This train starts again, starts making its way from the coast and back to the station, where we started before reaching the sea and the cliff-side town wrapped in a grey that refuses to relent even as the sun hits midday somewhere behind the clouds. We slid here, having emerged from the valley and the woods, and met the sea as though our descent would continue across asphalt streets, sand and kelp, and then finally water, this train pulled to the sea, this train now pulling us back up as the sharp turn comes again until the shoreline bends at its eroded elbow and the ocean mottles behind us, the coast disappearing into harder land unchanged by waves and chunks of the earth’s floor exposed at low tides. One whistle pipes before we are isolated; after that, no whistle, because there is nothing and no one to let know that we are on the way or that they or us could block the way. Among here—the motion repeats its verse as this train chugs along. The singsong motion takes us further into the mountains, toward their striated edge again, and cuts its way across a sequence of events that hasn’t gone cold yet, like a ghost asking about its body.
We enter the point where we had been many minutes ago, when we were on our way to the ocean and its waves and where we noticed that the air had changed from effervescent to heavy with salt, the light surrendering to the coast, and we knew then that we were close to the halfway point before we would turn around. And now at this same point, but facing the other way, beyond it, just up ahead, our bodies closest to the open window of our car, we can see them in the distance—the stretch of wildflowers. They will thicken the closer we get, specks of colors filling in, piece by piece, tufting up from the ground until the valley overflows with them; will start wrapping tree trunks, climbing over fences and alongside streams running stronger thanks to mountain snow melting, new contours carved or old courses expanded by winter storms. We will pass them again, those flowers we saw on our way from the station, and when we see them, we will realize how close this train is to stopping, how much farther east it has returned to the station where our other car waits, where life will snap back into a larger and more complicated present.
An urgency arises of what I may have missed the first time through, of seeing what we passed on the way out that will start passing us on the way in, the landscape in spectra reverse, fingers thumping across palm-muted strings as the wheels and the engine sound off. Say them—these flowers that will soon surround the car’s windows. You know them better than I know them; you said them on our way here. Say them while we still have time because the signs of a previous time are coming, the past revisited as the present that will become past as soon as we pass through it, where we had been and will find ourselves again.
Slowly the late afternoon light appears and opens the day as wide as a parting sea that someone could take you through; this train does. The wind has died down. The air is newborn. There are ferns the size of a giant’s hands. The big trees and the evergreen mountain ridges cool the sunlight. The ocean, with its simplicity, reaching it and on our way to it, pulled away so much pressing on us—how we changed above, at, and now back above sea level, the horizon scrubbed free of the ocean, where the stars will be.
Greys dissipating into patchwork greens and a blue sky; the soft ground toughening under the weight of the mountain range; the salt-charged air broken up by redwoods; other trees fanning out, not flattened or worn down into sponges by shore wind; large trunks upright: It is spring, and we can’t be inside or inside ourselves; we said that today seemed like a good day to be rather than to seem.
Ascending a slope, this train moves slower than it moved on the way through here the first time, which makes us accept that we will arrive slower than we want to, that the present can fend off the past for a little more, that the return must end better than the start, until, yes, we come full circle. All these points along the way, moments retelling moments, connecting them like a string through pages: They are still there; we will be, too. Say them.
Once this train hits cruising speed, people aboard move about the cars, and if we move about, the conductor reminds us, step Yellow to yellow, caution line to caution line, minding the gap between cars, ground time rushing under us. When we started, before the ocean, before here, we sat quietly and watched the landscape roll by, watched the red-grey rails ahead of us, the station behind us, and now returning, we want to say hello to everyone who walks past us, maybe because we are on our way back; maybe because the guitarist aboard this train is singing songs of an American spirit that wondered where it had been and where it could fit in; and maybe because this is a way to say that there are seasons in which so many stones are thrown that there is no shelter from them and that there are seasons in which to build a shelter with those same stones while the rest of us in the streets go about unnoticed or ignored, our heads down, not out of fear or ignorance but attending to something that can’t be put into words the first or even the second time—or possibly a lifetime.
Desire has a sound. This train’s clicks and clacks are all that matter for the moment. The heart expands to take in as much as the eyes. We’ve been trying for years to be less planned, to be more surprised by what rises in the garden each spring after opting for throwing seeds here and there—that a new sequence of colors is better because it’s different at first glance and yet we know it’s really the same result in a different light. If you could make a song about this, you would have to include water finding its way to the roots and shoots of small bright things outside windows, including the one where we sit as this train dips before recovering its upward move.
The moment sits upon our tongues—what will be this memory endlessly looping until it hardens like a pearl. We look out the window. Here it was, and now here it is—the first full field that will soon pass. Say them to me, to just the two us, these words, their names, this secret waving between us, no one else to tell, even if we are not alone: kids trying to grasp at so many things floating by; other passengers moving from car to car to get better views or hang out open windows; songs about a country and the many landscapes and the many people within; the scenery passing, time coming around, this train chugging at a speed slower than what the years take away.
Tunnel ahead—the halfway point soon to be reached. Across from us, I can see on the map, hanging near what would have been the coat rack decades ago, the route like black paint dripped across canvas: one square at the station; the other square near the sea. There is no turnaround this way back in; there is only an extension of cutting straight through, of adjusting speed through changes in the terrain, of counterbalance. Everything that was is behind us, and everything that has to be lies ahead. Time here is shortening, and we can still see the colors flanking this train. Say them as though the light on the other side of the tunnel will never reach us, but if it does, saying them would continue not a singular, vague past but two vivid, equally yoked presents that we are now carried in, the land stretching from the forests to the waters and back again.
In order to let go of feeling half-alive, we had to reach a point where we knew that we were no longer waiting, that the previous parts of our lives in which we saw ourselves floating, as though we were trapped in a terminal flooded with anxiety, was neither waiting nor anticipation but was searching for recess. And when we came across the wildflowers the first time, it was as though I found a tendril far away from its parent, and you, saying its name and then the others blooming nearby, pulled all of them, brought them into our midst like a sailor pulling a deep anchor, until the pulling on our end became a pulling from the other end, the source pulling us closer because it was firm in the ground, and once we reached it, I realized how beautiful and rare they were—beautiful, perhaps, because they were rare—and I had no knowledge of them, no words for them. You knew what it was—the names for all of them—and said that they were common in these parts but what made them rare was their space made possible by the winter precipitation that had not been common in years, this coverage we are seeing once again.
This train, it seems, is the only thing on our side—that, for once, these few bright things serve the many. And we are close to entering the tunnel. On the other side—a return to a different time. Say them. It will grow dark and cold, and once we are through, there will be only so many miles left to say something about these things outside our window, these things that are with us now and will be the soft tissue coloring the skeleton of memory. Say them as though we could stay because the things we can say are the things that have taken shape and have become possible because of the limits of who we are.
To not be alone; to be in this world but neither always nor immediately of it; to not be fixed: It has taken a straight line bent into a roundabout, to realize this, to realize that we barely recognize ourselves—that it takes a spring palette and a clean light to see what we are; and to realize that this day is now part of us, inseparable, ours, arriving somehow in the nick of time—just when a twilight was ready to cover so much of what we have or could lose. But tomorrow could be a different lens through which we see: today’s headlines will be waiting for us, the speculations of avalanches growing from the sight of a few fallen rocks. These colors couldn’t be anywhere else but under and around this train. The fields are heavy with pools of paint.
Daylight again: the countdown tumbles as we exit the tunnel. We know there aren’t many spots left. Say them. Scattershot neighborhoods and timber mills: A few in operation to this day flicker pass; the rest are ruins and survive as images filtered and delivered to other parts of the world. No one works at the mills today; there are cars and trucks, but they are quiet. It is Sunday. Wildflowers bloom under the busted window frames, inside the dockyards, and alongside the rusted racks once large enough to hold logs. Emerging from their houses or standing in open doors or sitting in cars at the rail crossing, people wave at us. Children wave. The elderly wave. From our car, we wave on our way in as we waved on our way out. This simple, natural gesture: people waving at each other as they roll by, as though waving is words enough to express one of compassion’s roots; as though waving from far away is best for someone whom you can never know and can never reach.
And it’s not that we want to stop and reverse, although this train has done that. It’s that we want time to fall away in order to come back not in full costume, as it was when it left, but to come back with open hands in which only so much can be held because there would be less to let go. We know that this train can’t keep time or the outside world from us; we know that the world twists and turns with us, stays put regardless of where we are or where we place ourselves within in order to be without, even momentarily. And we know that the return can’t transform us in such a short time—the station at the end and the world that is waiting—and yet we wonder if we will change, what has changed within us or possibly could change after this, even if it is brief and won’t stick unless there is more time. Or maybe there is no change; maybe we return as when we started and this continuity is more important than this pause of time, this get-away from what we know or don’t openly talk about, such as these people waving or the entropy that we carry within us, this bound-to-end, which doesn’t necessitate sadness but should remind us why hope strips away the films deposited on time until what is seen through the other end is neither a light nor a darkness but a place that proves one song wrong: in the end, it’s neither a love you make nor a love you take but a love that is always available and never-ending; that in the end there was more than just you and I.
Sunshine flits through the trees. This train parallels the road that snakes its way from here, through the mountains, and finally reaches the town nestled miles from the Pacific. Several cars and trucks take it; the locals take it at a more confident speed than the tourists. In time—this phrase taking us elsewhere, though we wait in the shadow of the car’s roof. Once we are here, deeper in the valley, it is now complete: the light has all but finished its oceanic shift—fully inland and subject to evergreens and deciduous spaces and the shapes of the town and the people who have stopped waving and return to what they were doing before we passed through—a private past made present, and private, again.
Signs and mileage for the town close in, as do billboards and advertisements for places to eat and rest: historic buildings, franchises, a charming downtown. A camera icon tells us that the next scenic route waits further up the interstate, nearly straight north, the same county enveloping so many small towns that its two gateways are Sequoia sempervirens and waves building and breaking up the coastline until centuries of observations make the changes clear. Streetlights multiply. A red squiggle in the green valley, we are over the final ridge, the scenery the same as it was on this train’s descent toward the water, and we joke that going back down the hill is akin to a classic movie’s black-and-white car fixed in front of a screen rolling out the same black-and-white scenes and the illusion of everyone inside moving while staying put. The last trestle before the station squeaks under the brakes, the wheels, and us. The land has leveled; it cannot drop or rise anymore. Around this train, the small flames of wildflowers remain. Up ahead, all this must end. Say them.
As it blurred everything behind us like salt water in eyes looking for the shore, we jumped ahead of time, and now we have jumped back into time as it reframes us. The world will wrap itself around us once we step off this train. There will be news and new data and rumors and rumors of rumors; the previous day’s story will change; someone on the inside or someone on the outside will add to or subtract from a story running on opinions and promising quick solutions to old expectations. Grey skies may become greyer before a cloudless blue cycles back. And we may not realize this for days—or ever—and if we do, it may be too late in one sense but not a conclusion in another. Seasons will roll on by, and the windows, such as the ones we find ourselves looking out from this train, our heads nearly out the windows like dogs in good weather, will capture them and will be the point where you can feel buoyant when the next week lines up with a new chorus of concerns, which happens more than once in a lifetime and often comes on so robust that it blots out blemishes and beauty marks that distinguish one day from the next. But other moments will arrive with multiple sediments brought in from various points along their journeys: sand, shells, seeds, feathers, bones; tiny particulates uncovered during a walk or on the cusp of waking from a dream with a door opening to an upper room and music therein—a feast with those you know, who know you as intimately as sunshine floating on water, and who want you to see the burning filament that is the horizon every morning and evening.
Soon the station will look like an Old West movie set well past its prime. The tracks have brought us near the mechanics’ pit where shells of iron horses stand. This train can’t keep going. The wildflowers are starting to taper. Something must be said of them because there is no escaping them. Last chance before this train pulls into the station and cuts its engine and we have to return to what we momentarily left behind; last whistle. Say them as we pass and because we can never take them with us—they would fall apart if we did. They are already named, but say them: these purples, yellows, whites, oranges, and greens among us, seen in open spaces and shadows; these things clearing out one quiet section from the rest of the world. Fiddlehead, tickweed, tidy tips, hillside daisy, lupine, poppies, wild mustard. That it took going out and then coming back in to be reminded why.
About the Author: William Auten is the author of the novel Pepper's Ghost, a 2017 Eric Hoffer Book Award finalist for contemporary fiction. Recent work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, Solstice, Superstition Review, and Thoughtful Dog and is forthcoming in Slush Pile Magazine.