Nowhere Is Always Somewhere
  Six Stories by Robert Earle
  1  Under the Bridge
2  The Mustard Pot
3  Nowhere Is Always Somewhere
4  Monsters, Monsters Everywhere
5  What Maggie Knew
6  The Last Summer
  About the Author  |  |  September 2017 Fiction Issue

Nowhere Is Always Somewhere

Lauren met Danny in 1999 when she arrived in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He said he had been adopted. Didn’t know his birth parents—two decolonized souls adrift in London, he imagined—but grew up a Brit and felt great love for his family in Cumbria, where nonstop weather events taught you to bear up under the tumult of the universe.

She feared his good looks—thick black hair, striking white skin, a nose you remembered—were a false promise, but she went to bed with him anyway. He was working on his DPhil in international relations and his advice interested her: don’t focus on the demise of the USSR but rather the disintegration of Russia itself. The USSR collapsing would lead to Chechnya escaping Russia’s clutches, for example. A free Chechnya made colossal sense.

She admired how gracefully he let her go, something like a butterfly collector who only wanted a look, and sidestepped his counsel to focus on the Caucasus. She got her MPhil writing on the Balkans instead. At Harvard, she turned her thesis into a doctoral dissertation. Meanwhile Danny abandoned academe to become a foreign news television producer. His stories reflected his views: Why couldn’t there be an independent Basque Country, an independent Catalonia, an Iraq broken into three parts? They stayed in touch without seeing each other. That was fine with Lauren. Pursuing tenure at Williams was all-consuming. She didn’t need a steady man or want children. Solitude suited her.

Then one day Danny called from Boston. He was meeting with the PBS affiliate and wanted to come see her in Williamstown.

“Any special reason?”

“I have a proposal for you.”

The first thing that occurred to her couldn’t be. Still, a loaded word.

When he arrived, he had a bump on his forehead, the prayer zabiba.

 “Happened in London,” he said. “Noticed a mosque, in I went.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

“Doesn’t cause you trouble?”

“How could it?”

“You know how it could.”

He let her comment pass and made his proposal: His current employer wanted him to develop a new international reporting star—ideally an American woman to help penetrate the US market. “Naturally, I thought of you.”

“What’s natural about me?”

“Brains, guts, and looks are the essentials.”

“Here at Williams brains matter. Looks don’t and you keep your guts to yourself.”

“That may be, but you already have stuff all over YouTube, and my people in London love it.”

“Danny, those are just conferences and lectures. I don’t pay any attention to the cameras at all.”

“Exactly what my people said: She’s great without even trying!” With the passage of time, his hairline had receded attractively and his nose had grown starker, but his eyes had some new fire that appealed to her. “Here’s how it works: Behind the camera I set things up. On camera, you see them through. For example, I’ve got a lead on the new ‘emir of the Caucasus.’ Let’s go interview him and get you hired.”

She settled deeper into the sofa by the front window. Out on the street, a scattering of leaves, a scattering of cars, a scattering of Berkshire weather dragging its bottom over the shingled rooftops. This would simply end up in bed, she thought. All the more reason to slow things down and enjoy them.

 “So…Danny Braithewaite of Cumbria, doctor of philosophy in international relations, television producer, and now Muslim?”

“Actually, here’s the thing, the trigger, you could call it: my birthparents were Muslim.”

“I thought you didn’t know about your birthparents.” When he didn’t respond, she pushed a little: “I don’t suppose they were from Chechnya like this emir, were they?”

“Coincidentally enough, yes.”

“Really? How did you find out?”

Danny gave her a look she now placed somewhere near Grozny, not Ambleside. His manners and accent always had obscured the fact that he wasn’t simply a pasty white Englishman with an unusual nose.

“I always wondered why my mother—my adoptive mother— was so keen about news of Chechnya. Quirky, I thought. Where’s Chechnya? Then when the first Chechnyan war broke out, she became quite fanatic about it. So, for the first time I pressed her, and yes, my parents were Chechens. She didn’t know anything more than that. So, after I spent years telling myself not to, I headed for the London Chechen community for some firsthand research.”


Danny’s composure quivered for a moment. Inwardly, Lauren flinched. She hoped he wasn’t about to become emotional. Intimacy was not her calling.

“A pregnant Chechen woman did show up in London about when I was born. Who knows the circumstances? No one, apparently. But in any event, a Chechen man, presumably her husband, came to retrieve her and he didn’t want the child—to punish her, perhaps?—and it could be that I was the child and he was al-Anzor.”

“The new emir?”

“It seems that way, though he wasn’t famous then, just a fighter. And for a long time, they lived a clandestine life in Chechnya, until apparently my birthmother was killed in an explosion a few years ago that badly injured al-Anzor, too. But he survived and now, yes,” Danny took a breath, “he’s the anointed leader of the revolt against the Russians.”

Lauren remembered once spending a weekend at his adoptive parents’ house, a hand-stacked stone affair in Ambleside. His father was a doctor; his mother was a cleric. Crisp, entertaining people who joked that one of them presided over births, the other over burials. For an outing they’d all taken a ferry across Windermere and ended up in a pub, his parents vigorous, his parents amusing, his parents English, and Danny just like them, English, too.

She tried to get to the heart of things. “I don’t see where I fit in as a political scientist. Aren’t you describing some kind of human interest story, son finds lost father, two worlds meet in the nexus of nowhere?”

“No, I never would have thought of looking him up if he hadn’t been designated emir. What he’s up to is the story, not me.”

“But you assume he’s your birthfather.”

“I don’t regard him as my father any more than he would regard me as his son if he knew. In that regard, personally, I’ve nothing to do with him.”

She reacted in a way she wasn’t entirely proud of. “I’m probably one of the few people in the world who would be fine with you keeping your secret. I don’t go for pointless sentimentality.”

“Don’t you think I know that?”

In a somewhat depressing way, his familiarity with her cold-heartedness cheered her. She didn’t want to dwell on herself, however, still not seeing any point in her involvement. “The Chechens you’ve dealt with in London have no idea who you really are?”

“To them I’m Danny Braithewaite, former academic, now journalist. Have been Danny Braithewaite all my life. That’s all there is to me.”

“But you’ve become Danny Braithewaite, Muslim.”

He said something startling and self-demeaning “It’s such an abjectly humiliating religion that I felt instantly at home in it. You don’t know God and never will.”

She took a moment to consider this. He was saying in a backwards way that he had never felt at home, always felt humiliated, and was bitter about it. And now he was effectively proposing that she join him in going to meet the human god who abandoned him, his father. Wouldn’t it be terribly cruel to tell him no? Hadn’t he put a lot of effort into this gambit, talking with his managers, coming all the way to the Berkshires? Despite herself, she felt moved. What had happened to her in the Berkshires recently that was half this compelling?

“Supposed this worked, and I liked it, and your people liked me. Where would we go afterward?”

He had a ready answer. “The appetite in the UK for stories about crumbling empires is bottomless. Brits love seeing someone else’s imperial disaster. And we could show Americans where they’re heading next.”

“I doubt this will work, but I could spare a few weeks over winter break.”

“That’s all we’d need.”


They rendezvoused in Moscow, then took off for Grozny, where they would head somewhere else for the encounter with Saida al-Anzor. Danny had drawn a diagram of concentric circles to illustrate how he envisioned the interview. She would work inward from Chechnya’s historical grievances against the Russians (first circle) to the Yeltsin war (second circle) to the Putin war (third circle) to the ongoing rebellion (fourth circle) and then to the personage of the emir of the Caucuses, Saida al-Anzor (fifth circle).

Having done preparatory research at the Williams library, she had to ask, “Danny, don’t we know a great deal of this already?”

“We know it the way the West knows it. Not how this man knows it.”

“So basically, the idea is to let him talk.”

“You might have to make him talk. He’s been on the run all his life. We have no idea what he’s like.”

“We have his proclamations.”

“Possibly not written by him. Possibly he’s more Zapata than Lenin. No theory at all: just give me back my land. So, the penultimate question will be very simple: What makes you think you can prevail?”

“And the ultimate question?”

“Why did your people select you as emir?”

“Nothing at all about his personal life?”

Danny interlaced his long fingers over his head. In his black sweater and high-collared white shirt, it was easier to picture him as a modern-day Disraeli than the scion of the Caucuses, zabiba notwithstanding. “A man like him wouldn’t say and probably wouldn’t care.” He looked out the window. “As for me, the closer I get, the more I think he can have his fucking land. Whatever’s down there isn’t my home.”

Grozny did not look like anyone’s home. Most of the neon in the world seemed concentrated in the center of the city, festooning the brutal bulk of post-war reconstruction like a manically decorated birthday cake. But they had to spend three days there establishing a cover story by interviewing Russian puppets. So, the ministers of trade, energy, and social welfare spoke with them in large, bare offices and offered them coffee, vodka, Chechen wine, dried fruits, and pastries stuffed with mystery meat. A press encounter without a feast seemed impossible. Culinary bribery was the order of the day.

Danny remained behind his handheld camera while Lauren endured her execrable interpreter, a stocky Chechen in a sharkskin suit assigned by the Ministry of Information named Abdullah. Abdullah’s goofs didn’t matter; neither did the ministers’ lies. The person who mattered was a bell boy on the night shift at their hotel. That’s who Danny dealt with. The plan was that on the fourth night they would leave via the freight elevator and be transported somewhere to meet Saida al-Anzor.

Once they were in the van, driven by a man named Eldar who spoke little English, and beyond the outskirts of Grozny, they learned they were going to Ingushetia. Eventually the sun rose over mountains enfolding vast barren valleys that seemed like the epicenter of existence to Lauren. She found herself yielding to them. Cumbria without lakes. How weird that such a place could be the source of news to anyone else on earth.

The roads were good for a while, then bad, then hardly roads at all. Lauren had pillaged the hotel room refrigerator so they had Toblerone, vodka, cans of Coke, tinned fish, crackers, and hand-wrapped packages of what turned out to be goat cheese.

“Shall we?” she asked.

Danny suggested they leave the vodka for celebrating afterward, and she pushed the tinned fish away in deference to its probable stink. So, it was goat cheese and crackers washed down with Coke, followed by Toblerone and more Coke.

Around two in the afternoon, Eldar forced the van up to a clearing where two vehicles were camouflaged by tarpaulins.

A handsome boy with striking eyebrows, about sixteen, emerged from an opening in the rocks. He spoke in stiff but excellent English, accepting Danny’s hand but keeping a Muslim male’s respectful distance from Lauren.

“The emir waits for you. Is it convenient that you join him?”

Of course, it was convenient. What else would they be doing out there? Well, pee, for one thing. Lauren said she’d walk off a bit for privacy.

“By all means,” Danny said. “Meanwhile I’ll go inside and set up.”

 Squeezing into a cluster of boulders, she found a spot where she could keep her balance. When she finished, she took a minute to engage in a kind of pre-execution reflection. The alternative to her present circumstance—sitting in her office in Williamstown, Massachusetts—seemed so far away that she wondered if she would ever find her way back. Nowhere would always be somewhere after this.

The interview would take place in a cave illuminated with electricity from a portable generator. Purple pillows embroidered with orange thread were strewn on a carpet that had something implacable about it, strong enough in its smoky blues and rose pinks and mint greens to suggest that once one stepped upon it, one had entered a true court, ruled over by the emir, his face unpleasantly scarred in two different ways, freshly on his right cheek and not so freshly along his canted left jaw.

He wore a brimless cap on his blocky, grizzled head—anchored by his noble nose—and two knee-length vests over an oatmeal-colored blouse and billowy black trousers. The chair he sat on was legless. The boy kneeled beside him, interpreting as Danny explained the process at hand. Two guards rested on their haunches behind the emir. Eldar stood farther back.

After Danny miked al-Anzor up, he faced Lauren to do the same and placed an earbud in her left ear so that he could give her directions in a whisper, which he did now, “I gather we arrived late. Eldar got himself ripped for it. This is a neutral spot for encounters. al-Anzor’s headquarters is elsewhere.”

“They told you that?”

“No, look around: See any sign of food? We’re not going to be extended hospitality. When this is over, everything here will go lickety-split into the vehicles under the tarps and the cave will return to eternity.”

“What do you make of the boy?”

The boy also wore two vests along with an ivory necklace of some kind and an embroidered hat. He had a curved knife under his belt.


“What are you feeling?”


“Danny, you touched your father for the first time in your life when you miked him.”

“It was a completely empty experience.”

To her it didn’t feel empty. It was like a funeral where the dead weren’t dead. “But look at him sitting there with that insolent look on his face. Don’t you at least despise him for tearing you away from your mother?”

Danny simultaneously tipped his chin up and looked down at her, giving himself the distance he needed. He was trembling ever so slightly. “No doubt less than he once despised me.”

She couldn’t believe, now that it was happening, what he was doing to himself, and probably felt more for him than she had when they were lovers, which she realized, definitively, was not what their recent sex—in Williamstown, in Moscow, in Grozny—was about. And that made her sad; it hurt.

The cave was cold. She kept her jacket on, likewise her soft wool hat, and sat on the carpet in front of al-Anzor. To get things going, she said that her audiences welcomed the opportunity to hear the emir’s views. The boy interpreted. Then, before she could go on, Saida al-Anzor took it upon himself to speak. He said his lands had been invaded by the Russians centuries ago, and then came the Soviets, and now the Russians again. But Chechens had never been Russians and never would be. He spoke as if he were spitting wasps out of his mouth. He would be a horror coming at you on horseback, Lauren thought.

Squeezing into a crack in his disquisition, she asked him about his tactics, blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow, for example, taking innocent life. al-Anzor cocked his head.

The boy said, “Please, one moment. The emir wants to offer you something.”

al-Anzor picked up a tin container and removed the lid. He pinched some gritty powder between his fingers, stuck out his mottled tongue, placed the powder there and made an unseemly effort to swallow it. Lauren assumed the powder was some ground-up herbal intoxicant or dirty cocaine. She definitely did not want to be offered any, much less expected to swallow it.

Once his mouth was clear, however, al-Anzor spoke and the boy interpreted. “The emir offers you a taste of pulverized concrete from a building that fell on him once. This is what the Russians feed us, he says. Good, we eat it. But they will, too. The whole world will eat it. Join him in this feast.”

Danny whispered into her earbud, “Tuck in. I need this shot.”

“Danny, for God’s sake,” she whispered into her mike.

“Go on now. Be a sport.”

She pinched a little bit of pulverized concrete and placed it on her tongue. Then what? She worked on moistening the stuff sufficiently to be able to swallow it.

“Take your time,” Danny whispered. “Great material.”

She had to swallow repeatedly to have done with it. As she did, Eldar, the two guards in the back of the room, the emir, and the boy, watched her intently.

al-Anzor said something. The boy interpreted, “Bullets are not good for you, but concrete is.”

This nasty trick unleashed something in her. She’d been worrying too much about Danny’s feelings. Now she was angry at both him and his father. She wanted to finish interviewing the beast and head home.

“I take it you have been shot as well, Your Excellency?”

Yes, he had been shot, praise Allah. Four times.

“Is it a qualification for becoming emir to have sacrificed so much to the cause?”

No, otherwise all the dead Allah had taken to Himself would be emirs. Their sacrifice was much greater than his.

“Then what led to your selection as emir?”

The death of his predecessor, Doku, may he be blessed in paradise.

“And when you die, how will your successor be chosen?”

He already was chosen.

“May I know his name?”


“Ilyas? Who is Ilyas?”

The emir did not answer. The boy did.

“I am Ilyas, my father’s son.”

She looked at the boy’s strong eyebrows, beak of a nose and ivory skin, and realized, as happened with good interpreters, that she had so taken him for granted that he had ceased to matter. But now he did.

“Danny, what do you want me to do with this?” she whispered into her mike.

Danny’s voice was thin. “Leave it alone.”


“Get back to al-Anzor.”

“—he is your—”

“Get back to al-Anzor.”

She asked about the Chechens’ cooperation with the Ingush, whether it was active or consisted simply in providing safe haven. Answer: active. She asked about support from outside the Caucuses. Answer: He did not want the support of devils, only believers. She asked about any possibility of a ceasefire or truce. Answer: None.

Beforehand Danny had told her to go past forty-five minutes if al-Anzor would put up with it. Any recorded instant, be it a statement or change in tone, could be of value, and they’d come a long way. But the truth was that she did not want to be talking to Saida al-Anzor at all. She wanted to talk to Ilyas. The old man was stirred up and off again, however. He began describing the impending dissolution of Russia, its shriveling and shrinkage. In other words, Danny’s view precisely.

How long would this take? she asked.

The boy listened to his father’s answer, a long one, and condensed it by saying that there was no time in truth. “He always says this. What will be true is already true and has always been true.”

That was the end of the interview.


Saida al-Anzor remained angry at Eldar for taking so long in delivering Lauren and Danny, so he assigned Ilyas the task of driving them to Magas, where they would catch a plane to Tbilisi. Lauren didn’t know what Danny could be thinking; she really didn’t. He packed up as though he weren’t thinking anything, as if everything was fine with him, but everything was not fine with her. She understood Danny’s disdain for his father—treating him like the stranger that he was—but she did not understand his disregard for his brother, expressing no interest, no panic, which was, uncomfortably, exactly what she felt: a panic about things not being right, a panic to set them right, a panic because she did not know how.

“I’ll sit in the back. You sit up front beside Ilyas,” she said when they had loaded the van.

“All right, if you prefer.”

She knew what he would say, but asked anyway: “Are you going to tell him?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why the hell not?”

“Because he probably wouldn’t believe me and what would it matter?”

She glared at him so angrily that she made him angry. His glare in return asked, What’s wrong with you? The truth was that she didn’t know, but yes, something was wrong with her. This was a living boy, not a story from the past, flesh and blood.

“If it didn’t matter to you, it would matter to him.”

“What would I do, invite him to fly away with us?”

“You don’t know what you’d do unless you risked opening up.”

“Oh, Christ, where is that vodka?”

“Here, take all three.” She fished the little bottles out of her pocket and almost threw them at him. She saw he was trembling again as he downed one, and she said something so uncharacteristic of her that she had a hard time believing she’d said it. “Look, Danny, I’m sorry. Whatever you need, just know I’m here for you.”

He stared at her incredulously. “What on earth do you suppose I’ll need?”

“Oh, for God’s sake, stop it.” Impulsively, she grabbed him and kissed him on the lips. “Wake up, you idiot, wake up,” she whispered.

Ilyas was in the driver’s seat, studiously not looking at this woman’s strange burst of passion. Danny pulled away from Lauren and told him all right, get going, time to shove off.

After that they drove in silence, Ilyas and Danny in the front seats, Lauren perched on the back seat, leaning so far forward her head was almost between them. The atmosphere in the van was oppressive, mysterious no doubt to Ilyas, confusing to Lauren, offensive, apparently, to Danny. She’d made an overture to him exactly when he couldn’t possibly respond. That’s what he was thinking, she thought. He’d pulled off the most astonishing venture of his life and was insulted she didn’t think it was enough, thought it was done sourly and with a hard heart. And who was she to criticize him for a hard heart? She knew she had no right. She knew she’d gotten into this project as a fling. The fact that it now mattered to her shocked her, wasn’t what she expected, wasn’t what she wanted, either, she had to admit, but it did matter to her. Something had happened in the middle of nowhere that mattered a great deal, and ignoring it, not dealing with it, running away from it, upset her.

When the rocky ruts yielded to a paved highway, Danny finally broke off brooding. He asked Ilyas how he happened to speak such fluent English. Ilyas said his mother always spoke English to him. Mention of his mother, Danny’s mother, too, stopped Danny. He didn’t ask the next question, the one that would follow in a casual conversation, naturally and inevitably. Lauren couldn’t help herself. She asked it for him.

“Your mother spoke English so well?”

“She studied English in Moscow and then she lived in London before she married my father. She died in the building that collapsed on him four years ago when I was twelve.”

At last Lauren could see, looking at Danny’s face from the side, that he’d lost his balance, his restraint. He was falling where she wanted him to fall, right into his life.

“What was your mother like?” he asked.

“Excuse me?”

“Please tell me about your mother.”

Ilyas said she obeyed the emir in all things. When they moved, hiding from the Russians, she always made the new place look like the old place. She had a large family in Chechnya, but for safety they often went a long time without contact. He, Ilyas, was her only child. She couldn’t have another. She was too old, and their lives were too dangerous.

Danny took a swig of vodka. He wiped his lips with his left wrist. The sun visor hanging down on his side of the windshield had a little mirror in it. Lauren could see his eyes; he could see hers. He took another swig of vodka. Wiped his lips again. Was going to ask the next question, she was sure, and did. “Do you know why your mother spoke English with you instead of Chechen?”

“So she would have someone to speak English with. No one else here does, just us.”

Ilyas smiled as if he were looking into the past, not the natural wastes of the Caucasus mountains. He obviously liked talking about his mother and enjoyed speaking English. He said she had been the brightest student in her school, a Russian school, and that was how she got to Moscow. Then she returned to teach English in Grozny, but she wanted to live in London, and she did in a place called Battersea on the south bank of the Thames. His mother had drawn him a map of London and explained all the districts—Chelsea, Westminster, Bloomsbury, St. Johns Wood, Kensington. During the year when she lived in London, she walked everywhere. She knew the whole city by heart.

Ask Ilyas if he would like to visit London himself, Lauren thought, trying to reach Danny telepathically.

But Danny didn’t ask if Ilyas would like to visit London. He had something else in mind, truer to himself at the moment than to Lauren’s commands and wishes, how she wanted his life to evolve rather than how it really had evolved, which mattered more to him. “What did your father think about your mother speaking English with you?”

Ilyas said quite soberly, “My mother never spoke English in his presence. He must always understand what is being said for fear of betrayal.”

“Betrayal by your mother?”

“By anyone. It is a great burden being emir.”

“A burden you will welcome when you are emir?”


“That’s Arabic, you know, inshallah.”

Ilyas smiled, enjoying himself, chatting with this Englishman. “I know a little Arabic because I am Muslim, and you are Muslim, too. We knew that we would see your zabiba. Our friends in London said you are very pious and honor your prayers.”

“Yes, I do.”

Suddenly and unexpectedly, thrilling Lauren but maddening her, too, Danny began to tell his brother about himself without his brother even knowing who he was. He compared the landscape through which they were passing to Cumbria’s, the sweeping, craggy austerity of it. He said he had gone off to preparatory school when he was six, then Eton, then Oxford, where he wished he had studied Chechen, not Russian, and done a lot of things he had not done.

“But you are still young,” Ilyas said, as if counseling someone younger and less experienced than he, which perhaps Danny was. Who knew what all Ilyas had seen and lived through? “You can still do many things. Think, you have never been here, yet now you are.”

“For now, at least,” Danny said, almost nostalgically. “But will I ever return? No one can know.”

“Allah knows,” Ilyas said.

“Yes, of course. Allah knows. He may not tell me, though. He may keep His secrets and not share them with either of us, you or me.”

“Inshallah, you’ll come back.”

“Inshallah,” Danny agreed, repeating the word twice, as if asserting and questioning it at the same time, obeying it and wondering about it: Would Allah will it? No, He probably wouldn’t.

Danny was coming to terms with the impossibility of the situation, Lauren could see, and she realized that she was just as impossibly falling in love with him. He’d been stumbling along backward, searching for himself with his eyes closed, and now could not bear what he’d found. Why that would make her love him, she did not know. Love was something she’d never sought and never imagined she’d find.

Ilyas drove them to a pompous little airport whose roofline mirrored a plane’s wings and accompanied them to a counter where he spoke briefly to a man in what might have been Chechen or Ingush or a blend of the two. It hardly mattered. The land didn’t change across the Caucuses; the people and languages didn’t change much, either. The man placed an exit stamp on their passports even though there was no entry stamp indicating that they had entered Ingushetia in the first place.

Ilyas said, “It has been so enjoyable to speak English. I am reminded of my mother and how I loved listening to her speak.”

Hearing this, Lauren thought Ilyas was inviting her to say something, so that he could hear a woman speak in English one more time, but Danny already was pulling her away. He already had heard as much as he could bear.

  © Robert Earle, 2017


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