© 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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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.
Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky. The gigantic fluctuation
Last-modified: Wed, 23 Jun 2004 03:56:42 GMT