Monday, September 15, 2014



There were no clouds. The periphery of the sky seemed darker than what was overhead, but it was hard to tell if it was distance, piled up and dark, or storms on the horizon that made it look that way. The light blue color was interrupted by mountains that still looked jagged under their snowy outcroppings, their peaks glowing in the winter-bright sky.

At the base of the mountains, the road from Vanadzor heaved itself forward to the capital, looking like it was quarried from the same rocks that loomed above it. The minibus driver did not drive fast; there were several places where the ice and rain and mud had previously torn the road away. To the west of the road, was a Kurd on a horse, a young man with a closely cropped hair. He rode parallel with the minibus, but a few hundred meters out, going nearly the same speed. The minibus driver glanced over and thought only: Kurd. There was no anger in the thought. It was just the first thing to appear. The though appeared before the plain, before the horse, before the snow-hooded mountains, because these things were constant. The rider’s blood was the only thing that stood out against the timeless background.

Continuing south, the dark skies in the distance agglutinated until an ashen rain began to fall, colored as it was by the white mountain peaks it fell against. The snow on the mantles of the mountains was tattered and yellowed by the friable rocks that seemed to be melting underneath and seeping a muddy color into the snow. At the base of the mountains, large black rocks stood out like roots. There was some lightening breaking in the eastern sky, but the sound of thunder was distant, across the border. The smell of melting snow filled the minibus for a moment as the driver rolled down his window to smoke a cigarette.

The wet gust of wind woke Shane up. Since the border, he’d been up three times, but kept falling asleep. The floor was cold, but all the people and all the winter clothes packed into the minibus made him feel like a hibernating animal in a pile of anonymous hibernating animals. He blinked his dry eyes a few times and was preparing to stretch and go back to sleep when he noticed the gloaming mountains through the window. He watched the monotony of the white peaks and grey fields. The Kurd was gone. The only man-made structure was a shack, at the base of a mountain. The windows and doorway were dark with emptiness. Between two points, a muddy path had been beaten into the wet snow. There didn’t seem to be anything at either end of the path. Shane watched the path and imagined a young woman walking it. He imagined the quick way she would walk the familiar path, stepping over the puddles that she knew would be there. A face slowly began to materialize over the scene. His own face reflected in the window. His green eyes were colorless in the glass, but the large pores on his nose and cheeks stood out like dark pin pricks. He frowned at his reflection and turned away from the window.

The mountains passing the windows began to crouch down and then there was nothing, just the cloudy outline of distant mountains looking vague and unfinished and, in the foreground, wet stone that reflected the stormy sky in a shattered mess of grey, blue and maroon. At the entrance of a village there was a sign with the name of that village and at the exit of the village there was the same sign only with a line struck through the name. No more Vernashen. No more Getap. No more Ani. The distant mountains looked like they were moving, grinding and sawing anything that stood among them too long. The huts were made of pulverized stone and the tin cars spraying through the light rain looked gnawed. They were boxy cars with flat paint jobs: hardy brick-reds and dock-worker blues.

Shane looked away from the window over to Peter, who was sleeping with one eye partially open and rolled back in his head, his mass of light-brown hair clashed with his pale face. His ears were very red-looking and the eye that was partially open disclosed the pink rind of the inner eyelid. He was breathing regularly, deep and raspy.

As the minibus approached the suburbs of the capital, the distant mountains sublimated into grey clouds on the horizon broken by massive Khrushchev apartment blocks displaying the same dark windows and doors as the mountain shacks. Everything was built with a roseate stone. The pink color of these stones was in no way feminine. It was stolid and hypertensive, like the face of an angry father. The stones leaned over their parapets to watch the passersby. The people seemed to feel the unseen eyes of these patriarchal bricks and hurried along. The rain began to fall harder. No one seemed to have an umbrella and faces, ears and eyes sunk down deeper into the dark coats. The stones took on the vermillion color of dried blood. Under these heavy visages, Shane rested his temple on the window and fell asleep.

He dreamed he was watching a young woman in a white dress sink down into a streambed. She didn’t say anything, but floated on her stomach with her arms and legs out and gradually sank down, like an alligator, until only her eyes were above the water. He had an urgent reason to get across the stream, but was afraid to step over the woman. He took a few steps back and tried to run so he could jump, but he ran slowly, like he was leaden. He tried to stop, but his momentum overcame him and he began to fall, slowly, toward the water. As he fell, he saw the face of the girl, upturned and watching him. Her white dress was drifting all around her like seaweed.

Shane and Peter were traveling together. Shane had been working in Greece when Peter had passed through. The two of them had stayed up late drinking raki and Peter had described the places he hoped to visit in the east. He was a descriptive speaker and heaped details onto the names of cities he had never seen. He built a storied world dropping minarets onto green plains and illuminating market places with candlelight and dust. In his Orient, Dracula was being shipped from Varna, Istanbul was a confusion of camels and Young Turks, Zaporozhian Cossacks were regularly running their plundering boats aground in Trabzon and the Caucasian mountains still belonged to Hadji Murad.

A few days after he met Peter, Shane packed up his clothes, quit his job and went down to the bus station and bought a ticket for Sofia.

After nearly a month of traveling, the two came to a city that had been festooned in glowing mandarins for the winter. The grey streets were partitioned from the grey skies by tables of the impossibly bright fruit. Shane and Peter walked from the train station and crossed a bridge over a river swollen with the reflections of slate-colored churches. Used household items had been laid out over the flagstones of the bridge. A set of blue glass bowls, a pile of leather-bound books, dull-looking knives and a collection of rusty Soviet pins.

The city looked deserted and was hazy with the hay-like smell of burning cow dung and the fog of snow melt. In the evening, even the lights that were burning seemed to be far above the city. Everything at the ground level had been extinguished. Down a narrow street, Peter noticed a glow that lit up the blue cobblestones. They followed it until they were in something like a rampart corniced by a metal shack about the size of an outhouse. A middle-aged woman sat inside listening to an unseen radio. The shack was the only source of light anywhere around. Peter walked up and greeted the woman in Russian. She returned the greeting with a weary gesture. He asked her if there was a place nearby they could sleep, mostly through pantomime. The woman nodded slowly. She yelled out a name, waited a few seconds and yelled it again. The third time she yelled, a teenage boy came running out of the darkness.

“Axper, artarsamatsiner kmanak ko mot,” the woman said to the boy in a tone that sounded like she was swearing at him.

The boy said nothing but gestured for Peter and Shane to follow him.
Shane turned to follow Peter and the boy and then turned back to the woman in the shack, pointed to a small bottle of vodka, then took out his money and tried to give his face a questioning expression. The woman’s tired-looking face gathered into a smile and she took the bottle down from the shelf and with her other hand held up four fingers “chetyri” she yelled and brandished her fingers.

Shane jogged to catch up with Peter and the boy. The city was so quiet. It wasn’t hard to hear their footsteps. A light caught his attention. He turned to look down the dark street and saw a woman running with a flashlight. She had dark hair and almond-shaped eyes that were wide with exhilaration. She locked eyes with Shane. He noticed a dark shape behind her, but couldn’t tell if she was being chased or if she had a companion. The two figures passed him without slowing and continued down the street. He listened to the light tapping of their receding footsteps for a while before continuing to catch up to Peter. He almost ran into him a block later.

“Hey, there you are.” Peter said. “Where the hell did you go? I thought maybe you got lost in back in that warren.

Shane was about to tell Peter about the girl and the other figure, but decided against it. He held up the bottle. “I wanted to thank that lady.”

“Ah, good idea. Besides, I’m sure wherever we’re going isn’t going to be very warm. That might come in handy.” He said, pointing to the bottle.

The next day, the snow began to fall early in the morning. The grey stones that lined the river bank and the bas reliefs of the churches were half obliterated by white. Only the dark metro stations looked the same. Dug impossibly deep, they were like caverns dripping with the river that crossed over them.

After Shane and Peter woke up, they were invited to eat and were served a grey bowl of buckwheat garnished with a pat of butter. They thanked their hosts and surreptitiously left some money under their empty bowls. They shouldered their packs and walked down to the metro.

The trains were the standard spaceship grey of metro trains, the seats and rubber floors worn down like pencil erasers. A garbled recording informed passengers about the next station. Two stops down the line, a group of children got on carrying Unicef Christmas presents labeled in English, for a Boy or, alternately for a Girl. One older-looking girl held a box labeled for a boy. Shane was afraid that she would open the box and that he would have to see her disappointment upon finding a muscly action figure while her friends all got dolls, but she held the box on her lap and stared ahead. Her face was reflected in the window behind Shane and reflected again in the window behind her. Shane looked into her reflection and the reflection looked back. He glanced back at her eyes and saw she wasn’t looking at him, but in the reflection, her eyes looked right into his. There was something familiar about her, something about that face and the darkness. The girl’s reflection smiled slightly and he realized it was the girl from the previous night, the one who’d been running down the street with the flashlight.

“Well,” he thought. “I’m glad to know that she’s OK and that guy wasn’t chasing her.” The girl rose from her seat at the next stop and her reflection was replaced by tired-looking middle aged man.

Three stops later Shane and Peter got off at the bus station and loaded their packs onto a minibus with a tattered red and white placard in the window that read EPEBAN.

In his dream, Shane continued to fall toward the girl in the river. He spun his arms to correct his balance, but found his body was at an acute angle to the water. He could only fall. The girl was floating on her stomach, but he watched as she tiled her head over her back until her forehead was parallel with his. She didn’t seem to see him. Her eyes were green, large and tapered at the ends. Her mouth was slightly open, expressionless. Shane tried to grab a hold of something, but his arms moved sluggishly and encountered nothing. The girl’s dress was floating everywhere. Her vacant face seemed to float up from the middle of the white expanse. There was a sound coming from her, something like the whine of a mosquito. The closer he got, the louder it became until there was no other sound. Her eyes continued to look past him and with horror he realized he was falling right into her face. He braced himself for the impact of their foreheads slamming together.

He woke up with a slight jerk, but either the woman sitting next to him hadn’t noticed or didn’t care. He turned back to the window to see a large rusted crane hanging over a series of apartment blocks in various stages of completion. Light shone weakly from some of the apartments in these skeletal buildings. The crane looked like a monster whose destructive efforts had been checked. Frozen as the progress of the machine was, it was no longer certain if it had been building or destroying, if its purpose had been good or evil. Now, it was only a ruin surrounded by ruins.

Beyond the false start of the crane and the floors and walls of the unfinished buildings, the city began. The streets widened to parade-ground width and little kiosks began to spring up like mushrooms after a rain, each with a woman, a dangling lightbulb and rows of bottles. Everything was hewn from the same roseate stones, in blocks so large they looked like something carted in by exhausted men in loincloths. The plazas were laid out with the same stone. The twilight mountains outside the city had been cut down like a forest, carted in and reshaped.

In the cold rain, the smell of stone was irrepressible. The rain mixed with the dust and made mortar. Hearth fires burned, baking the stones and sending their smoke into the sky.

The minibus stopped and everyone got off. Peter and Shane walked a few blocks through the rain until they looked up at a dark and oily bridge. “I think there’s a train up there,” Peter said. “It probably goes downtown.”

The station opened under the tracks. The darkness from the rain had piled up in the corners. There were a few buckets in the middle of the floor. Every few seconds one of these buckets would make a WOK sound as it caught a drop of water from the ceiling. A woman waited behind the yellowish glass of the ticket counter and another swept the floor. Peter and Shane paid their money and were given a plastic coin that served as a token. These were orange and pellucid, like lozenges, sucked to the point where they are brittle and craggy.

The lights on the train flickered. They burned so dimly even the rainy, late-afternoon sky outshone them. There were only a few other passengers on the train. They all looked straight ahead. Shane looked into the reflection in the window in front of him and thought about the girl in the last city, but his thoughts were vague and resembled harassed birds on a wire, flying up, resettling and flying up again.

The rain-smeared city clicked past the windows of the train in a cardiac rhythm: ___________ssstook__duk_____________ ssstook__duk. The lights bounced on and off. In a tunnel, the lights went out and did not come back on. The train was like a sunken ship, full of the same dark water that surrounded it. There was no commotion in the dark, no surprise. The lights came back on revealing the same stoic countenances, unchanged by the interval.

Five or six stations later, most of the crowd rose to get off and Peter and Shane followed. The station had an underground market. Men smoked and talked in front of their kiosks. Although no one spoke loudly, the place seemed to be filling up with a dull roar. Like a fog of smoke and static was roaring through the place unseen.

On the street, the rain had slackened but grown colder. A man pushing a handcart crashed into a pile of sodden cardboard boxes and scattered them down the sidewalk as he continued on his way.
In a dark shop window, a woman was peeling potatoes in the grey light. She glanced up for a second as Shane walked passed. He stopped “Hey, let’s go in here and get something to eat.”

Inside, the thick carpet muffled the external sounds of the rain and traffic. The silence felt like more like weight rather than the absence of sound. There were dark hulks of men seated around tables. Each was bundled up in a large coat with a pancake-flat hat smashed onto his head. They looked unfriendly under all their clothes, but they drank their coffee from demitasse cups and smoked slim cigarettes giving them the appearance of giants fumbling with a child’s tea set.

Outside the wind seemed to be pursuing the grey remnants of the setting sun like a pack of hunting dogs after a rabbit. The cornices and niches in the stone screamed and spat out rain. Someone in a room nearby was slowly playing a piano, taking a few seconds with each note, considering the next.

A waitress pointed to a table with an oilcloth cover and Peter and Shane sat down. A lightbulb shone above them, but the wattage was so dim it made no other impression in the damp room other than to cast a limpid halo on the ceiling. Shane stirred his feet under the table and encountered cold darkness, like water at the bottom of a lake. Everything was greasy to the touch. Peter looked out the window, and to the people on the sidewalk, his white face floated up from the darkness of the restaurant like a buoy. Shane pushed the fingerbowls of salt and paprika back and forth. The salt had absorbed the dampness and was clumped.

The piano playing stopped and a familiar figure walked past the dark frame of the door. “What the hell,” Shane said quietly to himself. “Huh?” Peter turned back from the window. “What d’you say?” “I’ll be right back,” Shane said getting up. “I’ve got to check something.”

He walked after the woman with the dark hair. He watched her go down a small set of stairs and push open a white door. “Izvenitsiya bashalusta.” He called out after her. She glanced back at him and continued to walk but slightly faster. He repeated his words, thinking he may have gotten them wrong, but the girl continued walking down the hall without looking back. Shane stood in the doorway for a moment and then went back to his table.

Back at the table Peter had ordered beers and something that looked like a donut for each of them. He looked up as Shane came into the room. “What the hell was that about?” He asked. “Here,” he said gesturing, “I got you a beer and a piroshky.” Shane sat down, picked up his beer and then sat it back down, not certain where to start. “I think I keep seeing the same person, this girl.”
“I noticed that.” Peter responded. “The similarity, I mean, the eyes, the hair. I’ve seen a bunch of people that looked just like each other. I think it’s adaptation.”
“What do you mean?”

Peter took a drink of beer. “The mountains we saw coming down here, the shepherds out on those rainy plains and the driver of the minibus, they all had a similar look. I can’t really describe it. It was more like a theme. They all sat there looking the same, even those little cars driving down the road. You didn’t notice that?”

“No,” Shane shook his head. “I guess I didn’t. I watched the mountains. You were sleeping and I fell asleep too. I dreamt about a river and a girl. Just now, I thought I saw that girl and even before the dream, a few nights ago, I saw her then, too.”

The waitress came into the room to bring an ashtray for the cigarette Peter had just lit. Shane looked up and saw the familiar almond shaped eyes, only they were beset with wrinkles and the darkness was gone from the hair that had been cropped short and dyed a Russian-looking light brown.

“Maybe it’s not so much the same face,” Shane said after the waitress left “as the same expression.”

“Yeah,” Peter agreed. “That’s it. Everyone’s got the same expression. Their mouths are set, their eyes are sad but their brows are, like, quizzical.”

Outside the rain had frozen to accommodate the night and though the streetlights were not bright, they illuminated the countenances of those who passed beneath them and riveted their shadows to the ground. In the chiaroscuro, the features on each face seemed more uniform than before.
Peter and Shane walked towards the city center. On the way, Shane saw the face of the girl from the night before, the metro, the cafĂ© and his dream pass him again and again. Each time he stared at her, she stared back at him. The same eyebrows. The same ears. The snow almost seemed to have fallen into her dark hair the same way. No matter the number of repetitions, he remained shocked each time he saw her again. He must’ve betrayed some of his shock because at some point, Peter leaned over and said.

“I know. This is what Ur must’ve looked like.”

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