“Reindeer discovered again their ancient powers of flight,” and other Tunguska effects (Pynchon’s Against the Day)

FOR A WHILE after the Event, crazed Raskol’niki ran around in the woods, flagellating themselves and occasional onlookers who got too close, raving about Tchernobyl, the destroying star known as Wormwood in the book of Revelation. Reindeer discovered again their ancient powers of flight, which had lapsed over the centuries since humans began invading the North. Some were stimulated by the accompanying radiation into an epidermal luminescence at the red end of the spectrum, particularly around the nasal area. Mosquitoes lost their taste for blood, acquiring one instead for vodka, and were observed congregating in large swarms at local taverns. Clocks and watches ran backward. Although it was summer, there were brief snowfalls in the devastated taiga, and heat in general tended to flow unpredictably for a while. Siberian wolves walked into churches in the middle of services, quoted passages from the Scriptures in fluent Old Slavonic, and walked peaceably out again. They were reported to be especially fond of Matthew 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Aspects of the landscape of Tierra del Fuego, directly opposite the Stony Tunguska on the globe, began to show up in Siberia—sea ernes, gulls, terns, and petrels landing in the branches of fir trees, swooping to grab fish out of the streams, taking a bite, screaming with distaste, and throwing them back. Granite cliffs rose sheer and unexpected out of the forest. Oceangoing ships unmanned by visible crews, attempting to navigate the shallow rivers and creeks, ran aground. Entire villages came to the conclusion that they were not where they ought to be, and without much advance planning simply packed up what they had, left behind what they couldn’t carry, and headed off together into the brush, where presently they set up villages no one else could see. Or not very clearly.

And from everywhere in the taiga, all up and down the basins of the Yenisei, came reports of a figure walking through the aftermath, not exactly an angel but moving like one, deliberately, unhurried, a consoler. Accounts differed as to whether the outsize figure was man or woman, but all reported having to look steeply upward when trying to make out its face, and a deep feeling of fearless calm once it had passed.

Some thought it might be some transfigured version of the shaman Magyakan, whose whereabouts had been puzzling folks along the Stony T. No one had seen him since the Event, his izba was empty, and the magical force that had kept it from sinking, like everyone else’s dwelling in Siberia, into the summer-thawed earth, had abated, so that the cabin now tilted at a thirty-degree angle, like a ship at sea about to slide beneath the waves.

None of the strange effects lasted long, and as the Event receded in memory, arguments arose as to whether this or that had even happened at all. Soon the forest was back to normal, green underbrush beginning to appear among the dead-white trunks, the animals fallen speechless again, tree-shadows again pointing in their accustomed directions, and Kit and Prance continued to make their way through it with no idea what this meant for their mission out here.

—Another citation from Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.

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