Chapter One:


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 woodshingled 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 towards 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 moonsliver 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 lakewater knocking the metal hull. The small sharp calls of jaegers: black specs 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: 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.

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 boatwall boomed.

*This excerpt is taken from the uncorrected proof and may differ from the book.