Escape from the Grassland

A nineteenth century girl flees by train

Scurrying across the train platform, Lydia glanced over her shoulder. Dark grey clouds stretched from the horizon, barreling her way. An icy prickle of anxiety snaked up the back of her neck. She paused on the platform. What was she forgetting…She’d been so worried they’d catch her as she left.

A burly shoulder knocked her aside.

“Move long, Miss!” barked the conductor from his perch atop the steps. He jabbed a thumb skyward. “Cain’t you see a storm’s a’comin’?”

Tightening her grip on her valise, Lydia stumbled and nearly fell into the second-class coach. Ten pairs of male eyes slowly and appreciatively looked her over. A roley poley woman in a plum-colored coat patted the seat beside her. Relieved, Lydia plopped down and adjusted her bonnet. Across from them a tow-headed boy, with dimples matching his mother’s, guarded a splint-wood hamper.

“Oh!” Lydia exclaimed.

“What is it, dear?” asked the woman.

“Nothing,” Lydia fibbed, remembering her own basket of food left behind in the hurry to leave. A blast of wind rocked the coach, one of its freezing fingers sneaking in through the window’s edge. With a cacophony of clanging bells, a shrieking whistle, and rumbling pistons, the train lurched forward.

The woman extended her gloved hand.

“I’m Dora McLean, Miss. It’s so nice to have female company on a trip.”

Lydia introduced herself as “Melissa Snow.” Dora glanced at the valise with its “LT” monogram but said nothing.

“And is this your son, Mrs. McLean?”

“Yes, indeed, that’s my youngest, Andy. Would you care for a sandwich?”

Lydia felt a little better after sharing a meal with Dora and her boy. The snow came an hour later, whiting out the afternoon sky. Lydia could not get settled. Alert, spine straight, her eyes scanned the horizon — or what she could see of it. She tried to plan what she would do if her father somehow managed to meet the train at the stop in St. Joseph. She figured her best chance was to flee the train if she spotted him and to hide in the city. She wished they hadn’t fought.

Lydia looked down at her buttoned high-top shoes and long skirt. It would be difficult to move quickly in her good clothes.

The snow was coming down heavily. At times, the steam engine struggled to push through. Every half hour or so the conductor walked through the car, each time looking a little more worried than the last. His white hair and stumbling gait did not inspire confidence.

Lydia glanced over to the men seated across the aisle. The greasy-haired fellow nearest Dora was dressed in a sealskin overcoat and tall polished boots. A gold signet ring gleamed on his pinkie. His seatmate also sported showy duds. Neither spoke but each gave her a leering glance. Lydia’s glance darted away. Something just didn’t feel right. Her right hand crept surreptitiously up to pat the small sheathed dagger strung in a bag under her chemise, nestled between her breasts.

Wonder what Sally’s up to now? Lydia knew exactly what her mother and father would typically be doing most nights at this time. Mother would be clearing up the dinner plates while Father smoked in the parlor and looked over the books from his pharmacy. The wild card was little Sally. But, of course, the other wild card today was Lydia’s disappearance. Without thinking, she sighed; Dora gave her a sweet glance.

Lydia stirred from her dreamless nap. The steam engine was slowing down.

“Where are we, Dora?”

“We’re pulling into St. Joseph, Melissa. You and Andy have had a nice nap and the snow’s finally letting up. Andy, put on your hat. This is where we get off.”

Although the train car was chilly, a bead of sweat dripped down from Lydia’s hairline. Without, she thought, being too obvious her gray eyes scanned the train platform. There was no tall red-haired man. Her father, if he had tried to catch up with her, had failed. And thank goodness, the two touts across the aisle debarked. Lydia passed her first hurdle.

Two days later, Lydia hurried down Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. Her valise sat safely stowed in the armoire in her room at Mrs. Crockett’s boarding house. She had wolfed down the good woman’s simple, but filling breakfast of oatmeal and toast. Sun warmed the brick sidewalk, melting the remnants of the light snowfall. The dagger still swung between her breasts, but the Quaker city felt safe. Lydia carefully followed the directions in the letter she held in her hand. The nearer she drew to her destination, the faster she walked, unable to slow herself down. A few street crossings and she was there.

Lydia tilted her head up to read the carving over the door: “The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.” Acceptance letter in hand, she crossed the threshold. No one stood between her and her dream. Lydia’s life as a physician ignited.

Virginia writer with a love of the overlooked. Author of Diaspora, a poetry chapbook. www.DianeHelentjaris.com

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