by Laura O’Brien
The haystacks of hills had been rolling by for days, but after breakfast, my eyes were filled with prickling green. I had been waiting for the forest to close in on either side of the train car. I would have to look at my calendar to remember how many days had passed. There hadn’t been many, but the sun and moon alternated so slowly, their piercing lights equal in their ability to distract me, so the few days on the train felt like eons interrupted only by curling crossword puzzles and abrupt attendants with tea and kasha. I never quite slept, nor was I ever fully awake, and a cloud of confused disinterest blurred my thoughts and words.
The games on my tiny island table were in Polish, Russian, Slovene, and German. I thought the trip would give me a chance to study, and word games were always a favorite. However, they required a knowledge of popular culture that I didn’t have, and my dictionaries were useless. They were more frustrating than fun, so I took to guessing my pop culture equivalent and filling in the blanks with insufficient Latin characters. I did this in the early morning and late at night, when my neighbors slept. My name was such that I could pass for a Slav, but I my understanding could only help me survive in standard travel guide scenarios. I kept this secret to myself.
The attendant, of course, knew everything about me, because he checked my passport at the platform. Thoroughly. He knew that I couldn’t roll my R’s, and his eyebrows twitched when I pronounced them like a softened Cyrillic Kha. His name was Konstantin, and I heard the other attendant, a stout older woman with severe butter-yellow hair, call him Kostya. Her voice was deep and strong, but her tone was sweet with Kostya. Her name, however, I never learned. If the wall was not privy to some bit of information, neither was I.
My roommates in the coupe kept to themselves, but I observed them with more diligence and interest. There was Sasha, the illustrator, who slept on the bunk above his wife, Katya. When the moon glowed an eerie neon patch of light on my feet, I could always hear him lumber down the iron ladder attached to the wall. Then the thin linens would whisper against each other into a pile at the foot of the bed, and I would try especially hard to be less awake. The beds were too narrow for more than one person, and Sasha was always on the top bunk, snoring at the ceiling, when I started my morning word puzzles. He spent his days sketching in his notebook, drinking beer when it was offered, and coddling his wife. Katya was short, frail. Her curly hair somehow went from mussed to coiffed in the mornings, but I could never catch when that happened. She looked like a child, and her husband treated her like one. She rarely spoke, but when she did, her voice was an echo of the woman attendant.
As I opened the room door, Kostya had his fist raised to knock, and he stood among the pillars of pines that flickered in the window behind him.
“Good morning. Did you sleep well?”
“Good morning. Yes, very well. Thank you,” I lied. He knew it was a lie, because my face was growing as dark as Katya’s, but he smiled all the same. I wondered how he did it, how he lived on darting trains and slept on cold, hard beds and worked with removed genteel.
“May I?” He gestured inside the coupe. I nodded and sat in the scratchy white nest of my bed. “For breakfast, there is kasha with vegetables or blinchiki with jam.” He pulled out his palm-sized paper pad and coolly waited for us to decide.
“Kasha with vegetables. And blinchiki. And two cups tea, please.”
“Kasha and tea, please,” said the man above me.
“Blinchiki, please.” I still had a hard time thinking of peas and carrots as breakfast foods.
“Tea, girl?” Kostya asked me.
“Oi, I apologize. Yes, please.”
“With pleasure,” he said with a narrow smile. As he turned to leave, he flicked his chin in the other direction, much like you when you’re in a hurry. The door snapped shut behind him, and I turned to face the morning colors yawning in the window near my pillow.
The man above me, Sergei, never said much. He was older, and a military man, judging by his carriage and systematic way of scheduling his day. I would imagine that he had fought in Chechnya, or had driven a tank through Moscow during the power shift in the 90s. My daydreams would promptly stop after a few minutes, because I could feel his energy humming in the bed above me. Or he would climb down, curtly nod at me, and go for a walk, or talk on his cell phone in urgent Russian. His intense restlessness and tempered glass stare made a strong impression on me, and I worried that he would know, just by looking at me, that I was re-imagining his life in terms that appealed to my own cloistered perceptions of war and history. He would not let me get away with it. He was a man, and I, a woman, would never understand what that title meant.
The coupe made sleeping nearly impossible. The constant shifting light that flitted through the window and Sergei’s stern edginess kept my senses stimulated and vigilant. Most of my days were silent, because no one ever talked. Kostya didn’t provide enough liquor.
Instead, I stared out the window, at the flaking hills that foolishly waited for rain. Sometimes, one of the windows was opened slightly, and the cold air smelled of cracked soil. I wanted to walk in the brittle grass, sit down and smell the bitter leopard flowers. My joints ached to move, but I was confined to walking up and down the thin hallway outside the coupe, where people talked on their cell phones and disciplined their children. I had no pretense for walking, just for the sake of walking, so I avoided looking at anyone as I made my rounds. Sometimes, I put on headphones and let the wire trail into my coat pocket. I wasn’t listening to anything. They couldn’t know that I listened to them berate their coworkers, sweet-talk their wives, advise their friends. I wanted to absorb everything they knew, so I could pretend to be something familiar.
When I return with the cold wind, I will tell you about these people, about this new part of me that sounds of brown and insecure spaces, about how I learned to love you more.
Kostya returned with a sharp rap on the door and a few plates of the food we had ordered. I wrapped myself in a rough quilted coverlet and nodded my thanks as the tea and and food were set before me. My shoulders remembered your soft grip as he reached for the curtains, tendons stretching to let the light in.
“Bon appetit,” he said stiffly before he clicked the door shut.
I picked at the blinchiki before smothering them with all the lingonberry jam that came on the styrofoam plate. I sat back in the far corner of my bed and pretended to be engrossed in my breakfast. Sergei delicately drank his tea and squeezed extra lemon into it. He said nothing and his face remained blank and rigid, but a small light ignited in his eyes with each slow sip. Katya had already inhaled her blinchiki before I could take notice, while Sasha read a book and absentmindedly ate between pages.
The window was ticked open, the thick scent of sap and needles sweeping in. I forgot the moaning hills, unmoving and listless, and their thirsty spotted flowers. It grew dark in the train and the morning watercolors abruptly ended. I forgot the hot glass of tea in my hands and stared into the layering shadows of gnarled tree trunks. They continued indefinitely, like the impossible reflections of a three-way mirror. The boughs, soft and damp, only harshened the white desert of my bed and pulled me further into the echoing green of blurring forest.
The constant bustle of the hallway and coupe, the buzzing of other hearts over silent lips, it was all too loud for me. Someone else slept on this bed, ate this food, watched the sun rise and set through finger-spotted glass, played pidgin word puzzles. I had retreated into some recess and vacantly watched the world before me. My actions were programmed, my face rigid, and only the crisp metallic ticking of your watch on Kostya’s wrist could bring my sight to my eyes.
We pulled into a station to let off some passengers, and pick up new ones, and the woods parted to welcome the station and sky. I was suddenly very thirsty, and gulped down the now cold glass of tea in my hands. Sasha pretended not to notice.
As passengers from other coupes rolled by and talked in anxious monotones, I yearned to retreat from the parched glare of the sun. Sergei shuffled a deck of cards, the plastic flapping competing with Sasha’s and Katya’s distant cooing from the top bunk. The waving fingers of needles beckoned in the distance, and I wanted to again look deep into the ceaseless sea of trunks, where light and voices faltered, where nothing was mine, nor was it anyone else’s.
They don’t know what happened. They know what happened before, and what it looked like after. Kostya, the man with creaseless hands and a long shadow, had been on the other set of tracks while we waited at the station. A train coming from Vladivostok did not stop, but Kostya did. They found what was left of him, and quietly told us that we would continue, short-staffed. I threw away the book of crossword puzzles. I replaced the games with letters to you, in languages you couldn’t read. The chasm between us was growing, and now the absence of Kostya forced me to shout my verses and hope the parched echoes would resemble words when they finally reached you.
You said you would wait. You said you would take care of yourself while the cold wind blew me across the steppe.
We hurtled away to the next station, humming through the dark pillars of pines. I slept all day, and shivered the whole night through.
Laura O’Brien is a poetess that is dedicated to unfettered creativity. To contact her, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.