by Jeffrey Tayler
From Chapter Six
"What is this? Urine?"
The conductor stood over a puddle by Sasha's legs in the corridor. I thought she was going to rub his face in it, as one would in toilet-training a puppy.
"That's urine! You are pigs, and I'm informing your workplaces."
Sasha swayed, almost ready to pass out. The conductor ordered him to clean up the mess and stomped away. I followed her, passing the compartment where Sasha had been drinking with his mates. Three men lay passed out in various positions. A puddle of urine glided around the floor. That was it. I was changing compartments.
"Of course you will!" The conductor seemed as though she had been waiting for me. "Who could stay with such a pig? He's suffering from White Fever. I've seen it before. Those in that stage of alcoholism are goners. The mood changes, now happy, now sad, now violent. White Fever. There's nothing you can do about it."
Sasha had disappeared. I grabbed my bag and moved into compartment three. A slovenly fat fellow snored facedown until my turning on the light woke him. I apologized. He lay his head sideways on the pillow -- he had big, goofy lips and his tongue protruded between them ever so slightly, as does a dog's in sleep. His eyes were closed.
I settled in. He let out a protracted yawn that dwindled into somnolent lip smacking. He looked to be about forty-five. I noticed his chinos and wool knit sweater -- he did not seem to be a worker, he looked Western-dressed. He yawned again and babbled a bit in his half-sleep, like a little boy, and sat up with a start.
Join the conversation in Post &
Return to the Atlantic Unbound interview with Jeffrey Tayler.
"We in Skovorodino yet?"
"No," I answered. He rubbed his face with both hands, squishing his lips together until his face looked like a reflection in an amusement park crazy mirror.
"Blaaah! Ooooh! Sooo tired!"
He had an endearing lisp and he chewed his words, spitting them out chomped to bits.
"You from around here?"
"It's peaceful here in eastern Siberia, that's true. And you can make money. Ooooh! So much money!"
He chomped on his tongue and hurriedly pushed his fingers through his hair, which stood on end in the back in two spikes, almost forming the rabbit signs people make over their friends' heads in photographs.
"Money you can make. But what can you buy? Only Chinese junk. Me, I buy West German clothes when I go home to Krasnodar."
"You work out here?"
"Oooh!" He slapped his face several times. It looked blubbery. "Work, yeah, you could say that. I'm in the military. Guard the Chinese border. I like it here. The climate's healthy."
"Healthy? How so?"
"You're not a Siberian, I can see. But neither am I. I've learned. These frosts we have out here -- they stay at fifty to seventy below for three months. They kill all the microbes. Best thing for you. You dress for it; first the long underwear" -- he drew on imaginary long underpants -- "then the slacks of wool and cotton, then the shuba" -- he buttoned his imaginary shuba to the neck -- "then the hat with earflaps" -- he tied these down uncomfortably tight, bunching up the flab of his double chin -- "and finally the scarf around the face. What can you see now?"
He sat constricted in his imaginary winter gear.
"Only your nose and eyes."
I put down my book. It was nearly midnight. Conversation flowed smoothly with this gentle colonel. He had hoped to be assigned to hellish Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean, where one year of service counts as three and from where you can choose your next posting. But all he could get was Skovorodino. Pretty desolate, but not as bad as Novaya Zemlya, he said. He never asked where I was from. But he did comment on his home region, the Caucasus.
"Wars! All over land! Take your land, I say! And then what? We have war in Georgia, war in Armenia -- for what? That war in Moldova cost ten billion dollars, but who paid? The Moldovans themselves! It's ridiculous. Now take America. No paradise, but they have the rule of law. A two-hundred-year-old country with a constitution that has only eighteen amendments! That's law! Russia's what, a thousand years old and she has no law! Huh!"
We stopped in Skovorodino. He wished me good-bye, grabbed his bag, and hurried out on knock-knees.
Dawn as such never fully arrived. The same dreary sopki just rematerialized in my train window, cloaked in a pewter haze. The trees looked so colorless, so lifeless, that I asked the conductor about them.
"You don't like our listvennitsy?" she asked. "Larches. They're the queen of trees. You should judge them in the summer!"
Amazar, Mogocha, Sbega. Villages of mud, fog, tainted snow, and bundled-up old men with dirty net bags treading over planks laid down in place of sidewalks. The train would pull up and discharge a handful of passengers, with maybe one or two figures wrapped in rags wearily accosting them on the platform with bottles of milk or congealed pastries. I was hungry, but not that hungry. I found, though, that all the dining car had was candy, cucumbers, and vodka. I bought some candy, but it upset my empty stomach.
Later that afternoon, the sopki smoothed into dusty brown rolling hills. Mongolia looks like this. We were just north of there. The conductor stopped by my compartment.
"Now without the larches, see how depressing it is? They're queen of trees. Remember that."
The next afternoon, we were pulling up on Chernyshevsk. I readied myself.
We were passing through a frozen bog. Here and there, wrecks of cabins and disabled vehicles littered the swamp.
"Look, just stay aboard until Chita. I'll cut you a ticket right now. There's absolutely no reason to go to Chernyshevsk." She sounded as though she were scolding a careless child.
"Well, maybe some other passengers going there can give me some information."
She shook her head.
"What other passengers going there? There's not one! There's no reason for you to get off here. If you do, you'll be the only one."
Return to the Atlantic Unbound interview with Jeffrey Tayler.
Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.
Reproduced by permission of Hungry Mind Press, St. Paul, Minnesota. From Siberian Dawn, by Jeffrey Tayler, pp. 101-104. Copyright © 1999 by Jeffrey Tayler. All rights reserved.