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Carol Novack


A Tourist in Siberia

In Siberia, the trains are exhausted from the smells of potatoes, onions and sots; and they are never fast enough. Frigid air leaks through the floor reaching for flesh, like knives. The passengers ache for the end of the line. Even those who disembark along the way gaze wistfully at the departing trains. They wait at the stations, in suspended animation. What are they awaiting? Reindeer? Uncles? Camels? Nothing is comfortable, neither in nor out. Nobody really hopes for comfort in this terrain. Well, one does, but it's not to be expected, even at the terminal. Others would laugh; well, others always laugh.

In Siberia, the man from Los Angeles has difficulty breathing. He thinks he sees shadows of detention camps that stretch across snow under an anorectic moon. He thinks he sees silver wolves feasting on gold foxes, blood spreading fast on snow like a malignant tumor in the receptive body of a child. He's read many books.

Under the stark Siberian moon reflected in the windows, he notices her for the first time in the shadows, seated obliquely, in perspective confrontational. But he can't "get" her face, like that of his wife he can't recall. He shouldn't have taken this voyage by himself. He can't feel himself in this train, doesn't know why he's here. He thinks he might panic, discover a weak heart or lungs as fragile as a canary's wings. There is too much snow and the sky resembles silver wolves, even at noon. The tourist feels ice reaching into him, despite the woolen socks. Why did he come?

Riding across the scarred belly of Siberia, the tourist gazes at the woman, the one who may resemble his wife. This woman is sleeping. Her dark hair has escaped from a loose bun tucked under a worn red woolen scarf. She has a mole the size of a dime on her right cheek. He can't see the color of her eyes. He can barely see her mouth with her head inclined towards the floor, imagines it opening like a startled fawn, but he can hardly assume her voice.

He stares at the woman's boots. They remind him of something, but he can't get a handle on his memory. They are red leather, faded and scratched, caked with soil. He can smell horse on them, if he tries to smell. No, not horse; camel. He read about the myth of the Siberian camels. One could only glimpse camels during the Siberian summer, which lasts but 3 days. It is said that a certain Kashka, shoemaker from the obscure town of Urkushka, opened his door to a sudden summer, after an impossible winter opened his heart and shook the ice out of it. Kashka became so joyful he saw a camel eating fruit from a barren tree. But when he ran after the creature, it disappeared, and he closed his heart forever. Ever since, there have been occasional camel sightings. Kashka became the camel and multiplied. That is one version. There are several variations on the theme in the Book of Russian Folk Tales. Several camels, versions of camels, versions of the color of snow melting on the Siberian tundra.

There are faded black shoelaces on the woman's boots. The laces are frayed at the ends, drooping, slack. The man has an urge to reach over and remove them slowly, one hole at a time, loosening their hold on the woman's feet. He has an urge to remove her stockings and uncover her tender, bruised feet, with their calloused soles. He will take her cold, damp feet in his hands and study her toes. The nails will be hard and brittle. But he will know the history of her feet and where they have been; he must know at least one version of this woman.

There is a moment when the woman lifts her head and exposes her eyes to the tourist. He tries not to fall into them, just as he tried not to fall into his mother's grave when she died, or was the grave his wife's? Do the dead own anything but a plot of the planet when they no longer possess a plot? He wonders, briefly.

The green eyes of this woman say nothing she wants him to know. He can fall into these eyes and emerge reborn; he fancies he can. If she bequeaths her feet to him, he will fall. He will fall outside of himself and land in Siberia, finally somewhere, finally somewhere.


—originally appeared in Milk Magazine

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