The days merged, one into the other, and in the chamber there was neither sunlight nor moonlight, just the fire's glow and spark as someone-Renati, Franco, Nikita, Pauli, Belyi, or alekza-fed pine branches to the flames. Wiktor never tended the fire, as if it were understood such a menial task was beneath him. Mikhail felt heavy, and slept most of the time, but when he awakened there was usually a piece of barely cooked meat, berries, and a little water cupped in a hollowed stone beside him. He ate without question or hesitation, but the stone was too heavy to lift so he had to bend over it and lap the water up. another thing he noticed: whoever was cooking the meat was gradually letting it remain bloodier. and it wasn't all flesh meat, either. Now and again it was something that was red and purplish, as if torn from a creature's innards. Mikhail at first refused to touch those grisly tidbits, but nothing new was placed beside him until he ate what was there, and soon he learned not to let anything-no matter how raw or horrid-sit there too long or the flies would come. He also learned that throwing up was futile; no one cleaned it up after him.
Once he awakened, shivering cold on the outside and burning beneath the skin, to a chorus of wolf howls somewhere in the distance. They terrified him at first. He had a few seconds of mad panic when he wanted to get up and claw his way out of the chamber, run through the woods and back to where his parents lay dead so he might find a gun and blow his brains out; but then the panic passed like a shade, and he sat listening to what he heard as music, the notes soaring up into the sky and entwining around each other like summer-passioned vines. He thought even that for a short time he could understand the language of that howling-a strange sensation, as if he'd suddenly learned to think in bits and pieces of Chinese. It was a language of mingled joy and yearning, like the sigh of someone who stands in a field of yellow flowers with the blue sky limitless in all directions and holds a broken string where a kite used to be. It was the language of wanting to live forever, and knowing that life was a cruel beauty. The howling brought tears to Mikhail's eyes and made him feel small, a fleck of dust floating on a wind current over a land of cliffs and chasms.
Once he awakened and found the maw of a blond-furred wolf over his face, the ice-blue eyes steady and piercing as they stared at him. He lay very still, his heart pounding, as the wolf began to sniff his body. He smelled the wolf, too; a musky, sweet scent of rain-washed hair and breath that held the memory of fresh blood. He shivered, lying as if bound, as the blond wolf sniffed slowly over his chest and throat. Then, with a shake of its skull, the wolf opened its mouth and dropped eleven uncrushed blackberries onto the stones beside Mikhail's head. The wolf retreated to the edge of the firelight, sat on its haunches, and watched as Mikhail ate the berries and lapped at the hollow, water-filled rock.
a dull, throbbing pain began to build and spread through his bones. Moving-even breathing-became an exercise in agony. and still the pain built, hour after hour, day after day, and someone cleaned him when he voided and someone else folded the deerskin cloaks around him like an infant. He shivered with cold, and the shivering fired the pain that raced through his nerves and made him moan and weep. Through the hazy twilight, he heard voices. Franco's: "Too small, I tell you. The small ones don't live. Renati, did you want a child so badlyi" and Renati, angered: "I don't ask a fool for his opinions. You keep to yourself and leave us alone!" Then the voice of Wiktor, slow and precise: "His color's bad. Do you think he has wormsi Feed him something and see if he'll take it." a piece of bloody meat was pressed to Mikhail's lips; Mikhail, adrift in a sea of pain, thought, Don't eat. I command you not to eat, and he felt defiance ratchet his jaws open. Fresh agony seared him, made the tears stream down his cheeks, but he accepted the food and gripped it with his teeth lest it be snatched away. Nikita's voice drifted to him, and in it was a hint of admiration: "He's stronger than he looks. Watch out he doesn't snap your fingers off!"
Mikhail ate whatever was given to him. His tongue began to crave the blood and fluids, and he could tell what he was eating-rabbit, deer, wild boar, or squirrel, sometimes even the fleshy musk of a rat-and if it was a fresh kill or dead for hours. His mind ceased to revolt from the thought of consuming blood-drenched meat; he ate because he was hungry, and because there was nothing else. Sometimes he was fed only berries or some kind of coarse grass, but it all went down without complaint.
His vision blurred, everything going gray around the edges. His eyeballs pounded with pain, and even the low firelight tortured them. Then, and he wasn't sure exactly when it was because time was twisted, the darkness closed in and he was blind.
The pain never left him; it increased to a new level, and his muscles stiffened and cracked like the boards of a house about to burst apart from inner pressure. He couldn't get his mouth open enough to eat flesh, and soon he was aware of fingers pushing into his mouth meat that had already been chewed. a freezing-cold hand touched his forehead, and even the light pressure on his skin made him gasp. "I want you to live." It was Renati's voice, whispering in his ear. "I want you to fight death, do you hear mei I want you to fight to hold on. If you live through this, little one, you'll know wonders."
"How is hei" Franco's voice, and in it a measure of true concern. "He's gotten thinner."
"He's not a skeleton yet," she replied testily, and then Mikhail heard her voice soften. "He's going to live. I know he is. He's a fighter, Franco; look how he grits his teeth. Yes. He's going to live."
"He has a long path to travel," Franco said. "The worst is ahead."
"I know." She was silent for a long while, and Mikhail felt her fingers gently combing his sweat-damp hair. "How many have there been who didn't live as long as himi I'd need ten hands to count them all. But look at him, Franco! Look how he strains and fights!"
"That's not fighting," Franco observed. "I think he's about to shit."
"Well, his insides are still working! That's a good sign! It's when they stop and they swell up that you know they're going to die! No, this one's got iron in his soul, Franco. I can tell these things."
"I hope you can," he said. "and I hope you're right about him." He took a few steps, then spoke again. "If he dies... it's not on your hands. It's just... nature's way. You understand thati"
Renati made a muffled sound of agreement. Then, sometime later, as Renati stroked his hair and ran her fingers over his forehead, Mikhail heard her sing a whispered song: a Russian lullaby, about the bluebird searching for a home and finding rest when the springtime sun melted winter's ice. She sang the tune in a sweet, lilting voice, a whisper meant only for him. He remembered someone else singing such a song to him, but it seemed so long ago. His mother. Yes. His mother, who lay sleeping in a meadow. Renati sang on, and for a few moments Mikhail listened and felt no pain.
a skip of time, a darkness of days. agony. agony. Mikhail had never known such agony, and if ever in his young life he might have thought he'd know such torment, he would have crushed himself into a corner and screamed for God's hand to grasp him. He thought he felt his teeth move in his jaws, grinding together in raw, bleeding sockets. He felt broken at the joints, a living rag doll pierced with needles. His pulse was a drumbeat for the damned, and Mikhail tried to open his mouth to scream but his jaw muscles tensed and scraped like barbed wire. agony building, ebbing, building again to a new crescendo. He was one moment a furnace and the next a house of ice. He was aware of his body jerking, contorting, bending itself into a new shape. His bones arched and twisted, as if they were the consistency of sugar sticks. He had no control over these contortions; his body had become a strange machine, seemingly intent on self-destruction. Blind, unable to speak or scream, hardly able to draw a breath for the anguish in his lungs and his pounding heart, Mikhail felt his spine begin to warp. His muscles went mad; they shot his torso upright, threw his arms backward, twisted his neck, and squeezed his face as if caught between iron clamps. He slammed down on his back as his muscles relaxed, then was lifted upright again as they drew tight as sun-dried leather. at the center of the maelstrom of pain, the core of Mikhail Gallatinov fought against losing the will to live. as his body thrashed and his muscles stretched he thought of the Rubber Man, and that when this was over he might join the circus and be the greatest Rubber Man who'd ever been. and then the pain bit into him again, seized him by the guts, and shook him. Mikhail felt his backbone swell and lengthen with a shriek of shocked nerves. Voices floated to him from the land of ghosts: "Hold him! Hold him! He'll break his neck!"
"... burning up with fever..."
"Never last through it... too weak..."
"Open his mouth! He'll bite through his tongue!"
The voices moved away in a whirl of noise. Mikhail felt but was powerless to stop his body's contortions, his knees rising toward his chest as he lay on his side. His spine was the center of the agony, his skull a boiling kettle. His knees touched his chin and jammed tight. His teeth gritted together, and in his brain he heard a wailing like the rising of a storm wind, tearing at the foundations of all that had been before. The storm wind rose to a roar, a sound that blanked out all but itself, and its force doubled and tripled. Mikhail saw himself, in his mind's eye, running across the field of yellow flowers as black banners of clouds hurtled toward the Gallatinov house. Mikhail stopped, turned, shouted, "Mother! Father! alizia!" but there was no answer from the house, and the clouds were hungry. Mikhail turned and ran on, his heart hammering; he heard a crash, looked back, and saw the house flying into fragments before the wind. and then the clouds were coming after him, about to engulf him. He ran, but he couldn't run fast enough. Faster. Faster. The storm roaring on his heels. Faster. His heart, pounding. a banshee scream in his ears. Faster...
and a change exploded out of him. Dark hairs burst from his hands and arms. He felt his spine contort, bowing his shoulders. His hands-no longer hands-touched the earth. He ran faster, his body whipsawing, and he began to rip from his clothes. The storm clouds took them, and spewed them to heaven. Mikhail kicked his shoes away, his toes spiraling earth and flowers behind him. The storm reached for him, but he was running on all fours now, racing from the past into the future. Rain swept over him: cold, cleansing rain, and he lifted his face toward the sky and-awakened.
Dark upon dark. His eyelids, sealed by tears. He worked them open, and a faint glimmer of crimson sneaked in. The little fire was still burning, and the chamber smelled strongly of pine ashes. Mikhail got to his haunches, every movement an exercise in pain. His muscles still throbbed, as if they'd been stretched taut and re-formed. His brain, his back, his tailbone all ached. He tried to stand, but his spine shrieked. He craved fresh air, the scent of the wind through the forest; it was a physical hunger in him, and it drove him on. He crawled, naked, across the rough stones, away from the fire.
Several times he tried to stand up, but his bones weren't ready for it. He crawled on hands and knees to the stairway and ascended them like an animal. at the top he crawled along a moss-draped corridor, and gave a pile of deer skeletons only a passing glance. Soon he saw light ahead: a ruddy light, the light of either dawn or dusk. It came through the glassless windows and painted the walls and ceiling, and where it touched, the moss had not leeched. Mikhail smelled fresh air, but the scent made something in his brain click and whir like the wheels of a pocket watch. It was no longer the pungent, flowery aroma of late spring. It carried a different smell, a dry aroma with a chill center: fire at war with frost. It was the smell of dying summer.
Time had passed. That much was clear to him. He sat, stunned by his senses, and his hand drifted to his left shoulder. The fingers found ridges of pink flesh, and a few flakes of scabs drifted from the skin and settled to the floor. His knees were hurting him now, and it seemed important to him that he stand up before he went any farther. He tried. If bones had nerves, they were aflame. He could almost hear his muscles bending, like the squeaking hinges of old doors long unopened. Sweat was on his face, chest, and shoulders, but he didn't give up, nor did he cry out. His skeleton felt unfamiliar. Whose bones were these, lodged like broken splinters in his fleshi Stand up, he told himself. Stand up and walk... like a man.
The first step was like a baby's: halting, uncertain. The second wasn't much better. But the third and fourth told him he still knew how to walk, and he went through the corridor into a high-ceilinged room where sunlight turned the rafters orange and pigeons softly cooed overhead.
Something moved, over in the shadows on the floor to Mikhail's right. He heard the noise of leaves crunching. Two bodies lay there, entwined and slowly heaving. Where one began and the other stopped was difficult to tell. Mikhail blinked the last of sleep's mist from his eyes. One of the figures on the floor moaned-a female's moan-and Mikhail saw human skin banded with animal hair that rose and rippled, then disappeared again into the damp flesh.
a pair of ice-blue eyes stared fixedly at him from the gloom. alekza grasped a shoulder on which pale brown hairs rose and fell like river tides. Franco's head turned, and he saw the boy standing there at the crossing of sun and shadow.
"My God!" Franco whispered, in a shocked voice. "He's made it through!" Franco pulled away from alekza, with a moist parting sound, and sprang to his feet. "Wiktor!" he shouted. "Renati!" His shouts echoed through the corridors and chambers of the white palace."Someone! Come quick!"
Mikhail stared at alekza's nude body. She made no movement to cover herself. a light sheen of moisture glowed on her flesh. "Wiktor! Renati!" Franco kept shouting. "He's alive! He's alive!"