preload preload preload preload preload preload
0 Comments | Dec 30, 2009

Note from a Hell-Bound Train[1]

1632380Cum tacent clamant[2]

M. Tullius Cicero

I suspect today will be worse than yesterday. Waking from my standing half-sleep, I hear the collective incessant moaning of my companions. Their voices are softer this morning, but resonate more persistently than before, suggesting an unabated but now resigned level of pain and anxiety. It has been over twelve hours since we were packed ovine into this dank dark railroad car. I know this because the sun was nearly set when we were first put aboard, and now I can see through a wide crack in the car’s timber wall the sun as it begins its slow bitter crawl into the gray sky.

We are one hundred souls – strangers whose only ties are country and faith, but whose fates now inexorably entwine along a sad uncertain path. We are pressed so close that each tightly abuts his brethren – hands, arms, held fast at our sides. I count myself fortunate however, for I was an early boarder, and secured a position along the car’s wall. Through the ill-fitting planks I am afforded a view of the bleak passing land, and I receive a bit more fresh air. Also, I press against only three others, a veritable mountaintop of privacy, given the circumstances.

Our herders, tall proud men in starched olive gray, reveal nothing of our destination or how long the journey will last. The January air is a deep penetrating cold, unmoving as a tomb, and my breath rises in dense steamy billows that slowly mix with those of my comrades near the top of the car. Upon reflection, I wonder if, in the end, those in the center of the car might not be the fortunate ones; they are the warmest. Despite the unending background of moans, I am struck by the almost complete lack of conversation, perhaps an ironic consequence of our excessive closeness.

A small frail young woman stands silently beside me, her head wrapped in a hopelessly thin linen rag. She is barely able to hold herself erect, and her breathing comes in rasping liquid gasps – I do not believe she will survive a second night. Making no effort to look round at the others, she only stares emptily into the wall before her. It is as if she has, by force of will, transported herself to another place.

Yet I remain, peering through the oaken slats, watching the winter roll heavily by, listening as the steel wheels beneath us trundle rhythmically from seam to seam. We move with remarkable slowness – scarcely more than walking pace. From time to time a soldier runs alongside, easily keeping up with the train. The passing landscape is an unchanging mélange of whites and grays, punctuated infrequently by the fractured barren branches of oak or birch in the distance. This already lifeless panorama is further softened by the wafting black smoke of the engine that tugs us on from only two cars ahead.

The sun struggles desperately to rise with the day, but makes it only halfway into the gray before conceding defeat, and falling inexorably toward evening, all in what seems to my gazing eye but a blink or two.

I awaken before dawn on the second day, the train drawing to a stop at some nameless station where waits yet another clutch of wretched voyagers. They are, mercifully, thrust into a different car, and we are again on our way, still at a pace of unrelenting sloth. Winter’s passing mural is now broken from time to time by a farmhouse, a silo, a field of ice-encrusted wheat or hay. I think we are nearing the border, but there is no way to be certain.

It is now a day and a half, if my reckoning is sound, and I have, thankfully, become accustomed to the stench. Our car’s door has remained solidly locked since we embarked, with obvious consequences for normal bodily function. In addition, this is a car previously used to convey pigs or cattle, so that the odor was oppressive even before we set out. As there is little possibility of movement inside, each does what he must where he stands.

We were awakened last night to an unfortunate and horrific occurrence. The floorboards are old and weak, a situation exacerbated by our overloaded state. Though I mercifully could not see it from my position near the front of the car, we clearly heard the sharp crack of failing timber in the night, and either watched or listened aghast as two women fell through and were swept beneath the wheels of the train. Now alert to the hazard, we make what effort we can to stand near the edges or above cross beams, easily discernible between the cracks in the floor. I realize suddenly that the frail woman who stood by my side yesterday is now nowhere to be seen. This is an unsettling development, as movement throughout the car is so unthinkable. Still, her small stature may have somehow enabled her to seek out a warmer spot.

My legs have grown stiff and unfeeling from the cold and lack of movement. I can no longer feel my feet or the tips of my fingers. It may be that today is colder than yesterday, or this could be only an illusion brought on by the lack of food, water, and sleep. Most of yesterday’s sounds have now gone to silence, and I pray it is due only to our collective exhaustion. Outside continues a featureless gray, a heavy snow has begun to fall, and the train’s pace has now quickened somewhat. Some of the large wet flakes sneak through cracks in the ceiling, and a hundred wretched faces turn upward – parched mouths thrown open like newborn sparrows in hopeful anticipation of the first moisture in nearly two days.

I believe the old man standing to my right has died. At first I wasn’t certain how to tell the dead from the sleeping, since in neither case does repose seem a possibility. The frozen air and lack of water render the two conditions surprisingly similar in appearance, particularly among the old. It then came to me that I need only look for the clouds of breath hanging in the chill winter air, none of which he has exuded in several hours. Despite his apparent demise, a small waif of a girl stands at his side, lovingly holding his hand and occasionally peering up at his closed eyes and tilted white face. She has no hat, and only a waist-length coat that leaves her legs exposed below the dress hem. She meets my gaze once, offering a wan and fleeting smile. I am certain it is the train’s only smile.

It is late morning of the third day. We traveled the entire night without stopping, and so I surmise that the train is full. Since sunup we have passed through two large city switchyards, but it has been hours since we last saw anyone outside. A subtle shift in the sun’s direction suggests that we have turned somewhat to the north from our hitherto westerly track. There is now almost no sound coming from the car’s inhabitants, and, looking about the car, I see noticeably fewer heads. Many have, through force of either will or gravity, managed to sit or lie down. Either this or more floorboards have failed. I say a prayer for the force of will.

The man whose death I suspected yesterday has confirmed my fears by now lying motionless at my feet. His young companion still stands near me, looking down at his hoary face and shivering occasionally. Again she glances up in response to my staring.

“My grandpa is tired, and he is having a nap.”

Her name is Elizabeth and she is thirsty. She is also very cold, although she does not say so. I can see it in the way her arms quiver. I look down to the old man’s coat, which, while meager, is more than she has now. It will be difficult to remove, with the press of those around me. Still, it is my first honest excuse to move my body in three days, so I set to it. I consider explaining my actions to the girl, but she does not question my act, despite her earlier words. My arms and legs move like glaciers, and the man has grown stiff. Still, with great effort, and the grudging cooperation of my immediate neighbors, the deed is eventually done. I drape the coat over the girl’s shoulders, from which it hangs to the floor. She says nothing, but her shivering subsides somewhat. I offer my hand, which she accepts only after a lengthy considering pause.

It seems a miracle these two remained together. I recall that when the soldiers loaded our car they seemed intent on separating family members, putting them in different cars. I do not know why this was necessary, or whether these two managed to stay together through subterfuge or serendipity. Whatever the method, the old man did what he could, and now the baton has passed to me. I need only reach out for the burden to be mine.

Elizabeth runs her tongue over parched lips. She seems to be trying not to look down at the old man as much, although I catch her stealing a glimpse from time to time. There is a crack in the wall planking wide enough to pass my arm through to the elbow. Uncertain what reaction I may elicit from someone outside, I nevertheless reach through and back along the outer wall in a blind search for deposits of snow. Atop a horizontal crossbeam there is a ridge of snow from yesterday’s flurries. Clutching against the brisk wind of the train’s passage, I succeed in grasping a small amount and drawing it back inside, receiving a deep splinter to my wrist in the process. Opening my palm before the girl’s deeply curious blue eyes, I present my humble offering, no more than a teaspoon of flakes to wet her lips. She accepts it gratefully, undaunted by the small trickle of blood that creeps from the splinter and down my wrist. Repeating this gesture for a half hour or so affords her perhaps half a cup of water, more than she’s had in three days. Again a smile, and a slightly tighter grasp of my hand.

As night again falls she shivers more noticeably and I draw her closer, raising the collar on the old man’s coat. I long for gloves or a hat to offer, but she will have to make due with the coat and an occasional handful of snow. Still, through it all, she seems to possess an inexhaustible supply of smiles. I am doubtless the only passenger on-board who considers his lot improved since our departure.

Sometime late on the third night the train begins to slow. Sleepless, I have been contemplating my new dilemma. If I claim Elizabeth as my own, the soldiers may take her away, as they did so often back at our original station. I believe the safest plan will be to walk close by, attentive but without acknowledgement. Like the old man, we will do our best, and I will pray for divine guidance to help my cause. None of us can foresee what may be revealed when the doors are at last thrown open, but I fervently hope that it will improve upon the past three days.

Glancing about the car in the darkness, less than a third of the original heads are visible, and I pray that the rest are either sitting or sleeping. We are stopped now, and again I can see the soldiers moving purposefully through the snow outside. There comes a harsh metallic sound, the grating of the heavy sliding door, and an impatient shout that signals the end of our journey and the beginning of whatever comes next. With a final reverent nod to the old man lying on the car floor, I guide my new charge furtively ahead of me, shuffling toward the doorway, and out into the winter night.

[1] Phrase borrowed from the Vladimir Nabokov short story “That in Aleppo Once…”

[2] When they remain silent, they cry out.

Leave a Reply

* Required
** Your Email is never shared