Maidenhair

Untitled
Sonja Engelhardt, Untitled, 2011, gelatin silver print, 6.3 × 4.7". Courtesy of the artist and Desaga, Cologne.

Darius and Parysatis had two sons, the elder Artaxerxes and the younger Cyrus.

Interviews start at eight in the morning. Everyone’s still sleepy, crumpled, and sullen — employees, interpreters, policemen, and refugees alike. Rather, they still need to become refugees. For now they’re just GS. That’s what these people are called here. Gesuchsteller.1

He’s brought in. First name. Last name. Date of birth. Thick lips. Pimply. Clearly older than 16.

Question Briefly describe the reasons why you are requesting asylum in Switzerland.

Answer I lived in an orphanage since I was 10. Our director raped me. I ran away. At the bus stop I met drivers taking trucks across the border. One took me out.

Question Why didn’t you go to the police and file a statement against your director?

Answer They would have killed me.

Question Who are “they”?

Answer They’re all in it together. Our director took me, another kid, and two girls, put us in a car, and drove us to a dacha. Not his dacha, I don’t know whose. That’s where they all got together, all the bosses, the police chief, too. They were drinking and made us drink, too. Then they put us in different rooms. A big dacha.

Question Have you cited all the reasons why you are requesting asylum?

Answer Yes.

Question Describe your route. What country did you arrive from, and where did you cross the border of Switzerland?

Answer I don’t know. I was riding in a truck and they put boxes around me. They gave me two plastic bottles — one with water, the other for piss — and they only let me out at night. They dropped me off right here around the corner. I don’t even know what the town’s called. They told me where to go to turn myself in.

Question Have you ever engaged in political or religious activity?

Answer No.

Question Have you ever been tried or investigated?

Answer No.

Question Have you ever sought asylum in other countries?

Answer No.

Question Do you have legal representation in Switzerland?

Answer No.

Question Do you consent to expert analysis to determine your age from your bone tissue?

Answer What?


During breaks you can have coffee in the interpreters’ room. This side looks out on a construction site. They’re putting up a new building for a refugee intake center.

My white plastic cup keeps sparking right in my hands. In fact, the whole room is lit up by reflected sparks. A welder has set himself up right outside the window.

There’s no one here. I can read quietly for ten minutes.

And so, Darius and Parysatis had two sons, the elder Artaxerxes and the younger Cyrus. When Darius was taken ill and felt the approach of death, he demanded both sons come to him. At the time the elder son was nearby, but Darius had sent Cyrus to another province, over which he had been placed as satrap.

The pages of the book are flashing in the reflected sparks, too. It hurts to read. After each flash, the page goes dark.

You close your eyes and it penetrates your eyelids, too.

Peter peeks in the door. Herr Fischer. Master of fates. He winks: it’s time. And a spark lights him up, too, like a camera flash. That’s how he’ll be imprinted, with one squinting eye.

Question Do you understand the interpreter?

Answer Yes.

Question Your last name?

Answer ***.

Question First name?

Answer ***.

Question How old are you?

Answer Sixteen.

Question Do you have a passport or other document attesting to your identity?

Answer No.

Question You must have a birth certificate. Where is it?

Answer It burned up. Everything burned up. They set fire to our house.

Question What is your father’s name?

Answer *** ***. He died a long time ago. I don’t remember him at all.

Question The cause of your father’s death?

Answer I don’t know. He was sick a lot. He drank.

Question Give me your mother’s first name, last name, and maiden name.

Answer ***. I don’t know her maiden name. They killed her.

Question Who killed your mother — when, and under what circumstances?

Answer Chechens.

Question When?

Answer Just this summer, in August.

Question On what date?

Answer I don’t remember exactly. The 19th, I think, or maybe the 20th. I don’t remember.

Question How did they kill her?

Answer They shot her.

Question Name your last place of residence before your departure.

Answer ***. It’s a small village near Shali.

Question Give me the exact address: street, house number.

Answer There is no address there. There’s just one street and our house. It’s gone. They burned it down. And there’s nothing left of the village, either.

Question Do you have relatives in Russia? Brothers? Sisters?

Answer I had a brother. Older. They killed him.

Question Who killed your brother — when, and under what circumstances?

Answer Chechens. At the same time. They were killed together.

Question Do you have other relatives in Russia?

Answer There’s no one else left.

Question Do you have relatives in third countries?

Answer No.

Question In Switzerland?

Answer No.

Question What is your nationality?

Answer Russian.

Question Confession?

Answer What?

Question Religion?

Answer Yes.

Question Orthodox?

Answer Yes. I just didn’t understand.

Question Briefly describe the reasons why you are requesting asylum in Switzerland.

Answer Chechens kept coming over and telling my brother to go into the mountains with them to fight the Russians. Otherwise they’d kill him. My mother hid him. That day I was coming home and I heard shouts through the open window. I hid in the bushes by the shed and saw a Chechen in our room hitting my brother with his rifle butt. There were a few of them there, and they all had submachine guns. I couldn’t see my brother. He was lying on the floor. Then my mother lunged at them with a knife. The kitchen knife we use to peel potatoes. One of them shoved her up against the wall, put his AK to her head, and fired. Then they went out, poured a canister of gasoline over the house, and lit it. They stood around in a circle and watched it burn. My brother was still alive and I heard him screaming. I was afraid they’d see me and kill me, too.

Question Don’t stop. Tell us what happened then.

Answer Then they left. And I sat there until dark. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. Then I went to the Russian post on the road to Shali. I thought the soldiers would help me somehow. But they were afraid of everyone themselves and drove me away. I wanted to explain to them what happened, but they fired in the air to make me go away. Then I spent the night outside in a destroyed house. Then I started making my way to Russia. And from there to here. I don’t want to live there.

Question Have you cited all the reasons why you’re requesting asylum?

Answer Yes.

Question Describe your route. What countries did you travel through and by what means of transport?

Answer Different ones. Commuter trains and regular ones. Through Belarus, Poland, and Germany.

Question Did you have money to buy tickets?

Answer How could I? I just rode. Avoided the conductors. In Belarus they caught me and threw me off the train while it was moving. Good thing it was still going slowly and there was a slope. I fell well and didn’t break anything. I just tore the skin on my leg on some broken glass. Right here. I spent the night in the train station and some woman gave me a Band-Aid.

Question What documents did you present upon crossing borders?

Answer None. I walked at night.

Question Where and how did you cross the border of Switzerland?

Answer Here, in, what’s it . . .

Question Kreuzlingen.

Answer Yes. I just walked past the police. They only check cars.

Question What funds did you use to support yourself?

Answer None.

Question What does that mean? You stole?

Answer Different ways. Sometimes yes. What was I supposed to do? I get hungry.

Question Have you ever engaged in political or religious activity?

Answer No.

Question Have you ever been tried or investigated?

Answer No.

Question Have you ever sought asylum in other countries?

Answer No.

Question Do you have legal representation in Switzerland?

Answer No.


No one says anything while the printer is printing out the interrogation transcript.

The guy picks at his dirty black nails. His jacket and filthy jeans stink of tobacco and piss.

Leaning back and rocking on his chair, Peter looks out the window. The birds are chasing down a plane.

I draw crosses and squares on a pad, divide them into triangles with diagonal lines, and fill them in to create relief.

There are photographs on the walls around us — the master of fates is crazy about fishing. Here he is in Alaska holding a big old fish by the gills, and over there it’s something Caribbean with a big hook poking out of its huge gullet.

Over my head is a map of the world. All stuck with pins with multicolored heads. Black ones are stuck into Africa, yellow ones poke out of Asia. The white heads are the Balkans, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, and the Caucasus. After this interview one more pin will be added.

Acupuncture.

The printer falls silent and blinks red. It’s out of paper.


My good Nebuchadnezzasaurus!

You have already received my hasty note with my promise of details to come. Here they are.

After a day spent in a place with bars on the windows, I came home. I ate macaroni. I read your letter, which made me so happy. I began looking out the window. The wind was driving the twilight. The rain fell and fell. A red umbrella lay on the lawn, like a slit in the grass pelt.

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

It is not every day, truly, that the postman spoils us with missives from foreign lands! Especially one like this! Amid the bills and ads — unexpected joy. Your letter. In which you describe in detail your Nebuchadnezzasaurus realm, its glorious geographic past, the ebbs and flows of its history, the ways of its flora, the habits of its fauna, its volcanoes, laws, and catapults, and the cannibalistic inclinations of its populace. It turns out, you even have both vampires and draculas! And so, this means, you are emperorizing. I am flattered.

True, your writing abounds in grammatical errors, but really, what does that matter? You can learn to correct your mistakes, but you may never send me a missive like this again. Emperors grow up so quickly and forget about their empires.

I cannot get my fill of the map you included of your island homeland, the painstaking labor of your inspired imperial cartographers. And you know, I just may pin it up here on the wall. I’ll look at it and try to guess where you are there right now, among those mountains, deserts, lakes, felt-tip bushes, and capitals. What have you been up to? Have you already moved from your summer residence to your Autumn Palace? Or are you already asleep? Your unsinkable navy guards your sleep. There go the triremes and submarines in file around your island.

What a glorious name for a benevolent sovereign! And in multicolored letters! I even have a few guesses as to where you got the idea, but I will keep them to myself.

In your missive, you ask me to inform you about our distant power, which is as yet unknown to your geographers and explorers. How could I fail to answer your question!

What shall I tell you about our empire? It is promised, hospitable, skyscrapered. You can gallop for three years without galloping all the way across. For number of mosquitoes per capita during the sleepless hours, it has no equal. For fun, the squirrels run along my fence.

Our map abounds in white patches when snow falls. The borders are so far away no one even knows what the empire borders on: some say the horizon; according to other sources, the final cadenza of the angels’ trumpets. We know for a fact that it is located somewhere to the north of the Hellenes, along the coastline of the ocean of air where our unsinkable cloud fleet sails in file.

There is still flora, but all that’s left of the fauna are the tops of those trees that resemble schools of fry. The wind frightens them.

The flag is a chameleon, every law has a loophole, and I personally have no knowledge of any volcanoes.

The main question that has occupied imperial minds for more than a generation is this: Who are we and why are we here? The answer to it, for all the apparent obviousness, is muddled: in profile, Hyperboreans; en face, Sarmatians — in short, either Orochs or Tungus. And each is a fiddle. I mean riddle.

The beliefs are primitive but not without a certain poeticism. Some are convinced that the world is an enormous elk cow whose fur is the forest, the parasites in its fur are the taiga beasts, and the insects hovering around it are the birds. Such is the universe’s mistress. When the elk cow rubs up against a tree, everything living dies.

In short, in this empire, which someone has deemed the best in the world, your humble servant — do you care if I’m not a chief?—well, I’m no chief. How can I explain to you, my good Nebuchadnezzasaurus, what we do here? All right, let me try this. After all, even these fly out the window, who form a school and have no inkling that it’s just the wind, are convinced that someone is waiting for each of them, remembers them, knows their face — every last vein and freckle. And there’s no convincing them otherwise. And here each of the celestial beasts pushes forward, two by two: blunderers and glowerers, truthseekers and householders, lefties and righties, mobsters and taxidermists. And no one understands anyone. And so I serve. An interpreter in the chancellery for refugees in the defense ministry of paradise.

And each person wants to explain something. He hopes they’ll hear him out. But here we are with Peter. I’m interpreting the questions and answers, and Peter is taking notes and nodding, as if to say, Of course I believe you. He doesn’t believe anyone. Some woman comes and says, “I’m a simple shepherdess, a foundling, I don’t know my parents, I was raised by an ordinary goatherd, poor Drias.” And so the hoodwinking begins. The trees are in fruit; the plains in grain; there are willows on hills, herds in meadows, and everywhere the crickets’ gentle chirp and the sweet scent of fruit. Pirates lie in wait, the enemy at the gates. Well-groomed nails blaze up in the lighter’s flame. “After all, I grew up in the country and never so much as heard the word love. I pictured her IUD looking something like a couch spring. Oh, my Daphnis! They separated us, ill-starred that we were! It was one showdown after another. First the Tyre gang attacks, then the Methymna hosts insist on their rights. Daphnis accompanied me like a guard when I went to see clients. A hairstyle affects how your day goes — and your life as a result. But do you see what they did to my teeth? My teeth weren’t all that great to begin with. But that’s from my mama. She used to tell me how she would flake plaster off the stove when she was a child and eat it. She wasn’t getting enough calcium. And when I was carrying Yanochka, I’d walk off with the teachers’ chalk at the institute and gnaw on it. Love is like the moon: if it’s not waxing, it’s waning, but it’s the same as the last time, always the same.” Peter: “That’s it?” She: “That’s it.” “Well then, madam,” he proposes, “your fingerprints.” “What for?” She’s dumbfounded. “You’ve been tracked down in our imperial-wide card file.” And he knees her up the ass. But she’s already shouting from the elevator, “You aren’t human beings; you’re still cold clay. They’ve sculpted you but they haven’t breathed a soul into you!”

Whereas another couldn’t string two words together properly at all. And his diction was like a water faucet’s. I agonize, trying to sort out what he’s gushing about, while Peter, still at his desk, is laying out pencils and toothpicks in a row, as if on parade, as if he were the desk marshal reviewing a parade. We’re on the clock. No one is in any hurry. Peter likes order. And this GS is muttering something about open sesame and shouting for someone to get the door. He’s babbling about white circles on gates, then red ones. He starts assuring us that he was sitting by himself in the wineskin, not touching anyone, not bothering anyone, but he got the boiling oil treatment. “There,” he shouts, “you see? Is that really right? Boiling oil on a live person?” But all that’s necessary to refuse the rogue is to find discrepancies in his statements. Peter gets a little book off his caseload shelf and things start moving. “Tell me, dear man, how many kilometers from your Bagdadovka to the capitals? What is the piaster’s rate of exchange against the dollar? What national holidays are celebrated in the country that abandoned you besides the Immaculate Conception and the first snowman? What color are the streetcars and wineskins? And how much is a Borodinsky loaf?”

Or say the Jews are returning from Babylonian captivity, and they start singing the chorus from the third act of Nabucco, and our chief asks them: “What language do they speak in the Chaldean kingdom?” They: “Akkadian.” He: “What is the temple to the god Marduk in Babylon called?” They: “Esagila.” He: “And the Babylonian tower?” They: “Etemenanki.” He: “To what goddess are the northern gates dedicated?” They: “Ishtar, the goddess Venus. And the Sun is personified by Shamash, the Moon by Sin. Mars is Nergal. The scoundrel Babylonians see Ninurt in Saturn, Nabu in Mercury, and Marduk himself is identified with Jupiter. By the way, the seven-day week comes from these seven astral gods. Did you know that?” He: “I ask the questions here. The illegitimate daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, second letter b, seven letters.” They: “What kind of fools do you take us for? Abigail!”

Before Peter, Sabina was our chief. She, on the contrary, believed everyone. And didn’t ask questions from the omniscient book. And never used her stamp Prioritätsfall. So she was fired. But Peter lets nearly everyone have it. On the first page of their file. This means an expedited review of the case in view of its obvious rejection. Here the GS signs the transcript, says goodbye, smiles ingratiatingly at the master of fates, at the interpreter, and at the guard with the halberd who has come for him, and hopes that now everything will be all right, but as soon as the door closes, Peter stamps it.

This paycheck was not for Sabina. When the interpreter used to go to the café across the street with her during break, she would complain that when she got home from work and sat down to eat, she would see the woman who had wept at the interview that afternoon telling her how they had pulled out her son’s nails while this same little nail-less boy was sitting next to her in the waiting room. Children are questioned separately from their parents.

“You can’t take pity on anyone here,” Sabina said once. “But I take pity on them all. You just have to know how to detach, be a robot, question-answer, question-answer, fill out the form, sign the transcript, send it to Bern. Let them decide there. No, I have to find another job.”

Sabina was very young to be our chief. After she was fired, she left for the opposite end of the empire and sent the interpreter a bizarre postcard. But none of that matters. Maybe I’ll explain later someday. Or not.

I think we’ve been sidetracked, my good Nebuchadnezzasaurus.

What else makes our empire glorious? Just imagine, we have submarines, and deserts, and even a dracula — not a vampire, the real thing. Basically everything here is the real thing.

What else? The wound in the grass scabbed over — darker.

Oh yes, I forgot to say that cannibalism has not gone out of style here. Moreover, people are consumed not just by anyone but by the autocrat personally — I don’t know if it’s a he or she, I haven’t checked the court calendar in a long time, and after all, gender is all a matter of dialect. In short, there’s just one Herod the Great, but if you don’t think about it all the time, then you could burst into song for sheer joy. At the streetcar stop by the train station today, someone got out, whistling.

It’s funny. Years from now you’ll receive this letter and may not even remember that there was once an emperor of this marvelously pin-studded empire.


Notepad, pen, glass of water. Sun outside. The water in the glass lets a sunbeam in — not just a little sunbeam but a big fat one. It spills over the ceiling and suddenly, for a second, looks like an ear. Also an embryo. The door opens. They bring the next one in.

Question Briefly describe the reasons why you are requesting asylum.

Answer I used to work in customs on the Kazakhstan border. Soldiers would bring in drugs in their vehicles, and my superior was in cahoots with them. We were supposed to look the other way and write them up properly. I wrote a letter to the FSB. A few days later a truck ran over my daughter on the street. They called me and said this was my first warning.

Question Briefly describe the reasons why you are requesting asylum.

Answer I actively supported the opposition candidate in the gubernatorial elections and took part in protest rallies and collected signatures. I was called into the police, and they demanded that I stop coming out with revelations against the provincial leadership. I was beaten up several times by plainclothes police. Attached to my application for asylum I have medical certificates about my broken jaw and arm and other consequences of the beatings. Now, as you see, I’m disabled and can’t work. My wife, who came with me, has stomach cancer.

Question Briefly describe the reasons why you are requesting asylum.

Answer I have AIDS. Everyone in town shunned me. Even my wife and children. I got infected when I was in the hospital, during a blood transfusion. I have nothing now: no job, no friends, no home. I’m going to die soon. This is what I decided. If I’m going to croak anyway, why not do it here, with you, in humane conditions? After all, you’re not going to kick me out.

Question Briefly describe the reasons why you are requesting asylum.

Answer There was a voivode by the name of Dracula in the Orthodox land of Wallachia. One day, the Turkish pasha sent envoys to him, and they demanded that he reject his Orthodox faith and submit to him. While speaking with the voivode, the envoys failed to remove their hats, and when asked why they were insulting the great sovereign in this way, they replied: “Such is the custom of our land, sovereign.” Then Dracula ordered his servants to nail the caps to the envoys’ heads and sent their bodies back, ordering that the pasha be told that God is one, but customs vary. The enraged pasha came to the Orthodox land with an enormous army and began plundering and killing. The Voivode Dracula assembled his entire modest host and attacked the Muslims one night, killed many of them, and fled. In the morning, he organized a review of his surviving soldiers. Anyone wounded in the front had great honor bestowed upon him and the title of knight. Anyone wounded in the back was ordered impaled, as he said, “You are a wife, not a husband.” Learning this, the pasha pulled the remnants of his army back, not daring anymore to attack this land. So the Voivode Dracula went on to live on his possessions, and at that time there were many poor, destitute, sick, and feeble people in the Wallachian land. Seeing how many unfortunate people were suffering in his land, he ordered them all to come see him. A multitude without number — unfortunates, cripples, and orphans, hoping for great mercy from him — gathered, and they each began telling him of their misfortunes and pains: one about a lost leg, another about an eye poked out; one about a dead son, another about an unfair trial and an innocent brother thrown in prison. Great was the lamentation, and a wail hung over the entire Wallachian land. Then Dracula ordered them all assembled in a single edifice, built for the occasion, and ordered that they be given fine comestibles and plenty of drink. They ate, drank, and made merry. Then he came to them and asked, “What else do you want?” They all replied, “Only God knows, and you, great sovereign! Do with us as God instructs!” Then he told them, “Do you want me to make you without sorrow in this world, so that you want for nothing, so that you do not bemoan your lost leg or poked-out eye, your dead son or unfair trial?” They were hoping for some miracle from him, and they all answered, “We do, sovereign!” Then he ordered the building locked, surrounded with straw, and set on fire. And the fire was great, and all in it burned.


My good Nebuchadnezzasaurus!

I checked my mailbox. Nothing from you.

—Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz

  1. A person who has filed for asylum. (Ger.)  

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