Tal Yacob’s debut novel, Snowtrain, was published in 2019 by Orvim Publishing House to rave reviews in the literary supplements of major Israeli newspapers. This short novel describes a violent and sexual encounter between two men, an assassin and a male prostitute, who cross the snow covered plains of an East European country for three days, in a journey that utilizes violence and sexuality as tools for enhancing both human kindness and the literary representation of the body. Excerpt translated from the Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan.
“He’s good,” she said, excited. “But expensive. And a little cruel.”
“How expensive?” I said.
“Same day booking will cost you six thousand dollars.”
I leaned my head back for a moment, going over the options, taking into account that I was going to be stuck here for a superfluous seven hours. In that slow moment, something inside my body spoke up. You need a man, it said, somebody strong. She wasn’t authorized to treat me to something so expensive at the expense of the Organization, but she must have known I could afford it. I looked up at her. Straight brown hair, carefully manicured nails, full eye makeup. I recognized her as soon as I stepped out of the station by her body language and the look in her eyes, the same way people instantly recognize anyone from their home country. That goddamn Organization gets everybody. She was waiting for me there with an envelope containing my flight ticket and watched me as I opened it impatiently and discovered I still had seven hours before my flight. She knew I wouldn’t like that. I was tired and humorless. Impatient. Dying to go home already. I rejected the beauty of the streets and the bay and even the holiday decorations, burning day and night. My own expression in a store window was very familiar but still surprising: for a moment, I looked the way I felt. That explained why some of the people who passed me by shot me quizzical looks.
She looked at me expectantly. I was surprised by her reaction to the idea of booking him. I was convinced she couldn’t afford that for herself with the money she made on this job. How did she even find him? The answer was probably interesting, but, honestly, I didn’t feel like asking.
I looked at the business card she showed me again. There was nothing seductive about it. Six thousand dollars, at least ten times the highest price in the market, and a boring business card. Designed for those in the know.
“Call,” I said.
She called and made an appointment with him in the lobby of the hotel across the street. While we waited for him in the armchairs, she asked to see the gifts I bought my son: gray shoes and a toy train. Not compensation gifts. Longing gifts. They weren’t wrapped, so I let her look. She was nervous and talked too much. It made me wonder if the amount he was charging included her too. It didn’t really matter to me either way.
“So things went well?” she tried to spark up a conversation. I stared at her and she got the message and shut up. I got up and went to the bathroom to wash my hands. The mirror offered that same familiar expression and the same frustration: I can’t help myself. Most of the time humor works as a coping mechanism, but today I was much too desperate. I gave the center of the face in the mirror a quick punch and wondered for a moment if my reflection was taken by surprise. Anyway, the mirror survived.
It’s kind of hard to believe—I still had no idea a train was already racing toward me.
He arrived with the requisite leather jacket and a disparaging look and walked straight toward us, glancing at my suit and her flushed face and then into my eyes again, and set the terms. “You first,” he said.
I was there to follow his lead, so I got up and walked with him to the elevator. I used my keycard to open the door and walked to the center of the hotel room. He paused in front of me, looking at me.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“To get beat up,” I told the truth.
I could tell he was a little surprised. After motionlessly looking me over for a while, he punched me without warning. A weak punch, I noted, but a punch nonetheless. I returned my face to him. Curiosity sparked in his eyes.
“The money,” he ordered. I handed it over. He counted it, folded the wad, slipped it into his jacket pocket, and then took the jacket off.
“Take off your clothes,” he said. I took off my jacket and he lunged at me and shoved his hands under my shirt and down my pants. I recoiled and he laughed. Then he undid his pants and took out his dick. He held it like a club. “Come on,” he said.
It was a fight, because even though I paid for it I didn’t determine who was going to fuck who. I didn’t determine it so as to enable this fight. What I wanted was the fight itself. This fight would involve a beating, and maybe blood, too, and it would determine which one of us was more self-destructive. The question of who was going to fuck who was the motivation to fight, that’s all. I was planning to lose anyway.
He tried to assess the limits of my pain through a careful punch to the gut. I appreciated how professional that punch was. I buckled over silently, collapsing onto the floor, and let him kick me in the ribs. I watched him, eyes wide open, as he did it. He added a kick to the stomach, too. My body balled up of its own accord to take the pain. The hot ache now filled all of me, allowing me to focus on nothing beyond its acuteness. He kicked me again and waited. It wouldn’t be interesting if he won so quickly. I was counting on that, I was counting on the fact that being a prostitute is actually boring, on the fact that his curiosity would have him playing along, and that’s why I had to get up and fight back. That’s all right, hitting hurts too. The wrists feel the punches and bear the bruises. Sometimes I have to take what I can get.
I got up with effort and looked at him. He still wasn’t in pain: he watched me with curiosity, not hatred. I wondered what would push me closer to my goal, because he was hitting pretty good out of sheer curiosity. I decided against a knee to the testicles and in favor of an open fist to the chin. His head flew to the right, and when he returned it he was bleeding from the mouth. He wiggled his jaw and I saw blood on his tongue. He was surprised by that, and gave me another fast kick to the gut, and when I fell to my knees he added a knee to the chin. Good! I told myself with satisfaction when the blinding pain filled me again. I tightened my jaw and breathed slowly, focusing on that intoxicating feeling.
He expected me to yell. I don’t yell. Yelling releases the pain, and I wanted to hold onto it.
“Want more?” he breathed, defiant.
Yes—not showing pain inspires more, too. I nodded.
“Get up,” he ordered.
I pulled myself up in an effort to stay upright long enough for him to hit me again. He gave me a hard punch right under my ribs, then immediately to the chin, too. I flew back, landing with my back on the bed. To annihilate any possibility of losing the fight, he kneed me again. I writhed, gasping, and he let me enjoy it in peace for a moment.
He smiled and I understood why she said he was cruel. He sat on my stomach ceremoniously. The beating was over, it was time for the knockout. He understood knockouts just like everybody else, and that was fine. I looked at his dick, swollen but not swollen enough. He needed some help, and all I wanted was for the pain not to end. I dragged my nails for half an inch down his thighs. A gush of blood filled and erected his dick and he panted, surprised. He flipped me over on my stomach and pulled off my pants. I braced for pain, but instead there was pleasure. Mr. Six Thousand Dollars knew a thing or two about both experiences. He passed through my body like the flight of a barn owl rather than a blade. I was going to take the pain in silence, but the severity of the pleasure burst out of me with a cry.
I don’t know who of us was more surprised. After the self-control I demonstrated in the face of all that pain, my outburst was, once again, a plot twist. The undoing exhausted me, emotionally and physically. He went to take a shower and I stayed on the bed, half-naked, unable to move anything but my lungs.
When he finished I got in the shower and let the boiling water hit my face and raise a cloud of steam that filled the space around me. I peeled the paper off a bar of soap and ran it over my body, but most of the time I let the water lash at me and worked hard to breathe. Where did that come from? What did coming have to do with getting beat up?
I was surprised to find him still there when I got out of the shower, even though I’d already paid him.
“Do I need to fuck her, too?”
I shrugged and got dressed quickly. We rode the elevator without talking. I glanced at the mirror and caught him looking at me. Really looking. I felt his gaze penetrating my pupils, slicing through my irises, cutting into the blood vessels and invading my inner organs. And I saw his gaze changing throughout that trajectory into wonder at the depths he reached. What’s this, what’s going on here? No one is supposed to be able to pierce me like that. I’ve been seeking out this feeling for years and had lost faith, and now all of a sudden this hooker? The hope I experienced during those moments for a true friend, finally, was stunning. I returned his gaze, but he didn’t avert his eyes. When the elevator arrived at the lobby floor, he reached over to the button console and blocked the exit. Then he kept his finger on “-4” until the door finally closed.
It was obvious I was going to miss my flight, but even though I wanted so badly to go home, I didn’t blink. When the door opened again he didn’t grab my elbow, because I wasn’t trying to run.
The train station was on -4. Not bothering to buy tickets, he led us to one of the platforms, headed for the suburbs outside of town. The train pulled in and he signaled to me to board a partially empty train car. We sat by the window, across from each other. In the darkness of the subway tunnel, the window mostly showed me myself. In the dim yellow light, which flickered off for a fraction of a second every few moments, my face was a mask of yellow and gray. I was relieved, having been completely unraveled, to learn that my mask had stayed on.
After a twenty-minute ride, the train climbed up to ground level, snow piling up on both sides of the tracks. My face was no longer reflected in the window. Beyond it, I saw snowy fields flanked by black trees. Occasionally I saw a small farmhouse, then an ugly cluster of bare housing projects. I ran my eyes over the insides of the train car. It was mostly empty, and the few people there clung to the walls. I examined them. Older women with blue plastic bags secured between their legs, wearing lined jackets and scarves wrapped around their ears. Two men who watched everyone who came in, their pockets concealing knives. Something in the landscape and the faces of the people on the train signaled danger; the desperation of a life without second chances that made people go right for each other’s’ jugulars, sometimes just for the hell of it.
I glanced at him. He sat across from me, legs spread, staring out the window. Did he not detect the danger I did, or was he purposefully trying to drag me toward it? What exactly was the purpose of this trip? The events that took place in the hotel room broke my usual focus, and I didn’t notice I was putting myself at risk. I could no longer be trusted.
Why did I go with him? Why the hell was I here with him? I let the question hover through my mind until I mustered the courage to look at it. Yeah, right, as if I was about to start lying to myself now. I came with him because I had to know why this prostitute, of all people, was able to see me. I had to find out what the hell he saw, and if it had anything to do with the beating I bought or the sex I received. I don’t know if he could see me as soon as he hit me, as soon as he fucked me, or only after I regrouped in the elevator. And I had to know.