The cut on my cheek stings and I’m reminded that life is dangerously unpredictable. My son runs circles around me and I stand small in the vast vault of the Milano Centrale train station, with its stone drapes and eagles, wreaths of laurel, I guess they are, in their craggy talons, which is just as the architects intended: to make us citizens feel small and helpless, in need of the State’s fatherly protection. Which sounds nice right about now, I won’t lie. There has been a switch and our homeward-bound train won’t be leaving from the platform printed on our Swiss ticket, because that platform has a train bound for Bergamo, not Zürich, and what if I hadn’t doublechecked, and why do the people waiting with us for announcements seem unsurprised by any of it? The whole thing is too unpredictable, when what I need, the only thing really, is predictability, that’s the key to avoiding a crisis. In the event of a meltdown, I have no extra arm to carry my Daniel boy, not with our suitcase and my overflowing handbag, and hadn’t I been warned just this very morning? The refugee woman on the news comes rushing back to me. As Daniel shoved a pastry into his mouth at breakfast and I stirred the dirty foam at the bottom of my cappuccino, my mind empty, she warned me from the TV screen that you should never have more children than you can run with, meaning in case you needed to flee an attack, and she sobbed bitterly at the mention of the child she’d left behind as she ran with two others in her arms.
The cut on my cheek is thin and straight as a line, fresh from this morning when Daniel threw a heavy dinosaur at my head, when I was picking up clothes off the floor of our holiday rental. He has these impetuous gestures sometimes, and the only warning you get is a wild sparkle in his eye, but he wasn’t even upset, and there was no obvious malice in it, just the need to test the boundaries of safety, a much worse thing, in my view. Served me right for buying the expensive German-made dinosaur instead of the hollow Chinese one he’d wanted. It’s annoying but expected in these poorly managed countries that they would take so long to update the train platforms, and now a crowd is gathered around the information screen. Annoying, but a part of me is thankful for the opportunity to put down my heavy bag, brimming with toy horses, snacks and card games, because here I am accepting that to be a mother is to carry overflowing bags through life, bags that contain a remedy for every possible scenario, until the straps permanently indent my shoulders, curving my back, and I recall childhood images of Jesus carrying the cross in church and feel, maybe inappropriately, that this is not unlike that. There is a razor-sharp dinosaur tail at the bottom of my bag to prove it, down there somewhere with a book I probably won’t be reading but carry with me hopefully, like a condom nearing expiration. I rarely sleep alone, Daniel crawls into bed with me most nights, but when was the last time I slept with another adult body? It may be why I sleep so badly.
What isn’t in my bag is Daniel’s passport. I don’t know how I forgot to bring it, but I forgot to bring it and now I’m stuck both hoping I’ll get questioned at the border, as you’d hope any kidnapping pedophile would be, and praying for the luck of getting through unnoticed. I’m worried about having good luck and worried about having bad luck, and no outcome seems particularly rewarding here in so far as my anxiety about the world goes. My stomach can vouch for that. Trains aren’t like planes, where your bags are scanned and your ID checked before boarding, and they aren’t like cars that are stopped at the border with Germany to scrutinize goods brought into the country, which the Swiss border patrol do and give a hard time to people breaking the rules. Deservedly so, in my opinion. They are all of them, trains, planes, and automobiles, in-between places, a bubble slightly apart from reality, but trains are unique in their poor controls, poor to the point of reckless. Trains treat borders like lines drawn to be crossed, just like the line between life and death is a line drawn to be crossed. What gets me really agitated, though, is when I think about the mountains on the Swiss border with Italy, which are only loosely marked on a map and not at all in the actual terrain. Half the mountain is Swiss, the other not, but where that exact line lies remains confoundingly unspecified. Unimaginable, but where something begins and something ends is not always clear. My Swiss passport would surely be enough to quash any further inquiry into my situation with Daniel, but even if, God forbid, some out-to-get-me-drunk-on-power Italian poliziotto gave me a hard time, there is no doubting Daniel and I are mother and child. No two people with different age and gender could be more identical than we are, as if genetics had forgotten to get creative. Just look at those dark blue eyes and loose blond curls, not to mention that jawline, as good as any DNA test.
Still waiting for the platform announcement, I glance down from the display screen and Daniel isn’t at my feet and my chest tightens violently, and I’m about to call out his name but then see him squatting on the ground a ways off, playing with his Hot Wheels in a cone of sunlight pouring down from the great hall’s skylights, and that light holds him there so menacingly, its long fingers weaving through my little boy’s locks like a snake in the grass. I beg him to stay close to Mamma. That morning, pre-dinosaur, he curled himself around me in bed just as dawn tore through the window, piercing the flimsy curtains in the bedroom. He gently pried open my eyes as he was prone to do, calling me Mamma, nudging my cheek with his hot little nose and asking if we’re going home today, if he’ll get to play with all his best toys. And we crept under the covers, pretending to hide from an evil creature as ambiguous in form as certain in its presence beyond our protective shroud. Now, while we wait for the platform announcement, my Daniel boy runs rings around me, as travelers dart by with threatening scowls, annoyed at having to go back to work after a long weekend, annoyed that a child could be so oblivious to the constraints of adult life. I try to keep Daniel barricaded behind our new roller suitcase and pat myself on the back for the good mommy move of buying the suitcase in the first place, a way to avoid unnecessary back pain and avert a crisis of my own, a sales bargain that entirely justified the unseemly prune color, just one shade shy of tasteful. And it barricades my son now, so he won’t get run over by other harried passengers, and I try to coax him still with banana chips and a drink, but who’s kidding who here? My head bobs from him to the display screen and back and then the image flips. Our train to Zürich, platform 7. A crowd descends on 7 with us, and I’m afraid of losing Daniel, still running circles around me, but I rein in the urge to bark at him, because maybe it isn’t such a bad idea for him to burn off some excess energy before the trip. A bright flicker comes at me from the corner of my eye, a young, plump woman coming into view wearing glittering silver Converse that flash with her steps like Morse code. She’s squeezed into tight jeans and a tank top, with a baby latched onto her hip and, a few feet ahead, a guy in a tracksuit pushes an old stroller piled high with a private mountain of bursting plastic bags, and this is the perfect moment for Daniel to tell me, Mamma, I need to go to the toilet now, now, now, now.
The train, like its bathrooms, is a mess. The carriage numbers inside don’t match the carriage numbers outside, and everywhere you look people are clambering over one another in the narrow aisles, while the exits are blocked with passengers anxious to get on. Inside, Daniel and I negotiate the length of half the train, and he’s deftly weaving his way through passengers to the next carriage door, because it’s so much fun to poke the button and see the sliding door disappear into the wall, an invitation to pass into a new world, but I lag behind, struggling with the suitcase that keeps banging against the sides of the aisle and is hard to pick up with the handle extended. I force myself to smile at an old man blocking the way. He gingerly inches into his seat, and there is something touching in the tie he’s wearing, the sign of a man that was used to travelling back when people dressed up for it, a man whose tie is probably just as old, given how much it resembles the train’s tired upholstery. But now Daniel is nowhere to be seen and God forbid he should step out of the train for some reason. When Daniel and I finally find our seats, the four-seater in the middle of carriage 16, relief washes over me, but he decides it’s time for a snack, which is exactly the kind of scenario my oversized bag is prepared for, and out of its depths I produce a juice pouch and a bag of unsalted nuts.
I push off my Birkenstocks, not the best shoes to bring to a city like Milano, with its dirty streets and oppressive pollution, and my feet, ringed in dull grey, are proof of just that. I pull out a wet wipe to clean them and tell myself Zürich makes you notice how dirty other cities are, when back home kids walk around barefoot not because they’re lawless, but because things are reliably clean and orderly. Plus, the Birkenstocks make it hard to keep up with Daniel’s unpredictable sprints, so God forbid I should ever have to run in them. I can’t shake the God forbids today. They keep slipping into my thoughts with the image of the refugee woman repeating “La samah Allah, la samah Allah” between sobs, yellow subtitles spelling it out for us, God forbid, God forbid. Daniel makes a circle with his cashews and then adds two eyes, a nose, and a tiny cashew mouth and proudly says, Mamma, look I made the baby! He picks up one of the cashew eyes and extends it across the aisle to a giggling baby, shouting, Here, baby! and the baby pushes his heavy cheeks aside with a strong nimble smile, while two tiny teeth poke out of his lower gums. He must be about six months old, such a nice age, and look at those eyes, bright as headlights, and I glance down and spot the glittery Morse-code Converse, their whites so white they are phosphorescent. Sweet, I tell Daniel, but babies don’t eat nuts, my love, and Daniel is unfazed, just rushes the nut into his own mouth instead, as I tell the baby’s mother her child is bello, to which she smiles but doesn’t otherwise respond, and although her face is kind, there is an underlying tension to it, maybe because it’s her first trip with the baby and, in the end, all mothers carry that tension in their faces. To love is to worry. Or maybe it’s the cut on my face, maybe it’s downgraded me to a target of suspicion, something I am unaccustomed to and surprised at, coming from a person like her.
The façade of the Duomo had been cleaned since my year abroad in Milano, making the veiny, pale pink stone look hauntingly like human skin, not helped by the fact it was cold to the touch. Getting into the Duomo was nothing like I remembered: it’d been a thoughtless process back then, I’d even casually ducked in a few times just to get out of the rain, but now big cement barriers lined the entire square and military police paraded their machine guns back and forth like prize lapdogs, while other officers inspected our bags for entry. This explained the long sinuous line packing everyone in like cattle, to my mind, a good target if anyone managed to get through those cement barriers. Once we’d finished with the cathedral’s rooftops, Daniel needed to run around, so we walked back onto Piazza Duomo, infested with pigeons, and Daniel was ecstatic running through those dirty creatures, some missing eyes or claws, disease-ridden Frankenbirds. At his footfall, the birds lifted into flight and spread about him like spray. It took a tall, African man two seconds to swoop in and tie a bright string bracelet around Daniel’s wrist, me rushing over, waving my hands and shouting, No grazie, no grazie! As I tugged at the bracelet to get it off, the man showed me the children’s books he was hawking, and Daniel cried, I want it, Mamma, and I said, No, darling, I’ll explain later, at which he began stomping his feet and I urgently fiddled with the surprisingly tight knot. I pulled at the threads to tear them apart, letting them dig into my flesh until they snapped. Sharp in my ear, my boy screamed and I finally got the damn thing off, threw it on the ground, carried Daniel flailing in my arms into the archways as I cursed the man. The gall of the man to move in on a child like that, and what kind of scam was he running anyway? These vendors were all over the square. No one could make a living selling cheap crap like that, damn parasites, but Daniel was in a full-blown tantrum, and I tried to console him telling him he’d done nothing wrong, the man shouldn’t have put the bracelet on him without Mamma saying it was OK, the man was the one that had done something wrong. This absolution suddenly calmed him and he said, I’m going to kick him in the toilet, with a hatred that caught me off guard but which I didn’t fully censure. We sat there cuddling for a moment and Daniel lifted his little arm to hug me and I saw a thin little cut straight across his wrist, a single drop of blood hanging from the tip.
On the train, Daniel and I are playing a round of Uno when his eyelids start growing heavy and I take my time reshuffling the cards, give him a chance to fall asleep, which he does and, really, it’s a gift, since few things give me as much pleasure as reading on the train, so I rummage through my bag to unbury that book, when the baby in the adjacent four-seater starts wailing. The parents disappear down the aisle with him, and I’m thankful they haven’t woken Daniel, thankful for the chance to peek over at their unattended pile of bags. A pair of brand-new baby Nikes, royal blue, ridiculous to buy such expensive shoes for a baby, he’ll grow out of them in a month. Back to my book, with little recollection of what happened in the previous chapters, it’s been so long, made only worse by the lively conversation going on behind me, one voice thick with a southern Italian accent, the other more crisp and sophisticated, and I notice this because the talking is getting louder and louder, until I realize I’m skimming the lines and not really registering the story, which I don’t really remember anyway and am annoyed twice over, but fine, so long as Daniel keeps sleeping. The crisp guy says he lives in Italy, but works in Switzerland, Bellinzona, and the thick guy says, Giusto, you go where the work is, so the crisp guy asks him his name and he says Michelangelo, which the crisp guy loves, says it’s a beautiful name, that they don’t give names like that anymore, everybody names their kids after footballers, and the thick guy says it was his father’s name. The crisp guy asks what’s the name of the thick guy’s baby and he says Lionel, the wife’s name Angela. The thick guy tells the crisp guy that he’s heading to Bern, around there, because you go where the work is, right? Michelangelo suggests they exchange numbers, because they’ll certainly be running into each other and should have lunch, offro io, and I roll my eyes because this guy probably has no clue what a restaurant costs in Switzerland or that Bern isn’t anywhere near Bellinzona, for that matter.
I had taken Daniel to see his first Michelangelo on this trip, the Pietà Rondanini, which he’d left unfinished—because he died, sure, but maybe also because he couldn’t quite figure it out, the dynamic between these two people. He’d stopped and started on it a few times, his changes of heart visible in the marble, and it is an unusual Pietà, with Jesus standing on buckled legs, as if still dying, as if his mother isn’t yet too late to keep him safe. I told Daniel the statue was 500 years old and he oohed and aahed, and I asked if he saw the two people, the mother holding her son, and he giggled and started slapping his knee, saying, He’s a big boy! Big boys aren’t supposed to ask their Mammas to carry them. Right, Mamma? He was excited now beyond any chance he’d want that nap I’d secretly hoped for, so I could sit quietly in front of the statue, sucking on it voraciously, marrow from a bone, trying to extract some answer. A security guard gave us a dirty look as Daniel announced he wanted the ice-cream I’d promised, tugged me out into the Milanese smog, we two plodding toward the facile, unsatisfying joy of gelato piled high.
Deep into my book now, I barely notice as Michelangelo and Angela come back up the aisle again with another man, Baby Lionel nowhere in sight. They plop into the four-seater across the aisle and the man, whose name I soon find out is Dario, begins talking with such authority that I assume they are business partners talking matter-of-factly about emails and jobs in restaurants, noticing that what one calls cook’s assistant, the other calls sous chef, and out of the corner of my eye, I notice Michelangelo is wearing a brand new pair of black hightops with zippers all over them, while Dario has on a pair of worn but fashionable combat boots and looks slick, confident but very casual about the whole thing, as if he is often called upon to lead and shows it by projecting his voice a little louder than needed. I try to tune them out and focus on my book, hoping to God they won’t wake Daniel, but the determination in Dario’s voice makes it impossible not to turn an unwilling ear to the conversation. He starts bellowing into his phone, saying, Ciao, it’s Dario. I’m here on the train from Milano to Zürich and I met this young couple from Napoli. They’re on their way to Bern. Apparently, they were offered some sort of a job by this woman Donna St. Nikolaus-Giovanni and I saw you’re friends on Facebook. What do you know about her? . . . You don’t know who she is. Listen, why don’t you take a look, man. Maybe it’ll jog your memory . . . So you do know her. And she’s from Bern? She works in the hospitality industry somehow? You think so. Michelangelo starts blessing himself saying, Thank you, Dario. I won’t forget this. I won’t ever forget it, Dario, and Dario is trying to get Michelangelo to hold his horses, saying they still need to find out if this woman has anything to do with the Facebook message Michelangelo got, but before Dario can finish, Michelangelo and Angela have darted back down the aisle and left him free to continue the call uninhibited.
It’s just that I feel sorry for these guys, Dario says, rubbing his closely shaved head. I just met them on the train and they have a small baby. They left Napoli chasing a promise from this woman on Facebook of a job in this fancy hotel in the countryside in Canton Bern, but it seems weird, you know? Who gives someone a job without so much as an interview, not to mention a visa? And the message they got from her is in really bad Italian. I’m just a little worried it could be a scam. I mean, they have a baby and don’t seem too worldly, you know. I just wouldn’t want them falling into the wrong hands. I mean, they’re not even on the right train, for God’s sake. Zürich is a huge detour to Bern. Plus, they don’t know anybody or speak the language . . . They’re totally clueless, man. So, you know this woman? Can you give me her contact so I can make sure this whole thing is above board? Look man, send her a message on Facebook and get back to me. Thanks, man. Ciao. Then firm-footed Dario storms back down the aisle and joins a woman I assume is his wife, because she is also casually beautiful and certain of herself, as a woman would be with a man like that by her side. Dario-Wife is holding Baby Lionel and she’s scowling slightly, and I think she’s worried about whatever is going on with these people, and the baby neither cries nor smiles, just looks slightly stunned and accepts being held by this unfamiliar woman with her unfamiliar smells. I wonder if Baby Lionel feels the woman’s worry through the hands that hold him, babies being sponges and whatnot.
A while later, I finish reading the chapter of my book and look up to rest my eyes a bit. Dario-Wife is still in the aisle holding the baby, but where are Michelangelo and Angela? My heart jumps in my chest and I realize they’re going to leave the baby with this woman, I just know it, but then I spot Angela’s Converse sticking out into the aisle, Michelangelo’s hightops sticking out next to her. Baby Lionel, overcome with sleep, has passed out on Dario-Wife’s shoulder, buried his little face in her neck, and I wonder how Angela allows it, such an intimate gesture carelessly bestowed on a stranger like that. They still might leave that baby. Again, Dario comes stomping up the aisle towards me, his mobile phone glued to his head, because the now empty four-seater next to me is where he comes to make his phone calls away from the couple’s earshot, while Dario-Wife keeps them distracted. He says, They seem like good people, you know? They left Napoli to try and get away from the situation down there. I was just doing some fact-checking. Called a friend of mine who’s Facebook friends with this lady and her account looks weird. It could be phishing. Plus, this hotel they’re headed to doesn’t have a website. You get one of those broken link messages. I’m just suspicious, man.
Twenty minutes later, the conductor announces our impending arrival at Zürich Hauptbahnhof. Angela is strapping Baby Lionel into a worn-out sling, the furrows in her brow knotted and deepened, and she doesn’t return my smile as we both collect our things to leave the train. Daniel needs to be woken and he’s a little startled, by how deeply he’s been sleeping and that the world still exists on the other side of his dreaming. I try to console him with my sweet-voiced apologies and tell him he needs to walk on his own, I can’t carry him and our things. He rubs thick sleep from his eyes, jumps up and says, My toys! as if he’s just remembered they are home waiting for his care and attention. So I want my dinosaur, he says, and I quickly rummage through my bag to retrieve it, and he jitters, impatient at the passengers gathered in the aisle. Tentatively, he nudges his way through the first few people as I grab our things from the overhead shelf and remind him to stay close. I spot the couple’s stroller at the other end of the carriage with its multitudes of bags ready to be unloaded out into the real world again, where two security guards in bright yellow vests amble past our carriage distractedly.
Michelangelo and Angela start descending the stairs, a clear plastic bag hanging from the stroller’s handle, filled with pink cans of tuna. I imagine this young family heading to the shops the day before they suddenly leave for Switzerland, buying brand new sneakers for the whole family, which they can’t really afford, but they do it anyway, out of hope, banking on the bright future ahead, and then to the supermarket to pick up some diapers for the baby and some cans of tuna to tide them over those first couple of days, in case anything goes wrong. And I can’t see Daniel now and call out, waiting for him to pop out from behind whichever adult is blocking my view, but nothing happens and the steady flow of tired passengers is now pushing me out of the carriage. I’m out and looking for him, Dario and Dario-Wife walking away with the young family in stride, and I spot him, further down the platform, walking away from me with tight steady steps, certain of where he is going, in need of no instruction, no vigilance. From a clutched claw the dinosaur dangles at his side, and I know for the first time my love for this child is what will kill me.
Mariana Villas-Boas is a Portuguese immigrant in Zürich, Switzerland. She won the FNAC New Talent Award for Short Fiction (Portugal) in 2014. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Apple Valley Review, AGNI, and American Chordata. You can find her at www.marianavillasboas.com. (updated 7/2023)
Read Villas-Boas’s entry in AGNI’s “In Discussion: AGNI 95 Reviews AGNI 95”