I set out as dusk was beginning.  Gentle evening light was pouring into the kitchen where I latched my suitcase shut.  Hanging lightly from my hand, it contained only a stack of white shirts and undergarments, several books, a case of pens, and my manuscript.  Everything else could be left behind.

My mother was kneading bread at the counter and told me to wait.  When I said I would be late, she rushed down the garden path after me, wiping her hands on her apron.  At the gate, she caught me and placed a hand on my cheek, crying.

“My son is leaving,” she said sadly as she brushed a white smudge from the shoulder of my suit.  “Write every week.”  I nodded and, having kissed her cheek, turned through the gate.

Now, my fantasy can come to life!  I don’t know how many hours I have spent dreaming of the moment when I would triumphantly board the 8:00 train and let myself be carried away!

I grew up a lone bacterium under the microscope.  Long ago, I looked out my window and noticed the smudged walls of the petri dish between me and the world beyond.  Since then, I have known that if I was going to morph and expand, I would have to leave home for good.  Now, at last, it was time.

No doubt, many people dream of leaving their childhoods behind, of shedding the accumulated years in one swift movement and molting into something new.  My dream grew in intensity because this was not the first, but the third time I tried to leave.

After I finished my last year of school, I quit my job delivering milk (by truck in summer, by sleigh in winter), put the money I had been hoarding for several years into an envelope, and prepared to depart.

As I was sorting through my things, my mother came running into my room and turned on the radio.  A large male voice entered, backed by the sound of bombs.  So, it had happened; the Reds had finally invaded.  Everyone had been disagreeing for weeks as to whether it would really happen, and now Kelora, our country’s western stronghold, was besieged.  My sister came running in; she and my mother listened with their hands covering their mouths, and tears leaking from their eyes.  I latched my suitcase shut on a mess of things and left the room.

“Where do you think you’re going?”  My mother followed me down the stairs and caught hold of my suitcase.  “You’re not going anywhere!”  She was tugging on the handle, leaning her small body backwards.  The phone was ringing; my sister yelled that it was our father.  I hollered that I was old enough to choose–and then the case flew from our hands and went tumbling down the remaining stairs.  At the bottom, it cracked open and my clothes showered the front hall.

It was probably for the best.  A disastrous few years ensued, during which I resumed delivering milk and I also delivered other things. Potatoes, firewood, canned corn, winter boots and, unbeknownst to my mother and father, gunpowder and transistor radios.   We were far from the action, which took place wherever the Red Army battalions had landed–around Kelora, the Belgradian valley, the forest to the west of the plains.  Mother Russia had sunk into dark times and attempted to recolonize a parallel country where former refugees now flourished as capitalist farmers.  We had thought that despite their daring, the Red forces were nowhere near strong enough in 1931 to invade from across the ocean.  Now they had parachuted into our midst and found us collectively unprepared.  Our mellow government sent out a desperate draft: all men over six feet tall had to join the Green armed forces immediately.

Many of my classmates joined the Greens in unprecedented surges of patriotism.  I, exempt at five feet eleven inches, elected to stay in the village of my youth.  My father, who fought in the War of Independence thirty or so years previously, asked me repeatedly why I did not enlist.  Truthfully, I was more thrilled by finding clever ways of concealing detonators and bullets in cartons of eggs, or pistolets in sacks of potatoes, than by the thought of fighting.

In less than two years, the Red forces had been defeated.  The remaining Russian soldiers dispersed throughout the hinterlands, abandoned by their state.  The distant world that had been murmuring in my ear departed and, once the damage had been repaired, everything was as before.  The faded houses I renewed my deliveries to made me sad.  It occurred to me that even the prosperous here are poor.

Eventually, I was ready to try again.  Before I was to leave, I sat at the kitchen table with my mother, trying to seem neither sad nor happy.  My mother laughed at the jokes I made for her benefit, yet still she looked away every now and then with tears in her eyes.  I assured her that I would mail her envelopes of fresh fish from the English coast.

She laughed and absently picked up the phone, which had started ringing, still smiling as she said, “hello.”  She listened a moment; her flushed face paled and her eyes filled.  “No,” she whispered.  From across the table we looked at each other with widened eyes.  “No, no, no.”

My father had been the head of the Wildlife Control Bureau.  During the invasion, the various committees within this bureau broke down and our little town became overrun with moose, prairie dogs, and dragonflies.  They had only just gotten the situation under control again when a group of hooligans thought it would be funny to fill the roof of the Wildlife Control Bureau’s office with moose.  The raw cries of seven to fifteen moose (no one could agree on the exact figure) could be heard across the town before the Wildlife Control Bureau got wind of what had happened.  My father hurried to the roof and began soothing the frightened moose while making plans to get them down.  Unfortunately, he was outnumbered in that precarious space and one of the moose nosed him over the side of the building.  His secretary, to whom he had been dictating, looked over to find he had fallen to the pavement below.  According to bureaucratic legend, the moose that had unwittingly killed him was now wearing his hard hat, but I don’t see how that could have been possible.

None of this equals what happened the third time I tried to leave home.  After my father’s burial, empty years rattled by.  I worked as a fabricator at the local newspaper, married my sister off, and kept my mother company.  My heart filled again slowly.  Just as slowly, I again grew restless and longed to be somewhere where no one knew me.

Things were very different now.  Though I could not have lived without the fantasy of someday living otherwise, the shapes of my dream had changed and the colourful tints grown dimmer.  Only the tumult of my past appeared vividly to me; my future was utterly blank.  Yet this did not bother me.  My only plan was the precise unravelling of my departure, and after that, freedom.

I had reached the edge of town.  Fields stretched endlessly into the distance.  Only the train station across the road rose into the sky.

As it happened, I was early for the 8:00 train.  It seemed that passengers did not usually arrive so early; when I saw that the curtains were pulled shut, and when the doorknob resisted the twisting of my wrist, my heart cartwheeled.  I knocked frantically on the glass; voices could be heard moving inside.  I knocked again and the voices ceased.  Now footsteps were approaching across the wooden floor and a set of bony fingers drew the curtains back on a face I hadn’t expected to see.

He stared through the pane at me for a moment.  As if to see him better, I crouched down to the square of glass in the door.  Then his mouth spread into a grin; the lines around his cheeks deepened.  Straightening up, he threw the door open with such force that it hit me in the face and swung closed again.

While I was pressing my palm to my indented forehead and blinking through the blinding red pain that blotted my senses, the door swung slowly open.  There, in a rusty haze, stood Solomon Electrov, dressed in a black suit and grinning with open arms.

“Mendel!” he cried.  I rubbed my forehead as my vision cleared.  “Hey,” he called over his shoulder, “it’s Mendel Daget.”  What specter from my school days would rise up next?

“Mendel Daget?” the voice called.  “Haven’t seen him in a long time.”  The voice became a body.

“The door was locked,” I said angrily.

“Yes,” said Jeremiah.  “It wasn’t time to open it yet.”

“But now it is.”  Solomon beckoned me in and shut the door again, talking loudly all the while.  “And now, we would like to take you on a specialized tour of what we have spent the past months establishing with painstaking care and precision, and what we hope will soon become the pride of the whole town and, indeed, of the whole province–the Station Museum.”

He was much bolder than I remembered him.  Perhaps forced labour had hardened him, or made him insane.  Taciturn and brooding, he had always lurked in the margins at school.  When we were both fourteen, he befriended me briefly after I helped him up from the dust he had been shoved into during a rowdy game of soccer.  Gripping my hand, he nearly pulled me to the ground and then, having risen, he walked away without a word.  The next day I received an elaborately written note on embossed stationery, thanking me for my services, along with an invitation to dinner at his house.  In dismay, I showed the letter to my mother, who immediately melted into praise of Solomon’s handsome looks; his curled, dark hair, his long, dark lashes, his deep, blue eyes.

After a dinner cooked by his mother, a strangely angular woman named Electra Electrova, Solomon and I strolled through the empty field behind his house.  He regretted that he was leaving the next day with his father to spend the summer on their family farm several hours west of here.  I felt my limbs loosen in relief.  “But,” he went on, “if you don’t mind, maybe I could write to you.”

All summer I received passionate letters from him describing sunsets, the rushing of the leaves in the wind, the blooming apple orchards, the tender yet strong body of a silver mare named “Stalina.”  I threw them all out.  On the first day of school in September, I waited on the corner until everyone had streamed around me into the schoolyard.  When I could delay the moment no longer, he was there beneath a large fir tree.

“Mendel!” he said breathlessly, rushing towards me.  “I’ve been so worried I got your address wrong.  Did you get my letters?”  I nodded slowly.  “And?”  Every instant that my face remained impassive as he gazed at me, his eager and anxious smile faded a little.  By the time the bell rang he was crestfallen and I, feeling heartless and victorious, walked silently into the school beside him.

Oh, but that’s not all.  We didn’t speak for a week or two but then, at the crowded lunch table, a folded piece of Solomon’s stationery ended up in my lap.  Oh, wonderful, I thought, another letter.  All it said was: “I want them back.”

“I don’t have them,” I said without looking at him when he fell into step with me on the sidewalk that afternoon.

“What?”  He halted to stare at me.  “Where are they?  Where did they get to?”

I said nothing.

“Where?” he yelled.

I looked down at the yellow leaves blowing across the pavement.  “Garbage.”

I heard Solomon inhale sharply.  A droplet of rain splashed onto a crippled leaf near my shoe.  I stuck my hand out and covered my head with a book, but when after a moment I felt brave enough to look up, the sky was clear and Solomon was gone.

After that I only saw him with Jeremiah, who had become his automatic companion.  Sometimes I would round the corner and walk straight into them, and then say nothing while they sneered at me.  When school was finally over, I neither saw nor heard of them until after the invasion, when my mother mentioned that the Electrovs had been stripped of all their property because of their blatant allegiance to Russia.

Solomon had gone further than mere allegiance and tried to lead a rebellion.   Perhaps he had jumped onto a table and shouted for everyone to follow him, only to be arrested by laughing Estotian soldiers when nothing happened.  Probably not.  Nonetheless, Solomon didn’t get very far.  Like many other scarlet-minded youth, he had been sentenced to four years of “Patrimonial Remuneration,” referred to colloquially as “patriotic labour,” after which he would become a normal capitalist, red only in his blood.  Having known Solomon Electrov for many years, I doubted very much whether this would have any effect other than to sharpen the angle of his eastward leanings.

Now Solomon and Jeremiah were standing in a room full of mismatched tables holding glass cases.  The wooden benches I remembered from seeing my father off on trips long ago were gone.  The cost of admission into the museum was now displayed next to the train schedule.  Pages of text were pasted up around the walls, seemingly at random and often askew.  When I first heard of his patriotic labour sentence, I had envisioned, not without a slight sense of satisfaction, a labour camp somewhere on the Arctic Circle.  But outpourings of patriotism always cause people to spin and falsify their country’s history in a new way; why shouldn’t this be considered patriotic labour?

“Welcome,” Solomon said, clapping his hands together with unnecessary force and smiling rather too brilliantly.

“Welcome,” Jeremiah echoed from behind the counter.  I touched the envelope in my pocket and approached him.

“I’d like a ticket to Luga, please.”

“We are not selling tickets at this time,” Jeremiah announced in a stony voice.

“But the train leaves in an hour.”

“The train,” he continued, “is delayed.  Tickets will be available for purchase–later.  In the meantime, may I interest you in a tour of our newest exhibits?”

I put my suitcase down and looked around in dismay.  For some odd reason, the large brass clock that had always hung on the wall had been removed; I couldn’t see the sun because both windows had been tightly curtained.

Solomon came and leaned on the counter.  “We will, of course, be offering you the ‘former-classmates discount’ of 5 percent off per ticket.”

“How many in your party?”  Jeremiah was already punching numbers into a calculator slowly and deliberately.

“Just me.”

“In that case it will be seventeen rubles.”

I laughed and turned away.  “Never mind.  I’ll wait outside until the train comes.”

“No!”  Solomon leaned forward.  “We can easily waive the admission fee for you, Mendel.”

“In lieu of payment we will also accept walnuts.”  Solomon sighed loudly.

“What?” Jeremiah asked, splaying his arms out.  “There have been moderate to severe walnut shortages ever since three of Northern Estotiland’s principal walnut trucks were destroyed in the war.  Which is a shame, because when walnut oil is extracted, it does wonders for dandruff sufferers.  So,” he turned back to me, “if you want to help a poor fellow keep his shoulders clean, don’t hesitate to donate any nuts or even shells you may have in your pockets.”

“I don’t have any walnuts.”

Jeremiah punctured a hole in a ticket with a knife and handed it to me, while Solomon hurried ahead and draped himself over the nearest display case, smiling and caressing the sides of the case with his hands.  “We will begin with one of the most precious items in the museum.  This,” he gestured, “is a shard of pottery only recently unearthed from a field just south of here.  Recently, the remnants of an ancient civilization were discovered when a buffalo, already known to possess a certain degree of archaeological intuition, roused his master one night and dragged him by the ankle to a place several miles away, where he began kicking up dust to reveal a wealth of ancient artifacts.  Scholars are still sifting through the bulk of them, but our museum managed to get a special deal on this treasure.”

“This bit is thought to have been part of a toilet,” Jeremiah put in.

“Indeed it was,” Solomon went on in a lyrical voice, still waving his hands up and down the sides of the case.  “Observe the slightly faded blue paint.  What does it remind you of?”

“A bread bowl my mother uses.”

“Exactly.  Its close resemblance to a classic Dutch pattern, mass-produced on cheap cookware since at least the past century, tells us that ancient civilizations were far more advanced than we previously thought.”

“We?”

“Us historians and excavators.  Let’s move on.”

“What’s all that?” I asked, pointing to a pile of things heaped behind the counter that had just come into view.

“That has yet to be catalogued,” Jeremiah said swiftly.  “Come forward.”  At the next exhibit, a meter or so away, he began turning circles around another glass case, this one draped with a small sheet of crimson velvet.  “This is our second most prized artifact.  Not only was it discovered accidentally by a brilliant antique dealer in the market of our very own hometown, but moreover it belonged to none other than the venerable and the terrible Hulius César, Grand Emperor of the Roman kingdoms from the years 6-10 A.D.”  The wooden floor creaked as he turned round and round.  When he had finished this speech, he stopped and pulled the sheet off to reveal a chipped, gold-painted comb lying forlorn and small in its glass dome.  “He used it mainly to keep his olive-branch crown in place.”

“Ah.  Of course.”

Jeremiah strode over to another scuffed pedestal, an object covered only by a dirty, green handkerchief.  When he plucked it off, a longish object made of stone rolled off the table and thudded to the floor.

“Damnit!” Solomon hissed.  Having retrieved the thing, a long, curved object, he traced a crack with his finger.  Jeremiah tried to snatch it from him; a minor scuffle ensued but Solomon, evidently fearing for the safety of the artifact, let go.  As if nothing had happened, Jeremiah began his explanation, all the while clutching the thing tightly in his fists.

“This is a highly prized relic from the ancient Phoenician society of Alcatraz.  Made of the type of stone often found in sculptures from the polar regions, this carving, about seven inches long including this bulbous part at the end, was most likely–” Jeremiah stroked his chin thoughtfully, “–an early model of a telephone.”  He ceased his strokings and lifted the object to his ear.  “Hello? Hello?”  Behind him, Solomon was pacing and shaking his head.  “Either that or a piece of a snake sculpture.”

“Enough.”  Solomon took over.  There were still several unexplained displays, but he led me to the far corner of the room.  The display case we stopped by bore a piece of paper reading “special,” but it seemed to be empty.  “This case houses our absolutely most prized artifacts.  What I am about to show you has been seen by only a handful of people.  I now present to you the mustache hairs of–” dramatic pause with gestures, “–Leon Trotsky.”

I bent down to look into the display case.  Three pieces of black hair were taped to the opposite wall.

Standing up, I stared at Solomon.  Were those hairs even from a mustache?  Will I wake at any moment?  “How,” I asked, “did such prized and exalted mustache hairs find their way to this part of Sasky?”

“That is a very interesting story indeed.”  By this time, Jeremiah had slowly edged his way up to Solomon’s elbow.

“They were sold–” he began.

“I’m telling it!”

“You’re telling it wrong.”

Solomon shifted and Jeremiah squeaked in pain.  “They were acquired by a very ingenious dealer,” he said calmly.

“–a farmer by birth, who excavated in the fields near his house as a child,”

“–and who later left agriculture behind to prospect on valuable articles.  Well, he came upon a rusted old razor at a sale of the late Trotsky’s possessions in northern Mexico–”

“–no, it was Minneapolis.”

“No, it wasn’t.” (Through gritted teeth.)

“–Or somewhere on the Misery river.”

“–and decided to buy the Soviet-made piece of junk.  His companions scoffed at him, the vendor laughed.  He also acquired one of Trotsky’s pistolets–that one in the case over there–and this they considered a worthwhile purchase, but who could want such a useless and cheap razor?  They were entirely unaware that this would become one of the most famed stories in all of the history of artifact dealing, known to every aspiring museum-ist in our vast territory.  The razor cost a dime–”

“No, a nickel–”

“Nonsense.”

“–Because nickel rhymes with sickle–”

“Either way, despite the price, the razor was highly valuable, but not for the reasons you might think.  What was worth a million times the cost of the razor itself was what our hero spotted immediately but which no one else noticed: three little–”

“Three little pieces of–”

“Shut up!”  Mild shoving ensued.

“Three mustache hairs,” Jeremiah put in breathlessly.

“Which are now the pride of our museum.”

“Hmm,” I murmured, bending down again to gaze at the three pieces of hair taped up on the smudged glass.  “But why, may I ask, is that one on the left so curly?”

“Leon was a curly communist.”

“Yes, but the other two are–”

A violent and metallic spitting sound cracked through my speech, the sound of something being expelled after a long build-up of force in a void.  And the same instant, the lid of a large box next to the counter sprang open.  Jeremiah rushed over and shut it with his elbow.  Leaning on the box, he smiled at me.  Solomon’s face, on the other hand, darkened.  He sidled over to Jeremiah and began to whisper something.  Jeremiah elbowed him away and, when Solomon persisted, resorted to kicking.  Clutching his foot, Solomon hopped and uttered, “you were supposed to set it for 7:34.”

Smoke began to seep out the sides of the box in four separate streams that rejoined each other in the air above.

“Well how was I supposed to know he would be here?”

“That’s not the point!”

I coughed and gestured.  Solomon and Jeremiah looked at each other for a moment, like two children whose only comfort after being caught in a prank gone badly wrong is in their complicity, and then erupted into chaos.

“Take that lamp–”

“No, the safe!”

“No, you idiot, put the lamp on top!”

While Jeremiah was plying the lid of the box with heavy things, Solomon rushed over to me and grasped my shoulders.

“Listen.”  Pulsations from his heaving body rippled through my arms.  “We’re leaving all of this behind.  Get the safe!” he shouted over his shoulder.  Jeremiah was ransacking the heaps of things behind the counter.  Bottles rolled across the floor.  Something shattered.

Solomon jerked his head back to me.  His dilating pupils seemed to be blackening both the blue puddles of his eyes.

“This is our grand exit.  The station collapses as we ride away.  We’ve been planning this for a long time, and you’re not going to ruin it.”

“Got it!”  Jeremiah burst from behind the counter holding a grey metal box above his head.  Solomon ignored him.

“Do you understand?  You’re not coming with us!” he cried.  “So go, now!”

“What!”  I tried to twist out of his grasp but he held me tightly.

A doorknob in the wall behind me came alive and a voice melted through the wood, shouting, “gentlemen?  What’s going on out there?”  The stationmaster was locked in his office.

“It’s alright, Mr. Horowitz!” Solomon sang calmly.  “Everything is under control! Get it under control!” he hissed to Jeremiah.

“I don’t know, any minute now–”

In the distance, a whistle blew.  Holding my breath, I could hear the faint pounding of the engines.

“It’s the train!” I yelled, and broke free of Solomon.  “Give me my ticket and let me get away from here!”

They didn’t respond.  The whistle grew louder, but added to that was a much shriller whistling, much nearer to us.  “Solomon!” I shouted.

“Shut up!” He waved his arms in the air and turned to me frantically.  “Don’t you understand?” he screamed, “there are no tickets!  Jeremiah’s brother is driving the train!”

The shrill whistling grew louder.  The box on the counter began to rock back and forth.  The lamp fell to the floor and shattered; after it fell a game of Scrabble and an encyclopedia of Estotian wildlife.

“Let’s go!” Jeremiah shouted.  He threw the safe to Solomon and plunged his hand into the last glass case near the door to snatch Trotsky’s pistolet.  “Ahhhh!” he cried when he withdrew it streaked with rivulets of blood and studded with little bits of glass.  Solomon lunged forward and caught the pistolet as it fell.

“Did you pack the bullets?”  As he shouted this, the train at last roared into view and stopped a little way past the station.  Jeremiah only wailed in agony, his voice drowning in the noise of the engine and the whistling, his mouth open and face tilted up towards the ceiling.

The box was shaking violently now.  The door to the stationmaster’s office was rattling in its frame and he was yelling “boys! boys!”

Solomon ushered Jeremiah out the door to where the train was waiting, holding a suitcase and the safe under one arm and the pistolet in his other hand.

“Wait!” I paused at the rattling door and then I ran for my own suitcase and followed them.

A fiery dusk was deepening now.  Solomon and Jeremiah had run across the tracks and into the field.  “Wait!  You have to let him out!”

Solomon turned and sneered at me.  Behind me, the rattling and whistling sounds and the shouts of a portly, bespectacled man could still be heard.

Dropping my suitcase, I ran at Solomon and pushed him to the ground.  “The key!  Where is it?” I shouted into his face, gripping the lapels of his jacket.  Kneeling over his legs, I tore through his jacket and when I found nothing, having hastily felt every inch of his torso, I even pushed his hardening organ aside with my knuckles to search his trouser pockets.  All the time he was writhing beneath me, Solomon only laughed with his head thrown back on the ground.

At once the whistling stopped.  Only the sounds of shouting and hammering rang out into the field.  I looked at Solomon in horror.  He grinned and raised his eyebrows at me and then–it happened.

I sat back on my heels and lifted my hands to my head.  Solomon levered me off of him and picked up the safe and the gun.  He kicked the suitcase to Jeremiah, who in the midst of all this chaos had taken off his brown jacket and wrapped it around his wounded hand.  “Take it!  Let’s go!”

The train whistled.  As I leapt to my feet, Solomon turned and held his gun out.  I approached him anyway and he shoved me to the dusty ground.

“Let me come with you,” I said quietly, standing up.  “Solomon, please.”

He fired the gun into the air.  “That was our only bullet,” Jeremiah screamed from the back of the train.

“Imbecile!” Solomon moaned.  The train emitted one final whistle and began to move off.  Steam flowed into the golden sky.  Solomon ran along the tracks and, throwing the safe to Jeremiah, leapt aboard.  I rushed after him, my own suitcase flailing.  He pointed the gun at me; I laughed loudly and falsely and leapt up anyway, but with only one hand to grasp the rail. He pushed me back and I tumbled down into the clouds of dust kicked up by the whirring wheels.  Again, as during a different turmoil in a different year, my suitcase opened as it hit the ground and my shirts exploded into the air.  The train picked up speed.  Even as it tore towards the horizon, so distant in this endlessly flat land, I could hear Jeremiah’s moaning and Solomon’s cackling amidst the roar of the engine.

The station lay in shambles.  From one corner the walls had collapsed outwards and from the other they fell inwards as if bowing.  From the wreckage smoke rose into the sky.  In trepidation, I approached the ruin before me.  Amidst a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood, Caesar’s comb was standing straight up, blackened.  Who knew where the mustache hairs were.

I heard a groan.  “Hello?”  I waded further into the wreckage and shifted a few strips of wood.  A limp arm encased in brown tweed fell onto my shoes.  “Sir?  Sir?”  As I peeled away the remaining rubble carefully and slowly I thought he was intact, but then I saw that this large body was lying face down in a puddle of bloody glass.  It seemed, once I had hefted him over and dragged him into the open, that his glasses had broken and pierced one of his eyes.  The poor man moaned and rocked to and fro in the dust.

I looked back at the smoking remnants of the station and at the speck of the train in the distance, and then I raised my voice and bellowed until someone came running from a house across the road.

Eventually the ambulance arrived.  I watched as the old man was lifted in and driven away.

It took me many years to arrive at the moment of my departure, and when it seemed assured, the station was destroyed and the stationmasters gone.  “Gone, long gone,” I said, waving a hand helplessly when asked where they had gotten to.  There was nothing I could do but collect my belongings and make my way home.

 

Lauren Klein

Lara Klein is a young writer and translator. Educated at the University of Toronto, she has had poems published in Synaraesis and Forage magazines.

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