There aren’t any children left in the village, other than Pasha and I, and Pasha won’t play with me anymore. He keeps to himself now, squirreled away in some attic or wandering the surrounding wood in silence. Sometimes he’ll happen upon me in the rowan grove, and I’ll see the loneliness eating away at him from the inside out, leeching away his color until his papery skin is almost translucent. We won’t need to speak. He’ll sit beside me, and we’ll watch the birds flit back and forth between the branches. Other times he’ll look for me between the wooden alleyways as I watch the villagers trudge to and from their shops and homes. But Pasha never follows me to the rail station, and I know he hates that I linger there, hates that I always seek a glimpse of a traveler or a flash of another child’s face.
The trains arrive before dawn or after dusk, only stopping long enough to stoke the engines before chuffing away to larger towns. Whenever I hear the shriek of a whistle, I hurry to the station even though Pasha says I shouldn’t. He says it’s not good for me, that I should learn to find contentment. I tell him to stop being so bossy. Pasha has delicate, spindly limbs and never speaks above a reedy whisper, but he likes to act like he’s the adult.
We used to play games together. He liked hide-and-seek best of all. He always knew the most clever of hiding places, but now he complains that I’ve found them all out. Now I’ll sometimes creep up behind him and startle him, sending him scurrying from the shadows, his pale features coloring, his fists clenching in anger, and he’ll shout at me, or as near a shout as he can make, more of a raspy choking whisper. Zoe, leave me alone, he’ll say, and then he’ll run away and sulk, and I won’t see him for days and days, maybe longer. Time spins oddly for Pasha and I, and it’s hard for me to remember how often we see one another or how long ago it was that I played with other children.
I like to sit atop the station house so that I can look inside each train car. Sometimes I’ll see a motherly-looking woman in one of the coaches, and I’ll crane my head to search the compartment for signs of her family. Usually there is only an older man with her—perhaps an uncle, perhaps a new husband—or sometimes an old crone will sit by her and jab a gnarled finger at the darkness beyond the window. Only rarely will there be a child nestled beside her or curled in her lap, and I’ll feel myself unmoored at the sight of such perfect skin, such cherubic and porcelain features, almost like I’m falling from some great distance.
I tell Pasha they remind me of dolls. I think I remember having a favorite dolly—I must have had one—but I can’t recall her face, her feel, her smell. I ask Pasha if he remembers his old toys. He says nothing, just leads me into the attic of one of the abandoned cottages. Sunlight seeps through the slats and shingles of the roof. There, between two oaken beams, sits a small wooden box without a lid. He hunches beside it and motions for me to look. Inside: a miniature regiment of tin soldiers. Their paint has faded and their metal is burred in a layer of dust. I want to take them out, clean their faces and polish them until they gleam. One is missing a leg; another, a rifle.
They’re lovely, I tell Pasha.
Pasha doesn’t respond, and I can’t read his face.
Wedged against the side of the box, underneath a stiff-legged soldier, lies a faded daguerreotype. I make out a man and a woman, their faces stern, proud. The man in a silk suit; the woman in a calico print and bonnet. They seem familiar, like the fading vision of a dream I cannot hold on to.
Who are they?
Pasha shakes his head and stares at his hands, at his spidery fingers. Dust motes tumble about him in the splayed shafts of light.
Come, I have something to show you, I say.
He follows me out of the attic, out of the village and past the rowan grove, almost to the lake, still frozen in the final grasps of winter. A freshly fallen snow has blanketed the thinning wood. A hushed silence surrounds us, broken only by the crack of thawing ice that echoes across the lake. I lead Pasha into a small cleft that cascades toward the shoreline. A forlorn hemlock stump rises out of the snow in the middle of this ravine. It is burled and weathered with a fist-sized hollow in its heart.
Here, I say, and point to a reflective glint inside the darkened hollow.
He peers inside the hole, and his eyes widen. I love Pasha’s eyes, how clear and pure they are, the color of the sky reflected on the ice beyond us. He looks at me, then back at my collection, at the buttons, the ribbons, the cameos, and my favorite piece, the one that sits on top, the silver locket on a silver chain. I’ve never opened it, and I like to imagine what lies inside: perhaps a lock of hair, blonde or maybe red, curling just at the tips, and an ivory miniature of a young woman, her lips rouged and turning upward in maternal affection.
Zoe, where did you get these? Pasha asks, his words slow and measured.
I found them.
You took them.
No, they were given to me.
You took them from the Sleepers, didn’t you. You stole them, he says, and his voice has risen to a shrill whisper.
They were presents. They gave them to me.
But Pasha doesn’t listen. He never listens. He’s gone before I finish speaking.
I kneel beside my collection and listen to the groaning ice. A spectral sun strains through a tear in the clouds, streaking them in shades of pink and gold. The edge of night bruises the low hanging sky. From the lake comes another plaintive wail, and I wait for the fall of dark.
I pace the roof of the station again, walking its length with my hands clasped behind me. I never lose my balance and am as silent as a cat. In the distance a whistle howls; moments later the train emerges from the shadows of the wood. It groans and hisses and finally halts beside the platform. The stationmaster waves his lantern about and shouts at the carters to get moving, but these are old men, and they push their barrows forward with stooped and weary shoulders. I see the engineer get out and talk with the stationmaster. A flask is passed between them, then a pipe is lit. Nobody else gets off, and I feel the tightening inside me relax. There will be no Sleepers tonight.
I do another turn along the length of the roof. The carters don’t see me. They keep their eyes cast low as they unload the casks and crates from one of the freight cars. Farther down, I spy a few coach carriages. Their windows are fogged over, but I can make out the shapes of men inside: merchants in fur-lined capes reading newspapers; a cassocked priest with his fingers steepled in front of him, praying or sleeping; soldiers playing dice and rolling cigarettes. None bother to look out of the windows. No one ever notices me.
A wave of dizziness passes through me when I look inside the last compartment. It is dimly lit, but I can tell there are two of them, a boy and a girl. Across from them sleeps a gaunt woman in drab dress. I stop my pacing and stare without blinking. The world in my periphery seems to stretch away from me, distances growing impossibly far so that there’s only me and the sleeping figures. Then everything rushes back, like a stretched elastic band snapping back on itself, and I’m stepping forward, as if pulled by some invisible tether. I drop down lightly onto the wood planks, cross the platform, and slip aboard.
I know Pasha will be angry with me. He will say in that thin, somber voice of his, You promised.
But I cannot stop.
I tell myself it’s just one look. Nobody will know. Nobody will mind if I just watch them. I only want to watch the rise and fall of their chests as they sleep.
The boy leans his head against a rolled blanket. His hair haloes his face in dark whorls. His sister’s face has the same rosy complexion, the same dimpled cheeks. Her chestnut tresses are bound up by a bronze comb, and her hands are buried inside a rabbit fur muff. Her lips—so red, so full of life—move ever so slightly, as if reciting some forgotten poem. Across from them the dour matron clutches a rosary in birdlike hands, her face scowling into her slowly rising chest, and I decide that she cannot be their mother. Her face is too stern, rigid even in sleep, her cheeks too angular: the face of some spinster governess. She lets out a long wheezing exhale and begins to snore. She won’t awaken soon.
I should leave, should return to Pasha.
The girl shifts in her sleep, murmurs something, and my whole body trembles in pangs of anticipation. I know that I cannot resist her, cannot resist myself, and I’m inside the compartment, standing beside the Sleeper, so near, so very near. I want to run my fingers through her hair, to caress her unblemished skin, and I’m leaning close to her, even closer. And then, only then, do I whisper.
She inhales with a long, languid sighing, and I smell the powdered scent of the governess, the rich animal odor of sweat, of fur, of the leathern seats. Her eyes flutter open, and everything seems clearer, more vibrant, the way the world looks after surfacing from underwater. I can make out the grain in the wood paneling, the lustre of the brass fixtures, the chequered patterning of threads in her scarf, even the variegated strands of hair on the furs.
I whisper: Come.
The Sleeper rises. The furs fall about her, and she exits the compartment without a sound, leaving its door open behind her, as if the wind itself has spirited her away. The others sleep on.
We make our way down the narrow aisle of the train and out onto the near-empty platform. In the distance, the stationmaster limps alongside the cars, weaving slightly, making his way toward the engine. We trot across the platform unseen, past the ticket office and into the cobbled street still slick with snow. The Sleeper’s cheeks glow pink as she looks with me at the shuttered shops. The curtained windows of the homes above spill gauzy light onto us. I don’t see Pasha watching. Perhaps he won’t disturb us while we walk. The train won’t leave for another hour at least. I can always have her back before it leaves and brag to Pasha that I can be good. That I don’t need him to tell me what to do.
I whisper to the Sleeper to hurry now, and we make our way past the church and the deacon’s home, past the cemetery and its rimed stones, past the joiner’s house and its velvet curtains. A light snow has begun to fall. The flakes weave and cartwheel then disappear in the shadows between the buildings. Ahead of us, a bobbing lantern lights the flakes like fireflies, and a cowled figure approaches: an old babushka wearing a faded cloak over her skirts. She nears us and raises her lantern higher, casting weird shadows across her face. Pinpricks of light dance in her pupils.
“Who? Who are you?” she asks, her voice quavering, her eyes wide in astonishment.
I whisper to the Sleeper to say the only thing I can think of. “I’m Zoe,” she says, and the truth of her words startles me and turns the woman’s face gray.
“Bohze moi!” the woman cries and holds her hand to her mouth. She staggers back a step, almost collapses onto the snowy curb. Her breath sputters forth in ragged gasps, and she nearly drops her lantern. I pull the Sleeper along with me. The silence of the street swallows the sobs of the old grandmother, and we melt into the shadows of the last few houses.
The cobbled street fades into a rutted track; soon even that disappears beneath a blanket of snow. Our feet crunch deliciously over the frozen ground, and I want to run, to leap, to feel the rush of wind about me. We laugh, and the Sleeper’s voice shimmers across the wooded landscape. The lights of the village are behind us now. Tall pines and firs spring up around us and shelter us from the wind. The snow isn’t as deep among the trees, and our feet move quickly across the sloping downs. Soon we reach the rowan grove and pause amid the circle of trees.
I look up. The snow has stopped; a starry patch of sky peers at us through the branches. We walk in circles about the grove. A northerly wind runs its fingers through the Sleeper’s hair, and she closes her eyes and smiles. Grass spikes poke through our footprints. Young spring shoots, ensconced in ice like delicate crystals. I help the Sleeper unlace her boots and slip them off and her stockings too. A faint warmth seeps in through her feet as she splays her toes in the dry, powdery snow. She kicks her feet, sends a plume of white flying through the air. She laughs, we both laugh, and we dance, kicking our feet high and whirling around. The stars spin dizzyingly above.
Pasha’s voice slices through my reverie. What are you doing? he says. He hovers on the far side of the grove between two of the largest trees. His eyes are shining needle-points of starlight. They’re almost all I can see of him.
We take a step toward him. I tell the Sleeper we must be brave. “We just want to play with her. To dance,” she says.
Take her back, he says. His voice is quieter now, barely a whisper, but even more cutting.
I know that he’s right. I know I should return her. I know I will feel miserable if I don’t. There’s a wetness on our cheeks and I realize that she and I are crying.
You mustn’t take her any farther, Pasha says.
A wind off the lake carries the sound of splintering ice, calling me, calling her. The Sleeper’s breath quickens, and I know what I must do.
“I’m sorry,” we say and push past Pasha. He says nothing, just looks at us with those pale, sorrowful eyes, and then recedes into the shadows. We walk faster, passing beneath more trees, and into the tumbledown clearing that spills out to the icy shoreline. When I look back, Pasha is nowhere to be seen.
Ahead of us the hemlock awaits. We kneel beside the stump, and the Sleeper reaches into the hollow and buries her hand into the nest of ribbons and buttons. The icy metal of the necklace slithers across her palm. We shiver at the touch of all the different textures: the silk ribbons, the corduroy buttons, the tracery of the locket. I help the Sleeper remove the bronze comb from her hair. Her tresses fall about her face, the strands tickling our cheeks. We hold the polished comb in front of us. In it we can see our reflection, our shining eyes glinting—almost glowing—in the starlight. We place the comb on top of my collection, and I don’t want to leave this place, this moment, but another sound of cracking ice draws us forward like a siren’s cry, pulls our limbs, our body, our entire singular self toward the yawning expanse of ice.
We slide across the mirrored surface, and we’re laughing, reeling, almost falling over. The Sleeper shrieks with delight. Her voice peals across the wastes and into the silent trees that line the shore. We run faster, slipping and skidding. Her skirt billows out around us. The clouds shift in the sky, unveiling a gibbous moon. We spread our arms and lean our head back skyward to bathe in its light. Beneath us, shadowy shapes of feeding fish flee before our feet. And we run. Faster, ever faster. A beckoning wind pulls us along, and I feel as if we’re flying.
Ahead the ice darkens, turns an almost inky black, and our feet are splashing through a slush of ice-melt. We kick up a spray of pebbled, icy water with each stride. Fissures form across the thawing surface, and I know we’re close. Three more steps and the Sleeper’s foot breaks through the lake’s frozen rind. The water grabs us, pulls us down insistently, invitingly, deep into the lake’s embrace.
I finally feel alive again.
The world turns blue and silver. I see a flash of scales dart above us, toward the light. I whisper to the Sleeper, Go farther, farther still, and she kicks her legs, and we descend. The moonlight fades about us, but I see even more clearly, my vision growing stronger with a warmth that radiates about us and from within us, a smoldering glow of heat that starts at our fingers and courses along our limbs. We’re almost there. I whisper to the Sleeper, Go faster, but she no longer hears me, and our limbs are slowing. The warmth has faded, consumed by nothingness, as we sink lower and lower until we reach the other Sleepers. Their hair flows like tendrils of seaweed; their tattered dresses are colorless in the stygian dark. They turn to stare at me, their faces so serene, so sad, so terribly alone and abandoned.
Josh Jones lives in Maryland with his wife, two daughters, and small menagerie of mostly tame animals. When not writing, he earns a living as an animator. His writing has also appeared in Bartleby Snopes.
When he was younger, he loved hiding anywhere up high: a tree, on the roof of the pool center at summer camp, or an 80-foot crane a block away from his dorm.
Art — kAt Philbin is an artist based in Los Angeles, CA. She draws inspiration from fairy tales and personal mythologies to create her delicate illustrations with many, many tiny pen lines. See more of her artwork at www.katphilbin.com.
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