KARIYA'S PHONE STOPS WORKING SOMEWHERE IN THE air above Hokkaido. He isn't sure what happened; at the beginning of the flight, he switched it – dutifully – to airplane mode when the captain reminded the passengers to do so, but as soon as he lands in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, his phone has stopped working entirely. He presses the power button, the home button, every combination of buttons he can think of, but in the end, even after being plugged into a charger for several hours, his phone is decidedly and irreversibly dead.
The shadow of his phone hangs over him as he stumbles his way down the escalator and into customs. Is there an Apple Store on Sakhalin? If there isn't, can he buy a temporary replacement? And what if there is some sort of emergency before then? Will Amakusa Tokisada (his dog, a purebred Pembroke corgi) be all right in the kennel he booked? The agent who checks his passport, a friendly blonde woman who is more chatty than Kariya is comfortable with, speaks halting, accented English which he has trouble understanding. As she flips through his passport, Kariya stares at the blurred red reflection of it on the plastic covering below her hand, certain that something else is on the verge of going wrong.
It is an ominous way to begin two weeks in a foreign country. His employer JapanRail, in conjunction with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism, has selected Kariya as a representative for their ongoing talks with the Oblast. On the surface he is expected to help orchestrate the logistics of a deal to increase ferry traffic between Korsakov – a small town on the southern tip of the island – and Wakkanai in Hokkaido, but in practice the desired outcome is uncertain. The bureaucrats in Wakkanai would rather their city had fewer Russian sailors, not more, and the Russians hadn't been particularly welcoming either. It is, in many ways, unclear who is pushing for the project at all. But still, Kariya's boss has sent him to help lay the groundwork, and so now here he is, in Russia for the first time, alone and uncertain what, really, he is supposed to accomplish.
When Kariya enters the lobby, a cab driver holds up a sign with KARIYA written in roman characters. There are few other passengers on the flight (with an eight-thirty arrival, unusually late for Sakhalin) and Kariya finds the man easily, or rather, he is so obvious that he is impossible to miss. They speak brief, broken English, and afterward Kariya follows the man to his car, an old Toyota, which speeds them through the darkness to a hotel someone in the ministry has booked on his behalf. The lights of the Russian city smoulder in the distance as they approach, and Kariya wonders why the surrounding night seems thicker, more lustrous, somehow, than the night he is used to.
The security at the hotel is extensive. Kariya arrives shortly after ten in the evening, and already the main doors are locked, a shutter grate pulled down over the handles. Kariya sets down his luggage and presses an intercom which (he hopes) will awaken someone to let him inside. An impossible silence lingers, and what follows is a long string of Russian words he can't understand. After several moments of trying to communicate through a confused mix of English and Mandarin, something buzzes and the shutter begins to rise. The doors behind the grate unlock.
Inside, a sleepy man at the reception desk takes down Kariya's name and confirms his reservation. It appears that everything is in order, and Kariya is handed a set of keys and ushered to a dilapidated elevator.
"Breakfast?" Kariya asks in English.
The man shakes his head, then raises four fingers to indicate the floor Kariya should go to. Kariya presses the button and soon the elevator jerks upward and slowly climbs. Kariya hasn't ridden on an elevator like this in some time; his apartment complex is only two stories, and the elevator at his office is sleek and modern and programmed to say Have a nice day as you exit. For a moment he has an image in his head of a box suspended by a cord, the cord fraying and snapping, and knowing that he is being ridiculous, he tries to distract himself with his phone, but that still is broken, and by the time he reaches his room he is so exhausted by cycles of worry that he drops his luggage and collapses on the bed, shoes and all. As he closes his eyes, he is dimly aware of the stains where the wallpaper meets the ceiling, the scuff marks on the corner of the nightstand, the faint scent of a summery mold permeating the room. For now, this is home.
Kariya isn't due at the ferry office until eleven, and since the hotel doesn't provide a breakfast, he decides it's best to get out and experience the city. This is what all of his friends have suggested he should do. "Sakhalin is Russia, right? And even if it's out in the country, Russia is still European. There must be lots to see!" Saya, his best friend's wife and a classmate from high school, had insisted. "Go to a museum or something."
On a sidestreet, he finds a Cinnabon, which isn't a brand he is familiar with, but the English script is more welcoming, somehow, than the forest of Cyrillic he is surrounded by, so he goes inside and purchases coffee and a doughnut filled with what turns out to be strawberry jelly. He sits at a stool with a view of the alley and makes a mental note of the location as he sits, chewing his breakfast, and considers where he is.
Sacha Idell is a writer and translator from Northern California. His stories appear in Ploughshares, Electric Literature, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. His published translations include stories and essays by Kyusaku Yumeno and Toshiro Sasaki. He lives in Baton Rouge, where he works as coeditor of The Southern Review.
THE ELIZABETH KOSTOVA FOUNDATION and VAGABOND, Bulgaria's English Monthly, cooperate in order to enrich the English language with translations of contemporary Bulgarian writers. Every year we give you the chance to read the work of a dozen young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable. Some of them have been translated in English for the first time. The EKF has decided to make the selection of authors' work and to ensure they get first-class English translation, and we at VAGABOND are only too happy to get them published in a quality magazine. Enjoy our fiction pages.