Lost City

Robert Wexelblatt

The sun had just touched the steppe when we climbed out of the Land Rovers, beating dust off our clothes, a gesture that had become second nature. Our shadows stretched jaggedly over a low heap of rubble. Because of the rosy light, the damage looked fresh, as though the city had been razed a mere six hours ago and not six centuries.

Krueger squatted and picked up a pebble. “Right where you're supposed to be,” he said, addressing either the stone in his hand or the hillock of gravel.

The last week had humbled even Krueger. He didn't crow about his navigation; on the contrary, he spoke as if the city were to be congratulated for not having relocated. 

We could tell he was moved, and so the rest of us held our tongues. This was having his moment of triumph, and anyway, the steppe had abraded the enthusiasm of the rest of us, worn down to our dendrites. Nice for Krueger, we thought. Though he hadn't promised us anything more than this tumescence of debris, who could have helped to hope for something richer, grander, stranger? The phrase lost city tends to stimulate the imagination.

On the far side of the rubble, hundreds of yards away and halfway up a swale, we could make out several huts and three cultivated plots marked out by stones. Nothing was moving over there, not even a goat.

“That's a surprise,” somebody said. We had grown used to seeing the black tents and beshitted flocks of the nomads whose paths we occasionally crossed but nothing resembling huts.

 “Suppose we could get a beer over there?” Krueger joked. And, to raise our spirits, we laughed.

We picked our way gingerly over the ruins. It was impossible to make any sense of them; that is, to see them as an ex-city. Where once, according to Krueger, there had been an ornate mosque, four wide boulevards, a marketplace, cisterns, and gardens, now there was nothing at all. Not so much as two joined bricks, no trace of the twelve-foot-thick walls that were supposed to have surrounded but failed to protect the place. The destruction had been methodical and thorough. Modern artillery is haphazard by comparison. Even a bombed-out city still has a skeleton; you can make out where the streets ran, where the foundations had been dug. But here, the pulverizing had been retail, not wholesale.

By noon it was too hot to do anything but make camp by the Rovers and eat a meal of corned beef hash. We still had plenty of water, but it was warm, and our mood was glum.

***

Krueger had organized the trip, promising us a kind of working escape, a vacation adventure to take us away from our humdrum lives. He called us, the most bored of his college chums, sold us on the idea, pried a couple thousand dollars out of each of us, and eked out the expenses with an advance on his photographs and a small grant from an obscure educational foundation where his wife had contacts. His plan was to retrace a forgotten trade route in Central Asia, a minor spur of the Silk Road. We were to travel from West to East, pick up a pair of Land Rovers in Germany and stop well short of the Chinese frontier. Krueger had it all worked out. We could pack everything we needed, he said. Language would be no problem, as he'd learned some basic Uzbek and spoke fluent Russian. He had a good idea of where the city had been and reckoned it would take less than three weeks to get there, allowing for a little searching and no more than a couple more to get back. The site was somewhere in the middle of blank space on the map rather forbiddingly named the Hunger Steppe.

According to Krueger, even in its halcyon days, Suzam-Ord was no metropolis. It probably housed only a few thousand people. For a few decades, though, it had been fabulously rich. Then, a Mongol khan, who was busy pillaging up north, sent three messengers down to the city demanding tribute, a routine transaction for the time. But the caliph of Suzam-Ord, despising the nomadic infidels and puffed up with hubris, had the three messengers beheaded. For six months, nothing happened, and Suzam-Ord rolled on, fat and happy. Then one morning, the city awoke to find a swarm of barbarians on its doorstep, ferocious, foul-smelling men on fierce, tiny horses. They took the city, slaughtered its citizens, sealed up its springs, and razed every edifice. Before riding off, the khan is supposed to have laid a curse on the place. After that, there were no more caravans, and Suzam-Ord vanished from the maps and almost from memory.

Krueger had learned all this from an old manuscript he got from some professor pal of his wife's. We met in New York. Over dinner at an Afghan restaurant, he unrolled a copy of the manuscript. Were we in, were we up for an adventure? Were we bored with our lives? We were. The five of us drank to the discovery of Suzam-Ord with neat vodka. Why not? We had all looked up to Krueger in the old days. He had been our motivator, our idea-man. He organized our parties, talked us into going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, found us tickets to Hair, bought the beat-up Chevy that got us to Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break and halfway back. Now he was rescuing us a break from the ennui of our careers and the monotony of our marriages. Why shouldn't we follow him, even now, even to the lost city of Suzam-Ord? No doubt we were rescuing him as well. Krueger was the hyperkinetic sort; he couldn't bear idleness. He was just the kind of man to take improbable vacations, to order a bucket of oysters, to look for the best trout stream in Scotland, change careers and marry three times.

***

We dug a latrine and spent the evening reminiscing. We turned in early, slept fitfully, and were up at first light, making use of the latrine. As for Krueger, he was already at the highest point of the rubble, snapping photographs.

“The ruins at dawn,” he cried down to us dramatically.

“What ruins,” we shouted back. 

Considering the emptiness that stretched to the horizon, it was hard to believe there had ever been enough here to support even a small village. Yet there must still have been a trickle of water that escaped the Mongols' seals, enough to sustain those little gardens over by the huts.

“How long are we going to stay here?” one of us asked.

Krueger made a dismissive motion with his arm as he peered through his camera, clicked, then shrugged. “We can head back tomorrow.”

This was welcome news. We had had an uneasy night. It wasn't quite homesickness we felt, and it wasn't superstition; it wasn't even the diet of canned goods, but it was something. Nobody had mentioned the story of the curse; nevertheless, there was no denying the place had a bad feeling about it. We had grown accustomed to the vacancy of the steppes, but this was something else. The utter destruction, the finality of it, the story of massacre, perhaps all that made us sleep badly, gave us bad dreams.

Once he had all the pictures he wanted, Krueger suggested we go over to the huts.

“What for? There's obviously nobody there.”

Krueger looked at us over his reddish beard. “Hey, we're explorers. Remember?”

It wasn't yet nine o'clock, but the heat was already oppressive. To get to the huts, we walked around the ruins rather than trying to pick our way over the debris. The sun would have heated the stones, and it was safer; nothing easier than to lose your footing on a pile like that, to twist an ankle, or worse.

The huts turned out to be ramshackle affairs of lath and tarpaper, but they were reinforced against the wind and weather with milled two-by-fours linked with steel strips. The roofs were corrugated tin and looked surprisingly firm. 

The first hut had a proper wooden door. Krueger knocked three times.

We waited, expecting nothing. But then the door was opened by an ancient fellow with facial hair that made him look like a Tartar out of a painting. He wore a kind of sheet over a t-shirt and shorts and invited us to come in. He greeted us in Russian. 

Krueger answered him, then translated. “He said welcome, and would we care for some tea.”  We filed in. The floor was covered with two rugs that must once have been handsome.

A second man was seated on a folding chair at a card table. He looked even older than the first one. Six more folding chairs were scattered around the room. The old man at the card table nodded at us but said nothing. The other one, though, made a little speech.

“We saw you arrive last evening,” said our host. “Forgive us for not coming to welcome you to our city. We didn't think you'd be staying the night. Please make yourselves comfortable.”

We arranged the chairs in a semi-circle.

“Where are you from?”

Krueger spoke for us. “We're Americans, from the United States.”

“Ah,” said the man evincing no surprise. “Sooner or later, Americans go everywhere, even to the moon. Like your Lewis and Clark,” he chuckled.

Krueger was amazed, and he translated. The crack about Lewis and Clark astonished the rest of us too. Krueger asked the old man why he called the place his city.

“Because this is our city. We belong to it,” the old man answered and treated us to what may have been a smile but looked like a grimace.

“I don’t understand,” said Krueger. 

A faint whistle issued from the teapot. Our host motioned for his silent companion to see to it, and when the older man made a face at him, our host gently raised a finger.

Then the door opened, and two more human antiquities shambled in. Unlike our host, who could still stand upright, they were stooped. One was wearing a Chicago Cubs cap. When he heard that we were Americans, he laughed as if this were a terrific joke and had to shake all our hands. 

He kept pointing to his cap and nodding. “Cups,” he said. “Never win.”

The other newcomer was less voluble but managed a bitter little speech, quickly translated by Krueger. “Welcome to Suzam-Ord, once the diamond of the steppe and the wonder of Asia, but now a corpse on a dry mattress.”

The three others scowled at him.

Krueger translated.

We were each handed a glass containing about two fingers of some kind of tea. It was black and thick with sugar.

Another old man showed up. More nodding, grimaces and/or smiles. Suddenly, all of them had something to say. It was too much for Krueger to translate, and he gave up. More tea was brewed, more chairs occupied. The already overheated hut was soon stifling. Krueger fell into deep conversation with two of the old men and apparently forgot about us. Our host did most of the talking. The others had a lot to say, too, but to each other rather than Krueger. Their speeches grew longer, more emphatic, and, apparently, polemical. Eventually, they ignored us and began arguing with one another. Kreuger took out his notebook and a pencil.

After fifteen minutes of this, we were all bored and dripping with sweat. 

“For God's sake, it's unbearable. Let's get out of here,” one of us whispered.

“Come on, Krueger, we’re taking off.”

“What?”

“We're dying in here. And we don't know what they're arguing about. Let's go.”

Krueger told us to shut up and turned back to listen.

As soon as we got to our feet, everybody fell silent. They looked more embarrassed rather than offended, as if they had forgotten us while they were arguing. 

Krueger offered some excuse for our departure, but we weren't permitted to leave until we had shaken hands all around. Krueger stayed.

“Maybe they’re ghosts,” one of us joked on the way back to our camp.

“Oh, sure. A ghost with a Cubs cap.”

“Caretakers then?”

“Of what? Gravel?”

“Hey, what do you suppose those codgers were going on about?”

“The prudence of leaving heads on strangers.”

“Odd, wasn’t it?”

“What?”

“That business about this being their city.”

“Well, old men. You know.”

Really old. They all looked at least ninety.”

“Everything dries out here. Maybe they're only thirty-five.”

***

While we waited for Krueger to return, we stowed most of the gear in the Rovers. We left the largest tent up and, in its shade, played poker for Cohibas and Partagas. We'd picked up the Cuban cigars in Poland and, even those who'd give up tobacco smoked them. A cigar became a postprandial ritual for us each night, mulling over our lives with words as light and thick as smoke.

Someone asked if we ought to check on Krueger. We made jokes. “What if those ancient guys are being the last of the Golden Horde?”

“What if they're ghosts? They may look bloodless, but what if they're still bloodthirsty after half a millennium?”

Krueger sauntered in around four-thirty, red and sweaty as though he'd been in a sauna. He downed half a canteen of water. We had plenty of questions, but he said what we were asking was a little crude and promised to read us his notes after dinner. “I tried to get down everything I could,” he explained. “I wrote it out like it was a monologue. I couldn't keep the speakers straight.”

“So, they didn’t even try to cut your head off?”

Krueger made a peevish face and finished off the canteen. “After dinner, okay? Give me a little time to rehydrate and look this stuff over.”

“Okay. We'll eat early, then. What's on?”

“Beef chili over noodles.”

“Let's have that last bottle of Montrachet. We can drink to lost cities.”

“And the ones waiting for us.”

The temperature drops like a guillotine at night on the steppe. What clouds there are vanish, and you feel like you're floating through outer space. The infinitude of stars made us feel like a bunch of astronauts.

Seeing how it was our last night before turning back, Krueger pulled a burlap sack out of his pack and took out a bottle of Remy-Martin. He poured us all a dram and sat by the lantern to read. Later, after we were all back home, he mailed us each a spruced-up copy.

***

He began in a low voice and read steadily.

“We were all born in a village twenty kilometers to the East of here. Everybody in our village is descended from the few who escaped from Suzam-Ord. The story of the survivors was passed down to us. They hid under dead bodies for two days waiting for the ruthless horsemen to leave. Then they scraped a living from the steppe through small farming and trading with the nomads, to whom they sold some of their daughters. Always our fathers kept the memory of Suzam-Ord alive, even maintaining something of its traditions too, though in a fitful and probably deformed fashion. We had no Koran, only a few verses that we boys all had to learn by heart:

So, when the trumpet is blown with a single blast

and the earth and the mountains are lifted up and

crushed with a single blow,

then, on that day, the terror shall come to pass,

and heaven shall be split, for upon that day it shall be very frail. . . .

“And that's how our lives went for generations until the Revolution, then collectivization, the Terror, and finally the Great Patriotic War. All of us were of fighting age when the war broke out, and when we learned of it, we met together and decided to volunteer together. We were full of dreams, sick to death of our village, fed up with the steppe and poverty. We wanted to go somewhere else. This is how we became good Soviet citizens, men of the future. We fought for four years, though not in the same unit. Those of us who survived didn't want to come back. We stayed on in Russia and started families and were sure we were free of the past. Not one of us told his wife or children about Suzam-Ord. The truth is that we were ashamed of our ancestors. They were backward and for generations clung to the tatters of a vanishing religion and memories of a dead, once-rich city. They were superstitious and unimaginative. We all believed we had gone well beyond them, that we had slogged through the horrors of war into a new dawn, free of curses and prophecies. Without us, without its young men, the village slowly died. The population drifted off—joining the nomads or into Siberia, who knows where?

“One May Day, the three of us ran into each another in a parade of veterans. We threw our arms around each other’s necks, overcome with emotion. We resolved to see if anyone else from our village had also made it through the war. It took two years for us to find each other. First, we exchanged letters, then made visits on holidays. Maybe it's just the nature of old men, but the more decrepit we grew, the more the old ways seemed to reassert themselves and the more the new ways that had appeared strong as iron began to rust. We found ourselves talking about Suzam-Ord and our fathers, who insisted the city would be reborn when the curse was raised. Perhaps, we began to think, it is up to us, up to us to lay that curse. After all, who else was there to do it?

“How much did we actually believe? Well, it would not be misleading to say none of us believed with a whole heart. But even a provisional, far-fetched faith was better than the emptiness we all felt. Perhaps you, too, have felt this need? What else could have made you and your friends travel halfway around the world just to look at that pile of stones over there? It's hardly attractive, that quintessence of nothingness. I don't say that you share our longing, but you may at least sympathize with it. I imagine that, for an American, such yearnings express themselves in the wish to be in motion. That's how it was with us when we were young. Isn't it true that you all dream of riding into the West and never stopping? No doubt, as a people, you Americans are still too young to feel what six centuries of irrationality and stasis mean. Well, we, too, felt restless. For us, though, the way lay to the East.

“So we agreed to move back. Now we are all here, without our wives, children, and grandchildren. When we left, we told them our intentions and begged their pardon. We had to endure their tears, their reproaches, their worries, anger, and at last, their mockery. That was terrible, but we had each other. You too have your friends and will know their value, how they bear you up, even when they argue with you.

“As for us, we miss our families, and we argue all the time. Everything is a matter for dispute, everything. Is there anything in the prophecy? Are we fools? Was Stalin a monster or a hero? To argue has become, in a sense, our calling. Perhaps if we were young enough, we might attempt to rebuild the city. But, as you see, we are too old and too few. Our lives have given us many experiences and opinions, with much to disagree about. Above all, though, we disagree about Suzam-Ord.  For example, if the curse is real and, if so, how it can be ended. Some of us say they believe in the prophecy that the city will again become great; a few go so far as to claim that it is destined to become the center of an empire extending to the Banda Sea. Others believe in the prophecy too, but more modestly; they think that the city will someday be rebuilt and that it's rebuilding that will lift the curse. The curse itself is a great cause of dispute among us because no one knows its exact nature. Those who don't believe in it at all say it was just a Mongol trick to frighten off trade. Others say that not only that there is a curse, but that to remove it will require some special sacrifice—three beheadings, for example, to make up for those of the khan's emissaries. Oh yes, last night there was even some talk about you and two of your friends in this regard. No, please don't be alarmed! I assure you that this proposal came from the very smallest of minorities, and even he was just making a joke, though in the way men joke about holy things. Anyway, most of us believe in the curse and that the prophecy is tied to it, that one is entangled with the other. They say they have to believe in the one for the sake of the other. Underneath this wishful believing, however, is the suspicion that there is no curse to expiate and no prophecy to be fulfilled, that the only truths are the dictates of geography and the unrepeatable events of history. Geography is obviously against us, while politics and commerce have long ago passed Suzam-Ord by. If we were to credit only facts, we would have to admit our city is dead three times over, that it is impossible to build even the humblest of expectations on this stony ground. You can see that for yourself. Yet some have an answer even for this. They argue that, because time moves in cycles, every past is bound to become some future, as the present will soon be that past and, again, a still more distant future. The most pious of us argue that our best course lies in silence, practical activity, and fulfilling the commandment for daily prayers. He declares that everything lies in the hands of Allah.

“Well, who knows? Perhaps Allah does watch over the steppe and long ago counted every pebble in Suzam-Ord.  Where one has faith in nothing, it becomes easy to believe anything. If, after all, we have seen, even one of us can believe, then why shouldn't we all? Why shouldn't the city be rebuilt? With Him, everything is possible. It is even possible that you and your friends have come here as Allah's instruments. The world, we know, is changing. What we thought was history, what we thought were our true lives, turns out merely to have been history holding its breath. We have come back to die. Why shouldn't our city come back to life?

“The steppe is a lonesome place. It's hard to put down roots here. Only the nomads are truly at home on the steppe because they are always on the move, and the steppe was made for them. A city on the steppe, isn't it an absurdity? And yet there once was such a city. And here we are, you and we together, because of this city.

“We're content to end our days in each other's company and to be buried here beside our city. Who knows? Perhaps we are the sacrifices that will end the curse. Maybe the emptiness of our lives will be exalted by the fullness of our deaths.”

***

It's been more than a year now, plenty of time for us all to get back in harness, steeped again in the routines of our lives. Even Krueger seems finally to have settled down. We don't keep in close touch, just a phone call from time to time. We all say we're fine, families doing well, work going all right. We make jokes about the ready availability of lettuce and oranges, and if any of us still smoke cigars, we smoke them in solitude, on the deck, at night, beside our gas grills. We are clean-shaven, take regular showers, and everything that happens to us is in accord with normal laws. We feel only what one ought to feel, including boredom, and our sleep is untroubled.


About the Author

Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published eight collections of short stories; two books of essays; two short novels; two books of poems; stories, essays, and poems in a variety of journals, and a novel awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction.