The Widow’s Vigil

by Eva Graf

The woman’s face was streaked with tears. Her hands lay limp at her sides, and her chest heaved with shuddering breaths. Her husband used to say that her face was a piece of artwork. A blank canvas when she awoke, carefully painted over in beautiful strokes, adding a line of contour there, a dot of blush here. He used to say that no matter how many paintings he looked at, she would always be his favourite. She wasn’t so sure he’d feel the same way now. Her tears had melted the makeup off her cheeks and caused her mascara to run. Her face was no longer a piece of art.

A loud, grief-ridden sob broke out of her. Her husband had always admired her strength. The way she could stand with her spine straight, a defiant look in her eye, ready to face any trouble that came her way. Once again, she wasn’t sure that he would think the same now. She could hardly be described as strong, with her emotions pouring out of her like blood gushing from a wound.

She supposed, however, that it really was like blood gushing from a wound. Her husband was gone, and she had no idea if he would ever return. She had no idea if she would ever feel his arms around her, pulling her head into his chest. His absence left a cold, empty space in her heart – a scar she was sure would never heal.

The train had departed 20 minutes ago. She had stood, stock-still, in the very same place that she had last felt his lips on her since the moment he stepped foot on the train. She dared not to move. As long as she had been standing there, she could still feel the ghost of his arms around her and the warmth of his breath on her hair. She was afraid that if she moved, she would lose him forever.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a hand on her shoulder. The station attendant stood next to her, a pitiful look on his face. Somehow, she knew he was aware of precisely what was bothering her. Somehow, she knew he had seen a million other wives with the same look on their face, waiting for husbands that would never return.

She sniffled one last time, before straightening her spine and turning to look at the man. He smiled sympathetically at her. Wordlessly, he led her to the doors of the station, and giving her one last pitiful smile, watched as she walked solemnly back to the automobile waiting to bring her home.

Little news was brought to her of her husband during the war. Fighting on the frontlines proved difficult for contact. She heard every so often from his superior officers of his wellbeing. They said he was alive and still fighting. They told her that he asked of her every chance he got.

When word of the armistice reached Canada, she felt her heart lighten. She knew he would be returning to her soon, ready to embrace her in his arms, lifting her up jovially and spinning her around, right there at the train station. She could almost feel his warmth around her. She could almost see the smiles on their faces as they gazed into their beloved’s eyes once again.

Each day for a month she would wait all day at the station, waiting for him to walk off the next arriving train. She was surrounded by others like her, waiting for loved ones to return.

Each day for a month she was there, until finally news of her husband reached her. It was nearing the end of the month, and she still had not received news from her husband or his superiors. Then, a man stepped off the train. He was dressed in a military uniform, with a young, regal face that suggested he was no more than 23. He began scanning the crowd as though looking for someone when his eyes landed on her. He glanced down at his hands where she could see he was holding a small paper. His eyes lifted once more towards her, recognition now evident in his features.

With each step he took towards her, she could feel her heart sinking farther and farther down, until she was sure it had left her body entirely. The boy stood in front of her by a couple feet. In his hands was a picture that she could now see was a photograph of herself. He also held a small chain – an identification tag, she realized. Once worn by her husband. He shuffled awkwardly on his feet, clearly uncomfortable. It was this that finally confirmed her fears.

With one hand over her mouth, she let out a loud sob. The boy was silent, and so was she, save for the cries released from her mouth. The boy gently placed the ID and photograph in her hands, explaining they were the only possessions of her husband’s that they could find, before gently turning away and walking back onto the train. Once again, the woman found herself on the platform, watched a train leave the station, her once delicately painted makeup smeared and ugly, just as she had been four years before.

It was another 20 minutes that she stood there, hands hanging limp by her sides, tears running down her face like water from a tap. There was another hand that touched her shoulder, and she knew it was the same attendant as before. She let him guide her wordlessly to the door and back to the car waiting to take her home.

Following that day, the woman hardly moved. She sat in a chair, her eyes staring blankly out the window, not a stroke of makeup to be found decorating her face. Her back no longer stood straight, and her eyes cast downwards as though perpetually afraid she might trip over something on the ground. She was but a husk of her past self. A sliver of the woman she once was, cut down by the sharp edges of her pain and grief. She was nothing but a shell.

Yet each year, on December 11th, she found herself, once again, standing on the platform of the train station, her eyes focused on the train in front of her. As she grew older and confused, she began to believe that her husband might walk off onto the wood platform, his footsteps slowly taking him closer to her.

The year before her death, she found herself at the train station once again. Her old age had taken quite a toll on her, leaving her with very few memories, and only a shaky image of her husband in her head. By the time December rolled around, she could recall almost nothing but the fact that she had to make it to the train station.

She stood on the platform, the same place as she always stood, a vacancy evident in her eyes – the place her husband’s memory had once been. Like clockwork, 20 minutes since her arrival a hand placed itself on her shoulder. But unlike the past times, this time she did not move when it begged her to. Rather, she closed her eyes, and a faint smile touched her features. Perhaps it was the ghost of her husband, wrapping his arms around her once more, or perhaps only the memory of it. Perhaps it was nothing of the sort, only the acts of a confused old woman. But no answer can be found here.

She let herself be carried away and back into the car. She soon found herself in front of the window again in the same rocking chair as always. Her failing memory left her confused and empty, a husk of a human, senile and old. She spent her time silent, her mind a whirlwind of thoughts and anguish, looking for memories that she’d never find. But now, her mind was clear. Her thoughts came to her like a train coming into the station.
In her mind she sees the train station. Perfectly intact like it had been all those years ago when she first waved her husband goodbye. Each train brings with it another memory she has forgotten – a fragment of a life she forgot. Her husband’s hands, his eyes, his smile. Then, finally, she sees that fateful day 50 years ago when the man stepped off the train. But this time, instead of a stranger’s eyes meeting her own, she sees the eyes of her husband. She could see the life she could’ve had if the train station had brought them together rather than torn them apart.

The vision dissipated in her mind. Her eyes closed; her breathing stilled. The distant sound of a train whistle echoes in her mind, the warm touch of a hand pulling her into the darkness beyond life.