The GAZelle van rattled up to a roadside checkpoint fortified with heavy sandbags, swarming with kebab vendors and hawkers with air mattresses, then turned off the road and raced towards the mountains. After thirty minutes or so, the second-rate landscapes gave way to heaps of white slate and a bottomless sky spread out beyond the windows. Somewhere below, a hundred and fifty meters or so from the twisting road, a little creek glistened, and tiny excavators dug gravel.
Alongside the serious driver, burnt black from the sun, sat a middle-aged man with a paunch, wearing a white shirt and holding a black leather briefcase, attentively staring at the screen of his cell phone through the shimmer of the September sun. In the back were an intellectual-looking old man with a defenseless smile, a red-cheeked woman with her daughter, her work-worn arms crossed modestly on her knees, a young man in odd trousers, accompanying a taciturn old lady, probably his grandmother, a morose, unshaven fellow, two women, one wearing glasses and a drab jacket and the other in an elegant evening dress for special occasions, and also a thick-browed passenger in a skull cap, a young woman with false eyelashes, and a robust, red-haired youth sporting a cap the same color as his hair, all on their way to someplace along the van’s regular route.
Creeping along the serpentine road that overlooked a picturesque precipice, they passed a valley planted with gray cabbage, a large settlement with tidy, half-built houses, a motley assortment of grocery stalls, links of mountain sausage in display cases, and policemen standing along the road in thick body armor. Then there were more rises and dips, then trembling twists of rocky hills and filling stations with little prayer houses with Alhamdulillah written in big letters.
The woman in the evening dress was telling the woman sitting next to her about how her husband’s boss had publicly disowned his own son before he got promoted, a son well-known in the woods by the nickname Phantomas. Her neighbor adjusted her glasses and sighed, looking out at the spots of red light playing among the tops of the boulders rushing past them.
As they passed a cemetery, the driver switched off the sugar-coated chanson and a few people whispered some prayers and made gestures of ablution with their worn hands. An instant later, the music returned, and they rolled into the next village.
“What’s the deal, come on, lemme have it,” drawled the red-haired man, leaning toward the girl with false eyelashes, who had turned away from him. “’s not like anything’s gonna happen…”
“What for? Look, I don’t have a phone number.”
“Come on, what’re ya messing with me for? I’m talking to you nice.”
“Leave me alone!” the girl snapped, adjusting her fashionably low-cut top.
Blood rushed into the red-haired man’s face.
“What’d you say? You trying to piss me off?”
The village was relatively new; it had existed for no more than five centuries.
“Come on, don’t put on airs, ya crazy bitch!”
The red-cheeked woman turned to him and dressed him down in her native language.
“Sit in the corner and leave the girl alone.” Looking at the two of them irritably, she added “I’m gonna switch places with her.”
“You won’t fit, honey,” he laughed good-naturedly, finishing his mineral water and tossing the bottle out the window.
They rolled up to the Hadjal-Mahi bazar, and could hear music playing, hucksters laughing, and cars honking. The man with the defenseless smile stuck his head out the window and looked at the villagers hurrying along the road and cars decked out with ribbons from a wedding procession with heartfelt interest.
The village was relatively new; it had existed for no more than five centuries. When Tamerlane laid waste to the area, the widowed and homeless mountain people and their children had to take shelter in nearby caves until a Tsudakhar man named Huzha built the settlement that was the beginning of Hadjal-Mahi Russian fortifications appeared here during the Caucasian War, and the people of Hadjal-Mahi were constantly torn between the rebellious mountain people and the Imperial governors. They were burned out, exterminated, and plundered by the Tsar’s troops one day and by the intractable Murids the next. Afterwards, the captive Shamil stopped here on his way from Gunib and conducted an afternoon namaz in a mosque that survives to this day; the war ended and the people of Hadjal-Mahi lost many of their private and common lands, they had to pay higher and higher tribute, and they cried out in protest. A rebellion broke out, lasted four months, and after it was put down the leaders were hung and the rest were sentenced to exile and hard labor.
After 1917, the village was divided into four groups. Some supported the Reds, others Denekin’s men, and the third group supported Gotzinsky’s Muslim movement, while the fourth group wanted to bring the Turks in here. Because of that whole mess and five or six provocateurs, a couple of the Red Army men that had been given safe passage through the village in the direction of the Gunibskaya fortress got shot. That provoked the Reds to launch a punitive action and kill off almost all the male population, so many of them went abroad after those events and never returned.
The triumphant Soviets were generous with promises, they supported Sharia at first, and, fearing more uprisings, even finished the construction of the new mosque in Hadjal-Mahi. But later on, they started tightening the screws, and the theologians and their pupils were repressed. The misfortunes of the residents of once-free Dargo didn’t end there. During the years of stagnation, the seniors at the high school played a prank and went after the head of a plaster Lenin with oil paint. Inspectors came and demanded that the criminals be turned over. The people of Hadjal-Mahi refused. But when they threatened to send everybody, without exception, off to Siberia, after deliberating in the town square, the people decided to give in. The young trouble-makers were taken away under guard.
The GAZelle stopped in the village, right near the stands full of autumn fruit, and the passengers got out. A few vans just like theirs, painted a pale yellow color, stood by the roadside. Their drivers, standing in a semicircle, quickly greeted their newly arrived sunburnt colleague. The red-cheeked woman and her daughter were already walking between the multicolored rows, and the lady in the drab jacket with the glasses was telling the young man in baggy pants about how the old local mosque was built:
“Just imagine, they brought in the stones from Akusha on donkeys. It took them a whole year to lay one row of stones around the perimeter.”
The guy in baggy pants nodded, looking now at the turquoise sky, then at the old lady, feeling the rounded coppery melons. The others disappeared into the crush and noise of Hadjal-Mahi. The bearded one in the skullcap grabbed an empty plastic bottle and ran over to the spring, the man with the leather case disappeared behind a house under construction, pressing his ear to his phone and quickly yelling something, while the unshaven one simply dissolved in the warm air. On the roof of the house under construction, a man in work clothes wearing a metal visor leaned over the jets of sparks from a hissing welding torch. Metal sheets rattled somewhere in the house, and behind the bazar, in the courtyards that descended toward the river, where the wedding train had just gone, the sound of a loud lezghinka rose. Only the red-haired man stayed in the GAZelle, looking out the window at the general commotion.
About ten minutes later, the passengers started to return to their seats; they stuffed bags full of fresh fruit underneath and rode on. The driver, refreshed by a cheap cigarette, water and jokes with his colleagues, was messing with the tape-player.
“We gonna get there by one?” asked the man with the briefcase.
He chuckled, remembering how much he’d had to slip the highway patrol.
About ten minutes later, the passengers started to return to their seats; they stuffed bags full of fresh fruit underneath and rode on.
The GAZelle moved in the direction of the Huppinsky pass, overgrown with pines, beyond which the Dargin villages gave way to the high, mountainous region of Avaria. It smelled of hawthorn, St. John’s wort, creeping thyme, and sage. The woman in the evening dress quietly counted the money in her wallet. The girl, who had moved to another seat, was dozing, her glued-on eyelashes lowered. The old lady was whispering something to the young man in the baggy pants, and he smiled.
“Maybe I should have given the papers to Halilbek myself,” the one with the briefcase thinks, scrolling through the contacts on his cell. “No, he wouldn’t accept a request from me. Everything’s fine. I sent it through Hizriev, and Hizriev can figure it out for himself, they’re relatives, after all.”
The old man hid his defenseless smile, gazing thoughtfully at the pines that were coming into view along the roadside. He imagined staying in the regional center with his friend, drinking dry wine with him, then going to his little village the next day, to the house hidden in the dewy green on the shady side of the mountain, opening the gate made from the headboard of an old bed and going down into the garden, and there, under the walnut tree, playing backgammon with his neighbor.
The bearded man pressed his forehead to the dusty glass, trying to escape from the trap of his thoughts. “Bring the medicine, then come back and don’t tell anyone, they’ll find out anyway… The local cop is going to start putting a case together. They made Alishka an invalid and they’ll make me one too… No, got to deliver the medicine, then leave home… Or should I? I’ll go to Uncle Osman now, maybe he knows where I can go… Or should I? Uncle Osman isn’t the type to just up and do whatever you want him to, and if I do go, that Abdulla will say it’s kufr…”
“I brought Aishatkina’s son a wedding present, and a present for Patya… Vaya-ya-ya, need to extend my condolences to Zaira, I haven’t seen her since then…” spun around in the head of the woman in the evening dress, and the woman next to her thought “I’ll ask Rusik’s son to take me to the tower. I’ve been coming for years and I’ve never been to the tower. I’ve got to take a picture and show it to Murad Muradovich. Maybe it really is made of church stones…”
The narrowing road smelled sharply of ozone, cones, and the late summer that had just been awakened. A little hare darted across the GAZelle’s path, an invisible bird jabbered indistinctly. The red-faced woman’s daughter smiled shyly into her fist.
In just a moment, the summit they were reaching was about to open on to the Gergebelskaya basin, broken by fissures and caves and covered with swollen hills and creeks. The GAZelle turned along the serpentine road and the travelers suddenly saw, as though coming to meet them, a big truck flying toward them from the rocky crest. A woman’s scream burst through the air, the driver grabbed the wheel, turning away from the collision, horns howled. The girl with the eyelashes fell forward, her face hitting her knees, the passenger in the skullcap loudly called out to Allah, and the GAZelle, its tires leaving the ground, seemed to already be flying into the abyss.
“Vahi, vahi,” whispered the old woman, feeling her body become weightless.
“Aaaaaaaaaa!” yelled discordant voices.
“Way to go, Vallah, way to go,” the man with the suitcase suddenly began to cry out, clapping the driver, who had turned white, despite his sunburn, on the shoulder.
The girl lifted her red face, filled with horror. The road was empty. The truck had gone past them and happily disappeared from view.
“It missed us! Here I was thinking we’d already gone over the edge,” whispered the lady in the drab jacket, adjusting her glasses with her shaking hands.
“Saul! Saul! You’re a wonder!” the man in the red cap repeated.
Now they went on unhurriedly, as though groping their way through a haze that had formed around them. A cloud made from turquoise slowly turned to steel, and the basin filled with fog. The driver, who still hadn’t recovered from what had happened, sat carefully behind the meandering line down the middle of the road, preparing to descend.
“Where was he looking? That abdal in the truck! He might at least have stopped! Vababai-vadadai!” exclaimed the red-cheeked woman. “He just drove past, scared everybody to death and disappeared around the turn…”
“I even felt that we were in the air. Did we jump or something?” wondered the old man, drying his cold perspiration with a handkerchief.
The young man in the baggy pants was ashamed of his fear. “My teacher wouldn’t approve of this,” he thought to himself. “He instructed me to overcome my fear with an exercise. An exercise… How did it start? What were the words?”
The woman in the evening dress ransacked her bag in search of validol.
“Animals! Driving like lunatics. Now I’ll find it, what do you call it… those drops, I’ll put some in my water. They almost gave me a heart attack, I swear!”
They rode a long way in silence. The descent never came, it was just the opposite. The road continued endlessly upward.
“When do we get to the end of the pass?” asked the man with the briefcase, perturbed.
“We already should’ve passed it. The road’s kinda running differently. It’s going higher. I drive through here every day, this never happened before. We were supposed to be going towards that…” the driver unexpectedly realized that he couldn’t remember where he was going, “that place… by the reservoir…”
A woman’s scream burst through the air, the driver grabbed the wheel, turning away from the collision, horns howled.
He stopped short and fell silent. The passenger in the skull cap whispered some prayers to himself, just in case. The red-haired one fell silent, took off his cap and looked sadly out the window.
“Is the weather turning bad or something?”
“It’s raining down below, and we’re above the clouds now,” the old man answered him knowledgably. There was noise in his head, his thoughts were getting mixed up. For some reason, he couldn’t understand why he was sitting in this taxi. Backgammon dice bobbed in front of his eyes, points pulsed.
“Mom, did we look at the lot?” the daughter of the red-cheeked woman asked unexpectedly.
“I think we were going to look at a lot near Makhachkala.”
Her mother was silent, rubbing her forehead with her knuckles. Nothing else happened with the GAZelle; the road was gray, and empty, and led them upward in broad loops, higher and higher. The bearded man dropped his head to his breast and apparently fell asleep.
“Enough already?” mumbled the driver. “When will we get to the end of this rise? Something’s wrong…”
“Maybe there was a fork in the road and you turned the wrong way?” the old man asked.
“Nah, there wasn’t any fork,” the driver almost howled. “There was the turn, where the truck was, and that’s where the descent starts. What’s going on? And I can’t get anything on the radio…”
They continued to climb. Consumed in fog, the slope moved right, then left. It grew darker inside the van. The old woman watched how the faces of the people sitting in the taxi were lost in the ripples that enveloped the road. Noses melted into cheeks, eyes sunk deeper, lips elongated.
The person in the white shirt was wheezing and searching for something in his leather briefcase. “I had a certificate that I went to… I went to see someone there, in the city. I can’t lose it!” He closed the briefcase, looking around restlessly. The fog, the pines, the blurred road, the swimming horizon, and nothing else.
“Let’s stop,” the woman in glasses suggested. “We have to find out why the road just keeps going up.”
The driver didn’t hear and continued to press on the pedal. Now he didn’t care at all where he was going and how far it was. The summit was no closer, the slope wasn’t coming to an end, and the features of his passengers were coming apart and becoming unrecognizable…
At the same time, at the turn they had left behind, where the brakes of the hapless heavy truck had squealed, more and more people were gathering. People driving past stopped and offered to help. Volunteer rescuers were already moving around below, in the heavy, rocky hollow where the falling GAZelle had struck. They waited for the police.
“How many died?” someone asked, looking into the abyss with concern.
“All of them,” came the response, “Thirteen people. These vans are usually full, after all.”
Alisa Ganieva is a contemporary Russian author who famously won the Debut Prize for her powerful writing about life in predominantly Muslim Dagestan under a male pseudonym and then startled the assembled guests when she arrived to accept it. Her novel, ‘The Wall’, has been published in English by Deep Vellum.
Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler is a poet and translator from New Hampshire best known for his English version of great contemporary Ukrainian author Serhiy Zhadan’s novel ‘Voroshilovgrad’ (co-translated with Reilly Costigan-Humes), which received positive reviews from the LA Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Yorker. Their next translation, Serhiy Zhadan’s ‘Mesopotamia’, is forthcoming from Yale University Press.