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from the October 2009 issue

From “Towers of Stone”

I made a habit of visiting the refugees in the train standing in the middle of nowhere, outside the village of Karabulak.

From far away you got the impression that the train had stopped because of some breakdown, or had simply taken a break in the journey due to the passengers' request. The people walked up and down alongside the cars, staying near to it, as though afraid of the train making off without them. They were stretching out their numb arms and legs. The men gathered in groups and smoked tobacco, the women bustled about, calling after the scattered children.

The illusion of it being a momentary break in the journey shattered when you got closer.

An acquaintance of Mohammed's, Alkhazur, lived in the train car marked number 27. When he came with his family to Karabulak in the winter, he considered himself lucky because he'd gotten a compartment on the train. It was somehow cozier here, more humane, and warmer than in the tents set up nearby on the steppes. People fought over the train cars; families wanted to get as many compartments as they could, preferably right next to one another.

They didn't think they'd have to sit here for very long. The main thing was to survive the winter, they told themselves, and later things would somehow fall into place. The winter was ghastly already. When the heaters stopped working, the trains turned into iceboxes. But the lack of space was the most troublesome. They spent whole days sitting idle, squeezed into the stifling hubbub, with no chance of finding a moment's solitude. They were endlessly jostled, touched, disturbed, and surrounded from all sides by their kin and friends, whom they despised more and more with every passing day, with every hour.

It was easier on the men. They took over the spaces by the windows or went into the corridors to smoke cigarettes. They were free to shout out when their nerves snapped. The women could only cry. That winter, one of them went mad and the doctors took her off to Karabulak. Nobody even asked where to exactly.

Instead of bringing them any kind of relief, the unusually warm and sunny spring only foreshadowed the nightmare of the summer. There was no way to fall asleep in the train once it had been cooked all day in the sun and radiated heat. The swelter robbed them of their sleep, the last mercy still granted in the total lack of space.

They spent entire days wandering aimlessly around the train. The vast steppes sprawling to the horizon discouraged any sort of exertion and took away the remnants of their motivation. There was literally nothing around, not even a tree.

Sometimes, at dusk in particular, silhouettes of people were seen leaving the train. Alone or in pairs they wandered off, disappearing at the horizon. Some went off to think or to cry, couples set off into the distance to find what was left of their feelings, their desires.

Once the train moved, just one time. A mechanic had been sent to find out if the locomotive was still functioning, if it could still be salvaged. The sudden jerk of the train cars torn from their lethargy almost put the people into a frenzy. Some chased after the train as though they saw it as their last, vanishing solace. Others did the opposite—they jumped out while the train was in motion, pushing their children out the doors and onto the ground, and throwing their possessions out the windows. The elderly, who recalled the years of Chechens being exiled in Siberia and Turkistan, shouted for the others to flee because the train would again be taking them all to perdition.

Alkhazur even pondered perhaps returning to Grozny before summer. He couldn't imagine summer in the train on the steppes, and he wouldn't be able to endure the agonies of another winter in his compartment. He wanted to leave—he didn't know where to, but he was sure that anywhere was better than here.

His missing ID stopped him, however. Without it he was nobody, he didn't exist. Because he wasn't on any kind of list, he couldn't ask for anything, request anything, or sign up anywhere.

He had left behind—or more accurately, lost—his identity in the bombing of the city. When the raid began, he ran to the cellars with everyone else. He survived, but his ID and everything else that had made up his life till then was consumed by the fire. He couldn't forgive himself for not having taken his papers with him in his haste to run for the cellar. But who takes his passport to the cellar? Who would have thought that a bomb would fall on his of all houses, and that it would be his life that was reduced to rubble?

From Towers of Stone, forthcoming in October from Seven Stories Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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