When my first wife died, I told my father I didn’t think I could ever love anyone again. He, in turn, out of habit, I suppose, must have told my Grandfather Edwin. My grandfather was older than old, and very senile. He could still walk about and speak a few sensible words, but otherwise he didn’t really exit at all. Occasionally I spent the night with them –my father, my mother, and Edwin – to extend the visit, and be with them just a little bit longer. Because I was very lonely.
Early one morning – it could not have been five o’clock – Edwin ghosted into my room and lay something on my chest, already heavy with grief. Then he brushed a boney hand over my forehead and sailed away, vanishing into the pre-dawn darkness, like a ship of sail setting out to sea.
At that point, he had me wide awake. I turned on the light and found he had given me a volume of a diary, bound in leather and brittle with age. A faded maroon ribbon marked a page that was dated September 18, 1925. The script was a tired black ink, the small careful flowing script of the mining engineer that he had once been. I squinted my eyes, furrowed my brow, and began reading.
“Yesterday was grey and rainy. In Belgrade, long before any sign of dawn, holding my breath against the combined bite of brown coal and unclean steam, I boarded the Oostende – Istambul Simplon Express, and stumbled immediately toward the dining car. The train was beginning the second or third day of its run north, I was not sure which. I was only hoping that its supply of thick dark coffee had not been exhausted.
There was only one passenger sitting in the dining car. He was a man like me in his middle years. He nodded immediately, with a friendliness that two solitary travelers sometimes grant each other, so that I continued in his direction, shaking out my raincoat as I went. I hesitated, as if the possibility existed that I would sit at my own table, next to my own dark window. But he gestured at the seat across from him and in an accented German – on the assumption I suppose that I was on my way to Berlin – said, “Sit here, my friend, and we will wait for the dawn together.”
The night waiter brought me my dark, thick Turkish coffee and sweet Greek rolls. My new acquaintance, a Hungarian and by coincidence also an engineer, continued with the second half of a bottle of a good German Riesling. We talked about our children, our careers, our youthful dreams, and as the first grey of dawn revealed the dark hills on the left side of the train – with the help of a second bottle of the German Riesling – we moved on to the most painful loves we had ever known.
His was a seventeen-year old beauty who was a gifted painter and was bound for art school in Budapest, and was the kindest, sweetest, most gentle and joyful person he had ever known. She had begun coughing during their encounters, in secret spots known only to them, in the meadows and woods, and as time went by, she grew paler and paler, lost weight, and in a year was dead from tuberculosis. After they buried her, on a brilliant Indian summer day, at the side of a quiet lake, in a clearing surrounded by ancient beech trees, her mother led him back to the house and indicated a large flat package that Sophie had intended him to have.
He returned to the university on the night train and sat down in his small student room. He placed beeswax candles, two of them, one on each side of the package. When dawn came many hours later, he carefully removed the common string and thick brown paper, and found a portrait of himself and Sophie, together – golden, young, and glowing in a way that kept him staring, until the first rays of morning sun rose up and flow over the edge of the frame.
“Just the way the sun has found our table at this very moment, my patient friend,” he said.
At that, the conductor entered the dining car, came half way to the table and said somewhat conspiratorially, I thought, “We’re here.” My acquaintance stood up, left a large bill on the table, gathered his coat and small canvas traveling bag, shook my hand graciously, and left the car. The Soplon Express slowed, shuddered almost to a stop, then immediately glided forward again, accelerating, as smooth as the smoothest European technology.
From the window next to the table, on the left side of the train, I saw him descending on a path toward a village with an onion dome church, some distance below the level of the rail bed, still un-touched by the sun. On the trail, climbing toward him, I saw a lovely poised woman reach both hands out to him, then hold him in her arms. Two children held his legs, one on each side. And while the angle of my view still made it possible, and by learning forward and pressing my head against the far edge of the window, I saw him turn and wave at me, with the same cordiality he had offered me when I entered the dining car, in that cold dark period of night before dawn.”
I turned off the light and closed the diary. In the grey light outside beyond my window, I could see Edwin standing motionless in his pajamas, barefoot, where it must have been quite cold, staring at something he appeared to be seeing. Each time that day, when he drifted by, he stopped and turned toward me and raised his bushy white eyebrows, as if asking a question. And each time I nodded my head and said, “Yes, I think I understand. Yes, I think I know why.”
A week later, he lay down and died, out on the lawn, in the same spot, in the cold of the early morning. They closed his eyes, but it took some time before they could make him lower his brows. For a while, I thought they had been raised for my benefit. But as the years have gone by, I have come to think that, in the moment, his brows might have been asking a different question, one directed toward himself, or perhaps toward someone he had loved, and still loved – first during his life, then right on into that long period when he no longer existed, but had not yet stopped living.