by Jonas Knutsson
Strangers on a Train meets The Wolfman.
The tawny plains of Lombardy unfold in my window, billowing in the middle of the serene solitude of my train compartment. The land of Virgil and Horace, a miniature Ballantine’s in my pocket and the lulling chug of the engine. Harsh shouts ring out from down the corridor and break my reverie. At the moment the distant argument in shrill French only serves to underline the Paradisiacal state of my surroundings. So far from the negotiations of the outside world, I’m content, happy.
The voices grow louder. No Italian argument this, as it’s conducted with more vehemence than passion. The anger rises in volume and intensity. Then the gabble recedes again. Adam is back in Paradise.
I cannot help admiring my own dexterity as I duck when the figure bursts in and throws her tattered suitcase of many colors just above my head, missing my nose by an inch. With equal ferocity she throws herself into the seat opposite me. It’s always struck me as a somewhat prissy exaggeration to say people are “fuming” when they sport a pout or find themselves engaged in a relatively civilized sulk, but the bone-thin girl in front of me is Lizzy Borden hare-hopping mad, fuming.
Compared to the Conductor who storms in the fuming girl is an oasis of calm. On the verge of bursting out of his small frame, his tiny mouth would be foaming were it not dry with fury. The plains of Italy have been replaced by a scene straight out of Molière, my Ballantine’s Italy taken away from me and replaced with Comédie française histrionics.
The weapon of choice in the shouting match seems to be some sort of primeval French, the vocabulary far removed from that of textbooks, the cassus belli a ticket, abuse, and not giving a hoot about other passengers. The reply has something to do with the man’s stature and the nature of fascism.
“La discussion est finie.” The Conductor whisks out some sort of pad, writes up a fine more exorbitant than that of the Versailles reparations, hands it to the girl with pomp and ceremony like a surrendering general relinquishing his sword, and bolts out. For some reason the train compartment’s inside panes are not shattered at his slamming retreat.
The girl glares at me in careful appraisal as she crumbles the ticket and throws it on the floor. Am I under suspicion of being in on the fascist conspiracy? We look at each other, two stereotypes, I the perennial tourist in my plaited garish jacket, she tricked out like one of those gypsies in the Tintin comics.
A flowing dress reminiscent of Esmiralda’s in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, red headscarf, grimy shawl, the angular raven-dark features of her Romany ancestors. Through my mind darts a vision of her sitting at the feet of Maria Ouspenskaya in The Wolf Man, learning her dark arts.
The girl conjures up some sort of outlandish flask and takes a swig, extinguishing the flames in her eyes for the moment as she gazes at the galloping fields of corn, my galloping fields in my train compartment window.
As I try to recapture my flowing fields with my eyes, another intruder breaks the fragile state of harmony established between me and the gypsy girl, this one dressed in black from head to toe, her pupils black as thunder. Everything about her is round, her face, her figure, her eyes. The whiteness of her skin offset by her pitch-black attire, she appears pre-Rubinesque, medieval. Without further respite, a duet in that primeval French breaks out at full blast. The words sound as harsh as before but at least the altercation has a tinge of familiarity to it, of a shopworn resentment.
To my ears the new argument revolves around which one of them started the old argument and who starts arguments in general, both girls seeing themselves as an arbiter of peace and loyal steward of an unruly friend. How I long for the fields and silence of yore.
The whiteness of her skin protruding through the holes in her blacker than black sweater and slacks, the newcomer shoots me a lazy look and burps loudly. Without taking her eyes off my scenery, the thin one tells her she lacks manners. In their attire, manner, words I have yet to see anything that could remotely connect them to the last three centuries. Then Esmiralda lets out a burp and the one clad in black starts in on her without further ado.
The fortune-teller smiles at me in a way indicating forbearance of long standing towards her friend. “Mais je suis plus discrète.” After about two seconds of blessed silence, the granddaughter of Maria Ouspenskaya finishes her appraisal of me:
“Vous êtes très calme.”
Five minutes ago her assessment would have been spot on. Oh, how I long for the pristine state of my train compartment, the sweet silence. Etiquette does not permit me to draw forward my miniature of Ballantine’s without offering some to the ladies and some long-forgotten pagan deity, protector of drunken youths and wine, whispers in my ear they’ll accept and I’ll be left with three drops, at best. To my irritation I find myself growing insatiably curious about her demoniac hooch. The deity confides to me that after one sip a gajo like me will be swinging from lamppost to lamppost.
As if by way of reply to my musings she embarks on a tangent about Bob Marley while the one in black appropriates the bottle with the witches’ brew, guzzling it down in long selfish swigs.
“He sings about the race, the rat race. The black man. The white man hating the black man. That’s the rat race.” She sounds like Maria Ouspenskaya when she switches to her Romany English. The last drop of the nectar flows down the selfish one’s pale chin. Will it keep her from turning into a werewolf at the next full moon? Has this concoction embalmed the two of them in this state for the last millennium? My cornfield swept away from me, my own miniature quarantined in my pocket, the delicious chugging of the engine drowned by the lecture on Rastafarians and the rat race, I yearn for all the empty, quiet compartments on the train.
At the end of the lecture Maria Ouspenskaya shoots her funeral-clad companion a satisfied glance of completion. Round face meets angular one. With sullen incomprehension her companion looks straight at her and lets out a resigned sigh. Maria Ouspenskaya is in love with me. As all the wonders of Italy roll past me, the terra nostra of Virgil, Horace, Michelangelo, Ciccolina, I’m trapped in a train compartment, inundated with indecipherable gabble in some sort of medieval French and about to become a sex slave at the back of some dark gypsy caravan, doomed to wander the earth thus till the end of time.
The Behemoth comes in first. Almost two meters tall, determined to finish the job of breaking my nose as his hefty rucksack whirrs past my face. His diminutive traveling companion bears a disquieting resemblance to Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man frozen midway in his transformation from man to werewolf. As much as I long for the Teutonic pleasures of soulless Milan, I’m getting off at the next stop, be it a village, hamlet, or cliffside hut.
The Giant inspects the gypsy girls and asks without introducing himself:
“Where you go?” The drawn-out Italinate consonants give the question a vaguely existential ring. Quo vadis?
The little werewolf sits beside me, thrusting his ample luggage all over the place. I’m reminded of the cabin scene in A Night at the Opera where the ocean liner cabin is gradually filled floor to ceiling with a never-ending stream of intruders.
Again the Behemoth addresses Maria Ouspenskaya. “Where you stay tonight?”
The furry one steals a nervous glance at the witch beside and appears rather taken aback when she flashes a smile at him. I slip out the miniature and finish the Ballantine’s in one gulp to celebrate the Wolf Man’s consternation. Better Wolfie than me.
“I don’t know,” the gypsy girl answers with much knowledge in her tone.
“You can stay with us, for tonight.”
The gypsy girls say nothing. At the next stop they all get off in silence. My days as a gypsy sex slave seem to be at an end.
The cascading fields turn murky, their amber rays fading. The Ballantine’s warms my heart as the plaintive murmur of the engine falls into rhythm again, lulling me back into my vacated Paradise.
Jonas Knutsson is a filmmaker, journalist, and translator. He holds a BFA in film from NYU and a BA in classics and English literature. He’s currently putting the finishing touches on his book Satan’s Mercies – The History of American Film.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.