Fateful Experiments

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Fateful Experiments

The absence of the right to become the least intelligent creatures on earth — this is what defines human beings

Pushing aside the morning clouds, the bright sun peered over their edge and illuminated the car’s interior. The sudden need to choose between either lowering the sunshade or turning away from the blinding light made me come out of the reverie, brought about by my musings on the dream I had last night.

Speeding in a governmental car through the streets of Moscow, I was heading to a decisive third reading vote on a project that would set the country on a new socio-economic development course.

Humanity has come a long way of societal development that took us from primitive communities to socialism. If one can put it this way — in the twentieth century, Russia has had the honor of blazing the trail towards this new socialist system; of becoming it’s historical prowing ground.  However, the country has paid an excruciatingly high price for this — by losing millions of it’s citizens to the October Revolution, the Civil War, the Stalin Purges and various local conflicts that flared up following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Why did Russia need this temporary socialist experience? Who can tell.. Perhaps, all of this was necessary for accomplishing one singular task that humanity had to face in the twentieth century — defeating fascism. And then, Russia has made an about turn, going from socialism to capitalism. Today, my country is pursuing the path of market economy, democratic reforms and social freedoms. But, speaking of Russia in particular — is this direction the surest and safest one to follow? Especially when it comes to ordinary people’s lives? These days, we don’t have a common cause — a goal, capable of uniting everyone, of giving meaning to our coexistence. We all feel forlorn. When it comes to ensuring one’s security in terms of finances, medical care and accommodation — all of us are entirely on our own. Naturally, common sense tells us: to survive, we need to unite. Parties and movements of all shapes and sizes come to life and die all over the country on a regular basis. Those that manage to survive aggregate into something resembling wolf packs. Such packs have better and safer chances of cornering and capturing their quarry (i.e. — political power). These are the circumstances that form the basis of contemporary life philosophy for everyone in Russia, including myself.

Initially, I was seriously opposed to the project. Having analyzed both economic projections and data, pertaining to similar situations in other countries, I came to the conclusion that it’s aims and scope (likely to affect millions of people) would lead to a social explosion. However, the sheer pressure exerted by the project’s lobbyists on their opponents (ranging from gentle persuasion to blatant mud-smearing media campaigns, to offers of generous advances, big enough to guarantee one decades of lavish existence in a luxury condo at some tropical beach) eventually made me agree to vote in favor. I grew to fully accept the necessity of approving the project and hardly ever gave it any thought lately. Being quite modern and practical, I didn’t suffer from the so-called pangs of conscience. I’d subjected the information I possessed to all four types of arithmetic operations, carefully evaluated the results and only then came to a conclusion: speaking for myself (and no one else), I considered this project to be safe enough to vote for.

But then, the night before the final vote, I saw a dream that suddenly shed a bright light on an episode that happened many years ago, in the days of my youth. Like a well-sharpened blade, this dream cut off all of my confidence in the decision taken, all of my relative peace of mind. I actually shuddered inwardly at my own comparison — indeed, the whole thing felt like having your head chopped off by an executioner.

Just as a sound of a car backfiring sometimes jerks you awake in the middle of the night, so did this — albeit silent — upheaval in my brain make me sit up in bed. I suddenly realized that I existed in a hypnotized state, brought about by my constant expectation of some misfortune, clearly connected with the upcoming vote. Like a dark raincloud, reflected as a lilac smudge in the mirror-clear surface of a thunderstorm-braced lake, this state had manifested itself in the form of red-brown stains that appeared on my face.

In the morning, as me and my wife were having breakfast, she threw a worried look in my direction and asked: «What’s the matter? You don’t look like yourself today». Many years ago, we’ve made an agreement — on the eve of an important vote, my wife restrains herself from giving me any advice, not to mention reprimands. Under no circumstances — not even if she sees me accidentally put on different colored shoes for work — must this agreement be broken. This morning, however, something in my appearance made her forget her promise.

— I’ve got to analyze everything one more time and make a decision before the vote begins, — I replied.

— But, you’ve already made your decision. Why doubt it now? — exclaimed she, surprised.

— Don’t ask me anything, — said I, frowning.

Feeling a desire to be left alone, I turned away to face the window.

Outside, a surprise gust of wind shook the blossoming bird cherry, tearing off the petals with playful ease. It looked as if a white cloud, which had been resting among the branches, had suddenly vacated them and drifted away into the distance. Bidding it’s final farewell, the bird cherry did the only thing it could do, by waving it’s branches after the petals mournfully. With an abrupt change of direction, the wind pressed the nearby branches towards the window. Thrice, their tips knocked quietly against the glass. Perhaps, this was a sign for me — a hint to reconsider my decision to vote for the project?

— First of all, I need to recall everything that had happened on that evening, long ago, — thought I, — To analyze those two hours of my life in detail.

The episode in question happened in Leningrad, in the Sixties — the days of my happy, untroubled youth. Still a full-time university student at that time, I was walking down Zhelyabov Street one warm autumn day, heading in the direction of Nevsky Boulevard. As I was passing the Variety Theater, then famous for playing host to the dazzlingly-funny Arkady Raikin, I noticed a poster, printed in large, vibrant characters. It read as follows: «Psychological Experiments. Lev Borisovich Ben». I halted before the theater entrance, thinking: «Why, this might be a good way to kill an hour or two! «. Just then, an elderly, gray-haired woman walked up to me. She was dressed in true Leningrad fashion — cleanly and very modestly. The woman looked me over from head to toe, then looked me straight in the eyes. All of this gave me an impression of being examined, of going through a selection process for performing some singularly difficult task. Finally, she said: «There are no tickets at the office, you know. If I’m not mistaken, you are a student. You will find this interesting, and it might prove useful to you in later life».

— What might prove useful? — I asked, surprised by this unexpected attention to my person.

— I don’t know, — she answered evasively. — Life itself will tell you, when the time is right.

Mechanically, without thinking, I took the ticket the woman offered and counted out the money.


Indeed, she was right — the long, rather narrow theater hall was filled to its full capacity. Accompanied by impatient clapping from the audience, Lev Borisovich Ben came on stage. In terms of outward appearance, at least, the man was not the type I expected to see. I always imagined hypnotists and psychics to be the kind of people, whose mere glance can make a person feel both incinerated and chilled to the bone. As it turned out, I was wrong. Ben looked quite ordinary: average height, slightly overweight, with a large head (perhaps, the impression was helped by him sporting a voluminous cap of dense, dark hair). He kept moving about the stage energetically, in a manner reminiscent of some clockwork toy. I don’t know why, but — I immediately liked him. I remember catching myself thinking: «Had me and Ben ended up in the same shop queue a few days before, I’d never have suspected him of having any sort of paranormal abilities».

Then again, he did remind me of someone famous — some scientist or writer, perhaps. But — definitely not someone from the performing world.

Having stopped in the center of the stage, Ben looked at the audience silently. The hall immediately fell quiet, as well.

— Before I begin my psychological experiments, — said he, — I’d like to briefly introduce you to the theoretical basis. No doubt, you all know about the existence of gravitational and magnetic fields. However, in addition to these fields, there is also a biological field. Every person possesses it. But, not everyone of us has the natural ability to capture it’s presence, or should I rather say — to feel it. There are only a few people in the world, capable of doing this — of using their mind to lock onto someone else’s bio-field. Pardon me my insolence, but — I happen to belong to that very small number. The notion of exploring another person’s bio-field is a rather broad one. In today’s experiments, I will show you only one aspect of locking onto another man’s bio-field, namely — the ability to read a person’s thoughts. It is, in turn, divided into two levels: deep reading and surface reading. To help you all understand the difference between these two levels — here’s an example of deep reading, based on an episode from everyday life.

A few years ago, I was accompanying that well-known fellow colleague of mine, Wolf Messing, on a trip from Moscow to Leningrad, aboard the «Red Arrow» express train. There was another man sharing the compartment with us. After we’d all made introductions, our fellow traveler couldn’t resist asking: «Say, can you use your powers to guess what station I’m getting off at?». To this, Messing immediately replied: «This is an express train. It won’t be making any stops all the way till Leningrad». «Then, can you tell me why am I going to Leningrad?» — persisted the man. Messing looked at him for a few seconds in silence, then answered his question with a question: «What if I told you that you’re going to Leningrad to divorce your wife?». Our companion froze for a moment, then clapped his hands and, clearly lost in thought, left the compartment without uttering a word. He remained absent for quite a long time. We were already starting to prepare for bed, when, suddenly, the door opened noisily, admitting our new acquaintance. He went straight to our compartment’s table, put a bottle of cognac on it and said happily: «Thank you for the idea!»

Ben’s last words caused laughter. Telling this amusing story clearly proved to be a successful move that heightened the audience’s anticipation of the things to come.

Rising his hand to calm the merriment, he continued: «In this particular case, the person had already decided to get divorced, but — on a subconscious level. His conscious mind wasn’t yet aware of this decision. However, it was readable to Messing’s mind. One might describe it this way: what Messing saw was a tiny blade of grass, hidden under the asphalt — waiting for rain to nourish it, searching for a crack to peer through. A tiny blade of grass that ordinary people won’t be able to notice until it finds it’s way to the surface. I repeat — my colleague managed to register a tiny seedling of an idea, which the experiment’s subject himself was not yet aware of. That was an example of deep reading. As for surface reading — by now, you have probably guessed that it involves reading thoughts that are present in the subject’s conscious mind.»

— And now, a few words on the way in which the experiments will be conducted, — announced Ben. — You, the audience, will need to elect a three-person commission from among your numbers. This commission will be checking the conformity of my actions to the actions specified in your notes. That is, anyone of you can secretly write down a certain sequence of actions he or she wants me to perform. Next, this person concentrates on mentally doing these actions. I read these thoughts and act them out for real. Then, the commission verifies that my actions were identical to those, described in the person’s note. I’m asking you all to be considerate, attentive and patient, and to restrain from asking me any questions throughout the seance. And now, with your permission, I will leave the stage for a few minutes. From my past experience, I know that electing commission members can be a very noisy and scandalous business. Therefore, allow me to wish you harmony and good luck!

My goodness, did he prove to be right! Suddenly, all hell broke loose in the theater. As Ben vacated the stage, it was immediately occupied by a man from the audience, who didn’t look in the least bit crazy — until he opened his mouth. Without much preamble, he started shouting that the whole thing was a sham; that he’d already been to two of Ben’s seances and was both times cheated out of a place on the commission; that commission members were in league with Ben, their purpose to help him fool the unsuspecting public. Just then, his shouting was drowned out by a veritable roar, coming from a tall, large-boned woman, who was standing like a lone pillar next to her first row seat. Addressing who knows whom, she demanded that police be called immediately, to arrest this man on the stage and take him straight to a madhouse (not to a police department, as common logic would have implied). In all, the voting took up no less than ten minutes. About twenty candidates were subjected to a rigorous and uncompromising discussion, which ended in all sides coming to an abrupt agreement — simply on the grounds of being mightily tired of the debate. (Later, during the seance itself, the audience would replace two of the elected commission members on the totally unjust accusations of secretly aiding Ben). I should note, that, compared to the way things are done today, those impromptu elections turned out to be quite democratic and, most importantly — honest (despite all of their comical and, as Ben himself put it, scandalous aspects). There was none of the manipulative stuff along the lines of: «Vote or you’re a loser»; no manhandling, bribery or gerrymandering.

When Ben reappeared on the stage, the first thing he did was to wish the commission members to remain objective and,  for some reason — to treat the forthcoming experiments with a philosophical attitude. That’s when I finally realized whom he reminded me of — my Philosophy professor, whose exam I was then preparing for. They were alike in figure and face, but what made them near identical was that both had big heads, capped by thick dark hair. I thought sadly: «If our professor can read other people’s thoughts, as well, then — not even cheat sheets will help me pass. He’ll just look deep into my head and see the total absence of thoughts on any of the exam questions.»

The first part of the seance consisted of Ben reading people’s surface thoughts and answering notes from the audience.

At the outset, the three members of the commission went around the hall, collecting about a dozen objects that happened to be in the spectators’ handbags and pockets. Empty purses, combs, coat check numbers, pocket mirrors and other items were then arranged on a table, which stood on the stage, close to the footlights. The experiment itself commenced like this: first, a member of the audience walked up to the table, took a piece of paper, wrote down the name of one of the objects (without showing the paper to anybody) and then vacated the stage. Next, Ben approached the spot where that person was sitting, gave him or her a brief, sharp look and returned back onstage. Once there, he confidently selected the right object out of the collection, assembled on the table, and handed it to one of the members of the commission. The commission member showed the object to the audience, holding it high above his head. A second member of the commission unfolded the piece of paper and, in a loud voice, announced the name of the object. All in all, Ben didn’t make a single mistake. The spectators greeted each correct guess with applause. The third commission member was busy ordering the chaotic queue, consisting of at least ten impatient individuals, eager to partake in the goings-on.

After the surface reading part was over, the time came for more complicated and interesting things. One of the experiments attracted everyone’s particular attention, not least because it ended in a small scandal. A woman from the audience had an idea to use Ben’s psychic powers as a means of searching her husband’s suit pockets. She evidently suspected her hubby of not submitting all of his earnings to the family budget. Not without reason, as it turned out! Having given the unfortunate man a careful look, Ben guessed correctly that his left pocket contained not just his coat check, but also some banknotes of suspicious origins. A fierce marital row flared up immediately. In addition to it, the now-familiar Thoroughly Mistrustful Man (obviously, no one had bothered to cart him off to the madhouse, after all) popped out of the shadows once again and started yelling that both spouses were actors, hired by Ben to simulate this amusing shouting match. I kept waiting for the tall, big-boned woman to chime in once again, but — for some reason — she was nowhere to be seen. In the end, several active people in the audience undertook their own investigation, which, following some heated debates, unexpectedly resulted in the resignation of one of the commission members.

After that, Ben moved on to answering spectators’ questions.  The metaphysical film director, responsible for creating my last night’s dream, only deemed it necessary to show me one episode of that Q&A session. An elderly, seriously ill-looking woman wanted Ben to give her advice. Her note said that she was doubting the effectiveness of a universally-recommended medicine she was taking. Since Ben could «see through the asphalt», she wanted him to tell her, whether she should continue taking the drug. Ben’s reply to the woman was that this question was a very personal one, and that he was forbidden to interfere with other people’s private lives. In my mind, I immediately asked him a question of my own: «Forbidden by whom?». Meanwhile, Ben continued: «I’m sorry, but you’ve got to understand —  even if I answer you by saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, neither answer will be acceptable to you. If I tell you to stick with this medicine, the authority of my advice will make you relax and drop your guard in the fight against your illness. You’ll start thinking that the illness is as good as cured and stop concentrating on defeating it. As a result, it might easily defeat you. On the other hand — telling you to stop taking the medicine might mean removing the only thing that keeps you alive». Strictly speaking, what Ben did there was to rather skillfully avoid giving a proper answer to the sick woman’s question. But — I liked the logic of his reasoning. «He could’ve become a top-notch psychiatrist,» thought I.

After the first part of the seance was over, Ben addressed the audience, saying: «I propose that you use the time during the interval to give some thought to inventing little scenes that will prove useful in the second half of our afternoon together. More precisely, you should write down descriptions of certain actions that you’ll then challenge me to read in your mindand perform onstage. Please, try to come up with something that will be both easy to do and interesting to watch. Just remember to stay within reasonable borders — don’t send me to get wine and kebabs from that nearby Georgian restaurant out on the Nevsky Boulevard. Fold your notes in such a way as to make them impossible to read. On the folded note, write your name and your row and seat number. Then, after the interval, hand your note to one of the commission members».

I decided to remain seated during the interval. Since I spent all my money on the ticket, a visit to the buffet was beyond my financial means. A thought came to me — perhaps, I should invent and write down a scene, as well? But, it was quickly strangled by that well-known disease familiar to all of us — sloth.

Seated in the next row, directly in front of me, was a young couple. The man was white-faced and dark-haired. Quite an amazing trick of nature, all based around contrast: pale colored skin versus jet-black head of hair (imagine an Indian, wearing a beauty range milk mask). Apart from this juxtaposition of light and darkness, there was nothing particularly interesting or attractive about him. On the other hand, his female companion was incredibly beautiful. Back in those days, I was already priding myself on having a reasonably good taste in girls. In girls, not in women — a good knowledge of the latter comes to men at more mature stages in life (in some cases, never). Understanding a girl and understanding a woman are two different notions entirely — a difference that calls to mind the lines from one of the last century’s popular novels: «Never mistake a territory for an aquatory». She had dark hair, as well, but — unlike in her boyfriend’s case — her looks weren’t defined by contrasts. Her exquisite head was crowned by black, shiny hair tied with a large, skillfully fashioned white bow. When the girl half rose from her seat to adjust the hem of her body hugging, one-piece dress, I was given the chance to see the whole of her petite, imagination-baiting figure. She was a true Oriental beauty, but of northern type — not the southern. Her perfect beauty had already captivated my gaze several times during the first part of the seance, making me temporarily forget about the proceedings onstage and in the audience.

My neighbors’ heads were just a meter away from mine, so I couldn’t help overhearing their conversation. Unlike me, they didn’t succumb to laziness and wrote down a small scene on a piece of paper, which they subsequently handed over to the commission. Very pleased with themselves, they kept giggling quietly, discussing Ben’s possible reactions: will he somehowmanage to get out of the ticklish situation their scene is going to land him in?

It was the obvious impossibility of being acted out onstage that made their scenario comically treacherous. The white-faced «Indian» and his Oriental Beauty clearly decided to play a joke on Ben. The proposed scene went on as follows: first, Ben had to read the «Indian’s» mind, find out his girlfriend’s row and seat number and bring her on the stage. Then, Ben needed to walk up to the man sitting directly in front of the pranksters and invite him onstage, as well. Finally, he had to remove the big white bow from Oriental Beauty’s hair and tie it on the man’s head. The punchline was in the fact that the man sitting in front of the couple was clean-shaven and sported a military-style crew cut. His head resembled a big, deformed billiard ball, so mirror-polished at the nape, that one felt the urge to try some fancy ice-skating pirouettes on it’s surface. There was absolutely no way one could attach a bow to that. I tried to picture the scene: poor Ben spinning around the shaven-headed man, trying to find some remotely-useful sprout of hair on his noggin, before finally despairing of the task and tying the bow around the man’s ear. «I bet the chap wouldn’t like that», thought I. «Having to stand like an idiot in front of a crowded hall, with a large white bow tied to your ear — no, he wouldn’t like that at all». I became even more reinforced in my belief as I watched the man return from the foyer and retake his seat towards the end of the interval. The fellow looked very important. He wore foreign-made clothes and used the Chypre cologne (created by the famous French perfumer Francois Coty, this cologne is the male equivalent of the famous Chanel No. 5). Back then, in the days of the all-encompassing shortages of household goods, the adjective «foreign-made» used to sound much more imposing than the adjective «expensive». Quite possibly, the man was one of those, whom Arkadi Raykin slyly termed «respectable people». Either that, or a by-no-means-the-least-important Secretary of some regional Communist Party committee. I, too, couldn’t resist giggling quietly: this promised to be fun.

— Listen, — Oriental Beauty whispered to her companion suddenly, — We seem to have put down the wrong row number! We should’ve given a row number one smaller than our own — not one bigger! That’s the row behind us, not in front. Such a stupid mistake! What should we do?! The note is already with the commission — they won’t hand it back.

She looked around, then turned back to her friend.

— There’s some guy sitting behind us, — she said quietly.

Finally given a proper excuse, my growing desire to get acquainted with the girl nudged me to strike up a conversation with the pair in front of me. But — what should I say to make remotely memorable or unexpected impression? Suddenly, it dawned on me:

— Excuse me, — I said, lightly touching her shoulder with my hand, — I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation! Not that you were trying to keep it to yourselves. I just wanted to say — it wasn’t your fault for writing down the wrong row number.

— Not our fault? — she asked, surprised. — Whose, then?

— No one’s, — I replied. — What really happened was that Ben had read your surface thoughts, realized how embarrassing — or even scandalous — the shaven-headed man incident might turn out to be, and decided to avoid it by using his power of suggestion to make you write down my row number, instead of his.

— How do you know all this? — she asked, now looking at me with obvious interest. — Perhaps, you are psychic, too? Did you read this stuff in Ben’s head?

Oh, how I wanted to say «Yes»! To make myself a superhero in her eyes. But — something told me not to do it.

— To my great regret, no, — I replied.

— Then, it’s all perfectly clear, — she whispered. — Obviously, this theory has been put into your head by Ben, as well. This is especially likely, since it’s you who’ll have to go onstage now, not the shaven-headed man.

— Damn it! I should’ve guessed it myself, right after I had that sudden inspiration, — thought I. — Turns out she’s not only beautiful but smart, to boot.

— You know what, I think that it was Ben who had invented this whole white bow scenario, not you! — I announced. — Look at the stage, he’s staring at us right now!

Indeed, at some point during our conversation, Ben had returned to the stage and was now looking straight at us, smiling.

The second half of the seance had begun.

Ben turned out to be right once again — at one point during the experiments, he indeed had to go to the theater buffet to get a glass of wine. Upon first learning about this task while reading an audience members’ thoughts, Ben thanked the man for heeding his earlier request and refraining from sending him somewhere further away, like the sausage section of the Eliseevskiy Food Hall out on the Nevsky Boulevard.

However, the goings-on on stage and in the audience no longer held any interest to me — I was too preoccupied with waiting for my own upcoming moment of fame. I was engulfed with excitement that bordered on mild fear. I came to this theater to watch a performance; to be a spectator — not an actor-cum-clown. And yet, that was exactly whom I was going to become in a few minutes — a guy with a silly white bow on his head, standing foolishly in front of the laughing audience. I had no desire to get up onstage — what I really wanted was to run straight out of the theater. But, bewitched by Oriental Beauty’s charms, I felt powerless to do so. At the same time, the state of nervous anticipation I was in prevented me from throwing any further glances at my beautiful neighbor.

Finally, one of the commission members loudly called out the row and seat numbers, belonging to the pale-faced «Indian». Watching him get up and walk towards the stage had intensified my anxiety even further. Taking hold of his arm just above the wrist, Ben guided the «Indian» back off the stage and into the aisle between the audience seats. Then, letting go of the man’s arm, Ben headed to where Oriental Beauty was sitting. Having passed along the empty seats, he approached the girl. With an apology, he took her hand and, without releasing it, escorted Oriental Beauty onstage. He left her standing there, then, acting exactly as before, brought her boyfriend to join her. After that, Ben headed to where I was sitting. He passed the empty seats and stopped in front of me. Skipping the excuses, he took my hand and led me out into the isle. He then let go of my hand, turned his back on me and set off back towards the stage, alone. He did all this without uttering a single word, as if confident that I would know what to do next. After a moment, I followed him.

On the stage, Ben put the three of us in a line, facing the audience. I’d never been on a theater stage during a performance before and was amazed by the sharp transition between the blinding brightness of the spotlights and the profound, dark abyss of the auditorium. It felt like standing under the direct rays of the midday sun at the gaping entrance of a dark fairytale cave. Ben was a wizard, who’d just rescued me and a fair maiden from some foeand brought us out of the darkness to a light-filled glade. The striking impression, this border between the darkness and the light made on me, caused my anxiety to disappear. Ben regarded the three of us for a few moments and said: «Now that everyone’s calmed down, let’s begin the experiment».

Walking up to the «Indian», Ben uttered in a quiet voice: «Approach the girl». Apparently, this was the thought that Ben had just read in the «Indian’s» mind. Then, Ben walked over to where Oriental Beauty was standing and turned to look at the «Indian». «Remove the white bow» — he murmured and, after some fumbling, pulled the bow off the girl’s head. This time not looking at the «Indian», Ben half-whispered: «Approach the young man and tie the bow in his hair». He came up to me and, having asked me to lower my head, tied one end of the bow’s ribbon to my hair with a tight knot. The other end was hanging all the way down to my shoes, curling into a small ring on the stage floor. My awkward attempt to immediately remove the bow met with failure — I stepped on the loose ribbon end, managing to tie the knot even tighter. While performing these moves, I staggered and almost fell. Both the initial bow tying scene and my consequent escapades caused laughter and applause in the audience. I still don’t know why I did it, but a fact is a fact: putting both my hands to my chest, like some Eastern fakir, I twice bowed deeply to the auditorium. At the second bow, the loose-hanging end of the bow’s ribbon unexplainably got caught on one of the buttons of my undone jacket. As I lifted my head, I was as good as blinded by the jacket flaps that suddenly rode up on my face. Eventually, acting by touch, I managed to extricate the bow ribbon from the button. This absolutely primitive episode caused a new burst of laughter in the audience. The applause grew louder, several people from the back rows started shouting: «Bravo! Bravo!». Ben raised his hand and, addressing the spectators, said that it was too early for applause — there was still the matter of what the commission would say. To my considerable surprise, when a commission member declared Ben’s actions to be correct and read out the note’s contents, this only garnered rather modest applause. This made me think that I actually managed to steal Ben’s thunder, and that Raykin himself would’ve envied the applause I received for my bow-related activities. I walked up to Oriental Beauty and asked her to help me remove the bow, hoping that she’d spend a long time fumbling with it (something that would’ve given me untold pleasure). Having asked me to lower my head, she pressed the bow to my skull with her light, slender fingers. Then, without untying it, she pulled it off my hair in one lightning-quick movement. She didn’t wear perfume, but I detected some soft, delicate, unfamiliar Eastern aroma coming from her face and hands. Intoxicated by it, I looked at the girl with loving eyes.

After thanking the audience, Ben announced the end of the psychological experiments. Then, he came up to me and shook my hand. These few seconds, the moments that Ben took away from me by making me divert my attention from the girl, proved enough for Oriental Beauty and her companion to disappear. They didn’t just disappear — they seemed to evaporate, like a desert mirage at sunset. I rushed to check the cloakroom and the foyer, then ran out into the street — the couple was nowhere to be found. There was only one way in which they could have vanished from my view so quickly and completely — by going backstage. Did this mean that they were Ben’s assistants?

Still under a strong impression from the psychological experiment to which I’d just been subjected; upset by Oriental Beauty’s sudden disappearance, I was walking slowly in the direction of the Nevsky Boulevard, contemplating the unpredictable nature of life. «Indeed,» — thought I, — «We can’t even be certain of what happens to us a moment from now». Just two hours ago, I, letting my fantasy run free, might’ve pictured myself as a world-famous scientist, or a spaceman on the Moon — anyone, except a cross between an actor and a clown, bowing to the applauding audience from a variety theater’s stage.

Suddenly, I was stopped by an elderly couple (apparently, husband and wife). «Excuse me,» the woman said, «We, like you, have just been at Ben’s seance. Can we ask — do you work for Ben? Does he really read people’s thoughts?». «No, I’m not an actor,» I replied. «I ended up at the theater completely by accident. I simply wanted to kill a couple of hours, that’s all». «Not an actor?!» the woman persisted. «But, you gave such a professional performance with that bow-removing routine! Now — what about Ben’s mind reading?». «I can’t tell you anything. I just don’t know…,» I replied. «You don’t know? Well, thank you,» she said, an obvious doubt in her voice.

I reached Nevsky Boulevard and stopped at a bus stop opposite the Kazansky Cathedral. As I was standing there, I was approached by a good-looking girl, leading by the hand a stubbornly resisting young man. The charm of the opposite sex that she exuded was of the kind that is more humiliatingly oppressive than attractive, implying a relationship where one partner is the master and the other is the servant. «Young man, we’ve just had a debate regarding you! Who are you? Are you from Ben’s troupe? I keep saying that we were shown a pre-rehearsed stage play, while he thinks that Ben can read minds,» uttered she in rapid succession. «I’m forbidden to tell anyone about this,» I replied, «But — I’ll tell you, if you’ll promise to keep it to yourself. Yes, the whole thing was pre-rehearsed. As for me — I’m a drama school student, working part-time for Ben». I immediately felt strong regret for saying that. «Well, Doubting Thomas — are you convinced now?!» she cried, turning to her companion and hitting him twice in the chest with her small handbag. «You fool, didn’t I tell you it’ll be a waste of time and money!». Male solidarity made me feel sorry for the guy, but — there was no way to take back my words.

Such is a precise enough description of the unusual episode that fate once sent my way. The episode, which was replayed in such detail in my last night’s dream.

The car slowed down a bit, then stopped by a crossroads, situated near a short green boulevard. The grassy lawns and the foliage-rich trees pleased the eye with their freshness and cleanliness. On this spring morning, sunlight was spreading joy to all and sundry. Everyone and everything was grateful for that, except for the morning clouds — clearly dissatisfied, they’d curled up in a ball and were trying to find some shade to hide from the rays that threatened to evaporate their bodies. Having failed to find any refuge over Moscow, they solicited the help of wind and flew away to continue their search for shade beyond the horizon. The car’s interior grew hot and stuffy. I asked the driver to turn on the air conditioner. The start of the session was still more than two hours away.

— First of all, — thought I, — I need to understand who is who. Which current political players and trends did the participants of the psychological experiments seance in my dream represent? Who is supposed to be the President, the governor, the oligarch and, finally, the electorate?

I decided to begin with Oriental Beauty — my most pleasant memory of the seance. Obviously, she represented the secretary, via whom I’d received my advance payment. Like the girl from my dream, she had a perfect figure and a face that possessed a strict beauty, with features that spoke of Oriental descent. Like her, she liked to wear one-piece dresses. She didn’t use perfume, but her body exuded a subtle, enticing aroma of some elite brand of French cream. If the white bow represented the advance payment, then — I would have to return it. After which, the secretary and her boss would disappear.

Which person or organization was represented in my dream by the character of Ben? That’s easy to guess: in any state, there are people whose duty it is to know what the populace is thinking, to monitor the goings-on «beneath the asphalt». Naturally, I’m talking about the relevant national security services. To my great regret, various tragic events, that occur in contemporary Russia on a regular basis, signify that the organizations, responsible for protecting the state, have all but lost their magic touch. The barrier they’ve put up against the terrorist threat is proving to be as ineffective as the Soviet Union borders circa late 1980s (the time of the infamous Mathias Rust’s Red Square landing incident). Today’s young heirs to Ben’s talent, the ones able to «dig deep and see under the surface» have all been bought up by people with big money, who only wish to ensure their personal safety.

Now for the important-looking, shaven-headed man — who might he be in today’s realities? Taking part in that psychological experiment would have landed him in a rather piquant situation — not during the seance, but the morning after. Heading towards his office at some regional Communist Party committee, he’d’ve heard people chuckle behind his back, with malevolent aides and insolent young secretaries making jokes about his bow-wearing experience. And that wouldn’t have been the worst of it — should his superiors have found out about the incident, he would’ve had to endure a very unpleasant questioning, along the lines of: «Do you realize that your off-work behavior undermines the authority of the Communist Party?»… It can be said, that, on that fateful evening, the shaven-headed man was balancing on the edge of the abyss. And, he was only just lucky not to fall into it. He certainly did nothing to save himself. Still, after the seance ended, the fellow left the auditorium looking as unperturbed and self-important as before. It was a little hard to believe that he’d been saved by Ben, but — there really were no other explanations. So, what contemporary personage might this man be compared to? The President? A regional governor, a powerful businessman? No — not the President. The following argument might be a little on the jokey side, but — the shaven-headed fellow doesn’t fit the Kerensky rule. Despite being humorous, this rule works with atomic clock precision, continuing to amaze generations of Russian political scientists. The rule is as follows: each subsequent leader of Russia (take note — we only consider long-term and historically important figures) must have the opposite amount of hair on his head, compared to his predecessor. A kind of an extrapolation from the well-known «Negation of the Negation» philosophical law, this rule was first discovered when the thick, rigid crew cut-wearing Kerensky surrendered power to the bald-headed Lenin. Since then, a succession of leaders followed: Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin, Medvedev. And, to this day — the rule holds true… So, it looks like the shaven-headed man from my dream is either a regional governor or a business oligarch.

The tall, large-boned woman and the mistrustful man, who she declared to be a candidate for the loony bin, have got to be two constantly feuding Opposition political parties.

The man, out of whose pocket Ben produced not only his coat check number, but also some banknotes he’d been hiding from his wife, may well be a personification of some large company. Accordingly, the banknotes themselves represent this company’s undeclared profits, discovered by the fiscal authorities, thanks to the information provided by the competitors. In cases like this, a scandal is usually orchestrated. Taking active part in it and fanning it’s flames is a political party (needless to say, we’re talking about a party that had previously been refused financing by the large company in question). A commission is set up. In the end, the commission’s findings disappear or get shelved, and it’s members resign.

As for the elderly couple in the street, the young people at the bus stop and the old sick woman at the theater — all of them represent our voters. Voters that doubt everything and refuse to trust anyone. They’ve got plenty of reasons for such behavior, too. Reasons that we, statesmen, continue to provide by being insincere in our media interviews and during personal meetings. Addressing a subject, we often say one thing to one group of people, and completely different thing to another. Or, we choose to fancy-talk our way out of giving any direct opinion on the matter.

Apologizing, the driver asked me for permission to smoke. Despite being in the process of giving up completely — at that particular moment, I found I couldn’t resist the temptation myself. I told him to go ahead and asked for a cigarette. We both lit up. «Something still prevents me from concentrating,» thought I. «Nothing but silly comparisons comes to mind. I must get a grip on myself. What I need is simple everyday wisdom.»

Suddenly, I remembered a long conversation I once had with a wise man in Senegal. It happened long ago, back when I was taking part in a maritime expedition aboard a scientific research vessel. The meeting occurred when our ship was moored at the port of Dakar, Senegal’s capital. To prevent instances of illegal «barter» between the expedition members and the indigenous population, the ship’s first mate organized a so-called «watch of vigilance». For the same purpose, the port authorities assigned a watchman aboard our vessel. Together with his Russian counterpart, the Senegalese representative was to patrol the decks, thwarting any attempts at covert business activity. But, in reality, the watchmen usually themselves became intermediaries in barter operations, organizing the whole chain of goods exchange. My turn to dispatch the watch of vigilance duty came on the third day of our stopover at Dakar, from midnight to four o’clock in the morning. All the goods had already been exchanged in the past two days, so — me and the Senegalese watchman had absolutely nothing to do. Since I spoke a little French, we’d spent the night talking, sitting in beach chairs on the ship’s upper deck, underneath the bright stars of the velvet-black tropical sky. In that time, we’d seemingly managed to talk about everything on earth. The man told me that he was literate, that he had attended school and that he had three wives: one in Dakar and the other two in the countryside, in different villages. He also revealed that he had to work hard (he smiled and corrected himself: «Steal hard»), to provide for his large family. After that, our conversation veered towards science. To my amazement, my new acquaintance suddenly started to reason like a philosopher. My knowledge of French was no longer sufficient, so I had to run off and bring a French-Russian dictionary. My counterpart looked very amusing as he ran his (for some reason, nailless) index finger through the dictionary’s pages in search of the right word, displaying child-like joy each time I was able to understand him. He told me that, at school, they’d been taught the theory of relativity, which was invented by a white man called Einstein. Their teacher used to tell that most white people can’t understand this theory — it is too clever for them. The watchman then proceeded to explain the essence of the theory of relativity to me in the following fashion: «You white people think that a zebra is a white horse with black stripes, while we think that a zebra is a black horse with white stripes. Who is right? And, come to think of it — what color is a zebra at night? In truth, no one can really tell, what color a zebra is. White people want to believe that it is white, we want to believe that it is black. So, you see — everything is relative. Everything depends on who we are; on what we want to see and believe».  Then, ceasing to smile, he told me about an article he’d read in a French newspaper , a short time before our meeting. Among other things, the article referred to Africa as the Black Continent. «As for Africa being black,» the man said, «That’s the way you see it, the way you want it to be. In reality, the blackest countries are those located in America and Europe — because they’ve got atomic bombs that can burn everything and paint the whole world black. Listen, I’ll tell you something else: concerning Man, in general. Of all intelligent creatures on earth, Man is the most stupid. Of course, it is very painful to realize that your species is stupider than grasshoppers and worms, but — that’s how it is. You want proof? Here you go! For thousands of years, all living things have been perfecting their defenses against the attacks by their own kind and other creatures. Scorpions honed their poison, making it ever more deadly; sharks increased the quality and quantity of their teeth. However, in all those millennia, only our species has come up with a weapon of self-defense that, if deployed, would not only destroy the attackers, but also eliminate all life on the planet (including the party that had deployed the weapon). It took us just a couple of decades to invent and produce those insane atomic contraptions, and we continue to modernize and perfect them. The question is — why us? I can give you the answer — because we are even more stupid than grasshoppers and worms. Everything is relative».

The car stopped at the stop line before the traffic lights of a busy intersection. Many of them already sporting summer clothes, pedestrians were hurrying to cross the street. A gray-haired elderly woman slowly passed in front of the car. «What’s that? A ghost?!» exclaimed I, surprised. She looked uncannily similar to the woman I talked to by the variety theater’s entrance, all those years ago.

All of a sudden, the sunny, cloudless skies over Moscow reverberated with thunder — the sound of jet fighters, heading for training exercises in the run-up to the Victory Day military parade. At the same time, the streetlights turned green, allowing us to move forward. Something lit up inside of me in that very same moment, as well — sending out streams of green light in four directions at once. This green light signified a realization, a way forward. All four streams rushed towards each other and collided, inside of me… I felt as if I’d suddenly recovered from some illness, or woken up from a dream.

And who are we, Russians? Our nation being one of the subdivisions of the most unintelligent species on Earth, we are nothing more than marionettes, conducting experiments on our own country, obeying someone else’s will. We’re living like small children — oblivious to the effects of our actions. Do we really know who chooses the «row numbers» in Russia — that is, who elects our country’s leaders? Russia today is not a white country. It is a black country, with only small patches (a few cities and regions here and there) still blossoming white. Black — not because of the presence of atomic weapons. And not because of those oil reserves, stored in nature’s dry land treasure repositories — reserves that, at today’s rate of consumption, will last for a few decades only. No — because of Russia’s citizens themselves. We have blackened in the soul from anxiety — the anxiety of job loss; the fear of living on a miserable pension, of the incompetence of the supposedly free medical care; the fear of death from terrorist attack in the subway or on a train, of the partiality of the courts and, finally, of the unity of state and corruption. We no longer care about those around us — we don’t even remember how. We’ve lost the sense of togetherness, the ability to feel pride for ourselves, for our country — the kind of heartfelt pride we’ve once felt for our countryman, who became the first human in space. It’s as if we’ve become deaf and blind, not hearing or seeing the blatantly vulgar and idiotic stuff going on around us. Just as, admiring the Kremlin, we fail to notice the fact that it’s walls have become the enclosure of the country’s most prestigious cemetery — the Red Square. Millions of steel doors that personal safety-conscious Russians have purchased and fitted in the last couple of decades (no doubt, to the great joy of the producers) don’t as much present an obstacle to thieves and burglars, as end up preventing visits from our next door neighbors — making everyone feel even lonelier than before. When it comes to protecting ourselves, we’re always on our own. And finally, to the most important part: all of us understand that personal security of individual citizens of a country ultimately depends on how secure a country is as a whole. Similarly, security of an individual country is determined by it’s ability to form alliances with other countries. If we understand all this, then — why do we keep descending into separation and loneliness; why don’t we seek to unite in our efforts to ensure personal safety, in all senses of the word? That’s the ultimate question. Perhaps, such is the essence of yet another experiment, that someone — not us — is conducting on our country. An experiment, of whose purposes we can neither know, nor even conjecture. If so — why have the fates that rule mankind chosen Russia, of all countries, as their proving ground? For what have we incurred this punishment of having to pay such a terribly tragic price of inhabiting planet Earth?

— We’re here, — came the driver’s voice. —  I’ll collect you at seven, as usual?

— Here, already? — for some reason, I dropped my voice to a whisper. — No, no, — my voice grew loud again, — Wait. I still have time, I’ll sit in the car. I need to be alone, to think.

I felt an urge to freshen the artificial, air-conditioned atmosphere inside the car. Opening the door, I breathed in the warm, almost summer-like air.

«Yes,» thought I, «I should (no — obliged to!) think everything through. But — I mustn’t think about myself. Everyone is alone. Loneliness of everyone means death of all! The reasons behind mankind’s creation and it’s continuing survival remain a mystery. Many intelligent species have already disappeared off the face of this planet, but — not as a result of self-annihilation. Yet, self-annihilation is exactly the direction in which the human race is heading. The insanely rapid development of weapons of mass destruction is one of the evidences of this. Apparently, there’s yet to be born a leader capable of putting a stop to this process. Humanity spends trillions of dollars on weapons and only a small fraction of this sum on fighting the true enemies of Man — the still very little-explored world of various microorganisms that cause cancerous tumors, AIDS and other deadly diseases. Those tiny organisms outnumber us, humans, by billions and billions. As long as we remain lonely and disconnected, we’ll never be able to survive in our fight against them». The closed session I was about to attend was dedicated to the final reading debates of the fiscal component of the cost of a project to create a new type of strategic weapons. All participants knew that the costs of the project would cause profound changes in the country’s economic situation and bring about a significant decline in the population’s standards of living. A decision came to me — the project’s development must be suspended and the financing significantly reduced. A certain part of the freed-up sums should be allocated to microbiology research. But, this research mustn’t involve the development of new chemical and radiotherapy methods of eliminating harmful microorganisms. We need to discuss and approve the financing of a scientific research project aimed at finding ways of achieving sentient communication with them. To make the matter more accessible, let’s fantasize a little about what the life in the microcosmos might be like. Imagine a regular meeting of the global Microorganism Security Council, being held somewhere in New York, Paris or Moscow. The speakers angrily denounce humanity for committing yet another act of aggression against microbiotic life-forms. They report that, as a result of humans using a new means of mass destruction against one of the microorganism species, the death toll is reaching critical levels. One of the speakers proposes to respond to this aggression with an adequate counterstrike — creating a new species of fighter microorganisms who’ll have ample protection against Man’s latest weapon. Like a wave, a devastating epidemic will travel around the world, reducing the human population to minimal numbers. We, humans, have enough intelligence to understand that, same as with amassing nuclear arsenals, our continuous refinement of the means and methods of destruction of microorganisms has to stop some day. Indeed, when our actions will force the microcosm’s numbers to drop below a certain — as yet unknown to us — point, they will declare a full-blown war on mankind. And — because of our stupidity, our disconnectedness, our preoccupation with fighting wars between ourselves — the microorganisms will have us outpowered. Despite the fact that we’ve seemingly defeated cholera and plague, we don’t know whether our science will be able to win in a war against the entire microcosmos while managing to protect all the seven billion humans on the planet. Without doubt, finding a language suitable for communicating with microorganisms will be an outstandingly difficult task. The project will require substantial financial and time investments, but without it — there is no future for Man! We must suppress a habit that resides in all of us on genetic level — the habit of solving everything by killing. Just as we’ve learned to coexist with each other, so must we be prepared for having to negotiate peaceful coexistence with microscopic lifeforms. However, it is highly likely that, as with the exclusively human issue of nuclear proliferation, our attempts to find a compromise with the microcosm will come to a dead end — that is, to a state of assured mutual destruction that would deter both sides from aggression. We must begin thinking about these possibilities — and doing something about them — today! And another thing: Russia must break with the Kerensky rule… «I will say all this in my speech today. We, humans, don’t have the right to be the least intelligent creatures on Earth,» said I aloud.

«If this project is given a go ahead after all,» thought I, «The next few days will signify the countdown to the beginning of a new chapter in the life of our country. This time around, the New Year will come in springtime. We’re used to observing the old New Year’s Eve tradition of shouting ‘Here’s to the New Year! Here’s to the New Happiness!’, as the Kremlin Clock chimes midnight. But, in our souls, we don’t feel any genuine renewal. Our sense of excitement at the coming of the New Year doesn’t even last until the evening of January 1st, getting replaced by fatigue and indifference. Perhaps, as is the case in some other countries, we should celebrate our New Year in spring. Each coming of spring signifies the end of something we’ve already experienced and the beginning of something new. Like an axe striking a log, spring chops the year in two separate halves. Sensing the aroma of the first flowers; rejoicing with the journey-wearied birds, returning to their nests; feeling hypnotized by the spring sunshine, we yearn to encounter new love and understanding. Spring gives us hope that life has pleasant surprises in store for everyone and makes us more inclined to believe in the possibility of new happiness, a happiness of which only we ourselves will be the authors.

The rising sun warmed the asphalt of the parking lot. Through the light steam rising from it, I saw two cocky sparrows, happily splashing in a puddle. Everything in nature breathed warmth, auguring the arrival of a hot, thunderstorm-filled summer. A group of young people, possibly students, was walking past the parking lot. Laughing, they were carelessly discussing something. It seemed like they didn’t care at all about the problems faced by the world around them. One of them looked in the direction of the car, his gaze lingering on me for a second. «He doesn’t know it yet,» thought I, «But, this very evening, this lad might also end up at some seance, where something unusual might happen to him. And then, several decades later, suddenly finding a parallel between memories of this evening and the issues people will be facing at that point in the future, he’ll too have to decide whether to vote for or against making his country the subject of yet another fateful experiment».


The story was written in March — April 2010 on board the research vessel «Academic Aleksandr Karpinsky» during its passage from the Antarctic to Saint Petersburg.

About the author:

Nikolai Filimonov was born in Leningrad, in 1946. He’s received higher technological education. Nikolai has taken part in several dozens scientific expeditions to the Arctic, the Antarctic and various regions of the World Ocean. He has been awarded the title of «Honorary Mineral Resource Scout».  Both his works of fiction and his socially-themed publicism have been regularly published in periodicals since the early 1970s.

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