Zeus edged the bus in among the pines. No sooner did he turn off the engine than he heard the animals yapping and growling behind the canvas tarp stretched tight across the cage behind him. Taking a kick at the iron grille, he snapped, “Shut up, you rotten sons of bitches.” But his words were meant not so much for the animals, which couldn’t have possibly kept still, anyway, hungry and pumped up with amphetamines as they were, but more so to finally rouse his clients. They’d been asleep for almost a hundred and fifty miles, the man’s head drooping to the side, partly in the woman’s lap, the woman slumped against the fake leather seat and the fiberboard lining the door.
Again Zeus kicked the grille, and as he looked back at his clients, he could hear the animals thirstily nudging the empty enamel vats over the riveted metal floor of the cage. The man was the first to stir, his eyes flitting about in a daze as he seemed to remember what was going on. Placing a hand on the woman’s shoulder and giving her a shake, he whispered something to her. Theirs was a lovely, melodic tongue. Zeus had no idea what it was, Armenian or Gagauz or whatever. Not that he cared a whole lot. The woman, of course, knew at once where she was. She looked first at the industrial cooler where the left-hand seats of the old bus would have been, and then at Zeus: “Are we there yet?” she asked in accented French that Zeus understood easily enough.
“Less than half a mile to go,” said Zeus with a nod. “Best you now give me the other half of the money.”
The woman said something to the man, who reached into the pocket of his sport coat and removed an envelope, which he handed to Zeus. After taking the money, Zeus opened one of the cooler’s compartments and removed an old ice cream box, which he gave the woman. “Get naked, both of you, and then spread this stuff over yourselves nice and thick. I’ll count the money meanwhile.”
Taking the box, the woman said something to the man and then began undressing. The man now did so, too, removing his shirt and his pants before opening the box. Staring at the greasy yellow cream, he posed the woman a question, at which she, naked, turned to Zeus: “What is this?” she asked. “My husband wants to know.”
Zeus gave a wave of the hand. “Bear lard,” he said, “What else. But no more questions. We agreed no one would ask a thing. Spread yourselves all over, head to toe, and don’t leave your hair out, either. Don’t bother about it being smelly. By the time you’re done, I’ll be all set, too.”
Reaching into the strongbox by the driver’s seat, Zeus removed a small ultraviolet lamp from beside the rest of the money. He then lit up the banknotes one by one, caressing them and sniffing at some. Noticing that the man was watching, he growled at him, in Hungarian, so that not even by chance would he be understood, “What are you staring at?” And then he turned the bills about, crumpling them under the purplish light. Can’t be careful enough, anyone who hasn’t seen quality Moldavian or North Korean goods would think there’s no counterfeiting these new euros, why, those folks there in Brussels are all agog about high technology, to think what they’ve been up to even here on the border, laser motion detectors and infrared cameras and magnetic sensor–equipped walking detection devices everywhere you look, they say the Dutch have already made a prototype of a DNA-sniffing robot dog, supposedly all it’ll need is one molecule, and they’ve installed such a powerful servomotor over its tank treads that it gets almost to the speed of sound in six-tenths of a second, hell, if they start churning those out then maybe this whole line of work will really be history, even doing it this way costs a small fortune, it takes so much to pull it off that hardly anyone can afford it, I’m lucky if two folks go over a month, and to think that back when there was still a mine barrage here one or two hundred folks a day took a run at the border, and at least half of them got across, yep, those were the good ol’ days, when they didn’t need all this goddamn high-tech stuff. . . . Zeus scowled, switched off the ultraviolet lamp, and wound a rubber band around the wad of cash, which he then put away. “Exactly the right amount,” he said in French. “I’m really pleased.” Opening the cooler’s largest compartment, he removed two pairs of ice-cold rubber boots and two hooded wetsuits. “All right,” he said, handing one set to the man and the other to the woman, “the bear lard will protect you from the cold fabric, at worst your skin will peel off in a couple of palm-sized spots, but the way we’re going about it there’s no way the infrared camera will see you two, and what little body heat of yours gets through the neoprene, why, it’ll be masked by the body heat of the bears.”
Taking the wetsuit between his hands, the man shuddered and winced at the cold. He then asked the woman another question. The woman turned to Zeus and said, “What’s that supposed to mean, ‘body heat of the bears’?” At this, Zeus went over to the iron grille and wrenched off the tarp. “Let’s just say you two will be riding bearback,” he said. Beyond the screen were two brown bears, big ones, slapping at the vats. Zeus could hear his clients gasping for air. “Get dressed already,” he told them. “No need to get scared now. The bears are tame, I broke them in myself. This is the only sure way of going about it. Up till now everyone’s gotten through this way. Brown bears are a protected species in the Union, the border guards can’t go shooting at them, no way. Those Greenpeace folks would let them have it if they even tried. Bears can go wherever they damn please. Heck, the border guards are even happy to see them crossing over—it’s a welcome increase in their own bear population, after all.” Zeus fell silent and looked at his clients standing there in the wetsuits, the cold steaming off them. The man said something to the woman, who, rather than translating it, replied. They were arguing, it seemed. Finally she addressed Zeus once again, as before, in French. “This is not what you promised,” she said.
Zeus broke into a smile. “Sure it is. I said I’d take you two over the border, and that either happens like this or it doesn’t happen at all. But if you don’t like it, that’s fine, too. If you want, I’ll take you back to the nearest town. But I can’t give back the money. Sorry, but that’s the deal. Talk it over, decide for yourselves.” Zeus turned his eyes back to the bears. The man said something very loud, at which the woman started to shout, but the man kept at it, too, and then the woman suddenly gave him a slap. The man fell silent. Turning at the sound of the smack, Zeus saw the man’s face turn slowly blue, more from the cold than from the blow, it seemed; at which the woman said something to the man, who nodded. The woman looked at Zeus. “All right,” she said, “we’ll give it a try.”
Zeus gave a wave of the hand. “All right,” he said. Reaching again into the cooler, he tossed them a green army shoulder bag. “Go ahead and pack your stuff in there. Then come on, we’ll go to the back, where I’ll open up the door and we’ll go inside to the bears. The important thing is to move slowly, and once you’ve sat up on them, hold those bellybands tight. The bears will only start off when I whistle. They’ll go for the smell of water, the creek is on the other side of the border. Up till then they know which way to go; and once they’ve gotten there, they’ll start drinking right away, and that’s right when you should get off their backs. Being drugged up and all, the bears are pretty fast, and you don’t want them bringing you back. Walk along the creek bed downstream to the first bridge. Then you’re on the main road; you can keep the rubber boots, but leave the wetsuits under the bridge.”
Zeus waited for them to finish packing. Then he left the bus, and they followed; the man brought the bag. It was dark. The mud squished around their heels as they went to the rear of the vehicle. The man’s boots must have been a bit too big, for he almost fell before the woman grabbed his arm. Zeus pulled a chain to lower the ramp, a sheet of roof iron nailed over some boards that creaked its way down. And then, turning the winch, Zeus opened the back door of the bus. Standing there in the dim light streaming out of the cage, he turned to his clients and took two thick, document-stuffed envelopes from his pocket. “Getting across will be a cinch,” he said, handing them over, “but be careful, they can ask for your papers anywhere up to thirty miles from the border. Not that you’ll get far with these Kazakh diplomatic passports. No, they’re just good enough to win you some time. The best thing would be if you say you got AIDS, because then you’ll automatically be granted refugee status on medical grounds. But for that you need the virus, too. Lucky for you, you went with an old pro like me. For another twenty percent I can take care of that for you, too.” Reaching into his pocket even before he finished speaking, Zeus pulled out two syringes and held them out toward the woman, who said something to the man, who firmly shook his head. “We have no more money,” said the woman.
Zeus put the syringes away. “Whatever,” he said with a shrug. “Your call. Now I’m going to open the cage and we’ll go inside to the animals. Follow me nice and slow, got that? I don’t want to be saying a word in there, and I’d advise you people not to, either. So it’s best I say goodbye right now. Have a safe journey, lots of luck, have a happy life.”
Translation of “Fuvar.” Copyright György Dragomán. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Paul Olchváry. All rights reserved.