When I walked my children to school in the woods in the wind and cold of morning, I could see my kids beside me. I could reach out and touch them. Lay my hand on their heads. I would stop at the edge of the path as we emerged from the trail behind our home in the Columbia River Gorge and watch them cross the dry grass field to school. They went the rest of the way alone, moving under the shadow of the giant tree in the field, its enormous boughs stretching out and up and away into the heavens. They trudged on, loaded down with coats and hats and backpacks and projects of colored leaves and colored paper. I wondered then if they needed it all. It was a lot to bring through the world.
Those days, long days past, I stood in the wind and watched them till they moved out of sight. I am still watching them now, years later, disappearing from view. Time to time as school pales to memory, they reappear. I see them. They are different. Better. It’s good. It used to hurt a little, wondering if I was just a father figure all along and their real father was someone else, but I don’t wonder about that anymore. I know it’s true.
Dad, something happened on the train in Cairo.
A woman asked me for one of my eggs.
A poor woman?
Yeah, she was missing some teeth. Black hijab and burka. Her face and hands were uncovered.
Were you in a bad section of town?
We’ve talked about this, Dad. I’m not afraid. I wasn’t there for the scenery. If you want to know, looking out the windows as we passed there were old, brown apartment buildings with their walls falling off. Some of them looked bombed out. Laundry hung out of apartment windows.
How old was she?
Late thirties, maybe? Hard to tell. No one young stays that way for long. She wasn’t asking for the kind of eggs you buy at the store. She wanted my eggs.
I was standing there, and she just came up to me and started talking. I didn’t know what she was asking. She looked uncomfortable.
Your Arabic isn’t that far along yet.
No. They have us in language class.
I saw pictures of class.
It was a long flight, Dad.
I know. Sixty-four hundred miles. But you can’t fall asleep in class.
It was a long flight, Dad.
Okay. And she didn’t speak English?
No. Some people do, but she didn’t. We were trying to communicate with each other but ended up just kind of trying hand gestures. It was so frustrating. You could tell she was embarrassed. It was really awkward.
Why you? You were the only woman on the train?
No. It was full. There’s a separate car for women. It was hot and sweaty. Everyone was staring at us until we looked back at them, and they looked away, I think to be polite. And it smelled like dust and body odor. It was mostly silent until every couple of stops a teenage boy would come onto our car to sell things like headscarves and Kleenex, and then he would get off at the next stop. Some women would stare ahead blankly and others would smirk at each other because of how annoying it was to have him invade our privacy so loudly. There were women in full burkas, some in just a hijab, some with their hair down, and babies and little kids everywhere.
I wonder why she picked you—you were obviously a foreigner.
I don’t know. Maybe that was why. Maybe because I’m tall and my hair is lighter, or because I dressed differently. Who knows? There’s this perception that nothing is sacred or off-limits for Westerners. Some girls wanted to know how many boyfriends I have and if I’m a virgin. The assumption is that we are immoral and capable of anything.
You stuck out.
Oh yeah. Head and shoulders above everyone else. The friends we made and the little kids always wanted to touch my face and hair.
So I got her to write down her phone number, and when I got back to the apartment I had my leader call her.
If you had seen her . . . the state she was in . . . I had to. I couldn’t leave her hanging without anyone on her side, no one to turn to. It is so shameful for women there if they can’t have children. Her husband can divorce her for it. She would lose everything. All social standing, the ability to live or have relationships with her own family or friends. For her to get up and do what she did in the middle of the train—she was unbelievably past desperate.
And she approached you.
What did your leader do when she spoke to her?
Her Arabic is excellent . . .
Probably has coffee before class.
. . . and she figured out what the woman wanted in the first place. She gently explained to her that my family would never allow it. Then she offered to meet with the woman over coffee, and the woman agreed. When they met and were praying, the woman burst into tears and said that when they prayed she experienced this overwhelming presence of joy and peace around her. She was crying and laughing and said she had never felt anything like it in her life and never, ever wanted the feeling to go away. She wanted to feel that way always, for the rest of her life. She and my leader kept meeting after I left.
Wow. Good job standing on the train.
I didn’t do anything.
No. How could you? But you still ended up in a foreign country on the same train at the same time with a woman who needed hope. She’s in good hands now.
What makes you say that?
Your traveling companion. The invisible man on the train doesn’t know how to fail.
I love you, Dad.
I love you, darling. I think there’s one thing you can do.
Keep riding the train.
When I was young, I would watch my children move over the earth with their coats and hats and backpacks and projects of colored leaves and colored paper. I wondered then if they needed it all. At times their feet seemed to barely touch the ground, like they were floating. Like if I didn’t keep watching, they would float away up through the branches of the great tree into the universe, into the embrace of someone far above me and there’s nothing I could do. I think now, looking back, I was right. They will finish their walk along that narrow trail that leads them to the end of time, beside them one more powerful, fearless, and wonderful than I ever dreamed.
Cover image by Omar Elsharawy.