The Drift

Author: Margarita Iov
Translator: David Burnett

The November sky outside was glisteningly bright, virtually white. I know that I fell into a kind of slumber. Those days I didn’t read, didn’t watch TV or write a single word. I didn’t meet or see anyone but my brother, and my brother didn’t see or meet anyone but me and in no way seemed to suffer from it. It was as if I were enough for him, as if he and I were enough to inhabit his world. Our quiet life went out of kilter back then, for no apparent reason, but I had the feeling that our conditions were in some way linked, that something was happening in parallel inside us which didn’t make any sense back then. I heard it in the tone of his voice, in which a suppressed agitation always seemed to resonate, and I felt it in my own movements, which were much more hurried and stiff than usual, and in this inexplicable nervousness. I called in sick and lied to my friends that I had a lot to do, when actually I couldn’t have explained to anyone how I spent my days. I looked for a reason for the state I was in, for something that might have triggered it, but there was nothing. Just the usual fog in my head, and beneath it my old, aimless anger at the world, the same old fear of it, the same hungry animals. They came over me and stripped the ground bare. They grazed away the landscape that had taken so long to grow inside me. They destroyed the crops and trampled the flowers, they drank the rivers dry and then disappeared, I don’t know where to. What remained was a fallow landscape, no more. I slept for entire days, or stole through the house on my tiptoes, caressing again and again the rough texture of the couch, the smooth edges of the tables and shelves. I took things in my hands and felt their weight, felt that they had mass and substance. It was just that everything happening to me seemed to be happening to someone else. And sometimes, somewhere, I found myself again about to put the dishes away, to feed the squirrels, and asked myself what on earth I was doing.
The phone calls started that November. Someone at the other end said nothing, and I usually said something like “Hello, may I ask who’s calling?” into the silence, but they didn’t seem to hear me, or they acted like they didn’t hear me (of course that’s what they did). Because little by little I thought I could detect different qualities in this silence, so that soon I was pretty sure I was dealing with more than one person. But I didn’t have time to follow up on this hunch, because each time my brother would suddenly be standing right next to me. He yanked the receiver out of my hand and began dictating numbers, sometimes for hours; the numbers came straight from his bottomless memory. I sat down next door in the living room and listened, even though I knew he disliked my doing so, and secretly waited for him to falter or correct himself, which didn’t happen. He spoke with a wholly new and unshakable certainty. I asked no questions, but I asked myself, of course, what was so special about these numbers. I tried as best I could back then to hold our days together, even though everything seemed to slip away from me more and more, or it was me who slowly slipped away from things.
The calls were more frequent now, usually in the dead of night or the early hours of morning. My brother simply stopped eating, and barely left his room anymore. He spent his days and nights studying the hundreds of star maps and charts that covered the walls and ceiling of his room, energetically typed away at his computer, recalculated, then wrote the full results in the piles of graph-paper notebooks I bought for him. He stopped bathing and shaving. He neglected himself completely, and I was very scared at the time that he’d go crazy or actually make some discovery; he seemed, at any rate, on the verge of something big. But even this fear wasn’t mine; it was some other, someone else’s fear.
Once, in the middle of the night, he crept up to my bed and startled me. He was all worked up and talked to me insistently, explaining everything with such vehemence as if his very life depended on it. He sat on the edge of my bed, dressed in his dirty pajama pants, with his spare, naked torso and his disheveled red hair, and spoke about the origin of time. He told me that the Big Bang wasn’t over yet, but was a process that was still going on. He spoke about the continuous expansion of the universe, and the fact that every distance becomes a chasm. He raved about extinguishing stars and imploding planets. About comets that are on the way to their final state of total darkness. He spoke of black holes that devour everything, even light. Of space actually being bent, like a river which runs into a waterfall and flows relentlessly toward these black holes. Of the drift of space through time. Of someone sucking away at our universe, as though through a straw. Of the great coldness of the universe, a great and dreadful coldness.
I put my hand on his burning forehead. I looked at him and saw that he suffered. I reached for his arm and pulled him into the bed with me, under my covers, as though he were a child again and was having some kind of nightmare. He stank but still I pressed him to me and whispered to him that he was mistaken. That there might be something there at the foot of the waterfall which even he didn’t begin to understand. I whispered to him that my hand on his skin would be his anchor in time of dire need, when the current threatened to sweep him away. I promised him I would stop the drift, as well as the coldness and fear.
We lay there in the blue gloom of the coming day, and I listened to his panting, his pounding heart, and then I heard him mumble something, so quietly I barely caught it. He said: “No you can‘t.” And I answered: “Yes I can.” But he contradicted: “No.” And his voice was thin as paper, but it wasn’t the voice of a child. I wanted to say something else, but he’d already fallen asleep by that point. And I lay there awake for ages, and thought about the black holes that were out there somewhere, swallowing everything, even the light.

I woke up to the sensation of suddenly emerging from deep waters. The light that fell through the blinds was still the same November light, but this time I was blinded. I didn’t know how long I’d slept, tried to remember what had happened last, what I had done or not done. My body felt numb, my limbs stiff and shaky. I went into the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room. I looked out all the windows and in every cupboard and closet. I ate a piece of bread and drank a glass of water, and it seemed to me more delicious than anything I’d ever tasted before. I stole through the house a while longer, till finally I couldn’t stand it anymore and I went to my brother to tell him everything, that he definitely had to eat something and open the windows for once, that he should go out with me and take a walk, down to the beach or into town. I carefully placed an ear to the wood of the door and waited for the familiar clacking of the keyboard, for the rustling of paper, for footsteps angrily approaching me to ask what the hell I was thinking, what I was doing here—but heard nothing of the sort. I pressed down the handle and peered inside. The bed was unmade, the papers and books were gone, along with the maps and computer. But most of all my brother was missing. I missed him like half of my lung. Yet all of a sudden I was sure he’d just been here, as if he’d just said something and his words still hung in the air. As if I had turned away for just a moment. I wondered if I was still dreaming, but at the same time felt wide awake and furious like never before. And I knew, I simply knew, that it wasn’t me who’d gone crazy but the world that was losing its mind.
At first I was hopeful still that I’d find him around the house, maybe in the attic or out on the hillside, taciturn and bad-tempered as always. But he wasn’t there nor anywhere else. I was strangely relieved that our parents weren’t back yet from hiking in the mountains, sparing me at least their endless interrogations and worries. I looked for him everywhere. I sat there and thought for an awfully long time, waited, then finally went out. I’d left my shoes on the deck and descended the wooden stairs to the beach. Far above, in the same gray sky that never seemed to change here, the gulls made slow, wide circles. The sea rolled in heavy waves across the narrow strips of sand, as always dark-gray and opaque. I remember how I froze; the wind wasn’t strong but icy, and I wrapped my wool coat around my shoulders more tightly. I stood there like that for ages, lost in contemplation of the wavering landscape. A light fog hung over the water on this particular morning, and faint shadows soon appeared on the horizon. I watched them come closer, and only then did I realize they were people, ten or eleven—maybe more. In a matter of minutes they were within shouting distance; I knew the wind would carry my voice, but was suddenly paralyzed and just stood there silently staring. Then, one after the other, they rose from the water—the sea here was shallow for a long way out before dropping off into the depths, abruptly and without any warning. And I couldn’t help thinking that the cliffs at my back must have been under water at some point too, a very long time ago, and I imagined how the earth had opened here once, and how over millions of years the land masses had piled up and shifted, how the water in the oceans had become less over time, while mountains and abysses grew into the sky and the depths. I thought about continental drift, about the gorges and valleys of the Pyrenees our parents were hiking through, about the hoarsely uttered words of my brother; about the fact that every distance becomes a chasm. And I thought about how he must have stood here when we were children, how he looked out at the water, this peculiar boy. And for the first time I understood that what was happening there was happening to me, that a process was taking place that directly affected me. Meanwhile the sea people strode toward me with infinite slowness, and I realized then that they were perfectly naked and very old. They were very close now. I saw their tall, sinewy bodies emerge one after the other from the water. I saw their dark, weathered skin and the thin white hair sticking moistly to their skulls. Their aged eyes looked past me, to where no one could follow them. And they climbed ashore with a strength and beauty I had never seen before. For a fleeting moment I thought I could see my brother among them. His red hair gleamed in their midst for an instant, then disappeared again. I looked from one to the other, straining my eyes to find him, but he didn’t reappear. They walked past me like a sudden dizzy spell. I stood there, the child I still was at bottom, too terrified to move.
By the time I recovered they were long since gone, but their tracks were still in the sand. I could still see their faces before me, and imagined them climbing the wooden stairs, walking soundlessly down the streets of the development; imagined them forcing their way into buildings, the very first ones they came across, strangling with their cold, wet hands the occupants in their sleep, stealing their clothes and mixing with us humans. And then I imagined encountering them later. On the street. There’d be no way to tell them apart from us. I froze and felt afraid, and again the animals were there, their hooves churning up the barren soil, bodies twitching, and their eyes rolling madly behind their lids.

Original © Margarita Iov
Translation © David Burnett