Almost everyone I entertain over a frosted fifth of vodka—bottle balanced precariously on a foldout tray, half my attention on keeping it upright—wants to know how I became a competitive eater. Also, how I found myself living on the Dbovotav Coastal Express.
It’s not that odd, I say. In my family we all love eating. I do my belly out like a pufferfish, slide my butt to the edge of the molded seat, and open my knees into a deep V. The rumble of the train is in my calves. My drinking companions love it. They are drunk. You’re a blast, Neave! We all know they’re wondering where my ten shots of vodka went and when I’m likely to keel over. A girl like me doesn’t look the part of a competitive eater.
When the vodka’s finished Srdan will arrive to pull me out of my seat, issuing goodnights on my behalf. Springs squeak behind us as the tray packs shut. At the door to my sleeper cabin, Srdan says goodnight to me. I always sleep alone. I bolt the door thrice. The Dbovotav hoots in the dark, a hollow and lusty sound. I can’t fall asleep without it, the Dbovotav’s hoot. I picture my train cycling its tracks crying for something—a lover? Its child? The truth?
You must long for the truth too, even if my drinking companions are more interested in unrequited fantasies of hiding from winter and sadness behind the drapery of my black hair. Here is a piece I own of the truth: I became a competitive eater because I was afraid of floating out to sea. Food is ballast. Saturate your guts, render them heavy as waterlogged rope, and remain planted firmly to the ground.
The sea. I was afraid because of what happened to my family. I couldn’t understand it, so I focused on my craft. Honed it. I can put away a gallon of bathtub brew in forty-eight seconds. I’ve eaten a stack of sausages so tall it speared itself on a lantern hook in the low ceiling of Huluu Public House near the port at Arnik. The sausages took me twenty-two minutes, after which I cut the grease coating my throat with a pitcher of lager.
Why would I stop when I am so good?
Srdan does not remember boarding the Dbovotav, but my first memory of him is indelible: A young man in a conductor’s uniform takes a seat opposite me in the entertainments carriage, and, without uttering a word, presses a cup to the neck of my vodka bottle.
Nobody has ever confirmed Srdan in his post, yet he wears his red uniform with meticulous pride. He roams the carriages, knocking on the backs of seats and on sleeper cabin doors. When passengers fail to produce tickets, Srdan regards them with the sorrow of a caged saint.
I, on the other hand, clambered up the retractable steps of Carriage No. 5 the same day the Railroad and Longshore Company launched the coastal route. Station workers held a glossy black ribbon taut across unblemished tracks; a minor official snipped it. The Orderly Ocean roared. Workers tucked flat caps into coveralls to stop them flying off; seagulls landed on the fresh line of track as though on the split carcass of a whale. And there I must have been, half-sized, silenced by the air of ceremony, my hand grasping the oily canvas leg of somebody’s coverall.
A strange truth: I may be a railway orphan with the hiss of carriage doors in my bones, but I do not know all the things that our Srdan knows. He knows exactly how hot the coal burns in the cab of the Dbovotav. He knows how many hares we pass between Bretev and Totyozk. He knows when I am fed up with my drinking companions, and I think he knows about the loneliness afterward.
Perhaps it is that some of us are born closer to the truth than others.
The Dbovotav Coastal Express is self-driving. Three perfectly steep hillocks slow it to a stop, at Bretev and Arnik and Totyozk. At the top of each hillock perches a station: Bretev Coastal Station, Arnik Station, and the Liberator Placha Revolutionary Train Depot. The journey between Totyozk and Bretev takes a month; between Bretev and Arnik six weeks. I’ve been through more cycles of Totyozk-Bretev-Arnik and Arnik-Bretev-Totyozk than I can count.
“Maybe I shouldn’t leave the Dbovotav unattended,” Srdan says. The train is—with clanging and fanfare—climbing the final rise to Bretev Coastal. “Many fare evaders recently.”
The coastal route is long and monotonous, cliff bluffs and waves on one side, hills on the other, the geography undernourished and bloodless. Nothing catches the glazed roving of your eye but the occasional hot white stalk of lightning striking the dun peaks of the Orderly Mountains.
I pass Srdan his blue plastic cup. I’ve only half filled it with vodka against the trembling of the Dbovotav as it strains toward the platform. “Don’t you want to watch me eat the hell out of a pile of pig trotters?”
He turns the cup a full rotation. “You want me to answer this question?”
I nod encouragement.
Srdan sets the cup down, puts pale hands, fingernails chewed to the quick, on either side of my head for emphasis. “I think I would not like to watch you eat a pile of pig trotters.”
I meet his stare glibly while I mull over the surprising hurt I feel. The whites of his eyes are proud and rounded, the eyelids bronzed. He’s not comely to begin with; the scald of dismissal makes his face plainer, his scattering of pockmarks harsher.
Then I think, warmed by vodka: This is the only person I’ve ever felt safe leaving my cabin door unlocked for, even if I have questions about his trove of truths. Even if he won’t watch me eat the hell out of a pile of pig trotters.
Cold air fills the entertainments carriage. We’ve arrived. The smell is of hops and the ubiquitous bloom Bretevers call Clasped Arse because of the suggestive curve of the petals.
“You don’t have to watch the competition, but come get some air. Bretev is nice in this season.”
“Nice?” mocks Srdan. “It’s freezing.” But he is already fetching his scarf from the broom closet.
The season is springtime; there are so many seabirds in the sky that their droppings are an unbroken coat on the terminal roof. Emerging from the closeness of the Dbovotav feels raw and impossible, like being born. We stroll briskly in the direction of The Jingling Anklet in the Quarter of Our Knaves.
Bretev hasn’t had an eating competition in six months. At the last one, I made it through four bowls of sauced beans and forty pounds of roast lamb, deboned and seasoned with a sumac rub. My opponent puked on his boots after ten minutes of shoveling beans into his mouth and swigging watered wine by turns—a strategy I would not have recommended, if he’d bothered to ask.
“I will be in the square,” Srdan announces, slowing.
“You won’t come to the competition? You can sit at my elbow.”
Srdan has taken his red conductor’s hat off; it is balled up in his fist like a heart.
“No, Neave,” Srdan insists. “The disappearances. I should be on guard,” he says, as if I should know what this means.
He starts uphill.
“Srdan!” I call. “The disappearances? On guard against what?”
He gives a meek wave behind. Masses of seabirds, huddled in the slight sun, take wing in his wake.
A pig trotter is an awkward hunk of meat. I gnaw round each one like it’s an apple—in record time—and spend ten luxurious minutes pinching at the scraps I missed the first go around.
I would usually ask for a stein of beer to sip slowly. The beer refreshes my palate and prevents my gorge rising. But discomfort pulses in my fingertips as they spin trotters on greasy axes. I don’t know what’s bothered me so much. I may call Srdan a friend, but I barely know him. His flights of eccentricity should be none of my business, just as mine aren’t his.
I polish the platter with my tongue. Spectators plant kisses on my full-up cheeks and hold my hair back from the oily tabletop. The crowd is deafening.
The prize money is mine, of course.
Srdan is still in the square come midnight. I waddle over to him. It’s too cold to be sprawled against the mosaicked side of the almost-dry fountain the way he is. Puddles of standing water in the basin reflect a cloudless sky. Every step sends a meteor shooting through my belly; the firmament of my guts is the opposite of cloudless: roiling, on fire. But this is the price of not floating away.
I cast leery shadows over Srdan. His breath steams softly. He clutches a bottle of vodka in his hand, three-quarters empty. When he hauls it up to me, purple fingers pop free of the glass one by one.
“The train is warm.” I bend down and hook him under the arms.
“You smell like meat.”
Then Srdan is on his feet and though it was a close thing, I have not dislodged the ninety-one pig trotters I ate. He tears away from me, drunk, heads along a sandy path. At the end of this path the Orderly Ocean claws at low tide, keening static noise.
“Let’s go back to the Dbovotav,” I shout down to him. A thin spread of frosted sand crackles beneath my feet. There are salt-air shrubs and tree stumps on either side, practically an invitation to dispose of the evening’s digestive burden. But we are painfully close to the sea.
“Can we resist forever?” he shouts up from the edge of the shore, slurring. “Don’t you want to jump in?”
He is unbuttoning his conductor’s slacks in the frigid breeze. “We were always meant to.”
“No. Srdan, no!” I turn away from him. Half-panicked, I climb up the path. Waddle through the square.
The Dbovotav is warm and welcoming. Gingerly, I set myself down on my back in my sleeper cabin.
In the morning I am woken by the departure whistle and cramps in my guts. I pass Srdan on the way to the lavatory. He’s sitting in the entertainments carriage fanning through a block of return tickets like it’s any day.
Here you might say, Neave, tell us about the other travelers on your Dbovotav. Tell us of your rotating constellation of drinking companions, of your adopted railway family. And, well.
I will tell you what I know is true. Though the coastal route is obscure, the Dbovotav has never lacked for passengers. The travelers who make the Totyozk-Bretev or Bretev-Arnik journey lumber aboard with luggage, trailing mud or snow. They show tickets to Srdan when he asks, fingers hastily tracing the pockets of their overcoats. They crash around in the galley; they complain loudly of the cold because they do not drink enough vodka with me at night.
Then there are the others, the ones I never drink with, the ones whose faces I can’t seem to learn.
A thing I’ve noticed: The Dbovotav has been busier of late. There are queues for the lavatory; groups milling about the drinking spout. And when Srdan moves through, shouting “Tickets! Your tickets, please!” he seems to recognize precisely the passengers I don’t, and though he never squanders a chance to mutter to me about fare evasion, with them he is unusually forgiving.
Some days the loneliness is intolerable. I imagine vividly days I cannot remember. Days before the Dbovotav. My family was from between Bretev and Arnik, where there is no town marker. They lived in tents and sold pairs of goats from their herd and were popular for their stained mohair satchels. I had four siblings. I was the youngest; my job was to feed the goats. That is why I was not at the seaside that day with my family. They went often to gather spiny kelp from the surf, for the rich orange dye of the berries.
Nobody can tell me what happened after that. The dreadful lie was that my mother and father and sisters had gone out to sea, on a voyage that would take a long, long time.
The journey to Arnik takes the Dbovotav into the Orderly Mountains’ wind-blasted foothills before plunging us into a glacial, sea-facing valley. Therefore I drink vodka medicinally, against the cold. I’ve had enough that my lips are vaguely numb and I’m dribbling into the coarse knit of my scarf when there’s a clatter and a hiss. Srdan, pulling aside the accordion door to the carriage.
“Come help me with something,” he says.
I’m too drunk to be suspicious. We weave from carriage to carriage, threading toward the back of the train, stepping over solitary drunks and trios playing Jack & Ace in the corridors. I run fingers across polished wall panels and icy windows.
“One more,” says Srdan, and leads the way to the connecting door. In the passage between this carriage and the next, he stops.
“You can’t go further, see?” he says.
“Try the handle—”
In that tight, freezing passage, the tracks a blur through the slats below our feet, the Dbovotav chugging and shimmying, I cup hands to the window of the next carriage. It is filled up—full, floor to ceiling—with food.
Squashes still covered in soil; three entire skinned carcasses, lamb or goat; an avalanche of freckled golden apples, some smeared in carcass blood; snowy all-season mulberries crushed up against the window; dusty knots of celery root; heaped peaks of spice upended over everything.
Srdan works the clasp on the tiny vent in the window. Putrid air lets out and dissipates on the choppy wind of our motion.
I’m no match for Srdan’s strange intuitions, but I thought I knew the Dbovotav the way a sister knows a sister. My palms have memorized the texture of the upholstered panels in the lavatory. My feet anticipate every dip in the floorboards. This carriage? It was not here before. It’s a betrayal, a failing, a thing about my train that I can’t understand.
For an entire week of our journey to Arnik, Srdan and I work to clear the carriage of half-rotted food. The meat and everything that has touched the meat we tumble into ditches from the sides of the Dbovotav, or boil fastidiously down into syrup on the burner. Fruit and vegetables that aren’t covered in mold, blood, or spice we portion and wrap into neat papered bundles. Srdan hauls them cabin door to cabin door: “Tickets, please. And a parcel of groceries, our compliments.”
Afterward, the last carriage is strangely hollow, its echoes louder than the chug of the locomotive. It’s a wooden refrigerator car with hatches in the roof. The vertical ice tanks at either end are empty, but sticky puddles of food and liquid we found as we cleared might be the remnants of ice blocks. It makes you wonder: how long has this carriage stood here—perfectly cooled, resistant to decay—in the chill of the air off the Orderly Mountains? Days? Two weeks? Since Bretev, or before?
There’s a solid lock on my sleeper cabin door, but the cab of the Dbovotav is where I go to be perfectly alone. The coal feeder towers in the center of the cab, oiled and sooty. Hunks of coal shuffle along a scaled ramp from the tender to the firebox; great copper-sheen cogs click to a varying beat. The intervals are determined by temperature or pressure or some arcane secret held in the pistons. Like I said: The Dbovotav is self-driving.
Normally I’d be the first to declare solitude and loneliness distinct sensations of the body. But today my back aches with the exertion of emptying the food carriage, and my gut aches with a training meal of thirty parsnips stuffed with cured cow tongue, roasted ten by ten in the galley oven. It all conspires. The fence between solitude and loneliness is fogged over today, and full of holes.
I am thinking not of Srdan’s company but of something he said. We were dragging a decomposing goat carcass into a sack for disposal. I joked, my heart nowhere in it, “Maybe I should eat my way through all this food.”
Srdan paused to adjust his grip on the long, slick thigh of the carcass. A clean apple fell out of his pocket and bounced twice, shallowly, on the floor of the unexplained refrigerator car.
“Well. It is a mound of food and your talent is eating mounds of food. A funny thing,” he said.
I touch each sooty scale of the coal feeder. My thumb comes away stained like the ink-dipped fingertips of newly processed prisoners.
Loneliness is not the consistency of coal—it is not dry or porous or easy to palm. It is a fish, a thing of the ocean, slapping forever in the chest, eroding a space in the heart shaped like its own body. Srdan. My family, lost at sea. The truth may turn out to be a buoy at the farthest point from land. Friendship may turn out to be a fishing net threaded with falsehoods. And the Dbovotav—
There’s a thunk, a creak in the coal feeder’s cogs. I squint into the dark mouth of the firebox, just where the glow falters. Coal dust makes my throat itch, my eyes water. There’s something stuck in the scales of the ramp where it lets into the fire.
Another thunk, a torrent of thunks. Now the mouth of the firebox is clogged with objects. I reach my hand toward searing heat, pull the nearest thing from the blockage. It’s a huge clamshell, parted, the meat inside viscous and generous.
“I’m not even hungry,” I say, the fool words on my lips unbidden.
Coal plops from the ramp to the carpet. The feeder groans and slows.
“Srdan!” I shout, but I am, after all, exquisitely alone.
I grab a poker, jab at the mess until it clears, clamshells hurtling into the firebox in twos and threes. A keratinous smell overlays the years-deep smokiness of the cab.
I throw the last clamshell in and dust the soot from my hands.
Arnik. The entire austere valley is washed in the jingling of bells from the town’s five thousand belltowers. Each tolls to remember something: the first incursion of civilization into this hard land; the first successful harvest of millet; the birth of the first child of Arnik, the infant Salame Poshoi; the death of this same child, who lived eighteen months before succumbing to a wasting illness.
At 11:42 a bell tolls for the first passage of the Dbovotav through Arnik. Of all the bells, this is the bell that flushes me with pride.
Arnik is known for a warming brew, as well, called barrel milk. Juniper berries and a very thin alcohol, and a nose of anise that gets stronger the more you drink. I’m telling Srdan about the eight gallons I’ve agreed to down at a drinking competition later that afternoon as we pull into Arnik Station.
Many of the Dbovotav’s passengers disembark with us. The pebbled platform surface—a green-gray volcanic rock—grinds under our soles; a wave of big crunches for the hop down from the train; a choppy krsh-krsh-krsh as the passengers disperse. Nobody is here to receive the train, not a loved one, not a railroad worker, not a soul. The wind whistles a particularly maritime sadness.
“There are no bells, either,” says Srdan.
I lead us off the platform. “There are supposed to be bells.”
We wander the city with the wind, Srdan and I, the sea at our backs, feeling that we have tripped over the end of a reel and are traversing a precarious elsewhere. Arnik is everything and nothing I remember. There are golden loaves in bakery windows. There are seabirds roosting in the eaves. There are rubbery salt-spray fronds sprouting from cracks in the paving stones. But there are no people.
“The whole place is abandoned,” says Srdan.
“It is a town of ten thousand.”
Srdan hoods his eyes. “Take us to where you would have your competition.”
Arnik’s celebration hall is deserted too. Somewhere, a drop of condensation falls over and over, the sound fattened to a complex symphony by echoes.
The door to the celebration hall gives a startling rattle, once, twice, and pops open against the suction of the wind.
“Hi, Neave,” says Lusha, the competition promoter. “Come in, come in, Ylon,” he says behind him, and a broad woman enters, dragging by turns a table and a wheelbarrow piled with kegs.
They begin to set up the table in the center of the celebration hall.
“Lusha,” I say. “Where is everyone?”
“Oh, yes,” he says, hoisting a keg onto the table with a grunt. “I’m glad you’re safe.” This promoter is more untrustworthy than they usually come. I’ve known him since I was a child of eight. He gave me my start in this business—noticed, with his eye for opportunity, how I knelt beside the food trays to mop up a whole spit-roasted goat after my family’s wake. He led me by the hand to the Huluu Public House to see if I were still hungry enough to eat for an audience.
“We’ll be lucky to get a single soul tonight,” Lusha adds mournfully.
“People,” Srdan says, “are disappearing.” He’s examining the mosaicked arch of the doorway like some art connoisseur.
“Quite right. Either disappeared or hiding.” Lusha rubs his face over and over. I imagine each of his too-many rings catching and nipping at the folds of his skin. His face is an overlarge sock.
“Sometimes, Neave, we see them wade out. If they get that far, it’s over. We might pull them back, wrap them in blankets and lock them up for their own safety, but the next time they’re allowed out—a day or a year later—they’re gone.”
“Gone? Gone where?” I ask.
“Gone to the sea,” Srdan says. He breathes out ponderously and adjusts his conductor’s hat.
Ylon has taken her place at the table. She pours out a tall glass of barrel milk. “Ready to lose?” she asks me.
“If it weren’t for the Dbovotav, you’d be gone too, Neave,” mutters Srdan.
And now some nameless impulse resounds in my bones. It carries me through the door of the celebration hall. Against the wind. The cold sun slices across my vision; all the vodka has made me brave.
I pass through the eerie still of Arnik back to the station and my train.
Inert, the Dbovotav seems heavier somehow. That colossal weight of steel resting on rails.
The entertainments carriage is empty, the refreshments kiosk stocked, cream biscuits and bottles of liquor untouched. All the passengers who disembarked are still away—doing, thinking, seeing what in the wide brokenness of Arnik? I twist open a vodka bottle from the drinks cart, take a swig, make for the back of the train.
The refrigerator car is gone.
In its place is a stately room, a carriage only by virtue of being coupled to the back of the Dbovotav. I enter by a heavy oak door. Inside the walls are speckled marble. Four gargoyles—mermen dwarfed by their spears—perch at ceiling corners. The floor is a pastiche of overlapping rugs dyed shades of madder-root red and spiny-kelp orange.
Against one wall is a podium, and on it a huge book. Even from a distance I can see there’s water damage to the pages. I take another swig of vodka and go over to it. In gilded lettering: Longshore Workers’ Log, Triumphant Metropole of Arnik. A ribbon marks a page, a glossy black ribbon that reminds me of the one they cut to christen the Dbovotav. I flip to the bookmarked location.
Here, a photograph marred by the burn of chemicals. I squint at it. My young face and four little faces like mine. Young-me is seated and looking into the camera. My siblings are arranged behind me. They are posed perfectly. Four names are listed below the photograph: Lost at sea, presumed dead. And my name, a remainder: one orphan, Ward of the Railroad and Longshore Workers’ Union.
I turn a crackly page. Dust twirls away in the slanting light. Another photo: I’m maybe ten, leaning on a pile of huge copper cogs. An elderly rail worker in coveralls is bandaging my hand where I’ve sliced it on precision engineering. My blood has left dark smudges on pieces of the Dbovotav’s coal-feeding mechanism.
I turn the page again. Three photographs: the sea, captured from the sky. In the top photo, the surface glossy, then closer up, broken by swells, then much closer, busy with waves.
I am suddenly so hungry.
A tiny sliver of the truth: Before I became a competitive eater, I was rarely hungry. After I became a competitive eater, I was even less hungry. I’ve never done what I do because of hunger. I’ve never needed all the food I eat. I burn through it with my anger, my internal firebox incinerating everything I let near my core.
I startle at a noise in the carriage behind. The oak door swings inward—Srdan. The conductor’s hat is perfectly peaked above his long brow. “Another wacky car,” he says, voice steeped in some intoxicant.
I go over to a carriage window, count fifteen belltower spires against the skyline. “Wacky car. Mystery food. Dopey passengers. Disappearances,” I list. “Just tell me the truth.”
“This is the truth.” He nods around at the gargoyles, the podium. He moves across the carriage, half-trips on the edge of a rug, rights himself in front of the logbook. “Sometimes the truth is just”—he looks for a word for a long time—”strange.”
“I’m getting tired of things being strange. And I ate a square lunch earlier, but for some reason I’m ravenous.” I have another thought, or intuition, or question, roving for its answer. I push past Srdan, heading back through the train toward the cab.
He trails me. “You don’t need the truth from me, Neave,” he calls over my shoulder. His voice is more desperate than I’ve ever heard. “You need a friend, a friend who isn’t the Dbovotav.”
“The Dbovotav is the only friend I’ve ever had.”
“No, no. The Dbovotav is an ally. In a war.”
I round on him in the corridor. “And you? What are you? An ally? A friend? Neither?”
Srdan regards me sadly. “You will see that we are not so different.”
“Dbovotav!” I shout, turning away. My knuckles syncopate on the windows as we pass, the doors of each carriage hissing shut behind us. “What else can you show me?” I’m shouting down the corridors.
Then we’re at the door to the Dbovotav’s cab.
Srdan sighs. “The train is doing everything it can for you, you know, considering—”
I twist the handle. The door gives, too easily—
—and out rushes a tremendous wave of kelpy black water that soaks us to the waist. A tiny brown crab struggles on the toe of Srdan’s boot. I dip a finger into a puddle and taste it: coal-brackish saline. The salt and charcoal fills my mouth with saliva.
“Not good,” says Srdan.
I am full of cravings.
“Are we going now?” he asks me.
“I have wondered when we would go.”
We rush toward the cloud of seabirds squawking in the distance, and from there I follow my nose: saline and wet life and unholiness.
Arnik has a pebble beach. The Orderly Ocean is a blue slab all the way to the horizon. I don’t let it touch me, stay where the pebbles are salt-dusted and dry. Srdan has come to stand beside me. His overcoat stinks of being soaked and dried too many times.
“What’s happening to me?” My voice cracks. The hunger is unbearable. I look out over the still water, and it’s as good as a table spread with a feast.
“We’re caught in the middle of a stand-off,” says Srdan. “Between the Dbovotav and the sea. And I think the sea is winning.”
“My family was taken by the sea.”
“Yes, and many others,” says Srdan. “Consider your dopey passengers.” He takes off his coat. “But I think your family were the first.”
Srdan looks at me as if recalling a dream. “When I went into the water, I did not even struggle. You think you will fight to live, but you don’t.”
He takes off his boots. “Then I heard the hoot of the train. That’s when the truth became strange. I was like a fish in a net made of steam and cogs and steel.”
Srdan approaches the surf. He begins to wade out, his slacks dark and flapping in an instant. “Here we go again,” he bellows.
“Wait. Srdan!” My shout is tattered by the wind. “Who can I trust?”
He turns toward me, even tries to step back out of the water, but he seems to be caught in a rip current. “Trust me, Neave! You won’t even struggle. A train is no match for the sea. Even a train like yours.”
He holds onto his cap and wades and swims until the water is over his head. He does not float up. It is as if he is on a staircase down to the ocean floor.
I am knee-deep in freezing water before I remember to heed Lusha’s words. My thighs pucker with the cold. I swallow against hunger, swallow the taste of vodka in my spit. The smell of the sea is unbearable; I try to knuckle water, to lift it up by the crests of its waves. I imbue the water with textures it does not have, spongy flatness and doughiness and the supple give of a wheel of marzipan pulled in half. Scoops of it come up in my palms. The sea feels nothing like food, only frigid and dribbling and full of noise.
Nonetheless I eat. Strings of goat meat studded with farro grains dyed with saffron and boiled to softness. No—water. Pig trotters, still tangy from their brine. No—water. Beans, millet, celery root soup. Hard tack softened in chicken broth. Clotted cheese with acorn paste.
No. Water, water, water.
The sea’s got me by the hipbones, but I am a competitive eater, a hot talent in a lukewarm industry. Eating is what I do best. The people buried by these waves, my mother and father and sisters, they are the silver charms hidden in a loaf: treasures you must find, but gingerly with your tongue, without chomping.
I swallow the sea, palmfuls and palmfuls, my gullet distending, and feel the pain of my heart packing tighter in. Then—because ballast is only a useful defense on dry land—I submerge.
Underwater, a lungful of the truth. The sea is angry at those who got away, but especially me, a prize hurtling down a fingernail of coastline for decades, shielded by metal, just out of its reach.
I feel myself sinking. I twist to look below. There’s Srdan, floating facedown at the boundary of blue and dark, where water compacts and becomes like space. And there, right behind its conductor, the Dbovotav, a long, ominous bulk. The Dbovotav, in the sea.
There is a throb of pressure on my temples. My throat and nostrils burn with saltwater. One impossible stroke, two, and I’m beside the doors to Carriage No. 5.
I press the button to release the doors. The underwater Dbovotav opens to me and it’s not full of water—it’s full of smoke. I scramble in, coughing, water sluicing off me onto the carpet. A coal fire in the cab? But when I breathe this smoke my airways begin to clear, and my gray fingers flush back to brown.
I reach my hand through thick smoke, past the door, out into cold water. I lunge at Srdan’s floating wrist, digging nails into the embroidered cuff of his conductor’s uniform, and wrench him toward me. Srdan’s prominent eyes flit in his face, lock on me soulfully, and then he shakes his head, tugs his hand back. You may wonder: Is this a gesture meant to save me, or save himself? I wonder too.
Behind Srdan, in the dusky blue sea, a daisy chain of passengers and assorted luggage bob toward the open door of Carriage No 5. Srdan reaches his freed hand behind him, links it with the front of the daisy chain, and—
—the Dbovotav’s doors sweep shut.
I loll on the carpeted floorboards, hear the departure whistle, then that sensuous, wounded hoot. I see a sort of dawn through the windows. The smoke begins to clear.
I puke: water, truth, too much of it, more than a body should be able to hold. You and I, once again, we’re exquisitely alone.
Sara Saab was born in Beirut, Lebanon. She now lives in North London, where she has perfected her resting London face. Her current interests are croissants and emojis thereof, amassing poetry collections, and coming up with a plausible reason to live on a sleeper train. Sara’s a 2015 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. You can find her on Twitter as @fortnightlysara and at fortnightlysara.com.
Published March 2018, Issue #42, 5500 words
What Else Is On the Menu
The Seaweed & the Wormhole, by Jenn Grunigen
Three months ago, Peregrine had started sleepwalking. He said his night’s mind was always full of abandoned taxidermy shops, and tea brewed from obsidian dust and anise and silkworms. But his waking mind was full of these things, too, so they hadn’t worried Ebb. It was something else—other—that was making him anxious. After a month of the sleepwalking, he’d started to wonder what Peregrine wasn’t saying. He could tell when his lover was holding back; it was their nature to know each other. When he realized Peregrine was keeping something he couldn’t have, Ebb knew it had to be wrong. Invasive.
Skills to Keep the Devil in His Place, by Lia Swope Mitchell
The seat of evil in the human body, he said, is the liver. Taken directly from a young person—for a young person’s liver is fat with evil, untainted by years of experience or suffering—when offered freely, the flavor is perfect: deep yet delicate, light yet filling. It sates him utterly, for a while. He will seek nothing else.
Spirit Tasting List for Ridley House, April 2016, by Alex Acks
Before proceeding, we respectfully remind you to check the condition of your crystal spirit glass; it should be free of all cracks, chips, or blemishes to be able to properly capture and concentrate energies. Please take advantage of the sanitizer provided at the door, which will remove any lingering ectoplasm. Should your spirit glass develop an imperfection during the course of your meal, new ones will be available for purchase at a reasonable rate.