Hermit and Six Toes: Part I

I am translating another story by Victor Pelevin, a Russian writer.  This is the one that put him on the map in the early 90’s.  It’s rather long, and divided into nine parts.  I will publish a part a day, as I finish them, over the course of the coming two weeks.
  May 10, 2004

“Get lost.”


“I said, get lost.  Let me observe in peace.”

“Observe what?”

“God, what an idiot…  The sun, okay?”

Six Toes lifted his eyes from the black soil strewn with food, wood chips and crushed peat and stared squinting upward.

“That’s right…” he agreed.  “We live, we exist—but what for?  It’s an eternal mystery.  And who ever could comprehend the thin filamentous essence of the luminaries?”

The stranger turned around and examined him with quizzical distaste.

“I’m Six Toes,” Six Toes introduced himself quickly.

“I’m Hermit,” the stranger replied.  “Is that what your socium believes?  The stuff about thin filamentous essence, I mean?”

“It’s not my socium anymore,” Six Toes said, then gave a sudden whistle.  “Wow!”

“What?” Hermit inquired with suspicion.

“There, look!  A new one!”


“That never happens at the center of the world.  Seeing three luminaries at once, I mean.”

Hermit gave a condescending snort.  “I once observed eleven of them simultaneously: one in the zenith and five in each epicycle.  It wasn’t around here, though.”

“Where was it then?”

Instead of answering, Hermit turned away and walked off.  He picked a morsel from the ground with his foot and started eating.  In the soft warm breeze the twin suns projected shimmering reflections on the grayish-green planes of the distant horizon.  The landscape was filled with such peace and melancholy that Hermit sank deep into his thoughts and was startled to notice Six Toes again.

“You still here?  What do you want?”

“Nothing.  Just to talk.”

“I guess you’re not too bright,” Hermit said.  “Why don’t you go back to the socium?  You’ve strayed pretty far out as it is.  Seriously, go on, now…”

He gestured in the direction of a narrow dirty yellow band that writhed and quivered slightly; it was hard to believe that this was what a huge clamoring crowd looked like from a distance.

“I’d be glad to,” Six Toes said, “except I’ve been banished.”

“Banished?  What for?  Politics?”

Six Toes nodded and scratched one foot with another.  Hermit glanced at his feet and shook his head.

“Are these real?”

“Yeah.  That why they got mad: we have the decisive stage coming up, they said, and you’ve got six toes on your feet.  You sure know how to pick your time, they said.”

“What’s this ‘decisive stage’ business?”

“No idea.  They look all frazzled, especially the Twenty Closest Ones.  God only knows what it’s about.  There’s a whole lot of running around and yelling.”

“I see,” Hermit said.  “The goal must be coming into focus, though, right?  Its contours getting clearer by the hour?”

“Yes,” Six Toes said, startled.  “How did you know?”

“I’ve seen about five of those ‘decisive stages’ already.  They get a different name each time.”

“How is that possible?” asked Six Toes.  “This is the fist time it’s happening.”

“Sure it is.  I’d like to see it happen for the second time!  But we’re talking about different things, I’m afraid.”

Hermit chuckled, then took a couple of steps towards the distant socium, turned his back on it and began to scrape his feet forcefully across the ground.  Before long a cloud consisting of bits of food, sawdust and sand spread behind his back.  During this strange ritual he would glance back, flap his arms and mumble something unintelligible.

“What was that for?” Six Toes asked with a trace of fear in his voice when Hermit came back, panting.

“That was a gesture,” Hermit replied.  “It’s a form of art.  You recite a poem and then execute the corresponding action.”

“What poem did you recite?”

“This one,” Hermit said.

Sometimes I grieve
looking at those I have left.
Sometimes I laugh
and then a cloud of yellow
fog rises between us.

“That’s no poem,” protested Six Toes.  “I know all the poems; maybe not by heart but at least I’ve heard all twenty five of them.  I’m sure this one wasn’t among them.”

Hermit gave him a puzzled look.  Then he seemed to understand.

“Do you remember at least one?” he said.  “Could you recite it?”

“Sure.  Twins…  Twins…  Agh, well, it’s like, we say one thing but we mean another—that’s how it goes.  And then again we say one thing but mean another, only the other way around.1  It comes out real pretty.  And then finally we look at the wall, and on the wall…”

“That’s enough,” Hermit said.

They fell silent.

“Hey, were you banished, too?” said Six Toes finally.

“No.  I banished them, the whole lot.”

“Can you do that?”

“You can do all sorts of different things,” said Hermit.  Then he added briskly, looking at one of the heavenly bodies: “It’ll get dark soon.”

“Are you pulling my leg?” Six Toes said.  “Nobody knows when it’ll get dark.”

“I do.  If you want to sleep in peace, do as I show you.”

Hermit started to gather together the various piles of detritus, wood chips and peat crumbs strewn on the ground.  Gradually he fashioned a wall whose height matched his own, enclosing a small empty space.  He stepped away from his work, gazed at it lovingly and said:  “That’s what I call the refuge of the soul.”

“Why?” Six Toes asked.

“No reason.  It just sounds nice.  You gonna build one for yourself?”

Six Toes began to struggle with the dirt.  He fared poorly; his wall kept crumbling down.  In truth, he put little effort into his work because he did not believe Hermit’s prediction of the coming darkness one bit.  When the heavenly lights flickered and started slowly to fade out, when a quiet communal gasp of horror arose from the distant socium like wind rustling in a haystack, he was gripped by two overwhelming emotions.  One was the usual fear of the suddenly advancing darkness.  The other was a hitherto unknown admiration of someone who knew more about the world than he did.

“All right,” said Hermit, “jump in.  I’ll build another one.”

“I don’t know how to jump,” Six Toes confessed timidly.

“So long then,” Hermit said and abruptly pushed off the ground.  He soared and disappeared behind the wall.  The entire structure came down on him, forming an even cover of sawdust and peat.  The resulting hillock stirred for some time; then a small aperture opened in its side—Six Toes caught a glimpse of Hermit’s glinting eye inside it—and total darkness fell.

Naturally, for as long as he could remember Six Toes knew everything one needed to know about the night.  “It is a natural process,” said some.  “We must keep working,” insisted others, who formed the majority.  Many varying opinions existed on the subject, yet the actual outcome was invariably the same: whenever the light went out for no apparent reason, everyone would struggle briefly and hopelessly with the paroxysms of fear and then go into a stupor.  When they came to (after the luminaries shone again), no one remembered much.  This happened to Six Toes, too, when he lived with the socium.  But now he could not disappear into the safety of the usual coma, probably because the dread of the spreading dark merged in him with an equally frantic fear of being alone and thus doubled in strength.  The distant communal groan had died away yet he still sat by the hillock and heaved quiet sobs.  It was pitch black.  When the voice of Hermit sounded out of the darkness, Six Toes soiled himself with fright.

“Quit sniveling,” Hermit said.  “I’m trying to sleep here.”

“I can’t,” Six Toes replied in a low voice.  “It’s my heart.  Talk to me, will you?”

“What about?”

“Anything.  Just keep talking.”

“Okay, how about the nature of fear?”

“No!” Six Toes squealed.

“Quiet!” hissed Hermit.  “You’ll attract the rats.”

“What rats?  What’s ‘rats’?” asked Six Toes, feeling a chill run through him.

“They are creatures of the night.  Actually, they’re around in the daytime, too.”

“I have such bad luck in life,” whispered Six Toes.  “If only I had the right number of toes I’d be sleeping together with all the rest now.  God, I’m so scared…  Rats…”

“Listen,” said Hermit, “you keep mentioning God… do you guys believe in some deity or something?”

“Who knows…  Something like that definitely exists.  But nobody knows what it is.  Take the lights, for instance—why does it ever get dark?  Of course, one could explain it with natural causes.  Start thinking about God and you’ll end up accomplishing nothing in life.”

“What, pray tell, can one accomplish in life?” Hermit asked.

“What do you mean?  Don’t ask stupid questions; you know the answer just as well as I do.  Everyone tries to get as close to the feeder as he can manage.  That’s the law of life.”

“I see.  Then what’s the purpose of it all?”

“What’s ‘all’?”

“You know…  The universe, the sky, the earth, the luminaries—everything.”

“Are you daft?  That’s the way the world works.”

“Just how does it work?”  Hermit sounded intrigued.

“It works the way it works.  We move through space and time, in accordance with the laws of life.”

“And where are we headed?”

“How should I know?  It’s an eternal mystery.  Boy, you really can drive a guy nuts!”

“No, you can drive a guy nuts!  Everything’s either a law of life or an eternal mystery with you.”

“If you don’t like it, then don’t talk about it,” Six Toes retorted, hurt.

“I won’t.  But you’re the one who’s scared to sit quietly in the dark.”

Six Toes completely forgot about that.  He examined his feelings and discovered that he no longer felt any fear.  That frightened him so much that he jumped to his feet and ran blindly off into the night until his head banged painfully on the Wall of the World, lurked in the treacherous darkness.

Hermit’s guffaws traveled shrill from a distance.  Six Toes made his way gingerly back towards those sounds, singular in the universal dark and silence.  He reached the hillock where Hermit lay, lowered himself wordlessly to the ground and tried to sleep despite the cold.  The moment he succeeded escaped him.


1 The story takes place in the USSR during communism.  This is a reference to a well-known stanza from the poem Vladimir Ilyich Lenin by the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky:

Lenin and the Party are like twin brothers:
Which one is the dearer to Mother History?
We say “Lenin” and we mean the Party,
We say “The Party” and we mean Lenin.

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