A train filled with the condemned rolled out of town.
October 20, 2013
A VG Serial: Night Side of Dark
The crowd was growing on the platform. Women wearing headscarves and men wearing any kind of cap they could find to cover their heads, stood shoulder-to-shoulder, looking neither right nor left but straight ahead. Were they skeptical or sullen, or had they simply given up on a life that had given up on them.
They shivered in the chill of the morning as snow banked against their legs. Or were they trembling because they knew what others feared to think about when the nights were cold and dark, and men counted each breath, wondering if it would be their last? They had lost their country, their land, their homes, their dreams, their children, their sons, their soldiers. All they had left was time borrowed and sold and occasionally stolen, and they stood and waited for the end of time, afraid it had already come for them.
Ambrose Lincoln found himself surrounded by sad faces, forlorn faces, faces that had witnessed too much pain and too much suffering, faces that had forgotten how to laugh and had no reason to laugh.
A woman began to sing softly somewhere behind him.
He did not recognize the song.
It was better than crying.
Lincoln looked to see if any of them had purchased their tickets.
Their hands were empty.
They had no luggage.
All they brought were the clothes they were wearing.
None of them had taken a step toward the train.
A shrill voice broke through the silence of the snow.
The words sounded the same in any language.
The echoed down the empty streets.
They spilled across the trees and toward the river.
No one moved.
There it was again.
Like a mother calling her child home as darkness approached the night.
Like a mother who had no idea where her child had gone.
Like a mother whose child would not be coming home again.
The crowd remained motionless.
A woman was praying.
Lincoln did not recognize the words.
He understood the meaning.
“What’s wrong?” Lincoln asked the little man. “No one is boarding the train.”
“They are taking another train.”
“All of them.”
“They prefer to wait,” the little man said.
“Where is the train headed?” Lincoln asked.
“Did you get our tickets?” Lincoln asked.
The little man shook his head.
“No,” he said.
“You won’t be riding this train.”
“I have no reason to stay here,” Lincoln said.
“You have no reason to die this morning,” the little man said. He handed back the three Polish bank notes.
Lincoln arched an eyebrow.
His question remained unspoken.
“Poland may be an oppressed and defeated country,” the little man said in a voice as soft as the falling snow. “But our people are not defeated. The Germans try to crush us beneath the heels of their boots. We don’t crush. In our own way, we will fight back.”
“It’s a battle you can’t win,” Lincoln said.
“If one of us is left to live when the last gun has fired, we have won.” The little man shrugged. “At the moment,” he said, “there are four men and one woman waiting on the eastern bank where the bridge crosses the Vistula River. They have been in place since hours before daylight. The train will not make it across the river.”
“That’s five people,” Lincoln said. “The Germans may have as many as a hundred soldiers, probably more, on the train. Your little band is on a suicide mission.”
“My people are not afraid to die.”
“They don’t have a chance.”
The little man shrugged again.
“They do not expect one,” he said. “The explosives are set to blow when the train reaches the mid section of the bridge. The locomotive goes, and the rest of the cars will follow.” The little man forced a saddened smile. “We will no longer have a bridge,” he said.
Lincoln looked quickly toward the car with no windows. He had seen it being stuffed with men and women and children.
“What about the innocent ones riding in the last car?” he asked. “Are you planning to kill them, too?”
“They are Jews,” the little man said. “Polish Jews like me. They are already dead. They were dead when they woke up this morning.”
“Why aren’t you among them?” Lincoln asked.
“I am of no consequence,” the little man said. “I am easily overlooked and therefore ignored. They let me come and go as I please. I stay out of their way. They forget I am underfoot.” The little man laughed. “Besides,” he said,” they think I am Russian.”
“What do you call yourself?”
“Janika,” the little man said. “The name Janika Eigner is on my work permit.”
“And no once has checked.”
“No one has the time to check,” the little man said. “The people come from all around us. Strange faces. Strange languages. Strange passports. And they go through our little town. They run from the fighting. They run to cross the border. When the fighting crosses the border, they will run again.”
Lincoln heard the whistle blow one more time, clear and crisp in the morning chill, neither a warning nor an alarm but more of a beckoning.
Ignorance doesn’t know danger.
The words rattled around his brain.
The ignorant die first, and the ignorant never knows why.
Lincoln smelled the smoke rising angrily out of the boiler.
He watched the train, creaking and groaning, pull slowly away from the railway station.
No eye on the platform followed the train.
Two guards climbed onto the engine. Another three boarded the last passenger coach.
They were laughing.
It was a good day.
The poor bastards crammed in the coaches were on their way to the front. Men died on the front. Their duty was to guard the train. They would be coming back. They would be coming home.
Death was not waiting for them.
Such were the thoughts of condemned men.
Lincoln glanced at the crowd around him. Nothing had changed.
He saw sad faces, forlorn faces.
The crying had not stopped.
Neither had the prayer.
“They know what’s going to happen, don’t they,” Lincoln said.
“They know,” the little man repeated.
“They didn’t come down to catch the train,” Lincoln said.
“They came to say goodbye.”
The little man nodded.
The falling snow suffocated all sounds.
There were no tears in Pulawy.
There was only agony.
The pain burned deep.
There were no regrets.
Five shadows with no faces had walked out of town before daylight.
Not all of them would be coming back.
Lincoln and the little man stood in the deathly quiet of a cold morning and waited for the explosion.
Chapters of Night Side of Dark will be published on Saturday and Sunday.
Please click the title, Night Side of Dark, to read more about Caleb Pirtle III and his novels on Amazon.