I don’t like to think about the past. But I cannot stop remembering my son.
Emma Nightingale prefers to remain grounded in reality as much as possible. Yet she’s willing to indulge her nine year-old son Rupert’s fascination with trains, as it brings him closer to his father, Gunnar, from whom she is separated. Once a month, Gunnar and Rupert venture out to follow the rails and watch the trains pass. Their trips have been pleasant, if uneventful, until one afternoon Rupert returns in tears. “The train tried to kill us,” he tells her.
Rupert’s terror strikes Emma as merely the product of an overactive imagination. After all, his fears could not be based in reality, could they?
Published here for the first time in English, “Where the Trains Turn” won first prize in the Finnish science-fiction magazine Portti’s annual short story competition and then went on to win the Atorox Award for best Finnish science fiction or fantasy short story.
This novella was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Peter Joseph. Translation by Liisa Rantalaiho.
If it’s in any way possible for You, please make this somehow un-happened! I’ll give you anything!
A typical child’s prayer; directed to any sufficiently omnipotent Divine Being who chances to be listening
Not since my girlhood have I bothered to read books that contain invented events or non-existent people, were they written by Hemingway, Joyce, Mann, Blyton, Christie, Jansson or any other of the millions of literary talents in this universe— I prefer unquestionable facts, and to relax I sometimes like to read encyclopaedias. It’s hard enough to cope day by day with what presumes to be my own everyday reality; to stir and feed imagination with fiction would just make me lose my sense of reality altogether. It’s pretty fickle already, my understanding of which part of the things I remember has actually happened and what is composed of mere empty memories which never had a reference in the historical continuum that’s called objective reality.
I don’t like to think about the past, because it mixes my head up and makes my bowels loose and gives me a severe migraine to boot. But I cannot stop remembering my son. That’s why I still often sneak with a spade to the graveyard of my memories and dig up pieces of my life with my son Rupert. Of his peculiarly fatal relationship to trains, of his brilliant days of success and happiness that made me so proud, and of everything else.
For the sake of my son I write down these thoughts, seek him from dream images, from memories, from everywhere. Perhaps I’m afraid I’ll forget him; but could I forget?
I hunt my memories, examine them, turn and twist them, and try to understand what happened and why; for Rupert’s sake I consider the eternal logical circle of cause and effect and my own part in it, trying to get some sense out of it, as painful and against my nature as such an effort always has been to me.
Even as a girl I understood how important it is to live in a world as logical and sensible as possible. I never let myself be ruled by grand emotions, and yet was quite reasonably happy (or at least fairly unruffled most of the time), and then just I, out of all the world’s expectant women, became Rupert’s mother.
Even as a baby he was restless, probably had nightmares, poor thing, and quite soon it turned out that my blue-eyed son Rupert was not a very sensible child. He let loose a mental chaos; even for a child he was extremely irrational. By and by he made an actual art form of his addiction to irrationality. At five years old for example, he had a strange mania to mix calendars and set all the clocks he found to a wrong time. When he turned seven, I bought him a watch of his own, a golden Timex. He liked it, very much indeed, and wound it up regularly, but always it was an hour or two fast or slow, sometimes even more.
More than a couple of times I was seized with a feeling that I had been caught in the middle of The Great Irrationality Circus where Rupert was a pompous mad director. Even looking at him made my head ache.
I miss him every day. Sometimes I still go to the window in the middle of preparing dinner and perhaps imagine seeing him in the backyard, the silly old owl that I am, just like decades ago, in another time, another life:
Rupert was playing on the backyard. Like a whirlwind dressed in a sun-yellow t-shirt and blue terry shorts, he flew from here to there: from the tree stump to the currant bush, from the bush to the old puffed-up rowan that had been just sitting in the middle of the backyard very likely since creation, and on again to the nervously trembling top of the tree. From there the boy kept chatting to the birds flying by, to the clouds, to the sky, the sun and to the tree itself.
I repressed my urge to run out and yell at Rupert to come down to the ground at once on pain of a severe punishment before he would fall and break his slender fledgling-neck and spoil the whole beautiful summer day by dying and becoming one of those stupidly careless kids the curt news-in-brief in the papers always told about.
I turned my back to the kitchen window. “Where do you plan to go today?” I asked Gunnar. My emphatically civilized tone reflected my inner turmoil as little as possible. I poured out more coffee for my guest. I always made him coffee, although I knew he’d actually have wanted cocoa. I did have a tin of cocoa behind the flour bags on the upper shelf, but that was for Rupert—grownups, according to my opinion, ought to drink coffee or tea.
“I don’t know. Where ever we fancy.”
“I do know: to the railway, as always. I can’t figure what you actually see in those railways,” I muttered.
“Is it really so inconceivable to you?” Gunnar asked with a strange expression on his face. “That your son has a yearning to be close to the railway? And that the sound of a train quickens his blood?”
I shook my head, embarrassed. I couldn’t figure what he was after. I waited for some kind of an explanation, but he just smiled his irritating Mona Lisa smile, and I did not feel like muddling my head with his riddles.
He sat at the kitchen table, erect and altogether faultlessly upright, slim and polished. He was well-featured but slightly pale (as was Rupert). The almost feminine elegance of his slender limbs and graceful movements didn’t really lessen his distinctive masculinity, which flowed from somewhere deeper in his personality. He wore perfect greyish tailor-made suits and even his ties probably cost as much as an ordinary off-the-peg suit. Now he had on a smart copper toned tie, given as a Father’s Day gift on Rupert’s behalf a couple of years ago. The man looked what he was—a Very Important Person in a big firm, with more money in his pockets, power and contacts than any single person ever really needed.
“Perhaps we’ll leave then,” he said. He went to the hall and stopped for a moment. “I’ll bring the boy back before evening. Round 17:30, as usual. Well, Emma, enjoy the silence. Are you going to do anything special today? It’s a good day to drive to town and go to a movie for instance.”
“Movies I’ll leave to little boys, that’s who they are made for,” I said. “You know I don’t care about movies.”
“Yes. I just tend to forget it,” Gunnar admitted. He seemed a little annoyed at his absentmindedness. “I’m sorry.”
Gunnar flashed me a somewhat feeble smile and left (the time was 11:14, so they had well over six hours for their railway outings).
I sensed in Gunnar a certain subsurface hardness and even ruthlessness that success in the financial world undoubtedly called for. I knew he could be rather cold when necessary, so I could appreciate that he had always without exception treated me politely and kindly. His kindness, however, had a reserved tone, as if he were attending to a very important long term business affair with me, nothing more or less.
Which in a way he was, too: he paid me more than fair maintenance (making it possible for me to be a full-time mother) and once a month spent a day with the child I had born from his seed. We had nothing else in common. Between us there were no shared memories, chocolate boxes, kisses, lovers’ quarrels or soft words, just easy little compliments: Well, Emma, you look quite pretty today in your beige slacks! Now and then I found it difficult to believe that only eight years back we’d had intimate intercourse with each other. But Rupert of course was a rather concrete evidence of it, thus believe I must—we both must.
That evidence, or his own part in the boy’s existence, the man had never even tried to question. I knew of course that he liked to appear a perfect gentleman, a kind of modern blueblood (and with one’s noblesse oblige), but still his correctness bordering upon the noble was a bit amazing, considering the unconventional circumstances of the child’s conception.
From between the orange kitchen curtains I watched how Gunnar called the boy down from the tree, caught him in his arms from a trustful leap and took him away in his thunder-coloured BMW.
My stomach was hurting nastily, though my menses were still days off. I didn’t like to let Rupert out of my sight. From the very moment I had felt the first faint kicks inside me, I’d also started to fear losing my child in some totally unpredictable manner (as irrational as the feeling may have been), and that early fear never fully let go.
Once a month I was unavoidably left alone, the house became quiet, and I became uneasy. I lived with Rupert every day. I chose, bought and washed his clothes, I ate with him, I listened to his troubles. I woke him up in the morning and tucked him up in the evening. I had subscribed to Donald Duck comics for him. I applied sticking plasters to his cuts. I measured and weighed him regularly and kept a diary of his development. I took snapshots of him for the family album. A couple of days before I’d baked him his seventh birthday cake, which we two had (for once not caring about the consequences) eaten the same day, and I had held his head above the toilet when he had finally started to puke. Nevertheless I felt like a terrific outsider when I thought about the outings Rupert and Gunnar had together. They seemed to mean so much for the boy, sometimes more than all the rest of his life.
And why was that?
One could easily have imagined that a successful businessman like Gunnar would have taken the boy from one amusement park to another and ladled into the boy’s bottomless gullet ice cream helpings the price of a bicycle and deluxe pear lemonades and special order hamburgers and generally used all the tricks made possible by money to treat the boy like a divine child emperor. So lightly he could have afforded even to fly the boy once a month to Disneyland to shake hands with Donald Duck; so easily he could have with the power of money made the child’s whole home environment seem like a furnished cardboard box. He could well have filled the pockets of his son with absurdly big allowance and bought him the moon from the sky and had two spare ones made.
But nothing like that from Gunnar; the larger-than-life moments of Rupert’s life were created in a quite different way. Once a month the man simply arrived with a packet of sandwiches and a bottle of juice or perhaps a couple of gingerbreads in his pocket and took the boy to look at rails. Railways, tracks, those that trains use to go from one place to another. Not the elephants and giraffes and monkeys in the zoo, not the newest movie hit, not the dancing clowns, not the new wonderful toys in the department stores. To look at the rust coloured railway tracks, that’s where he took the boy: they searched on the map and in the nature for always new railway sections and walked the hours of their day together along the tracks doing nothing special, they just walked and enjoyed each other’s company and stopped for a while to eat their sandwiches and then went on, and when the boy came home, I saw him simply tremble with restrained happiness and excitement and satisfaction as if he had seen at least all the wonders of the universe and met Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and a thousand speaking gingerbread reindeers as well.
I had sometimes tried to ask Rupert about it. He made my temples throb when he started to speak like a preacher about the Wonderful Smell of Railways and how it actually contained all the world’s secrets.
I knew well enough when I was not in my own territory, not even close. Besides, it was after all a question of something shared between the two, father and son, which wasn’t really my business, so in spite of my vague forebodings I thought best to let it be.
Until Rupert came home from such a track excursion hysterically sobbing and shaking, white as a washbasin, as if he had met eye to eye with the Children’s Own Grinning Reaper himself and had to shake his bony hand.
I knew at once that everything was not all right when I lifted my eyes from the flowerbed I’d been scraping, and saw them returning already at 3:25.
I had my hands full coping with the situation. To start, I chased Gunnar off, bleeding with scratches as he was. I acted purely from my spinal cord, as mothers always do in such situations; acted with the rage of a dinosaur in a white summer dress. Gunnar tried to explain: he could not understand what had come over the boy, he’d just been carrying him piggyback and stepped on the bank as he’d heard the approaching train, and suddenly the boy had gone completely crazy on his back and started to tear Gunnar’s hair and face and to scream unintelligibly like some rabid, drooling monkey.
If Rupert had come home thoroughly scared, Gunnar was just as terrified. He behaved like a dog that vaguely understands he’s being judged for complicity in some Very Bad Thing and knows for certain that he’ll get a bullet in his brain.
I almost felt sorry for him.
The dinosaur in me felt no pity, it attacked. I yelled at him till my lungs hurt. I probably hit him, too—at least his nose suddenly started to bleed.
He shook his head perplexed, stepping back and forth on the backyard, dabbing his nose with a handkerchief and nervously straightening his suit, covered in grey dust, having for once lost his relaxed erectness of carriage (for which I, for a brief moment, felt maliciously pleased). Then he glanced quickly at me, turned his eyes somewhere up, at Rupert’s window I suppose, and started to speak: “If I have caused trouble, I’m sincerely sorry. If you want, I’ll leave. But I have to say that with the boy I’ve always felt that for once I’m involved with something larger than my own life. You know what: he will yet do something significant, something wonderful, something which neither of us now can even dream about. I have an instinct for those things. And if he—”
I told him to be quiet and leave my backyard (although not quite in those words), and he obeyed. As Gunnar, defeated, got in his car and drove away, the dinosaur was gratified—it had won.
I had no idea that I’d never again see the only man in this life I’d ever allowed to push his male protrusion inside me: about half an hour later he would be crushed to death together with his car and his wiry bird boned being would be transformed to a mixed metal-and-bone paste (I know, because I later went to see the photo the police had taken of the accident scene).
But that shock was still to come. Now I had to compose myself so that I could go and calm down Rupert who, piteously wailing, had run upstairs and locked himself in his room.
I went up the stairs and knocked on Rupert’s door. “Let me in!” I ordered, my cheek at the door. “What’s got into you?”
“The trains,” came a trembling whisper from the other side of the door. “The trains!”
“What about them?” I tried to keep my voice calm. I strained hard and realized suddenly that I’d been trying to see through the chipping white painted surface of the door. Just like that x-ray-eyed Superman Rupert admired, it struck me. Well this was how it went, this was how Rupert made even me behave irrationally! (I had always felt a deep antipathy towards that red-caped clown who wiped his un-holed arse with logic and credibility and, besides, provoked children to jump out of windows with bath towels on their neck.)
I wondered whether my poor child had on his face a foolish maniacal grin, and a sudden horror stabbed my ovaries. Had my worst fears now come true in this dreadful way? Would my son end up for the rest of his life in a little boys’ mental institution, where he would be dressed in a little teddy bear patterned straightjacket?
I heard a choked request: “Mummy, please go and look out of the window.”
I did. A cold bit of flesh pretending to be a heart was slapping in my breast and I felt faint. I looked out of the round window in the upper hall, where sweaty houseflies kept buzzing in competition in the shady afternoon light.
“And then what? What should I see? Your father? He had to leave already. He may phone you later. Or you can phone him.”
“Do you see a train there?” asked a wan voice. “It didn’t follow me here, did it?”
Finally I got Rupert convinced that there was no train on the backyard, not even the smallest inspection trolley, and he let me in his room and, after a long stumble over his words, started to tell what it had all been about.
In the crèche and the kindergarten and even in the school they had praised my son’s “boundless and creative imagination”, which they said was manifested in his play and his artistic creations. I did admit that imagination might be useful, too, provided it remained within certain proper limits. But what was there worth praising in something that made a human being babble to stones and trees and see nonexistent things?
Perceiving reality was hard enough for the child, even without idle and completely unnecessary fantasies. And imagination by no means made Rupert happy, on the contrary he had always suffered greatly from it. A hairy monkey paw growing in the middle of his forehead would have brought him just as much joy. His social life was surely not cultivated by talking to birds rather than to other kids. And the drawings expressing “boundless and creative imagination” which he manufactured would have been enough to employ a legion of child psychiatrists:
“Oh what a nice picture! Is it a cow? And that must be a milking machine.”
“No.” (The child is very indignant about his mother’s poor insight.) “It’s a horse-moose who travels in a time machine to the Jurassic period where the dinosaurs will eat him up.”
(Mother takes an aspirin and a glass of water.)
Rupert’s drawings were technically quite sophisticated and even precocious, but he never let the objective reality interfere with their content. Such can be very depressing to a sensible adult who only wants to make her child understand how the real world functions.
“The train tried to kill us,” said Rupert.
He sat, feet crossed, upon the comic books spread on his bed, wiped sweat from his round forehead and stared absentmindedly at the beam of afternoon light in the room. It was catching the dust motes in between model airplanes hanging from the ceiling. I crouched on the floor by the bed and tried to catch his eyes.
“The train tried to kill you,” I repeated expressionlessly as a machine to show that I listened.
“We were walking on the track with Daddy. I sat on Daddy’s shoulders. It was warm and the sun warmed our skin and the air was shimmering and everything looked funny. Daddy even took his coat off and opened his waistcoat and rolled up his sleeves. The tie he never takes off, however hot it is. He says it’s a matter of principle and every time a man dresses or undresses he makes a far-reaching decision on who he actually is and who he is not. We’d found a whole new section of tracks, it’s far beyond that long tunnel and the big rocky mountain. We had to drive a long way on the big road and back along all kinds of funny side roads to get there. The rails there smelled completely different. Much stronger. Daddy said it might mean that we were closer to the secret of railways than ever before. I asked what the secret was, but he just smiled as always, kind of pleased.
“Then we started hearing a train noise. Such a queer rattle, like a hundred tin buckets were banged with iron pipes, each in a rhythm that was a bit different. It’s a kind of scary noise. Like thunder on the ground. It came from somewhere behind us.
“At first I wasn’t scared, but then I started to feel that all was not as it should. That smell started to feel too strong in my nose, and somehow wrong.
“And I glanced behind and saw the train. It came towards us. It was hard to see because it came from the direction of the sun, but I saw it anyway. First it was sneaking slowly but then, when it saw that I had noticed it, it started to come faster. It accelerated. And I saw that it wanted us. Daddy heard it coming, too, and we moved to the bank, but it was not enough. It would never have been enough, the train would have got us from there, too. But Daddy did not understand, he was like in a dream. I had to get Daddy somehow to run off before it was too late.”
“How could it have got you from there?” I asked in an unnaturally calm voice.
Rupert stared at me with his big blue eyes that now were like two deep saucers of cold fear. “That train was one of the outside-of-timetables kind. It did not run on rails. It pretended to, but it went a little beside them. I saw. I tried to get Daddy to realize that we had to run, but he seemed not to understand anything I told him. Not even when we had just before been talking about such trains.”
The boy swallowed audibly and crept to the window. His paranoid gaze raked the view.
“Suchtrains,” I repeated again. The back of my head was pricking. “Now listen Rupert, what kind of trains are we actually talking about here?”
“The ones that leave the timetable and run off rails,” Rupert sighed.
He kept looking out. The rowan crown was swaying behind the window; it stirred the now oppressive backyard air that swarmed with insects flying dazedly to and fro.
The boy’s fingers were fumbling with each other nervously and the narrow chest beneath the yellow shirt was heaving violently. There was an asthmatic, wheezing tone in his respiration that I’d never noticed before.
I had to talk seriously with him, really talk. I assumed an understanding and gently motherly smile and opened my mouth.
“What has that man put into your head!” I shrieked.
The voice escaping from my mouth startled even me; I sprang up and hit my head badly on the window board. I groaned from pain.
Rupert turned to look at me in astonishment—at last I’d achieved his full attention.
“Trains do not jump off the rails,” I articulated carefully so that the child was sure to hear and understand what I was saying. “They stay on the rails and go along them from one place to another. And besides—”
Rupert looked at me expectantly.
“Besides, trains are just big inanimate machines driven by humans,” I declared.
The boy smiled at me. Not in a relieved way. He smiled in that special way reserved for those who clearly do not know what they are talking about.
“Trains do go along rails from one place to another,” he admitted kindly. “And usually they also stay on the rails. Usually. That’s the official truth. But there is another truth that is less known. A secret. Sometimes they leave their timetables and tracks and are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then they make trouble for people. Then they are not as they normally are, and you’d better not trust them at all. They are supposed to stay on the rails and follow the timetables to be as they are meant to be, just inanimate machines that obey people. But sometimes they do actually leave the rails and break off beyond their timetables. And then they change. Their own deep hidden nature comes out. They become different. Mean and clever. And very dangerous.”
“Indeed.” I found it difficult to speak. “So they leave the tracks?”
“Yes. They leave their tracks,” Rupert enlightened me. His voice broke when he continued: “There, where the trains turn.”
The sad news of the death of Rupert’s father reached us a couple of days later, and I can’t say that it made my efforts to normalize the situation any easier (I admit that “to normalize” is a somewhat peculiar choice of words in connection with Rupert). The identity of the victim of last Sunday’s railroad crossing accident had started to become clear only the following day, when a swarm of little boys found the lost number plate; it had drifted downstream in the brook close to the accident site and got stuck in a dam the boys had built.
The term “obscure circumstances” was used a couple of times. Police and all kinds of inspectors came to talk to us, and afterwards I could not remember what they had asked or what I had answered to them.
When I went shopping on the north side I heard the villagers talk almost nostalgically about a train accident that had taken place two decades earlier in the neighbourhood. That had, after all, been of a completely different scale than this minor tame railroad crossing accident which didn’t even merit a proper news story: In the past, a goods train had actually been derailed in the Houndbury railway section, with dramatically unpleasant consequences—then, in the middle of the fifties, there had of course been in front of the train cars one of those good old steam locomotives, the last of which had been taken off sometimes in the seventies.
Two persons had died in the accident: an engine driver and a little local girl. There had been large horrified headlines in almost all newspapers and it had even been announced on the radio; publicity loves innocent victims (at least when they are not too many and not too far away). When the train had been derailed it had, by a terrible whim of chance, crushed the child playing on the bank, the daughter Alice of the district surgeon Holmsten.
Unless I completely misremembered, Alice Holmsten had been in the same class with me in primary school, and we had perhaps been friends. But of all memories, the childhood memories are always the most confused and subjective, so I couldn’t be sure about it. Actually I didn’t even manage to think about the matter, the present was too much for me.
After he had left us, Gunnar had obviously been driving south along little side roads—he lived after all in Helsinki, when he wasn’t on a business trip to Bonn, London, Paris, Tokyo or some other distant place (Rupert received picture postcards with a railway theme from everywhere). Thirty kilometers away there was a level crossing, with scant traffic but not completely unused. The two o’clock slow extra train from Tampere to Eastern Finland had lead to Gunnar’s death.
The engine driver said in the interrogation that when the train arrived at the railroad crossing everything had seemed to be in order, the track had been free, and suddenly the purple car waiting behind the crossing had driven straight in front of the train—obviously the gate hadn’t come properly down either. The train hurrying eastward had caught Gunnar’s thunder-reflecting car with it, crumbled and torn it in passing as if it hadn’t been a real car at all but an origami folded of purple paper, and then thrown its remains in the willow bushes growing by the track.
I decided not to think about the matter anymore than I had to. Gunnar was dead, gone. By a coincidence he had driven under a train. He had been beside himself because of Rupert’s fit, the gate had been up, and Gunnar hadn’t noticed the approaching train. That was all. As usual, what had happened could not be undone, not by any means.
I knew some people think that the daily and sometimes merciless course of life is a kind of kids’ puzzle where you have to connect the points in a correct order and find out whatever is hiding in the picture. Effect was always preceded by a cause, of course, and the cause itself was always a consequence of something. To seek logic and meaning from every coincidence, however, was likely to push a person towards the deep pit of madness, with sharp stakes waiting at the bottom. I could not afford to cloud my mind with unnecessary speculations or shaky what-ifs. I needed all my strength to help my son, since now he had lost his father, he needed his mother more than ever.
Rupert of course took it as self-evident that his father had been killed by the same train that had tried to kill them both earlier, never mind logic or timetables; I don’t know whether he actually said the thought aloud, but he didn’t need to, it shone from his whole being. And he could not be blamed. His poor little mind was tortured by those strange stories that Gunnar in his great lack of judgement had fed him. The railways may well have meant a great and wonderful adventure and boundless fantasy to Rupert, and all that had surely been rather pleasant as long as it had stayed that way. But now the caramel coloured surface of the fantasy had fallen off and the dark colours of chaos, nightmare and bitter fear of death had come out—the real nature of fantasy!
With difficulty, I pieced together hazy bits of truth to form at least some vague picture of what the father and son had been doing together during the last years. I got the impression that during their walks together Gunnar had at first talked to the boy of various relatively harmless things. Then Rupert had become excited and asked about railways and trains, and finally the man had probably become a little tired answering his endless questions and started to make up his own stories, which again had provoked Rupert to evolve even stranger questions. In this way they had been inciting each other, and finally, perhaps to silence the boy for at least a moment, Gunnar obviously had come to invent that dark, terrifying, perverted story:
Daddy, how far do those rails go?
All around the world back to this same place.
Do these rails go to China?
Yes, they do. And to Australia and France and even Africa. Sometimes bored lions start following the rails and stray even as far as here. Luckily that’s rare.
If you lead electric current to the rails here, will somebody on the other side of the world get an electric shock?
Yes, he will, if he happens to touch the rails just then. But one shouldn’t lead electric current to the rails, because electricity goes around the globe and comes back here and then you’ll get an electric shock yourself.
How do people know where each train goes and what time they ought to get on?
From the timetables. Trains go according to certain exact timetables.
Well not quite always. Sometimes they cannot keep their timetables. Then they’ll be at a wrong time in a wrong place, and that results in confused situations and sometimes even bad trouble for people. Believe me, I’ve met with that myself.
Must the trains going in that direction circle around the whole globe to get back home? They can’t reverse the whole way back, can they?
Of course not: there are places where the trains turn. But those places really aren’t any kids’ playgrounds. This is actually a secret, but let me tell you something…
And thus it became clear what would thereafter be my primary task: to dig from the boy’s head all the dangerous fantasies that had slipped in there, before they would take root there too firmly and produce a terrible harvest.
We lived south of the little village of Houndbury (nowadays Houndbury wants to call itself officially a city, as touchingly megalomaniac and attention-seeking as that may sound). Actually there were two Houndburies: the rapidly transforming North and the South that had kept its old homely face from the fifties, and at that time still been saved from the bite of Development’s concrete teeth. In the beginning of the seventies, the North side had quickly filled up with new cubic meters of tenement houses, poor industrial plants and hungry supermarkets. We people on the South side instead still had lots of pensive detached houses, wildly flourishing gardens and clean swimming beaches and forests. Along our meandering paths you could get from everywhere to everywhere without seeing a single human dwelling or a paved road on the way. And yet we from South Houndbury could whiz quickly to the North side to enjoy the services of the area, neither was the nearest city too far away when needed. Our children were thus very lucky.
I would have let both my breasts be ground to mink food if only Rupert, too, could have been one of those healthy, noisy, happy children one saw in our neighbourhood. They raced each other, rode recklessly on their bikes and played football and ice hockey. They yelled, screamed and fought each other. They broke windows, went swimming, blasted firecrackers and stole raw apples to throw them at house walls and roofs and at people’s heads from behind the hedges.
Of course I would have punished Rupert if I’d heard that he was involved in such tricks. But I’d have done that smiling, knowing that my son was a completely normal boy who only needed a proper mixture of motherly love and discipline to grow up a man.
But Rupert kicked no ball. He raced nobody, he ran alone. In his whole life he hadn’t stolen a single apple or broken a single window. (I thought I could remember him breaking one green tumbler when he was four years old, that was the list of his misdeeds in its entirety.) He just kept drawing pictures and reading books and playing his own peculiar games alone.
He did not get along with other children, since he’d been talking so long to birds and trees he no longer knew how to talk to people. Other children quickly got irritated at his strange stories and didn’t want to have anything to do with him. For that I could have wrung their necks like potted chickens, Rupert was after all my own little son, but at the same time I understood them in spite of myself.
“You’ve got to stop this tomfoolery,” I told Rupert seriously. “Do you understand what I mean? People don’t like silly fools. Besides, soon you’ll not know yourself what’s true and what’s not, and to know that is not too easy in this world anyway. Moreover, there’s a quite special place for the people who can’t stop fooling in time, and believe me, you don’t want to go there.”
Rupert nodded, resigned. It had been a month since Gunnar’s death, the slowest and darkest month of my life. There was a fine aroma of an approaching autumn in the air, and it made birds and several other living creatures feel an oppressive longing for faraway places and at times even mild panic. Cold rains started to wash off the colours and warmth of summer, and pleading bad weather, Rupert stayed within four walls, which wasn’t at all like him since he’d always been a dedicated puddle jumper and rain runner. For four weeks he hadn’t even once gone farther than our mailbox—always on Wednesday at one o’clock he ran quickly out to get his precious Duck comics (Wednesday is the week’s best day, for then you get your Donald Duck, the world’s funniest comic!) and then closeted himself in his own room with the devotion of a monk studying holy scripture.
As much as I’d have enjoyed his company in other circumstances, now he started to get badly on my nerves.
He was quieter than the grey colour of the autumn sky. He sneaked ghostlike around, unnoticeable and almost translucent, close to non-existence. Now and then I had to steal near him and touch him to make sure that he still was flesh and blood.
Sometimes I was caught by an irrational certainty that he had tracelessly disappeared from the earth, and I ran around the house to seek him until I finally found him cowering in some dark corner.
He cracked his fingers on the borders of my visual field. He grated his teeth. He kept staring out of windows and rolling his eyes just like the black bearers in his beloved Tarzan movies when they heard the oppressing, maddening drumming of the wicked natives from the jungle.
I’d have liked to run away from home.
I was relieved when school finally started and the bus took him away for at least a few hours a day. Of course Rupert did not feel happy at school. He was bullied, not so badly it would have made his life hell, but obviously he wouldn’t have brought home any popularity awards, if such things for any reason had been presented.
After Gunnar’s death, Rupert was like a kind of little, over-scared, endangered animal which all the time expects something big and extremely terrible to attack him. His irrational fear was by and by infecting even me—I began to startle at all kinds of the slightest rustles and flashes. I had bad dreams, too, although after waking up I could remember nothing more of them than a tormenting feeling of loss, and that in the dreams I heard myself talk to some strange unfathomable abstract being (it seemed to consist of rails) and asking it for something I suspected I’d later regret.
Sometimes by nights a capricious wind brought to our ears the noise of a train passing by the district, from the railway far away behind hilly forests. At the closest, the tracks were at least fifteen kilometres away, but now and then it sounded as if the trains did run quite close, even in the folds of our own familiar woods. I got shooting pains in my belly for I knew how that strange phenomenon affected Rupert. Sometimes, when I secretly peeked into his room and checked that the boy was still safe, I saw him pull his quilt over his head and tremble.
It was obvious that the situation could not continue like that. I didn’t want to take my child to a psychiatrist, at least not yet. I didn’t want him to get a mark in his papers and be labelled a mental health problem. I was myself the best expert with my own child, and therefore I had to grapple with the core of the problem, Rupert’s monstrously grown imagination, before it would undo him.
First I made a list of things that were apt to make my son’s condition worse. Then I took the necessary measures. Now and then I felt myself a proper monster of a mother, a perverse tyrant who pursues a noble goal by a reign of terror. But I made myself continue in spite of my doubts. My child was in trouble, and I had to save him whatever sacrifices it demanded from both of us.
First I took a deep breath, grabbed the phone and cancelled the subscription to Donald Duck. And the next morning, after Rupert had shuffled along to the school bus, I hunted down all his comics—Donald Ducks, Superman, Jokerfants, Space Journeys, King Kongs, Phantoms, Shocks, Frankensteins and Werewolves, Pink Panthers, Roadrunners, John Carters, Draculas, Marcoses—and burned them all in the sauna oven.
There were hundreds, and my work of destruction took hours. The neighbourhood got covered in charred bits of comics.
I hesitated a while with story books. What kind of a mother could do such a thing, destroy her child’s property like some loutish Gestapo commander?
But extreme situations demand extreme means, and so I hardened my heart in the cleansing blaze of the book pyres.
Into the flames went the Grimm’s Fairytales, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Best Animal Stories, My Brother Lionheart, Pippi Longstockings and other literary fiction that excited imagination. To be on the safe side I pushed all colouring books in the oven, too.
Then I sought all his crayons and drawing pens and blocks of drawing paper and all his graphically gorgeous but badly twisted drawings and buried them underneath the currant bushes behind the house. I made a list of the TV-programmes that Rupert could still safely watch. Obviously, all movies were completely prohibited. I entered Rupert for the chess club, the model airplane club, the volleyball club, the boy scouts and the ceramic crafts. After some reflection, I cancelled the ceramic crafts. To conclude it all, I ordered him always from then on to keep his watch on time and to always be aware of the date, or be left without his pocket money.
Rupert wasn’t very excited about all this, but neither did he protest. When he noticed that his comics and books were missing, he looked at me with silent astonishment but said nothing. I hoped fervently that he would understand this was all for his own best. He tried to ask after his drawing things but fell silent when he noticed my expression and understood that those were gone just like all the other things I considered inappropriate. He didn’t even try to watch his former favourite programmes from the TV, for he guessed it wouldn’t be allowed. Sometimes I turned on the TV and he came and watched it, quietly, until the approved programme was over and I shut off the apparatus.
“Rupert, it’s time to go to bed. And Rupert, what time is it and what’s the date?”
“It’s now eight-twenty-three and it’s Wednesday, October twelfth.”
“Excellent. Well, good night and sweet dreams.”
The new order was surprisingly easy to realize. Rupert went regularly to the chess club to learn logical thinking, and to my amazement he suddenly started to get first B’s and then clear A’s from math examinations instead of the earlier C’s and D’s. On account of that, Miriam Catterton, the well-known pretty golden haired teacher of his class, came personally to see me and to discuss the boy’s wonderful change. (To be sure, at the same time Rupert’s arts grade fell from A to D and his composition grade also fell off a bit, which I however didn’t consider a bad trade at all—I’d always been afraid that the verbally fluent and graphically gifted Rupert would decide to choose the dubious profession of an artist or a writer for his life’s career.)
In the model airplane club Rupert constructed a model plane strictly according to the incorruptible laws of aerodynamics and flew it immediately on its virgin flight into the thin upper branches of our backyard rowan tree, where it stayed until it was finally covered with snow. He even learned the ins and outs of volleyball with the village boys and was no longer completely helpless in team games. After I’d looked at his wan expression for a couple of months, I pitied him and let him quit volleyball training.
As for the boy scouts Rupert wouldn’t agree to go even once, he said they dressed up too silly there according to his taste, but instead he himself thought of joining the school photography club, which I thought was an excellent idea—after all, weren’t cameras used to record objective reality with the most objective way possible (as I then still thought, naively).
His watch he set to the correct time by the second every evening after the radio time signal. Months went by pretty comfortably, seasons came and passed, and as time went on I started to think that the worst was over.
But then one winter night, coming back from the bathroom when I peeked into his room, I noticed that the boy had disappeared from his bed.
I forced myself to calm down and draw a breath and think rationally. He surely hadn’t vanished without a trace; here still were his socks and there his rucksack and old rocking horse, and from the ceiling hung his airplanes. After searching for him in every place at least twice I realized that he had to be outside.
I saw he had taken his skis from by the steps. Gone was also his fine new camera which he always kept on his bedside table by the glass of water.
By and by I began to understand that this was by no means the first time he’d done something like this—I suddenly remembered how some mornings he’d looked unusually tired, and I recollected several other suspicious circumstances to which I hadn’t paid attention before (I’d wondered why his boots were often still wet in the morning, although I’d put them to dry on the radiator in the evening).
I sat by the kitchen table and drank a couple of bathtubs of coffee. After four hours of waiting I was coming to the conclusion that I couldn’t wait any longer but had to phone the village constable Herbert Starling or at least go out myself to seek my child, but then I heard skis swishing outside.
I heard the door and Rupert lumbered in, bleak as Death itself.
He was covered with snow all over. His face was blue with cold, although the night was mild. The boy marched into the kitchen in his snowy boots without a word and put his camera on the table in front of me.
To me, Rupert looked like a soldier returning from battle, small in size but to be taken extremely seriously. Tiny icicles hung from his eyelashes. His clothes had a clinging smell that I couldn’t connect with anything until the next time I was in the vicinity of the railway and sensed that peculiar smell, which somebody may have once told me came from the impregnation substance used in the railway sleepers.
I wasn’t able to utter anything for a while, so as not to start crying or screaming uncontrollably; I wasn’t able to even move, because I felt a compelling desire to seize the child and thoroughly shake him for scaring me like that.
Finally I said surprisingly calmly: “I’ll make you a cup of cocoa. You’ll drink it without a murmur and then go back to sleep. The camera stays here. We won’t talk any more about this, but if you do something like this once more, I won’t even ask you anything, I’ll make a stew of you while you sleep and sell you to that drunkard Traphollow for mink food. And with the money I get I’ll bribe Mr. Starling to close his eyes about your disappearance. And if anybody asks about you, I won’t admit you ever existed. Do we understand each other?”
Rupert stared at the camera with nostrils wide open. He pointed at it and whispered: “But there’s evidence in there!”
“Do we understand each other?” I insisted. My voice could have peeled an apple.
He struggled long with himself before he gave up and nodded.
After he had drunk his cocoa and gone, I checked the camera and noticed that since earlier in the evening it had been used to take four pictures. (I always tried to keep track of such things.)
I didn’t want to encourage him to continue his game, which had got out-of-hand, so I pushed the camera far back on the upper shelves of the hall cupboard, behind empty jam pots, and only took it out the next summer when I went and buried it and its film a couple of meters deep, next to the other dangerous things.
Twenty years later, when Rupert already was studying law in Helsinki, I happened to find a notebook, which had functioned as some kind of diary for him. It was lying on the bottom of the cupboard, with old school books and wrinkled exercise books. On its cover stood the text OBSERVATIONS OF A FERROEQUINOLOGIST.
Rupert’s diary contained some rather disconnected notes, altogether from a couple of years, and it also included a chaotic explanation about the trip he had made that night.
It’s very improper to read other persons’ diaries, and of course I did not succumb to such baseness; I just glanced at it a little here and there.
(Myself, I’ve never kept a diary, at least I don’t remember having done that. Neither when a child nor older. I think the past has nothing to give us, no more than an outdated mail-order catalogue. Besides, my memories in their subjectivity and contradictoriness are much too confused for me to bother recording them.
I do not know what evil I have done that my mind punishes me so, but almost every night I still see a silly dream in which I anyhow keep a diary. In this Dream Diary of mine one can find all my fuzzy past; there are carefully recorded all the thoughts I’ve thought, all contradictions, all the insignificant incidents which my consciousness has crumbled down as unnecessary, and its pages teem with hidden motives and causes and consequences and obscure speculations about them.
In the dream I know that I could at any time turn the pages back and look at my past without the softening and diluting influence of time. Only lately, when I’m remembering Rupert, I’ve first started to feel the temptation to do that. But I don’t rightly know. It’s much easier when you don’t dwell too much on what is past, but just accept the concrete present as it is.)
1.12.1976, Observations of a Ferroequinologist:
Last night I did it, I PHOTOGRAPHED A TRAIN THAT HAD GONE OFF THE RAILS.
I got up at 12 o’clock at night, hung the camera around my neck and started to ski on the crusted snow to where I knew the trains did go to turn.
There’s at least fifteen or twenty kilometres to go or maybe even a hundred kilometres (it’s very hard to know by night how long a distance is) and several times I almost turned back, but some things one just has got to do, as Mummy says, and then finally after skiing for two hours I found the place though I’d gone astray a few times and thought I’d never find home again and the wolves would eat me, or maybe a bear.
The place where the trains turn is SECRET, and it’s not easy to find. There’s a blind track leading there, but I still haven’t found the place where it forks from the main track though I’ve searched for it many times. It’s pretty close to the section where that train outside the timetable tried to kill me and Dad in summer, maybe four or five kilometres away. I don’t know whether I was more afraid of the place or of Mum tumbling to that I’d gone out (as it happened this time anyway). I waited for surely at least three hours before the train arrived—luckily I had provisions: three chocolate bars, a packet of chewing gum (two eaten beforehand), one gingerbread.
The rails come to that place in the middle of the forest from somewhere further off, from behind a really thickety terrain. And on them the trains come and go. The blind track ends completely among trees so the trains can get off the rails and turn in the forest and then mount the tracks again and return to where they came from.
I lay behind the top of the ridge under juniper bushes and watched how one train again crawled slowly and carefully out from the thicket. It came to the end of the blind track, stopped and then started to get off the rails.
It was huge, although by night it’s also hard to know for sure how big something is. I somehow felt how it changed, not so much outwardly so that it could be seen with one’s eyes, but inwardly. It sort of woke up and pricked up its ears and put about feelers to its environment as if it had guessed I lay there watching.
I wondered if there was anybody inside it (I felt that even if there was somebody in there, it wasn’t human, at least not a live human).
Suddenly it became awfully cold and I started shaking and my teeth started rattling. I felt that the coldness came out of the train, as if it had been to the North Pole or the Moon or some other really cold place. I took four photos of it with timed exposure.
I lay there in the snow without moving and waited and shivered from cold and heard trees breaking and crashing when the train puffed its way along in the snow and made its slow turnaround in the forest and then finally climbed back on the rails.
It must have taken surely at least four or five hours. I almost peed in my pants and I thought I’d get a proper licking when morning came and Mum went to wake me up and I wouldn’t be at home yet. I tried to look at my watch but there was not enough light to see the hands.
Then the train slowly went off and disappeared behind the thicket and the air wasn’t so cold anymore. When I was quite sure no more trains were coming I descended into the valley bottom and went to see the rails closer.
Sometimes one can find all kinds of things there. Once I found from the snow a bit of paper that turned out to be a thirty years old 3rd class train ticket from Helsinki to Oulu. Now I found no tickets, but there was a dead cat. I rather think it was our neighbours’, Toby who had disappeared, but it wasn’t possible to identify it for sure. It had gone all flat and stiff and I saw its intestines. It was just like it had been hit with a house-sized sledgehammer. Not all of it was there, it was as if something had bitten a piece off it.
I threw some snow over Toby the cat and built it a little gravestone out of snow.
Once I tried to follow the rails so I’d see where they actually join the big tracks. I walked along the blind track some two hundred meters (the forest around the track is such a tangle nobody can get through it without a chainsaw), but then I had to turn back, because the railway smell got so strong I couldn’t breathe anymore. Besides I was afraid a train would come the other way. If a train had come towards me, I couldn’t have got off anywhere from the rails. I almost fainted just like that one time at school when I had a fever over 39 degrees, and by a side glance I thought I saw all kinds of strange things in the shadows of the thicket, things I don’t like to remember, and afterwards I realized that the railway smell may actually be poisonous when there’s too much of it in the air.
I won’t go there any more, at least not before I’m grown up and can buy a chainsaw and an oxygen apparatus and other necessary things and when I no longer need to be afraid of Mum.
When the trains stay on the rails, they are obviously sort of asleep, and people can control them just like a sleepwalker can be manoeuvred.
I didn’t see the train this time very clearly, since it was quite dark and one cannot see well in the dark, but I did recognize the type. It was one of those big red diesel engines, with a white cabin. I found its picture in the library’s train book. It was a DV15 manufactured in the Valmet Lokomo machine shop. Or it could have been a DV12, which looks pretty much alike. I’m not quite sure. It had 15 wagons after it—I counted them. They were not passenger carriages but empty open trucks that look like animal skeletons and usually carry tractors and other big machines.
The previous time I saw a short blue local passenger train, the kind that doesn’t have a separate locomotive. One can see them now and then in daily traffic. They transport people, but at the turning-place the short blue train had blackened windows and I couldn’t see whether there was anybody inside.
But when I went the first time to the place where the trains turn, I caught a glimpse of a really odd-looking train, and so far I haven’t found its picture anywhere though I’ve spent hours in the library and leafed through all the train-books I’ve discovered. It was quite bullet-shaped and really streamlined and looked actually more like a space rocket than any train. And it seemed to float a bit above the rails. That’s the one I really would like to photograph some day so I could show it to a grown-up who knows a lot about trains and ask what it actually is.
When I started to return home and came to an open place with more light I looked at my watch. It was only twenty past two, and at first I was relieved but then I started to get doubtful. I felt that it had taken a lot more time. I thought that my watch had stopped for a while, but at home it was showing the correct time anyway when I checked.
If only I could find my camera and could develop those photos! Even Mum would have to believe when she saw the pictures, though otherwise she doesn’t believe anything, she’s such a bonehead. (I hope Mum doesn’t read this!) I feel she doesn’t even believe in my existence without coming to check on me every little while.
Today at school we had cabbage casserole and chocolate mousse again, and of course one wasn’t allowed to have chocolate mousse before eating a plateful of cabbage casserole. Ossian threw up on the table when he tried to eat his plate empty, though he hates cabbage more than anything, and the whole table was flowing green and others started to feel squeamish, too. I was smarter and flipped the cabbage casseroles under my chair and fetched myself a big portion of chocolate mousse with a straight face.
1.20.1976, Observations of a Ferroequinologist:
I dreamt again that a train was chasing me on a road. I climbed to a roof but the train climbed after me along the wall. I woke up when I fell off the bed to the floor and hit my head. I got a big lump. I could hear a train in the forest, again too close. I dared not go to sleep again. In the morning I went to look for traces but didn’t find any.
4.12.1976, Observations of a Ferroequinologist:
I dreamt that I sat on the nose of a steam locomotive. It was rushing ahead with enormous speed.
First the scenery was unfamiliar, but then we came to Houndbury. Two girls were standing on the track. They held each other’s hands. The girls shouted something to me and laughed and at the last moment they stepped aside and their skirts flapped in the draught of the train. Both of them were quite good looking, but I liked more the one with the golden hair.
The other one seemed familiar at first, but then she wasn’t anybody I knew but a perfect stranger. After a while we approached the level crossing. Behind the level crossing gate a purple car was waiting. Dad was sitting in the car and he looked sad. I waved and yelled at him not to be sad anymore because I was already quite all right, but he didn’t hear.
Then the locomotive shivered under me and began to feel somehow queer. Awakened. Besides it was no longer a steam engine but a diesel engine. It talked to Dad along the rails, whispering in a peculiar sort of voice that started to make me sleepy though I was already asleep to begin with. It told Dad to put the gears on and to drive on the rails. Somehow it made the gate rise before its time and it bewitched Dad and he obeyed it.
And we crashed into Dad’s car and I watched how the train smashed the car against the rails a bit like the lion tore up the little deer in “Nature’s Wonders” that Mum still lets me watch on the TV. Sheet metal and steel and register plates and bloody bits of Dad were falling along the tracks. I saw a loose hand fly into a ditch. Dad was smashed all into pieces with the car and suddenly I realized that the train was eating him and then I started to scream and punch the train with my fists.
Then the train had eaten its fill and fell to sleep again. That’s when I fell off the engine hood and woke up in my bed, and outside a train was hooting shrilly.
Yesterday I went to the library and looked up in a dictionary what “Ferroequinologist” means. A person interested in railways. Dad sometimes said that he and I are both ferroequinologists, but especially me, considering my origin. I had no idea what he meant by that, and he smiled and promised to explain sometime when I’m old enough to understand. But the train killed Dad, so I’ll probably never find out. And Mum of course understands nothing of these matters.
6.14.1976, Observations of a Ferroequinologist:
In my dream the trains were in an especially foul mood, and I dreamt that they chased me all through the night. I ran home and hid in the woodshed, and somebody there whispered in my ear that trains have dragon souls and that’s why they love tunnels and are so mean. It also said that my basic task is to save a maiden. I tried to see the one who spoke, but when I turned I was awake in my bed and staring at my own teddy bear.
“Observations of a Ferroequinologist” (as well as the smudged train ticket between the pages) ended down in the hole. Rupert had finally, after all, recovered from the morbid and dangerous condition that his swollen imagination had induced. However, I wanted to take no risks with the questions concerning his childhood. We had never spoken about his long ago train fantasies. I felt like he didn’t necessarily even remember them or most anything else about his childhood, at least nothing very detailed—during his student years he always travelled home by train, though there was no railway station in Houndbury and for the last forty kilometres one had to take an inconvenient bus or try to get a lift. Indeed he seemed to have forgotten his childhood, and all to the good. I had forgotten mine, too.
Studying law kept the boy’s thoughts firmly in the objective reality, ruled by reason and the logic dictated by cold facts. Rupert had no time for idle novels or movies, so his imagination stayed safely asleep.
But his life was by no means pure toil. He had in the law faculty a couple of fairly good friends with whom to go out and to play tennis (over the years Rupert had become quite an athlete, although in the bird boned fashion of his father). And from his curt postcards I even gathered that for some time he had been seeing a certain young woman who went to the same lectures.
Rupert went to study law immediately after his high school graduation, for which I take the credit myself. When he had made his last ferroequinologist exploration at the age of nine years, I realized something: even after all the hobbies I’d arranged for him he still had too much time to brood on the peculiar fantasies in his head. I could confiscate his things, and I could make sure that he no longer crept out of the house by night to make his ferroequinologist observations—I for instance attached a bell on his door and another one on his window and hid his shoes for the night. But of course I couldn’t control the thoughts going around in his head. Therefore I had to find a way to make Rupert voluntarily use his head for something sound and rational.
Gunnar had once left a thick book of statutes in my house. I’d put it temporarily on my bookshelf, in the middle of encyclopaedias, and there it lay forgotten several years. Now I lugged the massive book into Rupert’s slender arms. I told him it was his father’s old book that he had meant for his son when he would be old enough to read it (which might very well have been true). I said his father had told me to pay him five marks for each page he could learn by heart.
At first the boy seemed suspicious. A couple of days went by. Then he calculated the pages in the book and multiplied that by five. He went to look at the shiny ten-geared bikes in Houndbury Bicycle and Engine, and soon he was spending most of his leisure hours studying the book of statutes.
I was overjoyed to pay the money he collected from me after examinations. By and by he stopped having nightmares, and he recovered from his anxiety and his train obsessions. Surprisingly quickly he accumulated the money for a bike, but he hardly got time to ride that brand new geared wonder for his reading stint continued; even in sleep he was leafing through his statute book, mumbling his statutes and counting the money he’d earned and would still earn.
A born lawyer, I thought proudly.
By spring 1991 Rupert graduated with the best grades, and for a graduation present I bought him a golden Rolex with my savings (I’m not ashamed to admit I cried with happiness for two whole months and finally got a nasty inflammation of the eye). He got a job in a small but respected law office in the capital and moved together with his girlfriend Birgitta who graduated soon after Rupert and found herself a job in the same firm.
Birgitta Susanne Donner was a good and sensible girl, I’d met her a couple of times and could safely trust Rupert to her keeping. I saw that she would become an exceedingly reliable and refreshing life partner to Rupert, and surely also a caring mother to my grandchildren, when the young couple would have the time to think about reproduction. I had myself started to meet more regularly a certain charming person now that I no longer had to worry about Rupert. It wasn’t especially serious; and dating openly in a small village like Houndbury would have provoked too much talk and fuss, my friend was after all a teacher and thus sort of under the magnifying glass of the villagers. Now and then, however, she stopped for a coffee in the evening, and sometimes it happened that we woke up in the morning nose to nose.
It would be nice to stop here, with the picture of a successful son and a happy mother. But happy endings in real life are usually just stages on the way to a more final and less cheerful end—the worms will get us in the end, one way or another. Late in the hot July of 1994 trains again got entangled in my son’s life.
Rupert and Birgitta had been busy for a long while, and sometimes I couldn’t reach them for days on end even by a phone, and I started to suffer from a delusion that my son had somehow disappeared from the earth and I’d never see him again. Finally, however, they managed to take a few days off and come to visit me for a whole weekend.
Seeing those two enlivened my mind and at the same time made it strangely wistful.
On Sunday we decided to have a picnic. The day simply floated in heat and bright colours, and when you add to the picture the dragonflies buzzing absent-mindedly to and fro, it was one of those days that should actually be framed and hung on the living room wall for the coming winters. I packed in the picnic basket juice, salami sandwiches and some chocolate cake with cherries I’d baked for Rupert’s approaching twenty-ninth birthday. We drove in Rupert’s new red car along small roads until we came to the foot of Sheep Hill. It rose as a gently sloping green field towards the dense blue sky. In accordance with its name, Sheep Hill was a sheep pasture: they were standing around in white clusters, and now and then they got excited and started baaing in competition.
We left the car in the shade of a big birch, followed a path that descended near a low stone fence down the steep bank of Sheep Hill (which at some distance changed to Sheep Rock), and arrived finally to our goal, the grassy meadow by the raised railway embankment where the limpid Ram Brook murmured with cool cheerfulness.
I spread a white tablecloth on the ground, set the table and told the young couple to set to it before the heat and flies would spoil it all. We ate, and suddenly Rupert stood up and, spitting breadcrumbs, proclaimed that Birgitta and he had become engaged two weeks before.
I almost choked on my sandwich.
I looked at my son who stared at me as if expecting a scolding. He was nervous since he wasn’t sure about my attitude, but he was obviously very happy, and the sudden perception made me laugh aloud from sheer joy of living.
“Now what’s so funny?” Birgitta asked, a little suspicious, but then broke into a broad grin. Such a beautiful girl, I sighed. I already knew what I was going to buy them for a wedding present: the most gorgeous hardwood grandfather clock in the universe!
With a relieved smile Rupert sat down and continued his meal.
I suddenly thought of the moment Rupert was conceived. I didn’t remember much of it, just that I and Gunnar had had intimate intercourse with each other and prevention had somehow let us down, but anyway, there Rupert now was in front of me, happy, handsome and a successful lawyer with a tie around his neck.
“I often think of the moment Rupert was conceived. Gunnar took me for a drive on his new motorbike—at that time he still was a rather wild spirit, in his own trim controlled way. He even had a leather coat. That, however, was no ragged black motorcycle jacket but a fine brown Italian coat, surely terribly expensive. I’d seen him often at the Pavilion which in those times still was full of people almost every Saturday of the year, now of course it’s been closed for a long time and people go to the city. I went there now and then to dance and to look at people. He’d been besieging me for some time (at least I felt he’d done that, one couldn’t be quite sure of him), and although he didn’t really turn me on, I liked his quiet self-confidence and that everyone was looking at him, and was willing to go for a ride with him when he asked me.
We were driving along small roads by this very countryside and stopped finally to sip white wine in the middle of a small lyrical grove. Gunnar said he liked my nose very much, and then he seduced me.
I still didn’t really want him but I let him do it anyway. It was actually quite pleasant, the light way he made love to me. I held on to his tie and smiled all the time. The grass tickled my bottom. He promised to withdraw in good time before he’d come, and surely he would have done that since he was a perfect gentleman and I knew I could trust him completely.
Finally I felt his rhythm accelerate. His muscles tensed. I remember hearing the sound of a train, the rails ran somewhere quite close, I hadn’t realized that before. Gunnar was struggling in my arms like a trapped animal, I’d folded my legs behind his back and he couldn’t get off me in time. I was quite sure he would get extremely angry at me, but he just looked at me a little sadly, kissed me on the cheek and took me back to the dance pavilion where we danced one waltz together before he left, looking pensive.
I knew that a new life had started to develop inside me, and six weeks later the doctor confirmed it.”
—From the unwritten Dream Diary of E.N.
I woke up from my thoughts.
Farther off the sheep had suddenly began baaing wildly. I saw them start to come tumbling down the slope as if they were suddenly in a big hurry to get somewhere.
“The train is coming,” Rupert said.
Only now I noticed that there were little decorative Donald Ducks on his picnic tie—he hadn’t completely forgotten his childhood after all. A gust had arisen and was intently tugging at his tie and making his white lapels flap like the wings of a large white butterfly.
“What did you say?” I said.
“The train is coming,” Rupert repeated still smiling and pointed somewhere towards the sheep. I put my sandwich down and turned to look.
The railway ran along the ridge of Sheep Hill; from the cool darkness of the spruce forest it dived down to the clearing and disappeared finally in a long cold tunnel excavated through the Sheep Rock whose mouth stood above us, breathing darkness, on top of the high embankment heaped out of big stones. The growing metallic clang and the rumble of hundreds of metal wheels against the iron rails muffled the protest of the affronted sheep. A fast red electric engine emerged. After it an endless line of dark goods wagons rattled towards the clearing.
I instinctively glanced at my watch: the time was 1:27.
The rhythmic noise chased the sheep; finally it filled the whole scene and buried the cries of the sheep under itself like an avalanche. Rupert took the hand of his fiancée, kissed her and then said something I didn’t hear. She laughed. A nervous butterfly fluttered over our party, and its brown dryness made me think of falling autumn leaves.
The train now drew a moving line the length of the whole clearing. Wagon by wagon it pushed itself above us into the tunnel and eclipsed the sun burning above Sheep Rock, offering instead a hypnotically quick dark-bright dazzle. Dust from the embankment began to fall on us. I glanced upwards with a mild resentment and thought that I definitely ought to cover our sandwiches before they started tasting too sandy.
Then something broke loose of the train’s dark shape and started to spin down towards us.
I followed the track of the object on the blue skies, now grey with dust; it rotated and whirled and got bigger all the time. I stared at it spellbound. Suddenly I realized it was coming towards us and would probably fall right in the middle of our picnic.
I opened my mouth to yell a warning to Rupert and Birgitta, but instead inhaled dust and could for a while get no sound out of my throat because of a fierce fit of coughing. To crown it all the dust blinded my eyes and I could do nothing but cough and fling my arms about and hope that my companions would realize they ought to move back.
Among the clank and rumble I discerned a muffled crack, like the sound of a breaking egg.
I tore my running eyes open and saw faintly how Rupert waved his arm, as if greeting an old acquaintance he hadn’t seen for years, and an object the shape of a marrowbone rebounded off his head into the brook. Rupert fell on his back in the grass. Birgitta’s shrill whimper penetrated my ears through the train’s monotonous chant.
“Do we have eggs in the basket?” I yelled idiotically and started to cough again.
The girl kept shaking her head and pointed with a trembling finger at Rupert who lay on the slope, limbs spread out, and seemed to be asleep. When one looked closer at him, one could see that his hair’s recently so neat part was now missing completely.
Birgitta started a furious legal campaign against the State Railways.
State Railways admitted that the metal object which had broken Rupert’s skull had indeed originated from the train rushing past us, to be exact from the locking system of the twenty-eighth goods wagon of the train. The Railway attorney expressed his surprise that a part had come loose at all, since that was in principle impossible for the train had been duly and carefully checked before departure according to all possible railway traffic regulations. It sounded as if he were insinuating that actually we should be under suspicion for some malicious act cleverly sabotaging their precious train. The part coming loose troubled the SR very much. But for Rupert’s sake the railway people seemed not to lose a single night’s sleep—when the insincere platitudes were peeled off, the basic attitude of the SR seemed to be Shit happens, so what? You should have kept far off our railway!
In the past I’d have wanted to go into a blind rage and tear the attorney’s self-important head off his weak shoulders, but the dinosaur seemed to have disappeared from inside me and instead of empowering rage I only managed to feel enormous fatigue and defeat.
About indemnities no consensus could be reached: Birgitta demanded thirty million, and the Railways did not want to pay a penny over hospital expenses—just paying the hospital bill was already proof of the extraordinary benevolence of the SR and exceeded all legal obligations, said the Railway attorney and chided us for our greed. Birgitta swore to me, gasping for breath, that she would make the Railways pay dearly and would even destroy with different tactical lawsuits the whole Finnish railway system, if nothing less would make the SR take full responsibility for Rupert’s skull fracture and its possible consequences.
I presumed that Birgitta would calm down in time and her storming holy rage would quieten, and after five months that was it: she phoned me, embarrassed, and told me that she had no more strength any longer to attack the windmills. I said that as far as I was concerned the mills could turn and the trains could move, what had happened could not be undone.
When Rupert woke up he did not recognize Birgitta. He just stared at the walls of his hospital room, ill at ease, twiddled his thumbs and finally asked Birgitta, who was trembling by the bed, if ma’am happened to have any “Chicago” chewing gum with her, please.
“And that damned brand of chewing gum hasn’t even been produced for years!” Birgitta sighed when we sat in the hospital cafeteria and wondered at the turn things had taken.
The doctors had said that Rupert would never remember Birgitta, not really. The part of Rupert’s brain where all the memories of Birgitta had been located had suffered irreparably serious damage.
“As far as I am concerned he is then sort of dead,” the unhappy fiancée stated, and since I could invent no reasonable counter-argument to that, I stuffed my mouth full of the bun I’d bought in the canteen.
Besides the Birgitta-memories the destroyed bit of his brain had stored Rupert’s whole legal learning and some other rather important matters. Rupert did remember me, though. Just after the chewing gum, Rupert had started to ask for his mother. And he remembered the Lola brand of chocolate (although that was also out of production, as we later found out to Rupert’s regret) and Donald Duck and trains and the death of his father and all the nightmares of his childhood. Actually he remembered everything quite excellently—up to his ninth year.
For understandable reasons the engagement lapsed. Rupert returned to the home of his childhood. He had spent altogether six months in the hospital. During the while, the summery land had shrivelled up in the leafless squeeze of winter.
It took time to get used to the creature who wandered in silence around my house from one room to another. He didn’t speak much, just sometimes asked me to bring some sweets from the shop or inquired after his things long since discarded. It was Rupert, and it was not. It was some kind of an anachronistic person: the being had the exterior of the grown-up lawyer-Rupert and the frightened eyes and mind of the child-Rupert already once left behind. It kept watching the courtyard out of the windows nervously cracking its finger joints and sneaking around like a ghost. It brooded over thoughts hidden from me. It was scared of its own image in the mirrors since that had become unfamiliar and strange to it.
I’d have screamed if I’d have had the energy for such behaviour, but I was tired and apathetic and thought I’d never have the strength any more for any dashing enterprises. The air I breathed was thin and stuffy.
“Rupert,” I said finally. “It can’t go on like this for much longer. Something has to happen. Something.”
I didn’t know myself what I was actually trying to say, and certainly I’d been speaking more to myself than to my son, but the anachronistic Rupert looked at me and nodded as if he had known exactly what I meant.
Months passed outside the house. Inside it the time had at first stopped and then gone definitely haywire when the anachronistic Rupert returned home.
I stayed at home with Rupert. I didn’t even see Miriam except a few times in passing: in the supermarket, out in the village, on the road, at the watchmaker’s. Sometimes I doubted whether we had ever known each other, so distant we had become. I didn’t ask her for a visit, and she was intelligent enough not to come without invitation. I simply lacked the energy to talk to people, to explain all the time to myself and to others Rupert’s present appearance and situation and the type of his brain damage; I couldn’t stand people’s empathetic, watery looks; I did not want to see my son through strange pitying eyes that made me only feel miserable and sorry for someone who but a moment ago had been a successful lawyer but now was something else completely.
I have never been a regular guest to the Houndbury parties or otherwise particularly sociable, and now I froze even my scant relations with the local people to a polite level of Seasons’ Greetings. I did not want to look at people’s eyes and realize that nowadays I was “the poor mother of that disabled lawyer” rather than Ms Emma Nightingale. I did not want my son, “that disabled lawyer”, to become one of the established Houndbury oddities. I had to find out something that would help both Rupert and myself to cope with the new situation, I had to find some meaningful solution to it, and I wanted to do that alone, in my own peace.
In the first week of February, Miriam turned up for a surprise visit.
She had dyed her beautiful golden hair profoundly red. She had put on some weight, but a slight roundness became her and made her look more sensuous than ever. My sensuality, however, was waning. My black hair had acquired quite a lot of grey during the last weeks, and some strange unconscious idea had made me keep my hair short after Rupert’s skull fracture. I’d even lost weight, and had by and by started to notice the first real signs of old age in myself (and only now, bitterly, was I able to distinguish them from the earlier signs of maturity).
We hugged, and then we kissed, too, although no longer as lovers but as friends, and I thought I felt the light taste of farewell on her lips. We had a cup of coffee, ate some salt crackers and made some small talk.
Miriam was wondering about the burglary on the Tykebend road construction site; some amount of dynamite had gone missing, and teachers had been told to keep an eye on their pupils in case some of them turned out to have explosives in their desks or bags. I reminded her that it was by no means the first time something like that happened around Houndbury, lately some explosives had been stolen.
We were appalled by today’s immoral little creepy-crawlies. The stolen explosives had either been sold on, or else there was a rather big cache somewhere close by—very soon a part of Houndbury would surely fly off in the four winds, we prophesied (and I at least was secretly pleased with the idea).
I asked whether Miriam was still writing her short stories, and she said she was soon going to send some by mail to the publisher. She inquired politely if perhaps I’d like to take a look at her writings and give my opinion. I declined the honour, I didn’t understand one whit about fiction since I read only factual material.
Suddenly Rupert came out of his room to greet his former teacher. As usual, he wore a white shirt, a waistcoat, a Donald Duck tie and a pair of grey trousers (although he didn’t really feel comfortable in those, as would no nine-year-old boy). At first he sounded thoroughly sensible, even grown-up-like, and Miriam glanced at me with a glad surprised smile: So what’s supposed to be wrong with him? her eyes asked. Then Rupert blew the impression up when he started to ask Miriam about how far behind he was in his math lessons: how many pages had the rest of the class gone ahead while he’d been in the hospital? And could the teacher possibly give him some extra tutoring, for he’d been having difficulties with fractions.
Miriam snatched her handbag, spluttered some bye-byes and rushed out of the house eyes wet, and left the anachronistic Rupert staring after her in wonder.
The night noises of the trains made Rupert fall out of his bed, and quite often he had to be patched up with Band-Aids—a grown-up man falls out of bed much harder than a little boy. He stayed very much inside. That was alright with me, I didn’t want him to go and be mocked and stoned by the neighbourhood kids.
Always on Wednesdays, Rupert went out to the mailbox and came back looking disappointed, and when I finally paid proper notice I realized he was expecting his Donald Duck comics.
I didn’t know whether I was acting wisely, but anyway I subscribed to the comics again for him after a break of twenty years (although the day the comics came out had been changed to Thursdays, which gave Rupert diarrhea). I saw neither grounds nor reason any more to control what he was reading, doing or watching. As far as Rupert’s imagination was considered, he now had to cope with it himself. Not for a second time could I manage to launch a major offensive against fantasy—my war was over, my inner dinosaur was buried under the avalanche of all that had happened and in the pressure, changed to oil muddying my insides.
Sometimes Rupert leafed through books he found on the shelves: encyclopaedias and biographies and a thick anthology of poetry that probably was a present from Miriam. A couple of times I saw in Rupert’s hands that first law book he had learnt by heart; he fingered it uncertainly and then always put it away without opening it.
I don’t know how much my son understood of the books he studied or about what had happened to him. Sometimes he seemed like the intelligent and clever lawyer he had been only a few months before, and then he was again a big confused child who wore Armani suits and five hundred mark ties and could ponder for hours the story of “Square Eggs” he had read in the Duck comics. Those two sides seemed to compete over territory inside him, and mostly he was somewhere in between.
Now and then Rupert drew strange little pictures, which he tore up immediately and burned in the sauna oven. I got the impression that he was trying to draw Birgitta and other things he had lost with the accident, things that now only haunted him as vague dream images.
The old Timex had again found its place on his wrist, although I had to go and buy a new, longer strap for it from the Houndbury Watch – since he could not really believe that the golden Rolex glittering in the chest drawer actually belonged to him.
All that dissolved into a sleepy anticipation-filled dormancy which was held together only by the ticking of the clocks, the repetitive daily routines and my belief that something would happen. Something that would give me the keys to a solution, a way out from the deadlocked dream I couldn’t possibly imagine continuing endlessly the same (as unfounded as such a subjective notion of course was, objectively considered).
March came, with harsh nightly colds. The ribs of the house cracked in the squeeze of coldness, and sometimes just before falling asleep I imagined that the walls were breaking to splinters around me and winter was rushing in and freezing me into a rigid naked statue in my bed. I dreamed of a terrible cold that rolled over me.
Now and then I woke up and did not know who or where I was—I had to sneak around the house and go look at the sleeping Rupert and look over the objects I found for evidence to be able to locate myself back in my own life.
On the last week of the month, on the night between Thursday and Friday at 01:12 in the morning, I woke up to muffled sounds of departure seeping to my ears through the floorboards.
Rupert had slipped out at night before, but each time I had noticed it only afterwards from his wet shoes and the trails left in the snow. Through the clogged ducts of my mind gushed a sudden excitement that quickened even my numb flesh—I yanked a thick housecoat over myself and dashed down the cold stairs.
I threw the front door open. Rupert stood in the courtyard with skis and sticks in his hands and with a rucksack on his back and stared at me. He may have been a little scared for thinking he would be scolded, but at the same time I could sense unusual determination in him—it was just a fact that he was leaving somewhere and I could do absolutely nothing about it.
That was all right by me.
I let the icy black night air fill my lungs and soak into my bloodstream. The sky spreading above us seemed to open directly to the cold halls of space. The stars were skimping on their scant light, but in the middle of them the Moon hunched big and bright and yet grieving for its imagined imperfection: only after a couple of nights would it be perfectly round and beautiful and could really wallow in its own light. The cold made the black-and-white night scene crackle and pop as if it were the plateful of rice crispies in thick cream and sugar that Rupert ate in the mornings.
I shivered in my housecoat and we stared at each other without words, Rupert and I, and then I broke the silence: “Don’t worry, you aren’t going to become mink food.” (I remembered my threat from over twenty years back, and so probably did Rupert, because he looked relieved.)
“Besides, the old Traphollow died in a heart attack last fall when he was hunting rabbits and we have a new policeman, too, whom I wouldn’t try to bribe for his silence. But why don’t you wait a little before you start. This time I’m coming with you if you don’t mind. Who knows: perhaps I’ll be a ferroequinologist, too.”
Rupert seemed to frown thoughtfully under his broad rimmed Stetson but then he nodded. The hems of his grey Burberry were sweeping the ground. He had wrapped a medium length red muffler round his neck and covered his ears with black earmuffs. He didn’t at all look like a brain damaged man who thought like a nine-year old. He looked like a gentleman who was going to take a breath of fresh air after an evening of theatre, then afterwards have a nightcap, read a few lines of Dostoyevsky and withdraw to his bed.
I dressed as quickly as I could, found my skiing shoes, locked the house and fetched my old skis from the woodshed where they had spent the last twenty years. Then we started skiing in the blocked lightlessness of the forest, the son ahead with coat hems flapping and the mother behind, stumbling in her slippery skis and with the unfamiliar sticks.
The hard packed snow led us forward with unreal lightness between the high pine pillars, and time passed. Now and then I peeked at my watch, ticking deeper and deeper into the night. Rupert was faster than I, he positively flew in front of me, but luckily he stopped at times to wait for his clumsier fellow skier.
I quickly lost my sense of direction. That was all right by me: I didn’t actually want to think about where we were going—or why. On the surface, I stuck to the explanation that I was taking care of Rupert, at last thoroughly showing him that his train fantasies were nothing but misguided imagination. I dared not be honest with myself, admit that I was acting purely by intuition. After all, intuition is nothing but a kind of psychological coin flipped in the air. And to manage important business by intuition is just about as sensible as choosing the right road by flipping a coin (as those irrational ducks did in one of Rupert’s favourite stories). But that night I for a moment stepped outside reason, maybe just to see at least a glimpse of what was there; for this one and only time I felt an urgent intuitive need to follow my son on his irrational trip to the core of fantasy.
We partly circled and partly crossed over the massive cliffs of Sheep Hill, where one of the longest railway tunnels of the country ran deep in the bowels of the rock. Somehow we also managed to clear the big abandoned quarry, although we had to carry our skis, to climb over the icy boulders and to watch out for the clefts hidden in the stones’ shadows.
Finally we arrived at a place I had never been before, even though I was a native to the region, and the reason was obvious: there were no ways or paths to reach it. Although I supposed the nearest houses and the whole village actually were only about ten kilometres away, the terrain was extremely difficult, so that the area was well protected from berry pickers, hunters and other accidental hikers. Bog, dense fir thicket, unfriendly rocks, fallen mouldering trees, half collapsed rusty barbed wire fences that a stranger for some strange reason had once set up and then forgotten.
The upper branches of the ancient trees caught the quivering moonlight before it had time to touch the snow-covered ground, and we waded in deep darkness. Nature was really using all possible tricks to make us turn aside from our way. And I would have turned, many, many times, if Rupert’s pale figure hadn’t been skiing in front of me, so single-minded and determined; he knew the way even through the most inaccessible looking thickets. At times he seemed like a mythological spirit who’d been sent to lead me through the Underworld’s hollow hills, and I had to remind myself that he in reality was only the brain damaged former lawyer I knew he was.
We skied down a steep but short hill that brought us out from the forest to the railway. We pushed forward along the moonlit railway bank a couple of kilometres. Then we crossed the rails.
“We have to go through here,” Rupert shouted to me over his shoulder and sped downhill with muffler flapping, into the forest that continued on the other side of the track, even more forbidding and intractable.
I looked at my watch. 03:21. We’d been skiing a couple of hours.
“The blind track is probably somewhere close by, but it’s impossible to find,” Rupert’s voice continued, more subdued. “But when go through here, we’ll get straight to where the hidden blind track leads.”
I followed the Burberry clad and hatted figure into the dark catacombs of the trees.
The dry and extremely dense fir-thicket made progress very cumbersome. When I looked up I could see no sky at all, I only saw the greyish lattice of dead branches that blocked the moonlight to somewhere above the standing trees. The mummified branches entangled themselves in my woolly coat. They wrenched my muffler loose. They scratched my face and reached at my eyes with their sharp thorns. Over and over again I tore myself off from their grip and received down my neck the falling snow and ice and bits of twigs, and then again I followed, covering my face, the unseen swishing skis and the sound of breaking twigs, until the next obstacle stopped my travel.
I was afraid Rupert wouldn’t bother to wait for me but would disappear and leave me wandering around alone in that shambles of trees and snow. I couldn’t anticipate the functioning of my son’s mind at all. In a way he still was to me my own dear little son (whose logic anyhow had never seemed to me any more understandable than Chinese opera), and at times I still saw him as my successful adult lawyer son who was temporarily resting at my house. But after the skull fracture also a new side had emerged in him, a strange combination of the above two—the anachronistic Rupert, a secretive and often melancholic stranger whose doings and not-doings I was completely unable to predict or control.
We trudged in the rustling jam of dead standing trees at least for two or three hours and for maybe ten kilometres. At least it felt like ten kilometres, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been shorter, perhaps only two hundred meters, or perhaps even far longer.
Now and then Rupert flashed ahead of me, a shadow in the shadows, and then after I didn’t see him for some time and thought I’d lost him, but when for the thousandth time I pushed myself, protecting my face, through the firs that had died in each other’s arms, I saw him.
The trees were thinning out a bit and even let some light through; somewhere above, the moon’s pale disk flashed. After a long and breath-taking climb Rupert had stopped to wait for me in the middle of juniper bushes. Leaning on his sticks he was staring ahead with a severe expression.
“It’s there,” he whispered, when I had hurried close to him. “We’ve arrived.”
In front of us there was a valley-like depression, a sort of pool filled with darkness, from the bottom of which snowy trees stretched themselves up to the black edges of the sky. And only a stone’s throw away from where we stood was a blind track. I couldn’t see all of it, but here and there between the trees dim rails were gleaming. The track came from somewhere beyond the forest, from the heart of a similar (or perhaps even worse) tangle of darkness than we had just gone through; it ran on a low bank among the trees until it suddenly ended in the middle of a stand of fir trees, as if it had been cut off with enormous scissors.
I frowned. Rails were not supposed to end like that. Where rails ended there had to be a proper barrier so that trains wouldn’t accidentally drive too far and fall off the rails! The track seemed anyhow to be in quite a wrong place. Perhaps by some office desk a line had been drawn in a wrong place on the map, and when the mistake had finally been discovered the men of the railway construction gang in the forest had simply left the work unfinished and gone off, swearing and laughing and cracking jokes about the wisdom of engineers.
I drew the peculiar smell of railways into my nostrils. Here it felt markedly stronger than anywhere else. “And this place is…”
“The place where the trains turn,” Rupert said quietly. He seemed embarrassed, or perhaps nervous. The cold sculpted crystal clouds out of his breathe and the overlapping shadows of the trees hid his features from the moonlight and my eyes. He took the skis off, stuck the sticks close by in the snow and laid himself down in a prone position.
I followed his example.
“One of them ought to be arriving from out there soon enough. Sometimes you have to wait for a long time, but it’s no use worrying about the course of time here, I’ve noticed. Do you have a watch with you?”
I drew my sleeve up and tried to find some moonlight, but the darkness stubbornly covered the hands of my watch and I couldn’t see them, however closely I kept peeking or turning my hand.
“Where’s your own watch?” I asked then.
Rupert said his own Timex used to stop during ferroequinologist observation trips; he hadn’t bothered to keep it with him any more since that kind of stopping surely would harm the delicate watch machinery over time.
I lifted my own watch to my ear and tried to hear if it was ticking. I heard nothing, but maybe my ears were just frozen. Besides, there was an almost non-existent breath of wind among the trees, and it somehow made the dried-up forest continuously crackle and rustle around us, which hampered my efforts to listen.
Rupert surprised me by asking whether I wanted a half of his chocolate bar. I was going to automatically refuse, but then I realized that I did want chocolate, very much, the first time since my childhood. Rupert took a chocolate bar from his rucksack and passed me one of the bits. Then he wrapped his Burberry closer around himself and settled into a comfortable position like an experienced watcher. And we watched the rails drawn into the wildwood and the rustling trees standing around us, and the white snow packed to keep company with darkness and shadows in the narrow spaces between the trees, and we ate chocolate and we waited.
By and by the waiting started to feel ghostly familiar to me. My tired brain probably played some kind of electrochemical trick, I thought sleepily, and then I yawned long and slowly started to regret taking this whole purposeless nighttime skiing trip—what had I thought, foolish woman, to leave my warm bed on a night like this…
We wanted to look Death in the eyes and laugh at its face, and that’s why we that Saturday met and walked to the railway around five p.m., immediately after we’d come from school and eaten dinner and washed the dishes. When we got to the rails, it started to patter raindrops the size of cranberries. Our dresses got wet and stuck to our skin, and we got cold but we didn’t leave; Death had to be humiliated today, too, Alice said, so we could really feel alive.
We both had some bones to pick with the cosmic saboteur called Death: it had wasted the life off Alice’s mother with tuberculosis when Alice had been only four years old, and from me it had stolen a good dog—a year earlier my gay collie Robbie had run under the train when he was chasing a rabbit. (I’d also lost Uncle Gabe quite recently, but I didn’t care that much about him, for he had been a boisterous drunkard of a man, never did anything really sensible, just boozed and ran around with his pants down and yelled awful obscenities to kids.) We wanted to defy Death, and what would have represented him to us better than the train that thundered non-stop mystically through Houndbury.
First, it had killed my Robbie, rolled over him like some moving meat grinder on the rails. And only a couple of months before Elmer of Pig Pond had walked into a train somewhere around here, because he had lost in the war his ability to see life’s beautiful side (that’s what daddy said anyway), and Elmer was by far not the only Houndbury person who over the years had come to do the same trick, “bitten the train”, as people used to say—during the last year at least six locals had “bitten the train”, and we were not farther than May yet. Considering that, it was understandable that the train nowadays reminded most locals of death—we had no station anyway, and the train didn’t stop at Houndbury, except when somebody jumped in front of it with the purpose of self-destruction, so one couldn’t really think of the train as a vehicle.
We breathed in the peculiar smell wafting about by the rails and waited. (Alice said the smell came from rust and the impregnation stuff used in the sleepers and some third unknown substance). While we waited we sucked the sugar lumps Alice had pinched from home.
The train came every Saturday at 5:15. Today it was late, I checked the time on my fine Russian watch I’d got from daddy as birthday present (he’d found it laying on the ground during war). We heard the train only at 5:23.
“It’s coming,” Alice whispered. We kissed each other on the cheek according to our ritual and took each other’s hands. Alice had a warm hand and enviably slender fingers, she had the talent to become a pianist, said our teacher, and Alice was taking piano lessons once a week from Amalie Forrester.
The train puffed into sight from behind the bend. If you stand on the rails when the train comes, Alice had once said, you’ll be smashed up like a fly under a hammer. You have no chance at all to survive. But at the very same moment you step aside from its path, the train becomes harmless and Death loses his grip on you. You can stand half a meter or even just a few centimetres from the moving train, and the Grim Reaper can’t do anything but grin at you. Then you can laugh at his pale disappointed face!
At first the train looked like a smoking huffing toy, a cleverly constructed miniature model of a goods train. Then it took its place in the perspective and grew in my eyes up to its real dimensions. I looked at the black nosed apparition that was rolling towards us, metallically rumbling; I looked at the rails on which it was travelling and between which we were standing, teetering on the sleeper.
The train meant millions of kilograms of unstoppable weight. If we were to stay on the rails, it would tear us to pieces without even having to slow down. Though the engine driver would brake, the train would never get to stop in time, not before it had wiped the rails with our remains for the length of a couple of kilometres at least.
Usually the thought gave me a bubbling excitement in my stomach, but now I was just cold. I wasn’t feeling well and I kept moving around nervously and aimlessly fiddling with my hair which didn’t look golden like Alice’s but was boringly dark.
The train hooted. Alice laughed aloud, shrilly, but I didn’t feel like laughing, not one hair of a shrew’s whiskers.
“Take us if you can!” Alice whispered sensuously and laughed again. She was sometimes quite scary when she was like that, and maybe that was why I liked her so much; being with her never felt ordinary.
When the engine’s dark presence was only fifty meters away, the train hooted again. Our play probably made the engine driver nervous, and sometimes we saw him shake his fist at us, but as Alice said: What could he have done to us? Jump off the train to punish us?
The green-black engine rushed towards us. Its long bumpers stretched eagerly forward like the hands of a hungry child. The headlight trembling on its hood looked like a Cyclops’ gleaming eye. Steam rasped and swished with terrible pressure in its iron lungs and pipes, and the furiously whipping pistons on its sides forced the steel wheels to revolve faster and faster and faster. The funnel splashed smoke clouds on the sky and they started to spread like black dye dropped into water. There was a number plate on the round end of the metal hood with the series “3159”; I read the numbers over and over and thought how easy it would be to go on reading them, endlessly, and to forget oneself on the rails and just let everything happen to you.
We left the rails and pretended to be calm and unhurried, although my guts were tightening and my body felt cold and heavy.
We stayed on the railway bank, on our old place just by the rails, not too close but close enough to be able to smell the disappointment of Death when the train was rumbling past. We stood there, erect and proud as princesses and waited for the train’s draught to shake our clothes and the noise of its rhythm to deafen our ears, and for the smoke the engine was puffing to surround us for a moment and brush our faces like a cloak of our ancient enemy, cut from a weave of darkness.
Then we’d know that uncle Death had once again lost the game and we had won, and we’d feel ourselves quite especially alive.
The engine screamed. Its voice was hungry, it had something in it that was similar to the crying of the strange, ever-angry baby born to our neighbours when it woke up and started to demand food, mad with rage. I felt the smell of railways in my nose, stronger than ever. The train’s rhythmic noise sort of reached out an invisible arm and seized my heartbeats; for a moment our rhythms were one, and blood started coursing along my veins all too fast—something was now different from earlier times, I’d felt that all the day in my stomach; suddenly I realized that this time the powers we’d been defying had their own plan for us.
I wrenched my eyes off the approaching train and tore my hand off Alice’s and fled in senseless panic.
After the dash of a few heartbeats I slowed down. Embarrassed I looked behind me, and immediately lost the control of my body as totally as if I’d been shot. I forgot the existence of my feet and how to move them, and everything else, and flew on my side into the boulders, but if I happened to hurt myself I didn’t remember how to feel any pain.
The last seconds had been full of sound, I now realized. The very same moment I had spurted to flee there had been a hard metallic slam. It was followed by a long scratching noise, huge as the sky, it sounded like the Father God from religion lessons Himself had thumped his foot down from the clouds and started to furrow a kilometre deep line into the ground.
My insides constricted and turned into a cold mess when I saw the engine throw gravel, dust and stones in the air so that the whole sky was filled up with earth.
The engine numbered 3159 no longer ran on rails. It pawed the embankment and then as in a fit of anger started into quite another direction than the rails tried to persuade it. It drew the whole chain of wagons after itself, over thirty wagons long, yanked it furiously off the rails. The train was now free and mad with exultation. The steam pistons pulled it violently forward like the forearms of a lunatic escaping from an isolation ward. It wanted to conquer the world. Nothing could stop it. The arrogant challenge whispered by a little girl had freed it, and on the engine’s hood Death himself was roaring with laughter in his flowing cloak.
I looked at the train gliding past me as a huge and endlessly long dream monster, darkening the light of the sky and filling all my consciousness.
Had I stood up and taken a couple of steps I could have touched its dark flank, gone along with it. Then I turned my head, now weighing as much as a horse’s, and looked at the little golden haired girl towards whom the train was speeding. Alice stood in front of the metal monster she had freed, slender and vulnerable and angelically beautiful. I gasped for breath: I’d never realized that she was so exceedingly beautiful! She still seemed to be full of laughter, her mouth a black hole and thin hands twirling like the wings of a windmill. Her voice wasn’t audible, the train’s thousand-voiced scream filled the whole world. The girl was visible only for the hundredth of an instant and then the gravel and smoke and the moving black metal mountain swallowed her up.
And the train still kept pushing forward, rebellious and insatiable and hungry. Off the rails its massive speed was unavoidably slowing down, however. Its wagons were colliding into each other, and a chaos ensued that an orderly mind could no way perceive.
The train seemed like a giant dying beast, a dragon fallen on its side and leaking dry. From inside the split engine case thick black smoke was gushing out, it started to bury the wrecked giant and hide it from the eyes of the world. Some wagons had burst like cardboard boxes and the stuff inside them was spread all along the track.
The smoke crept on the ground to me, and when it touched my bare feet I shuddered with loathing—I felt that in its shelter the many-faced emperor Death himself was hiding; with his bony hand he was stroking my living flesh that fascinated him so much. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, it whispered gently among the engine’s hiss, let’s bear no grudge, dear girl, let’s meet again sometime!
And somewhere in the shelter of the smoke Death was pressing against his thin breast the lifeless body of my Alice, my golden-haired slender-fingered little Alice…
whose residual warmth I still felt in my own hand;
whose desk would be empty on Monday morning;
who would then have a moment of silence to commemorate her, and the boy who had secretly been in love with her would burst into tears in the back row;
whose parents would turn grey and shrivel up and bend down in a few weeks and move away from the village without saying good-bye to anybody;
who would never more appear for piano lessons with Amalie Forrester, because her pianist’s hands had been cut off and crushed under the train and would never play even the simplest melody…
I thought of the day when Robbie had chased the rabbit to the rails and run directly in front of the train. I’d never have believed an animal could look so sincerely astonished. I’d collected hairy pieces in a sack for several days from along the track. Even if dogs wouldn’t get to heaven I wanted to give him at least a decent rest in a grave. I walked back and forth along the track from morning to evening and searched the ditches and grassy plots and brooks, but Robbie’s left ear, right hind foot and half of his tail stayed missing. I’d always felt that the train had eaten them.
I pressed my eyes shut and with all my soul’s power sent an appeal to the One who had deemed it justifiable to let the train run over Alice, whoever or whatever it was—perhaps some kind of a Big and Terrible Death Deity of the Railways existed, whom we in our immense ignorance had defied: IF IT’S AT ALL POSSIBLE TO YOU, PLEASE MAKE THIS SOMEHOW UNHAPPENED! I’LL GIVE YOU ANYTHING!
Then I turned my back on the scene and walked home.
I felt confused. I never told anyone, not even my parents, that I’d been a witness to the death of my best friend and to a train accident that was talked about in the newspapers and even on the radio. It felt too unreal for me to talk about it. I never let myself even think about that rainy afternoon. Finally it turned into that hazy dream image that sometimes flutters somewhere on the fringes of my consciousness like a black bird.
It was the memory of that day I felt nearby when Gunnar was inside me moving faster and faster and I held onto his tie and suddenly heard quite close the train’s terrible hungry scream—the memory returned and took the breath from my lungs and the warmth from my blood and the feeling from my nerves. I repelled the shadow of Death, coldly stretching towards me, by clinging to the chance of a new life which in that magic moment was within my reach—I seized it, stole it, refused to surrender it back to Nothingness, which is just the other name of Death.”
—From the unwritten Dream Diary of E.N.
“Now,” Rupert whispered.
I stared into the vertical darkness of trees where the rails emerged.
I heard something, maybe a heavily melancholy metallic sigh that lingered, echoing in the snowy halls of the quiet forest. It was followed by a stretching metallic screech. Then I saw movement, or rather a premonition of movement.
At first it was just a shadow among shadows, the mischievous play of night wind and moonlight among the swaying spruce and snow. But gradually an apparition began to take shape on the clearing’s edge. The rails held up a tall black being which crept forward, hissing, gasping and terrifyingly huge and heavy. Now and then the moonlight touched it, but not for a moment did it give up the shadows it wore. It moved carefully, almost shyly, and nearly stopped, but then it puffed a large smoke cloud out into the frozen air, gave a jolt and started, creaking painfully, to flow off the rails in front of my eyes.
I realized vaguely that Rupert stood up near me.
“What are you planning to do?” I asked him.
I was straining to understand what was happening before my eyes; I kept trying to figure out a plausible explanation to it and to fit it into some rational frame of reference, but the gnawing ache behind my brow didn’t make rationalization any easier.
“You just stay there. And mother: don’t move, under any circumstances! Wait there, keep your head low and hold your ears.”
But he had already gone, rushed down the slope with coat hems flapping, towards the train descending off the rails. I stared after him along the surface of the snow, until he sank into the thick shadows.
Hold your ears.
A series of relays clicked in my head, and suddenly I remembered the dynamite theft Miriam had mentioned; I remembered all the recent cases of disappeared explosives. How much had actually been taken?
…Or else there’s a huge cache of explosives somewhere close by. Very soon a part of Houndbury will surely fly off in the four winds!
“But you can’t possibly blow up a train!” I whispered into the darkness, completely taken aback.
But of course he could do it. He was brain-damaged and more irrational than ever and could do anything, because he no longer acknowledged my authority. And all those unexplained thefts of explosives—I could see with the eyes of my mind how my son had committed burglaries by night and skied here with his loot and gradually charged the whole valley. I couldn’t imagine how much he knew about explosives, surely not much, but probably still enough to achieve a considerable blow-up. Trains had hurt him in so many ways, and now he planned to pay them back, measure for measure.
I rushed after my son through the juniper bushes. All the time I expected the dusk in front of me to flare up in a fire that would strip clothes and skin and flesh off me and fling my burnt-up bones up the slope. Even I couldn’t at this moment discover any rational explanation for why a train would run off rails by night in the middle of a remote forest, but that didn’t make blowing up the train any more reasonable an idea, now did it?
“Rupert, leave the train alone!” I yelled. “We have to talk seriously. Let’s go home and take some chocolate cake out of the freezer and make some cocoa and talk properly! What about it?”
It was darker at the bottom of the valley. I ran among the spruce, juniper and pine towards the rails.
I slowed down when a peculiar lump on the ground caught my eyes. I stooped down to look at it. It was a little snowman. Or not a snowman, a gravestone – there was some engraving on it, too, but I couldn’t figure it out.
I kicked off the snow on its base, and something like a paw came into view.
I straightened up and realized that I had indeed no time to think about such matters. I had to warn the engine driver before Rupert would carry out his obsession and destroy even what little was left of his life. The snow squeaked and thudded under my steps.
“Rupert, Rupert,” I whispered. “Is this now that ‘creative imagination’ of yours?”
A long hiss made me stop.
I listened for a while and then carefully stepped through the spruce twigs hanging in front of me.
About ten or fifteen meters away from me was the train, or rather the shape of a train covered in smoky darkness. It was surrounded by trees and darkness, a lot of darkness. The valley was a real sea of darkness, where everything was made up of different degrees of darkness and the scant light afforded by the moon only managed to confuse the eye with its roguish play. If I could see properly, there was a big black steam engine driving the train that had arrived via the rails, a real museum piece. So black it looked like condensed night, like darkness cast in the shape of an engine. There was a dark line of goods wagons behind it. Those were still left on the rails, but the engine stood in the snow between the spruce trees. Its long black bumpers stretched towards me like the paws of a beast. I only saw completely clearly the plough-like metal contraption in front of it that was probably intended to remove obstacles off the rails; it had snow and twigs heaped on it now.
Perhaps they were founding a kind of steam engine museum out here, I reasoned weakly.
I wished my head wouldn’t ache so furiously; even a slight migraine hampered logical thinking and easily made me do foolish things. (When Rupert was six years old I had, for instance, taken all the laundry out of the washing machine and directly off to the rubbish heap. Rupert had given me an enormous headache by pretending for three days in a row that our house was a space ship landed on Uranus—when I’d tried to open the windows, he had hysterically caught my hands and screamed something about a noxious atmosphere waiting outside.)
“Hello!” I yelled and waved my hand. “Ahoy! You there in the engine! Have you seen my son? Stetson and a long coat. He’s not quite himself just now, and I think you ought to—”
The engine spat thick smoke and howled. Its voice kept whirling around me and my ears rang as if my head had turned into the bell tower of an enormous cathedral. It was too dark to see inside the engine. The train itself seemed to stare at me with its lamp-eyes. It looked curious. If an inanimate machine can somehow look conscious, this one did.
I stared at the big green-black mass of the engine, my head bent back, and tried to ignore my subjective feelings which were getting more irrational all the time. I felt I was being stared back at. Of course it was an engine driver looking at me from the cover of darkness, not the train itself, but the illusion was strong. And in certain hours of the night the human mind is apt to be carried off by subjectivity; perhaps this lack of objectivity has something to do with the phenomenon called biorhythms.
“Hello! You ought to listen to me now, before anything unpleasant happens!”
I took a few steps closer to the train. I wanted to see whether anybody was left in the engine. Perhaps the engine driver had by now noticed that something was going on and had gone off to examine the situation. I looked around myself.
“Rupert! I’m here! Mother’s by the train! Don’t—don’t do anything at all!”
I hoped my son—wherever he was hiding—would have the patience to keep his hands off the explosives as long as he knew I was close by.
Then I stopped, confused.
The train radiated incomprehensible coldness that penetrated all my clothes and burned my skin. I noticed the snow around the train was freezing to steely hardness, I heard the snow crackle as it hardened. The engine puffed and jerked a couple of meters forward, closer to me. The smoke spread everywhere into the darkness and added its own gauzy shade to it. The plough bit the snow. The engine’s hood pushed into the moonlight, the twigs swayed aside and I saw underneath the train’s turned-off lamp a sign with the number series “3159”.
The comprehension emerged from some deep source inside me. What was before me was not exactly—at least not primarily—a train. It looked like a train, and to some extent is surely was a train, but its fundamental essence was one of those marginal things humans are not supposed to know about.
I felt no need to scream in terror or otherwise turn hysterical. That would have been ridiculous. The existence of the apparition rather made me feel embarrassed, as if I had without knocking entered a room where somebody I thought I knew well (in this case, objective reality) was doing something quite strange and private. That apparition of a train was on its own strange business; it was following purposes incomprehensible to me. In the world of reason and logic it was a complete stranger, an uninvited guest, an embarrassing secret. A ghost from another time. Yes: I knew that engine. I knew its number, and I recognized the malicious consciousness it radiated.
I’d seen it escape the rails and kill and then be destroyed itself. And now it was here before me anyhow. Why? Was I looking at the ghost of a train?
“It’s the ‘Little Jumbo’,” a voice sounded somewhere behind me. “They were manufactured in the machine shops of Tampella, Lokomo and Frichs from the year 1927 to the year 1953. What’s the year now?”
With stiff lips I uttered the year I thought correct, eyes frozen fast to the apparition standing before me. It was still staring at me with its lamp-eyes from between the shadowy spruce branches. Curious, hungry. The coldness of the engine flowed into my flesh, it was burning me like fire sculpted of ice, and by and by it seemed to me that if I didn’t leave its circle of influence soon, I was never going to move again.
And that was precisely the train ghost’s intention. It was trying to bewitch and freeze me, to make me wonder about its nature and surrender myself to be its prey. And it was close to succeeding. I knew I should have turned my back to it and left, but I just kept staring at the iron dragon breathing irrationality and at its identification numbers. The sense of touch escaped my flesh, I thought I could hear even my skin crackle while it was freezing.
3159, 3159, 3159…
“That kind has been taken out of service ages ago,” Rupert continued somewhere out of sight. “Over twenty years ago already. Consequently it’s here sometime before it was taken off. And now and then some come here to turn which haven’t even been made yet. That’s why I couldn’t find the picture of one of them in any books. That’s why watches don’t work here: this place is outside the timetables. They wake up on the rails and they break out of their own timetables and find a suitable blind track and come here, where ever or whenever they are.”
“Whatever, Rupert,” I mumbled, lips numb with cold. I didn’t have the energy to try and understand his words. I only knew I was freezing to death. “Listen, are you really going to blow up that train?”
After a moment’s silence Rupert answered: “This place is full of dynamite. It’s by the rails, in the trees, under the snow. I’ve spent several nights making preparations. I have to do it. Even if you are going to be angry.”
“Can’t I stop you in any way? Reason with you? Make you realize how senseless this all is?”
“Well then you’ve obviously got to do what you’ve got to do,” I muttered, relieved—the responsibility was no longer mine. I couldn’t take any more responsibility.
The train blew smoke in the air, and its steam pistons became tense and started to push the wheels where they were fixed; it was preparing to chase me again, to make its kill. To murder me.
I felt somebody gripping my shoulders. Rupert started to walk me away from there, fast. My feet had lost their strength to the cold, but Rupert was strong. The valley reverberated with the train’s hollow panting and the metallic screech of the steam machinery that was pushing it off.
We got as far as the junipers, and Rupert threw himself in the snow and dragged me down with himself. My face thumped against the snow. I was too benumbed to soften my landing.
“Mother, I ignited all the fuses,” my son whispered. “Hands to your ears!”
“We have to talk about this when we get home,” I sighed. “Let’s drink cocoa and really talk with each other for once.”
I thought there was something that I ought to have noticed and understood. Something to do with causes and consequences. If only my head hadn’t been aching so terribly.
With the growing pounding in my head I hardly even heard the explosions that suddenly started to tear apart the valley, the trees and the train that had left its timetable.
We stood there an hour, hand in hand, and waited, Alice and I. Then we sat on the rails and waited yet another hour. The train didn’t come, the track stayed empty. I felt more and more miserable. My stomach was hurting and my head ached. “It’s not coming,” I said. “Let’s leave now.”
Alice angrily plucked a golden lock off her head and pouted. “It’s not showing up, indeed. We have to come back tomorrow.”
We went home, Alice disappointed and I feeling ill but relieved.
In the night I woke up feeling that I could hardly breathe. Twinges of pain were stabbing my temples. My first thought was that Alice was dead. I fancied I remembered how the train had come and swerved off the rails and crushed Alice in front of my horrified eyes. The image was so vivid I started crying in my bed. And yet I also remembered that the train had never come and we had returned home in peace.
In the morning I ran to see Alice; I had to make sure that she really was alive. She set about at once to get us going to the railway tracks, but I refused, even when she pressed me hard and called me a traitor and even a bad friend. She looked at me somehow strangely, and I knew something had changed between us.
We were still friends, of course, and went around together, but day by day our friendship got thinner and we met more and more infrequently—the magic was gone. It was pretty much my fault—I couldn’t relate to Alice naturally anymore, for I remembered her dying that afternoon on the railway, even while I also remembered we’d come back home together. I remembered her funeral, I even remembered the place she was buried, and her gravestone and the golden letters on it, and yet she was sitting next to me in school.”
—From the unwritten Dream Diary of E.N.
That is the night I think I lost my son; I remember the night and the explosions, but after that—nothing. I don’t remember coming home. A few times I’ve tried to return by myself to look for that strange blind track in the forest, but every time I’ve been driven aside from the way and ended somewhere quite different.
I remember Rupert’s birth. I remember him growing and his overactive imagination and the day he graduated from law school. I remember his love and the skull fracture that removed it from his head. I remember our night trip to the place where the trains turn, and that’s where I lost him in the worst way. All that I remember, but I also remember that I never had the child I wished for. My youth was spent in studying, and then I had to further my career. We often talked about children, I and my husband, but we put off the realization of the idea, and when we finally woke up to try, it was already too late.
A few months ago I saw Gunnar on the television. He’d put on a lot of weight. I was startled; somehow I’d imagined he was dead. He spoke dryly about the big export sales his company had made, and I wondered whether he ever thought about the girl he had seduced by the railway tracks three decades since. So often had I wondered what would have happened if at the critical moment I’d prevented him from withdrawing and taken his seed and made him the father of my child. The thought had entered my mind at the time, however irrational and irresponsible it was. If I’d really done that, would the other line of my memories now be objective reality, not only subjective? Would Rupert now be objective reality?
Remembering makes me feel ill, but I can’t help thinking of Rupert. He feels so real, often more real than this real life of mine. I remember how my figure got rounder and I took a taxi to the hospital and gave birth to my son, I remember the pain and the tears and the joy, when I received the little wrinkled human being in my arms. I remember the sour midwife and the hospital ward. And yet I know nothing like that happened to me—on the day Rupert was born I was on a business trip to Moscow, it’s documented. I remember that quite well, too, the small hotel room and the chambermaid I surprised as she was rummaging in my bag.
Perhaps I’m crazy. How many sane persons have two sets of superimposed memories from 40 years’ time? Perhaps all those empty recollections that torment me are only the product of a brain that’s gone completely round the bend? That would be the easiest and also the most believable explanation—without one small problem: I could have invented Rupert, yes. He could very well be just a delusion, flung by an ageing woman suffering from childlessness into her past to soothe her pain. But what about the place where the trains turn? I do not have enough imagination to invent anything like that. I’m a very rational person, who keeps her feet closely and safely in the dust of the earth in all situations. Unlike some others, who used to let their imagination fly irresponsibly like a kite on a stormy Sunday afternoon; such was my lost son Rupert. The place where the trains turn could only have been invented by Rupert himself, and he couldn’t have done that if he himself were nothing more than my invention.
I hunt my memories and study them from all angles, the way a scientist may collect and study extremely important samples. I draw charts of the two different lines of my life, they are sometimes hard to distinguish. And there is a pile of evidence on my desk:
There is a phone number: there’s a lawyer called Birgitta Donner in Helsinki, but she has never heard of Rupert Nightingale.
There is a Christmas card from Alice Holmsten, nowadays Frogge; she tells she’s married and works as a music teacher in a school in Turku. I hadn’t thought of her for years, but sometimes one receives cards from persons already forgotten even when there’s been no particular reason to remember them.
There is a collection of short stories by Miriam Catterton that I bought yesterday from Houndbury Books. I’m not acquainted with Miriam, although I also have other kinds of recollections of her. Most people know her since she’s a teacher, but I don’t have children, and we’ve never even talked with each other. She seemed surprised when I phoned her this morning and introduced myself. I told her I’d read her book and been especially fascinated by one of the stories, the one that tells about a little boy called Robert who loves railways and whose imagination his overly rational mother Anna tries to repress.
This is now quite silly, I explained, but I simply had to call and ask where you got the idea for Robert’s story.
Well, where do ideas come from, generally, Miriam said, sort of embarrassed.
They just are in the air. Ioften have dreams and I use them. For a couple of nights I dreamed about a little boy who loved railways, and it developed out of that, gradually.
I’ve read the story through several times already, trying to decide which truth its existence proves.
There’s also on my desk an article I clipped out from the newspaper 40 years ago and kept unto this day between the encyclopaedia pages. It tells about a whole goods train that vanished without a trace with its freight and engine driver somewhere in the Houndbury region. The authorities investigating the case were puzzled, but according to them it appeared probable that there was an extensive conspiracy of railway personnel behind the train theft—no way otherwise could such a crime be explained. The press clipping also seems to want to tell me something, but I’m not able to figure out how that event could be connected with Rupert’s disappearance, not yet.
I cannot let him pass away out of my reach into final oblivion. I cannot give him back to Nothingness. That is why I continue with my investigations. I have to finally understand, to find him on the eternal circle of cause and consequence. For the sake of my son I go on with this, for his sake I write these thoughts of mine on paper.
“Where the Trains Turn” copyright © 2014 by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Illustration copyright © 2014 by Greg Ruth