by Natig Rasulzade
A Short Story
Translated from Russian by Arzu Aghayeva and edited by Betty
still playing cards long past midnight. The game had been so
fascinating that I had forgotten the time as I always do when
playing Preference with friends. My shoulders were numb and I
stretched my head back to work my neck muscles, which had become
stiff. At that moment the clock struck, drawing my attention
to the large antique clock. The hands were showing a quarter
I was startled: could we really have been playing so long? I
had arrived there at six, immediately following my work. My friends-a
pleasant married couple whom I had known for more than 10 years-protested
when I told them I must leave. In a tone that allowed no room
for objections, the hostess insisted on making the sofa into
a bed so I could sleep there in the living room. I would get
a good night's sleep, she promised, her voice softening as she
smiled kindly at me.
I thanked her and started preparing to go home, referring to
the fact that early the next morning someone would be coming
to my place on urgent business, and it was already too late to
cancel the appointment. So saying goodbye to my friends and to
our regular partner in card games - their neighbor who lived
on the same floor landing of the apartment - I left the hospitable
apartment and headed out into the street.
A cold wind was blowing and it was snowing. It was quite chilly.
I hunched my head down into my shoulders, turned up the collar
of my overcoat, and began walking briskly through the snow, which
crunched under my feet. I knew deep down that there wasn't the
slightest chance of finding any transportation in the city that
would take me home.
Despite my pessimism, I had hardly walked 100 meters along the
tram rails down the middle of the street, when quite unexpectedly
a tram appeared. Its lights glowed invitingly and it stopped,
opening its doors almost in front of me. It turned out it to
be a regular tram stop-just one that I had never noticed before.
The well-lit tramcar looked quite inviting and cozy in the cold
dark night and that's why I didn't pay much attention to the
fact that this tram wouldn't be stopping very close to my home.
After the ride, I would still have to walk quite a distance on
Nevertheless, I had little choice. There was not a single taxi
in the streets and, even if there had been, it would have been
a rare taxi driver that would have agreed to take me to the upper
part of the city during such a snowfall.
I stepped up into the tram and glanced around. There were four
passengers sitting, dispersed throughout the train, here and
there. That, in itself, was a significant number given that it
was in the wee hours of the morning. This was the last tram,
and obviously after dropping us off, it would head for the depot.
Usually, on the final run, you rarely ever saw any passengers
- especially during wintertime. By about 10 o'clock in the evening
these last few years, the city was nearly dead. You almost saw
no one in the streets.
I sat down and for some time stared out through the window, watching
the blizzard. Not a thought crossed my mind. It felt so good
and cozy to be sitting next to the window in the lit tram, knowing
that soon I would be home and could lie down in a clean and warm
bed. I was eager for sleep. The rhythmic clanking of the tram
wheels, somewhat softened by the snow on the rails, lulled and
relaxed me. I didn't even notice that I had begun to nod and,
soon afterwards, fell into a deep sleep.
Suddenly, I was jarred awake. I sensed something foreboding and
uneasy. I opened my eyes, shook myself and looked around, unable
to figure out how long I had been sleeping. As before, there
were still the same four passengers sitting in the car. Behind
a dirty curtain that separated the passengers from the driver,
you could sense the presence of the tram driver. The tram had
stopped and, for some reason, it seemed to me that it had been
already standing for quite some time. I waited a moment to see
if it would start up again. When it didn't, I asked in a loud
voice: "What's the matter? Why are we stopped?"
The four men whom I had addressed in a rather general way only
stared at me. One of them made a limp gesture, waving his hand,
like he didn't care. Of course, it was understandable; nobody
wanted to talk. It was late. Everybody just wanted to sleep.
From behind the curtain of the cabin, a driver, with tousled
hair, looked out. His eyes immediately settled on me - the person
who had asked the question - and he announced in colorless voice:
"The rails are covered with snow. It's impossible to drive
"What do you mean?" I began to fret. "What are
you talking about? What do you mean 'we can't drive through it'?
What should we do then? We can't just sit here until morning."
Perplexed, I looked at the other passengers, hoping for some
compassion and support. They remained stone silent.
"Well, why 'til morning" the driver said lazily and
again slipped back behind the curtain. Judging by his speech
that suddenly became incoherent, it seemed he was chewing something.
After a short pause (it seems he must have finished chewing on
whatever it was), he added more distinctly. His words, as before,
were not very convincing.
"But if you want, I've got a shovel here." He became
silent for a while, puttering about. Then I heard a clinking
sound and he continued: "Even two. If you want, you can
clean the road. Then I could continue driving, little by little"
"Clean the road?" Perhaps, I had misunderstood him.
"What do you mean 'clean the road'?"
"And what's wrong with that?" he responded resentfully,
having detected from my voice that I had been offended. He kept
silent for some time and after a long pause, asked: "What
do you suggest? Nobody will do it for youOr else you can go on
"Indeed," I decided. "I'd rather go on foot."
I got up, glanced at the motionless figures of the four others
sitting there, and headed for the tram's front door. The driver
obligingly pulled the lever and the door opened. The cold air
rushed at me, burning me and jarred me awake. I headed out into
the night. The door immediately closed behind me.
ButMy God, what was this? I looked around in horror. Everywhere,
as far as the eye could see, stretched a dark steppe covered
with snow. Beyond, I could faintly make out a grove of trees
or forest. But it was impossible to distinguish any further details.
I stopped, rooted to the ground, still holding on to the handrail
of the tram as if afraid that if I let go, the tram would disappear
and I would be left alone in this vast dark expanse. The absurdity
of the tram going anywhere, sobered me a little, and caused me
to let go of the handrail. I trudged through the deep snow in
front of the tram. Squinting, I could make out that the rails
were really covered in a deep layer of snow. It seemed the blizzard
was becoming more intense. At least here in the vast, open space,
the cold was much more severe than in the city. The snowfall
was making the layer of snow, which covered the rails even deeper.
I muddled about for a little while and then returned and knocked
on the door of the tram. The gesture seemed so absurd - a man
knocking on the door of a tram. Under normal circumstances, it
would have, at least, brought a smile. But having begun to understand
the reality of the situation, I started pounding even harder
- with my fists.
Then the door hissed loudly and opened. In the deep, dark silence
of the snow-covered steppe, this sound, so typical of urban settings,
seemed so unreal to me. It seemed so surreal - outside of time
and place. It turned out that the door had been opened, not to
let me enter, but rather to let one of the other four passengers
He turned out to be a very nervous and demanding fellow, despite
how he had managed to appear so nonchalant and indifferent sitting
in the tram. Coming down the steps, he handed me one of the shovels
and snarled: "Well, we've got no other optionright? If we
don't do anything, who will? Our destiny is in our hands. When
we get tired, the other three passengers can take our places.
Take it! Take the shovel. It's not time to idle about; otherwise
we'll have to spend the whole night on the tram. I've got a lecture
to give, first thing tomorrow morning. Come on!"
I suddenly remembered the very important business meeting that
I had arranged for the morning. I blamed myself for not staying
with my friends. The weather would have been better by morning
and I could have easily gone home by taxi. But what's done is
done. I took the shovel and followed the man, hardly understanding
anything at all about the situation. The other three men and
the driver, who was still chewing, sat silently. We could see
them well in the well-lit tram, which appeared like a cozy island
in the middle of the exposed barren steppe.
We began clearing the snow, gradually uncovering the rails, which
glistened coldly in the light of the tram's headlights. The nervous
man worked almost in the same manner that he spoke: rapidly,
but not very efficiently. For the most part, he spilled the snow
all over his shoes. I didn't have much experience working with
a shovel either, but still I wasn't as pathetically helpless
as he was.
I decided to give him some advice: "You'll soon get tired
like this. Don't rush. Take a shovel full and toss the snow out
a little further away."
"All right," he replied, out of breath.
"Tell me, how the hell did this steppe appear in the middle
of the city?" I asked him, as the question had been troubling
me for quite some time.
"Steppe?" he stared at me blankly, not comprehending
what I had said.
"Right," I said. "And what do you think it is
- because we were in the city. It was snowing. I fell asleep
and, suddenly, we came upon this vast open space."
"In the city?" he asked in surprise. "Which city
are you talking about?"
He was so surprised that he even stopped working.
"Don't make a fool of yourself!" I replied angrily.
It wasn't like me to be rude to strangers. "It's a tram
and trams go through the city."
It was as if the tram heard me and thought that I was calling.
It slowly approached along the several meters of rails that we
had managed to clear of snow. Two passengers exited the tram,
approached us and, without saying a word, took the shovels from
us. They had a better knack for the job than we had had and,
therefore, the work moved along much faster.
The nervous fellow and me rushed back into the tram to get out
of the snowstorm. But still we weren't able to escape the cold,
even though the tram, lit up in the night, created the illusion
of coziness. In his compartment, the tram driver who, by now,
had finished eating, was drinking tea from a thermos.
"Listen," I addressed him as I sat down. "Where
are we now?"
Again the driver's disheveled mug appeared from behind the curtain.
He stared at me with the blurred look of a person who had just
started to digest his food. For quite some time, he stared at
me silently as if I were a subordinate who had dared to ask such
a stupid, needless question. Afterwards, he answered my question
with a question: "In what sense?"
"In the very straightforward sense." I said. "What
is this place, this steppe?" I pointed out the window, being
as explicit as possible with my gesture so that his blockhead
would understand that I thought he was an idiot and that you
couldn't answer a question with another question.
"Weird passengers," suddenly grumbled the man who remained
in the tram. "They ride and they don't know where they're
"But here," I said, losing my patience, "but we
were traveling through the city."
"In the city?" the driver asked exactly the same way
as the nervous passenger had. He was about to say something else
when the lights in the tram went off.
"That's it," he sighed with bitterness and regret.
"Now, we're stuck."
"What do you mean 'we're stuck?'" the nervous passenger
asked. "What are you trying to say - meaning that we can't
move at all?"
"There's no electric current," the tram driver clarified
with reluctance. He looked at the men with the shovels in the
snowstorm and added, "We should call them back in. There's
no point in clearing the road, we're stuck anyway." He leaned
out of the window and shouted to the passengers working with
The third passenger - the one who had reproached me, for God
knows what - suddenly let out a loud, weird sound. I looked back
and saw that he was sleeping. It turned out that he was snoring
like that! His poor wife! The two with shovels came back into
the dark tram and sat down separately in the seats they had had
Everyone was silent. Only the rhythmic, quite strange snore of
the one passenger, calmly sleeping, broke the silence. It seems
he was as comfortable on the hard, cold seat as in his own bed.
Suddenly, we heard a terrifying howl in the night. Immediately
other long howls joined in, all on different pitches.
"What's that?" the nervous passenger asked in confusion.
"Wolves, what else?" the driver answered calmly. The
two, with the shovels who had come back in, nodded firmly and
with a slight grinning, they looked at the nervous passenger.
The discordant howling was heard again. This time the howling
was more shrill and lasted longer.
"Wolves?" the nervous passenger asked again as a chill
convulsed through his shoulders. "In the woods, right?"
"Uh huh," the driver said patronizingly and yawned.
After remaining silent for some time, he added,
"Listen, you guys, I've had a lot of experience in this.
You have to obey me."
Those two nodded, again, like twins.
"We can freeze like this," continued the driver. "We
need to make a fire beside the tram, otherwise we're in trouble.
By morning we'll be dead. It's no warmer inside here than it
is outside. We need fire. Did you understand me?"
Those two nodded again, simultaneously, even though they were
sitting apart which made their synchronic concurrence even more
striking. Neither the nervous fellow nor I said anything. The
fifth guy continued his untroubled sleep.
"Then here's what you're going to do," the driver said.
"You two go to that grove for firewood." He pointed
to the dark spot of woods that was barely discernible about a
kilometer's distance from the tram. The driver groaned in his
seat behind curtain, stooped forward, fumbling under his seat
with his hands and mumbling with effort, "Good, I've got
two axes here. There you go. Take them."
The two took the axes and silently, as if in a dream, got off
the tram. For some time, we could hear the crunch of snow under
their feet. Indeed, it was getting colder and colder for us sitting
there in the tram. I mentioned it and the driver indulgently
"And what did I tell you?" he reminded me. "I
know the ropes in these things. No matter what you say, we won't
manage without a fire"
After some time, we heard the muffled sound of axes from the
direction of the woods.
"They're chopping the trees now," the driver said with
For several minutes, we could hear rapid sound of axes. Then
suddenly it stopped and we heard a weird noise, a scream. Again,
everything became quiet for a short time, but then we heard such
distinct heart - rending human wail, that we all shuddered, except
the passenger who had been sleeping so deeply. I felt very ill
at ease. It was getting scarier because the scream lasted for
such an incredible long while.
"Damn, they got themselves into a rotten situation,"
the driver said, having waited till the scream died away. He
spoke so matter-of-factly.
"What? What do you mean? What happened there?" the
nervous passenger bombarded the driver with questions. "What
are you trying to say?"
"They ran into some wolves," the driver explained lazily.
"There's a pack of wolves out there and many of them are
cannibals. If the whole pack attacks a man, you won't even find
He became silent and then finished rather dismayed and even remorse,
"Damn, the axes are left there, they were brand new. They'll
get lost. He turned back to me and said in confidence, "They
were not bought with public funds. I bought them myself. How
many times did I tell the boss: 'we need them, we need them'
and they didn't give a damn. That's why I had to buy them with
my own hard-earned money!"
"Listen," I said, almost exhausted by the weird things
that were happening around me. I felt like this was a nightmare
and that I had been caught up in the middle of it, having to
follow the rules as they were being dictated. "Listen, but
what about those two guys?"
"What about those two?" the driver said, indifferently.
"If they don't fight off the wolves, they'll be torn to
pieces. I guess they didn't fight them off. WellBut we still
need a fire."
"What fire? Are you crazy?! What fire are you talking about?!"
the nervous passenger interrupted, jumping out of his seat and
trying to light up a cigarette, but unable to control the flame
of the lighter in his trembling hands. The tram driver yelled
at him: "It's forbidden to smoke in the tram!"
The nervous fellow took the cigarette and glanced around quickly
to figure out where he could throw it. Obviously afraid of being
shouted at again, he didn't dare throw it on the floor. Instead
he squished it in the pocket of his overcoat. A thin stream of
blue smoke trickled out of the pocket of his new overcoat. This
scene engraved itself in my memory: the somberness of the scene:
looking out of the window of the tram to a wide steppe covered
with snow, and a stooped, trembling figure of a nervous passenger,
with a thin ribbon of smoke coming out of his pocket. The unreal
situation seemed even more grotesque. But, in spite of his fear,
which was quite noticeable, the nervous passenger did not stop
"Are you out of your mind? You, yourself, are talking about
wolves. Then why do we need that cursed firewood, if everything
is turning out to be so dangerous? Dangerous for lifeYou're simply
"Don't argue with me, please!" the tram driver suddenly
roared. "I've been driving this route for nearly 20 years
now, and I know more than you do about what should be done!"
He stopped shouting and assumed his normal voice: "Three
years ago on a winter night like this, six people froze to death
in my tram." He paused, looked steadily at us, trying to
figure out what kind of impression his words were having on us.
Then he continued, "I myself survived only by a miracle,
my feet were frostbitten. I had to remain two months in the hospital.
Sowhen I say 'we need firewood' that means 'we need firewood'.
If I say 'we won't survive without a fire', that means it's absolutely
true!" He again began to shout.
"So?!" the nervous passenger said, shouting back: "Then
who do you think should go this time?"
"You will go," the driver answered quietly, cooling
"Me?" the nervous passenger became terrified. "Not
for any price! Never! You're out of your mind! Never in my life!
Not for any"
"But I wasn't offering you any" the driver said. His
voice hardened and you could hear the iron will of his order
now. "I said, 'You will go'. Period."
Quite unexpectedly, a small revolver appeared buried in his huge
paw. The killing range of the revolver, which could hardly have
exceeded beyond 20 steps, was pointed at the nervous passenger
who, however, stood within five steps of the tram driver.
"But, but" the nervous passenger mumbled. "How
come?" In fear, he gazed at the revolver in the hands of
the huge tram driver who was now standing in the main part of
the tram, directly opposite him. I hadn't realized that the driver
was so tall; it was hard to assume that, seeing him scrunched
into his small cabin.
"But I" the nervous fellow continued mumbling. "You're
sending me to deathJust thinkThink about it. You'll be sued.
You're sending me to death," the passenger kept repeating
feverishly as if to hammer this simple idea into the blockhead
of the tram driver. "Here death threatens you not less than
there," he said.
"Shut up! Carry out my orders! Off you go for the firewood!
And you, too! March!" he pointed the revolver at me.
I knew it would be pointless to offer any excuse. The nervous
passenger had wasted them all, but still I found one, which seemed
to me, more or less, impressive and just like a drowning person1,
I grasped at it, hoping to save myself.
"And why not him?" I said, pointing at the sleeping
For a moment the driver seemed confused. You could tell the idea
simply had not occurred to him.
"But, he's sleeping," he objected, hesitatingly.
"Wake him up," I said, "and let him go in my place."
"No way," the driver said, "Not on your life!
He'll go in his own place! And you will go in yours. All three
of you will go."
"And you also will go," I said looking point blank
at him, feeling I had nothing to lose.
"Right, right, indeed!" the nervous passenger interrupted
"What is this that if a person is asleep, you should send
another person to death. Gosh, what nonsense!"
"To tell you the truth, I didn't think about it," the
driver said guiltily. "Fine, wake him up," he addressed
the nervous passenger. "Didn't think," he repeated
confused, turning his head and grinning. "I simply hadn't
even noticed him. Well, he was just sleeping. And I didn't notice.
A sleeping person is like a dead person; there's little use for
him. Maybe that's why I didn't notice him." We shook the
sleeping passenger and briefly explained to him what was going
on. He blinked his eyes and stood up, yawning. He didn't seem
surprised by anything. He turned his stiff neck, which made a
cracking sound and joined us, heading for the exit of the tram.
"And why aren't you coming?" I asked the driver just
as I was about to step down off the tram.
"I can't leave this place," he said with conviction.
"No matter what happens, I must be here at my workplace.
Even if I die, I must die here. Otherwise, my kids won't get
any subsidy after my death. The contract stipulates that. So,
I'm entirely depending upon you. Go!" he said, poking my
shoulder slightly with the revolver.
The three of us got off the tram and walked across the snow,
which crunched under our feet. It was cold, but it was more pleasant
to walk than sit motionless in deep freezer of a tramcar. We
were leaving deep footprints on the even snow-white surface of
the steppe. I noticed that it was already difficult to make out
the footprints of those who had passed there before us; their
footprints were already covered with snow. We walked slowly towards
the dark forest in the distance from where, now and then, we
could hear howling turning into a threatening sound.
"I'm scared," the nervous passenger admitted in a quiet,
"E-eh-h! I wish I could sleep now," said the second
passenger. "I'd like to sleep eight to 10 hours. Last night
I didn't close my eyes till the very morning, can you believe.
I stayed at this chick's place, I'll tell you later what happened.
You'll split your sides laughing!"
We had passed quite a distance from the place where the tram
stood. I looked back. The windows of the tram appeared black.
The night had swallowed the number of the tram and some of the
advertisements that were painted on its side. From this distance,
it was already impossible to discern anything. I could see the
face of the tram driver. He was following us with his eyes. He
saw that I looked back and waved his hand.
1 Reference to an Azeri expression: "A drowning person
will even grasp at a straw."
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