by Radoslav Passia
The passenger train, which entered the Chopa station from Uzhgorod, started to back up after fifteen minutes of idleness. We started moving in the opposite direction than I expected. The embedded contours and silhouettes of the world evaporated from me and the only thing left was a thick molasses reeking of yesterday's alcohol. A map would have allowed me to lean on the reddish border lines, and that is exactly the reason why I did not pull it out from my backpack. After all, a precise location confirmed by cartography would not present any great assurance at this confluence three borders, loosely strewn into the slow flow of the Tisa River. The things freely overlapped, diffused and meandered like a calm flow of the river.
The Ukrainian talk in the train car was gradually pushed out by the Hungarian language. A serious fifty year old clerk or teacher alternately stares out of the window and into some kind of romance paperback. Shortly afterwards, her place on the wooden bench across from me is taken by a man. The dubious shade of his wrinkled suit as if directly corresponded with his indeterminate age. His brown shirt with tiny buttons colored like smoker's nails are buttoned all the way up. He smells of grass, and I can even smell something possibly like fruit sap. He lays an old plastic bag full of small green apples next to him. He is not looking at me; you can never expect anything good from the strangers coming from God knows where. Our seats have become a base point for a small train shop. He pulls out a shabby hat from his bag and fills it up with apples. Then he starts making his way across one side. He talks to the people in Hungarian and Ukrainian, but only uses one language at a time when talking to a particular person. He seems at home here and knows everyone. He advances fast, the shuffle of his feet and high pitch voice with more of a familiar rather than business tone quickly disappear in the clamor and squeaking of the running train. In a moment, he is back, and takes off with another hatful in a different direction into the neighboring car. Late afternoon. It is getting dark outside and the voices are softening in the expectations of a storm. The lines of bare August fields relieved of crops are disappearing in high weed. Distant groves of trees reflect the color of dark olives, and the tray of the tired landscape features only the yellow reflective vests of railroad workers who are coming out of their railroad houses by the tracks before the train arrives, only to retreat a few seconds later with a feeling of duty accomplished.
The electric train makes frequent stops, and the original passengers keep disappearing. The jerky starting motion, rattling of window panes and hard collisions of steel bumpers sound like chronic senile cough at times, or a cacophony of a high school orchestra rehearsal other times. The slowly drifting raindrops rapidly start running across the glass, I am looking at the world through the watery trajectories that are becoming scant like the hair of an aging man, and I am coming to my senses. Barkasovo, Strabychovo, Klyucharki; suddenly there us a suburb, half-submerged into the giant gray puddles lined with clusters of anchored yachts of plastic bottles and ocean liners made of plywood and styrofoam, and all of that is partially ingrown into the icebergs of layered dirty scraps of plastic bags. In the distance, I can see the Mukachevo Castle hill. People reemerge in the train car again. There is turmoil, racket, children are trying one seat after another, they are climbing all over on them, lying down on those hard benches, sticking their feet out into the isle, and then in a second they spy on their parents somewhere at the other end of a car like partisans peeking from the trenches, all of that only to earn their father's admonition after a long period of gracious ignorance.
Across the isle, there are now six women seated by me. They all got on together at one of the smaller stops. They must be coming back from work, perhaps a cooperative or a small country farm. There must be a difference of at least twenty five years between the oldest and the youngest one of them. Floral dresses, colorful sweaters, all those little knickknacks, bracelets, thick men's watches and gold chains with crucifixes and zodiac signs; quiet talk at times, another times bald bursts of speech, dangerously rounded waves of accumulated strength. The entire formidable movement that emerged here shortly before the final station stems from the PVC base and overfilled plastic bags, which one would have to suspect of being some kind of forgotten relics of old Flemish masters, painting kitchen still life - the oppressive everydayness of human life flows from them from the top, even through the cracked walls. Carrots still with their tops mix with metal knitting needles, newspapers caress a strange shape of an unknown object, it must be a useful household item for sure, wood chips are going to be handy for heating, old plastic containers may be hiding face cream as well as goose fat, oily rusty screws or seeds of garden flowers. Fat, venous and tired calves of women stretch above all that. I doze off, then falling even deeper; my surroundings whirl around me shaped like fuzzy dark spots. Women suddenly become a shapeless mass, their until now separate bodies of otherwise barely different existences become entwined with the creeping plants from their floral dresses. I do not know whether they turned silent because tonight they already achieved the highest possible level of symbiotic connection, or if it was just me. I was falling into that heavy sleep, which was robbing me of air, I only felt gripping pain in my chest, and being unable to breathe, I immediately crawled out of myself. The sextet of women gets off at the second to last stop, they all get off at that second to last stop, leap from the metal steps onto the tiny gravel sprinkled with rain on that second to last stop, which for them is the very last stop every working afternoon. This is my first time here, and I know nothing about this second to lastness; to me, this entire reverse description based on a fact of the given moment is unknown, as well as false and fatal. This need to talk, which always smells like bad breath of deviating from the truth, brings me back to that suffocating, fear evoking weakness, that lack of air heightened by my enormous thirst to inhale. I do not know anything real and certain about this region. But now I think that it would really like to build the essence of its existence from that absence of thought, vagueness and sluggishness.
But at that time, the reality did not need any additions, it did not need to be transferred anywhere, it was there, on my ass, which was searching for a spot between the wood planks; it was on my forefinger wandering across the misty window, trying to feel the hazy wooded horizon as a completely clear contour disappearing as soon as it emerged; it was in my head, completely immersed in the memories of yesterday. Although, one cannot really speak of yesterday, it was just a smudged remnant absorbing dozens of hours of alertness and short restless sleep. Where is now Andrey Kapitan, that shy driver of a Nescafe pickup truck, who was not picking up the phone, though by now he was supposed to be driving me to Beregovo; where is the fair haired Alex in a fur hat and white T-shirt who speaks English; where is the long gray hair of the violinist from the philharmonic; where is the robust figure of a talkative fresh university graduate Valery; where is the drunken stinky Osip who missed his last bus and is now rolling on the pavement; where are all those guys from the endless warm night before a non-stop theater, just a few meters away from the Uzhgorod's Sándor Petőfi Square? And where is Tanya, Tanya, the seventeen year old Virgin Mary in a white miniskirt, surrounded by angels quoting commercial jingles from the Slovak music radio stations; where are the crowds of beer bottle collectors, old men patiently waiting for us to give them the finished bottles of Black Mountain beer? Only now you all percolate inside me like water in a marble fountain at the Uzhgorod train station, where I saw my own face this afternoon with my eyes burning red, tired from the contact lenses. It was at this second to last, first, main world station, in this black hole and desperate marsh from which we are trying to crawl out of so fast that we do not give it a single thought, that we refuse to admit its real existence. I am here, but I am only straddling above this place, one foot in the yellow neon darkness of last night, the other foot in the approaching loneliness of the upcoming night.
It is shortly before six. The sky is overcast as if nightfall was coming already. The train of cars makes a sharp stop at the main station. The drizzle turns into a weak, warm steady rain. I walk a few meters along the tracks, then on a hunch make a turn and head for the town center. The one to two floor houses hem the wide alley lined with trees. The late Saturday afternoon is completely rid of cars; the brick details of modern style buildings turn their faces into the street. Everything is still. Life is almost unimaginable. Two lonely pedestrians whose slow walk evokes the feeling of aimlessness disappear around the corner. This lack of movement, quiet stagnation of an old town forces me to turn my attention in a different direction. I peek into the cracks of tall metal gates; I am trying to make out the shapes of courtyards, although they are all disguised behind thick greenery shining through the massive cast iron fence posts. But I always arrive just a little bit later than necessary. A bicycle with a thick chain wrapped around the pole below the seat is leaning on the inside of a gate with a large key in the lock. A small pink plastic tub full of empty green wine bottles rests in the middle of the yard filled with rough sand. A forgotten pair of polyester pants flutters on the clothes line and their original color cannot be exactly determined, as they are completely drenched with rain water. Since I was driven to this town where I have never been before primarily by my desire to be alone, I look for people. From a low silhouette of buildings, evoking a feeling of familiarity, arises a modern city hall tower. Its renovated facade with toy-like turquoise color makes it look like a just-arrived film backdrop, only a moment ago stripped of giant plastic wrap strewn on the large floor of the square full of kiosks by some messy crew member. A fair is in progress, but now the square has now plunged into complete calm, people and the crafts have been chased away by a recent torrential storm and the arrival of dusk. I am walking the streets of an old town with my eyes hugging churches, I am gliding over the facades from the nineteenth century, I am crossing little parks with low decorative balustrades, I am walking on overpasses and underpasses where the bricks still reek of chilled urine of fair-goers, and suddenly it seems to me that this city at the foothill of the Carpathian Mountains was built on a giant fragile piece of blotting paper. Step by step, the weepy evening wipes out the real silhouette and molds it into an abstract model of a settlement, which must be clarified inside each stranger, as there is no force that would adorn the city with an imprint of a single history, single existence. For a few minutes, I rest under a gate of some house. It started to rain again for a moment, making the smoking men in white shirts and women in festive dresses retreat back to the restaurant on the opposite side where they came from, with sounds of droning harmonica. I too throw my backpack on my back and head for the Latorica River to examine its right bank with a newer part of town.
Couple of hours before midnight I am back in front of the city hall, I step into Pushkin Street. One block further, in a spacious all night food market, tall palettes are loaded with goods along the walls. Perhaps the radio music and glitter of the neon sign contrasting with empty streets make it seem like the store is full of shoppers. I buy myself a bottle of beer, walk outside and sit on a wood bench just a few meters away. Half hour later, dark forty-something Styopa stops by and offers me some vodka. He looks like a tired circus artist who decided to come out of his trailer door for a moment in the middle of the night. Indistinct face, old pair of grey pants, worn-out shoes, white tank top and wiry muscles of his arms. A few sentences later he figures where I come from, staggers behind a corner and brings Lara. Lara still contains remnants of her former beauty. She speaks Slovak a little. Some ten years ago she used to sell smuggled contraband on the markets in Kosice and in the Spis region. She still loves Silvester, the owner of a bed and breakfast in Krompachy, and he used to love her too, but he married Lara's girlfriend Olga. Soon she starts stroking my arm, then holds my hand for a while and sends Styopa to get more beer so that she can tell me how she and Silvester vacationed at the Zemplin Dam. She says it is a beautiful lake. One morning there she found Silvester in the tent with Olga. Too bad. Her son still blames her that she should have stayed. Styopa comes, his name is really István, but Lara keeps calling him Stefan. She loves you, Slovaks, that's why, says Styopa with emphasis, and wants me to make a hand stand. Lara viciously snaps back at him and presses against me. Styopa finishes the vodka and makes a hand stand. We applaud and laugh. Life is hard, everything got to be expensive, claims Lara. It is shortly before midnight. I hand Styopa a handful of hryvnias, and he goes off to fetch more beer. He comes back a minute later and together with the bottles he is dragging some kind of desolate figure with him. His brother is not doing well. For a moment he sits with us, but then he folds on the floor without a word. Styopa slaps his face and says something to him in Hungarian. The response is intelligible murmur. Every time his brother gets drunk, he forgets Ukrainian, explains Styopa, that is why he has to try his mother tongue on him. It started to rain again, so we have to move to a nearby shelter. Cops pass by, followed by some weird individual. He stops by and wants to talk to us. Lara tells him she only likes honest and just people and not such fucking thieves. The weirdo swears, but then he leaves. Styopa rejoices and wants to make a hand stand again, but he cannot do it any more. He knocks over the bottle, the beer spills out into a deep puddle full of rain water. Lara suggests I spend the night at their place. We walk along dark streets, make a turn, then another. Styopa is dragging his brother, Lara can barely stand on her feet. I suddenly awaken, but we are already in front of a dark gate of their home. I decide I would rather go back to the station. However, I do not know exactly where I am. I run into the same cops at one of the intersections. I ask them for directions. It must be a problem, they cannot agree. They look at each other with the same hesitation as this city looks out into the world. Where should I go, left or right? Let's wait and think about it some more.
I have three more hours until the first morning train leaves. People in the waiting room change, the doors creak. Rain drops fall on the window pane. For a moment it seems to me that the water pouring out of heavens connects this tired gap in space with all cardinal directions. Then I doze off.
back to Essay It!