The roof of the world

Such drama getting to the Sayran bus station – a passport left behind, a massive retracing of steps – that it was not until we were in a marshrutka driving away from Almaty that I realised I had forgotten to check out the station’s roof, cryptically described in my guide as somewhat abstract. The journey was long stretches of straight tarmac slicing dusty brown plains, punctuated by roadworks forcing bumpy detours around excavators and trees dotted with too many crows, so I began inventing roofs: uneven hexagons like basalt columns, concrete sine waves floating out of sync, porcupine spines thrusting at the sky – all the designs that could have been and all the parallel actuals never seen, and in that understanding what can never be as its own realm of possibility.

The roof of the world is also an edge of the world. Here there are so many manifestations of nothingness. Nothing here but the rumble of the water tank being wheeled to the pump, the cry of a woman berating her daughter in the squat white building with the blue doorframe three hundred yards away, the clink of a pot being placed on the fire, the crunching footsteps of a man striding to the outhouse. The snowcapped Alay mountains stare implacably down at the valley. There is a jostle of wind. All else is silence.

Hsien Min Toh has published four books of poetry, most recently Dans quel sens tombent les feuilles (Paris, 2016). He lives in Singapore.

You can see more of his work in 8.2