Encounters on the Aurora Express

Published in Eastlit Journal, January 2017 (link below)

***

Dodesukaden. Dodesukaden. Dodesukaden.

Koichi thought of the overlooked Kurosawa classic as the train plowed through the barren Swedish wilderness. The sound of trains. The sound of souls who stopped living long ago, existing only for the sake of it. Dodesukaden. Dodesukaden.

Koichi’s soul had stopped living exactly three weeks ago, when Yumiko passed. Too many sleeping pills, a little too fast. And with her, their unborn daughter.

Aurora. Your name was going to be Aurora.

Koichi lit a cigarette and opened the window in his private sleeping compartment. He knew he probably wasn’t allowed to, but little mattered to him at this moment. Outside, the sky was as black as pressed charcoal even though it wasn’t yet afternoon. A fitting darkness for Koichi, who dreaded the light of day and had nowhere else to go. Yumiko’s parents had blamed him after finding out about his affair, and seeing how matters like these easily spread shame in a rural Japanese village, not even his own parents wanted anything to do with him anymore. So he packed his suitcase and traveled to the only place he could think of.

Knock… knock.

Koichi quickly tossed his cigarette out the window, walked  toward the door and opened it.

A stunning Asian-looking woman stood in the aisle, surprising Koichi. Long black hair, smart clothing and stylishly applied make-up, she didn’t look more than 25. Koichi broke the silence.

“Nihonjin desu ka?”

“Sorry, I don’t speak Japanese. I’m Korean.”

“Oh, I see. Excuse me, my English is not good…”

“It’s okay.” She smiled at him. “I’m Boram, by the way.”

“Koichi.”

“Nice to meet you.”

They looked at each other for a few seconds, not quite knowing what to say.

“Sorry, I must go now,” Boram finally murmured. “See you.” She started walking down the aisle toward the next car and Koichi closed the door, his mind scattered.

What had she wanted? Why did she knock on my door?

He didn’t know quite what, but Koichi had seen something in that woman’s eyes that enthralled him. He also didn’t know that she in him had seen the ghost of her dead boyfriend.

***

Dodesukaden. Dodesukaden. Dodesukaden.

Boram put her Banana Yoshimoto novel aside and looked out the window, wondering how it was at all possible for a country to be this dark so early in the day. How did those Swedes survive, she wondered. Yet she had always loved dark things, sad things. At least until Jae-hyuk had taken ill. The last year of his disease she couldn’t handle nights, went to bed early and woke to the chirps of morning. She spent the days in public parks reading Rimbaud and Frost, trying to absorb every ray of the sun her skin could handle.

With Jae-hyuk it was different. They had salvaged the nights, made it into a sport to stay awake until the first morning rays. Watch movies, read books (head to toe in a cushy sofa, pausing every ten minutes to read a sentence aloud to each other so that not a moment would be lost to either of them), make passionate love. Money took care of itself, as Jae-hyuk’s online business had taken off and they only had to do minor administrative tasks here and there. They traveled a lot, but never far as Jae-hyuk had a fear of flying. Boram knew how much that troubled him, but she also knew that when they were together it didn’t matter at all where they were. When they were together the Earth didn’t spin, clocks didn’t tick. Their love for each other was above and beyond anything.

Boram opened the window to fetch some air, looking out at the moving silhouettes of barren trees. She thought about joining forces with them for a second, before the sensation of burning tobacco tickled her nostrils. It was the same brand Jae-hyuk smoked. That she instantly realized, and even though his heavy smoking likely contributed to his disease, Boram couldn’t help but get excited. She closed the window and went out into the aisle.

She walked for about a minute until a force of some kind stopped her outside compartment 26. She stared at it for a second and knocked.

***

The train stopped at Abisko station, over a hundred miles north of the Arctic circle, 17 hours after departing Stockholm. It was still dark. And freezing as hell, Koichi thought as he stepped out and looked around the platform. No sign of the woman who had mysteriously knocked on his compartment door. He had searched for her all over the train, having dinner in the dining car three times in the process, but she was nowhere to be found.

Despite the blistering cold, Koichi dilly-dallied on the platform in the hope of seeing the woman get off, but no such luck. Could she be going further north? Unlikely, as Koichi had read that Asian tourists flock to Abisko for its unparalleled aurora viewing opportunities, and since that woman was on the train she’d most certainly get off here. Perhaps she was the first one to disembark, Koichi thought and started walking toward the tourist information desk to find a hotel for the night.

He didn’t realize Boram was following him.

***

The snowfall picked up in intensity as Boram watched Koichi walk toward the ski lift for the Aurora Sky Station, an observatory on top of the tallest mountain in Abisko. It was freezing cold, and after checking into a room in the same hotel as Koichi she had changed into three-layered clothing and a thick parka. Her scarf was black, Jae-hyuk’s favorite color, and a gift to him from her only months before their lives were to forever change.

After Jae-hyuk lost his battle with cancer, Boram wasn’t able to look through his things for six months. When she finally gathered strength to do so, the first thing she found was the scarf. They were planning a ski trip in Korea just a week after the diagnosis came, and Jae-hyuk had gathered his winter gear in a sports bag.

It took Boram a year until she could look at Jae-hyuk’s computer, but then it struck her that she didn’t know his password. They had shared every secret, knew every little detail possible about each other’s lives, but she didn’t know his password. She had never asked, because there had never been a need to.

She tried various possibilities. Her name, their cat’s name, the date they met. Nothing worked. She even typed the name of Jae-hyuk’s ex-girlfriend, but luckily that didn’t do it either. She finally took the computer to a technician and had her decipher it. Jae-hyuk’s password was aurora.

And Boram took it upon herself to fulfill Jae-hyuk’s last wish.

***

Koichi looked up toward the mountain, now covered in white clouds and falling snow crystals. The forecast said clear skies, and he had already booked his nonrefundable return ticket for the next day. If he were to see Aurora, it had to be now. The clouds seemed low, so perhaps there was a chance of visibility on the mountaintop…

The weather being what it was, the queue for the lift was almost empty. Koichi saw an old Italian couple sit down in one of the chairs, watching it take off up the mountain. Three empty sets of chairs followed before Koichi decided to step up and sit down in the fourth.

And just as he did so Boram slid in from behind, startling him. She stood right next to him as the chairlift approached from behind and hit Koichi hard in the buttocks. Boram, who had timed her squat better, laughed at him. She pulled the safety bar down as the metal chair lifted up into the air.

“Where… where did you come from?” Koichi stuttered.

“I was right behind you. Like I always am when you are afraid.”

She reached for Koichi’s hand and squeezed it hard.

“Don’t worry, honey,” she said. “It will be okay.”

Koichi finally realized what it was about this girl that had attracted him so much. When she took his hand, he understood. It sounded quite outrageous, but the sensation that rushed through his body was not one of excitement, but of love. Fatherly love. He was looking straight into the eyes of Aurora. He started shattering.

“You’re freezing.”

Boram took her scarf off and put it around Koichi.

“Here. I brought your scarf.”

***

The chairlift broke through the cloud layer and a maelstrom of green hit their eyes, almost blinding them. The sight was nothing short of magical, like a paintball war between radioactive stars.

The lift reached the top and Jae-hyuk and Aurora got off. They walked toward the Sky Station, where the old Italian couple had joined half a dozen other spectators beneath the emerald sky.

“You’re so beautiful. Yumiko would have been proud. You look just like her,” Koichi smiled.

“I’m so happy that we’re finally here. I’m sorry that I never realized. I should’ve… We should’ve… I know you were scared but…”

Boram pulled Jae-hyuk toward her and gave him a long, steadfast hug. Koichi embraced Aurora back, stroking his fingers through her soft black hair. The moment seemed to last forever, and it almost did.

***

“Excuse me, but we’re closing now. You have to take the lift back down. It only runs for another ten minutes.”

Koichi woke from his trance and realized he was hugging the Korean girl from the train. He quickly let go and so did she. Her face turned red.

“I’m sorry. I…”

Koichi didn’t know what to say. He looked up toward the black sky, now bereft of aurora borealis. The Sky station platform was empty as well, save for the staff member who was still looking at them.

“You really should hurry or you’ll be stuck up here. Trust me, you don’t want that to happen.”

Koichi and Boram started walking toward the chairlift, neither of them speaking a word. Koichi reached for his pack of cigarettes and lit one. He offered another to Boram.

“No thanks, I don’t smoke.”

They twisted their heads back as the last lift approached from behind. They timed it perfectly, smiling at each other as their buttocks touched down in tandem.

The lift swooped down the mountain, disappearing into the thick clouds.

Copyright: Dan Asenlund, 2015

Eastlit Journal link: https://www.eastlit.com/eastlit-january-2017/eastlit-content-january-2017/encounters-aurora-express/

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