Chapter 1: The Couple
Perhaps it was the measured breathing which woke me, or the repetitive rhythm shaking the place in which I slept. Perhaps it was a sense of sudden mystery, the knowledge that I had no idea how I came to be sitting there. Perhaps it was simply that my memory found it easier to begin at the point of waking. Regardless, what matters most is that when I woke, I had no memory of how I came to be in a cabin on a train in Eastern Europe.
The source of inhalation, exhalation sat opposite: a couplewatching me withwild abandon, their parentsno doubt having neglected lessons in common courtesy. I attempted to return their gaze, refusing to blink in the hope that it might convey my discomfort.
Reaching out to touch the form of a bag at my side,I broke eye contact to check onthe presence of a suitcase above me. The cabin itself was empty aside from the couple and so, even though I didn’t recognise the bag nor the suitcase, I could safely assume they were mine.
Darkness swallowed us, the couple reduced to twinorbsofwhite eyes that sought to devour me, the cabin returned todaylight ten or so seconds later, myattention drawn to the windowthrough which I watched flashes of the passing countryside:fields bathed in sun and rain, trees bare of leavesbeside those lush with green and yet more splashed with the colour that precedes the fall. At times the trees grew to thickets beside the tracks, their shadows castinga reflection on the glassthat revealedthe man I had been in my 26th year.
Chapter 2: The Conductor
With the sleepers as my metronome, I counted the minutes that passed, collecting them in my thoughts until they fell to the floor upon the arrival of the conductor, his entrance one of sliding doors and stale smoke. Dwarfed by the frame of the cabin, he was a short man,identical in every way to the male half of the couple.
A uniformed arm benttoward me,the action accompanied by a single word.
Smiling, I searchedmy pockets, the topmost ones empty before I moved to those at my hips, repeating the process once, twice, thrice, the conductorfinally growing bored enough topoint out the piece of coloured paper at my feet.
The man opposite whispered something to his double, the movement of his lips hidden as I bent thenroseto glance at the woman I assumed to be his wife. Her crossed eyeslingered somewhere around my chest, trapped in the sheenof a thought she lacked the stamina to complete. Embarrassed, I turned away.
Taking the coloured paper from my outstretched hand, the conductorfled,the door sliding shut behind him as the couple turned to it then to me, their eyes devouring my demand to wait as I roseto follow.
The conductor was dashing past the closed doors and drawn curtains of the carriage’s corridor, my words chasing him around a corner where he vanished from view.I ran after him, everything rolling and lurching like a ship at sea, tossing me arounduntil I fell at his feet, smoke swirling amidhis green uniform as he casually leaned against a wall beside a door to the next carriage, wind from an open window playing with his unkempt hair.
“Where’s my ticket?” I demanded, a shrug being all that was offered in reply.
Words lacking vowels swam toward me, my head still drifting on the waves of the swaying train. Noticing my pallor, he took hold of my arm with a tenderness that I would have assumed below him. He spoke and, though I understood nothing, I nodded, feeling at last that I might be able attain some gist of what he wanted, an overview that would enable us to establish the pretence of a conversation.
He laughed at my unsteady feet and I joined him, the sound hollowin theempty confines of my thoughts. Passing me his cheroot, I politely refused and he clapped me on the back, his eyesletting me know that he no longer wished to sharehis company.
“Billet?” I asked in French, he feigning ignorance.
I pointed to the small pouch he wore at his waist.
“B-ll-t,” I repeated, adopting his vowelless pronunciation.
He smiled and reached into his pouch, withdrawing a brand new cheroot which he offered with a wink before flicking his own outof the window, rushing air swallowing it whole.Laying his nicotine stained fingers on my chest, he turned to leave and I let him go, feeling that the cheroot I placed behind my ear was evidence enough of my right to ride the train.
Chapter 3: Irregularities
With the wind from the open window seeking to transform meand my pockets offering little warmth, I decided to return to my cabin and annoy the watchful couple by blowing rings of smoke. Yet, as I turned into the corridor, I found that every cabinresembled my own right down to the couple sitting opposite my empty place, their lazy eyes turned toward me, anticipating my return. Rushing onwards, every sliding door returned a mirror image of the last, even down to the leather suitcase in the overhead rack, it shadowing the bag beside the imprint of where I had previously sat.
Three eyes, the fourth lost in itself, followed my progression to the corridor’s end where there stood a door unlike any I had seen before. Made of coloured paper in which each piecehad been sown together to make a thin whole, I took one last glance at the corridor before vanishing into whatever lay beyond.
Chapter 4: The Junction
I found myself at a junction in which there were four passages that I could choose, each conforming to the point of a compass, though I must admit that such an assumption lay upon a bed of guesswork, for as I turned, I was only able to see three at one time, the fourth to my back and therefore perhaps not there at all. Spinning in triplicates, I soon lost track of where I had entered, an absence made easier by the fact that no coloured-paper remained, instead there being only the four endless passages, each divided by a sharp, right-angled corner that preceded a series of black doors.
Setting forth purposefully, I chose a passage at random, certain that each would prove identical and as such that my choice would have little impact on what I would find.
Following this decisiveness came the thought that I should begin opening the black doors to gain a better sense of where I was. After all, the passage seemed to go on forever,and behind I could no longer discern the intersectional point where I had previously stood. Spurred by looming panic, I took hold of a golden handle and twisted, the door spilling open onto a cobbled square, wicker houses of white and black forming walls around rounded stones while the air, chilled and caught in a slight breeze, carried autumn leaves which taunted me to catch them. Losing all sense of where I was, I dove after a flash of red and yellow,it leaping from my touch to remain ever a pace or two before me.
Chapter 5: The Church
Though my efforts to capture the leaf were rewarded,it slipped from my grip as I rose to peer ata small church, the façade of which was adorned with statues of children, their tiny marble hands tangled in trees that loomed over the square.
A door of wood and steel guarded the entrance to the church, its forma constructional oversight that left it surprisingly heavy to open, all my strength prying only enough space for me to slip inside. A dusty chamber greeted my footfalls with a soft echo while passed rows of polished pews and worn stonetwo women stood facing a heavy altar, both venerating something I couldn’t see. One of the women was dressed from head to toe in black, the other in white.
Not having heard my entrance, these women were so engrossed in their task that I was able to approach slowly, wishing as I did so to check that they were in fact women and not simply noddingstatues of wax and wood.
I had not reached more than halfway when whatever silent distraction they were engaged in came to an end and they turned, the black clad one to my left while the white to my right, both heading towardseparatedarkened doorways through which they vanished, leaving me alone with only the grey stone and brown wood for company.
Knowing that I needed to speak to one of these women to find out where I was, I ran to the altar, torn with choice. Who should I follow:the woman in black, or the one in white?
The question was cut short by theshuffling of something on the altar, a pile of cloth the colour of rust separating to reveal the flailing feet and hands of a newborn baby.
Chapter 6: The Silver, The Bone
The baby’s eyes found mine,and I reached out to touch it.
As if I had been carrying some vast weight, my arm was surprisingly heavy, the fingers of my right hand brushing its skin, all life evaporating in a puff ofsteam that left my fingers touching only paper wrapped around a piece of silver and a small bone.
Stumbling backwards, guilt rose red within me.
Had I murdered it? Had my touch transformed it?
No one could attest to that, not if I left no trace ofever having been there. I wrapped the piece of silver and the small bone in the paper before heading to the door on my left, the one through which the woman dressed in black had vanished.
Chapter 7: The Child
The familiar strains of Für Elisewashed over me as the soft touch of a child’s hand took hold of my own and led me deep into a room of soft velvet, every corner and every surfacehidden till all was a violet sea upon which I was adrift, the child beside me, they with no hair and thus of indeterminable sex like the baby that had witheredat my touch, turning into the silver and bone, the latter of which the child took from my open palm.
Feeling the weight and dimension of thebone, the child smiled, parting lips to reveal a set of perfect teeth. I asked them where I was, why I was in a room in which FürElise played upon waves of violet velvet.
Their whispered answer was too quiet for me to catch and so I asked for a repetition.
Yet the child grew cross, the soft smile and white teeth replaced by a scowl that hinted at wickedness, the change finally waking me to the danger I was in.
The child placed the piece of bone in their mouth and before I could question why, they sought to swallow it, an effort that held me in place before shock took hold and I leapt forward to rescue them from fits of choking and gasping, my effortsin vainas they fought with a desperate desire to finishthat which they had started. Frantic seconds of struggle ensued before finally they slipped away, silence surrounding the limp form of what I now saw to be a girl.
Chapter 8: The Men
The gunshot crack of a door being thrown open split the velvet sea andreplaced it with cold sandstone, men streaming through the opening, each as red faced with anger as the last. The girlfell from my hands, the slump of her bodyonly inflamingthe passions of the growing crowd, eachman bearing features that werefaintly familiar.
Backing away as the men continued to stream before me, the mass of hair and skin expanded to a point in which the air became thick and humid, laced withsweat, salt and steel.
“I …” I began, my voice weak in the face of so much hostility, its tone enraging the men whobegan to tear at their shirts in such a gesture of grief that I assumed they had been paid and paid in truth too much.
Words failed me, thoughthankfully my hands did not, andso as they rose in a gesture of sorrow, the piece of silver flew from my fingers, it sailing through the air to land upon the ground with a ringing pitchthat was soon lost in the thud of collapsing bodies, each man divingupon the other in an attempt to attain that single piece of wealth.
No longer aware of my presence, I vanished into the dark shadows of the room, the sound of the men’s violence fading with my escape.
Chapter 9: The River
Coming quite unexpectedly upon a river and, knowing that everything lay ahead rather than behind, I did not bother to turn and check if the men had followed, instead opting to peer across theswirling tide and see on the other side a family having a picnic, the movement of their limbs discernible despite the distance.
“Hello!” I called out, thinking only once the word left my lips that English might be beyond them.
Venturing to the river’s bank, I tried to recall any Slavic words that my travels had bestowed upon me.
“Dobre den,” I offered with little hope that it was correct.
Though the family did not turn, I knewthat if anyone was to help me it would be them, that they could guide me or point me in the direction of a town from which I could board a train and escape the never-ending series of scenes being played out around me.
Entering the water,my skin recoiled from the cold while the current pulled at my limbs in an effort to divert my course as I tried to cross. Submerged, my clothes formed an immeasurable weight, almost as if the clothwere being pulled at by the shrivelled hands of those who had drowned before me.
Such imagery prompted me to adopta stronger stroke and, as my head dipped under the choppy surface, I felt something slip away from behind my ear and realised that it must have been the cheroot the conductor had givenme.
Under and above. Under and above. The weight was both upon and around me, it oppressive yet not equal to my will to reach the family I glimpsedas I rose then lost as I dove, the current demanding that I recall past lessons in trigonometry to ensure I reached a point near my saviours.
Chapter 10: The Shore
Fingertips fought sandy soil when I reached the bank and hauled myself to safety, small blue flowers beating back any desire to rest by offering a surface of sharp spikes.
Rising,I saw the family seated upon their picnic blanket, each facing away from me and remaining so even as, dripping and succumbing to shivers caused by exhaustion, I called out, raising my hand in a gesture of hello.
Then the fingers fell, for as I approached, I began to see how their bodies, or at least the bodies of the children, werestrangely contorted.
The mother and father sat with their backs to me, and as such all I could see were the backs of their heads. The chests and the legs of the children were folded on the ground as if they faced toward me, even though their faces were featureless. Well, not entirely featureless, instead offeringhair and the nape of a neck, almost as if in a murderous ragetheir fatherhad twisted their throats to no longer look upon theknowing emptiness of their eyes.
I slipped into silence yet continued my approach, doing so upon soft footfalls that made no more sound than the waterdripping from my drenched clothing.
The family were as still as I was silent and thusoffered me the opportunity to circle from a distance of perhaps only two or three feet, seeing as I did so that the scene was like a picture, a painting to be exact, for though they were alive (evidenced by the soft rise and fall of their chests), all I saw of their faceswere the backs of their heads.
Perhaps it was a sign of my guilt and their recognition of it.
But of what was I guilty?
The baby had turned to silver and bone at my touch,yet I had harboured no ill intentions toward it.The girl, she had taken the bone from me and thus condemned herself.
So, for what was I being punished?
Chapter 11: The Station
A noise like the crack of thunder or the felling of a tree prompted me to turn from the backs of the family heads and peer into a distant woodland that I had not noticedbefore. Trees towered toward the darkening sky with a strange shadowed stature, almost as if they were themselves little more than props from a stage. I lack the wordsto give them the form they held, and, feeling a similarabsence in that moment, I ventured toward them only to find beyond their periphery the platform of a station. To my left approached a train and, as I turned back to the trees, I saw that they were gone, replaced by concrete that in turn formed the outline of numerous buildings surrounding a series of platforms and tracks that constituted a station I knew well.
How I had come to be there, upon that platform with dry clothes and my luggage beside me, that was a concern I was willing to put aside in exchange for the relief that the nightmare of the last hour or so had passed.
No longer alone, those around me moved with either the purpose of new arrivals or the listless anticipation of those ready to depart,both of which promoted me to question:which was I?
In my left hand, a piece of coloured paper claimed to be a ticket from Sarajevo to Mostar.The time on the ticket was given as 10:15 and the click of a large clock to my right informed me that I had five minutes with which to board and find an empty seat.
“Excuse me, do you speak English?”
The person I had addressed was a woman on the verge of losing her beauty, and she regarded me for longer than was necessary before replying that yes, yes she did.
“Do you know if this is the train to Mostar?” I enquired.
She peered at the suitcase by my side and the bag hanging from my shoulder, perhaps hoping to confirm that I was in fact a traveller.
“Yes,” she replied.
Thanking her, I boarded the train.
Along a wooden corridor, I found an empty cabin and took my seat facing in the opposite direction I imagined the train to travel, knowing that to do so would grant me a retrospective view of the scenery we passed.
Placing my suitcase above me and my bag beside, I sat and looked at the platform beyond.
A moment or two later I was joined by a couple, an odd looking pair who took their seats opposite and seemed to be instantly preoccupied by my presence.
Distracting myself, I looked out at the platform and, through the thinning crowd, there stooda young boy with a leather suitcase. Alone, it seemed he was indecisive about whether or not he should take the train. The scene reminded me of something, but as I searched my thoughts to recall what, I felt the exertion of my journey press upon me and so closed my eyes for the briefest of moments.
Born in England but shipped off to Australia at 17, Nicholas John Greenfield has spent half his life exploring the world and trying to capture as much of it as he can on paper. After living in a tiny box apartment in Paris, braving life in Mexico’s chaotic capital, and eating his way through a year in Rome, Nicholas currently resides in Germany, distilling his experiences into short works of magic realism and the soon to be released novel, ‘The Parisian Mirror’, a tale of doppelgängers and death in the City of Lights, Paris.