by Justine Johnston Hemmestad
She gazed through the train window to the snow-blanketed pines, longing for a true love to spend this Christmas with. Her heart felt as cold as the evening outside…swimming in the profound loneliness that struck her like a single stone tossed into a lake. Her own long blond hair fell about her shoulders and took on the characteristics of a scarf, though the cup of tea she held above her lap did little to warm her. She leaned her head back upon the cushioned bench on which she sat and sighed. She had a destination: her ancestral homeland of Eastern Germany, for, with nowhere else to go, she longed to return from whence she had originally come.
Upon handing her teacup to a passing waiter and smiling kindly to him, she wove her fingers together over her cotton trousers and wrung her hands. They were still warm from the tea, for which she was grateful, but a stark emptiness dashed through her heart and left her with a desperate void. She could see the faint puffs of cold, frosted air outside; she could feel the fear of dimness and confusion in the silence…perhaps more comfortable than the low, chattering voices aboard the train. The pure curtain of snowfall that she gazed out upon through the window might disable her heart, and she would be grateful.
An old woman, sitting on the bench across from her, was reading a novel in silent contentment. Sylvia admired the history of the woman, revealed without words through the swoop of gray hair upon her head, the lace about the shoulders of her navy-blue dress, all dispelling a life lived with grace. The woman lightly licked her index finger and turned the page of her book without looking up, biting her lip with the suspense of the next few words. With the steady drone of the train upon the rails, the old woman must have relished the peace of focused reading.
“Entschuldigen Sie,” a man, standing in the isle beside her said, and she looked up, “darf ich hier sitzen?” Strands of his black hair hung beside his dark eyes, stunning her heart, for his presence seemed weighted and serious.
“Ja,” Sylvia answered, though ending in English, “you may.” He sat gently upon the bench beside her, bringing an aura of warmth with him.
“You are American?” he questioned effortlessly.
“Yes,” she answered, “traveling…”
“Ah,” he said poignantly. His eyes were yet to glance away from hers. Truly, his gaze permitted no escape, but she felt no need to escape. “I’ve been watching you, as you watch the snow fall outside,” he said, and she could then hear his distinctly heavy German accent. “What are you searching for?”
“What makes you think I’m searching?”
“Your eyes…the tilt of your head,” he answered, just as the lights overhead flickered. “There is something you need. But why do you think you will find it out there? Do you know how cold it is? And when darkness sets, soon you’ll see nothing.”
“I know,” she said with a smile, glancing to her hands in her lap; the lights flickered again, but she ignored them as did the man beside her. “I’m just thinking, wondering about my ancestors…the people who came before me and how they survived and what they did. And I wonder if they were happy.”
The man took a deep breath and said, “That’s quite a lot to wonder about. Where do they come from?”
“I don’t know exactly,” Sylvia answered, then noticing a hill in the distance, laden with snow-blanketed trees from which a deeply shadowed stone castle emerged, she added, “maybe there.”
He grinned, his red lips subtly intriguing to her. His eyes, and even the very shape of his face, were gentle and calming; there was nothing nervous about him. “I see that you are confused,” he said, then he dove his hand into the coat pocket at his chest. “Here,” he said, pulling out a black pen, “use this.” Sylvia pulled a notebook out from beneath the bench and opened it as he handed her the pen. “It is a special pen. Use it on our journey.” She peered at him strangely then, for she was unsure of his meaning; she said nothing, nor did she know what to write. “And here,” he also said as he reached into the kaki backpack she now noticed was slung over his shoulder, “don’t use that notebook. Use this one.” He took out a book and handed it to her. “You are in need of inspiration, and I am providing it to you.” His voice could plummet through her soul in a flash – and with her thought the lights inside the train flickered again, though this time they went off and stayed off. She continued to feel the motion of the train throughout her body, though its trek had slowed.
“I wonder what’s happening,” she uttered.
Rather than replying to her statement and sitting in the shadows while a few people in the train car lit matches, he said simply, “We may be stuck here for a while. You may get more of a taste for the lives of your ancestors than you expected.”
She nodded and tried to stay calm, though she could now see only his darkened figure as a soft glow from a lit match danced across his face. The train abruptly halted; she jolted forward, as did he though he seemed to be more prepared than she. He took her hand in his then, and she could see by his shadow that he was still turned toward her; she felt safer within his attention.
He touched the book he had given her with a large, shadowed hand. “This book that you will write in is different,” he said, as he lit a match himself. She could see by its glow that the pages he opened to were very old, yellowed, and thick with German words written in black ink…like the ink from the pen he had just given her.
“How is it different?” she whispered, too stunned for strength of voice.
“This book is known by its song,” he said and waved his hand toward the window, the moonlight cast upon snow and trees blockading the hill. “Look toward that castle again, the one at the top of the hill.” She did. “Do you not want to know what lives there?”
“’What?’ Don’t you mean ‘who?’”
“No, I meant the word I spoke…you see, what has lived there has never died.”
“You’re scaring me.”
“We should both be scared. We’re stuck here, at its mercy.” She hunched her shoulders and shifted away from the window, her eyes widening though she could see little besides the outlines of trees and a castle amidst showering moonbeams and snow. “But the pages there in that book, and the pen I gave you to write your history, hold the power that we need. You must write your story and sing those words aloud, for they will have life when sung.”
“Now you’re terrifying me,” she blurted, wondering whether she had judged him wrongly and should instead leave his presence. “I can’t sing.”
The man laughed. “Live the words;” he conceded, “tanzen die Worte.” Then he softly squeezed her hand. “Look at that castle on the hill, you see…it’s almost calling you to it. The ‘what’ that it houses, is desire.”
She glanced outside the window to behold the distant stones, their grey color peeking out from the snow, which she realized in the glowing moonlight to be half in ruins. “Why – what have I done that it should desire me?”
“It’s not calling you for what you have already done, but for what you will do.” But as the man had spoken a woman rushed down the aisle to his other side, whisking Sylvia’s hair with the air she stirred. Sylvia looked up and caught a glimpse of her long, gray shawl as it seemed separated into three sections that draped down her back. Then the woman disappeared into the darkness several rows down, beyond the sporadic matches that people had lit and held beside their faces. She glanced out the window again, toward the ruined castle on the hill, amongst snow-covered, moonlit trees. “Your ancestors may seek you as much as you seek them,” he said. “You may have wound up a presence in their lives. They may desire you to live with courage.”
“Their lives? Wouldn’t they be dead – I mean, after all, they are my ancestors.”
“Yes, they are, but people influence one another. No one acts on their own, but rather in response to the intentions of another. Your intentions may have found them before you boarded this train. You may have entered their own moments in time, just by seeking them.” Sylvia stared into his shadowed, match-lit eyes, still unsure but feeling strangely at peace with him. “How do you know that you don’t need to look any further for your ancestors? They could be right in front of you.”
“In front of me? But…you are in front of me…this old woman across from where we sit is in front of me.”
The man nodded. “You need only long for what you want. If the need is great enough, what you long for will find you.” A light caught her attention outside the window, and she looked over with a start. Torches, many of them, moved calmly amongst the trees, though she could not see clearly enough to distinguish the people holding them. Then she glanced up to the castle upon the hill, which was also alive with faint, ominously moving firelights. She slowly turned toward the man beside her again, her jaw lowered in fear. “What’s to become of us now? The train isn’t moving yet! How do we get out of here?”
“Why do we need to get out of here?” the man asked calmly, unmoved. Sylvia’s lips parted again, though she could form no words. “We are all where we are meant to be.”
“How did I get on this train…no one seems to be as concerned as I…”
“We’ve already said that you’re here because you were meant to be here. Sylvia, I am Hans Vogel.” As he had spoken her eyes widened and her hands rose to her mouth. “I am your great, great, great grandfather. The woman across from you is my wife, your great grandmother, at a different period in time.” Sylvia looked to the old woman, who now glanced up from her book with a soft smile.
“Is – is everyone -” Sylvia began to utter in vain.
“Yes,” the old woman said, “we have come to meet you, because you are our future. We continue to live through you.”
“In your life, we dance,” said the man. “Live abundantly, without sorrow and without fear; we enjoy the dance. You see, you have met us – now live – with everything you have within you and know that we live too; we will never leave you, nor will our strength leave you. Enjoy living and we enjoy living. Keep the book I gave you and record our lives in it as your life. Love, dear Sylvia, and live.”
The train jolted a bit then and began to move forward, ever so slowly at first, as the small flames outside the window were left in observance of the train, and to the night.
(First published in the 2013 anthology Gingersnaps and Candycanes by DWB Publishing.)
Justine Johnston Hemmestad has a published novella called Truth be Told and a published novel called Visions of a Dream, and she is included in seventeen anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries and Into the Glen, Into the Light.
She also has stories published in several magazines, including The Nonbinary Review and Kaleidoscope. In total, she has been writing for twenty-five years. She earned her Master’s Degree in English Literature from Northern Arizona University in 2020, despite a car accident thirty years earlier in which she sustained a severe brain injury. She also has seven children and two grandchildren.
One thought on “The Train 🎄”
I enjoyed this interesting perspective on life and ancestry.