Excerpt from “Pathologies” (novel)
Going over the bridge, I often have the same painful vision.
…The Church of Holy Salvation is located on two banks. We live on one bank of the river. Every Saturday we go to the other bank to wander around disorganized rows of books laid out in a park on the embankment.
Retirees stand gloomily behind the tables and sell cheap, severe-looking classics and expensive pulp fiction in disgusting covers.
I open the book covers with my left thumb. My right hand is held by my wonderful adopted son, a three-year-old gentleman in a red cap and sneakers with thick white laces. He knows a few important words, he can blink, his facial expressions are rich and honest; we admire each other, although he never shows this. We’ve known each other for a year and a half, and he’s convinced that I’m his father.
Sitting on the embankment, we eat ice cream and watch the river flow.
“When is it going to run out?” asks the boy.
“When it runs out, we’ll die,” I think, and voice this thought out loud without worrying about scaring him. He takes my words for an answer.
“Is it going to happen soon?” Apparently, he’s interested in how fast the water is going to run out.
“No, not very soon,” I answer without being able to figure out for myself whether I’m talking about death or the river’s flow.
We finish up our ice cream. He opens his mouth in order to snatch the last sweet soggy clots of ice cream from the waffle cone. The disfigured cone, covered in white drops, is left for me to eat.
“Yummy,” says the boy.
I wipe his sticky little paws and dirty streaked cheeks with my handkerchief.
“Let’s wait some more,” he suggests.
“For it to run out.”
He concentrates his stare on the water. It’s still flowing.
Then we take a jitney taxi, a short bus for twenty people plus a driver, who is a virtuoso at driving and selling tickets at the same time. He has a cheap cigarette with a cardboard holder in his mouth, but ashes never fall onto his pants; they will be scattered outside the window once the cigarette reaches the critical point. They will be blown away by the wind when the driver’s hand moves the cigarette a safe distance away.
I have doubts about the virtuoso driver’s skills. When both of us charming men, my adopted son and I, travel around town, I doubt everything. I doubt that flower pots will not fall of the balconies, that stray dogs will not attack people. I doubt that a wire that was broken last month will not have electricity running through it and that the manhole covers will not collapse, opening down into boiling darkness. We protect ourselves from everything. The boy trusts me: do I have a right to let him down?
And among other things, I doubt the driver’s virtuosity. But to say that I doubt is not enough. The horror, which is like the feeling you get before vomiting, cramps my unshaven cheekbones, and my arms hug a three-year-old body full of chicken bones. My fingers touch his arms and earlobes, forehead. I make sure that he is warm, dear, mine, here, close, on my lap, the only one, unique, funny, strict. He moves my hand away with displeasure—I’m preventing him from seeing how the water flows. We are going over the bridge.
I have this painful vision again. The driver moves his hand with ash-laden cigarette outside the window, casts a brief glance into the rearview mirror, trying to figure out who else hasn’t paid for the ride. His right foot automatically steps on the gas, because his eyes have reported a hundredth of a second ago that the road is clear for the next hundred meters—all the cars have moved forward. He moves his cigarette hand, steps on the gas, looks in the rearview mirror, and doesn’t know that a moment later his bus will fly over the edge. Maybe one of the wheels will hit a pothole that appeared out of nowhere. Maybe a dog will run out on a road and the driver will make a mistake—I don’t know.
A woman’s scream returns the driver’s eyes to the road, which is disappearing, has disappeared, abruptly moved to the right, and he doesn’t hear his passengers scream anymore, he sees the sky, because the bus bucks and, slowly, it seems to us, but in reality instantaneously, abominably, like the gates of hell, bangs its undercarriage on the guardrail and then either falls over it or tears it down completely.
The water flows. Thirty meters from us.
I saw everything before the screaming woman. I was sitting next to the driver, on the right side, where the conductor would have been if only the bus company did not try to save money on this job. I always take the place of the absent conductor if I’m with my boy. When I’m alone, I take any other place, because nothing bad can ever happen to me.
At that moment when the driver lost control over the vehicle, I pushed my right arm under my boy’s chest and firmly grabbed the fabric of my jeans jacket. With my left arm I grabbed the railing for the descending passengers, circling it with my bicep and hand. In the next moment, when the bus slowly (as it seemed to us) bucked, I yelled to the driver, who was hopelessly trying to straighten the wheel and move his foot from the gas to the brake pedal:
“Open the door!”
He opened it as the bus was already plunging toward the water. He didn’t let us down. Although it is possible that he opened it accidentally, because from the force of inertia he fell on the wheel and pushed his hands in horror on the panel and buttons. Despite the screaming in the bus—even the men were screaming, only my adopted son was silent—despite the people falling from their back seats onto the front window of the bus like mushrooms out of a basket and someone breaking that window with his head, despite all this noise, I heard the sound of the door opening, anticipated by a hiss and followed by a knock on the railing, like the jerk of an iron muscle. I didn’t even turn my head to this sound.
The bus made its first somersault and I saw a retired woman that had kept complaining about having to pay for her ticket two stops ago flip in the air like a doll with her elderly fat pink legs and then bump her head into … I thought it was the ceiling, but it was already the floor.
My boy and I slid up the railing, I lowered my head and hit the back of my head and back on the ceiling, feeling clearly that the top of the child’s head was pressing into my cheek, that instant my butt hit the seat, I fell to one side and then the other, and finally almost had my left arm pulled out when the bus hit the water.
Icy water rushed in simultaneously from everywhere. A man with a scratched and pink face covered in sugary glass dust dashed to the open door, but was instantly carried to the end of the bus by water that was so cold that it seemed to be boiling.
I breathed and breathed and breathed till I felt dizzy. I was looking at the window across from me where the greedy water was shoving its head like a witch. I also remember how at the next slow turn of our underwater bus one of the passengers, a man that was crawling on the floor, grabbed me by my feet, and angrily plunged his fingers into the flesh of my calves looking for support. I closed my eyes, because water was falling on me from above and the side, and randomly hit his face with my foot. This is when I realized that there was no more air in the bus, and wiggling hurriedly pried my shoes off with my toes.
The bus was accelerating. I opened my eyes. The bus was going down with its muzzle first. I guessed it. It was murky inside. To the right of me there were five or six or maybe even more passengers lying on the front window. I felt them twitch and move. Someone was lying on the floor and moving. I raised my legs up—they were relatively motionless and I realized that the water was no longer rushing inside the bus, because it was full.
The boy was unmoving in my arms, as if he had fallen asleep.
I turned my head left and saw that the door was open. I pushed off somebody on the floor, turned around the railing and grabbed the door, the metal post, and something else with my left hand. Apparently, this is when I pulled a nail off my middle finger, moving my legs with what felt like my last strength, sometimes without any result, sometimes hitting something. I moved somewhere and suddenly saw that the bus had gone down like an underwater meteorite, but my boy and I remained in the middle of icy-cold water lost to the world.
The darkness was wavy and nasty to taste. Only later did I realize that I had bitten my cheek and a piece of flesh was rolling in my mouth, where my alive and pink tongue was pushing against the palate like a half-crazy Atlas trying to raise me with its only muscle.
If I could, I would have screamed. If I had thought about it for a second, I would have gone crazy.
I raised my head and saw the light. The sun probably seems farthest away to the drowning man who hasn’t yet lost all hope of reaching the surface.
How easy was it for us, when we were boys, me and my best freckly friends, to carry each other in our arms while walking up to our necks in a murky village pond. It seemed as if water could make anyone weightless.
Spasmodically jerking my legs and my free arm, hopelessly beating away the endless deadening water as if I were fending off the cosmos, I felt powerless to swim upwards, I could not haul my heavy jeans, jacket, t-shirt, and all the wonderful clothes of my sagging child up toward the surface.
It did not make any sense to complain about wasting several dozen seconds taking off my jacket. If I hadn’t taken it off, in a couple of minutes we would have caught up with the sinking bus and its passengers in agony.
Still jerking my legs, but rising into the receding heights, I think not faster than five centimeters per second, holding my boy under his stomach with my left arm, I tried to squeeze my free arm out of the sleeve. Useless …
I reached my right hand with the left that tightly hooked my adopted son. I grabbed my right rolled-up jacket sleeve with my left thumb, made a few nervous, liberating movements with my right hand and realized again that it was useless. I could not take my jacket off.
And then it dawned on me. I moved my left arm to my face and grabbed the boy by his collar with my teeth.
…Three seconds later the jacket was off and floating down.
What a joy to have two free arms! I flailed with both my arms a few times and then stopped for a second again in order to take my boy’s splendid sneakers off. I did not see them float down after my jacket, but felt like I was sinking myself and did not make any more attempts to undress myself or my child.
I was beating against the water, tearing it to pieces, raking it with my arms again and again.
At some point I felt like my head was being turned inside out. I saw it as if from the side, turned inside out like a rubber ball—a cluster of softened bones decorated with a cold lump of brain, ears, blue stupid tongue … and a jaw still clasping a piece of jeans.
I was wriggling in the water like a nit, I was begging for an ending, I was living my last seconds and no force could make me unclasp my teeth.
I never thought that water was such a hard substance. Every movement of my arms was painful effort that burst my capillaries, tore my muscles, broke my joints.
The back of my head was aching with heaviness and my mouth was bleeding profusely. My heart was exploding with every stroke of my arms.
Suffocating, I was not making wide, full strokes with my arms and legs—I was jerking with all my extremities. I was not swimming anymore: I was suffering.
I don’t remember how I got to the surface. I spent the last moments moving in complete darkness, and there was no liquid surrounding me, there was meat—bloody, warm, oozing, so cozy, squeezing my head, breaking my skull bones, deforming my underdeveloped slippery head … I could hear a woman in labor scream.
Having reached the surface, I confess I unclasped my teeth and took a breath; two of my expanding lungs could take the whole atmosphere in. But immediately everything disappeared—I started sinking again.
Only later I realized why this had happened: unclasping my jaws, I lost my child. My arms, whose muscles were cramping to death and that seemed to exist separately from my body, grabbed him, so they could not support my body on the surface, because my legs were hanging like two dead fish with damaged internal organs.
I don’t even know what I moved, pulled and jerked this time—whether it was my tail, fins or wings—but having seen the sun, I could not leave it again.
And it appeared to me.
I took another breath. I took a few more breaths and touched the top of my son’s head with my lips—it was grey and cold.
I lay on my back and embraced his chest. With my left hand I started working on my jeans. Belt, button, fly … One hip, the other … This took me a few minutes. The jeans got stuck around my ankles, and I was jerking my legs and realizing that I was sinking again, that I couldn’t fight it anymore and tears were streaming down my face.
We were underwater again, but this time it happened in a state that could be remotely called “consciousness.” I managed to gulp some air and grabbed the boy with my teeth again under water. With my both hands I pulled my jeans off, as it turned out along with my underwear, and convulsively resurfaced. Nothing had changed up there.
There were people on the bank. There were people on the balconies of apartment buildings close to the river. There were people who stepped out of their cars on the bridge. A lop-eared stray dog was running along the fence of the bridge and barking. Someone screamed: “A child!”
Someone was already approaching us on a boat, and someone was swimming. But I didn’t see or hear anything.
We were carried by the current and I began to undress my child, who was heavy as deadly sin. The little blue jacket with the green wonderful bear on the back. The blue jeans, the mended tights. I left behind the little terry sweater in all shades of happiness, orange, pink, yellow, no strength to do anything about them.
Soon I was caught by somebody’s arms and we were dragged into a boat.
“Give me the child!” a woman in a white coat begged me. The boatman unclasped my arms without any effort.
Sobbing, I watched the woman bringing my son back to life. In a few minutes water started coming out of his mouth and nose.