The jolts of the tracks were stronger now and came at irregular intervals. With my arms outstretched, I held myself up between the walls of the tiny cabin. A metallic drone rose from the spattered steel-can, a whining and hissing and, now and again, something close to a laugh, something that had to have been crouching in the abyss, in the crushed stone of the railroad embankment, and it rang in my ears like a miserable Semey-Semey. I wouldn’t be able to stay much longer, not unless I wanted to give some kind of explanation when I returned, something that would immediately become twice as long in the translator’s mouth and ten times as long in the consul’s ensuing comments.
As far as I knew in the meantime it wasn’t illegal to have a Geiger counter. On the contrary, European travel-guides recommended it as a means of reassuring travellers, though they emphasised that the measurable levels in most areas had been below acceptable limits for a long time now. I’d never considered buying such a piece of equipment before, nor had I ever conceived the possibility of owning one. And so the grey-green, already somewhat worn little box, and the way I’d got it right before the train left from one of the many hooded peddlers blocking the platform with their strange goods, was all the more precious and peculiar. Almost everything held out to me as a ‘Souweniiiir!’ seemed to have come from the stockrooms of an empire and its army busy undergoing the process of total dissolution. And yet I’d also seen mountains of meat, animal skins, raisins, bread, and nuts in half-covered children’s wagons, often in continuous movement, being pushed across the snow-covered platform right up to the steel treads of the railroad cars. In the end, though, no one came around to pay for anything at all; the counter had been my ticket inside.
It was its delicate crackle, the sizzling and grinding sound it cautiously, though continuously, emitted. Sometimes, when I brought it closer to my ear, I could hear a kind of melodious scratching, then a buzzing and whispering that, like a thin counterpoint, floated softly into the sound of the train where it could be devoured at any moment – suddenly my eyes filled with tears. All the challenges of my winter journey paled in comparison to what my counter wanted to confide in me. In spite of the hundred roubles, I hadn’t really believed it would work like it was supposed to, and it was obvious it didn’t work like it was supposed to, but at that moment I unmistakably felt it force its way into me.
I would have happily stretched out across the floor – entranced by the extraordinarily comforting image the little whispering box offered up to me with its melody: something I couldn’t quite grasp, a face maybe, still a bit hazy, or a mask beneath which I’d find only a dogged, or simply observant, silence.
In addition to the previously agreed-upon stations of Pavlodar and Karaganda, in the weeks leading up to departure I had suggested a third place, Semey. Semey on the Irtysh. The consul had remained silent for longer than usual. Only from the consul’s wife had a little list arrived, items for her and her family: an Advent wreath, some dominos, a medicine by the name of Uralyt. In the end, if reservedly, the consul had agreed to my suggestion. In Semey, however, he specified, it had to be the Dostoevsky house, which indeed would be an ideal spot for our theme; Cities in Nothingness – the title had been the translator’s idea.
One of the consul’s surprises was that I was to be accompanied by a Kazach dombra player and his thirteen-year-old daughter. The singer – who, thanks to her puppet-like appearance, the translator had instantly baptised our tiny, gleaming mummy – would pull the sounds from far away then stretch them out inside herself. To achieve this inverted, twisted deep-in-the-throat form of song she’d stand as if rooted, only her hands would move through the air, as if carefully spreading something over something else, something right there in front of her. It seemed terribly inappropriate to break the mesmerising silence that followed the song with my own voice: Brasilia, Nairobi, and then down to brass tacks, the miracle of Astana, the ‘Capital of the Steppes’.
I picked the counter up from the sink another four, five, maybe ten times, turned it on and then off, laid it down, pressed it covetously to my ear and tried to concentrate. Soon I’d have to realise the long-awaited image would not come to light through effort alone. On the contrary.
Already the crackle and creak of its whispering failed to touch me with the same power, and was on the verge of slipping away completely. I had to calm down. As delicately as possible I investigated the functions of the two small toggle switches on its front. Together they silenced the little box. Alone, the left one unleashed a quiet vibration; the right controlled the acoustic and optical functions. Then all of a sudden, at the top of the counter – my little narrator, as I had half-jokingly coined the little, buzzing box – began to flicker and blink with a little red light. I quickly tore the little box from my sweat-covered hand and hid it in the front pocket of my shirt under my sweater. I wanted to return to my compartment immediately.
Before even comprehending the snap, the door hit me in the back. In front of me I saw the tiny woman with the peaked cap who the consul had called our Wagon-Mama. She pointed silently to her golden watch, the metal band of which cut into her forearm, then gestured over her shoulders back into the corridor. As I tried again to steady myself against the walls of the carriage, the Wagon-mama stood almost completely still, only in her knees was there a delicate, barely perceivable rocking, though from my perspective the jolts seemed to disappear into her body without a trace. Clearly I had made a helpless sickly impression, for without any ado the Wagon-mama grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out of the bathroom and into the safety of the car. Her touch was not unpleasant, it somehow made the little narrator’s pressing influence – which I suddenly thought I could feel – a little less insistent, and that was why I let myself be led away without any resistance at all.
The woman was so slight that as we made our way through the corridor I could see out into the open over her peaked, mosque-like cap. In the shelter of the railroad embankment a thin, glittering copse of gold stood out from the snow; a single rider floated before the sinking sun. Against the emptiness that surrounded him he seemed too big, and yet was sharply delineated, like a dummy you could push slowly forward across the line between heaven and earth. Here you never know just how far you’re seeing, the consul had said.
Entering the dining car we were enveloped by a vapour of used breath, which smelled of curd and fried food. The return of the prodigal son on the arm of the Wagon-mama – laughing, the translator filled our glasses and explained to me that the others — the consul, the small, gleaming mummy and her father — had waited at first, but had then excused themselves for their compartments. Her short, peroxide-blonde hair glowed, only her neck, left exposed, was overshadowed by a darkish down.
I drank, doubled-over, something foreign burned into me – breathe! breathe! the translator cried out, you must breathe more quickly, pant almost, like you’re giving birth, only then will there be the right mixture in the body. How one was best supposed to then breathe she demonstrated herself by stretching up and raising her fearless eyebrows skyward. At the same time she swallowed and pumped her shoulders up and down, which forced her upper body into an intriguing movement. I carefully pulled at my sweater until I could see the narrator’s little red light through the loosely woven wool. For a moment, I felt as excited as a child. I sat up with a jolt, but fell right back down onto the seat, the aisle blocked.
A uniformed man demanded our passports, another made a take-the-film-out-of-the-camera kind of gesture, but the translator simply laughed and touched my arm. Did I know that the little mummy’s song had been about love for the Steppes, a feeling that transcended any other Kazach longing? Did I know that, here, while still alive, every deceased-to-be dragged a song behind themselves as each and every one of the Steppes’ inhabitants was personally responsible for their own mourning song? If they didn’t have one, nothing at all is sung, and people simply sit around the feet of the dead in silence, but the dead won’t be able to find any peace because they’ll be in debt forever. I was exhausted; in the meantime, I had begun to smile at everything, but that took energy and was tough to keep in check. Without a doubt there was something phoney in it all, but before that phoniness was revealed, I – far too quickly – grabbed the translator’s hand.
Clutching at the safety rails we made our way along the cold, dully-illuminated walls. A stove, which served to heat the car, and a samovar crowded the beginning of every new corridor. The kettle was woven into a web of tubes and valves and ceaselessly emitted a greasy, shimmering steam, which then wobbled off down the corridor. Afraid of being touched by something clammy, something living perhaps, that I might want to shake off, I held my lips pressed tightly together and, with an elbow in front of my face, plunged into the fog.
Slowly I grew accustomed to the wavering darkness. Now I was the one walking ahead to open the heavy, half-iced doors so that the translator, bowing slightly, could slip her way through. A gesture that weakened from door to door and turned me inevitably into a string-like figure, precisely where the few steps through the blustery overpasses between the cars should’ve been enough to catch up with her.
I stumbled, collided against something on the floor, two or three legs suddenly jutting out into the corridor like fallen tree trunks. In some of the cars it was so dark I could easily see the faint red blinking of the little narrator beneath my sweater.
I stayed two-thirds of a car behind then put myself in a position to overtake the translator. From time to time I was pulled through the corridor by long jolts, but soon figured out I had to walk with shorter steps so that the floor would not take off from under my feet and run away from me. I could unmistakably feel the translator’s eyes in the back of my head; I felt I was being compared to another, to a whole number of others, every one of them far away and not here in a night train named Turksib; a caravan of antiquated metal coaches, on a track called the silk rail that cut straight through the Steppes, from the Orient to the Occident, as the consul liked to say.
We’d already made it through twenty carriages or more before I noticed that there was no rule to the numberings: the train had simply grown somewhere along the way. The corridors turned into a provisional mineshaft which seemed to lead into a tougher, older form of time. No matter how hard I stared through the crusty mirror of the bolted windows into the grey, dirty tangle of frost blooms that crawled like eczema over the flanks of the carriages, not a single sign of life outside flashed by at all. No moon, no stars. Only my tired, unsubstantial self staring back and staggering with me through the tunnel: the stocky build, the wide shoulders between which the narrator’s heartbeat blinked, from the vibration of the panes it shivered into a fist-sized, dark red glowing swarm, while at eye level a colourless and inscrutable face floated next to mine, and that’s how we overtook the translator.
Snow dusted the sheet steel between the cars. Gooseflesh grew across my skin and onto my back like a cold, balsam-covered cloth across the rear of my skull where it became a wonderful kind of helmet that pleasantly moved when I raised my eyebrows even the slightest bit.
We stood indecisively before our compartments; the car rolled through a curve, I tried to cross my arms in order to better conceal the blinking of the box, the translator took a step back.
Two half-uniformed figures had emerged from the steam of the samovar; they paused for a moment then shuffled slowly into the corridor. They were clearly waiting for someone to acknowledge them and approve of their approach. The smaller man pushed the larger one in front of him, who, for his part, seemed reluctant and – with a half-bow as well as a carefully called Salam alaikum! – apologetic for the disturbance. I tried not to grin and thought about escaping to my compartment but the two moved closer. The large man I recognised as the stoker, the smaller the conductor of our car. Now and again his expectant face appeared to the left or right of the stoker’s large body, but mostly remained hidden behind him.
The stoker pointed at me carefully. Nemetzki?! Before I could answer he clicked the heels of his boots together, bent his arms, and slightly raised his chin, his childlike face turning cold and strict. I tried to produce a small laugh to excuse the lot of us. I asked the translator to explain to the stoker, who was a whole head taller than we were, that he didn’t need to greet me that way, that, if he really wanted to know, I myself had simply held the rank of private in the reserves, the reserves of a long since vanished People’s Army, a rank that without any doubt was below that of a stoker of the famous Turksib – and with two fingers I touched the dirty silver shoulder piece hanging limply down from his blue uniform jacket.
As I was speaking the stoker pursed his lips; his fine, soot-lined eyes were fixed upon my mouth, but the translation no longer reached him. Refusing to free himself for a second from his strained pose he began to speak: at first, it was as if he were shovelling coal into his firebox, and then it emerged from the depths;a plodding, scraping voice that over-expanded the vowels:
Wat kud beeee ze reaason
vai I zo zad‘nd lowww;
A legend fromz diztaant taim …
Something snagged and got stuck in his chest. But his cracked lips remained in silent movement, his firm, small mouth opening and closing incessantly, ready to give form, whenever it was ready, to that still missing. And yet, no matter how hard he tried to stretch up onto the tips of his toes and push his chin even higher than us into the vault, toward the blue night-lamp of the car – as if he just had to make it up there – his thin throat made it clear that the rhyme with ‘so sad and low’ just didn’t want to come to his tongue.
Within the light of the lamp his tight, glowing, mask-like face twitched, while those unclosing lips revealed the white shimmering strip of a protruding row of teeth: ‘A legend fromz diztaant taim …’ Groaning persistently and as if under too heavy a burden the stoker continued to repeat the line. The translator worriedly touched my arm, but I kept pointing at the stoker, convinced it was appropriate and not only a question of manners or sensitivity that he have the opportunity to finish on his own.
Following the tension that quickly and, due to the missing words, powerfully rose to the surface of my skin, my own mouth had been set into motion. Silently I spoke the long sought-after word between us, over and over, straight up to the chest of the stone-like man who stood only a hand’s length away, as if through silent repetition I might whisper it to him from there. Without noticing, I’d adopted the stoker’s upright bearing so that we were soon standing in front of each other like two low-ranking soldiers who, halfway through their greeting, had fallen out of time.
For a while, the stoker and I stayed in a fish song of sorts, made up of deep breaths, which surged back and forth from his shore to mine, yet never once made it to land. Once again, and more urgently this time, the translator took hold of my arm, and then I finally understood. This was his song. The one – however it had first found its way to him – he had chosen to make his personal, posthumous mourning song. How else could you understand the unrelenting, now somewhat doubtful and, even if faltering, never slackening seriousness of his appearance? ‘Refuses-to-let-me-go’ – I almost yelled it down the corridor of the thundering sleeping car, a liberation, a wake-up call whose trumpet-like intensity scared me. I found myself in the stoker’s arms. He forcefully pulled me closer while, as if the decisive victory had been achieved, he repeated the line another time: ‘Reeefuuz-lit-meee-goooor.’ Then he pushed me away, only to pull me back once more and press me to his other cheek.
The conductor, who’d remained behind the stoker’s back the whole time, clapped triumphantly and laughed while I tried to wrench my body away from the stoker’s thanks – cautiously, so as not to harm the festivity of the moment. I laughed too and, holding back a wave of nausea, praised the stoker’s pronunciation. I praised the Steppes, the Turksib, silk road and silk rail, the country, and the smoke-hole of the yurt, the one I knew was in the coat of arms – in other words, the stove in the centre, the stoker… The translator, who’d carefully stayed by my side all along, formed sentences out of my stammering, sentences which seemed to come from one single pharyngeal consonant of a, a long rrhaaarrhaaarrhaaa, and simultaneously called them into the stoker’s ear – but the hugs were endless.
My nose was rhythmically pushed left and right onto or under the loose strings of his silver shoulder epaulettes. I could feel the stoker’s warm, unshaven chin on my throat, and a pair of lips damply murmured on my ear and cheek, accompanied by a dark plosive that turned into a short, barely suppressed sob: ‘Reeefuuz-lit-maaa-goooor.’ I trembled. My heart began to race and my chest grew tight. However, it took me only a moment to realise that the stoker’s clutches had switched the narrator to vibrate. I closed my eyes and saw a sluggish couple swaying through the all-too-narrow corridor… But by then it was too late. I was overcome by a great anger, and even hatred, that streamed directly into my fists. I saw my right one coming up from below, I could see it, like out of a drawing or a dream… my punching arm shot forward, the back of my hand and underarm creating a line… it flew into the glowing blue face and directly into the stoker’s mouth while he was right in the middle of the next, unavoidable ‘Reeefuuz-lit-maaa-goooor’ and broke it, without warning and unceremoniously, splitting it apart forever.
Panicking, I recalled words and phrases like ‘encounter’, ‘religions’, ‘host country’, ‘liberator’, ‘Baikonur’, ‘Amur River’ before, all of a sudden, as if somewhere on my fool’s errand I had found the magic word, something familiar revealed itself. In the sour, mucus-membrane-corroding stink of the stoker’s uniform, from out of the ingredients of this staggering vapour, the old Soviet mess-hall arose. I could smell the gun oil and the linoleum under my knees, I could smell the blindfold, the best time, the prize fight, the spring! — rod! — stock! — cylinder! — the significant weight of every piece in my hand and the bar stool in front of my chest…
As absurd as the belief in a shared past seems to me, it calmed me down. Couldn’t it be, I thought, that this stoker, who had maybe once been a brother-in-arms, sought closure from our having met but had simply been unable to achieve it? Was some sign, some kind of gesture required? Surely there was some kind of law, a particular ritual, anchored in the stoker’s culture from time immemorial, foreign maybe, but indispensible? Once again, even if it was pointless, I tried to get a little more air. But I was totally unprepared when, without any warning, the stoker thrust me an exhausted, deeply sighed ‘Reeefuuz-lit-meee-goooor’ from his tentacles and, doubtless only in the embarrassment of having to find an ending himself, kissed me on the mouth.
After that, everything moved quickly. A dull crack and then for a moment I was floating, at one with the stoker as support, in the air… breathe! breathe! I heard, but as if from far away. Then peace set in, and darkness.
It’s still a wonder to me today that no one was truly hurt. The sudden jolt, a violent jarring underfoot, hurled us against the wall behind us and onto the ground. And so the stoker, even if he had wanted to, was unable to remove his kiss quickly enough. On the contrary. His teeth were firmly pressed between my teeth, and in our shared humiliating helplessness, I distinctly felt his warm, coal-like breath gust into me and – disoriented and overpowered as I was – I swallowed it, choked and swallowed.
When the Turksib finally released us from its grip, almost unconsciously I heaved the stiff body of the stoker from my own, perhaps too powerfully, and he crashed against the door of one of the sleeping compartments. Like an old, familiar hallucination, the barely dressed figure of the dombra player surfaced and, as if framed, stood in the entrance to his compartment before which the stoker lay outstretched. As the bigger man remained completely silent, the dombra player immediately began to yell at him. I swallowed and tried to breathe, twin tears running down my cheeks.
Through the half-open door of the compartment, I saw the horizontal and blurry figure of our tiny, gleaming mummy. Her left leg stuck out of the blanket a little and was bent. At first, the leg shone uniformly bright, almost white, like a paper cut-out reflected in the little light that fell into the compartment from the corridor; then, all the way at its furthest end, barely above the sheet, the white disappeared into a dark edge, as if finely striated.
And it was upon this edge that the translator’s face appeared. She was now kneeling at my side, and slowly pushed an arm underneath my head while unswervingly translating: the so-called silk-reef… seventy years, never welded… blown away, the ice… not the worst, which means… is begging your forgiveness for the stoker… astonished and wide-eyed I sank back down as something cool streamed over my body in a soft, clear swell.
Far above me, at a curious height, I saw the conductor angrily speaking into the translator’s back, waving a fist at the end of the corridor where the stove was located, and though the stoker was standing right next to him, helpless, with a glowing forehead, he remained exposed to the dombra player’s assaults. I closed my eyes, choked, and a feeling of incomprehensible loss trickled into me. Just now, in winter, just now, in these temperatures, minus twenty… forty… sixty… the conductor had put on airs and the translator had to struggle to keep up with him, carefully translating everything down to me. I looked up at her, only up, and swallowed, amazed: by now she seemed pretty and familiar, a face, I thought, for which I had longed, maybe one for which I’d always longed. She carefully put a palm to my forehead, then to my chest, and it was only under the translator’s caring hand that I noticed the narrator had gone silent.
I pulled myself up and took a step forward, but before I could finally correct the injustice that had befallen the stoker, the dombra player pivoted back into his room. By the time I turned around – each of my acts having become strangely slower – both the conductor and the stoker had nearly dissipated; hastily, and without a word of farewell, they huddled together and strode down the fog-filled corridor before dissolving into the steam of the samovar.
The couchettes were narrow, my movements awkward. It was difficult for me to calm down; I could taste the stoker, see him tearing open the fire door and continuously tossing coal into his stove; I swallowed, took a breath, quick and deep, but something remained, something continued to smoulder, something that would not let itself be swallowed. The words never again senselessly ran through my head. I felt the translator’s hand on my shoulder gently push me away from her bedstead. Then she kneeled down, turned away from me, and nestled a cheek into the pillow of the backboard. I slowly moved towards her and as she took the subtle, regular undulations of the car into herself, its slight swing and sway, along with the stronger, irregular jolts of the Turksib – the reason I held onto her hips – in the space between the curtains before the compartment window, I saw a flood of dark red dots – but it was only a trail of embers enveloping the car.
Kruso by Lutz Seiler (translated by Tess Lewis) is out now from Scribe.