The identical nine-story apartments in the city of N. seem to have risen in the small hours of the morning and are now standing, single file, ready to witness the sunrise. In the pale light, the giants look alive. Behind them, buildings of all sizes, eager to join in, stretch their necks and turn their impatient faces toward the east. They would break through and wander off in disjointed rows were it not for the dwellings in front with hunched shoulders and clenched hands holding them in place.
One of the thousands of dormant windows in the nine-story buildings, standing shoulder to shoulder, lights up before the dawn. The window, with a brown curtain, is in building number thirteen, apartment sixty-four. Its solitary gleam urges the sleepy world to throw off the blanket of the night. In another half an hour the multitude of flickering lights from every part of the massive building will persuade the sun to rise.
In the morning Bakyt Bekseitovna slides open the brown window curtain. She squints at the bright sun and falls into deep thought.
The neighbors call her Bakapai. Once a teacher in a busy school, she dislikes her retirement. She has a prominent chin, a beak of a nose and bulging eyes; her hair, dyed dark brown, is rolled into a thick bun on the back of her head. She walks proudly with her chest thrown out. She can be warm and charming when she wants one on her side, but she is better known for her candid and outspoken nature. Among themselves, neighbors regard her as a creature from another planet whose behavior defies explanation.
Bakapai watches the blazing sunrise for some time, then looks over her right shoulder and says, “Good morning, Sabe!” She turns on both television sets, and the noise fills the lonely two-bedroom apartment. Perhaps she does this to irritate her neighbors or to dispel the solitude settled in the corners of the room. The apartment she used to share with her late husband for many years is cheerless even in the bright sunlight.
“Those shameless people sleep all day and have no relatives to whip them into shape,” Bakapai grumbles about her upstairs neighbors as she makes her creaking iron bed and prepares breakfast. She pours herself a cup of tea and says, “Sabe, will you have some?” This is another old habit of hers. She speaks, then remembers and chuckles quietly. Her husband passed away six years ago, but the sound of his shuffling still lingers in the apartment.
Bakyt Bekseitovna finishes her tea, washes the single cup, puts it back on the table and covers the bread and butter with an old newspaper. She then bangs on the water pipe near the window with a metal spoon. This is her way of showing dissatisfaction and telling the neighbors to wake up. The young family which has recently moved into the apartment above hers has grown used to this nuisance by now.
When the clock strikes eight, the old troublemaker takes her bulging purse and goes out. Outside, the frolicking wind turns tail and, fleeing from the old woman, vanishes in the alleyways between the tall buildings. The neighborhood falls quiet; only sparrows keep on chirping and chasing each other. Paying little attention to all this, Bakapai holds her head high, grips the bag and, waddling like a duck, proceeds toward the bus stop. Other pressing matters are on the old lady’s agenda today.
The city is in its usual morning turmoil. Crowded public buses, as if to show that the city comes to life only during early morning and twilight, zoom back and forth incessantly. In this cauldron of a city our friend has a mission, but, unlike everyone else, she is in no rush to carry it out. Bakapai finds a seat at the bus stop, the walls of which are peppered with the scribbles of those who could no longer contain their feelings, and waits patiently for the right bus. The destination, size, and condition of the bus are of no importance to her. What is vital, however, is that there are quarrelsome women, school children, and teenagers among the riders. Most of Bakapai’s life has been spent teaching at the N. boarding school; she feels miserable whenever she spends a single day without dispensing advice, calling children to order and admonishing them for every little thing until they burst into tears. She finds it particularly difficult to maintain her composure in the presence of elementary school students; she swoops at them like a hawk and strikes ferociously. These actions may appear bizarre to a casual bystander but, in fact, her need to admonish is so strong that it has turned into a habit which is now beyond her control.
This same habit brings Bakyt Bekseitovna to the bus stop at the busiest time of the day and compels her to watch the buses eagerly. Once a suitable bus arrives, she gets up and elbows her way in, shoving and pinching people. She plants herself near the door, blocking the entry, and looks around for easy prey. She skillfully sparks the fire of a quarrel by stepping on a foot of a man standing near her, striking a woman as if by mistake, and snapping angrily at a child.
“Well, ladies,” she’ll say to her neighbors when they gather outside to enjoy the sun, “if I don’t get on that rotten bus in the morning and make a fuss, if I don’t yell at those worthless imps, don’t pinch and punch them and make them cry, if I don’t scream, exhaust myself and get rid of the devil inside me, I feel lousy all day. My blood pressure goes up, and I may end up getting sick.”
The bus drivers know Bakapai well. When conductors cross paths with her, they avoid eye contact and, wary of her ill temper, do not ask her to pay for a ticket. They make their way to the other end of the bus and complain to strangers about the quarrelsome old lady.
“God knows why this old hag curses and fights with everyone... Other riders pay the fare and have a destination, but not her. No, but she must turn the whole bus upside down and get off at the next stop. What does she get from this? What does she want? Crazy old loon...”
Yesterday Bakapai’s morning routine took a wrong turn. One of her shoes came apart out of the blue. She had to climb back to her apartment on the fourth floor and hastily change into another pair, but, by the time she reached the bus stop, it was nine thirty; the crowds were gone, and buses were leaving half-empty. She had no other choice but to get into one of these. On the bus, she immediately attacked a large elderly Russian woman with thick brows and flaccid lips.
“Just look at this fat cow! Do you even know where you are? Do you know what country this is? Get off this seat before you end up with sore boils on your ass!” she shouted. The Russian woman stared at her belligerently and muttered something in a foreign language. Bakapai shook her head, and, waving her index finger, started cursing loudly.
“May the dust of the grave fill your nostrils, you godless beast! Wasn’t it enough that you made Kazakhs suffer for three hundred years? Get up and get out of here, unless you want to find your name on a tombstone! May the tree of your life never blossom, but be ripped out before turning green! May the flies swarm over your dead body! Don’t let my curse fade, God! Let it fall on this faithless, rootless swine! And speak Kazakh, you wretch!”
“What did I do to you?” the bewildered Russian woman asked. “Leave me alone!”
“Stupid woman! What did you do to me, you ask? What did you and your kin not do to my people? Who slashed at the roots of the mighty tree, who soiled the pristine waters of the holy spring? Who trampled our greatest warriors, you scoundrel! May their tears flood your soul!”
Usually, a couple of bus stops later, Bakapai, with her thirst for quarrel quenched, would suddenly appear civil and dignified, get off the bus and walk back home.
Yesterday, however, she took her time cursing the old Russian lady and lashing out at Kazakh passengers who would not back her up. The bus stopped at a tenth or eleventh stop when she spewed out her last curse and got out. Still full of anger, she decided to take a long walk home.
Bakapai was exhausted by this shouting match. She walked slowly trying to untangle her mind from a coil of dark and heavy thoughts.
“Barbarians! They are like Nathlus plants in Amazon forests! Rootless tramps, separated from the earth! Creepers that live off the trees, crawl onto branches and feed on the rain! Selfish parasites! They cannot see that, along with their roots, they will lose their memory, their faith, and their souls. Oh, wretched men, have you really become like the Nathlus? Well, you only have yourselves to blame for shedding your roots in daily struggles of life. It is too late to save your souls now...”
This morning Bakyt Bekseitovna is at the bus stop again. She eyes the perfect bus and, shoving people aside, gets in.
“Move over, idiot! What, you think you are in your own house? Don’t stand here like a miserable beggar, move back!” she pushes a sleepy college student towards the middle of the bus. The young man mumbles something in response. A wimp! She jabs him once more but the timid young man, who would have been perfect for beating, sneaks away. Dissatisfied, she looks around impatiently and sees a group of school children.
“How dare you so early...” she begins when she notices their rapid finger movements and realizes the children are deaf. She decides to turn her attention to the Russians occupying the nearby seats. She almost cries, “Get off your seats before I burn you alive!” when a blonde girl jumps up and offers her a spot. The Kazakh man she sits next to does not mutter a word despite all her cursing.
Discouraged, Bakyt Bekseitovna gets up and starts towards the door of the bus.
“May your tongues cramp, worthless idiots!” she says descending the steps.
Almaz Myrzakhmet is the author of two short story collections published in Kazakhstan. He is a Senior Editor at the literary and cultural magazine “Kasym.” He also teaches Kazakh Literature at the Karaganda State University.
Mirgul Kali lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she is a Community Programs Coordinator at the Silk Road House, a non-profit organization that promotes awareness of the cultures of Central Asia and Caucasus. She has been translating short pieces (folk songs and tales, poems, and short stories) from and into Kazakh, English, and Russian languages in the last couple of years.