The train itself had not arrived, but it was not late. The station master chatted with someone down towards the end of the platform. There was nothing particular about the crowd waiting, there was nothing particular about me. Or I hoped there was nothing that would cause anyone to take a second look, or to remember me. Not that there would be any negative consequences; but it just seemed wrong, exposed, standing here in full view of the world and having my soul and my memory clutched so tightly in my hands. The train arrived; we boarded; I sat in a corner by a window, placed my suitcase on my lap, watched the scenery edge past.
Back gardens with drying laundry gave way to fields fallow after the harvest, then the fields passed and there was only scrub and distant hills. I had forgotten how quickly the city gets left behind and how long the scrublands last. When I’m in the city it seems like the only thing that really exists, but even the tallest skyscraper was invisible in almost no time at all. Most of the people who remained on the train have settled in, stopped trying to appear busy, are napping or gazing out the window. The afternoon advances and still we continue, the scrublands continue, the distant mountains grow incrementally closer.
I sleep, jerk awake from a dream where I was surrounded by everyone I knew as a very young child, we were eating birthday cake, and I awoke just as I was about to blow out the candles. The sun is setting, and from the window I can feel draughts of cold air seeping in. We are in the mountains. The sun disappears and I feel the shadow of the mountains in the darkness outside my window, but there is nothing to mark distance. The moon is new, and the stars move as we move, and I sleep. In my dreams I am flying and there is a river rushing towards me, a flood or waterfall, there are rocks and I fly faster to stay ahead of the tide and then I awaken. The cabin has grown quite cold. There are men in uniform with flashlights, checking passports. They do not look very closely; they have thermoses of coffee and flasks of vodka waiting for them in their chamber, and the darkness of the mountains continues and again I sleep, but do not dream.
Morning, a tea cart, served by an impassive woman who doesn’t quite say anything and doesn’t quite make eye contact with anyone. I am the same way, huddled by the window with my suitcase, drinking the acrid tea. The mountains have passed in the night, but the landscape is bleak, empty, the only thing of note upon it is the train itself, and it is a train well past its prime, the tracks are indifferently maintained, the landscape so barren I see not even a rabbit or crow. Somewhere in my mind I feel a sense of familiarity with this emptiness, but I cannot begin to count how many years and memories have passed since I last watched this land stretching endlessly from the window. Even grasping for some sense of what comes next, all I can see before me is the endless ocean, and that is still some days’ journey; there is more to pass before we arrive. But at that distant ocean, I can remember smooth black stones along the shore, and huts weathered grey by the wind. I cannot remember how many huts there may have been. Perhaps five, or ten, but no more; and of these, I do not know if any may even remain on the empty coast.
I clutch my suitcase, cling to it like a security blanket or teddy bear. When was it? I could not have been older than three or four. Everyone towered above me, and spoke too quickly and used too many words that I couldn’t understand. I remember the men were giants with scratchy faces and they smelled of old fish and the sour smell that I know now is woodsmoke and alcohol. The women were plump, and I could not always distinguish my mother from the other women. Sometimes I would run to one woman only to suddenly burst into tears when it was not, in fact, my mother. We had chickens that jostled in the thatching and our neighbor had a goat that was not friendly. And then I left. Or I was sent away. Or I was claimed.
I was put aboard a train by my mother and a strange woman in an embroidered red coat took me through the mountains and into the city. All I can remember of her is the red coat, for I had never seen anything so magnificent, and my awe of the red coat may have been enough that I had no space in my heart for tears at leaving my mother or fear at going to some strange place. Now that I am being sent back, or escaping back, I realize that I am not certain of my name. The parts of myself that I keep so closely in the suitcase may be some other person’s past or memories, and I have stolen or borrowed them for this journey. Three or four years old is such a long time ago that I do not know if I will recognize anything or anyone, but this is all that I have.
It is not that there was ever cruelty. I meant to say that before, but I forgot. Never was there cruelty, not by the woman in the embroidered red coat nor by any of the headmistresses that came after. There were a great many other children, but we were so numerous and moved about so often that I cannot remember any one in any particular detail. This was not cruelty; this was method, and we received the best method there was.
One girl, one girl I remember. Perhaps we were six, or only five. We were learning our letters, tracing and copying out, tracing and copying out, until our wild scrawls were as neat and precise as the teacher’s. The girl I remember kept sneaking little animal faces inside her letterforms, the letter “C” was given ears and the tail of the “Q” was made into a mouse tail. She was missing a front tooth and could whistle just like a singing bird. They did not punish her for any of these things; they were not cruel. I wonder if, when she learned numbers and math, if she drew faces in the numbers, made her math equations look like faces peering through apartment windows.
I never did these things, although when there was a hallway that was absolutely perfectly empty and there wasn’t even an echo of voices or footsteps, then I would turn a cartwheel. Never more than one. I don’t think I learned how to cartwheel after arriving in the city, for we were not given lessons in gymnastics and our playtime was carefully structured, so perhaps I had learned how to turn a cartwheel on the smooth black stones of the beach. None of the women, with their generous girth and wide skirts, would have taught me how, nor any of the men, smelling of alcohol and the sea. I do not remember there being any other children, not even babies, not in my cottage nor in any of the others, but some how I must have learned. And that was my secret, that I was so careful not to share with anyone else.
All of the rest of the time, I drew my C’s and Q’s and numbers just exactly like the teachers showed us, and the years passed, and passed, and then, suddenly, I needed to leave. As quickly as it began, but so many years later, I am returning to the sea, the smooth black stones that lead to the water, stretching endlessly away.