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A Journey By Train « back

The rain has only been falling for a little while; there is still a dry odor in the air as if the damp hasn't yet soaked into the ground and the plaster of the dilapidated station. The rain is a curtain of beaded silver across the train tracks, a shivering veil hiding the rest of the world. Dream reality: the only existent realm is that of proximity; the rest will be revealed as necessary. If—when—I leave the station, the curtain will part, opening to a vast stage.

A single train stands in the station. The engine is painted blue and green with broad strokes moving in the endless rhythm of waves reaching for the shore. The engine is sheltered beneath the same canopy as I; the five cars sulk out in the rain, their eyes shuttered against the glitter of rainwater.

I have a suitcase in my hand, a battered travel-all of worn brown leather and frayed seams. It looks like it has been hand-sewn from the carcasses of worn shoes. I am wearing a suit and overcoat, the long jacket too heavy and thick for this mildly damp weather. I put the suitcase down on the deserted platform and check the pockets of the overcoat.

There is a slip of paper in the inner pocket, stationary folded in half. It reads: "The last train leaves at 6.00pm. It crosses the river at midnight. In case there are delays, I have packed you a picnic dinner. Love, N." A fragrance of irises and green tea haunts the page so faintly that I am not sure if it is really there, imprinted in the thin fiber of the page, or if my memory has spontaneously invented the olfactory sensation in response to the letters on the page.

There is a post-script. "I miss you, but I don't remember why." My heart is a dry lemon rind hanging in my hollow chest. It's hard to say if it is because of the sentiment of the writer or of the exactness of the statement to my own mental state. Can you miss something—someone—whom you don't remember? Can you feel the absence of a phantom limb you never had?

There is a watch on my left wrist, and it has stopped one minute short of six. The second hand quivers as if it cannot crest the fat minute hand. Time waits—arrested, on the cusp, on the lip—waits for me to settle into this skin. The train waits, slumbering. The rain, falling, waits. This world has not yet begun.

I put the note in my pants pocket and take off the heavy coat. I leave it on the platform, the discarded skin of a man I never could be, and climb aboard the train.

The intercom squelches, ripping static so a cascade of bells can announce my arrival like a pair a manic xylophone heralds. The door of the carriage slides shut behind me, the lock clicking in concert with the sudden movement of the minute hand on my watch. It's a loud second, a fraction of eternity pregnant with beginnings and endings, openings and closings, as the world is vanquished and made anew in the instantaneous death of a Cesium atom. My watch begins to tick loudly, begging for my attention. Look at me, I hear in its loud chatter, look at my face. I am the keeper, it says, I am the official record of history. I have been started. I cannot stop.

The train begins to move, its acceleration an exponential curve. I walk to the end of the first car and try the door that separates the carriages. For a moment, I fear it is locked, but is only stuck, and I manage to pull it open. The umbilical space between cars is filled with a loud, clockwork cacophony—flywheels turning, gears grinding, springs straining, chains rattling. The door to the second car is heavy, granite inscribed with geometric carvings—a forgotten mathematical script of religious warnings. Ancient slabs cover archaic tombs, and the history of gravity is the weight that seals. As I manage to open the door, a moldy exhalation of gas spurts out. My hands are red with dust as I breach the second car.

The lounge car is gutted from end to end of internal walls and chambers. A hollow heart where there is no difference between ventricle and aorta, no path for blood to follow. Rows of tables stretch into the distance, and a viscous haze of alcohol drifting from the bar in the center makes it difficult to ascertain the truth length of the car. On my left, a pair of stuffed seals sit facing one another at the nearest table. The paneling is polished walnut and gold piping runs along the ceiling and floor. The seats are covered in a Burberry plaid as if a thousand scarves had been harvested to make seat-cushions and -backs.

Scarves and shoes. This world recycles. This dream bends back on itself.

I sit down, uninvited, at the table with the seals and attempt to engage them in conversation. "Where are you going? Have you escaped from the zoo? Did you bring any luggage? Have you seen a menu?" The seals don't answer, eyes staring in a perpetual contest of wills. I touch one of the seals and find its taxidermied hide warm and damp. The other seal blinks. Once. It doesn't do it a second time.

Outside, sculptures of giant, long-legged birds have been raised in a line beside the tracks. Like a few seconds of stop-motion film, they climb up from the ground as we pass, their legs stretching beneath them. They are white and blue, and their beaks point south, toward the river, toward midnight.

The Ribbon Man, wearing only a thin white cloth about his waist like a waiter's towel, approaches the table. He wears a rainbow assortment of ribbons pinned in a regimented grid to his naked flesh. The prick of all those pins mottles his skin, an ordered sequence of bruises and blemishes beneath the haphazard pattern of his silk patchwork. The upper edge of his loincloth is red with blood, a scarlet line circling his waist. "Are you traveling to the city?" he asks. His voice is the mellifluous melancholy of a lonely oboe.

"Just across the river," I tell him. "Is that where the city is?"

He raises an eyebrow, arching a row of red ribbons. "Not at night."

I shake my head. "I must not be going there, then."

"What does your ticket say?"

"I don't have one," I tell him. "Just a note saying that the train crosses the river at midnight."

"Ah, you seek the House Indivisible." he says, nodding at the seal that did not blink. "Unless there are delays."

Delays and diversions. Obstacles and obstructions. Dream travel is never completely Euclidian; sometimes the most direct route is a loop that eats its own tail. "Yes, unless there are delays," I agree.

He points at my briefcase, yellow ribbon dangling from the tip of his finger. "Did you bring food?"

"I brought a picnic," I tell him. I feel like a spy, a clandestine agent crossing into enemy territory. This is my contact, and our conversation has already been written for us, an exchange of codes and meaningless phrases that hides a deeper message. "I can share it with you."

He lifts the catatonic seal from its seat and places it on the floor. It begins to melt, slowly leaning forward as its bottom turns to slush. He sits in the vacant chair and rests his hands on the table, palms up. The stains growing from his life line are like tiny rose blossoms.

I put the case on the table and open it. Scarlet birds fly out.

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