The lady was very agitated. Very agitated indeed. Impatient, frightened, stupefied. She kept looking around her, shaking the rain off her flowery umbrella, which, when not being shaken, visibly trembled in her hand. From emotion. Unpleasant emotion. Finally, she put down her travelling bag next to her seat in the carriage of the commodious 'Blue Arrow' train. She gave the flowery cone of the half-furled umbrella another few shakes before rolling it up completely and laying it with excessive care on the overhead rack, at which she gazed at some length, and then turned her gaze to her luggage. It was not voluminous, but, as the lady obviously was able to gauge at a glance, there was no way it was going to fit on the overhead rack. I offered to assist her:
'Allow me to lift your bag up onto the--'
'No, thank you, it's obvious it won't fit,' replied the lady, flustered, thrusting her luggage under the seat, on which she then seated herself As far as I could tell--I was sitting on the seat opposite her--she was unable to regain her calm, which caused me to remark, likewise with the intention of assisting her:
'You are rather flustered... Is anything wrong?' I asked, obligingly, as well as politely, eager to help in the event of some misfortune.
'Oh my! You don't know the half of it... May the Lord preserve and keep us!' the lady exclaimed, as if waiting for the opportunity to blurt it all out, to release the pressure of the emotions roiling within her.
I looked at her expectantly, since there could not but follow some kind of explication. My fellow traveller stood up, took the umbrella from the overhead rack, unfurled it, and showed it to me.
'You see?' she asked, pointing with the index finger of her free hand to two holes in the flowery cloth of the umbrella.
'Some unfortunate accident--'
'An unfortunate accident, you say? Out of the blue, the umbrella splits open above me, I was on the street at the time, and two streams of water start pouring down on top of my head. Out of the blue! I looked up at the umbrella, I moved the umbrella to one side, but I couldn't see anything that might have been able to rip open the cloth. All around me there was nothing but empty space. But all the same, the holes appeared out of the blue ...'
'Unbelievable,' I said, confused.
'Unbelievable is putting it mildly. Terrifying! Because that was not all: just as I was boarding the train, I heard a short, dull thud, like iron hitting bone. May the Lord preserve and keep us! It was he! He!'
'Forgive me, but who is this he?'
'He whose name must not be spoken!'
'Do you really think that it might be ... he?' I asked, almost in a whisper, realising to whom the lady referred. 'I don't think so ... It's impossible, or unbelievable--'
'I'm telling you, it is he, the Lord preserve and keep us,' said the lady from Jassy (we were on the Bucharest-Jassy Blue Arrow train), making the sign of the cross.
I must admit that the things I was hearing, the expression on the face of my fellow passenger, and the holes in her umbrella had made me feel a chill, had perhaps given me somewhat of a fright ...
'Can't you feel the dripping?' the lady all but shouted, wiping droplets from her brow.
'From the umbrella,' I said, but straightaway I felt droplets on my own brow: looking up, I saw that there was no umbrella above me on the overhead rack.
'It's he! God forbid!' said the lady in a state of acute disquiet. 'It's dripping ... dripping off his ...'
'Off his what?'
'Off his horns, sir, it's dripping! Because he's leaning over us, as he's just come from the platform, out of the rain. Now do you understand?'
Before we had a chance to speak another word, behind me I heard a cry. Turning my head, I saw a very tall young man, six feet six, like a basketball player: the lad was holding his chin in his hand and between the fingers were seeping drops of blood.
"What happened?' I cried, jumping up from my seat.
The young man's eyes were goggling, he looked frightened, and it seemed that he could not find his voice.
'It's he!' screamed the lady. 'He jabbed him with his horns!'
It was not long before all the passengers in the carriage were au fait, aware, appraised, to put it in triplicate: some had picked up on our disquiet and fear, others showed themselves to be doubtful, but even they were gripped by a crawling chill, while others still smiled crookedly, laughed. A young lady with trembling hands held a handkerchief to the very tall young man's chin, who, now seated, looked like somebody of average height.
During the six-hour journey to Jassy, we talked about what had happened, but in the end we left off the topic, because the lady kept putting her fingers to her lips and hissing:
'Shush! Shush! Don't so much as utter his name. It's dangerous. The Lord preserve and keep us!'
Quite some way into the journey, the lady sitting opposite me touched my knee and asked:
'Do you hear it?'
Yes, I heard it: a rhythmic tapping on the window of the carriage.
'He's there,' said the lady, pointing to an empty seat in the row opposite. 'He's there, he's fallen asleep with his head leaning against the window ... It's the horns ... His horns are tapping against the glass! Shush!' my fellow passenger concluded, frightened, like myself putting her fingers to her lips and thereby arresting the cry rising in my throat: 'Avaunt, Satan!' That's what I'd been about to cry out.
The half hour's journey remaining until we arrived in the city on the Bahlui River was to the accompaniment of rhythmic tapping on the window of the train carriage as it rattled along the tracks: short, dull, bone-like taps. The knocking was annoying, obviously. Irksome. Intensely disquieting. It stirred up and maintained our fear. Who would have dared to approach that empty seat, to pat it and say: 'Mister what's-your-name, would you mind not tapping on the window... it's annoying ...' and so on. Who would have had the courage? And so we bore it, until we arrived in the sweet burg of Jassy.
As we were getting ready to alight in the station, my fellow traveller reached up to take her umbrella from the overhead rack, but then she thought better of it and went to the exit.
'Madam, you have forgotten your umbrella,' a voice came from within the carriage, in which only the two of us remained. The lady from Jassy quickly made the sign of the cross, pulled open the top of her blouse a little way, uttered: 'Avaunt, Satan!' and thrice made a spitting sound. In that instant there came the sound of bone striking the upper edge of the carriage doorframe.
'Madam, I thought he had decided to leave us be,' I said, looking at my fellow passenger, who put her finger to her lips: 'Shush!' But after we reached the other end of the underpass and just as the woman from Jassy was taking her bag from my hand and thanking me, I gave a start:
'Look at that!' I cried, pointing towards the entrance to the train station, through which, careful lest anybody see the horns on his forehead, a centaur was emerging.
The lady from Jassy looked. This time she did not make the sign of the cross, but said:
'Well, dear sir, now you can see him, he's not as terrifying as the other one, the unseen one, whose name I won't utter.'
Tall, handsome, the horned centaur set off briskly along the platform in the direction of the northbound trains; that was understandable: there are still a few mythological sanctuaries up north.
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|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
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