Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Graveyard Shift

On one of my last nights in the Railway Regions, I met the night watchman at the Train station in Metaxela. He walked all night, up and down the platform, around the empty ticket booths, stopping occasionally to stare off down the line of the empty tracks. His eyes were the pale green of frost on new leaves. They seemed to be looking at something beyond what I could see.

I was waiting for the Train, as I often do on warm nights in the Railway Regions. Most Train platforms are comfortable places. Passengers can sit and doze while they wait for the Train, which might arrive in minutes or in weeks. There was no one else on the platform in Metaxela that night. The watchman walked up and down, back and forth, and kept stopping to look - as far as I could see - at nothing in particular. After a while, I asked him what he was looking for.

He told me.

"I have seen the lights in the shadows, yellow and red and copper-green, the ones that are eyes and the ones that are fireflies and the ones that are both at once.

"I have seen the fire-dancers that make their way along the tracks, delighting in the freedom of a dance floor that does not end and will not burn beneath their feet.

"I have seen the clouds that will not cross the moons. They change their courses, going against the wind, to keep from brushing against the white faces.

"I have heard the echoes that come before the sounds.

"I have heard the trees whispering to each other at night. Most think it is only the wind, but even on the stillest nights, I have heard them whispering. Their words are soft and unhurried. I do not understand their language.

"I have seen mist-wolves chasing the rats of smoke that spring from the Train's smokestack.

"I have seen bats and owls and night-wyrms, and the winged night flyers that have no names but the ones they give themselves.

"I have seen the shadows of mammoths walking silently through the trees. The moonlight illuminates only their outlines, and not a twig snaps beneath their great dark feet.

"I have heard the song the Train sings to itself, a song of fire and iron and speed, and of the freedom in the single path it follows.

"I have heard the ramblings of beggars and madmen who think themselves alone or do not care who hears. Some speak in nonsense, some speak in riddles, and some speak of their own strange philosophies. One speaks only in rhyme. A few speak prophecies that no one but they and I will ever hear.

"I have watched the rise and fall of a dozen snowfly empires, built in a month and destroyed at the first thaw. I have seen their crusades against the Train. They believe it to be a great Dragon, the terror of their existence, a beast with enough heat to melt them and all their crystal palaces. Their spears and arrows melt before they ever touch the iron.

"I have seen moths with the names of stars written on their wings.

"I have seen flowers growing from steel.

"I have seen the troglodytes who live in the city's sewers. They come out at night to look at the stars. They put coins and rings and old medallions on the tracks, all the small metal things lost down the drains of the city, to be flattened by the Train they have never seen in daylight. They wear the pounded metal on their clothes and around their necks. Sometimes, when I walk past a drain in the street, I hear the jingling of their jewelry far below the ground.

"I have heard icicles in the Spring as their hearts break and they weep themselves away to nothing.

"I have seen people who wear masks to hide the faces that are masks over their true faces. Their eyes are black or gold or as multicolored as an opal.

"I have seen the man who walks with feet of brass and the woman who hides giant snakes beneath her overcoat.

"I have learned to read the patterns in frost and smoke and the stones scattered by careless shoes. They tell me the events of the future, or perhaps the past, but not to whom they happen. In this station, someone will find a suitcase with a lock but no keyhole. A child will be born in the ticket booth on a freezing day in December. A cocoon will hang from the doorknob of the station, untouched and unharmed by any of the thousand hands that turn the knob, until it hatches into a butterfly the color of sunrise over the ocean, on a morning when there is no one to see it but a small child waiting for her parents to meet her on the platform. A woman will find her name written in beautiful calligraphy in the snow. A man will look in the station's lost and found and find what he did not realize he had lost. Two lovers will meet each other when both look up to listen to the song of the same bird, and they will travel to distant lands where the sun never sets and the trees are made of black glass, and their children will be poets and gardeners, and they will live to be a hundred and eight and die on the same morning as they watch the sun rise over mountains of rose-colored stone. Or perhaps all these things have already happened. The frost and the smoke and the pebbles give me every detail but the names.

"I am the night watchman, and I watch. This is what I have seen. This is what I have heard."

The morning watchwoman arrived then, half an hour before the sun. The night watchman put on his coat, nodded to her, and walked away without another word. I caught the train at sunrise and haven't seen him since.

People seem to be willing to talk to me about anything at all. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I'm willing to listen to anything at all.

You never know what you might hear.

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