You watch the soldiers load coffins onto the train. They are shivering, faces pinched with effort as they drag their cargo down from the army trucks idling on the edge of the platform.
The coffin-wood, all pale young pine hauled naked into the sawmill still crying for the sun. Ate into by tearing silver saw teeth, chewed to smooth planks, the air full of soft dust thick as a snowfall inside the cavernous factory floor. Bright nails shine at the joints, brand new and gleaming like bullets. There are so many coffins, hundreds maybe. It seems there is no end to them. You can tell by way the soldiers’ arms tense when they lift the boxes that they are none of them empty.
You feel as though you are having the most terrible dream.
The air on the platform is biting cold. You shiver and hold yourself tight, wishing you had been allowed to bring your wool coat. You won’t need it, they said. You asked why. Don’t ask questions, they said. You asked where they were taking you. Away, they said, away to be with your parents.
Your teeth chatter. The wind hisses. The train groans. The dull leather boots of the soldiers creak on the wooden platform.
You are so tired that you can barely stand. Your arms ache. Your feet ache. Your neck aches as you look around. There are masses of frightened men and women standing in huddled groups on the crowded train platform. They all look like you, like they could be members of your family, distant relatives. Weary old men huddled together with their caps pulled low, women clinging to each other; they wipe at teary eyes. You can taste their fear.
The headmistress stands behind you with her hand on your shoulder. Her lace gloves cover withered and bony fingers, nasty fingers that dig down into your skin. It feels like days have passed since she dragged you out of bed, though it was only a few hours ago. How strange time can be. Your fear, so raw and sharp when she first yanked back the sheets, has dulled to a miserable throb. You begged her to tell you why she was so furious, you pleaded to be forgiven though you had done nothing wrong. She ignored your every word, propelling you silently into an old classroom on the third floor. And she locked you inside, alone with the man in the dark red coat who called himself Captain.
He is standing at the ticket booth now, watching hawkishly. He frightens you. His teeth perfectly white and perfectly straight. His long cruel fingers. His hair so blond, the bloodless color of fresh-churned butter. His cheeks and jaw are tight, like the skin is stretched over fleshless bone.
He asked you strange questions in that empty classroom, his eyes never leaving your face and never meeting your eyes. Where were you born? Where do your parents go to church? What have they told you about the war? Do you have many friends here at school? Why not? What have you told them? Tell me their names. What do you think about the war? Have you ever touched one of your classmates? Where did you touch them? Have you touched yourself?
You did your best to answer all his questions correctly, but nothing you said pleased him. The sound of your voice seemed to infuriate him. You tried not to cry. The man gripped the edge of the desk, his eyes gleaming cat-like. When you tried to turn away he reached out and grasped your wrist in his hand. Your dark skin looked soft wrapped in his black leather fingers. The color of your skin seemed to change under the humming electric light. Now dark amber now blue black now mahogany now jet now toffee brown. You looked back towards him and did not look away again.
When he’d finished his questions the Captain called for the headmistress. The two of them spoke privately, nodding and murmuring and glancing at you. They took you to the Captain’s automobile without even letting you say goodbye to your classmates, without even letting you get any of your things.
It was a long drive down from the boarding school. The car gleamed chrome black, as though the dust and filth of the road dared not touch its metal skin. The headmistress sat on one side of you and the strange man on the other. They did not speak.
No one will talk to you. You stare at their faces and wonder who they are, where they come from. Sometimes you think you see one of your parents or your older brother and you cry out for them. The headmistress strikes you every time and orders you to keep silent. Your family is not here, she says, you will meet them further on.
You sniff back tears and try to hold her hand. She will not take it.
There are many more men with guns. They look like soldiers, but dressed in dark red rather than the cobalt blue of the army. They surround the platform. Their clothing is immaculate, folds sharp and cufflinks bright. Their black gloves and their black shoes are shining. They have fierce noses and beautiful blue eyes. Their skin is so pale; it turns back the meager gray sunlight. You can’t help but stare at them. They are beautiful as cruel birds of prey.
You look at the headmistress. You’ll need a ticket to get aboard. You don’t have a ticket, you tell her.
She says that it has been taken care of. She will not look at you.
There is a sharp whistle blast. The conductor wears a blue suit. He waves one white-gloved hand. The men in the dark red coats move like wolves, herding people towards the train.
The train seems grim and cold, burdened down by the dead in their fresh pine boxes. You look up at the headmistress. “Please, Ma’am.” You are unsure what it is that you are asking.
She looks down at you. Her face is hard and cold. When her eyes meet yours her jaw begins trembling. You think that she is angry and you flinch, afraid she will strike you again. But she does not hit you; she seems to be fighting back something, her imperious face crumbling. Is she going to cry?
You feel a cold shiver of panic running down your spine. You hate it when adults cry. Your mother cried sometimes when she argued with your father, though they always made up in the end. Almost without thinking you reach out to hug the schoolmistress. “I’ll come back. I promise I’ll be good if you let me come back.”
She tears your arms from her, stumbling away. She seems to be choking. “Don’t touch me!” she cries, brushing at her clothes as though to wipe away dirt. She glances fearfully at the men in the dark red coats, at the strange man by the ticket booth. And then she runs, skirts swirling. She leaves you there on the platform.
The conductor blows his whistle again. His gloves are so white, you cannot look away from his hands as they weave through the air, ushering people aboard. He shares a significant look with one of the men in the dark red coats. He seems frightened by them.
There is an old couple in line beside you. They remind you of your grandparents. Your grandmother, smelling of fresh-baked bread and lavender perfume. Your grandfather, who used to sit back in his rocking chair and smoke a pipe and argue at the newspaper. The old man takes his companion’s arm. She clings to him. Her voice is very soft, very subdued “How can they do this?” she says.
The old man just shakes his head. Asima, he calls her, and holds her close.
You feel very lonely. You miss your family, even the classmates who never seemed to like you. You want to sink down to the hard platform and cry, but you know that you mustn’t. You cried when your parents sent you away. They sent you to this place out in the desolation where there was nothing worth destroying. The crumbling old boarding school on the edge of the world. When they sent you away your mother knelt down beside you and she kissed your cheeks. “You’ve got to be strong, little angel, you’ve got to be good. Come on now, don’t cry. There’s a good girl.”
You are a good girl. You do not cry.
The coffins have all been loaded; they are stacked like bricks in the cargo car. The doors are pulled shut. The guards cradle their rifles and tuck cigarettes into the corners of their sour mouths. Your breath fogs like vapor. A darker smoke billows from between the thin lips of the soldiers, lingering about their faces in filthy halos. They watch without interest as the people on the platform are led aboard.
You want to ask somebody where the train is going but you don’t know any of them and you’ve been taught that you must not talk to strangers. You hope you will see your parents soon. You think that maybe when it is your turn to board the train you will ask the conductor with the immaculate white gloves where he is taking you.
You are near the rear of the line, staring at the back of a young man. He has a loose gray scarf about his neck and he trembles with nervous energy. The closer he comes to the entrance of the train the more he shakes, until as last he gives a great cry and breaks free of the line. The conductor reaches out to take him by the arm but the young man throws him off.
At once there is a soldier in a dark red coat there; he strikes the young man hard across the face. The young man hits him back. There is blood on his lips. The conductor slaps his mouth, and his beautiful white gloves are smeared red. Another of the guards grabs a handful of the young man’s starchy hair. They throw him down and kick him. You cry out. You stumble. Hands reach from in the crowd and draw you closer, pull you inside the train. It is too late to struggle. The doors are closing and you are on the train.
On the other side of the door the young man is grabbing the leg of the conductor and pulling him down. The young man gets up and runs, staggering a little and holding his side. He tumbles over the edge of the platform and he runs at a stagger along the tracks.
You push against the door; it will not open. The Captain steps away from the ticket booth. He draws a pistol lazily from the holster beneath his coat. The train is beginning to move now, chugging and groaning steadily. You hate the sound, the metallic strain of it. The noise of the pistol being fired is swallowed by the roar of the train.
Someone is taking your hand in their own, leading you into the train car.
The old man is looking down on you. “My God. Only a child.”
His wife is weeping. “How can they do this?”
You take a seat by the window and press your nose against the cool glass. The young man is laying still beside the track. His gray scarf flutters in the wind. On the platform the men in the dark red coats stand like vultures with their hands hooked into their belts.
The train carries you north.
* * *
He stands over you. He sees a little girl pressed up against the glass. She is clinging to the cold clear sheet like she is trying to get through it, push through the watery surface and tumble into a different world. The glass will not yield. The seat beneath her is hard and unyielding, all the padding stripped out from beneath the leather cover. The shapes of thighs and buttocks are worn in like a ghostly afterglow. The armrest is dotted with cigarette burns and alcohol stains. More recent is the hard bite mark of a metal ring looped round the hasp. Tugged hard in by one chained there and drowning. Pulled until their wrist bled. Until the bones broke and they wrenched their crippled hand through.
He sees peculiar pipes and tubes running along the ceiling. Black guts, black veins pumping strange and alien blood, machine blood. The pipes run into wide-mouthed vents that gape down like horrid wounds. A sound like breathing echoes through.
There is a torn scrap of newspaper on the floor, caught between interlocking steel plates under the threadbare carpet pale green and stiff as a corpse’s hair. The paper is yellowed. Yank it out and read the remaining letters. Half-faded words in a foreign tongue. They mean nothing to him.
He sees everything. There are thirty-six of you scattered out amongst the seats. No luggage. No jewelery in your ears or at your throats. No watches on your wrists. No wedding bands on your fingers. Some of you bleeding from the mouth, holding bunched sleeves to the raw holes where gold-capped teeth had once been.
He sees you men with fear and hate in your eyes. Some of you torn from the front lines. Your fingers twisted together to stop the shaking. To be wrapped around his throat. Toes poking out through the holes in your shoes, fingernails torn and bleeding. Faces smudged with smoke and grit and dirt and blood. They could have been your own brothers, those men who came for you. They could have been your own stern fathers.
He sees you women, your faces streaked with tears. Thin mouths set in tight lines. Secretaries, shopkeepers. Poets. The papers the pen torn from your hands, the ink bottle smashed on the floor. Pencils snapped in the struggle. You screamed when they took you, when they tore you from your husband’s arms, from your children’s arms and they dragged you out into the cold gray street.
Old men, you have seen this all before. You have lived all of your lives with the cold blue eyes that will not look you full in the face, that look away like you are an animal. You thought that such ways had vanished long ago, that those were only the petty hatreds of a youthful world, that your children would grow up free of it all in an age of reason. That they would not be hated. You thought that your children would have better lives than yours, but children always find their way back to the old hatreds. There is nothing man loves so well as war.
He sees you old women crying tears of shame, you who cannot anymore bear this life. Your beautiful faces which have weathered with a lifetime of grief. Your beautiful eyes which have seen so much. Your beautiful hands which have held children and children’s children. Your beautiful lips which have kissed beloved faces. Your beautiful eyes, which will see no more.
The train car is long and foul. There are stains on the floor that will not wash, blood and feces and urine. Dark shapes left in the carpets like a map of alien continents and foreign shores, of strange lands beyond his knowledge. Savage kingdoms on the pale green sea. Just under his feet, swaying with the motion of the train. Lurching into an outer darkness.
Iron hooks hanging from the ceiling, chains strung up in long lines along the length of the car. Butcher’s hooks to pierce flesh. Bodies could have swayed from those hooks. Their faces like your own, their skin the same shade as yours, torn from their shoulders. Do you remember them? When you see their faces peering in through the dirty window will you recognize them? Can you tell him their names? Can you tell him what they dreamed of when they were rocked to sleep by the motion of the train?
He rides with you on this terrible machine, listening to the pistons and the wheels and the clanging bells. Smoke vomiting from a putrid black mouth thick as bile. Steel guts and iron viscera, track laid like a rib across the earth, like a tooth biting down.
Dark drapes itself over the face of the world. He feels the train crawl blindly into that night, blind as an infant squalling, blind as the milky gaze of the dying.
He turns back the cuffs of his blue uniform and he sits. Watching you.
* * *
Outside the window is a perfect darkness.
You gaze into it, forcing yourself to look past the reflection of the little girl with the wide and staring eyes. The soft hills are charcoal gray, shrouding farmhouses fires behind their rolling forms. The moonlight-blue grass rolls in waves down at the bottom of a sunless ocean. The yellow eyes of foxes glitter there like dropped stones in deep water. The sky is black, endlessly black and starless. You can see tufts of train-smoke sweeping against a gleaming moon.
Outside the train is a perfect silence.
Your ears are full with fearful whispers. People, strange people, pressed in close all around you, their heads put gently together, lip to ear, mouth to mouth in subdued conference.
There are two guards on the train car, soldiers in cobalt blue standing one at each end of the compartment with their rifles held across their chests and their fingers twitching at the triggers. Eyes flicking across the width of the train car. The guard at the front has a scruffy beard and a drooping face. You cannot see the other. You lean out and twist your neck to look at him. His face is sharp and narrow. His eyes catch yours and flash and you jerk back against the window. You press yourself against the side of the train, curling in your seat. You shut your eyes so tight that it hurts. You strain your ears for footsteps, for heavy footfalls moving towards you, for hard boots on the hard floor. He is coming for you. He is going to hurt you. You cannot hear anything, you clamp your hands over your ears. The roar of your own blood competing with the roar of the train.
Nobody is coming. Your back straightens. Your ears are uncovered. Your eyes open, you feel tears on your cheeks. You have been holding your breath. Try to keep breathing. You need to stay calm. Do not panic.
Your father said those words to you once: Do not panic. Half laughing, walking down the dusty street with your little hand clutched in his. His hand so rough. He held you very gently. Like holding a bird: the soft cooing, the fluttering heartbeat. Remember, he told you, remember to stay calm. Kneeling down to take your face in his hands outside the dentist’s office. You had got a cavity, a rotting hole in the bone. It will be alright, he said, as long as you do not panic. You smiled at him. You showed him your teeth. Dark gaps in your mouth, coins found under the pillow, a little collection of teeth in a jam jar beside mama’s scrapbook.
The man across the aisle from you is holding his mouth and weeping. “They took my fucking teeth!” His voice is a ragged lisp. Tears and blood mingled on his face. The woman beside him softly sobbing, her arms tight around him. “Stop crying, please please stop crying,” she whispers, her voice so quiet that it is scarcely more than a breath. “They’ll hear you, they’ll hear you. Don’t let them hear you, don’t let them come. Don’t let them find us.”
The man clutches at her, his hands running with blood and saliva. “They already found us,” he says, his voice spitting through his broken mouth, “what more can they do?”
“Please, Jamil, please stay quiet!” Hissed.
He strokes her hair. “Alright,” he said. He wipes his nose on the back of his sleeve. “Alright, I’ll keep quiet.” He pushes his face into her hair and he shuts his eyes and he is silent inside his pain.
There are two old men sitting in front of you. You cannot see their faces. They speak in low voices. “Do you have any idea where they’re taking us?” the first man says.
The second man answers. “Not for sure. I’ve heard rumors but…”
“You never believed any of them?”
“No. I never did.”
“I’m still not sure. I hope to God they were exaggerated.”
“Somehow that does not seem likely.”
“When did it get this bad?”
“When we started losing the war. Somebody has to be blamed.”
“Is it going that poorly?”
“I was in the Ministry of State before this all started. It’s far worse than they’re letting on to the papers. We’re being pushed back on every front. Look there. You can see it right out your window. The enemy is very close now. It won’t be long before they reach the big cities.”
The old man looks. “My God…” he says.
You press your nose against the glass. At first you don’t see anything. The world is quiet and dark. Then there is a soft flare of light, far far in the distance. A flash like a match being struck. Then another, and another. Bursts of light that make the distant hills glow. There is a fire there, far away, burning behind the hills.
You’ve heard about the war only in whispers and rumor. The headmistress didn’t allow anybody to talk about it, and since newspapers were not allowed at school none of your classmates knew very much. Sometimes a girl would receive a letter from an older brother on the front, she would read it and cry and you would wonder what could be inside those words. Your own brother is too young still to fight. You wish that they hadn’t ever sent you away. You don’t care about the danger, at least you would be with them. Anywhere but on this train.
You wonder if they have been hurt, if they’ve had a bomb dropped on them. You shut your eyes tight. Do not panic.
Your head droops down, lulled by the rumble of the train. The bombs are so far away, just a fireworks show in the distance. You hold yourself tight against the chill.
Somebody screams. Your body tenses, your eyes open. A woman is screaming. You can see her standing in the aisle, mouth horribly wide and screaming wordlessly, a scream that seems to crack the world.
“Sit down! Sit down and shut up!” The sharp-faced guard barks like a trained dog.
The woman comes down the aisle towards you, stumbling and tripping. The guards move in. You cower in your seat. You will not look. You will not watch. You stare at the floor.
But you cannot stop from hearing it. You cannot stop from feeling it as it happens.
The shadow of the soldier sways on the floor below you, cast there by the dim lights which run along the ceiling.
The woman’s shadow clutches uselessly at his, fighting to get past. “Please, I’m not supposed to be here! This is wrong. I’m not supposed to be here. You have to let me past! I have to go.” And her voice is empty, quiet and reasonable and empty.
You hear the guard’s horrible laugh. “Get back in your fucking seat, you goddamn –.”
He says the word.
You remember that word. You don’t know what it means, but you have heard it used before. Some kids shouted it after your father one day, children hardly older than you. His face got very cold and hard and he grabbed your arm tight and he propelled you down the road, walking so fast that you could hardly keep up. When the boys were far out of sight you asked him what it meant, that word. “It’s something that they call people like us,” he said. His face seemed carved from stone.
“People like us?” you asked him. “What’s wrong with us?”
He seemed so angry. Was he angry at you? You didn’t think so. “Nothing’s wrong with us,” he said. “Nothing. Some people just… don’t like people who are different.”
You tried very hard to understand. “We’re different?” you asked.
Another time, somebody at school said the word to your brother, called him a dirty –. Your brother attacked the other boy. He got detention for a month, and the other boy only had to apologize even though he’d started it. You asked your brother why he hadn’t just walked away like papa did. Your brother wiped the blood off his lip and he said that sometimes you couldn’t just walk away.
The woman in the aisle is crying. The sharp-faced guard laughs. There is a horrible crack, a sort of wet crunching sound. Then another. Then another. The guard pushes the woman down into the seat beside you. You feel the weight of her pressing against your side. There is no more crying.
The guard walks back to the rear of the car.
You stare straight ahead. You can see the old men through the slit between their seats. They are staring at the woman. “Oh my God…” one of them says. Then he looks at you. “My God… just a child. Don’t look, child, don’t look. How old are you, child?”
Your voice is very still. “Eleven,” you say.
“My God,” he says once more, and then again: “Don’t look.”
But you cannot help it. You cannot help but look.
The woman isn’t a woman, not really. She’s hardly older than you, sixteen or seventeen maybe. Half a girl still. Her long curling hair sweeps luxuriantly about her face. She wears dark purple lipstick. Her coat is some sort of fur; it looks very expensive. Her fingernails are painted red.
The girl’s faces is broken. The whole right side seems to have collapsed in on itself. The skull is shattered, the eye pulverized. You can see the horrid white flicker of broken bone in the bloody mess. Her mouth is open, drooling red saliva. She doesn’t move except to twitch and quiver. Her remaining eye rolls wearily in the socket, searching for something.
You bite down on your hand to stop from crying out. You bite so hard that the coppery taste of blood fills your mouth. You look away, but you cannot keep the image of from your mind. You try to look out the window, but all you can see there is her reflection behind you, gaping and broken. You squeeze your eyes shut. Do not panic.
The two old men are looking through the crack. “We must get off this train,” one of them whispers.
* * *