I boarded the train and took the last empty seat, by the window. Outside it was snowing. There was an announcement in three languages, none of which I understood. The woman next to me was eating a bowl of black beans.
Seeing my confusion she turned to me and said, “This train goes to the coast.” I thanked her. More people came on board. There was shouting and much shoving. Men were forced to stand in the aisles. After a while, the car began to move. On the platform, those left behind shook their fists. Two men in long coats ran along the edge waving at the conductor and pointing to the car where I sat. They wore identical black hats and looked like brothers, except one was bearded and the other hairless. I understood then that they would follow me wherever I went, would follow me unto death.
Outside, dawn had returned, but brought with it little light. The sky was low and gray, though still studded with faint candlelight. The train picked up speed. Dirty snow was piled along both sides of the tracks. We were moving through a bare landscape empty of trees or homes. The only structures were enormous steel pylons arranged in rows into the smoky distance. The woman pointed to the place where the parallel rows met and said, “That’s where we’re going.”
Her name was Gertrude. I repeated the name to her. But she said she had never seen me before, that I must have her confused with someone else. She had come from a city farther north and had been traveling for several days, trying to reach the coast, like the others. “Everyone here is an emigrant,” she explained. “We’re all going to the same place.” The train rocked and I slept. After an indefinite time, I was woken by another announcement, repeated in the three strange languages. I waited for Gertrude to translate it, but she didn’t. I asked her how they passed the time on the train. “Only waiting,” she said. “And sometimes they play a movie.” She pointed to the tattered screens hanging at the front of the car. “But it’s always the same one.” Three times a day, by however a day was measured, the dining car opened, Gertrude told me. But they always served the same thing.
After a time, I asked Gertrude the question I feared most: “When will we be arriving?”
Gertrude shrugged. “It’s up to the conductor.” “Who is the conductor?” “No one knows,” she replied. Before she fell asleep she said, “Some of us have been traveling for years, and we still don’t know.”
I, too, had been travelling for years. In the summer of my 37th year, I set out from home without destination or goal. I was weary of inventions and the lies needed to sustain them. The things that passed for reality no longer animated me: the simulated conversations, the blue light at twilight, landscapes brushed with premonition. These all stopped meaning anything, and the world that I had made for myself, that had once, at its creation, filled me with hope, now collapsed into hollow space. I woke one morning to realize that all about me was void, that it was I who had invented sound, light, color, love, shame. I had made the red and the black. The good and bad. The telling abstraction as well as the showing detail, which was really, I now saw, the cleverest and most insidious lie ever told.
Worse than this, I understood now, with perfect horror, that I had also invented other people. Everyone I loved and hated, every pompous rich man I ever knew, every poor laborer was mine and was me. The leper for whom I refused to lower the window. The boy who dreamt of flight. The glamorous stranger I met in Istanbul. The cook with a failed dream was really me on the cusp of adulthood, full of fire and feeling so as not to know that I was unloved and alone. The world was an illusion, sustained by my need to make it whole.
This knowledge came upon me slowly, over many weeks, even years until I understood its source. He and I were in a courtyard in a grand building by the river: piano music through an open window. We slipped the gated entry and walked slow circles until we had found the exact window, four floors up. A recording, he whispered. But different from any he had heard. Chopin, the second concerto, composed when the pianist was just twenty years old. Rubinstein? But no, there was a lightness to it, a strange buoyancy. It was a summer evening, all rich light and fragrant wind. The treetops were themselves in mad and hopeless love and the stars strained at their portholes to look down on us. And then the pianist stumbled, hit a wrong note, stopped. The silence lasted a full measure. The man turned his face down and shook his head. Only someone practicing, he said. But I stood fast, transformed. The flaw. The imperfection. That stumble and the silence that came after was the only true thing. I have been a traveler ever since.
There was only sand and sand and sand. It blew in the afternoons, a wind strong enough to unhorn goats.
The train pulled us along, tireless. We crossed one sea and then another. The landscape changed from jungle to desert and back again. Details are stupid and unreal. Don’t get sucked in by my lies. There was only sand and sand and sand. It blew in the afternoons, toward evenings, with the most mournful howling you’ll ever hear. It shook the cars of the train, a wind strong enough to unhorn goats.
On the third day, Gertrude brought me black beans from the dining car. She told me that she had once lived by the sea. As a young woman, she had taken many lovers, and they all died. She had a child with a poet, who left her before the child was born. The child also died. She married another poet, and he died. She married again and divorced for no reason. “Look,” she said. “The movie’s begun.”
On the tattered screen appeared the familiar scene: a border zone. A man jumping over barbed wire. A family on a picnic learns of a teenager shot while trying to escape. A balloon will be built. The images had worn holes in the canvas.
“I’ve seen this,” I said.
“Of course,” said Gertrude. “All the stories are the same: we’re always leaving.”
We watched the movie until the last credits because there was nothing else to do. I ate my beans and slept. After a time, the weather grew warm. I opened the window above me. We had left the desert and entered a new land. I told Gertrude that I could smell the sea and she laughed. Later, a man came through the aisles, pushing and shoving those who were standing. At the entrance to the car, he stopped and threw a handful of black beans at us.
“With these beans I redeem myself and mine,” he said.
“The cook,” said Gertrude. “He does this once a year, though no one understands why.”
“How long have we been traveling?” I asked Gertrude.
“Impossible to say,” she replied.
I stood and told her I was going to speak to the conductor. She laughed again, but didn’t stop me. I had to push my way through the aisle to the front of the car. I passed into another car identical to mine. Again, I pushed my way up the aisle. Men and women filled every seat. Near the front, a little boy sat crying next to his mother who slept beside him, unmoved. I passed into the next car, this one identical to the one before. Again, I had to push my way through the people in the aisles.
“Where is the conductor?” I asked. But no one seemed to understand me.
The next car was full of young men, each sitting by himself, staring ahead or out the window. Not a word was spoken among them, each having cast his lot with this world’s most solitary spirits. I left the car quickly and passed into another car, again identical to the ones I had left behind.
“How many cars are in this train?” I asked, but no one replied.
In the next train, four women sat close together, talking quietly. The oldest among them lifted her head and saw me. Suddenly she stood and began to shout at me, pointing with a book she held in her hand. The others stood as well. Their tone was aggrieved, accusatory, but I could not understand the words.
“It’s not me,” I said. “I’m not the conductor.”
Some of the men in the car stood and began to walk toward me. The women continued to shout, pointing fingers and appealing to the others for some sort of justice. I pushed through the aisle, leaving the crowd behind, and came to another car. This one was full of white horses. They stood alone, calmly. As I passed, they stepped aside to give me room. I had grown tired and wanted to sleep there among those gentle horses, but I knew I must push on to the front, where the conductor waited with the secret of our destination.
He stopped and threw a handful of black beans at us. ‘With these beans I redeem myself and mine,’ he said.
I slid the door to the next car and was overcome by the smell of garlic and onions. A great vat of black beans bubbled in the middle of the car, stirred by the little cook, who mumbled to himself in Latin. All around the pot, the others stood, bowls in hand: men, women, children. Some wore smart city clothing, but most were in the rough trousers and shirts of the countryside. They seemed to be shouting, but I could not hear them over the music that blared from unseen speakers: the opening notes of the same danzón played over and over again. I struggled to push through them and after many hours at last succeeded.
In the next car I was sure to find the conductor. But it was another car like the others, the same people in the seats, the same men crowding the aisles and in the fourth row from the front, Gertrude sitting next to an empty space, my own.
“Did you find the conductor?” she asked me with a smile.
I sat, exhausted. Later that evening there was another announcement in three languages. Gertrude said simply, “We are headed for the coast.”
Through days and nights we moved, not stopping for snow or heat. Our route seemed to cut through the center of this country, crisscrossing abandoned cities, ancient forests, jungles of ferns and roses. Mine seems to have been the last station. One morning we passed an army truck full of sleeping soldiers, but otherwise the landscape was empty of the living. Just miles and miles of land and sky. Along the side of the track grew brown bushes studded with colored bits of paper and plastic. The train rocked from side to side like a fugitive raft on the deep sea. When it was hot, the people slept. In the cold, they moved close to each other. Now and then a distant whistle blew. Sometimes smoke from the engine was sucked back in through the windows, unraveling the thousand and one stories on that train.
All who create will find one day the need to destroy. See the shining husband with the beautiful wife. He will drink. Or he will pretend to take business trips. Like all of us, he began his life with hope. And then in the middle of it, he begins to take it all down, piece by piece. The flawless beauty of it is too much to bear. We abandon our cities and our ambitions. At the first sign of boredom we take to the air. Beware the pursuit of perfection that casts its shadow-self over everything it denies. Better to pass through this life in the night, leaving no fingerprints, like a thief who does it for joy.
One day, toward evening, I woke to the sound of tinkling bells. Shards of light cut through the dusty air of our car. We had entered some kind of endless rail yard. Twenty yards from our train, a parallel train raced, bound for the same destination. And behind that, another train farther in the distance, and behind that one. . . . We stood and opened the windows and the passengers in the other trains did the same. We waved and they returned the wave. We shouted into the absolute silence of that watery landscape and heard only our own voices repeated. We were still miles from the coast, and alone. The others were an illusion. We were only passing through a wilderness of mirrors, startling ourselves on the way back to the beginning.