The Appetite Comes During Eating

by Amy Marie Slocum

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Nikola Florianovich Dobrovolsky. “crossing the angara at irkutsk,” (1886). Oil on Canvas. 70 x 80 centimeters.

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The Appetite Comes During Eating

Two tickets, first class on the Trans-Siberian Railway—our sleeper car smells of smoke and salt. 06:23 on Demetrius Saturday, November 7, a feast day. The spires of Moskva recede behind us.

248 km—10:47 November 7

Yaroslavl yawns onto the horizon. Our tea has arrived, too hot to drink, but we allow it to warm the hand and steam the face. The rivers Volga and Kotorosi meet here, where Yaroslav the Wise stepped from his ship and built his city from trees. The city felt the licks of flame and the pain of complete destruction many times. Hardest was the Plague, for while you can replace buildings, lives are a more complicated matter.

First we talk, we play cards, and read books. Later we wander the passageways, and hang out of windows, watch the copses trot across the horizon. We go to the dining car and order baked whole potatoes with paprika, tomato, and vegetables, we wash it down with vodka, the sun rises again, the clocks read 04:14.

2,712 km—22:34 November 8

Omsk surrounds us with her fateful walls. We dine richly on boiled tongue with horse-radish, green peas, and greens. The sun has long since set; we are separated, but not yet divorced from time. The convergence of the Irtysh and the great Om rivers cannot alleviate this place from its history. “Omsk is a hateful hole. There is hardly a tree here. In summer—heat and winds that bring sandstorms; in winter—snowstorms.” Dostoyevsky wrote in 1854, while serving a sentence in the katorga prison. Brown bread with cherry jam lifts us temporarily from our funk.

The sun streams through our window—the shade habitually unfurled to remind us of reality—at 13:45 we breakfast on kimchee-flavored instant noodles and tea, unwilling to go further than the samovar cart. Long stretches of emptiness cause meandering thoughts—we come down with prisoner’s cinema—staring at the plains we see Mongol hordes atop squat, strong horses, loosing arrows at foes invisible. Our sanity is revived only by vodka and cigarettes.

3,335 km—03:49 November 9

A pale mid-morning light bathes Novosibirsk on the banks of the Ob river. We go to the platform and buy sweet quark fritters, called syrniki, from an ancient woman. The cold is exceptional—the woman does not speak, simply holds up a calculator and puts our cheese pastries sullenly into a greasy bag. They are delicious with cherry jam. We take gallons of tea.

Suns set at 10 in the morning if we listen to the clocks. We crave sleep but despise it at the same time. Attempting movement, we perform jumping jacks in the aisle to the shock of our neighbors. Hurling through mid-air is infectious. A little girl joins us, her braids like the ears of a galloping Basset hound.

5,185 km—05:26 November 11

Irkutsk, the Paris of Siberia, devours us. The city pulses with thought and movement, taking for many years the exiled intelligentsia who settled like iron in her strata—changing the nature of her composition. She is ravenous for more. The sun is high and bright, the day oppressively clear.

Revived from the malaise of the plains we gawk like children out the windows, we speak only in possibilities. A cardigan’d man joins our merry party and we share salmon with dill and tell stories that never were. We edit the history of his moment in real time.

8,523 km—21:47 November 12

Khabarovsk, originally home to Tungusic peoples—the unlikely progeny of both Turks and Mongols—throws us off kilter with her habitual crisis of identity. Here we are neither coming nor going, the night is black as the lights of the city blink ambivalently, inertia is our only truth, forward motion our only choice.

9,289 km—08:56 November 13

We present ourselves as subjects to The Ruler of the East: Vladivostok, where not too long ago an “Amazon Army” of Japanese prostitutes were tasked with gathering intelligence on the Russian military using the skills they were naturally granted. Land legs do not come immediately when one has been accustomed to the relentless grinding of steel on steel. We are extraterrestrials visiting a wonderful new world. We fight against ourselves to get to the table of a local café, and shovel eggs and pastry and coffee into ourselves until it slows our momentum to the present rate of the Earth’s rotation.

Written by Amy Marie Slocum