Here is a story for you.
I shut the compartment door behind me. There are two girls using their phones. One is talking to someone; the other one is scrolling through, sometimes typing. I conclude that they both are prettier than me.
Heavy after a sprint through Moscow, I huff and shove my stuff under the bunk. I missed one train already, it left fifteen minutes ago, and later, when I’m alone, I will cry about the wasted money. I’m hot in my knitted sweater, wet under the arms and breasts and around my neck, tired. The fabric is damp against my skin.
“We’re departing in five minutes,” the talking girl says as I ungracefully crawl past her to the upper bunk. “I’ll call you tomorrow. Bye, Mom.”
I want to call my mother too, but I never was the type of daughter to share. What would I even say? I am a tumbleweed, wandering, unrooted. We got closer when I moved out, though. Living separately from family has its benefits. You annoy each other less. With time, you forget what you hated about them. You remember only good things, and it’s enough to convince yourself that you like them. Maybe that you even miss them.
I pull a pen and a notebook from my backpack: I would tell my mother a version of our story that hasn’t been told yet.
As I write this letter, I will close my eyes; now will you listen? This is a story of when the world was younger, rawer, and I was younger too, a girl unbowed by the memories I bear.
The fourth girl ushers into the compartment a minute before departure. She is also prettier than me. She is red in the face: probably was running late too. I wonder if she made it in time or, like me, had to re-buy her ticket. Blessed be the Russian Railways app, a tragedy reduced to inconvenience.
She competently makes her bed on the upper bunk. A seasoned traveler, battered by life on the road; one recognizes one. Her beige socks have a cat face on them. Is it a cat? Easily could be a seal.
I’m glad we are all girls. I can change in peace, and no one will bat an eye. We silently agree to ignore each other’s presence.
Last time, I shared a compartment with a man, only the two of us. He attempted to make friends with me. I tried to deflect, but he didn’t care, just bombarded me with his whole life’s biography.
Men cannot stomach being alone in the room with a woman. Cannot stomach ignoring us, being ignored. They will always try to be interesting, to make you their company. They never ask if you want to participate. They never ask if you find them interesting.
Perhaps he thought his story was worth telling. Perhaps he’s driven by the same instinct that makes me check if I’m the prettiest person in the room.
He was born in Moldova, moved to Russia, lived for the last ten years in Moscow, then in a suburb, where it’s quieter. Dropped out of college because he was young and stupid. Worked as an engineer, or a foreman, or something and was commuting from his last assignment. Had two daughters. His—uncle? grandfather? his someone—had a garden full of peaches the size of both my palms.
Only two facts about him were interesting. First: his aunt worked on some nuclear power plant in Soviet times. Second: his mother was fluent in the Moldovan language, probably of the last generation who spoke it. After her, it is a dead language. No one will sing a dirge for it; the tiny village on the outskirts of Kishinev is its grave. I feel a strange companionship with dying languages, alive only when someone, somewhere, is speaking the words.
I’ll give him this: not everyone’s aunts worked on the atomic station and not everyone’s mothers spoke a soon-to-be-dead language. But he smelled of cheap cigarettes, got despondently drunk in the train’s buffet, and his ear-splitting snoring kept me awake all night.
I wield the power to decide if that man is interesting, and I deem two women in his life the most interesting thing about him.
But this is not the story I promised you.
This is how the story goes: I was a girl, I was married, I was buried. You can switch the last two if you feel like it. The climacteric part is: I was gone.
The girl who talked with her mom on the phone pulls out a baguette and eats it straight from the wrapper. The sock girl has a lunchbox with rice and vegetables. I wonder what snack the third girl is carrying. Something fancy, like sushi? Something with salmon? She looks like a salmon girl to me.
The train goes chunk, chunk, chunk, slow, and pulls from the station. It whistles. Gains speed. Its even jolt makes breadcrumbs dance on the bedsheets, fall on the floor. This reminds me of how Isaac and I fed pigeons on the Haifa Bat Galim during our trips to Israel. He hoped to buy a house there, to build a life, but he didn’t follow through. “Just like your father,” I teased, cruelly. His dad was a knife that never stopped cutting.
The thought about Isaac makes me want to call my mother even more, ask her some silly thing like, “How are you?” or inquire about the relatives I barely speak to. Or maybe tell her something serious about academia, my thesis.
I’m writing about Greek myths, Mom, there’re some sad stories.
I’m writing about Demeter and Persephone. We—I mean, academics, who are mostly men—always fixate on unimportant things, like whether Hades kidnapped Persephone or fell in love with her, Zeus arranging their marriage, seasonal change, or the death-rebirth symbolism. They debate whether Persephone cooperated in her abduction. Argue over whether she was dragged away or walked into Hades willingly. They wonder if she was complicit in her rape. Whether her pain was chronic, chthonic, or cathartic.
I don’t want to be telling this story.
Old Russian trains were designed with deep-seated hatred of humanity. The shelves above the upper bunks are too low, while the space above the shelves could comfortably accommodate one more person. The bunks are narrow and short, so your toes stick out right into the corridor. The air inside is dead, stuffy, ridden with sweat and body odor. A small window, never supposed to be fully opened, and the thick, blue rubber divider shut out the air. It is tight-packed, claustrophobic, and there’s no privacy—you’re exposed, naked, seen. The trains are haunted, and their haunting is architectural.
If you ride the trains enough, one day you will realize that nowhere looks like home anymore. You have a coordinate system, but there is a lacuna; what it lacks is a center, a gravity.
I tried to communicate to Isaac that there will be no homecoming for either of us—we’ve been riding trains too long, and now we’re haunted too, architecturally. But you see, Isaac believes in last-minute miracles. That everything will turn out fine.
Isaac did not turn out fine. His father’s ghost trails him everywhere, ages after Isaac tore himself free. Each year, Isaac shrinks a little more under the weight of regret: of what he has become and of what he hasn’t. Love will gut you like this.
The past is a locomotive that pulls the future. Sometimes, neither is yours.
Here’s a tip for you, fellow Classics majors: historiography is more entertaining when you look at it from the first-person perspective.
A new breed of scholars, postmodernist and feminist audience, is trying to emancipate Persephone, give her more autonomy. They speculate that Hades did love her, and she loved him, they eloped, the whole deal was consensual. And her mother, Demeter, was just an overbearing, abusive bitch, a villain of this story.
It’s all stupid.
Persephone’s story is a love story between mother and daughter. Between every mother and daughter in the world. Every mother in Hellas lost a daughter—lost her to marriage, because marriage back then was a political affair, and neither mother nor daughter had any say in it. Your daughter is a coin, currency to bargain with. And if your daughter’s groom is from another city, she’s as good to you as dead. You will never see her again. She’s dead. Forever. She belongs to Hades.
Separation trauma. We academics love to throw fancy words around.
This is the story of loss. Of daughter, of mother, of girl, of self. Somewhere, anytime, someone always loses a daughter.
Am I a dead daughter to you?
“You don’t have to go back there,” my mother would say.
“We both know I do,” I would answer. This exchange is always the same, but she never stops trying. Maybe sighing the green and feeling the soft, gentle earth will bring me back. Maybe, my mother hopes quietly, seeing the sky would make me happy again.
She would fondle my hair as she stared at the sunrise, eyes full of drowning. “I just wish you could stay for longer,” she would say bitterly, in a voice more like a whisper, a susurration of the sycamore leaves before the oncoming winter, than it ever was a voice.
I wouldn’t answer. I may or may not long to return home, but I’m too heavy with obligations I must fulfill. I belong to the earth now. The red in my mouth is not always the pomegranate seeds; sometimes it is smeared lipstick, or blood threading from the tooth, or gore surging from the kiss.
Is the earth even “home” to me? Is anything? When your life is a never-ending commute, are you truly home anywhere? In the end, “earth” and “death” are just one consonant apart.
I want to eat a peach. I want it to be the size of my two palms.
The girls sleep. The talking girl sleeps like a child, curled up and wrapped in a cheap train blanket. The salmon girl sleeps beautifully, like a painting, elbow over her hand, palm half-clenched, face turned sideways. And the socks girl sleeps like people sleep, not to be a sight to behold or describe.
The train rattles as we move past Novgorod. During the fifteen-minute stop, I come out to get fresh air. It is heavy around me like a shell. Like soil. Rain would be nice. Or, even better, a thunderstorm, raging winds, dark skies, lightning, earth-shattering sound—sounds like those my father made. A tempest of parental mediocrity. But he has his share of stories. This one is not about him.
Along with making lightning and thunder and waves, gods can say the words, and you’re no longer a person. Instead, you are a tall and round-crowned laurel tree, or a saffron flower with purple leaves, or little crooked smilax—the true phoenix among the flowerkind, always coming back after being cut or burned down. Your only friends would be the woodpeckers and squirrels who live in your leaves, and the worms crawling at your feet, eating your roots. You would become heartless and painless and alone, but you’d be at peace.
Mother, why didn’t you turn me into a tree? Just say a word, and I—no, I wouldn’t be saved because my death has already happened, but I wouldn’t have had to endure everything that came after I was beyond saving.
Perhaps you thought you could still bring me back, so you didn’t want to give up on me. Or perhaps you didn’t consider it merciful. In the end, you know better than anyone that nature is, too, an object of dying.
But you could have made me something—I don’t know—not as short-lived as a tree. A mountain, perhaps, or a river. I would love to be a mountain, part of a long line of victims of divine obsession, a weird community of rocks and plants that were once aching human beings.
I think we lose something when we learn we can be someone else. We are Theseus’ ship, dismembering to fragments and then reassembling ourselves anew, wondering whether we’re the same vessel. We all have to die, to change, to forget, to transform. We are frauds, inventors; what we invent is ourselves.
Ours was a strange world. There were uninteresting men and girls-turned-trees and mothers who lost daughters. I wish things were different, at least for some of them.
I feel buried.
“I think… what if he did follow through?” Isaac would say.
His dad is a devout perfectionist. Always wanting too much. Always expecting too much. He wouldn’t stop at anything—aside from that one time he did. Isaac still wore the scars around his neck. Always called it love—and wasn’t it? In his world, fear and love are intimately intertwined.
“I wish my mother could turn me into a tree.” I would try to sympathize, but it comes out more half-hearted than anything.
“Your mom would fight death for you.”
We both had to die to learn how terribly our parents loved us.
He got to live. I got to learn my mother would crack the earth open and reach out her hand to me through the Hell’s ceiling. On this railroad, we all envy each other something.
I was a girl and I was a woman and I was dead. I also could have been a tree. Somewhere in the cracks between those things, in liminal times when I was nothing, I was unhappy. I had a husband, at some point, but this is all I will say about that. This story is not about him.
I gathered myself and left Hell prematurely. I freed myself to go. No one would stop me, anyway.
I was gone, finally, completely. Not just gone, but a goner. I was missing. I was missing out. I was missing my mother. I clawed my way through the darkness, I bedded down in a neglected kingdom of the dead, and the shades scattered before their dreaded goner-queen gone rogue. I walked and walked and walked until I reached Pyongyang Metro that brought me to the surface. You’d never think the world of the dead can be escaped on a simple train.
That part of the story would not be recorded in a wider canon.
I enrolled in university, got myself a Classics degree. I took gardening and ceramics classes. I started a Korean skincare routine. I travel around the world with uninteresting men and girls who are prettier than me.
I’m actually glad no one turned me into a tree.
I want to eat a peach the size of both my palms. I want it to be from my mother’s garden.
Do not pity me. Do not mourn me, grieve me, eve me. I am no tragedy nor crime scene; I am a story.
I lived on a mountaintop, in the world run by mothers; I lived underground where only the dead reside. I drift between earth and underworld. I live elsewhere. I am but a threadbare knapsack over a lean shoulder, only my bones as a carry-on, beaten by winds, tangled and tripped by logistics and railroads.
There was a girl who gathered wildflowers in the field by her mother’s garden, and the world was green. It was early fall, and she felt invincible. That is the story.
There was a girl covered in graveyard dirt, a thing waiting to be buried. But the story didn’t allow it and resurrected her again and again and against her will.
There was a girl and she was dying, and she has died many times before. It will never be easier. It will never hurt less.
There was a girl and she wandered between earth’s surface and its bosom. She was coming home, and it felt achingly lonely.
The girl who talked with her mom on the phone was a story.
The girl with cat-seals on her socks was a story.
The girl who may or may not have had sushi or salmon was a story.
The woman who worked on the Soviet power plant was a story.
The woman who spoke the Moldovan language was a story.
This story is cloying and unduly familiar: once-told, twice-told, myriad-times-told. Things are and then they are no more. Rhapsodists sing their songs, time passes, and we forget them. Their stories peter away into silence, obelized into oblivion. Probe at the void that is the absence of memory and feel its loss like a wound. Things were, and we forget them.
There was a girl who traveled the world and, as she is writing the letter to her mother on the train from Moscow, her story is coming to an end. I still haven’t got the hang of writing letters, but I will find a way to shrink these words into an envelope and send them to you. I hope this will be the tether that keeps me fixed to the world of the living. I hope it finds you well.
There was a girl before there was a kidnapping. But who remembers her?
I am tired of telling my story.
The rattling of wheels begins to slow, until the train anchors heavily at the terminal. I grab my stuff and go into the corridor before it’s flooded with other passengers. The floor under my feet is still, but I am swaying a little, after hours on the railroad. I linger on the edge of a ribbed iron step, searching the faces of people waiting on the station until someone behind mutters for me to hurry.
As I make my way through the crowd, there is a hiss of compressed air, and a second later, the stretched joints between the wagons clang. When I turn my head to see the train off, I lock eyes with a woman wearing an emerald shawl draped effortlessly around her head and shoulders, her graying brows rimmed with the March frost. Her face lightens with the ferocity of Mediterranean sun and she rushes forward, wedging off the last dregs of the cold and excerpts from the past, hers and mine and that old world of ours. The moment she grasps my hand and pulls me to her heart, the time undoes, and I can almost see us together, sitting in the green field, surrounded by sweetgrass and chamomiles and crocuses and birdsongs, neither of us yet aware of the existence of grief.
My mother says, “I missed you.”
My mother says, “Welcome home.”