I never expected to find an urban legend told as a taiga camp story deep in the heart of the Soviet Union. In fact, I even had to look up the word "taiga" recently when I read Russian author Yevgeny Yevtushenko's 1981 novel "Wild Berries."
According to my dictionary, "taiga" refers to the "swampy coniferous forest of Siberia beginning where the tundra ends."That seems like a good setting for stories about bears, wild rivers, earthy peasants, old war heroes, petty government officials and the like - and the book's full of such things - but it's hardly a place where you'd expect to find a big-city yarn.
Yet, there it was, a Siberian version of a classic city legend involving a dead cat and a switched parcel. Yevtushenko retold the story in a scene of the book in which a group of prospectors are sitting around their camp telling tales about cats.
I immediately became interested at the point where one man tells a story involving a dead cat, because one of the basic rules of urban legend spotting is "Never trust a dead cat story."
The storyteller begins, "I'll tell you about Ruslan and Ludmila," and a second character interrupts, "Don't get sidetracked from cats."
But "Ruslan and Ludmila," the man explains, is a kind of cake made in Leningrad that's named for two characters in a Russian fairy tale. It's as if we had a dessert called "Hansel and Gretel's Gingerbread."
In his story, the narrator describes how he once rode on a commuter train in Leningrad and sat near an old woman who had a cake box, wrapped and tied, that had a "Ruslan and Ludmila" label on it.
A group of long-haired young people boarded the same train car, carrying some packages and bottles and playing loud music on their tape recorders. The quiet old woman closed her eyes in disgust until the intruders left, then opened them again and began crying.
She immediately noticed that the young people had taken her box and left one of their own in its place. The new box said only "Fruit and Berry" on its label.
The storyteller says that he tried to comfort the woman by saying, "At least you still have a cake. You won't come visiting empty-handed."
But the old woman explained through her tears, "I wasn't going to visit anyone. I was on my way to bury Vasya, my cat. I had him for 18 years. I was carrying poor dead Vasya in the box. I wanted to put his body to rest somewhere in the country, near birch trees."
If you don't recognize the legend called "The Dead Cat in the Package" in the old woman's story, then you must not be a regular reader of this column or of my books. It's one of the oldest, most widespread and variable urban legends of all time.
Whatever twists and turns the dead-cat plot takes, it always involves some unwitting person who steals what he or she thinks is a valuable package and ends up with a cat's corpse.
I'm sure from the discussion of the story by characters in the novel that Yevtushenko was aware that he was using an apocryphal story.
Mike Corrick of Salem, Ore., who sent me a photocopy of the excerpt and inspired me to read this terrific novel, added, "I particularly like the author's comments here concerning the life and growth of urban legends."
Referring to one of the geologists who listened as the story was told, Yevtushenko wrote, "he had a feeling that he'd heard this story somewhere else. It seemed to be something perilously close to an old chestnut."
The geologist decides not to challenge the tale, however, because, as Yevtushenko wrote, "There is a peculiarity of the taiga camp story: Even the storytellers themselves don't know exactly where the truth ends and invention begins."
It sounds to me like the taiga tale has a lot in common with the urban legend, and in this case, the two overlap.- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to him in care of the Deseret News.