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from the October 2012 issue

Pulse beyond the Horizon

After the water, there was nothing. And if you looked long enough at the horizon, you could make out a stillness that transformed when the waves crashed against the rig's legs and the rusted steel platform began to sway. The drill ate through layers of limestone into the earth's interior, it probed deep beneath the seabed while the reel on the drill floor rotated ceaselessly, and we, in twelve-hour shifts, stood by at the ready to connect more tubing to the well. The Gulf of Mexico. Eight weeks I'd been outside here, and time passed me by as though it was nothing, evenings stretched to their lengths with the other rig workers. I was exhausted and unfocused—and glad when one of the younger guys was around. With their questions and their extreme caution, they brought something like a purpose to the whole oil business, far from all that I knew, and for eight weeks, far from the name I had come to miss. It wouldn't be much longer. Carlos was the name of one of the young guys, he'd signed on in Chile somewhere, and his work suit was soon so covered in filth that you could easily mistake him for any of the others. In the last week Carlos's strength had seemed almost to double, when beside me he would move the large, wrenchlike tongs, when beside me he would notice that the brake had gotten neatly caught in the reel. He had saved his money here—I knew how much it was for him—and secretly I admired how early he would go to bed, the consequence of turning down the alcohol that got sold under the table. That brief moment before switching off the light when he would reach under his pillow and look at a picture that I had only a vague idea of—it was one of the first things that occurred to me when I woke up on this cot that was narrower than a bed, when I woke up under a blanket that was lit white in the early night. Someone shined a light in my face. I must have fallen asleep.

I never would have believed how many images would well up, if just once I was able to rest. In the mornings I'd hear the wind pressing against the cabin walls. I'd see Carlos climb into his uniform at the soft siren of the alarm clock and disappear before it was light out. My right arm was still numb from what had happened. I was told I would be brought to land with the next scheduled helicopter, three and a half days of a medic regularly taking my pulse, of morning becoming night and then morning again, like nodding off on a train, traveling far back to that summer and to that garden where I would smell the scent of hay in her hair. They were banal things in that Bohemian landscape, in that dream, someone would call my name, Vaclav, and the children would sit in the cherry trees and play look-out, scouting for that distant man that I still was back then, back in that landscape.

It's not difficult to get sentimental so far away from everything—the cherry trees, the twelve-hour shifts with Carlos, the infirmary cot. The weeks between shifts were like an airspace filled with names: Djakarta, Mumbai, Seoul, Karachi. They evaporated into the congestion of metropolises, into hundreds of faces, into bars where air circulated from swinging propellers in the ceiling that mingled the moist, warm breath of tourists and young girls with smoke and stale beer below. There were weeks that were brief beyond words, when, in the long morning hours and from behind the half-closed blinds, I would listen for the sounds of the city, car engines, the call of the Imams, sirens, voices—they fused together into a single sound in the spaces between buildings. Even with my eyes closed I could see all these people in front of me. I would lie exhausted, insatiable, tired, disgusted by my own desires and ready to spend everything I'd just earned. It was a lot. I earned more in those months on the water than I could spend in the four to eight weeks back on land—the days on land were a distant place from the days at sea. Noble Chuck Syring, North Rankin A., Rowant Gorilla IV Drilling Rig, the ocean wind in the clanking cold smelled brighter than in the summer.

I was told I'd be brought to the land with the next scheduled helicopter. We squeezed ourselves into protective suits. Carlos had emptied his locker and stuffed some belongings into a sea-sack. I zipped up the back of his orange rubber suit, turned around for him to zip up mine, his touch was light. I turned and followed him out of the room, saw the platform soon disappear beneath us, the sound of the propeller blades was deafening. He hadn't asked me where I was returning to, and so I didn't ask him either. The hand he offered in good-bye and the unexplained picture that belonged to his pillow disappeared behind the glass-paneled door. Wavy hair, some thin bit of clothing—enough for someone who still had the strength to believe that what he hoped to find was still waiting for him, unchanged.

I think back to how I'd begun to tell Carlos about this name, about how happy I was to be going back, and it was as if I could see myself through his eyes on the drive to Cairo now. I told him about how I would put down my bags and embrace this name with my numb arm. The silhouette of the city appears out the window. Beneath a barren blue sky, the taxi makes its way. It is upholstered with fake animal pelts, we sit in traffic for an hour, there is no going forward or backward. I have nowhere to be, but it makes me restless anyway. I look at the faces hurrying by the window as it starts to rain. Vaclav. Carlos had called me by my first name and then had strained to secure me. They had pulled me out of my suit, soaked through with rain. The heavy tongs, they said, had shot back and recoiled against my shoulder, I had hit my head against the machinery as I had fallen. If you fell here, you only fell once. Maybe it was out of carelessness that I hadn't secured myself, the carabiner hung uselessly at my waist, or a weariness that was tough to fight—a privilege among the older workers. In the months on the water, similar incidents had happened to others I had known, the deck slippery in the rain, a warning shot that most didn't come back from, Vaclav. On the sidewalk people push by, someone taps on the window, making a face and rubbing his fingers together as if he wants money. I don’t belong here. The driver honks, rain pours as if from a shower head, and the streets get gradually quieter.

Farangis is her name. I say it aloud when I'm falling asleep, when the waves play on the horizon, when they swell deep below. In my dark clothes I'm barely noticeable in the streets here in Cairo. Farangis is her name. Alleys, people, a market, fruit, packed trains, the photographers, the foreign merchants—it's this other side of her that has me walking for hours in her direction, any direction to follow this slight infatuation. She is more than a name, and even if she doesn't recognize me at first, nothing could resemble her more. Somewhere I drink the sweetest tea in my life, through glass windowpanes, a child stares at me.

Farangis smells like sweet perfume. The room is cool, I sit behind her. Her dress is violet, it leaves her shoulders bare, I brush her hair. It's ponderous and black. Vaclav, she remembers me. Takes me by the hand, sits me down here on a chair, she looks out the window, the curtains sway. She will sit like this, and maybe she will say it again like this, and I will hear it again, Vaclav. Out the window we see rooftops, there are satellite dishes on them, everything lies beneath a light layer of dust, spanning all the way to the horizon, a haze of smog and noise, all the way to the garbage dumps on the outskirts, where still so many people live. Farangis is her name, while we are sitting here it becomes evening again, I hold her hair, now it is light, she's lost sleep, like me. I will tell her about the accident, how the hairbrush in my hand is nearly weightless. I’ll talk to her in a language that she doesn’t understand, no one here knows Czech, I’ll let slip a few German words, like my grandfather taught me. In his language I can speak only about meadows that don’t exist here, about apple harvests and bees and the golden Schimmer of straw. Vaclav, she will say, go back to where your home is. As though it were that simple, a mere segment between alpha and omega that you can always travel back to again, as though everything were just as it was before. Maybe she will only nod her head when it's time to go.

I will go, and I will long for her. In the meantime, I’ll become a regular at the fruit market, the heat in Cairo will bother me less. I have already begun to pack my things, even though there are still five days left. During the doctor's exam I lie when I say that my hand is OK again. Healthy, zrdáv, this I could not say. If he hadn't signed off, they would have flown me back, for at least six months, to the address that I first listed, Budejovice, where there are only fields, heavy dark acres, where she would get tired in the evenings, unaveny. I've started speaking my language again, it doesn't make me any more certain, it's much less easy than the twelve hours of work on the rig, that heavy exhaustion that comes with the ocean air. Here I wake up tired, on the pillow in front of me lies my arm, my hand, the fingers numbly pointing to something, a direction skyward, like railroad tracks running long and aimless through the land, a line of acceleration. It would be a relief to start all sentences with "I" today. To get out of bed, . I don't know, I struggle, it would be simpler to walk down wide streets that don't belong to me but are still traceable, with strangers at traffic lights, with strangers between cars and a sky filled with contrails. , I, the farthest displacement, and the impossibility of making use of this word in my language. Who did she belong to this whole time, our apartment in Budejovice. Where, kam, that would be the second question, where, kam. A great deal of time has passed, outside, on the sea.

Another eight weeks. The mail flies in with the helicopter, I tighten valves, clean the casings, apply a coat of rust-proof paint to where the salt water gnaws on the metal. I wait, I breathe with utter impatience, you should be there with her. Station 3, trio, room 316, Elizabeth Hospital. I tear up the letter, I have six more weeks here outside—the sea takes nothing from me. , I hope, evenings lying awake, the alcohol is useless, it heals nothing. I let my ticket expire, work, sick, days, nights, an uncommon fear, , I. The cities are fast and desolate, a hybrid of English and ferry lights, I walk, I sleep lightly, I frighten easily, never going far enough, never so far as to experience what actually has happened, never farther, never toward this sound that resembles a pulse. Sometimes I'm afraid to lose it, it's not much, after six years with Arabian Drilling I can still hear it, sometimes I have to seek it, so softly, it's always there.

The taxi stops, it's driven me to the far outskirts of Cairo. The houses become more rundown, wide streets of sand, some chickens. Soon the sky becomes vast, the horizon nearly undisturbed. Bald hills, far apart. I count them while he waits. Clouds drift, it's utterly tranquil. The sky over Cairo is a bright and distant orange, it's never gotten completely dark since I've been gone. For six years Arabian Drilling has clocked my time, I'm asked, When will you give all of this up? For where? I'm told I'm less vigilant than when I started. And still, I'm not elsewhere. Between stones and brush, the driver waits, it is perfectly still. Dry plants and dust, I walk beneath clouds and I hear the sand, a delivery truck scrolling along on a distant street with the quickness of reeds floating in a stream. Almost soundlessly.

My arm starts to get cold in the wind, the driver turns his lights on, it's been four weeks now on land, the time is nearly up. Here in the desert the earth barely moves. Everything is scarce and immovable, fleeting, as though we're mere imprints of ourselves here, as though only a trace of myself exists, , I run, I set down tracks, the driver waits, the dusk, the coldness of dusk, the first stars, the clusters of stars, I head toward the car, the horizon, it inserts itself into every equation for us, it stays only in the cities, I've tried. For six years I've watched the drilling, the oil, they say, brings us mobility, Mumbai, Bangkok, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, I've never learned other languages, the different seas, the rooftops, the hotels, the bars, the desert is larger than all of it, the desert that lies beneath it all. Another desert to forget, names to forget, a language to no longer speak, it's dark, the driver waits, red and distant the city glows. If I had found another language, maybe it would have been easier, the places, the cities, the crouching rows of houses, clay bricks, wells with goats, branches of dates, it would all feel truly distant, that Bohemian landscape. Since I've been away, they've drilled 1,600 feet deep. I'm not sure if the sky is even that high. I've lived so long with these images that they've begun to disintegrate, já, I. Most of the time at home, we would lie in the grass, the scent of fields of fruit, then she stopped calling. Most of the names that came after her I've barely held onto. Farangis is her name, she says I should go back home, she points to the door, I know no language that will carry me any further. In the desert there's a pulsating that's softer than the Texan English above the waters, speed is our dialect and distance lies in the glance cast at a photograph, anxiously, the Gulf of Mexico, the Arabian Gulf, somewhere stowed deep away, a language. Vaclav, someone says to me, take a break. The wind presses against our cabins. Cities are simple if you bring enough money, so inconspicuous that you think you can quickly gain a foothold, that you can find the sentences that will incur no risk. Já, I, impressions, pictures that paint themselves in the dry hot city air. The desert becomes cold at night. Já, I have no concept of distance anymore. I walk, the car is a ways off yet, the night clear and cold. Far down the street a light moves through the lowlands, a faint light, a song.

We drill silently for oil. And I think of the urgency, of how, maybe far away, a child claps his hands, and begins to count beneath the cherry trees, while slowly the days slip into the countryside, and it becomes evening and evening again, and as if on a train, I detach myself from some distant, metered bar of time, I wake up, I sleep only very lightly, I think, as long as you're still counting, then I haven't gone very far. The taxi driver rolls down the window. There's still a tugging in my hand, it tingles a little when I pull the bill from my wallet and pay.

© Anja Kampmann. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Annie Janusch. All rights reserved.

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