The kindness of strangers. Is it true? Most often, probably not, but invariably in everyone’s life there is a moment, a window in time, where only a stranger will make sense of a senseless thing and pull you out or through or wherever you need to go and do not have the power to do so alone. It will feel as gentle and effortless as an angel’s touch. It will come unasked and unannounced. It will come from someone whose name you may or may not recall, whose face may blur with memory, but whose deed, in one way or another, saved you. It will be a stranger.
For me, that window was May 4, 1881. It was my twelfth birthday for the first time. I was traveling with my mama and papa on the last leg of a long journey west from St. Louis to Central City, a boom town in the mountains above Denver. We were jammed into a noisy, crowded train filled with people of all sorts and sizes. My papa was going to be the “lapur de urre,” the “thief of gold” in all the great Rocky Mountains. He knew nothing of mining, but he always liked to say he knew everything about gold. “The Basque,” he said, “will never steal your purse, they have the mountains.” My mama always laughed a little when he said these things, but she never disbelieved him. She loved him in a special way, a way as old and wise and silent as the mountains themselves. A way, as you will see, that is unique to them and to me.
My mama said, “Zianno, put that baseball glove down and leave it be. You make me crazy with the rubbing, the rubbing.” That’s my name—Zianno. My mama sometimes called me “Z” because her name was Xamurra and my papa’s name was Yaldi and he liked to think of us as “X,” “Y,” and “Z,” the three unknowns. My mama made the baseball glove by hand in St. Louis. It was my most treasured possession. It was crude and rudimentary, but in 1881, so was base- ball.
I kept that glove with me at all times on the trip west. I used it as a pillow at night and rubbed it constantly with my spit to “break it in.” My papa had made me a baseball—actually two, one I kept with me and tossed around and the other he kept with him. We never played with that one.
“Mama,” I said, “you know I’ve got to make it soft. The softer the better.”
“Soft is one thing, my child. Crazy with rubbing is another. But never mind, there is something much more important I want to talk about today.”
The train was inching its way through a mountain pass. Outside, there seemed to be hundreds of waterfalls, some small, some large; a result of heavy spring rains. Papa had made his way to the front of our car in order to listen to a fat man ramble on about recent gold strikes. I put my glove down and looked at Mama’s face. I loved to look at Mama’s face. She had creamy skin and her features were round and small. Round nose, mouth, and eyes that were coal black and always laughing. But not that day. She was serious and I knew it.
I said, “What, Mama? What’s important?”
Mama looked hard into my eyes and reached up with her hands to touch my face. She ran her fingers over my eyebrows and down the line of my cheekbone and traced the outline of my lips. I sat dead still. She touched me often with much love, but not often in this way. It was as if she was trying to remember me with her fingers. The train lurched suddenly from side to side. We were beginning the descent from the pass and picking up speed. It startled Mama, but she wasn’t scared and neither was I. We were sick of trains. She put her hands back in her lap.
“You must listen to me, Zianno. This is your birthday, your twelfth birthday.”
“I know that, Mama, and when we get to—”
She cut me off with a hand gently placed on my mouth. “Now listen, my son. Your birthday is different, this birthday, this one today is different, just as we are different; you, me, and your papa.”
“Different? How are we different, Mama? Because we are Basque?”
“We are Basque, yes, that is true, Z, but we are more than just Basque, we are . . . older.”
“Older?” I was confused. “You mean you are older. I am twelve, Mama.”
She let out a long sigh and her eyes glanced out of the window, then back to me.
“I mean our . . . our people are older, different, not like the Giza, the other people. Your papa will tell you everything you need to know, everything about us when we get to Central City.”
“Mama,” I said, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
She leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead, then sat back in her seat. “I know, my child, I know. I said the same thing to my mama a long time ago, a very long time ago.”
The train was gaining speed. The men gathered at the front of our car were laughing loudly at something the fat man had said, my papa included.
Through the window, the space between our train and the mountain wall opposite was widening. I could clearly see the river racing beside us, swollen from the runoffs and waterfalls I had seen at every turn higher up the mountain. I was trying to make sense of what Mama had said and I wanted her to tell me more, but she was staring out of the window at the rushing water. I started rubbing the pocket of my glove and leaned my head closer to the window. Up ahead, we were coming to a low bridge over a narrow section of the river. Then I saw something very strange.
“What, Z? What?”
“Look up there, Mama, by the bridge. There’s a scarecrow waving his arms.”
She moved closer to me and followed my finger to where I was pointing. Up ahead, next to the bridge on the embankment, someone or something in an enormous black coat was waving like crazy at the train.
“It’s a scarecrow, Mama.”
“That’s no scarecrow,” Mama said. Her voice was low and even, as if she were talking to herself. She rose slightly out of her seat and stared harder at the scarecrow. He was getting larger as we were getting closer. In a blink, we were passing him and I could see that he was not a scarecrow at all. He was a man, a tall man with a beard and a small, round cap on his head. His long arms in the great black coat dropped to his sides as we passed. I saw his eyes, which were wide open, and his mouth in the shape of an O. So did Mama. She grabbed my hand, jumped up out of her seat, and screamed, “Yaldi, Yaldi!”
The train was already on the bridge. Through the noise of the train and the men laughing, my papa heard Mama’s voice and turned toward the back of the car. I saw him catch her eye and I turned to look at Mama too. Her eyes were a bonfire of black, but without panic. I turned back to look at Papa. His eyes were the same. Their eyes were locked on each other, and for an instant, there was no sound in my world. No voices, no laughter, no metal screeching as the train tried to brake and avoid the washed-out track on the other side of the bridge.
I felt something pass through me, something that can only be described as Time. The weight of Time. Years upon years, people, places, joys, sorrows, and journeys, endless journeys. I was weightless, empty, and they were filling me, telling me. My mama held my hand, and she stared at my papa and he stared back, in that instant they gave me the weight of their lives.
All the cars of the train were uncoupling and falling from the tracks. There was nothing we could do. Bodies were being tossed around and Mama and I were flung through the window on our side of the car. I never saw Papa. He was somewhere in the middle of a tumbling mass of arms and legs and screams.
I saw the waterfalls. Hundreds, thousands of them; spinning, shining, falling upside down, trailing diamonds and gold, they were like comets. I watched how they spun and fell. I tried to reach out and touch them, but my arms wouldn’t move. I felt cold somewhere. Then there was only one waterfall and it was warm. I opened my eyes.
I was wedged between two boulders and Mama was above me, face down on the rocks with one arm dangling over my face. The waterfall was blood, blood that was gushing out of her neck where a large piece of glass was embedded, and running down her arm into my eyes. She was moaning and trying to speak. I forced myself to move and, in moving, felt the pain in my right arm. It was bent at a crazy angle and pieces of glass were sticking out everywhere like darts in a dartboard. But I could only think of Mama. I crawled up to her and gently rolled her over. It was easy, too easy. She was no more than a rag doll broken on the rocks. The blood was pouring out of her neck. She tried to speak, but it was low and hoarse. I leaned down closer.
“Yaldi . . . Yaldi,” she whispered.
“No, Mama, it is Z.”
She opened her eyes for a moment, those beautiful coal black eyes. She stared straight at me the same way she had been staring at Papa in that last instant on the train.
“You must find Papa, Z. You must find him now.” Her voice was weak, but clear and determined.
“No, Mama, no. You’re bleeding. You’re . . . you’re . . .”
“I am dying, Z. But I will not die yet. You must be strong. You must go and find Papa and come back to me.” Her voice was so calm and I was shaking, trembling from head to foot.
“Go, now. Go, my son.”
Somehow, I did what she said and got up from beside her and made my way through the rocks and boulders, stumbling, crying, yelling, “Papa! Papa!” I was lost in a dead world, a world of broken glass, twisted metal, splintered wood, and bodies, dead bodies everywhere, torn and crushed and split apart.
I couldn’t find Papa and probably never would have, except for a tiny sound, a sound that was barely there, but so different from everything else around me I couldn’t help but hear it. It was singing. Someone was singing.
I followed the song, the voice. It was a sad and simple song, not in English, or Basque, or any language I had ever heard. It was . . . it sounded . . . older.
Then I saw him. Underneath several mangled seats from the train, my papa was impaled, flat on his back with a jagged piece of wood from the sideboard of the train jutting up and through his chest. And he was singing. With his eyes closed and blood running from his mouth, he was singing.
“Papa!” I yelled.
I tried to move the seats, but I couldn’t. I was too small and only my left arm would work. My right arm was broken and useless. I got on my knees and tried to crawl between the seats. It was too tight. I reached down with my left arm and stretched my hand out as far as it would go, but I still couldn’t get there, I couldn’t touch him. Then the tears fell from my face to his. He opened his eyes and stopped singing.
“Z,” he said, slow and soft, like someone whispering just before sleep.
“Papa,” I said. “I . . . I heard you. I heard you singing.”
“It was Mama’s song.”
“But it was . . . I mean . . . I didn’t understand it.”
“You will, my son, you will.” He coughed violently and blood shot from his mouth. I started crying again because I could do nothing to help him. Then, through an opening in the tangle of debris, he somehow raised his arm and I saw that tightly gripped in his hand was the baseball that he had made for me in St. Louis.
“Zianno, quickly, listen to me.”
“What, Papa? I’m here.”
“Zianno, you must listen now and listen with all your mind. Take this ball, this baseball, and never lose it, always keep it with you. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Papa.” I was still crying, but I was listening hard. His voice was very weak.
“Z, my son, my blood. Remember, we are . . . we are . . . the Dreams.”
I took the baseball from his hand and held it next to me. He began to sing again, but only got through one line, then his head fell to the side and my papa was gone.
In the distance, a train car was coming apart, sliding down the rocks and crashing into the river. I could hear the wood cracking and splitting. I stood up dazed, numb, blank. Mama, I thought. Mama.
I ran back to her through the wreckage and mud and rocks and death. I couldn’t feel my arm. I couldn’t feel anything. I fell down on my knees beside her. She was covered in blood and her head was bent back on the slope of the boulder. Not six feet away was my baseball glove; I reached for it and put it gently under her head. The glass was still in her neck.
“Mama,” I whispered. “Mama, Papa was singing. Papa was singing and I heard and I ran and I . . . I . . .”
“I know, Z. I could hear him.” Somehow, she was alive, but her voice was hollow and distant. “Zianno, come close, my child.”
I leaned down and put my face against hers so that her lips touched my ear.
“There is so much, Z, so much we never told you. So much you will need to know. You must be strong. You must not stop. You must find Umla-Meq. You . . .”
Her voice trailed off. I rose up slightly and saw that her eyes were closed.
“Mama? Mama? Please, Mama, don’t go away. Don’t go away . . .”
She moved her lips again. She tried to open her eyes but her lids were fluttering and when she did get them open, her gaze was dull and cloudy. “So tired,” she said, “so tired . . . the Dreams . . . tell Papa . . . Zianno . . . Zianno.”
“Yes, Mama, yes. I love you, Mama.”
She drew one long, slow breath and then, using all the strength left in her, she pulled me even closer and with that last breath whispered, “Find Sailor.”
The Window opened. All of Time and Space narrowed to a single, black dot. A dot that became a tunnel rushing toward me, growing larger, gaining speed. I screamed, but no sound escaped. I tried to run, but I had no legs. Then I turned and fell somewhere dark and deep; a nameless place beyond borders, a place of loss and terror, a place so empty and hopeless, I thought I might never return.
Four days later, I awoke near what is now Limon, Colorado. My first memory of that moment is sky; the endless western night sky filled with the Milky Way. The Silence. The Brilliance.
I smelled smoke. I turned my head from the fire in the sky to a fire on earth—a campfire. Someone was bending over it, rattling pans and mumbling. His back was to me, but somehow he seemed to know I was conscious and turned to look at me.
“So, kid, you live. Zis is good.”
My head was propped against a log and I was lying on my back wrapped in a blanket from neck to toe, except for my right arm, which was in a sling across my chest. I couldn’t feel it. My lips were dry and cracked. I tried to speak, but my lungs just pushed out an empty, raspy sound. I couldn’t form words. He was leaning over me.
“Here, kid, here. Drink zis.”
I drank the water. I looked up into his eyes, big and black as walnuts.
“You’re the scarecrow,” I said.
He scratched his beard and laughed a low, strange laugh, almost a gurgle.
“Scarecrow?” he said. “Scarecrow, no. Man of vision, weaver of wisdom, muleskinner, singer, miner, tailor, rabbi, yes. Solomon J. Birnbaum I am, was, and shall be. Yes . . . yes, indeed. Do you have a name, kid?”
“Zis is good. And what is it?”
“Z,” I said. “My name is Zianno Zezen. My mama and papa call me Z.”
“Ah, yes. Your mama and papa. Yes, of course.”
Solomon was a big man, a tall man, maybe six feet five, and when he knelt down, as he did then, he did it slowly. He had large feet and hands and my own right hand disappeared as he took hold of it with his.
“Listen, kid.” He paused and looked away from me into the darkness. He pulled and scratched his great black beard. He turned back and spoke slowly. “Do you know what has happened? Do you know what has happened to you and your mama and your papa?”
For a moment I just looked at him. What a stupid question, I thought. Of course I knew what had happened. I knew Papa was dead and I knew Mama was dead, but was I dead? I could still hear Mama’s voice, a clear whisper, “Find Umla-Meq . . . find Sailor.” But it was an echo with no source. I was scared. I looked up at him. He held my hand tighter.
“Yes, mister,” I said, “I know my mama and papa are dead.”
“Zis is good. But first you do not call me mister. You call me Solomon. For now, for all time, you call me Solomon.”
I said, “Am I dead, Solomon?”
“No, kid, no.” He stopped, cleared his throat, and went on. “Now, listen . . . Zianno, is it? Yes, well, now listen to me, Zianno, you hear what Solomon says. I try to stop the train by waving with my arms but train is going too fast. It wrecks anyway. I scream out loud, I pray to God, but it is too late, train cars everywhere, upside down, sideways. I unhook Otto, my mule, and go to see if anyone lives. No one does. I hear singing and go to see, but I only find dead man and little boy running away. I follow him. His mama is dying. He stands up to run again, but he spins and falls. I catch him. I put him on Otto to take out of zis place, zis horrible place. He is passed out but mumbling something. ‘Baseball,’ he says. Over and again he says, ‘baseball.’ At his mama’s side, there is a baseball, so I pick it up. Under her head I see baseball glove, so I take it too. I bury his mama there where she has died. I know now the dead man was his papa, but he is under too much train. I leave him. I lead Otto out with the boy on top. He is bleeding and his arm is broken. I take out pieces of glass and sew him up good. I put his arm in splint and make sling for it. We take my secret way through the pass. All night we are walking. All the next day and the next and the next. Then I am cleaning my pans by the fire and poof! he wakes up. Zis is you, Zianno. Zis is what happened. Do you understand?”
Yes, I understood. I was still dulled and numb, but I understood. My mama and papa were gone. It was the most sure thing I had ever known or understood. Then something struck me, a question as much about fate as about fact.
“Why were you there?”
“Zis is my business,” he said without hesitating. “I go there, not to that place, but beyond there, to Central City. I sell the things to the miners that the miners need, some they know they need, some they don’t. So, I rejoice with them, I invoke the spirit of Yahweh, we sing, we dance, and poof! they find out they need these things. Simple, sweet. Zis is good. Then I return and do the same thing again. I was returning when the train came, Zianno. I don’t know why I was there, except I am on business.”
He started to rise, then knelt down again and with his huge fingers spread my eyes open and searched them thoroughly. Then he straightened up, adjusted the small, round cap on the back of his head, and said, “Let’s have a look at zis arm.”
When he untied the knot on the sling and unwrapped the bandages, he gasped and said, “Great Yahweh!”
I looked down at my arm. There were no cuts, gashes, stitches, nothing; only a few faint red lines marred my smooth, twelve-year-old skin. I moved my fingers. I stretched my arm out straight and opened and closed my fist. I had total movement and strength. Nothing was wrong. It was as if nothing had ever happened.
The big man looked at me closely, up and down, as if I had appeared from nowhere. Then he unwrapped the blanket and said firmly, “Stand up, kid.”
I did and I was unsteady at first, but in a moment I felt fine.
“I have heard of zis,” he said.
“Heard of what?”
“Zis thing, zis trick, zis gift of Yahweh.”
I didn’t know what he was saying. I didn’t know anything. All I knew was that he had found me, taken care of me, and I was physically healed. I was a million things inside, mostly sad and lost, but unasked and unannounced, this man, this stranger, had saved me.
“The old, old rabbis from Germany told stories, stories of wondrous children who lived in mountains by the sea.” He was talking to me, but his eyes were remembering long-forgotten men and places. “What are your people, Zianno? What were your mama and papa?”
“Basque,” I said. “Sort of.”
“What do you mean, ‘sort of’?”
“My mama was telling me on the train we were more, or different, or older. She was telling me just before—”
He cut me off and said, “Never mind. We will not talk of zis now. We will talk later. Now we rest. Tomorrow, we start our journey and we will talk on our journey like many women at once.”
“No,” he said. “There is only sleep now.”
He kicked dirt on the fire to douse it and eventually settled down in his blankets. I did the same and lay there sleepless for a time. Then I said, hoping he was still awake, “Where are we going . . . Solomon?”
Without a moment’s hesitation, he answered, “St. Louis, kid . . . St. Louis.”
The next day we were on our way, sitting on the bench of his wagon, the Solomon J. Birnbaum Overland Commodities Co., being pulled by Otto and his stablemate Greta. We mainly followed the railroad tracks, but occasionally Solomon had his own trails and shortcuts. It was a long journey that is a story in itself and on that journey we talked about many things. I never once thanked him for saving me and he never asked. Strangers never do.