The Funicular [Essay]

This is an essay by Bill Schneider. 

She appeared like a butterfly, without making a sound. A cool breeze accompanied her, along with the faint scent of frangipani. Then she turned and sat on the bench opposite the door. Only then was the silence interrupted.

I noticed her youthfulness, then her fair complexion, and finally … her long, light brown hair. Seconds later, I glanced down and saw the dark brown thing covering her left leg, from just below her knee all the way down to her ankle. It was more intricate than a brace, but definitely not a prosthesis. It reminded me of a riding boot, but why only on her left leg? What was it?

“Bonjour,” she whispered as I stared at her leg.

“Bonjour,” I replied, closing my journal. I was sitting on the bench at the back of the aluminum compartment, yet I could hear her heart beating several feet away.

All I had wanted was a good view of Lake Geneva during the-eight minute ride up to Glion, nestled 2,300 feet above Montreux. Perhaps I could grab an unobstructed photo or two along the way? The funicular ride was the equivalent of an E-ticket at Disneyland, a remnant from my childhood. Bygones. Now I was only focused on this young girl. But that brown thing on her leg belonged in a graphic novel. “Did you injure your leg?” I asked. I had to know.

She smiled, revealing braces that hid her nearly perfect smile. “No, I have a bone disease for which there is no cure.”

Her words pierced my heart. “I’m sorry.”

Sometimes the journalist in my blood crosses the line, but asking questions rather than observing in silence always seems less intrusive. My inner voice was telling me to just focus on the ride to Glion and mind my own business.

“It’s okay,” she said. “There are many people with conditions much worse.”

Sucker punch. This young woman was wise far beyond her youth.

“Is it a brace?”

She nodded. Then our eyes met. She was unafraid … probably still in high school, yet she had confidence and was comfortable in her own skin.

“Does it hurt?”

“No,” she replied. “On the inside is … faille de soie.” [Fill de swaaaa]

“Faille de soie?”

“Silk. It makes my leg feel quite alive.”

“Oh. A brace covered in silk. Have you given it a name?” I asked.

“A name? No.” Then she laughed. “Not yet.”

Something as intimate as a silk-covered brace deserves a name. “Do you have to wear it all the time?”

“Only when I go away,” she said. “To prevent me from being injured.”

 

I looked down, and stuffed my journal into my backpack. Sadness hit me as I wondered what her future might be. It seemed so unfair: a disease with no cure.

“When I go to the clinic, I often see people who are very ill. It helps me realize how fortunate I am.”

Fortunate. The word resonated. It reminded me of Fortunato’s Fight to the Finish, an undistinguished poem I wrote in graduate school, promising hope amidst uncompromising odds and a certainty of vanquish. While the battlefield below was not the Sea of Cortez, this girl was battling the odds, without a hope in sight.

“How do you manage in the winter?” I asked.

“The funicular operates all year.”

“Even in the snow?” Now I was suspicious.

She nodded. “And there is heat, too. We used to have a wooden funicular.” She glanced behind her, toward the weathered relic parked on an adjacent rail. Red paint was peeling from the wooden compartment, which lacked the luster of our sleek gondola.

The compartment door closed automatically. We gently began to move up the mountainside.

My stomach began to churn, just like the first time I rode the Matterhorn at Disneyland.

This was an unfamiliar feeling, a moment of moving, horizontally, upward, yet facing in the opposite direction. I felt like I was sitting backwards on an escalator, moving without missing a beat.

Branches from the trees sharing space with us gently brushed against the gondola as we ascended effortlessly.

 

I took a deep breath.

The butterfly retrieved a book from her backpack.

The expanse of Lake Geneva began to unfold in the distance. Miles and miles of water lay below the French Alps, glimmering in the reflection of the afternoon sun. What had earlier been upscale sailboats now appeared as specs sprinkled near Montreux. The view far exceeded Disneyland’s Matterhorn. This was the real deal. “I can’t believe this view,”

I said.

“It’s funny…because I live here, and see this every day, it seems like a very…un visage familier…I mean a very familiar face.”

I could never tire of this view, I thought, hoping the hum of the generator that kept us moving would never silence.

She smiled, and the sun ricocheted off her braces as the funicular slowed and came to a stop. We dangled high above the French Riviera, half-way to Glion, until another funicular passed us on its descent. The silence was interrupted by the gentle hum of the generator.

“Do you live in Glion?” I asked. The funicular slowly began to move.

She nodded. “And you? Are you visiting Montreux or going to Rochers-de- Naye?”

A haven for hikers and nature lovers, Rochers-de- Naye is a 45-minute train ride above Glion. “Usually I stay in Montreux,” I said. “But this time I am staying at the Hotel Victoria.”

“You must come for the jazz festival?” she said.

 

“I have visited three times,” I confessed, “but not since the convention hall was renovated.” I glanced out the window and cherished the panorama as we moved farther away from the lake. All that was missing was music.

“I went to a concert one night this past summer. It is an amazing venue. My sister was invited on stage to sing back-up vocals with my favorite singer.”

“Who did you see?”

“Vartun. He is not very popular outside of France. It was a night we will always remember.”

It comforted me to know I was not alone in my assessment. Music, magic, and Montreux.

They are inexplicably intertwined.

Far below us, Montreux diminished as we gently inched toward the Glion station.

“What is your name?” I asked.

“Laura.”

The door opened as the aroma of Alpine fir greeted us. I reached for my backpack.

She smiled one last time. “I hope you enjoy the rest of your visit.”

I left the funicular and turned toward the station, wondering if Laura lived in the area just beyond the station to the right, near my hotel, in the village above the station, or in the cluster of chalets situated below. Intending to bid her farewell, but curious to know which direction she was traveling, I glanced back toward the funicular. Laura had vanished.

 

Just as quietly as she first appeared, the butterfly was nowhere in sight. Only the gentle wind greeted me.

All that remained was the faint scent of fraginipani.


Bill Schneider’s life journey has been filled with a three-decade long career in the music industry accompanied by extensive travel throughout four continents. He currently serves as the associate director of the Wilkes University Graduate Creative Writing Program and managing editor of Etruscan Press. 
Bill received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism Magna Cum Laude from Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts and his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Author, screenwriter and publisher Kaylie Jones served as his mentor in the Wilkes program. 
His short story “Yesterday Once More” was published by Middle Gray Magazine in January 2014. His work has also appeared in “Silly Tree Anthologies” and “Droning Magazine.”
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