Elsa quickly got to her feet. She was aware of a murmur, exclamations of panic spreading through the cabin in response to her having broken the glass container. The Agha shouted: “Quick, a cloth and a clean bottle.” The others ran to get these things, leaving the door to the room open in the process. The same door through which Elsa planned to escape. In the darkness she could make out a flickering glow on the pieces of glass. Was the polar night that had finally begun going to be over so soon? It has begun, Elsa remembered. “It has begun”, said The Agha without moving from her position on the floor, beside the broken vessel. Was she reading Elsa’s mind or remembering, as she was, actual lines from the diary of Lev Smidovych? Had The Agha also read those tattered pages or was she repeating what little Elsa had revealed?
Is this darkness a subtraction of light, or the removal of day? Elsa took a few steps towards the wall. The Agha was still crouching on the floor waiting for the others to come back: for the first time something was preoccupying her more than Elsa and what she might reveal to them.
How did Lev Smidovych measure time?
The darkness was no longer so complete. The polar night was ending. Could it have been so short? Or had Elsa spent longer in that cabin than she realised? How did Lev Smidovych measure time? Elsa couldn’t remember if she had read references to the measurement of time in any of the 317 handwritten pages which she had finished scanning the previous afternoon in the National Library. The previous afternoon? How many hours had the night Elsa slept in that cabin been? Was it still that same night? Or another night now? How many nights? All the nights.
A woman, perhaps the woman with the orange, who was now no longer carrying the fruit, came running in and squatted down beside The Agha and the broken glass. They both began to sway, as if they were praying and the shared utterance of the prayer carried them forwards and back, in a subtle, scarcely perceptible rhythm. Elsa couldn’t yet decipher what they were doing. But since it was clear that neither of them was concerned with her, she took this opportunity to edge away, towards the wall. Taking a few steps, she sensed that her knee was wet and feared that she must have cut herself on a piece of glass when she fell and broke the glass vessel. Elsa couldn’t see the part of her leg that felt damp; the reflection on the glass from light filtering through the half-open door wasn’t enough to illuminate it. Reaching her hand to touch what she suspected must be a wound, she simply found the material of her trouser leg, untorn. Then she raised her damp hand to her nose: there was no smell of blood. She put her fingers on her mouth. Opened her lips and touched the tip of her tongue to her fingers: the liquid had no taste. It must be water. So the glass container she had just broken had contained water. Perhaps it was the same container she had seen on entering the cabin, beside the food, the plates, the cutlery, the stove, the steaming soup. Who, then, had taken it to the room where she had spent the night? Why had they left it beside her bed?
I had run out of drinking water several days ago. Whenever I run out of water, my mood turns sour.
She made an effort to see in the darkness. It looked as though the woman was wiping a cloth over the floor then squeezing it into the mouth of the bottle The Agha held, trying to recover the spilt water. She started crying, if that high moan Elsa heard could be described as a cry. The woman who had previously held an orange embraced her - not to console her, it seemed, but to muffle her whimpering, as though even she could not bear it.
The Agha was crying. Once outside the cabin, she ran without looking back
She shouted towards the door, summoning the others. Before they appeared, Elsa slid, back against the wall, in the direction of the door. And she went out of it. She heard the steps of people running towards the room where The Agha was crying. Once outside the cabin, she ran without looking back.
The loneliness. The lack of drinking water. It has begun.
Back in the clearing at the edge of the forest, Elsa got onto her bike and started pedalling. She felt short of breath but put this down to fear, not noticing that the road was also climbing and that demanded a greater effort. She could feel stones on the road, potholes, grooves left in the ground by the last rainfall. Only when she had put a safe distance between herself and the cabin did Elsa release that she wasn’t riding over asphalt, and if she wasn’t on asphalt that was because instead of going towards the city she was heading again for the woods. Her woods. Looking up she clearly saw a light shining through the tree tops. If something had started, as Lev Smidovych had predicted, it wasn’t the polar night. It was another beginning, an awakening, perhaps.
Alone, in the middle of the wood, pedalling her bicycle, Elsa tried to recall other paragraphs from the diaries that might help her find the key to what was coming. She knew this was her last chance. She knew that she was at a point of no return. She had no doubt that if she returned home, to her previous life, to her work at the National Library, she would be seized. Or killed. By the government, by the Ultras or by The Agha’s followers. Who were the good people and who the villains in the new world? In that cabin where she had spent a night, or several nights, or all the nights, they had spoken to her of “allies”. They had told Elsa that she was an ally. But how could she know that the people who claimed this relationship were in fact the ones she could trust? She felt absolutely alone. And she was certain that Lev Smidovych had also felt like that on the day that he wrote the last word, on the last page of the diary she had copied. She closed her eyes, still pedalling, and told herself that she was Lev Smidovych. I am Lev. Everything he knew was within her. If Elsa still had any unanswered questions it was because she was looking in the wrong places. It wasn’t the polar night. The Mathematics. The equations. Not even Alejo Carpentier, or the marks on the edges of the pages, or the hidden winks, or the secrets. None of that, Lev Smidovych had written those 317 pages to transmit some knowledge, so that anyone who followed him would know what to do if the world once again broke into a thousand pieces. So his message must have been as clear, as transparent as possible.
Elsa passed the place that marked the halfway point through the wood, a carved stone in a clearing. She had stopped in front of it, got off her bicycle and read: After this point the path loops back. Remember that the lakes are prohibited areas. The light emanating from the edge of the wood was growing stronger. Elsa supposed that it was light reflecting off the areas of water that were out of bounds.
She thought of her mother again and of that time she had told Elsa that she knew how to swim and that it used to be possible to swim in the lakes. Elsa intuited what “swimming” meant, although she couldn’t be certain because this was an action she had never attempted. Or perhaps she had. You swam, Elsa, of course you swam, when you were in my belly, in the amniotic fluid. If one day you have to swim, don’t be scared; fear is a heavy weight that pulls you down. Just let yourself float in the water and trust in that, in that you know how to do it because you have done it before, when you knew nothing, when you were nothing. You swam Elsa, if you have to do it again, you will.
What difference was there between the water in the lakes and in the bottle that Lev Smidovych went to get from the pharmacy?
Since the Catastrophe, thirty years ago, nobody had ever submerged themselves in the water of a lake, of a river. Swimming pools had been empty pits since then. Too many deaths. But what did that water have to do with the deaths? Elsa tried to remember some reference in the pages Lev had written. At school, she had been taught since she was little that the Catastrophe began with a generalised thirst. Nobody she knew dared to go about their lives without a bottle of drinking water to hand. That was how Lev’s text had begun. The city was empty. No birds even. It was like they’d been poisoned. Or scared off. But what could scare birds in a big city? Maybe large groups of people. Or their absence. What was it that had frightened Lev and driven him into the streets of an empty city? Water or thirst? The horror of feeling thirsty in a world where there isn’t enough water for everyone. That was why, after the Catastrophe, everyone had their bottle, their flask, a bucket or a bathtub full of water, a glass container like the one Elsa had broken in the cabin. Scarce water, prohibited water, water that presaged the Catastrophe. Thirst. Lev Smidovych running through the empty city looking for his bottle. Elsa’s mother giving her the confidence to believe that, if she ever needed to swim, one day, in whatever circumstances, she would know how to do it. The strange characters in the cabin where she spent the night, maddened by the spilt water after Elsa broke the glass container. The carved stone in the middle of the wood reminding visitors that the lakes were still off-limits, a forbidden zone. Why? What was in that water? What difference was there between the water in the lakes and in the bottle that Lev Smidovych went to get from the pharmacy?
The tops of the trees were now not so high. She cycled on, with difficulty. Her back wheel was definitely punctured. Elsa didn’t care. She was increasingly sure that the light she could see was the reflection of some other light on the surface of a body of water. Lifting her gaze from the handlebars, at last she saw the lake. A stretch of water that started at the edge of the wood and extended endlessly into the distance. Into the prohibited zone. The lake was so immense that Elsa couldn’t see its furtherest shore. Between the wood and the lake a barbed-wire fence had been erected as a deterrent. Elsa got off her bike and threw it to one side. The sight of this great expanse of water moved her. Slowly, fearfully, she took a few steps towards it. For a moment she forgot about the barbed-wire fence, as though she hadn’t seen it, as though it were not even there. And she wondered if what she was about to experience might perhaps not be happiness.
It has begun.
And what if, this time round, it were not a catastrophe but hope, a new dawn, a better world that some wish not to share?
Perhaps Lev Smidovych’s diaries were not a manual for facing the Catastrophe, but for placing the world in a new equilibrium.
A siren began to sound in the distance, breaking the silence of the wood and calm waters. The noise of an engine was coming closer. It could be a helicopter. Perhaps a drone. Elsa realised that there was no more time, that she must make a decision. Two beams of blue light swept across the wood from one to side to the other, searching her out. Elsa made a decision and climbed over the barbed wire fence. This time it was her own blood she could smell, but she didn’t care. She ran to the edge of the lake and plunged in. Arms stretched out to the side, she let herself sink. Still under water, she opened her eyes, surrounded by the bubbles made by her own body’s entrance into the water. And then she began to swim, just as her mother had said she would.