Somewhere up in the Urals there is a village called Alpatovka. Nothing special about it. It's just an ordinary village with about two hundred houses. Although it's been there five hundred years it's never managed to grow into a town. Next to it is a deep, dark forest - a scary kind of place... But really, it's just like any other forest you typically find in the north Urals. However, throughout those five hundred years of Alpatovka's existence, people have been disappearing into that forest.
Back in the age of Peter the Great, rumour has it, Prince Menshikov himself once rode into the forest and lost half of his men there. The Czar had him badly beaten for that. As for the rest of Russian history, everyone will of course remember from their school textbooks what Bashkir chieftain Salavat Yulaev said to the peasant king Emelyan Pugachev: "O Emelyan! I have brought you five thousand Bashkirs!" That's what he said, isn't it? Well, you see, the truth is there had been in fact ten thousand Bashkirs, not five, but half of the troops happened to have marched through Alpatovka... And so the story continues, right up to the present day.
During the Civil War, old timers recall, a whole Red Army battalion hid themselves in that forest while fighting back against the Whites... and never came out again. True, years later, after the Second World War, two weird old characters wearing Red Army caps and ragged jerkins once emerged from the trees; stood for a while on the edge of the forest, smoked a few pipes, and then went back in. But who the hell knows, maybe those two guys had nothing at all to do with the lost battalion. Maybe they were just two old men who happened to be wearing those caps and jerkins.
In Alpatovka itself there isn't now one complete family, that is, not a single family in which at least one person hasn't disappeared somewhere along the line. Families in Alpatovka tend to be large - ten, fifteen members or more - but as a rule, after a few years five or six of them have gone missing. People in Alpatovka are fairly relaxed about this. The forest kind of regulates the size of the village's population. The same goes for cows, chickens, geese and other animals. Of course, there is theft. One can't say there isn't. But although on the one hand things do seem to get stolen, on the other it's not as if they really are. It simply isn't proper in Alpatovka to notice theft.
Say, for example, a man had stolen a goose from another; well, even if the other had actually seen the goose being stolen, he would never say a word, and he would go over to the first man's house to dine with him on that very goose. People in Alpatovka don't like to make accusations. The victim of the theft would come to the thief's house and they would eat the goose together.
"Eeh," the victim would sigh, "One of my geese's gone off today."
"What?!" the thief would reply in amazement, ripping off large mouthfuls of flesh from the goose leg. "Went to the forest, I s'pose?"
And so they would go on eating the goose together, both knowing perfectly well which goose this was and where it came from. But in Alpatovka, to make up any kind of explanation apart from the 'forest' alibi is simply bad form.
"You know what, Fyodorov's goat went to the forest the other day. And that was the end of it."
"You mean nobody found it?" the owner of the goose would ask.
"'Course not! What are you talking about? I'm telling you it went to the forest."
And so they would go on chatting, even though just the day before they had together stolen Fyodorov's goat; even though the victim, Fyodorov himself, had witnessed the theft through a crack in the door of his outdoor privy. But that same evening, as if nothing had happened, Fyodorov would go along to dine on the goat with the two others and complain about that 'bastard forest.'
True, in the case of people the forest was indeed partly involved in their occasional disappearance. From time to time somebody's wife would get murdered, or a troublesome son strangled. The body would be taken to the forest, and that was that. The murderer would hurry to the local police officer to report the missing relative.
The police officer in Alpatovka was just the right sort of man for the job. He could read and write, and he was conscientious. He would carefully document every piece of evidence. Then he would walk up to the forest, stay there for a long time, take some measurements with a measuring tape; then he would fill in a report, open a new file, and keep the file in his safe.
"So? What happened to my wife? Where is she?" the murderer would ask a year or two later.
"We'll find her, we'll find her, don't worry!" the police officer would answer encouragingly, and he would continue filling in forms and putting files in his safe.
As for the police officer himself, he had a passion for horses. Nearly half of the horses in the village were in his stables. But his greatest pride was a light-chestnut racer. Six months earlier Semakin, the blacksmith, had had exactly the same racer... but somehow it had disappeared.
"He went off to the forest, and never came back!" the blacksmith had complained to the police officer. "Ran away the bad lad, his mane tossing in the starlight!" Although the blacksmith had seen very well from behind his own barn how things had been in reality. It wasn't at night that the horse had disappeared, but early in the morning. And there had been no stars the day before because of the clouds. "You should have been more careful with a horse like that, Mike. Should've treated him better!" the police officer would say to Semakin; and he would take him down to the stables to show him the light-chestnut racer and give a lesson on how to treat him well, stroking the horse's mane and feeding him wheat from his hand.
One day the police officer had a bit of bad luck himself. The safe containing all his files and documents disappeared, just the day before a certain Commission of Inspectors was supposed to come from the city to inspect Alpatovka.
"This is no tragedy, of course," the police officer was saying, trying to reassure himself and the village men whom he had called up for interrogation. "But you know, a metal safe running off to the forest all by itself - that's not really possible!"
"Well, officer, you never know," the village men ventured. "On the one hand, true, it's a metal safe, like - it can't move, but on the other hand, y'know, all kinds of things can happen..."
"Yeah, like my old woman, she lay around in bed paralyzed for two years, and then suddenly last spring, off she went - just disappeared, without trace!"
"Oh yeah, I remember that story, I remember," said the officer scratching the top of his head. "Took me three days to investigate it. That devil of a forest swallowed her up, that's what it did! Just swallowed her up!"
"That's it, that's it, swallowed her up!" the village men cried, rejoicing at the appropriate turn of phrase. "So, y'see, maybe that safe of yours... maybe the forest... sort of... swallowed it up? Eh? What do y'think?"
"Maybe, maybe." The police officer kept walking up and down from one corner of the room to another. "But still, that city Commission, are they gonna believe that? I sure hope nothing bad happens to all of us because of that Commission."
"Aw now, come on, officer, why worry about a commission? They'll never get through to here anyway, and if they do, they'll never get out. The forest is deep and dark. You know that, don't you?"
"Whether they believe it or not, don't worry, officer! All kinda things've disappeared in our forest - whole squadrons, convoys... And you're talking about a commission? You gotta be kidding!"
After the men left, the police officer sat down at his desk and wrote a letter to the regional police headquarters questioning the need for the Commission of Inspectors to come at all. Glancing out of the window from time to time, he watched, smiling, how the neighbour's little boy shook down all the apples from his apple tree.
Eventually the Commission did get to Alpatovka, with no particular problems apart from the loss of a suitcase containing canned food, which somehow sank itself down into the swamp one night. Upon their arrival the starving inspectors went straight to the village shop, deeply astonishing the lonely and bored shopkeeper. The shopkeeper was even more astonished by the ten-rouble note that the Chairman of the Commission extended to him, asking him to bring up "the tenner's worth of food". The shopkeeper silently took the money, went away and never reappeared until closing time. Actually 'closing time' didn't mean much in this case since the door didn't fit the frame, and there was no lock.
The inspectors decided not to waste any more time and, full of shame, picked some plums from the trees along the way. The owner of the plum trees saw all this perfectly well. Cutting through backyards he ran ahead of the newcomers, then came walking towards them and asked them if they would spare him a few plums. He inquired where they were going and offered to accompany them. As he walked on with them, and while the Chief Inspector shamefully looked down at his feet, he told them of how he himself had been trying to grow plums just like these, but that they had been disappearing lately because of some strange sort of 'forest creatures' that would come out of the woods at night and steal away all his harvest.
"Welcome, dear guests! Welcome!" cried the police officer greeting the visitors astride a light-chestnut racer and dressed in parade uniform. After one failed attempt he managed to stop next to them, jumped off the horse like a sportsman, and introduced himself.
"Now let me invite you all to follow me down the main street."
The inspectors obeyed and walked down the village street, admiring the police officer's uniform and wondering at the great number of medals he wore.
"We have this tradition you see," the police officer went on. "Whenever we have guests in Alpatovka, we always start off by taking them down the main street."
"Why is that?" asked the Chief Inspector, surprized.
"Openness. The traditional Alpatovka openness. To avoid suspicion or mistrust. Let everybody know who has arrived, how many people, what for, and, well, all the rest of it, and then, if (God forbid, of course!) anything should happen to you, then everyone, even the tiniest little kid, will be there to help you. Eh? How's that?"
The inspectors smiled and nodded.
"When there are no secrets, people are also more hospitable," the police officer continued, patting his horse's mane. "There are fewer crimes, and it makes life better. Isn't that true, Semakin?" he cried out to a rather sad-looking man with a beard who was standing behind his garden gate and observing the procession. "Out here in the sticks, people are revealed for what they really are, just like in battle. The man who never says a word, who stays all closed up inside, is a lost man."
"Do many people get 'lost' in this way?" a member of the delegation asked, jokingly.
"Quite a few," said the police officer, and he tightened his reins to restrain the horse. " I remember I wrote you a letter about the forest, didn't I? Get a chance to read it before ye left? Well, then so you'll know. But of course, you've only got our word for it. It could be just us who think somebody's disappeared. We see that from our own local point of view. But in reality, God only knows. Maybe it's the opposite, maybe that guy's found himself somehow. Maybe right now he's sitting out there in the forest, in a hut, cracking nuts, untroubled and quite content. Master of his own fate?"
"Of course, of course, anything can happen... Well, well..." said the Chief Inspector thoughtfully. "But, if you'll excuse me, officer, wouldn't a person like that give some kind of warning to the other villagers before leaving?"
"Usually, they do. If they have time, that is. `The forest is calling me, I'm going', they say. And before you know it, they're gone. By the way, you yourselves, on your way here, didn't you get that kind of feeling? You didn't? Strange. They say it draws people, like a magnet."
"No, no, quite honestly. We didn't."
"Well, thank God for that. Because I'd promised to all Alpatovka that your Commission would come. You know, I'd made all those promises, and then I started thinking to myself: but what if they don't make it, what if they don't make it? But in the end you did. Hey look, here're some more of our people."
It was the shopkeeper and a certain Fyodorov, a stocky man with distinguished grey hair. They had been running to catch up with the procession and were both puffing and panting. Interrupting each other, they told the police officer how they had just been trying to catch a pig that was escaping to the forest from Potapov's shed. Potapov was well known in the village as the best pig breeder.
"It must've been bored sitting there in its shed all the time. Potapov wouldn't let it out for days on end. So it tore off two boards from the shed and ran to the forest."
The police officer gasped and shook his head.
"Dear, oh dear, what can we do, what can we do? Thank God it's only a pig that's disappeared, and not Potapov himself. Where would we find another pig breeder like him?"
"By the way," said the shopkeeper, lowering his eyes and kicking the ground with the end of his foot. "Would you care to try some Alpatovka roast pork? See, it just so happens that Fyodorov and me have decided to cook some dinner... Kinda coincidence... You shouldn't miss it."
"That's true, you know, the odd plum's not going to fill you up." Fyodorov supported him, looking the Chief Inspector straight in the eye.
The visitors glanced at each other and looked at the police officer. For a minute the police officer wondered aloud whether to go and hunt for the pig immediately or to take care of his guests. He chose the second option, and told a loutish little boy who came running past, hiding a red rooster underneath his shirt, to go and look for the pig.
The guests had just arrived at the shopkeeper's house and sat down for dinner, when Potapov appeared at the door, white as a sheet.
"Hullo, folks, do you know, looks like one of my pigs's gone off to the forest. Broke down two planks in the shed and ran away."
"Terrible" said the police officer, frowning and spreading a napkin over his chest. "But, why don't you just sit down and have some dinner! Your pig can't go too far, don't worry. You can give me a full description?"
"Fine, then! Just sit down and tuck in."
And the police officer wrote down something on his notepad. Potapov gave a deep sigh and began to eat some pork, glancing every now and then at Fyodorov, at the shopkeeper, and at the little ivory elephants which decorated the sideboard at the other end of the room.
The Chief Inspector took a stern look at all those sitting around the table and said, breaking the silence:
"I should expect it'll be a rather difficult job to find a pig if it has really run away to the forest."
"Very difficult, of course. Who said it would be easy?" smirked the police officer. "It's the forest, you know, not just a house. Full of bushes, hollows, thickets... And that's only part of the problem. Just think - what if the pig suddenly got stuck up a tree?"
"What do you mean, up a tree?" said the youngest inspector, almost choking on his food. "What sort of pig would climb up a tree?!"
"I didn't say it would climb up a tree," said the police officer, putting away his notepad. "I said it might just get stuck up there. Remember your suitcase with the food - you didn't drown it in the swamp yourselves, did you? It just sank down by itself, right? Well, there you are... Now if a suitcase, being a thing without a living soul, suddenly sinks into the swamp by itself, why shouldn't a living pig suddenly find itself on top of a tree? Y'know, there it would go, quietly trotting along, and suddenly it would just get taken up there. And then you go try and find it in a place like that! You'd be lucky if it even made a sound... but what if it suddenly dropped silent? It might keep quiet, poor thing, maybe at the very moment when we'd be all out searching for it."
"Yeah, it's true," Fyodorov joined in, wiping his mouth with his hankie. "Anything can happen in that forest of ours. It's as if - you know - as if it were alive!" He gazed in awe out of the window at the pine trees in the distance. "Hear that noise it's making?" See how it's waving its branches? I'd swear to God it's alive, I would! And the things it gets up to... Things that not every human being would be able to do. It's understandable, in a way. It gets bored, you see, the poor green thing. Us people, we live our lives, we work, we grow things, we do well. But the forest, if you think about it properly, also wants to have things, poor devil. All kinds of things. Our job is to guess when he's due. To know in good time, when and what that old forest's gonna swallow something up. To understand it, and then lay it on, off your own bat. Yeah, that's how it should be!"
"That's right. Once I had a white grand piano," said the gardener, the owner of the plum trees, suddenly joining in after a long silence. "Bloody beautiful! And how it played, how it played! You'd hear it right across the whole village! And suddenly one day I felt like the inspiration'd gone. I played on the white keys, and somehow the music wasn't right. I tried the black keys, and they weren't right either! And then, the neighbours started to complain. They said to me, take it to the forest? Take it out there by yourself. The forest likes music. It'll always take your piano, no problem. I looked out the window and I understood. The trees were rustling and waving their branches. They were claiming the piano. I felt really sad, but what could I do? So one day, off we went with the whole family and took the piano way, way out into the forest. And do you know what? It accepted it! The forest accepted my gift! Since then I've been to that place time and time again, and never once did I find the piano there. But you know what? You can still hear the music coming in, every now and then. Listen, hear it now?!"
Indeed, the sound of piano music came floating in quite clearly to the ears of the guests.
"By the way, d'you remember, how many suitcases you lost on your way here?" the gardener suddenly asked the visitors with great animation. "Only one? That's not much. That's really very little, you know, for our forest! I tell you, if I were you I'd go out and leave a couple more there, just for politeness' sake, like. It's up to you, of course, but if you ever come round to the idea, please let me know, will you? I can show you a place out there. No devil in the world'll ever find it. And then, some time, in a week or so, you might well get your reward."
"What exactly would you mean by that?" the inspectors asked, and they stopped eating and began to count their suitcases.
"I mean just that. You know, you lose a suitcase, but then, say, you might find a bride in Alpatovka. You wouldn't say that's a bad deal, would you?"
"Yeah, that's it. Why not?" said the police officer, supporting the gardener, and he winked at the youngest inspector. "The forest, you know, it doesn't just take things. It also dishes them out. Understand? This forest's very generous."
"Look at these trousers and jacket I'm wearing? I got them from the forest," added the shopkeeper for no apparent reason. To prove it, he stood up and showed off his fancy suit glistening with spangles. "Here's how it all happened. First, the forest swallowed up my wallet, my ceiling lamp and the odd bit of crockery. I worried and worried. I kept looking out of the window at that mass of thieving greenery. Then one day a messenger came to the door. `Go to the forest', he said. `Just go straight there, don't turn around. No point in hanging about here. So I went. I wandered about, looking at the bushes around me. You find all sorts of rubbish lying around there: an empty wallet, a watch without a dial... And the forest kept getting denser and denser. It was as if it was luring me in. I thought I'd go a little deeper. So I went on. And suddenly, a pair of pants hanging on a tree! I went a little further, and then - a jacket! I put them on and ran back as quick as I could, before the forest could change its mind. And now, see, I'm dressed up all nice and smart! No-one else in the whole village has a suit like that!"
"Knock it off will you! Stop showing off," said Potapov the pig breeder, interrupting him and looking sadly at his soiled frock-coat. "Or else you might have to give it back. And then everything would fall back into place, you know."
"No, no! Things are quite alright as they are now. Aren't they?" said the shopkeeper looking at the police officer.
"Maybe, maybe," said the police officer, still listening to the piano music." Pity though, you didn't go a little deeper in. I really have the feeling that if you'd gone right to the middle of it, you'd 've found a tail-coat," he said with a smile. "But well, never mind, never mind. As for the piano, I'd be hardly surprised if in a couple of days someone else in the village received a piano just like that one. That's of course, if they haven't got it already."
"Me, me, I wouldn't mind it!" cried the shopkeeper. "My wife's been taking music lessons."
"What do you mean, your wife? You haven't got one. She went off to the forest three years ago, didn't she?" said Potapov, remembering.
"Yeah, well, she could come back, couldn't she? Maybe she's playing the piano just now. Keeping up her skills, y'know. She might've been walking in the forest, and then suddenly she saw a piano, sat down, and now she's playing. Maybe she'll come back when the piano is back in this house. She'll come back, she will, when that beautiful piano is standing here again! Right here, in that corner!" The salesman pointed to an empty corner in the room.
"Well, well." The Chief Inspector coughed, stood up to have a look at his suitcase, refused a glass of vodka, which was being offered to him and sat down again. "And what about the authorities? You know, the authorities, the District officials... Do they come often this way, to have a look around?"
"They do, they do quite often," said the police officer, sadly looking at the murmuring trees. "But they don't all make it through to here.You see, people get scattered about the forest. They can't seem to manage to concentrate on one pursuit. Some like mushrooms, some like to go berry-picking. Some even get stuck up in pine trees. Once in a while, one or two manage to get through. But what use are they if they haven't got any suitcases? They're no good to anyone - except, maybe the women! So they decide to settle down here and make themselves at home, and maybe they're right. You can't get the hang of a place in one quick visit, can you?"
"I say, do you think I might be able to meet any of those people? I mean, of those who did manage to get through?" the Chief Inspector insisted.
"'Course you can. You won't need to go too far, either. See Fyodorov here in front of you? He's an army general."
"General Fyodorov," Fyodorov introduced himself and held out his hand to the Chief Inspector.
"Shevchuk," said the Chief Inspector, looking at the General in amazement. "May I ask what branch of the service? If that's no secret, of course."
"Tank Corps." Fyodorov answered firmly. " We don't have secrets from each other here in Alpatovka."
"What do you mean tanks?" said Potapov, deeply surprised. "What d'ye mean, tanks when there's a space rocket lying in your vegetable garden?"
"So what?" said Fyodorov, buttoning up his collar and scratching his grey hair. Maybe the forest swapped me a tank against a rocket. What business of yours is that, anyway? Before there was a tank, now there's a rocket, that's all. And besides, where the hell would I find enough fuel for a tank?"
"But somehow you found enough fuel for the rocket, didn't you?"
"'Course we did," said the salesman, supporting Fyodorov. "I've got enough rocket fuel in my shop as anybody could want. It's just that no-one here buys it except General Fyodorov. You see." It would be better if you had a few groceries in that shop!" the Chief Inspector could not help exclaiming as he remembered his visit to the shop in the morning. "Your shop has a sign saying `Groceries', you know."
"What d'ye think it should've said: `Strategic Ammunition', or what? When the door doesn't shut and I can't get a lock? No, no, I'll leave it as it is - 'Groceries' - it'll be much safer that way, I'm sure."
They went on eating and drinking for most of the day. Then they sang songs about dear old Alpatovka. Fyodorov and the salesman, interrupting each other, told different versions about the origin of the village's population. The gardener kept counting over the suitcases. The police officer drew the visitors a map of the shortest route through the forest, in case they wanted to go back. And Potapov went walking back and forth across the room, rubbing his hands and, little by little, so that no-one would notice, pushing the sideboard towards the exit.
Suddenly, when it had grown dark, a loud neigh was heard from the street. It seemed to come from the light-chestnut racer that had been tied to the gate near the house. The police officer listened. But through the window everybody could already see Semakin galloping past the pine trees, leaning down on his favourite horse's neck and kicking him in the sides with all his might.
"Well, time for me to be off," said the police officer, and he looked sadly at the guests, collected their passports in order to fill in the registration forms for their visit, and went out. The inspectors were given a room for the night, with a window looking on to the pine forest. By then the large Alpatovka moon wasalready shining on the tops of the pine trees.
"There's something I don't like about having left our suitcases in the living room," said the Chief Inspector. He had some trouble falling asleep, and kept smoking and walking around the room. "And those passports - we ought to have handed them in tomorrow morning instead. I can't imagine they're going to do our registration forms at night, are they?"
"Oh well, what difference does it make, whether it's at night or during the day?" said the youngest inspector, looking out of the window indifferently.
"Well, it certainly doesn't make any difference now," the others agreed, and they all began to fall asleep.
"Let's sleep on it. The night will bring counsel."
"Actually, uh... My dear friends," said the Chief Inspector, still not able to settle down, and he lit another cigarette. "I've been wondering all this time whether I should tell you... The fact is... Of course this is not going to sound very professional of me, but... Well, in short... Again, I shouldn't want you to understand me wrongly..." And with trembling hands, he pulled out of his pocket some small objects, which made a dull clinking sound.
"Here, you see..."
Everyone saw the little ivory elephants that had been standing on the sideboard during the dinner.
"When I came out of the living room, I ... well, in short, I just nicked them off the sideboard. No-one noticed. But this is just for a deposit, my friends,just a deposit. And of course, it was hard to resist the temptation. Such a beautiful collection. But again, I beg you to understand me correctly. If anything should happen to our suitcases, at least I'd have this collection to - er, you know... as a compensation, sort of thing. Please understand me correctly. That's it."
"Oh, come on, Inspector, don't apologize." The Deputy Chief, whom everyone thought had been sleeping, pulled out from under his pillow the police officer's leather briefcase, held it up for all the others to see, put it back under the pillow again and began to snore.
"It's true that the night brings counsel," said the younger inspector, still looking out of the window. "Good Heavens - a white grand-piano! Now I think I understand, at last. I can see now where that music was coming from. That's where it came from! From the east side."
"What d'you mean, white? It's light-chestnut..." said someone in his sleep. But it was already long past midnight, and nobody felt like arguing anymore.