Closed Worlds

Slava Bart


Om’, the name of a river in Russia (probably from Tatar for “silent”).

Om [Sanskrit], n. Hinduism. A mantric word thought to be a complete expression of Brahman and interpreted as having three sounds representing creation, preservation, and destruction, or waking, dreams, and deep sleep, along with the following silence, which is fulfillment. Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1998.

In Russian, chudo can mean both a miracle and a monster.


In the Beginning

Books everywhere. Books all the way up. On all sides, in every language of the world, it seemed, though they were written only in one. Each book in and of itself. A world. Rows and piles, walls of worlds. A temple. A tomb.

Dumka lingered in the used-book section of Dom Knigi, off Rothschild Street in Rishon LeZion, breathing the air of what his mother called their “former life.” The books here had their original, Soviet pricing imprinted on the back of their covers. Gogol: Dramatic Works – 30 kopeks, The Idiot – 55 kopeks.

He wanted to read every book in that store, to open every door. But he was only a little boy—he couldn’t manage more than one world at a time. He waited for a book to beckon.

In their “former life” he hadn’t had the chance to visit bookstores. His only memory of a bookstore in Kokchetav was how once a group of them were on their way to a basement pavilion of arcade and computer games which had recently opened near Lenin Theater. One older boy (a gangling, balding red-head with square spectacles and a red goatee, known in the neighborhood for keeping an albino water snake at home) popped into a store they were passing to catch up with them later, waving enthusiastically a volume of The Moomintrolls. Dumka remembered borrowing it. He remembered comets, grottoes, dried-out seas, sad snowy landscapes, Mumi-papa’s memoirs, Snusmumrik’s harmonica, the lonely, mysterious Morra, the strange, migrating Hatifnatty, words made alive by magic…

Dumka reached for a book. A magician in a graveyard was casting a spell. He liked the weight, the texture of the cover. Rozhdenie Maga—“the birth of a magician”—Dumka mouthed the words. Nik Perumov. The new book opened with the sound of an apple broken in two.

Papery fragrance and magic mingled as Dumka read the first words.


Tora, Nevi’im, Ketuvim

Not understanding a single word, he listened carefully to the measured lilt, watched the tip of the tongue dance behind the pearly teeth, behind the parted lips of the teacher. As she spoke to the class, she spoke in two ancient languages at once. As they followed the lines in the book, he followed the lines of her body.

—It’s like a fairy tale, Olga, the classmate officially appointed as his interpreter, had told him in Russian at the beginning of the class. But it’s real.

Dumka loved that combination.


Il’yas Bagaturovitch and Duma Websterovich

Everything about Il’yas Bagaturovitch was big, rugged, craggy. The skin on his hands was tough, calloused, with furrows of ingrained dirt. Sometimes, looking at those hands, Dumka would imagine little landscapes: a grove of little pines, a little wooden izba [1], a little muzhik [2] pushing a tiny plow…

For much of the lesson, Il’yas Bagaturovitch could sit motionless, tired eyelids lowered, chest rising and falling ponderously, letting Dumka do all the talking. But when Dumka mispronounced a word or dared lapse into Russian, Il’yas Bagaturovitch would start upright and rebuke him with a sharp “Nu-ka! Yedrit tvayu nalevo!” [3] Then he would slip into the same half-sleep again. Or, a minute later, talking in a quiet, weary voice, Il’yas Bagaturovitch might lean forward and touch Dumka’s knee or forearm to emphasize some important point about English or about life. In that little coffin-like room, cramped by the little furniture that was in it, they had conversations about many things new and strange to little Dumka.

Il’yas Bagaturovitch let Dumka write stories instead of grammar exercises and unlike the teachers at school, Il’yas Bagaturovitch never asked Dumka why he imagined such sad and scary things. But he used every opportunity to make Dumka use the dictionary. He would suddenly smack the table with that giant’s palm of his, take the red-bound leviathan down with a thud that rattled the little room, and would tell Dumka to go ahead and “dive in.”


Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. Over 315,000 Entires. 2,400 Spot Maps and Illustrations. Special New-Words Section Plus an Essay on the Growth of English.

The weight. When Dumka held it, he could feel the pull of the entire Earth, as if the planet knew nothing but that one book, and everything around would become as light as air, even Il’yas Bagaturovitch. That massive bulk of crinkled, dappled pages. Solid, ancient, like one of the stones in the Western Wall. The way the spine curved when it lay open, pages parting like the sea before a great magician. The somehow earthy, dusty smell, the silky smoothness of the paper. The precise, miniature illustrations. The ever-running stream of text: Duluth…duma…Dumas…Duma (see DOOM)

It inspired awe and love. It opened onto something supernatural. It connected little Dumka to something other, greater, something which encompassed him.


4 and 1/4 Websters

One day Dumka took Il’yas Bagaturovitch’s dictionary home to show his mother. He hugged the Webster to his chest as he carried it—too big for his backpack, or so he thought—through the amber of lamp-lit streets to the apartment they rented at the corner of Ein-Hakoreh and Mekor Hahaim, [4] his heart beating against a world of words.

Stepping hurriedly out of his shoes, he called out to his mother, setting the dictionary on the living room table and crying:

Smatri! [5]

He explained to his mother what it was and how to use it, how he could “look up” words and know their meaning, sound, and origin.

They marveled at its size and weight. Dumka raised it over his head in wonderment. They measured Dumka’s height with it. Dumka was 4 and 1/4 Websters tall.



New Life

Everyone crowded round the long table in the living room. The room was large, but hot and a little murky despite the big, twinkly chandelier. Polished glass and lacquer glittered everywhere. Pictures on the walls, cushions, lace, and quilts everywhere lent the room a multi-layered sumptuousness. Black-and-white photographs stood behind the glass panes of wall-length bookshelves (which kept distracting him with their siren calls), where he also noticed a Chinese dragon, a Dymkovo firebird, a miniature menorah, and a few Soviet coins, 30 kopeks.

The table was a real table, not several small ones pulled together, and it did not seem to suffer under the burden of so many dishes. It seemed unshakeable and epic, like Atlas, proudly bearing the weight of the world. I was made for this job, it seemed to be saying.

The hostess seemed everywhere at once: now eating and drinking and laughing with the rest, now helping to serve a new avalanche of dishes, attending to the needs of individual guests, giving orders to her sons, seeing to the grandchildren, leaving and coming back, descending upon Dumka and his mother, an opulent bouquet of forms and frills, a cloud of scent and generosity, smothering them in softness, color, infinite motherly warmth, asking them if they had everything they wanted, telling them that they need only ask, that the doors of their house were always open to anyone who was part of their big family.

Linguistic chimeras hovered over the dishes. Le’haim toasts. Jokes about Lenin. They drank to the newcomers, to a new life in the promised land. But from the farther end of the table a pair of bespectacled eyes looked at him, looking as if not with the eyes at all but with something beyond them, telling him, without words, that he was not part of this world, that, somehow, Dumka was some other, strange and distant where.

—We’re going home soon, kotik [6], mother reassured him quietly, pulling him toward her to kiss the crown of his head.

He heard the plaintive calls of the Arab alte-zakhen outside.

A-alte zakhe-en! Sta-ary vesch’! [7]

They are coming back, Dumka thought, saying nothing.


Strange Cities

On his way to school he imagined walking in the opposite direction: at the end of this passage would be, not the school, but his home.

Things vied for his attention; worlds clamoring to be heard, surrounding him, like beggars outside a church in some cold and troubled country. That lamp—a white sphere on a low post outside the entrance to a building—wanted Dumka to know that it was a kind of plant. Dumka blew on the oduvanchik-like [8] plant and the white sphere broke into a myriad specks. One or two caught in his eyelashes. If I were the seed of an Odu-wonder-chik, he found himself thinking, thinking of the grass in front of their house, back home, on Vos’mogo Marta Street, where dandelions grew in great numbers in the summer and into which he once fell, face forward, pretending he was shot, and cut his palms badly on broken glass.

He climbed a footbridge to cross the street and noticed a train on the outskirts of the city. It was speeding silently away from him, yet Dumka heard music. He couldn’t see them, yet he saw the wheels—the wheels he had seen when boarding the train to Alma-Ata at the Vokzal Mechty [9] in Kokchetav, a conductor’s hand holding the end of a baton.

A flash of darkness obscured the sunny landscape for a moment. For a moment everything seemed foreign, even Dumka! Cold pain pierced his forehead, as if he had gulped down a glass of icy water. In an accumulation of sooty dust in a corner of the grimy platform, he saw a city. Streets, sunlight, a footbridge painted rich orange by the rising sun. And on that footbridge…Dumka shook his head.


Foreign Words

They were playing a game. Throwing a rubber ball, Hani, the English teacher, would say a word and the pupil had to translate it quickly, throwing back the ball.

—Day! said the teacher.
Yom! answered Orna (whose real name was Sveta).
Ketsef! said the teacher.
—Foam! answered Ravital.
—Dream! said the teacher.
Halom! – answered Yaalom.
Beit! said the teacher.
—Home! answered Mikhael (whose real name was Mikhail).
—Dome! said the teacher.
Dom [10], said stupid, daydreaming Dumka.
—Dome! she tried again.

Dumka stared at the little ball. Something about it—the sound it made when he caught it, its weight, the way it felt in his hands—stirred not a world, but a void inside him. Like in a crystal ball, he saw inside it the games they used to play in their “former life”: vyshybaly, kartoshka, liagushka, sabzhe [11]… Strange, estranged Dumka looked at the ball as if it were not a ball at all but a distant memory and eyes other than Dumka’s were looking at it. What they saw was beyond words. Dom changed into dome changed into kipa changed into kipat barzel [12]… Dumka threw back the ball but said nothing and everybody laughed.

Olia no longer interpreted for him. Dumka had a friend now—Volia (whom others called either Tzion [13] or, jokingly, Ha-Hoffesh Ha-Gadol [14]). He explained what the others were saying. He was explaining now that they wanted to change Dumka’s name. Mila, [15] the most beautiful girl in the class, was asking what dumka meant in Russian. Mila was saying they would call him “Shar.” [16]

Net! Dumka said as sternly as he could. He remembered a cartoon about a dog who had lost his “big, spherical” name.

Net, he repeated. No! Lio! [17] It made them laugh.

Net! they sang. Net-net-net! We will call you Net!

Sometimes, not just Hebrew, but life itself would become a foreign language. He would look around and at himself, at Dumka, and would not be able to put any of it together.

Then he would snap out of it and see that nobody had noticed anything. And so he would not say a word.


Foreign Homes

—Dumka! his mother called from the kitchen. Nakrapai orehov, kotik, [18] she told him.

What sort of Russian is “nakropai orehov?” he thought resentfully. He looked at his mother. His mother was not the same. He did not understand why she was wearing the gown grandma used to wear before she died. Kak s ubitogo, [19] he found himself thinking.

It reminded him of visiting grandma in the retirement home, somewhere between Rishon and NesZiona, beyond a stretch of barren land, hidden behind a defunct factory.

Vizhu! [20] grandma would cry triumphantly, as if his arrivals were her accomplishment, as if she had been conjuring him, like a spirit from the past. The window in grandma’s room opened up onto an abandoned plot of land where the remains of a wall were covered by creepers. Once he brought her a matryoshka to exercise her constantly clenched hands. She had shown his little book to the nurse who had been taking care of her. It was a dozen or so poems in Russian his father had had printed in Moscow. Dumka had since grown to dislike the book, the poems, his face on the cover, his father’s favor. But the nurse, a comely giantess, seemed to genuinely consider him a poet. After grandma died, Dumka came by to take away her old things and that was the end of that story.

The voice of Muslim Magomaev coming from the stereo (“…hot’ pamiat’ ukryta / takimi bol’shimi snegami!” [21]) brought him back to the world of the living. He took a small bag of peeled walnuts from the fridge and started breaking them into small pieces over a bowl. He couldn’t just do it. He had to imagine something. Windmills, he thought, knights. He was an ogre and the walnuts were…human brains.

He had forgotten to stop.

Chudo ty moio orehovoe! he heard his mother say. Dumu dumaiesh? Al’ vlyubilsia? [22] His mother took the bowl from him.

Al’-Khorezmi, he retorted gruffly. Net, he said. Tak. [23]

He stood there, fingers oily and fragrant (an earthy, dusty smell).

—I’m thinking. he said. About a story.

—In English? she asked. Will you tell me what it’s about?

But Dumka wouldn’t.


Omka, Umka, Mu’min-Dumka [24]

Reading the Perumov novel before sleep, he was distracted by a sound coming from nowhere in particular. Something—somehow, somewhere—was looking for Dumka. A dark gaze, trained on him from the other side of the light from his bedside lamp (his desk lamp placed nearer the bed at night). He saw that other gaze. He was that other gaze. He saw a pillar of darkness, so small it was more like a ball of dust. Nedovydumka, he thought, a gaping void rising towards him from untold depths within him. They are coming back, he thought, before falling, falling asleep.


Dumka Had A Dream

The dream was his recurrent dream, a nightmare of monstrous, bloated, void forms, greedily loping all round him, at war with each other. It was dark and the earth was black and barren all the way to the horizon, where a line of light persisted. He touched a featureless body on the ground and felt a void—like an entire world—explode his body till he couldn’t breathe or think. At this point something would usually intervene between the black earth and the line of white and then he would wake up.

But nothing intervened this time. This time, the void was only a transition. The void consumed him from the inside until there was no Dumka left, until there was only –ka, and then not even that…


Within a Dream

Until he was at home. In the narrow kitchen, with the cockroaches behind the stove and the mousetrap under the sink. With grandma in her gown at one end of the table, sorting her pills into different matchboxes. And father in his tank top and sweatpants at the other end, sorting ribbon-bound stacks of money into nylon bags. And mother, at the other end of the city, working a night shift “na skoroy. [25]” The fortochka was open because both father and grandma were smoking. A familiar, dear darkness outside. A candle in a saucer on the table lighting the room.

Dumka put on the mask of a dog:

—I’m a dog! Dumka said and growled.

—Weren’t you a cat just now? his father asked amusedly, not raising his head, the little red light dancing at the corner of his mouth.

—I’m a cat who is a dog, Dumka replied, after a moment’s reflection.

Then he thought deeply a moment longer.

—I’m a cat who is a dog who is a fire truck and I have a fireman’s ladder on my back and it can go all the way up to the highest stories and people can climb down out of windows when there is a fire!


Within a Dream

Yes, he thought, Yes! He could be many things at once. And out of these united things he would make ladders which would go up to the highest stories and save people. Save them out of their burning buildings.

It made perfect sense while he was dreaming. When he woke up, he remembered only that something good had occurred to him, but he couldn’t remember what.


Fear of the Dark

He told his mother as much as he could about it.

—Good, she said. Good.

But he resented that “good.” Nothing true stood behind that “good.” She was afraid to let the dark ones in. She was afraid of him.

Dumka looked sideways at her, as she sipped her chamomile tea, nibbling on a biscuit. He saw her beside him. He saw her at the other end of the room, veiled by light, her back to him, little and afraid, and he, Dumka, was drifting away from her on wave after wave of darkness.

It reminded him of Half-Life, the video game he had played at Volia’s. None of this would make any sense to her. He wanted to walk away from her. He wanted to take her in his arms. He felt exhausted, overwhelmed by gloom and by a sense of imminent disaster.

What was he to do? In his dreams he could be many things. But could he be light for her and be himself for the rest of the world? Could Dumka be Dumka and someone else at the same time?

When the lights went out again and they went groping for Sabbath candles (the cheapest, bought for such occasions) in the dark kitchen, Dumka said merrily:

—It’s like we never left the Soyuz!

But his mother said nothing until there was some light in the room.


Gordon Kowalski Changes Vocation: A Sci-Fi Tale

White Mesa is a secret, underground complex of laboratories somewhere in the New Mexico desert. Specializing in extra-dimensional technologies, it is the best and largest of its kind in the world. Its motto is “Working to make a better tomorrow for all mankind.”

One day, an accident occurs. When something called the alatyr’ stone is pushed under the myelophone beam, it triggers a “karachun breach” between our world and that of a parallel dimension called Rus’. Few survive the incident. One of those few, the man who handled the alatyr’ stone during the experiment, is Gordon Kowalski.

Armed with nothing but an older colleague’s false jaw at first, Kowalski faces a chaotic host of nechist’ [26] pouring in from Rus’. Every kind of chudo and yudo roams the labyrinthine underground corridors. In one place, loskotuhas almost tickle him to death. In another, he is almost overwhelmed by the singing of faraonkas and memozinas [27] and nearly drowns. Umraks and sumraks, vurdalaks and volkolaks—the monsters quickly overrun the entire complex, the security guards and the special forces squad sent to contain the threat.

But, through a combination of American optimism, resourcefulness, tenacity, a genius for puzzle-solving, and an arsenal of experimental weapons, Kowalski survives the catastrophe. While dead souls and undead beings take over the world, he finds a way into Rus’. There he finds out about Koshchei the Deathless: the war-mongering monarch of an empire of evil who is responsible for all the trouble back home.

He wanders the alien dimension until he is exhausted. He discovers that Rus’ is a place that has a life of its own. A place where everything and nothing exists at the same time. A boundless place that is still growing. Where you can ride your horse till it drops dead and still not get anywhere. A place with a will—volia [28]—of its own. What is this mysterious volia? Kowalski is determined to find out and contain it:

—Whither, Rus’?! he addresses the elements. But Rus’ is silent, though its silence is not what it seems.

In the middle of nowhere, he meets a starets.

Da, ya star, says the wise old man. Ya ochen’ star. Ya super star! [29] He reveals to Kowalski the only way to defeat Koshchei. Determined not to give up, Kowalski learns how, by repeating the Jesus Prayer with the heart alone, to make the mind descend into the heart, achieving “the guard of the mind.” He then saddles the indrik animal and crosses on its humped back the boundless expanse of Rus’, the Yaryn’ and the Smorodina rivers, towards chudo-yudo island where, in the deepest vault of the largest bank, he finds an armored box, inside which is a fox, inside which is a duck, inside which is an egg, inside which is a chip—that chip is where Koshchei the Deathless keeps his soul, dark as the inside of a needle. Kowalski knows what to do. He breaks the chip in two, which kills Koshchei.

Kowalski does not realize, however, that Koshchei has back-up copies of the chip, hidden all over Rus’, in trees, in stones, in animals, in the very earth and the water of its rivers… Exhausted and confused, tired of the endless first-person combat, surrounded by hoards of kikimoras and lihos, Kowalski, though unbroken, is finally trapped. A gaunt man wearing a red suit and carrying a little red suitcase appears out of nowhere, crossing the fetid waters of the marsh without even wetting the soles of his shoes. The man implants Kowalski with a Koshchei chip and sends him back to America. The armies of evil are called back. The doorways between the worlds are closed. Kowalski’s soul remains trapped in stasis, in Rus’, in the little suitcase of the man in red (thankfully, connected to the internet).

The End. [30]

Growing in the Dark

It took Dumka the entire Sabbath to write the Kowalski saga. The usual weekend noises—laughter and the sound of dishes from the building opposite, children and parents having fun outside, people returning from the nearby synagogue—seemed like far-away echoes of a half-forgotten dream.

He had wanted to write something for a long time and something had been growing inside him, mute and formless at first, but wanting very much to have a body and a tongue. He opened his eyes on Sabbath morning and it was there: the outer world had not yet flooded in and the inner world had room to grow. Lying still on his back, he watched his mind break into a million pieces which flitted about freely—colliding, connecting, breaking up—around the basic molecule of an idea, till something, an obscure force, sent him hurtling out of bed, in his underpants, to sit at the desk and write the title and the first lines.

It came to him in English, but sometimes Russian would break through and he would need to suppress the urge to re-imagine the emerging story in his native tongue and would translate words and sentences, and outstare that which was untranslatable or non-verbal yet insistently Russian until it gave up and either left him alone or changed. Sometimes, unknown words would possess him, insisting on being right for the story, and he would look them up and find that they indeed were right. And sometimes, when the creative fever subsided for a spell, he would simply get lost in a dictionary and discover words which inspired ideas.

He especially enjoyed writing the monsters. He had always been fascinated by the forces of darkness and had always wanted to look at the world with their eyes. He got so carried away building the world of Kowalski’s enemies that Rus’ became a character in itself and finally displaced the theoretical physicist as the hero of the story.

When it was finished, he couldn’t believe his eyes. The Dumka who had written these lines—was it the Dumka who was now reading them?


A Big Two-Hearted Om’boy

For days afterwards he lived with a strange sense of freedom. A door had opened between two worlds and he, going about his daily business, stood on its threshold, admiring the double view, free to move either way. It was beautiful. It made perfect sense.

But how to open more of these doors? How to convey that double sight? Something told him—he could see it—that when all the worlds were open, the world would change. Loneliness would end. But Dumka was only a little boy and he needed the help of others if all the worlds in the world were to be opened.


The Beginning


He had to begin somewhere. He had to be going home. Here was the nearest door. Dumka opened it and went in.


  1. A traditional wooden hut.
  1. A male Russian serf.
  1. A nonsensical euphemism for an obscenity.
  1. Literally, “the eye of the reader” and “the source of life.”
  1. Look!
  1. Kitty, a term of endearment.
  1. “Old things! Old things!” in Yiddish and Russian respectively.
  1. Dandelion
  1. Literally “the train station of your dreams”
  1. House, home.
  1. In sabzhe, the ball is used to create characters and stories for the participants.
  1. Iron dome.
  1. Zion
  1. Summer vacation. Literally “the big freedom.”
  1. Literally “word.”
  1. Third-person singular of “sing.” The Russian homophone means “ball,” “sphere,” or “balloon.”
  1. “No” in Russian, English, and Hebrew respectively.
  1. She meant to ask Dumka to break the walnuts into small pieces, but instead of using the word for “to break/chop,” she mistakenly uses a similarly sounding word which means “to write/compose.”
  1. Literally: “like taken off a murdered person.”
  1. “I see!”
  1. “though memories are buried / under so much snow.” Words from a song used in the 1973 series The Seventeen Moments of Spring (where it is performed by Iosif Kobzon).
  1. A humorous variation of an idiom meaning “an awkward, ridiculous individual” (the original, chuchelo gorohovoe, evokes a kind of monstrosity made of pea plants), followed by a humorously archaic “Thinking heavy thoughts? Or have you fallen in love?”
  1. “No. Nothing special.”
  1. “believer.”
  1. EMS
  1. Literally “the unclean;” demonic creatures collectively.
  1. Russian folklore: faraonkas and memozinas were siren-like water spirits, believed to be the spirits of those Egyptians (faraonkas) and Jews (memozinas) who drowned while crossing the Red Sea.
  1. Willpower, freedom, wide open space.
  1. “Yes, I’m old. I’m very old. I’m super old.” “Star,” Russian for “old,” is here used as a pun on the English star.
  1. Dumka’s story re-imagines the legendary Half-Life video-game series in the context of Russian folklore, bylinas, religion, and classical literature, as well as Soviet sci-fi films and anecdotes.

Slava Bart - photoSlava Bart was born on December 2nd, 1983, in Kokshetau, Kazakhstan. In 1994 he immigrated to Israel. He is a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University, researching the negative attitudes of creative writers towards academic criticism. Previous publications include stories and poems in Contrary Magazine, arc (IAWE), The Ilanot Review, Voices Israel, DeadBeats Blog, Cyclamens and Swords, Red Fez, and Liquid Imagination.




Back to Table of Contents