The Centaur - synopsis and excerpts

by Nikolai Baturin

In a desert kingdom, in a city located at the borderline between the sea and the desert - let us call it OIL CITY because of its big oil refining terminals and a large and busy oil port - ...there lives and works an ancient dynasty of oil-well drillers, the BIGARTS, in the oilfields of Oil King EMERSON: great grandfather MICHAEL, grandfather ODID, father KIRYL. And a little boy, born to Kiryl and his Greek wife DIDO, named NIKYAS, who is the protagonist of the novel. While all the Bigarts are fanatically devoted to oil, Nikyas, the son of the Chief Engineer is indifferent to oil.
His father sends Nikyas to a madrasa, a traditional school of Islamic learning, so that the boy will get to know the Muslim world. At the madrasa, Nikyas is a weak unsociable boy whom everyone ignores. The teacher discovers the boy's hidden talents from the very beginning…
 
In early boyhood Nikyas lost his way in the desert and got caught in a sandstorm. Having lost his camel, he took refuge in a tuft of mat grass, where he and a couple of trembling hares waited until the storm was over. Then he set off again… The sun beat fiercely upon his head, the sandy dunes stretched endlessly, and the boy set out on a hopeless journey through the desert. Young Bigart might have perished…
…but for a solitary desert lark (this is a true fact), who led him to the mountains, where water was found. There he met a snake catcher (and a snake priest) called MARAB, who led a secluded life in his stone cottage. The man revived young Bigart, treating his feet in his stone cottage and introducing Nikyas to his weird "congregation" - hundreds of different species of desert snakes. (Marab had picked them up from the oil fields and from the desert roads, thus saving thousands of them from a certain death.) One evening, when the sun was setting and a wind was rising, Marab invited the boy into the desert and showed him something that he had never seen before - a WIND ORGAN. The "instrument" consisted of empty bottles, in various configurations, half-buried in the sand at different angles… When at last the wind started blowing, Marab raised his finger to his lips and said: "L i s t e n!"
    Miraculous sounds were produced one after another: the WIND ORGAN played...
a mystical melody to the tune of  which the slender bodies of Marab's snakes moved.    

At the age of fifteen, Nikyas Bigart finishes primary school and continues at an English college. He is still a puny and humble young man who has to endure the practical jokes and beatings of the boys and the teasing of the girls. Nikyas has three faithful friends: the tortoise HELONE, his history teacher SARAH SCHLIEMANN, and EAMON, a handsome athletic figure and a remarkable person.
At the end of the semester, the schools of Oil City organise a history quiz, which is won by the team led by Sarah Schliemann. It is Nikyas who gives the best answer and thus scores the winning point. The team is awarded a tour of ATHENS… Nikyas does not want to go, but his father, Kiryl, insists on his flying to GREECE.
The quiz team lives in a small hotel from where they are taken on various tours. One day the guide organizes a surprise trip into a small village in the mountains. Here the guide reveals their destination: the CENTAUR'S CAVE, high up in the mountains. It turns out the path is so difficult that only the bravest can manage it.
The history teacher, who realises that this is Nikyas's chance, pushes him forward and says proudly: "He is the bravest!"
Bigart turns pale, but after a scornful burst of laughter from the quiz team he pulls himself together and, to everybody's surprise, says clearly and decisively: "Yes!"

They set off. The stocky PATHFINDER with his long staff striding ahead, and Nikyas, stumbling and falling after him. He walked well behind… and then his classmate ,the giant Golem, came out of hiding and pushed him hard  (The giant felt that he was losing control over the puny Nikyas)…Nikyas, who could hardly recover from the blow, followed the Pathfinder, crawling on all fours. They reached the path which led to the cave, but all that was left after the landslide was a narrow ledge of the cliff, so that the only way for him to walk was on his heels, pressing his back and head against the cliff.
"ON we go!" the Pathfinder ordered strictly.
A yawning chasm was seen under the ledge and even the slightest leaning forward would send the young man into the ravine below. He tore his clothes and the back of his head bled against the sharp cliffs. Moreover, the unprotected face of the young man was attacked by hornets… Cut and with swollen eyes he stumbled onwards - WHERE TO? TO THE CAVE?
    It was damp and cool, and a waterfall came splashing down from a high cliff. Without seeing anything ahead or around, the tormented Nikyas stumbled on towards the sound of the waterfall. He stretched out his bleeding hands and head under the falling water …
…when the Pathfinder cried out warningly:
"B l o o d !"
"Water, " answered the tormented young man and stepped trustingly under the fall.
"I warned you," said the Pathfinder. "You have chosen YOUR WAY!"
Nikyas Bigart was standing under the water gushing forth from the crack in the cliff - and then something quite unexpected happened: his wounds closed, the swelling was reduced, and Nikyas slowly opened his eyes to…
… a red spout streaming from a crack high up.
"Can't you see, it's blood" the Pathfinder said. "THE CENTAUR DID NOT OBEY THE GODS AND THEY CONDEMNED HIM TO AN ETERNAL WOUND."
Nikyas Bigart, startled, looked at his body and feet and did not understand what was going on…

In the evening the others wait for the young man and the Pathfinder. At long last they notice the latter… and an unknown young man, a giant, with a thick mane of black hair. The young man turns out to be the transformed Nikyas.
    In the evening the village is celebrating a feast in honour of DEMETER, the goddess of fertility. Sarah Schliemann is elected to play Demeter, and the beautiful Laura is chosen as her daughter Persephone. At midnight, in the middle of the feast, Nikyas, who has changed beyond recognition, feels a sudden and strange change in his consciousness…

The bonfires were dying when suddenly a powerful dark CREATURE dashed through the darkness into the crowd, pulled Demeter and Persephone from the throne - and that was all that was seen of the goddesses.
In the early morning the guide phoned the tourist police:
"A teacher, named Sarah Schliemann, and a student, called Laura, from my group were kidnapped last night… Sorry, they are coming!"
Sarah, and Laura, the recent rivals, were walking with their arms around each other's necks over the Alpine meadow. Their clothes were torn, and they were bruised and broken, but obviously happy!

The airplane carrying the quiz team lands in Oil City. Kiryl Bigart and his boss Erebus Emerson are also present. Kiryl does not at first recognise his son who has not only changed outwardly, the inner change is equally noticeable. To his father's great joy, his son is now devoted to oil. Nikyas Bigart purchases most of the world’s oil fields and creates an Oil Empire. To protect it, he establishes the most powerful army in the world. The women find him irresistible and his love affairs resemble the centaur's love-making.
Strange changes still affect him. In a mutant state, in another dimension, Nikyas does not remember later what or where he has been or what he has done.
… a chopper pilot checking the oil pipes spots a running centaur in the desert and reports what he has seen. The dispatcher advises him to see an eye doctor, or a psychiatrist.

Nikyas receives an invitation to his friend Eamon Emerson's wedding. He is going to marry the famous dancer Dido Drummond who performs a Tahitian wedding dance. Suddenly a powerful Creature rushes in and takes the bride away. At daybreak, the Emersons see Bigart ascending the stairs of the palace carrying the unconscious bride.
"You found her," says Eamon, who goes to meet him. "Where?"
"In the desert," is Nikyas's brief answer.
Dido Drummond loves them both: Nikyas as a man and Eamon as a friend. But seeing how the former friends turn foes, Dido disappears. Old Emerson, who had recognized the robber of the bride as Nikyas in the light of a rocket, makes a tragic mistake and confesses to his son that Nikyas is the Centaur. 

There are two signposts on Bigart's highway of life. One is acoustic: at all important events the favourite music of his father, Bach's By the Waters of Babylon sounds. The other is phantasmagorical: beginning with the funeral of Sarah Schliemann, he is accompanied by a weird weakling, with pimples on his face. Since to others the boy is invisible, Nikyas calls him his SHADOWMAN. A strange relationship develops between them: the boy warns him about great dangers to his life, advises him, and sometimes even makes decisions for him… The older Bigart grows, the younger the boy gets. Bigart does not know him, and there is no one to tell him that the weakling is …
...HIS OWN BOYHOOD IMAGE.

As there was still some hope of finding her lover, the dancer, Nikyas Bigart employed an entire intelligence service. All in vain. And then the Personal Secretary offered to help him; the Rumanian Melania Mouzhes, who is silent most of the time, promised that she would help him  find  Dido.

Eamon challenged Nikyas to a fight to the death in the desert, from where Nikyas emerges as the winner.
 
Nikya realises that he has to retrace his steps and he joins the next quiz team traveling to Athens.

The airplane takes off. In the cabin, Nikyas notices a weakling boy in the window seat… holding a tortoise in his lap. The airplane lands in Greece, and everything is the same: the quiz team visit the Acropolis and the museums, etc. At the end of the trip the guide announces a surprise: they are going to the Centaur’s Cave. But Bigart, who stayed in the bar the night before, sleeps in and the bus departs. Bigart rushes out, jumps into a red station wagon and chases after the bus.

Bigart drove down the mountain path. But he got lost in the maze of the paths and stopped at a dead end at a rock. He got out, sat down, and said: "Dido, where are you?"
"I'm here."
Raising his head, Bigart saw his secretary:
"Melania Mouzhes… How the hell did you get here?”
"I was in the station wagon."
A tragic truthwais revealed: to be able to stay close to her lover, Dido Drummond (alias Melania Mouzhes) had asked a surgeon to distort her face and body beyond recognition. The only proof of Dido's identitywais the dark starlet above her right eyebrow, which reappeared after each operation. It seemed as if there was nothing that could separate them now; after all the trials and tribulations they had redeemed themselves and could be happy and love each other.
Bigart hugged her tenderly and said with a smile:
"Dido, I'm going to fire you as my personal secretary and employ you…"
"No, Nikyas."
"Why?"
"You killed your brother."
"Eamon. How can that be?"
"Emerson took his son away when your mother gave birth to him abroad."
Bigart stood still, with his face turned up, his eyes closed.
"Nikyas, swear," Dido begged him softly and tenderly, “that you will not follow me.”
Bigart swore. Melania-Dido went to the station wagon, took a can of petrol and climbed the slope of the mountain. Bigart wanted to stop her, but the oath bound him, physically. In the middle of the night a human torch was burning. A fiery flower, an eternal sacrifice to unfulfilled love.

The airplane is approaching the capital of the Oil Empire. Emerson is waiting by his limousine.
The door of the airplane opens and a thin grey-haired man stands at the door. He disembarks and hurries away. When the man gets closer to Emerson, the latter asks:
"One moment, please… was someone left behind on the airplane?"
The stranger stops for a moment.
"No, Erebus, I was the last one."
"Wh-who are you?"
"The shift engineer of the 16th drilling unit."
"Wh-where are you coming from?"
"From Greece. I was on leave."
"Okay." Emerson says ironically, “and during the whole of your holiday you never washed your hands..."  
"Fuel oil with metal additives, Erebus. I can't wash my hands of it, as you can't wash yours of blood."
"What the hell? ..NIKYAS! Emerson suddenly cries out. "You have found yourself…now you can climb the pedestal.
"No," the passenger says and walks on.
"Where are you going?" Emerson shouts.
"To the oilfield, the shift is starting … The plane was late… I can't be late for the shift." Emerson tries to keep up with him, but he cannot, he stumbles, falls, crawls on all fours after the Passenger - and falls into the dust face down. Deep sobs shake his body.

(the final passage of the novel)
If Nikyas Bigart had made it, it would have been to the 16th unit… but this had been shut down by Sir Nikyas Bigart about twenty years ago because of its poor productivity. Yet the rusty oil rigs were still standing, half buried in the sand, and around them dark pink tamarisk bushes in blossom like reddish flames.

(The epilogue of the novel.)
A R e v e r b e r a t i o n
In the desert the snake-catcher Marab is tuning his wind organ, made of bottles half buried in the sand. There is still time before the sunset wind rises, and Marab makes use of the respite to finish his work in the stone cottage. Casting aside the flap of the door and bowing his white head, Marab enters the cottage… and sees the strangest vision of his life:
In the shafts of the sun, sparkling specks of dust float. In this sparkling dust a green-eyed boy, about twelve years old, is standing - the wanderer in the desert, with injured legs, who had come from the sandstorm in the prime of his life. Marab is neither shocked nor surprised. This merely confirms his knowledge that time does not pass. What passes is our imagination of time that does not know aim or direction. At the moment he has travelled against time…
… and found this green-eyed boy!
However, the boy's legs are not hurt.
With a golden dusting of sand, the boy's image thins out; it crumbles into floating specks
...the right shoulder - the left hand - the eyes and the heart - separate from the boy and float back into the desert through the openings in the walls. At the same time the wind organ booms, playing a tune that Marab does not understand and has never in his life heard… (By the Waters of Babylon by Bach)