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Savage Coast

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May 1, 2013

Europe, the thought of Europe swelled over the horizon, like a giant dirigible, strung with lights in a dream of suspended power, but filled, in the dream, with a gas about to burst into flame.

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Image via The Warwick Archive

The train went flashing down France toward Spain, a stroke of glass and fine metal in the night. Its force of speed held the power of a water-race, and dark, excited, heavy before morning: it was traveling, lapping in the country, in speed.

She got up, bending her head low, twisted the length of the sleeper, and pressed her face against the window. Now she could gather herself firmly in, twist in the sleeper, lie with her eyes washed over by black countryside pouring past, streaming over her as she stared out.

The tense, desperate stroke of the train relieved all the passengers: no responsibility, no world, only sleep, sleep and speed in the black, the calm night…

She looked out with an intent look of finality: she expected everything of the day, of the long roll of night-country. In a blaze of excitement, the world changed: to speed, sleep, and speed.

The tense, desperate stroke of the train relieved all the passengers: no responsibility, no world, only sleep, sleep and speed in the black, the calm night falling, preserving speed, opening up the shadows, drawing away to morning.

Casual and direct, the tourist train went down, flying like a high whistle across the air.

South of Carcassonne the early morning, and with all the cocks crowing, the landscape was changing now, the neat silvery fields giving way to white hills and cliffs, standing spread, catching the facets of bright windows in the wake of the train.

*                      *                     *

Helen woke with brightness on her. She lay in the lower sleeper, looking out level at the gray terraces, the gasps of blackness as tunnels enclosed them, the careful white masonry of bridges and underpasses.

High up one of the hills speeding past them, a man stood for an instant, leading a donkey.

The black of another tunnel wiped him out.

The tunnel-roar lasted for minutes, at last exploding into the shriek and light of a train whistling emergence. They were leaning around the shoulder of a mountain now.

“Look!” she said, startled.

The stranger in the upper berth moved her head lazily. The reflection swung in the door-mirror which had opened during the night. She was older and fairer than Helen, not so large, but flabby and lax in the early morning.

“First time you’ve seen it?” she asked.

“Any of this,” the girl answered.

“But there’s plenty of cactus in the States,” the older woman said, yawning.

The guard put his head in at the door, cutting her yawn short.

“Ten minutes to Cerbère,” he stated, and shut the door.

“Better get up, better get up,” muttered the woman, clamoring down the trim ladder.

She stood on the floor of the little compartment, very smart in its dull green metal, very compact and comfortable. Lazily, she pulled her underwear to her over the top berth, and started dressing.

Helen lay still, looking out.

The hills dipped into green valleys, climbed steeply up, balanced tiny white houses with tile roofs on their edges, broke again, and rose into mountains. The Pyrenees produced their little churches and donkeys, plaster and stucco houses, enormous sweeps of green forests and bone-white rock. Fiery dark cypresses sprang up along the slopes, urging them up. The spread of the mountains was wingspread, white and terrible, or tawny, as if blood were beneath.

The woman was out quite soon, looking for coffee down the aisle.

The train slowed down with a civilized grinding under the shed at Cerbère.

Helen swung her shoulders to the other end of the bed, looking out the large window.

Across the double tracks was the bookstall, all the paper-covered books ranged cheerfully.

The newspapers lay unfolded on the floor, carrying the headlines of Europe that spoke of war on every street, knew that the Undergrounds were not safe from air-raids now, put advertisements on its front pages asking for gas-masks recommended for children.

Two porters, covered with tennis rackets, were helping a party across the station.

The fat man in the beret looked up appealingly, walking alongside the windows until the right one was found, and he might tiptoe and flutter and assist.

On the big walls the poster with its yellow diagonal, “Pour La Proctection des Jeunes Filles,” stared across at her.

Two boys, very daintily muscled, strolled up and down; the one in the maroon silk shirt had his arms across the other’s shoulders.

The fine tonic heat rested on the shed.

Helen began to get dressed.

The last station in France. Spain opened up to her, in fifteen minutes!

The twinge of excitement pulled the nerve in her leg. Sun would cure that.

She drew the sweater over her head, and opened the door.

It lay there, just on the other side in a pocket of hill, the old water, the Mediterranean. Gray and trembling with sun, and only a glimpse.

Urgently now, the train began again. Finding its full speed, it whipped around the slopes.

The sea went by, was covered, was laid out full again, cut with sunlight.

Helen found the other woman in the next compartment.

“We might just as well sit here for a few minutes,” the woman said. “The frontier’s next, and this place is so clean and vacant, just right. Have you changed your money yet? No, don’t go, I just want to tell you how glad I’ve been that you were put in my compartment—not some old Scotchwoman, I always think there’s going to be some old Scotchwoman stuck with me. But the minute I saw you—I knew we wouldn’t fight about the lower.”

Helen laughed.

“And then,” she went on, “I was so glad to show somebody those photos of my children—I guess I do miss them, no matter what they say—and, in a manner of speaking, we are neighbors, aren’t we, if you live in New York, and I’m just across the river in Jersey—in Peapack?

“The river isn’t very much, as far as barriers go,” agreed Helen.

“And it was nice to talk to you about my friends in Barcelona. He’s really very attractive—you’d like each other, I think—you must meet them. Maybe we could all go to a bullfight this afternoon; there are always bullfights, Sunday afternoons, in Spain, aren’t there?” said Peapack.

“I don’t know. But I have to look up the Olympiad man, as soon as I arrive,” said Helen.

“Olympiad? What Olympiad?” asked Peapack. “The Olympic games are in Berlin, aren’t they? Why I planned to meet my husband at the end of the week and go on to Germany. He has some letters to some very interesting people there. And then we’re going on to Italy, to Milano—we’re going to meet some very interesting people there, too.”

“These are against the German games,” said Helen. “People’s Olympiad, against the Nazi games, against Fascism. They are being held in protest against the others. In an entirely different spirit.”

“Well,” said Peapack, “I like the spirit of sportsmanship. We have some very interesting contacts in Germany. Why should there be games against games?”

The newspapers lay unfolded on the floor, carrying the headlines of Europe that spoke of war on every street, knew that the Undergrounds were not safe from air-raids now, put advertisements on its front pages asking for gas-masks recommended for children.

Her mood had changed since yesterday. Then, she had crossed the Channel, gone down to Paris on the fast train, whipped across the city, and come on this one, all in a daze of excitement, carried away with the excitement of it, but still locked into herself, traveling alone.

Peapack went on. “I guess there can’t be too many games,” she said brightly, to make peace.

Helen looked out the window.

Spain began here, hot and confusing.

The white road disappeared behind a church.

A man with a wide black sash waved from a row of peas.

Her mood had changed since yesterday. Then, she had crossed the Channel, gone down to Paris on the fast train, whipped across the city, and come on this one, all in a daze of excitement, carried away with the excitement of it, but still locked into herself, traveling alone. It was all new and must be important, must be valuable, in the same way that she was used to thinking she must grow to be valuable. It was too much to carry, all this self-consciousness, and it was beginning to relax from her in the heat and adventure here. She always drew into herself so, painfully conscious of herself years ago as the white, awkward child, and later as the big angry woman. Being that conscious, she knew enough to train most of it out of her, and had grown into a certain ease, an alliance among components, that resembled peace. But her symbol was civil war, she thought—endless, ragged conflict which tore her open, in her relations with her family, her friends, the people she loved. If she knew so much about herself, she was obliged to know more, to make more—but whatever she had touched had fallen into this conflict, she thought, dramatically. The people she had loved best had been either willful and cold or weak in other ways. She was bitterly conscious of her failure, at a couple of years over twenty, to build up a coordinated life for herself. This trip to Europe was to be a fresh start, in the same way that college had given her a fresh start. And now, nearing the end, with her work done and this week to spend at a People’s demonstration, as she chose, the tension was breaking a bit. The nerve in her leg, which had been so disturbing all year, was almost the only reminder. The rest was beginning to turn outward. She could give herself thoroughly to anything that broke down the tension, and this day was beginning to, with the warmth and whiteness, the first-seen cypresses, the inconsequential woman talking away.

When the porter had talked to her about war at Victoria Station the day before, premonitions crowded down on her; Paris made it worse, with its posters and notices of gas-masks and the gossip of cellar drills and war ritual.

Europe, the thought of Europe swelled over the horizon, like a giant dirigible, strung with lights in a dream of suspended power, but filled, in the dream, with a gas about to burst into flame. When the porter had talked to her about war at Victoria Station the day before, premonitions crowded down on her; Paris made it worse, with its posters and notices of gas-masks and the gossip of cellar drills and war ritual.

But all of it was beginning to wear away. France, strongly Popular Front, was a pillar after England’s mixed politics and mad conversation. Sun was restoration after London, and Spain, flooded with sun, backing a People’s Olympiad, had shaken her free before she reached the frontier.

Let it all pass, American strikes and civil cases, grievance in love, looking for rest, seeing only tensions everywhere, nightmares of coming struggle, the concentration camp, the gas-mask face, night voices, German pain, threat of all forms of war.

Porters ran screaming up and down the platform, valises fell and jostled through windows, passengers clutched each other, dropping down the perpendicular steps

Let it pass in bursts like bursts of music, until there is some quiet after, quiet and heat and speed to wave over one, tide that waves over a woman lying on sand under a cliff, a cliff like the one here of white and green and cypress, heat like this heat that one can put the hand into, speed like this speed, a train flying south, quiet like this quiet, now that this train has come to final rest.

Port Bou.

The frontier.

Porters ran screaming up and down the platform, valises fell and jostled through windows, passengers clutched each other, dropping down the perpendicular steps.

The cataract madness of a new language filled the station, she had a porter who was pushing his way across, head down, Peapack had found somebody to take her five rawhide suitcases to the Customs office.

There was the young English couple, the fresh girl, the young husband, long soft eyes, long soft mustache, whom she had noticed head up crossing the Channel. His green porkpie hat had a faintly Latin air.

She entered the Customs building.

The porter shouted, “First or third, lady?”

Peapack signaled she was going first, as in France.

Helen could see the wooden benches of third from where she stood.

They were filling with Spaniards.

“I’ll let you know in a minute,” she called back, moving toward third.

Her single suitcase was chalked immediately.

She was at the end of a long line waiting in front of two scribbling officers.

They stopped each passenger before the waiting room.

As she moved up to them and stood before the long table, they looked up with an ironic detective look. They took her name and added it to the list.

“Extraordinary!” said the Englishman.

She passed into the waiting room.

The French express was completely broken up. Its passengers were standing in little knots, waiting for the Spanish train for Barcelona.

She recognized one or two of the other passengers, but many new ones had been added.

Three black-cheeked, well-dressed men, talking tough Americans, stood at the turnstile. One had a copy of Variety under his arm, and grinned at her when she stared at the headlines.

There were two groups traveling on collective passports, wearing Olimpiada buttons, breaking into little athletic runs every now and then.

Three black-cheeked, well-dressed men, talking tough Americans, stood at the turnstile. One had a copy of Variety under his arm, and grinned at her when she stared at the headlines.

Peapack was getting on the train, four cars ahead, as it backed slowly into the station.

It was a smaller train, of eight cars, three third-class, three first-class, one Pullman, and one dining-car.

The teams and Spaniards scrambled up the third-class steps. Variety vanished in the direction of the Pullman.

Peapack’s head came out of the first-class window, looking vaguely resentful.

Helen was liking the Spaniards.

She went up the third-class steps.

The porter found a single seat on one of the wooden benches, and slung the bag overhead.

With a great grinding, the train started.

*                      *                     *

The wooden compartment was a clatter of Catalan, the six dark women filled it, packed it tight with words. They had been sitting back against the boards when the train started, in the shadow of the station, pushing back to wait for Helen’s fat black pebbled-leather suitcase to be thrown on the rack, and the blue coat and large black hat over it; staring. The black and the hot sun crossed their faces then; drawing out of the station, the train pulled into the miraculous heat and light; the wheels turned. Drowned under their talk.

All sound was wiped out.

They were leaning forward, screaming in argument, friendly, shrill, at the top of the voice, yelling across Helen, filling the room with fists, round and shaking before each other’s faces.

The fashionable one, sitting at the window, would lean back for a moment in her starched clothes, a quiver of earrings, sighing; and, renewed, lean shrieking into the center of the compartment.

A large, placid young girl with a long jaw came to stand against the partition and grin; one of the little boys scrambled over the woman’s knees; two soldiers walked through the crowd in the aisle, in a blur of olive and black and yellow; the noise continued, whipping around the wooden box, a henhouse madness of argument.

They stopped off a moment to look at Helen. She pulled out the guidebook, looking for phrases. One of the women smiled across to her. She smiled back as she looked up. The fashionable one thrust a provocative word into the face, flat and Celtic, of the peasant woman next to Helen; and the “Buenos días” was lost.

They descended on the instigator. The earrings shook.

Pushing through the tangle of noise, Helen could get words, one or two word-roots came through the Catalan.

The flat-faced older woman threw “monàrquica, monàrquica” at the fashionable one, who streamed wrath and contempt now.

All the others flared up, obscuring everything, compartments, windows, hills of shaken silver, dark points of cypress, little rivers. All the others punctuated, “comunista, república, anarquista,” sometimes, “socialista,” and often, with hatred, “Feixista.” It was possible to comb out some coherence; then the shrieking blotted out all but vehemence.

Something quiet was moving down the aisle, bringing quiet. It reached the next compartment. Here it was, a guard taking tickets. Helen pulled out her book of tickets as he punched the women’s slips; they stared as he ruffled through the book to find the last page. “Barcelona?” the flat-faced one asked her as the guard passed through.

Sí. Olimpiada,” she answered.

They all turned on her, opened, friendly, with O and greeting, questions, appraisals. They thought she was French.

¡Viva Olimpiada!” said the fashionable one. “Visca Olimpíada!

She showed them the letter from London to the committee chairman at Barcelona. The woman on the other side of her took it, nodding at the address, passing it across, all nodding, recognizing, friendly.

“English?” they asked. She told them no; American.

She could catch, in the rush of comment, the words for Olympic, American, committee, week. Everything else was lost. The barrier had sprung up immense in a moment; here were friends, and she could not reach over. She thumbed at the list of words.

Lawyer, learn, leave, leave behind.

“Left?” she asked, (straight on, strap, street, string) “strong in Spain?”

They looked, puzzled, quieted. She passed the book. The flat-faced woman pushed it away, and the fashionable one put her hand out for it. She looked at the close columns, and shook her head, smiling, making no sense of it. She said something to the others, and they all smiled at Helen.

¡Viva Olimpiada!” said the fashionable one. “Visca Olimpíada!

The train was slowing, noonhot, hotter than any noon, as its motion’s wind died, and it came to a stop.

All the women got up.

Children scrambling, clothes arranged, the pushing hips, the noise, the flourish of goodbyes.

The compartment emptied in a moment.

The compartment was a thin crate of heat, tranced by the sun.

Helen moved to the window, and put her head out into the full sun, seeing in one broad view the pale town, lines of washing hung, dark clear hills, the six women walking up a little road, the children at their hands.

She pulled her head in, struck by the blaze.

The compartment was a thin crate of heat, tranced by the sun. The excitement of the Catalan women had kept it alive; now it became stale, filled with dense noon and silent.

The train waited.

Helen crossed again to the window, and went head and shoulders into the sun.

The short blue man stood opposite the car, pointing a rifle at the steps, in readiness, alert bristling, dark.

A gun!

Guns, patrols! she thought.

His rifle moved like a camera, covering the train panoramically.

Soldiers! she thought, the soldiers on the train! Where are they?

They were very neat and amazing. Their musical-comedy uniforms, olive cloth, strapped with yellow leather, their reversed patent-leather hats, sideburns, chic.

The six Catalan women were receding from the station moving down a small hillslope. One of them waved, minutely outlined against a wavering silver tree.

Helen answered the woman. The gun swung round to her, pointed, hesitated, returned. Watching, panicky at a glance, she saw it aimed at two gun-barrels held by the soldiers, guarding the steps.

They were very neat and amazing. Their musical-comedy uniforms, olive cloth, strapped with yellow leather, their reversed patent-leather hats, sideburns, chic.

Their guns.

At the front of the train, the engineer was leaning far out of his cab, gesturing at a group of armed men.

The automobile horn blew ferociously, in a quick triple blast, One-Two-Three, up the road.

From all the third-class windows, heads developed. A dark boy nodded at the man with the gun and smiled. He was pointing to his lapel.

¡Olimpiada Popular!” he shouted.

The man shook his gun high over head in greeting.

The boy’s dark head turned, looking up the train toward first class. Most of the heads were pulled in already. It was too hot.

He swung around toward Helen, brilliant, dark and smiling; waving to her to come through, as she answered him, “¡Olimpiada!

He was speaking, waving his arm pointing inside his compartment, describing. She could not understand what he was saying.

¡Olimpiada!” repeated the boy, like a signature.

The train whistle slit the valley in an atrocious blast.

¡Olimpiada!” repeated the boy, like a signature. He put his hand up, with the gesture of an acrobat who calls his audience to attention for the next turn.

He shouted a word to the man holding the long gun, who replied with a come-on motion.

Leaping down the steps, hurrying up these, he was in the next car, he was hurrying through, he was at the door.

The boy was very gay, dark, his mouth was almost purple in the young, intense face, the smile was a dim archaic smile. Remembered, in Renaissance paintings, the purple curved lips, the youth, this grace intensity. His white shirt and light flannels were ordinary; his coat was marked with the button of the Games.

“Are you Spanish?” he asked, in Spanish.

She told him, repeating what she had told the women, feeling very strongly the oddness of repetition; for a moment, feeling the oddness of recognition in a dream.

He clapped his forehead.

Real, it was entirely real.

“You don’t speak Spanish?” She nodded no. “French, perhaps? Oh, well, that’s fine then, that’s better yet, we’ll get on in French.” He sat down beside her.

“You in the Olympics?” He was not much taller than she, he could not be much older. She felt self-conscious because she was not athletic, she was not to be in the Games, and it was stupid to be watching, always; the nerve in the leg pulled with a memory of past games, past sidelines, answers.

“Just going to see them,” she said.

“American!” The exclamation startled; a scream pointed it, the engine screaming up the track. “You came all this way?” He didn’t let her answer. “Is the American team on this train?”

More repetition; she told him her position, her ride from London, the speed, the flight across France, asked him his country. “French?”

“No, I’m Hungarian,” he said. “The team’s in the next car. Hungarians from Paris—we’ve all lived there, in the colony there. Anti-fascist sport club. Vaterpolo.”

He was talking about swimming, about American athletes, American men who lived with their feet up on desks, high buildings, the Empire State, movies, would many Americans be at the Games, how was the anti-fascist movement in the United States, the union movement, the students’ movement.

She could not understand, even when he repeated. Va-ter-po-lo, he was saying, turning his purple mouth around the word. An American sportword.

The train was wrenched suddenly, they fell forward abruptly from the edge of the bench, Helen’s black hat settled in place on the rack. They were laughing; she saw the train began to move. They passed the armed man. He brandished his gun at their car, joyously. The flat pale houses ran by in a moment.

“Oh,” she said. “Water-polo.”

Outside, the long fields began to take the attention, stripes of blond wheat, purple (thistles, flowers?), walls with long sheaves, long branches laid against them, glimpses of sea that had no color but the light it held, the hot white light, and the little fair brooks that ran blue under the tracks, the pools.

He was talking about swimming, about American athletes, American men who lived with their feet up on desks, high buildings, the Empire State, movies, would many Americans be at the Games, how was the anti-fascist movement in the United States, the union movement, the students’ movement. His father, a jeweler in Budapest, had lived in Brooklyn for seven years while he stayed in Hungary, had taken out citizenship papers, did she know Brooklyn? What games did she like best? Diving, was diving like the American elevators he had heard so much about (his dark mouth curling, laughing over all the words, how do you pronounce Hollywood?), did Americans get news more quickly than other people, had she heard the news about Africa that they heard at the border, a revolt of troops in Morocco, something to do with generals, all very vague, but when they had stopped at Port Bou yesterday to go swimming, the Hungarian team had heard stories, the Spaniards seemed to know all about the revolt. But the papers carried small paragraphs about that piece of news, if they mentioned it at all.

In big, white-faced scrawl on the red, the words stood: Viva República España—Viva República Catalunya.

Revolt in Morocco!

But all quiet in Barcelona.

All quiet in Spain.

Had she seen the revolutionary slogans on the train? Chalked on the train?

What slogans?

*                      *                     *

The train stopped for the first time. Helen got up, crossed a man in a tight, flashy suit who was pushing into the compartment, and went on to the platform.

In big, white-faced scrawl on the red, the words stood: Viva República España—Viva República Catalunya.

Guns.

She climbed the next car, dodged through the thick groups in the aisles, crossed over into first as the train got in motion again.

The windows here were larger, the benches were upholstered in pale gray, the white faces turned without interest to the windows were clear and stony against the lace rests. One to a compartment, two here, a group of four, an empty room. She was suddenly completely class-conscious about the fact of the split train, the noise and herding of the wooden cars, the guns. Slogans.

G

Author Image

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) was a noted poet and political activist. Her previously unpublished novel, Savage Coast, was discovered by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, a PhD candidate in English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York while she was researching the Rukeyser archives.

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