The asker is a young girl – the freckles on her delicate hands standing out starkly as she clutches the umbrella desperately in an effort to ward of the needles of rain driving hard into the dark, slick pavement of the train station. As I watch, a bead of water drips down the curve of the black hood of her raincoat and lands directly on the center of her nose. Miraculously, it retains its shape, resting there like a perfect dome of reflected light. She wipes it away impatiently, unconscious of the precious gift she has just destroyed. “Ma’am? Out of the myriad of details I can recall from that wet and dismal November day much like this one, the face of the old woman shines the brightest. Everything fades into insignificance as her features, with their tired folds lying loosely, almost resignedly upon the framework of her skull, superimpose themselves onto each facet of my memory. The trains came through the station less often back then, and it was important to arrive early to allow for any possibility that the timetables were inaccurate or that the train had come in early.
The sun had not yet risen and the gray fog of the morning had a sense of anticipation not yet realized. Steam hung thick in the air (for in those days electric trains had not yet been invented) and people rushed to and fro, their faces barely discernible beneath the thick wool scarves protecting their mouths and noses from the bite of coming winter in the air. The teeming mass of humanity in the train station was from all four corners of the city – it came closer to being its own isolated metropolis than any other public locale.
All ethnic groups, all social standings, all stages of life converged together into a single solid mass of unrelenting diversity, and rarely did a single individual stand out distinctly from others around him. In this chaos I sat in my customary position, on the third park bench from the left of the entrance, hands folded and legs crossed, pretending to read some copy of a newspaper, I don’t remember which. From behind the wrought iron gate an old woman emerged at a shuffle, her gait timid and uneven, the knobby points of her knees the only points of distinction amidst the ocean of coarse crimson fabric that was her skirt.
A faded yellow shawl of equal shapelessness served as her only other protection against the bitter chill of the early morning air and her breath formed clouds of white that billowed out in front of her. Her awkward, dragging steps carried her to one of the wide, grey pillars that supported the ceiling, the unrelenting line of her back proud and unchanging even as she carefully folded her legs underneath her, leaning back against the cold, damp cement. With the same cautious deliberation, she unwrapped the folds of her shawl and removed a shiny tin cup, its cleanliness incongruous with the overall shabbiness of her appearance.
Her hands were gnarled and twisted awkwardly, the chapped fingers uncooperative as they fought to retain their grip on the smooth metal. Her skin was too dry, and slowly the cup slipped, the ring of its handle striking stone muffled in the thick air. She made no effort to right it, perhaps she thought it too much effort, and instead raised her head, gaze darting to and fro amidst the legs of the crowd walking around her. Her eyes were small dark beads swallowed up by the lines of her face, but in them was a knowledge as deep and as long as Creation.
They watched people walk by with an unfettered honesty rarely seen and even more rarely retained, yet not a single person she watched noticed or saw her. However, her invisibility did not seem to bother her – on the contrary, she seemed to revel in her ability to observe and be unobserved. Around her was a curious bubble of peacefulness and stillness; the only movement was of her eyes skipping back and forth, while the bustle of the crowd parted like a river forking in two directions.
However, the faint tightening of the crinkling around her eyes, the high set of her shoulders around her neck suggested that years of going unnoticed by society had taken its toll. It was clear from both her tired garb and equally weary manner that she was a beggar, and yet there was a nobility about her that defied the word and its connotations. The neatness of her hair contrasted sharply with her threadbare attire and the proud, unyielding line of her spine was inconsistent with the twisted deformities that were her hands.
Everything from the frayed ends of her shawl to the scuffed toes of her hard wooden clogs was painfully clean and well-maintained. It was apparent from the inexorable rigidity of her back that her self-respect would not allow otherwise. To look at her was to wonder whether to admire or pity her for her rigid discipline, to wonder whether helping her would shatter the spider-fine threads of steel that held her together. Observing her, the unobserved, imagining what she faced everyday to be unseen by countless people, to know that she was so nsignificant to society that if life ceased, the world would go on living – was a most painful revelation. Her pain became my pain; the impotency of invisibility was felt keenly by both of us. In her face I saw every woman that ever lived or dreamed – I saw my mother, my sister, my grandmother, myself. Her gaze locked with mine, and mirrored in her eyes I saw the harsh reflection of what I was to become. I felt an overwhelming urge to right the gleaming tin cup that was even now lying on its side in front of her and extend my hand out to grasp her gnarled one.
The startlingly grotesque clang of the chug-a-chug of an approaching train severed our understanding as the great black wall of it came between us, and I glanced at the clock and saw it was time to get on to go to Wherever-ville. The steam, which had abated, thickened once more as the exhausted steel monstrosity let out a great, heaving groan. As I collected my newspaper and my gloves, one of which had fallen to my left and the other to my right, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of incompleteness, of a job not quite done.
The sun had not risen yet – if fact, it did not break the horizon at all that day, and that curious sense of something left unresolved remained with me long after I had forgotten its cause. “Do you need my help? ” The bell-clear tone of the young girl’s voice pulls me out of the mire of my memory, and I can see she is impatient now – she must get on the train to speed off to Wherever-ville, Land of the Important Tasks that Must Be Completed. She shivers slightly in the pre-morning air and her breath clouds about her face.
The hand she extends his shaky and pale, so insubstantial I can see through it to the other side. But it remains there between us, an frail, translucent reminder of myself, bridging half of the yawning chasm that separates us. And suddenly I am as I was years ago, bending down and righting the tin cup on the pavement, gazing into the old woman’s ancient eyes and seeing reflected back at me a glittering dome of reflected light, miraculously retaining its shape. I reach down to grasp the hand she has extended and that elusive sense of completeness is at last attained, just as the first rays of sunshine pierce the fog.