The train bound for milan snakes into the berlin station, sending billows of steam high into the station’s skeletal rafters. Its whistle pierces the night once and then recedes. Silence reclaims the cavernous space, broken now and then only by the slow, steady scraping of a sweeper’s broom.
The sweeper has learned not to stare openly at the horrors that pass through the station. He knows to keep his own counsel and inhabit the shadows. Yet he watches, head bowed, from beneath the brim of his cap.
Track by track, click by click, the train comes to a stop. In the last car, a couple sits facing each other. They wait without moving, framed like portraits by the window’s ruby curtains. Their incandescence defies the heavy, quiet darkness, and the sweeper slows his pace.
He considers the woman first. A station lamppost throws her proud profile into bold relief against the dark cabin corners. The low light catches the folds of her silk persimmon dress and the ermine trim of her traveling jacket and cloche hat. He shakes his head at the decadence of her clothes and calculates the loaves of bread her ensemble could fetch on the black market. Then the sweeper shifts his attention to the man, whose overall deportment seems more respectful of a wartime journey than the woman’s. He has a naturally engaging round face, but he is dressed somberly in a charcoal suit, simple black overcoat, and fedora. His right hand clutches a worn brown envelope so tightly his knuckles shine white, and the jagged points of a yellow star peer out from his coat. The sweeper supposes that both must understand the precariousness of their travel.
Suddenly, the door to the compartment swings open with a jolt, and the man and the woman spring to their feet. The sweeper steps back into the safety of the shadows.
Flaxen boy-soldiers swarm around the couple. Their black uniforms gleam with gold buttons, and every jacket boasts the slash of red swastikas. The sweeper knows that these are not the usual station militia, and he jumps when their gloved hands cut across the compartment to take the man’s tickets.
Then the boy-soldiers part to let a decorated officer come forward.
The official leans closer to address the couple. He hands over a document with a fountain pen and demands the man’s signature; the officer wants the man to surrender something. Lowering his eyes, the traveler shakes his head. Instead, the man relinquishes his precious envelope, his hand trembling as he presents it to the officer.
The officer holds the envelope up to the cabin light, then slashes it open and scrutinizes the letter within. He stuffs the letter back into its envelope and returns it to the man. The officer and his soldiers pivot and depart, shutting the cabin door sharply behind them.
The train whistle cries out again, and the couple returns to their seats. A cautious smile curls on the corner of the man’s mouth, but the sweeper turns away in despair. He has seen the boy-soldiers hard at work. He knows that when the train pulls away from the station, the last car will remain.