Home > Twilight Watch (Watch #3)(17)

Twilight Watch (Watch #3)(17)
Author: Sergei Lukyanenko

But then, the middle class in Russia isn't very big.

In any case, the profession of biology teacher, even in a prestigious Moscow grammar school, has nothing whatsoever to do with the middle class. And if the teacher is female, if her swine of a husband left her three years ago for another woman who has absolutely no intention of encroaching on the mother's right to bring up her two children, then Turkish hotels are no more than an idle fantasy.

It was a good thing the children had not yet reached the terrible teenage years and were genuinely delighted by the old dacha, the little stream and the forest that started just at the back of the fence.

What was not so good was the way the elder child, a daughter, took her senior status so seriously. At the age of ten you can be pretty good at keeping an eye on your little five-year-old brother splashing about in the stream, but there's no way you ought to go wandering deep into the forest with him, relying on the knowledge you've gleaned from the Nature Studies textbook.

However, ten-year-old Oksana had no idea that they were lost yet. She walked blithely on along the forest path that she could barely even make out, holding her brother tightly by the hand as she told him a story.

"And then they hammered more pine stakes through him. They hammered one stake into his forehead, and another into his stomach! But he got up out of his coffin and said, 'You can't kill me anyway. I've been dead for a long time already. My name is...'"

Her brother started whining quietly.

"All right, all right, I was joking," Ksyusha said seriously. "He fell down and died. They buried him and went off to celebrate."

"I'm f-f-frightened Ksyusha," Romka confessed. He wasn't stammering because he was afraid, though - he always stammered. "Don't t-tell me any m-m-more, all right?"

"All right," said Ksyusha, looking around. She could still see the path behind them, but ahead it was completely lost under the fallen pine needles and rotting leaves. The forest had suddenly become gloomy and menacing. Nothing at all like it was near the village where their mother had rented their summer dacha, an old house that no one lived in anymore. They'd better turn back, before it was too late. As a caring older sister, Ksyusha realized that. "Let's go home, or Mom will give us a scolding."

"A doggy," her brother said suddenly. "Look, a doggy!"

Ksyusha turned around.

There really was a dog standing behind her. A large, gray dog with big teeth, looking at her with its mouth open - just as if it were smiling.

"I want a doggy like that," Romka said without stumbling over the words at all and looked at his sister proudly.

Ksyusha was a city girl and she'd only ever seen wolves in pictures. And in the zoo as well, only they were some rare kind of Sumatran wolves...

But now she suddenly felt afraid.

"Let's go, let's go," she said in a quiet voice, tightening her grip on Romka's hand. "It's someone else's doggy, you can't play with it."

Something in her voice must have frightened her brother, frightened him so badly that instead of complaining, he clutched his sister's hand even tighter and followed her without a murmur.

The gray doggy stood still for moment, and then set off after the children at a slow, deliberate walk.

"It's f-following us," said Romka, looking back. "Ksyukha, is it a w-wolf?"

"It's a doggy," said Ksyusha. "Only don't run, okay? Wolves bite people who run."

The doggy made a sound like a cough - as if it were laughing.

"Run!" shouted Ksyusha. They set off at random, forcing their way through the forest, through the prickly bushes that grasped at them, past an incredibly huge anthill as tall as a grown-up, past a row of moss-covered tree-stumps where someone had once cut down ten trees and dragged them away.

The dog kept disappearing and appearing again. Behind them, on the right, on the left. And every now and then it made a noise like a cough... or a laugh.

"It's laughing," Romka shouted through his tears.

The dog disappeared. Ksyusha stopped beside an immense pine tree, clutching Romka tight against her. Her little brother had rejected any sissy stuff like that a long time ago, but this time he didn't struggle, just pressed his back against his sister, put his hands over his eyes in fear, and repeated quietly over and over again, "I'm n-not afraid, I'm n-not afraid. There's no one there."

"There's no one there," Ksyusha confirmed. "And you stop that whining. The wol... the doggy had puppies here. She was just driving us away from her puppies. All right? We're going home now."

"Let's go!" Romka agreed happily and moved his hands away from his eyes. "Oh, the puppies!"

His fear disappeared instantly the moment he saw the puppies coming out of the bushes. There were three of them - gray with big foreheads and foolish eyes.

"P-puppies..." Romka exclaimed in delight.

Ksyusha jerked to one side in panic. The pine she was standing against wouldn't let her go - her little calico dress was stuck to the resin on its bark. Ksyusha tugged harder and the cloth tore with a crack and came unstuck.

And she saw the wolf. The wolf was standing behind her, smiling.

"We have to climb up the tree..." Ksyusha whispered.

The wolf laughed.

"Does she want us to play with the puppies?" Romka asked hopefully.

The wolf shook its gray head with the dark patches. As if it were answering: No, no. I want the puppies to play with you...

And then Ksyusha started shouting - so loudly and piercingly that even the wolf took a step backward and wrinkled up its gray muzzle.

"Go away, go away!" Ksyusha shouted, forgetting that she was already a big, brave girl.

"Don't shout like that," she heard a voice say behind her. "You've woken up the entire forest..."

The children turned around with renewed hope. Standing beside the pups was a grown-up woman - a beautiful woman with black hair, barefoot, and wearing a long linen dress.

The wolf growled menacingly.

"Don't be silly," said the woman. She leaned down and picked up one of the pups - it dangled limply in her hands, as if it had fallen asleep. The other two froze on the spot, too. "Now who do we have here?"

Paying no more attention to the children, the wolf moved sullenly toward the woman.

Dense wolf's thickets dark with fear, There's no way you can hide in here...the woman chanted. The wolf stopped.

The truth and lie I both can see, Now, who do you look like to me?

... the woman concluded, looking at the wolf.

The wolf bared its teeth.

"Ah-ah-ah..." said the woman. "Now what are we going to do?"

"Go... a... way," the wolf barked. "Go... a... way... witch."

The woman dropped the wolf cub on the soft moss. As if they had suddenly woken from a trance, the pups dashed across to the wolf in panic and jostled under its belly.

Three blades of grass, a birch-bark strip, And one wolfberry from a branch, A drop of blood, of tears a drip, And skin of goat, of hair a lock: I have mixed them in my crock, Brewed my potion in advance...

The wolf began backing away, with the pups following.

You have no strength, you have no chance, My spell will pierce you like a lance

... the woman declared triumphantly.

Then four gray bolts of lightning - one large and three small -  seemed to flash from the clearing into the bushes. Tufts of gray fur and shreds of skin were left swirling in the air. And there was a sudden sharp smell - as if a whole pack of dogs were standing there, drying off after the rain.

"Lady, are y-you a w-witch?" Romka asked in a low voice.

The woman laughed. She walked up to them and took them by the hand. "Come along."

The hut wasn't standing on chicken legs, like the one in the fairytale, and Romka was disappointed. It was a perfectly ordinary little log house with small windows and a tiny porch.

"Have you got a b-bathhouse here?" Romka asked, turning his head this way and that.

"Why do you want a bathhouse?" the woman laughed. "Do you want to get washed?"

"F-first of all you have to heat up the b-bathhouse really hot, then f-feed us, before you can eat us," Romka said seriously.

Ksyusha tugged on his hand, but the woman didn't take offense - she laughed.

"I think you're confusing me with Baba Yaga, aren't you? Do you mind if I don't heat up the bathhouse? I haven't got one anyway. And I'm not going to eat you."

"No, I don't mind," Romka said, relieved.

The inside of the house didn't look like a place any self-respecting Baba Yaga could live either. There was a clock with dangling weights ticking on the whitewashed wall, a beautiful chandelier with velvet tassels on the ceiling, and a little Philips television standing on a shaky dresser. There was a Russian stove too, but it was heaped up with all sorts of clutter, and there could be no doubt that it was a very long time since any bold young heroes or little children had been roasted in it. The only thing with a respectable and mysterious look to it was a large bookcase full of old books. Ksyusha went over to the bookcase and looked at the spines of the books. Her mom had always told her that the first thing a cultured person should do in someone else's apartment was to look at her host's books, and then at everything else.

But the books were worn and she could hardly make out the titles, and she didn't understand even the ones she could read, although they were all in Russian. Her mom had books like that too: Helminthology, Ethnogenesis... Ksyusha sighed and walked away from the bookshelf.

Romka was already sitting at the table and the witch was pouring hot water out of a white electric kettle into his cup.

"Would you like a cup of tea?" she asked in a kind voice. "It's good, made from forest herbs..."

"It is g-good," Romka confirmed, although he was more concerned with dipping hard little bread rings into honey than drinking his tea. "S-sit down, Ksyusha."

Ksyusha sat down and politely accepted a cup.

The tea really was good. The witch drank some herself, smiling and looking at the children.

"Are we going to turn into little goats when we've drunk our tea?" Romka suddenly asked.

"Why?" the witch asked in surprise.

"Because you'll put a spell on us," Romka explained. "You'll turn us into little goats and eat us up."

He clearly did not trust the mysterious rescuer completely yet.

"Now, why would I want to turn you into smelly little goats and then eat you?" the witch asked indignantly. "If I wanted to eat you, I'd eat you as you are, without turning you into anything else. You shouldn't watch so many of Row's fairytales, little boy!"

Romka pouted sulkily, nudged Ksyusha with his foot and asked in a whisper, "Who's Row?"

Ksyusha didn't know and she hissed, "Drink your tea and be quiet! Some wizard or other..."

They didn't turn into little goats, the tea tasted good, and the bread rings and honey tasted even better. The witch asked Ksyusha all about how she was doing in school. She agreed that fourth grade was absolutely terrible, not like third grade at all. She scolded Romka for slurping when he drank his tea. She asked Ksyusha how long her brother had had a stammer. And then she told them she wasn't a witch at all. She was a botanist. She collected all sorts of rare herbs in the forest. And, of course, she knew which herbs the wolves were terribly afraid of.

"But why did the wolf talk?" Romka asked doubtfully.

"It didn't talk at all," the botanist-witch retorted. "It barked, and you thought it was talking. Isn't that right?"

Ksyusha thought about it and decided that was the way it had really been.

"I'll show you to the edge of the forest," said the woman. "You can see the village from there. And don't come into the forest anymore, or else the wolves will eat you."

Romka thought for a moment and then offered to help her gather herbs, only she would have to give him a special herb to keep the wolves away so they wouldn't eat him. And one to keep bears away, just in case. And she could give him one to keep lions away too, because the forest here was just like in Africa.

"No herbs for you," the woman said strictly. "They're very rare herbs, in the Red Book of threatened species. You can't just go pulling them up."

"I know about the Red Book," Romka said, delighted. "Tell me, please..."

The woman looked at the clock and shook her head. Well-mannered Ksyusha immediately said it was time to go.

Each of the children received a piece of honeycomb to take with them. The woman showed them to the edge of the forest-it turned out to be really close, the paths seemed to run under their feet.

"And don't you set foot in the forest again," the woman repeated strictly. "If I'm not there the wolf will eat you."

As they went down the hill toward the village, the children looked back several times.

At first the woman was standing there, watching them walk away. But then she disappeared.

"She is a witch really, isn't she, Ksyusha?" Romka asked.

"She's a botanist!" Ksyusha said, taking the woman's side. Then she exclaimed in surprise: "You're not stammering any more!"

"I am stam-stam-stammering!" said Romka, playing the fool. "I didn't really need to stammer before, I was just joking!"

Chapter 1

WHERE DO WE GET THE IDEA THAT MILK STRAIGHT FROM THE COW TASTES good?

It must be something we do in first grade. Some memorable phrase from the textbook Our Native Tongue, about how wonderfully tasty milk is straight from the cow. And the naive city kids believe it.

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