SPRING IN YEKATERINBURG
“You think he’ll be alright?” Doctor Koltsova asked. Her question was addressed to everyone, including herself.
Engineer Wiśniewski was sitting in a chair. His legs spread wide, his elbows propped up on his knees, his hands moving between rubbing his chin and his whole face. He was thinking about the echo of his footsteps when he had walked down empty corridors of Jagiellonian University in Krakow during class time not that long ago, and he had looked forward to his return to Tarakanovsk. He could easily go back to teaching later, but there was something here he couldn’t refuse. Ever since his arrival he couldn’t sleep from excitement, and he signed on to as many projects as possible. He didn’t hesitate to accept a certain unofficial cooperation either. It all seemed incredibly fascinating. He devoured every discussion, meeting, his colleagues’ suggestions, as well as detailed plans for the upcoming years. After some time, Dr. Koltsova, the head of the minus twenty-second floor, took him aside and asked him to participate in the project The Depth and the Past. While listening to her, he salivated. As if she had been telling him an irresistible recipe for borsch made by her grandmother from Krasnoyarsk. Naturally, he accepted. He had to undergo more vetting, since this section required a higher clearance.
“I wouldn’t be alright,” Wiśniewski said, finally breaking the silence when no one else in the room spoke up.
Koltsova kept nodding in agreement, her eyes glued to the ground. She didn’t blink at all, and her head must have been bobbing for several minutes.
“What happened? Do you think he lost it, or is there some other explanation?” asked Zagrebtsov, an officer of the Russian Army who was one of the members of the crew, as they liked to refer to themselves down here.
Everyone was silent and staring off into space. Wiśniewski paced the room and Koltsova dug her nails into her hand. No noise reached the underground facility, only a fan hummed quietly somewhere in the corner of the ceiling.
“Step one: we have to wait for the DNA analysis.”
“Are you telling me you believe this?” Zagrebtsov said.
“Belief has nothing to do with it, I’m going to wait for the analysis. Science is exact,” she said, irritated. “Besides, we also need to wait for the psych evaluation. Which, if I may, is step two.”
Yuriy Zagrebtsov’s clenched fist thudded on the table in a slow rhythm.
“Buttler is a levelheaded and rational man, I’ve never known him to spout nonsense,” he said in his tenor.
“That’s precisely why the situation is serious. If it had been young Sanya here, I wouldn’t be concerned at all,” she said, motioning with her head toward the corner of the room where Alexei Isakov, a biologist who had come there straight out of college thanks to his excellent grades, stood. He didn’t dare object to what the doctor said; he just watched everyone’s faces to see if anyone was smirking.
“This may sound stupid, but shouldn’t we ask Prof. Buttler’s family to send us some pictures from his childhood?” Wiśniewski said timidly.
“For fuck’s sake!” Zagrebtsov thundered.
“Pascal,” Koltsova said to the team’s technician, Pascal Lefebre, “contact William’s parents, come up with some excuse, tell them we’re planning a party for him or something, and ask them for photos. If possible, get one for every year from birth until school age.”
Zagrebtsov put his elbows on the table and rested his head in his huge hands.
The door flung open, and in came Jacob Bowmeester, the station director, a Canadian, and his German second in command, Hanz Gerbauer.
“Sanya, get back to work,” the director ordered the young biologist, who obediently left the room.
Everyone else sat down at the table and Bowmeester asked Dr. Koltsova to clearly and succinctly explain to him, for Christ’s sake, what had happened.
“As I’m sure you know, we’ve been digging in the ice for some time now on the minus twenty-second floor. We’ve run across all sorts of things. To put it in perspective, a mammoth is child’s play by comparison. A few days ago we discovered a small oak coffin, varnished with what is likely beeswax and who knows what else. It had only superficial damage. Everyone knew that if there were something inside, it would be perfectly preserved even after all those years. Particularly in this frozen ground. We worked day and night to free the coffin from this time- and pressure-sealed mass of ice and dirt. This morning we carried the entire wooden crate to the laboratory, and using utmost care, we were able to get it open relatively quickly.”
“What was in it?” Bowmeester asked impatiently.
Koltsova sighed and rubbed her eyes.
“Don’t you think I was getting to that?”
The director raised his hands in a gesture of apology, and the doctor continued.
“It contained the body of a roughly four-year-old boy. That in itself is astounding, since we’re talking about a time frame of about twenty-four thousand years ago, as evidenced by carbon-14 dating of other finds from the same area, but then came Professor Buttler’s reaction, which… his reaction threw us for a loop. You’ve probably heard what happened.”
“All I know is that he was taken to the psychiatric hospital in Tarakanovsk, and that one of our doctors went with him to keep an eye on things.”
“First, Buttler hyperventilated, then, when it looked like he had calmed down, he started to shout nonsense.”
“What did he shout?” the director pressed on.
Koltsova looked at Engineer Wiśniewski.
“It looked like a panic attack,” Wiśniewski said, picking up where the doctor had left off. “He kept repeating: ‘That’s me! That’s me!’ Sanya threw a glass of water on him, but it didn’t make any difference. After a moment of hysteria, he collapsed and lost consciousness.”
“What do you make of this? What was he trying to say?” Bowmeester asked.
“It seemed as though he had recognized himself. Basically, he was convinced that he was seeing himself as a child.”
“Has he looked tired to you lately? Can you think back to any warning signs?”
“Not at all,” Koltsova said. “William was always energetic and in a good mood. Nothing suggested that he had tendencies toward hysteria. I’ve never heard him say anything irrational.”
“He could have been overworked,” the director said. “There’s nothing we can do but wait and see how the situation develops. He’s under observation, I’ll definitely send word down here if we get any new information.”
Everyone’s head turned toward the door as Pascal burst in.
“Professor Buttler’s daughter was online, and she immediately sent me a few photos. I told her we wanted them to celebrate her father’s discovery. She was pleased.”
Wiśniewski frowned at his colleague’s explanation. The doctor ripped the printed photos out of Pascal’s hand and spread them across the table. The people sitting on the other side walked around to get a better look.
After a few seconds they exchanged nervous glances. The resemblance between little Buttler and the archeological find was undeniable.
LUKÁŠ CABALA (b. 1986) is a Slovak writer whose debut novella, Satori v Trenčíne (Satori in Trenčín), was shortlisted for Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Anasoft Litera Award. His second novella, Jar v Jekaterinburgu (Spring in Yekaterinburg), was published by Artforum in 2021. He lives in Trenčín, where he manages the online used bookstore ČierneNaBielom.sk (Black on White) that he and his parents started in 2011.
About the translator:
MAGDALENA MULLEK is a literary translator and scholar. She holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Indiana University. Her translations, reviews, and articles have appeared in Asymptote, TWO LINES, B O D Y, Words Without Borders, and other journals. She is the translator of Pavol Rankov’s It Happened on the First of September (or Some Other Time) (Slavica Publishers, 2020) and two anthologies of Slovak literature. Her upcoming titles include Vanity Unfair by Zuzana Cigánová (Seagull Books, 2022) and On the Other Hand, a collection of short stories by Pavol Rankov (Terra Librorum, 2022). Magdalena lives with her husband and daughter in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.