I met a young woman many years ago during an August evening of soft light and liquid shadows. It was during a short stopover heading west on the Trans-Canadian train that ran across the country’s southern portion. I’d boarded in Montreal following a visit with my grandmother in Vermont after a summer travelling the hostel circuit through Europe. I was on my way back for a second year of teaching in a bush village in the upper corner of the southeastern Alaska panhandle. I was twenty-four years old.
Passengers were permitted to disembark for a few minutes while the train was changing tracks in that town above the Boundary Waters separating Ontario from Minnesota. I was stretching on the platform while new and current passengers waited for the train to be ready to board again. The young woman was among those new passengers and stood reading a large book with a satchel at her feet. I guessed I was a little older than her. She held the book with both hands just below her chest that rose and fell slowly with her even breathing. She wore a mauve blouse under a light cardigan sweater, jeans, and sandals. Her auburn hair fell to her shoulders in a mass of curls, and when she looked up to regard the track-changing progress, I could see that her eyes were pale blue. Against that hair and those eyes, her skin reminded me of bleached driftwood. In the muffled light, she was so lovely that I found myself holding my breath.
She went back to her reading while I stood a few feet away stealing glances. A small clattering arose with the track-changing, and she shifted to look up towards it. As she did, her ticket fell out of her book and landed on the platform. I stepped forward and retrieved it for her. When I handed it to her, our eyes met and she gave a small smile. I did my best to return it.
“Thank you,” she said. Her voice was soft.
“Sure,” I heard myself say. “So, you’re getting on here.”
“To visit my sister and her baby, my new nephew.” She smiled again. “It will be my first time meeting him.”
I nodded while we looked at each other. A whistle blew, then the doors to the train slid open and people began boarding.
“Well, then,” she said.
“Safe travels,” I told her.
I watched her pick up her satchel, set the book on top, and carry it with her ticket to the train’s door closest to us. When she stepped up into the opening, she turned, gave me the same small smile, and disappeared inside.
I waited until the conductor’s last call while my heart gradually slowed to re-board myself. I’d chosen an aisle seat in a set of four facing one another in a middle car and had had them all to myself since changing trains that morning in Toronto. But when I returned there, an old man and woman I assumed was his wife occupied the two seats against the window. They were holding hands across their knees and staring outside. As I settled into my own seat next to the old man, they both regarded me with quiet, kind eyes. I nodded to them, and they did the same. The doors slid shut, the train lurched once, and we were on our way again.
We left the outskirts of the town shortly and were soon passing through stretches of pine trees, low bogs, calico meadows, and still, black ponds. It was all as beautiful as I’d heard that Boundary Waters region described. I watched the landscape pass in the stillness of the slowly unfolding northern evening and thought about the young woman. I’d looked for her when I returned to my seat, but hadn’t seen her. I wished I had.
After a while, the old man took a folded newspaper and pencil stub out of his jacket pocket and began to work on a partially completed crossword puzzle. His wife removed a cross stitch frame from her purse and busied herself with that. I watched the telephone wires dip regularly in the distance outside, and my thoughts moved back and forth between the young woman and my days ahead. The route we were on would begin heading northwest in Winnipeg, and I’d change trains again two days later in Jasper for the final leg to Prince Rupert and the ferry to Juneau. A friend from the village would meet me there with his float plane for the short flight back to Yakutat. Then it was another long school year looming before me of beauty, isolation, pristine natural wonder, cold, rain, and snow.
About eight o’clock, the train slowed through a hamlet with a little boarded-up station. At its outskirts, it passed a red clay road perpendicular to it that led like a knife slice for as far as I could see through a dense stand of perfectly straight pine trees. A small boy on a tricycle rode in circles in the road near where it met the tracks. He stopped peddling and watched us pass, squinting with his hand held to his forehead against the last of the sun’s dusty rays. A woman came out on the front porch of a house nearby and watched, too, as she dried a plate with a dish towel. I supposed it was something they did each evening when the train passed. Much the same as I did watching from my cabin window as my neighbor motored his Boston Whaler slowly back into the harbor after checking his crab and shrimp traps late each afternoon.
The train resumed speed. The light continued to fall, and the sky to the west became the color of a bruise. Every so often, the old woman stopped her handiwork to look out at it and sigh. On occasion, the old man would lick the tip of his pencil stub. Except for the regular hum of the train on the tracks, it was quiet.
The evening’s gloaming was all but complete when I straightened suddenly as I saw the young woman approaching up the aisle. She was carrying her satchel and looked directly at me. I felt a flush spread up through my chest. At our seats, she stopped. The hands of the old man and his wife paused, and they glanced up at her.
“The person next to me snored,” the young woman told us.
“So, I’m looking for a new seat. I’m wondering if this one is available.”
The old couple nodded, and she looked at me with her small smile. I gestured to the open seat with my hand.
“Thanks,” she said.
I watched her take her book out of her satchel before storing it on the rack above us, settle in across from my seat, and smile at me again. I was aware of the old couple looking back and forth between us. The young woman flipped the light on over her head, opened the book on her lap, and began reading. A handful of seconds passed before the old couple resumed their work. I sat back as naturally as possible, tried to return my attention outside, and folded my hands together between my legs.
The old man put the newspaper and pencil back in his jacket pocket a few minutes later and took out a tiny deck of cards. He unfolded the narrow table from the arm of his seat so it crossed his lap and dealt himself some sort of game. As he played, he sometimes licked his finger as he had with the pencil before dealing a card.
I asked, “What sort of game is that?”
He looked at me with his gentle eyes and said, “It’s called ‘Go’.”
“How do you play? Is it like solitaire?”
He smiled and said, “Watch.”
He continued licking his finger and dealing cards with a pleased expression. From the corner of my eye, I saw the young woman close her book and watch him play herself. After a moment, the old man looked across at her and said, “So, you want to learn how, too?”
She seemed to blush, glanced at me, then smiled and said, “I guess I do, yes.”
His wife had set down her cross stitch. “He plays all the time at the farm,” she said. “After dinner almost every night. After the evening chores are done.”
I asked, “What sort of farm do you have?”
“Wheat,” she replied. “Near Regina.”
The old man kept playing, but said, “A hundred acres of wheat and some dairy cows.”
His wife seemed to study me before saying, “Are you American?”
“But you’re travelling here in Canada.”
“That’s right. I’m heading back to Alaska. I teach elementary school there in a little Native fishing village.”
“My,” she said. Then she looked at her husband and said,
“What do you think about that?”
He stopped and said, “I think it’s all right.”
“Don’t you get lonesome there?” his wife asked.
I shrugged, but felt color rise up my neck. “Sometimes,” I said. I didn’t intend for it to come out so quietly.
The young woman said, “I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska.”
We looked at each other until I replied, “You should. I mean, I hope you do.”
“What’s it like there?” the wife asked. “And what do you do when you’re not teaching?”
“Well, it’s pretty spectacular when the weather is nice. I like the outdoors, so I fish, hike, kayak, cross-country ski…things like that.”
“I’ll bet you’ve seen lots of wildlife,” the old man said. “Bears, eagles, and such.”
“What’s the most memorable thing you’ve seen?” his wife asked.
“Let me see.” I paused, considering, then said, “I think it’s a mated pair of black swans that wintered last year on a lake out by the ocean. That’s very rare as far north as we are. Unheard of, in fact, according to the locals. I drove out to see them every weekend and often after school if there was enough light left. I’m pretty sure they built a nest back in some reeds. I’m anxious to see if they’ve had any offspring when I get back.”
“I hope they have,” the young woman said softly. When I looked at her, she added, “I really do.”
“That’s a big book,” the old man told her. “What’s it about?”
“Math.” She glanced my way, then said, “Actually, a mathematician, an artist, and a composer.”
“Are you one of those?” his wife asked.
“Not yet, but I study math in college. I graduate in a few months.”
“What will you do then?” his wife asked.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
The old man chuckled and pointed to me. “Why don’t you head up to Alaska and help his students with their multiplication tables?”
We all smiled. “I’d like that,” the young woman said, looking at me. “That sounds pretty great.”
She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. I found myself blinking and turned towards the window again. The old man resumed his card game, and his wife did the same with her cross stitch. Then the young woman slowly opened her book and went back to her reading. It had grown dark outside, so there were no telephone wires or trees or bogs or meadows to see, just blackness and our reflections in the glass as the train rumbled quietly along.
Another half-hour or so passed before the man put his cards away and folded up his table. He turned off his overhead light, reclined his seat, and closed his eyes. A few minutes later, his wife did the same. In the window’s reflection, I watched the young woman tuck the book at her side, take another glance my way, then switch off her own light, recline her seat, and close her eyes. I waited until all of their breathing had slowed into sleep before I went through the same motions. When I reclined my seat, my knees almost touched the young woman’s. I extended them as far as was reasonable, but they wouldn’t quite reach.
During the night, I woke up often to reposition myself and watched the young woman in slumber until I fell back asleep. Twice, when I awoke, I found her staring at me, and I closed my eyes again quickly against my racing heart.
I awoke fully the next morning before the old couple and the young woman and got up to use the restroom as the pink-white light of dawn crawled through the train’s windows. On my way back down the aisle, the train slowed suddenly, and its loudspeaker announced the approaching station stop. Wide prairie stretched outside on both sides of the train. When I returned to my seat, the old couple and the young woman were looking out the window as the outskirts of a town began to emerge. We passed a warehouse, a neighborhood of old houses, then slowed more as we entered as cluster of brick business buildings. The train shivered to a stop in front of a platform with no stationhouse behind it, just a cinder parking lot with a few cars and trucks, and beyond that a traffic light dangling from a wire. Only one person stood on the platform looking at the train: a woman several years older than me holding a baby against one of her hips. We stopped so that she stood just to the side of our window. The train doors slid open.
The young woman stood and took her satchel down from above our seats. She put her book on top of it, looped the strap over her shoulder, looked from the old couple to me, and said, “Well, good bye. It’s been nice travelling with you.”
I felt myself frown and leaned forward. Then she was past me and moving up the aisle to the nearest open door. I shook my head. The old couple and I watched her disembark, hurry the few steps to her waiting sister, and the two of them embrace. They rocked a little together with closed eyes.
The old man turned to me and said, “Listen, that girl was sweet on you, and I think you felt the same.”
His wife nodded. “I saw it, too. It was plain to see.”
I gave a short nod myself. A whistle blew.
“Well, then,” he said. “What are you going to do about it? You’re not going to just sit there and let her get away.”
His eyebrows raised and his lips pursed into a thin, tight line. I looked past him out the window. The young woman had turned her head and was looking through the window at me; what I saw in her eyes was akin to yearning. I stood and clambered up the aisle towards the open door. As I did, it slid shut, the train lurched, then moved off up the tracks. I pounded on the door, but it stayed closed, the train gathering speed. When I craned my neck to see out the door’s windows, the young woman quickly disappeared, then the platform, then another neighborhood of old homes, and then there was nothing but prairie again, amber-colored and waving in the breeze.
Forty years have now passed since that encounter. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think often of her afterwards. I did. And even after my marriage, which was a good and satisfying and long lasting one, I’d think of her sometimes, and always with regret. Now that my wife has passed away and I’ve retired from teaching, I admit those memories and emotions have become more frequent. My wife and I didn’t have children, so I have no family and few hobbies or responsibilities to occupy my time. So, it’s true that I find myself these days thinking of the young woman more often, wondering what happened to her, what might have been. The sense of irretrievability seems somehow to have become stronger with age, more gripping, deepening in my bones.
Those black swans did have offspring when I returned to the village: three small cygnets swimming in the reedy shallows with their parents. Sitting here now tonight, looking out my window at a halo circling a full moon, I realize how wonderful and rare that was. Almost as wonderful and rare as an auburn-haired young woman with blue eyes above the Boundary Waters on a late summer evening of liquid shadows.
photo by Barry Lewis, 1979- “Across the River” – found on Wikimedia Commons