between the disks had not been shortened by an inch, and shifting down, they had kept the former order, which made the golden stand in the middle, while the pink had become the uppermost.
    The pile of the girders went out of the slot with a constrained squeak. The grooves embraced the razor-edges of the records and moved them slowly to the left.
    The revolution started again--in the opposite direction and in disunity as before, only that the crimson, now the lowermost, was turning defiantly against the motion, and the pink, which was "con", simply went crazy about speed "pro".
    The circles were rotating, and the lever was sailing quietly under them.
    They heard that cry no more, and besides, they might ask what did they care for someone's cries? At present, they were themselves in a sorry plight: they could not climb up the bare cliffs of girders, and it would have been a quite ineffectual to spend time on driving on their observation ground to and fro; meanwhile, the merry-go-round of disk was whirling at their feet.
    "How about a short trip?" he asked her.
    She nodded.
    What may happen if they take a ride to that horn of the crescent? The disk seems to be not so swiftly turning, and they should inspect the left side in any case, right?
    "Only let's agree--as we reach that point, you leap back, okay?" he warned her. "Give me your hand."
    She shied restively:
    "I can do it unassisted!"
    After her panic in the tunnel, after her weakness and shame, it was natural that he treated her in such a way and took her for a pusillanimous cripple. If so, she would show him that she was able to cope with her nervousness....
    "Take it easy," he smiled. "Mind you don't stumble."
    In reply, she stepped imperturbably onto the gliding golden skating rink, and he hurried after her....


    The pines stood before them.
    They were facing a range of pine trees on the skirts of the wood that arose like winking from nowhere the instant they crossed a borderline.
    In the sultry stillness of the rich resinous smell being exhaled by the gummy bronze-claret bark, the slightly swaying dark-green branches hung over the dense bushes of bramble, whose impassable thorny tangles were sprinkled with ripe juicy jet-black berries, and the caps of mushrooms were raising the slippery covering of rusty-brown rotten needles.
    It was a pine forest--with mast-like straight trunks, shady dells, damp ravines and babbling brooklets--full of the bracing fragrances of conifers, leaf mold and russulas.
    The real pine thicket suddenly sprung up before them, with its mossy boulders and even with a woodpecker abruptly tapping not far off, and this dreamlike wood towered now in all its splendor no more than seven meters away from the golden edge, virtually at hand.
    Wonderstruck, they missed the lever of the Hierarchius passing past them.
    "Mirage..." he began hesitatingly.
    She approached the bushes, picked a burnished-black berry, and gave it to him.
    He nipped off a lobule of the berry with his lips and pressed it with his tongue, enjoying the long-awaited sour-sweet freshness.
    The berry was quite real as well as all the rest in this vision.
    Everyone could enter the pine forest and stay there--to snuggle down on the springy blanket of needles and sit down on a low stump covered with silvery spots of lichen. Everyone could pick either a small berry, or a paunchy mushroom, or, for example, an amber wart of galipot--to chew this trailblazer's cud half asleep, breathing in the balmy air to his heart's content and listening to soughs of the sylvan Elysium.
    Never had he heard the silence that was tenderer and more serene.
    The dampish smell of the soil was tickling his nostrils so familiarly, and the forgotten tasty tartness of blackberry was bringing him back to his childhood so hauntingly and indulgently that he somehow lost himself in the land of dreams.
    Smirking with a faraway look in his eyes, he set the lamp sloped on his shoulder like a toy gun (or like a willow fishing rod), and then, humming through his nose "hushaby", he went mincing towards the edge of the forest.
    His strange conduct alarmed her.
    Who knew what the fortune held in store for them in the wonderful woods, taking into account that the same circumambient space was yawning wanly under their feet beyond the disk.
    She seized him by the sleeve of his jacket, and he, not entirely immersed in his idyllic past, turned distressed to her.
    "The lever!" she gave a pull at his sleeve. "We get off!"
    Indeed, a gray oven fork of the third lever ending with a massy sledgehammer of the girders appeared from behind the pines.
    Within the colossal disk-holder, she discerned some horrible bloody rags flying out of the pipe directly connected, undoubtedly, with the fountain of the Sexville.
    "Not here! No!"
    Yet it was not likely that he was going to get off here or there (or elsewhere). Screening himself with his leather flap from her pestering, he obviously meant to withdraw into the forest.
    "Be patient, please," she was coaxing him. "What got into you?"
    Judging by the position of the levers, they had time to return: one travel of this seven-storied puff was just enough to make a full turn.
    Here was the Harmonis's lever, by the by. If it were not for the Lame swinging their withies and the spinning Metaboles, she would have alighted from the disk right now, but she had no wish to watch the convulsions of those dried likeness of life sifted through the sieve in the nihility. No, thanks, she had enough tragedies in her real depressing contemporaneity...
    She fell into a reverie so self-absorbedly that her sandal almost got in the narrow groove when the zinc wall passed very close to her and pressed her to the border of the thicket.
    "Presently we'll be back," she was expostulating with her naughty boy, humoring him. "Let's go to see the other sights."
    The most important thing was not to let him steal away from the golden track and not to permit him--at least until he was a bit dotty in his puerility--to cross the border, or else he might have gone off into that primeval desert taiga to stray to the end of time among the treacherously attracting trunks and the insidiously virgin bushes of bramble in the calm, babble and childhood.
    At last, the girder pushing their disk moved aside to the left, and they were to leap again onto this horn, because that one protruded now over the crater far away from them.
    "Get off... Please... I pray you--get off...."
    Dragging his resisting body, she jumped off from the disk on the approaching horn. His one foot was now on the comparatively firm ground, but the other one was still on the going circle, and the berry imprudently picked by her did its black part.
    "Get off, I say! This is boyishness!"
    Sportive as she was, how she could wrestle with him in earnest!
    Dislocating her twisted wrist and burbling some prattle, he broke loose from her grip and pushed her away. Rejoicing in his independence, he ran hopping prankishly across the track and unexpectedly vanished.
    Only then, she realized that there was no trace of the thicket beside her--the former golden varnish covered the disk all over.
    "Vanished, vanished," she was repeating scarcely believing her eyes. "He'd vanished at the moment I got off... Yes, yes, that's just the point: the forest is visible only to the one who stands on the disk, whereas any outside observer does not see it. Hence, he cannot see anyone in the forest. Consequently--"
    The lever's pile reached an extreme point, and the clamp was slid creaking into the slot. The circle that was only just at her feet recoiled and hung about seven steps away from her.
    Thus, both the pines and he who was rambling among them became unattainable to her. Her folly bereaved her of that world with all its life--with resinous ozone, murmurous shallow brooks, overhanging pine-branches, dark coombs, sunny clearings and remote staccato tapping.
    The crater was blazing again.
    Again, a small circle bulged enlarging in the center of this glittering gold coin, and the rising crimson base of a new incorporeal cone pierced the upper disk.
    "Cry," she started. "It was a child's cry. Wasn't it only my imagination?"
    The blushed sandglass slipped through the narrow spot of the eye for a camel of the Scriptures and grew transparent, oscillating...
    And a new heartrending child's shriek shook the retorts.
    One and another at once--two merging cries broken from someone's lips resounded in the sky, and the same sand of vivid sparks started streaming gaily behind the rosy glass.
    "So it is..." Trembling, she was counting the seconds. "That's what we have..."
    The last grains of the fiery sand fell down.
    The crimson cone began to flow up, mounting over the uppermost disk and spreading to the pink edge like a running blot.
    As this stain of raspberry jam got equal to the size of the other circles, a new heavy blow hammered all the lower worlds into the smoldering space.
    They were simultaneously dislocated downwards so that the violet level would take the place of the middle record, and his golden one jerked far down.
    The situation became hopeless: she hadn't a ladder or rope for descent, and--what was the worst of it--she saw nothing on that damned false coin where he had obtained his golden age.
    The lever clung bulkily to the hovering circles to move on, and without hesitation, she leapt from her ground onto the disk.
    At any rate, she had one turn to search out him entered his second childhood.
    In the violet plastic framing of a seven-meter track, a birch grove bathing in sunshine was murmuring near her.
    A rustling hurly-burly of patches of sunlight rolled from time to time over the curly green shocks of the nodding graceful white-stemmed beauties. The grassy smells of haymaking were in the air above the glades dappled with the sun. The bent thin stalks with scarlet tiny berries were showing under the green feathers of fronds of fern.
    The lacy shades of the childishly ruffled crowns, bantering, were tickling a woodland dark small lake with the white bells of lilies-of-the-valley that strewed the sloping shores and with the half-open water lilies dozing upon their flat glossy leaves, and not far from her a cuckoo, as if chaffing her, was counting her years.
    If only she could stay for a minute in the grove--to lounge on the soft grass among the meadow yellow buttercups, listening to the susurration of leafage and to the raillery of the carefree birdie. If only she could pick that wild strawberry, miniature as a ladybird and so amusing with an emerald corolla and its black pimples (wonder if gnomes like it, too). What was wrong with this berry even supposing she would have laid it on her tongue and pressed it to the palate to sense its sugary succulent pulp squashed in her mouth with its hard tiny drupelets?
    She brought the strawberry to her lips and licked it in anticipation of pleasure, but the appearance of the Sexville's zinc girders from behind the birch-trees made her come back to the reality.
    Why did she permit herself to waste time on gaping at the miraculous mirage distracting her when there was not a moment to lose!
    By the way, concerning the berry (she threw it away with disgust)--what kind of berries might be here? As to the sun--where might it come from?
    The black lustrous disk was sailing duskily over the effulgent lisping coppice, and there was no firmament else above her.
    "Berries, flowerets, velleities," she muttered vexed. "Only fancy how effusive we are!"
    Like a blank back wall of a prison-house, the gray side of the lever passed by her.
    As the violet track came out of the groove, she lay down flat on it and glanced at that golden disk, on which they were standing by the bramble border of the pine forest a while ago.
    The desert spread beneath her.
    It was hard to imagine a country more cheerless and dreary than the arid stony soil chapped from drought of many years, where the sparse cactuses coated with brown dust were warped in places by the scorching dry winds, and the stunted shrubs were bristling with hooks of thorns.
    A growling sand-colored puma with bared fangs and bloodstained muzzle crouched in the hot shade of a shrub by the golden track.
    The beast was snarling at the three gaunt mangy wolves with short brown hair, which were going at a jogtrot, with downcast appearance, in a circle round the refuge of the predator and encroaching quite unambiguously on their part of the bloody prey agonizing in the clutches of the puma.
    A bare-necked loathsome griffin, stooping and wrapping itself in a frazzled muff of dirty white down, was sitting on a stone right in the sun, watching the ravening wolves and raising its dusty wings a little on every their approach. With boredom and impassivity, the grim vulture waited for the share due to it, and only sometimes, it shoved its scratched stinking beak under the wing to pick the bothering fleas out of its feathers.
    "Prey," she stared dumbfounded at the puma tearing somebody's gory flesh. "Who is the prey?"
    The Harmonis's lever pushed her slightly in the side.
    Fortunately, her disk was turning much slower than the golden, or else she would have flown headfirst down on those cactuses and thorns.
    She sprang to her feet, letting the girder pass by, and fell on the edge again.
    No, no, he was alive! He was unharmed--she spotted him!
    Reclining against a twisted squat cactus half-riven with a thunder stroke, he sprawled on the ground in the very heart of the sun-scorched prairie.
    His ragged clothes were all muddy and stained with clotted blood; the fell of unkempt greasy hair was glued to his glum ugly mug pitted with scabs; his matted villain's spade beard infested with lice, straws and crumbs of tobacco was sticking out like a dirty besom.
    He had changed--utterly and beyond recognition--but how could he change so quickly? No doubt, there was something else in that--an optical illusion or perhaps the distance...
    "Circles!" a guess crossed her mind. "The circles lie!"
    Of course, everything depended on the circles--on her sojourn upon that or this! Although from outside they were all of different colors and equally smooth, but the moment she stepped on one of them, she found herself within their measures--within the falsehood of their self-glorification and within their intolerance to the others, much worse and repulsively changing under a glance from outside.
    Moreover, all the time that she stayed on one of the records she entered involuntarily into its regulated movement in a circle and was subject to its harmful influence--to its blind self-idyll, causeless bitter hatred and deadly feud, to its fierce irreconcilability to all strangers and to its implicit belief in its own rightness-infallibility.
    "Then he, too, has a distorted picture like mine," she thought in passing. "Here's a pretty go...."
    The Hierarchius's lever was impending unstoppably--not losing sight of the zinc log wall, she was creeping back along the circular running track.
    "Thus he also sees me as the same abominable freak of nature?" it came to her head.
    "Hey!" she cried to him. "I am here!"
    Alas, he was deaf--stone-deaf to everything going on somewhere, not within his circle, the best of all.
    "Hey, look at me-e-e!"
    The dusky space absorbed her fading voice.
    Meanwhile, exposing his well-nourished shaggy physiognomy of a hardened thug to the invisible sun, he was indulging ostentatiously in thoughtless felicity there below, and marooned in the wilderness, he seemed to be in the seventh heaven.
    "You, sleepyhead!" she shouted to him once more.
    Before her lips closed, her revolving disk stopped dead.
    Anyhow, she had not enough time to run up to the saving observation ground at that end of the girder.
    The heavy zinc pile recoiled lightly from the disk and left her alone on her islet suspended in the gray space.


    The burning crater blew up a round prominence in the center of the grove, just out of the lake, whereupon a greenish retort, rising and enlarging, passed through the maiden clusters of young birches, laying its gauzy outlines on the ephemeral semi-transparent silhouettes of the slender boles and deciduous curls, though not a leaf nor a blade of grass reacted to it.
    "Sparks!" remembered she. "He is right under the point of contraction, so the sand will pour on him."
    She fell on the violet polish and looked down.
    The retort of the sandglass was luminous, and he rested with his head thrown back in the stream of fire by the lucent cactus shining like a show-window.
    Now three endless cries of some innocent martyrs blended over those crucibles of the radiant future, and the sparks of their excruciating torment poured down through the circles.
    The fiery grains, falling square in the lackluster eyes of his revoltingly complacent face and on his broad leather shoulders, were running down without rebounding like streaming rain enveloping him, and from his countenance, she drew an inference that he did not feel this burning shower.
    The sand ran out--the term of the present hub of the universe expired.
    The greenish glass funnel slipped upwards out of the lake, and the imperious hammer of the next rise displaced the disks, after which the zinc sickle of her lever flew up far above her head.
    The lever slid out of the slot and kissed the varicolored edges.
    The records recommenced their circular motion, but the green--now the uppermost of them--altered its course abruptly and resolutely and went with the motion after the pink, black, and her violet, while his golden opposed itself to the higher ones.
    There remained the azure ahead; therefore, if she wanted to get to his solitude, she had only one circle to take steps for this.
    True, as is known, easier said than done. Any jump down was fraught with hurting herself to death and amounted to suicide, yet without jumping....
    Wait... Let me see... Why did she know for a certainty that "to death"? The blow had tossed her up as though pressing the space between the disks. That is, had she ventured, jumping, to conform to this wave, then maybe....
    Well, say, she would hazard and smash up, even if so, he might have noticed her.
    Besides, irrespective of result, she used to confront peril dauntlessly and never quailed to put her future at stake, especially for his sake. In short, for want of anything better....
    The gray wall of the first lever passed past her.
    So let us assume that she misses and everything goes wrong....
    She looked into the smoking crater.
    Some enormous thick-lipped chink gaped in the space under the girders, now widening now narrowing like the gills of a fish cast ashore. With every breath, the reflections of the live coals smoldering below were flaming brighter and brighter on the overcast slopes.
    "Bellows," she classified the chink at first sight. "It is something like bellows--just as in a smithy. But where is it from?"
    That pot-bellied barrel greedily swallowing the Ocean leapt like a frog in her mind.
    "Gasteroid!" she called to memory. "It is the Gasteroid!"
    It turned out that in the unsunned space of this Erebus everything was meeting and revealing its inner meaning.
    "Careful!" she shrank from the next lever crawling to her. "Let it pass!"
    The hulking zinc wall dragged itself past her.
    "Aha, it is the Deliria!"
    The second mouth was like a Cupid's bow, as if offering itself to kiss, and it was puffing long tongues of flame upon the cloudy slope.
    "Look what a lighter! That blows, while this adds fuel to the fire."
    Backing under the pressure of the last pile, she was trying to embolden herself and screw up her courage before the imminent inevitability, but truth to tell, her fear was unamenable to her encouragement.
    The disks stopped, and the lever went into the slot.
    The point of the azure retort pierced the black circle brooding over her like the starless night sky.
    Immediately she lower her legs from the disk, slipped off the violet edge, and hung holding on it, faced the diaphanous cactus in the center of the prairie and with her back to the space.
    The sandglass got vacillating.
    Then four cries of children became one, and a fiery streamlet of sand ran down into the crater.
    "It's time." A cramp of fear seized her fingers. "Come on!"
    The lower retort dived up into a black pond of the upper disk, and she unclenched her fingers.
    A contrary blast threw her up above the very ground, which reduced the speed of her fall in some degree.
    She landed on both feet like a parachutist, as he taught her in former times, but even with all her devil's luck, she banged so hard that there was a ringing in her ears and a short crack of her neck vertebrae. In addition, she had hurt her soles with such a concussing landing.
    For all that, she instantly jumped up, because she had bailed out without parachute on the bushes with those roaring wild beasts, whose look boded no good for her.
    To her surprise, there were neither deformed cactuses nor prickly shrubbery about. She could not find the puma devouring that bleeding warm body, or the cowardly wolves, or the repulsive carrion-eagle hunching on the stone some time ago.
    Only a twittering yellow-breasted bird took wing from a mossy boulder, and three long-legged gray hares with the long ears pressed to their backs bolted through the dense blackberry-bushes, and a silvery small squirrel with a reddish spot on the end of its fluffy brush whisked up the trunk to the pine-branches.
    The former pine forest was breathing its resinous humid fragrances in her glowing face.
    The circle started--in the opposite direction.
    Despite the fact that the gigantic levers were going hither and thither, the direction of the disks' revolution were not undergoing changes. What had influence on them was their disposition as the shelves of this seven-tiered whatnot: the uppermost of them was always rotating "with" the general motion and the lowermost one "against".
    As regarded the circle with the pines, it had shifted by now to the very bottom of the spontaneously igniting, reeky crater. A danger might threaten them just from there, and she should have known the scale of the danger as far as possible.
    She leant over the edge of the disk.
    A huge club of some zinc universal poker lolling out of a gray curve of the pursed lips of the slope was stirring the increasing layer of cinders becoming now incandescent and red-hot now almost ashen and smoldering before a flash. The wreckage, debris, flinders, and splinters pouring through the wire nets of the three screens were mixing with the live coals and filling the furnace of crater like molten lava.
    "The Dissidentarium--it is just from there! Malice foments enmity and instigates all to explode."
    Yet her attention was attracted not by this smutty poker.
    Darkening to the slopes and flaring in the middle of the crater, the coals were forming a white-hot inscription licking the disk from below.
    "PLUTOS!" She could not watch it any longer--the flame nearly touched her hair. "Plutos... It sounds like something underground..."
    Meantime the Harmonis's girder was already pushing her off the edge, for the minute assigned to her had shortened by one third. The golden disk, slitting the gray grooves, was turning irreversibly to the next explosion.
    "Millstones," it occurred to her for some reason. "The circles are grinding what gets on their planes."
    With resolute step, she crossed the golden track and entered the forest.
    The space disappeared. The disks, levers and flame vanished, too, and even the revolution ceased.
    The lofty pines were waggling their dark-green branches above the rotten needles softly springing under her feet, and an intoxicating infusion of the air loaded with coniferous fresh was invigorating her heart with childish Christmas Eve's expectation.
    Naturally, she did not succumb to temptation to taste the blackberries. Checking due direction by the greenish moss of old mighty trunks, she wended her way to the heart of the thicket, to the very center of this area.
    Mending her pace, she swung along, now stumbling over big stones grown in earth now slipping on the rusty carpet of rot and needles upon the damp slopes of dingles now leaping over rills or wading rivulets from one wet pebble to another now surmounting empty bear lairs, deadfall, and dumps of dry snags and elk antlers.
    Forcing her way through the catching brake of blackthorn with bluish-dark mat sloes and walking like an equilibrist across fallen trees over the boggy gulches rank with filbert, burdocks, and nettles, without a respite she strode doggedly on and on, straight ahead, to succor him as ever....
    He was sitting on the brushwood of an anthill swarming with tiny toilers, reclining against the thick trunk of a centenarian cedar towering in its patriarchal seclusion above the clearing hiding in the bushes of dog rose.
    Apparently, he made a halt to have a short rest after his stroll, and settled down on this knoll, thoughtfully picking nuts out of a cone and admiring the ruddy hips. The fussily scurrying black ants seemed to take no notice of him, and as to this daydreamer, he took no heed of her.
    She peeped into his eyes--with musing absentmindedness, he continued to nibble his seeds.
    The blow that knocked the cone out of his hands brought him round.
    "Ah," he pronounced touched, "you are here...."
    "Yes, we're again together." She licked the blood off a bleeding scratch on her forearm--a reminder of her thorny path. "We'll both blow up before long."
    He lisped something affirmative and went on humming his lullaby with a fatuous smile of dotage.
    "Hey, lad!" she flared up unexpectedly. "What's up? What do you think about?"
    "Eh?" he asked gawping at the heaven open only to him. "I'm thinking about--"
    Here he fell silent.
    She seized him by his jacket, and he slithered from the anthill submissively as a mattress.
    With the same otherworldly air, he shifted his vacant meek look to her, the look of an innocent calf going to the slaughter with all his credulity and raptures.
    "How grown-up you are," he mumbled with a whine in his voice.
    Then he put his palms under his head and curled up in a ball on the grass.
    "If anything I'm not grown-up," she averted her eyes. "I'm rather old..."
    A hot whirlwind flung up the branches of the pines.
    At once, the glow of a fire lit the impenetrable thick forest ominously from all sides. Against the sinister background of the violent blaze, the trunks and bushes grew black, and the sudden conflagration, broken out all around, hugged the clearing as an attacking bear.
    The spurts of flame showing from under the ground were entwining the bark of trees like festive golden-scarlet ribbons, and as soon as the bubbling resin caught fire, its tongues shot up to the kindling boughs with the needles crackling and curling in the fire running over the crowns, consuming the branches, and turning them into fiery brushes and whisks.
    The shriveling undergrowth was in flames; the shrubbery became disorderly tangles of fire; the cones were bursting with heat, spitting out sparks.
    Everything was burning, even the granite boulders cracking and subsiding molten in the beds of the boiling brooks. Everything was blazing, spluttering and collapsing in the sizzling roaring chaos. Everything was mixing into one rising wave of the incinerating fiery deluge flooding the woods from side to side and rolling on the patch of their clearing.
    The cedar was dying nearby like a moaning translucent hollow pillar of thin bark full of furious light, and the disheveled bonfire of anthill was rushing about at their feet.
    The grass was ablaze, too, but although they were standing up to their knees in this combustible grass, under the burning branches and melting resin, under flashes of the birds charring on the wing and of the squeaking squirrels broiling alive, nevertheless, for the time being they felt no heat.
    "It is scenery," remarked he all of a sudden.
    His face was assuming its usual expression, getting sharper and harder to the extent that he was beginning to realize what he saw.
    "Both the forest and the fire," he continued.
    With a sneer, he poked his fingers beyond the bounds of the clearing into the flame--and withdrew his hand covered with red blisters and black soot.
    Without doubt, the fire was real, and the conflagration was raging half a meter away from them, devouring the forest and every living thing indiscriminately with its omnivorous hell.
    This notwithstanding, it did not singe them here, in the very epicenter, since even the fire was invalid in this small circle of the verily-dead center.
    Their round patch seething with fiery scum was gradually lifting higher and higher, pulling a conical hill out of the thicket that was rolling down the slopes as a blazing jumble of crashing pines, spruces, bursting stones, and mortally squealing hares.
    The cedar, burnt down inside, also cracked and with a shake of its flaming crown toppled down as felled. It struck the ground, exploded with a parting salute of sparks, and rushed downhill, bouncing and falling to pieces.
    The sandglass was going up, hoisting them over their crumbling childhood.
    With his arm round her waist, he scowled at the evaporating illusion, slightly swinging his battered desk-lamp in the other hand.
    "It's burning," she whispered, gazing upon the collapsing miracle. "Everything is burning. All the life...."
    The past, becoming golden smoke and embers, was rolling down into the chasm before their eyes. Now only ashes were smoldering like a baked crust on the slopes, the black scaly ashes of their bygone happiness.
    The ground of elevation passed through the circle of the invisible narrowness and pulled the hill after itself.
    The running ashy surface of the slopes, following it, was expanding round the clearing like a widening black ring--the base of the upper retort was growing more and more.
    "We're approaching," he said to her in a low voice.
    She nestled her head against his shoulder.
    With his palm, he brushed off the thin coating of ashen dust powdered her hair. However, the dead threads of these gray locks were gleaming silver as before in her fluttering red mane.
    "There, there... What of it...." Very gently, he touched the lashes of her eyes suffused with tears, her wet cheek, and her lips that quivered on his touch. "Don't weep my girlie...."
    The clearing broke through the zinc walleye, which was above them like a restrictive ceiling during their ascent, and turned up over the uppermost azure disk.
    Again, they found themselves in the immovably wreathing, gray twilight of the Plutos. The growth of the retorts was up, and now the newborn upper stratum was on the point of proceeding to consolidate its position....


    On high, they beheld some ball enveloped in blue haze and suspended by three tight chains welded on to the upper ribs of the three zinc walls. These chains rather kept the ball from flying away, because it was in the air much higher than the levers.
    Since the globe was too far, while they had too little time to examine it, they had glimpsed only its haze. The next moment they scampered away over the crunching hot caked coals from the glowing patch to the remote pile of the girders, the flat top of which was at present just level with their heating pedestal.
    Unfortunately, the base of the sandglass hardly reached half the lower disk clad with the same ashes, already cold and gray, and here the site of fire ended with a precipice.
    There was nowhere to run further.
    Stumped by such a baffling problem, they began to bustle about on the brink, when, unexpectedly, the meter links of one of the chains fell heavily with a clank close by them.
    Almost touching them, the chain sagged low over the scorched base, and naturally, they jumped without hesitation onto it.
    The globe lost height and nearly dipped into the conical depression, which had arisen in the place of their hoist (just owing to the lowering the tension of the chains was relaxed).
    In the blue haze of the globe, they sighted some big half-open tulip-like buds with the white-pink, olive, brick red, yellow, chocolate-brown bodies of some little ones stirring inside.
    They watched the opening of those strange flowers for seven second at most.
    The glimmering socket of the blue orb recovering its sight suddenly belched a sheet of flame divided into five tongues--a burning five-fingered palm slapped the globe casually--and five flaming small bodies choking with a death-cry fell from the globe into the fire and shattered into sparks.
    The fiery sand slid down the slopes of the depression, and the black scabs of ashes glittered golden. The disk spread in a flash fully and became equal to the six others. Forthwith, a heavy blow of this coruscating cymbal knocked in all the disks a rank lower so that their renovated record would take the place of the azure.
    The charred globe recoiled upwards, and the taut chain flew up. The lever took the edges of the puff softly in the narrow jaws of grooves. The variegated carrousel went turning again.
    In stupefaction, they gazed at the globe enveloped anew in its protective sky-blue skin. That was what sprouted from the haze and flared up into the scattering sparks measuring off time!
    Burning in the blind rises of the intransigent circling, hostile worlds and immolating the best of its fruits for this remorseless self-admiration, a cloudless PLANET OF CHILDREN crucified by the soulless levers was hanging over them there, in the out-of-the-way corner of the godforsaken underground space.
    It was a stone's throw from them to the girder, and they were dead tired, but, of course, any return was out of the question. Their only way led upwards, and catching at the thick links, they crawled along the chain slightly sagging under them.
    Soon they could discern a hook fixed in the low pole and a massive ring put on the hook-- just to that ring the three zinc tethers converged.
    They also made out the sprouts shooting in the haze, and the green petals of those bursting buds falling apart like pink lobes.
    Then the gray links ended, and within the bounds of the globe, the chain was black and soot-covered, which indicated that they came in zone of fire.
    "Wait a bit, we haven't enough time." He was moving after her to ensure her safety as usual. "We must stop, or else we'll be burnt."
    She looked intently at the globe of planet.
    Only a few meters from them, within an open bud right above her, a curly-headed, dark-complexioned, snub-nosed baby with pink small palms and amazed blue big eyes was attempting to get up inside the cozy calyx. Pouting the thick lips, the baby was rising up on all fours and flopping down, turning the fair-haired head from side to side and standing up once more and again tumbling down into the cradle.
    "Damsel," she marked as if to herself. "Poor kiddy...."
    Her eyes were riveted on the moving spectacle, on the persistent chubby tot trying to rise to her feet, to her still feeble plump legs with infantile wrinkles of the ankles.
    "Later," he admonished her against an irretrievable step. "This is not the moment, time presses."
    Clutching at the lobe of the bud, the chit stood up and unclenched her small fists, rocking on the globe.
    Instantly, the very globe rocked as unsteadily as the pretty moppet did.
    Engaged in their sentimental observation, they had missed the point of the next stopping.
    The ashen-violet walleye was spreading over the stand of the records like a cap of a toadstool, and then all at once, the globe plunged down into the lit inky funnel and jerked their chain.
    Thrown down on his back, he had not grasped at the first instant what she meant to do.
    Bending on the border of the gray links and gazing at the doomed baby, she got up.
    "Come back!"
    He indeed had no time to prevent her from fulfilling her intent, and it was unlikely that she did intend to act just in such a way. It simply came out so--she was by chance near, and she could not but do what she did a second later.
    A second later, she stepped forward into the spurting fire, caught the falling crying infant, and fell aflame together with her into the crater.
    As if in slow motion shot, her burning hair flew up. Immediately, the flame licked off her flimsy sundress, and her shuddered flesh suddenly became a howling torch.
    Only after the two-voiced fiery comet struck against the glassy slope and exploded scattering into a cloud of sparks in the depth of the funnel, he understood what had happened to her.
    "What for?" he instinctively got angry at her action. "She should wait a minute...."
    Yet it was clear to him--why she did it, however indignantly he reproached her. He was quite aware that if he were in her place, he would have been incapable of waiting alike--even for one minute, even for some highest aims.
    Time after time, the torch of her blazing body with the motherly lifted hands catching the falling child was shooting up before his eyes. Awkwardly crooked, he looked blankly through the black links at the smooth violet surface of the sealed hollow.
    The disk started cheerfully on a journey in a circle--the globe sprang back to the sky.
    Here just now he saw her worn-out sandals and threadbare dress, her lissome back in the sunny flow of her red hair, and her smudgy scratched shins with two pine needles adhered to the left ankle. Only just, he could see her, living, on the narrow suspension bridge over the nether regions, and she was with him here, yes, she was, she still existed then, no more than a few seconds ago....
    He touched a miniature footprint that was a little blacker than the sooty links and rubbed off his smudged fingers against his jacket. Then he pushed the lamp in his bosom, as if it was an axe, and went along the swinging chain to the zinc hook of the globe.
    He felt neither fear nor fatigue --nothing but anguish and resolution.
    No, he did not take upon himself so much as to change this structure entirely or demolish its appalling interdependence, but anyway, he wanted to complete what he had begun.
    He was obliged to do his duty, for it was now the sole meaning of his broken life, which had also shattered into sparks and vanished forever together with her in the crater of compulsory self-immolation.
    "At least--something," he was repeating, seating himself on the black hook of two girths. "At least--something...."
    Thumping the charred metal with the cast-iron base of his lamp as with a sledgehammer, he was shaking the ring loose and knocking it off the hook, breaking the fused edges of the surfaces. The ring, grinding, was slowly slipping off, half-opening a gray zinc strip, but the tension of the chains was pulling it back.
    He was pushing and raising it a little, yet it did not shift farther than the bend. Were it not for his weight, it would not have moved at all: by that time, the globe hung lower than ever, and the zinc reins became much looser.
    He was to wait until the buds, coming out, made the globe still heavier with the burden of their lambs for offering and lowered it down to a certain critical point, and then he could try to throw off this yoke with its zinc mooring ropes and thus to free the marvelous planet.
    Were he lucky enough to accomplish his plan, he would have considered his mission performed, because all the rest would depend on the fire and on the very planet.
    Bestriding on the hook to make himself more comfortable, he dropped the lamp, and it, somersaulting, remained poised in mid-air over the black flat toadstool growing out of the disk.
    "At least--something," he muttered for the third time, groping for a foothold with his heels.
    The globe with newborn suckers went down--rather earlier than usually--to the conical hollow forming on the black walleye, and the hook almost lay upon its deepening bottom.
    Straightening himself, he pressed his hands against the loose ring and pushed it with all his might.
    The ring flew off with unexpected easiness, and his feet slid off, too. He turned quickly to clasp the hook and avoid diving into the igniting crater.
    The globe went up.
    A heavy bunch of the chains, falling, brought down the lamp and slashed the walleye with such strength that these fetters smashed the black ulcerated fungus and cut into the disks, breaking the splitting platters.
    "It seems I've succeeded..."
    Enlarging and getting bluer, the unhooked planet was rising into the fuliginous space.
    "Yes, it's a success..."
    The chains jerked the upper girders of the three levers.
    The enormous buildings of piles moved forward, lurching, and toppled down crumpling the warping brittle construction like three many-tone zinc skyscrapers, but as the omnipotent long conduits held them, they were falling very slowly and reluctantly.
    Soaring higher and higher, the Planet of Children was growing above him.
    The chains hewed its way through all the circles and lashed the glowing coals on the bottom of the crater.
    The pit spouted a burst of sparks at the collapsing worlds, and the flame instantaneously splashed on the cloudy slopes, spreading up over the smoking space of the Plutos.
    "Success!" he exclaimed silently. "I've gained a victory!"
    Now the girders, chains, disks, and pipes took fire likewise and were in the same dazzling sparkling flames, blazing as lifelessly and soundlessly as the total disastrous downfall was enduring and expanding....
    Shading the smoky firmament lit with white glow from below, the globe was ascending to the sky.
    Suddenly the planet bumped against the cope of heaven and strained, pressing in the space like a slowly ramming cannonball and rending its canopy until the cracking heavens burst at the seams.
    Throwing off the fiery claws of the celestial shell, the globe ripped the crust of the firmament and squeezed through the break outside.
    Again he harked to the sing of the wind and to the rave of the waves, and above his head, on the proudly flying globe, he could hear the multilingual clear voices of children choiring a merry carol about the sun and friendship that he once sang in his childhood.
    He was floating in the sky, and the perishing continent was writhing, blown up from inside, beneath him like a gigantic open wound of a flaming chasm.
    A dirty fur hat of the burst spurious cloudlet was trying panic-stricken to cock itself with a devil-may-care air on the crumbling lop-sided cliff, and the greenish glass guts of the wells, falling out of the disemboweled dungeons of the exposed voluntary Tartarus, were smashing into smithereens.
    The spluttering box-marble medley, mixing with bloody slobber, was slipping, sizzling, down into the volcanic entrails of the earth.
    Plowing the raging waves, the two steel serpents of tows were tugging both the wrinkled barrel of holey belly oozing its acridly fuming all-devouring juice and the tangle of clingy azure duckweed, noxious seaweeds, and poisonous slime.
    The graphite great block advancing on one side was trailing behind its towline as well, with its ramming bottom ahead and with the pettifogging violet midges floundering around in the net of the twisted metal cobweb.
    Going to pieces and choking with destruction, all the wreckage was crashing down into the fire-spitting yawning abyss of the hellish womb....
    The land receded--and the bosom of the immortal Ocean was heaving below as freely and boundlessly as from time immemorial.
    But now only sorrow froze bare in his soul, the cold bitter sorrow for his passed life ruined by him in those traps and wasted by him almost in vain--in obscurity and without response.
    Over there, he had squandered what he possessed before--and lost all, and it could not be helped.
    Looking at the seething billows rushing down into the subterranean infernal furnace, he echoed the lilt of the happy chorus huskily and inconsolably....
    Flooding the all-consuming underworld of the Plutos, the bubbling circle closed over it like an immense boiling saucer full of white steam.
    "That's all," he thought sadly. "For all that--it is a success."
    As if in answer to his rash statement, the buried space, erupting, disgorged a column of gushing flame out of the swirling steam, and the spout of the parting firework caught up the globe in less than no time.
    In a wink, a stunning hot stroke swept his burning body off the hook.
    At the last moment, through the scarlet scales before his eyes, he glimpsed the indistinct outlines of the abandoned exploded continent imprinted on the life-giving blue haze of the globe victoriously speeding to meet new life, and it was only slightly singed with the fire that had reduced him to ashes.
    Then, with his face to the open measureless space of the ringing stars where the singing planet saved by him was going away, he flew disembodied like a fiery meteor somewhere down, into the ominous black-purple mushroom cloud growing over the Ocean....


    Mrs. Choosy stirred on the ottoman and hardly parted her heavy eyelids.
    "Oh, my God..." she groaned, feeling her beaten body, which seemed to be broken to bits and pasted together anew, pieced like a China antique vase. "It seems I took a nap right in the sun..."
    The habitual after-dinner noise of the courtyard was coming through the open window of the cockloft, carrying the sultriness of the torrid midday in the room into the bargain.
    The ringing voices of the vociferous kids romping and squalling outdoors were yelling their nonsensical ditties, and some honest toiler was bawling shrilly at them disturbing the rest of respectable people in the deserved free day, promising to give them a good dressing-down.
    Some self-taught bard was strumming on his guitar rollickingly twanging in the summerhouse, and the domino players were pounding with their dice with might and main.
    Someone's walking dogs were yapping at those who teased them; someone's motorcycle was growling and snorting; someone's recorder was screaming ecstatically, and the sun was scorching.
    Besides, behind the door two shrewish termagants-neighbors quarreling for a washtub were abusing each other with tragic conviction.
    Yawning, Mrs. Choosy stretched herself and got her feet down from the ottoman.
    For some reason, the writing-table was not here at present, only its drawers with some disorderly scattered sheets of his verbose manuscripts lay piled upon the wet floor by the wardrobe.
    It looked as if he decided to tidy up his room in her presence.
    "I wonder how long was I basking in such a way?"
    Mrs. Choosy sleeked her innocently curled fringe that made her look much younger and glanced at her oblong gold wristwatch--a gift of her well-off husband.
    The minute hand was still in the same place, whereas the second had only just passed the seventh point.
    She flicked the glass with her polished crimson nail to make sure that her watch was in good repair, but it was going as before and told the right time.
    "Then when?" she rubbed her temples with her fingertips. "How could he have time to make such a mess?"
    There was a gleam of some dim recollection peeped out fierily through the fog in her brain stupid with sleep and heat. Apparently, something happened between her coming and her awakening on her former bride-bed, something that had awfully exhausted her--at any rate, she was tired out and in low spirits.
    It was a mistake to come here, and a big mistake! Again, he had driven her to despondency with the ravings of his "afflatus".
    How could any judicious woman deal with a man who was wont to turn all the life--all the real everyday life--into some wild allegories, sick fancies, symbols, nightmares, and arrant nonsense, in a word--into these mixed pages covered with his close writing?
    Her indignant glance passed cursorily over the reams of literary garbage, and she was up.
    At this point, she started seized with a strange presentiment and turned to the drawers.
    The page lying on top was also covered with the same script, except that the lines were red ("He always tries to be original!"), but not the color so struck her.
    At the foot of the page, she saw a flying ending of his new fantasy, and the still smoking words had burnt the sheet through:
    "...he flew disembodied like a fiery meteor somewhere down, into the ominous black-purple mushroom cloud growing over the Ocean...."
    Indeed, the last smoldering dot looked like a tiny mushroom.
    "Where's he after all?" she backed, as though she felt a touch of some eerie kismet.
    The desk lamp, battered and charred, rolled rattling to the door, and Mrs. Choosy found herself before her reflection in the dull mirror of the wardrobe.
    She grew older--oh, how much older!--during the seconds of her sleep.
    She was morose, she frowned, and she had bags under her eyes and wrinkles of suffering above the bridge of her nose and about her lips, chapped and indomitably compressed.
    Her well-groomed lovely face had lost the expression of contentment and placidity that so refreshed it and created her glamour, very seductively going with her light fashionable summer frock, her youth haircut, and her well-preserved waist.
    "What a mug!" Mrs. Choosy evaluated her air self-critically and instantly forgot both the sheet and the lamp. "Again he has spoiled all!"
    Slightly touching, she smoothed the knitted brows and the crow's feet appeared on her sulky weather-beaten physiognomy.
    Then she brought her face nearer to the mirror and was just going to start the massage, which she did every day, when a woman's cry rang out at the upper landing of the staircase by the entrance leading into the revived corridor.
    The cry was so loud and shrill that it pierced the familiar thunder of saucepans, knocking of hammers, rattle of plates, plashing of washes, hullabaloos of bickers-squabbles, hubbub of scolding-blubbers, and wails of heartfelt discordant singing blending into the terrible turmoil of the seething life on the outside.
    At once, dozens of hurriedly opening doors began to squeak-bang-question confusedly and disjointedly, and immediately, scores of hastening soles and heels ran stamping-pattering-shuffling-dragging their slippers past the door of his room.
    Mrs. Choosy left her forehead for a time and, burning with curiosity, set the door ajar.
    The inhabitants of the corridor bunched at the landing were talking fervently over some incident, shouting, gesticulating, and brandishing their spoons and forks.
    "Why on earth have they kicked up a row?" with displeasure thought Mrs. Choosy, preening before her entry.
    As soon as she stepped over the threshold, she slipped and all but flopped down into a dark puddle.
    "Shit!" In her haste, she never found time for looking under her feet. "What muck did they spill there?"
    She glowered down and stopped short.
    Slowly appearing on the silvery blade, some viscous scarlet drops were slipping down the foil that was stuck in the dirty floor.
    By now, the bloody perspiration hardly exuded, and the blade bled decreasingly, so that the fresh puddle of the thick wine of his imagination round the point no longer broadened, resembling a congratulatory lustrous heart pierced with an arrow of his dueling sword.
    A needle of that forgotten weird dream pricked Mrs. Choosy's heart sharply like a vague reminder, and the chilly deep of the beginning realization of her misgivings surged within her breast.
    "He... It is he... He was there, that's why he is absent in the room...."
    Taking no notice of the sticky footmarks, which her gold smart pumps were leaving, with a palpitating heart, Mrs. Choosy broke into a run down the deserted corridor.
    Crowding by the railings, the excited dwellers of the former "House of Actors" kept on disputing.
    Surrounded by the chattering slovenly women appareled in besmeared wet aprons and armed with greasy soup ladles, a surly, heavy-faced, portly uncle having salad sleeveless vest and violet trousers of a suit for weekend on was pointing somewhere up.
    By way of such a visual demonstration, he was explaining something edifyingly to a painted, tipsy, scrawny bimbo wrapped in a gaudy wine-colored dressing gown with dragons and to her scruffy, scraggy, snide companion dressed in shabby jeans and receiving all these tales with a disdainful grin glued on his sallow wry face.
    "There's a hole there! Lo!" the uncle was convincing stridently, poking his sausage-like forefinger up. "He'd fallen from above!"
    Like the others, she looked up and trepidation ran over her.
    A square of the skylight above the five-storied well gaped with the blue. The glazed roof was broken through.
    "O, horrible! O, horrible--," declaimed a snuffling maiden reeking of tobacco and wearing a warm white sweater and sunglasses with golden rims.
    From these familiar lines, Elizabeth Choosy had a sudden qualm, and her heart sank. She remembered.
    "Let me pass...." she murmured, taking a step forward.
    Not believing her revelation, she was pushing her way through the indignantly swearing crowd thronged all the landings and flights of the stairs.
    "Do let me pass!" she was begging mechanically again and again, elbowing.
    "Please... Please..." she was repeating, speeding to the banisters, while nobody held her--so terribly and sorrowfully was her pretty face distorted and so pitifully and suppliantly was her beseeching voice sounding.
    At length, she remembered.
    He was lying below--with the arms freely spread and with his face turned to the heaven.
    A festively vivid red nimbus was running slowly round his head over the cracked concrete floor, and the lapels of his leather jacket were still smoldering.
    And the two sky-blue stars of his fathomless inextinguishable pupils were shining on his charred incinerated face...
    Now she has remembered all.

    The End

    2005 Russia, 2017 Israel


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