Final Spells of Vertigo in the Vestibule

by Francisco Proaño Arandi

Moscow, 1977

I confess that that thought, that possibility, has always filled me with dark fear. Kievskaia wasn’t just the station where I should get off—every night, to return home—it was also the last stop on the metro’s route. After the last passengers get off, the trains start out on an old route, different: it appeared that after the trains pulled out of that station on the outskirts, they wouldn’t return to complete other similar routes; on the contrary, they would begin a route where there are no stations or lights, and perhaps barely the night; a harsh, cold, inconceivable labyrinth that the city, above, never thought existed, and that perhaps, occasionally, would be something like the irreversible aberration of some terrorized inhabitant. It was now an obsession: every time I left the train in that outermost station, I couldn’t resist asking myself the unavoidable question about the final destiny of the trains.

I should also confess that one becomes inclined to having various hallucinations and every kind of recurring obsession while one travels hunched in one’s seat, subject to the constant swaying of the passenger car, one’s flesh turned into sawdust, as if one were a puppet manipulated by unskilled fingers, while at the same time, above, to the sides and below, the infinite percussion of the train outlines its rushing composition: that eternal echo of distant drums, weapons and belting that punishes the air in a hard pounding, deafening, vibrating: a savage orchestra that rides the train, as if it were smashing walls of sounds to pieces at its own pace, or as if it were passing right across the center of resounding abysses, while unimaginable shapes, strange and distorted nocturnal objects and howling images revolve.

While one is traveling, one becomes the moveable center of an ungraspable, fluid, slithering universe, built on the border of mirrors whose structure is made of unequivocal risk. A suspicion is born in one even before getting on the train itself, at the very door of the station. One knows, or has a premonition, even in that first moment, that a different, unsteady reality begins when one goes through the enormous doors of the hall entrance. You know that in order to reach the long, almost ghostly trains beneath the surface of the city, you should first cross the large passageways, walk by a kind of aquarium, duplicate your image in the thick glass doors, see your body distorted in the hollow mirrors several times, multiplied or strangely thick in the prismatic contrast of the lamps. And you also know, or rediscover, that you enter the fortuitous dimension of a space that is closed, but also infinite, limited perhaps, but cavernous, unrecognizable, indistinct. While you hurry, the numberless cave sends back mixed screams, juxtaposed shadows, light marks or hues of color to where you file by, like the others, until you reach the inaccessible slot where you insert your coin and again pass through the well-known barrier that revolves with a metallic creaking, and you finally go down, one more in the multitude of intermittent, cascading faces descending the escalators; one more silhouette in the always renewed interference of hats or umbrellas or coats, among the monstrous masks that are—sometimes—half eyes, half newspapers, immersed in the mucus of the dense crowd, although ungraspable, erected in a sole endless step, until you infiltrate, now at the end of the descent, an area of reality more and more impenetrable, in boundaries or labyrinths where the memory of the city, above, appears to be only fiction, an invented mirage in an upside-down lake, in corridors or crossroads that are rather like proposals or hypotheses to be resolved in a growing puzzle, while you approach—always descending—to certainties that expand or that are expanding downward, increasingly downward.

On that day, the exact date that I now set aside, I began my return home, as always: in Kurski Bakzal. It was merely the last phase of that bold route: five stations, between Kurskaia and Kievskaia, with the last one representing a final stop that pretended not to be one. Like every afternoon, the clamor of the tentacular archangel with its innumerable voices and infinite silhouettes, once again ran across or perforated my flesh, filled my ear with very cruel sounds, once again raised itself in front of me displaying its multiple, kaleidoscope sword, made of a thousand reflections or afflictions. It straightened up, and like on other occasions, went back to revealing itself to me as a chorus, a contained and unrhythmic choral uproar that reached or will reach the end, in its incoherence, in its chaos, unpublished harmonies, a system of clefs that by way of howls, pain, screams, and harmonious and inharmonious calls, ended or would end by looking like a symphony: a chaotic symphony, yes, delirious, shrill, incoherent, but in the end, expressive, terribly expressive, uncontainably emblematic of things that shouldn’t be disclosed, full of all the blasphemies, the invocations, the ravings, the lamentations, the prayers, the entreaties, the silences, the joy. On this point, it’s clear that in my dream, and each time that I had to cross the noisy hall, I was attacked by one of the strangest late-night meditations a passenger can have while traveling, lulled by the swaying motion of the passenger car and shaken by the metallic murmur of the underground: I had a premonition about that large chorus, although dislocated, also archangelic, like one of the many forms that modern art can offer to the rest of the ages—because just today I was thinking that this other unknown flow of music, this approaching chorus made up of unique voices, this never imagined nor ever announced vast symphony, can occur amid the proliferation of large enclosed spaces and in the gigantic modules built to shelter crowds.

I mechanically repeated the well-known itinerary: the coin that disappears in the mysterious slot, the continuous procession that hurries toward the stairs, the descent down these stairs, a descent that would look endless, occasionally jarred by rapid noises, below, above, to the sides; shouts similar to gusts of wind, or abrupt silences that ended, like cut glass, the explosion of a scream, a guffaw, a whistle, while eventually, you feel the rumbling of the trains much closer and more sharply; infinite trains that stop, start, and rush by, violently, invisibly: passengers that get off, get on, wait; the faces of the passengers that tend to become deformed because of secret inertia, as they pass by rapidly, displaced, behind the illuminated windows.

One more time, the intermediate stations filed by in front of my eyes: Smolensk, Park Culture, Arbatskaia, Biblioteca Lenin: two stations in one, where if I would have gotten off, it would have been to get lost in the tortuous labyrinths, in the twists and turns or metallic passageways through which, at certain hours, the slow, hopelessly slow—at a procession pace—packed, and abundant crowds usually file; there where, on occasion, someone unexpected can turn around and go in the opposite direction, cutting the impenetrable river of faces, torsos, and multiformed humans into agonizing grimaces, and thus causing something like a drastic theatrical improvisation, a dilated contortion in which the one who has attempted to go back doesn’t really advance, but is simply dragged backward while kicking or lifting his arms in a useless gesture, like a drowning person.

Seated in the passenger car, I could see how the other trains passed by in the opposite direction: straight rows of illuminated windows from afar, like the dotted edge of motion picture film stretched out in the night. Sometimes, the near certainty, captivating, of a train passing by, right there, a short distance from our eyes and ears; for a second there was the mixture of our own ghostly reflections and the real profiles of the passengers seated on the other side of the windows: there, in that transitory aquarium, are silhouettes that one will never see again, but that in a fraction of an instant, are enough to reveal the necessary trait of a life, like its twitching face, for example, or its double, the pitiful slant of the shoulders, and the tormented shrinking of a head until it is empty. Or suddenly, there could be, also standing out among the rapid succession of human figures, eyes that watch you, fixed, inquisitive, evil: a look that persists in the short-lived night of two trains that barely cohabitate for a few minutes underground, a contact that tries to survive itself, until the last moment, while all of the passengers located in the opposite cars feel the certainty of two lives completely capsized in the extreme depths of their pupils and that, nevertheless, will never see each other again, irremediably and rapidly separating in the secret tunnels of the night.

It was while sitting there that I gained, by the time I approached Kievskaia, the clear understanding of what is waiting on the other side of the last door, in the course of that inhuman trip that trains begin when they surpass the last station on their route. I was perfectly awake. Lucid. But my eyes were clearly seeing an inferno of ice. Beyond and parallel to the window, another ghostly train was sliding toward my eyes, barely visible in the reflection, a train from whose interior there emerged, in halves, outlines of faces, unfinished silhouettes, and raincoats that stood by themselves in a ghostly, flickering light. I imagined that the then dismantled thunderous percussion in my ears didn’t reach that train: in it, in that blurred introduction of passenger cars, only silence should reign, an atrocious silence, a chaos or decay in absolute emptiness, there where nothing exists other than an endless hour of ice, just as the perpetual landscape prepared for those who are forever trapped in the chasms of the snow-covered mountains, in the walls frozen by icebergs, should be.

I understood what should happen at the last station. I was watching the rest of the passengers. While some of them emptied out of the train, those who remained seemed to wait quietly, as if they too were stunned by that fear or suspicion that generated in me the revelation of what exists beyond the limit. Then I understood: it was as if an unyielding magistrate had carried out a rigorous but necessary selection, permitting the departure of the majority of the passengers along intermediate stations and leaving a few chosen others for the end, facing a kind of unpardonable sentence. Perhaps old Caronte, dressed like a station- master, was waiting on the other side of the door; perhaps one of the chosen, among those distributed still in the countless passenger cars, now knew that the cost of the trip was actually a small price to pay for transcendence, once they reinitiated the real, irreversible journey.

The impression, that is to say, the exact vision of what could be waiting for me at the end of the trip, seemed to wear out my conscience; or perhaps it was simply the swaying of the train. The truth is I fell asleep, pursued, even in the dream, by the endless uproar of unknown drums, by woodwinds that emitted a guttural call to the depths of the forest, by desperate, multiplied beatings, next to my ear. It seemed that the train was moving beyond the final barrier, as if the dream wanted to authenticate the experienced perception during the course of the vigil. While this was happening, the desolate percussion of the passenger cars was suddenly becoming distant again, almost like a memory, while I continued on my trip alone, and descended, in the train, to frozen, nocturnal, colorless regions. Then, there was a whisper or a pant in front of me that waited in an unforeseeable end, in an inferno from which I knew it wouldn’t be possible to return.

Someone touched my arm, and when I woke up, I felt the abrupt penetration of the solitude or desolation of Kievskaia. The passenger car was deserted. Further away, the deep tunnels of the metro could be seen. The door seemed ready to close again and my feet felt the train slowly starting to move. Standing next to me was a youngster, a strange young man, almost ashen, with skin that was practically transparent. He was touching my shoulder with his hand, and when I opened my eyes, I saw his face stretch into a slight smile. He greeted me politely, and without a word, without a gesture, rapidly and determinedly moved away. I then quickly stood up and left. The passenger car doors closed abruptly behind me and I went looking for the stranger along the edge of the crowd. But I didn’t see him, there wasn’t a trace of him.


Translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales.

Harry Morales’s translations include the work of Mario Benedetti, Ilan Stavans, Eugenio María de Hostos, and Emir Rodríguez Monegal, among other Latin-American writers. His work has appeared in various journals, including Pequod, Quarterly West, Chicago Review, TriQuarterly, Literary Review, Agni, Kenyon Review, Mid-America Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Mãnoa, WORLDVIEW, and Puerto del Sol.

Francisco Proaño Arandi was born in Cuenca, Ecuador, in 1944. He is the author of Poesias (1961), Historias de disecadores (1972), Antiguas caras en el espejo (1984), Oposición a la magia (1986), La doblez (1986), Del otro lado de las cosas (1993), and Cuentos: antología (1995). His short fiction has appeared in various anthologies in Ecuador, Germany, Cuba, Colombia, Spain, and Portugal. He has served as a diplomat representing the Ecuadorian Embassy in Colombia (1972–1973), the former USSR (1973–1977), Cuba (1980–1984), Yugoslavia (1990–1992), Nicaragua (1995–1997), and Costa Rica (1997–2000). This is Arandi’s first publication in English.

Spanish language
short stories
Winter 2002
The cover of BOMB 78