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.