Though it was a crystal clear day, the air weightless, the sky brilliant blue, Tobar felt submerged, every movement a struggle against an opaque current. He groped fingers across his eyes to pull away the film that fogged his vision. He had been feverish when he began his journey, stumbling through the maze of streets around the central terminal as if his body were about to burst into flames; but now, as he slumped on a bench in front of a strange provincial station, his flesh congealed like cold clay.
Tobar pressed his head against the rough stone of the building and gasped for air. When he reached down to touch his suitcase, he realized he had left it in the coach. The train stood waiting on the track across the platform, but he did not think to retrieve it, even though he had packed the suitcase with fierce urgency. He sat immobile when the train began to move and looked up only when it disappeared into the hills beyond the town.
A tall matron, severely dressed in a green wool suit, took a place on the bench beside him, her matched cases strapped to a wheeled cart. Tobar remembered he was supposed to change trains at this station.
"Where do I go next?" he asked the woman, but heard his words as babbling. She looked at him with distaste yet did not move away from him. It struck him that he had not used her language and he made himself speak again.
"Ich verstehe sie nicht," she said, pulling the luggage closer to her.
Then he recalled his destination and named a village high in the mountains, a place he had chosen at the central terminal, lurching forward and pressing a finger down onto a wall map.
"Ja." The woman nodded, releasing the handle of her cart, and gestured toward a narrow track set into the cobblestone square across from the station.
Tobar closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, an engine and two red cars waited on the track, one carrying a large round container and the other for passengers. He turned to the woman to ask where they had come from, but she was gone.
Before he could make himself move, he had to imagine himself rising from the bench, standing unsteadily, and crossing the cobblestones to the passenger car. Then he was able to flatten his palms on the bench slats to push upward, willing each leg forward one at a time until he stood by the steps of the red car and gripped the railing.
The conductor asked for his ticket, a lean man in a blue uniform with a stiff peaked cap, his face thin and deeply creased, eyeglasses framed with wire so narrow the lenses seemed to float above his face.
When Tobar boarded the car, a few people already were scattered among the wooden bench seats. A plump man in a zippered jacket watched him with a sidelong glance, leaning elbows out an opened window and whistling a tune Tobar did not recognize. A habited nun followed his movements from behind dark glasses. An elderly woman with tightly curled white hair and large chin moles scrutinized him openly. The only people seated together were three hikers whose backpacks lay in the overhead rack, two deeply tanned men and a plain woman with long muscled legs in shorts and climbing boots.
Stepping like an intruder, Tobar took a seat in the left row several benches behind the nun. Then he noticed that a windowed metal partition divided the car. In the other half, alone in a seat against the front wall, facing the others, sat a short round old man totally bald except for bristle at his temples. He wore heavy grey trousers pulled up to his chest with leather suspenders and a sleeveless undershirt. Streams of smoke emerged from a thick cigar gripped between his teeth.
The people looked at their watches, the nun's delicate gold, the climbers' black-banded sport chronometers, the whistler's jeweled and glittering. The grey-haired woman kept hers hidden under the raised cuff of her jacket. When the conductor waved a brass lantern and stepped aboard, Tobar felt the car wrench forward.
A woman's voice called out, frantic for the train to wait. But the conductor made no move to help her even though he stood an arm's length from the door. A young woman twisted the handle and lunged into the aisle. She was holding a small boy, little more than a baby, who struggled against her, kicking and shrieking.
Tobar realized that he was the only one who turned in his seat to witness their entrance. The old man with the cigar, already riding backwards, followed their movements with a blank look. But Tobar sensed that for an instant the man's eyes met the young woman's.
He was suddenly seeing everything in this car with a startling lucidity, as if he viewed the scene through a perfectly polished lens.
The young woman carried the squirming boy to a bench across from his. He observed them closely without appearing to be watching. She was young and very beautiful, her glistening dark hair cut short, her face finely boned, her skin golden. He could not make himself stop looking, certain that he would always remember her as though she were in the same room with him.
The boy was kicking his feet, flailing arms, screaming, "Papa, Papa," but the young woman just held him firm on her lap and whispered, "Shhh." She sat serene, eyelids dropped, lips turned at the edge of a smile.
Tobar was struck by the pale blondness of the boy, while the young woman was so dark. But the child was beautiful too, even with his face twisted in tantrum.
The train left the town behind and followed the curve of a rushing river, a glimmering white surface channeled between high stone banks. At times the turns were so sharp Tobar could see the large container on the car behind.
The young woman gestured to the white-haired woman and, even though Tobar did not notice a response, moved to the bench beside her. The boy was still screaming, "Papa, Papa." But for Tobar the sound merged with the churning of the train. The older woman stood to reach out and take the boy into her arms, cradling him against her breast and crooning softly. The boy quieted, blue eyes gazing fascinated at the woman's moles, although he did not reach to touch them.
The young woman stood and slid out to the aisle, walking back and forth from the conductor's seat to the partition for the smoking section. Despite the swaying of the train she did not lose her balance. She wore white slacks and a striped jersey that emphasized her breasts. Tobar realized that she carried no purse, that she had boarded the train without one, only the struggling child in her arms. The boy began bawling again, but she ignored him until she had made several more passes up and down the car. Then, without a word, she lifted him from the grey-haired woman and returned to her seat.
The old man with the cigar, alone in the smoking section, was staring up at the steel ceiling. Tobar, following his gaze, saw nothing but the welded seams of enameled metal. As the train accelerated, the man's smoke drifted in through the open window by the whistler. The heavy odor turned Tobar's stomach; he imagined ripping the cigar from the man's mouth and crushing it under his shoe. Anger tore at his ribcage like claws slashing his flesh. He cried out, then wasn't sure he had made the sound aloud.
When he looked around the car, no one appeared to have heard. The child whimpered now; the plump man still whistled. Everyone else sat in silence. Something about the grey-haired woman struck him. When she had stood to take the child, her legs had been unnaturally short; seated, her torso had made her seem of normal height. The cigar smoker's legs were also very short, protruding thickly from his round center, not even reaching the floor. Perhaps he and the woman were a couple, seated apart because of his smoking, ignoring each other like people who had hated through fifty years of marriage.
Tobar closed his eyes at a wave of nausea. His flesh trembled with chill; beads of cold sweat ran down his face. He tried to look out the window.
The train was climbing now. Tobar could feel its strain wrenching through his own body, rising and turning, twisting up into the mountains. The track clung to an edge of rock, poised above deep valleys, tall thin pines trees above and below, looming canopies of dark green ahead in the train's path. A river twined through a rock-strewn bed two hundred feet below. When the train hung above it suspended on a narrow bridge of iron girders, Tobar sensed that if he heaved his body against the side of the coach, he would plunge them all into the abyss. He squeezed his eyes and gripped the bench.
He opened them again when the train slowed and saw a crew of workmen in orange coveralls digging at the stones alongside the track. As the train crawled past, they tapped on the windows with the handles of their shovels. One worker, young and handsome, his hair neatly parted, walked alongside the car directly beside the seat with the young woman and child. He stared at her without a greeting. Tobar couldn't see if she was staring back. None of the passengers were responding to the workmen. The boy buried his face against the seatback and began screaming again.
Soon after they left the workmen behind, the train came to a stop beside a small building of varnished wood. A station sign hung above a red-painted door. Tobar saw no houses, no evidence of habitation to justify a stop, only three curtained windows above flower boxes on the station's second story. It's very beautiful here, in these mountains, Tobar thought, but the recognition gave him no joy.
The train waited at this stop although nothing seemed to be happening. The car vibrated with the idling of the engine. Each minute of the waiting was excruciating to Tobar. The others seemed very patient, as if they had made this trip a hundred times and knew everything that would happen next. But he felt trapped by the stillness, desperate to reach a destination.
When the conductor called out and waved to the engineer, the old man with the cigar suddenly stood, rushed to the car door, and jumped to the ground. Tobar had the sensation that the man was abandoning his wife. He expected her to cry his name as if the man had hurt her deeply. But she did not make a sound. When the train rounded a bend a hundred yards ahead, the man was still standing by the edge of the track watching something beyond the engine.
The young woman hoisted the boy over her shoulder and slid to the aisle seat of the bench. The boy's face was only a few feet away from Tobar now. At first he stared at Tobar with unblinking bewildered eyes. Then his mouth began to twist and tremble. Please don't cry, Tobar begged silently.
But before there was a sound, the woman rose and quickly carried the boy through the door into the empty smoking section. She sat with her back against the metal partition. Tobar could see her dark hair through the glass window but not the boy on her lap.
He found himself wanting to move into the seat beside her, as if the partition would shut them away from all the others, as if they would be sealed in a private world. You are very beautiful, he would tell her, so very beautiful. Then he would reach out a hand to touch her face. He imagined her pressing her cheek against his palm. If she would only show him kindness, the pain behind his eyes would disappear, the anguish in his heart.
The train climbed higher. A waterfall sprayed like white steam from the mountainside into the valley below. The distant peaks were capped with ice, etched against the rich blue of the sky. I am surrounded by beauty, Tobar thought, and wished he could weep. A room in the city burned into his vision, the walls swallowed in grey, a child sprawled and staring upward with huge fixed eyes, a woman's mouth twisted in screams that drove knives through his skull, a scene of absolute ugliness.
Tobar shook his head to force the screams away, as if the others could hear everything. But they appeared to ignore him even though he was certain they could read his soul.
The hikers spread out a large map full across their laps, one of the men pointing to a spot on the paper and then outside the window. The whistler removed a half-eaten sandwich from a small canvas bag on his lap. He reached across the aisle to offer it to the nun in dark glasses. She shook her head, and the man took a large bite, crunching the hard crust and spraying crumbs from his lips. Even though the man was not whistling now, Tobar kept hearing the tune.
The train was crawling again, its wheels grinding against hard steel. Another group of workmen in orange backed off the track to let it pass. Not one of them waved. Their stolid faces peered into the car. Tobar was startled to see the same neatly combed man they had passed down the mountainside fifteen minutes before. The man met Tobar's eyes with a look of fury. Tobar sensed that if the man had held a gun at that instant he would be dead.
The man gestured and ran ahead, faster than the train, until he was even with the woman and child. Through the partition Tobar could see the man's mouth moving urgently as she leaned toward the window. Then the man twisted away and disappeared into the shadows of the trees.
Tobar sensed great threat. He told himself he should go to the young woman and warn her. But he sat frozen while the train crested on the mountain and shook with a downhill surge.
The young woman pushed through the door from the smoking section back into the compartment with the other passengers. When the train lurched, she grasped the seatback in front of Tobar for balance. She glanced down at him. Her beauty made him gasp. He reached out to cover her hand with his, to ask for forgiveness, but she was already sitting in her old seat.
When it struck him that she was alone, Tobar wondered why she had left the boy behind in the smoking compartment. Perhaps he had finally fallen asleep, stretched out full-length on the bench. Yet she didn't have to move so far away. There were empty seats all around the child.
The train stopped again at a station, this time at a cluster of homes built onto the mountainside. A couple boarded, a man and a woman, both thick and sinewy, in the midst of an animated conversation. The conductor walked through the car with them, talking just as excitedly. The three of them sat together in the smoking section and lit cigarettes, waving them from their fingertips with emphatic hand gestures. The boy was alone with them in a smoke-filled compartment, and still the young woman ignored him.
Tobar made himself stand. The others were watching him; the hikers put down their map; the whistler's tune became inaudible. Tobar's face burned with shame; sweat ran down his chest. He stepped back to the smoking compartment but did not enter. He paused at the door and looked down to the seat where he expected to see the boy. The bench was empty.
He pushed through the door and searched the other seats, knelt down to see the floor beneath them. There was no boy. Tobar shook the sleeve of the conductor's blue uniform. "The child! The child!" he said in his own language. The couple stopped their conversation; the seated conductor glared at the hand on his arm. Tobar drew away as if it had been stung. "Das kind," he remembered to say and pointed at the empty bench. The couple gave the conductor a puzzled look. He shrugged, turned his back to Tobar, and revived their discussion.
Tobar bolted toward the other compartment, stumbling as his shoulder hit the partition door, and fell on hands and knees. No one moved to help him.
Too shaken to stand, he crawled back to where the young woman sat, his eyes at a level with her knees, and groped in his memory for the simplest vocabulary. "Wo ist das kind?" he asked tentatively, and then loudly, "Wo ist das kind?"
She gazed down at him with serene calm.
Tobar shuddered, suddenly tasting a sour dread. He pulled himself up and turned to the others in the car, appealing to them with a gesture. They returned empty gazes.
He chose the nun and sat next to her, speaking frantically and pointing back at the young woman. "Das kind! Das kind ist gegangen!"
She took his hand in both of hers and patted it soothingly. "So, so," she crooned.
He pulled away and turned toward the whistling man, then the old woman and the hikers. All shrank back even before he took a step, alarm on their faces. The old woman held her arms in front of her face as if terrified. The young woman shook her head and parted her lips as if to speak, exposing her perfect teeth.
Then Tobar understood what had happened. She had passed the child to the workman; he was her lover; they had stolen someone's child.
Tobar stood among them ready to reveal what he knew had happened. He would express himself calmly so there would be no misunderstanding. But when he opened his mouth, his tongue bloated against his palate. He was choking on his own words.
Tobar shuddered and sank onto a bench. Tears welled in his eyes, ran down onto his cheeks, and in seconds his body heaved with sobbing. When he finished, his throat burned. The others were silent, looking down at the floor, out the window, deliberately avoiding his presence.
Tobar spread his hands on his thighs, let his arms fall limp, and forced his breathing to be steady. For the rest of his journey he watched only the scabs his knuckles, the cracked and crusted fingernails. He knew the train had reached its final stop high in the mountains when the other passengers stirred, the hikers reaching up for their packs, clanking buckles as they strapped them on their backs. Tobar sat while they filed past him toward the door without a glance in his direction.
When the car was empty, he moved to get off. The conductor was waiting at the foot of the two metal steps, his thin face grave, the sunlight gleaming from his lenses. Tobar expected the man to block his way and trap him on the train. But he only grunted something Tobar could not understand.
Even though the sun was strong, the cold maintain air stung his lungs. Tobar realized that he wore only a shirt. He was sure he had begun his journey with a coat, though he could not remember the color or the material.
The station was a small stone building across a street from a small lake. Beyond, on all sides of the town, rose the peaks of mountains, brown snow-patched rock far above the tree line. On the other side of the tracks, away from the station and the village, the hillside dropped off quickly, thickly wooded as far as Tobar could see. The sun reflecting off the deep green of the trees made his eyes ache.
The whistler was helping the nun into a taxi, his suitcase beside hers in the open trunk. The hikers, barelegged, pack tops high above their heads were striding toward an inn, the talking couple close behind them. The grey-haired woman was already gone. Only the young woman remained at the station, stepping impatiently back and forth between two stone pillars. Tobar was drawn to her but knew he should not approach yet. He would watch and wait, icy calm under the dazzling sun.
His stillness astonished him. He had the sensation that his own life was finally vanishing, that he had disappeared behind an invisible barrier and rematerialized here, in this place, entering another existence.
A large black car drove up the street from around the pond. It stopped directly in front of the young woman. A man with a beard and a woman in a fur wrap stepped out, both elegantly dressed. In turn they held the young woman's shoulders and touched their cheeks to hers. She clutched at their clothing with agitated gestures and spoke frantically. The woman pointed to the back seat of the car.
The man opened the door and stooped to reach inside. He lifted out a small boy who was yawning and stretching, just awakened from a nap, the same age as the child on the train, but dark-haired and dark-eyed like the young woman. The man passed the boy to her, and she seized him in her arms, eagerly kissing his face, his ears, the top of his head.
Tobar edged closer to the group, stepping carefully so that no one would notice. When he realized what he must do, a shock racked his body, as if a taut wire had snapped in the center of his being. He broke into a run, his brain jarred each time his heels pounded the earth. With a thrust of his shoulder he forced the bearded man aside and wrenched the boy from the young woman's embrace.
Tobar heard her shrieks behind him as he leaped across the track and plunged down into the trees on the hillside. Another woman screaming. Another child. He tripped on a root and tumbled head first, wrapping his body around the boy. He let himself roll through a clearing, quickly stood with one motion, and sensed himself being swallowed by the chill, dark shade.
The boy was wailing, clawing at his face. Branches slashed his flesh. Tobar tasted blood, felt it flowing into his eyes. Now, blinded, here in these strange woods, he was certain the workman in orange was rushing toward him with the other boy, maddened with hatred.
His clothes torn, his lungs aching, his heart seared, he longed for their meeting. The boy dug teeth into his jaw, kicked his stomach, flailed shoes at his groin. Tobar screamed and hurled into the darkness.
Walter Cummins is a Professor of English, Dept of English/
Communication/Philosophy at Fairleigh Dickinson University. His fiction
has appeared in the Kansas Quarterly, Other Voices, Virginia Quarterly Review,and Florida Review. He has two story collections: Witness
and Where We Live and has written numerous essays, articles and reviews. Walter Cummins is Editor-in-Chief of The Literary Review.