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Understanding Bolotnikovo
and the Bible - Daniel Silliman

The disappearing lake has been explained, but I still don't understand. It's been explained by scientists, quite logically, by Christians, quite biblically, by anti-Americans and by a mayor, but I still think it's wonderfully weird.

The lake in Bolotnikovo, Russia, disappeared overnight in 2005. It was there, and then it just wasn't. It was a big lake, with maybe a million cubic meters of water, and it totally vanished, leaving just a hole of mud and mangled trees.

According to the people of the town, in explanations published world-wide, the disappearance could be attributed to Americans, as if some Cold War exercise succeeded inexplicably.

The scientists had a simple explanation, saying there was a hole in the ground and the water drained into a cavern. They later found the lake, deep in the dark underground. Meaning to help, they described the ground as Swiss cheese. This doesn't help, though, because the question wasn't where the water went, but why? The scientists shrugged.

There was one woman, in a report I read, who said she'd heard church bells ringing under the lake the day before it disappeared. This stopped me. I've always been seized by stories about towns under lakes, stories I'd heard of the Tennessee Valley, where eminent domain moved people for the sake of dams, lakes and electricity. I'd heard the story in California, where the irrigation system watering the long, farm valley is fed by a system of dams and lakes, which replaced riverside communities.

There's something about the eerie depth of a lake, summoning images of submerged cities and surreal feelings of no understanding. Apparently, symbolic burial is scary even after a lake disappears. We have weird feelings about water. And fire. That's why I was thinking of Bolotnikovo, because of weird fire.

I read about Centralia, Penn., where a mine has burned under the city for 46 years. It started in '62, created smoking sinkholes in '81, and the town is now abandoned. I had never heard of Centralia, though I used to live in that state. The descriptions call up childhood nightmares of hell. The place, with poisonous smoke coming out of cracks, doesn't sound real, but it's on Route 61, a storybook picture of God's wrath.

The wrath of God was the other explanation for the lake that disappeared. The sudden absence of the lake was attributed to God, connected to the Church and Ivan the Terrible. Ivan, the fearsome Tsar, apparently went to Bolotnikovo before there was a lake, built a big church, and then the lake appeared. The disappearance, then, is God taking back a blessing. I think. It was only told vaguely, with the recent events connected to other, earlier myths and magical weirdness, weaving together as a citation of God.

I understand this, though it's not a real explanation, because I grew up on sermons about the coming antichrist, sermons full of smoke, water and weird cataclysms. I read Revelations and was addicted to the most violent stories of the Old Testament, where angels kill children, whole cities collapse on unbelievers and fire eats up doubters and falls on the depraved.

So I return to these stories, these weirdly current cataclysms, with the sense I'm re-reading Exodus or Judges. I return to the images of drowned cities and smoking earth and I remember the question I always wondered as a kid reading the gory parts of the Bible, but was never brave enough to ask: How would I understand? How am I supposed to recognize God in the weird, the disturbing and disastrous, the eerie and surreal?

When the tree is on fire, but doesn't burn, how will I know what that means? When a donkey talks, what should I think? I know what the explanations are, but I still don't understand.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.