By: Han Gagas
(source text: http://id.klipingsastra.com/2015/09/katastrofa.html)
As Astrid got off the train at a small, quiet station, the moonlight was casting a spell on a pair of rails making it look more pale and stiffer. Mercury lights dimmed causing everything to look gloomy. No more than three passengers got off that train and, except for Astrid, they rushed to the exit.
Cold was piercing deeper to the bone, the clock struck 02:30, Astrid zipped up her jacket and sat down on a long chair in the station’s corridor. The shops had closed while her stomach was rumbling. A station attendant briefly took note of her presence and then shut himself out again with a television program in front of the closed ticket counter.
As Astrid did some stretching, a small figure suddenly appeared from an abandoned carriage. The kid’s steps were limping. Listening to her conscience, Astrid approached the kid but she was frightened to death when she met the kid’s bulging eyes. The blacks were almost gone, and the whites gave her a perfect glare!
Her fear was subdued as the distance between her and the child diminished and mercury bulbs shed light on that figure. This kid had a swollen face with a broad forehead, a shrunken jaw and the right hand moving randomly uncontrollable. At all times the kid’s head tilted sideways.
At once, the appearance of such figure drove a knife into Astrid’s heart.
“Excuse me, I’ll help you….”
Astrid slowly helped support the kid to walk, then asked the kid to sit down. The dry season winds blew strongly. The wide, curved roof of the station was creaking. A flock of bats flew, squeaking their way through the silent night, disappeared behind the control tower.
“Why are you going out at night; it’s cold, isn’t it?” Astrid said as she led that kid to take the seat.
The kid remained silent. The clothing was disheveled, torn and musty, and that dirt-covered body gave off a foul-smelling odor. Astrid had to hold her breath occasionally.
The officer then came approaching.
“Where are you going?” he asked lightly.
“I … hmmm, have no idea yet, I think I’d wait for the next train.”
“There is still plenty of time. Oh, anyway, the kid is just a beggar sleeping in that carriage, you need not bother, and it’s enough for you to give some money to buy meal,” he pointed to that kid.
Astrid did not understand what the officer was trying to say, whether he was using the child to extort her or symphatizing with her who remained torn between considering to help and immediately taking care of her own business.
“You knew it?” only those words came out of her mouth.
“Everyone at the station knows, a pathetic kid. We all have to pity on this kid, abusive parents, they just left the kid behind in the carriage. This kid is not just blind, mute but also ….” he stopped speaking.
Astrid did not want to hear what the officer would have to say because it sufficed to just look at the kid. Words can be like salt rubbed into a painful wound, making the pain even more agonizing. She chose to stroke the kid’s hair which was rough like fibers. It must have been weeks since that hair was washed with shampoo. The kid’s mouth yawned displaying yellow and dirty teeth, sending forth a bad, pungent odor, Astrid held her breath, and looked away. The officer did not miss that gesture of hers.
“Oh, of course this kid never takes a bath, people taking pity on the kid just throw food into the carriage and then this kid eats it like a monkey. For this kid, the carriage was like a pen, but that’s what shelters the kid from cold and rain. The kid only goes out when the station is quiet like now. Crowds frighten this kid.”
The officer’s explanation was too much for Astrid, she got bored with those words, she stroked the kid’s hair which felt like she was caressing herself, it felt as if, as a girl, they shared the same loneliness, solitude and anguish.
“Hasn’t anyone tried to help her so far?”
“You may ask such question, but you shouldn’t think to take her away with you. Many had taken her, even brought her to the orphanage, took a good care of her, but she always came back here. Her brain is weak, might have been damaged as well, and thus a lot of people felt they were entitled to insulting and humiliating her. Perhaps that’s why she chose to go back.”
The freezing cold chilled to the bone yet again as strong winds blew, fluttering newspapers and tissue papers all over the place. The station’s mercury lamps gleamed along the corridor shining down on the long chairs lying there in silence, frozen. The cold air began condensing the glasses of the store windows, billboards and neonboxes.
Astrid reached into her pocket, took some money and handed it to the beggar girl.
“Are you hungry?”
The girl nodded, stood up and staggered away. Astrid followed and held her hand in hers.
“Be careful on the street, believe me you don’t need to take her farther from the stall at the end of this station. After she finishes eating, let her come back here, and you better continue your journey!” shouted the officer with a strange tone, no longer sounding polite. This time there was an authoritarian tone in his remarks.
Astrid nodded. They walked down the tracks, toward the bright flickering light from a food cart.
Along the way the girl was bellowing but her voice was like stuck in her throat. Only the “huh-huh” sound came out. Her head always went sideways, and her right hand was moving out of control.
They entered the less crowded stall. There was only a merchant dozing inside. Hearing there were buyers coming in he awoke, and upon seeing the carriage girl, without asking he made a cup of warm tea, took a pack of wrapped rice, unwrapped it and served it all in front of the girl.
The girl’s hands started groping for the meal, found the rice and ate with gusto. Her tilted head was almost sticking to the surface of the table. The fingers of her right hand deftly pinched the rice and put it into her mouth. From afar, perhaps people would see that she ate like animals do. Her face fronted on a direction other than what she was eating, she looked up without expression and quickly had her meal using her smeared fingers.
“You don’t eat something, Miss?” asked the seller.
As if to recover from getting shocked upon witnessing the way the girl ate, without answering the question, Astrid approached the food in the offing, took a pack of rice, side dishes and then sat beside the little girl.
“Hot ginger, please,” she said softly.
In no time the seller burnt a chunk of ginger over embers of charcoal. He turned on his small battery-powered radio, which made a sound of metal scraping for a while and then played a song of memories.
Widuri, lovely as the morning star … my darling …
Widuri, you’re my world my everything … oh my love ….
The seller sang to the tune from the radio. His face began to glow, it seemed his somnolence had gone away. While singing casually, he stepped forth to take another pack of rice, opened it, took a side dish and put it back before the little girl. Seeing such things were just business as usual to him, Astrid came up with a question.
“Does she often eat here?”
“Oftentimes. There are always people taking her here.”
“Including the officer?”
“The old and bald station attendant.”
The seller did not answer that question, his face puckered strangely as if that was unusual, something that Astrid picked up as odd.
“The officer said many people had wanted to take this girl away, but she always came back, back into the carriage,” Astrid pointed to the abandoned carriage which was almost drowned in darkness.
The seller seemed reluctant to listen to her, wearing a wry smile on his lips.
“Is there something wrong with what I said?”
“Ask other people, I’m afraid of being accused of mischief!” he exclaimed while sitting on a chair, his eyes closed, his lips were frozen shut. The air was increasingly cold. The wind pounded against the four ends of the tent, which were tied by ropes to hooks fixed into the floor. Astrid took notice of the girl who was still eating, it seemed that it was her last mouthful, and the merchant just let her finish her business. Perhaps it was already a habit of her to eat two packs of rice. Her hand reached out for the hot tea, and drank a few gulps.
“Are you comfortable living in the carriage?” Astrid asked doubtfully. She did not know whether or not the kid understood, she just followed her instinct to talk to her.
The little girl just responded with a brief moan. Without Astrid realizing it, the kid stood, took a little bow, and smiled, her lips curved something more like a grimace, then wobbled back along the rail.
“Don’t be surprised, young lady, after she’s full up she would head straight back home, she had it memorized,” he said while serving a glass of hot ginger that let off some steam.
Astrid just gaped in wonder, staring at a figure that walked through the darkness. Her back was swept by faint lights from mercury lamps. A pair of pallid rails accompanied her steps which occasionally stumbled as she tripped over railway ties.
“You don’t need to feel bad, the world is cruel indeed, rumor has it her mother wanted the kid to die in the womb, she took a lot of pills, but in fact she was stronger than the abortion pills, she was born in such a pathetic state.”
Astrid remained silent, she found it excruciating.
“Her mother, did she have a reason?”
“What do you mean?”
“Was her mother a rape victim?” Astrid asked. She remembered her own story, she knows that a rape victim may conceive a child.
“No, no. Her grandfather did not approve of her mother’s marriage.”
“Her grandfather? There is still such thing present in today’s world?”
“Yes, it’s still around, you know, just look at that bald officer, he’s her grandfather. Ah …” The old man seemed to regret his talking too much.
“Yes, without him, how can a drifter sleep nonchalantly in a carriage which despite being abandoned still belongs to the station that is managed by an official agency.”
In the distance Astrid saw the officer approaching the girl, grabbing her right hand and leading her to walk along. The mercury lamp closest to them flickered as if it was going to die down. The wind was still blowing hardly, gushing over the tent. Astrid fixed her eyelids, holding her tears that were about to fall.