A shudder runs through my body as my footing jumps, my seat leaps alongside it, and the world trembles outside my window. My foot, absentmindedly tapping, slammed against the carpeted floor, a ripple of pain wracking my leg as it connected with the dusty, ragged red carpeting. The floor of my train car looks ancient, coated with layers of dust and history from former travelers. The history on the bottoms of my shoes enters in dialogue with the layers of grime from past transients, the residue we leave behind dancing in silence together as it accumulates like the rungs of an old tree.
How fitting, I thought, that I, a traveler, enter in dialogue with others like me without speaking aloud, that I only form connections wordlessly, in isolation, in the ephemeral byproducts we discard to live. How fitting a nobody like me, discarded by my life, finds community in the fragments of stories left behind unwanted by strangers moving across space and time.
The traveler beside me, unreadable as the dust beneath our shoes, stares at the empty air between us, lost in thought, lost in her life. I wonder what it would take to find her again, to toss in a life raft and pull her story out of her mind and into her body. Ragged jeans, rough, wispy brown hair, and piercing blue eyes. The scenery outside my train car stretches on for miles. My eyes wander to the window, the desolate fields of corn, and back to her. If I had to guess, I’d say she’s around five-four. She sits half-draped in a light green windbreaker, staring off into nothingness. Her lips, crafted perfectly as the bow of the hunter Artemis, are chapped and unpainted. Those bow-shaped lips quiver as she exhales in a puff of grey smoke, maintaining materiality for as long as her eyes harden with focus on a stone monument rushing by outside the window. The bow of her lips could reach into its quiver and shoot me in the chest with the moon, I think, and I wouldn’t mind. The moon on her lips is perfect unadorned, my mind whispers to me, and it shines brighter than the sun unadorned by false rubies and as she averts her eyes from the male gaze. I shake myself back into my place and force my heart to stop pouring out through my eyes; she could be a homophobic white supremacist for all I know. No evidence tells me she is one of my people. Perhaps she hates physicality; after all, the virgin Artemis punished everyone who tried to court her. Perhaps she believes me an aberration, a monster whose existence must be corrected through the chains of a vengeful god. Perhaps she would wish to tie me to a fence like Matthew Shepard and beat me until my body is unrecognizable under the smell of blood and tears and broken bones if she knew what I am.
Her back is perfectly straight. She reminds me of stone statues in museums, regally postured, a portrait of serenity. Perhaps she is a daughter of royalty or politicians, trained to maintain perfect self-possession because any public spot can be a spotlight. Perhaps she’s from a family of drug lords or prominent bankers or computer technicians. The aura of serenity about her entices me. I wonder what her purpose is riding this desolate train. Does she have a destination? Is she, like me, a traveler across a lonely patch of sky seeking a future in which I do not need my fear of being murdered to sign its name across my every breath?
I feel as though she’s watching me from the corner of one eye. I wonder what she sees. A commuter? A traveler seeking a new life, without a family tying her down, too old and too different to still have the world at her fingertips? With my business suit, uncomfortable heels, and meticulously cleaned old leather briefcase, I wonder if I am part of the corporate landscape to her gaze, an executive with expensive priorities, fancy lunch meetings in smoke-filled coffeehouses, empty corporate language. The truth is that this bag is the only one my former family did not burn after outing me from my heterosexuality alongside my home.
The woman twitches, wrenching my attention away from the hunter goddess’s face to her incessantly tapping hands. Long, bony fingers lay listlessly on her lap, entwined with themselves as a vine is entwined with a wall. She’s tapping her narrow ring finger on her other hand at the pace of a heartbeat. Her fingernails, as humble as her lips, are brutally close-cut.
Although she can’t be more than 25, she carries herself as though much older. This goddess possesses a dreamlike quality, ethereal, almost metaphysical, as solid as air-tinted smoke. I want to delve inside her mind, to view the world through her astute, beautiful eyes, and discover if the woman made of smoke sees the world in shades of black and grey. I wonder what tragedies have impacted her perception, what circumstances have seated her on the sunken seats of this train, the fabric coming unwound. I wonder if she sees herself as another transient figure, another ghost that will inhabit this train when she leaves, another body of smoke possessing her own story, conundrums, and desires, an imprints fading as soon as her warm body meets the frigid air outside the train car’s door. I sigh back against my seat and hope my imprint will capture the story of the ghost on whose imprint my back is pressing.
“Hey,” says the woman. I start and drop the tattered leather bag. Her course voice complements her hair. I want to submerge myself in the texture of her words and never emerge into the cold air to dry myself. I meet her startling eyes, which perforate me with urgency. “You were staring at me.” Her finger taps again, and the thin silver ring adorning her wisplike finger glints as cold sunlight dances through the dusty window.
“I apologize,” I whisper. I shake myself and extend my shaking hand. “I’m Ms. Baxter. Nice to meet you.” She briefly clasps her hand with mine. It’s startlingly cold and as smoother than ocean water. “Do you travel this way often?”
“Not often, no. My brother owns a railroad company a ways north of here, so I visit him occasionally.” Although her voice is nonchalant, I feel her eyes pass through me, sensing the data of my life story, accumulating it, and processing.
“Mmhm. Do you live around here?” I surprise myself by being able to form words in response to the most beautiful being I have ever seen looking into my eyes and speaking to me.
Instead of responding, she leans to pick up the thin straps of my bag and hand them to me. “You dropped this,” she whispers. Her beautiful eyes never leave mine. Our hands almost touch and in that moment I want to leap out of my body to become molecules of the air around her face.
She leans against her seat again, back rigid as the surface of a mirror containing makeup she does not need, and her eyes drift back to the world we leave behind outside our window.
I follow her gaze. We are approaching a tunnel, the rusty metal monster around us screeching along through the arid landscape. The light inside our car comes from only from the light outside of it. I don’t see a single light source on the train.
My papers fall again as we plunge into the darkness of the tunnel.
“Ms. Baxter.” Her voice cuts through the sudden darkness, gritty and low like the warm air caressing our faces as we pass, transient, below the skin of the planet that does not want us.
But she does not speak. The train roars through the darkness, occasionally recoiling from the ground in small jolts, an animal, shuddering against the weight of a predator, scrabbling to find footing.
We emerge into a metropolis of ashen glory. Layers of soot and ivy are in a process of colonizing once-magnificent grey stone buildings. A swallow with feathers the color of dust lands in the boarded alcove of a former window, ruffles itself, and soars away to a matching city.
“Look at it.” She abruptly leans over my body and tugs childlike on my sleeve.
The sound of a dusty bell ricochets through the train.
The woman stands, her wavy hair cascading like a waterfall down her head. If her lips are the bow of the crescent moon, the stars of every point in the history of time dance in her hair, I think. She stuffs several scraps of paper into her jacket pocket and sways with the beat of the slowing train. A wry smile twists her lips. The slanted sunlight outlines her body in a sparkling halo of dust, the outline of an infinite universe of galaxies and stars outlined by black holes.
“Is this your stop?” she asks me.
It’s not. I rise regardless as the train screeches to a halt, never moving my eyes off of hers. I want to drink her in and let her being enter my bloodstream. I want to never let a single droplet of the mixture of our blood exit my body.
My leather bag forgotten, I step towards her, entranced, as she steps lightly, ethereally, down the aisle of the car.
“Have a good day, ladies!” the conductor calls as we step onto the platform. His voice too sounds as though it is made of dust.
I turn to watch as the train speeds away in a shower of sparks, sputtering and dying.
The air is cold and heavy in the sudden silence. The sky-goddess not three inches from my body wraps her cold, soft hand around my warmer, more calloused one and pulls me alongside her toward the carcass of the dying city coated in ivy.
“Come on. I have something to show you.” The shaky wind carries her voice.
An image blooms in my mind of two children running and laughing, one pulling the other by the hand, isolated and vulnerable beneath an remorseless blue-grey sky.
“I didn’t catch your name.” I say to her, the wind blowing my words against my face.
She glances over her shoulder toward me. We walk along a winding path, that narrows as we approach a Gothic building larger than the rest. Akin to the rest of the dying city, the building is the color of smoke. Ivy coating the sunken windows like parasites gives the building its only fragment of life, setting the dead grey stone alight in magnificent yellows and reds.
“Elena,” she says. “My name is Elena.”
Elena grips my fingers firmly and leads me through the doorway. We walk along corridors past walls stacked with remnants of books, each book stacked with dust and despair.
We emerge upon a stone precipice at the back entrance of the building. Below the cold stone is a sooty, grey-blue pond, the only remnant of the formerly breathing city that is not the dust of rot or the ivy of parasitism. I cannot find my own face in the mirror but see hers reflected in the murky water, pale, serene, and ethereal. The goddess of the moon has controlled the water directly for the first time. The stars in her hair transform the muddy pool to a beacon of beauty and light. The moon, the sun, and all of history’s stars gleam in the water reflecting her face.
Elena’s soft fingers wrap around my hand. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” I say, gazing the Earth into every galaxy she contains. “It’s beautiful.”