We crossed the border some time in the course of that long, long day, leaving behind an unfurled scarf of green and yellow fields turned golden in the setting sun. We toasted the end of the known world with Olut III beers on the platform of a small station on the Finnish border. Red plastic cups, long shadows, backlit gnats, an air of anticipation. A row of rust-coloured cargo cars stretched ahead into Russia, all of them marked with crudely stencilled Cyrillic letters. In our compartment, a customs guard in a cheap synthetic uniform demanded our passports, inspected our belongings, looked under the fold-down bed, and found a mountain of bananas in the overhead compartment, gifts from us for the citizens of his country.
It was my first time visiting Russia. Dash had already been, two years earlier, as part of what he thought was an artistic collaboration with Russian and American theatre students. He had performed in secondary schools and in gazebos in public parks and on collective farms, dressing as a sentient chess piece, engaging in mock battles with fossil fuels, singing musical numbers that he learned phonetically. He came to realize partway through that the performances were in fact governmental propaganda meant to ease people’s fears of nuclear energy in the aftermath of Chernobyl.
Three months after his return, we were having a party—it was my 20th birthday— and someone turned on the TV. On the screen, people were throwing streamers at cars in the street, playing the guitar atop the Berlin wall. A bald man held two chunks of rock, one in each hand, and yelled something at the viewers. Whistles, cheers. The camera’s light grabbed out of the murk a man with a chisel in hand, pounding at a seam in the concrete.
“This is crazy,” Dash said. A car, festively decorated, crept through the crowd, cheered by onlookers. A blonde woman in a long coat and scarf poured out a toast. “Za zdrov’ye,” Dash said to her, and tilted his drink in her direction. The freedom of not having to pretend someone was an enemy. The wall would be reduced to rubble, scooped up and sold in tiny chunks to people around the world.
The rest of Eastern Europe followed suit, one country after another finding its way to autonomy. Over these months, Dash stayed in touch with the other members of the project, corresponding on light-blue onionskin paper that folded three times, forming its own air-mail envelope.
Finally, we coordinated a trip; we would fly into Helsinki and then take the train to Moscow, then finally to a town, some 500 kilometres east of there, where we would meet a couple of the Americans and the Russian cast, for a reunion.
Dash had written me letters while he was there, describing his trip: visiting an empty fairground where one ancient bent-over woman operated all the rides; a man carving a mug out of birchwood for him to drink from; a church with innards of gold where the voices of shrouded congregants rose up, wreathing the domed ceiling. He said he met a strange girl with a name almost like mine. Laysan. He said she was everywhere and no one seemed to know why, or what she did. He suspected she might have had some connections that meant she could do whatever she wanted. She was indispensable in some palm-greasing, door-opening way.
Russia is cracked concrete and listing hydro poles; the sides of the road are overgrown, a madness of weeds. Our train passes rusting bridges, unfinished dirty white-brick shacks, a kid dressed in fatigues standing with his bike. In one town—unmarked, and we have no map—we stop in front of a building of indescribable grubbiness. Set into its concrete wall is an empty window, a gaping mouth with a long stain of black filth beneath, like layers of sooty vomit. That’s the view from one side of the train; the window across the aisle frames two low buildings of friable concrete, a mangy cat, and asphalt pitted with sunken holes where huge tarry bubbles appear to have been expelled from the ground. Yellowed stems sprout from the pavement and the swaybacked train tracks are half-buried in gravel.
But then a passenger alights onto the platform, and is embraced by her family, and in the warmth of their chatter, the cracked and besmirched surroundings are, I imagine, no more than a backdrop, a familiar old tapestry stained and worn with age in all the same old places. Their puppy, a blond lab, barks and cavorts joyfully on the platform, as apparently oblivious to its surroundings as its owners.
“Hm?” Dash offers me some strawberries, pulped by the exertions of the day, which he is eating off the blade of a Swiss Army knife.
“It’s okay,” I say. “God, that looks sinister. Like this is your ‘kit,’ or something. Or like a bag of blood.”
The deeper we got into Russia, the more I could feel the flutter of tiny invisible hands riffling through my cells, rearranging my molecular structure, seeding disaster. Two-headed deer, abandoned nurseries strewn with dolls and ripped books, kerchief-headed ladies who refused to leave, saying they were close to death anyway, trucking deformed swine along overgrown roads in a wheelbarrow. I lost my appetite.
“Well, drink something, anyway,” Dash says, offering me a bottled water.
“But, then, the bathroom,” I say.
“Yeah,” he agrees. Our compartment abuts the WC. The dividing wall seems to have been stripped of some hardware—maybe hooks—and what is left are holes stuffed with tiny wads of newspaper. Someone, before us, has removed them, allowing a peeper’s view of the toilet, a metal thing surrounded by a shallow and creeping pool of urine. A mop hangs on the wall, its sodden grey tendrils gently beating in time with the train’s motion.
A torn bit of rag ties the window to the top of the casement. “Let’s get some air in here,” Dash says, fiddling with it. As soon as he unties the knot, the window slides down in the frame with a thump and will not be budged. “Oh, I guess that’s what that was for,” Dash said. “It’s an all-or-nothing situation.”
“But now we can ‘lock’ the door, at least,” I say. The door’s latch, we discovered earlier, doesn’t align properly. Dash passes me the strip of cloth. “Russian technologhia, very secure,” I say in a Russian accent, tying the door handle to part of the frame.
“Very,” he says, gesturing with his head at the open window.
Twilight is endless. Thick greenery rises up on either side of the tracks. Occasionally, the wooden frame of an old house can be seen through the trees, filigreed trim and watery panes of ancient glass. Dash reads his book and I pretend to read mine, but really I am sneaking glimpses of us the way we are reflected in the train window. Even with our age difference—three years—people sometimes mistake us for twins: brother and sister.
Dash’s absorption in his book is total.
“Are you excited?” I ask him, when I can’t stand staring at his oblivious face any more.
He puts the book down on his chest and looks at me looking at him in the glass. “Well, looking forward to it, yeah.”
“Who are you most excited to see?”
He considers for a moment. “It’ll be really nice to spend more time with Theo,” he says.
“Yeah.” A few months ago we had been to visit Theo at his apartment in Rochester. “It’s fine to stay with me,” Theo had said, although it was unclear if his girlfriend, a Danish exchange student named Mo, was on board with this sentiment. She seemed to resent us immediately, though understood it was politic, for the sake of her imminently ending romance, to act tolerant.
During our visit, Mo evinced impatience with Dash and I for our inability to plan our trip to Europe, and for our requests that she smoke with the car windows open—in Denmark, she said, they knew it was the worrying that killed you, not the cigarettes. Somehow in memory it seems as if Dash and I always got stuck behind them, on the sidewalk, in the car. Theo walked with his arm around Mo, his hand always at the small of her back, respectfully, protectively. I wanted that arm around me, and all it bestowed: not in actual terms; I wasn’t in love with Theo. But I wanted what he had, what he and Mo had. Their love. Sometimes I felt so flawed next to Mo, with her job back in Denmark volunteering at the home for handicapped children, her European moisturizers, her clogs, her two-inch height advantage, that it was like carrying some minor deformation; other times I felt like Dash and I were their charges, the pathetic children of self-involved parents.
Dash and I had been together for four years by that point. There was a feeling as if digging for a deeper layer of intimacy, that if you just kept at it long enough, digging through the predictability, familiarity, irritation—never mind your broken fingernails, cold and cramping hands—you would get to a new, untapped vein of love. But there was fatigue, the fatigue of digging, of working, of staving off irritation. I didn’t want to keep at it any longer, but I didn’t know what else I might do, in my life.
At night we all drank—some clear Danish drink that tasted of caraway—and smoked dope, and Mo, in a particularly unbridled moment, played a harmonica shaped like a banana with one nostril while Theo beamed. Mo kissed Theo and she giggled; they stared at each other and kissed again, but more deeply, and Mo made a small, intimate sound. I looked on jealously, sadly, feeling a peripheral shiver of arousal. Dash flipped through Theo’s record collection. With no discussion, Mo and Theo rose. “Good night,” Mo said.
Later, I pressed up against Dash’s back; his sleeping felt like a wounding failure to me, and I cried for a while, trying to wake him up.
“It’ll be nice to see him without Mo, anyway,” I offer.
Dash half-laughs. “Yeah.” He pokes at something on the bottom of the upper bunk. “I wonder if he’ll hook up with Natalya. I wonder if he already has!” Theo has been nursing a crush on a ballerina he met last summer—never broached with her, let alone consummated.
“Can I get one of those buns?” I ask Dash. He sits up, rustles through the half-empty bag of provisions and hands me one.
I pull it apart into uneven halves. There seems to be a stain in one. I poke at it. Imbedded in the bun is, it appears, a greenish pebble of matter encased in a cocoon of dough. A nightmare filmstrip reels through my mind, Production of Bun highlights: the field of wheat is bombarded with industrial-strength pesticides and the factories are full of rats shitting and shedding everywhere and huge, fleshy, disgruntled female employees who plunge their formidable arms into vats of dough.
I throw the bun out of the window.
Darkness, when it finally falls somewhere around midnight, gives us some relief from this place that is half fairytale, half dystopia. Sometimes we see the distant glare of industrial lights, greenish as if filtered through fathoms of water, but mostly a pure, humid, grass-smelling blackness surrounds us, rushing in through the open window. We dress for bed in as many items of clothing as we can and press ourselves together on a narrow bunk to stay warm.
In the middle of the night, the train makes one of many stops in a small town whose name appears written in a dream alphabet. The platform is peopled with murkily lit ghosts who silently approach the train, maybe a dozen of them, all carrying open boxes displaying small glass animal figurines. When they get close enough for us to see their expressionless faces, we shake our heads no and they dissolve back into the night in their long coats. The train starts up again.
We reach Kazan at six in the morning. Sergei and his father pick us up at the train station in a cream-coloured Lada. There is Dixieland jazz playing on the radio and a “No Farting Zone” sticker on the glove compartment. The father is a walrus of a man who knows no English but has a kind smile under his expansive moustache. Our slack bodies rattle contentedly over the cobblestones.
That night, at Sergei’s, everyone is there: Sergei, in shades of brown, from his nut-coloured hair to his tanned skin to his beige track suit, pours us vodka into tiny glasses, while his mother, radiating a sweet, soapy perfume, brings dishes of food to the table: chicken pinwheels, little pots of pickled mushrooms, dumplings, a mound of buckwheat, blini. Lanky Theo whose slight underbite and circular wire-framed glasses give him the look of a 1930s office clerk, is next to Natalya, small and slim, with the round head of a doll and flaxen hair that’s thin around her high hairline. Whenever Theo talks to her, she casts her eyes down and smiles slightly, like they are meeting at a well in a medieval German tale.
“The first leg of my trip here actually started with me piloting a Cessna,” Harriet, a cellist, tells me. Owlish and earnest, she is now dating Dima, one of the actors, who is at the other end of the table. “I’m trying to get my pilot’s license and my dad lets me fly as practice.”
“It’s your Cessna?” I ask. “I mean, your dad’s?”
“How—I mean, what does he do?”
“Oh,” she laughs, “you mean that he can afford a Cessna? Yeah. He’s—you know if you go for some kind of internal exam, they use a small camera to look inside you? Like, in your rectum?”
“I guess,” I say.
“Anyway, he invented this kind of condom you put over the camera,” she says. “So you can safely reuse it.” A gust of laughter comes from the other end of the table and I glance up, but it is entirely unrelated. Harriet is earnestly sawing away at her chicken. “He’s an engineer. That’s not the only thing he has developed, but that’s the most recent thing.”
Another gust of laughter: It seems like Dima, who is standing now, is impersonating someone—a woman. Laysan howls harder than anyone. She has a broad face and her irises, in whites the colour of skim milk, are dark and hot-looking. She’s been winking at me a lot, conspiratorially. Pawing at the tabletop now, she stands up and says something in Russian.
“I want to make toast,” she says, switching to English. “Toast!” The table quiets down. “To womens! To… queens! Witches!” She looks around theatrically. “Prostitutes! Bloody prostitutki—like me!” She laughs at this joke on herself, but no one else seems to know how to react.
“To Laysan!” Dash says into the silence, raising his glass in response.
“To Laysan!” everyone echoes, and tips their glasses back. Laysan catches my eye and winks.
Imagine a birch forest punctuated with quonset huts and a couple of giant geodesic domes; imagine the magical phenomenon of “singing trees,” whose branches cradle loudspeakers that broadcast, at 7:30 in the morning, demonically cheery songs sung by children; imagine meals of grey meat and glasses of something resembling sour cream, meals that, in short, drive you back to the reliably disappointing soups-in-a-cup that you have secreted in your knapsack: these are the properties of a so-called “luxury camp” in Russia circa 1992. Although it is on the banks of a wide river and does have a beach (albeit one whose dunes are studded with scorpions), it is not called “luxury” for these qualities, nor for the treatment we receive during our stay, but because cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin once stayed there at the height of his fame. A huge painted mural of him still features prominently at the entrance to the camp.
Everyone is always swimming and urging me to swim, but the river is silty and too warm. A ways upstream, there’s a factory on the riverbank with a smokestack that is always spewing flame and smoke. Theo emerges from the water with a sudden rash one day.
During the protracted dusk the air fills with smoke from barbecues. Families converse under the pall. A ghetto blaster somewhere nearby is playing Twisted Sister. Tveested Seestair. Dash and I watch from the little balcony of the quonset hut; Harriet is inside pumping water through her very expensive water filter. The creaking of the pump’s plastic handle is soothing and old-timey.
Footfalls on the staircase resonate through the whole hut, and Theo opens the door, flushed and jolly. “I feel like I’m witnessing some ancient ritual,” Theo says as he passes Harriet, who smiles in greeting. He comes out to join us on the balcony, whistling the Star Wars theme with his tongue behind his front teeth.
“Hello, C3PO,” says Dash. “Any news from the Death Star?” Death Star is his and Theo’s nickname for Laysan—it best conveyed her “dark energy,” he said.
Theo closes his eyes and says, “Oh, dear,” a laugh catching his words. “Wellll,” he continues sheepishly, “funny you should ask.”
“Oh, man.” He shakes his head, looks down.
“Yes?” Talking to him in the tone of a parent waiting for the truth to come out.
“I was just sharing a rowboat with my good friend Death Star,” he says.
“Death Star? Why?”
“I don’t know!” he says in droll anguish. “I was kind of drunk, and then I started talking to her about Natalya…”
“Natalya? Why were you talking to Laysan about Natalya?”
“She started asking me these questions, you know, like ‘Who you like? Do you hev special friend?’ And this whole Natalya business is just burning me up! So I told her.”
“Yikes,” I say.
“But wait for it! So we’re wandering through this birch forest—you know, the one near the playground?—talking, and the next thing I know, we’re by the water, and getting into this rowboat thing, and floating around on the lake…”
“They have rowboats here?”
“I guess so! And she starts massaging my hand—”
“In a hitting-on sort of way?”
“Yes! And then she begins—” he crouches over a little to speak to us, his eyes playing over Harriet with her creaky apparatus, assessing her for her eavesdropping capabilities, “she begins sucking my fingers!”
We are incredulous. “Death Star sucked your fingers?!”
“Yeah! And you know what?” There is a longish pause. “It felt kind of good!” he says in a burst of elated shame, which makes us all laugh.
The smell of extinguished fires permeates my sleep. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking of Laysan. Moonlight stripes the floor. I can hear everyone breathing. Her brother had joined the military the previous year, been shipped off across the country and died in some peculiar accident, though I can’t remember what exactly. He peed on a third rail? Her mother, filled with grief, lost her marbles, became an alcoholic, went into rages. I imagine the mother sawing the legs off their chairs to make moonshine. A house of shattered crockery and legless chairs.
The days pass: Cup o’ Soups, tea from the samovar, polluted swims, excursions to the playground, which seems to have been designed for giant children by a sadist. There is a steel apparatus which we call the Arm-Stretcher: a teeter-totter with a fulcrum ten feet high, you grasp a steel bar at the apex of your reach and your partner does the same, and then it’s—wheee!—off the ground, arms yanked as you spring uncomfortably high while your partner pulls her weight to the ground, and wheee! again as you drop and your partner flies into the air. Dash and I do normal vacation-y things like lie in bed reading, go for walks and play badminton. We watch the drama of Theo’s yearning for the untouchable and dainty Natalya.
One day Natalya invites a small group of people to go with her family on a picnic and, mysteriously, while I am not invited, Dash is. This is so poorly explained—in Russia things just seem to happen—that I can find no solace in reason or rationale, just a feeling of being slighted. I moon around the quonset hut, feeling sorry for myself, only venturing out to visit the bathroom. As I’m exiting, I spot Death Star. She’s wearing huge fluorescent pink hoop earrings and has her hair tied up on top of her head in a poofy frizz, or a frizzy poof. She hails me.
“You not going with Natalya,” she comments. They only had a certain number of spots in the car, she says, shrugging. She seems used to being jettisoned, and her plain acceptance shames me, whether for her or for me, I can’t tell.
“My uncle hev dacha,” she says, and this will be the catchphrase over the next week. She tells me that we can all go there, and I hear in her tone a dismissal of Natalya’s whole exclusionary expedition. She suggests that her uncle’s generosity is boundless, that we will be treated as royalty. I am a pawn in an apparent war where hospitality is the weapon; I have to nod and smile excitedly—a dacha! your uncle! We sit by the river and pour streams of sand through our fingers, making little hills while she talks importantly and incomprehensibly about her uncle and his business—machine parts? Importation? How is Turkey involved? Not sure.
“Let’s to hev fun!” she says. She extends her hand to me. “Come.” I don’t know what kind of pact I’m making by taking her hand but refusing is not an option. And so we’re off, me frantically assessing the power and intent of her grip, stumbling over twigs on a dirt path through the birches, smiling in ironic anticipation of her leading me to the rowboat, and pushing it out into the water, and then taking my hand… but she only wants to visit the Arm-Stretcher, and I feign joy as I am yanked up and down. Dismounting is the hardest part, but she graciously lets me drop before accepting the full weight of her body free-falling to the ground, hitting with such a thud I can feel it through the soles of my feet. What a strange design this toy is, requiring someone to always make a gallant sacrifice for their friend, or giving one of them cruel power over the other. Or, in our case, both.
She grabs hold of my hands again, both, crossing her arms, and begins to swing me in a circle. The only way I can stave off motion sickness is by looking at a still point, and the only still point is her face. She looks masterful and mocking as she spins me around. When we resume walking, somewhat unsteadily, I make a joke of my dizziness, crossing my eyes as I pretend to walk into a birch.
“Please,” Laysan says to me. “Banya now, yes?” The camp’s one concession to real luxury is its banya. Not sauna, the Russians would impatiently assert every time we referred to it as such, banya. Laysan leads me there, through the trees, to a cabin which we enter to find four older women in plastic sandals sitting around a table, watching a black and white TV and drinking tea out of glasses. They nod hello. In another room, we undress behind ripped white plastic sheets. I dawdle awkwardly, while Laysan, naked, passes through the wooden doorway to the banya and disappears. I decide to leave on my T-shirt and underwear, and finally enter the building’s dark, hot heart.
Three women lie behind Laysan on the uppermost tiers. “Your shirt!” she says, instantly disapproving, and points to her head. She is wearing her own as a turban. I hesitate for a moment, but one of the women baking to death lifts her head and points to show me that she is wearing a little woolen cap. Everyone seems very stern. I sit down on a hot bench and start to take my shirt off but this, too, I’m told, is wrong. It must be wet. I pass out of the darkness to run my T-shirt under the shower, then wrap my head and re-enter the banya, to everyone’s approval, finally. I sit on a lower seat, a bulwark of naked Russians behind me. There’s a ticking, as of a timer, and the strong smell of wood. The group murmurs quietly, soothingly.
When the women step out to shower, their voices ring out above the spray of water and echo in the splashy, tiled room, impressing on me the intimacy of the small room in which I am now alone with Laysan. I feel overheated in surges. My face prickles.
“You have very beautiful, very young figure,” she says, the vowels clutched Slavically at the back of her throat. I seize up, I hope imperceptibly.
“Thank you.” I laugh nervously.
Then hands: one on each of my shoulders, squeezing firmly, unafraid, slippery with sweat in this dark place, and it feels good—it feels so good. My body wants to stretch out and luxuriate in endless touch, but my brain is in overdrive. I need to get out of there. Lamely, flustered, I rise. My damp T-shirt flops into my eyes and I talk about having a bad heart, needing to leave for my health, but the words seem to be created by an appendage that operates independent of my body, my tongue like the still-thrashing severed tail of a gecko.
Laysan cradles my elbow as she guides me back to my hut, and I smile weakly at her as I climb up the spiral steps, waving. Then I watch her from my window, hiding myself behind the flimsy red-striped curtain. Like a terrible crafty old woman whose pleasures are limited to spying, I stand there until I’ve fogged up the window too much to see her.
One morning, as we lie on the beach, Dash reading a novel and me picking my cuticles, Laysan appears, clapping her hands in a herding fashion as she bounds over the dunes. “You will come please!” Dash and I exchange a look. But we follow her, bunched-up towels cradled in our arms, past two kids playing chess in the sand, some pieces replaced by pebbles and twigs. In the parking lot, our entire group mills around in confusion. Laysan, with an air of pleased bossiness, separates the foreigners from the Russians. This all has something to do with the Uncle, although no one can tell us exactly what. Is he among us? Are we going to visit him? Theo, Dash, Harriet and I are urged into a black Lada, its interior upholstered with leopard-spotted fabric. Two men sit in the front seats wearing suits and sunglasses, silent and unsmiling. Their demeanour causes us to speak in low voices when we squeeze, a foursome, into the back seat.
“Do you know where we’re going?”
“Where are the Russians?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t even know what their car looks like.”
We are chauffeured out of the luxury camp and onto the highway. We make nervous quiet jokes. The trees at the side of the road filter the sunlight in stripes and we seem to be headed toward the city: in a few minutes we start seeing roadside businesses, dusty vendors keeping their lonely vigil. Soon we are negotiating the city streets, among Ladas and Trabants that look like overgrown model cars in crayon colours. “Миру Мир” says a billboard with a big smiling cartoon globe—peace on earth. We finally pull up at a one-storey concrete building.
It looks like an abandoned garage or warehouse, paint peeling, greyed with smog. “Well,” I say, clapping my hands together as we pile out of the car, “here we are!” All of us laugh a little at this. Our guides light cigarettes and moodily stare up the street. A military Jeep approaches and slows. Our guides throw down their butts and step on them. The Jeep’s back doors open slowly and Sergei pokes his head out, pulling a comical face. After him, the rest of the Russians—Laysan, Natalya, and Dima—jump out.
Our driver unlocks the door the to the building, and, his sunglassed gaze focussed seemingly on some distant and more occupying sight, waves us in. It smells of must and iodine. Still wearing their shades, the drivers lead us through the building, pointing to light fixtures and turning taps on and off. We murmur appreciatively. Ah yes, very good, we nod, tarnished lab equipment, lots of storage space under the sink, very good. The room is crowded with machines that look like they belong in a 1950s conception of the future: they are too large, bulgy, and chromed, with dials labelled in Cyrillic.
In another minute, we are back outside, still totally clueless, blinking in the sun, and we pile into the leopard-spotted seats again and slam the doors shut.
“I wonder where we’re going,” says Harriet.
“I wonder where we were,” says Dash. We are on the move again and the city— Sunday-morning empty, concrete monuments, grand boulevards—recedes. We’re on the highway. The rural nudges up against the industrial, and where you might expect a farmhouse you see what appears to be a reactor. Little traffic passes and the Jeep’s no longer in sight. Our sudden aloneness seems to impress a silence onto everyone in the car. As if by agreement, we no longer talk, and neither do the drivers. Nor do they whistle or chat or play with the radio. Over an hour, the effect of this, combined with the fact that our journey has no conceivable ending, is a terrible, expanding tension.
We are shooting arrow-straight into nowhere, piloted by miserable men with hidden eyes. It has to be a kidnapping. We are a dumb cargo of scared rabbits, too stupid and oblivious to foresee the danger. We will be held for ransom. Harriet and her father and his Cessna. It’s perfect. My fear fills the present entirely, squeezing out all thoughts of the future. We’re going to die. I don’t know how, but it’s going to happen. I believe we are going to die.
As out of a mirage, human figures appear on the side of the road, hunched stout figures swaddled in colourful rags. An intersection of two highways; a plywood stall awash in bouquets of flowers, yellow, white, purple, their fresh heads tilted to the sky. Our driver pulls over suddenly and gets out; his companion stays in the car, drumming his fingers against the door. The driver talks to the two women, their toothless mouths folding in on themselves as they reply, crabbed arthritic hands grabbing at merchandise. I could open the door and make a run for it, but then what? And what would Dash and Theo and Harriet do, just watch? The driver returns, thrusts something into the back seat. Two cones of rolled-up newspaper, one containing raspberries, achingly red, and the other filled with sunflower seeds still in their hulls and burnt black.
After another mostly silent hour, we arrive at an ugly pink concrete building. Before we even get out of the car, we can see Natalya standing by the Jeep, hugging herself and scratching her ankle with her other foot while she listens to Laysan. They wave broadly at us as we duck out of the Lada. We run over to where they stand and I hug Natalya in relief while she laughs. “Real dacha,” Laysan says confidently as she leads us across the lawn, although it looks nothing like the filigreed wooden ones we saw from the train. Pridefully, she leads us up a concrete staircase and through double doors; just inside is a scruffy piece of burlap dusted with sand, which we scrape our feet on. Ambient smell of oil-based paint and boiled vegetables. Laysan links her arm through Dash’s and pulls him into a room on the right, everyone else following.
Laysan’s uncle is a stout man who has gone bald but maintains a woolly latitude of hair like a black clown’s wig. He’s dressed in a sharkskin suit and he presides over the room with an air of tolerant paternalism.
Like a stage set, the back wall is a large window with a view of a birch forest and the lake glimmering faintly through the trees. Foreground, a vinyl-topped table with places set for at least a dozen people. The occasion is turning festive, in a hesitant fashion.
“Tell your uncle it looks wonderful,” says Harriet.
He waves away the compliment and beckons us to sit down. The drivers sit next to him. In his presence, their menace diminishes. One polishes his sunglasses on his untucked shirt before carefully folding them into a navy-blue Aeroflot case, which he lines up with his fork.
Over lunch Laysan eagerly surveys our faces for signs of pleasure, which we obediently produce. We help ourselves to potato salad and dumplings. No one seems to know what to talk about. Perhaps sensing this, Laysan begins filling our water glasses with straight vodka.
“Gwaaa,” growls Dash after the first sip, and hammers his chest with a fist, but he drinks the rest swiftly and easily. Intoxicating the foreigners seems to amuse the Russians, as might dressing a cat in doll’s clothes. A fish makes its way down the table, looking ploughed over, a fistful of bones heaped up like spiny debris.
“Her uncle caught this fish,” Sergei translates for our end of the table. “In this lake.” And he gestures at the window with his knife, then goes back to shaving tiny shards of meat off the needlelike bones. We murmur our congratulations. When I look over at the uncle, reflexively, he’s already looking at me, and inclines his head in a gesture of generosity. Please. Have some.
I drink my vodka in little sips. When I refuse more vodka by splaying my hand over my cup, no one gets offended. Tiny Natalya is doing the same thing; she catches my eye and smiles sympathetically. There is the clanking of cutlery and the sounds of hurried eating.
“Her uncle can to play guitar,” Sergei suddenly says. “He was—“
The uncle suddenly begins hammering his glass with a fork. A weary, knowing anticipation is written on the Russians’ faces.
“My friends,” the uncle says, rising awkwardly. “My friends, I am happy you are here. I know you travelled from far and I hope the journey is good for you. I am very happy you are my guests. Our governments are not always great friends but I speak to you now as common man who welcomes another common man to his home. I also am speaking to you as the businessman. I very much am looking forward to making and to keeping strong connections between our countries. We have much work to do. For me this meeting is opportunity for you and for me and I hope for you it is the same. Together we can achieve much for us and for our country.”
There is a short silence and someone at the table starts clapping.
“Do you wanna speak to that?” Theo asks Dash.
“I’ll take it,” Dash says, and pushes his chair back to stand up. He lifts his glass in a grandiose salute. “We are but poor students,” he declaims, swaying gently, “mere travellers who know nothing of the world of business but come to you with open hearts and a spirit of joy. We are delighted to have the opportunity to get to know your country better and we’re very lucky to enjoy hospitality like yours. I just want to thank everyone who made this meeting possible. Indeed, it’s a victory not only for friendship but for, dare I say it, the world!”
A pause. “Za druzhbu,” he concludes, raising his cup.
“Za druzhbu,” comes the reply, like the mumbled amens of parishioners. There is a restrained hubbub as people begin to drain their glasses and finish their meal.
The uncle grunts a few words and then the driver claps three times to call us to attention.
“Let’s to swim!”
We girls change in a room deeper in the dacha, amongst narrow beds draped in faux tapestry. Lace at the windows, carpets on the walls. I perch on a sagging mattress and, when Laysan exhorts me, pretend I have forgotten my bathing suit. As we leave the room, with everyone but me swaddled in a towel, Natalya, seeming to sense my mood, cocks her head, then pulls her mouth into an upside-down U and pats my hair very softly. Laysan, uproarious, kibitzes with two watchful women with hectic perms and patterned aprons, who I assume prepared our meal. Natalya links her arm through mine. As we pass out of shadow, a few of her pale hairs, too short to be constrained by her braid, catch the light sharply, in the sideslant afternoon sun.
Bodies are black silhouettes against the surface of the lake. They seem disproportionately distanced from where I sit, on shore. Between the uncle and his drivers and our group, we managed to finish off five bottles of vodka, and now everyone has pushed a dinghy out into the middle of the water. Every time someone jumps off the side, the dinghy is propelled backwards and the jumper doesn’t quite get the expected clearance and lands with a shriek nearly on top of someone else.
When I begged Dash not to go swimming, he turned to me and said in an unruly Richard Burton impersonation, “Woman, why can’t you let a good man take his own reins in hand?” But then subdued, continued: “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. It’s not that dangerous.” He is earnest and solicitous, with a drunken belief in his own unassailability. Okay, okay, I said. Both a cliché—girlfriend as straitlaced killjoy—and embarrassed at having had it so blatantly pointed out, I mutely choose to rest on the shore. I tell myself it’s good because I can run for help when the inevitable accident happens.
The water laps at the dock, licking its underside. The noise, intimate and wet, slowly takes the edge off my vigilance. After some time, I have to pee, and so I decide it will be okay to leave the whooping, roughhousing group who have surely sobered up enough by now anyway, what with the cold and the constant activity.
The building we ate in seems to be part of a complex whose utility is uncertain—something like a summer camp. As I wipe my feet on the raggedy bit of burlap at the door, I note voices, coming from inside like the buzzing of a fly in a jar. I begin walking straight down the hallway, toward the room where we changed. There must be a bathroom here somewhere.
My face is flushed with a sense of transgression, preparatory embarrassment at being caught. I move slowly and quietly, looking at doors to my left and right. Clinking, behind one, of dishes, perhaps being put away. A male voice, from a TV or radio. And suddenly, a wail. I freeze, unsure whether to move forward or backward. It happens again, a gasped or gulped noise, a woman who may be in pain or something more complicated. I can feel, now, too, the faintest gymnastic thumping through the floor, as of bodies engaged in silent combat. I move closer, the skin on my skull feeling taut.
I creep quickly past the door, just as another sound erupts from behind it. A hallway branches off to the right, leading back outside, and I turn, tucked away here, still able to feel the vibrations through the walls and floor. I am pinned, unable to move, nervousness flashing through my body, and I begin to squeeze my thighs together to stop the almost uncontrollable urge to pee. Who is in there? I imagine Laysan, recklessly immolating herself in desire, in someone else’s desire. Maybe her uncle’s. The sounds are more urgent now, crazy animal sounds. They are answered by a pulse between my legs, which I squeeze over and over. Are those slaps? I don’t know what to do. I stare vacantly out the window in the door at the end of the hall. My entire being has dilated. Laysan’s body is a fearless ghost. The panting and the cries and the pulsing is all one; I contain it all. My face is so hot.
And then I see outside, distantly, a figure I realize can only be Laysan, moving in the direction of the lake; her bright hair scrunchy stands out in the vegetation. I have no idea, I realize, what my body, so tired now, has just given over to. I push open a side door, feeling a new density in my bones, and begin following her in a furtive, watching, animal way. I keep my eye on her as I squat behind some bushes, finally, to pee. Then I run, feeling fleet and reborn, to catch up.
On the lake, the dinghy is the centre of a solemn floating procession, like a painting commemorating a gravely heroic event. Laysan pulls off her T-shirt and shorts and wades into the water, then swims out to meet it. As they draw closer, I see that Natalya is cradled in it, her blonde hair darkened by the water and one hand touching her face; at first I think her nose is bleeding but then I see it’s really a gash on her head, at her hairline. She talks to Laysan in an unflustered way, maybe explaining the nature of the accident. Blood has mingled with the lake water to gather in the bottom of the dinghy in a pinkish pool. The others noiselessly pull her along, other than the little sprays and burblings they make as they puff at the water’s surface. Laysan is swimming behind Dash; she splashes him playfully. When she sees me, she winks.
And I remember how Laysan had told me, that day we went for a walk together, that her uncle’s dacha was on a lake that had a sunken city lying at the bottom. At first I didn’t understand.
“My uncle says this lake very special. Very deep. Once upon a time”—she twinkled at me, happy to know this little fairy-tale catch phrase—“there was village. But now, village is under water. Under lake.” I nodded. How could this be possible? But I feel as though I have read about this before.
And then I can picture it. I can picture the underwater village, pure and deep, completely intact, its elegant wooden-shingled peaks and domes reaching up, through all that clear water, to face the sun.