a short story
As he listened to the lulling clanking of a train, Qzm Qvyd sat next to his father and gazed at his homevillage of Tryvíra retreating into the distance, nestled among the balding knolls, the same knolls where he witnessed his birth and boyhood. Somewhere beyond those hills was their home, from which he felt he had not yet journeyed that far away, at least not by rail; on foot, Qvyd thought, they had certainly walked quite a distance. Somewhere there was also the blooming apple orchard, which after last year's break should burst into maroon glory again closer to autumn, and the apples would tumble to the green grass under their weight, laden and tired of hanging and wishing to be picked, then baked into a fragrant cinnamon apple pie, pressed into juice, mashed into puree, boiled into jam or compote, or simply eaten, perhaps after removing wee worms and slicing off the rusty brownish spots, which Qvyd deemed as a kid as the tastiest parts. Somewhere there also laid a field they had just sown with potatoes, which this year, presumably, only his mother and sister would dig out. There was also the white building of a school he had just graduated from, and each labyrinthine passageway and pedagogical chamber were etched with impeccable clarity in his memory. Some of his friends were still there, most of whom jounced on this same train chattering like an audience in a theatre that didn’t quite understand the play’s plot; as were there his favorite teachers, whom he had parted with amidst a bittersweet farewell a few weeks ago together with Nyn. Qvyd's mind was wracked with poignant remorse, a melancholic afterthought that nagged at him relentlessly, for not being able to say goodbye to her in person, resorting instead to a paltry phone. Qvyd hated phones, they seemed unnatural to him, a lifeless medium of communication bereft of warmth and tactility, and he was filled with unspoken anxiety that the phone might become the only way to keep in touch with his home and kin. Qvyd was sure the invention of the telephone was a callous ploy to delude people into thinking that they no longer needed face-to-face interactions and could simulate communication through a hissing relay travelling through electrical conduits. Hearing a cherished voice transmitted across vast distances did stir a delight yet it always remained a pale imitation of genuine, an ersatz approximation. In Qvyd’s mind, even a letter was better, at least it didn't try to deceive your senses. If anything, Qvyd’s hatred of phones intensified even more because he had to listen to Nyn's distorted dulcet voice at the moments when he yearned to lose himself in the sky-like boundless depth of her eyes, and see the reflections of drifting clouds, to hug her, run his fingers through her silken hair, and just stand like that for a few minutes without separating, feeling her eyelashes tickling his cheek.
Emotions came and went, amalgamated, and clogged his train of thought. Abruptly, Qvyd felt a wrenching nostalgia, which he had never felt before, vivid and luminous, as if memories, like Qvyd, his father, and others on the train now, were being transferred to another part of the brain, to a cerebral factory where they underwent a metamorphosis by a complex alchemical interplay into nostalgic material for subsequent revision. Somehow, Qvyd felt that part of these memories would remain just memories caught in the same temporal trap as the present moment. A chilling sensation slithered up his spine to his neck, and felt like the nascent quivers of an impending shiver, yet halted midway in its ascent. Gradually, Qvyd began to feel uneasy, like a taut rope stretched thin by the force of distance. He sensed that a piece of himself had been taken away from him, that his body is still there, but a part of him, be it his soul or the proverbial consciousness or something else metaphysical, was still at home with his mother and sister, drinking tea, relishing the crumbly texture of oatmeal cookies studded with tart cranberries, which his mother had baked early in the morning. She must have gotten up at five or six o'clock for this, or maybe she hadn't slept all night. That morning, she appeared fatigued and somewhat disoriented, her eyes reddened as if she had been cutting onions all night, and ended up a few years older, and Qvyd even thought he saw some gray hair on her head. A shift occurred in his mother, as though one, or two, fragments of her being had been wrenched apart, yet remained within reach for a short while. A sudden realisation struck Qvyd that if they meet next time, they would all be completely different people, and his sister would grow up and become a big adult girl, and he, Qvyd, would miss that transformation. She will always stay that mischievous monkey whom he, just a few minutes ago, could pick up with both hands and lift skyward, spin around on a laughing carousel, or put her astride his shoulders and run along the river's edge.
Qvyd Sr, also dressed in khaki, sat next to Qvyd Jr the whole time and remained silent. Perhaps he had no words left to be spoken, or that part that had been cleaved from everyone on that day was taken away from him was too agonising to bear. He didn't look sad, tired, or upset—he looked none, thought Qvyd Jr, with empty eyes and a face devoid of emotion as though he were a machine, shut off and left to gather dust. Qvyd Sr was never an emotional person, it was difficult to call him sentimental or sensitive to anything. Rather, he reacted stoically, using frowning, headshaking, or expressing passive disapproval with his calm demeanor, but now it was as if he had put on a mask. It was still his face, but someone else was hiding behind its guise. Qvyd couldn't know what was going on in his father’s head, whether he was thinking about home or whithersoever they were going and what would happen next. Perhaps he was thinking about the same things that were swirling in Qvyd Jr’s head—the same people, his wife, and daughter, trying to memorise their faces with forced smiles standing on the platform among a hundred others and remember them like this, without tears in their eyes, although with a touch of sadness. Qvyd never thought that his first train ride with his father would be like this. Soon they were supposed to go to the city, to the university, where his father, dressed in his best suit, which, as Qvyd's mother said, he had kept since the wedding and now was slightly tight on his belly, he would lead Qvyd to the table of the admission office in the polytechnic faculty, and after presenting Qvyd's pile of papers and school diploma with his decent but averages scores, he would say that his son wants to become an engineer. The admission office’s member would smile, they would hand over all the necessary documents, and go together to have a beer, and in the evening, Qvyd would finally meet Nyn again.
The horizon mercilessly devoured their home. At first, handwaving people turned into small smeared silhouettes, then cars disappeared, then trees and houses melded into a uniform grey-green goop before dissolving entirely, and finally, the church's spire dove beyond the horizon and Tryvíra faded away. A scraggly and scruffy stray, with a torn ear and a possible limp, chased after them, but then it stopped in the middle of the rails and just continued barking at the passing train until the dog too merged with the landscape. Later, as they descended into a valley, a river began to run by the side, the same one where Qvyd once learned to swim, and where he went fishing with his father or friends, but then the river sharply turned and the train entered an endless pine tunnel, which, due to the movement, looked more like a poorly assembled shoddy stockade, reminiscent of the ones their ancestors built to protect their settlements. The wind wafted the scent of resin and pine needles into the coach through an ajar window. The fleeting trunks stood like a solid barrier, but by focusing on an individual tree, one could see the depth of the forest and the tempting obscurity of its labyrinth, whose surface was blanketed with yellow needles, and where the light did not penetrate at all due to the sparse crowns tightly intertwined.
The monotonous panorama of pines and the clattering of the train's wheels soothed and entranced Qvyd. As his thoughts began to drift away and ennui crept in, he feared he would succumb to sleep and miss the whole journey leaving no memory of it behind.
— Which front exactly they are taking us to? — Qzm Qvyd asked.
His father turned to him and only shrugged.
This story is my submission for the STSC Symposium, a monthly collaboration of artists around a set theme. Our the March 2023’s topic is “Trains”.