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When the train stopped for the night the two men approached a boxcar. The taller one climbed in, looked around. Empty but for a few pallets. Okay, he said and the shorter man along with a woman and a child scrambled up. The child needed help, a lifting. The sun low tangled in the few desert scrub trees. Byzantium sky slow choked itself black.
They opened their knapsacks, removed hard bread and dry meat and ate. An occasional iron groan as the train slight shifted and settled. Darkness complete and thin blanketed they slept.
Get up, said the taller man. The train is moving.
It’s not light yet, said the woman.
Doesn’t matter. We need to get off.
They got off. A faint candle in the east melting the darkness. The train slow moved away from the light further into the desert west. They followed, walked booted and shoed and knapsacked toward the quickening day.
Midmorning they sat near an old stone waymark and sparse ate from their rations. Food remained scarce and they didn’t know how far they must yet walk. Water they gathered from time to time from cisterns abandoned by the railroad. The brackish liquid from an infrequent rain or another age they on occasion held under a wooden cover sluggish seeped through crude mortar into a bottomless earth.
The train slow advanced ahead of them and when they finished their meal they took longer strides until they caught up again. Then cut their pace. The train tail like a diamondback rattled.
How much farther? said the child.
Soon, said the taller man and turned to look back. Only their most recent footfalls crowned with a frail raised cloud still visible in the desert dustpowder. He faced forward again. The train continued its deliberate march and in the aching distance jagged peaks climbed from the earthskin. Maybe in two days. Or three. Still a long ways off.
Night near. The train stopped and they climbed aboard. A different boxcar this time after the taller man had entered and found no evidence of what they did not understand.
Why can’t we use the same car? said the woman.
I don’t know, said the taller man. But you saw what happened.
They all did. A transient companion of no belief in the same car twice found missing in the morning, belongings intact and stayed, and they wouldn’t take the chance after that. Every third night maybe. Nobody knew for sure. And nobody, not even the taller man, knew for sure what they would find beyond the far mountains. A refuge or nothing but more desert that led forever into the late afternoon horizon sun until at last they funneled into the hellish heat itself and perished like flamemoths. He only knew they must follow the train.
They ate, slept below the boxcar roof and its sublime hollow stars, and when the train jerked into motion in the dawnlight, quick climbed down. All but the shorter man. He stood in the boxcar doorway. I can’t walk any more, he said.
You can’t stay, said the taller man. You know what happens.
I can’t walk any more.
The taller man lowered his head. Goodbye then.
The train kept its cold iron pace and the taller man, the woman and the child watched as it slow pulled the shorter man further away, his head protruding from the doorway smaller and smaller until he finally ducked back inside and they saw him no more.
When the train tail passed, they stretched, adjusted their knapsacks, and followed. The distant mountains shimmered as if they were not emergent zeniths of a graceful earth but rather a desperate mirage of an imagined oasis, besought and denied. The trainwheeled landscape groaned and gave no voice to their hope. It only widened the enduring sky.
In late afternoon the train curved slight southwest and exposed the trainhead far forward. A distant iron skull of a serpentine Moses leading his catechumen into another servitude. The man squinted and tried to estimate the number of cars between the tail where they walked and the head where they had never been but the distance was too great and his eyes too burnt from the descendent sun. The train lumbered on.
Dusklight stretched long the blurred shadows when the train stopped. The car where the shorter man had stayed now empty but for his knapsack. They took his provisions and the taller man, now the only man, found another car, climbed up, looked around, jumped down.
Not this one, he said.
What is it? said the woman. The man shook his head. We’ll find another.
Where did he go? asked the child. The shorter man.
Gone, said the only man.
The child looked to the sky. Maybe we should go there too.
That night the only man dreamed he walked a canyon filled with snakeskin. It crackled desiccate and wrinkled beneath his boots and rose as he continued forward up to his thighs where he waded sluggish and tried to keep it from clinging to his own skin now exposed at the waist. The sinuous discards coiled and drifted to his throat where they threatened to enter his mouth and indurate what little he still carried inside of his yielding grace. The car couplings thudded dissonant as the train rekindled its pilgrimage and he awoke.
By late morning the child sick from exhaustion. The man and the woman took turns carrying it. In the afternoon they had to stop and rest several times. Each time, the train tail drew further away.
When they could they ran to keep up, the child in arms. Hard going. By afternoon the mountains were visibly closer and they saw on the far foothills the trainhead slight rise closer to the sky. The parabolic arcing spine of boxcar roofs in places dull glinted. As the train climbed, each car that reached the incline lent gravity strength and the train slowed. It slowed and iron groaned, grumbled. When it stopped for the night they were still behind but they reached the tail, now at rest on the opening incline of the foothills, and stumbled through starlight to find an available car for the nocturnal postponement of their exodus.
Morning and the train climbed, the man woman and child in slow footsteps behind. At times the child in arms. The slope steepened. The train heavy with burden crept on its ironrailed wheels. Each slow revolution of each slow wheel enumerable as an intractable and monotonous calculation to fathom the extent of eternity. Irrefutable proof that life forever orbits the same axle and cannot depart from the trajectory of its fate. They climbed, each hour an age. The train ground and grated and squealed.
Five days uphill labored. Water low. The trainhead growl at times decipherable in the leaden vibration of the tail. A vigorous serpent worn down by its toil. Yet also a resolute inculcator pulling penitents by their slow endless footsteps to an invisible deliverance. The man and the woman and the child. Each step of conquered incline a small victory that immediately vanished, replaced by another smaller. Slower. Each night the boxcar floor more sloped and the trainbrakes more strained. Little sleep in the boxbelly of an animal they couldn’t name or understand. A stressed sound of dying mammals.
Morning. Man woman child. Their ascendant shadows preceded their steps and stretched toward the train tail as it slow mounted the grade. How much farther? said the child.
Soon, said the man. And this time he might have meant it. The trainwheel tempo had increased. Almost imperceptible but the requiem had become a canticle. As if the distant trainhead had taken a great gulp of relief from the summit yet concealed and allowed a small measure of otherside gravity to assist its labor.
The train still up pulled a long procession though, weighted with the undelivered freight of a thousand unrevealed promises. The sun slow fell from the sky behind the summit and presently the darkness grew and the train stopped, balanced like a body draped over a horse between its incomplete ascent from the old world and its hidden descent into a new one. The man chose a car and they slept.
In the darkness the man awoke, the train quiet. The child sat in the doorway and moved its head upslope right and downslope left as if weighing the gamble between future and past. Faint starlight reflected from the scattered mica along the trainbed and gave the child a beatific impression of celestial contentment the man hadn’t seen before.
The man got up, sat with dangled legs in the doorway next to the child. What is it? he asked.
Where are we going?
Over there. The man inclined his head toward the summit.
What’s over there?
I don’t know.
Are we going to die?
You wouldn’t tell me if we were.
No. I suppose I wouldn’t.
But you don’t know.
There’s a lot I don’t know.
In the morning, the train came back to life and began to crawl the slope. The man woman child slow paced behind, once again in submission to their seemingly unappeasable iron god that led them to a distant reckoning. The day trudged across the sky to afternoon. Little by little the train picked up speed as the balance of its burden shifted to the other side, toward the future.
Just before last light they reached the summit. The sun hung reddish low over a sea in the distant west. The man and woman and child stood abreast, hands on foreheads. Fleshy visors against the glare. Below them the train submitted swift to the uncontainable strength of its downward rush. Its tail was soon small, diminished, inconsequential. A lastborn prince who will never inherit the throne.
Far below lay a wide coastal plain. It stretched south as far as they could see. In a few places rock towers outthrusted tall and watchful like ancient sentinels that had petrified with the passing of their becoming. A river flowed from headwaters hidden in upper canyons of the mountain range and rambled broad across the plain to a wide estuary.
This is it, said the woman. Her eyes grew damp.
Oh god, said the man. He took a step toward the descent.
No, said the woman. We sleep here tonight. The man turned, saw her eyes, nodded.
Night fell and they slept at the top of the world beneath a blanketing sky. A first moon rose from the darkness to lighten their faces. In the morning they gathered their provisions and the small fragments of their lives. With careful steps they began the long climb down to see what the train had at last delivered.
Thank you for reading Dynamic Creed. This story is my contribution to the Soaring Twenties Social Club Symposium, a monthly set-theme opportunity for STSC writers. As you probably have guessed the topic this time around is Trains. And I do like trains so I’m glad that the folks at STSC decided on that.
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