The Kingdom of the Dead

We had to get away from the Moldovans: one morning I looked out of our cave and saw one of them standing on a rock and playing his drimba, or mouth harp, wearing nothing but a bandanna and a plaid shirt, his penis flapping in time with his twanging.

For post-Soviet people, Crimea was a gigantic madeleine.

Photograph by Sophie Pinkham.

The following is an excerpt from Sophie Pinkham’s new book Black Square, out today from W. W. Norton and available for purchase at the n+1 Bookstore. Sophie will read from Black Square and discuss it with n+1 founding editor Keith Gessen on November 16.

Ever since we’d met, Kotik the golden-haired guitarist had been telling me about the Crimean cape of Meganom. Once a Soviet military base, Meganom had remained undeveloped, without houses, resorts, public beaches, or roads, unlike the rest of Crimea, which was packed with tourists. Kotik was a hippie at heart, and Meganom was his imaginative home, the dream of paradise around which he organized his existence.

In 2010, in the pounding heat of the Kiev summer, we gathered our supplies. Kotik bought a plastic bottle full of cold draft beer just before the train pulled off, and we alternated between drinking it and pressing the bottle against our skin. Everyone on the train was sweaty, smiling, and nearly naked, the compartments were crammed with beach toys and equipment, and half the passengers were children dizzy with excitement about their holiday. Through the windows, the golden summer light melted the edges of Ukraine’s extravagant summer greenery.

Just after dawn, our train crossed a thread of land into the small southern peninsula of Kherson oblast. In the morning mist, the narrow green strip of wetland looked like it could disappear at any moment, a figment of the tide’s imagination. To reach Crimea, the train crossed a bridge; the only place where Crimea is connected to Ukraine by land is at the isthmus of Perekop, at the northwestern part of the peninsula. On a map, the area between Crimea and Ukraine looks almost like lace, an intricate pattern of lakes, bays, capes, inlets, islands, and isthmuses. This is the Sivash, also known as the “Rotten Sea,” a system of shallow, salty lagoons. It is only nine feet deep and has an unpleasant sulfur smell, noticeable even from the train.

Crimea’s flat central steppes swell with kurgans, the burial mounds of the ancient Scythians, a group of Iranian nomads who were accomplished archers and one of the first peoples to master mounted warfare. The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam referred to these burial mounds in a 1916 poem:

Not believing in the miracle of resurrection,
We strolled in the cemetery.
—You know, the earth everywhere
reminds me of those hills
where Russia suddenly comes to an end
above the deaf black sea.

The ghosts of the Scythians mingle with those of the Cimmerians, Sarmatians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Goths, Alans, Bulgars, Huns, Byzantines, Genoese, Ottomans, Khazars, Kipchaks, and Tatars. The Crimean Tatar khans sleep in the sunlit cemetery of their sixteenth-century palace in Bakhchisarai, their short, narrow sarcophagi topped with stone turbans and Arabic inscriptions, reminders of the time when the Ottomans ruled Crimea. Flowers are sculpted in the stone and sprout from the earth that has collected on top of the graves. The cemetery is the warmest part of the palace, which is mostly drafty and dim, restored with cheap paint and synthetic fabrics.

In the mountains three kilometers to the east, the ghosts of the Crimean Karaites—Jews who did not accept the Talmud—haunt the ruined “Jewish Fortress,” a medieval structure that was inhabited, for a time, by Karaite and Krymchak Jews. The Karaites sometimes claimed that they had been brought there from Persia at the time of the first Exile. Only a few buildings in the Jewish Fortress have survived intact; most have been reduced to caves whose openings form dark frames for views of green valleys in the distance.

The most ancient ghosts in Crimea belong to Homer. The Cimmerians are described in the Odyssey as people who live “beyond the Ocean River’s bounds,” in a realm “shrouded by mist and cloud”:

The eye of the Sun can never
Flash his rays through the dark and bring them light,
Not when he climbs the starry skies or when he wheels
Back down from the heights to touch the earth once more—
An endless, deadly night overhangs those wretched men.

Following the unconfirmed claims of Herodotus, who claimed that the Cimmerians lived north of the Black Sea, people in Crimea will often tell you that Crimea is Homer’s Cimmeria. They use this as evidence of Crimea’s mythical qualities, its links to ancient civilization and the roots of Western literature. It doesn’t seem to bother them that their sunny paradise was known as the dark entrance to the “joyless kingdom of the dead.” Crimea, land of ghosts, is the place where Odysseus goes, on Circe’s command, to consult with the shade of the blind seer Tiresias. In order to speak to Tiresias, Odysseus has to summon all the ghosts of the dead:

Brides and unwed youths and old men who had suffered much
and girls with their tender hearts freshly scarred by sorrow
and great armies of battle dead, stabbed by bronze spears,
men of war still wrapped in bloody armor—thousands
swarming around the trench from every side

In 1944 the Russian-British journalist Alexander Werth visited Crimea, where he found a picture-postcard landscape defaced by war. The smell of flowers mingled with the stench of dead men and horses left to decay along the road. In Khersones, the old Greek settlement, German corpses floated in the sea around the lighthouse. On the beach, a skeleton still wore the remains of a telnyashka, the striped shirt of Black Sea sailors.

Kotik and I got off the train in Feodosia, which was founded by Greek colonists in the sixth century BC, destroyed by the Huns in the fourth century AD, and conquered by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. The Genoese soon bought the city, which was called Caffa, from the Mongols, making it one of the most important trade hubs on the Black Sea, and one of Europe’s largest slave markets. Caffa fell to the Ottomans in 1475, was recaptured by Zaporizhian Cossacks in 1615, and became part of the Russian Empire with the 1783 annexation of Crimea by Catherine the Great’s lover, Prince Potemkin. Catherine renamed it Feodosia, as part of her “Greek Project,” through which she hoped to collaborate with the Austro-Hungarian Empire to partition the Ottoman Empire and restore the dominance of Orthodox Christianity in Crimea and its environs.

In 1787, just before the beginning of yet another war with the Ottomans, Potemkin, now “Prince of Tauris,” organized a six-month trip through Crimea. Traveling down the Dnieper River with an entourage of seven galleys, each with its own orchestra, and eighty ships built to look like Roman galleons, Catherine toured through the recently conquered lands of southern Ukraine, which had been renamed Novorossiya, “New Russia.” Catherine, her foreign guests, and her court were treated to an elaborate “spectacle of happiness.” Peasants, Cossacks, and townspeople greeted her from villages decked in flowers. There were elaborate fireworks, and there was even a reception by the “Amazons” of the Greek Battalion of Balaklava, one hundred soldiers’ wives on horseback, armed and in brightly colored costumes.

Kotik and I went straight into the Black Sea, which was just a few yards from the train station. After our swim, we headed for the center of town, where he bought me a copy of Crimson Sails, a novella by the early-twentieth-century Russian writer Aleksandr Grin. Though Grin was a social revolutionary, Crimson Sails is a romantic half-fairy tale about a beautiful girl who dreams of being rescued from her poverty by a prince who will arrive in a ship with crimson sails. Grin spent some of his last years in Feodosia, which, like his writing, seems to exist outside time.

After buying supplies—buckwheat, canned goods, kerosene for the camping stove—we took a marshrutka, a taxi-bus, to Solnechnaya Dolina, “Sunny Valley.” At a crossroads, we saw a man in his sixties sitting in a broken wooden chair, his shirt open and his red belly on display. His eyes were rheumy, his chin and jowls heavy and covered in large moles, but his backdrop was exquisite: a white wall beneath a canopy of dark green trees that burst from the gray cliff above. He held a cardboard sign advertising rooms for rent, and told us that he was the one who’d built the mansion that sat high on the cliff above us. It looked almost like a church; he said it had a swimming pool, a tennis court, and a garage for twenty cars. Like many Crimeans, he made most of his money during the tourist season. All over the peninsula, dusty roads were lined with women in summer dresses holding signs advertising apartments for rent.

We walked for hours down rocky roads and through prickly fields given color by Queen Anne’s lace, purple loosestrife, and yellow mustard. We passed grazing chestnut cows and dim, half-built concrete structures in the copper-colored fields. The buildings looked like grim playhouses, not big enough to live in.

These were the houses of the returned Tatars. During the Crimean War, the Tatars, Turkic Muslims whose ancestors had pillaged Russian and Ukrainian land, were considered potential collaborators with the Turks, and the Russians removed them from Crimea’s southern shore. Tatar communities were raided, and many Tatars were arrested. Thousands of Crimean Tatars fled to the Ottoman Empire.

During the Second World War, some Crimean Tatars collaborated with the Nazis. Stalin found this sufficient reason to round up all the Crimean Tatars and deport them to Uzbekistan; a large proportion died during the trip. The Uzbeks were kind to the newcomers, and the Ferghana Valley boasted a fertile, mild climate. Nevertheless, the Crimean Tatars rejected Uzbekistan as a permanent home. In exile they crafted a collective narrative of expulsion from their homeland, Crimea; the story took on a mythical quality, resembling the expulsion from Eden. The Tatars’ connection to Crimea became an essential part of their identity, and the constant retelling of the story of exile meant that even young people “remembered” the experience. Return to the homeland became the guiding desire of the exiled Crimean Tatars.

In 1967 the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet issued a decree that lifted the charges of treason that had been leveled against the entire Crimean Tatar population in 1944. Thousands of Crimean Tatars returned to Crimea, only to be denied permission to reside there; almost all of them were redeported. In 1989 the Crimean Tatars again returned to Crimea en masse, this time to stay for good. Their houses had been taken by Russians and Ukrainians, and there were no programs to return their land or property. Without formal assistance in repatriating, and with minimal financial resources of their own, the Crimean Tatars resorted to a strategy of extralegal land reclamation. They squatted in unoccupied apartments and houses, coming into conflict with the mafia or with others who claimed rights to the space.

The Tatars also built primitive settlements, many without running water or electricity, on empty plots of land. (Some of these plots, which were usually empty because they were undesirable, were given to the Tatars by the government.) This seizure of real estate was accompanied by highly emotional performances and threats. When facing difficulties in trying to register as residents, Tatars screamed and cried until bureaucrats gave in. When the authorities or others tried to evict them from their land or property, the Tatars threatened self-immolation, the ultimate performance of their belief that a second exile from Crimea would be a fate worse than death. These threats were given weight by the 1978 self-immolation of Musa Mamut, a Crimean Tatar who had returned to Crimea and bought a house, only to be refused residency, sentenced to prison time, and threatened with deportation. As he lay in the hospital for five days before dying, he spoke about his self-immolation as an act of protest against the treatment of Crimean Tatars as a group.

Meanwhile, Russians and Ukrainians had their own story about the Crimean Tatars’ relationship to the Crimean peninsula. They called the Tatars “heathens,” “uncivilized” and “warlike,” evoking old stereotypes about the Turks. They argued that the Crimean Tatars did not deserve pity because they had been Nazi collaborators and because they had been exiled to a very pleasant place, much better than the desolate lands to which other exiles were sent.

It was getting dark when we reached the white lighthouse at the eastern end of Meganom. (In the Soviet Union, I later learned, the one perk of the lighthouse keeper’s lonely, boring job was access to large volumes of alcoholic chemicals.) We picked our way down a steep, pebble-strewn path to the seaside. It was dark, and we were too exhausted to walk any further looking for a campsite, so we slept in the first flat area we found. It was already occupied by some nerdy Moldovan hippies who were busy with their panpipes, but they were hospitable and agreed to lend us the cave next to their campsite.

It was an exquisite cave, spacious and clean, with the water lapping at one end. We enjoyed two days there, recovering from our journey. Eventually, though, we had to get away from the Moldovans: one morning I looked out of our cave and saw one of them standing on a rock and playing his drimba, or mouth harp, wearing nothing but a bandanna and a plaid shirt, his penis flapping in time with his twanging. Meganom was the redoubt of hippies from Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, and Belarus, and most of them were nudists, living a dream of primitive civilization, of freedom.

We relocated to a beach colonized by a group that Kotik had met on a previous trip. Like the Moldovans, they were hospitable and naked, but they were more our sort. The group centered around Olga and Sanya, a couple from the Russian city of Belgorod, on the northeastern border of Ukraine. Sanya, who was in his early thirties, was like a friendly lion, with sturdy limbs, a large, firm belly, and huge blond dreadlocks that fell halfway down his back. Olga, his girlfriend, was a few years younger, with a mermaid’s long wavy hair, round green eyes, and slender figure. With them were Max, a fast-talking Jewish fabulist from Moscow who made his living mostly as a truck driver, who’d done time in prison and had a scar that started at the right edge of his lips and extended to his jawbone; Aramis, an itinerant charmer from Belarus who had gotten his nickname because of his resemblance to an actor in the Soviet Three Musketeers; Dmitry, a dreadlocked construction worker who had been born in Kazakhstan but lived in Russia; and Botanik, a Belarusian computer programmer who was very handsome, but always drunk. I’m not sure why he was called Botanik, which means “botanist” in proper Russian and “nerd” in slang. Maybe because of his smoking habits, maybe because he worked with computers. (Other men’s nicknames were more menacing: “Psycho” and “The Fascist,” for example.) Botanik had once been a competitive swimmer, and his alcoholism and heavy smoking didn’t prevent him from swimming long distances around Meganom, often carrying bottles of beer or cigarettes. I once saw him emerge from the water after a long swim holding his new baby.

The etiology of Teepee Dima’s name was clear: he lived in a teepee on the beach. Tall, lean, and angelically beautiful, he had bright blond hair, innocent blue eyes, and piercings that dotted his face like pox. He supported his itinerant lifestyle by doing tattoos, and most of his lithe body was covered in blue shapes and lines. He was probably the most striking example of the Meganomian longing to return to some approximation of primitive life, drum circles, and sex under the stars, just far enough from the fire that you can’t be seen. The year we were there, he too had just had a baby, who was spending her first months of life in the water. But he would soon abandon his daughter; he wasn’t the sort of person who maintained close ties. He was famous for having thrown away his passport, shocking even his hippiest friends. In ultrabureaucratic post-Soviet space, throwing away your passport was an act of self-erasure that could doom you to near nonpersonhood for months or years. In Dnipropetrovsk, I’d heard about a legendary drug user who lived without a passport for seven years; he was something like a unicorn.

One day I saw Aramis bobbing on an air mattress, a precious commodity, paddling into deeper water. He retrieved a plastic bottle of grain alcohol, which he’d tied to a rock to keep it cold. When he paddled back, he told me the story of his life, as we watched black crabs scrambling in a tide pool. His mother had worked on a commercial fishing boat and would leave him and his half-brother at the Magadan internat, the state-sponsored boarding school, for the duration of the fishing season.

I made sounds of commiseration.

“No, it was exciting there! It was fun,” Aramis said, with his high-pitched, nervous laugh. “You arrived, and then you left. I couldn’t sit in the same place for more than half an hour, though, so we ran away a lot—usually for two or three days.”

In order to avoid army service, he’d decided to fake insanity. He went to the psychiatric hospital and sang songs. The head doctor told him she knew he wasn’t crazy, but that she’d give him the diagnosis if he wanted. In the end, he was rejected by the army because of his flat feet.

Sanya and Olga, the den parents, were high-functioning, responsible hippies. They spent every summer on Meganom, arriving in June and staying till August, when Olga had to return to her job as a teacher. (She was also writing a dissertation on the poet Marina Tsvetaeva.) They brought with them everything they needed to live in something close to the comfort of home. They built an entire kitchen, with a tarp roof, benches made from carefully piled rocks, a stone pantry that hid food from the sun, and a stove, with the standard white pots with blue or purple flowers painted on their sides. There were even little wooden shelves hanging from bits of string. Their tent was like a sheikh’s, lined with colorful cushions and blankets, and with so many mats on the floor that you hardly knew you were sleeping on a bed of stones. There was even a kind of front hall, also lined with cushions, where you could remove your shoes before entering.

I had obeyed Kotik’s instructions to bring as little with me as possible, so I was very envious of Olga’s large collection of jewelry and her elaborate wardrobe, which she kept folded in neat piles in her tent. Through diligent secondhand shopping in Belgorod, she had managed to assemble a large collection of Indian tunics and light cotton harem pants. Olga was always chic, always kind and friendly, and she was an outstanding cook and housekeeper, maintaining order and cleanliness in the camp. I ate much better on Meganom, without a refrigerator and with only a kerosene stove, than I had in Kiev, where I had lived mainly on salad, yogurt, and frozen dumplings. But even Olga’s skill couldn’t make fruit keep in the heat. Sometimes we sat and fantasized about ice water, cold beer, fried chebureki (large dumplings), and fresh fruit. I became especially obsessed with nectarines and would buy a bag of them every time we went to the market in nearby Sudak. Olga and Sanya, whose summers were possible only if they counted every penny and who obsessed over tiny differences in the price per kilo of tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers, considered nectarines an insane luxury.

This was only one of many signs that I was an outsider, an improvident alien with no practical skills. Not knowing how to cook or peel potatoes with a knife or build a fire, not being strong enough to carry six liters of water along a precarious mountain slope from the spring, had never been a problem for me in the past; I was a respectable, educated person. But now I was absolutely dependent on Olga, Sanya, Kotik, and the others. I had never been so acutely aware of my lack of the basic skills that have allowed people to keep themselves alive for millennia. I met a six-year-old who could make borscht; her twelve-year-old brother could dive for mussels. Neither could read—but what good was reading when you were hungry for dinner? The children reminded me of deer, slim and agile, with caramel limbs and sun-bleached hair. They almost never cried, probably because no one would have listened. If they did, they would do it in private, going off into some rocky corner, covering their faces and weeping silently, returning to the group when they were finished.

I had two sources of capital on Meganom, apart from my vulgar cash, which seemed to make everyone uncomfortable. The first was my foreignness. I was the first American nearly anyone there had met, and certainly the first American anyone could remember on Meganom. Crimea was one of the Soviet Union’s most popular vacation destinations. Young Pioneers went to Crimean summer camps, and the sick went to Crimean sanitariums. Political leaders had summer homes there. But when the borders opened, more affluent post-Soviet people started going abroad for vacation—to France, Spain, or Italy, or on packaged tours to Montenegro or Egypt.

It was people with less disposable income who continued going to Crimea for the summer. The family-oriented resorts were so packed with fat grandmothers, screaming children, and harried parents that you could hardly see the stones on the beach. The youth-oriented beaches, like Lisya Bukhta, a place often shuddered about on Meganom, were strewn with campers who were alternately rowdy and half-dead—sometimes completely dead—from alcohol and sunstroke. (“Cyclops was from Lisya Bukhta!” Botanik once announced.) Meganom was full of hippies, people who didn’t like crowds or society or the city, which they called “Babylon,” Rasta style. All three categories of Crimean vacationers were less rich and less cosmopolitan than the urban professionals who left Russia, Ukraine, or Belarus for vacation by plane. They were less likely to speak foreign languages or to have consorted with foreigners. It followed, therefore, that on Meganom I was an interesting novelty, and that people enjoyed asking me questions.

Botanik once tried to convince me that New York had nothing that Minsk didn’t have.

“What about Harlem?” I asked.

“Who wants Harlem, anyway?” he shouted. But for the most part, the conversations were friendly.

My other advantage, probably more important, was my association with Kotik, who could offer music, the most precious currency aside from food. Meganom was littered with African drums and cheap guitars. Rarely did a night pass without someone forming a drum circle, that exasperating requirement of hippiedom. But as at most hippie encampments, the number of instruments far exceeded the number of people who were able to play them. Kotik was a professional guitarist and drummer with a prodigious memory and a large repertoire. He was a kind of bard, able to play long story-songs for hours on end; when he was tired of playing, he had a large store of anecdotes and jokes. He was also bossy, cutting off the bad guitarists and leading the drummers, teaching them rhythms and drawing their attention to their mistakes. To his store of songs I was able to add some American classics, which I could sing with an exotic American accent. I had also learned a very long Gulag story-song about an Odessa gangster who has his enemy killed. It was full of arcane criminal slang; everyone cracked up when they heard me sing it in my accented Russian.

Over the previous months, Kotik had tutored me in his favorite parts of Russian and Soviet culture. He loved to delight me with the cartoons and movies and songs that every single person in the Soviet Union grew up knowing; it was a pleasure for him to read Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin aloud to someone who had never heard of them, explaining all the unfamiliar words. Like teaching a child, it reminded him of the joy of first discovery.

In Kiev, Kotik had taught me classic Russian 1980s songs—Kino and Zhanna Aguzarova—that everyone knew. Sitting on a mossy rock over the sea one day on Meganom, he taught me the girl’s portion of a sweet duet from a 1970s Soviet children’s movie about going to space. The girl describes lilacs blossoming in winter, stars falling together through the sky, and the boy tells her, every time, “Of course I believe you—I saw it all myself.” Everyone on Meganom knew the tune and loved it.

It was on Meganom that I was introduced to Russian Rastafarianism and the bizarre spectacle of Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians singing songs, in Russian, about Jah and the longing for Africa. But Meganom was also permeated with nostalgia for Soviet culture. This was especially noticeable in the realm of music. The body of culture in the Soviet Union, a partly closed society, was smaller and more homogeneous than most cultures can be today. That means that Soviet songs were still more likely to be the ones that everyone knew, that people sang together in kitchens or around the campfire.

When Kotik rewrote the schmaltzy 1950s classic “Moscow Nights” as “Meganom Nights,” the song was a big hit, and everyone sang happily along with the new lyrics:

On the shore you can’t hear even a murmur,
Here everything has died down till morning.
If only you knew how precious
These Meganom nights are to me.

This song, which was traditionally performed with an orchestral accompaniment, was the kind of pop culture despised by the post-Soviet intelligentsia and the “creative class,” and beloved of almost everyone else. Corny though it was, it embodied much of what people still remembered fondly about Soviet culture: an inoffensive, literate gentleness, an appreciation of relationships and nature over material goods. For all their globalized countercultural trappings—the dreadlocks, the reggae, the African colors, the tribal tattoos—the people on Meganom seemed to be retrieving the Soviet past, the friendship of peoples. Here there was nothing to buy or sell except the simplest foods, and money was hardly exchanged; people relied on their abilities to cook and build and gather and tell stories or play music or make friends, rather than on more sophisticated forms of capital. Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Moldovans lived together in peace, all speaking Russian. Crimea was the ideal site for this post-Soviet reunion, since it was the place where so many children, now adults, had spent their happy summer vacations, flocking there from all over the Soviet Union. For post-Soviet people, Crimea was a gigantic madeleine.

Mandelstam wrote about Meganom in a 1917 poem that refers to the Odyssey:

The veil-gray spring of asphodels
is still far off.
In the meantime, the sand still whispers,
the waves boil.
But here, like Persephone, my soul
has begun to circle round,
and the kingdom of the dead can hold
no charming, sun-tanned hands.

Why then do we entrust
the urn’s grave weight to a boat,
and celebrate black roses
on amethyst water?
My soul strains forward,
past foggy Meganom,
and after the funeral, the black sail
will return from that same cape.

How swiftly the clouds skim over
the unillumined ridge,
and the tufted black roses
flutter beneath the moon’s wind.
The bird of grief and death,
the enormous flag of memory
drags itself along, edged in mourning,
behind the cypress stern.

In the daytime, I liked to put on a snorkeling mask and float, corpselike, in the quiet depths, watching the light flashing on the stones and on schools of fish. Other times we would sit in the shallow water and eat watermelon, if we had it, or examine the stones on the beach. When wet, they looked like abstract expressionist canvases, with irregular stripes and splashes of red, yellow, and white against a gray background, but when they were dry, they became dull and unbeautiful. The boulders that scattered the beach were dotted with thousands of smaller stones, crushed into them by time and water.

Max had brought a green army net that was made to look like seaweed, and we used branches and rocks to make it into a canopy covering one end of our beach. This was named the Watermelon. It became a kind of living room, a place where everyone would lie on their mats and read, chat, drink tea, and eat endless amounts of kasha. After a few nights Kotik and I started sleeping there, too, because it was stuffy in the tent and breezy on the beach, where the air was exactly body temperature and we could watch the stars, the waves rustling at our feet. Sometimes we slipped into the water, illuminated by the milky spill of stars in the clear night sky; as we swam, we left another trail of stars behind us, plankton that lit up with our movement and then was extinguished for the night.

I went back to Crimea with Olga and Sanya that winter, just after New Year’s. All three of us slept in one bed in some old lady’s spare flat, for about seven dollars a night. When we went to visit Meganom, we saw that the shops and cafés at its outer border were gone—they had been portable. Only a few fences and faded signs reminded us that hundreds of people had been there just a few months earlier, drinking beer and eating greasy chebureki. The sea was deep blue and calm, no longer required to perform. The audience was gone, the sets dismantled. The Hollywood sign that someone had put in the hills looked even more absurd than usual.

Meganom’s outer hills were brown and bare, so worn down by time that they looked like rumpled blankets. On the beach we saw little branches covered in icicles, like translucent fir trees. As we hiked out onto the deserted cape, we saw the traces of a vanished civilization: colored threads tied to naked tree branches, a circle of logs surrounding an ashy ring. Boulders had fallen onto our encampment, ruining all of Sanya’s hard work, but we could still see the ring of stones that had made a sort of lagoon where the children had liked to swim, and the larger rock that we’d used for diving. Sanya and Olga would go back there the next summer, clear the beach, and build their civilization again.

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