Sometimes, when I’m charitable enough to forget her, I allow myself to think the photograph itself devoured them. You know the one. A staple of those unkillable email forwards of the nineties, it depicts a stretch of train track picturesquely overgrown with hedge, an arched cathedral vault of new spring foliage awaiting the absent train, light and color enhanced to hyperreality. Just past the frame, that hedge peters out between an abandoned salt refinery and the bar occupying the former station house where those few of my friends who remain, the young unemployed of Reza-Korova not yet fled to Volgograd or Sevastopol, not yet devoured, drink and wait. The photographer, whoever she was, whatever, framed it that way deliberately. Why shouldn’t she? The soft focus seems to sharpen with distance, and we’re shown a verdant passage to another world, irresistibly inviting.
A benign virus propagating through the embattled but persistent human appreciation for beauty (not so benign), that photograph has caused a tiny, steady influx of shallow dreamers to Reza-Korova, our industrial pseudo-ghost town in Eastern Ukraine. Most, perhaps, delete the email without looking. One in millions, wandering east bored by holidays in the Crimea, tries to discover the train route through that green tunnel to the imagined Eden, and finding none, undaunted, continues by bus or by freighter up the Volga. From our vantage on the graffitoed station platform before the bar opens at eleven a.m. on a Thursday, we see them coming along the road, fooling no one in their backpacks sewn with Canadian flags, sticking out like a liter of Tennessee whiskey among plastic vodka bottles heaped in the bin.
They stop in at the bar, disillusioned, disappointed, though not yet destroyed. The hedge has grown huge, the passage narrow. Branches claw at skin and clothes. Those intervals of holy light are to be seen now only when the branches are bare, the colors drab, rust the most vibrant among them. The tunnel more resembles what it is: a passage to nowhere, to the shadowlands.
“How do you like it?” one of us asks through the cigarette haze, sniggering — me. “Not the same as in the picture, is it? Still worth the trip?”
“Oh, yes,” they answer. “It’s still beautiful.” They go on about the Volga, the forests. Trying to convince themselves the journey was worth it, trying not to offend, when we and they know it wasn’t, they could have had these hills and trees and empty factories where they came from. Maybe they try to match us drinking: a mistake.
Except for Alyonushka. She was the shrewdest of them, the strangest. She wouldn’t let it go at that. “Nothing fulfills expectation. That’s not how expectation works or what it’s for. I’m a different person than I was when I first saw that image and wanted to come here. When I finally got the chance, it was for different reasons. Not escape. Or not the same kind of escape. I know what’s real now.”
Alyonushka was different. She was blonder, paler: a true Siberian beauty, though older than any of us, with pock scars on her cheeks that, so quietly stoic she seemed, after five or seven shots made me think they’d been etched there by boreal winds. No flag on her backpack. Not even a backpack, just a shoulder bag, enough for a change of clothes, makeup, a toothbrush, a netbook. Her shoes were low-ankled leather hiking boots, a Scandinavian brand, the sewn-in soles scuffed to ruin. Alyonushka was no tourist. I never knew what she was.
Over drink, my friends and I had on occasion talked idly of searching out an abandoned freight car (in the region there are many, though also a great deal of space, which makes nothing trivial to find). Descending on it in a swarm with oil and wrenches, a team of horses, perhaps a few score bicycle drive assemblies, we’d get it back onto those rails and moving through the green tunnel, the branches scraping at it, appending streaked green stains to the graffiti on its sides. We speculated as to the conflict it would spur in those existentialists and wasteful dreamers when it passed the windows of the bar.
Until then, we’d discussed this only among ourselves.
“But this is wonderful!” said Alyonushka. “What a great joke it would be.”
She could outdrink us. Pale Polish lagers, vodka, Romanian tzuika: while we grew warm and uncareful, she might have been made of ice.
“I want to ride the green tunnel,” she said, “the gray tunnel, whatever you want to call what it is now, what it really is. From the south, where the photograph was taken, north into Korova, to emerge through the archway of the trees and see…that.” She angled her chin on her long neck, like any one of us might after so much vodka, too lazy to raise a hand, especially to that thing, the abandoned refinery with its rust, its lofty spires, impregnable because barren. She made the gesture more graceful than we would have. “Why haven’t you done it?”
None of us were engineers or knew about trains or even bicycles. Only one, Catalin, considered himself an artist. He’d made himself the strongest advocate of our collective fantasy. He also drank more than the rest. But even he contributed to society, collecting scrap metal from old work sites to recycle, keeping the finest pieces to twist together into jagged, treelike abstractions no one bought, but at least they broke the landscape’s monotony. We all did what we could. The lazy, the shiftless, the content, they could drink at some other table.
“We were waiting for you,” said Catalin.
Razvan, our still gainfully employed journalist friend who’s always traveling but happened to be present, likened our discussion to the statue of a fantastical crimefighting cyborg the tactless escapists of Detroit, Michigan — a ruined ghost town like our own we knew of through the internet, in a sort of conceptual inversion of the tunnel — wanted to erect in the face of that city’s victims and sufferers.
“That’s cynical,” said Catalin. He felt for the wandering poets, the poetesses in particular. Catalin cut a romantic figure, the post-proletarian hero. He did well, even with Alyonushka. Her gaze gave him confidence. “Utility isn’t everything,” he said. “Beauty has its place. It’s needed. Even if we all got together with sledgehammers and bashed that thing” — the refinery — “to dust, we couldn’t till the land it stood on. Nothing would grow. The trains stopped because nobody rode them.”
Such talk tempted some of us — me — to despise him. The world got the way it is because too many preferred to spend real hours consuming real resources in order to produce virtual goods. Beauty, to some, is a virtual good. We get enough of it from media: breathtaking women we all wonder why we’re not sleeping with, dystopian vistas, spaceships hovering over cities, south sea sunsets. It’s all at our fingertips. What good does it do us?
Some people — like Razvan — must travel to live, perhaps from an irresistible urge to experience everything and be a part of nothing. And some must remain rooted, enervated, perhaps, by fear of change. Razvan never understood how we could live with that. On that occasion he pretended to.
It was something to do with Alyonushka. Because she was beautiful in her scars. Because she was a stranger, the first stranger willing to engage and disagree with us we’d ever met in Reza-Korova.
So we listened to Catalin, because she was listening to him, and we decided it would be all right to do this thing, even if it was cynical, even cruel. Because like Alyonushka — who’d come all the way from Irkutsk or wherever not because of what the tunnel had meant to her as a girl, a magical scene she’d chosen for her desktop background on the first computer she ever owned, a promise of the world’s wonders yet unseen, but because of how its meaning changed as the world changed, she got older, and that same email forward kept cycling around to her, perpetually new, full of illusory vibrance and light — because like her, we appreciated the irony.
She stayed. That helped win us too. Of all the inveterate, crestfallen wanderers we’d met on the station house stoop and begged cigarettes from, she was the only one who didn’t shoulder her bag the next morning or even the same afternoon, climb into her salt-eroded rented red Citroën and go.
Despite what we did for her, I don’t know why she didn’t.
“When’s the last time you walked through it?” she said, showing up at the bar late next morning with Catalin in tow. We hadn’t, any of us, in years. Some weren’t about to. But I went, I and three or four others who weren’t already too far along though the place had only been open an hour, who didn’t have real, productive things to do outside that forgetful den, pumping gas, chopping wood, trying to teach themselves some trade other than the ghostly ones.
There was nothing magical about it. The hedge was thick, but not so thick you couldn’t see the rows of squat, low houses, the frost-eaten pavements, the gray hills. Old bits of wrapper and bottles half-buried in gravel, branches fallen, branches clawing at you, that perfect arching shape to the growth lost now there were no trains keeping it in check. If you walked far enough, the tracks took you into the forest, out to the river, but you had to walk for hours. Maybe they did. I gave up after a hundred metres, at the pathetic little heap of mementoes that marked where the photo had been taken. She’d made her point. It was bleak, too bleak, and I remembered why I preferred to take the roads. Rare beauty makes common ugliness worse.
She started making trips around the countryside, first with Catalin, then whoever was willing and knew how to drive, looking for abandoned freight cars. Her luck was amazing. By the end of the week, she’d found five within three hours’ travel and narrowed those to two. I asked how she’d done it. “The internet,” she said. She showed us her pictures, filtered like the original to look sun-bright and glowing, rust and graffiti color-shifted into blue and green.
She wanted them to see it. The dreamers. As many as she could convince.
Catalin was beside himself, sketching constantly, making notes he wouldn’t let anyone see. But his fingers always smelled of vodka now instead of ink, maybe to cover up the scent of something else. “Art,” he told me, “Is a tangible good. It lasts forever, it ought to. It gives us someplace to go, something to think about besides what we fail at.”
By then Razvan was gone again. I kept in touch. Great art is a tangible good, he said. Terrible art is a necessary evil, necessary because without it there would be no great art. But there’s no equation saying how much bad art is enough. If nobody made anything but art, the world would go to shit. It has. Then later: Artist communities, and links to several anonymous discussion boards sharing photos of illegal street art wherein the sides of train cars featured prominently. Right at the top was one of Alyonushka’s.
She chose the less beautiful of the two finalists, the one on a track still connected to something. Horses were too difficult, too expensive, too fragile. Pedal power was a nice idea, but too complicated. None of us had actually acquired any practicable skills for all our occasional valiant efforts at self-betterment. This was no one’s fault. Everyone who might have taught us was gone, old or dead. She came to a simple solution. Two adults could push a car in neutral a long way up a gentle slope. Danny and Alyonushka demonstrated this on the Kamyshin highway coming back from a failed excursion; they’d run out of gas ten kilometres from anything but empty mills and long shadows. (We knew she was serious when she didn’t give up afterward. “Now we know what happened to her shoes,” Danny said when they limped into the station house bar an hour after dusk.) It couldn’t take that many more to move a train car. Almost twenty, as it turned out. Ropes, eyehooks, harnesses improvised from old belts and canvas — a lot of it we scrounged from the refinery. Fitting, said Razvan when I told him. Alyonushka loved it too. “What better way to prove there’s no world waiting but the one we make with our own sweat?”
The day arrived, a Monday in December. The dreamers came. In the end, there were six. Reza-Korova isn’t easy to get to, even — especially — when you’ve been here before. They walked the tunnel and came back depressed, trying not to show it, too stubborn not to stay, knowing we were about to do this thing for them. To them.
We bought them drinks, whatever they wanted, sweet wine, vodka, anisette. Catalin flattered them, flirting. The bar was covered with his sketches, markered maps pocked with shot glass stains like weeping sores, printed pages from internet café printers dying of toner thirst. Atop all this, an eyehook, heavy, brutal, flecked in sky-blue paint, held it all in place against the ceiling fan.
Vodka, cigarettes, coffee, repeat, according to no order and no reason, until we were numbed, couraged or calmed enough. Then everybody but me and the dreamers rapped knuckles on the bar for luck, spilled a few crumpled hryvni, never enough, and went. We’d agreed — I’d volunteered — I’d stay behind to represent us, to document it for posterity. Because what’s art if it doesn’t last? If not in a museum, a tomb, a shrapnel sculpture slowly buried in snow, it would live eternal on the internet. I let the dreamers get the rest of the bill.
Everyone else piled into an ancient, rattling UAZ truck and Alyonushka’s rented car, squishing two to a seat. We made a crowd when we all got together. In all this emptiness it didn’t happen much.
They went south, paralleling the tracks awhile, then veering away around a corner out of sight. The train car was ten kilometres along, the other side of the river. Ten was farther than we’d done at a stretch, but we decided — Alyonushka decided — the final stage should require a climactic effort. Exhaustion. We’d brought it that close over days, pulling a few hours at a time. Even me, I’d tried my hand, leaning in, with that huge, empty mass behind us, working up a sweat. We joked like we were folk heroes. This must be what it felt like crossing the surface of Jupiter, an alien planet so huge we weighed three times as much. Then after awhile we didn’t joke, just pulled.
The bar doesn’t have internet, so I didn’t see the pictures until later. I sat with the dreamers, listening to their uneasy babble, drinking vodka, more than usual, until the afternoon was old and the sun as orange as it gets here before it goes down. Then I went out to the platform to wait for the train. I saw the world through a blurry toilet-paper roll, having to reach out with my hands to make sure stools and walls were where I thought. I don’t know why getting that drunk seemed warranted that day. I didn’t think it was an event worth celebrating. And I was still awed by Alyonushka like everyone else. But I needed that haze, the vodka killing the taste of the cigarettes, killing the feel of the wind. Maybe I wanted to feel what the dreamers felt.
They didn’t come. They never did.
The bridge across the Volga: that must have been the high point. After they were warm to the exertion, before they started to tire. It was beautiful for December in Korova, windy, not oppressively so, sunny, thin clouds moving at intervals over the hills, not cold. I saw the pictures later from those who had data-capable phones. Alyonushka had one. The best. I don’t know where her money came from, how she could travel like she did. She didn’t waste it, a rich girl would have bought new shoes, but when she needed money, it was there.
There’s one picture looking back along the side of the train car, nobody really in the frame, just an arm and a shoulder, Catalin’s I’m willing to bet, a section of rope, the sun glittering on the water through the bars of the bridge, the peeling graffiti, not colorized this time because there’s no one left to colorize it, a pale palette of angles and curves presumably shaping names of people like us, young, with nothing to do but try to break the monotony.
The hedge swayed in the wind, its smallest, highest wands lashing whiplike at the sky. The sun went down. The dreamers milled, equivocated, got up, walked down the tracks, came back. I didn’t feel sorry for them until the blurriness started to temper.
I didn’t have a car anymore, hadn’t had one in a long time, so I waited until I was sure. I called Catalin, got voicemail. I called Razvan. He was on a train east of Odessa, said he’d be in Korova by noon. I don’t know why he comes back here.
One of the last pictures, maybe the last, Alyonushka replicated the original. At her feet is that little heap of mementoes piled beside the tracks in memorial to hope. I could go down there now and kick it, scatter the pieces. In the photo it must be getting close to sunset, because the branches are gold, not gray. And the trick of the grade, the curve in the tracks and the thick, thick, reaching growth of the hedge and the frame of the image combine to hide the towers of the refinery and the squat houses. It’s like a tunnel to another world.
The internet is a different place now than in the nineties, so much bigger, more chaotic, there’s a good chance those galleries will live on another few years at least before the services that host them go under. But how many will see?
The other day I got the forward again.
Maybe when Razvan leaves, when he gives up looking for them, gives up trying to rationalize what happened or understand what she was or why, maybe I’ll go with him. See Sevastopol, the Black Sea, the Bosphorus.
Satirical and wry though I hope it comes across, this story came out of a fairly dark place for me–or from the conjunction of a dark place and an incongruously bright one. I had just moved to an economically devastated suburb of Detroit, where the deranging effects of culture shock convinced me that if I wanted to experience anything inspiring or beautiful ever again, I’d be obliged to seek it either in my own head–in fiction–or on the internet. So when that inexhaustible fount of resilience-through-inspiration, Jason S. Ridler, shared with me (via that latter-day unkillable email forward, Facebook), an image of train tracks leading through a tunnel of brilliant foliage and challenged me to write a story about it, I naturally assumed the photo must be an illusion, a trick by which some other dreamer like me had contrived to endure the post-apocalypse. “Virtual Goods” was the result. I’ve learned since that Kleven, Ukraine’s “Tunnel of Love” is a real place, presumably beautiful, through which real trains pass and lovers walk arm in arm. But by then it was too late.
“Green Mile Tunnel”, photographed in Ukraine’s “Tunnel of Love” in Rivne, Ukraine by serhei, is used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.