The tall corn stalks stirred in the breeze on the calm August afternoon, and the yellow-headed sunflowers bent gradually towards the west, blithely ignoring the passing train. The sun in its deep blue sky warmed the ripe fields.
The girl sat alone in the train compartment. She put her thin hand to her forehead, then gave a long sigh as she slowly massaged the bridge of her nose. Her short-sleeved summer dress was faded and worn. Dropping her hands to her lap and crossing her slender knees, she turned her head to look out the window and gaze past the scenery, fixing her eyes on some point beyond the horizon. When the train lurched to a stop, she still hadn’t changed position, nor did she move when the sliding door of the compartment jerked open and a pair of busy heels tapped their way to the seat across from her. The train’s wheels shrieked back into motion and the door slammed itself closed with the first forward heave of the car.
“Tickets, please,” barked a voice from down the hallway. The girl finally stirred, stretching her legs and slowly bending her body away from the window to retrieve her purse from the seat beside her and fish through its contents. The prim old lady sitting across from her in a neat gray suit did the same. The conductor, a brusque, balding man, slid the door halfway open and stuck his head in to repeat his request. When he saw that the women had produced their papers, he stepped into the compartment, snatched, punched, and returned the tickets, and then without looking at the two women again, exited the compartment.
The girl sagged back into her seat and resumed her unblinking gaze through the window while the old lady produced a pair of knitting needles and the green tangle of some unfinished project. Sitting perfectly upright, she began to knit with quick competence, raising her eyebrows to peer at her work over her glasses. The insistent clacking of her needles matched the rhythm of the train wheels propelling them forward.
Outside, the brilliant blue September sky paled just a shade and the sun lost a degree of warmth. The girl shivered.
At the next stop, the old lady neatly packed away her knitting in a large black purse, stood up with the same upright posture with which she had sat down, and left the compartment. Outside in the fields, the ears of corn browned and dried, and the heavy sunflowers drooped even though the sun was still high in the sky.
The train lurched back to its slow chug as two new passengers entered the compartment. A middle-aged man dressed in a dark suit sat down on the edge of the seat across from the girl and perched his briefcase on his lap. He glanced at his watch, then out the window, then at his watch again. He drummed his fingers on his briefcase.
The other passenger, a boy of about fifteen years dressed in faded black jeans and a worn leather jacket, had earphones on. The beat of his music pulsed in rhythm with the wheels of the train as he slouched down on an empty seat, closed his eyes, and sprawled his legs across the compartment.
His stupor was interrupted by a harsh voice. “Tickets, please!” the conductor barked again, inserting his head through the half-open door and slipping in when the new passengers had located their tickets. The conductor punched them and left without another glance, letting the door slam shut behind him.
The girl slid her tired eyes from the now-razed fields to her lap where her hands rested. Her thin fingers, woven together, lay there motionless. Her face had paled to the same colorless shade as the sky that roofed the grassless fields below.
The boy resumed his slouch as his music banged on, and the man periodically opened his briefcase and shuffled papers around, then clicked it closed before checking his watch again.
Thunderclouds had gathered by the time the train stopped again, and the man in the suit jumped up hastily and exited the compartment. He was replaced by two younger women, perhaps in their late twenties, who chattered incessantly, nodding their heads and flapping their hands to punctuate their speech. They sat down in two adjacent seats, facing each other at an angle so their knees touched as they talked. Their shrill gabbing beat at the silence until the renewed persistent chugging of the old train enveloped their voices and matched the rhythm of their flapping and nodding.
The rain began to beat at the window and run down from the roof in rivers and still the women chattered and still the boy’s music banged. They were interrupted only by the conductor, who again barked his demand through the half-open door. He stepped in when the women produced their tickets without pausing in their conversation or looking at him, then left immediately after punching the tickets.
The empty, grassless fields outside were now lakes of mud, and the trees that lined the tracks were bare of leaves, exposed to the wind and rain. The girl sighed and gazed out the window again past the fields. Her breathing gradually became more erratic, sometimes short puffs, sometimes long exhalations. She closed her eyes and leaned back into her seat, shivering in her thin dress. Her skin was almost transparent now as her fragile body weakened.
When the train stopped next, the October storm had calmed to a light November rain and the water now caressed the window more gently. The two women stood and left the compartment together, still chattering and nodding, and the boy, with great effort, launched himself to a standing position before staggering out, taking his music with him.
As the train resumed its course and the girl remained alone again in the compartment, the only sound was the throb of the wheels and the patter of the rain on the window. Outside, the sky whitened and the rain gradually quieted to a gentle snowfall, covering the muddy fields and the naked branches of the trees. The girl, no longer shivering, sagged lower into her seat. Her erratic breathing slowly calmed, then faded as the snow settled cleanly on the silent fields.