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Aral

by Tom Bissell

(nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Joyce Carol Oates)

“Please,” he said to the American, blowing into his teacup with a delicacy that did not suit him, “you must eat more.”

“No,” the American said in mild return. “Thank you.” She was exhausted. They’d been speaking for nearly three hours, and though she was famished—she hadn’t eaten all day—the notion of food, or, more precisely, his food, made her stomach knot. Self-righteousness, this was— stupidity—but she refused to let him spelunk his way into any of her weaknesses. He smiled at the American’s refusal, then with both hands raised the teacup chin level and treated her to the timid theater of his blow-sip-blow method of tea intake.

The American’s gaze slipped off him and again absorbed the room. It was resplendent, breathtaking: polychromatic tapestries on the wall, servile attendants stalking stiff-leggedly in and out, a low table scattered with more food, fruit, teapots, and silverware than seemed appropriate. They sat across from each other, on the floor, cross-legged, atop heavy blankets. She was unused to such long-term contortion, and her feet had surpassed being merely asleep. They felt gone, disappeared, off in some other, circulationless dimension. Part of the reason she no longer cared how long they sat here was that she had no idea how she would stand when they were finished.

Suddenly the man spoke to the attendants standing guard near the door in his native tongue, Uzbek, something the American did not understand (to her he spoke Russian), and in a blink the table was cleared, the attendants were gone. They were alone. The instant the table was empty she wished she’d eaten something. Hunger stumbled, heavy-footed, inside her stomach.

“When will I get my passport?” the American asked, also in Russian, though with a kind of graceless start-and-stop inflection.

“I’m not sure,” the man said, deftly unfolding his legs and then refolding them.

“When will I be able to leave?”

“Of that, too,” he said, “I am unsure.”

Her hands clenched. “All you have to do is call the United Nations. It’s so—it’s simple. Call them, ask them who I am.”

The man said nothing for several moments, then tsked once, impassively. The American pulled herself together and saw that in the meantime he’d made a small, pointed pile of breadcrumbs on the tablecloth with his knife. “To be a woman,” he said with disinterest, tending to his pile, “and to travel alone—this is unwise in our nation.”

It was interesting to her how little the man’s reflexive sexism bothered her now, how secondary such concerns had become. “I told you what happened. My colleagues are in Tashkent. They were ill. I speak the language, I was anxious, I didn’t feel like waiting for them and—”

“And off you went,” he said smiling, “to our Aral Sea.” Her gaze collapsed when confronted with his smile. He was missing at least a dozen teeth, the replacements either gold or some shiny alchemaic substitute, and his remaining teeth looked like a museum of cavities. Other than this distraction, he was not a bad-looking man. His hair was short, bristly, black, spangled by dandruff. His equally black mustache fell only a few thicknesses short and lengths long of achieving mandarin proportions. His neck was too thin compared to the rest of his body, and he reminded her of a saber or of a long fish, a northern pike or a gar—something sharp, severe.

“I’ve told you,” she said. “I’m a biologist. I was sent by the U.N. to—”

“I know who you are,” he cut in with fresh displeasure, “and I know who sent you.”

She was astonished. It was the first time he’d spoken to her as if he believed she was who she claimed to be. He sat there, pleased with her dumbstruckness, and she realized with something like complete certainty that he’d always believed she was who she said she was, he knew it. The dynamic of their relationship changed so swiftly the American imagined she felt a breeze slide over her.

“You,” he said, “are Amanda Reese. You are an American. You work with the United Nations.” He found no consolation, she could tell, from telling her the truth. He gained no clear-headed frankness, no serendipitous nobility. “You are a biologist from the University of Indiana.”

“Illinois,” she said quietly.

He smirked. “Excuse me. Illinois.” He pronounced it Russian-style, Eel-lo-NOI-is, though she had not. She felt oddly lifted by this, superior.

“I think you know my next question,” she said. The language tripped her up. Finding the words was getting more difficult as she grew more exhausted. She felt as if she were digging around in a darkened attic for something she knew only by sight. She hoped he’d missed her grammatical mistake.

He hadn’t. He held up a finger and repeated her sentence, gently correcting her Russian, something about the correct adjective ending. His raised finger did not retreat until she said it again, correctly.

“High school was a long time ago,” she mumbled. It wasn’t true. She’d also studied in college, after college, before coming . . . she’d studied more than she would have admitted to anyone. Still, despite the huge vocabulary that years of studying had harvested, she was terrible, stump-tongued, a syntax butcher. “No gift,” is how her most patient tutor, Vova Petrovich, once sadly appraised her. No geeft, Amanda, you hev no geeft.

“I understand,” he said in English. His head tipped forward adroitly on his thin neck. “For me, too.” In Russian: “Your question, da? When will you leave? Professor Reese,” he said, leaning back, “you may leave whenever you want. You are not imprisoned. On the contrary, you are my guest.”

“I’m not leaving until I get my passport—and until I can tell the U.N. about my treatment here.”

Now he laughed, his eyes doubling in size. “Your treatment!” This burst out of him. He looked around for someone to join this ebullience, found no one, then stopped laughing as suddenly as he began. “Yes, your treatment is something I’d like to discuss as well, Professor Reese. From the airport you were chauffeured here”—he motioned around him, underscoring the room’s bright opulence—“and offered lunch, which, I might add, you refused.” He smiled again. “Yes, let us tell the United Nations how you were treated, Professor Reese.”

“I know who you are,” she said.

He looked at her with distaste. “Of that,” he said, “I have my doubts.”

“Kah Gay Bay,” she said quickly. KGB. He raised his eyebrows in polite acknowledgment, obviously pleased the acronym carried such mythic tonnage in her mind’s canals. “That’s who you are. And I know what you do.
He ran his index fingers along the gutters under his eyes, clearing away the silt, chuckling dryly.

“Get me my passport,” she said. “Right now, goddammit.”

He said nothing, again treating her to his freighted, sullen silence. “I will not keep you any longer, Professor Reese,” he said at last. “But I would like to hear your U.N.’s thoughts about our problem before you go.”

She regarded him coldly. “Our problem?”

For once, this man seemed honest in his surprise. “Why, Professor Reese,” he said, “I speak of the Aral Sea, of course."

* * *

She was an environmental biologist, though she would have resented being pinned, butterfly-like, to merely one biological discipline, since like most biologists she had several realms of interest and thought herself bright about many things. Her specialty was irrigation: its almost incomprehensibly far-ranging effects on both the irrigated area and on the area whose irrigation was diverted. She was in fact held to be one of America’s most accurate prognosticators on the often unpredictable, occasionally ecocidal, and always ill-advised practice of monkeying with rivers, lakes, and seas. She was a recent, uncommonly young recipient of tenure, author of dozens of articles, co-editor of a cobbled-together collection of essays whose slant grew before her eyes to be so idiotically anti-industry its existence embarrassed her to this day, and a perennial testifier before Washington subcommittees and panels and planning com-missions (even if, it sometimes seemed, their concerns had only a peripherally water-related issue). She was “famous in certain circles,” as she often heard her mother say to guests when she thought her daughter out of earshot, during those long July days she spent summering with her parents in Vermont. “Our little Rachel Carson.” But this dotage was embarrassing, and ridiculous besides: Who isn’t famous in “certain circles”? Although of course it was her desire to garner true, unqualified, Rachel Carson fame that disqualified what most people would have accepted as God’s plenty.

Initially, she studied biology to work in the sea (she had yet to); her pursuit of the stumbling, bear-like Russian language had its germ in a bizarre teenage infatuation with chess (indirectly) and Boris Spassky (directly); she had never married though had once been close, which is how, of course, she’d become involved with the United Nation’s Aral Sea Basin Relief Project one year ago. Getting a government job—a job with any government, she was confident—had less to do with personal excellence than a professional wrestling match, and though Amanda was no hardened cynic she accepted this more or less uncritically, just as she had uncritically accepted the job with the Aral project that her former lover, Andrew, had more or less gift-wrapped for her.

Once upon a time the name Aral Sea was accurate. Since 1960—when Soviet engineers began to divert the Aral’s twin tributaries to fertilize cotton fields in Turkistan—the Aral had seemed determined to discard that accuracy. It went from a sea of plenty to a sea of less plenty to an unfortunate, polluted lake to a poison lake to a shrinking pestilent bog to a certified disaster. That was where it stood when Amanda was named part of a ten-scientist team acting as a stateside academic/scientific codicil to the Aral Relief project—no longer the Aral Sea at all but the Aral Disaster. And nothing had changed in that year. In fact, she often thought, the Aral had the rather odd distinction of being the only man-made disaster in recent memory which kept getting worse and worse while no one did anything other than accuse everyone else of not doing enough.

Of course, she never actually expected to get to see Aral. (That’s what everyone in her group called it—“Aral”—almost as if it were a big friendly dog bounding around in the back yard: “How’s Aral?” “Aral’s getting worse.” “Aral did what?”) Mostly she crunched numbers, calculating the average increase of temperature and decrease of airborne moisture and what that would mean, hypothetically, for the surrounding area’s agriculture. She ran computer simulations that posited what would happen with no Aral at all. She e-mailed her findings to the other biologists on “the Team”—also what they called it—and tried to forget about the decades of pollution and insecticide and toxins in the Aral’s exposed and windblown seabed; she tried to forget that the sanitized, bloodless, glowing-green numbers on her Hewlett-Packard screen that told her +59% ane 8-12 meant that around seventeen thousand kids who in nearly any other part of the world would have been learning multiplication tables and team sports were going to be anemic.

Her alpha and omega trip to the Soviet Union had been to Moscow in 1987 as a guest of Andrew’s (he then worked for the Ambassador), and she’d bathed in the springy feeling of glasnost. What she saw was not the nation of wicked Lenin, evil Stalin, warty Brezhnev—this was Pepsi billboards and gleaming hotels and elegant, jaw-dropping cocktail parties. This was her week in Russia, and she spoke the language twice (“Skahzhityeh, pahzhalstah. Gdye toilet?” “Tahk-SEE!”).

Of course, everything was different now. For one, Andrew was gone. Aral was worse. The Soviet Union was no more. Along with the tourist-perfect, industry-friendly, teardrop-and-puddle nations that had sprouted along Russia’s western flank, a jigsaw of polysyllabic, hostile-sounding nations had metastasized along its southern flank. Central Asia, this was, and the Aral Sea was its fountain of life.

And when Amanda learned that, thanks to her Russian skills, her days of computer simulations and guesswork were over—she was going there, as in next month, with two other members of the Team to survey the Aral Sea basin personally—she called up her old tutor, Vova, and asked him what was Central Asia’s story, anyway? Vova said, “Theenk of Ziberia, Amanda, fleeped over.” Had he ever been there, seen it? “Amanda, Amanda,” he said, becoming serious, nearly bitter, his accent suddenly falling away. “The only Russians in Central Asia are the ones whose relatives were exiled there.” She sensed him shaking his head at the boundless naiveté Americans had for places that weren’t America. “Don’t you think they knew what they were doing, Amanda, when they decided to murder the place?”

* * *

She learned more about Central Asia on the plane while gliding over Ukraine from Ted Whitford, Ph.D., Marine Biology, UCLA. He, too, spoke some Russian (he’d spent time living in Murmansk while studying the Barents Sea), and they practiced together until he realized she knew more than he did and put a stop to it right then and there. An asshole, Ted was. But he seemed to know a lot about Aral. (A disarmingly accurate generalization about assholes: they all know a lot, however brittle their knowledge becomes under intimacy’s whitest, hottest lights.) What he told her was specific, real-seeming—more information, at least, than the U.N.’s ossifyingly dull dossiers were willing to avail. Ted Whitford mentioned cities, local nationals he’d spoken to, supplied bleak sketches of how annihilated the Aral’s fishermen had been. He spoke with the heavy-hearted world-weariness of one who simply knows too much. Had he been to Uzbekistan, Amanda asked, the country that bore the brunt of Aral’s ailments? Once, Ted explained, to Tashkent, the capital, which was still pretty Russian. More Russian than Russia, in fact, ha ha.

On her own Amanda had learned that the rest of the world had, by and large, dismissed Central Asia and its problems with Aral; that most of the solutions for the problem were somewhere in the twelve-figure range; and that the U.N. was trying to do everything it could, but until Central Asia’s nations began to cooperate on water allocation and set prices for water usage like the good little budding market-economy nations they claimed they wanted to be, there was little the U.N. could do. Add to this that the Aral Sea was found smack in the center of Uzbekistan’s biggest headache, Karakalpakistan, a nominally sovereign nation with its own government, bureaucracy, and eddies of red tape apart from Uzbekistan’s, and you were left navigating waters too tricky even for the United Nations. The entire scenario had the fiendish unsolvability of a physics story problem, and Amanda felt both intimidated and relieved. She and her team couldn’t, even at their least effective, possibly make anything worse.

“It’s damn sad,” Ted Whitford concluded with a sigh. “It rips me up. Damn sad.”

“Sounds like it,” Michael Nam said, sitting across the aisle from Amanda and Ted, reading the Cadogan guide to Central Asia (Amanda had Lonely Planet’s). Amanda had sat next to Michael on the first leg of the trip, over the Atlantic. She leaned forward to wink at him, become accomplice to his insult of Ted in some way, but he did not look over at her. Instead he turned the page in his book and pushed his styleless, thick-lensed glasses further up his bridge. Michael was Korean, from the University of Miami—the “Carl Sagan of oceanography,” as she’d once heard him described. From their earlier conversation, Amanda had concluded that he, too, was an asshole, but an abidable, even interesting asshole, whereas Ted’s asshole status lacked any asterisk at all.

“Right-o,” Ted said to Michael and, alarmingly, touched Amanda on the knee.

“How long before we reach Tashkent?” Amanda asked Michael, again leaning forward.

“Two hours,” Michael said, closing his book and then his eyes.

Amanda looked around the plane. Nearly everyone was asleep, one or two souls glowing like angels under their reading lights. As far as she could tell, she and her colleagues were the only Americans on board. Her around-the-world trip was in its twentieth hour and she was wide awake. She closed her eyes anyway, but opened them when Ted once again began talking. She turned to him and saw he’d not been speaking to her. He was addressing a small, hand-held tape recorder, whispering intense, Churchillian cadences into it: “I’d say we’re at 35,000 feet if we’re a foot,” he was saying. Amanda rolled her head as far away from him as physiology would permit. “Tashkent,” he said, milking it, “Tashkent is down there, too.” A pause of several moments. “And so is Aral. It all makes Murmansk and Barents . . . Jesus! Kid’s stuff, Ted. It was kid’s stuff. You’re headed into the heart of the heart of hell, old boy.”

* * *


While they waited in the customs line Amanda first began to grow nervous. She could see quite a bit of the airport behind the customs booth, but no one was there, not a soul. She tapped Michael, who was still reading his travel guide, on the shoulder. “Hey. Who’s supposed to meet us here, anyway?”

Michael frowned and dug into his breast pocket. “Some guy named Nuridinov, from the Ministry of Water, and two other gentlemen. I can’t seem to read this.” He frown-squinted. “Hm. My own damn handwriting, too.”

“I don’t see anyone, Michael,” Amanda said. The customs line opposite hers was for nationals, and every dark-skinned, black-headed, heavy-lidded man in that line stood facing her, staring. She was, it dawned, the only woman in the entire terminal. She thought herself an attractive woman, though not anyone an American male would cross the street for. But in the present situation she might as well have been a movie star, despite her no-nonsense, shoulder-length auburn hair; despite her breastlessness; despite her mousy trimness, though trim in the absurd, magical way only women with large rear ends and thick thighs can be, these last two something not even five days of lap-swimming a week could dragon-slay. She found herself longing for the Nordic familiarity of Moscow and stared at the clipped black hairs on the back of Michael’s neck. Ted was behind her, still recording: “Our line is not moving. . . . Some locals appear to be staring at me. . . .”

“Someone’s waiting,” Michael said after looking up at the empty terminal himself. Amanda nodded uneasily.

They got through customs, got their luggage, planted themselves near the airport’s main entrance. No one was waiting. No one came. Three times Amanda had to explain to curious, walking-by militzia who they were, why they were waiting. By seven a.m. they were told to move along. Michael was in charge of this little field trip, but he’d never been given any phone numbers. It had been assumed they wouldn’t need any, someone would be waiting. Amanda and Michael stood outside the airport in the pinkish, dirty light, discussing the pros and cons of calling the American Embassy and of going to their hotel when Ted appeared with what he optimistically called “breakfast.” It was some rancid-smelling meat wrapped up in a pita-like pocket, smothered with onions. “Shashlik,” Ted called it. “Here. I had it when I was here before. It’s delicious.”

“No thanks,” Amanda said. “I don’t eat anything off the street.”

“It’s not off the street,” Ted said, and pointed. “It’s from him.” A small mustached man behind the shashlik stand fifty yards away waved. They all waved back idiotically.

Michael took the shashlik from Ted and absently tore into it, tracing his finger across the map of Tashkent in his guidebook. “Look,” he said, “I say we get to the hotel. They’re probably there waiting for us, anyway. Change of plans. Something.”

Amanda stepped back; she’d let them decide. She was happy so far only to be here, to see what those numbers became when made flesh and blood. She’d see it for better or for worse, and was prepared, she thought, for either. Tashkent was beginning to stir. Car horns sounded off far away, the morning was already growing hot, smog saturating the air. She sucked in sharply and with crossed eyes coughed out her intake. She’d taken hits off hashpipes less potent than Tashkent’s morning air.

When she rejoined Ted and Michael it appeared they’d settled on the hotel, no doubt deeming it too embarrassing to go running off to the Embassy just yet for help. They accepted her back into the huddle with a nod and told her what they were doing, making no pretense that her vote even mattered. Honest, at least, she thought.

“Standing up the U.N.,” Ted said, amused, polishing off his shashlik. “Now I’ve truly seen it all.”

* * *

“Explain to me,” the American said, “how Aral can possibly be our problem when you people make it impossible for us to help you.”

“How quickly you boil us down to one homogenous people, Professor Reese. I am one man. How do I make it impossible for you to help us?”

“I’m speaking in generalities.”

“Ah.”

“I’ve read briefings. People here think nothing of letting their spigots run all day. That’s why our primary advice is that you start charging your citizens for water usage.”

“The Aral is dead, Professor. Charging families who cannot afford it will not bring it back to life. You scold us like we are children. Americans enjoy this, it seems.”

“We just enjoy paranoid, totalitarian regimes forced to tell the truth for once and admit their monstrosities, that’s all.”

“Blind children, Professor, have no stake in any regime. Nor do anemic pensioners.”

“It’s obvious we view this problem differently. But there are—”

“The difference between us, Professor, is that we know what suffering is. I know more about you—the many soft American indulgences —than you can hope to know of yourself. I know of your businessmen who fuck our women like cheap whores, your corporations who take advantage of our workers while thinking we are too stupid to know the difference, your Peace Corps workers who castigate us as lazy and stinking. You have no tragedy and forget that such things exist, and if you know they do, you blame those the tragedy befalls. Americans are a people who’ve let their souls grow fat.”

“Then why even bother doing anything, if you’re so proud of suffering? Let it and everyone die. So, we’ve talked. Now let me go. I don’t even know where I am, where my companions are.”

“Mr. Whitford and Mr. Nam are at the American Embassy, Professor Reese, presently searching for you. It is, in fact, something of a crisis.”

“What? How do you know that?”

“ . . . ”

“How do you know that?”

“We are the KGB. I know this as I knew you were coming here, as I knew whom you were meeting at the airport.”

“Nuridinov . . . ”

“An easier man to bribe than I thought possible, even by our standards.”

“Wait a minute. . . . Bribe?”

“Certainly. How else would I guarantee his not joining you at the airport?”

“You planned all this?”

“I tried, Professor. Alas, everything has gone precisely wrong. This, too, is common for our people. Now, come, we must stand.”

“Why are—what are you talking about?”

“We are going, Professor.”

“Going where? I’m not going anywhere with you. Get the American Embassy on the phone right now.”

“Americans rely too much on this device, I think. You don’t need it. Professor Reese, I’m taking you to the very place you traveled 17,000 kilometers to see.”

“Aral? It’s close?”

“From my heart, Professor, Aral is never far.”

* * *


A note greeted them at the check-in desk. Amanda handed it to Michael, who unshouldered his luggage onto the polished floor and murmured its text incredulously: “‘Forgive us, kind gentlemen, but we are forced to meet you in Nukus, tomorrow. Things have risen.’” Softly Michael repeated the last line over again—Things have risen—then flipped the paper over as if searching for the elliptical message’s tail. “It’s not even signed,” he said. But stapled to the note were three plane tickets for tomorrow’s flight to Nukus, on the western side of the country.

Ted was chewing on his pipe stem, leaning against the check-in desk, buried to mid-thigh in sporty, day-glo luggage. “Oh, hell, Michael,” he confided, giving him a too-manly swat on the back, “welcome to the former Soviet Union. Nothing ever works. Don’t sweat it. It used to take me a week in Murmansk just to place an overseas phone call.”

Michael was simmering like a spanked child, staring at the plane tickets helplessly. When the words registered, he turned to Ted with an apoplectic slackness to his face. “Well, this isn’t Murmansk, Ted, in case you hadn’t noticed”—he was, incredibly, hissing—and we’re not here to study brine in the North Atlantic; we’re here with the fucking United Nations and I’m sorry if it’s just too fucking much on my part to expect someone to be here!”

While Ted quietly, indignantly returned fire, Amanda interrupted the drowsing babushka behind the desk and booked two rooms.

The hotel was a middle-range affair, the lobby done up in a marblish, neo-From Russia With Love motif a clever film student might have thought touching. It was not the nicest hotel in Tashkent, but nor was it the worst. The service industry here was still in its Australopithecus stage, and the nicest hotels thought nothing of charging three hundred dollars a night for Best Western-quality rooms, a price the U.N. was simply unwilling to pony up for such a non-event. That each member of their Team was, to the one, given the Aral Relief project entirely on nepotistic grounds was well known, making them markedly easier to abuse.

Amanda had her own room, and as she double-checked the steadfastness of her small golden luggage locks she heard Ted and Michael next door, continuing their stilted, lock-jaw bickering. The narcotic fusion of jet-lag and of finally being alone knocked her out before she quite knew what was happening. She remembered only to set her alarm for the next morning.

She dreamed of seas and of Andrew, of drifting Cyrillic letters and of Connery’s James Bond, and awoke at five a.m. to the sound of vomiting next door.

“I’m dying,” Michael said, when he opened the door for her.

Amanda stepped in, hearing through the bathroom door the muffled, gastric trauma of Ted’s stomach contents rapidly leaving his body, though from which exit she didn’t know. Instinctively, her hand shot up and lay flush on Michael’s forehead. It was hotter than a sauna rock. “Michael—” she said.

They sat on the bed, Michael shivering as she put her arm around him. “The shashlik,” he said, and smiled. His gentle Korean eyes, though, were wreathed with fear. “I’m fairly sure it’s just food poisoning. You wait it out, you live through it, it goes away. I think I had something like this in Osaka once. We ported there while tracking whales, and I ate some sushi I shouldn’t have. Familiarity’s of slight consolation right now, I’m afraid.”

Seeing him sick unhardened her heart toward him, and she was moved by this attempt at bravery. To make up, she knew, for his slippage in the lobby earlier. Amanda’s forehead met his with a small, suctionless thud. “Michael, I told you not to eat that thing.” She smiled and shook her head.

Michael nodded, shivering more violently now. And suddenly the Carl Sagan of oceanography began to weep, weep as in sobbing, as in shuddering, whether from pain, or from hopelessness, or from embarrassment, or from just plain fear of being sick in such a place, or from the guilty futility one feels in countries less fortunate than America, she didn’t know. She pulled the sheet from his bed and draped it over his shoulders and held him until Ted emerged, whiter than an igloo, from the bathroom.

“I’ve got the Dresden of diarrhea,” he announced, wearing only a flimsy towel and propping himself up against the peeling hotel-room wall. His face was half-shaven, as if he’d been preparing for his day when struck down by the thirsty protozoan horde swirling through his GI tract. “This is the Mother of all Diarrhea, people.”

“What are we going to do?” Michael asked.

“I’m calling the Embassy,” Amanda said. Neither of them argued. The phone in their room did not work. The phone in her room did, but she was informed by the operator downstairs—an excitement blooming in her voice when she placed Amanda’s accent and learned of her call’s destination—that an outgoing call would be twenty-five American dollars, payable to the front desk. “I’ve got to walk over there,” Amanda told them when she came back. “Calling out from here’s a pipe dream.”

Both Ted and Michael were now in their slender single beds, their restless legs scissoring under the sheets and their hands plastered to their faces, as if trying to cool the burning brainpans behind their skulls. The room’s stench was eye-watering, intestinal.

“Amanda,” Michael said, “listen.” She looked at the empty travel bottles of Pepto on the night table, Ted reaching over the edge of his bed and without looking digging in his carry-on for antibiotics. “We’re going to wait this out. We talked about it. We can wait this out.”

She brushed hair from her face. “Michael, let me call them at least—”

“We’re waiting it out, Amanda. You need to go to Nukus and meet Nuridinov, and we’ll be along in the next day or two. Your flight leaves in two hours and if you want to catch it you’ve got to hurry.”

“There’s no reason to involve the Embassy in this, Mandy,” Ted said.

“This isn’t a pissing contest, gentlemen. You’re both ill and we have no idea how seriously. Jesus, think about it! This is a no-brainer. Doesn’t the Embassy have a staff specifically for in-country nationals’ emergencies?”

Ted, through teeth: “I traveled through Commie Russia for six months, Amanda, and I never once so much as darkened the Embassy’s door. I’ll be damned if I do it now.”

Amanda, disgusted, merely stared at them, listening to the smooth fabric hiss of the beds’ cheap material as her Teammates writhed against it. After a while she said, “You’re academics, you know. Not super heroes.”

Michael, propping himself up to look at her: “If you don’t want to go alone, Amanda, we understand, but someone needs to call the Ministry to tell them what’s happened.”

“Oh, for . . . I’ve got no problems with going alone, Michael. I speak Russian better than either one of you.” She was about to explain that the only thing keeping her here was her concern for their well-being when a possibly delirious Ted stepped in:

“Then what’s the fucking problem, you dumb cunt? Go.”

She left.

* * *


“What’s with the blindfold?” the American asked.

His response was two beats delayed; she’d interrupted him from something. “To make you sightless.”

“Other than that,” she said darkly.

“You will know soon. Do not be frightened.”

“I’m too tired to be frightened,” the American said. They had left Nukus’s KGB building and were driven by her captor’s chauffeur—the man who at the airport had assured her he was from the Ministry of Water—to the city of Moynak, of two hours’ drive. Moynak, like most of Uzbekistan’s penumbral cities, was ornamented by nuclear-winter lassitude, but due to its closeness to Aral it was worse off than most. Driving through its devastated streets felt to the American like putting on dirty clothes. In the middle of Moynak they entered a run-down warehouse strewn with broken concrete and automobile shells, and there her hands were bound and she was blindfolded, then put into another car—something bouncy and dune-buggyish—where she sat alone for forty minutes until joined by her captor and three others. One was the driver, she knew. The other two were a mystery. She heard only their endless maneuvering against the back-torturing plastic seats and their steady breathing.

“Where are we going?” she asked, shouting over the insectoid drone of the engine. The dune buggy heaved and revved, the driver swearing heroically after more alarming bumps.

“I told you,” the man said.

After an unidentifiable length of time the dune buggy came to an inglorious, wheezing stop. She heard the driver light a cigarette, the mysterious passengers quietly sigh. Somewhere far away tractors were plowing. The wind pushed at her, the dust weaved into its fabric whistling. Her head came to a rest against the rollbar.

“Are you going to kill me?” the American asked, startled at how unmoved she was by this possibility.

The man exhaled sharply and laughed a little. “No, Professor Reese.”

The American swiveled her head around. “It’s bright.”

“We are outside.”

The American laughed herself now, nodded. “You knew, then,” she began, “that I was coming on that flight to Nukus alone. Right at the airport you knew to grab me.”

“We had no idea you would be alone, Professor,” he said. “Not at all. We thought all along Professors Whitford and Nam would be with you.”

“So the plan was to nab all of us.”

“Nab is a very sinister word, Professor. Escort you is perhaps more accurate.”

“Why? Why is the government doing this when they’re the ones who invited us here?”

He said nothing for at least a minute, then cleared his throat. The two unknown passengers climbed out of the dune buggy and padded away on what sounded like gravel. When they were gone he told her, “My government, Professor, is unaware of what is happening here.” And with a polite, regal-sounding “Excuse me” he left the vehicle as well.

The American sat there alone under the murderous sun, salted by the wind. She dozed for what may have been ten minutes or two hours, then was awakened by rough, sausagy fingers undoing her binds. “Ket,” the driver said to her when she was free. “Khozer, tez-tez.”

The American told him, “Ya nye gavaryoo pa Uzbekski.”  I don’t speak Uzbek.

“Go,” he said to her in Russian, and as she stood he peeled off her blindfold.

The sun nearly exploded her eyeballs. With a hopeful foot she tried to step out of the buggy and onto the running board but miscalculated. She smacked her lip against the rollbar as she tumbled out of the buggy and onto the ground. Her tongue probed the split lip. It had burst open like a ripe tomato. Cathedral bells gonged whole dirges in her head; salty, sulfurous dust filled her mouth. Dizzily she stood and looked around, her pupils mad, convulsing black pinpricks.

“It is unenjoyable,” she heard behind her. She turned. There the man stood, a small, well-dressed, black-haired child on each side of him. His hands were on their backs, and they stared at the space above the American’s head with the emotion of onyx-eyed ragdolls. Behind them were a half dozen grounded, rusted-out fishing boats—a naval graveyard—above them the sun sizzling like a cancerous boil in the yellow sky. She knew she was standing on what used to be Aral’s silty floor. Once water washed over the rocks beneath her feet, flickered against the ships’ crumbling hulls, carried on its wavecrests the burden of every creature’s life for miles around her. It was a burden now lifted: she couldn’t see anything other than the graveyard’s hulking tombstones and yellow-brown scree for miles. She felt hotter right now than she imagined possible, and fought back the urge to dry heave, to faint.

From her split lip a thread of blood unspooled, stopping on the swell of her chin. She mopped it away with her pocket handkerchief and said, “What’s unenjoyable?”

“Blindness,” he said, and moved his hands from his children’s backs to the tops of their heads. “Blindness,” he said again, and looked away.

After a moment of puzzlement, the American caught the milkiness to the children’s eyes, the unseeing patina coating their corneas. “Oh, Christ,” she said, sighing it, and looked away herself.

“I thought the world would hear of this,” the man said, still looking away from her, “if I showed the Americans.” His smile became impish, then, mischievous, so mischievous it took the fact that he was weeping a moment to register with her. The children, under their father’s hands, remained as still as the ship carcasses behind them.

“Their mother—” the American said.

He shrugged, his mouth a lumpy, hardened bulge. “Cancer. Dead.” He turned away from her, into the poison, erosive wind. “I was going to leave you, the three of you, out here—strand you—for the night. Then return the next morning to ask you how you felt about your proposals for us now.”

The American said nothing.

“I knew by doing that to you—I knew I would be punished, Professor Reese. This word ‘punished’ means—this means something else to us, I’m afraid, than it does to you. But I felt it was important. Doing something more than—” He stopped himself and turned back to her, smiling again, and pointed at the dune buggy. The driver sat behind the wheel, his back to the wind, smoking. “My brother, Davron. He will care for my children. I leave them to him now.”

The American said nothing, nodded.

The man hooked his arms around the children and slowly led them away. He stopped, turned to the American, and hesitated before asking her, “It wouldn’t have mattered, would it? If I had showed the Americans.”

“No,” Amanda Reese said.

Now the man nodded. For a long time he nodded. Then he said, “I think I will strand you anyway, Professor,” and walked away.

 

Tom Bissell is an editor at Henry Holt and Company. His work has appeared in Harper's, The Boston Review, and Men's Journal. (2001)


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