As I sip my coffee at the station, a loud speaker interrupts, “The 6:30 PM train from Paris to Venice is cancelled.”
My mind goes blank, and I question my ears. But the announcement comes again a minute later, and the news flashes on the electronic board. I’m stranded! After two months of traveling Europe, I’m broke, and every Euro and cent I have is precious! I’ve never been so down and out while traveling in Europe.
My coffee is cold and tasteless now. How can I survive with my meager funds? Stepping out for a breath, the sights and sounds of Venice offer momentary consolation. Venice, you are a beauty!
Back inside, the woman at the information counter gives me a token. Another thirty people stand before me–calm and patient, not a single one shouting or showing irritation. I try to imagine the scene in an Indian railway station, then decide I really don’t want to go there.
Half an hour later, the beautiful Italian woman at the counter calls for passengers whose train has been cancelled. When I reach the counter, she informs me Train Italia has arranged passage to Milan for 9:00 PM.
“And, after Milan?” I ask.
“We should come to a decision on that soon Senor. We understand your problem and are doing everything we can.”
Her gentle smile helps heal my wound, and I respond, “I’ll wait,” with a smile of my own.
“Come back at eight, and I should have an update.”
“Gracie!” I respond.
I move from the queue and the woman behind me rushes to the counter and blurts out something in a frenzy of Italian.
The lady at the desk goes silent when she breaks into sobs and lowers her face to the counter.
Everyone in line quiets and stares at the woman with her head down.
The Italian woman at the desk begins fidgeting. She looks around and calls for her supervisor. Together, they usher the woman to a room.
I leave the station for another breath of Venice, and the fresh air from the canals makes me happy again. Venice is stunning. It’s no wonder that Hemingway spent so much time here to write his novel.
I stop to breathe in the ambiance, then turn as a woman walks up to me, the same woman who broke into sobs at the counter in the station. She seems calmer now.
“I suppose you would catch the train to Milan too?” she asks.
“Yes. That’s my plan.”
I study her face. She’s beautiful, but her are still smudged with mascara and bear the traces of tears.
“The train doesn’t leave until nine thirty,” she complains.
“So, come along with me.” A smile flashes on her face.
“I have two tickets for a cruise.”
“On a gondola! How can I leave Venice without a gondola ride. Come!”
She holds my hand as we ran toward the dock. The boat is untethered and pulling off. We have to jump to make it. I look into her eyes that sparkle with the delight of a teenager, expressive eyes that highlight the beaming smile on her face.
“Who are you?” I ask, amazed with this transformation.
Her smile broadens. “I am Sol, named for the sun.”
A breathtaking pink sunset hovers over the blue waters of Venice as the gondola pushes off.
The Gondola stops at the Venice home of Marco Polo, and tourists flock to take pictures. Sol and I disembark and walk to the house that butts the Grand Canal. She studies it nostalgically, neck curved, expressive eyes glistening. “In my childhood, Pa used to tell me stories of Marco Polo, and I dreamed one day I’d see the world in his tradition. So, I travel when I can, and I’m proud to say that I’m Italian.”
“But Sol is Spanish.”
“That’s because my mother is Spanish. She always had it in her mind to call her daughter ‘Sun.'”
“A beautiful name….”
“But sometimes the sun burns you–so much that you can see the darkness beside the light.”
I look at her, and she turns her eyes from me.
We take pictures of the house and return to the boat. The boatman starts singing and we make our way below the famous water balconies of Venice. It’s enchanting! I can hardly believe I’m in Venice and being serenaded by such a voice.
“I love this touch of Italy,” I say wistfully.
“Italy is wonderful, but these famous places are too crowded. If you want to feel Italy then come with me to the villages where there is nothing but beauty and the Mediterranean caresses your feet.”
“Glorious! Take me!” I exclaim.
She glanced at me. “I think I can trust you. I’d like to take you to my village someday where you could sleep, relax and breathe. You could live out the Renaissance, in every moment!”
“What a lovely way to put it.”
“Ill take you. But not now. I need to get to Paris, as soon as possible. It’s an emergency.”
“Is everything all right?”
“That’s a strange question, especially for me. My life comes with so many problems and questions and doubts.”
“Perhaps, you’ll find the other part of you,” I say. “The question is: Where will it end?” She moves her eyes from the waters to look at me.
“I can’t answer that. I’m sorry,” she responds.
She pulls A Farewell to Arms, by Earnest Hemingway, my favorite book, from her backpack, and I smile.
“Have you read this?” I ask.
“Maybe fifty times. I read from it everyday.” She replies.
“Extraordinary. So do I. Hemingway is my inspiration.”
“Then you’ll love to hear this.”
“My father comes from Fossalta.”
“What?” I shout. “Where A Farewell to Arms was born?”
“Yes, where Hemingway was wounded.”
I take her hand. “May I meet your father?”
“Not now, Silly! The boatman is bringing us to shore, and we don’t want to miss our train.”
We get to the station at nine thirty, just in time for the train to Milan.
Dinner is being served on the train, a typical Italian dinner with pizza and pasta and everything.
“At least the pizza is good,” Sol says, “though I can make much better from scratch.”
“I bet you can.”
A conductor passes by, and I stop him. “Where do we go after Milan?”
“I can’t tell you till we get there. There’s a big accident near the border of Switzerland. All the rail roads are closed.’
“Can we take a bus to France?” Sol asks.
“That’s what we must find out, Signora. Once we reach there.”
When the conductor leaves, Sol frowns. “It doesn’t look good.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“Once this type of accident occurs it takes a long time to clear, longer, since Switzerland is hilly. Much time is needed. But let’s keep our fingers crossed and wish for a miracle.”
“I can hardly wait to see Paris,” I say. “She is my dream city.”
“While I was in India she called me every moment, and I became restless to see her. I had to take this trip!”
“A true love story.”
“You could say that. A beautiful love story.”
“Paris has always been a shelter of the wounded.”
“Wounded?” I question.
“All artists are wounded, and what better place is there for an artist to live than in Paris?”
“You seem to know about wounds.”
“Wounds are like whores,” she says. “They spare no one. Have you ever slept with a whore?”
The question is so sudden I’m embarrassed.
It took time to collect myself enough to answer. “No. I’ve never felt the need to do that.”
“One of my friend for years worked as whore. She needed money, and at that time, had no other way to make it. One night after her job she came came to my house and slept beside me. Her eyes were filled with tears. A whore has the greatest wound, you know!”
I nod my head without knowing what to answer.
“You’re an interesting woman. Have you seen life…, Sol?”
“To some extent, but the more interesting, the more destroyed.”
“Yes. Darkness comes, and one must pay for that.”
“How is that?”
Sol looked through the window. “Don’t you live with darkness?”
“At times, but I often take shelter from it.”
“But there is peace in darkness. At least there one can lie naked, care free. And others will not know or question you.”
The train stops at a station. It is raining outside.
“In one hour we’ll be in Milan,” she said, as she starts reading Death in the Afternoon.
I open a book by Orhan Pamuk, The New Life.
After reaching Milan we’re informed that all roads to Switzerland are blocked for a day. The train authority has booked a hotel at their expense.
“That’s nice of them!” I comment.
But Sol is making faces. “It sucks! There are so many people in this hotel. I feel suffocated.’
“What else we can do?”
“I have a plan.”
“The trains in Italy are running fine. We can go anywhere we want.”
“But we need to go to Paris, Sol!”
“That we can’t do. At least not for the next 24 hours.”
“So, what’s your plan?”
“Come with me. I’ll show you!”
“Can’t you just tell me?”
“Trust me, you’ll love my idea.”
She walked to the counter, bought two tickets, and came back smiling.
“I’ve wanted to go there again. It’s time I do.”
She took out A Farewell to Arms again.
“Fossalta?” I exclaimed!
“Yes. We are going to Fossalta.”
Between the glorious sunlight a perfect spring wind and cloudless blue sky I suddenly cried out.
It is strange I know. But standing in the same place of Fossalta where Hemingway was struck by a mortar and his legs got blown off I feel that I have at least kept my promise.
Promise to Hemingway.
Promise to me.
Promise to life.
The day I read ,’ A Farewell to Arms’ and then again and again I uttered a promise. That I would one day go and stand there and touch the dust of my inspiration of life.
The golden dust looks wonderful now in the sunlight and the wind blows like a pleasant friend touching all over us. I know I would remember each of this moment for life.
I never thought that so soon I can come to Fossalta.
I walk towards the Piave river which is milky green now and not blue as Hemingway described it. But it is young and beautiful and I touched the cold water. From here I can even see the farm house where Hemingway billetted himself before he moved out in a bicycle and then as an ambulance driver taking the stuff of war for the men in the front.
Sol now came and touched my hand, ‘Are you all right?’
‘I am absolutely fine. Living a cherished moment.’
‘This is the same place you know, one of my grand uncle died. He was in the same front with Hemingway.
‘He must had seen him!’
‘I think that too. So do my father thinks.’
‘Your father is also an army man?’
‘No. My father is far away from war. He is a musician.’
‘Wow! That’s unbelievable.’
‘But he is strong. He can fight any war. He is proud of his family how they laid their lives for the country. He is my hero.’
‘Can I meet him?’
Sol without answering sat on a rock and covered her face with her hands.
‘What happened Sol?’
I kept my hand on her shoulder.
She slowly removed her hands from her face. Her eyes are wet. But they are beautiful. The color of the river is all there now.
‘Sol, what happened?’
Sol gripped my hand and then holding me she kissed me full on my lips.
For a long time.
Then we start walking.
But I said Sol to stop for a moment.
I take out a piece of paper and kneel down and collected some some grain of soil in it.
I said like a whisper,’Papa, be with me.’
Then I along with Sol start walking back to her old home.
For a long time that night I cannot sleep. Sleep would just not come. At one time I got up and came outside the house. It is a very old house and it has gone through many wears and tears of time. It was built in 1914.The very year first world war started. I felt a shiver in spine thinking that Hemingway too perhaps passed this house in 1918. I am standing at a place where each dust each grains of soil has a legacy of time and a bloody chapter of human existence.
I walked out of the old rock crafted door and came out in the open.
There is a bright moon shining in the sky. In front of me there lies a vast emptiness and a wind almost with a sound of faint whistle blows. How much the place has changed? I thought. Quite easily I can feel that this place is somewhere , where time has stopped.
I may well, by any time machine or like a fantasy story got transformed from 2017 to 1918.
The beautiful breathtaking blue terrain of Italy is taking me into a trance and I somewhere within feeling an unexplained pain without even trying to know the reason.
Someone touched. I turned. Sol.
‘People say that happens here. The old village men tells that in nights the war heroes who has died come here and try to whisper to the living.’
‘It must be a folklore.’
‘Somewhat. But I like to believe that story. For many times in my childhood I would come out and listen to the wind and almost wait for to see a shadow speaking to me.’
‘Have you found any?’
‘No, but the strange thing is I believed that someone came and told me everything. As after standing alone for hours I would go back to bed and sleep at once. My father said the same thing.’
‘Your father seems a remarkable person.’
‘He is. No doubt. He is a musician. He is a poet. But more than anything he is a great human being.’
‘Where is he now, Sol?’
I asked her straight now. I know that she has a mystery about her father and she didn’t want to speak about it.
‘I would tell you about my father surely, she touched my hands.
‘But give me some time.’
‘Sure. Sol, tell me when you feel.’
‘Thanks.’ She said and hugged me.
After that we both came back to our bed and yes I slept almost at once.
Perhaps tonight too someone came and told everything he has to say to me.
After two days we reached Paris.
The first step in Paris is a thing of beauty and I would never forget that in my entire life.
A moment for which I always waited.
‘Where you would stay ?’ I asked Sol.
‘In my friend’s house.’
‘Where it is?’
‘South Paris. I will take a metro.’
‘Give me the address.’
‘Sure.’ She texted me.
‘So let me take you to the metro.’
But before I walk any further two hands hugged me and then I heard the old laughter. ‘Kevin!’
My old friend with whom I would stay in Paris standing in front, his face bright clean with happiness of seeing me.
‘Bon Jour!’I said.
It’s so nice to see you after two years!
“Same here. Meet my friend.’ I turned to Sol.
But I paused. Something has happened. All the color from Sol’s face has vanished. She looks white.
‘Are you all right?’ I hold her hand.
‘I am fine. But I need to go.’
Then without saying a single word she turned and made her way to the steps to underground metro.
‘By anyway, is she your friend?’ Kevin asked.
And her name is Sol?’
‘Yes. You know her?’
‘Years back I knew her. Both our parents were friends and we used to be neighbors.’
‘They moved to Italy.’
‘I wonder why Sol didn’t recognized you now?’
‘She very well did. ‘ Kevin answered.
‘Let’s move out. I have a workshop today at six in the evening. I have said that you my Indian poet friend would read poetry there.’
Shakespeare and Company.
Reading poetry in one of the oldest bookshop of the world, Shakespeare and Company where from Hemingway to James Joyce all came and made history is the best experience of my life. Thanks to Kevin, my long time dream got cherished and I feel happy and content.
At night back to Kevin’s home I rang Sol’s number multiple times.
But each time the number was switched off.
Next morning, I wake up early and take the metro to south Paris to the address which Sol gave me. It is a beautiful postcard house. When I rang the bell a servant opened it and asked me to come in.
I sit on a sofa thinking exactly what to say to her friend.
Soon a soft calm and elegant lady appeared in the room and smiling at me said, ‘Hello, I am Aurelia. How may I help you Monsuier?’
‘I am friend of Sol. Sol gave me this address. I need to speak to her.’
‘But she is not here, Monsuier!’
‘No. She left today early morning. She said she has some emergency.’
‘That she didn’t told me.’
‘And do you know where she went?’
‘That I do.’
I met Kevin at lunch and we are sitting in one of the famous cafe of Montmartre. Kevin works in an artist’s studio and he himself is an artist too. His sketches are marvellous and they are always drawn with wings of imagination. In Amsterdam in Van Gogh museum we met one morning and then no one can stop our friendship.
‘Do you know Sol’s father, Kevin?’
‘Me and Sol were neighbors till our eight years of age. They used to live in Paris. Then they went to Italy. Though in those ten years I saw very little of him. Most of the time he was in Germany, that time East Germany. He was a painter in some museum there. Then one afternoon when we both were eight, Sol came to me and said next week they are leaving for Italy.’
‘Where in Italy?’
‘Some village near Milan.’
‘May be that’s the place. I forgot it.’
‘Then you were not in contact with Sol?’
‘No, only in letters. That too her mother send to my mother. One day my mother showed me a gorgeous young lady’s photo and told me ‘Look what a beauty she has turned into!’
It was Sol. But yesterday she almost refused to identify me. Though I am sure she recollected who I am. What can be the reason behind it Kevin?’
‘I myself is perplexed. But may be the mystery about his father has something to do with it.’
‘Don’t you know anything about his father?’
‘No. Sol never told me.’
‘Twenty six years ago in 1990 suddenly his father disappeared and from then no one knew what happened to him.’
‘Yes. Just two years after they left Paris and settled in Italy. Sol was just ten then.’
‘Is he dead?’
‘No one knows. The police searched him but got no trace. He just vanished!’
I sit for a while. Our lunch has been served but I am in no mood of having food.In the broad sunlight I am trying to read the picture Sol has left for me.
‘Do you know anyone in Berlin?’
‘Yes. I have some friends. Why?’
‘I may need that.’
‘What is Sol trying to do?’
‘That’s exactly what I am trying to find out Kevin.’
After lunch I feel I need to find some unanswered questions. And only one woman can give that at this moment. I took the metro again and around four in the afternoon rang the bell. This time Aurelia herself opened the door.
‘Excuse me, Madmoiselle, but I need to ask you some questions.’
She smiled at me surprisingly.’How strange! I was just thinking of ringing you on the number you left with me.’
‘Take a seat.’
The servant brought hot coffee for us.
Aurelia began, ‘After you went I searched the room of Sol and find out a letter. Here , this letter.’She forwarded a letter to me.
‘But it’s in German!’
‘Yes, the lady who wrote the letter is German too, Erika Silverstein.
‘Can you tell me what it is written there in the letter?’
‘That’s why I thought of calling you. This lady Erika sent the letter in the mail id of Sol. Sol must have taken a print out to carry with her and this may be a spare copy! Sol got it yesterday. She asked Sol to meet her at 4 p.m. at Potsdam Platz on 3rd of September.’
‘Potsdam Platz! That’s a famous street.’
‘Yes the street where once Berlin wall existed!’
‘I know. Why Sol is going there?’
‘No idea. Said Aurelia.’
I looked at my watch. Aurelia smiled. ‘There is a train at nine in the evening to Berlin from Gare de Lyon.’
‘Thanks a lot.’
I got up but before I move to the door Aurelua hold my hand and said, ‘See that Sol is fine.’
I smiled at her. ‘I promise you, I will bring Sol safe to you Aurelia.’
‘And one thing, can you realize the significance of this date, 3rd October?’
I stared at her.
She replied, ‘On 3rd October ,1990 the Berlin Wall was permanently broken and East and West Germany got united.’
The only way for me to meet Sol is to go to that famous street Unter Den Linden beside the Reichstag Castle and the road that leads to Potsam Platz where Hitler shot in his head and killed himself when he was all trapped underground.
I kept my backpack at a cheap hostel near station and take a cab and came straight to the place where stands now the broken Berlin Wall. I shivered seeing at it. How much history how much politics how much crossings on human heart this one wall did before the humans only threw it off. Walls are made to broken, I feel like shouting.
I once again checked my inbox. No mail from Sol. Also called her. Her number switched off. Around three thirty I saw Sol getting down from a cab and I feel I am at a loss of words. But still as the cab passed away and she came in the afternoon sun I called her, ‘Sol!’
She almost panicked seeing me.
‘Relax. I am here to see you. I know it all.’
‘About the disappearance of your father.’
‘And Aurelia. And Erika Silverstein.’
She looked at my face for a while and then took a long breathe. ‘Yes, you know it almost all.’
‘Why haven’t you said me?’
‘I said it to none. Not even to Aurelia. Not even to my mother.’
We both stand there with no words. We both are eagerly waiting for the clock to strike four. The air around the Berlin wall is festive though. Poems are written, graffiti is drawn on the wall and people of all ages from kids to old people gathered each carrying a flower a smile and an urge to capture everything in lens.
Sharp at four Sol , gasped as if releasing a long suppressed anxiousness, ‘There she is!’
A woman, almost sixty now coming towards the wall. ‘Can I come with you, Sol?’ I asked.
We both walked and then stopped as the woman came before us. She is still beautiful and her face carries a grace that time can never grasp.
‘Sol?’ She asked.
‘Yes, Erika. I am Sol. And this is my friend.’ She smiled.
I introduced myself.
‘Where can we sit?’
‘May be somewhere in a cafe?’
There are plenty of cafes around and we entered a spacious lit cafe.
I must say that between two women I am feeling a bit embarrassed as they will now share a secret of their lives. At the same time I felt strange happiness that Sol has accepted my presence here.
‘So how do you came to know about me?’ Erika asked.
We ordered three coffees.
‘I came to know about you through letters. Began Sol. ‘The disappearance of my father always haunted me. I was ten years old when he disappeared completely and never came back. My mother a noble woman did everything to make me comfortable and gave me a good education. But at night when I saw her blank faces sleeping alone, I often wonder why father has left us. Two years before I was in Paris in our old home where I found a locked trunk which I broke. And there are bunch of letters written to someone called Erika by my father who was very young then and unmarried.That’s when I came to know about you.’ Sol stopped.
Erika looked outside. Sip a bit of coffee. Then with her eyes distant she said, ‘Albertini, your father was an extraordinary person. He was an exceptional painter. He drew women like no one did. I first met him when I came to then East Germany as a teacher of a school in an art tour to the museum where your father was a painter. We instantly fell in love. That is the best way to describe it. He drew me many times. But never nude.I myself asked him to make one of my nude painting but he didn’t. He was a man like a dream to a woman. We were deeply in love when politics crushed everything and almost overnight we both found that we stand in two different countries East and West Germany and between us stands the wall. The Berlin Wall!’
‘Then?’ Sol asked.
I can see color coming back to her face. Outside sunlight has become soft and crowds increased.
‘Our only way to communicate were letters. But that too were stopped one day by the government. We both tried to fly away but at that time my own father arranged my marriage and I was married within three months. I sent a letter to him. But no response came from him. I never knew the letter has at all reached him or not. Albertini remained in my heart and I loved him everyday. Then in 1990 after years of his disappearance when the government decided to officially break the Berlin wall ,then suddenly I found a letter from him from Italy.
3rd October 1990 at ten in the morning he asked me to come here. Just like you, his daughter asked me today. I came. He was there. The first question he asked me, that do I love him still or not. I said yes. ”Then lets get married.” He said. Erika paused, Then said, ‘He never said me that he was married and have a daughter. He was still deeply in love with me. So I was. But I said him, marriage is not possible. He sat there with a numb face for a while and then said, that his music has left him , he no more can find music, his painting has left him he no more can paint. He was only living for me. Sol, don’t think your father as a bad man. After all he was an artist. And it happens to all artists. They are eccentric in their own way. They think only about their art and the inspiration behind their art. At that time, I was the inspiration of Albertini.’
‘It’s painful but I think I can understand.’ said Sol slowly.
Erika hold the hand of Sol. ‘Then nothing my dear.’
‘Means this is all.’
‘What happened to him? Is he alive?’
Erika kept her eyes on Sol. Then her lips opened, ‘Sol, your father is dead. He jumped on the river Rhine from a running train and his body was never found’
Sol trembled. I grasped her hand. So do Erika. She hugged her.
‘Sol, be strong. Your father was a remarkable man. You cannot expect normalcy of him. He was a painter, he was a musician and when everything has left him how will he survive? But, I take all the faults on me Sol. May be I killed him!’
‘No, not you! Not you! ‘ She shouted suddenly
Then she pushed the chair, got up and ran outside towards the wall. I ran after her. So do Erika. We grabbed her.
Erika hugged her and kissed. ‘I am sorry my daughter. It’s for me. For me.’ She said.
‘No not you. It’s the wall! It’s the Goddamn Berlin Wall! Why people erect a wall when they know it will be broken! Why ? Why? Why?’
Erika take Sol in her arms.
‘Sol, your father was the only man whom I loved. It is for men like him that the wall was broken.’ Sol burst out in tears.
I find Erika too crying.
I walk a bit far from them and came towards the remnants of the fragmented wall. From here the two women one young and one old crying to each other looks strange and yet beautiful for a man who dared to love in-spite of an erected wall.
I look at the German poems written on the wall. I feel like writing something there. But I take out my notebook and below a sparkling blue sky and pink sun I wrote the first line of a poem which came just now,
‘Some never said words are said at last.’
Author Subhadip Majumdar
Subhadip Majumdar a writer poet from India. He is certified in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa. He also edited a reputed Bengali poetry journal. Wrote a short novel as Tumbleweed writer in Shakespeare and Company, Paris. Two poetry books published and one novel in process of publication.
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