To 2015 - 2016
The Fiddler Man

By Allison Rothrock

  1. Untitled
    By Ashley Wu, 10
Winter was coming early that year. Rachel had felt it, dripping down the parched bones of August and seeping, damp and heavy, into the early autumnal winds.
And as they walked through the ever greyness of New York, she could smell it in the air; an underlying flavor amongst notes of hot smoulder and close-creeping rain. The sky was blotchy with winter-colored clouds, fat dark bellies so full they burst on the horizon and spattered down great rainy sheaths in the distance.
She was among a furious Thursday Mass, bustling with dutiful passion to reach the sanctuary of the underground. She was bumped and jostled at the shoulder, back, and foot, tipped along blindly forward like a wayward ship on a harsh sea.
The congregation grew dense and tight around the mouth of the subway. The world grew blurred and quick, and she could only catch tiny clips of the surrounding world. Just beside the entrance to the underground was a faint, misted cemetery, where grave markers shone vaguely in the haze like lines of ethereal, white-marbled bricks.
Morning turned dusk on the stairs of the subterranean and she ran, blinking in the dimness, to keep up with Mom’s curly locks of dark autumn-grass hair.
The crowd was big and murky. It was bright, smudged hipster-jackets and young faces aged hard grey and sacerdotal in the smoky underground air.  
Someone tipped her hat and she grabbed it tightly by the brim. The primrose from its lining snagged and jerked down and danced in front of her eyes, bobbing harshly like a wind chime in a summer storm. Then it caught in the spiraling current and faded into the grey pavement, flickering a few times before it was lost between feet. She touched the place where it had been, now but stark, naked, disappointing ribbon and a mismatched orchid flower.
She winced as a man stepped on her toes. Struggling to resist the urge to rub her stinging appendage, she rushed and finally caught Mom's hand.
"Rachel, I told you not to fall behind like that!" Mom chastised in an impatient tone. She was already sporting a clingy little brother and looked decidedly exasperated.
Rachel’s only response was to grip Mom’s hand more firmly. The place was bustling and dirty and crowded and most of all unfamiliar.
The platform was a fuddling mix of linoleum-esque tile and black gum-stains and a mighty traffic of feet. Over the tracks, dark lines of pipes ran across the ceilings just as rats ran across the floor.
Down--down another flight of stairs, and another again, swept to the hot, musty core in a wave of scents and sounds and people and all their mad business. Some people walked faster than others, some impatiently kicked at the heels of the telephone-talker they were following, some merely steeled their lips and clattered along. But they all shifted to their places, unhindered--hand to hand and cog to cog, as though in some vast, composite mechanism far too complex for Rachel to understand.
On this lowest platform there were funny long trains--flanking them on both sides--that were almost white but for a grizzled sheen down their length. At its far points, two wide, black-mouthed tunnels swallowed them up at the ends. Rachel was a little apprehensive. Mom had called it a train. Like the trains from the storybooks. This strange train-thing had no smokestack, no colorful, shiny sides, and no big, pleasing wheels. She paused, beginning to suspect either her mother or the worm-like imposter of fraud, but mentally dropped the matter when an impatient, throat-clearing man behind gave her an extra-persuasive one of his gruff aphorisms, and she hurried aboard.
Mom was very brisk in finding a seat. She sharply indicated an easy target with an outstretched index finger and made a dash for the open seats.
Suddenly, a very big man and his gangly teenager brushed them aside and snapped up the seats as though they were the last in the world. Rachel only caught a glimpse of the big man’s face before he turned to his son, but she thought it looked ever-so-slightly smug in its crinkled corners. Evidently, Mom did, too.
Mom pried her hand out of Rachel’s grasp.
“Those were our seats, get your own,” she declared harshly.
He answered gruffly, “Your seats? Honey, we got here first.”
“You would deprive a mother and her two young children of seats on a long subway ride?”
By now people were looking. The big man drew his mouth into a bitter, thin shade and stood. There are some things one simply does not do when people are looking.
He stood, slow and bitter as a winter bramble, and offered them the seats. Mom primly flounced into the seat, ushering us after her. There was a look of quiet triumph in her eye.
Rachel had never seen her mother yell at a stranger before.
In the time of their altercation, the train-thing had filled up. There were no more open seats, so the big man stood right in front of her, not three inches from her knee.
He had puffy, red lips, the lower of which bore a messy split at the corner. She couldn’t decide if he had been hit or if he was a chewer, like her brother. After a few seconds, she realized that she was staring and awkwardly pulled her gaze to his shoes--heavy, squarish black loafers with a former-shine that had been lost to brackish subway brine. But the big man didn’t seem to have noticed. He acted perfectly as though nothing had happened, as though nothing was happening. He didn’t even flinch when the train-thing burst into rickety movement.
Rachel turned fully away from him, looking out the window. It was all black. So black they could have been still--static, withering life in that thick darkness--were it not for the fervent chant of the wheels on the track. The wheels made a particularly loud clatter, and a wild flinging of sparking stars caught and died in the ever-night, as though a galaxy put through its life in fast-motion. In a moment of absent musing, usually reserved for the three-o’clock-in-the-morning-hour, she wondered if she, too, was being fast forward; if the train-thing was not perforating the darkness but the meat of her life and she was hurtling through her years as its wormish-grey body ate its way through the underground. She wondered if when the train stopped she would emerge all weathered and folded up on herself, a little old woman in a belly full of skeletons.
Her breath was beginning to condense on the glass, obscuring her view. It was silly, of course it was. That would take storybook magic that this train-thing had already proved itself unworthy of. Eerie, but silly.
She bit her lip and shook it off, her breath overtaking the window with cryospheric fog.
A great band of light broke across the window as the train-thing crawled to the next platform. Rachel turned away from the window, watching the people flow on and off like fishes in the deep sea current. The big man left, fading into the crowd outside. A very flustered woman, with grey hair that was even more flustered than she, took his place at her knee.
Rachel was about ready to leave. Little did she want to enter that mysterious blackness again, and she prodded Mom’s arm.
“How many more stops?”
“Next stop, dear.” Mom sounded tired, the success of the earlier argument having long-since worn away.
The train-thing came alive once again, burrowing into the dark chasm in a flash of lost vibrance. She really wasn’t scared at all by the darkness, but still, she politely looked at her hands, clasped firmly in her lap.
This time, a scrawny man in baggy jeans, which rolled off his legs in folded wrinkles, walked up and down the aisle, asking money to feed his children. He received a few dirty coins from unimpressed-looking passengers, and Rachel fingered her primrose-less hat guiltily. Here she was, in fine Sunday clothes on a perfectly regular Thursday, with not even a penny to put in his worn hat. Mom hissed to her that he was probably just scamming them anyway, and he probably didn’t really have two starving children, but she really didn’t feel much better at all.
The man drew away, his calm cries for help fading into the whirring clamor of the wheels and voices.
Rachel was quietly relieved when she saw the break in the darkness swiftly approaching across the windows. She hopped up and led Mom onto the platform, her sticky little brother being tugged in toe.
Remembering to clutch the brim of her hat, she guided them to the stairs. With Mom behind her now, in full view of the hat, she waited for her to comment on her missing primrose, its place on the ribbon plain and raw as an accusation. But no comment came as they ascended, into the paler gloom of the second platform.
Hands, shoes, heads, all flew by like some mechanical whirlwind, none belonging to anyone in particular. She caught sight the second set of stairs between two fluttery, ragged black coats and guided them in their direction.
A fiddle’s song, pale and thin as the first bird in the morning, pervaded the musty air. It would have been startling, had it not been so beautiful. Rachel had heard street performers before--when walking the city streets back from the airport, maybe even one or two lost in that morning’s dense city mist. But never like this.
She fell back, losing the rhythm of the floes of crowd, and scanned the milling crowd, desperately, for its source. A man who played as though he was on his deathbed. As though these underground, upside-down streets were more than the sun and moon. She thought she saw him, as a rudimentary glimpse—a scraggly, grey-whiskered man making love to a fiddle, the scuffed rosewood of forgotten lips.
Then, Mom took the lead again, whisking her away through a wintry thatch of humanity, up, up, the grey stairs, and the song was lost to the bleating underground.