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Unpublished Draft

TIVOLI GARDENS

 

Why is she even on this train? She set out with a certain destination in mind but she has only a vague idea what she will do when she arrives. She feels as though she is not really traveling at all but floating aimlessly aboard a lumbering train that stops every twenty minutes at deserted stations along the shoreline. She imagines a vanishing point ahead where the land ends and the wide expanse of the ocean begins. She sets her sights on that point and wonders whether she’ll have to jump off the train before it plunges into the sea.

I’m being ludicrous, the traveler tells herself. I’m over-dramatizing the simplicity of this journey. Maybe she does know what she is doing, even if she doesn’t know how she knows it. She languishes in her confusion and delicious sadness.

This cannot be explained by the divorce. Nonsense. The boy doesn’t deserve any credit for influencing her actions because he is a natural born idiot. He is nothing now, out of her life. Gone, dead, nothing. She used to call him “bean curd spine” for his lack of resolve. The best retort he could muster from his dim-witted imagination was “hairy legs!” He didn’t approve when she went natural and stopped shaving her legs and underarms. He was deeply embarrassed when she started going braless. He believed he was in charge of her when actually he wasn’t even in charge of himself, the traveler thinks, trying to subdue the anger she knows is irrelevant. The boy is helpless without his mother.

She hates the woman and it’s no secret that the woman detests her, first for stealing her precious son and then for abandoning him, which was most inconvenient for the woman in terms of social appearances.

 

She’s a demon, the traveler is thinking when the train lurches to a halt at another station

 

in another anonymous seaside hamlet. The old woman couldn’t be more than 137 centimeters tall, stooped from rice planting and malnutrition in her youth. She is mean to the core. Beady eyes glare out of the sockets of her sallow face. The traveler used to think she might save the world from evil if she had the courage to hoist the hag by her skinny neck and strangle her in front of

her son. But where is the compassion she ought to feel for a woman who survived dire poverty and depravation to bear the child she once loved, the traveler asks herself. Is it time to feel it now? The old train bumps and sways along ancient tracks that snake through tunnels and veer precariously close to sandstone cliffs along the coast. She must not indulge in bitterness, she reminds herself. It’s done, gone and thrown in the trash. It no longer matters.

The traveler hears a squeaky falsetto ringing out when the train pulls away from the station. She looks up to see a teenage girl wearing a starched pink uniform pushing a cart. “Coffee, can beer, lunch boxes!” The logo of the Western Rail Service is stitched on the breast

of the girl’s blouse, indicating she is an authorized vendor of certified goods. Stopping the girl to buy a beer it occurs to the traveler that she is the only passenger on the two-car train. She gives her the note, takes the change and hears an excessively polite thank you, then watches the teenager in pink resume her progress down the aisle, still chirping out her items for sale. At the end of the aisle the vendor bangs and shoves her cart through the double doors into an empty carriage, still singing “Coffee, can beer, lunch boxes!”

The beer is two or three degrees below room temperature but it tastes good. She thanks herself for not buying a paper cup of stale coffee from the girl’s thermos, which would make her stomach queasy with the acid from spent grounds. Lukewarm beer is soothing, she says under

 

 

 

her breath. Don’t they drink it that way in Europe? She imagines herself as a sophisticated lady drinking warm beer on the Orient Express. Then she slumps into her hard-backed velvet seat.

The traveler looks at the ghostly reflection in the rattling window beside her and sees a strange woman riding on a shabby blue train on a late autumn’s afternoon. She’s going to a quaint seaside village, she reminds herself. It’s off-season so she didn’t even bother making a reservation at the modest inn where she plans to stay. She spent an ecstatic night at that inn with

an old lover, a married man, well before she met the boy. She hadn’t really planned to escape the city this morning to ride hours and hours by rail to the provincial capital, where she transferred to a spur line and climbed aboard this tired old locomotive. But it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

The afternoon sun is softening into dusk in a sorrowful way. She wonders how many stops it will be before she gets to the village. Would it be after dark? The conductor strolls up the aisle, maintaining perfect balance as the train rocks from side to side on uneven rails. He checks her ticket for the third time. “You must think I’m a stowaway,” she says, looking up to his expressionless face. The man ignores the remark. He seems proud of his blue policeman-style hat. She asks him when they would arrive at her destination and he answers with a sigh, pulling a watch out of his vest pocket. He reexamines her ticket. “We are right on schedule,” he says.

Then he walks briskly up the aisle, looking left and right for passengers he might have missed on his earlier rounds. She looks at her ticket and sees there is no time of arrival marked on the flimsy green cardboard. She’ll have to maintain vigilance to avoid being lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the train.

She opens her window to feel the cool sea breeze. The important thing is that I’m getting farther and farther away from the city, she reassures herself.

 

The conductor has been announcing each stop over the scratchy intercom since she boarded the train. When at last she hears him pronounce her station she is struck by a feeling of excited anticipation fringed by a certain dread. As she is about to disembark the conductor asks to check her ticket at the door. “Make certain you have not left any belongings behind,” he says. “Mind your step – it is dangerous.”

Regaining her balance after leaping to the platform she looks up to see a faded green sign peeling from the wall: Tivoli Gardens, 1.7 kilometers. It doesn’t say which direction.

It is a very pleasant walk to the shore. The lamps of a cluster of weathered wooden houses are flickering on and she hears muffled shouts and laugher and the buzz of television sets welcoming her to the village. For the first time in months she feels calm. The smell of fish in the little harbor and the sound of waves slapping on the beach tell her she’s come to the right place. She walks for a while longer up the lane past a grove of cedar and pine trees then stops by a bank of fallen leaves to admire a majestic view of the sea in twilight. The traveler hadn’t expected to find a full moon on the horizon casting eerie light on the water. Rising tide, she thinks, perfect

for a quiet dip in the sea tonight

 

Across the breakwater she sees a flotilla of squid boats in the distance shining their arc lights into the water, luring their prey to the surface to be netted and thrown on ice. They’ll be out there until dawn and she plans to watch them though her window until she falls asleep.

A tier of crumbling concrete steps invites her down to the darkening beach, where she makes out a little rocky island at the end of a tidal shoal. It is wrapped in a giant hemp rope that reaches across the water and ties the island to a jutting stone pillar on the shore. She studies the tide marks on the pillar and wonders how long it will be before the rising moon tugs the waves higher up the beech to reach the first mark.

 

 

 

She feels hungry now, and tired. Time to check in for the night. She spots her inn, the first in a row of lodges facing the water. She trudges along the beach in her rubber sandals feeling the sand slipping between her toes, still warm despite the chilling breeze. The traveler sees a stone stairway leading up to the lane and climbs it to circle around to the front of the inn. She raps on the sliding cedar door at the entryway. Several minutes pass in silence before she knocks again much louder.

“Yes, yes,” says a raspy voice inside, “who is there?”

 

“Good evening. I’m a tourist from the city and I’d like to request a room for the night, please.”

A woman wearing a grey wool dress and an indigo apron slides the door open and bows before examining her guest. “Welcome,” she says. Then the innkeeper eyes the traveler up and down with suspicion, apparently taken aback by the informality of her attire. The woman inspects the unkempt hair, the old tan coat, the faded blue jeans and the rubber scandals.

“You must have had a tiresome journey. And it is a room for two I gather?” The woman cranes her neck to look into the dusk. “I’m sorry, but where is your husband?” she says with the high tone of exaggerated politeness meant to conceal disdain. “You look like a very nice young lady. Certainly you are not traveling alone on this dark night. It is so very late.”

The woman reminds her of her elderly aunt with her soft pouchy cheeks, but she lacks the kind eyes.

Before she could slip out of her sandals and step up to the foyer the woman side steps to block her way. The traveler checks her watch to see it’s only six-fifteen.

“Oh, I sincerely beg your forgiveness, Madam, but with all due respect I do not think the time is so very late and it is just now growing dark,” she says, strategically shifting into a well-

bred lady’s formal speech. “I am so very sorry to be such a nuisance, but I do travel alone all across the nation for my work. My foolish husband unfortunately could not get away from the city today owing to urgent business at the bank, but he sent me ahead nonetheless and shall be joining me on the morrow. I am sorry to be so brazen, but would you be so kind as to allow me to register tonight, if it be your pleasure? I do apologize for the imposition.”

The innkeeper glances at the traveler’s hand to see she is not wearing a wedding ring. There had been a ring and it would be convenient now, but she ditched it into a sewer drain on their anniversary in April.

“I am so sorry but unfortunately the inn is closed. I truly wish I could accommodate you but there is no possibility. It cannot be helped.”

“Please, I’ve traveled all this way,” she says, slipping back into the sincerity of informal speech. “We stayed at your inn once before in the high season on our honeymoon. There has to be a vacant room at this time of year. Please don’t refuse me just because I’m traveling alone. My husband will get here soon.”

“Young lady, it’s beyond my control,” the innkeeper says. “We truly do not have any rooms prepared for guests in the off-season. Next time please call ahead before coming. And you know a young lady like you should not travel alone. It is dangerous.”

The traveler loathes the term “young lady” and barely keeps her anger in check. It’s condescending and it’s a put-down aimed at ridiculing a woman of her age. She wants to scream at this stupid woman. At thirty-two, she deserves more respect, even without a wedding band.

Down the hall behind the innkeeper the traveler sees a man wearing a light blue patterned robe carrying a toothbrush and a little towel. He looks lost and asks the matron for directions to the inn’s communal bath.

“Just a moment please,” the matron tells the man.

She turns with a forced smile radiating contempt and recommends the neighboring inn. “It’s very nice and clean,” she says. The woman slides the door to its locked position quickly and firmly.

The lodges up the lane are lit by the soft glow of the moon. Narrow beams of light are trained on wooden shingles announcing their names: Azalea House, Peach Blossom Inn, August Moon Lodge. This could be any minor tourist destination across the country, she thinks. Run- down, passed by, lost in time. On the opposite side of the road she notices a small green sign hanging precariously from a broken stake. In the dim light she makes out faded calligraphy saying “Tivoli Garden,” with a thin arrow pointing up the lane.   How curious, she thinks, but it doesn’t sound at all like a place to stay.

She turns and goes to knock on the door of the next inn, the one the horrible lady recommended. The traveler waits patiently as the sound of light footsteps approach then recede, scurry, stomp and approach in the patter of a frightened squirrel. She gathers this innkeeper was warned of the stranger’s approach. At last an aluminum sash door rolls open. Then an outer door with thin vertical slats scratches and slides aside, revealing a short woman looking at her with a grimace. She reminds the traveler of the boy’s mother, only plumper and sillier with layers of

pink and white makeup giving her the look of a circus clown. All she needs are X marks over her eyes and a red wig.

“I’m sorry to be impetuous and bother you so rudely,” the traveler says in an obsequious manner. “I wonder if you might have a room available for the likes of me tonight, a simple room without meals included. I do not require much, just shelter for the night. I am sorry to be such a nuisance but I beg of you.”

“We’re closed,” the clown says and slams shut both her doors. The light over the entryway goes dark.

The traveler is determined to maintain her composure. At least she didn’t call me young lady, she mutters as she walks across the lane and finds a large rock to sit on. She breathes deeply to calm her fluttering heart. The rock is jagged and hurts her bottom so she stands to practice one of the exercises she learned in her yoga class, extending her arms high to fill her lungs with fresh air, exhaling as she stretches her arms sideways in a cross, then leaning over to touch her toes. She rises with her palms touching like a Buddha and repeats the exercise.

While she is doing this, an elderly couple strolls up the lane and stops to watch her in amusement, gawking as though she is some kind of garden fairy. They’re wearing light blue patterned robes under brown cotton-padded jackets of the kind innkeepers provide their guests. “Good evening,” she addresses them. “May I ask where you are staying tonight?” Seemingly stunned that this strange creature could speak their language, they turn and walk briskly in the direction they came from.

Most of the other lodges along the road are dark, apparently closed in the off-season. She sees another sign for Tivoli Gardens, but it is tilted and so dilapidated it seems to have been erected decades ago. She wonders why no one had taken it down and thrown it away because whatever Tivoli Gardens was, it must have gone out of business long ago.

In the distance up the wooded lane she sees an establishment that looks promising. It’s larger than the other inns and lit up brightly, beckoning the traveler to approach. The place is newly constructed with ferroconcrete pillars supporting a tasteful façade of horizontal cedar planks, affecting a stylish look that is both traditional and contemporary. The sign reads: Peach Blossom Inn.

It is a handsome man about her age who opens the door smiling and asking what her business might be. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you around here before,” he says. “Are you the new nurse from the government clinic? We had a guest who choked on a piece of octopus last night. Perhaps the Matron phoned and left a message before we successfully removed the bit of tentacle by slapping her back. It’s regrettable if you came all this way to conduct a follow-up examination. She recovered quickly and checked out this morning.”

The man looks into her eyes enticingly, as many men do, then scans her face and body. He coughs, takes a look at her legs and feet and seems confused by the rubber sandals.

“No, I’m not the nurse, just a traveler looking for shelter,” she says, thinking this is someone she might trust. She feels a sudden attraction to him. He is tall and muscular with thick eyebrows and a strong jaw. I’d be happy to sleep with him for a room tonight, she thinks. She hadn’t made love to a man in more than two years, not even to the boy. A deep desire wells up inside her.

“I came from the city this evening ­­­planning to spend the night in your lovely seaside village,” she says, raising her pitch to sound childishly sweet. “I visited many years ago and have always wanted to return, but I made the foolish mistake of not phoning ahead for a reservation. I hope you will forgive me. Sometimes I can be spontaneous and carefree to a fault.

Please, if you have a room for me, I’d be very grateful.”

Instinctively she licks her lips, flips her long black hair over her ear, and arches her back, revealing the outline of her ample breasts through her open coat. He’s stunned, she can see. Her face flushes when she realizes what she had done. How stupid, she chides herself. He’s going think I’m a traveling whore.

The man gazes at her with the look of an uncertain predator, half salacious, half fearful. “Is it a double room you want?” he says. “I don’t see your companion.”

“I’m afraid I’m traveling alone tonight. I’m not in the mood for partners these days,” she says, returning the honest sandy purr of her normal voice. “I just got rid of one. Men are distracting and time-consuming and not very good company when you want to be alone. I came here to do some soul searching.”

“I see. Your man must have been a fool to let you come here alone, but that’s none of my business,” he says, obviously flustered. “I mean, we’re discussing the inn not your private life. The inn has certain rules, you see. I don’t say I agree with them. I really wish we could put you up. Unfortunately I believe it’s our policy not to accommodate single guests. It can’t be helped.”

“You mean single women guests! That’s discrimination, you know. I could report you to the authorities,” she says with a mirthful laugh, hoping he appreciates the humor behind her show of indignation. She wants to seduce him, not insult him. “I’ve traveled far and wide – to foreign countries – but have never been refused a room on account of my gender. Rules can be broken.”

His eyes are downcast now. He’s fidgeting with his hands and shuffling his feet. The poor man, she thinks. He doesn’t seem to understand that she’s just flirting with him in a harmless way. Maybe he’s happily married, or just pretending to be bashful. Her intuition says that her presence is evoking inner conflict in the man far beyond awkwardness. He’s a tortured soul, which makes him all the more interesting.

“It’s really beyond my control, but I’ll ask my mother if we can make an exception. She runs the place,” he says and disappears down the hall. He wants me, the traveler could tell, but is he another mamma’s boy?

 

 

 

The matron of the establishment suddenly appears, bowing in a formulaic apology. Her face is unlined and beautiful like her son’s. She is a picture of elegance and refinement as she crosses her arms in a gesture that says: No, no. Go away.

“I am so embarrassed and I deeply regret this, but as much as we would like to we cannot offer you accommodations tonight. We have no vacancies,” she says. “It cannot be helped,

young lady. I suggest you call on one of the inns down the lane toward the train station.” The elegant lady closes the door with the utmost grace.

The traveler tries the August Moon Lodge next door but the lights go out just as she’s about to knock on its rattan-covered door. They must have a telephone tree set up to warn the neighborhood when wild animals or single young ladies approach, she concludes.

It is the point of no return. She’s getting cold in the moonlight. “I’m stuck in this miserable village for the night and I’ll have to sleep on the beach and die of hypothermia,” she says, sneering at the sculpted pine tree in front of the inn. “These fools won’t call me a young lady after I’m dead. Hah, hah!” She imagines the headlines in tomorrow morning’s late edition: “Human Icicle Found at Seaside Resort.” These criminally negligent innkeepers will tell police they didn’t see a woman of her description last night.

The traveler could always sleep on a bench at the rail depot, she thinks, and there might be a vending machine nearby that stocks candy or sugary health drinks that would save her from starving. At that moment she spies a light through the trees and shakes off the comedy of panic. Could this be the inn of last resort? The traveler follows the light to the point where the road takes a bend away from the sea and turns to gravel. She imagines it’s a rustic inn tucked away from the well-beaten path but when she draws near she sees it’s little more than a cottage. She creeps to the door feeling like a lost child and knocks timidly. The door creaks open revealing an

 

ancient man. He’s the spitting image of the woodsman, she thinks, a kindly old soul with a twinkle in his eye. She hopes he’s not under a spell by the despicable witches down the road.

The kind face tightens when he sees a strange woman at his threshold. “Are you the new nurse at the clinic? I told them in no uncertain terms that I may be eighty-four but I’m fit as a fiddle,” he says in the softest growl she’d ever heard. “I don’t want anyone bothering me up here and poking me with needles!”

“No, Grandfather, I’m not the nurse,” she says. “I’m just a graphic designer and tonight I’m an unlucky traveler. I came from the city hoping to restore myself by the sea, but none of the inns will accommodate me because I’m a woman and I have the audacity to travel alone. I saw your lights from the road and thought you might be able to assist me. I’m very sorry to intrude on your privacy at this late hour.”

The old man reverts to the gentile woodsman. “Oh my goodness,” he says. “You poor child, you must be freezing out there. Please come in and warm yourself by the stove. I’ll make a pot of tea. Forgive my rudeness, I don’t get many visitors up here.”

The traveler is overwhelmed by this sudden gesture of kindness. She manages to wipe her face dry with her coat sleeve before the old man returns from his dirt-floored kitchen with the tea. He passes her a rough earthenware cup, which she uses to warm her hands, leaning closer to the kerosene stove.

They exchange pleasantries for a while until the traveler casts aside her reserve and gives into her curiosity. She wonders if he’s a hermit, not a woodsman,. Both are characters in the fairy tales of her childhood, but their roles are quite different.

“Grandfather, why are you living all alone in the woods like this?” she asks. “Certainly you have family down in the village to take care of you.”

 

“Alas, I have no one,” he says. “My son is an ingrate who lives hundreds of miles away in a distant province and never visits. My daughter has made her home in Argentina. But I’m self-sufficient and don’t need them. I do a good job taking care of myself.”

He then launches into his story, speaking at an eager pace that suggests not many people listen to it anymore. “I’m retired here because these are my woods,” he says. “I was the president of a prosperous trading company in the city but I quit and left it all behind after my wife died in

a tragic accident. She was crushed by a trolley crossing the street after buying an armful of radishes from a vegetable stall. We were married 47 years.”

“I’m so sorry,” she says. “That’s terrible.”

 

“Since then I’ve dedicated my life to building a scale model of Tivoli Gardens. Do you know the place? It’s in Denmark. It’s famous,” he says. “My Tivoli is a work in progress up in the hills across the train tracks.”

“Unbelievable,” she says. “I saw the signs along the way but didn’t understand. It looked as though Tivoli Gardens was something from the distant past.”

“To the contrary, it is alive and well. I have the contour and the layout all carved out

 

with most of the pavilions done, but the hard part is the rides. It’s taken me nearly 20 years to get this far. I recently finished the rutschebanen, the world’s oldest wooden roller coaster. I think the Ferris wheel is next. It all measures to scale no higher than four meters, constructed in exacting detail by myself.”

“But who is going to be taking these rides – elves?” She hopes he’s not offended by the temerity of her humor. “Chipmunks?”

“No, no. It’s going to be a major tourist attraction that will revitalize the local economy,”

 

the old man says. “You see, I own these forests and hills and most of the real estate in the area.

My clan has possessed them for five generations and my father was the last of a long line of timber barons. Now I find myself land-rich but cash-poor, so I have to build Tivoli Gardens with my own hands.”

“You must be very strong, Grandfather. You must have magical powers.”

 

“Some people think I’ve gone mad, but I don’t care. This is my obligation to the town’s future welfare, and it’s my passion, I tell you, my mission in life.”

“To be honest, it sounds awfully crazy,” she says. “What motivated you to take on such a gigantic project? I bet it’s some kind of memorial to your late wife. That’s so romantic!”

“We did spend our honeymoon at Tivoli Gardens, but it’s also a tribute to my ancestors and a gift to the townspeople.”

Grandfather sighs and leans back in his chair. She notices how foul his breath smells. Don’t they have dental floss up there in Tivoli?

“But I’m sorry I’m just an old fool who talks too much. Please tell me your story. I can see you are in a terrible predicament with no place to stay tonight.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m at my wit’s end,” she says. “Do you by any chance have a hotel in Tivoli? A nice place with a bath that will take in a single women?”

“I regret that the hotel is still under construction,” he says, enjoying the joke, “and you wouldn’t fit anyway.”

The keeper of Tivoli gazes at the glowing red and yellow wick of the kerosene stove. “I must tell you the truth,” he says. “It’s the practice around here to refuse single women at the inns, and rightly so. This area has long been a haven for prostitutes and suicidal girls. Just last

summer the Peach Blossom made an exception and took in a girl who sobbed so very pitifully and inconsolably at their threshold. She claimed she was separated from her fiancé on the train.

 

It was a persuasive performance and they believed her. The matron intended to summon the Constable in the morning but the girl wandered off to the beach in the middle of the night and waded into the sea. The Peach Blossom let down it’s guard. Now people say the inn is haunted by the girl’s ghost. It’s a shame, but you are not going to find an inn that will accommodate a lone women, not tonight or any night.”

“That doesn’t justify how they’re treating me,” the traveler says. “I’m an adult, not a young girl. It’s laughable to assume I could be suicidal. Life is good. I love life. I was a very happy person until I came to this village and now I’m too angry at the innkeepers to even think of taking my own life.”

“I would like to put you up here, but that would be scandalous,” he says. “I’m still sexually active you see, even at my age – I keep a mistress in the village. I’d be an outcast if anyone found out you stayed the night here. You know how they gossip in the countryside. It’s even worse when you’re their landlord with all the responsibility of a village elder.”

The woodsman and the traveler drink tea, eat dried persimmons, and trade stories into the early hours until it’s time for her to go. No one must see her leaving the cottage in daylight. “You must go to the train station,” he says. “It will be warm there. The stationmaster keeps the stove burning overnight because he lives in an adjacent room behind the office. I’ll call ahead and tell him to expect you. He won’t protest being awakened at this hour because he’s just a caretaker who works for me, not the railroad.” Grandfather offers to give the traveler a tour of Tivoli Gardens if she returns in the morning.

The scene at the beach is enchanting. The moon is traveling up the ecliptic, drawing behind it an obedient tide. A ripple of shallow waves is advancing inexorably up the beach, rising slowly above the tidemarks on the stone pillar. The hemp rope that ties the rock island to

the shore sways gently, as though it were rocking a cradle. She puckers her lips and tastes salt in the breeze. The traveler sees that the lights of the squid boats have moved farther away from the harbor to line up on the horizon like a twinkling strand of diamonds.

“Shit!” she screams at the sea, surprising herself by her outburst and her profanity.

 

She’d never said that word out loud before. “What a bad word for a young lady to use,” she says, bowing in contrition to the moon. “I’ve lost my manners.”

She shivers with a moan and zips her jacket tight. Why did it have to get so suddenly cold at the end of autumn? Where should she sleep during the final hours of the night? She feels an irrational compulsion to lie down on the beach and cover herself with sand, but what if the tide sweeps her away? Will the squid boats come to her rescue? The rail depot is the only sensible choice. The woodsman says it will be warm there.

It occurs to the traveler that maybe this is the way it’s supposed to be, that she escaped the city and rode the rails to be on this particular beach at this particular time, but she is hungry, exhausted, and wounded by the inhumanity of this lovely seaside resort. She wonders with lurid curiosity whether the young man from the Peach Blossom had sex with the girl before she ran to the beech in tears. Where did she enter the water? Right here? Was there moonlight like this?

The traveler puts her satchel on the sand and sloshes her way to the stone pillar. She takes in the marvel of the seascape and cannot resist the urge to follow the rope to the little island with

the intention of clamoring up the rocks to the top, where she will sit in the romance of moonlight and meditate on the evanescence of life and the sheer madness of the world. A few steps away from her goal she loses one of her rubber sandals and slips reaching for it. The sea is lapping at her breast now and after trying to get a fast grip on the rocks she realizes they are too slippery to climb. Her legs and her torso do not feel cold at all. She sees the pretty lights of the squid boats

in the distance and dog paddles in that direction, gulping brine and laughing deliriously with such boundless joy it frightens her. She sees her lost rubber sandal bobbing in the water before her and clutches it.

The traveler wakes in hazy sunlight from a dream full of muted colors and the cries of shorebirds. She looks up to see three men hovering above her. “Am I on a squid boat?” she asks. They look puzzled. Then she recognizes the boy from the Peach Blossom Inn. Next to him stands the old man from Tivoli Gardens with his arms crossed solemnly as though he owns the place, which of course he does. The other man is wearing a blue uniform and a policeman’s hat.

“What happened? Where am I?” she says. She saw the men exchange knowing glances. She feels a hard surface under her back with uncomfortable slats. She turns to her side and feels the heat of a potbelly stove that is making steam rise from her blue jeans with the smell of her mother ironing clothes in their little kitchen. She is swaddled in a thick woolen blanket and someone has wrapped a towel around her wet hair.

“This young man fished you out of the sea,” the man in the policeman’s hat says in a scolding tone. “You are very lucky to be alive, young lady. He had the good sense to bring you here to warm you up by the stove. People die of hypothermia, you know.” He cocks his head and glares at the window as though he is waiting for someone important to arrive. “The clinic does not open until eleven o’clock and the nurse is not answering her phone, but it looks as though

you are going to be just fine, despite your reckless actions.”

 

The graceful matron from the Peach Blossom enters the waiting room with her eyes downcast, saying all the stock apologies a refined woman says on crossing the threshold of another’s home. She carries a bundle of dry clothes, which she hands to her son without a word and scowls at the room before gliding away.

“I’m very sorry,” the son says to the traveler, as though he is apologizing for the inconvenience of saving her life. “Grandfather phoned the inn before dawn. He was worried because the stationmaster said you hadn’t shown up. I knew exactly where to go and I caught

you just in time.” He gives the impression that suicides are routine at the rocky island. Maybe he was chasing the ghost who haunts the inn. The traveler is almost certain now that he Peach Blossom boy deflowered the girl that fateful night. She doesn’t have to ask why she’s lying on a hard bench in the rail depot instead of under a feather quilt at the inn.

The caretaker in the policeman’s hat draws a watch from his vest pocket and studies it. “There’s a train coming in forty-five minutes that I advise you to board,” he says. “There is not another until late afternoon.”

She goes to the rank privy behind the station to change into the dry clothes: A pair of faded peasant’s pants, an ugly orange sweater, pink panties and a stained brassier that is two sizes too small, clothes she imagines were intended for the rag picker on his next visit to the village. Her savior from the Peach Blossom Inn leaves the station without looking back. Grandfather says goodbye in a gruff whisper then winks as though their secret is safe. “You’re always welcome to come by for a tour, but I see there is too little time this morning.”

The traveler spots a vending machine across the road and digs for coins in her wet, sandy satchel, finding just enough for a chocolate-almond bar. She sits down on the bench and waits.

Soon, a train will arrive and rumble up the shoreline taking her to the provincial capital, where she will board the semi-express train on her way back to the city. She will transfer to the subway and feel embarrassed by her rag picker’s clothing among sophisticated commuters. When she gets to her apartment she will take a hot bath, tie her scented hair in a bun, and dress

 

herself in a red velveteen jumpsuit, then walk to her favorite café, where she will eat thick buttered toast and drink the finest coffee in the world

 

 

 

 

TIVOLI GARDENS

 

Why is she even on this train? She set out with a certain destination in mind but she has only a vague idea what she will do when she arrives. She feels as though she is not really traveling at all but floating aimlessly aboard a lumbering train that stops every twenty minutes at deserted stations along the shoreline. She imagines a vanishing point ahead where the land ends and the wide expanse of the ocean begins. She sets her sights on that point and wonders whether she’ll have to jump off the train before it plunges into the sea.

I’m being ludicrous, the traveler tells herself. I’m over-dramatizing the simplicity of this journey. Maybe she does know what she is doing, even if she doesn’t know how she knows it. She languishes in her confusion and delicious sadness.

This cannot be explained by the divorce. Nonsense. The boy doesn’t deserve any credit for influencing her actions because he is a natural born idiot. He is nothing now, out of her life. Gone, dead, nothing. She used to call him “bean curd spine” for his lack of resolve. The best retort he could muster from his dim-witted imagination was “hairy legs!” He didn’t approve when she went natural and stopped shaving her legs and underarms. He was deeply embarrassed when she started going braless. He believed he was in charge of her when actually he wasn’t even in charge of himself, the traveler thinks, trying to subdue the anger she knows is irrelevant. The boy is helpless without his mother.

She hates the woman and it’s no secret that the woman detests her, first for stealing her precious son and then for abandoning him, which was most inconvenient for the woman in terms of social appearances.

She’s a demon, the traveler is thinking when the train lurches to a halt at another station in another anonymous seaside hamlet. The old woman couldn’t be more than 137 centimeters tall, stooped from rice planting and malnutrition in her youth. She is mean to the core. Beady eyes glare out of the sockets of her sallow face. The traveler used to think she might save the world from evil if she had the courage to hoist the hag by her skinny neck and strangle her in front of

her son. But where is the compassion she ought to feel for a woman who survived dire poverty and depravation to bear the child she once loved, the traveler asks herself. Is it time to feel it now? The old train bumps and sways along ancient tracks that snake through tunnels and veer precariously close to sandstone cliffs along the coast. She must not indulge in bitterness, she reminds herself. It’s done, gone and thrown in the trash. It no longer matters.

The traveler hears a squeaky falsetto ringing out when the train pulls away from the station. She looks up to see a teenage girl wearing a starched pink uniform pushing a cart. “Coffee, can beer, lunch boxes!” The logo of the Western Rail Service is stitched on the breast

of the girl’s blouse, indicating she is an authorized vendor of certified goods. Stopping the girl to buy a beer it occurs to the traveler that she is the only passenger on the two-car train. She gives her the note, takes the change and hears an excessively polite thank you, then watches the teenager in pink resume her progress down the aisle, still chirping out her items for sale. At the end of the aisle the vendor bangs and shoves her cart through the double doors into an empty carriage, still singing “Coffee, can beer, lunch boxes!”

The beer is two or three degrees below room temperature but it tastes good. She thanks herself for not buying a paper cup of stale coffee from the girl’s thermos, which would make her stomach queasy with the acid from spent grounds. Lukewarm beer is soothing, she says under her breath. Don’t they drink it that way in Europe? She imagines herself as a sophisticated lady drinking warm beer on the Orient Express. Then she slumps into her hard-backed velvet seat.

The traveler looks at the ghostly reflection in the rattling window beside her and sees a strange woman riding on a shabby blue train on a late autumn’s afternoon. She’s going to a quaint seaside village, she reminds herself. It’s off-season so she didn’t even bother making a reservation at the modest inn where she plans to stay. She spent an ecstatic night at that inn with

an old lover, a married man, well before she met the boy. She hadn’t really planned to escape the city this morning to ride hours and hours by rail to the provincial capital, where she transferred to a spur line and climbed aboard this tired old locomotive. But it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

The afternoon sun is softening into dusk in a sorrowful way. She wonders how many stops it will be before she gets to the village. Would it be after dark? The conductor strolls up the aisle, maintaining perfect balance as the train rocks from side to side on uneven rails. He checks her ticket for the third time. “You must think I’m a stowaway,” she says, looking up to his expressionless face. The man ignores the remark. He seems proud of his blue policeman-style hat. She asks him when they would arrive at her destination and he answers with a sigh, pulling a watch out of his vest pocket. He reexamines her ticket. “We are right on schedule,” he says.

Then he walks briskly up the aisle, looking left and right for passengers he might have missed on his earlier rounds. She looks at her ticket and sees there is no time of arrival marked on the flimsy green cardboard. She’ll have to maintain vigilance to avoid being lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the train.

She opens her window to feel the cool sea breeze. The important thing is that I’m getting farther and farther away from the city, she reassures herself.

The conductor has been announcing each stop over the scratchy intercom since she boarded the train. When at last she hears him pronounce her station she is struck by a feeling of excited anticipation fringed by a certain dread. As she is about to disembark the conductor asks to check her ticket at the door. “Make certain you have not left any belongings behind,” he says. “Mind your step – it is dangerous.”

Regaining her balance after leaping to the platform she looks up to see a faded green sign peeling from the wall: Tivoli Gardens, 1.7 kilometers. It doesn’t say which direction.

It is a very pleasant walk to the shore. The lamps of a cluster of weathered wooden houses are flickering on and she hears muffled shouts and laugher and the buzz of television sets welcoming her to the village. For the first time in months she feels calm. The smell of fish in the little harbor and the sound of waves slapping on the beach tell her she’s come to the right place. She walks for a while longer up the lane past a grove of cedar and pine trees then stops by a bank of fallen leaves to admire a majestic view of the sea in twilight. The traveler hadn’t expected to find a full moon on the horizon casting eerie light on the water. Rising tide, she thinks, perfect

for a quiet dip in the sea tonight

 

Across the breakwater she sees a flotilla of squid boats in the distance shining their arc lights into the water, luring their prey to the surface to be netted and thrown on ice. They’ll be out there until dawn and she plans to watch them though her window until she falls asleep.

A tier of crumbling concrete steps invites her down to the darkening beach, where she makes out a little rocky island at the end of a tidal shoal. It is wrapped in a giant hemp rope that reaches across the water and ties the island to a jutting stone pillar on the shore. She studies the tide marks on the pillar and wonders how long it will be before the rising moon tugs the waves higher up the beech to reach the first mark.

She feels hungry now, and tired. Time to check in for the night. She spots her inn, the first in a row of lodges facing the water. She trudges along the beach in her rubber sandals feeling the sand slipping between her toes, still warm despite the chilling breeze. The traveler sees a stone stairway leading up to the lane and climbs it to circle around to the front of the inn. She raps on the sliding cedar door at the entryway. Several minutes pass in silence before she knocks again much louder.

“Yes, yes,” says a raspy voice inside, “who is there?”

 

“Good evening. I’m a tourist from the city and I’d like to request a room for the night, please.”

A woman wearing a grey wool dress and an indigo apron slides the door open and bows before examining her guest. “Welcome,” she says. Then the innkeeper eyes the traveler up and down with suspicion, apparently taken aback by the informality of her attire. The woman inspects the unkempt hair, the old tan coat, the faded blue jeans and the rubber scandals.

“You must have had a tiresome journey. And it is a room for two I gather?” The woman cranes her neck to look into the dusk. “I’m sorry, but where is your husband?” she says with the high tone of exaggerated politeness meant to conceal disdain. “You look like a very nice young lady. Certainly you are not traveling alone on this dark night. It is so very late.”

The woman reminds her of her elderly aunt with her soft pouchy cheeks, but she lacks the kind eyes.

Before she could slip out of her sandals and step up to the foyer the woman side steps to block her way. The traveler checks her watch to see it’s only six-fifteen.

“Oh, I sincerely beg your forgiveness, Madam, but with all due respect I do not think the time is so very late and it is just now growing dark,” she says, strategically shifting into a well-

bred lady’s formal speech. “I am so very sorry to be such a nuisance, but I do travel alone all across the nation for my work. My foolish husband unfortunately could not get away from the city today owing to urgent business at the bank, but he sent me ahead nonetheless and shall be joining me on the morrow. I am sorry to be so brazen, but would you be so kind as to allow me to register tonight, if it be your pleasure? I do apologize for the imposition.”

The innkeeper glances at the traveler’s hand to see she is not wearing a wedding ring. There had been a ring and it would be convenient now, but she ditched it into a sewer drain on their anniversary in April.

“I am so sorry but unfortunately the inn is closed. I truly wish I could accommodate you but there is no possibility. It cannot be helped.”

“Please, I’ve traveled all this way,” she says, slipping back into the sincerity of informal speech. “We stayed at your inn once before in the high season on our honeymoon. There has to be a vacant room at this time of year. Please don’t refuse me just because I’m traveling alone. My husband will get here soon.”

“Young lady, it’s beyond my control,” the innkeeper says. “We truly do not have any rooms prepared for guests in the off-season. Next time please call ahead before coming. And you know a young lady like you should not travel alone. It is dangerous.”

The traveler loathes the term “young lady” and barely keeps her anger in check. It’s condescending and it’s a put-down aimed at ridiculing a woman of her age. She wants to scream at this stupid woman. At thirty-two, she deserves more respect, even without a wedding band.

Down the hall behind the innkeeper the traveler sees a man wearing a light blue patterned robe carrying a toothbrush and a little towel. He looks lost and asks the matron for directions to the inn’s communal bath.

“Just a moment please,” the matron tells the man.

She turns with a forced smile radiating contempt and recommends the neighboring inn. “It’s very nice and clean,” she says. The woman slides the door to its locked position quickly and firmly.

The lodges up the lane are lit by the soft glow of the moon. Narrow beams of light are trained on wooden shingles announcing their names: Azalea House, Peach Blossom Inn, August Moon Lodge. This could be any minor tourist destination across the country, she thinks. Run- down, passed by, lost in time. On the opposite side of the road she notices a small green sign hanging precariously from a broken stake. In the dim light she makes out faded calligraphy saying “Tivoli Garden,” with a thin arrow pointing up the lane.   How curious, she thinks, but it doesn’t sound at all like a place to stay.

She turns and goes to knock on the door of the next inn, the one the horrible lady recommended. The traveler waits patiently as the sound of light footsteps approach then recede, scurry, stomp and approach in the patter of a frightened squirrel. She gathers this innkeeper was warned of the stranger’s approach. At last an aluminum sash door rolls open. Then an outer door with thin vertical slats scratches and slides aside, revealing a short woman looking at her with a grimace. She reminds the traveler of the boy’s mother, only plumper and sillier with layers of

pink and white makeup giving her the look of a circus clown. All she needs are X marks over her eyes and a red wig.

“I’m sorry to be impetuous and bother you so rudely,” the traveler says in an obsequious manner. “I wonder if you might have a room available for the likes of me tonight, a simple room without meals included. I do not require much, just shelter for the night. I am sorry to be such a nuisance but I beg of you.”

“We’re closed,” the clown says and slams shut both her doors. The light over the entryway goes dark.

The traveler is determined to maintain her composure. At least she didn’t call me young lady, she mutters as she walks across the lane and finds a large rock to sit on. She breathes deeply to calm her fluttering heart. The rock is jagged and hurts her bottom so she stands to practice one of the exercises she learned in her yoga class, extending her arms high to fill her lungs with fresh air, exhaling as she stretches her arms sideways in a cross, then leaning over to touch her toes. She rises with her palms touching like a Buddha and repeats the exercise.

While she is doing this, an elderly couple strolls up the lane and stops to watch her in amusement, gawking as though she is some kind of garden fairy. They’re wearing light blue patterned robes under brown cotton-padded jackets of the kind innkeepers provide their guests. “Good evening,” she addresses them. “May I ask where you are staying tonight?” Seemingly stunned that this strange creature could speak their language, they turn and walk briskly in the direction they came from.

Most of the other lodges along the road are dark, apparently closed in the off-season. She sees another sign for Tivoli Gardens, but it is tilted and so dilapidated it seems to have been erected decades ago. She wonders why no one had taken it down and thrown it away because whatever Tivoli Gardens was, it must have gone out of business long ago.

In the distance up the wooded lane she sees an establishment that looks promising. It’s larger than the other inns and lit up brightly, beckoning the traveler to approach. The place is newly constructed with ferroconcrete pillars supporting a tasteful façade of horizontal cedar planks, affecting a stylish look that is both traditional and contemporary. The sign reads: Peach Blossom Inn.

It is a handsome man about her age who opens the door smiling and asking what her business might be. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you around here before,” he says. “Are you the new nurse from the government clinic? We had a guest who choked on a piece of octopus last night. Perhaps the Matron phoned and left a message before we successfully removed the bit of tentacle by slapping her back. It’s regrettable if you came all this way to conduct a follow-up examination. She recovered quickly and checked out this morning.”

The man looks into her eyes enticingly, as many men do, then scans her face and body. He coughs, takes a look at her legs and feet and seems confused by the rubber sandals.

“No, I’m not the nurse, just a traveler looking for shelter,” she says, thinking this is someone she might trust. She feels a sudden attraction to him. He is tall and muscular with thick eyebrows and a strong jaw. I’d be happy to sleep with him for a room tonight, she thinks. She hadn’t made love to a man in more than two years, not even to the boy. A deep desire wells up inside her.

“I came from the city this evening ­­­planning to spend the night in your lovely seaside village,” she says, raising her pitch to sound childishly sweet. “I visited many years ago and have always wanted to return, but I made the foolish mistake of not phoning ahead for a reservation. I hope you will forgive me. Sometimes I can be spontaneous and carefree to a fault.

Please, if you have a room for me, I’d be very grateful.”

Instinctively she licks her lips, flips her long black hair over her ear, and arches her back, revealing the outline of her ample breasts through her open coat. He’s stunned, she can see. Her face flushes when she realizes what she had done. How stupid, she chides herself. He’s going think I’m a traveling whore.

The man gazes at her with the look of an uncertain predator, half salacious, half fearful. “Is it a double room you want?” he says. “I don’t see your companion.”

“I’m afraid I’m traveling alone tonight. I’m not in the mood for partners these days,” she says, returning the honest sandy purr of her normal voice. “I just got rid of one. Men are distracting and time-consuming and not very good company when you want to be alone. I came here to do some soul searching.”

“I see. Your man must have been a fool to let you come here alone, but that’s none of my business,” he says, obviously flustered. “I mean, we’re discussing the inn not your private life. The inn has certain rules, you see. I don’t say I agree with them. I really wish we could put you up. Unfortunately I believe it’s our policy not to accommodate single guests. It can’t be helped.”

“You mean single women guests! That’s discrimination, you know. I could report you to the authorities,” she says with a mirthful laugh, hoping he appreciates the humor behind her show of indignation. She wants to seduce him, not insult him. “I’ve traveled far and wide – to foreign countries – but have never been refused a room on account of my gender. Rules can be broken.”

His eyes are downcast now. He’s fidgeting with his hands and shuffling his feet. The poor man, she thinks. He doesn’t seem to understand that she’s just flirting with him in a harmless way. Maybe he’s happily married, or just pretending to be bashful. Her intuition says that her presence is evoking inner conflict in the man far beyond awkwardness. He’s a tortured soul, which makes him all the more interesting.

“It’s really beyond my control, but I’ll ask my mother if we can make an exception. She runs the place,” he says and disappears down the hall. He wants me, the traveler could tell, but is he another mamma’s boy?

The matron of the establishment suddenly appears, bowing in a formulaic apology. Her face is unlined and beautiful like her son’s. She is a picture of elegance and refinement as she crosses her arms in a gesture that says: No, no. Go away.

“I am so embarrassed and I deeply regret this, but as much as we would like to we cannot offer you accommodations tonight. We have no vacancies,” she says. “It cannot be helped,

young lady. I suggest you call on one of the inns down the lane toward the train station.” The elegant lady closes the door with the utmost grace.

The traveler tries the August Moon Lodge next door but the lights go out just as she’s about to knock on its rattan-covered door. They must have a telephone tree set up to warn the neighborhood when wild animals or single young ladies approach, she concludes.

It is the point of no return. She’s getting cold in the moonlight. “I’m stuck in this miserable village for the night and I’ll have to sleep on the beach and die of hypothermia,” she says, sneering at the sculpted pine tree in front of the inn. “These fools won’t call me a young lady after I’m dead. Hah, hah!” She imagines the headlines in tomorrow morning’s late edition: “Human Icicle Found at Seaside Resort.” These criminally negligent innkeepers will tell police they didn’t see a woman of her description last night.

The traveler could always sleep on a bench at the rail depot, she thinks, and there might be a vending machine nearby that stocks candy or sugary health drinks that would save her from starving. At that moment she spies a light through the trees and shakes off the comedy of panic. Could this be the inn of last resort? The traveler follows the light to the point where the road takes a bend away from the sea and turns to gravel. She imagines it’s a rustic inn tucked away from the well-beaten path but when she draws near she sees it’s little more than a cottage. She creeps to the door feeling like a lost child and knocks timidly. The door creaks open revealing an

ancient man. He’s the spitting image of the woodsman, she thinks, a kindly old soul with a twinkle in his eye. She hopes he’s not under a spell by the despicable witches down the road.

The kind face tightens when he sees a strange woman at his threshold. “Are you the new nurse at the clinic? I told them in no uncertain terms that I may be eighty-four but I’m fit as a fiddle,” he says in the softest growl she’d ever heard. “I don’t want anyone bothering me up here and poking me with needles!”

“No, Grandfather, I’m not the nurse,” she says. “I’m just a graphic designer and tonight I’m an unlucky traveler. I came from the city hoping to restore myself by the sea, but none of the inns will accommodate me because I’m a woman and I have the audacity to travel alone. I saw your lights from the road and thought you might be able to assist me. I’m very sorry to intrude on your privacy at this late hour.”

The old man reverts to the gentile woodsman. “Oh my goodness,” he says. “You poor child, you must be freezing out there. Please come in and warm yourself by the stove. I’ll make a pot of tea. Forgive my rudeness, I don’t get many visitors up here.”

The traveler is overwhelmed by this sudden gesture of kindness. She manages to wipe her face dry with her coat sleeve before the old man returns from his dirt-floored kitchen with the tea. He passes her a rough earthenware cup, which she uses to warm her hands, leaning closer to the kerosene stove.

They exchange pleasantries for a while until the traveler casts aside her reserve and gives into her curiosity. She wonders if he’s a hermit, not a woodsman,. Both are characters in the fairy tales of her childhood, but their roles are quite different.

“Grandfather, why are you living all alone in the woods like this?” she asks. “Certainly you have family down in the village to take care of you.”

“Alas, I have no one,” he says. “My son is an ingrate who lives hundreds of miles away in a distant province and never visits. My daughter has made her home in Argentina. But I’m self-sufficient and don’t need them. I do a good job taking care of myself.”

He then launches into his story, speaking at an eager pace that suggests not many people listen to it anymore. “I’m retired here because these are my woods,” he says. “I was the president of a prosperous trading company in the city but I quit and left it all behind after my wife died in

a tragic accident. She was crushed by a trolley crossing the street after buying an armful of radishes from a vegetable stall. We were married 47 years.”

“I’m so sorry,” she says. “That’s terrible.”

“Since then I’ve dedicated my life to building a scale model of Tivoli Gardens. Do you know the place? It’s in Denmark. It’s famous,” he says. “My Tivoli is a work in progress up in the hills across the train tracks.”

“Unbelievable,” she says. “I saw the signs along the way but didn’t understand. It looked as though Tivoli Gardens was something from the distant past.”

“To the contrary, it is alive and well. I have the contour and the layout all carved out with most of the pavilions done, but the hard part is the rides. It’s taken me nearly 20 years to get this far. I recently finished the rutschebanen, the world’s oldest wooden roller coaster. I think the Ferris wheel is next. It all measures to scale no higher than four meters, constructed in exacting detail by myself.”

“But who is going to be taking these rides – elves?” She hopes he’s not offended by the temerity of her humor. “Chipmunks?”

“No, no. It’s going to be a major tourist attraction that will revitalize the local economy,” the old man says. “You see, I own these forests and hills and most of the real estate in the area.

My clan has possessed them for five generations and my father was the last of a long line of timber barons. Now I find myself land-rich but cash-poor, so I have to build Tivoli Gardens with my own hands.”

“You must be very strong, Grandfather. You must have magical powers.”

Some people think I’ve gone mad, but I don’t care. This is my obligation to the town’s future welfare, and it’s my passion, I tell you, my mission in life.”

“To be honest, it sounds awfully crazy,” she says. “What motivated you to take on such a gigantic project? I bet it’s some kind of memorial to your late wife. That’s so romantic!”

“We did spend our honeymoon at Tivoli Gardens, but it’s also a tribute to my ancestors and a gift to the townspeople.”

Grandfather sighs and leans back in his chair. She notices how foul his breath smells. Don’t they have dental floss up there in Tivoli?

“But I’m sorry I’m just an old fool who talks too much. Please tell me your story. I can see you are in a terrible predicament with no place to stay tonight.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m at my wit’s end,” she says. “Do you by any chance have a hotel in Tivoli? A nice place with a bath that will take in a single women?”

“I regret that the hotel is still under construction,” he says, enjoying the joke, “and you wouldn’t fit anyway.”

The keeper of Tivoli gazes at the glowing red and yellow wick of the kerosene stove. “I must tell you the truth,” he says. “It’s the practice around here to refuse single women at the inns, and rightly so. This area has long been a haven for prostitutes and suicidal girls. Just last

summer the Peach Blossom made an exception and took in a girl who sobbed so very pitifully and inconsolably at their threshold. She claimed she was separated from her fiancé on the train.

It was a persuasive performance and they believed her. The matron intended to summon the Constable in the morning but the girl wandered off to the beach in the middle of the night and waded into the sea. The Peach Blossom let down it’s guard. Now people say the inn is haunted by the girl’s ghost. It’s a shame, but you are not going to find an inn that will accommodate a lone women, not tonight or any night.”

“That doesn’t justify how they’re treating me,” the traveler says. “I’m an adult, not a young girl. It’s laughable to assume I could be suicidal. Life is good. I love life. I was a very happy person until I came to this village and now I’m too angry at the innkeepers to even think of taking my own life.”

“I would like to put you up here, but that would be scandalous,” he says. “I’m still sexually active you see, even at my age – I keep a mistress in the village. I’d be an outcast if anyone found out you stayed the night here. You know how they gossip in the countryside. It’s even worse when you’re their landlord with all the responsibility of a village elder.”

The woodsman and the traveler drink tea, eat dried persimmons, and trade stories into the early hours until it’s time for her to go. No one must see her leaving the cottage in daylight. “You must go to the train station,” he says. “It will be warm there. The stationmaster keeps the stove burning overnight because he lives in an adjacent room behind the office. I’ll call ahead and tell him to expect you. He won’t protest being awakened at this hour because he’s just a caretaker who works for me, not the railroad.” Grandfather offers to give the traveler a tour of Tivoli Gardens if she returns in the morning.

The scene at the beach is enchanting. The moon is traveling up the ecliptic, drawing behind it an obedient tide. A ripple of shallow waves is advancing inexorably up the beach, rising slowly above the tidemarks on the stone pillar. The hemp rope that ties the rock island to

the shore sways gently, as though it were rocking a cradle. She puckers her lips and tastes salt in the breeze. The traveler sees that the lights of the squid boats have moved farther away from the harbor to line up on the horizon like a twinkling strand of diamonds.

“Shit!” she screams at the sea, surprising herself by her outburst and her profanity.

She’d never said that word out loud before. “What a bad word for a young lady to use,” she says, bowing in contrition to the moon. “I’ve lost my manners.”

She shivers with a moan and zips her jacket tight. Why did it have to get so suddenly cold at the end of autumn? Where should she sleep during the final hours of the night? She feels an irrational compulsion to lie down on the beach and cover herself with sand, but what if the tide sweeps her away? Will the squid boats come to her rescue? The rail depot is the only sensible choice. The woodsman says it will be warm there.

It occurs to the traveler that maybe this is the way it’s supposed to be, that she escaped the city and rode the rails to be on this particular beach at this particular time, but she is hungry, exhausted, and wounded by the inhumanity of this lovely seaside resort. She wonders with lurid curiosity whether the young man from the Peach Blossom had sex with the girl before she ran to the beech in tears. Where did she enter the water? Right here? Was there moonlight like this?

The traveler puts her satchel on the sand and sloshes her way to the stone pillar. She takes in the marvel of the seascape and cannot resist the urge to follow the rope to the little island with

the intention of clamoring up the rocks to the top, where she will sit in the romance of moonlight and meditate on the evanescence of life and the sheer madness of the world. A few steps away from her goal she loses one of her rubber sandals and slips reaching for it. The sea is lapping at her breast now and after trying to get a fast grip on the rocks she realizes they are too slippery to climb. Her legs and her torso do not feel cold at all. She sees the pretty lights of the squid boats

in the distance and dog paddles in that direction, gulping brine and laughing deliriously with such boundless joy it frightens her. She sees her lost rubber sandal bobbing in the water before her and clutches it.

The traveler wakes in hazy sunlight from a dream full of muted colors and the cries of shorebirds. She looks up to see three men hovering above her. “Am I on a squid boat?” she asks. They look puzzled. Then she recognizes the boy from the Peach Blossom Inn. Next to him stands the old man from Tivoli Gardens with his arms crossed solemnly as though he owns the place, which of course he does. The other man is wearing a blue uniform and a policeman’s hat.

“What happened? Where am I?” she says. She saw the men exchange knowing glances. She feels a hard surface under her back with uncomfortable slats. She turns to her side and feels the heat of a potbelly stove that is making steam rise from her blue jeans with the smell of her mother ironing clothes in their little kitchen. She is swaddled in a thick woolen blanket and someone has wrapped a towel around her wet hair.

“This young man fished you out of the sea,” the man in the policeman’s hat says in a scolding tone. “You are very lucky to be alive, young lady. He had the good sense to bring you here to warm you up by the stove. People die of hypothermia, you know.” He cocks his head and glares at the window as though he is waiting for someone important to arrive. “The clinic does not open until eleven o’clock and the nurse is not answering her phone, but it looks as though

you are going to be just fine, despite your reckless actions.”

The graceful matron from the Peach Blossom enters the waiting room with her eyes downcast, saying all the stock apologies a refined woman says on crossing the threshold of another’s home. She carries a bundle of dry clothes, which she hands to her son without a word and scowls at the room before gliding away.

“I’m very sorry,” the son says to the traveler, as though he is apologizing for the inconvenience of saving her life. “Grandfather phoned the inn before dawn. He was worried because the stationmaster said you hadn’t shown up. I knew exactly where to go and I caught

you just in time.” He gives the impression that suicides are routine at the rocky island. Maybe he was chasing the ghost who haunts the inn. The traveler is almost certain now that he Peach Blossom boy deflowered the girl that fateful night. She doesn’t have to ask why she’s lying on a hard bench in the rail depot instead of under a feather quilt at the inn.

The caretaker in the policeman’s hat draws a watch from his vest pocket and studies it. “There’s a train coming in forty-five minutes that I advise you to board,” he says. “There is not another until late afternoon.”

She goes to the rank privy behind the station to change into the dry clothes: A pair of faded peasant’s pants, an ugly orange sweater, pink panties and a stained brassier that is two sizes too small, clothes she imagines were intended for the rag picker on his next visit to the village. Her savior from the Peach Blossom Inn leaves the station without looking back. Grandfather says goodbye in a gruff whisper then winks as though their secret is safe. “You’re always welcome to come by for a tour, but I see there is too little time this morning.”

The traveler spots a vending machine across the road and digs for coins in her wet, sandy satchel, finding just enough for a chocolate-almond bar. She sits down on the bench and waits.

Soon, a train will arrive and rumble up the shoreline taking her to the provincial capital, where she will board the semi-express train on her way back to the city. She will transfer to the subway and feel embarrassed by her rag picker’s clothing among sophisticated commuters. When she gets to her apartment she will take a hot bath, tie her scented hair in a bun, and dress herself in a red velveteen jumpsuit, then walk to her favorite café, where she will eat thick buttered toast and drink the finest coffee in the world.

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Copyright  © 2015 Karl Schoenbergeer

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