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     © Copyright by Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky
     © Copyright 1973 translated from the Russian by Gladys Evans
     From the compilation "JOURNEY ACROSS THREE WORLDS"
     Mir Publishers Moscow 1973
     OCR: http://home.freeuk.com/russica2

     I was only  a boy at the time, and there was  much I did not understand
then and much  I later forgot--perhaps the  most  interesting  parts. It was
night time, so I  did not even see the man's face. And  his voice was not at
all exceptional, maybe a  little sad and husky,  and he coughed now and then
as if from embarrassment. In a word, if  we happened  to meet  again, on the
street somewhere  or,  let  us say,  at a mutual friend's,  it is more  than
likely I would not recognize him.
     We met on the beach.  I had just been in for a swim, and was sitting on
a rock. Then I heard the rattle of falling shale behind me--him  coming down
the embankment--there was a whiff  of  tobacco  smoke, and he stopped beside
me. As I have already said, this happened at night. The sky was overcast and
a  gale was  rising out at sea. A strong, warm wind whipped along the beach.
The stranger  was  smoking,  and  the wind cut long  orange  sparks from his
cigarette, whisking them over the deserted sands till they vanished.  It was
pretty to see, I remember that well.  I was only sixteen,  and it never even
occurred to me  that he would speak.  But he began to talk.  And his opening
words were rather strange.
     "The world is full of marvellous things," he said.
     I decided that he was  merely thinking aloud, and kept silent. I turned
to look at him, but could discern nothing. It was too dark.
     "The world is full of  marvellous  things,"  he  repeated,  then took a
drag, shedding a shower of sparks my way.
     Again I did not answer: I was very shy then. He finished his cigarette,
lit another, and sat down on the rock beside me. From time to time  he would
mutter something, but  the roar  of the  surf drowned the words  and I heard
only an indecipherable mumble.
     Finally, he declared in a loud voice: "No, it's really too much. I must
tell somebody about it."
     And  then  he spoke to  me  directly,  for  the first  time  since  his
     "You won't refuse to hear me out, will you?"
     Naturally, I didn't refuse.
     "Only, I must work up to it, because  if I tell you right off what it's
all  about,  you won't  understand,  nor believe  it  either.  And it's very
important to me that you  do believe  it. Nobody  believes me,  and now it's
gone so far...."
     He fell silent, and then continued.
     "It began when I  was still a child. I was learning to play the violin,
and I broke four glasses and a saucer."
     "How was that?" I asked.  A sort of funny story flashed through my mind
about a lady who said to another: 'Just imagine, yesterday the janitor threw
us some wood, and broke the chandelier.' There is such an old joke.
     The stranger gave a sad laugh.
     "Just  picture it. This happened the very first month  I started taking
lessons. Even then my teacher said he had never seen  anything like  that in
all his life."
     I said nothing, but I  also thought  it must have looked  quite  odd. I
imagined  him  waving  the bow and  occasionally  sweeping  it  against  the
sideboard. That certainly could have led him too far.
     "It's  a well-known law  of physics," he explained,  unexpectedly. "The
phenomenon of  resonance." And  in the same  breath, he related  the amusing
example  given  in  the  school  physics  textbook,  the  one about a bridge
collapsing when a column of soldiers marched across it all  in step. Then he
explained that glasses and saucers could also be broken by resonance, if you
selected vibrations of the required  frequency.  I must admit that only from
that moment did I really begin to realize that sound was also vibration.
     The  stranger told me that  resonance  in  everyday life  (in  domestic
economy,  as he put it) was a very rare thing, and he took much  delight  in
the fact that a certain ancient law-book included such a bare possibility by
stipulating the  punishment  for the owner of  a cock whose crowing broke  a
neighbour's pitcher.
     I agreed  that  it really must be a rare thing. Personally, I had never
heard of such a case.
     "A very, very rare thing," he said. "And yet I broke four glasses and a
saucer in one month, with my violin. But that was only the beginning. "
     He  lit a  cigarette,  and  added: "Very soon,  my parents  and friends
observed that I was breaking the sandwich law."
     Here I  decided not to betray my ignorance, so I said: "A strange name,
     "What  name?" he asked. "Oh, the law?  That's not  a name. It's ... how
can I explain it? It's  a  sort of joke. You see, there is a  whole group of
old sayings, for  example: 'Expect trouble, and you are sure to find it....'
An open  sandwich, or  a slice of bread and butter, always falls butter-side
down  ...  the idea  being that the bad happens oftener than the good. Or to
put  it  scientifically:  the probability  of a desired event is always less
than half."
     "Half of what?" I asked, and immediately realized I had put my foot  in
it again. He was very surprised at my question.
     "Don't you even know the theory of probability?" he asked.
     I answered that we hadn't got to that yet at school.
     "In that case, you won't understand a thing," he said, disappointed.
     "Then  you explain it," I  said angrily, and he obediently complied. He
told me that probability was the likelihood  of one or  another event coming
to pass according  to the ratio of the favourable cases to  the whole number
of cases possible.
     "And where do the sandwiches come in?" I asked.
     "A  sandwich might  fall  butter-side down or butter-side up," he said.
"And so,  generally speaking, if you  try dropping a sandwich  at random, it
will sometimes fall  one way  and sometimes another. In half  the cases,  it
falls butter-side up, and the rest of the time butter-side down. D'you see?"
     "Ye-es," I said, for some reason remembering I hadn't had supper yet.
     "In such  cases, they say that  the  probability of a desired result is
equal to half--to one-half."
     He went on to say that if you dropped a sandwich one hundred times, for
example, it  might  fall  butter-side  up fifty-five or merely twenty times,
rather than fifty: that only by  dropping it  for a very long time, over and
over, would it  fall  butter-side up  in approximately  half the  number  of
cases.  I  pictured  this miserable, open  sandwich  (maybe,  even  a caviar
sandwich) after it had  been thrown a  thousand times on the floor, even  if
the latter wasn't  too dirty. Then I asked were there really people  who did
such stupid things. He set in to explain that, actually, sandwiches were not
used for  this aim, but  money, like  when  you toss for  something.  And he
explained  how  it was  done,  burying  himself  deeper  in a  labyrinth  of
examples, so that soon I stopped following him and sat looking at the gloomy
sky,  and thought it would probably rain.  From this  first  lecture on  the
theory   of   probability,  I   can  recall  only   the  half-familiar  term
'mathematical  expectation'. The stranger  used  this  term  repeatedly, and
every time  I  visualized a large  hall,  like a waiting-room  with  a tiled
floor, where people sat with briefcases and blotting-pads, from time to time
throwing money or sandwiches up to the ceiling,  and awaiting something with
fixed  attention.  Even  now,  I often  see it in my  dreams.  And  then the
stranger almost deafened me with the ringing term: 'the  maximum  theorem of
Moivre and Laplace', adding that all this had nothing to do with the matter.
     "You know, this isn't what I wanted to tell  you, not at all," he said,
his voice losing its former liveliness.
     "Excuse me," I inquired, "I suppose you're a mathematician?"
     "No," he  answered  dully.  "How  can  I  be  a  mathematician?  I'm  a
     Out of respect, I said nothing.
     "Well, so it seems I haven't yet told you my story," he recalled.
     "You were talking about sandwiches," I said.
     "You see, my uncle was the  first  to notice it,"  he continued. "I was
very absent-minded,  see, and often dropped sandwiches. And mine always fell
butter-side up."
     "Well, that was lucky," I said.
     He sighed bitterly.
     "It's lucky when it happens once in a while... But when it always does!
Just think ... always!"
     I did not understand what he meant, and told him so.
     "My uncle knew a thing or two about  mathematics, and was interested in
the  theory  of probability.  He  advised me  to try tossing money.  We both
tossed. Even then, I  didn't realize that I was under  a curse, but my uncle
did. That's what he told me then: 'You're under a curse!'"
     I was as much in the dark as before.
     "First,  I  tossed a coin one hundred  times, and  so did my uncle. His
fell heads up fifty-three times, but mine ninety-eight. You know, my uncle's
eyes almost popped out of  his head. And mine, too.  Then I  tossed the coin
again: two  hundred times. And imagine,  it fell  heads  up one hundred  and
ninety-six times. I should have known then what would come of such things. I
should have known that a night like this would come along, sometime." And at
that, I think a sob burst from his throat. "But I was a  bit too young then,
d'you see, younger than you. I found it  all terribly interesting. I thought
it was very funny to be the focus point of all the miracles in the world."
     "The what?" I asked, amazed.
     "Mm  ...  the focus point of miracles. I can't find any other words  to
express it, though I've tried."
     He relaxed a bit, and began to tell everything the way it had happened,
chain-smoking and coughing. He told it at length, trying to describe all the
details and invariably giving a  scientific  foundation to all the events he
described. He astonished me, if not by the depths of his  knowledge, then at
least  by its versatility.  He showered  me with  terminology from  physics,
mathematics, thermodynamics  and  the kinetic theory of gases, so that later
on,  when I  was  grown up, I often wondered why  this or  that  term seemed
familiar  to me. Frequently, he delved into philosophical questions, and  at
times seemed simply incapable of self-criticism. For instance, he repeatedly
boasted of  being  a  'phenomenon',  a  'miracle  of  nature',  a  'gigantic
fluctuation'. It was then  I  realized this wasn't a  profession. He told me
that  miracles  weren't  miracles at  all,  that they  were simply  the most
improbable events.
     "In nature,"  he  persisted,  "the  most  probable  events  occur  most
frequently, the least probable much more rarely."
     He had in mind the law of the non-diminution of entropy, but it sounded
terribly impressive to me then. After that, he attempted  to explain a state
of extreme probability, and fluctuation. My  imagination  boggled,  then, at
the well-known example  of a room where all the air had been drawn  into one
half of it.
     "In  such a case," he  said, "everybody sitting in the other half would
die,  and the  rest would  count it a miracle. But  it  would be far from  a
miracle: it would be a fully realistic fact, though an extremely unusual and
unlikely  one.  It  would  be  a  gigantic  fluctuation--a  hardly  probable
declination from the most probable state of things."
     According to him, he was just such a  declination. He was surrounded by
miracles.  To see  a  multiple  of twelve rainbows at  once  was nothing  to
him--he had seen this six or seven times.
     "I am better  than any  amateur weather-forecaster,"  he  boasted,  but
despondently.  "I've seen the  Northern Lights as far south as Alma-Ata, and
the Spectre of the  Brocken in the Caucasus; and twelve  times I've observed
the famous green ray or 'sword of hunger', as it is called. I went to Batumi
and a  drought  began. Then I travelled  to the  Gobi  Desert and was caught
three times in tropic rains."
     When he studied at school and the university, he always drew ticket No.
5 at the exams. Once, during a post-graduate exam, when everybody knew there
would  only be four tickets from the number of  students taking it, he still
drew No. 5. An hour  before the exam, the professor had  suddenly decided to
add one more ticket.
     His sandwiches continued to fall butter-side up.  ("I  am doomed to it,
apparently, right to my grave," he said. "It will always remind me that I am
not just an ordinary man, but a gigantic fluctuation.")
     Twice he happened to be present at the formation of large air lenses (a
macroscopic fluctuation  of the density of air,  he explained  vaguely)  and
both times these lenses lit a match which he held in his hands.
     All   the   miracles   he  had  encountered,  he   divided  into  three
groups--pleasant,  unpleasant  and  neutral.  Butter-side up sandwiches, for
instance, belonged  to the first group. The  inevitable  cold he had,  which
began and ended regularly on the first day of each month, he assigned to the
second group. In the last, he included various phenomena of nature which had
the honour of taking  place in his presence. Once,  for  example, the second
law  of  thermodynamics  was  violated:  the  water  in  a  vase  of flowers
unexpectedly  began to attract the  warmth from the  air around  it until it
reached boiling point, while the room was covered with frost. ("After  that,
I wandered around like a lost  soul,  and even now,  d'you see, I test water
with  my finger-tip, for instance, before  drinking  it....") Ball lightning
flew repeatedly  into his hotel room--he  travelled a lot--and hovered under
the  ceiling for  hours. He had finally  got used  to  them, using  them  as
electric lamps for reading.
     "Do you know what a meteorite is?" he suddenly asked. Youth is inclined
to  rough jokes, so I answered that meteorites were falling stars, which had
nothing in common with stars that do not fall.
     "A  meteorite may  fall  on a house,"  he remarked, thoughtfully.  "But
that's a  very rare thing. Only one case has been recorded where a meteorite
fell on a man. The only case of its kind, d'you see...."
     "Well, and  what of it?" I asked.  He  leaned over and whispered: "That
man ... was me!"
     "You're joking,"  I  said,  with  a shiver. "Not at all,"  he answered,
rather sadly. It turned out that all this had happened  up  in the Urals. He
was travelling  on foot through the mountains, and stopped for  a  minute to
tie his shoelace. There came a sharp hiss and he felt a jolt in his backside
and pain from a  burn. "There was a hole in my trousers, that big," he said.
"And a trickle of blood,  just  a  little. Too  bad it's so dark, or I could
show you the scar."
     He  had  picked  up a  few  suggestive pebbles,  and  kept them  in his
desk--perhaps out of them was the meteorite.
     Things  happened  to  him  that  were absolutely  inexplicable  from  a
scientific point of view. So far, at least; at the present level of science.
Once, for  example,  for no  reason at all, he  had become  the source of  a
powerful magnetic field. This was manifest  because all the iron objects  in
his room leaped up and whirled toward him along the lines  of force. A steel
pen pierced his cheek, something  struck him painfully on  his head, on  his
spine. Shaking with terror, he shielded himself with his arms, while knives,
forks, spoons and scissors clung  to him from head to foot--and suddenly, it
was all  over. It  had lasted no more  than ten seconds, and he  hadn't  the
faintest idea how to explain it.
     Another  time, on receiving  a  letter from a friend, he discovered, to
his  surprise, after reading the first few lines, that  he had got a perfect
facsimile of the letter several  years before. He even recalled that on  the
reverse  side,  beside  the  signature, there should  be  a large  ink-blot.
Turning the letter over, he actually saw the spot of ink.
     "None of  these things were ever repeated," he added sadly. "I consider
them the most amazing occurrences in my collection. That is, I did ... until
this evening."
     In general, he interrupted his discourse  rather often to explain: "All
this, d'you see, would be very fine, but what happened today.... Believe me,
that was the limit."
     "And doesn't it seem to you," I asked, "that you would  be  of interest
to science?"
     "I  thought about that," he replied. "I wrote.  I made the offer, d'you
see. Only nobody  believes  me. Not even  my relatives.  There was  one  who
did--my uncle, but he's  dead  now.  I  simply can't imagine  what they will
think  after  today's occurrence."  He sighed,  and  threw  away  his  butt.
"Perhaps it's best that nobody believes me. Suppose somebody did. They'd set
up a commission, and would follow me everywhere, expecting miracles. And I'm
not very sociable,  by nature; and besides, my character's completely ruined
from all this. Sometimes, I can't sleep nights ... I'm afraid."
     As far as the commission was concerned, I agreed  with  him. After all,
you see,  he could not bring miracles about, at will.  He was only the focus
of  miracles, a  point  in space, as he  put it, where very unlikely  things
occurred. They could not be settled without commissions or observations.
     "I  wrote  to one scientist I knew  of," he continued. "Mainly, though,
about the meteorite and the water in the vase.  But,  d'you know,  he took a
very humorous attitude. He  answered that the meteorite didn't fall on me at
all, but on a certain  driver, I believe he was  Japanese. And he suggested,
very sarcastically, that I  get  medical advice. I became very interested in
the driver. I thought that he  also might be  a  gigantic fluctuation--judge
for yourself, it's quite  possible. However, as it  turned out, he died many
years ago. And, you know...." He pondered for a moment, and  went on. "But I
I went to a doctor, just the same. Apparently, I was not at  all exceptional
from a medical point  of view.  However, he  found  I  had  a slight nervous
disorder and sent me here, to a health resort. And I came. How  could I know
what would happen?"
     He suddenly gripped  my  shoulder and  whispered:  "An hour ago, a lady
acquaintance of mine flew away!"
     I failed to understand.
     "We were walking up there, in the park. I'm a man, after all--and I had
the most serious intentions.  We  got to know each other in the dining-room,
went for a walk in the park, and she flew away."
     "Where to?" I screamed.
     "I don't know. We were walking,  she suddenly cried out  in alarm,  was
pulled right off the ground and rose in  the air. I  came  to myself only in
time to catch her by the foot; and here, look...."
     He pushed some kind  of  hard object into my hand. It was a sandal,  an
ordinary bright-coloured sandal of average size.
     "You understand, it's not utterly impossible," muttered the phenomenon.
"Chaotic movement of the body's molecules, Brownian movement of particles of
the living  colloid became regular,  and  she was  torn from the  ground and
carried away. I simply can't  imagine  where. It's very, very improbable....
What do you think? Should I look on myself as a murderer?"
     I was shocked, and could not  get  out  a word. For the first time,  it
occurred to  me that probably he had  imagined it  all. But he spoke  again,
with a yearning painfulness.
     "But even that, you see, isn't the point. After all, she may  be caught
on a tree somewhere. You see, I didn't start looking, because I was afraid I
wouldn't find her. And now, d'you see....
     Formerly  all these miracles only concerned  me. But now? What if these
tricks begin  happening to  my acquaintances? ... Today, a girl flies  away;
tomorrow,  a colleague vanishes underground; and the day after.... Take you,
for example. Why, you aren't insured against it, right this minute. "
     I  had  realized this myself,  and I  became  amazingly interested  and
terrified,  too. That  would  be something,  I  thought. If  I  only  could!
Suddenly, it seemed to me that I was flying up, and I gripped the rock I was
sitting on. The stranger suddenly stood up.
     "You  know, I'd  better  go,"  he remarked, plaintively. "I  don't like
senseless  victims. You just  sit there, and  I'll  get along.  Why didn't I
think of that before!"
     He  hurried  away  along  the  shore,  tripping  over stones, and  then
suddenly called back to me: "You'll forgive me, I hope,  if anything happens
to you! It doesn't depend on me, you know!"
     He  kept going farther and  farther  away, and soon turned into a small
black figure  against a background of almost  phosphorescent surf. It seemed
to me that he  lifted  his  arm and  threw something white into  the  waves.
Probably, it was the sandal. So that's how we parted.
     To my  regret, I would not  recognize him  in a crowd. Unless a miracle
happened! I  never heard anything  more of  him,  and  nothing extraordinary
happened at the seashore that summer, as far as I know. More than likely his
girl did  get caught on some branch or other, and later on they got married.
You see, he had the most serious intentions.
     I  know  one thing, though. If I should  ever shake  hands with  a  new
acquaintance and suddenly feel I've become the source of a powerful magnetic
field, and notice, to boot, that this  person  smokes a lot  and  frequently
coughs--a  sort  of  hm-ahem--then  that  means  it's  him.  You  know,  the
phenomenon, the focus of miracles, the gigantic fluctuation.

Last-modified: Wed, 23 Jun 2004 03:56:42 GMT
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