Father didn’t give anyone the green light. His days were spent fighting, his world steeped in dark, impervious red. If you listened carefully, his shouting turned to questions, and neither Georg nor his mother or grandmother knew how to answer him. In father’s company nobody was allowed to speak without first being asked, and laughing, laughing was taboo.
This is how it was when Georg was small, when he sensed a release button inside of himself as if he was some kind of camera. Pressing the button was simple, simpler than squashing an insect. And as Georg wished for a brother or sister, other children who pressed this button with him, nothing was ever forgotten, everything in full colour. Others would have huddled and hoped with him. Perhaps they would have laughed a little, too. Afterwards he could have followed them, into a forest perhaps.
On their first outing together Nikolaj carried his axe like a trophy. They stood beside each other in warm coats, nodding, smiling cautiously. The forest was everything here. There wasn’t much else in Nyukhcha. Georg walked around Nikolaj and took photographs, first on a tripod, then without. Images of Nikolaj’s big hands, the endless forest and somewhere, in the invisible distance, other villages the names of which Georg couldn’t remember. Anna, the interpreter, wore a purple padded coat and sat close to them on a tree stump. Nikolaj started his work. He shaved a small bit of bark of each dead tree and identified it with a blue stamp. His dog was lying nearby, carefully watching the scene. Before they collected their lunch from the backseat of Nikolaj’s old UAZ-469 and sat down on a weathered bench, Georg had taken more than two hundred photographs.
All around them was quiet and green, only their voices vibrated in the air. Georg’s fingers ran across the tiny patches of moss on the old bench. It seemed to him as if he sat with Nikolaj and Anna in a time other than the present, as if all this had happened before, in a dream, when it was terrible back then. An endless forest, a huge silence, and beside him a couple of strangers whose faces seemed familiar, comforting.
Even though Anna came from the next village, she had only met Nikolaj that morning. The two of them were chuckling and nodding like old friends. Anna had lived in Saint Petersburg for most of her adult life, but since her children had grown up, her work often took her back to the taiga. She had good contacts, the international interest in Russia was massive, and Anna received so many requests for interpreting work that she was able to pick and choose.
‘I’m so looking forward to this project,’ she had said to Georg at their first meeting the evening before. It had made him both nervous and excited.
While they spoke over lunch, Georg and Anna paused every now and again, looking at each other carefully, as if trying to find clues as to what being here did to them. Every so often the two men grimaced, pointing at the begging dog at their feet. After they had eaten, Georg asked more questions about the forest, and Nikolaj answered at length. Anna’s translations added a pleasant rhythm to the exchange. Georg enjoyed listening. It was different from how he normally listened.
Nikolaj’s neighbour, the widow Nadia, went into the forest every day. Her son and two grandchildren lived in Syktywkar, one of the many names Georg couldn’t remember. Nadia hated the city. Georg and Anna accompanied her into the forest, as two little white dogs ran ahead of them. Time and again, Nadia bent down to collect fly agarics. She instantly cut them into slices before placing them onto the blue and white cloth inside her basket. Their flaming red colour speckled with big white dots reminded Georg of picture books from his childhood.
‘I’ll make a tincture of these, for my arms and legs, rheumatism,’ Anna translated. Nadia pushed her headscarf back from her forehead and Georg looked at her in disbelief.
‘This isn’t just poison, my lovely! You simply need to know what to do with them,’ Nadia chuckled as she watched Anna translate and held one of the fly agarics close to Georg’s lens.
They walked around the forest for hours. At one point, a dragonfly landed on Nadia’s sleeve. Swiftly and carefully, Nadia cupped the dragonfly between her palms, presented its turquoise and black body to Georg’s camera before finally releasing it. As they turned to walk back into the village, they had filled one basket with fly agarics and a second one with blueberries. Nadia pointed out all sorts of things. All along she talked about communism and folktales as if they were a pair of matching gloves. Georg loved these whimsical stories and sometimes he laughed out loud. At other times he simply found it hard to believe that he was walking in the taiga with a sprightly old woman as his guide.
‘People have changed since communism. The forest, too, but, compared to the people, not a lot,’ Anna translated as they slowly made their way back into Nyukhcha.
The nights were silent and Georg’s room in Nikolaj’s wooden cabin was simple and cosy. Beside the bed there was a rusty oil lamp, the floor was covered with colourful rugs. The wallpaper was wearing thin in different places, and beside the door hung a faded poster of a tropical beach. During the first night, utterly exhausted after eight hours on the train from Saint Petersburg and two more in Nikolaj’s jeep, Georg had suddenly worried that he wouldn’t be able to take a single good photo. Now, his thoughts had settled. After only a few days they had become a little like trees, more silent, and complex in places where Georg hadn’t expected it. He knew that some of these photos were good. He sensed that the best of them were ambiguous, bottomless, a question mark of colours, shapes and textures, bleeding into this huge mass of green everywhere. In between, people’s faces were dotted like mushrooms, their striking expressions elusive and hard to fathom. Nevertheless, looking at these images felt as if nothing was ever completely new, as if everything had been seen before, maybe by him in some other place, some other time. But also by others. He could easily imagine them. People with wide open eyes, all sorts of types, holding different cameras, wearing different clothes and shoes, women, men, know-it-alls, shy ones, all set to catch their very own glimpse of a world they felt the need to record in order to believe it existed.
Six hundred people were living in Nyukhcha, but everything was different in this new time. The young people were moving away to the cities. The old people were missing communism. Some of them walked around the village like ghosts. Nadia had no time for them.
‘They need to decide, do they want to stay or go?! Dithering idiots!’ Anna translated for Georg as the three of them set off on their second walk into the forest, and Nadia rolled her eyes for emphasis.
Sometimes Georg would see a handful of children running back and forward between the houses in colourful jackets. They watched him closely. He waved and they waved back. Then they ran off.
In the house opposite Nadia’s he met a little girl. In a shiny red tracksuit she was lying on her parents’ bed, her chin resting on her small, pale hand as she watched cartoons on a portable DVD player. Beside her, on the bedside table, there was a rubber plant and a bottle of dark red nail varnish. The wallpaper was yellow mustard, and around the doorframe it was peeling off, revealing layers of different coloured wallpapers underneath, one of them a dark, majestic green, as if the forest had seeped into the house. Georg took a handful of pictures. Once in a while the girl chuckled at the cartoons. Later she got up and curtsied in front of him. As Georg was about to leave, the mother stepped into the room, offering him a cup of tea. The girl walked
over to her bedside table and picked up the bottle of nail varnish. She opened it, smelt it and smiled at Georg as he slowly sipped his tea. Later that day Georg heard that the girl’s father had died in a logging accident.
Nikolaj talked to the trees a lot, the Siberian cedars especially. He confided in them about his past in the army. Without the forest he would long be gone, Anna translated. The increasing numbers of dead trees worried him. The decay was caused by parasites and diseases nobody had ever even heard of when Nikolaj was a child. Dry summers were followed by wet ones as winters continued to get warmer. Everything was easy to explain, but the effects hard to comprehend. Nikolaj shook his head and looked into the far distance. Having photographed Nikolaj close-up with blurry green backgrounds, Georg quickly turned around and took a wide-angle shot of the huge mass of forest the Russian was looking at. Thankfully, due to the unfortified roads, to date there had been few illegal clearings, but still, they did occur, Anna translated. In the legal clearing areas Nikolaj organised re-planting schemes. ‘As many Siberian cedars as possible,’ he said and placed his hand on the bark of the tree next to him. ‘They’re friends, those cedars, breathing, not judging, they’re exactly what we need.’
Georg hadn’t expected to dream of his father, but it didn’t surprise him. In Nyukhcha it was easy to imagine another village. Just like Nikolaj, Nadia and Anna, his father had grown up in one. It was in the mountains, in another country, but there were similarities: a small community to which one belonged just by birth. Everyone had a role and life was meant to be straightforward, even though it only ever turned out that way for a few. Nyukhcha and Tiefenberg, the place his father had left behind aged seventeen, did not feel so far apart.
Nights were already cold in September, and the Russians were experts at insulating their houses with the simplest of means. At this time of year they would add new bits and pieces to the insulation, and now Georg helped Nadia. With rusty spatulas they stuffed moss into the tiniest cracks in Nadia’s wooden house. Georg fixed his camera to the tripod and set the timer. A chirpy old woman in dark tracksuit bottoms, denim shirt and a green headscarf stood beside a laughing man in his late thirties. He wore a navy fleece jacket, huge hiking boots and his short brown hair stuck up in all directions after a good night’s sleep. Checking the picture on the display screen of his Nikon, Georg saw someone who seemed to enjoy lending a hand.
A few days later Georg travelled with Nikolaj to Syktywkar. From a freezing hotel lobby he emailed a selection of images to his editor. He sat in a cream-coloured armchair with his computer on his knees as his feet shuffled on the crimson carpet. The internet connection was slow and it took a long time. Once all the photos had been sent, he drank a pot of lemon tea, hoping for an immediate response. It arrived as he was about to leave. He read his editor’s comments, sinking deeper into the armchair. They were positive, just as Georg had hoped. He smiled to himself, shut his
computer down and left the hotel. The familiar UAZ-469 was parked outside. Nikolaj was reading a paper. As he saw Georg approach, he called over to him in Russian. Georg put his palms together as if to say thank you. Since this was Anna’s day off, the two of them had to cope without her. Nikolaj started the engine and pointed into the distance, as if to say, let’s get out of this town.
The longer Georg stayed in the taiga, it struck him as less and less important whether his photographs would be liked or not. He got up in the mornings and spent his days with Nadia, Nikolaj and Anna, living largely on stew, berries and tea. During their walks through the forest they kept talking about history but also about the fact that in the taiga even a bird in flight could not know if the forest would ever end.
Each of the three Russians regretted something about their families. One night they all cried about it in Nadia’s kitchen, and suddenly Georg did, too. He thought of his father who had long been dead, and suddenly there were tears. Nadia got up, poured him another vodka and gently squeezed his shoulders. When he managed to smile and lift his glass to toast to her, she poured everyone else another drink, too. They all raised their glasses and Nadia solemnly proclaimed that pain didn’t matter, it would always be there, everyone had it. Everyone, she emphasised, as Anna translated with an urgent expression. It never stopped or became straightforward, Nadia continued. Seconds later she started to sing a strange little song that started sad and ended upbeat. She pranced around the table, winking at Georg. Anna smiled at him and shrugged. ‘This is a song about a lonely little girl in a forest who finds out she is happy about the sun and the moon. She talks to them and they talk to her. It’s pretty well-known.’
As Nadia sat down again, Nikolaj asked Georg why he had become a photographer. Georg cleared his throat. He started to tell the usual tale, beginning with his childhood in Munich, quite a distance away from his father’s mountain village, a different world really. He was struck by how, all of a sudden, he was the one answering them. The three Russians listened with relish. Every now and again they squeezed his hand or teased him with funny faces. And yet, nothing about his story was unusual really, nothing whatsoever. As Anna translated his words, Nadia and Nikolaj kept nodding, they seemed to understand something about him, though he had little idea of what it was.
When Georg finally left, he saw himself in new light. In the handful of images he had taken with the timer he hardly recognised himself: a tall, laughing man who wasn’t afraid of conversation—and the many shades of green all around him, it was hard to believe.