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Track in the Steppe

04 December, 00:00

A super-modern multilane highway was whistling and roaring with countless covered automobiles shining with varnish, glass, and paint, seemingly flying at supersonic speed. Where to? What for? Even the drivers had no idea. Almost none of the motorists were aware of a small spot barely discernible far away in the steppe, well off the road. Straining your eyes, you could notice that this something was slowly moving by turns toward and then away from the highway. Who cared?

However, it was not a spot at all. A carriage, somewhat strange for the twenty-first century, was slowly rolling across the steppe: a big oxn-drawn cart packed with passengers. The cart drivers, ceremoniously perched in the front, were continuously exclaiming, “Giddyap!” Yet, it was not they, let alone the people behind them, who chose the direction. The cart was being led by a deep track, which almost swallowed up the wheels and left not an earthly chance to change course.

Science is still unaware of who left the steppe rut and when. Steppe dwellers have known this kind of roads from time immemorial; some tribes even interpreted them as fate: you won’t veer off the rut, it will lead you where it wants. Old legends maintain that the steppe tracks were laid back in the times of rectangular wheels. Historians are convinced, however, that it occurred well before the square wheel was invented, i.e., when people rode sledges both in winter and in summer. It is rather intriguing that even today scientists are not quite sure where these roads lead. Of interest is the so-called circumference hypothesis: each track allegedly describes a gigantic loop in space and time, leading the travelers by the principle of returning to where you left from. In any case, nobody ever questioned the convenience of a track: this was a road never to be lost. You don’t have to keep a watchful eye on the turns, signs, or the quality of the road. Moreover, cart drivers need no experience at all: all you have to do is sit on the cart’s prominent place, wield the riding crop, and boast of your importance.

Let us come back, however, to our cart quietly riding somewhere down the track. Those huddling on a rag-covered hay sack at the cart’s rear were ordinary, rank-and-file, people. Lying supine and almost not seeing the road or the view, they could still watch the birds fly, a glare beyond the distant horizon, and the starry sky. At night, strange things could happen to the travelers, as the cart rhythmically swayed along. The Big Dipper (Ursa Major) shining over their heads would suddenly merge with their cart and proceed further down the tracks of boundless galaxies smelling of grass. At daybreak, they would again come down to earth, still shivering from the cosmic cold.

Many passengers were inclined to steer the cart. When one cart driver was relieved by another, the cart dwellers took it in a philosophical vein, putting their absolute trust in the track. Sometimes the track would suddenly vanish at a rocky segment of the road. The cart would grind to a halt, the enraged travelers would first take it out on the totally innocent drivers and then roam the steppe in search of a soul. Coming back into the rut was observed by those on the cart as a major holiday.

Sometimes, when the track willfully took the cart toward a moving and silver-shining highway, some of those sitting behind would suddenly jump off the wagon and run headlong into that direction. The mob would catch up with him or her, grab him/her by the hands and feet, and take the person back to the rag-covered hay. After a few jerks, the runaway would finally calm down and soon join the common chorus, for the travelers sang very well.

Sometimes a highway motorist would suddenly notice the cart and, in a fit of generosity, drive off the mirror-like surface and rush to the mysterious carriage right through the bumps and potholes. Then the hapless motorist wishes he hadn’t! He receives a not-so-warm welcome because “each has the right to go where he wants, on what he wants, and as long as he wants.” Sooner or later, the cart passengers said, all arrive at the same place (a gospel truth), so it is a moot question which of the roads is better: it remains to be seen. The would be salvager, muttering curses, goes back to the highway in humiliation, while the cart screeches on down its track.

There were, albeit very seldom, some odd people who got fed up, God knows why, with the track. They would hop off the wagon and grip at the wheels as hard as they could, trying to pull them out of the deep rut and let the wagon move about freely. The rest would stand aside and look quietly and skeptically at this mindless effort, expecting the eccentrics to soon calm down.

Those who know say the cart is still traipsing somewhere on the fringe of the high-speed highway, as the screeching sounds of rutted wheels and the distant giddyap occasionally blow in the steppe wind.

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