The Black Pelican

First Chapter

THE BLACK PELICAN by Vadim Babenko

Chapter 1

To this day I remember the long road to the City of M. It dragged on and on while the thoughts plaguing me mingled with the scenes along the way. It seemed as if everything around me was already at one with the place, even though I still had a few hours to go. I passed indistinct farms in empty fields, small villages and lonely estates surrounded by cultivated greenery and forest hills. Manmade ponds and natural lakes skirted the road and reeked of wetlands, which later, right before M., turned into peat bogs and marshes. The countryside was dotted with humble towns sprouting out of the earth, the highway briefly becoming their main street: squares and clusters of stores glimmered in the sun; banks and churches rose up close to the center; a belfry whizzed by, silent as usual. Then the junk shops and gas stations at the outskirts said farewell without a word, and just like that, it was over. The town was gone, without having time to agitate or provoke interest. Again the road wound its way through the fields, its monotony wearing me down. I saw the peculiar people who swarmed over the countryside – for a fleeting moment they appeared amusing, but then I stopped noticing them, understanding how unexceptional they were measured against their surroundings. At times, locals waved to me from the curb or just followed me with their eyes, though more often than not, no one was distracted by my fleeting presence. Left behind, they merged with the streets as they withdrew to the side.

At last the fields disappeared, and real swamps engulfed the road – a damp, unhealthy moor. Clouds of insects smashed into the windshield; the air became heavy. Nature seemed to bear down on me, barely letting me breathe, but that didn’t last long. Soon I drove up a hill; the swamps retreated to the east, to the invisible ocean. The trees grew dense, casting the illegible calligraphy of their shadows over the motorway, until, several miles ahead, the road became wider and a sign said I had crossed the city limits of M.

Everything I had heard was turning out to be true. I recognized not the details, but their essence: the frequently repaired pavement full of cracks and potholes, the impoverished projects, the industrial warehouses, and the unfinished Memorial with its useless, gleaming steel. Then the gold coating of a garish arch – a monument to Little Blue Birds – flashed and passed without a trace in the setting sun. Cars slowed; intersections interrupted the flow of traffic; trees gave way to cheap motels and antique shops. After reaching the inner city, I crawled through a traffic jam for half an hour and finally found myself downtown.

Instantly it all changed. The area around me contracted, and it became difficult to see in the congestion. Houses of different shapes and sizes surrounded me, their sides dilapidated, pockmarked with spots blackened by the moist climate. The architecture did not impress me, yet the buildings had a look of dignity and didn’t need visitors to assess their value. The streets weren’t empty at this afternoon hour, but the people on them didn’t seem to be an important part of the area. The city would do just fine without them, for what could they give it – a beggar with an ashy gray beard and one white pupil, a crowd of bored youths by the movie theater, isolated groups of housewives, or a small cluster of strangers, me and my sedan? Nothing offered me a sign, neither an indication nor a clue; no one had noticed me among the utterly ordinary others. The world had not reacted to my appearance and wasn’t interested in my intentions.

I told myself this was how it should be: real things don’t reveal themselves right away. Nonetheless, the impatience made my chest ache, forcing me to twist my face and shake my head. Look at me, I wanted to cry out to the silent buildings, look, I didn’t come empty-handed. I brought you a great intrigue, equal to your most formidable mysteries. I am capable of a lot, my scheme is pernicious and clever – what else do you need to breathe life into your daydreams? But the stone wouldn’t reply, life resumed its normal course, and I began to have doubts: am I cheating by asking too high a price in advance? Certainly, ahead of time, I couldn’t prove anything – neither to myself nor to others…

My thoughts spun with the web of streets, turns and alleys, road signs and store names. My route became unclear; I slowed down and began to block traffic. People honked and stuck their heads out the window as they passed. I tried to figure out where I was, then veered to the right without a goal in mind, just to get out of someone’s way, and stopped short in a dead end.

That was the right thing to do – the city had already become a little too close to my heart. It’s probably the same for a third of its visitors, and the remaining two-thirds are just hopeless fools. The dead end calmed me down. I climbed out of the car and took a seat on a bench next to a small apartment house. Sheets were drying on a line hung between trees, the courtyard was empty, and only an apparently stray cat gazed blankly at my car from a basement window. A vacant lot off to the side stretched down the hill. It was under construction: workers were digging a pit and puttering about with concrete blocks for the foundation; an excavator discharged a high-pitched screech, leaving behind a flawlessly leveled edge. “Good work,” I thought ironically, feeling all of a sudden that the City of M. was losing its aura and turning into something conventional, even if I still knew almost nothing about it.

All at once a feeling of melancholy rose up in me. It seemed coming here was pointless: there was no hope of finding what I sought. But the whim passed quickly; I was now a different man and had almost forgotten how to pity myself. The uninspiring nature of M.’s welcome suited me just fine; I was not expecting an inspiration from without. My gaze turned inward – looking within, one can always find something to arrest the eye. I felt calm, forgetting the triviality of my surroundings, thinking about my own matters, going over and over the well-trodden paths – not like a traveler rushing to his last stop but like a flaneur out for a walk.

I drifted through fragments of my past although they were not worth much, especially when I returned to them time and again. Here they are in space: reverberating streets; a dim background; frozen groups of mute characters in backyards – pathetic pieces with no content. Then come the more distinct ones: an old park, trees packed close together with their branches intertwined, scratches and chipped paint on a bench – the echo of a place where I was once loved in my youth. No one lives there now, yet there’s still more – a stadium and a boat stop, someone’s tanned arm, the small puzzle of my first apartment divided into three unequal sections… But no, we’re getting out of order. That’s from the realm of Chronos: summer vacation and a pile of carefree plans, a time of big bumblebees buzzing through the air, then a time of wishes that were way too brave, and – a time when I suddenly grew up without realizing what I was sacrificing. Three unequal sections. With roommates and without. One woman. Another. Then – alone and no distractions…

As so many times before, I tried to imagine the exact shapes and vibrant paints, something I knew by heart, even if it was only the color of the leaves, the wallpaper, or the blanket on the narrow bed. But you can never alter the order of memories; the links are involuntary; you can’t force one thought to freeze and stay as it is for a thorough scrutiny. You’re always on the go – the glimmer of taxis, strange games of hide-and-seek in the rat race, the faces of people who are drawn to you, trying to find a connection, convinced there’s something special in the union no one else knows about. Hopes deceived and deceiving. Mostly unintentionally.

It’s easier with faces – you can remember them longer. You can feel touched or hate them all over again, or challenge them to a duel without wishing your opponent any harm. You can kick them out in disgust, knowing all the same that their memory will stay as long as you don’t close the trap door. But it soon gets messy – everything drifts out of sync. You lose your way in wordless gestures, in a silent movie with no captions. And when you remember the dialogue, you romanticize and embellish; you improvise something new every time, for the temptation is too great.

That’s how it was as I sat delving into the past, uttering names I hadn’t heard in ages. Time and again I caught myself in an excessively bold lie. With some embarrassment I tried to worm my way out of it, feeling I wasn’t able to, didn’t want to, or that I’d almost run out of memories. Soon, I couldn’t even distinguish between the images from the last few months and the last few years. They ran together, long and brief, and added up to a vision of my own gloomy self: waiting for a call, waiting for letters, waiting for bad news, receiving bad news, waiting for another call… Off you go – back around the loop. But the loop is unstable, if you aren’t afraid to break it, if you make up your mind to rip it up abruptly, like taking a dive and resurfacing to: first self-pity, then inert apathy, later cold mockery, and finally a decision.

Yes, that was the crucial difference: the self-contained coil broke apart. I had something now, and I called it my secret – words add another dimension. You can live with this secret, believe me, and set off for the City of M. – which is exactly what I did. I severed my ties, all of them. Everyone’d think this was the road to despair, yet, in fact, it brought peace of mind. Again and again I thought it over from all sides, and every time my consciousness painted not a vicious circle, but something rational and almost real. It was my secret and the City of M., with me inside it, right in the middle – a spy who had passed through the body check, an undercover agent of an invisible army. Now everyone would say: yes, the distinction is unmistakable; he’s a completely different person.

Let’s take a closer look: a different man, an unfamiliar hero, an unemployed and reckless fugitive-pilgrim. He doesn’t have a permanent address, doesn’t currently live anywhere, except perhaps in his sports car, a five-year-old Alfa Romeo with stiff springs. This is who I am; the circumstances do not bother me; no attachments are holding me back. I have no one to worry about, and no one cares about my future. I do have Gretchen, but she doesn’t count – I’ll explain that later. Is it better this way? Let’s compare the items on the list. The pluses and minuses come out equal. Then again, there’s a lot I didn’t take into account…

Having gotten carried away, I jumped to new episodes in the silent movie: the unfamiliar hero comes out of a dilapidated apartment building one sunny morning. He jerks as he walks, while a fleeting memory entrances his gaze. He’ll never return there; he has said his last farewell to the concierge-gossiper. He has moved his belongings out and given them away. His keys have been handed over too – or discarded, or lost – and if he turns around now, he’ll have to find a new home. He betrays not a hint of doubt, feels no regret. His car is already waiting at the entrance, its tank full of gas. All the bills have been paid – simply out of habit. He has no idea when he might return, has not given any thought to those who will forget him. All he’s willing to do is imagine some scenes from a distant future that include:

A former resident of the capital steps out of his first-class coach at the main train station. He is tanned and somber, his gaze turned inward. No one is there to meet him, and he hardly has any luggage. His collar is raised – as protection against the dampness and fog. A taxi driver mistakes him for a vacationer and tries to cheat him but gets caught, takes offense, and falls silent. This is the welcome from his hometown – they are waiting for him here. Hello, you look so refreshed – like an entirely different man. Where are we going? To theater square? To the opera house? The streets are empty – who will suggest another address? The former resident of the capital touches his coarse wolf’s hair and glances around, frowning. What did he do there, way off in the distance? What did he live through? He says nothing…

Images are just images, yet some of them almost come to life. Capital or no capital, returning is not crucial. Instead, you could go farther south, live in the sun among bleached houses, drink with expats, sleep with prostitutes. It’s as enticing as a glittering dream. You can win easy money and build a mansion, acquire horses and servants, donate a lot to the local church… The opportunities are endless and most of them are awfully boring.

That’s why you shouldn’t think about the future, I told myself, stretching my arms. The City of M. and my secret are more alive than all fleeting images. I haven’t yet had a chance to savor them to my heart’s content, so I am hurrying now to show them my quick affection, despite the mustiness of the courtyard sheltering my temporary weakness. But this isn’t the time to be weak – and there is nothing to hide. I can even take off my mask now. They don’t catch spies here, and besides, I haven’t come for mysteries.

My thoughts calmed down. Silent movie shots faded little by little, scattering like fine dust. Nearly an hour had passed, perhaps even more. The house regained consciousness after its afternoon siesta. Voices wafted through the air; a child’s sobs spluttered out from the open window above me. By the lobby next door, a small group of men had gathered – I could imagine their wary words, the absence of curiosity, the usual aversion to strangers. To feel unwanted, it is enough to be ignored – but I couldn’t have cared less. If anything, we were equally disinterested. Tired of sitting, I got up to move my legs. The screech of the excavator became louder, more high-pitched; the cat disappeared; evening was setting in. After dawdling a little, I started the engine and drove back to the main street.

Everything had become livelier: work was over, the city animated and alive. Even more cars packed the street, while people congregated on the sidewalks, their faces flowing together. No one was honking at me now. My car rolled along easily with the general flow and I wasn’t suspected of being an outsider. Storefronts and entrances slipped by; traffic lights blinked, dictating the cars’ rhythm and introducing an even tempo as the first sign of recognition. I reveled in my freedom; it was still new, not yet disturbing or obsolete. For the first time I was running not from something but toward something, which is completely different. Of course, what this something really was, I still needed to figure out, and I looked forward to long evenings without distractions, the blessed solitude of clarification, which can always be interrupted by going to a nearby pub. But the main components were there, on the tip of my tongue, ready to turn into phrases. They straightened out the curves and drew a thick line to the final dot, not at random but still ignoring the subtlety of the original outline. That, of course, was just an approximation, yet in my case it might work. I could refer to two genuine names: M. and Julian – they were each much more reliable than the usual marks, which one commonly makes do with. We’ll get to Julian later, for the blood still pulsates wildly when I think of him. The City of M., however – here it is around me, so even the approximation might not be needed unless laziness gets in the way. But no – I’m not that lazy!

I turned off the avenue, following the fork in the road that sent my car into a tricky U-turn. Now I was circling through narrow cross streets, a pageant of small shops, cafés, and bars – some crowded, others half-empty. With cars parked on both sides, it wasn’t easy to drive, and I slowed to a crawl, picking my way carefully like a man in a dense mechanical forest.

It would be easy to get seriously lost here, I imagined. To get lost and remain face-to-face with the urban ghosts, feeling their shadows slither along my clothes as they came out of the arches and alleyways. I could feel the tickle of excitement running down my spine – the city’s magic was enveloping me. It became clear: everything here was for real. Every corner hid either an ally or an overt enemy, my secret victim. I even had to hold myself back in order not to succumb to the opiate and do something dumb – so I thought about cigarettes, deeming it a really good time for one. Yet I remembered I’d finished the last pack a while ago and began looking impatiently for a store.

One appeared on the very next corner. I bought my favorites and lingered a little before walking through the open door of an adjacent café. I was anticipating hot chocolate, or at least coffee with sugar and milk, but found only disappointment. An elderly waiter informed me gloomily that the only hot drink they had was tea. He then proceeded to stand stock-still with his arms folded over his belly, as if he were ready to be thrashed and humiliated but would not be forced back an inch. I nodded, peeking in exasperation at the cheap, fake gold on his ring finger. The waiter cast another glance at me, opened his pad, scribbled something down, and retreated, stooping and dropping his shoulders. As he shuffled across the room, I noticed several people turning to watch him.

I waited for my tea, lighting a cigarette and examining the locals. There weren’t many of them – just a few homely fellows, the only interesting one being a scrawny man of about forty in wrinkled, soiled clothes, with disheveled hair and two-day-old stubble. But his gaze was astonishing – full of pure sadness that struggled through his dense eyebrows. Having noticed I was furtively watching him, he nodded to me and smiled so openly his wizened face became ten years younger while his eyes grew much older – although the sadness in them disappeared and gave way to passive melancholy. I was stunned by the change and turned away, just barely nodding in response, but the man, after fidgeting a little, got up and made his way toward me.

This was pointless and wasn’t part of the plan. Annoyed, I berated myself and thought I’d have to leave without getting my tea. But the stranger didn’t make an attempt to sit down and talk. He asked for a cigarette, received it, and then swiftly dug a small harmonica out of the recesses of his raincoat. Taking two steps back and turning to the side, he started playing an excerpt from something unfamiliar, filling the room at once with the sound of sobbing violins. It was unexpectedly good – it seemed the air even rang, soot fell from the walls, and the dim lanterns on the ceiling turned into a sparkling crystal chandelier. Yet a moment later it all ended – he stopped as abruptly as he’d begun and awkwardly bowed his head before returning to his chair. Someone laughed, someone applauded jokingly. It was obvious they had gotten used to him long ago and such episodes surprised no one. I felt a strange sense of uneasiness and tried not to look at him anymore as I hurried to finish my cigarette and gulp down the hot and almost tasteless tea that had appeared on the table out of nowhere.

Suddenly I heard loud steps resonating as if steel were banging on concrete. Another visitor burst into the café: a tall man, a bit over thirty, with slicked-back, raven hair, dressed in an expensive black suit and an elegant scarf. He walked without regarding anyone, his entire appearance in absolute contrast to the rest of the crowd. His arrival quieted them down and made them cringe. Only my random acquaintance, the man with the harmonica, jumped to his feet and dashed to meet the newcomer, his face lighting up with joy when he realized who it was. His expression was totally out of place for everyone, including the man in the expensive suit, who barely turned his head as he put out his arm and gave the musician a jolt in the chest. The other nearly fell and had to grab a table at the last minute, his harmonica flying to the corner. There were chuckles all around, but he wasn’t discouraged in the least, scrambling to his feet and smiling benignly at those who were laughing. At the far end of the room, the tall man sat down and began reading something with his back to everyone and his head propped on his palm. “Good work,” I thought again, yet it didn’t turn out ironically. Something had sobered me up. The city was showing its unfamiliar side, agitating me and hitting a sore spot. Interfering still crossed my mind for some time, but I was unsure how and just cursed my stupidity, chucked some change in the saucer, and walked off.

It was already getting dark, and the lights came on. A sharp gust of wind made me shiver. The first encounter is over, I thought somewhat sadly, I’m ready to get used to the new place and forget my fantasies. In fact, they had already retreated into the darkness and hid in the corners with all their demons, supplanted by a tedious list of mundane trifles. My recent revival faded; I was alone in a strange city, completely preoccupied with itself, and I had yet to determine my role in its life.

My car was waiting for me, its bumper shimmering reassuringly. It was time to find where to spend the night. I started the engine, went around an obelisk that rose up in front of me, and drove in search of a store where I could buy a tourist guide. But a guide wasn’t needed: a hotel soon appeared with a neon vacancy sign. Then came another and subsequently a third, where I stopped and secured a single with a bathroom and windows looking out onto the courtyard. I haphazardly unpacked a few things and lay down on the bed, dozing off quickly.