On the Train
We couldn’t sleep. We entered the train car wanting to get some rest, in its illusive darkness, under the chatter of the wheels and the rhythmic swaying of soft beds, when drowsy thought steadily floats over a wavy dreamscape—but it just happened that we began to talk about something, about some faraway people and faraway things, and we ended up talking half the night away. I don’t know why, but all people on journeys become philosophers; torn away from things of habit they are truly awakened and with surprise begin to look backwards and forwards, to recollect things that are very remote, and to dream of a future that is just as far away. If human thought could take form then every rushing train would become enveloped in a row of shadows, and you would no longer be able to hear its rumble under a thousand voices, drawn-out and dull. For the people in the train car the present does not exist—that damned present that holds its grip over one’s thoughts and the movement of one’s hands—perhaps this is why people in the train car become philosophers.
And we talked. We talked about people and we talked about life, about its beauty and riches, about its bottomless depths, above which float people-flinders, blind and carefree. They know only its surface, and they are so light, too light, never descending down towards the bottom. It happens that sometimes they are covered by a worldly wave, and for a moment life opens up to them its mysterious depths and will blind them, and frighten them—and then again to the surface, again the blue tent—what they call the sky when talking to children—again the sleepy, blind swaying, and like that until the end—until they rot.
We talked like this for a long time—in the illusive darkness of the train car, under the quiet ringing of the wheels, not being able to see each other but sensing our ever growing proximity and gentle affection. Torn away from things of habit, people in the train car become sensitive to their ever lonely hearts and greedily drink up the soft, fleeting kindness, like flowers sucking up water in the drought.
“We have to sleep,” he said.
“It’s about time,” I replied.
Smiling, we shut our eyes, but half an hour later we found ourselves standing in the corridor outside our compartment, staring out the window. It’s likely the moon was somewhere behind the clouds, and the night was bright, and the snowy murk of the earth merged seamlessly with the lunar murk of the night winter sky. The thick layer of snow smoothed out the mounds and irregularities, but we often travelled on this road and everything that passed before us appeared familiar and previously seen.
“But that’s not true,” I said. “We neither see nor know anything.”
He understood me and, without breaking away from the window, pressed his head closer to mine and replied:
“It only seems familiar. The eyes deceive.”
“The eyes deceive. When I travel this road I always look out the window, and my sight covers it all as far as the horizon. And it seems a lot to me, but it’s… it’s only as far as the horizon. When I travel by several times my memory will retain only some houses and stations, and some faces, and the forest, and even individual trees. It seems to me like that’s everything—but that’s only a few houses, a few faces, and individual trees. I know one birch tree here. It stands at the edge of the forest, apart from the rest, as if it ran out of the forest and is staring greedily into the field. If it is felled I won’t find the place where it lived and, quite likely, won’t even remember it.
“I know that birch tree. It looks like it’s screaming.”
“Yes. And do you remember where it is?”
“It’s somewhere here. I don’t know. I don’t remember. And I haven’t seen it for a while.”
“Looks like it was felled.”
The Russian winter forest passed us with a breath of cold, night, and loneliness. And again the snowy murk and the same murky sky. And, because we’ve often travelled this route, the sky itself seemed familiar and long known to us, and you could not believe that this was a new sky, one which we have never seen before. A green light flew by, then some snow covered roofs, and then the train stopped.
“Belyevo station,” said the conductor.
We knew this station well because the train always stopped here for five minutes, but for some reason we didn’t speak about it.
“Belyevo?” repeated someone behind us. “They make good pasties here. I know.”
And he slammed the door. Our train stopped right in front of the telegraph, and through a wide window one could see the people working inside. They didn’t know that they were being watched, indifferently getting on with their business, and the whole thing reminded one a little of a scene behind a raised curtain. One telegraphist, a young man with a mustache, was facing in our direction, and at one point his eyes even met mine, yet there was no expression in them. The station lights were reflected slightly by the large glass window, and because of this only the illuminated part of his face could be clearly seen; that which was in the shadow disappeared, as if it did not exist at all.
“Take a better look at the telegraphist,” my companion told me.
I did. The telegraphist was still working with the same indifference. He then spoke something to his side, puffed on a cigarette, and stood up. He took one step away and at once disappeared behind the shining glass. And then he appeared again, and once more sat down to work. The cigarette between his teeth seemed to distract him, the illuminated part of his face was frowning, and eventually he ended up putting the cigarette down on the edge of the desk.
And that’s it. The train began to move, and the station passed by in reverse order: station lamps, some snow covered roofs, a green light—and again the fields, the snowy murk and the same murky sky. This is the way apparitions come to us: they come in one door and leave through the other, but the room stays the same—the same table, the same armchairs, the same silent flicker of the candle. And the pale, seemingly melting image, stays only in our eyes, and our frozen heart tries to tell us something.
“Well, that’s the Belyevo we know,” said my colleague.
“And if one was to go back, it would appear again.”
“And disappear again!”
“And what if one was to stay there?”
“For how long?” he asked quietly. “For how long?” he repeated, smiling only in thought.
And again we stood huddled together looking out the windows, and through them we could actually see that indifferent telegraphist behind the shining glass, racing over the snowy fields. But that was only an image. He was in our eyes—only in our eyes.
“He has a good face,” I said, recalling.
“He is young. He is probably twenty five. He has been working on the telegraph already for six or seven years, on this very telegraph. You could see something habitual and regular in the movement of his hands, in the expression of his face, in that cigarette, placed on the side of the desk.”
“He didn’t see us. It’s brighter where they are, and he didn’t see us.”
“It’s likely he saw only the silhouette of the train car. He can see only train cars and their silhouettes. Every day he is on duty at the telegraph, and by him pass tens… hundreds of train cars. Many travel this route, and every day thousands of people go past him this way and back. Perhaps half of Russia passed by here—all past him. And he knows nothing about those who had passed.
“Leo Tolstoy often takes this route.”
“Leo Tolstoy takes this route. Ministers, princes, great painters, writers, and singers take this route. By now thousands of eyes had rested on him with indifference, and he, with the same indifference, sat and worked. Who knows—it may be that Tolstoy looked at him, and at that time he was talking with someone and smoking, greedily sucking up the vile tobacco. He can see only the train cars and their silhouettes. From darkness or sunlight, train cars arrive at the empty lines and stand as if they were going to stand there forever. And in five minutes they depart, and the lines are empty again, and it is as if no one had ever stood here before. In the summer faces flit in the windows, and in the winter the train cars are shut and covered with hoarfrost and are as silent as if there is not a living man inside.
“Silent they come and, without opening, silent they leave—and he sits there working, and knows nothing about those who passed by. He is working, which means that he is passing on words. Even if the words are as clear as day, for him they are closed, like train cars—after all, he knows neither those who are speaking, nor those who are listening. And right by him, like train cars, the words pass by—someone’s joy and someone’s grief, someone’s thoughts, ideas, orders. He only passes them on. And he has both eyes and ears, but he is deaf and blind, as if he has neither hearing nor sight.”
“He has a life of his own.”
“He lives in Belyevo in some petit bourgeois woman’s house with three windows above a ravine, where, if just for a moment one steps off the beaten path, one would drop head deep into the snow. The only dark spots are directly in sight: a small pile of ash and frozen waste, and a naked, crooked trunk of a willow tree. And then we have his small, hot little room with a stove bench, and on this bench he sits during the holidays, in the mornings, and when he plays his guitar. He likes embroidered Russian shirts, which he receives as gifts on his birthdays, and he dreams of a new uniform jacket and a pair of polished boots. He doesn’t drink yet, he’s still young and full of dreams, which is why his room is clean, his clothes are covered with a sheet, and there are muslin covers over the window. And when he reads some old, tattered book with pages missing, he doesn’t think for a moment that this book was also written by a man—it exists for him by itself and, like the crooked willow tree which he spends his time looking at, just as seldom evokes contemplation. When at night he makes his way home from duty he is very afraid of dogs, and when he’s back at home he quickly undresses and, looking at his socks, worn out at the heel, falls asleep with thoughts of socks and the telegraph. Everything that happens in the world of the great, the loud, the dazzling, takes place somewhere on the side, and he does not suspect and does not think that the author of that tattered book is a passenger who was only yesterday traveling by, perhaps right past him. His human soul, as rich as as a Stradivari violin, is given away to a street musician, who uses it to play shoddy polka, and it will never get to know itself, will never find its real voice, because the one who could extract it, the life-artist, the life-painter, the life-musician, passes by somewhere on the periphery, and he will never discover it. And, letting the silent, closed train cars pass him by, he ends up passing himself by, just as closed, just as silent and transient.” Thus said my companion and became lost in thought, and his cheek, pressed to mine, grew cold.
“But, it’s possible he’s not at all like that, and you’ve made all this up.”
“It’s possible. After all, we’ve only passed by.”
The train car rocked back and forth and snowy fields were swimming by. They seemed familiar but were deceiving: I’ve never seen these fields! He stood next to me, and his cheek pressed to mine, and with this touch he too has deceived me: I don’t know him! Tomorrow we will part company, and his image will remain only in my eyes, and other people will begin to pass by me—and I will pass by others. Maybe, by myself.