(short story, written summer 2021/1498 words)
When someone asks if I’m in a relationship or not, I always answer: “Of course, I am.” Usually, as a sign of acceptance, the person pats me on the shoulder with the following question: “So, how is it?”
“It’s demanding,” I sigh.
My understanding interlocutor winks and coughs, or sometimes an unexpected alien laugh escapes his mouth. At this moment, I lower my eyes to the floor and throw myself a pensive, tired look. My opponent is satisfied and leaves me alone. Something similar happened to me at the train station near the Ibis village, but not quite…
This event took place during my last visit to the old family house, or rather, it began there. The local station – a cement podium with a dazzling variety of trees and flowers – was abandoned because the Ibis village, where I grew up and where my parents lived until their last breath, was gradually disappearing from the face of the Earth. As far as I knew, there were only forty houses left. It was located five kilometers from the railway station, and only one train made a stop on working days. As I’m sure you understand, because of the lack of passengers, only on some rare occasion could one see more than two people at the station at once, so every time I waited for a train, I was glad to have company.
That Friday evening, when I turned off the sandy path, moving closer to the platform, I noticed a woman of about 50, dressed in a long brown coat that fell below her knees. She put her heavy bag on the bench, raised her face to the cold sun of September, and sighed. A wild piercing wind suddenly broke off on the platform, out of nowhere. The woman shivered and took out a green knitted scarf with red flowers from her bag. I jumped up to the terrace, walking closer, perhaps in the hope of striking up a conversation. I stopped near the bench, studying the darkening sky and the birds chirping inside of the bushes. Birds seemed indifferent to my arrival, focusing on the chat about insects or the discovery of their next meal in the grass. I approached the edge of the platform, nervously glancing to the left, then to the right – emptiness and the echo of the wind greeted me from both sides. I turned to face the woman who stood right behind me and, stepping closer as if by chance, spilled out the question straight into her face: “Did you come to visit someone from the village?”
The woman glanced at me with suspicion and, without answering my question, scoffed in response: “Look, what a curious one… Yes, from the Ibis village. I came to check on a drunkard…” She paused and explained, “I mean my husband.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I went to the edge of the platform again, restlessly putting my thumbs behind my belt and tapping my fingers on my stomach. Still uncomfortable from the end of our previous conversation, I said: “Two minutes only.”
The woman chuckled: “And when has it ever arrived on time? I guess you don’t visit Ibis so often…”
“Well, you are right. Not very often,” I confessed. “I came to visit an old family house. My mother died last year, and I couldn’t find the time or desire to sell it. It’s a long journey from the place where I currently live: half an hour by bus, then forty-five minutes by train, plus, I have to walk almost five kilometers, but what can’t be done to get back to our warm childhood memories, right?”
My remark made the woman take a closer look at me.
“Are you married?” she suddenly asked.
I was not ready for this question, so I slowly replied, or rather mumbled, “Something like that,” implying ‘yes.’
At that moment, I heard the clatter of the wheels in the distance and sighed happily – it seemed I would not have to continue our dangerous talk or explain to her the details of my false marital status. I helped the woman with her heavy bag, and, having entered the carriage, we decided to sit down together to continue our acquaintance. I was hoping that she wouldn’t return to the question about my wife, but she had a completely different opinion.
“Tell me about your family.” She relaxed, expecting my response, and enjoying the dancing beauty of the hills behind the window. “ Please, the trip is long. I want to hear a happy life story. You can’t even imagine how much I want to know about your joy, the positivity, the peace…” She smiled and looked at my pale hands and freckled face.
I knew that I could not offer any kind of positivity but continued to lie. Don’t get it wrong; I was never a liar. And frankly speaking, I was married after all, but to my ornithological hobby.
I could not stop and destroy her trust. My remarkable, many-sided, blessed family life made the woman’s eyes shine; in those minutes, she was ready to forget her own pain, sadness, and drunk husband. A mournful melancholy surrounded this completely ordinary woman, and I couldn’t help but wonder what her life was like: did she travel to Ibis every week? Is she separated from her husband? If so, what keeps her visiting him? Does she have children? How big is her family?
I got more air into my lungs and started to describe my non-existent wife. I must admit, it was the easiest part: I simply imagined my fellow friend of many years, the bird of rare simplicity and exceptional beauty, the Indian parrot Slava. I closed my eyes, visualizing her peculiar colors, unexpectedly silvery-blue innermost wing feathers, the darker neck, almost red, glowing like volcanic lava amidst a mass of brilliant green camouflage. My newborn wife suddenly grew strawberry-pink hair, long and soft, which she swung like dragonfly wings when she laughed at my funny jokes.
What? Of course, I could tell jokes. Here’s one – about a plastic replica of a shiny dinosaur that lived at the back of our yard after it saved my life from the car crash. The light bulbs installed inside the scary statue also rescued me from the boredom of the coldest winter two years ago. Or here one more – about the discovery of a hungry frog (with the mouth of a whale), who enjoyed the taste of my shoes, and no one knew why.
In a single moment, I became a flower fanatic and a wildlife lover. I blushed and expanded my fantasy by creating six curious kids, the delight of my life: sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, depending on the season, place, weather, and food.
I thought that my new female companion was going to stop my exhilarated speech. Only one word of doubt would effectively kill my vulnerable imagination, but instead, she pointed out that she could see in me her father, who had raised her sister and two more siblings on his own. The turning point of our conversation was recognizing my family as real and the concept of the kind-hearted dad as true. These facts and many more of a similar style were enthusiastically shared with the sleepy travelers around me.
“Marriage is a world of wonders, something between dancing with fireflies and calming down sharks.” I tried to joke. The polite laughter in our railway carriage quickly stopped – we had arrived at the Central Station.
Two months later, the same woman walked by my family house in the Ibis village. She stopped by a frozen gate, visibly upset, watching the icy, lonely place, waiting for me to start my explanation.
“I’m disappointed by your family situation,” the woman said. “I was saddened to hear you lied… At first, I couldn’t believe it – your tale seemed too convincing, but then I realized that your birds rely on you; you are their navigator and family. And it made perfect sense.”
I knew I was caught. I hiccupped, feeling too stressed to produce more lies. Hot, fat snowflakes fell on my face as I stood on the porch, absorbing her message: how she spoke about me with her old friends in the village, how surprised she was to find out that my wife with six children was only a deception. In the end, she shook her head and left.
I maneuvered my way through the old bushes, with her words still spinning in my mind, but it was too late. By the time I stepped outside, she had disappeared into the cold velvet path of winter.
Over the next few years, I felt rather oddly when people asked me that question again: are you married? I didn’t know what to say. I could lie easily, but each time, looking around, I sensed the presence of that woman from the railway station – the mother nature that followed my most concealed thoughts, frightened by the next perfect lie.