Thanks to Matt for the prompt. I’m going to try and tighten this up a bit, I like it. A surprising amount of this story is true, in many ways. I had the basic idea, and there seemed to be endless research and evidence to back it up – more than I had ever imagined.
It was January, and it was bitterly cold. I had come to Arkhangelsk at the turning of the new year; hitching a ride aboard a freight ship that slowly forged a scar through the White Sea from northern Scandinavia. I had sat for half a week within the iron belly of this belching grey whale of a boat, hearing the metallic booming of solid ice butting the hull, an attempt at some sad harmony borne of freezing waters and inertia. I travelled lightly, carrying only extra layers of clothing and a dog-eared pack of playing cards with which to pass the time, and did my best to forget. Quite why I had picked Arkhangelsk as the location for my disappearance, I could not really say. Perhaps it was the bleakness that it seemed to promise, the almost sad irony of its name – ‘Archangel’, the empty suggestion of salvation that appealed to me. The idea of this forgotten city being in any way sanctified or holy seemed almost funny; it was, it appeared, little more than a forgotten, half-formed urban sprawl containing vodka soaked frozen knuckles, giant iron exoskeletons of wrecked ships slowly oxidising in the cutting air and generation upon generation of scars left by invasion; by the Vikings, the early Norwegians, by the British, by its fellow countrymen and by the relentless elements; frozen gales that would doubtless strip feathers from golden wings and drive an icicle through the sacred heart.
And so, I did as the locals did. I drank, silently and solemnly. To keep warm, to occupy the hands. To get drunk. To forget who, and where, I was. I sat, each day from five o’clock in the Dvina and let clear vodka slide down my gullet, and I watched men come and go from my stool in the filthy corner of this bar.
A shape appeared in the doorway, and a gust of powdered snow burst in through the entrance, spinning in vortexes and eddies around an enormous pair of grey leather boots. The old man walked in through the ice-blasted latticed doors of the Dvina vodka house, coughing and hacking through frosted, whiskered lips. His furs were heavy, layered, and drawn up around his mottled grey beard that seemed to intertwine itself simultaneously with both the flaps of his bearskin hat and the sprawling, matted collar fashioned from the scraped pelts of unidentifiable species. The man lurched once, as the door shut behind him with a hollow thud, before staggering to the pitch-stained bar and resting his head in his arms on the black surface. A clay cup was pulled from a pocket somewhere amidst the dreadlocks of rabbit fur hanging stiffly from his waist, and the sad-eyed barman filled it to the brim with vodka, and watched as a handful of coins were sprayed over the surface. The old man stared at his benefactor for a long time before draining the mud receptacle and making it vanish once more amidst the carnage that draped his entire frame. It looked as if the man had a hump of sorts, for his was bent forward and somehow misshapen beneath all those clothes. His movements were, however, surprisingly graceful, I thought. I quickly corrected myself as he turned to face me, and raised a hand. Graceful is not the correct word, not for this man. His movements were purposeful, assured. He moved without physical hesitation or stutter, and he came and sat opposite me, pulling a stool from beneath my table and resting his heavy frame upon it. “I don’t speak Russian” I stated, holding his gaze as I poured myself another measure from the unlabeled bottle in front of me. The old man grinned for a moment, and leaned towards me, filling my personal space with the heavy cadence of wet pelt and neat alcohol. “Speak whatever language you like, my young friend. They all sound alike to me, anyway”. His English was surprisingly clear, I thought. He clearly wasn’t a native speaker, but the vowels sat comfortably in his throat and he spoke with comfort and confidence. I was confused by his response – what did he mean, ‘all languages sound alike?’ As introductions go, it was certainly a bizarre one. I poured another measure as the old man shuffled in his seat, throwing a length of grey fabric over his shoulder and removing his heavy hat to reveal silver hair, flecked with black and deeply knotted, matted in clumps over his collar. “I have walked a long way, for almost a year,” he spoke, in his clipped and distant voice. He was staring above my head, at a crack in the plaster that ran up the wall and across the yellowed ceiling. “I have walked here from Ulyanovsk, far in the south of this vast country. I followed the river Kama north, to its zenith, and continued north before it began to loop back on itself and head back down to mother Volga, mightiest of all rivers and bearer of life. I have travelled far, and would you be so good as to spare this old traveller a drink?” He gestured to the bottle. I shrugged nonchalantly, not caring for speech, and caring not for kindness or generosity either. He fished the clay cup from somewhere within the stinking mass of furs, and knocked back the icy, clear vodka before continuing in his strange voice, his gaze forever fixed neither here nor there. “You have heard of the Ganges, I suppose?” He stared directly at me now. I gave no reply. “The Ganges, boy. Holy river flowing through India, leaping into the sea at the port of Varanasi, the waters in which Lord Vishnu bathed his feet when the world was young. You have heard of it?”
“Yes,” I replied begrudgingly. “Yes, of course I have heard of the Ganges.”
“And how about the Yamuna? The river that laps at the foundations of the Taj Mahal, the river that holds the tears of Radha herself, the waters that quench the thirst of the many cows that provide companionship to Govinda?”
“I… I think so.”
“Well, let me tell you something.” The old man leant in closer, too close. I recoiled slightly from his sheer size, the noxious aroma of his garments and breath. “Let me tell you that even though countless gods have danced in the Yamuna, and even though the Ganges falls from beyond the stars and weaves its way through the hair of Lord Shiva as it falls upon his head, neither of these rivers can claim to be a millionth as sacred, a fraction as holy as the Volga.” The old man caught my eye as I frantically looked around the room. The Dvina was silent, empty. It was dark, and I was alone with this madman, this drunken orator who spoke of holy rivers and drank my vodka. I had come here to forget the cages of society, to escape the societal lies of religion and culture. I came here to find peace, to find solitude and eventual death, and yet I was trapped against a nicotine-stained wall with a lunatic… but his voice had softened, grown almost sad. I could not deny that a part of me felt calmed by the sound and shape of the English language, and I was perhaps inebriated enough to tolerate whatever nonsense fell from his lips. “The Volga… she is the all-mother”, he continued, his voice quavering slightly. “They knew this, also. The sadhus and Brahmins of northern India knew the importance of Volga, they knew she outshined the tributaries they claimed were touched by gods. The evidence is there, if you know where to look. Did you know the Mordvin people, that wise and gentle race of the lowlands, they once called her ‘Rav’, which comes from the Scythian hydronym, ‘Rha’. This in turn is a deviation of a Sanskrit word, a holy word, which no doubt you would have heard before – ‘Rasah’.” The old man looked at me expectantly.
“I heard that once before.” I said, unable to hide the fact I was impressed by the ease with which the old man spoke. “Hasn’t it something to do with a dance? A ‘Rasah’ dance?” Memories of my youth were resurfacing, unwelcome. Religious education lessons, an ex girlfriend with sexual pretensions of eastern mysticism. Other things I am trying to forget.
“Indeed, my boy, indeed! The Rasah dance, the dance of addiction to god! A circle dance involving many people, and delicious, transcendental ecstasies… but the word is older than that, you see. The Rasah was a river, a river that encircled the earth. The word Russian comes from the same source; the people of the first river. It was a grand circumference, the original prayer wheel, connecting each land, giving birth to greatness, to gods, to civilisations! The Rasah was an unbroken, pulsing dance of a river; its waters were healing, crystalline, beautiful. Each nation, each person was connected, each birth was anointed on its banks, and its rushing arms embraced each death with flowing succour.”
I was drunk, of that I was sure. The vodka served in Arkhangelsk had a particular effect I was slowly growing accustomed to; it would lull the drinker into a false sense of security, providing warmth, sharpness even, before dropping him firmly and suddenly into a sense of complete unfamiliarity, a lurching seasickness and continuous vertigo often accompanied by lack of sight and dexterity. I was on the cusp of something hideous, caused by this strange drink, I knew this. My perception was gradually tilting on an imaginary uphill slope, each blink of the eye caused my vision to flicker backwards and forwards, and yet still the old man leaned in, still he spoke. The darkness was beginning to confuse me – where was everyone else? I could feel a cold breeze on my face. I was outside. I was walking with the stranger. How did I get here?
“The Slavs, the Merya, the Meschera, the Maris and Mordvins… they all find their beginnings in the Volga. She waters the roots of each of their civilisations. I could say the same about the Huns. Or the Tatars, the Chuvash, the Scythians…and these people are spread across the globe. All began here, all were once one. Most scholars, even the Americans, they will tell you that the downstream of the Volga as she flows today – broken, stunted, incomplete – was the cradle, the tonic and birthing pool of the Proto-Indo-European civilisation. Imagine that!” The old man threw his hands into the air as I stumbled beside him, shivering, not knowing where I was or what the stranger was saying. We stopped outside Sutyaguin House, and a bottle was pressed into my hands. The old man looked at me, his serious eyes swimming through my blurred vision. “But the Volga once stretched far further than her current home in Russia. She once stretched far further than India, also. You will forget most of what I say tonight, but remember this. You have said very little, and have listened well, for an otherwise ignorant drunkard. Remember when I tell you, that mother Volga, sweet Rasah, she once embraced the globe. She connected every man, every nation in their infancy. She spawned purity, which over time grew stagnant with the pride of men. Men built walls, separated land. Russia was never supposed to be a country – a ring has no borders, no edges – and the distribution of belief, of the healing power that all water holds became confused with the evolution of language. Soon the great river became separated, became many. The continents drifted apart in disgust at one another, and the veins in which pure water once flowed eventually found a source, and a mouth, connected only deep beneath the earth, or far above it, out of man’s reach forever. Do you understand, little child? You whose wish it is to disappear? You who believes he is in some place so remote, so insignificant the world will not notice his disappearance?”
I was struck dumb, I could not speak. I could no longer move, the alcohol had gripped me in the sub zero temperatures and caused a premature rigor mortis to take over my limbs. I saw the stranger lift his furs, separate the layers covering his body to reveal bare skin, every inch of which was covered in blue whorls, indigo tattoos criss-crossing his vast body. They moved, writhing across white flesh like eels in a bucket, spelling out old words and depicting older stories. I was dragged into the doorway, beneath the black wood of the awning which hung heavy with icicles. The stranger patted his sides, searching for something, and proceeded to empty his pockets methodically. I sat still, feeling nausea coming in waves, shivering maniacally as the old man pulled from within his clothes, amongst other things, a stone engraved with concentric spirals, an ikon depicting an angel above a city, a bundle of feathers. He rummaged deeper, and pulled out a tiny, green glass bottle, stoppered with a black cork. I was sprinkled with some water, the lukewarm body temperature of it comforting me, and the old man stared at me awhile, grinning, before walking away into the night, leaving nothing but huge footprints in the snow.
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