Always the island had been out there, so far out over so much choppy water, far beyond the last gray wave, the groaning ice when there was ice, the fog when there was fog, so distant in the middle of such a huge lake that, for their first nine years, Nizhi—that church made of those tens of thousands of wooden pegs, each one as small as a little boy’s finger bones; those wood-shingled domes like tops upended to spin their points on the floor of the sky; the priests’ black robes snapping in the wind, their beards blowing with the clouds, their droning ceaseless as the shore-slap waves—might have been just another fairy tale that Dyadya Avya told.
And then one day when the lake ice had broken and geese had come again, two brothers, twins, stole a little boat and rowed together out toward Nizhi…
“Into the lake,” Dima said.
“To hunt the Chudo-Yudo,” Yarik said.
“Until they found it.”
“And killed it.”
They were ten years old—Dmitry Lvovich Zhuvov and Yaroslav Lvovich Zhuvov—and they had never been this far out in the lake, this lost, this on their own. Around them the water was wide as a second sky, darkening beneath the one above, the rowboat a moon sliver winking on the waves. In it, they sat side by side, hands buried in the pockets of their coats, leaning slightly into each other with each sway of the skiff.
“Or maybe it came up,” Dima said, “and crushed the boat.”
“And they drowned,” Yarik said.
“Or,” Dima said, “it ate them.”
They grinned, the same grin at the same time, as if one’s cheeks tugged the other’s lips.
“Or,” Yarik started.
And Dima finished, “They died.”
They went quiet.
The low slap of lake water knocking the metal hull. The small sharp calls of jaegers: black specks swirling against a frostbitten sky. But no wood blades clacking at the rowboat’s side. No worn handles creaking in the locks. Hours ago, they had lost the oars.
Now they were losing last light. Their boat had drifted so far into Lake Otseva’s center that they could no longer make out the shore. But there was the island. All their lives it had been somewhere beyond the edge of sight, and now they watched it: a far gray glimpse growing darker, as if the roots of its unknown woods were drawing night up from the earth. It humped blackly out of the distant water, unreachable as a whale’s back. And beyond it stretched the lake. And all around: the lake. And beneath them the rocking of its waves.
At their feet the tools they’d taken scraped back and forth against the skiff floor: axe, hatchet, cleaver, pick. Each one freshly sharpened. In the bow, behind their backs: a brush hook’s moon-bright blade swayed against the sky. Beneath it, a cloud of netting. And, nestled there to keep from breaking, wrapped in wool blankets to warm the life in them: two dozen eggs, a gestating nestful of yolky souls. Out of the stern, the fishing rod jutted, its line lipped by the waves—tugged and slacked, tugged and slacked—going down down down into the black belly of the lake where its huge hook hung, gripping in its barb the red fist of a fresh goose heart.
The thing’s two dozen heads would roar up around the boat, one set of jaws mouthing blood and metal, the other twenty-three agape, their tongues, their teeth.
Way out over the water, far beyond the island, the edge of the lake met the end of the world and there the sky was a thin red line drawn by a bead of blood. Then it was just a line. Then the line was gone, and there was just the darkness of the earth meeting the darkness of the sky and the boys rose unsteadily on the unsteady boat and crouched atop the netting, unfolding the blankets from the eggs. Dima unscrewed the tops from the canning jars. Yarik cracked the shells against their rims. One by one he slid in each yolk on its slick of albumen. One by one Dima closed the tops again. When they had all the eggs in all the jars, they tied threads around the glass necks. Each thread they tied to an oarlock or a hole punched through the gunwale or a ring at the prow, the two brothers crawling around the boat, reaching over its edge, letting go the jars. At the ends of their strings they floated, the glass gleaming, the eggs like a lakeful of eyes.
“How many heads do you think it has?” Dima said.
It had become more night than dusk, and there was no moon, no way to see the fishing line. But they watched the rod.
“At least six,” Yarik said.
“Probably twelve,” Dima said.
Yarik told him, “Twenty-four.”
Dima said, “I want the axe.”
Reaching down, he found it, and—arms thin as the handle, shoulders straining—lifted. Beside him, in Yarik’s small boy’s hands, their old uncle’s pistol seemed huge. They sat huddled together, cold and silent and knowing the other was scared: the line would snap tight; the boat would jerk; the weight would suck down the stern; the water would wolf their feet; the thing’s two dozen heads would roar up around the boat, one set of jaws mouthing blood and metal, the other twenty-three agape, their tongues, their teeth.
“What if he doesn’t come?” Dima said.
That was when the rod bent. They watched it arc, watched the arc deepen until the rod was almost doubled on itself, shaking.
“It’s going to,” Dima whispered, and Yarik said, “break,” and Dima said, “come loose,” and then the stern dropped so fast that for a moment there was just the strain of all the air cupped within the boat against all the water trying to suck it down, the sound of something splitting, tearing… And then the boat jerked back up, its stern lifting off the surface, knocking the boys forward, noses to knees, and when they looked up the rod was gone.
Stumbling to his feet, Dima stood scanning the water for a hint of the rod streaking away. Or hurtling back at them.
The boat wall boomed.
The laughter passed from Yarik to Dima as these things always passed, as if the placentas that had once fed them were still conjoined.
He jerked, ripped a hand off the axe, flailed for the gunwale. Behind Dima: his brother laughing. Even in the dark, he could see the panic on Yarik’s face, the unnerved giddiness in his eyes as he banged the metal barrel on the boat side again.
“Trusishka,” Yarik called him. He tried to make clucking noises as he bobbed his head, but he was laughing too hard; only sputtering came out.
The laughter passed from Yarik to Dima as these things always passed, as if the placentas that had once fed them were still conjoined, and Dima climbed onto the rowboat seat, shakily stood, threw back his face, and crowed a laughter-rippled rooster’s call: “Kukareku!”
Yarik climbed beside him, crowed out his own: “Kukareku!”
On the thin metal bench, they stood side by side, beating their chests, calling into the night.
From the night, a call came back to them: some rooster of Nizhi crowing its reply. Such a long sound! So drawn out and furious! They counted it—raz, dva, tri…fifteen, sixteen, seventeen—longer even than Dyadya Avya’s old crower, longer than they could push their own breath when they emptied their lungs in a wild burst of crowing back. How the rooster bellowed his challenge again at them! How they threw their crowing, boys and bird, across the black surface of the lake!
Until their crows turned to shouts, their shouts back to laughter, the laughter to breathing, the breathing quieting. They stood there, rocking. Above them, the stars filled the sky like sand filling a bucket of water until it seemed wholly comprised of grains of light. Below, Otseva’s surface filled with their reflection. All around the boat, the floating jars gleamed: a drifting constellation, waterborne.
“What if it comes back?” Yarik said.
If one was swallowed up, or died, or simply left, would the other go, too?
And they passed between them the knowledge that that was why they had come out. For it to come back. So they could kill it. They stood thinking of their father, and how he must have tried, and they passed between them the truth that he had failed, and that they would fail, too, and they wondered again, silently, the thoughts they had wondered aloud in the night in their beds at Dyadya Avya’s—where in them lived their souls? And had they grown side by side, same to same, in their mother’s womb as well? And if one was swallowed up, or died, or simply left, would the other go, too?—and then they climbed down off the seat and went around the boat again, Dima with his axe, Yarik with the cleaver, cutting all the strings.
One by one, the jars floated away. The gleams separated from each other. The darkness between the boys and the boat widened and widened and then swallowed any sign of the jars at all.
“Out to see Nizhi,” Dima tried. And after a moment: “Into the lake.” And then: “Where they sank, and the water swallowed them up, and they drowned.” Dima grinned, waited to feel his brother grin.
But his brother was clambering for one side of the boat, and Dima was scrambling to the other to keep from tipping, and into the darkness that somewhere hid the island Yarik was shouting, “Help! Help!”
Dima reached for him and drew him down again, beside him on the bench, whispered it would be OK, they were together. On the island, Yarik’s shouting had stirred some dog of Nizhi. It barked, so far out its sound was quiet as a creaking in the dark, and the sky drifted above the drifting boat, and the cold came on, slow and steady, as if the creaking was its footsteps creeping across the night toward the boys, and they leaned into each other, shivering.
When Dima climbed off the bench, Yarik followed. They slid together along the bottom of the boat until they lay stretched out, boots to bow, out of the wind, side by side, rocking. In the sky, the stars flickered, flickered, as if each distant dog bark caused the night to blink.
Against his hands, Dima could feel his brother’s heartbeat. Or was it his brother’s hands beating beneath Dima’s arms? Or was it his own heart pulsing?
In unison, the brothers unzipped their jackets. They slipped their arms out of the sleeves. They paired each strip of zipper with its mate on the other’s jacket, worked at the pulls along the teeth until they were zipped in, facing each other, their jackets become one jacket that encased them both. Inside, they slid their fingers into each other’s pits. Against his hands, Dima could feel his brother’s heartbeat. Or was it his brother’s hands beating beneath Dima’s arms? Or was it his own heart pulsing? The wind rushed by above.
He might not have woken if it wasn’t for Yarik’s struggling. Over them, the searchlight washed across the boat, sparked off the empty oarlocks, was gone again.
Yarik tore the zipper open, shoved loose, sat up. Dima stayed lying where he was. He watched the light find his brother.
“Look!” Yarik called down at him.
Instead he shut his eyes.
“Allo!” Yarik shouted. “Allo!”
Dima listened to the night swallow the shout, to the water shushing beneath Yarik’s banging scramble for the bow, his brother’s franticness passed by, unseen, missed—until the gunshot silenced everything. Its blast filled the boat fast, as if the bottom had been blown out, water rushing around Dima’s ears. Through it, he heard another boom, another. Eyes squeezed tight, he counted the shots—four, five, six—waiting for the seventh that would mean the gun was empty. It never came. Instead, there was his brother saying his name, asking him to sit up, telling him to look.
But when Dima rose, he kept his eyes shut. He would have stayed in the hull if, without his brother, it hadn’t been so cold. He climbed by feel onto the bench, leaned against Yarik. When the light hit his brother’s face, Dima opened his eyes. Bright as a full moon, the searchlight came, sweeping the lake, them, the lake. Until it held, blasting. Dima shut his eyes again. Through the water, he could feel the ship coming, the shuddering of its engine, the small boat beginning to shake.
Reprinted from The Great Glass Sea. To be published by Grove Atlantic in July 2014.
Josh Weil is the author of The Great Glass Sea and The New Valley, a New York Times Editors’ Choice that won the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the New Writers Award from the GLCA, and a “5 Under 35” Award from the National Book Foundation. Weil’s other writing has appeared in Granta, Esquire, One Story, The Sun, and the New York Times. A recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, MacDowell, Bread Loaf and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, he has been Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bowling Green State University and Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. He lives in the Sierra Nevada mountains.