Professor Persikov visits “Red Ray” State Farm and assists in creating huge hens. The experiment however spirals out of control… More exciting details to follow in Chapter VIII. Enjoy the read!
CHAPTER VIII. The Incident at the State Farm
There is no better time of the year than mid-August in Smolensk Province, say. The summer of 1928 was a splendid one, as we all know, with rains just at the right time in spring, a full hot sun, and a splendid harvest… The apples on the former Sheremetev family estate were ripening, the forests were a lush green and the fields were squares of rich yellow… Man becomes nobler in the lap of nature. Alexander Se-myonovich too did not seem quite as unpleasant as in the town. And he wasn’t wearing that revolting jacket. His face had a bronze tan, the unbuttoned calico shirt revealed a chest thickly covered with black hair. He had canvas trousers on. And his eyes were calmer and kinder.
Alexander Semyonovich trotted excitedly down the colon-naded porch, which sported a notice with the words “Red Ray State Farm” under a star, and went straight to the truck that had just brought the three black chambers under escort.
All day Alexander Semyonovich worked hard with his assistants setting up the chambers in the former winter garden, the Sheremetevs’ conservatory. By evening all was ready. A white frosted arc lamp shone under the glass roof, the chambers were set up on bricks and, after much tapping and turning of shining knobs, the mechanic who had come with the chambers produced the mysterious red ray on the asbestos floor in the black crates.
Alexander Semyonovich bustled about, climbing up the ladder himself and checking the wiring.
The next day the same truck came back from the station and spat out three boxes of magnificent smooth plywood stuck all over with labels and white notices on a black background that read:
“Eggs. Handle with care!”
“Why have they sent so few?” Alexander Semyonovich exclaimed in surprise and set about unpacking the eggs at once. The unpacking also took place in the conservatory with the participation of the following: Alexander Semyonovich himself, his unusually plump wife Manya, the one-eyed former gardener of the former Sheremetevs, who now worked for the state farm in the universal post of watchman, the guard doomed to live on the state farm, and the cleaning girl Dunya. It was not Moscow, and everything here was simpler, more friendly and more homely. Alexander Semyonovich gave the instructions, glancing avidly from time to time at the boxes which lay like some rich present under the gentle sunset glow from the upper panes in the conservatory. The guard, his rifle dozing peacefully by the door, was ripping open the braces and metal bands with a pair of pliers. There was a sound of cracking wood. Clouds of dust rose up. Alexander Semyonovich padded around in his sandals, fussing by the boxes.
“Gently does it,” he said to the guard. “Be careful. Can’t you see it’s eggs?”
“Don’t worry,” croaked the provincial warrior, bashing away happily. “Won’t be a minute…”
Wrr-ench. Down came another shower of dust.
The eggs were beautifully packed: first came sheets of waxed paper under the wooden top, next some blotting paper, then a thick layer of wood shavings and finally the sawdust in which the white egg-tops nestled.
“Foreign packing,” said Alexander Semyonovich lovingly, rummaging around in the sawdust. “Not the way we do it. Careful, Manya, or you’ll break them.”
“Have you gone daft, Alexander Semyonovich,” replied his wife. “What’s so special about this lot? Think I’ve never seen eggs before? Oh, what big ones!”
“Foreign,” said Alexander Semyonovich, laying the eggs out on the wooden table. “Not like our poor old peasant eggs. Bet they’re all brahmaputras, the devil take them! German…”
“I should say so,” the guard agreed, admitting the eggs.
“Only why are they so dirty?” Alexander Semyonovich mused thoughtfully. “Keep an eye on things, Manya. Tell them to go on unloading. I’m going off to make a phone call.”
And Alexander Semyonovich went to use the telephone in the farm office across the yard.
That evening the phone rang in the laboratory at the Zoological Institute. Professor Persikov tousled his hair and went to answer it.
“Yes?” he asked.
“There’s a call for you from the provinces,” a female voice hissed quietly down the receiver.
“Well, put it through then,” said Persikov disdainfully into the black mouthpiece. After a bit of crackling a far-off male voice asked anxiously in his ear:
“Should the eggs be washed. Professor?”
“What’s that? What? What did you say?” snapped Persikov irritably. “Where are you speaking from?”
“Nikolskoye, Smolensk Province,” the receiver replied.
“Don’t understand. Never heard of it. Who’s that speaking?”
“Feight,” the receiver said sternly.
“What Feight? Ah, yes. It’s you. What did you want to know?”
“Whether to wash them. They’ve sent a batch of chicken eggs from abroad…”
“But they’re all mucky…”
“You must be wrong. How can they be ‘mucky’, as you put it? Well, of course, maybe a few, er, droppings got stuck to them, or something of the sort.”
“So what about washing them?”
“No need at all, of course. Why, are you putting the eggs into the chambers already?”
“Yes, I am,” the receiver replied.
“Hm,” Persikov grunted.
“So long,” the receiver clattered and fell silent.
“So long,” Persikov repeated distastefully to Decent Ivanov. “How do you like that character, Pyotr Stepanovich?”
“So it was him, was it? I can imagine what he’ll concoct out of those eggs.”
“Ye-e-es,” Persikov began maliciously. “Just think, Pyotr Stepanovich. Well, of course, it’s highly possible that the ray will have the same effect on the deuteroplasma of a chicken egg as on the plasma of amphibians. It is also highly possible that he will hatch out chickens. But neither you nor I can say precisely what sort of chickens they will be. They may be of no earthly use to anyone. They may die after a day or two. Or they may be inedible. And can I even guarantee that they’ll be able to stand up. Perhaps they’ll have brittle bones.” Persikov got excited, waved his hand and crooked his fingers.
“Quite so,” Ivanov agreed.
“Can you guarantee, Pyotr Stepanovich, that they will be able to reproduce? Perhaps that character will hatch out sterile chickens. He’ll make them as big as a dog, and they won’t have any chicks until kingdom come.”
“Precisely,” Ivanov agreed.
“And such nonchalance,” Persikov was working himself into a fury. “Such perkiness! And kindly note that I was asked to instruct that scoundrel.” Persikov pointed to the warrant delivered by Feight (which was lying on the experimental table). “But how am I to instruct that ignoramus when I myself can say nothing about the question?”
“Couldn’t you have refused?” asked Ivanov.
Persikov turned purple, snatched up the warrant and showed it to Ivanov who read it and gave an ironic smile.
“Yes, I see,” he said significantly.
“And kindly note also that I’ve been expecting my shipment for two months, and there’s still no sign of it. But that rascal got his eggs straightaway and all sorts of assistance.”
“It won’t do him any good, Vladimir Ipatych. In the end they’ll just give you back your chambers.”
“Well, let’s hope it’s soon, because they’re holding up my experiments.”
“Yes, that’s dreadful. I’ve got everything ready.”
“Has the protective clothing arrived?”
Persikov was somewhat reassured by this and brightened up.
“Then I think we’ll proceed like this. We can close the doors of the operating-room tight and open up the windows.”
“Of course,” Ivanov agreed.
“Well then, that’s you and me, and we’ll ask one of the students. He can have the third helmet.”
“Grinmut would do.”
“That’s the one you’ve got working on salamanders, isn’t it? Hm, he’s not bad, but, if you don’t mind my saying so, last spring he didn’t know the difference between a Pseudotyphlops and a Platyplecturus,” Persikov added with rancour.
“But he’s not bad. He’s a good student,” Ivanov defended him.
“We’ll have to go without sleep completely for one night,” Persikov went on. “Only you must check the gas, Pyotr Stepanovich. The devil only knows what it’s like. That Volunteer-Chem lot might send us some rubbish.”
“No, no,” Ivanov waved his hands. “I tested it yesterday. You must give them some credit, Vladimir Ipatych, the gas is excellent.”
“What did you try it on?”
“Some common toads. You just spray them with it and they die instantly. And another thing, Vladimir Ipatych. Write and ask the GPU to send you an electric revolver.”
“But I don’t know how to use it.”
“I’ll see to that,” Ivanov replied. “We tried one out on the Klyazma, just for fun. There was a GPU chap living next to me. It’s a wonderful thing. And incredibly efficient. Kills outright at a hundred paces without making a sound. We were shooting ravens. I don’t even think we’ll need the gas.”
“Hm, that’s a bright idea. Very bright.” Persikov went into the comer, lifted the receiver and barked:
“Give me that, what’s it called, Lubyanka.”
The weather was unusually hot. You could see the rich transparent heat shimmering over the fields. But the nights were wonderful, green and deceptive. The moon made the former estate of the Sheremetevs look too beautiful for words. The palace-cum-state farm glistened as if it were made of sugar, shadows quivered in the park, and the ponds had two different halves, one a slanting column of light, the other fathomless darkness. In the patches of moonlight you could easily read Izvestia, except for the chess section which was in small nonpareil. But on nights like these no one read Izvestia, of course. Dunya the cleaner was in the woods behind the state farm and as coincidence would have it, the ginger-moustached driver of the farm’s battered truck happened to be there too. What they were doing there no one knows. They were sheltering in the unreliable shade of an elm tree, on the driver leather coat which was spread out on the ground. A lamp shone in the kitchen, where the two market-gardeners were having supper, – and Madame Feight was sitting in a white neglige on the columned veranda, gazing at the beautiful moon and dreaming.
At ten o’clock in the evening when the sounds had died down in the village of Kontsovka behind the state farm, the idyllic landscape was filled with the charming gentle playing of a flute. This fitted in with the groves and former columns of the Sheremetev palace more than words can say. In the duet the voice of the delicate Liza from The Queen of Spades blended with that of the passionate Polina and soared up into. the moonlit heights like a vision of the old and yet infinitely dear, heartbreakingly entrancing regime.
Do fade away… Fade away…
piped the flute, trilling and sighing.
The copses were hushed, and Dunya, fatal as a wood nymph, listened, her cheek pressed against the rough, ginger and manly cheek of the driver.
“He don’t play bad, the bastard,” said the driver, putting a manly arm round Dunya’s waist.
The flute was being played by none other than the manager of the state farm himself, Alexander Semyonovich Feight, who, to do him justice, was playing it beautifully. The fact of the matter was that Alexander Semyonovich had once specialised in the flute. Right up to 1917 he had played in the well-known concert ensemble of the maestro Petukhov, filling the foyer of the cosy little Magic Dreams cinema in the town of Yekaterinoslav with its sweet notes every evening. But the great year of 1917, which broke the careers of so many, had swept Alexander Semyonovich onto a new path too. He left the Magic Dreams and the dusty star-spangled satin of its foyer to plunge into the open sea of war and revolution, exchanging his flute for a death-dealing Mauser. For a long time he was tossed about on waves which washed him ashore, now in the Crimea, now in Moscow, now in Turkestan, and even in Vladivostok. It needed the revolution for Alexander Semyonovich to realise his full potential. It turned out that here was a truly great man, who should not be allowed to waste his talents in the foyer of Magic Dreams, of course. Without going into unnecessary detail, we shall merely say that the year before, 1927, and the beginning of 1928 had found Alexander Semyonovich in Turkestan where he first edited a big newspaper and then, as a local member of the Supreme Economic Commission, became renowned for his remarkable contribution to the irrigation of Turkestan. In 1928 Feight came to Moscow and received some well-deserved leave. The Supreme Commission of the organisation, whose membership card this provincially old-fashioned man carried with honour in his pocket, appreciated his qualities and appointed him to a quiet and honorary post. Alas and alack! To the great misfortune of the Republic, Alexander Semyonovich’s seething brain did not quieten down. In Moscow Feight learned of Persikov’s discovery, and in the rooms of Red Paris in Tverskaya Street Alexander Semyonovich had the brainwave of using the ray to restore the Republic’s poultry in a month. The Animal Husbandry Commission listened to what he had to say, agreed with him, and Feight took his warrant to the eccentric scientist.
The concert over the glassy waters, the grove and the park was drawing to a close, when something happened to cut it short. The dogs in Kontsovka, who Should have been fast asleep by then, suddenly set up a frenzied barking, which gradually turned into an excruciating general howl. The howl swelled up, drifting over the fields, and was answered by a high-pitched concert from the million frogs on the ponds. All this was so ghastly, that for a moment the mysterious enchanted night seemed to fade away.
Alexander Semyonovich put down his flute and went onto the veranda.
“Hear that, Manya? It’s those blasted dogs… What do you think set them off like that?”
“How should I know?” she replied, gazing at the moon.
“Hey, Manya, let’s go and take a look at the eggs,” Alexander Semyonovich suggested.
“For goodness sake, Alexander Semyonovich. You’re darned crazy about those eggs and chickens. Have a rest for a bit.”
“No, Manya, let’s go.”
A bright light was burning in the conservatory. Dunya came in too with a burning face and shining eyes. Alexander Semyonovich opened the observation windows carefully, and they all began peeping into the chambers. On the white asbestos floor lay neat rows of bright-red eggs with spots on them. There was total silence in the chambers, except for the hissing of the 15,000 candle-power light overhead.
“I’ll hatch those chicks out alright!” exclaimed Alexander Semyonovich excitedly, looking now through the observation windows at the side, now through the wide ventilation hatches overhead. “You’ll see. Eh? Don’t you think so?”
“You know what, Alexander Semyonovich,” said Dunya, smiling. “The men in Kontsovka think you’re the Antichrist. They say your eggs are from the devil. It’s a sin to hatch eggs with machines. They want to kill you.”
Alexander Semyonovich shuddered and turned to his wife. His face had gone yellow.
“Well, how about that? Ignorant lot! What can you do with people like that? Eh? We’ll have to fix up a meeting for them, Manya. I’ll phone the district centre tomorrow for some Party workers. And I’ll give ’em a speech myself. This place needs a bit of working over alright. Stuck away at the back of beyond…”
“Thick as posts,” muttered the guard, who had settled down on his greatcoat in the conservatory doorway.
The next day was heralded by some strange and inexplicable events. In the early morning, at the first glint of sunlight, the groves, which usually greeted the heavenly body with a strong and unceasing twitter of birds, met it with total silence. This was noticed by absolutely everybody. It was like the calm before a storm. But no storm followed. Conversations at the state farm took on a strange and sinister note for Alexander Semyonovich, especially because according to the well-known Kontsovka trouble-maker and sage nicknamed Goat Gob, all the birds had gathered in flocks and flown away northwards from Sheremetevo at dawn, which was quite ridiculous. Alexander Semyonovich was most upset and spent the whole day putting a phone call through to the town of Grachevka. Eventually they promised to send him in a few days’ time two speakers on two subjects, the international situation and the question of Volunteer-Fowl.
The evening brought some more surprises. Whereas in the morning the woods had fallen silent, showing clearly how suspiciously unpleasant it was when the trees were quiet, and whereas by midday the sparrows from the state farmyard had also flown off somewhere, that evening there was not a sound from the Sheremetevka pond either. This was quite extraordinary, because everyone for twenty miles around was familiar with the croaking of the Sheremetev frogs. But now they seemed to be extinct. There was not a single voice from the pond, and the sedge was silent. It must be confessed that this really upset Alexander Semyonovich. People had begun to talk about these happenings in a most unpleasant fashion, i.e., behind his back.
“It really is strange,” said Alexander Semyonovich to his wife at lunch. “I can’t understand why those birds had to go and fly away.”
“How should I know?” Manya replied. “Perhaps it’s because of your ray.”
“Don’t be so silly, Manya!” exclaimed Alexander Semyonovich, flinging down his spoon. “You’re as bad as the peasants. What’s the ray got to do with it?” “I don’t know. Stop pestering me.” That evening brought the third surprise. The dogs began howling again in Kontsovka and how! Their endless whines and angry, mournful yelping wafted over the moonlit fields.
Alexander Semyonovich rewarded himself somewhat with yet another surprise, a pleasant one this time, in the conservatory. A constant tapping had begun inside the red eggs in the chambers. “Tappity-tappity-tappity,” came from one, then another, then a third.
The tapping in the eggs was a triumph for Alexander Semyonovich. The strange events in the woods and on the pond were immediately forgotten. Everyone gathered in the conservatory, Manya, Dunya, the watchman and the guard, who left his rifle by the door.
“Well, then? What about that?” asked Alexander Semyonovich triumphantly. Everyone put their ears eagerly to the doors of the first chamber. “That’s them tapping with their little beaks, the chickens,” Alexander Semyonovich went on, beaming. “So you thought I wouldn’t hatch out any chicks, did you? Well, you were wrong, my hearties.” From an excess of emotion he slapped the guard on the shoulder. “I’ll hatch chickens that’ll take your breath away. Only now I must keep alert,” he added strictly. “Let me know as soon as they start hatching.”
“Right you are,” replied the watchman, Dunya and the guard in a chorus.
“Tappity-tappity-tappity,” went one egg, then another, in the first chamber. In fact this on-the-spot spectacle of new life being born in a thin shining shell was so intriguing that they all sat for a long time on the upturned empty crates, watching the crimson eggs mature in the mysterious glimmering light. By the time they went to bed it was quite late and a greenish night had spread over the farm and the surrounding countryside. The night was mysterious, one might even say frightening, probably because its total silence was broken now and then by the abject, excruciating howls of the dogs in Kontsovka. What on earth had got into those blasted dogs no one could say.
An unpleasant surprise awaited Alexander Semyonovich the next morning. The guard was extremely upset and kept putting his hands on his heart, swearing that he had not fallen asleep but had noticed nothing.
“I can’t understand it,” the guard insisted. “It’s through no fault of mine, Comrade Feight.”
“Very grateful to you, I’m sure,” retorted Alexander Semyonovich heatedly. “What do you think, comrade? Why were you put on guard? To keep an eye on things. So tell me where they are. They’ve hatched out, haven’t they? So they must have run away. That means you must have left the door open and gone off somewhere. Get me those chickens!”
“Where could I have gone? I know my job.” The guard took offence. “Don’t you go accusing me unfairly, Comrade Feight!”
“Then where are they?”
“How the blazes should I know!” the guard finally exploded. “I’m not supposed to guard them, am I? Why was I put on duty? To see that nobody pinched the chambers, and that’s what I’ve done. Your chambers are safe and sound. But there’s no law that says I must chase after your chickens. Goodness only knows what they’ll be like. Maybe you won’t be able to catch them on a bicycle.”
This somewhat deflated Alexander Semyonovich. He muttered something else, then relapsed into a state of perplexity. It was a strange business indeed. In the first chamber, which had been switched on before the others, the two eggs at the very base of the ray had broken open. One of them had even rolled to one side. The empty shell was lying on the asbestos floor in the ray.
“The devil only knows,” muttered Alexander Semyonovich. “The windows are closed and they couldn’t have flown away over the roof, could they?”
He threw back his head and looked at some big holes in the glass roof.
“Of course, they couldn’t, Alexander Semyonovich!” exclaimed Dunya in surprise. “Chickens can’t fly. They must be here somewhere. Chuck, chuck, chuck,” she called, peering into the corners of the conservatory, which were cluttered with dusty flower pots, bits of boards and other rubbish. But no chicks answered her call.
The whole staff spent about two hours running round the farmyard, looking for the runaway chickens and found nothing. The day passed in great excitement. The duty guard on the chambers was reinforced by the watchman, who had strict orders to look through the chamber windows every quarter of an hour and call Alexander Semyonovich if anything happened. The guard sat huffily by the door, holding his rifle between his knees. What with all the worry Alexander Semyonovich did not have lunch until nearly two. After lunch he slept for an hour or so in the cool shade on the former She-remetev ottoman, had a refreshing drink of the farm’s kvass and slipped into the conservatory to make sure everything was alright. The old watchman was lying on his stomach on some bast matting and staring through the observation window of the first chamber. The guard was keeping watch by the door.
But there was a piece of news: the eggs in the third chamber, which had been switched on last, were making a kind of gulping, hissing sound, as if something inside them were whimpering.
“They’re hatching out alright,” said Alexander Semyonovich. “That’s for sure. See?” he said to the watchman.
“Aye, it’s most extraordinary,” the latter replied in a most ambiguous tone, shaking his head.
Alexander Semyonovich squatted by the chambers for a while, but nothing hatched out. So he got up, stretched and announced that he would not leave the grounds, but was going for a swim in the pond and must be called if there were any developments. He went into the palace to his bedroom with its two narrow iron bedsteads, rumpled bedclothes and piles of green apples and millet on the floor for the newly-hatched chickens, took a towel and, on reflection, his flute as well to play at leisure over the still waters. Then he ran quickly out of the palace, across the farmyard and down the willow-lined path to the pond. He walked briskly, swinging the towel, with the flute under his arm. The sky shimmered with heat through the willows, and his aching body begged to dive into the water. On the right of Feight began a dense patch of burdock, into which he spat en passant. All at once there was a rustling in the tangle of big leaves, as if someone was dragging a log. With a sudden sinking feeling in his stomach, Alexander Semyonovich turned his head towards the burdock in surprise. There had not been a sound from the pond for two days. The rustling stopped, and above the burdock the smooth surface of the pond flashed invitingly with the grey roof of the changing hut. Some dragon-flies darted to and fro in front of Alexander Semyonovich. He was about to turn off to the wooden platform, when there was another rustle in the burdock accompanied this time by a short hissing like steam coming out of an engine. Alexander Semyonovich tensed and stared at the dense thicket of weeds.
At that moment the voice of Feight’s wife rang out, and her white blouse flashed in and out through the raspberry bushes. “Wait for me, Alexander Semyonovich. I’m coming for a swim too.”
His wife was hurrying to the pond, but Alexander Se-myonovich’s eyes were riveted on the burdock and he did not reply. A greyish olive-coloured log had begun to rise out of the thicket, growing ever bigger before his horrified gaze. The log seemed to be covered with wet yellowish spots. It began to straighten up, bending and swaying, and was so long that it reached above a short gnarled willow. Then the top of the log cracked, bent down slightly, and something about the height of a Moscow electric lamp-post loomed over Alexander Semyonovich. Only this something was about three times thicker that a lamp-post and far more beautiful because of its scaly tattooing. Completely mystified, but with shivers running down his spine, Alexander Semyonovich looked at the top of this terrifying lamp-post, and his heart almost stopped beating. He turned to ice on the warm August day, and everything went dark before his eyes as if he were looking at the sun through his summer trousers.
On the tip of the log was a head. A flattened, pointed head adorned with a round yellow spot on an olive background. In the roof of the head sat a pair of lidless icy narrow eyes, and these eyes glittered with indescribable malice. The head moved as if spitting air and the whole post slid back into the burdock, leaving only the eyes which glared at Alexander Semyonovich without blinking. Drenched with sweat, the latter uttered five incredible fear-crazed words. So piercing were the eyes between the leaves.
“What the devil’s going on…”
Then he remembered about fakirs… Yes, yes, in India, a wicker basket and a picture. Snake-charming.
The head reared up again, and the body began to uncoil. Alexander Semyonovich raised his flute to his lips, gave a hoarse squeak and, gasping for breath, began to play the waltz from Eugene Onegin. The eyes in the burdock lit up at once with implacable hatred for the opera.
“Are you crazy, playing in this heat?” came Manya’s cheerful voice, and out of the corner of his eye Alexander Semyonovich glimpsed a patch of white.
Then a terrible scream shattered the farm, swelling, rising, and the waltz began to limp painfully. The head shot out of the burdock, its eyes leaving Alexander Semyonovich’s soul to repent of his sins. A snake about thirty feet long and as thick as a man uncoiled like a spring and shot out of the weeds. Clouds of dust sprayed up from the path, and the waltz ceased. The snake raced past the state farm manager straight to the white blouse. Feight saw everything clearly: Manya went a yellowish-white, and her long hair rose about a foot above her head like wire. Before Feight’s eyes the snake opened its mouth, something fork-like darting out, then sank its teeth into the shoulder of Manya, who was sinking into the dust, and jerked her up about two feet above the ground. Manya gave another piercing death cry. The snake coiled itself into a twelve-yard screw, its tail sweeping up a tornado, and began to crush Manya. She did not make another sound. Feight could hear her bones crunching. High above the ground rose Manya’s head pressed lovingly against the snake’s cheek. Blood gushed out of her mouth, a broken arm dangled in the air and more blood spurted out from under the fingernails. Then the snake opened its mouth, put its gaping jaws over Manya’s head and slid onto the rest of her like a glove slipping onto a finger. The snake’s breath was so hot that Feight could feel it on his face, and the tail all but swept him off the path into the acrid dust. It was then that Feight went grey. First the left, then the right half of his jet-black head turned to silver. Nauseated to death, he eventually managed to drag himself away from the path, then turned and ran, seeing nothing and nobody, with a wild shriek that echoed for miles around.
Source: “The Fatal Eggs”, Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Kathleen Gook-Horujy, Raduga, Moscow, 1990