A backpacker’s life is no cinch. There were times when he thought it to be absolute drudgery – while feasting on a luncheon of barbecued critters in a Vietnamese backwater or being stranded in a Moroccan hamlet with not a word of the local tongue to call home. There were times when he swore he would never again do it, never again venture outside his north Dublin housing estate. Times like now, when he sat weary, tired. Weary and tired and sweating, on a three-legged stool in a putrid log cabin surrounded by three boorish men in a village of which he could now not be arsed to attain the name. Never again.
He had ordeals before but rarely accompanied by such a strange, inexhaustible urge; a feeling that had been with him right from the start. He thought everything about the place was off-kilter. The shapeless, shuttered windows. The wrangled pitchfork tines hanging from the greased wall. The way the notched beams of the log cabin coupled at the corners, harbouring weird and elusive shades. The sporadic hiss and shriek of a feline or some other thing outside, which bolted him upright from his stool every time.
The men who sat around him had an unusual manner about them. Strangely hypnotic, strangely absurd. It wasn’t their spoken tongue – though he found that maddening too – but the odd way their mouths moved in conversation. When they spoke their jaws hung in mid-air and the tongues coiled and uncoiled inside the mouths, resembling murky, androgynous eels. It made for a bewitching spectacle Mick couldn’t draw away from as they all sat positioned around the head of a barrel shedding cards onto the flat round surface, their knees cosily pressed against the staves. Three of them besides him – Valera, Volodya, Vasya. He tried to remember their names via some rhythmic sequence but for the life of him could not remember which was which, especially in his drink-induced haze. He only knew the bus driver, Valera, who embodied the inert mass slumped in a stool across from Mick bearing an incredibly broad jaw and a thick, ruffled head of hair. The rest of them sat nameless, fading into the surroundings until someone would sporadically shoot up and bellow out some gurgling inanity, incomprehensible to all.
Every one of them brandished glass jars with a strange liquid that shimmered oddly under the light of the ceiling lamp. A sharp, piercing tang when it hit the back of Mick’s palate – something mildly comparable to tequila or a whiskey single malt, but lost among even the strident of beverage aficionados.
He tried to amend his posture on the weakly riveted stool (his spine was in a complete knot from the three-day jaunt). The rickety 70-hour train had taken him through a litany of destinations, from the murder site of Russia’s last tsar (Yekaterinburg) to the industrial dive where Lenin’s corpse was exiled during the Second World War (Tyumen). But it was the half a day spent on a suspension-less marshrutka that had really done him in. The pitiless, Soviet-made minibus mowed over the harsh, mountainous terrain to get to the warren he now found himself in. The single fulfilment he got from it was having the pleasure of comparing it to the image he found on the obscure, low-traffic travel blog that brought him here. He had finally made it.
Mick turned his head to the rear of the cabin, where a charred firewood stove stood with its thin long chimney reaching up through the wood shafts. It crackled and popped in the blaze. The men’s hands blundered on top of the barrel with a rich dissonance; Mick looked at the tattered cardboard lumps in his hand which bore the insignia of playing cards. He tried to participate in the game but was distracted by the smell coming from the gentleman to his left. A vegetal undertone with an unmistakable tinge of samogon. He resembled a still from a travel photography magazine: his thin, wavy beard withered under the neckline of his shirt, and he dispensed loud snores that sent waves of putrid scent in Mick’s direction. Mick imagined a caption accompanying the guy’s photograph on the glossed page of a National Geographic magazine. Bucolic life in the village of Belkovo. Or Domodedovo. Or wherever the fuck he was.
He turned to the barrel-chested driver – Valera. “How far is it to the next village, Valera?”
The other did not respond.
“Kak daleko kuda?” grunted the infernal Valera.
“To next village,” Mick replied, moving his hands from top to bottom in a broad curve, like he was stroking a ball. “Next… village.”
Valera eyed him bewilderingly. “Ne ponimayu nitchevo, Misha.”
His voice sounded like an off-tune symphony emanating from his battered larynx. The drink seemed to completely erode his ability to speak and understand English. Mick lowered his right hand into his pocket and clawed out his phone, sending it alight with the glow of a Google tab. His fingers typed out a slew of text, then hit ‘Translate’. He passed the device to Valera. The other read it and let out a satisfying howl. “Ahhh – yes!” He set down with startling gusto to type on the Cyrillic touchpad. Meanwhile, the third man, sitting on Mick’s right, looked on vacuously. This other man hadn’t talked all night, only occasionally looking up to flash a coy grin – a grin Mick couldn’t stomach for reasons beyond his command. The guy’s stiff lip retracted, revealing a stained, toothless gum. It didn’t do much to compensate for the rest of his features.
The heat from the fire gathered in thick waves of mist around the room. Mick was called to its direction by a sharp snap. The burning pine vaporized in a thin rivulet of smoke. He looked at the flickering blaze with hypnotic fixation, rising above the room. He moved through the bulky, congested avenues of Moscow, where the grandeur of Soviet edifices and the wide, people-smelling underpasses had left an unlikely impression on him. He remembered how easy it was to pass the time there, walking – or even staring; at nothing, really. Or maybe, the best of all, indulging his inexhaustible fondness for the local Tinder selection. Those endless collages of slender and bony Slavic women with their elasticized limbs and all-revealing smiles. He was disgruntled that none of them had graced him with the pleasure of their embrace, though he made sure to revel in the decorum their profile photographs had supplied.
Mick was pulled out of his stupor by an approaching arm clenching a phone between its fingers. He reached over the makeshift table and pulled the glowing screen of it up close.
“We are four hours from Tyumen,” the text read.
Mick cleared the screen and fingered a reply. “Where is next village?” he wrote, passing the phone.
Valera took to the keyboard again and hammered out a slew of text. He handed it back. “Village area not village.”
“For fuck sake...” He took a moment to contemplate the message and returned to the keyboard. “How far to the next” – thinking of the best way to phrase it – “occupied settlement.” The phone passed between them like a divine herald.
“20 kilometres east,” Valera’s reply read.
“What is the name?” Mick wrote, passing, receiving.
Mick looked at the text for a while before dropping his head in slow resignation. Google.
He stared back up at the screen. A ‘No Service’ was embroidered across the top bar like an affirmation – of what or who he could not tell. He was recalled to the present by the elusive fire stirring up embers in the oven. Flakes of ash swirling aimlessly around the room, eager to escape their wanton captivity. A cold chill swept across the surface of Mick’s forehead. He sat with hands joined over his thighs, holding up the cards and gazing at the wall behind Valera. Two sagging doorways gleamed back at him. One of them had a huge, fist-sized gap between the closed door and transom, revealing a thick bar of darkness on the other side. Mick stared at it. It stared at him. Somewhere between the awkwardly-exchanged looks Valera requested for Mick’s phone again. When Mick passed it, Valera took to the keyboard and typed in his drunken vigour.
“Misha let’s, go guessing.”
Mick took a moment to comprehend. He did not have the slightest idea what the gesture implied. He wished for some kind of follow-up or a clue to decipher this cryptic fucking inanity. Instead the giant raised the jar to his mouth and knocked back a good measure of gargle. Bucolic life.
The alcohol gave Valera a renewed sense of zest; he stood erect, brandishing a grin that suspended his boorish features about half an inch. When it ceased, his skin withered back down like a loose drape, hanging down off his cheeks with the light playing curiously between its folds. Still clasping Mick’s phone, Valera brought down his bulging thumb on the screen and produced another slew of text. “We have a magic basement,” it read. “It can show you whether you will have good fortune.”
Valera jumped on his feet suddenly and lugged himself towards the stove, stepping over a stack of tools that lay on a brittle-edged hatch in the floor. Its square shape stood out by the slight inward curve of the timbers. Mick felt a twinge in his bowels of an unpleasant sort. He tried to reason but was overcome with a weird, pulsing sensation. He thought of something. Moscow. Lenin. Anything to distract himself from the nauseating putridness of this place.
“Do you know Lenin?”
Valera’s head turned in a slow, delayed nod.
“Vladimir Lenin,” said Mick, trying to hit home with the name. “Did you know he hired an Irish lad to teach him English while he was living in London?”
Mick looked in Valera’s face for some sign of comprehension, “Irish lad... taught him English.”
The other looked on unresponsively.
“People say he ended up speaking with an Irish accent, Lenin.” He waited a moment then poked his finger toward Valera with declaration, “Your Lenin, spoke with an Irish accent.”
Acknowledging futility, Mick sagged back down in his chair, reflecting on a painful conclusion to his gallivanting, the backpacker’s life he promised himself would bring him some indescribable ecstasy or a meaning to the world he could not foresee. He was done, he thought. No more raking through mud. No more crazed and delirious Russians. No more acting bollocks.
There was a sound of moisture and he turned to see the toothless man’s lips part into a wide curve. The last one – Vasya or Volodya – now lay fully comatose, draped over the back of the chair like a boneless mass. His torso had slid down inertly and his neck was bent with immaculate elasticity, creating a hook that propped his body up on the chair spine. Mick’s eyes shifted back to Valera, who stood on the loose trapdoor chucking stumps of wood into the flames with a look of excitement over his face. He beckoned for Mick’s phone. Mick stared back in trepidation. The queer light and the smell and the ruffling cacophony outside rattled him to the innards. He got up and approached the grinning idiot, putting the phone into his outstretched hand. Valera typed something on the screen and handed it back.
“You need to sit on the edge here and put your feet in,” the text said, “Then wait. If the hand that comes is a hairy hand, it is good sign. If the hand is without hair, it is bad luck.”
Another twinge gripped Mick outright. He looked at the small window on the wall. The twigs beat aimlessly against the loose glass in the night wind. Droopy, rod-like strands of loosestrife and larkspur bonding in lustful accompaniment. Mick looked at Valera and the curved trapdoor beneath the man, scanning his eyes over the chipped edges and the strip of forged iron binding together the timbers. He blurted something. Something like “Bollocks”.
Valera spread his giant buckled legs over the trapdoor and yanked up the ring-pull handle. A shower of dust fell into the pit underneath. Mick could see the marshy ground in the square of light along the bottom. Ruts crisscrossing along the floor, from a bicycle or wheelbarrow or god knows what. Mick caught a glimpse of Valera looking for his attention and looked up to see him standing on one leg, fluctuating his wrist over the raised foot. “Naski snimai.”
Mick hesitated a moment. Then he slowly, as if by instinct, stepped back, leaving his flip flops behind. As if he was not his own command. He followed the action by pinching the hem of his right sock, then peeled it off his foot. Then the left. He did not know why he was doing it. He was commandeered by some divine, unnegotiable force. His eyes darted from one object to another. To the men. Looking for some predictability or an order to things. His eyes stopped on Valera, who was beckoning him to sit at the edge of the hatch, slapping his hand against the chipped timber like a large spatula. “Davai– Come on, come on,” he said in an eastern timbre.
Mick shot a look down into the hole. At the floorboards. Marks of oily residue along those edges. Tiny little clumps of dirt, like a boot sole was scraped across. Mick lowered himself onto the hardwood, staring into the ominous rendition of darkness below him. He planted his backside down, carefully lowering his feet into the gap. First slowly, calculably, and then with a quick, careless release. His body shivered with the cold. Some kind of sorcery, he thought: it must have been twenty-eight degrees outside. He sat for a second or two, rigid, sampling the mellow draught wheezing in from under the house. The hollow floorboards thumped behind him and he turned to see the toothless man slowly approaching. The sneaky culprit circled around him and stood beside Valera and they both stared down at him with unwavering amusement.
The room developed a strange anticipant air about it, like someone’s arrival was forthcoming or a thing that was heretofore absent was now imminent. Mick looked at Valera. The latter wore a strange grin on his face that Mick hadn’t been acquainted with – a meld of curiosity and expectation. His skin paled slowly under the jittering light.
“Aghhhh… Haghhhh!” The spittle flew in every direction as the toothless man recoiled from his sneeze.
“Jesus Christ,” caromed Mick. He turned to look at Volodya or Vasya passed out by the table. Still unmoving. A gravestone. His skeletal frame was caved in over itself and the wispy beard fluttered with each breath like a trick of the light. He hadn’t moved at all.
The combination of nerves and fascination held Mick’s gaze. Eventually, when he turned away, the strange tickling was already felt at his feet. A coarse brushing. Mick sat unmoving for a moment, letting his senses connect, then he felt the unmistakable touch of flesh closing around his ankle, like a retracting noose. He let out a choked yelp and sprang erect like a garden rake, watching everything spinning around him frantically, the faces of the men and the implements on the wall, the barrel and loose cards on its surface. In his frantic dance Mick shot his eyes back into the hole: he saw the shadows copulating and moving and he was standing up on the edge with his fists clenched and the sweat waterfalling down his back. The tinge of adrenaline rushing through him like a rapid stream. He cast a look over at the two men and saw Valera suddenly bowled over, choking himself with laughter. Mick did not move. He could not move. He gathered his breath and after some time enough faculties to mutter some low-pitched variation of “fuck”.
Valera, catching a breath, shouted, “Pyat sekund!” He held up his fingers. “Very short,” he said, “Longer need.”
Mick took a breath and then another and then another again. And once more. The toothless man stood beside Valera with the big gape of his mouth formed into the shape of a grin.
“So which is?” groaned Valera.
“Which is what?”
“Hair, no hair?”
In his paroxysm Mick lost all the sensibility inside him.
“I... fuck. Hair.” He breathed. Paused. “I donno. Fuck that.”
“So is good!” Valera expounded. “You understend? Is means good.”
Mick stared in stupor. Valera chuckled in a soundless, careless manner. Slowly he turned and made his way back to the table. Mick looked down at his legs – blue as Christmas – and thought in his palsied, deluded state: bucolic my arse.
When they returned to their seats Mick took a refill of the gangrene-looking drink. Valera still chuckled to himself. He carried a couple of broken sticks to the fire and heaved them into the blaze. The unconscious one still lay in his chair, marinating in a horrible stench of his own devising. Mick sat quietly with the feeble limbs on him drenched of all physical capability. Listening to the restless felines mucking about outside. He did not think about what he experienced. Instead he thought of girls. The Russian girls. The Kalinka. Lenin. He thought he had only a week more to see what was left of the stubborn Siberian steppes. As they sat around the awkward barrel Mick raised the glass jar up to his mouth. Sharp and new. He sat quietly sipping on the concoction, watched as the card game slowly regained dominion. Perhaps, he thought, he would take the week. Take it all. And maybe he would not stow away his backpacker’s days just yet. Maybe, or perhaps, he would use his new strike of luck to continue that venture. And let the rest determine itself.