The Guides of Tskaltubo

Memory was fading from Tskaltubo’s long hallways and grand rooms, trapped echoes of grand aspirations from the other side of a political fight but the same side of our human struggle to find pleasure and peace.

But it was old memory balanced with a tension that said people not so far away. An unfaded pillow placed at the head of a bed. A chair dragged to look out a window shattered long ago. Someone’s cup of coffee, surely.

At the top of every staircase I expected to find a person. Someone the same life form as me, living a life beyond the limits of my own experience. Someone was constantly breathing around the next corner. But only another long empty corridor.

It also seemed reasonable that I would never see anyone else ever again, having somehow slipped away from the human story’s present tense.

But as I explored the abandoned balneological sanitoria, one after another, feeling like the last man on earth, I did find life.

Dogs. Usually alone. Nearly silent. They didn’t beg or growl, just moved from room to room with the sort of fatigued pride and seeping disinterest of a tour guide who used to be proud of their place, but has been there too long. Only one ever made noise, drawn out whines that insisted I walk down a particular hallway. But nothing was there but more empty rooms. I left him there, looking back at me like I might have an answer.

Sometimes I would find one staring down empty corridors or at crumbling walls, but without the kind of alertness I’m used to from dogs, all perked ears and sharp eyes. None of that here. The only thing that made any sense was that they were watching memory. But of course that makes no sense.

The ancient history of Tskaltubo was invisible to me, the healing waters that had drawn the hopeful for millennia now undetectable beneath the rubble. The more recent Soviet history loomed all around me, cement and stone stubborn while the years chipped them away. Then came the dogs, existing that day but seeming like they belonged to the past. Like night watchmen for exhibits meant to be seen during the day already gone.

The future will likely involve renovation and renewal for another elite, but that seemed far off. The present tense did not exist in Tskaltubo.

But caught with the dogs was another living facet, standing in today but somehow made of years gone by. One more layer of memory, and I’d met it first. I’d left the dappled sunlight of the summer outside and stepped into my first building to find a sad smile waiting. And it stayed with me all day. And  here I sit in another present moment, feeling like I’m back there too.

That will be the third and last post from Tskaltubo.