By: Kate Novak
The horizon is so wide that when I trace it with my eyes, it is a full circle. The ochres and browns of the undergrowth mix with the hazy, powdery, washed out blue of the sky. It makes me dizzy just to think of the expanse of the earth. Also, the smell is unfamiliar. It is acidulous and herby, but heavy at the same time. I look around me, and when I can’t move my head further to the side, the horse underneath me trots and allows me to take in the full view. The horse, I realize, accounts for the smell. The horse! I’ve never sat on a horse before. I panic. I try to stay mounted, but the animal must be sensing my nervousness and I lean over. I’m about to fall.
Before I hit the ground, I wake up. A dream about the steppe, again. Unfamiliar landscapes, places I’ve never been to, things I’ve never done. Where do these images come from? It’s as if I were just about to spot a brichka with Yegorushka, on the piles of wool, dreaming of poppy-seed rolls. I rub my upper arm, which would have taken the hit if I had fallen down from the horse. I never liked Chekhov in the first place. It’s silly, but this dream, this particular combination of my synapses firing off, makes a powerful impression every time. I look out of the window: the landscape I know by heart is rolling beside the train. Trees and hills, fields and villages. Wherever I look, I see these well-known elements; a sight so familiar it’s oppressive. Two more stops. I leave my book open on the seat and walk down the aisle. I go to the toilet and splash some water on my face to wash off the grogginess. I take a brush out of my bag and fix my hair that’s become tangled in my sleep. It’s probably the rhythm of the train that brought on this dream. And the book I’m reading. There’s always some explanation. Anxiety, repressed emotion, a noise registered just below the level of consciousness … But the truth is, I don’t want to explain away this one. The dream about the steppe: I want it to keep recurring.
I think I have it all figured out: I have two more years of undergrad studies left, then graduate school, then a residency. Then I’ll be what I want to be: a surgeon. Saving people’s lives, and living my own cushy existence. Fifty percent selfless, fifty percent selfish. It’s a good plan, and I’m going to stick to it. It worked for my parents and for my older brother. I’m just next in line.
To gain extra credit I need this anthropology course. I thought it’d be boring but easy enough, and for sure, it’s not that difficult, but I actually like it. The professor is a tall, blonde woman everybody calls Joplin. She looks like a hippie, and she probably was one, back in the day. Her long hair is always down, au naturel, and the only makeup she wears is turquoise blue eyeliner. My friends make fun of her, but they like her. She’s genuinely into the subject. She introduces every book on the reading list as a “very important text.” Can they all be so very important? And yet, the one that I’m reading, I can’t put it down. Anthropology 101, a page turner, who would have thought?
I’m used to thinking of human bodies as a collection of parts. There’s the liver, the lungs, the heart. The sac that holds it all in. The skeleton that props it up. The muscles that move it about. But what does it amount to? I don’t have the answer.
This anthropology class makes me look at humans from a wider angle: they, we, form groups, and interact. Sacs filled with fleshy, leaky parts, walking, talking, meeting each other, taking a liking to each other, deciding to get married by a sac priest, having a sac baby. And so the society of leaky sacs lives on. It’s a different view to what I’m used to as a student of medicine. I look into the sac, not outside it.
Take mental illness, for example: Joplin tells us that the shamanic trance might be seen in terms of a psychotic episode, and that some western scholars explain shamanism as schizophrenia, but then she says that their role in society is important. My friends snigger, but I keep thinking about it, and I can’t help but admit that maybe we don’t have all the answers, and maybe we never will. If we just focus on explaining all the elements of the sac and its contents, we lose the bigger picture. What is the bigger picture? It sounds like something a politician might say, just to avoid focusing on the particulars. A politician, another psychotic. And yet, my friends, doctors in the making, take politics seriously, while they dismiss shamanism with their sniggering and jokes. Come to think of it, there’s little difference. One prefers cocaine, the other peyotl. One hires prostitutes and spin doctors, the other employs help from demons and gods.
A shaman is the one who knows who to ask for help. They heal others, because they solicit help and get information from creatures of the spiritual world. A shaman takes a flight in the world of spirits to request their help, and then gets back to this world and cures his or her patient. Is the shamanic flight a sign of a mental illness? Perhaps. Is it induced by drugs? Almost always, but it doesn’t mean anything. All our western lives are fueled by caffeine and sugar. A shaman takes the spiritual flight in a trance, brought about by fasting and dancing. We do the same either in our tame, civilized churches, or in our night clubs. The drum beats of a shaman or the bass line in a rave — our brains react in the same way to both. Maybe we’re just looking to recreate the shamanic experience, lost to us under the layers of civilized numbness. That’s what Joplin suggests. I can’t stop thinking about it. I return to my book.
There’s a story of one of many such creatures that must be recruited if a shaman is to be successful in his quest for knowledge. She’s a goddess who created humanity in a selfless sacrifice: she bit off her fingers and cast them to the ground, and from the fingers of the goddess the humans grew. She wanted to teach people how to be good and brave and humble; instead, they turned greedy and stupid and multiplied so much that they swarmed the surface of the earth, threatening the existence of other creatures in their selfish, self-destructive madness. There was nothing else for the goddess to do than to retreat to the bottom of the ocean to weep for a humanity that was going to destroy itself and the world with it. She would wait, because anything that came after the humans would be better. At least the harm done to the spiritual world was not as bad as the one inflicted on the physical plane.
Whether a patient suffers from the results of their stupidity and selfishness, or whether there’s a curse or an evil eye involved, there’s no better person to ask than the goddess at the bottom of the sea. She knows humans, but the problem is, she’s so disappointed with humanity that a shaman has a hard time convincing her to help one of them. The shaman must show the goddess there are still humans willing to do the right thing and humble themselves before her and the world.
I look out of the window of the rushing train. The landscape I see merges with the one I know only from my dreams: a wide steppe with yellowish grass, forever moving under the breath of wind sweeping it continuously. The sky in my dreams is of a color I don’t recognize easily: a blue so cold that it’s almost white, curving with the horizon, merging with the land in a pink convergence. The colors are calm, unobtrusive. They are a reassurance in this distressing vastness.
I make notes, summarizing what my book says. An aspiring shaman must undergo training under the mentorship of an experienced shaman. But it’s not the trainee who chooses the teacher. It’s the teacher who decides who he or she wants to mentor. A shaman may recruit a mentee through a dream. Each chapter starts with a legend, and then a critical reading follows. I skip the readings, and just read the stories.
There was a woman who couldn’t have children. For many years she cried bitter tears, asking the gods for a child, but the gods were silent to her entreats. So she finally asked a shaman for help. The shaman didn’t find anything wrong with the woman, so she decided it must be a curse. During a ceremony she asked the spirits who it was who cursed the woman, but no spirit knew, even the most powerful ones. There was only one last thing to do: to go and ask the goddess who lived at the bottom of the ocean, the mother of all humanity. The shaman fasted for many days, because the trip to the bottom of the ocean was a strenuous one, and the goddess herself a very powerful creature. The shaman knew the chances of her quest succeeding were slim, and the chances of her perishing in the depths quite big. But a shaman becomes a shaman in order to help others, so she did everything she could. She collected powerful herbs and mushrooms during her fast, and when that part of the healing ceremony was over, she consumed the vision-giving plants and she went on a trip. She had to outsmart the demons guarding access to the goddess, and with bribes and her wit she managed to get to the goddess.
I look out of the window. The familiar landscape rolls by. One more stop and I’ll be home. My home town, which I managed to escape. I’ll be there for the holiday, stay with my family and see my old friends, and then, as always, I’ll be anxious to get back to the big city, to the university. Some of my high school friends have already started their own families. I can’t think of anything more depressing than becoming a wife and a mother. I haven’t given up on my dreams. I want to be a doctor, and I want to help people. For a good salary, too. I had this discussion once with a friend who accused me of being mercenary and materialistic. “You have talents, you could be a painter,” she said. We went to a drawing class together. But I laughed in her face. “I’m not planning to become a starving artist,” I said. “You’re selling your soul,” she said. I haven’t spoken to her in a while. Maybe this time I’ll call her.
The goddess was asleep. The shaman intoned her song. “Who is waking me up, and why? Didn’t I make it clear I want nothing to do with humanity? What is this bunch of pathetic, greedy losers up to now? Why do you think I care? Why should I help?” The shaman had a hard time answering these questions, because, indeed, why would the goddess help bring one more greedy human to a world brimming over with them? But the shaman was patient, and kind, and the goddess said, “All right, but before I help you, I need to comb my hair. I slept for centuries, and my hair is all tangled. I can’t use my fingers, because I bit them off to create humanity.” The shaman said, “I will comb your hair for you.” And she did. She made two long plaits and the goddess was pleased. In return, she told the shaman who put the curse on the woman. When she got back from the bottom of the ocean, she told the patient what to do to appease the offended, and the curse was lifted. Soon the woman became pregnant and gave birth to twins, with eyes dark like the ocean.
The fields move in the wind, framed by the window of the train. Soon I’ll be home. I always get a little nervous, a little anxious. Have I changed too much this time? What if I no longer fit? What if the little town of my childhood is now too small for me? Have I finally outgrown it? I look at my phone to check the time. It’ll be fifteen minutes still, but I start packing my books and my brush and my phone. I sit still, trying to control my breathing. In and out, inhale and exhale. When I close my eyes, though I can no longer see the wide steppe, the movement of the train is strangely similar to what I think would be a horse’s trot. I’m almost there. The sensation of an animal smell becomes very real.
“Excuse me,” someone says in a hoarse whisper. “Excuse me.” I open my eyes. I realize the plea is directed at me. “Would you have any spare change? I haven’t eaten in a while, and I lost my job, and I…” the voice trails off. I’m not sure if it’s a man or a woman. A small person, with too many layers of clothing, the top one a blanket kept in place by a leather belt, not buckled, but tied.
“I’m sorry.” I shake my head.
“Would you have anything to eat? I haven’t eaten for I don’t know how long, and I’m hungry.” The voice is wailing, but insistent, like a far-off siren. The teeth suggest a bad drug habit.
“Could you buy me something to eat at the next station? Something small, a roll, or a candy bar, anything.” The person lifts the hood of their jumper, and picks a strand of matted, ashen hair, pulling at it with a nervous tic. The hair is so tangled it’s almost impossible to know how long it is, or what color it was before it became this uncombed, dust-colored mess. At the roots it’s greasy, and darker than at the ends, and it sticks to the pinkish brown scalp.
“I don’t have any money.”
The train rolls into the station. I pick up my backpack. The junkie is blocking my way.
“At least do you have a comb I could borrow?” The mere thought of touching this person’s hair makes me gag. They haven’t washed in a while.
“Excuse me, let me pass, please.”
The person moves aside, but not enough for me to go past. He, or she, I still can’t figure out which, is not trying to stop me; they’re just high, and not well aware of the physical dimensions.
“Let me through.”
I go out of the train energetically, and pick up speed as I walk out of the station and into the town. It’s still daytime, but the light is already seeping out. The contrasts are getting higher, and the town looks almost attractive in this chiaroscuro. Maybe after my studies I should come back and have my practice here, with my parents and my brother. The family clan: that’s not such a bad idea. At first I’d be helped by my family’s reputation, and it would be easier to establish myself. I’ll talk to them over the festive dinner.
It’s beginning to rain; just a drizzle, not an epic, Chekhovian storm. As I look up to the darkening sky, suddenly I become certain that the dreams of the steppe will cease now. I see a glimpse of my future: I will not become a great surgeon, but a mediocre dermatologist, mildly satisfied with my life, mildly disappointed with myself. I will continue to paint as a hobby, but I know, in this moment of clarity, that my landscapes will always seem false, like they were painted from dreams, not reality.