(“Love is In The Air” week continues on Tales Told From The Road with another story of a love aboard train with “Scandinavian connections.” But on this trip, the author travels from Sweden to Paris, rather than Seattle to Miami as in yesterday’s story “Train Wrecked.”)
By Linda Watanabe McFerrin
“Il ya des mains pareilles a des feuille capturees. Et d’autres qui parle sans arret dan leur collerette de rires.”
—Jaime Mais, Au crible de la nuit, 1948
Finland is Western Europe’s northernmost country. Further north than much of Siberia, it hangs, with Sweden, from the horn of the cold Arctic Circle, one of a pair of saddlebags straddling the Gulf of Bosnia. All winter days are locked in darkness. In summer, the nights are white, the watery light leaking into dreams and slumbers.
It was June. I was traveling in Scandinavia with Lawrence. Night after night I wrestled with the flickering glare. Sleep-starved, I stumbled from smoldering midnights to shimmering noons, a somnambulist trapped in the endless river that flowed between those twin cauldrons. Lawrence moved through the marathon days with an animal zeal, feasting on big bowls of herring and sour cream, guzzling down strong aqua vitae as if it were water, as if the bleak memory of winter—of hibernation and silence—were locked within him, an unspoken warning and inescapable goad.
Paris was our next destination. I longed for it. In Paris, my friend Nanos was in the midst of his plans for an exhibit of Les Surrealists Grec (the Greek Surrealists) at the Center George Pompidou. I could feel him pacing the cluttered rooms of his Montmartre flat, worrying over texts and designs. The works of Elytis, Egonopoulis, Tsarouchi and Mayo would be on display. I could already see, in my mind’s eye, minotaurs and maidens, the fantastic hybrid creatures of Egonopoulis, the contorted, teeming and endlessly metamorphosing shapes that cover the canvasses of Mayo.
Traveling by train, the trip to Paris from Orebro, Sweden would take 34 hours. I sleep well on trains. The dark rattle of a rail car has always been soothing to me. But we had a problem with bookings, and at the Orebro station, instead of the comfortable bunks of a first class compartment, we were faced with a cramped glass-doored cabinet. Four seats upholstered in dirty brocade crowded two of the facing walls. The green floor was marbled in grime. When we slid open the door, an explosion of sulfurous, sweet-heavy heat engulfed us.
“Lawrence,” I hissed, “this is not a couchette-lit.”
“I see that,” Lawrence replied, his blue eyes darting beneath the gold flutter of lashes taking in the whole picture. The determined set of his jaw made it clear that he had no intention of struggling for another moment in Swedish and that any attempt to extricate us from the horns of the dilemma would, at this point, be ill-advised.
“It’s not so bad,” he added swinging bags and briefcase onto one of the seats in the foetid chamber. “We’ll shut the door.” Perhaps we’ll be the only ones in here.”
“July in Europe – not one chance in hell,” I thought. I was too tired to put up a fight. We opened the window to let the absence of a breeze blow in. The seats, I found, could be forced to recline two to three inches. I sat in the one nearest the window, reluctantly perched upon the rim of the first ring of our Inferno, praying that it would not get hotter, that there would be no other squatters in Hades.
The first man to enter was handsome, young and quite tall, with long, dark hair and eyes like a Siberian husky. He sat next to me. The second, also tall and angular, had curly, blond hair and skin as pitted as a lunar sea. He took the seat next to Lawrence. They appeared to be companions, or at least countrymen, for they spoke to one another in Finnish, a kind of staccato clucking. One of them had a deck of cards. It was quickly opened, and they began to play a strange game reminiscent of liar’s dice.
The corridor outside the compartment was beginning to fill up. Faces peered in, assessed the occupants, and moved on. The river of students eddied and swelled, parting finally to reveal two girls. One was a plump redhead, her cherub-shape squeezed into a pair of black jeans and a black t-shirt. The other was a frail blonde with a face like a Botticelli Venus, except that there was a carnal glint in her eyes when she spotted the dark-haired Fin and pushed open the door. They greeted each of the men in Finnish, and casting only a quick glance at me, a somewhat longer one at Lawrence, settled into the seats nearest the door and chatted, girlishly, among themselves.
The card game continued, only now our phone-booth-sized residence was charged with the subtle perfume of these two girls. The girls got up often, leaving the room in slipstreams of their scents and returning to catch the attention and, occasionally, a remark from one or another of the two Finnish men. They were invited to join the card game and participated in a half-hearted way. In this limbo, the train sweated its way into Copenhagen, disgorged some of its passengers, clattered through a few more dreary suburban miles, and was loaded, at Rødby, onto a cross-channel carrier to Puttgarden. It was a cumbersome process, complicated by the presence on this ferry of a Duty Free Shop. The Finns evaporated like phantoms at dawn.
“They’re gone,” I barely breathed.
“They’re at Duty Free Shop.” Lawrence replied sagely. His smile was broad, his head cocked as if listening to some inscrutable sound.
“Lawrence,” I warned, “I have to sleep.”
“It will get easier,” he replied. It will get darker. We’re moving toward the sunset.”
The thought of darkness poured over me — a shadowy syrup, soothing the blister of too much daylight. I relaxed, actually dozing amid the clank and creak of the train’s carriage resting on its hammock of metal, as we crossed the channel to France.
I awoke to a nether world of waning light. The Finns had returned with their Duty Free purchases. Now sweating heavily, they replenished their body fluids with the dubious aid of a fifth of strong whiskey, taking long camel-like pulls from the bottle’s too-small neck, letting the fiery liquid roll down their throats, and chasing it down with great gulps of beer. The compartment reeked with the thick yeasty smell of this enterprise. Lawrence, to my horror, had turned-coat completely. Finding his niche in the excesses of Dante’s third ring of hell, he had become one with our cohabitants. He, too, was engaged in their card game. His eyes, too, were rimmed in blood-red oblivion.
The chubby redhead had fallen asleep, her legs in a small “y” that straddled her backpack. a diamond-shaped wet stain had formed a small mouth of darkness against the less black crotch of her jeans. The male Finns were intent on the pitchy aces and spades, the flame-red hearts and diamonds that smoked and flared from the white surfaces of their cards. The young blonde girl feigned sleep through slitted eyes, one delicate hand seemingly resting, in innocence, on the thigh of the dark-haired Finn.
Lawrence, hardly the guide I would have wished for, looked up from his cards and winked as if to indicate that his complicity were all a pretense. I squirmed in my seat and looked out at the countryside that flashed past. The sky, purpling, had taken on the hue of a tired ventricle. Field flowers flared like matches, luminous under the sunset. The blonde girl had slipped further into the semblance of sleep, her hand fallen, incidentally, into the crevasse between the legs of the handsome Finn.
“Jail bait,” Lawrence whispered, leaning toward me with a nod in the girl’s direction.
I smiled tiredly, thinking of the drawn look of my sleep-deprived face, the lines etched into the corners of my mouth. Behind Lawrence the sun was setting in a bright scarlet gash.
“You look like a nefarious poppy,” Lawrence continued, his hands resting on my knees, his eyes fixed me in a blue-grey gaze as riveting as two metal spikes. I could smell the beer and whisky on his breath. “I can see the sunset reflected on your face. I like seeing it this way — indirectly.” His hands moved over my thighs.
Behind him the sun bled red onto the black eyebrow of earth. The dark Finn leaned over the arm of my chair.
“It is really a remarkable sunset,” he said in a clipped British-English. His lapse into English scared me. It had an eerie effect—like a ventriloquist’s puppet, echoing Lawrence.
“She’s tired,” Lawrence said, addressing the Finn. “She needs to sleep.”
“Yes,” came the Finn’s voice, so close to my ear that I felt it was in my own head. “Yes, I can see that.”
I thought I was dreaming. I felt a great vault open beneath me, felt myself falling, again, into an abyss under the spell of language. Darkness closed over me.
When I awoke it was to a world of shadows. Lawrence was awake, his face alight with jack-o-lantern laughter as he surveyed a diabolical sense. A full moon, or nearly, washed the compartment in ghostly light. Next to Lawrence the blonde man was beginning his descent, a long slow slide toward the faux-malachite of the floor. He was aided in this by the powerful legs of the redhead. The soles of her feet, now angled against his hip, exerted a purposeful pressure as she unconsciously claimed the entire banquette for her own. Obliterated by whisky and beer, he colluded with her intentions, in unknowing self-sabotage.
We watched as he slid from his seat, folding over himself like a jack-knife, falling to the floor, unconscious. Once crumpled onto the larger space, he began to unfurl like one of those small paper flowers that, placed in a bath of water, blossom and open. He uncurled slowly, his recumbent from carpeting the floor like an exotic animal skin, his head resting lightly on the toe of Lawrence’s shoe. If Lawrence were to move his foot slightly, the curly blond head would hit forcefully against the sharp metal rim of an adjacent wastebasket. I notice that Lawrence was laughing soundlessly, tears rolling down his cheeks.
“Look,” he managed to rasp, indicating the compartment’s far corner.
I turned reluctantly from the Finn so delicately balanced upon Lawrence’s foot, to observe that the tender blonde Aphrodite had grasped the hand of the other sleeping man and was moving it slowly and rather thoughtfully over her small breasts. He twitched slightly, like a large dog, dreaming.
Then murmuring something, he slowly rolled towards her, covering her body with his. His hands, in the darkness, looked like white foraging rodents. She slithered beneath him, finding the fork in his body, and lodged herself there, arching into him in the timeless maneuver that undoubtedly fostered Rome’s greatest engineering accomplishment.
His response was predictable. They had formed an inseparable sandwich, fused into a coupling of delicate pressure and delectable glissades. Then we watched as a pair of hands so fair that they appeared to be gloved, pulled the man’s jeans down over his hips and loins and the marble-white mirror-image of the near-full moon glistened in the compartment’s dim corner, rising and falling in an ancient and irresistible rhythm.
It was shocking. It was exhilarating. It was as if the night had become effervescent, the compartment filled with fairies. Outside, moonlight, like a dreamy lichen, furred the furrowed fields in silver. Lawrence’s sleepless visage was Mithras-like. Mirth mantled him in glittering light. A profound hilarity seemed to well up inside me, the way as children, laughter gathers and threatens in the dark bole of a church.
In a rush of soft groans, purring and pleasant animal sounds, the movement in the chamber’s corner stopped, the participants parted, rearranged themselves and exited, trysting again in the corridor for a slow cigarette. Lawrence, cradling the head of the man at our feet, eased it past the metal rim of the wastebasket and onto the floor. A breeze rolled in through the windows, thinning the civet-thick scent of sex that now blanketed the compartment. I fell asleep again in the darkness.
Morning, sour and bright, awakened me. Lawrence was sleeping, finally surrendered to the dark wave that had gathered on the other side of the leaves of his energies. At our feet, the blonde Finn slept, curled into a fetal position, his sallow cheeks still pressed into the dirty floor. Next to me the other man slept also, dark brow furrowless, forehead smooth as an infant’s. The redhead, like a silky, was combing her long siren hair. The blonde nymph’s seat was empty.
The countryside had filled-in during our slumbers. It was full of farms, large pleasant cows and baby-pink pigs – the smug landscape of France, environs de Paris. We rolled past a farm where four men had a pig spread out on a table preparing to slaughter it. It’s squeals did not fill the air. The men had wound a tight wire around its mouth.
One by one the others awakened. Activity swelled again in the corridor. Sleepy heads lifted. Students rose from bed rolls hastily thrown here and there in the halls. The blonde girl returned. A babel of languages surged in through the door behind her. Her return awakened the man asleep on the floor. He rose and looked about sheepishly, his face coloring with crimson as he climbed into his seat. The dark-haired Finn watched him in amusement and offered a few encouraging words in their language. Lawrence, yawning and stretching his legs at last, said a cheerful good morning to all in English.
The dark-haired Finn looked over at me. “You are feeling better?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said warmly, raising an eyebrow. “And you?”
“Oh, yes,” he said smiling. “Much better.”
Lawrence cleared his throat and looked at his watch. “9:45,” he said. “Nearly 34 hours. We have witnessed the sunset. We have lived through the night.”
We lurched forward and stopped in a fitful progress. The trains were backed-up and delayed. In this manner, we rolled slowly toward the Gare de l’Est. Around us graffiti rose in monstrous swirls on the concrete lips of the platforms. We slid toward the rude din of the station, sucked into the terminal darkness.
(“Libidinous Finns” was first published in I Should Have Stayed Home by Book Passage Press. It has been republished on Tales Told From the Road with the kind permission of its author, Linda Watanabe McFerrin, who reserves all rights to its use or publication elsewhere.)
Poet, novelist, and travel writer Linda Watanabe McFerrin lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She frequently teaches at seminars for writers and is on the faculty of the annual Book Passage Travel and Food Writing & Photography Conference. She founded and heads Left Coast Writers, which supports new and established writers in the production and promotion of their work in a stimulating atmosphere of creativity and community. She is also a co-editor of Hot Flashes: Sexy Little Stories and Poems, available for purchase online.
Ms. Watanabe McFerrin’s latest novel, Dead Love, is set in the world of zombies. Her story “9/11: Solidarity in San Francisco, Safe Passage to Venice” appeared on Tales Told From The Road as part of a collection of stories by travel writers commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on America.
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