Sleeping in a culvert
(Translated from the Russian by G. A. Armalade)
To roll over and find one’s face crushed against thorny twigs and the slime of wet leaves is not the pleasantest of awakenings. While one’s mind gropes to orient itself in a universe of unfamiliar darkness, there is a dim consciousness of water trickling, then of a too-bright light, then of the sickening stink of unearthed worms and mud.
The cover art from Regression, the fourth album by The Long Afternoon, and a key element in Anton Chekhov’s apocryphal short story, “Sleeping in a culvert.”
The man shivered convulsively, rolled over and sat up, clutching his elbows. His jaws clacked, his nose oozed a polyp of milky snot. Through his swollen eyes, clouded and rimmed with pink, he saw: an arch, a half-circle of grey foliage and fog, a coffee-and-cream coloured rivulet washing over the flat stones beside his boots. Through his stuffed-up ears he heard the purling rush of the stream, amplified and made strange by the vault of mossy bricks above his head. Feeling a tickle, he looked down to see on his knuckle a slug the size of a tailor’s thimble. This he flicked away with the nail of his right thumb. The slug landed in the brown water and vanished. The man shifted his numb buttocks and began to rise on both hands, but then, remembering the bridge above, stopped and stooped, crouching in the culvert where he had passed the night.
He thought, as I would have thought in his position and condition, “What next?” A light rain was falling, the fog had not yet lifted nor settled in the ditches, and the sun, if it had risen, had risen so far away and at so low an angle that no warmth was to be felt from its wan, unwelcoming light. The round hard roll he had concealed in his waistcoat pocket was by now more paste than bread, and his hunger was keen and concentrated, as if his stomach, tiny and wrinkled, had shrunken to the size of a nut.
His head tilted back, his eyelids half-closed and fluttering, he waited slack-jawed, with the expression of a saint in ecstasy, for a sneeze. Aphooooo! He swallowed and sniffed and became aware of the string of mucus hanging from his nose. He wiped each nostril with his left cuff, felt the coarse cloth catch at his whiskers, smelled the mustiness of the fabric, tasted salt and the tang of dirt. An inauspicious dawn.
To keep himself away from the wet ground, the man sat on his haunches, waiting. The sound of the rain, if rain so light and so steady makes any sound, was masked by the stream’s trickling murmur made loud by the vault and by the stillness beneath it. Wearily, he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. His knees ached. Every few minutes, out of impatience or simply as an excuse to move, he sidled like a fat gander toward the mouth of the arch and extended his arm out beyond the bricks. The raindrops felt like cold pinpricks on his palm. When, eventually, the shower ceased and the pock-marked surface of the stream reverted to its former smoothness, he waddled into the open air and stood up slowly, groaning and rubbing his joints. Though the rain had abated, the sky was no brighter and the fog lay as thickly as before over the reeds and weeds and tall meadow grass. As he made his way along the stream bed, he heard a crow’s hoarse call, distant and mournful, then, nearby, the sudden flurry and splash of an unseen creature leaving the bank for the water. Without warning he sneezed again, this time so violently that he lunged forward like a drunk about to be sick. Each of the sounds, crow call, splash, and sneeze, was simultaneously swallowed and silenced, as if the fog were not fog but great sheets of cotton batting.
The man stopped, removed a gray rag from his trousers pocket, blew his nose loudly into it, wiped his nostrils, and returned the rewadded wad to his pocket. Then he climbed out of the shallow gully and headed back toward the road. His boots squeaked. His bladder was painfully full. As he walked, the chilly mist drifted in wisps across his path and eddied in his wake. He felt his limbs gradually suffused with a mild warmth.
The road, a narrow band of mud and rock, heavily grooved by the iron-banded wheels of carts, carriages, and mail coaches, was deserted. Or, better to say, the short stretch of road visible from the man’s position upon it was deserted. After a moment of hesitation, the man began walking. He walked slowly at first, still unsure of a direction and destination, but as his ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, and wrists loosened and were drained of their numbness, his pace quickened until there was a nearly jaunty spring in his steps.
Visibility remained poor. With the same featureless fog surrounding him above and on all sides and the same stretch of muddy road beneath his feet, the man entertained momentarily the possibility that his brisk forward progress was an illusion, that he was pacing in place on a huge treadmill, a circular ribbon of road cycling endlessly, rising forever out of the fog ahead and slipping soundlessly into the fog behind, its apparent infinitude concealing a trifling smallness.
The soles of the man’s boots, as they were released by the mud after each step, created a peculiar sucking sound which was both rhythmic and muted. He inhaled deeply, and the air felt like warm water in his lungs. For a time, he closed his eyes and tried to maintain his course in the center of the road blind, but the rocks and ruts and slippery mud fooled his feet and startled him to vigilance lest he veer and stumble back into the ditch.
Moving forward within a bubble surrounded by mud and mist and silence, the man knew neither the hour of the day nor how long he had been walking. His clothes were clammy against his skin and hung heavily on his tired frame. His face was haggard and gray, and his throat, chin, jaws, cheeks, and the area above his lips were darkly shaded by several days’ growth of stiff beard. His eyes, though open, were so nearly covered by his heavy eyelids that he seemed either awash in a sea of profound speculation or dead. It was as if he were awaiting some stimulus, some sharp sting that would rouse him to full wakefulness and provide a reason, howsoever insignificant, to go on.
From out of the fog ahead floated queer noises. They were not the sounds of a carriage creaking nor of a herd of bleating sheep being driven from one pasture to the next. There was a rhythmic clicking, sometimes smacking sound not unlike crisp handclaps. This continued and stopped, resumed and stopped again. During the pauses another sound could be heard, a human voice raised in anger or dismay. As the man walked toward the source, he raised his head and tried to squint through the mist. The smacking continued, the voice rose and fell but remained unintelligible in its brutal barking fierceness.
After a time the milky haze thinned to reveal a horse, a peasant, and a heavy two-wheeled cart. As the man approached, he saw that the cart was heaped full of rocks. The horse was motionless with its nose nearly in the mud. The peasant was beside it, holding in one hand the reins and in the other a birch switch, long and curved like a sabre’s blade. He jerked the reins, forcing the horse to twist its huge hairy neck, and screamed rabidly in its ear. Then, pausing to catch his breath and lick the spittle from his lips, he beat the animal with the switch, each swift pass making a singing zip! in the air before snapping smartly against the flesh.
Without speaking, without thinking, the man raced forward, grabbed the peasant’s raised wrist and pulled him back, away from the bleeding beast. The peasant was so startled by this unforeseen intervention that he spun around and staggered backward, freeing himself and releasing the reins and the switch, which lay on the ground, speckled with gore.
“What?! Who are you? What are you doing? Get away from me! I’ll thrash you too! Get back!”
The peasant’s right eye was covered by a white film, and as he spoke he turned his head so that he could fix, with his good eye, the object of his anger.
“Why?” the man asked.
“Why are you whipping that horse?”
“That’s none of your affair, Mister, so just move along, move along.” The peasant gestured broadly with his left arm.
“But what has it done?”
“It’s done nothing! Nothing! It stands there stock still like a stump, too stubborn to move, the devil!”
“Its load is heavy. Perhaps it only needs a rest, and perhaps some water or a bit of hay. Have you any oats?”
“I’ve oats aplenty in the barn, but he’ll have no oats until he wakes up and works! I’ll teach him!” Then, to the animal: “I’ll thrash you, you devil! I’ll thrash the life out of you!”
During this exchange the horse remained still, too tired or too pained even to twitch away the flies settling on its flanks. The peasant, having recovered from his surprise and refound every bit of his former fury, picked up the switch, raised it high, and, standing on his toes, made ready to strike another vicious blow. The horse’s huge brown eye blinked.
“No!” the man pleaded, and moved forward to repeat his defense of the defenseless beast. The peasant, enraged, turned his eye on the man and struck him instead, a slanting slice across the cheek. The man stumbled backward, his arms instinctively raised to parry a second pass, his face a blaze of stinging pain.
“I’ll kill you, you meddler! Leave off or by God I’ll kill you!”
The peasant lunged, but the man sidestepped out of reach and found himself beside the cart. As he lifted one of the stones from the bed and struggled to raise it above his head, the peasant spun again and renewed his assault. Then two things happened simultaneously. The man, aiming roughly for his attacker’s chest, heaved the heavy stone, and the peasant slipped and landed on his back. The stone struck him full on the forehead and crushed his skull as simply and as completely as if it had been an earthenware jar. His body twitched and shivered for several seconds as if expending the excess of ire trapped within it, then was still. Where the head had been there was now a muddy rock and a porridge of brains and blood.
The man, overcome by exhaustion, hunger, repugnance, regret, and relief, knelt, breathing heavily.
“You killed my pa.”
The voice was thin and infantile, almost a whisper.
“Pa! You killed him!”
The man looked over his shoulder to see, risen above the heap of stones, the small trunk and head of a young boy with a filthy face and tiny rodent eyes.
“He attacked me. I didn’t mean to hurt him. I only wanted him to stop. He was beating your horse.” Each phrase was spoken between deep gulps of air. Slowly, the man rose to his feet, his head buzzing. He felt a pressure on his chest and a need to vomit. “Where do you live?” he asked, partly to chase away the nausea.
“Down the road.”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it near?”
“I don’t know. I think so.”
The man moved toward the front of the horse, gently patted its long snout and spoke soothingly into its ear. Then he set about unhitching the cart. He told the boy to get down. After some hesitation, mesmerized by the sight of his father’s lifeless corpse, the boy leaped to the ground, splashing mud on his threadbare breeches. As soon as the last fitting had been released, the cart see-sawed backward, its axle groaning loudly, until the back end crashed, sending stones tumbling onto the road. The horse, freed from the harness and sensing the easing of its burden, snorted and shuffled forward, then paused to shake its head like a dog drying itself. The man picked up the reins and tossed them over the horse’s back, then attended to the body. Trying not to see the bloody puddle beyond the neck, he dragged the corpse by its feet into the ditch, then covered it with stones to provide a temporary protection against scavengers. While he worked, the boy stood mutely beside the upturned cart chewing on the sleeve of his mud-splattered tunic. The fog had lifted a little, the air grew warmer as the sun rose. The exertion of constructing the hastily-conceived cairn eased the cold ache in the man’s bones. When he had finished, he walked a few paces into the meadow to urinate.
The boy fished an iPhone out of his breeches pocket and inserted the earbuds into his filthy ears.
“What are you listening to?” asked the man.
“What?” said the boy, reaching to lower the volume while glancing askance at the man.
“What are you listening to?”
“Is that the band or the song?”
“It’s the album title” replied the boy, exasperated.
“What’s the name of the band?”
“The Long Afternoon.”
“Is it any good?”
“It’s dope!” enthused the boy.
Now the man and the boy are walking side by side down the road, sharing the earbuds, the man with the left, the boy with the right. The horse paces alongside the man, who holds the reins in his left hand. In the mud and mud-coloured puddles, the shuffling of hooves is dull and formless, with none of the staccato brilliance of hoofbeats on cobblestones or brick. As the three figures gradually recede and dissolve in the wisps of mist still snaking over the landscape like vaporish dragons, a rook, somewhere out of sight but high up, calls hoarsely thrice, ruffles its lustrous feathers, and takes wing, leaving behind an opaque silence and its perch, a leafless twig, bobbing and slowly swaying, gently rising and falling in the diffuse pink morning light.
The Long Afternoon is a cryptic indie rock organization that has ignored industry standard career-building activities in favor of pursuing an agenda known only to the group’s secretive inner circle.
The Long Afternoon’s Regression album is available via iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and other distribution systems.