Photo by John Max
I'm writing again, at last, and many things are new. The calm is new. The lack of anxiety is new. It's weird. I don't know where it's coming from. I no longer force myself to produce 2K words a day, though I count daily words still, as a way of giving myself an idea of how much I wrote. I write about 5 hours a day, roughly from 9AM till 2 PM, and for the first time I'm writing into a new clean file, occasionally glancing at the old file for Draft 2. It's curiously liberating. I don't have to adhere to the old structure nor do I have to write over old stuff and fix it. I can write fresh.
This is something, I tell you. I'm loving it. At the pace I'm going, this draft should be done in about 2 months, and it will need one more draft (to polish it) before publishing. I'm cutting out A LOT and simplifying A LOT. So far 89 pages are gone, and I'm only on page 31.
If you want to read my daily writing, pledge $1 per month on Patreon, and voila! YOU WILL BE PLAGUED BY NIGHTMARES. So here it is for you, the opening.
TUBE: TRANS-URBAN BLITZ-EXPRESS
A novel by Ksenia Anske, Draft 3
The train was watching Olesya undress.
When she boarded it and locked the door to her compartment and watched it depart, it was dead. Now it was alive and it was watching her. She sat very still, Tyubik gripped in her hand, her naked skin awash with goosebumps.
Tyubik was the engine from the TUBE train set papa gave her on her tenth birthday, days before he died in the on-the-job accident, crushed between cars while checking the coupling, somewhere in the snowy fields north of Moscow. They were never told exactly where. All they got back was a shiny black box, as shiny and as black as Olesya’s train set, a real American train set papa procured from someone in the Ministry of Railways for a hefty bribe.
Every one of the cars was gone. Mama threw them away one winter morning when she couldn’t stand the sight of them any longer. The engine was the only part that remained. Olesya carried it with her everywhere she went, wrapped in black cloth, stashed in her pocket or hidden in a secret pouch under her tutu at every performance. It was her lucky charm.
“Tyub. That sounds funny, papa. How about I call it Tyubik?”
“TUBE is an abbreviation, Olesya. It stands for Trans-Urban Blitz-Express in English, the first four letters of every word.”
“I know what an abbreviation means.”
“Don’t interrupt me. Listen to what I’m saying. ‘Tube’ means a pipe, or a flue. It’s a high-speed train. See? It’s shaped like a tube for aerodynamic purposes, to reduce the drag. Give it more speed so it travels faster.”
“But papa, that’s a funny name for a train.”
“Not in English it isn’t.”
“Can I call it Tyubik?”
“You can call it whatever you want. It’s yours.”
And now, ten years later, Olesya was sitting inside the train it was modeled on, in the first compartment of the first car, rolling across white plains of America, and it reminded her of home and of papa’s death and of her first ballet recital to which he never showed.
She put Tyubik on the table, stripped the rest of her clothes, quickly put on clean panties and flannel pajamas and woolen socks, wrapped herself in the blanket, snatched Tyubik from the table and sat still again.
The feeling of being watched got stronger. It came from everywhere at once as if every surface had eyes, red eyes hidden in red walls, red carpet, red blankets, red drapes. The red and the plush and the gold that didn’t belong in the train, that belonged in a theater. It made Olesya uncomfortable, sitting in all this red. She kicked off the blanket and hugged her knees and rocked a little and looked out the window.
Outside it was white and empty and flat. The blue of the evening was creeping in, and Olesya decided to get out at the next stop, stretch her legs, walk a little, apologize to Alla Borisovna, and talk to Natasha. Definitely talk to Natasha.
There was another reason underneath it all. She didn’t understand why she wanted to do it and it frightened her and she tried to ignore it but it wouldn’t leave her and it was growing stronger. She wanted to look at the train from the outside, to touch it, to feel it thrum under her hands, to walk the length of it and stand in front of the engine and look it in the eyes.
The intercom crackled.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m pleased to announce that our next stop will be Wolf Point. This will be a short stop, so please—”
Olesya turned it off. She put Tyubik in her pajama pocket and took out an Alyonka chocolate bar that somehow escaped the customs, ripped off the paper, carefully unwrapped the foil, breathed in deeply and bit into it and closed her eyes and proceeded to eat the whole thing, thinking that if Alla Borisovna saw her right now, she’d kill her on the spot.
Papa brought her an Alyonka chocolate bar every time he returned from his overnight trips, his sheepskin coat unbuttoned, scarf draped loose, ushanka pressed down all the way to his brows. He’d drop his briefcase to the floor and reach inside his pocket and Olesya would run out to him and hang on his neck.
“There is my girl. There is my little ballerina. How are you doing?”
“Papa, I missed you!”
Olesya wiped her mouth clean and spread the foil on the table and once it was neat and flat she scooped up the corners and scrunched it into a loose ball and packed it around the middle and twisted one end to a long neck, bent it, shaped the head, bit the very tip to make it sharp and flat, then pinched the other end to a tail and pressed it on the table to make the belly flat and stable.
“A swan. Just like you taught me to make it, papa.”
The train whistled. A shiver passed through the car. The brakes squealed and the train began to slow and as it did, the feeling of being watched left her, and Olesya listened to the footsteps in the corridor and the voices and when they died, she pulled on her boots and grabbed her coat from the hook, and the scarf and the hat, and was about to unlock the door when something caught her eye. Movement. Movement in the window.
Outside, not too far from the tracks, stood a large black wolf. It looked right at her, its ears alert, hackles raised, tail straight and stiff. Their eyes met and Olesya’s breath stopped. The wolf turned and bounded into the woods.
Olesya stood for a moment, waiting for her heart to slow down, then cautiously stepped out into the corridor and shut the door behind her and walked to the vestibule and down the metal stairs to the windy platform dusted with white.
“Getting some fresh air?”
The conductor in a gleaming red uniform smiled at her his white American smile and Olesya did her best to smile back.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to bother you.” He rubbed his hands against the cold. “You one of the dancers?”
A group of corps de ballet girls huddled in the relative protection of the squat depot, chatting, stretching, smoking.
Olesya glanced at them and glanced back at the conductor and nodded.
“Thought so. My compartment is next to yours, did you know?”
Olesya looked at him.
“There is a button under the intercom. If you need anything. Or just knock on the wall.” He smiled again and blew on his hands and waited.
“Okay.” Olesya started walking away.
“Your lady boss went crazy looking for you!”
“She doesn’t like you much, does she?”
How could she explain it to him? She couldn’t.
The conductor beamed. “I thought so. What a nag. Boy, I tell you, that woman has temper. She chewed my ass off, threatening me. Wish I could understand half of what she said. There was this one word she kept repeating. Can you tell me—”
“Sorry.” Olesya quickly walked off.
Frosty air nipped at her nose and up ahead stood the soloists and the principals and as she passed them, head down, hands in her pockets, Egor called after her, “Hey! Olesya! There goes our lost swan. Hey, Krysa is looking for you. If I were you, I wouldn’t keep her waiting.”
“Let her alone,” Milena said. “She wants to sing her swan song.”
There were titters.
“Olesya, wait up!”
Olesya sighed and stopped and turned.
“Where the hell have you been?”
Natasha’s copper hair streamed behind her like a banner and her cheeks blazed crimson. “Krysa told us you defected. She worked us all into a frenzy. You should’ve heard her. ‘Belaya is a traitor! It’s dancers like Belaya that damage Bolshoi’s reputation!’ And on and on and on. Christ, I thought she wouldn’t shut up.”
“And you believed her?”
“Of course I didn’t believe her. Why would you even ask? So tell me. Where were you hiding?”
“I wasn’t hiding. I was in my compartment the whole time.”
“Oh, come on, Olesya. You can tell me. She made that poor conductor unlock your compartment and it was empty.”
“Empty?” Cold chill went down Olesya’s back. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. I was there. I saw it myself. We checked everywhere, in every car, we even looked in the lavatories and in the baggage. It was like you have vanished from the face of the earth.”
Tyubik pulsed in Olesya’s pocket. She started.
“What’s the matter with you? You’re as white as a sheet.”
“I saw a wolf.”
“A wolf? Where?”
“Just outside the window. It looked right at me, Natasha.”
“Really?” Natasha let out a laugh. “It’s as they say, ‘Afraid of the wolves, don’t walk in the woods.’ See, you need to get back inside, or a bad American wolf will eat you!”
Olesya looked away, toward the engine.
“Hey.” Natasha touched her arm. “What is it? Are you feeling okay?”
“How is your toe?”
“Want me to look at it?”
“No, Natasha. Thanks. It’s okay. I need to go do something. I’ll be right back.”
The feeling of being watched returned, and with it the feeling of disappointment. The train was disappointed. Olesya knew and she thought she knew why. It hummed to life and hissed clouds of steam and blared the departure signal.
“All aboard!” the conductor cried and waved to them. “All aboard!”
“Come on.” Natasha took Olesya’s hand and pulled her behind her and they joined the stream of dancers entering the car and as Olesya gripped the handholds they felt warm. She tore her hands away and took the conductor’s hand instead. Sweat prickled her underarms and she felt lightheaded. She heard the girls chat and felt them brush past her.
The train jerked and moved, picking up speed.
Olesya stumbled to her compartment, dropped on the seat, closed her eyes.
“—what I said?”
“Did you hear what I said?” Natasha pulled off her hat and shook out her hair and plopped on the seat across. “Dinner is in fifteen minutes. They just announced it. Are you coming? You need to eat something. Besides, it’s not like you have a choice. Krysa will want to talk to you. You know how she is. She won’t let you alone until you explain yourself.”
Katya pocked in her angelic head. “Olesya! You’re here!” She clapped a hand over her mouth, her eyes clear and round like two aquamarines. “We thought you defected. Well, Krysa told us. I didn’t believe her, naturally. I knew you’re not the one to do such a horrid thing. It’s not in your character. I told her it’s not in your character, but she wouldn’t listen. She—” Katya abruptly turned. “Oh, Alla Borisovna! I was just talking about you. How are you feeling? Did you have a good nap?” She flitted out of sight.
“Goddamned snitch.” Natasha stood. “I’ll hold them off for you.”
“See you at dinner?”
Natasha slid the door shut and Olesya let out air and sunk in the pillow and listened to the voices in the corridor, Natasha’s soothing voice and Alla Borisovna’s shrieking voice and more muffled voices and after a while it got quieted and the only sounds were the clicking of the wheels and the occasional dinging of the bell.