My sister is posting me a train, piece by piece. She hides minute cogs in the adhesive between stamp and envelope; she traps switches in the envelope’s seal. Every letter is a game, a puzzle, a thing to be dissected. I spend hours unfolding and refolding the letters and the little origami cranes she slips in as companions. You never know which folding or unfolding action will release a coupling–bolt the width of my arm, tangle my fingers in a grid or make me stagger under the sudden weight of an entire door panel.
My nextdoor neighbor, Stacy, single mum, keeper of bees, works in robotics, thinks I’m crazy.
“Why are you wasting your time on this clunky, half–built, outdated piece of junk? It’s taking up most of your front yard. This half–thing is consuming you! Just buy a train from medusa.com. You can buy a kit. You’ll still be able to build it with your own hands. You want to be a craftsman? What kind of craftsman builds when they have only half their materials? She’s not even sending you them in order! You need to let it go.”
Before I can reply, she’s clambered into her share car (60 cents a minute) and is off to pick up Becky from baseball or ballet or something starting with B. Becky only does things that start with the letter B. She failed maths until she was able to reconceptualize it as business basics.
Stacy drives off with a cheery wave. I am alone with my unspoken replies.
This train, this train I’m building is my sister’s train. I have to believe that all the pieces will fit. One day this train will be built, the magnets will be activated, and they will find the right tracks, the tracks that lead to my sister and the hidden country that has taken her.
My sister writes to me most days: letters smelling of lilac and brimstone, jasmine and toasted cumin seeds. I try to write back, but I have no postal address. I float letters on rivers, burn them in grimy back alleys that smell of stale oil and fish heads. I leave them for squirrels and rabbits to carry. I write letters on maple leaves and give them to the breeze.
I do not know if they get through. I do not know if there are censors peering over her shoulder.
My sister’s letters are full of self–centred inanities. She does not ask me questions about my life. She does not express sadness that I do not write, nor does she express delight upon the receipt of a letter. I must assume there is a level or surveillance, real or implied. She must have some privacy, however: she is slowly posting me a train.
The postman, a woman in khaki shorts and a fluorescent motorcycle jacket, rides her motorcycle up onto the footpath and hands today’s letter directly to me rather than putting it in the letterbox.
She smiles and guns the engine, swooping to the next letterbox. I wonder if the strain around her eyes is from the glare or because she thinks I’m odd and doesn’t like me. My letterbox is a faded old thing made out of a cut–up plastic milk bottle bolted to a stake. I look around my ramshackle yard, yellow grass dying in the summer heat where it hasn’t been squashed flat by my precious junk. The skeletal train, its roof patched with tarpaulins, lists to one side; weeds grow through some of the heavier, more difficult parts to place. Fearful of rust, I used to try to take pieces inside, but away from the open air they ooze viscous black oil that stains the floorboards.
I raise the envelope to my nose; it smells of toasted cocoa and roasting macadamias. I ease the flap open, careful to keep the opening away from my feet. In winter, my left ankle still aches where a falling axel broke it; it took me a year to repay Stacy for the medical care I couldn’t afford myself. I think she took out a loan to help me, but never charged me interest. I try not to think about her kindness too much; it makes me feel ashamed.
My sister has written to me on blue paper almost as thin as tissue, crinkling under my fingers. She writes to me about the color of the sky and what it feels like to be completely submerged under water. I rub the rough stubble on my head, remember when we’d pretend to be mermaids, diving deep and swimming towards each other, stopping fast so our heads could be enveloped in strands of hair.
I catch an edge in the folded paper and, wriggling it back and forth, I find several thin sheets of metal that could be roof panels and the top half of a passenger seat. The upholstery is velveteen and matches the paper it came in. I haul the seat up the stairs to the passenger car to where I’ve bolted the bottom half of a passenger seat upholstered in gold. I slot the top half into the bottom half. The colors don’t match, but they do marry. The blue has a warmth that connects to the gold and looking at it, I can imagine I am in a place very far from here.
Next I secure the curved sections of roof panel, ripping away tarps to provide more effective weather protection. I’m standing on the roof, sweating heavily, when Stacy and Becky return from Becky’s badminton lesson. Becky’s lost in her own world, readjusting the strings on her racket until she looks up and sees me. Becky ditches her racket on the side of the path, the wooden frame bouncing in a way that makes me wince, and runs over.
“Careful!” says Stacy, retrieving the racket and crossing her arms.
Becky leaps up the stairs of the passenger car in one exaggerated bound and peers around before shouting up at me through a hole in the ceiling.
“You got a seat!”
“The rest of a seat, maybe. It’s a pity they don’t match.”
“I wonder why that is? It looks nice anyway,” says Becky, flumphing down onto the seat with a satisfying whoomph.
It occurs to me: what if the order in which my sister sends parts is the message? What if it’s a code, and if I put the first letters of all the parts in sequence it will spell out her location or directions to get there or names of her captors or that she loves me and misses me and can’t wait until we can be together again? What if the letters of the parts she sends me is a code, and she’s screaming in pain and I can’t hear her, and how will I remember which piece came first? And maybe I could remember and record it, but how will I remember all of it, and for a time I kept log books, yes, and journals, but as the years drew on I forgot and became inconsistent and is my sister screaming in pain and I can’t hear her all because I was stupid and dumb and don’t have the records to read what she’s been telling me even though all the pieces are here? What if she’s screaming?
“Are you ok?” I see Becky’s face staring up at me, frightened by the clouds that have been chasing my own expressions.
“I’m ok.” I clamber down from the roof, my legs shaking as my thoughts swirl in on themselves. I press my face against the warm metal, close my eyes, and try to gather myself.
There is a shriek from inside the passenger car. Adrenaline spikes through my throat as I run to the steps.
“Come see!” I hear Becky shout and giggle. Laughter, not screams.
I leap up the stairs and find Becky curled up on the new seat, her feet pushed into the join between top and bottom. “I’m burrowing!”
Of course she is. I smile with relief, use the smile to force down the rage. How could she scare me like that?
Becky plays on, oblivious to my distress. I force myself to breathe. Becky on the seat looks like she’s some passenger on the Orient Express. She’s travelling across Europe with frequent stops for sightseeing and sticky sweet drinks in the dining car. Does this train have a dining car? I’ve mapped out its potentials so many times it’s hard to tell what I’ve built and what I’ve dreamed. Sometimes I imagine the skeleton of the train growing and burrowing deep into the ground, half–rotten carriages that will be sucked out of the earth like a tap root, should the engine ever roar into life.
Becky stands on the seat, her feet making dainty divots. She grabs the overhead baggage rack and yanks it hard.
Becky ignores me, sharply puts all her weight into it, and hauls the rack out of the wall. I raise my arm, ready to scream. I expect to see my beautiful wall torn ragged by the bolts and Becky’s face battered by metal, but instead the wall is smooth, as if the rack had never been there at all. I lower my arm, embarrassed, ashamed, glad she didn’t see.
The rack is almost as big as Becky; she doesn’t seem to mind and marches down the stairs with it, almost tripping on the way.
As we exit the carriage I glance over to Becky’s mum, who’s leaning against her car, doing something with her smartphone.
Becky pushes the rack up into the half–built engine room and clambers up the stairs after it.
I follow her.
“You think too much,” observes Becky. She’s right, but I don’t see what that’s got to do with her defacing my train.
Becky squats and gets both her hands underneath the overhead rack in a perfect weight lifter position. She frowns, her tiny biceps bulge (I feel a moment of envy at how ripped she is) and she lifts the rack to the height of her armpits and pushes it up against the driver’s controls. The rack shifts and bends under her pressure and then slides easily, perfectly marrying to the control panel and turning into a series of buttons and one long lever.
“I’m building,” says Becky, primly.
I press my hand against my head. If the parts are malleable and contain as many hidden pockets as the letters, the variables are infinite. How will I piece it together if even the pieces lie to me? I brace myself against the console and try not to throw up. How much of my train is a lie?
“Bulgaria,” says Becky. “Belarus. Beirut. Boston. Beijing. Birmingham. Berlin.”
“Do you know what this train is for, Becky?” My voice is unpleasantly shrill. “Are you guessing at the places my sister might be?”
“Bora–Bora,” she continues, oblivious. “Bristol, but that’s an extra twenty dollars.”
“Can you take me to my sister?”
Becky’s patter suddenly stops. “Take?”
“Drive? Transport? Navigate? Operate this train?”
Becky shakes her head, bewildered.
“Becky! Are you bothering your friend?” Stacy’s playtime–is–over voice winds up through the metal housing.
“No, mummy,” pipes up Becky. “I’m boggling her.”
I squeeze my head between both hands, trying to think of a B word that means travel.
“It’s all right, Stacy.” I say, “Becky’s just showing me where she thinks some of the parts go.”
“She’s not breaking anything, is she?”
“No, it’s perfectly fine.” What can I do to buy more time, what do parents like? “Would you like to come up and see? I think you’d enjoy some of the new additions. Could I get you some tea?”
“Thanks, but we have to get dinner ready. Becky! Come down. I need you to help me with the beef and broccoli.”
“Broccoli?” says Becky. “Yay!
“Can you bus the train, Becky?” I whisper urgently as she twirls around in preparation to leave. “Broom, broom?”
Becky jumps down the ladder, ignoring me.
“Broccoli is a brassica!” she chants as she bounces into the house.
Once she is gone, the engine room feels empty and drained of color. I wonder what sort of kids my sister would have had if she’d had the chance. I would have made a good auntie. I wonder if I will ever get the chance.
I sit hunched against the wall of the engine room for a long time, trying to see what Becky saw. How, how, how did Becky unfold half a control panel from a luggage rack? I push and prod each part of the engine room. I run my fingernails along every surface and inside the furnace, hoping upholstery and pistons will unfold from them and I will have more pieces to rebuild with.
It’s dark when I climb down from the train, and I am hungry and filthy. I fumble through the cupboards in my kitchen, but I am too hungry to eat. Instead I pull down my primary school thesaurus from the shelf and curl up on the only couch in the house. I look up drive, but the synonyms are useless. I play synonym tag, jumping from word to word. I doze off for an hour or two, rouse myself long enough to eat a can of cold baked beans, and fall back to sleep on the couch, the springs digging into my sides are like old friends.
My sister and I moved out of home and in here together, though I am the only one who had the chance to live here, if you call it living. The walls are still bare. She was, is the one with an eye for design. Boxes of posters and ornaments are still stacked on the ground in her room. The dust and cobwebs get thicker every year.
In the morning I shrug out the all–too–familiar cricks in my back and take a spit bath using boiled water from the kettle, an enamel bowl and a cracked bar of soap that was once the color of emeralds.
Thesaurus in hand, I head out to my sister’s train and wait for Becky. I tinker with the engine and move bent pieces of steel from one part of the lawn to another. I graze my shin and set my hand to bleeding as I stumble around, one eye distracted and leaning towards Becky’s house, my ears straining for the sounds of breakfast and the chance the Becky will come outside.
The morning is awful. What kind of person stakes out a little girl’s house?
I can feel my skin desiccating in the sun. I daren’t go inside, not even for a moment: what if I miss her?
“You could always ask.” I whisper to myself. “What, and come across as a weirdo?”
“As opposed to the sort of person that lingers in their yard, gazing at their neighbor’s house with increasing desperation?” I reply.
“Fine, you have a point.” I whisper through clenched teeth. “It’s all terrible.”
I march up Becky’s front lawn and bang on the door before I can let myself think. Stacy opens the door instantly, the surprise sending me a step backwards. Stacy’s arms are folded, lips pursed, eying me critically.
Creep creep, you’re a creep, whispers my internal monologue.
“You’re spending too much time in the sun,” she says. “Too much time working on that hobby has addled your brain.”
I look down at the ground and reflexively count the number of cracks in the tile next to the door frame.
“Come in and have a glass of homemade lemonade,” she says.
I follow her into a white, white kitchen. White walls, white tiles, white stove, a painted white wood table with matching white chairs. I half–expect the fruit in the white bowl to be white as well. I wrinkle my nose at the faint smell of bleach.
I sit. Stacy drops four ice cubes in the shape of hearts into a tall, thin glass. The last cube chips when it hits the others. The lemonade is a pale yellow, almost white. She gives me a chocolate chip biscuit and watches me indulgently while I eat and drink. My sister used to give me sweets and drinks just on a whim. She didn’t know how to bake, but that didn’t stop her. Whenever I eat a burnt ANZAC biscuit I think of her.
“Do you feel better now?”
I nod, not trusting my words. Stacy’s arms are crossed, leaning on the polished white table.
“Are you ready to ask for what you want?”
I feel very little. I am taller than Stacy, but it doesn’t feel like that right now. It is hard to speak.
“Can Becky come down and play?” I flinch as I blurt out the question, anticipating a blow that does not come. My voice is high and tremulous. I look down at my body, half surprised that I haven’t turned into a toddler.
“Becky doesn’t play,” says Stacy, arms still crossed, not at all surprised.
“Can she… can she… be working on the train with me? Can she brighten my day?”
Stacy gives me a half–smile, “Close enough.” She turns her head to holler up the stairs “Becky! Bounce your good self down here!”
Becky barges into the room and smiles when she sees me. I smile nervously in reply, sitting very small, feeling very young.
“How’s the train?” says Becky.
“I don’t know.” It’s hard to speak above a whisper. It’s hard to acknowledge that after all I’ve done, I still don’t know where I’m going. “But I think you do.”
“Outside, girls,” says Stacy, clapping her hands. “But wear hats and don’t stay out too long.” She smears sunscreen on my cheeks, arms, and the back of my neck. She plonks a straw boater onto my head; the straw itches through my stubble. She kisses me on the cheek and gives me an affectionate swat on the bum to get me out the door.
Becky walks slowly up to pieces of junk scattered around my yard, like a big cat stalking its prey “We have to build!”
She pulls pieces of sheet metal out of the ground, hauls bumpers and axles three times her size as if they were Lego pieces, and slides them into place on the train.
“What can I do?” I ask as she carries a stack of wheels to the passenger car.
“Bring me that lever,” she says, pointing to a metal lever the size of a crowbar. I pick it up and, yep, it’s just as heavy as a crowbar. When I hand it to her she carries it one hand like it was a well–balanced javelin.
She props it into a window frame of the passenger car and it melts into a glass pane and a set of curtains.
Becky moves fast and relentlessly, and within twenty minutes we have disassembled and reassembled all of the parts of the train that are visible. The passenger seat cushions have shifted from yellow and blue to a lush velvet green. The train is whole and practically thrums with life.
“Beautiful,” breathes Becky. She has the widest grin I have ever seen. I try to smile in return, but embarrassment and shame make it wobble.
“I just feel stupid, that’s all. I’ve spent years on this and you understand it, you fix it in twenty minutes.”
“Don’t be silly,” Becky crosses her arms and for a moment looks exactly like her mother. “These are just decorations. You built the skeleton.”
I open my mouth to reply, but before I can speak she has jumped through the engine room window. I scramble up the stairs and by the time I enter the engine room, she’s buffing the shiny controls with her sleeve, humming a tune to herself and snorting with amusement.
I want to say something, but Becky’s serenity scares me. I feel like I’m on an empty ocean liner, far out to sea and vulnerable in the Captain’s hands.
“Ask me.” Becky turns to face me. “Ask me to be your best friend forever. Ask me to give up my favourite pair of trainers. Ask me to cradle you in my heart. Ask me anything.”
My heart speaks for me. “Bring me my sister.”
“She can’t be brought.”
“Bring me to my sister.”
She looks into the distance, her eyes are old. “It is a long ride. And you won’t like parts of it.” Then she laughs and claps her hands, her voice returning to a more child–like timbre. “We’ll need coats and jackets and woolly underwear and string and candles and something to eat, and something to eat that isn’t beetroots.”
Becky sticks her head out of the window. “Mum!” she shouts.
“Yes, sweetie?” Stacy’s voice is muffled through two windows and several rooms.
“Can we borrow some big coats and food bars and bottles of juice and bound into an adventure?”
“ofwhofcwhohfrohwoh,” is all I can make out, Stacy’s voice is so far away. I lean my head out of the window and can just make out on the breeze, “Take good care of them and don’t spill anything on your clean clothes and only spill on the ground what the ground will take.”
“I promise! It’s a bargain!” shouts Becky. Clothing appears in a neat pile at our feet and we pull it on as if dressing for a day of sledding and snowball fights. Outside the sun is a baleful yellow orb.
“Ready?” asks Becky.
“R… wait.” My eye catches on my letterbox, the faded old thing that my sister and I made together.
“If we leave, how will my sister’s letters get to me?”
Becky rolls her eyes. “What makes you think I’d know?”
Becky shakes her head and laughs.
“Just a minute,” I wheeze. I go into the house and grab a stack of clean printer paper.
I am leaving this house now. I have stayed here for so long, but now I have to go. I have to leave if I am to find you and I don’t know if I’ll be able to return.
I’m frightened and happy and have a friend who can help me. I don’t know what I’m stepping into, but I do know it’s time. I will write to you, keep writing to you and hope that my letters reach you. I don’t know if your letters will reach me, I have a feeling they won’t. Becky says it’s a long journey and a cold one, but I will come for you, I promise.
With all my love.
I kiss the envelope and slip the letter into my own letterbox.
“Ready?” asks Becky, her voice a squeal of excitement.
I nod and climb up into the engine room.
“This is your control panel,” says Becky in cross faux–grownup tones. “You should know how to operate it.”
I gaze at the vast array of switches and levers. I push a big red button. I feel the thrum of pistons engaging, the crackle of magnets switching on and seeking. The train roars into life and pulls itself from the ground.
Becky puts her small hand in mine and I do not flinch. The train hums and snarls and I do not know if it will hurl us into the sky or plunge us into the ground. The train surges forward and shatters the letterbox. Pain ravages my chest and I hold Becky’s hand tighter. The last letter spirals up and away, and we follow.
© 2015 Liz Argall and Kenneth Schneyer