Leading the Blind

The young woman looked scornfully her mother. She was still a child — still, a few months from her seventy-seventh birthday — and the old woman’s youthful naivety exhausted the daughter.

It was not that she’d become silly and she went senile. That would have been bearable; the daughter would have been proud to care for an aging parent who felt the tragedy of losing her physical and mental faculties. But she had never matured and wasn’t really deteriorating. She had been like this all her life: unashamed to be dependent, shocked by nothing and surprised by everything.

She had dragged her daughter into the worst area of the train and settled herself next to a balding tramp with vibrating narrow eyes and a web of scars and tattoos on his bare forearm. There was no one else within a five-seat radius, but the old woman tugged her daughter onto the bench and handed the tramp an orange. “Did you drop this, sir?”

“Mother!” the daughter hissed. “Leave the man alone.”

The old woman shoved the orange at the man. “Sir, you dropped this.”

The daughter snatched the fruit. The old woman’s empty fingers quivered, but the Papp ignored her. “Sorry,” she said, speaking to the tramp but not looking at him. She glared at her mother.

“Why are you making that face?” the old woman asked. Her voice was tremulous but high-pitched, and it carried.

“I’m not,” the daughter snapped. “You’re imagining things.”

The old woman raised her eyebrows. Her expression would have been shrewd if her eyes were not so pale, but they were the colour of the sky after a storm and prevented her from ever looking like she knew better than other people. “Ah,” said the old woman softly, “imagined it. I see.”

The daughter nodded.

The old woman turned back to the tramp, her eyes on his arm. “How’d you get so cut up?”

He closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep.

She tapped his shoulder. “Sir…”

The daughter felt her lips turn white. The old woman had brought her here, to the abandoned part of the train where the seats were empty and streaked with unknown half-dried stains. She had dragged her out of the comfortably quiet and wordlessly social world of normal commuters, and now she was making conversation with a tramp. “Mother,” the young woman said firmly, “leave him alone.”

“He’s sleeping,” the old woman said. “I’ll ask later.”

“Fine,” the daughter said. She took her mother’s hand, which was still hovering over the tramp’s shoulder, and set it in her lap.

The old woman allowed her daughter to hold her hand until a ray of outdoor light fell on her face. She gasped and clapped her hands. “Beck— Becky— do you see?” She leaned toward her daughter.

The train had risen respectfully as it passed the cemetery, emerging briefly from the tunnel. Sunlight flooded through the windows, marred only by the shadows of uncut grass waving on either side of the tracks. It was different at night, when the streetlights shone bronze and blue on the glass and the weird patterns of the reflections obscured further vision. The old woman liked to find pictures in the lines: sheaves of wheat, deformed hands, twisted Egyptian rivers, and other unintelligible — probably occult, the old woman said — symbols.

The windows were clear at midday. The fluorescent lights were not so overpowering and did not screen the huge windows, and the young woman couldn’t guess what new image had attracted her mother. “Not Becky, Rebecca,” she corrected automatically. She tilted her head near the old woman’s. “What is it?”

“It’s gone,” the old woman whispered. The daughter had turned too slowly to see the flash of sunlight, the shudder of leaves, and the transformation from brown to gold. “It was a gold tree. I’ll show you tomorrow.”

“Okay,” the daughter nodded. “It must have been optical illusion from the light.”

“Yes,” the old woman agreed. “I’ve never seen gold like that before.” Her eyes filled with tears. “To think I’ve never noticed it before! We’ve taken this train every day for years. Rebecca, what else am I missing?”

The young woman put a hand on her mother’s shoulder instead of answering. The space around them dimmed as the train dove back into the tunnel.

“Could I be missing other colours?” the old woman asked. She glanced at her daughter. “What about pink?”

“Lady,” said the man beside her, “shut up.” He had given up the charade of sleep but didn’t lift his head. “Can’t you see I’m tired?”

The old woman looked at him compassionately. “I didn’t mean to wake you.” Her eyes dropped to his arm, and before the daughter could stop her, she said, “Would you explain how you got those scars?”

The man clenched his jaw. “I told you to shut up.”

“No?” asked the old woman. “You won’t explain?”

He grunted. “No. Leave me alone.”

The old woman drooped, and for a moment the daughter thought her mother would obey. Then a crafty expression spread over her innocent wrinkled face. “You may not have noticed,” she said, “but you dropped an orange earlier. I tried to return it to you.”

The daughter counted three other passengers watching them surreptitiously from the corners of half-closed eyes. Others raised their newspapers like shields and hid. She understood. The polite and prudent ring of strangers, which stayed at a distance and gave neither offense nor comfort to the ragged man, was extending the same courtesy to the old woman who had looked him in the eye. If the tramp actually did something violent, they would spring into action. Someone would sound the alarm. The line would be delayed and there might be a fight, but she and her mother would be safe.

“You took my fruit,” the man said. He lifted his head. “Why would you steal from a homeless man?”

“I— I didn’t know,” the daughter stammered. “Have it.”

He took the fruit and squeezed it over the old woman’s skirt, peering at the daughter all the time. His eyes were wide and oddly luminous in his dull face. They were an ordinary brown like her own, but the daughter stared too long and found flecks of colour in the dark irises. They glinted like stones veined with precious metal.

She felt a sudden piercing of fear totally unlike her previous discomfort or defensiveness. “Mother?”

The tramp reached ominously into his pocket. The old woman seized her daughter’s arm and forced her out of her seat and through the open door. They stood still on the platform until the doors slid shut and the train pulled away.

The old woman relaxed her grip and smiled foolishly at her daughter. “I’m sorry, Rebecca. We’re three stations early. We’ll have to take the next train.”

By: Rachel Ottenbreit

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