“We had left Yerevan the night before; we had warned our aunt to expect us after dinner, but we knew that she would be nervous right from four in the afternoon: having little Lizaveta for the first time in Moscow made her eager to organize trips, picnics in the park and entertain us in some way.
“If only the weather was nice, at least for these few days … Oh, Holy Virgin, Katarina, I haven’t seen the girl almost since she was born!” she was shrieking on the phone. Aunt Alexandra was my husband Mit’ka’s aunt, but since our last visit she had taken a liking to me, and so, several times a week, I happened to spend an hour in the hall, perched by the cabinet or on a chair I had carried for that purpose from the kitchen, listening to her with the phone a few centimeters from my ear.
Mit’ka had been dozing for a few hours, leaving a halo on the window with his forehead; occasionally the rocking of the carriage made him either lightly bang his head against the glass or crush his generous body against mine from his seat and forced me to curl up towards the corridor and next to Liza. She was tired, too; I held her dark curls with my hand because she was afraid to get it them dirty on the orange checkered upholstery and the cigarette burns.
She slowly closed her eyelids, and opened them again. She could only keep her eyes open for short spells, until they become simple thrills that left her eyelids half-mast. She put her head on my belly and I stroked her. She could have been dead for she was really heavy.”
* * *
“The girl in front of Sergej probably was coming from far away. She slept still, not blinking even once; she finally allowed herself to enjoy a dreamless sleep as if exhausted after a long journey. There was no one in the compartment, apart from them. Sergej felt his skin crawling with the discomfort of being locked in a room with a marble statue, the impression of being slowly petrified, struck by the fresh air that whizzed on his face through the bayonet window. He stared at the text he had on his knees: the names of Antigone and Creon, which he already heard on some occasions in the Greek literature course, paraded on the page, dumb.
The girl wore a parka like those worn in the Irkutsk region, shaggy and rough, and the cap served as her pillow. Her clothes were actually suitable for a climate far more rigid than that of Yerevan. She had a sculpture-like pose: freckles dotted her rich and strong cheekbones, and, as if the artist had covered the sketched part with a cloth leaving only her polished face visible. She let her chin lean backwards; the now mild air did not seem phase her, as if the cold had penetrated her bones, or as if she were really made of marble. Sergej gathered his things. While he was getting out of the compartment, careful not to make noise, she freed her hands from the parka pockets and crossed them. They were also as polished as marble, unusually thin for her built and delicate. It seemed to him that her almond eyes were flickering, or maybe her mouth was trembling: but, for a while he knew that she would not wake up. Slowly he closed the door and took a few steps in the corridor outside, getting his legs used to the rattling of the carriage.”
* * *
“Nikolaj had never been on a train. He did not know that it produced a tremendous noise, like the Domovoy from the stories that his grandmother used to tell him – the spirit that howled at night in the house if you left any food on the table. Niko never used to finish his dinner and she liked to scare him with such story.
When he got used to the noise and the rocking motion, similar to that of a pirate ship, he jumped down from his seat and went off wandering through the corridors. Mom, dad and her sister Lizaveta were asleep, but dad crushed everyone because he was big – auntie always called him “Bear Mit’ka”.
People were also in the corridor: maybe they had not found a seat, or didn’t like the one they had been assigned. Niko decided he would play the ghost: he would spy on all of them without being seen. He returned safely behind the compartment door, then, slowly, stuck only his head out. Good, no one looked at him. He turned his eyes upwards: a big, blond girl was tying her hair in a ponytail, and was speaking to someone of the same age whose face he could not see well; but they seemed to be in love. Maybe if he had moved closer he could have heard what they were saying. He silently crawled along the wall, and when he was almost next to them, he ran as fast as he could across the corridor while they were not looking at him, and hid behind the curtain. So he could see inside the compartment next to his: suddenly the two young lovers no longer interested him.
Sitting by the window there was a beautiful woman, she looked like an Altai princess. Indeed, she was for sure: a crown of silver coins encircled her head, veiled by a green sheet where the hair grew, and rows of pearls hung down to her eyebrows. In her kingdom she must have had so many suitors that the king had forced them to have a boxing competition to have her hand in marriage; and maybe she had run off to Moscow to escape from the one who had won by cheating. She was looking at the landscape, intently, as if she was missing her land. Suddenly she turned to him: her eyes were big and dark, made-up like those of a great lady. The princess’ look was sharp and sad, and Nikolaj-the-ghost blushed: she had found him out. He shook off from the spell of those petrifying eyes and went back to his mum’s compartment.”
* * *
“Nastas’ja smiled: the child had run away as soon as she had looked at him, as if he had seen the devil. In fact, in her country she was a little devilish. She lived in the countryside, about fifty kilometers from Voronezh, and her family had always been farming. She remembered that when she had confessed to her mother that she wanted to dance for a living, she had been immediately taken to the priest. But she danced all the same as a dervish in the middle of fields, with her revolving skirt and the wind in her hair; when she turned 18, in the year of the peace with the Americans, she had taken the courage to go to Moscow and tried to get into a ballet company. She had learned Arabia’s dances, and now every weekend she had three shows in a small suburban theatre. Certainly it was not the Bolshoi ballet, but they paid well. Every time she said goodbye to her mother at the village, before getting on the bus, already dressed up like a sultan, she was smiling. “You are so beautiful, Nastas’ja,” she had told her. “If we didn’t have you, who knows what we would do. Had she seen any of her belly dance shows, she would have probably been ashamed of her. However, on Sunday night Nastas’ja went to Mass as soon as she got home.
She turned her gaze back to the window, closed her eyes and saw, with a bitter sweetness, the kid’s eyes.”
* * *
“Her head of hair, raised by the stiff breeze, seemed to fill the whole compartment. The sun blades that pierced the tunnel, gave it intermittent shades of coppery highlights, like a traffic light at night. Those who had the good fortune to hide under that fiery mane, could feel safe: the glare would distract anyone from her face. The girl was, however, completely leaning out of the train, leaving behind only her hair and her body.
Sergej had been captured by that torch just out of the Siberian statue’s compartment, and looked up, leaning against the opposite wall of the corridor, through the open dark wooden door, that was open. The girl’s body was ephebic, so tiny that sometimes it seemed almost transformed into that of a child, or of an old and frail woman shrunken by the years. She did not move a millimeter, kneeling on the seat in her jeans, her head leaning out like a dog on the highway. Only her hair seemed to float, in sync with the wind and with the train rattling, with broken movements. The light gave the body small tremors that were just imaginary jitters. Sergej could not stop watching. She could have been eternal.”
* * *
“The girl who got in at Voronezh looked sad: she was keeping her head down, almost as if to cover her face with strands of beads from her dancer headgear. I smiled from the seat in front, and for a moment she noticed. She lowered her head again, but I had noticed that she had returned the smile, at least with her eyes. Probably she knew my face: that of a woman from our fields, with strong bones and strong features, white hair and callous hands. She had the dark eyes of the people of the South, like me. Her mother could look a little like me. After all, I and my babi got on the train just two stations before. Who knew why she was heading to Moscow: perhaps she was working at some cabaret as a dancer: anything but a farmer. I pitied her for a moment, but I thought that maybe she was happy with her commuter life after all. That’s how things used to be like in that region.
I noticed that my stare was a bit too insistent, so I turned to my husband.
Babi Ivan and I had been together for almost forty years: we were going to Moscow to meet our grandson, Michail’s second son. Babi was pretending to read the newspaper, but I felt he was dangling more and more lazily at the train’s pace. I wrapped my arm around him hearing him breathe more slowly: for such a little man, he would soon start snoring in an unthinkable manner. I wonder if at that time he would fall asleep like that, or if he would say hi to me. I stroked his head. “Sonja”, he would say, and that’s it. Like when we first met, and just introduced, he had repeated my name. I would have not been ready for a farewell like that.”
* * *
In order to complete sight, we only need eyes: other types of perceptions help make it even more complete until that time the train had been traveling through blinding light of fields and steppes, or forest twilight; it had left at night, and the sun had risen while crossing the border tunnel between Georgia and Russia. The passengers had been awakened by the majestic and green Caucasus valleys, and by the harsh ride spaced out by tunnels. The stretch of railway that ran along the Black Sea had been passed in silence: some people were sleeping, some looking out could see only darkness. It would have taken the Northern midnight sun to keep the view alive every moment of the journey.
Those travelling to Moscow, who wanted to enjoy again the sight of the great stretch of water reflecting the sunlight as a broken mirror emerging from beyond the pines, would have liked to reverse the locomotive’s direction, and start the race again; but once on the rail tracks there is no going back.
Translation by Silvia Accorrà (edited by Sabrina Macchi)