The Train (unedited fragment)
[…] After the border crossings at Ilyetsk and Yaisan, the landscape quickly became pure desert. The air became drier and drier, and the cabin hotter and hotter as the merciless midsummer sun beat down upon the sealed windows. I drew the curtains for most of the morning, but it was no use. The heat was unbearable, and I quickly stripped all my clothing off save for a pair of boxer shorts, which were already dripping with sweat. I kicked the thin sheet of my bedspread down to the foot of my berth, whose smallness was becoming more and more irritating.
As the landscape widened and emptied, I felt the same occurring inside my mind. When not pulled into one of the desolate, near-abandoned stations along the western desert’s heart, there were simply no people to be seen anywhere. Once in a while, I would see a lean-to shack or tiny house, with an emaciated horse or two running around somewhere in the distance; but this was highly infrequent, once every few hours or so, maybe. With nothing more specific to look at than the whole of the vast expanse, I could feel my soul become more and more untethered. It was somewhere very far away now, high above the desert. I found I did not miss it. I could feel everything that made me who I was leave my body during this interval. I did not bother to look at my watch. Why should I have any use for time now? For all I cared, I had always been on this train and would always be on this train, lying wordlessly in my increasingly putrid sweat until prodded or bothered by either Asan the conductor or one of the Tajik men who wanted to ask me all the wrong questions about America.
My sense of self became more and more irrelevant the longer this went on. Now, finally, I was no one; or more accurately, I could be anyone. Already in Russia I had found myself at a severe remove from my normal self; I had changed and embellished some details and let other things become unknown until I barely thought of them. My friends heard less and less from me every passing day there, and I found I didn’t care that I no longer heard from them either. I had become someone else in Russia, and it wasn’t so simple as me being “dark Eamonn” or one of the other fantastical selves that I enjoy creating as a self-knowledge exercise. With the difference of place, I felt fantastically free. The cage door was open.
That self, an altered copy of the original, had now itself been replaced by another copy, even stranger and more different than its predecessor. When asked about what I did or even who I was, I would shamelessly lie, trying on different professions, family members, ages, and birthplaces. I found that when I tried to think of friends, there were no names. My phone buzzed once in a while; and unlike the other guys on the train my age, I didn’t even bother looking at it. What use could I have for that sort of thing? They must have thought me very strange; a lone American, here at the far ends of the old USSR, without a soul in the world to pine for and without sadness over this lack.
I heard less and less Russian as we traveled across the western edge of Kazakhstan. More and more the sound was of Tajik, which surprised me. Weren’t we going to Kyrgyzstan? But the realities of migrant labor, new national borders, and deepening poverty meant that Tajik people, not their marginally more prosperous Kyrgyz neighbors, had the most need for this train, with its ability to facilitate bribery, illegal immigration, and other petty crime necessary for survival. It made no difference to me, other than that it increased my compassion for these new friends. And I knew I was nothing more than a curiosity to them. Their questions had revealed to me that their conception of America was just as fantastically wrongheaded and garbled as ours is of their part of the world. “Can you get me a job on Wall Street? Surely you must know someone,” was a commonly expressed wish. Another was “First I will go to New York, and then the next day drive to Florida to see the beaches.” Their understanding of America as a shrunken highlights reel of the real thing was eerily similar to how people talked about Russia and the rest of the former Union at home; there was Putin, Moscow, the Kremlin, the vast hell of Siberia, and that’s basically it for Russia, and as for the ‘Stans, they were all just Afghanistan but with Russian signs instead of Arabic. There could simply be no understanding.
The night of the second full day, once we were deep inside the empty, hard dryness of the Aral Desert, I saw something strange. We were making a stop at a tiny station in one of the most poor and desolate parts of the country we had yet passed through, and as per usual the train staff were taking on unticketed passengers for a small kickback. Usually these groups had been just like Bakha and Aziz — young men, laborers mostly, and their families. But this one was different. First of all, there were only two or three men, and multiple women with young children, which so far I had not often seen. Most startling, though, was their dress. The men had long beards, skullcaps, and the kind of tunics and billowy pants that one immediately associates with people who are deeply fundamentalist Muslims. The women were the same — they were all wearing hijabs and what we in the West diplomatically term “modest clothing”.
I had never seen this before. I knew there were mosques — more and more of them, propped up by Saudi propaganda money, all over the region — and that people were becoming more pious every year. But no one had thought the old Soviet countries would ever turn religious like this; the few books I had read, whatever I could find in English, had predicted that any revival would be moderate at best.
These migrants, who were traveling furtively and on a short leg of the route (I gathered this from eavesdropping), told me that something different was happening; I didn’t know what this strange band of devout travelers meant, but it certainly meant something. In the low light of the platzkart, well after midnight, they whispered quietly among themselves; they ascertained from somewhere who I was, where I came from; and took to making what I sensed were jokes about America. One of the women had kind eyes, and kept stealing glances at me, which I saw when I would roll over, tired of pretending to sleep, and stare out the window opposite me. Yet her gaze was one of curiosity, not compassion; I again felt strange, unwanted, and adrift. Yet being as I was a copy of a copy, this understanding made me feel only curiosity myself; I had no need to be understood. To be so foreign was something I had never experienced to this degree before, and I was desperate to push my aloneness and detachment to its absolute limits. It was thrilling beyond measure to be so bizarre to someone.
There was a baby with one of the other women. It was just waking up as the rest of us tried to go to sleep, and it toddled about on the floor, picking up spent water bottles and throwing them. It tried to dig into my things, probably searching for something hard on which to teeth. Its mother, barely awake, was doing her best to keep it occupied and quiet; but it kept cooing and crying, and at every moment I could feel myself filling with more and more hatred and anger at this tiny little person. Everyone else was keeping to themselves, why couldn’t this baby? I saw Bakha, stripped down as I was to his boxers and undershirt, continually rolling around, holding a pillow over his ears; but this was too hot, it was no use, finally he gave in to staring at the ceiling and enduring the cries of the oblivious infant. I became increasingly incensed and desperate for the suffering to end. The heat, the distance, the language barrier, hunger, border crossings, guards with machine guns, hiding my money; all of that was easy. But a baby? This was far too much to ask.
It cooed and laughed and cried and played with my things for hours. Finally, just before dawn, the train pulled into the bleakest station yet, and the strange party of Muslims gathered their belongings and slipped away. With a modicum of silence now returned, I fell into a fitful sleep and did not awaken til noon […]