Gateway to the Continent

voyage

I got to Victoria station at quarter to eleven on a Friday with nothing but a small leather bag and the vague idea of getting out of London. The timetables and train routes spread out above me like the plot lines of so many of the paperback thrillers piled up on my bedside table. I could be in Paris by late afternoon, crossing the Alps the next day, and end up in Egypt before the weekend was over.

Bing bong! The Golden Arrow to Dover will depart from Platform 8 in 15 minutes. A soft, disembodied voice echoed against the steel rafters and glass roof. There was still time, I thought, to decide where to go, buy the ticket, and change my mind along the way.

“There’s really no one quite like Michelangelo.”

Before I could connect the voice to gray hair, sensible shoes, and a long carpet of a coat, the sickly sweet floral musk incapacitated my senses. It was almost as bad as my earliest memory of Victoria, when the air was fetid with soot, stale poison gas and gangrenous wounds.

“It’s so hard to find a man who can paint ceilings properly, you know,” her companion said and parked her suitcase in front of the map of Europe.

I started to pace around the platform, glancing at my watch every so often to give me a false sense of purpose. There was still time, I thought, to reach one platform and cross over to another.

“I thought about staying in the house to keep an eye on things. You know how oblivious Gerald can be. They could carry out his whole library and he wouldn’t notice. But the fumes are too much. I just hope the windows are open to let the place air out.”

While my eyes lingered over “ALL PARTS OF ITALY” under the London-Paris Express, I realized I would be following an Italian housepainter, not his Renaissance namesake. That morning, I had thought I would be decisive, deliberate in my decision to escape. Now, the bag I was holding seemed too light for the trip. My hands began to sweat against the leather handles. I had forgotten to pack a toothbrush. There was still time, I thought, to go home and pack it before returning to catch the Night Ferry train to Paris. Victoria at night was far more suited to the Grand Exit, anyway: cinematic goodbyes staged in sepia shadows, the distant glow of the city as you pulled out of the station.

The two women started moving and I followed their perfumed trail to Platform 8, watching their silhouettes disappear into white haze.

Bing bong! Ladies and gentleman, in consequence of fog, the Golden Arrow will be delayed.

There was still time, I thought, to return to my desk before the secretary began asking questions.

Tidbit

vilks

By dawn, she is ready to hunt. He watches from horseback, wrinkled brown hills stretching ahead, into a valley streaked with snow; she circles above, jesses trailing behind, higher, until her wings are a sliver against the cloudless blue sky. She sees every patch of snow, every tuft of grass, even the fur on his hat moving with the wind. Then, she folds her wings and drops, like a stone, aiming for the fox skin he ties to the back of his horse and drags across the flat plain.

Before he comes to a full stop, she opens her wings a few meters off the ground, steadying herself before she rips open the fox skin and sends bits of fur and straw stuffing flying. Soon, her feathers will be streaked with the gore of live prey. But even in this riot of dismemberment she is efficient, neat almost, in the way she finds her reward and leaves the rest untouched.

As he watches her gulp back the tidbit of meat hidden inside the straw, he sees a shadow pass over the rising sun and a hint of gold in an otherwise dull landscape. No, he thinks, eagles answer to no one. They remember no one. They look down in search of their dinner, not those who, for a time, helped them find it. And yet all week has been a test in proving the opposite: sleepless nights spent whispering to his new charge, trying to tame her with the sound of his voice, so that now, when he offers his arm again, she hops on willingly, silent and content.

Later, he will say, “She flew well today.” She shifts her weight with each sway of the horse, her talons making slight impressions through the cowhide glove. They are tired; the sun moves towards midday and they ride back to the winter camp filled with the bittersweet tang of coal smoke and curd cooking.

Tomorrow they will hunt again, but for now he must not tempt her with flight. He slips on a leather hood encrusted with gold braiding. Only he would notice the few gold threads missing. He looks up, hoping to see them woven into the wings of another eagle, released one night last spring after a few day’s famine and a butchered sheep left on top of a lonely mountain.

Jumpers

jumpers

Many years later, when I saw her again on a crowded subway car approaching Times Square, I thought back to the night when we both shared a piece of cardboard on the roof of a freight train moving through Mexico. Her hair was short now, much shorter than it was the first time I met her in Arriaga. We were staying the night in a chapel-turned-shelter, its white cement walls covered in faded posters promising salvation. She was as sleepless as I was.

“The ones who are the most restless are the ones fleeing,” she told me.

“Who are you fleeing from?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

At dawn we walked across the lawless and nameless countryside, avoiding checkpoints, and speaking little. The thick overgrowth gave way to loosely paved roads scattered with plastic bags that clung to the gates of cattle ranches. We reached the tracks at midday. I went looking for water in an abandoned rice cellar, and when I found her again, listening for the train, she smelled of grass and sweat.

“Your body is a credit card,” she said. “Cuerpomático. Use it to buy yourself a little safety.”

She gripped a piece of cardboard between her teeth, tucked a roll of string in her pocket, and we started running to match the speed of the coming train. I grabbed the ladder in front of the car and pulled my legs off before the wheels caught up. As I was climbing, I imagined her hair twisting in the machinery and pulling her head off, but she was the first to find a spot on the roof, hot to the touch, and claim it with the cardboard.

“For two,” she said, and we settled back-to-back. A few other migrants stared at us and shifted uncomfortably on the ridged fiberglass. Ankles tied to the holed surface, we crossed into Oaxaca at dusk, the clouds of mosquitos dissolving into the pine forest around us.

Now, when the subway car stopped between stations, before the conductor mumbled about a train directly ahead of us, I wondered if she, too, thought of the moment the freight train stopped and we saw flashlights blinking ahead of us. I wanted to ask her what happened after the garroteros shoved us with their rifles and asked for payment.

“The train is free,” was the last thing I remember her saying before they knocked me out. I wanted to tell her that if my ankles weren’t tied with her string, I would have slipped off the roof, sliced by the beast’s steel bite.

She was a tiny woman, folded between businessmen who rushed out at Times Square, and I lost sight of her on the platform. Before I could find out if she still traveled in shadows, if she still didn’t want to be noticed, the doors closed.