A PATH BLURRY — by Ali Hammad
Let me say at the outset that I’m not a sentimentalist. And that is what makes this tale more incomprehensible.
Years ago, on a cloudless day, the sky the color of a sun-washed sea, I left the train station at Behisht with a wet shoulder and a long brown hair. She had rested her head on my left shoulder and said nothing. (Things that are evident need not be worded.) I had a calling and Behisht did not fit in it. She understood that. In the train, the shoulder dried quickly, and I don’t recall what happened to the hair.
Express trains didn’t stop at Behisht. I took a slow train to the nearest city with an airport. From there I flew to the big city whence people, perhaps you included, now know me as a successful entrepreneur.
In the big city, I thought I was done with Behisht, but I had not figured in dreams. Sometimes, when I slept on my left, I dreamt blue. On a blue background—I couldn’t tell if it was the blue of a tranquil sea or a cloudless sky—floated a single strand of curvy brown hair, wave-tossed, wind-tossed. I would run after it to catch it, but my legs would be leaden, the hair much swifter. Each time I would wake up with a wet left shoulder.
The dreams had become a daily occurrence when, after an absence of twenty years, I decided to visit Behisht. I chose to take the train. Two reasons: first, I came out on a train, I wanted to go back on a train; second, more important, a road offers the option of wavering off path, the railroad doesn’t.
When I boarded the express train, the first-class compartment was nearly full. The final destination of the train was a city a short distance west of Behisht from where I planned to rent a car back to Behisht.
The train’s only stop between the origin and the final destination was a place called Oblivionem. I had not realized how popular the place was until everyone in my compartment alighted there. For the rest of the journey, I was the sole occupant of first-class.
I looked out the window. Little stations of mediocre towns were rolling by—Elysium, Nirvanaville, New Heaven, Jannat Nagar, Paradisio, et cetera—places where I couldn’t imagine anyone would ever want to get off.
Then the train passed Behisht. I was shocked. The station was a ghost. The building that housed the ticket office and the waiting room stood no more. On a battered signpost the first three letters of the town’s name had faded away. The concrete platform was still there but had a thousand cracks through which wild grass pushed forth.
I know I shouldn’t have done it, but the lever of the emergency break was within reach and I pulled it. The train screeched to a halt, my car about a hundred yards from the platform. I slung my backpack on my shoulder and got off. The engineer and the conductor were standing outside. “Whatever happened to the Behisht station?” I asked.
“That is an abandoned station of an abandoned town, Sir,” said the engineer.
“Why is the town abandoned?”
“The town was blown away in a tornado fifteen or twenty years ago. The townspeople, I think, chose to move to the nearby city, rather than rehabilitate the town.”
“Were there any casualties?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Sir, but what I do know is that non-emergency use of the emergency brake is a prosecutable offence.”
“I let you go this time, Sir. You seem like a person with a weight on his soul.”
I didn’t know I was that transparent. “Thanks,” I said and started walking towards the Behisht station.
“Where are you going, Sir?” said the conductor. “We can’t wait for you. If the train leaves without you, you will be stranded here.”
“Worry not, my friends, I am a man of means,” I said and kept walking.
The train pulled away, gathered speed, and tore into the horizon where the sun was setting. I looked down the train tracks. They looked blurry; then I realized it was the bleariness of my eyes, now welling with tears. I knew the Behisht that existed in my head had been lost.
In the northwest corner of the platform, bolted to concrete, stood survivor a cast iron bench that I shared with her on the day I left twenty years earlier. I walked up and sat in the same corner of the bench, my right forearm on the armrest. My hand tingled. I looked. Directly under my palm, wrapped around the armrest, was a weather-beaten long brown hair. I disentangled it, put it in my palm, and closed my fist over it.
I was glad I was alone because, to someone who didn’t know me well, I might have seemed soft, soggy—a sentimentalist.
Photo and story by Ali Hammad
Author’s note: Behisht is Farsi for “heaven.”