Friday afternoon. Still clothed in that respected well-salaried professional living in the capital of a newly Europeanized Europe, in a newly awakened life of fruits of my labour and nights luscious with heavy food and ripe women whose eyes told their own thousand and one post-Soviet nights stories but whose wombs betrayed a desire to marry me, enslave me and not let me leave, I left.
Because, ever since I left, I couldn’t stop leaving.
Saturday morning. I awoke a different man. Fragrant, rugged, in an old army caravan, in a field of wildflowers, at the edge of a garden colony near a railway spur abandoned by post-revolution fraud, I awoke a different man, with an untamed gypsy woman by my side.
I smelled her unwashed sex on my fingers sleeping next to me in that old caravan in that field of wildflowers at the edge of that garden colony about an hour from the capital of that newly unified Europe. I lay there and thought about my ordered closet of fine suits and pressed white shirts, my days of corporate culture philosophies and nights of art and soulful consumerism.
I thought about my Mondays and my Tuesdays, my Wednesdays and my Thursdays, and then I thought about my Friday and the train ride to that small provincial station in the middle of nowhere where I got off and sold my suit for the price of a chewing gum to an unwashed gypsy kid by the station. (He thanked me “Mister” and looked for a way to rip me off some more.)
I deeply inhaled her scent, felt her warmth and returned to the now. She was curled up against me like a cat and her bare neck glistened brown. My clothes and skin smelled of smoke and of the acrid ground on which we danced yesterday, late into the night.
I looked at my body and it was dirty and smudged with ash and coals. I smiled. It felt good to be close to the earth, close to my roots. I spent entire childhoods outdoors, by myself, in vast, empty forests, under lush deciduous canopies swaying in makeshift summer storms, near forgotten, slow-moving rivers or in old, abandoned cars and fields, searching for something…
…such that half-gypsy that many many years ago kissed my eyelids with her shy smile and became my first love, my first unrequited yearning.
And, ever since I left, I’ve been searching for something.
The caravan door opened onto a field dense with morning sunshine. A gentle breeze stroked the heads and stalks of tall grasses around and brought the scent of a coming fragrant day in. Her sister came in and curled up between the woman and I.
I heard the sound of laughter and children playing amidst the silence and tall grasses. I could not remember how I got there, nor could I remember the night before, for I had the distinct feeling that last night was not there or might not have even happened.
But, I smelled the scent of her unwashed sex on my fingers.
The gentle morning breeze played with the tall grasses and I watched their play through the opened door, from the cool darkness within. I did not want the woman lying next to me to be too much of a woman, because this story was mine, and it told me that she’d better be a young girl, like that Romanian half-gypsy at that Austrian gasthaus I called home for a few uncertain refugee months, and it told me that she’d be better turned away from me, so that I would not see her face, and it told me that she’d better not wake up, as not to disturb the already fragile moment of my happiness and tranquility.
Thus, I lay with my back to the wall of the caravan and stared at the woman sleeping next to me, right next to me—as close as I would ever be to a woman—and watched her dark hair touch the pillow and sometimes stroke the face of her sister and watched the rising sun hovering above the tall grasses swaying in the breeze, conning through the door, caressing her hair once more, illuminating her serene face.
The moment remained precisely like that for a long time, unchanging. I thought to himself that the sun should have moved further up the sky by now, because time also moved further ahead. I looked at the hands of my watch and they, too, had stopped. I wanted to ask a question, but I couldn’t hear my voice. I opened my mouth and spoke, but I made no sound. This time, unlike that time on the steppe, there was no other voice instead of mine.
So, I stopped. It was no use. Everything seemed so perfect.
Everything seemed so perfect (lifeless) that I did not want to disturb it. Like the sixteen-hour otherworldly contact experience that lasted only a worldly second or the intensely beautiful Solaris arrays of hallucinations that seemed so utterly perfect, but so hopelessly static, I did not want to disturb it.
I sensed an uneasiness growing within me, but I chose to disregard it. It was so beautiful, the moment, that I began to feel uneasy. The laughter had long died down, the breeze was long not there, the air was thick. Time had stopped, the woman’s scent was fading away.
A panic gradually began to grow within me, at first whirling slowly within my chest, then becoming more rapid and rapid and hectic and chaotic: faster faster stronger louder higher deeper deeper higher then BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! three times a loud bright flash exploded in front of my head, blinded and deafened me.
Then complete silence.
I woke up late next to the gypsy woman. Her scent was still on me. Her beautiful dark hair straddled the pillow, which was no more that a pile of unwashed clothes. Children’s laughter streamed in from the outside.
I could move now, so I got up. I still could not see into the woman’s face, no matter how hard I tried. No matter what my perspective, she was perpetually with her back to me. So mysterious, so invulnerable to deception.
I left the caravan. In the tall grass next to it was an old bicycle that could have easily been post-war. It still worked, so I got on and headed into the direction that the bicycle took me in. For a good while, I pedalled lightly along a flat Class Three road full of potholes and patches of asphalt. I savoured the morning and then turned onto a dirt road that headed past a field of wheat and into a dense forest that hid the Morava river. I continued until the road stopped and I was by the river.
On the bank of the river, deep within the forest, eager to dissolve with time, I watched the slow-moving river flow by. Then, suddenly, Kalashnikov showers of heavy border patrol fire rained down on me and I began to run like an animal hunted, through bushes, past trees, and I heard shouting and shots ringing in my head. Bushes, branches, tree trunks and dead wood of this fluvial forest scraped me and blood began to stream down my face, legs and forearms. I was so close to the river that I smelted it and bullets grazed the hair of my scalp. I heard some Russian, but I couldn’t read Cyrillic so I didn’t understand what it said.
My invented socialist past flashed before my eyes, my red scout bandana choked me and my gleaming pionier pin poked my breast and I bled, drop by drop, so I jumped into the muddy brown river full of austrobohemian silt, dove under and swam across to the West.
On the other side, the roar in my head relented. I never looked back, not even once. I sprinted in the direction of a forest, away from the border. Then, with the river far behind me, I slowed down. I walked stealthily, almost unseen, through the forest and when the forest ended, I stepped out on a parched, long-ago-plowed field and walked in the now-higher sun.
I walked until I could not walk any longer and curled up on the brown, parched soil and slept.
When I woke up, the sun was quite high and I was completely dry. I could not remember how I got there, but the field looked familiar and I remembered that a village lay just a little further. I headed towards it and, just before entering it, I brushed the dirt off of myself. I reached into my pocket and took out a plastic pouch with my passport and my money and took out a few Euros.
I entered the only grocery store in the village and the grocer greeted me with a familiar smile:
“Not as wet as usual, today, are we…”
I smiled back at him. I bought some bread, sausages, tomatoes, green peppers and a bottle of beer and headed back in the direction of the river. At the edge of a wheat field that was just beginning to turn golden, I sat down, ate my lunch, drank my beer. I then lay down and drifted off to sleep again.
I slept for a good while and had psychedelic dreams of belly dancers and bedouins whirling to hypnotic sounds drifting through hypnotic darkness of early Arabian nights somewhere on outskirts of nomadic desert towns or villages full of hypnotic percussion, hypnotic trumpets, hypnotic cellulite undulating ornately in front of glowing fires, hypnotizing bedouin skirts rising and falling in a myriad of movements and speeds, the dancers blurring across night skies deep in primal twirling trances, until a rustling in the grass near me awoke me.
I pulled out my hunting knife. Its steel blade gleamed in the hot sun and stroked my face. A young doe sleeping in the tall grass beside me stirred. It saw me and ran away, so I decided to get up and head towards the river again. Once at its banks, I swam across, found my bicycle and headed back, first along the dirt road, then …………… .
I returned to the old caravan, but found no one there. I was hungry, but had nothing to eat. From farther away, I smelled a fire burning in the twilight, perhaps even music or singing. I was tired, so I went into the caravan and slept, dressed the way I was the entire day.
I drifted to sleep and slept heavily.
The next morning, I awoke earlier. The young gypsy woman was sleeping next to me, facing away. Her scent mingled with my own. Without looking at her face, I got up and left. I began walking in a certain direction through the tall grasses, then along the old, abandoned railway tracks.
I was dirty. I smelled. My clothes were dirty, but they felt good, like the earth clutching me and taking me back. I walked for a long while along the tracks, then along a dirt road that I did not yet know. Along the way, I ate wild cherries, blackberries and strawberries. Passing a field of corn, I hid inside, in between the rows, and savoured a raw cob.
Inside, close to the earth, I felt good. So, I slept. It’s all I knew how to do.
When I got up again, I started to walk along the dirt road, past weekend cottages and hobby gardens, until the sound of trains passing got closer and closer. I followed it until I found the tracks and followed the tracks until I found a station. There I waited for a slow train to come.
The train came and I got on. Once inside, I relaxed and slept some more. The conductor woke me up at the terminus. I woke up and I didn’t know where I was, but saw tracks, platforms and light boards and realized where I was.
I got off and caught a tram home.
* This short story is part of the (unreleased) Early Writing, Newfolk Tales and Allegories collection.
It was originally published in The Capilano Review.
“For most people, the door isn’t merely the best way to move room to room but the only way. It’s why we lock our doors when we leave our room, lending ourselves the illusion of security. But as Manaugh points out: What if someone simply carves a new door In a wall with a saw or blunt force instrument? Most of us–the door people, if you will–are to him, ‘spatial captives in a world someone else has designed for them […] too scared to think past the tyranny of architecture’s long-held behavioral expectations.”
I would like to counter Manaugh’s romantic argument, paraphrased above, with the following points:
1. Closing a “door created in a wall with a saw or blunt force instrument” would not be really practical on a daily basis (especially if repeated at least twice a day over the course of an extended period of time), because such a door would not really be a “door” per se, and “closing it” would thus be not an act of closing, as much as an act of REPAIRING THE HOLE IN THE WALL.
2. Furthermore, if such a “door” was cut into drywall, it would invariable create a substantial amount of crumbly and/or fine gypsum dust (that would invariably spread throughout your living space) and, thus the act of “closing the door” would invariable be more of an act of REPAIRING THE HOLE IN THE WALL AND THEN CLEANING UP OF THE MESS THAT RESULTED FROM CUTS TO THE WALL AND PEOPLE SPREADING THE RESULTING MESS ALL OVER THE ADJACENT FLOORING.
3. To delve even deeper into the counterargument, if the aforementioned “door” was cut through the wall into a neighbour’s apartment (in a more spatially positive scenario) and happened to terminate in the master bedroom of that neighbour and that neighbour was inclined to “questionable practices” during the hours you tended to use that “door”, then “opening and closing” of that “door” might prove repeatedly socially awkward, for all parties involved.
(If the “door”, however, in a more spatially negative scenario, cut through an exterior-facing wall onto the exterior of the building, and your apartment was located on the 5th floor or higher, the use of such a “door” might well prove highly detrimental to the short- and long-term health of its users.)
4. Thus, invariably, if you (no matter how romantically inclined) are that person-designate in a household of more than one whom your partner “designated” as the lead Handyperson-slash-Cleaner of the household, “closing” such a “door” would rapidly escalate into a labour- and cost-intensive activity you would (bitterly) devote quite a bit of time and money to, on a daily basis.
As such, in my humble opinion, if an actual door is built in such a way that it repeatedly opens and closes both cleanly, securely, and easily, such a door, in my opinion, is the antithesis of architectural slavery–and one that I would prefer to be “too scared to think past”.
It is by now a trodden (sodden) trope for the creative individual to acknowledge powers greater than their emaciated selves in the creation of their work, be it an inspired novel, film, song… or a wasabi-flavoured mashed potato bust of Slavoj Zizek, replete with a fried onion beard.
The mechanics of human creativity—contrary to marketing campaigns of once-great technology companies that masqueraded as stimulators of creativity—are still quite primitive and mysterious, and inspiration seems to still be a serendipitous idiosyncratic neurological phenomenon that cannot be produced digitally on-demand, and, thus, cannot be mass induced.
Or, perhaps, much of creative inspiration is simply mind-altering-drug/activity-induced, and the myth of deep creativity is just that: a myth… or, more precisely, a “story” fabricated by Marketing.
Thus, when I read quotes of great (dead) white masters referring to “higher powers taking hold of them” and guiding them to create timeless works far beyond their earthly capacities, I am skeptical, because divine intervention has been thoroughly refuted by Western science, we live in a material world, and I am not a material girl.
I am also neither special nor great, by any means.
I grew up, from an early age, in a quiet suburb of the capital of a small Eastern European Socialist Republic (which no longer exists), at the Western edge of the once-fearsome Iron Curtain (which has since been flattened), on a peripheral street, which still exists, but under a completely different name (so it technically no longer exists), all under the firm but benevolent grip of a totalitarian Communist regime, which also no longer lives on, other than in numerous fake Twitter account reincarnations.
By early 1989, my parents managed to bribe enough bureaucrats to receive a coveted travel permit allowing our family to officially betray our motherland and embark on a leisurely vacation through (imperial) enemy territory, enabling us, by way of an extended sojourn in an immigrant internment resort-camp on the other side of the Iron Curtain, to earn our way to landed residency on the far Western temperate rain forest shores of this vast country.
In the subsequent decade and a half, I worked hard to repay my debts to parents and adopted land by diligently pursuing studies in literature, with the intent of, one day, becoming a fully-functioning fiction citizen-writer, dutifully satirizing the mores and spores of my welcoming adopted home.
(It is really not worth noting that, after the culmination of my literature studies—partly because it was, at the time, the trust fund hipster zeitgeist thing to do—I started to fantasize about a career in European art house film direction. It is also not really worth noting that, to “make this happen”, I took numerous digital film-making courses at a startup film school—one of, at that time, many—which, like the country, street and regime I originated from, went defunct shortly into its existence, and thus no longer exists.)
It is there, nevertheless, at the now-defunct film school, where I managed to get a basic film production education, and met my future frequent collaborator, a. alfons o. III. He was also a student—one of the few—taking classes at the school and he, I learned early on, also harboured “deep Euro art-house” sentiments—like myself—on subjects as varied as film, literature, music, meal preparation, relationships and couples’ mutual massage therapy.
As a result of our deeper philosophical connection, borne out of frequent technical classroom discussions, he gifted me, one day, out of the blue, with videotaped footage of a revolutionary event he and his colleagues attempted to organize and stage shortly prior to his start of film school, and the kernel of a future work was sown. The footage was to comprise a sort of a pre-thesis, “Making of…” featurette the group planned to use for investor relations purposes but, the event having failed, he never found any use for and chose to gift me with the master copy of the raw footage (partly sewage), in bulk, as part of “the healing process”.
Inspired by this object trouvé gift, I spliced together, using nothing but his amateur footage, a gross docufictional narrative—the backbone of a future feature-length film—that told the kernel of the story of their attempt at staging the revolutionary event.
Once I edited the footage into a coherent narrative, I reverse-engineered the featurette into a feature-length screenplay and, in the process, incorporated the family members’ histories, as well as humanized the revolutionaries’ speaking parts. It was only natural, because the original footage contained, in parts, awkward semi-staged dialogues and, in other parts, extended sections of characters simply staring into the camera, hypnotized by the magnetic vortex of its lens.
The final phase of this perverse, labour-intensive “de-adaptation” saw me graft a pre-production ready screenplay into a virgin Word document and elaborate the script into a full-length intelligent Euroflavour CanLit fiction novel.
The writing process took about a year and, during this time—or, more precisely, towards the culmination of that year—a curious phenomenon had started to unfold. Imperceptibly at first, in the course of creating a fictional parallel retro socialist kitsch utopia universe within the novel, the borders of that fictional universe had slowly, gradually, started to shift authorward. Then, slowly and gradually, its fringes began to eat away at the fringes of my reality—and at the fourth wall providing me with protection from my work—until, one tumultuous, rain-soaked night, not too long after sending a finished manuscript off to a publisher as part of an unsolicited query, the marginal cracks in that fictional otherworld grew so wide that the roots of the historical and sociopolitical subtexts of the novel slithered out from the mentioned fourth wall cracks, grabbed at my ankles, tangled my feet, and forcefully pulled me into its parallel universe.
(As an aside, I hereby vouch that no drugs, alcohol or illicit substances—other than Canadian West Coast transcendental watercolour meditation and intensive journalling—were involved in the making of this episode.)
That night, the above-mentioned roots grabbed hold of me, dragged me across the permeable border separating my reality from fictional reality, and I lost mastery of my work. At that point, I unbecame the master of my fictional universe and became subject to the forces of its historical and sociopolical subtexts—specifically the trajectories of cultural production in totalitarian regimes of the old Soviet Bloc, whose stories have gripped my subconscious ever since my childhood.
Now, the “modes of cultural production in totalitarian regimes” I refer to is actually a reference to the overt ideological censorship of public creative and/or intellectual expression—be it essays, articles, theatre, literature, music… or, simply, expressing your mind openly at a local pub—encountered specifically in former Czechoslovakia following the “thaw” of the 1960s, the subsequent “restoration of order” by the Warsaw Pact in 1968, and the resulting twenty years of severe clampdown on the freedom of expression of views and opinions contrary to the official one.
Thus, to greatly oversimplify, the “modes of cultural production” became a story of either: a. producing watered-down, well-funded “mainstream” content that dryly communicated official “socialist” propaganda; b. telling constrained but highly inventive socialist realist stories that cleverly—usually through highly inventive satire—communicated “unofficial” views to an audience plugged in to its subtle subtexts; or, c. doggedly creating not-so-subtle “disruptive” content that, for the most part, did not make it past the censorship committees and often resulted in the creator being socially and professionally ostracized.
Or, so I read, since I was too young to experience any of these firsthand.
And, so, the backstory unfolded, ever faithful to “trajectories of cultural production in totalitarian regimes of the old Soviet Bloc”, and I, now an actor in my fictional universe, thus acted as such:
Apparently, my submission to the publisher was intercepted by an anonymous informant, who secretly forwarded a copy of the work to the security intelligence bureau who, upon loosely misreading the satirical elements of the novel (specifically the dialogues between the Son and the Father, and the Son and the Second Friend) out of context, inferred that my novel was a “threat to the sociocultural integrity of the regime” and, thus, put into motion “an action” against me. This is where I, now a dedicated sleeper with a direct connection to the author, was summoned and given the task of destroying the author’s work while he was out (on Monday night) doing beginner hot yoga classes at a local yoga “college”.
As such, on that fateful night, I, as the summoned sleeper-actor, channeled the repressive aggression of the central authorities of the regime and destroyed and/or erased all of the media related to the work in question that the author stored in his sparsely-furnished apartment: manuscripts, notes, mini DVD tapes, DVDs, and all digital flies, including photographs and background research documents—anything related to the work that, if seen by the public, would infect its fragile psyche and stir unrest within its emaciated hearts.
Once I had completed the gruesome task, the roots of the fictional universe let go of me and I, exhausted and disoriented, tumbled out of the fictional universe and collapsed into deep, restorative sleep.
Such was the mastery of the secret sleeper-agent that I came to realize the magnitude of the “action” perpetrated against me only gradually. Once, over the span of a few weeks, I fully grasped the extent the “official intervention”, the loss (of my work), like the loss of a loved one, was profound…
…so profound that I ceased to create for three years: the regime had succeeded in neutralizing me. (The human soul, however, is resilient and not easily crushed. In fact, adversity is the fairy godmother of invention.)
During my subsequent three-year sabbatical, the novel—at that point nothing more than a vague memory of something that once might have happened—slowly started to heave its energetic imprint within my heart and started to signal that it, too, wanted to be resurrected. I tried to suppress these feelings, but they acquired a strength and conviction of their own, and I thus began to search, in vain, I thought, for signs of remnants of life of the original narrative.
With a strange sort of epiphany guiding me, I was able to—with the aid of basic data-recovery software—find old digital fragments of the original screenplay and then—in my wife’s secret drawers—find a copy of a late draft of the novel, containing the first ten chapters of the work.
From that point on, I embarked on a reconstruction of the novel. The reconstruction, along with fragments of other works destroyed by the authorities, took about a year to complete and was a painful, restorative process. I tried, initially, to heal my sorrows by daydreaming frequently—quite callously—of re-branding the preceding episode as a “contemporary artistic approach to the sociocultural narrative [that took] the finished literary work on a site-specific, body-performance-art tangent” and gain notoriety in the art world. Fortunately, professional self-restraint reigned stronger than vanity, and I did not. I simply continued re-writing i Are the Kanatan, because I felt it wanted people to read it.
In retrospect, I now realize that this destructive-creative “episode”—although now a handy-dandy marketing backstory—was something altogether greater, and quite organic. It was actually an explosive physical manifestation of stories-trajectories I half-heard as a child, growing up under the Communist regime, that used to emanate from private conversations of people close to me… stories that collected, condensed, and fermented somewhere in a murky depth of a culturally-specific part of my subconscious and later, dislodged initially by English-language synopses of once-censored Soviet Bloc New Wave films I discovered at the local Cinémathèque, were released through a deep-dredging creative process into the one-time novel.
I, it seems, living in my new home in the Canadian far West, far removed in time and space from the Eastern European realities I grew up in, was stirred (jarred!) by the lingering spirit of the old regime’s effects on my heart, mind and bones—almost twenty-five years after the “Fall of the Wall”, long after I thought I had forgotten it and “moved on” to a more carefree Western life.
Such is the power of our stories—steeped deeply in collective histories and our interpretations of them—for it seems that they do not get neatly swept away by velvety revolutions, seductive ideologies winning or, for that matter, us running away from them as far as we can (afford to). Their effects linger within us, often forgotten, waiting, sometimes for the most inopportune moments, to emerge and inspire our creativity, or even reality.