On nights when the train wakes him, Ebo lies in bed and imagines all the cars passing in the dark, each loaded with corn and beets, alfalfa and timber, connected one to another across more than a mile of track. He used to be a brakeman for the Northern Pacific, worked the railroad from age 16 to 34, and by the train’s sound he can judge its speed, even count the cars. He lies still and listens. Sometimes a train will take over three minutes to pass.
That train whistle, that angry blare of steam.
His wife, Margret, never wakes when the train is passing. The slightest creak of the house or rustle of covers will cause her to mumble and roll over, eyes fluttering, but at the clatter from the train she never stirs.
Ebo and Margret have a three-month-old son, Wallace, who often begins to whimper at the sound of the train. With his wife locked in sleep, Ebo must climb from bed to comfort the child. He lifts Wallace out of his bassinet and rocks him until the boy’s fists unclench and he lies still and warm in Ebo’s arms.
Wallace is a strange creature. His fleshy limbs and burbling noises captivate and disturb Ebo, who sees little of himself in this miniature person. Can they truly share the same blood? He is fascinated by the weight of the infant’s head, by the tiny perfection of his fingers and toes. Ebo had never held a child until he held his own.
In the softly shuddering house, Ebo carries his son to the dining room, where a window looks north toward the tracks. If there is a moon he can see the dark shape of the train through the trees, 200 yards in the distance, as it lurches westward. He rocks his child and watches and listens. Often he shivers. Even in summer, the night brings a chill to the house. Margret’s father, whose bones now rest in the earth out behind the well, built it sixty years ago. A strong house, western redcedar, a roof that never leaks.
In the minutes when the train is passing, Ebo thinks of his old travels. He remembers the rail yard in Avery, Idaho, when a railroad bull caught a hobo hiding between two boxcars and cracked his skull with a copper pipe. The sound, Ebo thought, as the hobo tumbled down and the train started to roll away, had sounded like an egg dropped on the kitchen floor.
Years earlier, in Bozeman, Montana, he’d been jailed for six days for lodging a pickaxe in an Irishman’s foot during a dispute over a card game. The guards at the jail had slipped him cigarettes and half a bottle of whiskey.
And once, at a lake outside Helena, he’d found a beautiful white shell. When he picked it up he saw that it was alive with ants, devouring whatever creature had made the shell its home and crawling out onto his hands.
These memories seem to be from another life. Now Ebo works at a hardware store a mile and a half from his house. No more five-day stints on the rails. No more leaping from car to car to turn each brake wheel as the train rushed past trees, mountains, rivers, and sky, always changing, always new. Instead, he has a safe job. A sturdy house. A good wife. A son.
Sometimes, on those nights when the train passes and he stands in the dark, cradling Wallace to his chest, his wife asleep in the adjoining room, Ebo is visited by troubling thoughts.
That train whistle, that long hollow wail. Sometimes he can make out words in the blare of sound. “Who is the sleeping woman?” it seems to say. “Who is the child moaning in your arms?” Ebo watches the dark shape of the train through the trees and waits for the whistle to blow again. “Why do you stand there in a house built by another man?” Ebo doesn’t move. He listens.
“Kill them both,” the voice says. “Kill them both, burn the house, and hop aboard. We’ll make Spokane by sunup.”
The train rumbles on, wheels screeching against steel that stretches two thousand miles across the country. Wooden ties over black ballast, each board spiked by a human hand into the earth—into shale, sandstone, even granite. And each train that passes loosens the earth’s hold, until someday every spike will be jarred from the ground and tossed back clattering into the world. And what then?
Ebo stands motionless until the train has passed and the whistle is gone, his son blinking up at him in the moonlight, faint smell of cedars, the house still trembling from the distant metal roar.
In the mornings, Ebo sits at the table and waits for his breakfast. He grunts his thanks when Margret slides a plate in front of him. She holds their son to her breast and watches him. Ebo sits and eats and looks out the window past the trees at the empty tracks.
About the Author: Robert Hinderliter’s fiction has appeared in Fourteen Hills, SmokeLong Quarterly, Night Train, decomP, and other places. He grew up in Kansas and is now an Assistant Professor in the English Literature Department of Chosun University in Gwangju, South Korea.