The first time I saw her was some three years ago. Then, it had seemed as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, she was so shy. She timidly begged us writers for our autographs and stared at us in starry-eyed wonder.
All these three years she didn't miss a single meeting of our association of SF writers. Though she’d never been invited, nobody had the heart to chase her away—which, beyond doubt, puts the blame squarely on our own shoulders. She would perch herself on the edge of a chair and avidly drink in every word uttered, even complete balderdash, as if it were a Ciceronian oration.
Little by little we became accustomed to her sitting there, quiet as a mouse. So the first words she ever pronounced came like a bomb shell. We’d been discussing a new novel that abounded in verbose sentiments and semi-popular digressions. All our criticism failed to dent the author‘s euphoria.
“Look here,” he said, a complacent smile wreathing his face, “let’s ask the kid. Out of the mouths of babes, y’know. Well, little one, was there anything you liked in my book?”
“Sure.” Her reply was willing enough.
“Finel” the writer exclaimed. With an encouraging chuckle, he inquired. “And what exactly was it that you liked, m’dear?”
“Those eight lines by Antokolsky on page fourteen. Just great!”
This was when I first woke up to realize that we were dealing with no shy, round-eyed lass, but a cheeky imp in green ski pants and lilac leather jacket, whose pockets bulged with books and who had the eyes of a saucy hussy, tinged—as yet rather naively—with shadow.
Ever since our association meets resembled more, in the words of her first victim, a whizz-bang in a gunpowder magazine. And Hussy became my name for her.
Hussy was, for some reason, more condescending toward me. She addressed her double-barrelled remarks to me in private, when accompanying me home. Once I invited her up, and after that she turned up nearly every night. She hardly bothered me. She would rummage around by [sic] bookshelves, and having found something to her fancy, settle down on the couch for the rest of the evening. She maintained a silence of sorts, if you get what I mean. She bit her nails, snickered, even whistled softly, when anything particularly eaplllfed her fancy—much in the same way as, she believed, the fantastic spider-crabs dreamed up by one SF Writer, do. Incidentally, she read everything she could lay hands on, not only SF.
“Romeo was a dope,” she remarked once, putting aside of Shakespeare, “I can tell you what he ought to have done to elope with Juliet.”
Still, it was SF, and SF alone, that was her passion. She waded even through bilge, to then long eye the ceiling with a vacuous stare. Nothing on earth could rid her of her habit of vicariously “living” the characters, of remaking the story, and of soon losing all track of where the book ended and her own fancies began.
One day she told me in all seriousness that she had met an invisible cat.
“It mewed, y’know, but no cat, neither hide nor hair, to he seen. I’m sure it’s that same cat!”
“What cat?” I asked.
“The cat Griffin had expermiented with, of course. Remember, Kemp'd asked the Invisible Man whether the invisible cat was still around, and Grifﬁn says, ‘Sure, why not?’ Surely you can't have forgotten that! If it was an invisible cat, it ought to’ve had invisible kittens! Gee!”
Hussy spotted in SF things nobody ever paid much heed to. Where, on earth, she’d ask, could the model of the time machine, yes the model, not the machine itself, have got to? H.G. Wells says, in passing, that the model had gone voyaging in time. So why didn’t he or other writers even mention it, at least once again, later?
What Hussy was most keen on generally, was “why not now?” three words she always ran into one another to make “whynotnow?” Can’t we resuscitate the severed head of some professor, so “whynotnow?” Can't we run liquid helium into a tub and dunk someone in it for purposes of anabiosis, so “whynot-now?”
One day, a story came her way about a man who could fly with wings that had been fixed up with the aid of “electroplastic muscles”. She fondled the magazine for quite some time, studying the illustrations, before she finally produced her “whynotnow?”.
For three whole days after she pestered me with that “whynotnow”.
At last fed up, I introduced her to an engineering friend of mine, whose fund of patience seemed inexhaustible. Why, he even put up with perpetuum mobile inventors.
Hussy at once produced the magazine and fired her “whynotnow?” In response the engineer took down several books on the theory of flight and circumstantially explained why not now.
The larger a living creature is, the less advantageous is the ratio between the thrust it can develop and its weight. Which is why such large birds as the swan and bustard can’t fly very well. A horse couldn't fly, though, even if it did have wings. As for man, his weight is more or less within limits. Man can develop a thrust big enough to lift 70 to 80 kilos. However, the added weight of the wings would completely offset that.
The engineer used slide-rule, graphs and a host of instances to ram his point home. Meanwhile Hussy listened, not interrupting once, wrinkling her nose scornfully. I didn’t know her then as well as now, and didn't recognize the warning sign.
For almost a fortnight she stayed away. Then one evening she turned up with a battered suitcase tied around with a piece of string. It even crossed my mind that she was going away somewhere.
“I’ve got wings here!” she blurted out.
She fidgeted, bursting with impatience. I was surprised to hear that Hussy had made something. So far she had merely theorized.
“The boys made the wings for me,” she said rather staidly, even solemnly, quite in contrast to her usual manner. “I suggested the idea and they did it for me.”
This was something new—to learn that Hussy had boy—friends.
“I'll explain everything right away,” she said pulling at the knot. “We've already tried it out and it's simply great!”
Used to her fantasies. I expected to hear something out of this world. But what she said indeed appeared simple, at any rate, quite possihle. Her explanations were brief.
Since man is too heavy to fly, one shouldn’t bother to invent muscle-fliers for him-—that was an axiomatic truth Hussy had reinterpreted in her own fashion to imply that such contraptions should he devised for animals lighter than man.
“It’s sheer egoism,” she declared. “Why has man been thinking all these thousands of years only about himself? Why not make wings for animals?” she demanded.
Indeed, why not? This was quite unexpected, and for the life of me I couldn't think of what to say.
In the suitcase a large ginger tom lay curled up atop an umbrella. or rather the remains of one, as these were the wings.
“Half a mo’,” said Hussy, as she set about strapping on the wings.
The cat gave not the slightest trouble. In fact, I’d never seen so imperturbable a creature. It lay there, without a whimper, until Hussy had the wings firmly buckled on. The cat now resembled a pterodactyl out of a picture in a novel of fantasy. But, as I said before, the creature seemed to care not a rap that it had the doubtful honour of being the world’s very first winged cat.
Pursing its eyes, it looked around lazily, gave a genial yawn and padded up to the armchair. Hussy helped it climb up, whereupon it gathered the wings beneath it, snuggled down on top, and at once dozed off.
I explained where Hussy had gone wrong. Wings were not enough, I told her. The entire organism had to be re-adjusted to fly. The psychological side was also important, besides the anatomy. The creature had to know how and want to_ﬂy.
It seemed sound logic to me, but all Hussy did was to wrinkle her nose and shake her head.
“Psychology,” indeed,” she scoffed. That cat got plenty of psychology too!”
She went to the coat rack for her jacket, scrummaged around in its seemingly bottomless pockets and brought out, of all things, a real, live, honest-to-goodness mouse, which she put down on the table. The tom pounced as if hurtling out of a gun. It must have been a good jump as jumps go, only the cat forgot the wings. They opened up with a loud crackle when the animal was In midair, taking it in a mammoth jump clear across the table. Indeed, if not for the wall, it would have gone another thirty metres or so. Instead it slammed into the wall, rocked its head dazedly and soared up the ceiling. The wings creaked and flapped, and the cat, scared still, whizzed round the chandelier like mad, round and round, round and round. Then the wings collapsed and the cat, hissing and spitting, tumbled down into the chair.
All that was heard for a while was a piteous mewing.
“What a pity,” Hussy broke the silence. “I ought to have taken a bat, along. I bet it would’ve got it! What d’you think, any use for flying cats in the national economy?”
I assured her that the national economy could quite dispense with flying cats, and with ﬂying dogs too. I was sure she would think of that.
Flying dogs you say?” she repeated musingly. “That’d be terriﬁc for minding sheep. But I think those whatyoumaycallems’ud better fly themselves. Then they wouldn't need anyone to mind them. Could fly away on their own.”
“Who, they?” I asked dully.
“Sheep, of course,” Hussy returned impatiently. “Why, they could fly up to graze in the mountains surely. Wouldn't that be great!”
It hit me then that with Hussy one had to go gingerly as if on eggs. She was quite able to turn any idea topsy-turvy. One never knew what one might let oneself in for. Carefully picking my words, I explained that there was a system to this business of wings. Creatures had wings only when it was expedient. Wings were of use only if a creature was in the air
for most of the time. Otherwise, they simply got in the way, as so much useless lumber.
Hussy silently shoved the cat back into the suitcase.
“Keep you chin up,” I said.
“Sure,” she answered absently.
About a week later there appeared in our local paper an item headed “Can Chickens Fly?”. The contributor, who held a degree in biology, noted that a couple of days back, many in town had witnessed an extraordinary phenomenon, a chicken flying by high up. Earlier, he wrote, it had been thought that chickens couldn’t fly. But, he added, apparently we still did not know enough about this common barnyard fowl. His concluding sentence ran: “Given time science will surely crack this riddle of Dame Nature's”.
I did not doubt for a moment that Hussy, not Dame Nature, was behind the whole affair. True, I was partly to blame. After all I had told her, hadn’t I, that wings shouldn't be so much useless lumber.
I telephoned by [sic] engineer acquaintance.
“She has a point, you know,” he said after listening to my rather confused explanation. “After all, we’ve got bionics, with engineer copying nature, so, why shouldn’t we have it the other way round? Your girlie has started off a whole new science of applying technical aids in nature. After all, they shoe horses, don't they? Flying sheep, you say? Well, I can‘t quite visualize that, but you could have a flying rabbit. I tell you what, I’ll figure it out for you, very roughly, right away.”
Next morning’s paper had another item, this time in the “Local news” column. It despondently stated that all the swans that for the last eight years had graced the ponds in the town park, had suddenly soared up and disappeared with startling rapidity in an unknown direction.
I was reading the item for the second time when the door-bell rang. It was her. I had never seen her in such sparkling spirits before.
“I've got a brilliant idea,” she jerked out, having barely set foot over the threshold. She was, to use a battered simile, as pleased as Punch, no whit taken aback by my general air of gloom. “Just you listen!”
“The flying chicken,” I intervened.
“Flying fiddlesticks,” Hussy retorted with a wave of her hand, “Who wants flying chicken anyway?”
I then asked about the swans. Hussy impatiently wrinkled her nose.
“Swans are kid's stuff. Perhaps they want to be up there. Don’t you remember saying so? We just added a bit to their own wings, a few more feathers to make their wings useful. You can make pigeon’s wings longer too, to give ‘em more speed. But ﬁsh’ll be more exciting!”
“Fish?” I hastily asked, stalling for time.
“Sure! Their flippers’re like wings, aren’t they? Take a dolphin, for instance. Wouldn’t it ‘be great to see one fly? Or a sword fish, which can do eighty kilometres an hour through water. Say, do you think the national economy could do with a few flying ﬁsh?”
I was at my wits’ end. The cheeky imp that stood before me herself seemed the most fantastic creature any SF writer could imagine. And this living fantasy was brimming with impatience, knew no bounds and had a scratched nose and a diabolical gleam in her eyes. Some powerful cure was needed desperately and at once. As a last resort, I invoked the laws of evolution. Wings and flippers. I said, were the net result of aeons of natural selection which had produced the most expedient form.
“Evolution, so what!” Hussy didn't even bother to hear me out. “Evolution hasn't ended yet, by a long shot! Only it’s too slow. Whynotnow? Why not whip up evolution? Get me?”
I could already distinctly imagine a ‛whipped-up’ world in which flying cats chased bats and flying dogs, winged rabbits, while hydrofoil elephants played tag with winged dolphins, and fishermen lashed nets to balloons. This was letting the jinn out of the bottle with a vengeance! Shoulders sagged as I felt—no joking, mind you—the heavy burden of responsibility I bore to all of humanity.
Then I had a brainwave. Where it came from I don’t know, but it was most providential and right in the nick of time. A little more, I felt, and nothing would have stopped her.
“Wings are nothing,” I said purposefully echoing her own tone. “Anything’ll fly with wings. Wings are old hat. But take anti-gravity, for instance. That’s the thing! True, some say it is way, way off. But why? Whynotnow?”
* * *
As I write these lines, Hussy is curled up on a chair by the window. She is studiously reading Landau and Kitaigorodsky’s “Physics for Everyone”. She’s been dotty about physics for a couple of months now. Nothing special has happened in the meanwhile. She sits there, huddled over her book, biting her nails and mechanically twisting stray strands of hair around her finger. All’s quiet.
For the time being.
SOURCE: Zhuravlyova, Valentina [Zhuravleva]. Hussy [same story as “The Pest”], in Everything but Love: Science-Fiction Stories, translated from the Russian by Arthur Shkarovsky (Moscow: Mir Publishers, 1973), pp. 143-151. With book cover & inside graphic.
Valentina Zhuravlyova / Zhuravleva:
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