The steel ropings along my berth rattled as the train gathered speed leaving behind all stations, big and small. Even most of the kid-sized townships that had a single bench under a lonely streetlight as their ‘station’ had already been crossed in the evening. It was a typically cloudy April night and besides the occasional signal light flitting in through the gap in the curtains of the window, all was frozen- not still, and yet somehow cold.
Papa’s snores eventually filled the tiny cabin and I could hear Mamma fidgeting below me, in her sleep. It was only 10:30 by my watch but we would reach very early in the morning so I drew the batty sheets around me and focused on the periodic oscillations of the train, to and fro, to and fro.
I must have slept for over an hour. I may have slept for ten minutes. I do not remember these details.
I thought I woke up because the train abruptly stopped, as trains often do in the middle of the night. I thought I woke up because I needed to use the bathroom, highly unlikely as that may be, considering I was a very heavy sleeper. I thought I woke up because Papa’s snores had gotten louder.
I don’t know why I thought these things when it was obvious that the hand on my lower body had jolted me awake. I say jolted awake now, but honestly I was never completely awake that night. I don’t know what that says of me. I don’t know if things would’ve been different if I had been. You could say, there’s a lot I don’t know.
I know the feel of the hand (or, or was it hands) on my back, on my front and everywhere they went, no matter how much I tried to flatten myself against the white compartment walls, away from them. I remember feeling naked under at least four layers of clothes maybe because I remember covering myself with sheets and blankets but I don’t remember them protecting me. I don’t remember them coming in the way at all. I remember my ears ringing with the sound of skin on cotton although it should have been muddled by Papa’s snores. I don’t remember doing anything- kicking, crying, stopping- except turning from one side to the other perhaps hoping to tire the hands out before they could complete their journey.
Don’t ask me why I didn’t scream. Don’t ask me why I didn’t alert my parents immediately. Don’t ask me why I didn’t tell them, after; why I haven’t told them even now. As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.
What I do know, is how those hands feel. I don’t remember, I know; remembrance and knowledge don’t seem all that different but once you see the difference, you can’t unsee it. I know the weight, the approximate size, the way the fingers curled along my thigh and tips lingering while moving across whatever surface they could find. I don’t know anything as well as I know those hands. I can feel those hands on my skin today, as I did ten years ago.
It’s selfish, but thinking of those hands in isolation from the strange man they belonged to is a small comfort. But I’ll take what I can get. The scary thing is, and there is one, beyond that one night; the really scary thing is that once you see that clear distinction between memories and knowledge, you learn to mistrust the former. And in my case, this simply leaves me with one question, one I hope you can answer, even if I can’t. If I was never completely awake and I can’t really trust what I remember and the only record of this, whatever this is, is in my head, was it real at all?