from Russia on Wheels (Limbus Press 2008, 200 p.)
Translated from the Russian by Mariya Gusev
Nikita had one physiological quirk. He fainted often. Of course, he did not do so from the sight of blood or in reaction to vulgar language, like a typical Turgenev lady, but for no reason at all.
Sometimes it happened in the middle of a conversation, sometimes due to the strong spring breeze or when walking through the subway station tunnels, which resembled spaceships. He was so awed by life. And this is how he experienced what was going on around him. Sometimes his organism couldn’t take the tension. And turned off all by itself. This was the only way to make Nikita take pause and catch his breath, which was always baited.
Also, Nikita often experienced pains in some randomly incongruous parts of his body. Ones that didn’t usually cause much trouble for other people, for example, his heel, or his wrist. Or something completely ridiculous like his index finger. Pain also took him out of the daily stream, but in a milder way, obscuring the picture behind fogged up glass. Inside, a silence would appear, in which crickets ticked and cicadas spoke their weighty word. Nikita listened to the cicadas and looked out, smiling, onto the world. As if from a distance, as though a different form of life. And the train quietly rolled onward towards Tashikha…
Nikita came to. He felt the gaze of his country upon him, the cloudy eyes of the third class carriage. Someone’s neck was gathering fleas from a military coat, legs were stretching into the narrow passage between duffel bags, suitcases and rolling carts.
The country periodically attempted to splash Nikita with boiling water, falling over and grasping the railings, to feed him dried fish and homemade pierogies, to smear him with melted chocolate, make him drink vodka, take him for a fool with a grease-smeared hand of cards from a deck that had naked chicks instead of queens.
The country was trying to make contact with Nikita. Become intimate with him. The country wasn’t letting him sleep, wasn’t letting him think, and wouldn’t leave him in peace.
The country yawned, snored, stank, ate, drank, climbed onto the top bunk, stepping on someone’s hand, gnawed on sunflower seeds, solved a crossword, scratched its balls, argued with the conductor who sat her down right near the bathroom, bumped around next to the screeching doors, saying: “What station is this?” – “Look the guy is out again” – “Didn’t look like he was drinking” – “He must be a druggie” – “They are all druggies these days, some stick themselves, others sniff it!” – “You should hold your tongue, mother, about things you know nothing about, the person’s not well…” – “Maybe call a doctor?” – “Why should I hold my tongue?! I stood over a lathe my whole life! Don’t try to shut me up – I’m an invalid!” – “Please keep it down, woman, the children are sleeping!” – “The children! They’ll grow up and will also sniff glue and tell the elderly to shut up!” – “Grandma, stop nagging! Let’s sing a song instead: IN THE FIELD THE TANKS WERE RRR-OOO-LLL-ING! THE SOLDIERS WERE ON THEIR FINALMARCH!”
Nikita came to again, and stepped out for a smoke. The country was approaching station Bottom, swaying on its suspension and languidly stretching out along the curving railway. Then it braked abruptly, and stopped at a streetlight.
– Hey, bro, where the heck are we?
– We’ve hit bottom! – Nikita screamed back merrily and began to make his way towards the exit.
Station Bottom was damp and deserted. Only the dispatchers talking to each other
in their otherworldly tongue, and the invisible patrollers banged on the metal joints of the trains.
– Where are you going, whipper snapper? – the fat conductor emitted in her deep
and tender bass, looking the part of an oracle. – Are you going to keel over again? Will I be the one to have to clean you off the tracks?
Nikita smiled at the oracle and shrugged his shoulders. It smelled like coal, rotting
wood and the road. A thin drizzle tickled his face. It was as if everything around him sensed some secret. That cannot be communicated. Because there is no reason for it.
In the train car Nikita was approached by a little boy. The boy clutched his knee and asked in a serious voice:
— Do you have a dream? – And without waiting for a reply: — I do have a dream: I want to fall into the bushes and live there!
— That’s it? – asked Nikita. – Is that all you need to be happy?
The boy turned thoughtful, sticking his fist in his mouth.
— Well, I would also like a train. I would ride it and ride it. And then… I would fall into the bushes! And I would live there!
— So what’s stopping you? – Nikita leaned down, trying to capture the child’s fleeting attention.
— Socks! – the boy blurted out and, having gotten bored, ran off.
— Warm socksies, from sheep’s wool, giving them away for fifty roubles, twice as expensive at the market!
– a woman with a large checkered bag hollered, squeezing through the car’s cavity. – Real wool here, grab ‘em, girls, you won’t regret it!
At the far end of the car the portly saleswoman of socks engaged in an uneven screaming match with the train conductor, whose thick deep bass drowned out all retorts.
— How many times do I have to say this! This is not the Red Cross! If you want to ride – you have to pay!
We’re not a monastery but the Russian! Rail! Road! What do I care about your kids! Popped out a whole mess! I’ll take you off right now. Next time – I’ll call the cops!
Nikita grabbed his backpack and also began making his way towards the exit.
On the empty platform the boy who dreamed of falling into the bushes slept, as though it was a common occurrence, on a bag of socks. No bushes anywhere in sight. Only the empty eye-sockets of buildings and a country road, stretching out into the darkness. Another boy, a little older, hands deep in his pockets, was skeptically eyeing the creaking lamppost. The sock woman was watching the departing train and for some reason smiling. Nikita was enjoying this.
The door of the train terminal building at Kirzhach station turned out to be nailed shut. Nikita put the checkered bag on a wet bench.
— Well, looks like we’re spending the night here. There’s no getting used to it. We’ll hold each other and won’t freeze, — the sock seller Antonina Fedorovna was saying, spreading plastic bags on the bench. – Go ahead, take your shoes off, I’ll give you some socksies also, so you won’t freeze your feet off.
— Mom, I want some tea! Mom, I’m all stiff! Mom, my stomach hurts! – whined the older boy Sema.
— Stop your crying! Smile! What did I teach you? Straighten your back and smile! Tomorrow our luck will change!
— It’s always tomorrow! Nothing will be different!
— Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare to even think like that! Let alone say it! Look, Leon’ka is the youngest, but he’s being strong like a real man!
Leon’ka was sleeping peacefully, his folded hands under his cheek. He definitely didn’t doubt that tomorrow was going to be better than yesterday.
— I also used to be like Sevka, said Antonina Fedorovna. Every little thing made me burst out crying. My head filled with all sorts of thoughts: nothing will work out, my whole life will be like this… might as well climb into the noose! And then I read in some American book that the guarantee of success is a straight back and a smile. And now, no matter what happens, I always remember: the most important thing is to smile and not slouch. Then you’ll have luck!
— So how is it going? – Nikita inquired cautiously – Does it work?
— Well so far not really – Antonina Fedorovna confided in a light tone – But I don’t despair. Because I know that someday – everything will definitely change!
Antonina – Tonya Kiseleva – grew up in a small mining town of Halmer-U. It’s located beyond Vorkuta, further north towards the Arctic ocean, down the narrow-gauge railway that connected the mine with the rest of the world once a week.
At seventeen, she got married to a driver. On weekends he took her around the tundra in a ramshackled truck, on which he hauled garbage during the working hours. Then Seva was born. And then the mine was closed. The townspeople, without hope that anyone would take care of them, began making their way out of the condemned settlement.
Tonya’s husband wasn’t in a hurry to leave.
“People have lost faith completely! – he was saying to his wife. How can they be like this! Our State is the State of workers and farmers. And who are we? We are workers. Think for yourself: how could they leave us in the hands of fate? Leave us alone in the middle of the tundra? Of course not! You will see, they’ll give us an apartment somewhere in the south, and these rats that are now fleeing the ship will be biting their knuckles!”
Nineteen-year-old Antonina believed both her husband and the State. And following Seva she trustingly bore them Leonya, also.
“What an idiot!” – said her former neighbors in chorus, when she was riding back to Halmer-U from the hospital in Vorkuta. But Tonya only smiled mysteriously. She knew that in her future a large apartment was awaiting her, with windows facing the South Sea.
She rode the train back alone. The grumpy train engineer, a former inmate, was for some reason not in a hurry to begin making his way back. Then he sharply blew the horn twice. Tonya turned around.
“Hey, mother. You know what… I mean, you should get the heck out of here. Why are you stalling? There are only two more rides left. And then it’s finished. They’re closing down the line”.
— What do you mean, they’ll close it down? – Tonya was baffled – What about us? Who will bring in the bread? They can’t do this! You must be mixed up.
The engineer also called Tonya an idiot and put the train in reverse.
That’s when Antonina Kiseleva began to have doubts for the first time. A week later she, without really knowing why, rolled the stroller with little Lenya to the train station. And watched the noisy Kapelkin family loading their possessions. The conductor who was helping drag the boxes and bundles into the train looked in Tonya’s direction, and angrily spat onto the permafrost. After Kapelkins’ departure, they were the last ones left in Halmer-U.
I went to my husband: let’s leave! And in answer he violently cursed out. He even began to beat me. Earlier – he would never do that, even if he was a driver. Or he would lay around all day, his face to the wall, silent. Sometimes he’d fall asleep and grind his teeth something awful, In all that silence… I was scared…
We ate only buckwheat. There was nothing else left. I would make a bonfire in the yard and cook it. They’d turned off the electricity, and the gas. I would cook it, put the pot next to his bed, and it was all black from the soot. The table, I had to chop up for firewood.
I would put the pot down there, then gather the kids together and go cry next to the former movie theater, where my husband and I had met. I would go there every day. I would cry a river. Sevka would begin sniffling along with me. Leon’ka would wake up in his stroller – and also start screaming. So the three of us wailed together like this.
And then the last train arrived. I was standing at the station with the kids. I just came to look at a live human being for a while. I had no thoughts of any kind, none whatsoever. I grabbed onto the stroller, and stood there looking. And he was looking at me. From the front head of the train. His face was all black…
In the settlement, a whole swarm of wild dogs had gathered. Whole packs of them, roaming the streets. Abandoned by their owners. I’d be walking and they would be running right behind me, almost touching me. It was as if they were trying to look into the stroller. You’d throw something at them, they would snap at you, fall behind, but not for long.
And so I’m there, standing next to the train. And all of the sudden these dogs begin howling. I turn around and see them heading right for me, the whole lot of them. I run towards the train car. The engineer jumps out, is helping me lift the stroller up and keeps saying: “Well thank God, thank God….”
Then puts the train in forward immediately, so I won’t have time to change my mind.
After, we lived with him in Vorkuta for some time. He told me what he had done time for. Another story here. He’s from Vologda Borough. The mayor of their Borough froze a village to death. Just like that. Something broke in the boiler room, and he pocketed the money set aside for the repairs. When the frost began, people came to him, and all he kept saying was: “Yes-yes-yes, everything’s under control, yes-yes-yes everything will be fixed!”
And so the daughter of this train engineer, Nikolai, had caught pneumonia, in the unheated kindergarten. And died. He went to the mayor. As soon as he opened the door to his office, the mayor went, without lifting his eyes: “Yes-yes-yes…” – and that was all. He said nothing else. Nicolai shot him dead, point-blank, with a BB rifle. And stayed around waiting for the police…
– And then? – Nikita asked Antonina Fedorovna quietly, after her long silence. And then noticed that she had fallen asleep. While continuing to smile. With her back straight.
A freight train was creeping by. The round sides of the cisterns looked like large animals, rhinoceroses or hippos, stubbornly plodding somewhere in search of happiness.
In the morning, Nikita bought the sheep wool socks from Antonina Fedorovna, same as the pair he’d spent the night in.
– You see, Sevka, didn’t I tell you that we were going to get lucky tomorrow, and you didn’t believe me! – she was saying to her eldest son, as she bought bread and condensed milk from the charred kiosk, which a month ago was set on fire by some tipsy bums trying to smoke out the vendor who refused to give them alcohol for free.
Leon’ka was greeting the nearest found bush with a handshake. Sevka chewed glumly, having turned away. Antonina Fedorovna was trying to talk the kiosk vendor into buying a pair of “excellent woolen socks” from her.
– And then, I also begun to lose my mind, – Nikita got to hear the rest of the story towards evening, when the inexorable Antonina Kiseleva, having made her way around all of Kirzhach and having sold her remaining socks, was waiting for the evening train. – It was as if my husband was calling me to come back. Chiding me for leaving him. His voice was so clear in my head. I’d begun to speak aloud with him.
“Kolya, I would say – his name was also Nikolai, – I really wasn’t scared for myself, but for the kids, Kolya!”
I thought of trying to walk back to him. To take him away from there. Or at the very least bring him some groceries. Nikolai, the one who’s the train engineer, began to lock me up at home. “Fool,” he’d scream, “that man has perished, but you can’t do that – you are a mother!” And I would reply: “I’ll run away regardless!”
And after several days I got to him. I wasn’t even expecting it. In secret from the management, he drove the train out at night, put me in the front cabin with him, and we set out for Halmer-U – to look for my Nikolai. I got scared, said to him: “Maybe we shouldn’t? Maybe I can just get there on foot? You could go to jail for this!” – But he just waved me away.
– Did you find him? – Nikita was sitting down on the platform, his back against
the train terminal building, resisting with his last bit of strength against falling unconscious.
– I don’t know. There was, of course, no one there. The doors were wide open.
The apartment was tidied up. He even cleaned the pot, scraped the soot from it…. We walked around the entire settlement, checked every house. The doors were never locked when people were leaving, you see. We went to the mine. And didn’t find anyone. Or rather, I didn’t find anyone, and Nikolai – didn’t find anything. Because he was looking for a dead body, and I – for a living husband. Even those dogs had disappeared. It was so quiet that to speak, even in whispers, was too terrifying.
So we left with nothing. But when we were walking around there, I had a feeling as if he was looking at me. At the back of my head. Turn around – there is no one. This looking, I feel it to this day. Now he’s always looking at me…
– How could your train engineer let you go, with kids, to sell socks?
– I ran away on my own. Lied to him, that I was going to visit my sister in Kuban,
that we had found a job, and have our own house… And ran away as fast as I could. I’ve never had a sister in my life.
– So why ?
– My parents didn’t have time, they died early. My father died in the mine, and my mother followed him a year later.
– I’m not talking about your sister. But about the train engineer.
– Ah, the engineer… Well it seems that he’d decided to fall in love with me. And for me – what is love, I’ve left my entire heart behind, in that deserted settlement. And I felt bad for him. He was a good person. So I ran away. When seeing me off, he told me about his wife. Her name was also Tonya, it turned out. That’s the kind of puzzle we got: two Nikolais and two Antoninas…
– And what about his wife?
– She held herself up well during the trial. But when he was convicted – she took her own life that same day. Hung herself. He only found out about it a year later. Because she wrote him a dozen letters before her death. Gentle letters, about how everything is fine, life is slowly moving ahead, she’s waiting, the heat has been turned back on in the settlement… her neighbor was sending him the letters one at a time, every month, until they ran out. And there’s our train approaching…