As fade the fractals of wild, wicked thoughts, rolling the suitcase behind on a trolley, you walk out of the tower block into the drifts where no path is laid: no icy blood-smeared pavement, no benches, no art installations, only a holey trail early pathfinders left, as if nothing had ever happened. Everything from house to house is shrouded with pristine snow, slightly grey in some places. You find yourself in the desert again, as you have always been, but now it has revealed itself vividly. It's already light, but it won't last long. A frost is omnipresent, the sort under which it would be better to forget that the street is still fit for life and stay at home, snug in a warm blanket and safeguarding your dwelling. Someone shamelessly stole your future and drained all the warmth out of the world, and you are the only fragile being in which a fire still burns, burns, but it seems ready to extinguish, as there's nobody to keep it alive. You walk hunched over, push the suitcase like a snowplough, paving your way to the road. Around you, everything is white-grey speckled with black, from the road beneath your feet to the horizon, from the horizon likely farther back in a circle. You navigate the endless maze of tower blocks, surrounded by sporadic, twisted black trees and occasionally spruces whose branches sag under the weight of the snow, lost in the surroundings, and morph into conical extensions of the snowdrifts. The icy pavements now are coated with sand, two deserts combined, and it's easier to walk. You go on, yet you can't fathom why and where or how, you just go as if your feet carry you of their own accord, or as if they have a plan undisclosed to you, for they surely know what they're doing. Or perhaps it's the suitcase in front of you pulling you somewhere. The destination doesn't matter anymore, just go somewhere far away. The sun tries to warm, but it can only dazzle, reflecting and glittering with tiny crystals on the path ahead, on the snowdrifts around, on the windows of houses, and on the passing cars emitting faint wisps of exhaust. In a word, it’s perfect weather to hurl yourself face-down into a snowdrift, freeze solid, and lie in it like a mammoth until spring itself arrives, until the snow melts away, and the landscape, which in winter appears rather as an architectural model, regains some semblance of life. Near the pavements and under the fences, traces of human existence begin to sprout: beer cans, bottles of something stronger, plastic bags, needles, empty cartridges of nitrous oxide, rotten remnants of newspapers, wrappers from chocolate bars that will never decompose, cigarette butts and empty packs, fresh dog shite left uncollected, and somewhere amidst all this splendour, your cadaver.
At a bus stop, a few sullen silent spectres wait, all dressed for the weather, puffing steam and smoke, oscillating on their soles, transferring their bags from hand to hand, fixing their gazes on the hazy horizon. Casting a sideways glance, the spectres greet you with indifference, and you all begin your collective wait for the saviour to come, the saviour that will pick you up and drive you somewhere into the bewildering wilderness of hibernating nature. Your veins feel cold even under three layers of clothing: a shirt, a jumper, a coat, underwear, cotton-insulated trousers, woolly socks, fur boots, red mittens, and a hat plus a scarf, also woolly and also red, and yet your face remains bare, as if people, throughout their existence in such conditions, haven't devised a decent way to keep the entire body warm. The parched air nips at your flushed cheeks, your teeth chatter like a pneumatic drill, eyelashes, eyebrows – all adorned with frost. From your mouth, through cracked lips, plumes of steam billow like smoke from a train's funnel, your nose snuffles and runs, each careful breath burning the irritated nostrils with fire. The tips of your fingers and toes feel the cold regardless of all the layers. They pinch, they tremble, they grow numb and rub against each other, anticipating the moment when they will once again escape from their woolly prisons, hot-as-lava blood will surge through their veins, and they will itch fiercely as if that lava seeks an exit.
Belching out a trail of foul gas, the coughing jalopy arrives at the bus stop and sucks the crowd in like a vacuum. Per perfect misfortune, your suitcase gets stuck in the entry door. Cold sweat trickles down your spine and your body shivers. The embittered spectres stare at you judgmentally as you struggle to drag the suitcase in. Nobody helps you with it, though you would refuse help anyway, for it's too personal - it's your skeleton in the cupboard. With a rumble, you squeeze in, drop a few coins to the driver, crawl to the back of the almost empty cabin, and sit.
The bus is as quiet as a catafalque. The clocks on the other side of the cabin are odd. Apparently, it's 88:88 now, the time of infinity, the time of no time, the time when endless waiting is the only mode of being, a longing existence without end and with a vague beginning. Time has relegated itself to an abstract concept with free interpretation; it's not something that happens to you anymore; no, now you can happen to time if you wish. Everything's so sluggish and slow, and things that do manage to happen out of non-existence stay with you forever. The monotonous movement and the arrhythmic murmuring of the engine place you into a trance, and you begin to ask yourself questions you'd never normally ponder and imagine things you'd never usually conceive. You watch how a bleak reflection of your face smears over the window and assumes surreal and grotesque forms, and imagine how it would blur across the pavement in the same way the demon's face blurred and turned into a crimson puddle wherein the blood, brain, and snow amalgamated. You visualise again and again how the telly flies from your window and hits the demon's head. You visualise your descent and ascent. You visualise your tears plummeting into the toilet’s bowl before you flush its contents. You visualise the old lady, her flowered shawl, her grey hair, her mellow wrinkled face, and her ringed, veined, wrinkled hands that graciously provided you with the hacksaw. You visualise what the hacksaw did to the demon. You visualise the demon now, in the suitcase, resting, thinking about what happened to him, for he couldn't even fathom the situation — snap and done, once and forever.
Whither do demons go after they die?
There's nowhere else to go because you are all already there, together. The permanent purgatory. Your fellow passengers’ faces would make good gargoyles. You can’t guess their emotions, and any attempts at mind-reading fail, for there's nothing to guess and nothing to read. It might be because of the news, might be because of the way of life, might be an accumulation of both. When time turns to ice, slippery, so do the reasons for being happy. Your bus mates had always been like that: austere, serious, strained, concentrated, constrained. That slowness dwells within them, in how they blink, in how they move, in how they think, in how they breathe, at times recharging their greedy lungs, giving themselves a second to relax before they hinder their breath again. You are no different. Such is your demeanour, stoic and reserved.
Does it have something to do with our inherent northernness?
There's no such thing.
With our harsh history?
It has nothing to do with that either.
Shut the fuck up.
You are not in charge anymore. Bend over the suitcase. Sniff it. Nothing. Unzip it a little at the top and look inside — still there, wrapped in plastic bags.
—Don't worry, it'll pass.
You twitch and slowly turn your head to the old man sitting nearby. He's ruddy, bearded and moustached, sparse damp hairs clinging to his forehead. On his lap, he holds a fur hat. The snow on it has melted, and it now looks like a freshly washed cat with the hat’s ear flaps as thighs.
—It'll pass, all I'm saying.
—I was in the same situation last month. He wasn't that big, I must say, *melancholic chuckle* but the grief was big enough.
—We don't understand what you're talking about.
—First they die, and you can't keep them out of your head, but then... *deep sigh*
—Then they just become good memories. Was it a he or she? How old was he?
—We don't know how old he was.
—You see, people don't give them enough credit. You, for example, you're sad now, I can tell, but before that happened, were you expressing enough appreciation? Just think about it, they are the only beings on earth that love us more than they love themselves, don't they deserve your gratitude and appreciation?
—We don't think they do.
—I'd say even more than any human. We owe them, owe them a lot. Take human speech, for instance — it all started with giving commands, and guess to whom? Yes, right.
Your eyes are blank. The skin on your skull under your red hat creeps to your forehead.
—If I could be half the person mine was, I'd be twice as human as I am, you know?
Mute, you keep staring at the old man.
—I'm telling you. Nice suitcase you've got. It's tough to get a proper coffin of that size these days. Expensive as hell. High demand, they say, even for a human. I don't think we even make special coffins for them.
—Coffins, yes. I've always thought we should have cemeteries and bury them properly at least, and I'm not talking about having funerals, processions and all, because people would find it weird. But just a small ritual, a proper coffin, a place somewhere in the woods, in nature, where they belong.
You look at him and zip the suitcase back.
—Don't mind my rant, I understand. I just wanted to say you're a good person for doing this and don't listen to what they say to you — you’ve got a kind heart, you're doing the right thing, grieving over a dog is as normal as grieving over a human being.
—A dog, yeah.
You rub your eyes and face with your mittened palms.
—It's hot in here, isn't it?
—You're not very talkative, are you?
—No, sorry, we're not.
—You don't have to tell me, I get it, some bonds are very strong.
You nod back, attempt to smile, and say nothing. Now lean your face against the cold window and watch the drifting dun and its denizens: how cars pass, how the bus stops and starts again, how people wordlessly hop on and off, how the streets are all the same, and how they lead you through the impregnable order of permanence. The bus stops once again, and the old man stands up.
—Don't miss the lights, —you hear his voice again and watch as he puts the washed cat on his head.
Say “uh-huh” and nothing else.
The bus approaches Colossus Square, where fuming automobiles run in circles, and even sequences of individuals, akin to ants, move from one edge of the square to another, cross when the lights turn green, and wait in accumulating nervous clusters. Where the square meets the sea lies the broken Colossus, a giant statue with wings made of wires and strings, crashed into limbs and pieces during the Great Coup. It's an artefact from the old empire, built by thousands who perished during the construction, whose bones now rest under the road and the pedestrian lane, gradually tamped deeper into the ground by the same ants and automobiles. The statue, now fallen right in the bay, is kept there with an irony bordering on sarcasm, to remind everyone of the past's greatness and attract the gawker, the rare tourist. The bus passes the Colossus's cracked, crowned head that stands on the pedestal before its broken feet. It stares at you with indifference and a hint of supremacy. Someone has painted it with red eyes and a red mouth that now appears like blood leaking from between its cracked lips - they must have cracked from the cold. Up from the frozen sea, its fist with a piece of torch juts out, forever trying to sink but bereft of such possibility. Somewhere below the thick layer of ice, mingling with the rocks and seaweed, the rest of the Colossus rests unburied, and time, if it ever unfreezes, will soon polish its remnants and turn them into simple rocks, and the future generation, should they manifest into reality, will only see its winged shadow covering the city and the islet, permanently like in a lurid dream where the people weigh the holy giant down with their greed in order to wear his crown.
Suddenly, the Colossus underground station on the square disgorges people. They turn into a thick, gurgling mass and start to flood, filling the pedestrian parts of the square until they disperse and merge with the rest of the ever-changing crowd. The bus stops at the station, waiting for the mass to reach it until they, not forming any queue, rush in from the cold, and some of them sit beside us, grunting and silently cursing because of the space the suitcase takes up. The bus driver decides to turn the radio on and, hissing and intermittently losing signal, it starts broadcasting.
—*static noise* ... the voice of peace... *static noise* ...our proud natio... *static noise* ...Slobodna Zembla has been liberated... *static noise* ... a righteous and heroic opera... *static noise* ...ar. The enemy forces that occupied and terrorised the city for years... *static noise* ... defeated and driven away... *static noise* ... vaporised and vanished... *static noise* ...lute our brave soldiers and our Czar... *static noise* ... courage and wis... *static noise* ... national interests and security... *static noise* ...cautionary measures... *static noise* ... take iodine pills... *static noise*
Cheerful pop music, creating a discordant symphony with the static noise, starts playing.
We can’t bear it anymore.
Cover your ears with your mittened hands and close your eyes shut, push your palms against your ears, squeeze the eyelids as if they are doors to a bunker, so nothing can penetrate and scratch your senses, deprive yourself of the outer world.
Reality is irritating.
The canvas, from beige, turns into deep stygian dark, and your decaying consciousness, spasming in convulsions, starts playing with the silhouettes of objects, their debris and memories, colours and light, forms and shapes, random noise. The world, whatever is left of it, hums and pulsates aqueously. For a fraction of a moment, your existence numbs, silence swallows the sound, and then like a deafening clap in an empty corridor, your heart reverberates its first beat as if someone had just defibrillated it.
It thunders through your head, through your whole body. You can feel the blood, thick red sludge pumping in your ears, the rhythmic drumming becoming a relentless crescendo. Your blood pressure spikes and a thin film of sweat clings to your skin. The seat under you vibrates in tune with the buzzing in your head. It smells, it still smells. The world still has an odour, a taste: old seats that have absorbed the scents of thousands of people, dirt and grime, the sweet metallic scent of rust, diesel and rubber, sulphur, someone's boiled egg, you, your stale clothes. Don't breathe.
We can't, no, our heart needs oxygen.
There's not much oxygen anyway.
Are we having a stroke?
You are the stroke that this world’s having.
The darkness is dancing and expanding like a blob of ink spreads out on the paper, except it's already dark, darker than dark, and from that void, a headless man, his clothes covered in blood and pieces of grey matter, appears and, dragging a telly on a wire like a reluctant dog, limps towards you, his every step sounding like a hammer striking an anvil. Perhaps he wants to talk to you, perhaps he wants you to apologise. Perhaps he wishes to take you with him to wherever he is now, and thus, getting bigger and bigger, he extends his free hand to you and. Stop murmuring. People will stare at you, weirdo. Close your mouth. Squeeze your eyes and ears harder. Think of something good.
There's nothing good any more.
Nothing at all. We are a key of the grand piano, mistuned, with more and more keys missing, played by someone who has never played it and thinks that playing a piano is as easy as chopping wood.
Meeting oncoming cars, the bus rattles down a wide avenue, with bald birches and bushes planted along its perimeter and identical ten-storey grey buildings planted behind them, while ahead is the sun, which rose not long ago late in the morning, had enough time to see what its beloved critters have done on Earth today, and now, blushing with shame and regret, rolls quietly down to the horizon right in the middle of the avenue drifting away into the distance. Inside the bus — you, and a few
Two of them sit nearby and chat. gulp Move the suitcase closer to you, put your hand on the handle. Their skin is dark pink and studded with burst capillaries, their eyes are muddy and red, their fingers are sausages, their
Don't look at them, and they won't look at you.
They are already leering at us. Now they will ask us why we are staring at them, and we will say that we are not staring at all, not knowing where to place our eyes, just sitting and minding our own business with a suitcase which contains our deceased dog and the dog only, but such an answer will not satisfy them, and they will be deeply convinced that we are plotting something, something evil and malevolent, something that implores a risk to national security, so then they will ask we where we got this suitcase, and whether we stole it, and we will answer them, no, this is our suitcase with our dead dog, ours and no one else's, we didn't steal the suitcase nor the dog, both were passed down to we by our dear father, but they, seeing how we look wretched, smell of fear, behave like a butterfly over a candle, seeing through we and into you, into our deepest depths, will not believe us, and even if they do believe we it will not be important to them. They will sense the odour of dread in the air, the uncertainty in our words, in our shaking head, in our darting gaze, in our twitching hands unable to find a place for themselves, in all our vulnerability which, will betray we inexorably, completely, with all our insides, and then they, looking at each other, smirking, will stand up, approach us, grab our suitcase and start opening it, and we, wrapping it with our body, trying to protect our suitcase from the demons, clinging to it like a kitten to its mother's nipple, will fall to the dirty bus floor, where rubbish, dirt, sand, and melted snow will smear our entire coat, our red mittens, our face, our hair, in response to which the demons will grab us by the scruff and drag us away from the suitcase. One of them will open it, discover our secret, will be unlikely to recognise his comrade, but he will be horrified, will jump, swear, curse both the contents of the suitcase and us, and his comrade, loosening his grip on us, will also look into the suitcase and will also be horrified, will shudder, swear, curse both the contents of the suitcase and us. He will look at his comrade, the other will look back, and then they will both shout something to the driver, something loud and threatening, pointing out the urgent need to make an immediate stop, right in the middle of the avenue, somewhere on the side, at the curb, and while his comrade takes the suitcase, the first law enforcer will pull out a black canvas bag from his pocket, throw it over our head, grab us by the arms and shove us out of the bus and into the frost where, on the icy surface covered with snow and sand, we three will wait under the setting sun until a patrol car comes for us and take us to the precinct with injuries somehow still compatible with life. There in the precinct, they will drag us into the toilet, remove the bag and dunk us face-down in yellow liquid where excrements are floating, and they will keep swearing on us, persuading us, spitting on us, convincing us to confess our love for the Czar.
Wake up. You are still on the bus. It's been a lurid dream.
We would rather not wake up. We don't know what reality we will wake up into. What if it’s the wrong one?
A wrong one? What are you talking about? There has only been one to pick from, the one that you have desperately been trying to ignore. Try now.
We would rather not try anything. Trying is torture. We are but a child in a twisted lullaby.
Then wake yourself up, wake up! It cannot get worse.
It always can.
Shut up and open
The very physiognomy of the sky changes. It is tempered — not red from heat, or from blood, or from heart attack, as if someone up there has had a blood clot break, but searing white-hot, outlined with orange-red, the gradient draining somewhere beyond the horizon. The sky, in all its evening grandeur, appears to be laughing at you insanely, desperately, in panic. The crimson sun, meanwhile, has almost touched the line of the horizon with its very edge, blurring and merging with its contour, and from it, behind a veil of haze, a red sludge begins to seep out and flood the world. The sun has ceased to heat, and the air seems to have chilled completely. At last, on the wide roundabout, the bus turns from the avenue onto a small one-way road and, leaving behind the suburban area, enters an old, half-destroyed village, where lopsided wooden houses emit vertical plumes of smoke from their brick, soot-covered chimneys. On some houses, windows are barred with rusty, crudely welded metal grilles. On others are shutters, some fresh, some even painted with patterns, some as old as the village itself, tilted, or even hanging by a single nail. As you pass through the village, red twilight falls, remaining people vanish from the streets, and lights are lit in the windows. Somewhere far away a dog is barking, and somewhere nearby a cat is crying to be let in. The village abruptly transforms into ruins, consisting of dilapidated buildings, log huts once started and never finished, standing in the middle of wastelands and next to lone trees. The second village is alike, and so then the third and the fourth. In each of them, the bus stops, discharges people, moves on, the cabin empties until you are left sitting alone. The clock still reads 88:88. The driver yells, "Terminating here!" and stops, opens the doors, steps out to smoke, leaving the engine running. You somehow drag yourself onto the street, pull out the suitcase, place it on your folding trolley, look at the driver, avert your gaze, look around, and move on.
The moon burns in the sky, the stars are like bullet holes in a black sheet covering someone's window. Sweat on your body starts to cool in the freezing evening air. The hot air coming from you begins to frost on your scarf. Fewer and fewer houses appear, lights inside them are on less frequently, the road worsens, the ice-riddled asphalt disappears. Ahead, a bare forest looms. Its expanse is fenced with snowbanks, snow from the road piled up, and now acting as a fortress wall protecting the forest from intrusion by disagreeable and scheming faces.
Faces like ours.
You step onto a trampled path, but the wheels of the trolley don't go along, getting stuck in the snow as if a plough in early spring earth. Remove the suitcase from the trolley and drag it behind you, smoothing the path. Your body warms quickly, and, down the spine, right above the solar plexus, sweat emerges and begins running down in small, tickling rivulets. The trees around grow taller and denser, the village light disappears somewhere behind, silence and darkness take over. Only a weak wind stirs the tree crowns, which, completely bare and frostbitten, start to knock their branches.
We should have brought a torch.
Trust your instincts. Walk between the trees, where the path leads you.
But there is no path anymore.
Your face starts to prickle, your nose starts to run. You sniff, causing the cold air invading the nostrils to scorch them, the nasopharynx, and even the throat with cold fire. Somewhere behind in the village, a dog howls. Your body fails to warm the layer of sweat covering it. The wind begins to wail, echoing the dog. The fingers in your mittens, clutching the suitcase handle, stiffen and lose sensitivity. The same happens in your toes, cheeks, and the tip of your nose. Stop, clench your fists, open them, repeat a few times, do the same with your toes, rub your face with mittens as fast as if you want to kindle it. Again, albeit not for long, blood starts to flow to your frostbitten limbs, but this doesn't make them any warmer. The fluid forming in your nose seems to freeze in your nostrils, and when, while sniffing, your nose wiggles, the hairs inside tense up and it feels as if they are being pulled out, forcing you to breathe through the mouth, and after some time your lips begin to chapp and hurt, and the cold air, having already frozen the throat, fills the lungs. The wind attacks and disappears, repeating as much at long, random intervals. In the air, frozen particles of fine snow rise and whip your face like a lash, slip under your scarf and collar, and a shudder like a grounded lightning bolt passes through your body. You stumble, take a step off to the side, and, breaking the thin icy crust, your leg sinks knee-deep into a snowdrift and gets a boot full of snow. Drop the suitcase and climb out. Your other leg makes an unfortunate step and sinks too. Now both boots are full of it; inside, it melts instantly. The socks, already damp from sweat, absorb the liquid, and the feet become unbearably cold.
We are scared.
I am scared too.
Yes, more than ever.
Do you think this is the end?
Don't cry. Stop, now is not the time.
We can’t, we can’t.
Don't cry, or else your tears will freeze, and you won't be able to open your eyes; there's still something to see. Feel your way along the path, any semblance of solid ground, carefully. No sudden movements. Keep your feet still. First find where to step, only then—step, squat, extricate yourself from the snowdrift. Snow has crept back into your sleeves and boots. Now shake it off, take your suitcase, look around, and keep going. Suffering draws justice closer. Walk along the path, stand firm. Pants, gloves, socks — everything is wet. The pulsating, ticklish warmth, vainly trying to spread from your heart throughout your body, warms less warmly, and your whole body starts to slowly cool. But suddenly you notice, as if the trees have thinned out, as if the horizon is visible again, and, despite the oppressive frost, you quicken your pace as much as possible, dragging your damned suitcase behind you and covering your face with your hand from the rare but ruthless gusts of wind, until you arrive at the edge, bumping into a snow-covered bench next to a semi-collapsed gazebo.
Down ahead, the valley of the frozen river sparkles in the moonlight, and above it on the other bank, the tiny lights of villages glow dimly, with smoke just barely visible seeping from the chimneys. On the horizon emerges a faint radiance, at first greenish, then blue, then purple, changing gradually and harmoniously. You stand there, mouth agape, paying no heed to the biting wind on your bleeding lips, watching as the glow becomes brighter and vivider, growing and seeming to drift towards you, blanketing the whole sky in a massive undulating curtain. In the sky, as on a black altar, a fire begins to flare, playing with shades and shapes, forming green arches, blue spirals, and purple lines akin to feathery clouds. The radiance grows near, and you forget about the cold, about your stiffened limbs, about the suitcase, its contents, about the past few days, months, quarters, years, possibly your entire life, and when the radiance envelops you, you extend your hand towards the light. It coils around your hand like a python, squeezes it, and jerks it. A hoarse scream follows, and you, along with the suitcase, tumble down the cliff, rolling, your mouth filling with snow. Your nostrils, eyes, all the openings in your body and clothes, also clog with it, until instantly the merry-go-round ends, the world, having flipped several times, comes to a halt, and you find yourself lying on the frozen river's ice, pressing your silhouette into the thin layer of snow that covers it, gazing at the sky. Beside you lies the opened suitcase, its contents strewn somewhere around. You blink, spit out the cold water, swallow some, breathe slowly, greedily through your mouth, coughing. Your wet clothes stiffen and harden along with your limbs, the hatless wet hair clinging to your face, your fingers and your toes as if they have disappeared, signalling to the rest of your body that it's time to fade away too. Tears leak from the corners of your eyes and trickling down your temples, freezing.
It seems like this is the end.
Yes, it's about time. This is how it ends.
What should we do?
I don't know. Perhaps, let's make a snow angel, shall we?