October 4, 2016

Fiction by Michael Landsman: "The Great Machine"

Michael Landsman has taught high school English in New York City for most of his career. He is a NYC native and currently lives in the Bronx. 

The Great Machine
    We pushed on. The train had started up again and drove through the pitch darkness for an interminable period and then stopped. Again, as we had done countless times before, we disembarked at a station whose name and location were unknown to us. Again we looked as one body back down the tracks from whence we'd come. The brightness of the station lamps made peering into the dark quite difficult. As our eyes had time to adjust, we could see perhaps fifty yards, no more, by the backwash of the lamps. Then, as we had many times before, as a body we stared into a gloomy void ahead, as if the pressure of our multitude of eyes, and the insistence of our hopes, might penetrate the unknown future.
    We turned our attention to the well-lighted area in front of the small Victorian-style station with its eaves, clay roof tiles, and windows as dark and sightless as a blind man's eyes. No sign hung from the roof edge, or rather, one oblong sign had been hung, but without a name: a mere blank. Some suggested that there might be a true sign behind it. They stared at it a long time and proclaimed the existence of a sign behind the blank one, and that we must endeavor to discover what it said. It would be an unforgivable omission not to prosecute a search. It would be, some suggested, an abandonment of faith not to try. We discussed it. We did nothing.
    Some had remained inside the cars with faces pushed against the windows. Some subset of these now bestirred themselves to the platforms at the ends of the cars, as if they might too disembark. They peered intently. Then, as if aroused by some inaudible signal, everyone began to crowd back into the train and jostle and push each other to get back inside and into a seat. One sensed a sudden urgency, even the slightest hint of ill-concealed panic, as passengers tried to sustain a facade of civilized behavior.
    Some few always got off the train and stayed. Most came back. Others, left at the station by other trains, tried to get on ours if there was room. No one stopped them. Most often there was not enough room. These had to await another opportunity, another train. They stood on the platform open mouthed, stunned, quiet. Some of these would die of hunger and exposure while waiting for something to turn up. Something will turn up they said to themselves.
    Babies were born on the train. People aged, became ill, or died. At a stop, some of us would bear the remains to an unlit area beyond the station for discreet burial. The chronically ill stayed on the train and kept going. Put your faith in the train and its steady going. We all muttered it under our breaths until it became a chant of sorts: put your faith in the train and its going. Put your faith, put your faith, put your faith.
    The train began to chuff slowly away. We peered through the windows into the dark to see the few stragglers who had the strength to get back on but didn't. Why?
It had happened before. One of us would become engrossed by the presence of the station building and the light. For another, perhaps, it was the frequent spells of rain that poured misty drops through the cones of light cast by the platform lamps. The spray of tiny droplets streaked through the light and into the dark again like a shower of tiny meteors. I, myself, narrowly escaped their spell on more than one occasion. Others of these stragglers were transfixed by the black steam locomotive which glistened with moisture, and made its long and labored exhalations of black smoke. We accounted these people mad. Why did they stay? Did they think they would learn something we had not?
    Inside, we froze, as bars of cold shadow and stark light passed over us until all was once again dark. The train flew through the darkened country once more. There were periods of dim, gray twilight as we traveled the days and nights through. During the lighter intervals, we saw the silhouettes of ruins, of distant cities from which smoke billowed. We were safe. Prayers of thanks were voiced.
All tried vainly to make out some feature in the faces of fellow passengers masked by the darkness. In the cold season we sometimes saw the clouds of their breath propelled into the occasional light that flared into the cars. We chanted the mindless prayer together: have faith, have faith in the train. But we did not see each other. The darkness within hid all.
    The longer the train traveled without catastrophic accident, or incident, the more desperate became our faith, the more intense and hushed came the chant. Somehow the train would evade the devastated stations, somehow the engine would remain functional without mechanical failures to abruptly stop it cold. We put our faith in a finite train, built somehow for an infinite journey. It would go on forever, this train. Just put your faith in the train.
    Sometimes rumors would make the rounds. One rumor showed a persistency, and though rarely uttered, it was often thought: there was no engineer. Had anyone seen him? No. When we were stopped, the great locomotive could be seen with the sheen of moisture glistening upon the steel skin, but the cab always remained buried in shadow. The question would never be settled, for to approach the cab had become taboo. Everyone looked away from the vast engine when the rumor was voiced, and prayed silently: have faith, put your faith in the train.
    No one knows how long the train has been going. Some say we make a great circle and come back again and again to the same places. It is difficult to tell. Most agree that they are familiar places, but not the same places. No. Not the same places. Not the same stations.
    Over time, many of us noted the curious circumstance that the entire population had changed. There were always babies and children, men and women, elderly people and they seem in some way, unchanging. Yet not the same. Yes, bit by bit, all has changed. I believe, I too have changed. I am now among the old. I cannot see it. I have no mirror, but it must be.
We leave the dead at the stations and pile them in the shadows. There is no time to bury them anymore nor even memorialize. New ones will grow. Out of sight. That's best. No time for all that, nor for stories or talking.  Forget the past. History no longer matters. We didn't know about events that might be taking place beyond the stations. And it was unseemly to investigate the stories of others. We didn't know the stories of those who had passed on any more. The present was all. The train and its going; rest your mind in that.
    Some whispered amongst themselves about a possible catastrophe that loomed, but never seemed to arrive, as far as anyone remembered. Such conversations, though held in hushed tones, traveled through the train in a gradual way, like a slow moving chill that leaves one ill-disposed to stand or move around. At such times we repeat over and over: put your faith in the great train and its going. It will not fail us. It will always continue on and on. Forget everything else. Don't ask how or why. Forget the looming catastrophe. Pray to the great machine, to the unseen engineers, to the great mechanisms. Pray they never stop, never fail. Don't worry about the others, those that have died, that are ill, that cannot find a place, that are left behind. Don't worry. Bow your head. Open your electronic rush-light. Those of us with a spot on the train matter. The train matters. The great locomotive machine matters. Even more than we, the passengers. Forget the passengers. Faith in the train. In the great mechanism. Pray only for its salvation. Pray for the great machine.
First published in Scarlet Leaf Review
~Michael Landsman

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