Purple Sky by Dinara Tengri
Late November 1993. The Soviet Union had fallen apart two years ago, and I’m taking a night class so that I can learn English and get a job at one of those foreign companies that have been setting up shop in our newly independent country.
My husband got laid off last year, and when the hospital started handing out boxes of household soap in lieu of salary I knew it was time to move on.
It’s a little past seven, and I’m on my way home with my friend Raikhan. We met in class, and since we both take the same trolleybus home, we agreed to brave the dusky streets of Almaty together.
On the way to the trolleybus station we stop by at a kiosk. The air is thick with rush hour exhaust fumes, and my head is throbbing.
“Do you want anything?”, Raikhan asks as we’re standing in line, behind a mother with her shrieking offspring, and ahead of two businessmen in fancy overcoats.
“Aspirin.”, I say.
The kiosks have sprung up around Almaty like mushrooms after a hefty rain. Bright yellow, dirty blue, these wooden boxes stick out of the familiar landscape, alien but comforting.
Open until the ungodly hours of the night they sell everything from chocolate to cheap vodka to tampons. You can usually find a tired college student or a former housewife tending to business.
I end up buying a bottle of Aspirin, and Raikhan gets herself a well-deserved Mars bar.
The purple sky is hanging low over the city tonight, with promise of more snow. The clouds have come apart in places, there are tears in the fabric through which you can see fragments of the night blue, and - if you strain your eyes hard enough - an odd star.
We hurry down the busy sidewalk, past a homeless man, past a newly opened tae kwan do dojo, past a billboard that says, “Independent Kazakhstan: Join Us in the Future!” in bright yellow letters against a mountainous backdrop.
There are billboards everywhere now. And bright neon signs fighting for your attention: night clubs, casinos - places where people can gather where they couldn’t before and talk about things they couldn’t talk about before.
Raikhan is talking somewhere on the fringes of my consciousness, as I compulsively list all the things I still have to do before my day is over, hoping to God that Berik helped the kids with their homework. Otherwise I’ll do it tomorrow.
We hurry to catch our trolleybus, while watching out for open manholes. Rumor has it people sell the covers for scrap metal. I heard of a girl who fell in once, and she only survived because she was too big to fit through the shaft.
All around us the city is transforming, shifting from day to night. It’s even less recognizable at night now. With the power going off and on periodically you can sometimes pass entire city blocks shrouded in darkness.
We take a shortcut through the alley. Long and lonely it swims in the ghostly green light of the Victorian-like streetlamps. The trees flanking the alley are old, their trunks covered in a coat of white paint, to protect them from parasites. In the summer, the they provide a green sanctuary from the relentless Central Asian sun. Now, their branches - crooked and naked look like bars of some medieval cage against the purple sky.
“Maybe I’ll take the kids to the park tomorrow”, says Raikhan as the snow is squeaking under our feet, “The news promised more snow, and the kids would love to go sledding.”
“That sounds like a good idea”, I want to say, but in that instant, the lights go out.
Blinking on and off for a few seconds, every light in the alley goes out with a loud hiss, leaving Raikhan and me in complete darkness.
As my hand reaches out to take Raikhan’s so does hers, and we grab onto each other, interlocking stiff fingers. Every muscle in my body is a wound-up spring when I feel - not hear but feel something approaching.
I try to squeeze Raikhan’s hand tighter but find myself paralyzed. I feel everything that is happening to my body: the icy wind on the skin of my face, the sweat pooling up between my shoulder blades, and the rabid beating of my heart as it’s attempting to escape through my mouth. Yes, I can feel my body, but I have no control over it.
People disappear all the time. Every night, the nine o’clock news wraps up with sports, weather, and a list of missing persons, their descriptions, and who you can contact should you ever see them.
“This city is like a damn Bermuda triangle!”, Berik said once, before turning off the TV.
In the old Stalin days, they say a black unmarked car would come for you and take you away, and your family would never hear from you again. Nowadays, you could be shoved into the back of a van to be sold for parts. Or your child could be lured away by some pervert on their way home from school.
Is this how I am going to disappear? Swallowed by darkness in the most populated part of the city? Will they find my body? Will my family ever learn what happened to me?
A shallow ragged breath rips through the thick silence - mine, followed by a strangled whimper - Raikhan’s. Her fingers are claws, her twisted profile in the corner of my eye is mine.
And then, a wave of calm washes over me. This feeling isn’t mine - it’s as if somebody is telling me to not be afraid, and I - having no reason to do so - believe them.
The last thing I remember before shadows envelope me is the tear in the purple sky, and a bright-green star pulsating slowly.
Amorphous shadows are floating before my eyes. I know I should be afraid but I’m not. I’m calm but not enough to forget that I am somewhere I’m not supposed to be.
“Where am I?”, I ask no one in particular.
In that instant, I am flooded with images. Memories as vivid and tangible as they were my own.
Huge chambers; walls curving up to a ceiling so high you have to crane your neck to get a look. Intricate geometrical patterns etched into walls with great care.
There are machines there. Hundreds of them. Strange, alien things that are part mechanical and part organic. Their strangeness is at once frightening and beautiful.
There is noise and light, and excitement. Excitement about the future, about all the wonderful things these machines will produce. These memories bear with them an echo of a noble purpose. A sacrifice in exchange for a promise. It feels good, but hollow.
“Who are you people? What are you going to do to me?”, is what I should be saying.
I don’t know where I am except that it’s so far away from home. From my children, and from my friend.
Raikhan’s terrified face appears before me but before I can call her name someone out there is telling me to not be afraid again. That all I have to do is to relax and listen.
Listen to what?
A new sensation. A collective memory of a great distance traveled, of a people leaving their home in pursuit of something great, but also vague. Too vague for my subdued mind to grasp.
And then, my mind clouds over, and becomes opaque like my mother’s ivory earrings.
Awareness comes back to me as cold air is pinching my cheeks and hands. I lift one hand to my face and make a sound, not unlike a laugh, realizing that I can move my body again. I get up to my feet. The air smells like old rags and dust.
As my eyes adjust to the dark, I take a look around. I have been here before. Walls curving up to a ceiling so high it disappears in the shadows. There is mildew on the walls. The intricate patterns have faded in some places, and destroyed in others, smashed to bits by an angry hand.
The strange living machines that were humming and gyrating now stand silent and motionless. Loose wiring is sticking out from their open frames. I crouch next to one, touching the wiring, running my fingers across its slick surface, and I’m suddenly overcome with grief.
These machines - these creatures were working tirelessly for a purpose they didn’t understand, for a promise of something grand. But the promises were empty, their sacrifice in vain. And now their parts are scattered across the cracked dusty floor. So much wasted time.
Suddenly, I’m very tired.
“Let me out!”, I say to the beings hiding behind the broken machinery. I cannot see them, but I can hear them whispering amongst themselves, their voices almost human, and it’s the “almost” that is making the hairs on my back stand up, “Take me back to my friend! Whatever it is you want I can’t give it to you.”
Maybe I’m in a state of shock, or maybe I’m dreaming this whole thing, but there something about the descendants of a powerful ancient civilization hiding from me that makes me want to laugh. So, I laugh. A nervous bark that comes back to me like a boomerang.
I hate the sound of my own voice. I guess my captors hate it too, because they cease their whispering, and all I hear now is my own shallow breaths.
“What do you want from me anyway?”, I say, louder than I intended.
Again, I’m flooded with images and memories of more distance traveled, more time spent looking for somewhere to settle down, to rest and to think. I’m overwhelmed with dreams and hopes about a life outside of this moldy dark cave, and of giving my children a place they can call home, where they can be safe. So, they won’t know what I know.
My silent captors are bombarding me with their fears, their despair, and it’s like thousands of voices wailing and lamenting, and I’m being crushed under their wails, until my knees buckle, and I sink to the dirty floor, unable to stop the tears from pouring.
What does this have to do with me? Or with Raikhan? At my lowest, I’m crying out my friend’s name, the sound of my voice reverberating in the ancient chamber. And then, a gentle hand is caressing my mind, straightening out the wrinkles and creases like my mother used to do with her old dresses. With the last stroke my mind clouds over, and the crying stops.
It’s snowing. Tiny white flakes are slow dancing in the green light.
I’m sitting on a bench in the alley. My left hand moves up to my face so that I can look at my watch. It stopped at seven-thirty. That’s funny: I had the battery changed last week. I don’t know what time it is now but judging by the faded footprints in the snow, it’s now at least nine.
Shivers run through my fully clothed body. The air smells like rusting metal and something alien. My headache is back.
A shadow in the corner of my eye catches my attention, and I whip my head around.
“It’s me.”, says Raikhan.
She’s standing next to me, looking exactly the same as when I last saw her, but there is something about her that’s different. Is it her posture? Or the way she’s tilting her head when she’s looking at me? Or is it the way her eyes are traveling up and down my frame as if she’s studying me?
“Are you alright?”, she asks not taking her eyes off me.
“Yes. Are you?”, I’m not taking my eyes off her.
“I think so. Do you know what time it is?”
“My watch stopped.”, I say, lifting my hand.
She mirrors my gesture,
“So, did mine.”
After a long pause, I say,
“Do you know what happened? To us?”
A slight shrug.
“The lights went out, and, I guess we got really spooked. Kind of silly, isn’t it?”, she finishes with an embarrassed chuckle.
“But, how long-”, I don’t know how to finish that sentence. What to ask her.
Did she see what I saw? Feel what I felt? Do I regale her with my adventures on board an ancient star craft before finishing off with a very earnest “And that’s what happened to me, I swear!”? Perhaps all that lack of sleep is finally taking its toll on me.
“We should get going.”, I say.
We make it out of the alley, walking in silence.
Spotting a kiosk that’s still open, we walk towards it. Its soft yellow light is nice look at. A young woman with droopy eyes is sitting there, listening to American pop songs.
“Do you want anything?”, Raikhan asks me.
“A Mars bar.”, I have sudden craving for something sweet and sticky.
An ambulance rages by.
The droopy-eyed girl takes my money and hands me the chocolate bar.
“What time is it?”, I ask her.
“Almost nine.”, she says and shuts the little window, muffling the sound of the catchy pop tune.
Almost nine. I’m thinking about all the things I should have done tonight: laundry, dinner, dishes. But my head is also filled with other images. Alien memories from a world that once lived for a grand promise and built for a future that never came to be. A world that was now trying to find itself again, picking through the rubble of its own collapsed civilization, looking for something to salvage. Looking for somewhere to settle. A place to call home.
I can still feel their despair, their bitterness. But it’s their despair, not mine.
The snow keeps falling, as a temporary quiet settles over the city.
We catch the last trolleybus home and sit in silence. The upside of riding so late is that you can finally get a seat.
Tomorrow is Saturday, and maybe I will follow Raikhan’s lead and take the kids to the park. There’ll be plenty of snow for them tomorrow to build their own igloo. Later, we can go to that new supermarket, and get potato chips and the peanut butter that Berik has developed a taste for. Then I’ll help the kids with their homework before doing mine.
Purple clouds are hanging low over the city, but when I close my eyes, I can see that bright-green star pulsating slowly in the night sky.