The Town and the North [Flash Fiction]

Once upon a time, there were train tracks. Along the tracks, somewhere midway between their beginning and end, was a town. It was small and rustic and old, the kind of town where you married the boy you played with when you were four and grew up to be just like your grandparents, grumpily proclaiming that things were different in your day, even though they really weren’t. It was the kind of town that few people left, and if they did leave, you knew they weren’t going to come back. It was the kind of town that could fulfill your dreams; your dreams were small and simple because you didn’t really believe there was a whole world outside of the town, a world where you could do something different than what your parents did before you. It was the kind of town that killed any aspirations you had above your station and strangled your imagination because it interfered with what you were supposed to do to make your family proud.

Nobody in the town knew what the train tracks were. The train that had once run along the edge of town had been diverted to a different route so long ago that nobody in living memory even knew what exactly a train looked like. The children in the town knew that if they ever worked up the courage to leave, they would follow the tracks. On long summer days, they dared each other to go farther and farther down the tracks, always turning away with frightened giggles when they reached Old Gabby’s farm a little outside town. Everyone knew that Old Gabby was crazy and that his dogs were vicious, and whenever the children heard the barks, they would lose their nerve.

They never went the other way down the tracks. That way, North, lay something more frightening than dogs and crazy old men, something that parents didn’t even need to warn their children about; the kids learned quickly enough that when they tried to go North, their skin began to prickle, their hair stood up on their arms, and the world seemed to darken. Nobody every talked about it. It was the kind of town that didn’t like to voice certain things.

That became a problem when one day in late autumn, a woman ran into town from the North and fell, panting and red-faced, onto the mayor’s porch. She managed to scratch a word in the snow before she passed out: “Help.”

A Train Waits at a Station

A train has pulled into the station, and waits, humming gently with the still-working engine. It has been at the station for a while, because of a delay on the track further on. The passengers are in no hurry, though. They walk along the platform, from this side to that, strolling arm in arm or alone. They’ve come from a great many places. Some of them have been on the train for a long time and are only too glad to stretch their legs, while others got on only one or two stops ago, and walk along curiously, as if unsure whether or not their journey has actually begun at all.

The cars of the train are all empty, except for the driver who sits in his cabin, idly smoking a cigarette out his small window, and the conductor who walks down the train to inspect each compartment. She reaches the last car, which is always empty of travelers.

The last car is quite odd and unlike all the others. It’s decorated: frames hang on the wall, holding canvases painted with people, landscapes, abstract shapes and sometimes only a few words. But the conductor is used to these, and focuses only on the other things that litter the floor. In the very middle of the carpeted floor lies an orb of many colors. The conductor is one of the rare people who see words in colors, and the gem shines to her in the earthy-brown of deep-rooted friendship, the blood-red of family and parenthood, the bright yellow of childhood and the misty lilac of memories. The orb, made of finely spun glass, glows brightly so that the walls and picture-frames are all lit with stripes of this color or that.

The conductor takes the orb in her hands and carefully wraps it in tissue paper. The light still comes through the paper, and she puts the orb in a small straw box that closes. Through the cracks in the woven straw glints still the light of the colored orb. She puts the straw box in a bigger metal lock-box and clasps it tightly. There, the light now isn’t visible. As an extra precaution, though, she puts the box in a briefcase and locks it. Around her, there are still a suitcase big enough to hold the briefcase, and a steamer-trunk big enough to hold the suitcase. The car itself has a lock on its door, although it’s usually left open.

The conductor leaves, hoping the metal box will be enough to keep the tender orb safe and sound. She walks back up the train, her thoughts dwelling on a strange question – if the orb shines in the box, then is it really shining or could it go out without anyone being the wiser? The thought of the light disappearing brings her incomparable, unexplainable grief. But, as she glances at her watch, she realizes that it will be time soon to call the passengers aboard and keep going, and so she forces herself to get on with her duties.

A Mad Woman in Berlin

She leaned over the back to back metal benches and asked the pair of English tourists if they smoked tobacco. Her accent was thick, sometimes sounding German, and at others Russian, although her English was good. The man, glancing uneasily at his partner, answered that he did. When the woman asked if she could have some, he looked confused for a moment. His partner told the woman that they only had cigarettes. The woman nodded eagerly, and asked if she could have one. The man smiled politely and produced a pack of Camels. The woman asked for a light, and the man leaned over toward her and lit her cigarette, which she sucked on greedily. He then turned to his partner, and they both spoke for a while in another language.

The mad woman didn’t quite fit the stereotype of a homeless person, living on the streets. Her hair was a shock of grayish-brown and her skin looked almost healthy. She was somewhere between forty and fifty, but wore the age well on her face, which was elegantly lined, although her cheeks were still full and youthful. Her clothing was oddly fancy, or at least the top half was. She wore what looked like a light brown leather jacket and her handbag was of similar material and color. The mere fact that she had a handbag was strange. Her skinny legs were wrapped in tight pants in shades of brown, olive and black, like a military uniform made into fashionable jeans. The mix between the pants and the well-kept leather jacket were perhaps an indication of her madness. Still, she could have been an eccentric fashionista and nothing more.

Except, that is, for the fact that she was talking to herself loudly and was holding a pink carton of cheap wine.

“It is security, you see. I don’t trust a man, and security is inside me. You have to stay inside the clothes, inside the pants. The pants are protection, they protect me. But I am an attractive woman. If another man come near I go away. But if another woman approach me,” and here she sounded a little defensive, “then that is okay, I mean I am an attractive woman. A woman can look at a woman and appreciate her and I don’t mind if a woman looks at me.” She took a drink from her pink bottle, and the smell of wine washed over the English tourists as well as the others on the platform. Just then, the train arrive, and everyone boarded, including the mad woman.

She sat across from the English couple and fell silent for a time. When a fat man with a tiny dog boarded at the next station and sat next to her, she got up at once and moved into the narrow space between the Englishwoman and a bearded businessman. She started talking again. “It is like the jackets, do you know the jackets in London?” she turned to the businessman. It wasn’t clear whether he ignored her or nodded for she kept speaking almost at once. “There are nice jackets in London, long coats. Every person should have them, they are made of good fabric, of, what is it called… Not wool, it’s not wool. It’s not like the jeans. There are jeans that are made of denim, and they are the color of – the color of indigo. How do you say indigo in German?” she turned to the Englishwoman.

“I don’t speak German, I’m sorry,” the tourist said, shrugging and smiling, but drawing closer to her companion so as not to brush the woman’s jacket.

“That’s right, you’re not from here,” the mad woman dismissed her at once and continued speaking of fabrics and jackets in America as opposed to those in London. She got off at the next stop, still speaking to herself in a loud, coherent voice, as if she were having a conversation with someone else. The English tourists probably never saw her again, but there was no way they would forget this strange and lonely woman who chose them as smoking- and seat-companions on a short journey on the U-Bahn in Berlin.