By Raji Singh
(These girlhood memories of Shelva Fiction’s 1870’s Mother Russia: I do not know if she wrote them then, or maybe nearly 100 years later. A lady recently told me she thought she once saw a movie with a similar plot to Shelva’s THE MAN VANISHES. But then the lady vanishes and I don’t get a chance to ask the movie’s title.
Hmm! Did someone hear Shelva’s story, and then tell it, as apt, a true storyteller does, just a bit differently. Maybe it is Shelva incorporating with a cinema scenario, an event she experienced? As I continue my archeo-apology work at the Fiction House, I am sure I will unearth the answer. The inked paper is lab-bound, awaiting the results – is it from the 19th or 20th century?)
* * *
PART I: THE HITCH IS THE CLOCK
The Moscow train station is a clattering hustle-bustle as we prepare to board the St. Petersburg bound. The fishmongers are gone for the day, but a sardine reek lingers that you seem to taste as well as smell. Merchants display their wares – baubles, beads, bric-a-brac. Mama, Brutter Ivan, and Uncle Vanya are here to wish us fair journey. Travelers are Papa and I, along with Blackjack Fiction and his menagerie. Captain Polly perches on his shoulder. Ragamuffin the Cat Boxer is atop the other. Cecily Cobra peaks her silver hood from beneath the lid of the basket he carries. The crowd clears a path for us. Whew what a strange crew we must look – en route to the Czar’s Winter Palace for the International Cat Boxing Championships.
I notice a roundish man in a turban watches me. “No. That is not his headwear,” I tell myself as I squint to see more clearly. It is his oh so long sandy hair, braided as inch-in-diameter rope. Unfurled it would extend 20 feet, I’d wager. He carries a cloth-covered cage hardly bigger than a valise. I wonder what he transports. Our looks meet for barely a second, and then he passes through turnstiles. He steps behind loaded baggage carts. If he’s hiding, his half-globe shape belly, shadow caste to four times bigger than it truly is – onto the stationhouse wall – gives him away. I feel that his eyes find me again, and are boring into me.
I perspire. I hug close to Papa. Nervously I feel around in my jacket pocket to squeeze my good luck charm. “Oh no,” I suddenly shout. “I must return to the carriage. I have forgotten my lucky wolf’s foot.” I have second thoughts. ‘What if he follows me?’ I’m glad when Papa says,
“Ack, Shelva!” He points to Timepiece Tower. “The Hitch? Clock! There is no time for you to retrieve it.”
A vendor hears our conversation. He shouts. “Just in from Siberia. Fresh-cut wolf’s…”
Feh! Not for me. Mine, not really from a noble creature. Only a gnarly root that resembles.
In my excitement about the adventure midst melancholy of leaving home, I briefly forget about the strange man. My eyes water. First time I will be away from Ivan, Mama. We hug. Brutter Ivan is in his starchy, gray uniform of the mandatory Youth for Czar Camp he must attend while we are away. Mama never-ever would go to the Czar’s Palace, even if you filled her basket with rubies and rubles. She’d cross the street and spit on the sidewalk if she saw the Czar in promenade. (Mama, in her always well-pressed housedress is fastidious. No expectorating a woman is she in any other circumstance.)
The train whistle’s shrill blare of ‘All Aboard’ makes me nearly leap out of my new patent leather shoes. I know I’d fly ten feet high from fright, but Vanya, dear, sweet, kooky Uncle Vanya grounds me to the platform with a good-bye clasp and a reassuring kiss to the cheek.
Maybe I didn’t sleep well enough last night, in anticipation of this trip of a lifetime, so I am edgy. But I cannot help but feel my fright is an ominous warning. “Be wary, Shelva!”
Oh, I do so wish I had my lucky wolf’s foot.
* * *
PART II: SHADOWED BY THE BEAST
I wave good-bye to Mama, Ivan, and Uncle Vanya through the open windows of our private compartment. As we leave the station, I look around for the mystery man. I breathe relief. Nowhere do I see him.
So tired, and the luxurious leather seats are soft and comfortable. I doze, using the chair’s soft arm as a pillow. Too tired to answer Papa when he says,
“Rest daughter. We shall go to the dining car. Later, bring you nourishment.”
How long I sleep? I do not know. I dream, at least I think I do. A strange, huge beast is crawling over the walls and ceiling of the compartment. It has the snout of an alligator, the trunk, and claws of a sloth bear. I awaken. This is not a dream; nor gator or bear. It is a beast within a cage. I do not recognize, or maybe am too tired to recognize what it is. Like its master’s belly, its shadows make it appear four times its size. I rub my eyes and look around.
“I am so glad you are awake, my child,” the rotund mystery man from the platform says. He dresses nattily, in a creamy white suit. His cologne is a woodsy freshness of the forest, but overshadowing it is the musk of his shadowy beast. He hovers above me. “It is imperative you answer a question I have for you truthfully, Miss Shelva. It concerns…”
How does he know my name? So scared of man, beast, of being alone with them, I scream. So loud – the glass panel walls rattle. I feel my body go limp. After that, all is blank.
The Conductor, Porter, Papa, and Blackjack surround me when I come to. Papa holds a cup of warm tea so I can sip it. A dozen passengers look curiously from the corridor through the glass.
“He was here,” I say anxiously.
“Who?” queries the Conductor.
“The odd man from the station.”
“Daughter, you never mentioned any such person.” Papa strokes my hair.
I quickly describe the man, precisely, and how his shadowed creature appeared. I look to Blackjack. “You had to have observed him watching me. You notice everything.”
“That is true, Miss Shelva, I do. So I can say definitively. There was no one.”
The Porter nods. His facial ticks: They show that he is recalling the dozens who boarded in Moscow. “No one of that description rides, Miss. I memorize all faces on a trip so I can help everyone best I can.”
“But he’s here. Somewhere. I know he is.”
“Dear child,” says the Conductor, trying to appease, calm me. “A man cannot just – vanish – not from a fast moving train.”
“But I am right. I know I am. He wouldn’t have jumped off. He is on board.”
“Miss Shelva,” assures Blackjack. “Someone you describe would be impossible not to notice. They could not hide themselves. I know a man who remotely fits that description. But he is in far off Lindia. Maybe I told stories about him, and your imagination has made him real.”
“NO! NO! NO!” Mentally I shout.
“I believe Blackjack has solved the mystery of this vanishing man, Shelva,” says Papa. “Rest; and let this very odd person return to your dreams where he belongs. We will stay with you. You will feel better soon.”
In all the commotion, no one has noticed Captain Polly and Cecily Cobra’s subtlest of reactions. Only now, do I. Cecily has edged her hood out of the basket. She sniffs. Captain Polly’s eyes wander about the room. She’s noticing something, sensing something. I know they are agreeing with me, to each other. ‘Yes, Shelva is right. He was here,
‘…and still is.’
I imagine Bird–Cobra conversation as I drift fitfully to sleep.
‘The question is, Cecily. What shall we do about it?’
‘When the moment comes, Captain Polly. That is when we must decide.’
NEXT WEEK: THE VANISHED, RETURNS FOR THE PURPOSES FOR WHICH HE’S INTENDED.
(Join me every Sunday night at the Fiction House, your place for short story, lark, whimsy, and merriment. Meet the many residents as I archive their lives and centuries of adventures. You can read of their origins in my novel TALES OF THE FICTION HOUSE. They are completely different stories. My novel is available at Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.)
Check out on PBS on Masterpiece Theater, The Lady Vanishes, August 18, 2013
©2013 Raji Singh