To Petya Psymuline
I appear in my hometown and I have to spend a couple of days here. I crouch down at the seaside and touch the water, I collect sleek shiny stones. Once they are dry they lose their shine. The water is of bright turquoise, as it never happens in reality, I guess. I talk to the sea with movements of my palms.
I never really could understand where I do come from. The birthplace in my international passport doesn't match with the national one — they are two different countries. First we lived in one town, then in another and now it's been 16 years that I’ve been living in Moscow. Now it feels like my whole life has been spent here. Sometimes, especially in summer, here and there I run into different beacons, signs, signals and clues: certain angles of light, specific taste or smell, architectural form and the feeling I get from it, a familiar plant or object. They desperately indicate how close I am to something hidden and real, to an important place where I really strive and dream to return. They say: right here, around the corner! stop! listen! but the ray of light gets hidden behind a cloud, the smell dissolves in the air, the architectural form becomes unrecognizable once you get closer and see it from another angle. As if some kind of a different reality is trying to break through another one; and fails, but keeps sending me signs and greetings in the form of meetings with plants, familiar smells, elusive sensations. I can only really get there while dreaming, perhaps.
I walk out the entrance. Suddenly I recognize the buildings around me and the road I am walking on. I am surrounded by familiar advertisements with faded letters. As I keep walking I already know what I am going to see and I'm afraid to believe it. But what I see is real. Yes, it's true: I'm home.
I was born in a tiny seaside town. It used to be famous because of the initial intention to build a nuclear plant there. Everyone who came to participate in the construction was given an apartment. This is how my grandparents ended up there. My mother had been studying at an art school, and she joined them when the time to give birth had come. This is how it all happened.
The construction of the nuclear plant was shut down after the Chernobyl. But the city and the apartment were there still. We came there every summer. From the window one could see the ruins of an abandoned hospital and a small strip of forest. Cherry and mulberry were growing there. Cicadas were singing outside the window in the pitch darkness of the night, and my grandmother in a long nightgown was litting an anti mosquito coil.
Every day we went to the sea, taking each time the same road: passing by the hostels, the post office, the bread kiosk, the local Сultural center, along the market, greeting the familiar saleswoman Lidia Ivanovna. In response, she was presenting us with a photographic film and her other goods. Past the household store and the school stadium, past a huge block of stone lying in the courtyard of the house number - I can’t remember it now, across the road, along the reeds and the abandoned summer cinema, along the thickets of the silver goose tree and unknown thorns, to our usual place under the tree.
I remember this route, I can easily recall it in my head. I take this very road every time in my dreams.
I get to my hometown. Each time it gets more real. These dreams are the most real. I know that everything around does exist, I even get angry when I accidently touch the tops of the flower heads with my hand: everything is too real and too boring. So I am here, where are we going to go? I go to the sea. Sand under my feet, plants around me — everything, everything is real. You have been wanting this for so long, have been dreaming of it, and finally it is not a dream.
Now I want to remember and to recollect in my head every detail, every tiny bit of information, just to be able to see the town’s map like the back of my hand.
Salty lakes by one side. Abandoned hospital and the forest — by another. Empty half broken five-storey apartment block by the third side. Its project was problematic, the building was constructed on the hills and cracked down as a response to seismic vibrations even before people moved in. The house was left this way. Also there: bakery, swings. Hills, steppe everywhere. Hills, stones with red and gray lichens. Purple immortelle, feather grass (you shouldn’t pick it: it brings bad luck). Happiness: God knows how you’ve found a wild tulip in the steppe. Subtle smell of thyme and other herbs. A school stadium, an abandoned greenhouse, ruins of a summer cinema. Empty spaces, lots of empty spaces pierced by rays of light. A nondescript monument to Soviet soldiers with a huge bouquet of wildflowers brought by me and my grandmother. Silhouette of a brick gazebo on the rocks by the sea. Burnt-out fields at sunset.
There is a sketched map of our courtyard: a large rectangle marked with dots and inscriptions. Some information is carried in inscriptions, the rest I can find in my memories. Our courtyard was gigantic, surrounded by 5, if not more, houses. The courtyard equalled the universe when I was a child. Here are some of my hand-marked locations:
Laundry hanging on a roupe
Place to refuge
Unknown but still beloved. In this reality every tree receives its own name and a mark on a map, houses are standing next to other important objects, such as a place for hanging wet clothes, a path; a pile of rocks left over after construction works, for some reason they were dumped in the middle of the yard; a small stage which the only remained part is a stone curb, it is overgrown with young aspens and reminds the foundations of ancient buildings.
Everything is important. Even the cat's footprint, that remained forever in the asphalt by the house.
Dressed up in a blue dress I am sitting on a bench at the entrance under mulberries and walnuts. The entrance is blue as well, and everything around is as soft as it appears on a blown out film. I came home; but there is no one to open the door for me, because we no longer live here, the phone does not pick up a single network, but it doesn’t really bother me. There are people walking by. I have not seen them for ages, but I recognize them still.
I said: ruins. Everywhere I was surrounded by ruins — I saw them from the window, on the road to the sea and in other places too. The very same stage for performances in the courtyard, the one with only foundation remained, the ruins of the hospital, the abandoned cinema, where you always had been wanting to get in, but couldn’t, a five-story ghost building on the outskirts of the city. The red-brick gazebo on the seashore, it became a part of the landscape depicted by every local craftless artist. It reminded me of ruins as well: half-broken windows, broken steps. The real ruins were a little further from the city, once there were the settlements of the ancient Greeks. One can find there real foundations remained of their houses, shards of antique pottery beneath the cliffs, sometimes with remnants of the simplest drawings: those pieces were left unused after the excavation — they couldn’t make a completed vessel and were left just like that, waiting for tourists and travelers who would take them away for souvenirs ...
This city played in antiquity the best it could.
Yes, I remember that I come from my own toy Hellas. The gods and heroes of Ancient Greece surrounded me coming from the books that I carried with me to read by the sea. The sea rustled next to me, sand flew between the pages, and Jason went to Colchis for the golden fleece, Athena struck with a spear, and a wonderful tree appeared, just like the one under which we sat on a spreaded blanket, and other trees around us that were the same, these trees with silver foliage and delicate golden flowers, blue-gray, like the sea in bad weather. It turned out later that this tree is not an olive tree grown by Athena, but its relative, with an amazing name “silver goose”.
But who cares. My origins are forever in my own child antiquity.
I appear in my hometown. As always, this time it’s not a dream, everything is real. I’m taking a road from the market to the sea, touching the herbs, smelling and recognizing them, they all are very real, I remember it clearly — all of it has already happened to me. But maybe I’m just tired, maybe something just goes wrong: I do realize that I should be happy, but instead I barely can feel a thing.
Last time we were in this town when I was 14. Now when I’m writing it I’m 28, which means we haven’t been there for 14 years already.
I’ve learned a lot during this period: you can get in the field and feel lonely, because the plants do not look like those at home — they are different — there are lakes that look like sea, but it’s a trap, an illusion: they do not smell salt, algae and a bit of decay — all those things that smell like the sea, smell like home. Instead they smell like usual fresh water.
What I needed was the smell of my sea and all the plants I got used to.
During this period I’ve lived a completely different life and am still living it. This life got filled with other places connected to lots of different impressions. Memories overlap with locations, they cover and come through each other, forming their own private map. Another space hidden deeply inside of me keeps existing, time has stopped there. It unfolds in my dreams.
Sometimes I open google Maps and start wandering around my town’s ridiculously stitched panoramas. Old well-known locations are changing unrecognizably, new locations appearing.
Half-ruined gazebo on the cliffs that collapsed several years ago was replaced with another, concrete one. The market where Lydia Ivanovna worked burned down. Some trees have died from frost and disappeared. Perhaps they were already replaced with others. It looks like a dream too. Suddenly the space is distorted, and you do not recognize familiar places anymore.
Two virtual pictures cannot connect in my head: one I see in front of me now, on the computer screen, and the other that lives in my memories. Even if they miraculously overlap, they will not be able to create a volumetric reality. Maybe it’s for the best.
I appear in my hometown, I’m walking along the seashore taking the usual route from my childhood, it leads to the brick gazebo on the cliffs. The gazebo remained intact, in reality it collapsed several years ago. I’m climbing up, the usual child’s fear to slip down the cliffs right on the sharp rocks. The sea of very bright colour, almost hyper-saturated, this time it’s not a dream, I can really see it. I’m taking out the phone to take a couple of pictures to send to my friends, but the phone is broken, the touch screen is not responding. Glass is falling apart, it’s melting down rapidly and I can’t make a shot.
God only knows how many times I’ve started this text in my head. But after all, no text can describe what I want to express here and I’m not satisfied at all with the result. It should be better, should be more precise — but how can it be precise if I don’t remember things well. When I see virtual panoramas of my town, I see cracked asphalt and faded walls. I don’t remember any of this, it didn’t bother me at the time, didn’t matter. What mattered were: plants and how they live; an ant in the grass dragging a twig, fierce wasps circling over smashed mulberries on the asphalt. Almonds and apricots bloom, a mantis lurks in its green shelter, a wasp spider spreads its nets. A grasshopper spreads its pale blue or bright pink wing and flies up. The sea brings its treasures to the coastal strip, an invisible comb jelly hides inside its waters. The sea sways in its shores, as if they are sandy palms, and breathes deeply, the sea and the sky change their color one after another. The hot sun falls at sunset right into the salty water and cools down slowly. That's what mattered. This is what the optics was adjusted to. Everything else is blurred as soon as I try to remember something more detailed. As if brightness and sharpness were shifted to the maximum in some places, and moved to zero in others.
My town is not a place on a map. My town — what I can see scrolling pictures in my mental stereoscope. These are incredibly bright and voluminous images, like it was in childhood. And the more voluminous and close they are, the more inaccessible they are. I will never pass through this piece of glass. But even remaining inaccessible, they still continue to live inside of me.
I’m in my hometown with a friend of mine. We are walking towards the seashore and I realize that this is exactly the landscape of my town I wanted to show him. I ask him to hold my stuff, knee down first and then fall in the water with my face, arms open, as if embracing it. The way I‘ve always wanted. I get the feeling of the water and it is real, it’s not a dream.
I’m afraid to look back at you, my town, so you won’t turn into a salty lake. I’m afraid to return, so my memories about you won’t be replaced with others and my treasure won’t turn into broken pieces. My town is not a place on a map. My town is a handful of sleek stones, sand between pages of my favorite books, the smell of thyme and other herbs that I don’t know by name but recognize once I see it.
My town is my own private Hellas. Not so much of it has left, but it keeps living unseen, coming through my everyday life, reflecting in the broken pieces of reality, sending me signals and signs and I’m running towards them. My town is behind a dim piece of glass, and the more it is blurred, the more beautiful it is. And I don’t need anything else.
In the “Moscow’s conceptualist’s vocabulary of terms” in the very end mentioned the place where I was born. Here’s the explanation: “A place in the head that reminds of something important”. What else to add? Probably everything that I’ve written here could’ve been explained in this one sentence.
I remember you, Athena and the way you came into my life, through all its strange turns and glimpses. I recall your eyes of the best colour in the world, the silver goose’s colour of leaves. With my inner sight I see you walking in the grass barefoot, through sun-bleached fields, past the abandoned summer cinema. Lilac immortelle, thyme and wormwood grow in your footprints. I'm following you, afraid to step on a wasp, afraid to step on a sharp shard of glass. You lead me along familiar paths, past girls from our courtyard, that spreaded a blanket and sell beaded bracelets, they make them right there. You lead me to the sea. Here, facing the sun, I feel myself at home. I want to fall down and embrace the land, embrace the sea. Someday I will come back here for real. Someday, maybe not in this life, I will come back home.
My town is a place in the head that reminds of something important.
Translated from Russian by Liubov Startseva
Illustrations by Anastasia Keineahnung
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