Emilia and the Bell Tower
By: Antwan Crump
She watched as the falling snow layered on the thick ice, of the shaky train window. From a distance, she eyed the flicker of a belltower light. When the train continued on, she’d lost sight of her momentary amusement, and was once again faced with the conundrum of boredom.
It was unclear to her, how long it had been. Some moments -it seemed that’d she’d just boarded. Others still, felt as if it may have been an eternity. Her booth was nice. Tinted-red, velvet, seats with golden trimming. A great material. Particularly fun for running one’s fingers across. A hanging light bounced around with every swivel and turn of the locomotive. And, of course, her favorite thing of all – a large glass window; “perfect for spelling your name on”- when it fogged.
For her, these devices had run the course of their entertainment value. The seats had been slept on, the light -now dimmed, and predictable, and the window wiped clean, from the constant re-spellings of Emilia. She contemplated wandering but had been sternly told not to by the attendant -who was nice enough to give her extra sweets. As her boredom grew, the rules devolved into the harsh suggestion, and eventually irrelevance.
She awaited the meal cart – wise enough to know that she should eat before her excursion. The server arrived, on time -as always- with cookies, and an option of, “milk or tea?”- Emilia always chose tea, and did so again, though sleep wasn’t on her agenda.
After enduring some mindless, condescending banter, and a pat on the head – the server left for the booth next door. Emilia waited -patient, with her ear against the wall. She listened for the: knock on the door, the click of the cart brakes, and the ceremonial, “You have a swell ride now!”. She gathered that once the server had been out of earshot, it would soon be ‘lights out’, and she’d be free to roam.
Her plan flowed smooth. The servant did as expected. Emilia rushed to put on her slippers, and cotton robe. Counting the seconds, and deeming them enough -she gripped the handle on her booth door. Taking a deep inhale, she swung it open. She threw her hands up, and let out a light, “Ya!” -to appear as if she’d been startled- ‘just in case’. She looked around and saw nothing, but a dark walkway, and several other booths on both sides, that’d looked just like her own.
She gently closed the door behind her and began to make her way toward the food car, with the subtle hopes of meeting other wandering patrons along the way.
Upon her inspection, the halls were drab. The floors had begun to wear out from the hundreds of footsteps, and meal cart visits. Emilia didn’t mind this much. Though she did have some cleaning advice -for ‘whoever’s job it was’.
As she paced forward, she basked in the natural sounds of the train speeding forth at full speed. The clanging of metal beneath her feet filled her with an odd comfort. It was then, that her belief in the power of the iron behemoth became similarly solidified. She put her hand to the filthy floor, to feel the turning of the machinery. The train let off a loud blast from the exhaust horn and made a hard right turn as it switched tracks.
Emilia, tumbled into a door adjacent to the turn, letting out controlled wails of pain, as she slid into a fellow passenger’s room.
“What in God’s name?”-the old man screamed, startled at the sight of the prepubescent misfit, “What in the hell are you doing, young lady?”
Emilia stood, with confidence, and proclaimed, “My name is Emilia Duarte! This is my train, and I’m commandeering this booth.”
The old man smiled, “And may I ask the reason for this ‘commandeering’, Madam Conductor?”
Emilia stood silent, as the old man laughed at her lack of an explanation. He sat up, arranged his glasses, and began fiddling around in his luggage, “I know it’s here, somewhere”. He mumbled as Emilia inched toward the door to leave. “Not so fast young lady, here.” The old man extended an envelope to Emilia. “Assuming, that you’re not the conductor, I have this letter that I’d like delivered to him.” Emilia took the letter, and read the front of the envelope – which simply read, ‘To Whom It May Concern’. He blew a layer of dust off of the letter and handed it to her.
“I fear that my stop is coming shortly. I may not have the chance to deliver it personally. If you can do me that favor, I’d be very grateful.” – he said.
Emilia answered, “And, what’s in it for me?”
The old man, let out a jolly howl, “Well dear girl, aside from me -not telling your parents about this intrusion we’re in the midst of; I’ll gladly pay you in sweets as well, should you return before my stop.”
Emilia agreed and shoved the letter in the pocket of her robe. “You will be here, right?”
“Absolutely, my dear.” – he said.
The two shook hands. Emilia departed, as the old man waved – ending in a low voice, “Ta, Ta, Ms. Duarte.”
As Emilia left, closing the door behind her, she heard the old man giggle himself back to sleep.
The train’s pace quickened. Emilia made her way to the corridor connection. Before she could reach the door, a flickering light from down the hall caught her attention. It shined onto the untouched glass of a train window. She turned to it, and contemplated moving on -but she could never resist making her mark on window fog. She licked her index finger, and began to write – E-M-I-L –
“What are you doing?”, a squeaky voice sprung from behind her.
Startled, she swung her arm back, and hit a little boy, in his eye with her, ‘writing finger’,
“Ow! Whatd’ya do that for?” – he cried.
Emilia wrapped her arms around him, covered his mouth with her shoulder, and whispered, “I’m sorry I hit you. You scared me. What are you doing up anyway?”, she pulled away from him to see his face, and shoved him back into her bosom, continuing, “What are you like… five? You should be in bed.”
The boy mumbled unintelligibly, as a vigilant Emilia gripped him tighter to keep him silent, – “I’m not letting you go until you be quiet.” She interpreted an, “okay”, from the boy’s muffled response and let him go.
“Who are you!” – he shouted.
Emilia grabbed his shoulder, put her finger to her lips gesturing for him to – to shush.
“I’m Emilia”, she said.
“I’m Toby.” the boy answered bashfully, as a moldy stuffed bear dangled from his right hand. “Who’s E-M-I-L?”
Emilia wiped the letters away, and continued, “Look, Toby, it’s nice to meet you, but I’ve got some very grown up business to take care of. You need to go to your room, and go back to bed before your parents find out you’re gone.”
“I didn’t come with them.” – Toby said. “I’m meeting them at the station.”
“What? Are you all alone!” – Emilia asked. Toby shushed her. Lowering her voice, she continued, “Show me your room”. The two walked a few feet to Toby’s room, and he presented her, his booth – filled with miscellaneous blankets, toys, and other “kid things”.
“Well, damn. Alright, come on.” She pulled Toby along, as she walked back to the corridor exit. “I’m going to see the conductor, and you’re coming with me.” Toby, paused for a moment, before happily agreeing. The two opened the gangway door and pushed forward as the brisk winds blew against them.
They made their way into the next cart. Toby looked back and noticed a flickering light of his own from inside the train. He watched as a shadowy figure struggled to open the door, that had somehow locked behind them. He could barely make out what the figure had been yelling, over the harrowing sounds of the moving train, and Emilia’s continued insistence for him to -“Hurry up!”
Hail battered down on the tracks, as the two heel-toed through the dark luggage cart. Having difficulty keeping their balance, they held themselves up by leaning on opposing walls of the train, bouncing against it, as they hopped and jumped with every slight distortion of the rail. Despite the apparent danger, the train continued to speed. Similarly, the two proceeded, taking every moment between skips of stability -to speed up their pace, until the next inevitable bounce would send them tumbling back to the floor. “Just a few more feet”, Emilia encouraged, as Toby fought to stay standing. “Come on!”
Toby halted, in front of think black shade that had hung from the wall. Emilia continued until she reached the door to the next cart. “Toby, what are you doing?”- she said, stumbling back to him, as he tugged on the black drapes. “Toby, don’t touch anything. You might hurt yourself!”. Ignoring her demands, he continued to pull on the shade, until it unlatched and fell to the ground. He stood there, awestruck, as Emilia made her way to him.
“What is that?” – he asked. The two gazed out of the window -that had doubled the size of any Toby had ever seen.
“That?” she answered, staring out of window beside him, “Those, are mountains.” Toby looked at Emilia perplexed. Enjoying his fascination, she continued, “And past that, are oceans. Above that, are clouds, and up there. Those teeny shiny things, those are stars.”
“Stars?” – he asked.
“Yep. All of those lights are. They keep an eye on the sky, when the sun gets tired, and give us light.” Emilia drew on the glass, as she explained to Toby the meaning of the constellations and the importance of always connecting the dots. “And, what’s this?”- Toby says, placing his hand on the window.
“That’s glass. It doesn’t do much really. But if it’s foggy,” Emilia, takes a deep breath, puts her face close to the window, and blows as hard as she can, “You can write your name on it too.” Toby stood on his tiptoes, and did the same – but no fog appeared. “It’s not working”, he cried. “Here, like this”, as Emilia readied to blow again, an angry voice screamed-
“Run Toby!” – she grabbed his hand, and the two sped to the doorway. As they shut the door behind them, the train knocked to the left – sending Toby’s stuffed bear off the edge of the tracks. Before he could drop a tear, Emilia shoved him into the next car and locked the door to the luggage cart.
The shadowy man ran to the door as it closed. Emilia waited by the door window for him to approach. As he grappled with the handle, she stuck out her tongue out at him and gave him the middle finger. She entered the next cart -locking that door as well. The shadowy man lit a cigar and leered.
“My bear!” – Toby screamed.
“Don’t worry about it-”, Emilia’s lecture was interrupted by an uncontrollable coughing. She covered, her mouth, as Toby started to cough as well. “Keep walking straight”- she said, pushing him ahead of her, with her shirt over her nose, “Breath through your pajamas”. Toby followed her orders and proceeded forward.
The two approached a thin curtain, which had bisected the car. They walked through it cautiously, only to be met by a thick smog of ‘pine-cone scented’ smoke, and the bitter smell of stale gin.
“Fire!” Toby screamed as he pointed to the trash can that had been the source of the smog. Emilia ran behind the bar and dumped a bucket of melting ice into the corner. As their coughs overwhelmed them, they heard the sound of windows, lazily sliding open. The smoke cleared the car within seconds.
Their vision cleared, and the smoke subsided – they were able to make out what car they’d entered. “The drunk tank,” Toby said, with an uncomfortably familiar tone. Emilia agreed and looked around, to be sure that they two were safe.
The bodies of about a dozen passengers were strewn around the railcar floor. “Are they dead?” – Toby asked before Emilia could answer, a voice interceded-
“No little man. Those folk are just a tad worse for wear, I’m afraid.”- the bartender slurred as he shut the windows. “Maybe, I am too.” – he joked. “ Damn it’s cold. Can I help you all with something?”.
Toby wandered about the car, while Emilia convened with the ‘scary, but harmless man’. “My name is Emilia. That’s Toby. We’re trying to get to the head of the train.” She waved the letter in the bartender’s face. “We have some very urgent business for the conductor to attend to.”
“Well young lady”, he said, pouring himself a fixer-upper, “You won’t find much up there, but some trouble and woe. Why don’t I take you back both back to your booths, huh? I’m sure we can get you all some candy or something on the way.”
“Absolutely not! This is serious business, Sir.”
“And I’m a serious fellow” – he answered, as he lit another ‘funny stick’.
“A drunkard, is hardly the type of fellow, that I deem a serious man.”- she said.
“Well, that’s just hurtful.”, the bartender puffs out a cloud of smoke, “But, should that be the will of the universe, then so be it. You have a good day, now. Just make sure that you remember your brother.”
Suddenly remembering Toby, she looked around for him. “There he is, girl.”- the bartender said, pointing to Toby, who’d been guzzling from the half-full cups of the sleeping patrons. “Little man’s got the bug!”
“Toby, No!” – she said as he continued to drink. “I’m thirsty,” he said. Emilia knocked the cup out of his hand and pulled him by his arm to the next doorway. “You oughta’ be ashamed of yourself, mister.” -she said as they passed into the next car. The bartender laughed, watching the two depart as the shadowy man banged on the door behind them.
Toby stumbled into the next car, as Emilia tried desperately to hold him up. The effects of the ‘spicy juice’ had begun to bear down on him. His legs wobbled, and his speech had been slurred – worse than the bartenders. Emilia had grown tired of holding up his “impossibly heavy”, body, and laid him against the door of a patron’s booth-
“Toby. Toby, wake up,” she said, slapping him on the cheek as lightly as she could. It was for naught. Toby had fallen completely unconscious. Knowing what this was, she sat beside him, and hummed, while she thought of what to do next.
She eyed a hanging clock, “It’s almost eleven now. Toby, you’ve got a half an hour.”- she closed her eyes and napped with him, as the hail turned to snow, and blanketed the windows of the train.
“Little girl. Little girl. Wake-up!” – the server tapped on Emilia’s shoulder until she woke in a fearful sweat. “You shouldn’t be sleeping on the floors, honey. They’re filthy.”
Emilia jumped, pushing herself back against the wooden door, “Where are we? Where’s Toby?”
“Who’s Toby?” – the woman asked.
“Little guy. Skinny. Kinda’ dumb. He was right here.”
“Aw, sweetie. You must have been dreaming. Come on now. Your stop is coming up. Let’s find your parents.”
Emilia walked with the woman to the exit door. There hadn’t been any other passengers around, but she‘d been so insistent, that Emilia felt assured of good things, as she was nudged out of the exit door.
Leaving the train, Emilia became a bit worried. She watched as several other children exited onto the platform where she had been. She sifted through them with her eyes for a few moments, in search of Toby. After all but a few stragglers had departed, she’d decided that she must’ve fallen asleep -as the nice lady- had suggested.
She walked around the main station building, to avoid being harassed by any lingerers. She knew that she’d looked far too young to be traveling alone, and she’d been privy to the various swindlers that hang around the railways.
The snow slowed. But with the winds picking up, Emilia immediately thought of where she might rest her head for the night -until the next train arrived, heading further up north.
For a moment, she thought of sneaking into the bathrooms of the station. That thought was fleeting, however. She knew what went on in public restrooms, especially at this time of night. She decided to make her way up the snowy road until she ran into a town or a good samaritan. She nestled herself tightly in her robe and proceeded to walk.
As she trudged through the snow, a bell tower rang several times. She assumed that she must have fallen asleep for about an hour while exploring the train in a sleepy haze. The idea arose, that it may be best to follow the ringing of the bell. There must be a town nearby – she thought, following the horse and carriage tracks, as she walked through the slush beside them.
The roads had only gotten worse as she made her way up the slippery hills. Her pants had become soaked. Her ears pained from the persisting winter winds. Her heart rate sped. With every step, she tried to quicken her pace – to no prevail. At last, she’d given up on her trek, She curled up behind a nearby stump, and sat behind it against the wind. For an instant, she was warm. Then she was sleepy. The winter storm worsened again, as she pressed herself tighter into a ball -trying to quell the shaking.
“Who goes there?” – a voice screamed as a lantern light approached her. “Madam, are you alright?” – he inquired. The well-dressed woman with him shouted, “Ernest! For the love of God, it’s a child”. She rushed over to Emilia, and wrapped her in a wool blanket, “Darling, are you okay?” Emilia forced a smile, answering, “My name is Emilia Duarte. I’m the conductor of this train, and I’m commandeering this blanket”, as she shivered. The lady smiled, answering against a sigh of relief – “Okay, dear.” Ernest picked her up and carried her to the carriage. The three made their way into town.
The couple bickered, about what to do – as Emilia sat by the firepit drinking hot cocoa. She’d grown increasingly comfortable, surveying their quaint cottage. Above the fire-pit were the heads of taxidermied deer, among other animals that had the misfortune of dwelling in the same forest as she had.
This would normally concern Emilia, but overhearing the couple’s disagreement, about ‘what Mint would be best’, to put in the care package they’d been preparing for her -she felt safe. She pulled closer to the fire and watched as the flames danced, as she awaited the creaking wood of inevitable inquiry.
“So. Emilia, honey what are you doing so far away from home?”- Hilda asked. Emilia hesitated to answer. “Come on honey.” Emilia shook her head ‘no’, as she continued to sip from the mug they’d told her that she could keep.
“How’s about this? I tell you a secret, and you tell me yours, okay?”
Emilia agreed with this proposition. More interested in learning about her, than of keeping her own, “not so much a secret.”
“When I was a little girl. Just about your age, I ran away from home”, Hilda said as she sat beside Emilia. “I loved my parents, but they were too strict. Too stuck-up. They never seemed to want to have any fun. So, one day, I packed all of my things”, she pointed to a small table topped with porcelain figurines, “And, I never looked back. I don’t regret it too much. Although, I do wonder what happened to them from time to time. Does that sound like anything that you’re going through?”
“I bet you never had to freeze in the snow.” Emilia quipped, dodging Hilda’s near-perfect assumption.
“Well, okay then. I won’t pry. Would you like to lay with me? It’s awfully cold in here.” – Hilda asked. Emilia figured that she’d seemed okay, and made room for her in front of the fire.
Hilda held Emilia in her arms, as she hummed her favorite childhood song while stroking her hair. Emilia embraced the affection and rested in her arms. She hummed along with her, as she was cuddled to sleep.
As she drifted, the slam of the front door caught her attention. Feeling her squirm, Hilda gently tightened her embrace and assured her that, “Everything will be fine”, and continued to hum.
The uneasy sounds of a horse neighing awoke her. With Hilda asleep, Emilia rose and walked around the cottage. She shoved some miscellaneous supplies, and biscuits into a bag, and prepared to leave. A moment late she heard-
“She’s in there right now. My wife is keeping an eye on her.”
Fearing capture, she skimmed the small home for exit points and found a window that looked out to the back of the home. She climbed atop some books and slipped out just as Ernest had brought his, ‘company’ in for her.
“Emilia!” the shadowy man shouted. Recognizing him from the train, she scurried through the window and ran as fast as she could up the road toward the bell tower, some distance away.
She ran until the puffs of air that she exhaled turned from a thick cloud of white, to clear. Her insides burned from exposure to the freezing midnight air. With every thought of slowing down, she would turn to see the light of the carriage, chasing her, and persist. The horses let out even louder neigh, as the cart full of pursuing adults screamed for Emilia to -“Stop!”.
Her clothing soaked, and slowed her down, she discarded the blanket that she’d wrapped herself in before fleeing. She lost one slipper. To keep her pace she kicked off the other. Her toes became to welt from the formidable frostbite. She ran through the pain in her feet, fearing capture more than bodily harm.
She drew closer to the bell tower closer. Tripping over her own feet, she was able to make out a bridge from the brush. She cut through the forest, as the light drew closer. “Emilia. Honey!” Hilda screamed, from the then speeding carriage. She dove into a mound of snow and hid -barely able to control the sounds of her own deep panting from the tiring run.
She watched as the carriage sped past. The adults looked concerned, but she cared only for escape -no matter how good they thought their own intentions were. They would never understand her fleeing, should she be caught. As they rode out of sight, Emilia returned to the road, and pressed, with caution, toward the bridge.
She thought of examining it before taking her chances on the rickety prospect. Those concerns melted away, once she saw a door leading into the tower. The bridge swung in tandem with the powerful winds, rocking back and forth, as she did her best not to slip off of the sides, and into the frozen river below. Halfway into her crossing, the carriage arrived. Hilda, Ernest, and the shadowy man all stepped out and demanded that she return to them. She dropped to her hands and knees to keep stability, as she hightailed across the remainder of the breaking wooden panels.
Once across, she picked up to run again. Arriving at the door, she banged with a fury, looking back every few seconds, to assure that the adults had still been too fearful to cross. “Emilia!”- she heard, as she beat against the door to the bell tower, which finally opened. She slammed it shut, and bolted the lock on the inside of door frame.
“Come, Emilia”, a voice echoed from atop the many-stepped staircase. “Come, warm yourself.” Feeling she had little option, other than to freeze, she ascended the winding stairwell, enticed by the light of the flame coming from the apex, as the bell rang, welcoming the new hour.
At the top of the steps, she was amazed by what she’d seen. Massive gears spun above her. Spinning counterclockwise, flickering flares of purple light. The ashes of fire rained down on her. Frightened at first, she looked for cover, but the warming sensation of this display outweighed her concern, as she walked through; it warmed and dried her.
Standing at the center of all this commotion, was a man. He was old, and appeared decrepit, through he pushed and pulled the controls with a fluidity of motion comparable to the maestro of an orchestra.
“Yes, you little girl. Come here, let me get a look at you.” Emilia went to the man’s inviting call, mesmerized by his control of the giant springs and screws that had surrounded them, “You’ve been causing quite the stir around these parts young lady.” – his familiar tone was off-putting, but it felt safe in comparison to the jolting screams of the adults, who awaited her outside of the locked door. “Come closer, I must show you something?”
Emilia stepped onto the pulpit, on which the man had been operating all that she’d seen. “How do you know my name?” – she asked, unsure of what to expect from this seemingly senile man. “I am the conductor, dear child. I know all and see all.”
The conductor’s introduction was interrupted by the shouts of the men outside, who’d been ordering Emilia, to let them in. “Such noise.”- he said as he pulled on a lever -the voices suddenly went mute. All that could be heard was the soothing sounds of Hilda’s hum, which had somehow been magnified. Emilia, questioned, “How did you do that?”
“Conductor my dear. I am the conductor”, he said paying her little mind, as he twisted and pulled on what appeared to be every lever. “I believe that you have a letter for me.” Emilia had forgotten about the old man on the train, who’d specifically given her this letter for, ‘the conductor.’ She handed him the letter. He ceased his eccentric tooling to receive it. As he read, his machinery stopped behind him.
“Ah, yes! Sad to say, that he did not make it to his stop.” -he mourned, continuing, “But, I believe that I can make this happen. Come with me”- he said as he stepped off of his podium, and walked Emilia to the window. “Is that the light that you’d been searching for dear?” -he said as Emilia, stood, lost in the events of the day. “I just, want to go to sleep”, she said.
“In due time my dear. Almost.” – the conductor said lifting her onto the glassless window sill. “Here, watch this.” He reached his hand into the sky and pulled down the distant north star. “Sometimes, the furthest things, are right in front of us.” He laughed, as he handed the star to Emilia.
Her eyes lit up and tore from its bright glare. “What do I do with this?” she asked, watching the conductor return to his work station. “You put it where you need it most. Now if you excuse me.” The conductor went back to work on the springs and screws. Emilia leaned against the wall, holding the star -bewildered.
She placed the star in her pocket and returned to question the conductor. “Well, what did the letter say?”.
“Are you sure that you want to read it?” – he said with a sinister smile. Emilia nodded ‘yes’, and he handed her the letter. “But be sure, there’s no un-reading it!” – he warned as she ripped the letter from the wrinkled envelope.
Hilda’s hums grew louder, comforting Emilia, as the conductor let out an aggressive chuckle, she read the letter, which simply read-
“Wake up, Emilia”.
The star in her pocket grew brighter, and the tower faded out of her vision.
“Wake up, Emilia.”
“Wake up!” – Toby urged as he shook her limp body. The lights of the train had been turned back on, and the other passengers had been, walking about, stepping over her sleeping body, preparing to arrive at the next station. “Emilia, we’ve got to go before we get in trouble”. Dazed from her slumber, she agreed and accompanied Toby back to their car.
“Next time we have to make it all the way to the front!” -Toby said, sneaking back into his booth.
Emilia smiled at him, as she walked to hers. The server had been waiting to greet her at the door, looking punitive. She walked past her, laid in her seat, and looked through her smudged window, at the night’s sky, which had become jaded by the rising sun.
“You scared me half to death girl.” – the server said. Emilia apologized and took her daily tray of biscuits and tea that the server had brought by for her.
As the train slowed to a stop, she gazed out the window, still- daydreaming about the events from the night before, and whether or not it had all been real.
“Is this your stop, young lady?”
Emilia looked, as a couple stood on the train platform searching. She reached into her pocket for her ticket but instead found the letter that the old man had given her -for the conductor.
Reaching past the letter, she felt a strong heat emanate from her pocket.
As she pulled it out, the loud ring of a bell tower bounced throughout the station.
She answered, “No”.
The train’s exhaust horn blared, signaling its departure.