The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 13, No. 1

The Conductor's Daughter

by Carolina Sanín

Translated by Janet Hendrickson

We wanted to get off the train at Armero. We got up from our seats, picked up our bags, and took off our jackets to step out into the warm air of the station. Victor's face was already lit up with joy and his hand poised to open the compartment door when the conductor's daughter opened it from the other side and stuck her head in, her face dark and sad.
     "As promised," she announced, and showed us a paper bag.
     Three hours earlier, she had gone to buy us half a roast chicken. For the first hour we waited for her to come back, for the second we complained, and during the third we learned to forget about the food for ever-longer spells. Finally, when we were about to reach Armero, where the chicken would never matter again, the girl showed up with her knitted gloves and the paper bag.
     "As promised," she repeated, pushing Victor, who had blocked the entrance to the compartment.
     I could only think that in a few minutes we would be still, warm after so much cold. I put out my right hand to take the bag, but when it was a millimeter away, when a bee could not have flown between me and the girl, Victor grabbed my wrist. He kissed my hand and put it in the pocket of his pants. Then he took my hand out and let it fall by his side.
     I lifted my hand, put it in front of my eyes, and thought there was nothing for this hand to do: I had only one suitcase, and the left could carry it. I forgot the girl's bag and returned my right hand to the spot where Victor had put it. I felt the seam at the bottom of his pocket just as the train stopped.
     Victor wanted to take a step, and lifted one heel off the floor, then put it back in its place. He couldn't move. The girl's black boots were stepping on the toes of his shoes.
     "Keep the chicken," Victor told the girl. "In any case, we've already paid you for it."
     "Sell it," I told her. The girl's black eyes shone like lost ornaments, like ornaments rescued in a magpie's beak. "Sell it to the passengers boarding at this station. You could sell each piece separately."
     The girl wiped her face with the hem of her skirt, as if to dry her eyes, though she hadn't shed a tear. She said, her voice choking up, that after Armero no one boarded the train. People only got off or changed cars. She offered us the bag again and looked for my right hand, but only the left was visible, pinned to the handle of the suitcase.
     "We'll eat the chicken in Armero," I whispered in Victor's ear. Over the girl's head I watched other passengers go through the aisle to exit. "Nearly everyone's gotten off. Let's just take the bag and go," I begged.
     "We can't walk through Armero with half a dead chicken in a bag," Victor said.
     "No one will notice," the girl murmured, looking at the floor.
     Victor reminded her that we wouldn't want to eat the chicken once we got off the train. We would forget about the chicken and walk with the bag through the city and the country, not knowing that we had once wanted it.
     The girl opened the bag, looked at its contents, and said something that drowned inside.
     "What did you just say?" I asked her.
     "That it's a shame to throw out a chicken that roasted for three hours."
     She puckered her lips, resigned, but still didn't move from the door.
     Then the fat man spoke. He had a mustache, a double chin, and two vests, and shared the compartment with us. Until then he had pretended to sleep.
     "The thing I can't believe is that anyone could stand this little girl," he said slowly, without intonation, as if reading words from the air.
     Victor and I turned to look at him. When our eyes focused, he no longer interested us. We looked outside, where everything began to move slowly in reverse. There were iron columns—or rather, posts—a florist's shop, and a man with three greyhounds at the ends of three leashes.
     "They're not greyhounds," Victor said. "That kind of dog has another name."
     A white-haired woman appeared at the right edge of the window. She stood on the platform, wearing a shawl and holding up a sign that read SARA AND VICTOR. She disappeared through the left side of the window as the train accelerated toward its next stop.
     "Someone was waiting for us, I think," Victor said, and sat down, not in the seat he'd vacated a few minutes earlier, but in mine, next to the window, in front of the fat man.
     I sat down beside him, and the conductor's daughter sat down beside me. She put the bag in her lap, took off her gloves, and with her dark hand folded the top of the bag a few times to close it better. She offered it to me again. I took it, folded the paper one more time, and put it between my knees. I tipped my head back and looked at the dilapidated ceiling. I suddenly felt that my eyes were very open, and I feared I might never be able to close them again.
     When my eyes started to burn, I closed them and opened them. I did this again, and then again, until I lost count.
     Victor put on his jacket and offered me mine.
     "Your tickets only go to Armero?" the girl said. She was trying to make peace.
     Victor looked at her sidelong and didn't answer. I didn't look at her.
     "I'll have my father fix it," the girl continued. "He's the conductor."
     "Fine," Victor said.
     "Fine," said the fat man with the vests, lowering his head until the first of his chins touched his chest.
     "Who's Sara?" I asked.
     "Who knows," Victor said. "It must be someone else. Another couple who didn't make it on the train. Another Victor and another Sara."
     "A Sara," I said. "Not another Sara. No one calls me Sara."
     "Maybe the woman had her own name written down," Victor said. "Her name was ó her name was Victor, and she wanted someone to recognize her."
     "I'll have my father fix it," the girl repeated, sitting up in her chair. "He's the conductor."
     "Fine," Victor said.
     "We'll stop in Armero on the way back," the girl continued. "Of course, it won't be the same now. It won't be exactly the same. It won't be exactly as if nothing happened."
     The fat man with the vests cleared his throat.
     "A pretty girl," he said, addressing me. "She'll be a pretty woman."
     "Thank you, sir," the girl said.
     "Do many children talk like her?" the man asked.
     "If my dad comes to check the tickets," the girl said, "I'll tell him it was my fault you couldn't get off the train. I'll ask him to let you stay until the next time we stop in Armero. But no one's getting on until we head back. It will be hours before he comes to check the tickets."
     "How long will it be until we stop in Armero again?" I asked.
     "Three stops. But not all the stretches between them are as long as the one between the last two."
     The fat man with the vests announced that he would get off at the next station. Before getting off, he wanted us to know he had a daughter the same age as the conductor's daughter. He wanted to show us a handkerchief he always carried with him in the pocket of his second vest. The handkerchief was tied in a knot. Inside the knot, the fat man kept his daughter's milk teeth.
     "Vests don't have pockets," the conductor's daughter said. She said that she, too—not too long ago, but long enough—had lost all of her milk teeth and the definitive ones had grown in. "The bone teeth. And I nearly lost all my molars, too."
     Then she asked if we weren't going to eat the half chicken we'd wanted so much and waited for so long.
     "My mouth is dry," I said. "If I eat the chicken now, it will stick to the roof of my mouth."
     The girl offered to get me a bottle of water in the restaurant car.
     "Bring another for me," Victor said, and gave her two coins.
     "And another for me," said the man with the vests, and didn't offer her any money.
     "Yes. Anything you ask for, I'll say yes," the girl shouted.
     "It was about time we could talk grown-up matters," the fat man said when she'd left. "What are you two going to do in Armero?"
     "The same as everyone else," Victor replied.
     "What are your names?"
     "Victor and Olivia," I said.
     He asked if we had gotten married before the trip.
     If the seats were comfortable.
     "More or less."
     If we were tired.
     "We've rested a lot."
     Had anyone told us about Armero? Had we discussed Armero between ourselves?
     Victor pointed out the window at the trees passing by, one after another, a hundred, a thousand.
     "Everything is calm," I said in a whisper. "The trees and the shrubs. Every nerve of every leaf, and I." I covered my mouth with the lapel of my jacket, in case someone or something, somewhere along the railroad, could read lips.
     The woods were still passing when the fat man started to talk again. He spoke with the rhythm he used when he had first spoken, as if he were pulling each word from a separate page. He said he'd pretended to sleep until he reached Armero. If he thought of how much remained until he reached his station, a blank space appeared before him. If he let his eyes close, everything was black.
     Other trees paraded past the window.
     Victor had no wish to comment on anything, only to watch what the landscape would bring. Then he said that once, when he was very young, he'd traveled by train through South America.
     "I believe it," the fat man said. "But you must have missed Colombia. When you were young, the Colombian railway was in shambles and a new one still hadn't been built."
     I kept watching the land. We crossed between two hills covered with rocks and houses with green roofs.
     "Now the train will start to brake," the fat man said.
     The train started to brake.
     "As promised," the conductor's daughter said as she appeared in the compartment with three plastic bottles in her hands.
     The fat man got up from his seat, rolled up his sleeves, and slung a bag over his shoulder. He bade me farewell with a nod and put his hand out to Victor.
     "The worst part is that you're stupid," he told the girl. "You sold us the water at the same price you bought it, when you could have made a profit."
     He pushed her away and left.
     The conductor's daughter landed on the floor with a shriek. She stood up quickly and gave us our bottles of water, then uncapped the third, the one she had brought for the fat man, and drank.
     "Who taught you to be so stubborn?" Victor asked her.
     "I taught myself," she said, and poured a little water over a cut on her elbow where she'd fallen.
     "In the dining car, did they take the coins Victor gave you?" I asked her.
     "Of course not," she said. "I knew his coins weren't from here. I knew they were worthless here. If I took them, it wasn't to pay, but to let you all laugh at me. And so my father would have to pay for the water. He's the conductor, and he always has money in his pocket because sometimes the people don't have time to buy their tickets in the station and they buy them from him on the train."
     "Thank you," said Victor.
     "You're welcome," said the girl.
     She stood up and went out to the aisle. Victor and I drank.
     "Now it is before," we heard a little voice say in the distance. We leaned out and saw the conductor's daughter standing in the aisle at the front of the car. Then she ran to the other end.
     "And now it's after," she said upon reaching the back of the car.
     Victor and I sat back down.
     We told each other this train trip was beginning to seem like the dream where you get in an elevator. You press the number of the floor you want, let's say five, and you start to watch the little screen that shows the floors as you pass. The number five appears, then ten, which is the last floor of the building, and then 15, and 123, and 280 . . .
     "But I've never had that nightmare," I said. "I've only heard about it. Is it like a bingo game?"
     The conductor's daughter looked in and asked us why we hadn't eaten the chicken if we'd already drunk the water.
     "No reason," I said.
     I looked in the bag, took out the drumstick, gave Victor the wing, and started to eat. The girl sat in the seat that had belonged to the fat man with the vests.
     "I would like to fall asleep," she said.
     "Well, do it now," Victor said. "Olivia and I have to talk, and we don't want you to hear what we're going to say to each other."
     The three of us fell silent, and we closed our eyes. After a minute, the conductor's daughter announced she couldn't sleep.
     "Teach her something so she can distract herself," I suggested to Victor.
     "Is there something you don't know?" he asked the girl.
     "No," she replied.
     "Teach her to add," I said.
     "Do you know how to add?" Victor asked.
     "Yes," the girl said.
     Victor started to teach her. Three hours later, the conductor's daughter had learned to add again, and the train had stopped at the next station.
     "When the train starts moving again, we want you to leave us with what you've learned," Victor said.
     "And go where?" the girl asked.
     "To the other cars. To practice math. To tell your father about it," Victor said.
     "So that you leave us alone," I said. "We like it better when we're alone."
     The train started moving, but the girl stayed still.
     "Go buy some napkins," Victor ordered her. "Our mouths are dirty from the chicken grease."
     She didn't move.
     "Was the chicken still hot?" she asked.
     "It was very good," he replied. She agreed to go look for the napkins.
     "They're free," she said on the way out.
     "Sometimes I imagine a vertical railroad," I said. "I think they're making a staircase with a railroad to go up the endless building we were talking about."
     Then I drifted off to sleep. It seemed that at some point the train slowed down and sped up again. Between the last stop and ours, Armero once more, Victor woke me up.
     "What dictation?" I asked drowsily.
     "I said, I don't know why I woke you up. I didn't say anything about a dictation."
     We held each other as we crossed a cornfield.
     "Now we can talk about Armero," Victor said. "About what we'll do, what's going to be there."
     An undulating, gray field came toward us. It was made of dust, or made of smoke that had fallen back to Earth. We saw some goats. Or sheep.
     "As promised," the conductor's daughter announced, and opened the compartment door. She had three paper napkins in her hand. She gave one to me and another to Victor and exited, leaving the door open.
     "I came earlier to give you the napkins," she said from the aisle. "I came when we were arriving at the last stop, but you were both asleep. Too bad, because I came with my father, and you didn't get to meet him."
     "We already saw him when he punched our tickets at the beginning of the trip," Victor said. "Before Armero."
     "But you didn't get to know him well," the girl said.
     We were going to get off in Armero. We took off our jackets; we picked up our bags.
     "Was this your honeymoon?" the girl asked.
     Victor took the first step out of the compartment. He didn't look it, but he was even happier than I.
     No one was waiting for us on the platform. No one was waiting for anyone. The station at Armero was as empty as Armero.
     The train started moving. The girl bid us good-bye from our window, waving the paper napkin that had remained.

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