Stepping out onto the veranda, Zina opens her mouth to the wind, her lips pursing like the surrounding Zhiguli mountains, her eyes closing with gentle surrender. The dusty remains of dry clumps of grain still cling to the palms of her hands, like chalky residue still visible on a classroom blackboard. Rusted iron ploughs line the riverbank opposite, resembling a time forgotten, and a job never finished.
Walking down to the water, a carousel of memories flicker before her, and she aches. Come here, she hears a distant voice say. She obeys. She squats on the grass, without folding her dress beneath her. The blades of grass itch her skin with faithful prickliness; the sensation comforts and stings. Clenching her fists, Zina claws up handfuls of straw-like grass and releases them back onto their dry mattress. The blades fall heavy, leaving specs of dust circling in the air, as if it was raining ashes.
The train she would board in only a few hours was already in motion, approaching from the east. She pictures the carriage, filled with holidaymakers returning home, and scatterings of sunflower seed jackets littered across the floor. She’d never quite grasped the fascination with sunflower seeds. The fiddly process of unbridling the seed from its cocoon appeared overly strenuous for the modest reward. She imagined that by the time the train reached Samara, the sunflower seeds might have risen to knee-height, and boarding the train would feel like wading into the deep waters of the Volga. She could almost smell the stale carriage from where she sat on the riverbank, miles and worlds apart. Her stomach was swollen with foreboding. Was it wrong that part of her wanted the train to derail, was hoping some terrible disaster would prevent her from returning to Moscow? She felt young. Too young for that place. But the right age for Samara, where she could still fit her lemon-yellow shorts that she’d had for almost a decade.
Zina’s mind was racing. The sea of bulrush in front of her eyes, transformed into a blurry lime-green gorse, menacing and impenetrable. She so wanted to feel with the world, to simply be with the bulrush stalks, or the beetle that was crawling next to her, oblivious to the oncoming train and its sunflower seed passengers. To be a beetle was to be oblivious to the peculiar human madness of saying goodbye, that time and time again, one approaches with the piety of a pupil to a schoolmaster.
For a moment, Zina imagined herself enclosed behind the waxy eyes of the beetle, and could see each blade of grass standing to attention, and her own milky white leg gently breathing in the balmy October heat. For Zina, October had always been charged with both a boozy softness and dark dread – a warning that winter was coming.
A ripple of water slapping the riverbank brought her back to her body. A plane making no sound hovered in the sky above, like those flying propellor toys you see children playing with in Mediterranean squares, when the sun has gone down and the cafes glow with an inebriated lustre. She felt an itch on the bottom of her foot, and saw the beetle was exploring her flesh, flailing its limbs at her with some unknown gesture. She once again tried to venture into the beetle’s consciousness.
This time, she saw her own foot as an expanse of desert. Wrinkles transformed into tectonic fault lines whilst cuts appeared as deep as gorges, drunk with lava and laughing demonic shadows. For the first time, she felt as if she could actually see the underside of her own foot, the underworld of the underside. The places we know exist but can never reach.
She was outside her body, and whereas before these experiences would precipitate a feeling of groundlessness, and whereas a sense of unbearable dread would provoke the worst kind of anxious responses, this experience called forth nothing of the sort. She simply let the beetle guide her. Her busy thoughts dissolved, giving way to a deep awareness.
The beetle, having traversed over her foot and onto the patch of grass she had been manually trimming, sped off towards the bulrush, thirsty for the Volga’s minerals. Another plane flew past overhead, this time breaking the whisper of nature’s quiet humming. It was travelling east to west. Zina once again returned to her body, realising she couldn’t escape the inevitability of her departure.
She rose from the area of bulrush by the river, and walked backed to the house, contouring the dried mud path that told pitter-patter stories of her childhood. She entered the hallway, as she had done so many times previously, including one summer when she tripped over the small stair leading up to the door, such was her haste for warm potato pirozhki that her grandmother had baked fresh that day. Her grandmother always emphasised the importance of using fermented potatoes, and would exclaim such aphorisms with rolling R’s of royal stature and consonants of such staccato, that the emanating sound-waves could well have been heard in Samara’s town centre, several miles away.
Zina ran herself a bath. She adored the simplicity of submerging herself into what felt like a subterranean world. The tiles above the porcelain tub had never changed, but year on year turned a shade browner, as they collected bacteria and dust particles. They were their own calendar. The water stung her flesh as she cautiously dipped her toe in the steaming promise of comfort. It often occurred to Zina that pain always preceded pleasure.
Zina let herself be held by the embrace of the water, an embrace as faithful as the laws of physics that ensured her buoyancy, stability, breath. How many times had she bathed in this ceramic basin, unappreciative of its understated luxury? It felt as if she was taking her first ever bath, for the first and only time turning her attention to its extraordinary artistry: the way her legs rose out of the surface like fleshy icebergs; the unrelenting movement of the water that made it seem powered by some supernatural current; the way her skin softened to spongey tissue. She was overcome by an insatiable desire to freeze this moment in time, to ossify her body, turn the water to ice, and become a statue beholden to the beauty of its own non-existence. She could be a strange tourist attraction, she thought; the mummy of Samara.
As she rose out of the bath she felt an ache. Drops of water fell off her body like pebbles tumbling down a mountain face. The sound of the bath draining frightened her, its industrial timbre mimicking a train’s whooshing rattle. Zina laughed. The bath was losing water and it was a perfect, conspicuous metaphor. She was running out of time.
Zina finished what was left of her packing, slovenly chucking items into her hold-all. What had arrived as a neatly laid out spread of clothes and books was leaving as a sprawling lucky dip, her sadness illustrated by the sorry orientation of her possessions.She had read wildly this summer; Turgenev’s Spring Torrents, some Kafka and a book of poetry by Tsvetaeva, given to her by her grandmother. She would not read on the train, she decided, but would simply lean her head against the window, and let the streaks of sun rest on her skin.
Picking up her bag, she noticed it felt heavier than when she’d arrived. Or perhaps she was weaker, softened by the summer’s infectious inertia. Zina had read about astronauts who come back from space, completely unable to bare weight, owing to intense muscular atrophy caused by months of zero gravity. But all worth it for that one snapshot of the earth, stranded in mid-air. She wondered if the atmosphere in Moscow would simply crush her; the weight of its gormless concrete housing blocks, overhead cables, honking automobiles, neon signs and towering skyscrapers violently might close in on her, as if caught in an industrial spider’s web. She would be too porous to block them out. And the roads there, full of pot-holes and crevices from unfinished construction; she felt as if she could fall right though. In Samara, Zina felt safe surrounded by the beds of bulrush and fields of barley that promised to catch her. And there was grandmother. In Moscow, there were only her parents’ ghosts.
At the train station, the familiar practice of frantic elbowing was underway, as old women already dressed in their winter coats and woollen berets, fought each other to board the train first, their numerous plastic bags knocking the side of the carriage door as they clambered on to its gesturing stair. Interminable pants of please, thank you, good luck, visit soon echoed around the station, as humanity’s hatred of goodbyes broke into song.
Zina waited behind, watching on with knowing amusement. She could only feel love for all that was around her, a madness she was aware of but nonetheless allowed. Samara was not the perfect doppelgänger of an imperfect Moscow. But splitting the world in two, became the only mechanism by which she could understand her departure.
The station smelled of newly laid tarmac, hot and groomed. The guard – a middle-aged woman of square-like stature – called over to her: Young girl, are you boarding? Zina smiled at her and nodded, and approached slowly, sprinkling her sadness on the guard with the steady intention of each step. The guard’s voice had struck her as overly forceful and authoritarian. She handed over her passport, and bowed her head as if to apologise for her insolence.
– Where are you going? the guard enquired.
– Moscow, Zina whispered.
– Returning home?
– No, she replied. I just live there.
– Very well, safe travels.
Zina placed her passport back in her bag with a swift, nonchalant gesture, and floated to her bunk.
A flurry of whistles, shouts, cranks and chugs was followed by movement, and the train continued its journey west. There were no sunflower seeds on the floor, but for several minutes she followed the meandering course of an ant, scampering across the grubby carriage. It was travelling east, swimming against the tide of the train.
Zina thought of the beetle and of the rippling waves of the Volga that refuse to stay still. The bulrush would be swaying in the twilight’s breeze and grandmother would be making dumplings with sour cream for her evening meal. She thought of how unchanged the scene by the river would be, even though she had been removed entirely from the landscape. As if blotted out of her own painting, the Volga continued to flow, unaware of her absence.
Zina gazed around the third-class carriage from her upper bunk, and noticed a mother and her young son, sitting across from her. The young boy was dressed in blue and already asleep, whilst his mother sat opposite preparing open sandwiches; one with ham and gherkin, one with cheese, one with sour cream. The boy’s arm was bent at the elbow, his palm was tucked behind his ear, and his knees were raised, forming a satisfying geometric pattern.
The boy awoke and sat up robotically to face his mother on the opposite bunk. A blur of barley fields rushed past in the window. As the boy took a sandwich from his mother – busy preparing another and then another – Zina noticed a clump of his pillow tousled hair moving in time with the train’s jolts.
The mother, dressed in loose black clothing and white slippers, turned to face Zina, as if she knew she had been staring all along.
– Will you have one? she asked, holding out a sandwich.
Zina felt embarrassed, as if she had been caught trying to climb into a world that wasn’t hers.
– Oh no, thank you. I’ve eaten, she lied.
– Eat, dear child, eat.
After a slight hesitation, Zina reached her hand out and curled her fingers round the dry, too-white bread. It had a familiar texture, as familiar as anything could be. She took the sandwich and nodded at the mother, instead of saying thank you. Zina sat back, took a big bite, and smiled at the young boy who was on his second.
Matthew Janney is a writer and editor based in London. Formerly literary editor of online magazine Culture Trip, his work has also appeared in The White Review, The LA Review of Books, The Calvert Journal and is upcoming in the TLS.