I wake up in agony on the train.
I try to remember where I am before I open my eyes – a game I play a lot. I hear the rumbling wheels and imagine a pale gray-blue interior was digesting me in the dim early morning light. I open my eyes to the wrong color. Crimson – like guts.
As I lean up from my bed there is a sound like velcro being ripped apart. The perspiring skin of my back clings to the fake leather of the top bunk in the compartment. The metal fan humming inches above my head does little against the steamy South Indian air gushing in through the open windows.
I always feel like an annoyance to the other passengers when I insist on sleeping in the top bunk, but my feet hang way off the bed and if I sleep on the bottom or the middle the people trying to pass in the aisle would be tripped or clotheslined. I think it comes off as, “I want this so I get this,” which is the last thing that I want.
I hang my head over the edge of the bunk and look around the compartment. Empty. I couldn’t remember how many people were here last night. People are always boarding and leaving.
I hop down a little too quickly. My bare feet hit the linoleum with a sharp smack and the bones in my feet ache for a few seconds while I slide on my shoes. The bathrooms in these things always have a thin layer of piss and grime on the floor and I’d rather not mop that with my socks. I carefully tuck in my laces before I enter the bathroom.
In the grimy, metal mirror between coaches I watch myself slowly brush my teeth and splash the crust from my eyes with the water from the sink that smells like pennies. I don’t look so good.
I spit out a big glob of white foam and turn towards the door on my left. The red paint is peeling from the handle – the exposed metal black and brown with hand grease and use. My hand reaches out to it, but I stop. I consider the consequences for a moment, what if someone sees what I’m trying to do? What if they kick me off the train?
It worries me, I can feel the bottom falling from my chest like a free falling human form, but I still find myself gripping the handle and sharply twisting it. The door swings inward, and I step back to avoid being caught between the door and the wall.
I step into the threshold to feel the breeze and the warmth of the sunshine. I look out at the flat countryside while the wind flies through my hair. The train is going so fast.
Neat squares of banana trees stand uniformly in the midst of acres and acres of cornrows. With a million arms the earth offers up all that it’s accomplished, millennia of evolution from dust back to dust, to the orange sunlight, like a child cutting himself on his father’s pride. Palm trees stud the sides of the fields like watch towers with clumsy coconut guards that fall to their deaths every once in a while. Powerlines fall and rise like infatuation across the sea of green and gold. Just beyond the field stands a mountain, I can see from here that it’s covered by a thinning pine forest. I squint at the rocky facade glowing in the rising sun. The profile of the mountain is a string of lightning running parallel with the ground, dividing the pale sky from the dark body and striking directly into my rib cage – electrocuting my blood.
Automatically I turn and walk back towards my compartment.
The corridor is still empty as I sit down on the hard, flimsy bed. I take off my shoes and socks, then lean back. As I close my eyes, visions snap naturally into my head like a child’s eyes to a candy jar. The river, the pines, the friends, the moments. A brisk wall of fresh morning wind hits me broad front side, buffeting my cheekbones into sculptures of a joyful presence. The driver’s side window on my civic won’t go up, and I can barely hear the melodramatic overdrive guitar shuttering from the broken back speakers as we fly over the slick black water into the next county, towards Utah. A familiar face looks over from my right where I see a distinct lack of apprehension laid plain on features that I know too well.
“Huh?” I ask.
“I said I can’t imagine what it will be like here without you,” Mattie says, louder this time.
“It’s not so bad,” I yell back over the droning wind, “I need to get out, man. There’s nothing here. You need to get out, too.”
“You know that I can’t.”
I don’t say anything. Everything I’ve ever had I’ve cut in half to share with Mattie – but you can’t do that with opportunities. It’s all or nothing. This time it’s all.
“Just promise that it’ll all be the same when you get back. That it’ll always be like this, John.” He looked out at the glass-like water of the river. A fishing boat emerges from under the bridge, cutting the river in half with its wake, disrupting the serene flat surface. Waves lapped at the pines on the banks.
I open my eyes like the doors to a courthouse. The wind turns back into the sound of steel wheels on steel tracks.
That mountain outside the door hatch looked like that day. That’s the only reason. It’s tiring to swim such immense channels of nostalgia. I’ve been away long enough for my memory to become a false portrayal of home. As I lean back I begin to think again. I think and I think.
Have I seen so much that I’m driven to frustration? I’ve pushed too hard in trying to expand my mind – the elasticity is no more. My viewpoints no longer slide back to their normal, blissful position. They remain until I change them, they remain dry and brittle. I refused to have moderation in my quest for clarity, now I’m seeing the world too clearly, too young. I am one of the men freed from his chains in the cave of Plato’s allegory – learning of what casts the shadows of people’s actions. That deep, dark part of the human heart that no one has the courage to explore.
I feel better.
I swing my feet over to the side and stand up. The coach sways left as I walk the length of it, making me stumble into the next empty compartment. I continue to the next joint, barely noticing that the rest of the coach is empty as well.
I catch myself opening the next door hatch. I stand and look out. The scene had changed. Plains of red earth extend for miles in each direction interrupted only by course gray brushes and mountainous piles of boulders. The bright, white sun is merciless – bludgeoning the blue sky and the cracked, thirsty earth with spite. My gaze falls absently on a patch of bright yellow garments leading a goat at the dirt road crossing.
In a moment as short as a punch to the jaw, I glimpse beneath the headdress. Smooth ebony skin make the whites of her round eyes gleam like the moon. Her slender neck leads upwards to a pretty, round face – where her heart shaped lips curl into a smile as she spots my red hair whipping around into my face. If beauty is kind to the eyes, then she is a caregiver.
Her beauty is not what strikes me, though. I reel back at the sight, but before I have a chance to look again she is just a faint yellow blot, growing fainter. A liquid sickness crawls through my chest, like blood spilled on marble. I have seen that angelic face before. Somewhere, sometime – in a past life it seems to me now. Where? When?
A whisper falls into my mind like a stone sinking in the sea. Will she remember me?
I’m anxious as I recede back into the train.
My bare feet take me to the next coach. The aisle is clear – silence except for the pounding of the wheels and the squeal of the brakes. The train is slowing down.
A station is coming up – I think. I walk briskly through the empty coach – in the direction the train is moving.
I am deeply affected by the realization that there are no other passengers aboard this train – trouble is I don’t notice that I realized it. It is just a deep ache that seems like it’s always been there by the time you realize it, like depression or arthritis. My mind keeps going back to that lady’s face – like a tongue worrying at a piece of apple skin caught in the back teeth. Her features haunt me.
The more quickly I walk the slower the train becomes. Sections of track intersect poorly on the gravel below causing the coach to lurch sideways. I stumble and stub my toe on the sill of a compartment.
While I blink down at the pain, I observe that there is blood, the toenail is detached, definitely broken – but I lose interest immediately. The station is approaching.
From the next door hatch I watch the cement platform slide up beside the train – the sound scatters the few stray dogs rummaging through a burning trash heap.
Behind the platform there is nothing. Beaten earth stretching beyond the horizon. I turn and glance at the other side of the tracks.
There I see a small town propped against a never-ending pine forest that sends a shudder through my back. The pastel rectangles jutting up from one another make a sherbet iceberg at the colliding seas of red and green. Sunlight falls straight down from the heavens, creating weird tricks of shadow on the frontline of houses. Facets and reflections make the jewel-like city shine like a crown on the head of a queen and I look right at her face.
She is not flawless, but her blemish is.
A brick house with a slanting tin roof and 12-pane windows with green shudders. The bricks are darkening – it is an old house. Vines climb the bricks all the way to the roof in some places, the bushes out front have become scraggly and misshapen. The house still seems to have the warmness of inhabitants, however – the freshly cut lawn a uniform rebellion of life against a red, barren oppression. It looks like a trampled corpse under a sheet.
On either side of the lawn stands white-washed concrete boxes with lines of dripping clothes on the roofs and naked children playing in the dirt outside, unsupervised. Suds from the bucket stick to a young girl’s bony brown arms as she stands up from her work to peek at her child. Cracks web out from her tiny home’s foundation over her head of wavy, jet-black hair as she looks over at her neighbor’s brick manse and for a second I could see what she was thinking.
I hear the air dampen with voices on my left.
I tear myself looking away. Walking into the next coach I take a seat on one of the beds beside the door. I look out the window at the people on the platform. It is crowded. More even than the platform under Connaught Place in Delhi. Figures move through the crowd of figures in streams. Their features are blurred and distorted by the noon sun and the tint of the window. All I can see are active black splotches on a field of white glare, like a Rorschach.
The movement of the station seems to slow as the train does. Everyone’s eyes in the station darts towards my train – searching for the number – where is it going? Was it their train?
Where is this train going? I think. I can’t think of the name of the place right now.
I find it strange that no one approaches it – they all simply stare at the navy blue exterior of the coaches beyond the yellow line. Not their train, I guess.
The ambiguity of the window makes my head swim. I walk again towards the next coach. I hang my shoulders out of the slowing door hatch and look ahead. My eyes worked through the crowd trying to focus on a face, but they’re hindered by the bright sun. When they finally adjust they find a family of four standing right at the edge, toeing the safety line of the platform. The only people in the station stepping forward to the locomotive.
The train stops just as my door hatch reaches the lady in the middle. We are face to face – inches apart. My eyes fall into a pair of tired Atlantic oceans that churn with unconditional love while my blood turns to ice. The rest of the face materializes out of the white noise that my vision has become. The shape of the eyes I am looking into were from my own face. So are the lips and the nose. Cheekbones borrowed from my very own skull. But she doesn’t have her father’s freckles – not like I do, anyway.
The realization skips through my mind like the first stone cast.
She is looking at the train, not at me. Something shows on her face besides the sun – a gleaming admiration, pride almost.
I try to speak, but no word comes out. My voice is absent.
The man to her right is my father. To her left my brother. Tall, intelligent, purposeful – both men looking at the train with upmost appreciation for the mechanical makeup of the machine. I can see them analyzing it – their eyes scanning the thing with respect. My little sister gazes up at the big glossy coach I was just in, her eyes bulging with excitement.
I stand there looking at them, looking at my train. Something grabs a hold of my foot – wraps around my calf and buckles my knee. The sickness spreads around my chest again like a crowd running from a gunshot. I look around at the platform unbelieving. I know every single face in audience.
My best friends, my schoolmates, my family, my mentors – people from Colorado, people from Kenya, people from India. Mattie stands just behind my family, laughing so hard that tears are rolling down his cheeks.
They all have one thing in common – my love. Everyone stares at the train silently with joy and admiration, this is the train they are waiting for. Not to be passengers of, but to be spectators of. I long for them – their conversations and embraces and smiles, but as I begin to step out of the door the long whistle sounds.
It shoots through the crowded train station like a bullet, making the air thick with resonance. The people on the platform become rigid like the sound, suddenly.
A shadow crawls across the platform – a dark cloud comes down to blot out the hard blows of the sun.
I look back at my mom – her prideful expression has turned to grief and worry, I could see the dark circles beneath her eyes. My brother’s eyes become absent and grim. My father goes from analyzing the locomotive to scrutinizing every aspect of it. I can see the contempt heavy on his brow. My sister cowers behind my mother’s pant legs, wailing. Mattie’s laughter has become weeping and the tears thicken.
Are they okay?
I am anxious.
As the train begins to crawl forward I see the faces of my friends scowl with envy and malice – looking at the moving carts as if they wish the train will derail – sending the carts toppling upon each other in a blazing wreckage. The train picks up speed and the line of familiar people blurs into a single familiar line upon my vision. The platform disappears and I am left with nothing but a view of the children playing by the trampled corpse again.
I wish I could help them.
I walk into the next coach and sit in the aisle. With my knees to my chest I close my eyes and try to clear my mind. My head feels like a beehive.
My mother. My father. My siblings. My friends. That was my life back there. How could I just leave them?
I am alone on this train. I know this now, I’ve known this for a while now.
So why is it just me on board? I know this too.
The objective of a simple being that is capable of only movement is simple, really – to deliver itself, to move to a given point in time and space, to exercise its ability and to maintain its ability by accomplishing in the most ancient way – any addition that is not contributing to that goal is its detriment. I know what I am, I know what I do – but I don’t want to let go. Self-preservation, I guess.
The immovable object boarded the unstoppable force with the intention of sight-seeing.
This train was built with me inside. I am the piece that does not function. I am within a vessel that is destined for something that I feel apathy towards, so it is me that will be the undoing. A train laying its own tracks and feeding its own engine would have no need of a component that finds meaning beyond the usefulness of an object. This is a system of intelligence functioning entirely independently of the concept of second thought. No object that didn’t truly exist cannot matter – the ghosts that humans have made: Opinions, potential, remorse, fear, meaning – nothing not being would ever be known.
My mind’s eye is distracted by the fields I saw when I woke up – a presentation of agriculture, the mark of civilization. Biological evolution from amoeba to organism to plant and animal, to human and agriculture, to destruction and war. Impulse, instinct – action to action, dust to dust.
I am anxious.
My panic fits snuggly within a moment.
I shatter over the mentality like a glass house whose owner doesn’t take advice. My eyes snap open, I trip over the maroon carpet as I try to run before I stand. I look back down the length of the train – I mistake the thumping of my heart against my ribcage for the footsteps of someone chasing me.
Breathlessly, I slam into the coach’s door and into the next threshold. The door hatch to the furious outside wind is wide open – I am only able to glimpse the dark sky as I pass, the vague form of an old creator looking down. The train is traveling so fast, I see him grimace while I slam into the next coach door. I sprint the length as the cabin whips around like a fire in a storm.
The only remaining length is the engine.
My muscles fail in the joint of the two carts. I fall to my knees, skidding on the stainless steel floor. Blood trickles between the diamond-shaped imprints as I recklessly bash into the wall. I choke on my breath, struggling to my feet.
Hesitantly, I lift my head to see myself in the reflection of a glass pane. 1 of 9 in a wooden door painted dark green with a brass knob. Beyond I could see the dining room table, exactly as I remember. My hand innately finds the knob and jiggles a certain way. It gives. I close my eyes and breathe deeply.
When I open them again I’m looking into my own eyes in the reflection of a thick stainless steel door, smooth and cold like a practiced regret. Both of my hands are wrapped vice-like around the large red latch in the center.
I step into the conductor’s compartment. A wave of cool air blasts me from a vent near the door. I step a bit further in to see all the engine controls. A field of switches and levers and gauges functioning gracefully in alignment with one another. My mind balks for a moment trying to appreciate the craftsmanship behind such an obviously genius machine.
A high-back chair is set in the middle of the cabin like a throne overlooking the many controls. Whoever sat the throne was king of the most powerful country ever established – the country five feet in front of the barreling engine disappearing rapidly underneath the tracks; the manifestation of raw purpose and dynamism.
Whoever sat here would have to know where the train was going.
For a moment it seems the gates of my mind will not allow the truth passage, yet those gates are shattered when I crane my neck over the back and into the seat. Empty. Nothing. My heart cracks like a rotten egg in my chest and the rancid sickness spread through once more. The bareness of the reality that the train is driving itself is inescapable. It doesn’t ask, who will drive me?, nor does it lay dormant at a station to rust – it bounds furiously.
I sit down in the engineer’s seat and look down at the controls. This is a living organism, functioning properly and entirely independently.
I look out at the windshield as the engine devours the track. Mountains strike upwards from the horizon at the meeting of heaven and earth, leaving bruises in the sky who shamefully covers up, denying the evidence of an imperfect relationship.
Then they vanish. I watch in awe as the mountains dissipate from summit to foot, they blow away in the wind like dust. No warning of what can barely be called destruction.
What is the meaning of it all?
The world I know is changing before me. I’m in awe of the fluid universe, at the blatant pointlessness of every endeavor we have. Death is certain, nothing exists on purpose, and nobody asked to be here. Why? It echoes through my mind, the single valid question to the immaculate. My eyes struggle to look past the glass of windshield, but instead are caught by a smudge. I look closer but can’t see, the lighting is weird.
I stand up and change my angle. Seeing it from the side I can see that they’re characters, backwards letters. It doesn’t take me long to make out a name that I’ve written a million times.
I read my own name proudly written outwards on the windshield of the train – readable from the outside like a nametag – meager, but the best that could be done, the statement of a mission that only a single mind cares to hold – a destination – a crude statement of purpose too specific and too general to be thought not an enigma.
I’m pulled from my daze of confusion by a spark that flies from the cool cabin behind me. A siren rings through the small compartment. The controls in front of me begin to flash red one-by-one. The gauges showing pressures and contents are all maxed out or dead. The interlocking mechanisms lose the grace they operated with before I entered the cabin, now they jumble against one another, accomplishing nothing.
I sit down at the controls and smile.
Yes, yes, yes. This is what I want.
Content, I look out of the windshield again. The skyline breaks prematurely at the cliff of a trench in the earth. The tracks direct toward a weak looking bridge. Even from far away I can see that the makeshift structure is frail – splintering rough lumber staked together with black iron. It doesn’t look like this bridge has ever even been used before. I am sure that the train cannot make it over.
The ravine below swallows the small light from the gray sky, the bottom having an unthinkable lust for detriment. The train sprints towards it, maybe without knowing, maybe without caring. This is my moment of action. The only thing I can do must be done. I reach down and snatch back the brake handle beside the chair – the bridge is a mere 200 meters away.
The wheels squeal on the tracks.
I grab the arms of the chair to keep my body from propelling into the windshield. The train slows – but the bridge is still quickly approaching. I brace myself with my heart in my neck. The blurring country beyond the side window paces down for my eyes to catch. Slower and slower. The train is crawling imperceptibly just at the edge of the ravine.
The grate of the leading cart comes to a halt just short of the pitfall. My grip relaxes, leaving bony imprints and puddles of sweat on the arms of the fake leather chair. A long shudder of ecstasy runs through my body, from limb to limb. I sit in dead silence for just a moment’s relief. It’s over.
I did the only thing I could possibly do. In a way I share this with the train. This is what I wanted. I close my eyes to think once more. I settle into a state of closure, this will make an end to the journey.
Then like courage the train jolts forward onto the swaying rickety bridge.
No, no, no. I reach down for the brake handle again, but it does nothing.
Again it jolts forward – the wheels are turning again. The engine uncertainly makes its way onto the bridge. The structure trembles under the weight of the single cart while the sickness flows painfully through my entire body.
I’m so anxious.
Like an apparition a wind sweeps up from the ravine. The cabin door bursts open and a gust blows through like a tornado caught in a shoebox. Whispers sound through the wind, I recognize the voices: “You can do this,” “You’re a great man,” “Nobody’s better,” “I’m so proud of you.” They pick me up and I hit the ceiling hard. I’m thrown around recklessly – bashing into walls and windows. My head hits the control panel and blood runs into my eyes. I try to soften the impact onto the steel floor, but my wrist shatters. I scream out in pain.
The gale then sweeps me completely out of the cabin and into the frame of the door hatch hanging over the black abyss. My broken hand clings weakly to the bar. I look out one last time at the world and God focusses on me for a moment.
I resist the will of the menacing ravine, hanging to the train with every ounce of strength within me. In the end it’s inevitable, though. They want me out.
My fingers are pried from the bars while my body hangs limp in the nothingness and I’m cast into the depths.
I fall. And keep falling.
As I fall I look up to see the train continuing its journey – picking up speed effortlessly, like a falling body.
Faster and faster it goes, light as a feather without my weight. The bridge holds it as if it were made of paper. It doesn’t need me. It will arrive better without my passage. The best, in fact.
I am anxious as I fall.
I am nothing.
In the darkness, I still hear the wheels beating the track and I don’t worry for him any longer. He knows where he’s going.