By KENAN ORHAN
In Ivan’s bedroom are forty-seven photographs of beaches, rectangles of sand and sun. I count them every time I visit my friend, and he kisses them like beautiful women each night. He passes me a bottle of vodka and opens his own, and I follow him out into the hallway, and we ride the elevator to his roof with a view of Siberia. We step out into the night so full of sun.
Ivan works as a miner and has twenty-four hours off every seventy-two hours on, so for the next day we will drink our brains out at the bar on the roof of his building. Ivan’s building is white. The next building over is blue; the one after is orange. It continues like this, in blocks of vibrant colors to prevent depression in the winter. Today is the first day of the year to hit twenty degrees. On the roof, we strip down to our briefs and lie out on deck chairs to drown in vitamin D as long as it’s available.
There are two naked men at the makeshift bar and a woman in her underwear between them, all celebrating the death of the woman’s boss. “She lived a long and happy life void of love.”
“What killed her, then?” Ivan asks.
“Old age, it turns out,” the woman says.
“What did they do with the body?” Ivan asks.
“The body. How did the state handle it?”
“They sent it to an undertaker,” the woman says.
“Who knew there was enough business for undertakers?” Ivan says.
Old age is uncommon; there’s rarely a body. The few burials are from mining accidents—only here in Norilsk is there enough work for a mortician. I hold up my bottle in respect to the dead woman, and I take a long drink until my lungs are full and I can’t feel the air like paper, the sun like bricks.
Norilsk is both gulag and resource opportunity. Founded in 1935 as a small mining settlement, before Stalin realized its grueling potential as a labor camp, Norilsk is the byproduct of a legacy of political oppression and the metallurgical boon that is the Siberian Craton. The scientists tell me all of Siberia is one big shit-show of ancient geophysical disasters encased in millions of years of rock and ice. They use long terms and units of measure that don’t mean anything to me, just as I’m sure the winters here don’t mean anything to them. They need the winter—the cold, the bouts of polar depression, the muscles sore from shivering in snowstorms, the chunks of frozen smog we scrape off the walls—converted into data plotted on x- and y-axes in order to appreciate it. The resilience of humanity measured in ohms.
At the end of August, during the seasonal retreat, the scientists and other temporary workers pile into forty large buses that look like military transports. They ride in a long caravan for hours through the steppes to Khatanga, where they will board trains and planes and boats for the rest of their journeys back to dachas and cosmopolitan dinner parties far away from the bite of glaciers; there they are warmed by fires and spirits, faces ruddy with gossip and wide, healthy blood vessels.
We feel raw with small movements. Our heads are stuffed with gravel, our skin burnt. I tell Ivan it’s time to go inside, but he’s asleep, most of his vodka gone. The three at the bar have left and been replaced by a crowd of young miners with faces like ash, all very quiet. There are bars on other rooftops, each full of people keeping just enough distance. A crash of glass against cement interrupts our silence, and Ivan struggles getting up from his beach chair.
“Let’s go,” I tell him.
“Too much sun.”
We go inside, sit in his living room, which is just six radiators, a table, and two chairs. We draw the blinds, then the curtains, then put a quilt over all of this to sit in the dark and let our eyes—our bodies—rest.
“We could play cards.”
“Just the two of us?” I say.
“What’s wrong with that?”
“We could get something,” he says.
He catches me looking at my cell phone. “You got other plans?”
“It’s my day off too,” I say.
“You have the whole week off.”
My phone beeps with a text message from Viki. I check it immediately.
“Aren’t you worried you see too much of her?”
“I see just as much of you.”
Viki works in the movie theater at the roundabout. In the center of the roundabout is a bit of dirt and a boulder with a plaque on it that reads: Here will be built an obelisk. Viki and I watch midday movies for free. We sit in the back and feel each other up until we’re both squirming, and she takes me to her place or I take her to mine, and we have sex while she’s still on the clock. Lately she’s been staying longer when she comes over. Lately she’s been calling me her little mouse.
“Well, what am I supposed to do, huh?” Ivan says. “Are we still going fishing?”
“There’s no fish,” I say. Through the cracked bedroom door, I count five tropical scenes, each warm and bright and dusted by gold lamplight, but none is bigger than a note card. Ivan turns his back to me and searches his mini fridge for something. “Thanks for the vodka,” I say.
I operate one of two helicopters used by the Norilsk Mining Company to assemble the Transient Electromagnetic Devices that gather subsurface images. Basically, we build a loop of wire about a kilometer wide. The scientists then run electricity through it at intervals and measure the magnetic residue stuck in metal deposits, swirling like eddies up to two kilometers underground. And something in all this data tells the scientists there either is or isn’t a lode of nickel waiting to be plucked out of the earth by calloused hands. I fly the pieces of wiring and anchors and cables out to wherever the scientists want to image next. We check fields, two a day, but the whole thing is futile. There’s so much heavy-metal pollution and acid rain coming from the mines and smelting plants that the soil all around Norilsk has high enough platinum and palladium contents to be mined with sieves. Nothing grows in it. Instead of grass we have meadows of black ice, white ice, pools of silver water that slice the earth. I float machinery into the sky.
The sun is out all night, weightless.
“Where’s Viki?” Ivan asks.
With my knife, I point to the trash can. Ivan checks and finds the lump of powder that was Viki—like a layer of snow over the used coffee filters, cans of soup, egg shells.
“I saw her yesterday,” he says.
“This morning,” I say. “I get up to take my shower, and when I come out for my towel that’s all what’s left of her.”
“In your own bed?”
I nod. Sprinkled across her side of the bed were white granules, disintegrated bone, some as large as a fingernail. I sat down in the chair against the wall, hunched over with my elbows on my knees, chin in my hand, imagining the outline that was her, the shape in the bed I had no hopes of reconstructing. The lines that were and are now not. But is it such a thing to fear? To weigh nothing anymore?
“Did you change the sheets?”
“I don’t have any other sheets.”
“Well, come on, then. Yuri still has his old tattoo kit.”
“Cut it out,” I say. “I’m not in the mood.”
“What kind of respect for life is that?” Ivan asks me the way you’d ask about your neighbor’s dog.
I put the knife down and drop potato cubes into the boiling water.
“After dinner,” I say about the tattoo. It was Ivan’s idea a few years back. He got it in his head to fall in love with someone, but she beat him to it, so he had her name printed on his arm. I don’t know if it was out of guilt, or if he is the sentimental type, but he hasn’t seen anyone since. He drinks a lot now. We have a bet between us: first to die of natural causes is the winner. His liver has a head start.
I stand on the mezzanine of a small music joint that shakes in the wind. I lean against the railing that rattles when the speakers top out and make me deaf for a moment. Ivan taps my shoulder and hands me a beer. The band members have long hair and sound something like a toaster going through a wood chipper. They specialize in the sorts of songs no one could fall in love to. Next to us, three women cringe from the music. One of them has a quilted vest over a plaid shirt and boots that go up to her knees. I try pointing her out to Ivan but he is busy gulping his beer, a third in the crook of his arm. I wonder if she’s from Texas. I hope not. Nobody looks better naked “than a cold-weather woman.”
The music really is awful. The band doesn’t sing. They just sway and jump and shout. In the field of heads below, everyone bobs, nods, and leans side to side in time with the drummer. Everyone except a pair of people, maybe friends, maybe more. They’re getting into it, looking like charmed snakes, curving around each other in the blue lights cutting through the haze. In the far corner, a man takes a picture with a professional camera, one of those SLR things. The guy in front of the cameraman swings his head too fast and knocks the camera to the ground, and the two men stare at the smashed mess. I look around for the pair of dancers again, but they’re not dancing anymore, they’re completely entangled, dipping into each other’s skin, reaching fingertips between ribs. Then the man starts to fizzle like an effervescent tablet, his body splotchy with dim light, steam rising from his edges until—in the way of snowmen—he crumbles to the floor, a pile of white dust, and she joins him soon afterward, and the bouncer comes out with a dustpan.
I watch the woman in cowboy boots as the flashing lights paint her face all the colors of grimace. She turns and catches me staring, but I don’t stop. We watch each other with eyes dizzy from vibrations. Ivan doesn’t notice me; he’s sucking down vodkas now. I go over to her, sliding between her friends like a scalpel.
“The music is good,” I say.
She doesn’t hear me but nods and smiles because what else is she going to do? The two other girls leave to refill their drinks. We stare at each other’s throats. In this light her face is dented, her brow bulbous to match her nose, but thin lines make up her body, shaking.
I lean way over the mezzanine railing. “I like to live on the edge,” I say.
She laughs and pulls me back so she can see the singer jump up and down in jeans too tight for him, but he’s got a hell of a voice for screaming. He’s got a personality, you can tell.
It’s late. The sun begins its circuit again, making elliptical halos in the sky. The air feels like nothing, like we’re slicing through a void, filling our chests with a vacuum. The woman in cowboy boots tells me that her apartment isn’t much farther. We turn down Pushikna Road and pass the soccer field made of plastic turf and black rubber sand. She points to a blue building that looks like all the others. She tells me how bored she’s been lately, how lonely she gets in the winter.
“Your accent is beautiful,” I tell her.
“I’m from Alaska,” she says.
“What are you doing here?”
We climb the stairs of her building, because the elevator is out. There’s still snow in the corner of the first staircase. Five floors up you can see out over the soccer field at all the nothing, all the flat ground that runs from the eye, all the small ponds like clouds in the earth, all the blue and gray and the border of the horizon crisp and pristine, all the space you could spend hours filling with your imagination and get nowhere.
Inside her apartment is a jungle. On the couch, a rosebush in bloom. On the stove, four pots of cucumber plants. In the open microwave, a sickly bonsai tree. Ferns in planters hanging from the ceiling. I can’t find her window through the mess of gourd vines. She doesn’t have a desk, or if she does it’s made of soil and branch. Her radiators are smothered in petunias. I don’t know the color of her walls. Sprawled across the floor are long boxes of soil, brushes, and tubes of paint. There are a number of leaves spotted with purple and red and orange.
“You some kind of a nut?” I ask.
“I’ve got to make a living. People here pay a lot for plants, for fresh vegetables.”
“What’s your name?” I ask her.
“No way. That’s rule number four.”
“My rules for longevity.”
“You ought to make that a pamphlet,” I say.
“They did,” she says.
In grade school, she tells me, the U.S. government gives each child a pamphlet called The Fourteen Keys to Longevity. I tell her I don’t believe her, and before you know it I’m on the corner of her bed, reading through the pamphlet. Key Number Four: Names encourage bonds. Abstain from sharing yours in any meaningful way.
“My name’s Boris,” I tell her.
“Explains Russia’s population drop.”
“Whatever,” I say.
“You think I’m one of those airheads that fall in love with scruffy men?”
I laugh, then think about Viki, the way her skin gave with pressure, the weight of her thigh. Her body now is lighter than a breeze.
Half the bed is full of thyme growing in long rows in a cardboard box full of wet soil. I want to stab my fingers into it to feel how heavy the dirt is compared to my bones. I ask her back to my place instead. She brings her umbrella for the sun.
I call her very late. Her blinds must be drawn; the only light in her apartment a small glow from the bulbs lingering over the ferns. She answers the phone, catching me off guard, so that I can’t just pretend tomorrow that I’d rolled in my sleep, dialed her by accident.
“What’s up?” she asks.
I think about putting the phone on my bed and rustling the sheets and not talking, staying absolutely quiet.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m an artist,” she says.
“There’s no art up here.”
“I’m working on a project.”
“Tell me about it,” I say.
She says she’s been traveling the Arctic Circle. She goes to places in search of the northernmost whatever: the northernmost island, the northernmost lizard, the northernmost willow, the northernmost saxifrage, the northernmost church, the northernmost blues festival, the northernmost bowling alley, the northernmost oyster farm, the northernmost totem pole.
“There are places farther north than Norilsk,” I say.
“I can’t leave. I don’t have dual citizenship.”
They closed the city to non-Russians in 2001, just after she arrived. Without a Russian passport, the transit officials won’t let her climb aboard a bus in the long motorcade that leaves at the end of summer. Her visa’s long expired, and even though she’s not allowed to be here, she’s also not allowed out without a passport, but that’s the red-tape paradox of bureaucracy for you. She says her art has suffered. Her project has come to a standstill. She says she can only paint the same thing so many times.
I tell her there are worse places to be stuck. “Like Cuba,” I say.
There’s only one road that connects Norilsk to the rest of the world. She jokes about sailing north, taking a boat to the other side of the world.
We ask Ivan to meet us outside the Cinema Art Hall. I stop by her apartment and walk her over to the yard of concrete. She wears a white dress of lace with a large black belt around her waist. Wrought iron chairs and tables rust under umbrellas like daises. I’ve brought wine and a baguette. Ivan has brought cold cuts and cheeses. She tells us she’s brought the atmosphere. We sit under the umbrellas and eat all the food. I sit across from her, Ivan between us. It turns out she and Ivan know each other.
Ivan gets a call.
“Someone’s not shown up. I’ve got to cover.”
“They work you too hard,” she says to him.
“It’s good stamina training,” he says.
The two of them wrinkle their noses as if they’re smiling.
“I have some painting to do anyway.”
She flips her hand back and forth, discarding us.
“I think I’ll tag along with you,” I say.
“I don’t mind a spectator.”
Ivan leaves and we pretend not to notice, staring at each other’s throats until we laugh. I follow her north through town. She points to a building I’ve not seen before. She tells me it’s the northernmost mosque. This will be the seventy-eighth time she’s painted it.
“It’s hard to get the dome right. Islam knows domes.”
It’s called Nord Kamel. The imams argue which way to face when praying, because we are northerly enough there’s quite the difference between east and Mecca. A single minaret reaches up into the sky in a way unlike the bulbs of orthodox churches—with purpose, force. It pierces the blue and lies to me about the distance of the atmosphere, seductive in the way it makes the heavens within reach. The dome is perfect, even if you measured it, even if you told the engineers in the plant to come with their instruments and they showed you all the places where it was oblong or flat.
“I can paint a perfect circle,” she says. “But the dome is not perfect.”
“That’s what makes it so,” I tell her.
“Like the Earth.”
Her hands become unsteady; the strokes are flicks across the canvas. She is restless—kept.
“What are those?” she asks.
“A list of his victims,” Ivan says. “The cold-blooded killer.”
While I reached for the pepper, she’s caught a glimpse of the names tattooed on my rib cage, under my arm. Laura, Masha, Ekaterina, Viki.
“It’s a tradition,” I say. “Between me and Ivan.”
Ivan rolls up his sleeve like an invitation, only the one name in thick ink on his arm. “Because not all of us are lady-killers,” he says.
“Which is why it’s better to tell me your name,” I say. “In case you fall for me and go off like a firework.” I mean it to sound devilish, but the way she is, the way her eyes are made, the way her nose is confident in the cool air tells me it’s no use.
“Impossible,” she says. She grabs Ivan’s wrist, fingers over the name like a cuff feeling for his pulse, and she pulls him to my bedroom. They close the door at least, and soon I can hear the rhythm of sex against the bed, against the wall. They come back out and join me for pierogis in the kitchen.
“I will call you Amerikanka,” I say.
“Call me whatever makes you feel better,” she says with a grin. “It will take more than you to turn me into a heap of dust.”
I take her to the shore by the power plant, and we lay out on a discharge pipe, trying to evaporate. Ivan whistles from atop the shelf of rocks that stands guard over the beach. We wave at him to join us on the pipe, and he lifts his lunch pail, shouting.
“You two drink too much. Everyone here does,” Amerikanka says.
Ivan climbs up the pipe and straddles it. The clouds have moved and cover us; the wind picks up and blows metal dust from behind his ears.
“Did you bring any beer?”
“I thought the three of us could go down Leninskiy Street,” I say.
“There’s a good idea,” Amerikanka says.
A number of shops have their doors open, and you can taste the cold on the breeze. Mostly each store is just a specialty closet: coats, winter sports, greenhouse gardening, oxygen tanks. We stop in the gardening boutique and waste time running our fingertips over the delicate leaves of bonsai trees and tomato plants, some glossy, some velvety, some with sharp edges to make you bleed. We all suffer from hemochromatosis.
We are asked to leave. Store policy allows no more than fifteen minutes, to cut down on human interaction. We walk arm in arm, Amerikanka between us, down the city’s only wide boulevard. Statues nostalgic for Soviet heydays litter the sparse squares. Some days the wind funnels through here fast enough to suffocate you, your lungs unable to pull oxygen from the airstream running by, heavy with cold so that you feel like something’s there, something tangible, so that you feel like you’re drowning.
We laugh as if we are all old friends, as if we are making jokes at each other’s expense, but really we are distracting one another. We stop soon enough. We were never really laughing, anyway—just pretending. But we indulge for a moment, three bodies so close. The sunlight is soft for once, so soft you could forget it was there.
I dig a paintbrush out of the soil of the clay pot that serves as her nightstand. I dust it off over her, flinging specks of soil across her skin. She smiles when she hears the whisk of the fibers. I pull a tube of paint from the soil as well, titanium white. On her belly, just inside the crest of her hipbone, I squeeze out a dollop of paint as bulbous and round as the dome of Nord Kamel. With the tip of the brush I spread thin strokes of white along the contours of her skin stretched across her ribs. With a few more squeezes, I cover her in spots so white they glow in the dark—she is piecemeal, carved by streaks of paint. She appears to fizzle, the paint on her skin like the bright marks of a body beginning to dissolve. I think to dip my fingertips into the spheres, to check the solidity, to make sure it is just paint. She smiles and says it feels cool. She tells me I look worried. She tells me I am arrogant. I tell her I want to drown her in turpentine.
Her phone rings, and we both make a show of not noticing it. It rings five, six, seven, eight, nine times. I can see the screen from here. I swipe the paint brush over it, and she laughs, but I’m not funny.
“You’ll waste all my paint.”
I describe another stroke, and another—over her flowers on the bookshelves, over her lips around her cigarette. Another, and another, and another. Five, six, seven, eight, nine. The phone rings again.
“It’s Ivan,” she says.
“I hadn’t noticed.”
The tube of paint is empty. I throw it across the room and we listen to the hollow bump of it against the floor. I run my finger over the end of the brush, the shh of the fibers like the stir of grass under the blades of my helicopter.
“You’re not hearing me,” she says.
“I’ve got both my ears.”
“Use your eyes.”
What in God’s name does that mean? So I look at her and I realize what it means. It means she wants sleeping with Ivan to matter to me. More than that, she needs it. What can we do but play the game of disregard?
“Call me your little mouse,” I say.
“Your name is Boris.”
I shrug and play around with another tube of paint, mixing mixtures with mixtures.
The bedroom is quiet and makes us anxious. We go outside. She keeps smoking.
I used to work the smelting plant, before my night classes, before my pilot’s license. In the summers, inside the plant served as our only exposure to darkness, and we bathed in it, drank it in through our pores, licked it up off shadows across the floor. Through the winters we sweated while the rest of the city chipped the tips of their toes in the cold. Everything was dusky, intermittently doused in bronze from the molten metal dripping from crucibles into vats like taffy that could burn off your arm. The factory floor was heavy with vapors, and in the rafters, little rainclouds helped keep all the particles settled. We used special masks attached via tubes to oxygen machines, but it didn’t matter. You could scrape a kilogram of tar and ash and poison out of our lungs in nice black little chips. Peel back our skin and all you’ll find is nickel and bones rusted to the marrow. You can sift for metal flakes through the piles of ash we become. I thought to do this with Viki, make small explorations with my fingertip for a piece unruined. There is in this life the sunshine for a few months, the warmth of liquor, the gamble of touch—fleeting before the brilliance of combustion, each of us staving off self-immolation in favor of watching the small movements of one another with old eyes of hunger.
In the air, it is another world. In my helicopter, I become the moon floating across the sky. Everyone below is too small to make out individual movements. Here is what I think about in my flight: it is a safe distance, the separation of celestial bodies; it is a safe distance, me in the sky and Amerikanka rooted to the dark soil. Our time together is nothing more than landing the craft, taking rest and fuel—I tell myself this. If she were to hold out her arm, though, to extend her fingers skyward, I know I would reach down and pull her up into the blue like a bird without wings.
Summer grows weak. The air cools. There are a few minutes of darkness each night, enough for a secret to creep in and whisper at the stars. We go for another long day of sunbathing. We climb onto the discharge pipes that lead away from the cooling chambers; some are as tall as my helicopter. The metal keeps us warm in the wind.
“Do you think we can keep this up?” Ivan asks me.
“How often are you sleeping with her?”
We talk for an hour on the phone, when Ivan should be sleeping. Ivan says the word “friends” six times. He says the word “mutual” once. I am the only one to say the word “lonely,” and I say it nine times. I say “sex” twice, and you can hear it over the air that he wants to say it too, that he wants to have the confidence of it at his disposal, but it is a word with finality.
The nurse tells me it’s alcohol poisoning, that she’s calling a therapist in the morning.
“Is that really necessary?”
“No one drinks that much recreationally.”
Ivan laughs, pissing off the nurse so she leaves us. The television is turned to a station covering politics in Moscow.
“I almost made it,” he says.
Tubing breaks from his abdomen, thick and opaque like bathroom pipes. If there’s anything I know about medicine, it’s that thicker tubes are bad news. The machine says his heart beats slowly. I called him a few days ago without answer. I kept calling. You get worried about unanswered calls. My apartment was very quiet as I kept listening to the catch of his voicemail, repeating back to me his number.
“Suicide doesn’t count,” I say. “You know that.”
“Everything we do is a form of slow self-destruction.”
“Don’t be so profound.”
“I didn’t tell her I found you yet.”
Ivan looks at the apparatus now a part of him as some evidence of failure.
“You’re a liar,” he says.
“I told her not to come.”
He wants to say, “Thank you.”
A tanker looms outside the window, giving the illusion of prosperity or even access, as if we need only climb aboard and stargaze our way to the Caribbean. What you can’t see from the hospital room is all the rust, all the holes in the frame, that the tanker is run aground, stuck in the quagmire of the city.
There’s a knock at the door and Amerikanka comes in.
“Watch yourself,” she tells me.
I realize my face is furrowed and hard. Underneath the tubes and monitors and wires, behind the bedsheet and patient gown, Ivan looks at me in anger like I’ve pulled a bad trick, like I’m the one who’s drowned him in vodka. I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t want Amerikanka to see me like this, so sallow and inside out.
“What a depressing sight,” Amerikanka says.
“It’s not so bad. Ask the nurse for some cards. We could play a game.”
“No. I’m very tired,” I say.
“Tell me a joke, then,” Ivan says to her.
“Have you heard the one about the ambulance?”
He shakes his head.
“So this man has a terrible accident and calls the ambulance. He passes out before they get there, and he wakes up to the scream of sirens and the shaking of the road. ‘Where am I?’ he asks the technician.”
“He knows this one,” I say.
“‘On the way to the morgue,’ the technician says. ‘The morgue? But I’m not yet dead!’ the man cries. ‘We’re not yet at the morgue.’”
“That’s a good one,” Ivan says.
“We should go,” I say.
“What a depressing sight.”
“Cheer her up, Boris. Take her shopping down Leninskiy.”
“A wonderful idea,” she says.
“Take a few pictures for me,” Ivan calls after us.
She and I walk for a while, with no destination in mind, letting the breeze steer us through the maze of multicolored apartment buildings, and I can feel it making me lighter. The rooftops are all closed. We don’t talk; there’s no third party to dilute the words. We turn onto Leninskiy, and she hooks her arm around mine, and it feels hollow, avian. Many of the shops we’d visited with Ivan are still open. We visit the garden store again, this time wasting our fifteen minutes buying seed packets and eating the seeds, mashing them between our teeth like pearl sledgehammers, joking that we will turn our bodies into gardens.
The owner tells us to leave.
“You’ve got the ugliest teeth,” I say. “Truth.”
“Blame my mom or my dad. It doesn’t matter to me.”
The passersby aren’t as human as they are sighs. We are just dreams. A crash shatters across the sky. The miners have hit a snag, you can feel the rumble of the drills in your boots, you can hear the stamp of a thousand pairs of feet in your chest, you can taste in the air the oil shellacked over the joints of excavation machines.
I wake up and check to make sure Amerikanka is still there. She snores. Her hair smells like chlorophyll. Greedily, I breathe.
I’m sitting in her living room after visiting Ivan again. I’m running my fingers over the bumps of one of her canvases. She’s making tea, unworried about the plant next to the flame. She plucks mint leaves and drops them to the floor in a small pile of green up to her ankles. “Will you help me with something?” she asks.
But I ask, “What’s the point of your art?”
She brings me a cup of tea and stands in front of me, looking at the painting. “I don’t know.” She gets a cup for herself and leans against the wall, watching me. I visit Ivan in part because she keeps asking me to, to see if she can get a reaction out of me, but truthfully, I am worried. The nurse is no ray of sunshine.
“What do you need?” I ask.
The nights are stretching out, lazy black cats waking from their naps. The radiators come on at dusk. The smelting plant blots out the sun. Nickel flakes, not stars, decorate the sky.
She goes to the easel encased by the shoots of vines. She goes to the window and peels a few leaves from the stems of a fern. She goes back to the kitchen. She’s stirring the air in here, she’s building a vortex and it’s curling around my throat. She is restless. Her paintings are voyages without escape.
I put the cup of tea down and go to her. “What is the something you need?” I ask.
She pulls at the tips of the vines, she pulls at the swirled leaves, she pulls at the ends of her hair. The room feels small, the walls sucked in, and I think she might start pulling everything toward her, pulling the pots and the paints and the brushes and the seeds and the easel and the watering can and the microwave and the stove and the radiator and me.
I knock on her door, but there is no answer—for a very long time, there is no answer. The door is unlocked, and inside, the light over the couch is on. The thyme is coming in nicely in narrow rows on the bed. The bonsai in the microwave is unkempt, flaking into bits of gray. The filigree vines are eating the easel. She could just be out; she could just be on a street in the city painting something, having a bottle of wine. She could just be visiting Ivan. I don’t step in from the doorway. I am feeling very light in my boots when Amerikanka comes up behind me.
I lead her by the hand across the field lined by circles of white wires to the helicopter sleeping by the generators and trucks. I strap her in, and she tells me that’s a grand gesture. She holds onto her canvas and her paints as I start the systems and pull us into the air, and soon we’re in a meadow of smog and gravity with a view of Siberia. We don’t talk all the way to the Khatanga Airport. There we will trade the company helicopter for a boat to ride north for a field full of larches, in search of the northernmost tree in the world. Downriver, we will pass sheds and huts the color of saxifrage, a factory that smells like zinc, houses built by those who live in them with iron tubes poking through the roofs, leaking smoke from coal-burning stoves. There will be a stretch of fields and river that expands to the edge of the earth and leaks off into space.
Kenan Orhan is a Turkish-American writer living in Colorado. His stories appear or are forthcoming in Massachusetts Review, The McNeese Review, and other publications.