14 March 2008

The Boxcar

I met a man on freight train to somewhere, the destination unimportant. Thrown together by incompetence, the train guard had forgotten to lock this particular car. It was spring. Birds finally free of winter flocked together, silhouetted against the evening sky. To travel this time of year, to take slowly and suck in all that God creates, is a privilege of the rich, and people like me.

I asked the man where he was headed, or if he even knew. A reasonable courtesy when trapped for periods of time with people you don’t know. The man looked like he was made of stone, his skin so greasy and tarred and his beard deep winter-grey. A hat, unremarkable in every way, sat proudly on his brow. He gazed over the trappings of his life. A comb, teeth missing in childlike grin, urchin dirty, but not yet useless, a well-used corncob pipe, again unremarkable, and a dark bottle of non-descript liquid, probably decanted from the springs of hell itself. He picked up the comb, hands more machinery than limb, and slowly flicked the teeth that remained.

For the first time, he made eye contact. I couldn’t hold his gaze, his eyes so clear and blue and mine so rheumy. For some reason I felt ashamed of my appearance. His face, as furrowed as his hands, was almost entirely covered by that grey beard. A great Oak tree that stood up and shook its roots free of the earth. In the shadows I could see creatures there intertwined, nesting, fornicating, fighting for survival or escape. A microcosm grown from the earth-filled pores of his skin.

When he spoke the words, his tone cut the stale air, a clear channel opened direct twixt him and me, drowning out the clamour of the railroad. His voice was as soft as the July wind; it had a melody to it indescribable. Not at all the sound you would expect from his appearance, the pipe, the whisky.

He told me. I’ve seen that you’ve noticed the spring. The eager clouds gathering themselves for the rains, the birds weaving together, knitting the fabric of the day, the streams overflowing with ambition after the thaw, the mountains heaving with new life. But you and I, trapped in here with no light, no sky, no air. Our clouds are not full of water but tobacco vapour, our birds are the flies that drink our blood, our streams, made of urine, saliva and whisky, our mountains, made not of rock but of the gathering dust. Remember, that wherever you go, no matter how far you travel, you take your own clouds, your own birds, your own streams, and your own mountains with you.

By the time he had finished, the dark encroached into my vision too much for me to see him. I didn’t need light however to know that he was no longer on this train. The boxcar sounded different, the clamour returning a more hollow sound than before. I wasn’t concerned. I shut my eyes, leant back, and let the familiar sounds of the railroad lull me to sleep.

I woke with the beginnings of dawn light; my quarters indeed deserted. The train stopped to wait for its turn at whatever station and I stepped out onto the tracks, stretching in that cold spring air. I lit my pipe and walked without purpose, watching the sky as my own clouds gathered peacefully over the railroad.

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