asleep on trains
A plume of smoke and steam dispersed like ripples in the sky as the train trudged through the sea of gold and red and fading green. There was a smile on Amelia’s lips as she leaned toward the window, her breath wet and clouding up the glass. There was a look of familiar wonder in her eyes—and that smile. It crept into Paxton’s being and grabbed his heart in a handful.
Her eyes mirrored his. But his mirrored her.
She was viewing this for the first time—this glorious avenue. There was a seed being planted in her. But there was a tree, already growing from him. A tree that now twisted and moaned inside him at being so close to this place again. And this time, so close with her.
“It’s beautiful," she said.
He smiled. “Yes,” he nodded. “It is.”
Eventually, and as he knew she would, she drew back from the window with a shiver and leaned against him. She rested against his shoulder, but her eyes reached up to his in the way that made the corners of his mouth stir upward.
You must understand that people like Paxton wear their souls in funny places—on their sleeves or on their fronts, or waving over their head like flag, or out in the open like a handkerchief to a coughing stranger. He wore his on his hands. But he tied it down, to the corners of his mouth, so that when one stirred, so did the other, like a shiver from the inside out.
Of course, you can’t see souls. Not with eyes like ours, and not in places like that. At least not in the way that you see trains or trees or window-fog. You can see them in other ways. Emilia saw them when she looked into those eyes, and when those eyes looked back.
If you had asked her why she loved those eyes, she would tell you the truth, almost certainly: “It’s the way he stares,” she would say. “With all of him. Every ounce of him is there. Looking into me.” It was his worst—and best—quality, to be unbearably present. And entirely hers.
“This is where you grew up?” She asked, that sense of wonder not retiring.
Paxton paused for a moment, staring out at the trunks, like the pillars to some ruining fortress, with fire and rain playing in its eaves. “This is where I did my growing up,” he said. “Here. Under the trees, grabbing at leaves. I thought my world ended here, too. But it was just nightfall. And morning came.”
His arm, already around her shoulders, squeezed her a little tighter, and she released that little sigh against his chest. The shiver was secondary.
“You’re cold,” he said, starting to stand. She held onto his coat, looking up with a little smile of her own, holding onto him.
“I’ll be even colder if you leave,” she said.
He slipped out of his coat and pulled it around her shoulders, kissing the top of her head. “I’ll be back in a moment, my love.”
It was a far nicer carriage, that one, than the one that had taken him here first. Paxton slid out of the little cabinet and made his way down the red-coated hall toward the dining car.
The people were sparse, that day—mostly elderly, and mostly in couples along the little tables, in their coats and hats and scarves. The smells of meats and coffee and cinnamon surrounded him as he moved toward the little bar, and the attendant beside it. “Excuse me,” said Paxton, “might I borrow another blanket? For the lady in box 8.”
“Of course sir,” said the young man, disappearing into the next car.
Paxton sat at one of the small round tables, across from an older man made of tweed and gray hair, who traded a very brief smile that parted neither set of lips, as men often do. A passing woman, buried in green and unafraid to show her own teeth, stopped and put a gentle hand on Paxton's shoulder.
“I saw you and the little lady at the station,” she said cheerfully. Her voice was worn and warm and reminded Paxton instantly of apples and the pies that are their glorious byproduct. “She’s a lucky girl,” she said.
“Blessed,” Paxton replied. “We both are. By each other.”
“Just married?” Asked the woman again.
“Yes,” Paxton smiled thinly. “Not a week.”
“I could tell,” she said happily. “You have that glow.”
Soon the attendant had returned with the blankets, and Paxton took them and an acquired cup of hot cocoa back to the box room where his little wife waited. He wrapped her in blankets and sat tight beside her while she warned her hands on the mug.
The silence that hung between them wasn't an empty one. Consider for a moment, a person you never tire of talking to—but consider also a person in whose presence words are hardly necessary. Paxton had such a person. He held her while she drifted off to sleep, rescuing the half-empty mug and holding her sideways on the seat, as comfortably as he could make her.
There were moments when he almost drifted off himself; and there, in that quiet room that is between the waking world and the sleeping one, he found a very old thing that he used to know well. A fear, rattling through him like a flag in the wind. It woke him from that wandering state instantly, and he sat up too straight.
His little Amelia stirred and looked up at him with a hint of concern in her eyes. His arms, still wrapped around her, squeezed a little tighter, pulling her against his chest as though wishing any space between them to disappear entirely, so that they could occupy the exact same space.
“I have this fear," he said quietly, “This hand-me-down-sort-of-fear. It was a cold night, at the end of October. We were alone. Just the two of us, and he had this look on his face…he was stone. I’d never seen him crumble. But he did. And he said to me—Well. He had this fear. And he gave it to me. That you might slip away, someday. And never know that you are enough for me. You are more than enough—that you are everything to me.”
She looked back, not at his eyes but into them, seeing something beyond and behind them. She laid her head back against his chest, trusting herself to his arms. “You are everything that could have ever been home.”
In a few moments, she had drifted off to sleep again.
Paxton sat, staring out of the window at the passing sea of white-framed gold and red and green, the crispness of the cold wind and the blear of fog on the distant hilltops. He could already smell it, already taste the wetness.
Home. This was his. And so was that beautiful little breathing that he held.
Slowly and carefully, so as not to wake her, he dug through the little bag on the seat beside him, pulling out a little red notebook and pen and turning carefully through the word-scattered pages until he came to the place where the paragraphs ran out and only whiteness remained. Hardly moving to do so, he formed the words, dreadfully and gracefully black.
“I think sometimes that I am very complicated. That I am not even understandable at all. But I know, in the same instant, that I am terribly simple—for I enjoy nothing more than simply watching her sleep.
And the joy I feel at seeing her look at this place in the way that I look at her. She has seen even the final bits of my heart, now. But I feel no need to cover it back up.
I never knew the terror I would feel at being entirely known. I never knew the joy and peace I would feel at being entirely loved.”
There is a particular ability among humans—a pattern even—to find a sort of saving in their attempts to rescue someone else. It’s a frail thing. But in a wildly powerful way.
The thing about caring is that it is somehow always the ones who care first and care most who break first and break most. The ones who live in the open are killed right off. And maybe that’s easier of course, because a lifetime of caring? A lifetime of that glorious, burdening pain? Sometimes it’s easier to let the light go out than it is to spend a lifetime nurturing a candle.
But the thing about caring is that care is like a shield—you carry it around with you, and you shield whoever you can, all the while your arms get tired and your back starts to ache and you wonder why this has to be the way it is. But then you see—you learn to see the looks in the eyes, you get used to the burn in your shoulders, and then you almost love it.
To be honest, I really had hoped to stay out of this story because it isn’t mine at all. But I don’t think that I can now. Because I’ve tried so long to understand the difference between dying and loving. Alone, you are the sum of your whole life—all that is within you. When you love, when you are truly overtaken by it, you are in a moment separated from all that you’ve known—and thereby everything that has made you. And you are standing, then, before the entirety of everything you’ve hoped for and everything you’ve ever been afraid of.
Love takes many forms, of course. A medicine for the sick. A suit of armor, to hide inside of. A storm, to carry you off. And the shield, so very disinterested in self-protection.
But for Paxton, love was distinct. It had a shape and a color to it (the color of fire). It grew from the tiniest seeds into something huge and sprawling, with arms that tried to hold up the sky. There was a glory in the sweeping frost and the collapse. A beauty in the way things fall—and the way that they stand back up. That love didn’t mind lightning and ice and it didn’t mind being split open or carved into and it didn’t mind nests being made in its hair. Maybe he knew, by then, that he couldn’t shield everyone, that he couldn’t catch every leaf. Maybe he did. But maybe he’d try, just the same. Or maybe he’d shield the one beside him, and hold his shield until he could no more—It would take a very long time.
So Paxton fell asleep on the train—one of those beautiful, miserable sorts of people who never stop caring, going home like a leaf falling to the forest floor. But this time he’d brought her; that soul he held so tightly, that thrilled and delighted him, to show her the place that had made him.
To show her the light in the shadows, to sit beside the fire and look at stolen bits of color when no others existed. To hold her close and watch the evening curtains come. To say goodbye, and wave at the final strokes of the retiring brush. To watch the end of October. And wake up on the other side.