I saw him. It was no mistake that it was him. No doubt, no confusion. He was there and it was him.
It was that same face, nakedly visible over the pile of luggage surrounded by a number of people here and there, smoking, sipping tea, reading newspaper, or chattering among themselves - only to pass the time while waiting for the train to come. The wrinkles of his face held my attention for a few moments. The face, weighed down with age, did not hold the usual graceful appearance of old age, even though he wore a short white beard and covered his head with a tupi. Rather, his face reminded me of an old wolf - a terrible beast who had to surrender to the inevitable cycle of ageing, but unfortunately had its nails and teeth remaining.
Seeing him, my whole existence shattered into pieces.
It all happened fifteen years ago.
I used to live in this place with my family. My father's new posting suddenly cut my ties with the town I used to live in, and placed me here much to my despair. Such dislocation affected my sensitive soul. Gradually, a sense of dejection began to engulf me. The sight and smell of the river haunted me constantly. The riverbank in our old abode used to be my playground, my self- proclaimed territory. The absence of the river pained me in the new place. Since the day I moved here, I found I was a butterfly turning back into a tiny, lonely caterpillar.
But one day my mother told me,
"Dear, don't be upset. Tell your father to take you to the rail station. You'll love it there."
"Rail station?" I was surprised. "Where?"
"Very near, about two minutes' walk!" She raised her arm in front of me. "You haven't seen a big train, have you? It's like a snake! It's the longest snake you'll ever see."
I was astonished. I feared snakes. Somebody told me they were poisonous and deadly. Just one bite and you are dead. But I was impatient to meet this gigantic snake. Would the train be a snake to me? I was curious - I had neither seen a train running towards me before, nor had I taken a journey by train yet. I asked my father to take me to the station. He readily agreed.
From the first day of my visit, the rail station captured my heart. What I liked most about the station was the mobility- the rush of life. With sheer amazement I would jump across the railway lines. The lively bustle of the station began to awe me like nothing else. The whistle of the train thundered in my blood. After school, I picked excuses not to return home right away, so that I could run errands by the railroads with my friends. It felt like I could hear the whistle even from my school! Our favorite game was scaring each other by fake alarms of the train's arrival, and squeaking and pushing each other with feigned fear.
My friend clapped and sang,
The train sings as it goes!”
Days turned lovely for a child like me. And the train was nothing like a snake! My mother was wrong - I thought. The train was the friendliest creature I had ever encountered.
One day, on our way back after some shopping, my father told me he had to go to the station to receive someone arriving by train. I accompanied him happily. While waiting for the guest, he started gossiping with some local person while I engaged myself in observing people.
Right at that moment the man caught my eyes.
He was watching me from some distance with a blatant face, accompanied by an I-don't-have-a-care-in-the-world type of smile hanging from his mouth. He did not intend to say anything. Eventually I sensed there was something wrong in his gaze. He was swallowing me with his eyes, enjoying every bit of the unease I felt. It was unclear how to avoid him or ask him why he looked at me like that. Was I a bad kid? Did he somehow see me accidentally pushing some other child onto the road while playing? Or, was I wearing something too funny? I was confused and glanced at my father who was engrossed in a deep conversation about politics of the country or something like that. I looked closely - the man was about my father's age. I was getting increasingly afraid. That uncouth man was staring at me in a way nobody ever did before.
At last the train arrived. My father grabbed my hand to look for his guest. That moment it happened. Yes, it happened before I could imagine anything- for I doubted if it really ought to be imagined by a child like me.
I saw the man standing beside me, giving me a transformed, innocent look, as if I resembled his little daughter he was seeing after ages. I was completely startled. How could he manage to come near me within the blink of an eye? I clearly saw him standing far away. When I held my father's hand and started to walk over, he paced even nearer, and what he did next left me with no chance to protest or even scream. My chest burned as his iron fingers clawed at me and he smiled.
For a moment my feet froze on the railroad. It took me minutes to understand what had happened. I cried in sheer pain – but my cry got muffled in the buzzing noise of the crowd.
"Be quick!" my father turned around, feeling me stopping abruptly. "I told you not to pause while crossing the railroad."
I looked around for the man. He had disappeared into the crowd already.
I could not speak. I could not breathe either. A hot flush of tears stung my eyes, blurred my vision and weakened my senses as if I had been thrown into a terrible nightmare. Suddenly, from an innocent little girl I was transformed into a mean, disgusting creature.
The whistle of the train jolted me back from the past days.
Glancing down at myself I wondered how I had assumed that things changed over the years. Nothing had really changed.
Jarin Shoilee is a student at the Department of English, Jahangirnagar University.