A knapsack landed in the snow, followed by a boy. Evening. Bright light on the horizon. A raw piece of sky sliced out of the gray. You can see your breath. The metal fence sparkles with frost. The wall of concrete sparkles too. Beyond the wall, a row of windowpanes, tablets of light, the glow of a prefab block of flats. The boy quickly gets to his feet, brushes the snow from his knees. A blanket with an ID number hangs draped across the coil of barbed wire. Everything here has a number, flashes through his mind. He glances around, throws the knapsack on his back. In it he has a T-shirt, soap, matches, a knife he stole from the canteen. In his pocket, a carefully folded piece of paper with the name of a city somewhere in the north. He needs to go north. Somewhere up there is his brother. First of all, he needs to find a phone, or at least a map. No. First of all, he needs to pull the blanket off the fence. Otherwise they’ll find him. Also because of the frost. He’s never felt that kind of cold before. He needs the blanket or he’ll freeze.
He tries to yank it down, but the barbs on the wire just cut deeper into the fibers. It’s no use. A dog barks somewhere in the distance. Everything goes dark before his eyes. He leaves the blanket. Runs away. Disappears into the trees. Hands covered with scratches. He’s torn his skin somewhere. Wipes his palm in the snow. Sucks the wound. Blood flows across his palm. Do they know about him yet? He looks back again at the blanket draped over the fence, but there isn’t time. He runs. Branches whip past his head, twisted cracks in the bushes against the sky, tree branches so dry from the cold he could break them. He could break them all off if he had time. He stomps the snow. His feet go under, but he jumps right back out, kicks the nearest tree trunk, runs on. He hates the trees. How many months did he spend looking at them through the house’s barred windows, watching as they lost their leaves, pulling sap from underground, turning brittle. He didn’t know their names, had never seen that kind of trees, full of birds he also came to hate, just out of sheer helplessness. He runs through dead grass, stems hollow, with no milk. There is nothing living here. Even in people, life has ceased. Gone rotten from inside and died. Everything drenched in apathy.
He had to stop to catch his breath. Only now did it hit him how scared he was. His knees and hands were shaking. He looked back. The house, surrounded by the fence, was still visible in the distance. Glowing under the evening sky. Soon darkness would fall, the start of another night in that stuffy hall. The sighs of restless dreams. He could see all the muscle twitches, involuntary movements. Ribs jutting out of bodies like radiators. Someone hugging a blanket, staring into the dark. Someone asleep. Body moving, breathing, accepting food. But the life in it already ceased. There is nothing living here.
The crack in the clouds on the horizon healed up, and the sky condensed into a monolithic gray mass. It looked like waves. He no longer remembered how long he had been traveling. How many days, months, even years, had gone by since they left. He didn’t want to know. He had a piece of paper with an address, needed to go north. Needed to find his brother. He broke into a run again. Suddenly he remembered how he used to run. The best in his whole school. Long-distance. But the school, even the ground he ran on, no longer exist. Track lines drawn with white lime blown away by the wind. The school had cracked open in the bombing, from the cellar all the way up to the roof — the whole building snapped in two and collapsed to the ground. The sink from the chemistry lab poked out of the third floor like an exposed tooth. He stared at the sink in astonishment, unable to move, until somebody led him away, down, underground. The cellar ceiling shook, sprinkling them with dust.
The body remembers more. Remembers more honestly. He leaned his legs against the terrain. You’re going to run races, someone back then had said. You’re going to run . . . He fell into the snow, but jumped right back up. Caught his fingernails on a sharp fold of bark. You’re going to run, someone back then had said. He ran as hard as he could. Bit by bit pumping breath through his body. Icy oxygen pierced his nose like a needle, branched into his lungs, poured into his thighs and arms through his blood. He could see his hands shoot into the freezing air, fall out of view. He looked back, a dog bark somewhere in the distance: The blanket, flashed through his mind, they found it.
The forest broke. The terrain began to drop. A road led downhill. He heard a car. Red circles of taillights through the naked branches. He came to a stop at a tree trunk, lowered his head, breathing, swallowed. Took a quick look around in every direction: woods, road, woods, barking. He chose the road. No time to think. He ran down the hillside. Forcing his way through the low growth. Vines and runners, using the back of his hands. Branches lashed at his arms, but he was too cold to feel pain. A fence. Fences everywhere, he thought. Inserted his fingers into the wire mesh. The fence shook, rattled, as he leaned into it with his legs. His frozen fingertips stuck to the metal. Finally, he swung himself across to the other side. Let go. The fence bounced back. The sound like a box of nails pouring out on the ground. He landed in the snow. Quickly stood. Took off running. The snow squeaked under his shoes.
The road was farther than he’d thought. Stretched out of sight. He stood on an asphalt surface. Tiny bare twigs sprouting from the concrete joints, cracks. Rows of snow-covered tires on the ground. Banks, curves, uneven terrain. A racetrack, the boy said to himself. He took in the view. A light came on in a concrete structure a short way away, then floodlights on tall poles lit up the entire site. The boy dropped to a crouch, hands instinctively flying up to protect his head. The light had weight. He could feel it on his back. Bent forward, he dashed across the track and slipped into the low trees on the other side. The branches doubled, halogen searing the icy air, layering the trees’ shadows, highlighting every crystal of snow.
Someone walked out in front of the building and yelled into the open space. The boy could only glimpse his profile outlined in light. A man’s voice: he shouted a word a few times. A wisp of breath rose, curled in the air like a flag. The boy lay down in the snow. Engine. Someone starting an engine. Then another light. Cone-shaped. The boy cautiously raised his head. A man stood at the seat of a quad bike, the machine rocking beneath him, reflecting the uneven terrain, the man balancing out all the ups and downs in his knees. He came to a stop in the middle of the track and swept his gaze around the site. The snow had all been trodden down, the dirt dug up by off-road tires in spots. No use trying to look for tracks. The man drove slowly around, the light picking treetops out of the darkness. They flashed goldenly, then sank back into darkness. The boy lay pressed against the ground. He didn’t dare move as the light swept past above his head. Every tree branch was an axle, an invisible shaft, with an endless series of shadows spreading out from each one, rotating right to left like hands on a clock. The boy closed his eyes. The glare of the lamp lingered above him a moment, but then tugged the shadows back like reins, sideways, into the dark, the absolute nothingness.
The sound of the engine finally receded and a short while later went completely silent. Far away the snow creaked under heavy footsteps. Far away a door slammed and the floodlights dimmed. Just a few deep-red spots cooling in the black sky. The site was plunged into darkness and total silence. An unfamiliar constellation glittered in the sky. Even the stars look different here, thought the boy. He shivered with cold. You need to move. The trembling around the stars refused to let him go. It’s the cold, he realized. You need to go. He rose to all fours. Stood, carefully brushed off the snow. Ran crouched through the bushes to the next fence.
He had never seen so many fences in his life. So much wire. When they had detained him, a woman wrote a number on his arm in fat marker. The guards called him by the number. Nobody there knew how to say his name, so they just took it away from him. He had landed in what was known as a detention facility. From what he could tell, it was no different from prison. Except maybe that in prison most people know why they are locked up. All the buildings were overcrowded. The first two months he slept in a metal shed. Fifteen or twenty container units, squeezed in side by side, arranged so as to create a square space in between. You could sit in your shed or stand in the middle of the square. Above the square was a fence, wire mesh welded to sheet metal. A pen with no escape. Through the fence, there were tree branches visible — at the time they still had leaves. Birds perched on the fence. It was sometime around then that he began to hate them. People moved about the space inside the wires. But most of them were no longer alive. He could see it in their eyes. Their bodies moved, but inside it was dark. They took away their phones, ID papers, computers. Some of the boys exercised with water-filled plastic bottles. Lifting them up and down like dumbbells, the muscle with the number on it tightening and relaxing. The blood that fed it was dead. Then their bodies hung suspended in space. Rising and lowering, hands clenching wire mesh, face pressed to metal with each pull-up, then sinking down again. The others would stand around, encouraging them, counting reps. But not one of them saw the nothingness in those young bodies growing stronger with every pull-up. The fresh, flexible sinews developed over thirteen, fourteen years. Arms stuck in wire. Stuck in a time gone rotten beyond repair. Material flow. They were the only ones left. The ones who had nowhere to go. Parents dead, missing, lost somewhere along the way — or a long time ago, somewhere back there, where the white lines of athletic tracks disappeared like a blackboard being erased, where playing fields disappeared, whole sports arenas, where all of a sudden sport, like so many other things, became totally absurd. A couple useless contacts, nonexistent phone numbers, smudged pieces of paper with relatives’ addresses. A whole cold and hostile continent around you, enclosed inside a double fence with razor wire.
The boy ran down to the road. A truck stopped at the roundabout. In the red glow of the brake lights he hopped onto the trailer and stood on the rear bumper. A tarp stretched across the metal frame, held down by straps on either side. He quickly scanned the attachment mechanism. The metal buckles were easy to open. He loosened the straps, and no sooner had he slipped through the opening than the truck rattled into motion.
The trailer was empty. A murky yellow light shone through the tarp. The space turned light to dark and back as the truck passed under the village streetlights, picking up speed. Then it lit up one last time and went totally dark. The bottom thundered at every bump. It felt even more freezing in there than it had been outside. The boy sat on his knapsack, leaned a shoulder against the metal side rail, pulled his knees to his chin, and wrapped his arms around them. Breathed on his hands to warm them at least a little. He had to clench his teeth to keep them from chattering. The truck carried him into the dark. He didn’t know which direction. He had no idea where he was, how far away the cities were. He needed a city. Any city. He wouldn’t stick out so much there. He had a piece of paper with an address. Final coordinates. His brother was somewhere there in the north. Waiting for him there.
They stood in a hall. Some sort of warehouse, sheets of metal, rust-eaten holes, oil and gasoline stains on concrete. The man who had brought them had taken away all their luggage. In English he told them he had to take their mobile phones, for safety reasons — one ring and all is lost, he said, then disappeared. Someone else took over the group. A European man. Amir couldn’t tell what nationality. White skin speckled with birthmarks, tall, blond, dressed in coveralls. He had a watch tattooed on his wrist. Very realistic-looking. He walked around with a tape measure in his hand. Pulling it out, then letting it slide back into the case. Everyone was waiting for something. The man walked around the group without saying a word. Inspecting each of them, one by one. Estimating weight, studying body structure, brown faces, black eyes, touching their arms.
There were twelve of them. Most barely adult young men around Amir’s age. His brother was the youngest. Still a child, he realized when he looked at him: His brother stood next to him, searching with his eyes, assessing the situation. He tried not to let on that he was afraid, but Amir knew for sure he was. He swallowed as his throat tightened. The oldest in the group was a slight, wiry man with several days’ stubble. He was one of those people whose age is hard to guess. He might have been around forty, maybe less, or much more. His skin was dark, shriveled, drawn. It looked thin as plastic. The steel-gray needles of the man’s beard poked through his skin, thrusting to the surface, emerging like a cat’s claws from the pads on its feet.
The European came to a stop in front of the small man: He stood silently facing the Arab. Amir didn’t know where the feeling came from, but he began to feel ashamed. Ashamed for the man. The longer the European looked at the man, the more ashamed Amir felt. The feeling came from the nerves behind his eyes and the top of his head, going down to his stomach and into his thighs. It was physical, almost palpable. He felt ashamed for the man’s skin, for the beard on his face, for his large-jointed hands, for the braid of veins that wound across the bones on the back of his hands, for the blood that swelled the veins. It made him angry. The way he held his body, the beard, the hands, and yes, even the way the blood streamed through them. Amir could see a little vein jumping side to side around one of the bones. Seeing it, his shame slowly changed to disgust. He hated the man for the way his body visibly drew attention to his origin. He hated that he was like him. The man meanwhile was a nervous wreck: hunched under the gaze that would not stop sizing him up, he lowered his head, staring at a point on the concrete floor, lingering on a small crack in the filthy gray surface. He didn’t dare take his eyes off of it. The European with the watch tattoo absentmindedly pulled the tape measure out and let it slide back in. The small man remained fixed on the crack, running his gaze from one end to the other, back and forth, as if trying to make it deeper. He couldn’t let it go. He was waiting for what would come next. But nothing came next. The two men just stood there, motionless, and in the silence Amir heard the sound of dripping water. He couldn’t be certain, though: maybe it wasn’t water; maybe the watch, tattooed on the European man’s white skin, had begun to tick.
Finally, the European released the small man from his gaze. He took a few steps toward Amir, but didn’t stop at him. He began to study his brother. Again he seemed dissatisfied with something. There were remnants of displeasure in his eyes. Amir’s heart pounded. He glanced over at the little man hunched beside him. He still couldn’t take his eyes off the concrete, fixed on his crack, but he seemed less agitated than before. Amir slid his eyes to his brother: His face had turned ashen. He couldn’t endure the man’s gaze either. He wanted to wipe the sweat from his forehead, but hesitated, arm awkwardly extended in space. Briefly he touched his fingertips to his forehead, then immediately pulled his hand back, leaving it to hang helplessly at his side. He may have wanted to do something with it — cup his other arm’s elbow, hide it in his pocket — but he did nothing. Just left it touching the seam on the side of his pants. Amir could see the fingers shaking. The trembling spread into him, repeating itself inside of him. He noticed that the hands on the European’s watch tattoo showed six hours, forty-eight minutes. He wondered what that detail could mean in the life of the man. Nothing came to him.
Suddenly the wrist bone underneath the watch moved. The man released the catch and the tape measure coiled back into its case with a metallic hiss. Something had started to happen. The man turned. There was a loud rattle, every sound multiplied by the sheet metal walls, a gate opening somewhere, the sound of an engine, a corner of the dark hall glowing red, taillights, red flickers sliding across the aluminum beams piled along the walls. Two automobiles backed into the hall. A small van followed by a passenger car. The tires squealed to a stop on the concrete. The lights switched off, then the engines. A smell of oil hung in the air. The ratchet of a hand brake amid the sudden silence, then — a sound like someone prying a rusty nail from wood — the creaky hinge of an opening door.
A man in a vest with a company logo climbed out of the van. The man in the second car was the one who had brought them here and taken away their luggage and phones. Amir glanced into his face — delicate, with big lips and a big nose, and a strange softness, a simplicity about it. Maybe that was why Amir had agreed the previous evening. Plus, someone had recommended him: “They’ve got everything planned out. It’s safer than going by boat.” You paid up front. Amir lowered his eyes. He had given this man nearly all the money they had.
The men set to work. Amir watched the movement of the shoes — one worn pair of running shoes, one pair of black dress shoes, one solid pair of ankle-high work boots, leather slightly cracked in spots (those belonged to the tattooed watch). He remembered their way of walking — the running shoes’ short, vigorous steps, the dress shoes striding bowlegged, the work boots’ stop-and-go, two steps, pause, soles clicking, three steps, pause, turn, step.
They took the first boy and loaded him in. The small hunched man with the stubble shuffled in place, but didn’t dare raise his head and look in that direction. Amir saw the work boots leading the boys over to the van. Saw the hand with the wristwatch gripping a box cutter’s plastic handle, slide the blade forward using his thumb, and in a single concentrated motion slice open the side of a seat. The hand carefully removed the cover from the frame, exposing the foam cushion and the cage of metal rods beneath that gave the seat its shape. The arms took hold of the boy and maneuvered him into the cage. It all took place in silence, the only sound breathing, an occasional squeak of metal, a rustling of fabric.
The boy remained silent, spooled up inside the cage, legs crumpled beneath him, arms clamped tightly to his sides, head fit tightly into the frame of the driver’s headrest. Trapped in the cage like some monstrous corset, unable to move, he stared wide-eyed straight ahead. “OK?” someone asked. The boy nodded fearfully. They proceeded to wrap him in foam, his body bit by bit disappearing beneath the layers of cushion. The hands secured the foam in place with silver tape. Then pulled the cover back over the entire seat. Where his head was, they pierced the cover with tiny holes so he could breathe. Someone took a big needle and black thread and sewed the cover closed. The boy was gone. As if the car had swallowed him up. The hands slammed the door shut and went for the next one.
Amir swallowed drily, catching his brother’s gaze. Eyes filled with uncertainty, so black Amir thought they must be heavy, heavier than other people’s eyes. Amir answered the question he saw in them with a slight nod — to reassure his brother, make it clear that everything was all right, this was what they agreed, there was nothing to worry about. But then he ducked his head, unable to bear the look in his brother’s eyes. He wiped his forehead.
Meanwhile the man with the watch had loaded up another boy. Another seat opened and stuffed with a young, malleable body. Another pair of eyes gone, underneath a black cover. They filled the car with bodies. Then again, the hand with the watch, six forty-eight: the time began to take on a strange meaning. Amir was sure it must be something extremely important — a wave of dizziness came over him, like when a boat pitches at sea, his head swam, he needed time, just a bit more time. For the first time, he actually hesitated. He would have walked out on the spot, there were other options, other ways, but then it hit him: they have money, they have our money. He glanced over at the little man, now back in his crack again. Suddenly Amir had a terrible urge to smash him, to break his disgusting unshaved jaw in two, he could feel the blood rushing to the knuckles of his clenched fist, shove the man’s whole body into that stupid crack of his, stuff him in there till there was nothing left of him. All of this ran through Amir’s head in a hundredth of a second as the hands came for his brother. But when the man reached him, he caught the look on Amir’s face and didn’t touch his brother. Maybe because of that look, because of what happened in his eyes, the hands pulled him out of line instead.
The European led him to the smaller of the two cars. That’s good, Amir thought, they won’t be able to squeeze in as many. He looked back at his brother, standing next to two other boys and the hunched little man (he just noticed now that the man was nearly a head shorter than his brother). Amir attempted a slight smile: Everything is all right, everything is as it should be. He tried to look calm, but his hands shook and there were large beads of sweat on his forehead.
The man opened the car’s hood, engine curled like intestines. Amir hesitated. He looked the European in the face for the first time, but couldn’t make out a single feature. All he saw was movement: the European giving a slight nod of his chin toward the hood, a gesture impossible to defy, so insignificant as to rule out any questions. Amir saw a small pocket on top of the engine. The car’s body had been cut so the pocket extended up into the dashboard, but still the space was frighteningly small. He couldn’t imagine a person’s body fitting inside. He gave another hesitant glance at the European’s face and saw that the man was serious: he held the hood, waiting.
Amir looked one last time at his brother. One last time he took in that pleading look on his face: yes, pleading for assurance, pleading like a child for the lights to be left on at night. Had something else happened? Something he hadn’t noticed? Suddenly Amir was no longer sure. He flopped onto his side and started wriggling into the space. This is insane, he thought. The pocket was about as large a medium-size suitcase. When Amir was little, he and his friend had hidden inside a suitcase that big. It was tattered all over and sat on a shelf near the ceiling in the shabby apartment that belonged to his friend’s father who sharpened knives. His friend’s father was no longer alive, his friend was in the army. His brother hadn’t been born yet. He and his friend had locked themselves inside the suitcase, except that they were children, their bodies were half the size. Yet he still remembered the horror when the lid closed and the lock clicked shut. Within a minute, Amir was pounding the walls and shouting for someone to let him out. His friend just laughed. Now there was just terrible silence.
Amir tried to squeeze into the engine. He lay on his side, trying to pull his knees to his chest, but couldn’t fit his legs. The pocket was too narrow. The man stepped up and pressed his arms to his knees. Stuffed him into the crack. Amir heard a whistling in his ears, a high, piercing tone from somewhere inside him. With horror he felt his ribs compress against his lungs as all the air escaped from them against his will. The man inserted a half-liter plastic bottle of water into his hands, crunched up beneath his chin. Wave of panic. Amir started to say something, he didn’t even know what, he just wanted out, but the man slammed the hood shut on top of him. Everything plunged into darkness. Time came to a stop: six hours, forty-eight minutes.
He wanted to scream, but couldn’t breathe. He could hear nothing except his own heart thumping against his knees, pounding in his throat, face, the base of his nose. Pounding against the auto body’s metal walls. I need to calm down, he thought, or else I won’t be able to breathe. Everything was buzzing — blood accumulating in his head. He thought he was going to vomit. He clenched his jaw tightly. No need to panic, it’s not that bad. He must be getting oxygen, he suddenly realized, or else he would have passed out. He was breathing. Shallow breaths, but still. He could no longer feel his legs, knees up against his ribs, but there must be some space left for breathing. He thought of the European: Surely he knows what he’s doing. He’s transported a lot of people the same way before. He knows what he’s doing.
Amir went to work on his pulse: concentrating on his furious heartbeat, little by little, stroke by stroke, talking it down. Approaching it as a man would approach a wild horse. Where did he know that from? His childhood? His father? TV? He could see the outstretched hand, the slightly trembling fingertips nearing the defiant nostrils. The enormous holes that bring air into the wild animal’s head, the aortic hollow, the pulse in the head, the sinews, flank shudders, a ripple of flesh, a wave of life passing through muscle. And then at last the hand touches that enormous length of bone. Slides along it, toward the eyes. With every breath the fearful creature’s pulse calming more and more.
Amir finally calmed down a bit. What was going on out there? He had no idea how much time had passed. Time had come to a stop. Or was running twice as fast. It played no role. All he had now was breath, pulse, and darkness. He tried to keep it all calm. Patterns of blood formed in the darkness. Red-brown pulsing clots. They began to glow and weave together into fascinating living designs. Those are my nerves, Amir thought. He shifted his hand to touch the wall. Just to make sure it was still there. The plastic bottle slipped from his hands and dropped off to the side. He was going to need water. He tried to reach out for it, but his hands were wedged in so tightly he couldn’t move them even half an inch. The bottle disappeared from view, vanishing in the geysers of glowing dots beneath his eyelids. Or no, his eyes were open. But after a while he wasn’t even sure of that anymore.
Suddenly the whole space shook with a deafening roar: the engine was running, someone had started the car. Even if he could scream, nobody would hear him now. With horror he caught the first sweet whiffs of burned diesel fuel. The car went into motion.
Translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker