For a long time before I left The Wing my mind had been far adrift. It is hard to remember for how long I had felt this way. All I recall now is the serene feeling of absolute seclusion. It was as if I was waiting in some stagnant picture. The past exists and the future exists but I had phased out and so those concepts were without substance or possibility. In the Wing there is only one time and it ignores the clocks. There are clocks but they have no use. Once you have been in The Wing for a while, you find it hard to even recognise what they are supposed to do. They are like radios in a world where nothing is transmitted. Not that that is a particularly good thing but it isn’t necessarily a particularly bad thing either. It just is.
One warm afternoon I idly walked down to the train station and happened to look along the track. To my left there was a vast tapestry of uneven, grassy fields. These fields had obviously been cultivated in the past but they had now grown quite wild due to years of neglect. They stretched all the way over to the bright blue of the horizon, which must have been some distance away. The scene to my right was very similar. The only difference was that, in this direction, my view of the horizon was obstructed by the gentle gradient of a distant wooded hill. The train track itself ran faultlessly straight in both directions. I stood next to the track for some time, absorbing its freedom. I could feel the pleasant breeze emitted from this wilderness. This was a new experience for me because the air inside The Wing is flat. It doesn’t bother to move because it knows that, inside the Wing, it can change nothing. It is time to leave, I thought. I haven’t always been here and it is time to leave. From that day onwards that thought never left me.
With my mind made up, every day I wandered down to the train station. The bench there always waited for me and so I would come and sit patiently upon it. I would then spend a while gazing in either direction and concentrating on rousing a train. There was no timetable but I believed in the train. No matter what time of day it desired to pass, I would eventually meet it. If I come at different times on different days then a train is sure to take pity on me, I thought to myself. There was only one track that passed through this station, which could have accommodated trains going both ways or in either direction. None of this mattered. I knew that I would feel such overwhelming gratitude for any train that might pass that whichever direction it chose would be perfectly fine with me.
Each day brought increasing anticipation. I found myself desiring to stay at the station longer, so that my chances of meeting the train would improve. Perhaps my journey can begin sooner, I thought. I couldn’t stand to stay there though. After a short spell, I always started to feel unwell. Rationality would stab at my skull. There is no train departing from The Wing, I thought. All waiting can do is confirm that fact. It is better to go back to my rest now in the faint hope that I may one-day leave than to stay until nightfall and confirm that I never can.
The desperate pattern continued. Then one day, while I sat by the track, I heard a rustling sound from the track below. I stood up and walked, past the crimson painted safety lines, to the edge of the entrenchment. Over the ridge in front of me was a descent of about four metres to the ground. On the ground was the lonely, discolored track, which was half covered in gravel and besieged by patches of moss. It was undoubtedly aged, but I guessed that it was probably still in working order. I quickly realised that the source of the rustling was a small brown rodent. It was almost certainly a rat. As I tried to make sure of its identity, it peeked upwards from under my protruding shadow. Then, sensing my presence, it hastily scurried out of view. Just a rat, I thought, and I got up and went back to my rest.
This meeting was pivotal, though. That creature had used my shadow to burrow itself into my consciousness. For the next two days my pillow produced nothing but rats. The rats in my dreams were exaggerated beings, jet-black and always gnawing at wires. In my earlier visions, the wires were dense train tracks, which the rats were only capable of making tiny indentations into. But rats are persistent and they refuse to be ignored. Gradually the dreams started to change. As the hours got darker, the tracks transformed into tender veins within damaged flesh. These veins were easily crushed between yellow teeth. The rats would playfully stretch the veins like rubber bands. Then, at the final moment, they would bite down on the tubes and cause grotesque luminous blood to violently burst out. The vessels would split in two. Emptied of the blood, and no longer lit up, the pieces would then swing down and hang lifeless. I couldn’t see anything after this. Released from the imagery I continued to dream in darkness. I was conscious in sleep but with only nothingness to contemplate.
I awoke early on the third morning and sat upright. Clarity flooded into my once frozen mind and my decision became inescapable. Even the rats are mocking me. I have legs. I can walk. Along with these thoughts I gathered everything that I possessed that might be useful for my journey. What this amounted to was a few litres of water as well as some bread, tinned tuna and fruit. It didn’t matter. The things I left behind were fossils without time. This place can’t move and nothing here can be lost, I thought. If I ever want to return, it will wait. I felt composed and focused. The gauntlet set down by the rats had spurred me on. Time had stopped running and it needed a jolt.
Even though my possessions were few I felt no fear. I sensed that if I walked briskly I would find people within two days. I had never met these people, but I could see them in my head and they were kind and sure to take me in. It was also late spring and the weather was warm, it remained mild even at night. Nothing can go wrong, I thought. I know that this was foolish reasoning but, in the back of my mind, I had decided that even though it was a great risk, it was also no risk at all.
I arrived at the station for the final time and chose to follow the train track to the right. After all, I had no desire to go to the horizon; it could only disappoint me. I may never see the other side of The Wing, I thought, and I began to walk beside the track.
The self-doubt began to set in before evening. When I had been walking in the sun’s glare for around six hours, my vision began to blur. I found myself seeing only in shades of amber. The heat had also taken its toll and drenched my back. I stared ahead at the never-ending path as it disappeared into the distance and started to wonder if this train track might be a deception. This could all be a prop to give the hopeless hope. They want my hope. It amuses them. They want me to believe that I may, one day, leave the Wing, I told myself. But they’ll have me here forever. It was a believable idea. After all I had never seen a train come through the station. My thoughts quickened. I could follow this track forever. It could lead to a sudden drop off the end of the world. Worse still, it could actually be an extremely gradual curve, imperceptible to the human eye, which broadens out into a huge circle leading me back to The Wing. And back to my rest. And back to my rats.
I stopped. I have to make a decision, I thought. I closed my eyes and there, within me, was a map. A bullet like straight black line, confident and proud, shot across the entire face of the globe. This black train track had no doubts about its destination and entertained no barriers. Zooming in, and squinting my mind’s-eye I could just about make out a thinner green line moving very slowly next to it. There was green-me, shaky and clumsy, like the handwriting of a six year old. This line was feeble and unsure, clinging to the track for protection.
I have to make a decision. Should I turn away from the track into the world of possibility? Or would it be better to stay here, with my rats and my moss, hugging metal? After three minutes of cyclical reasoning, impulse seized me. I backed away from the track about three metres. Next, I took an emphatic running jump into the track’s deep entrenchment. As I landed, the impact of the fall caused a painful vibration to surge up my legs. I dropped to the floor. There would be no returning to my rest from here. The Wing has gone, I thought. I moved on.
My mood improved once I was confined within the entrenchment. As a result, the pace of my walking picked up noticeably. I relished the fact that I would be forced to follow this one path even if it turned out to lead nowhere or to some miserable place, devoid of meaning. I was also satisfied because if a train came I would surely be killed. The entrenchment was cramped and probably only the width of a train-carriage. The ominous red brick wall rising up on either side of me was over twice my height and climbing it was not a possibility. So, I couldn’t climb out and there was no way to evade. Any old train would kill me. I could feel my death. I could see it vividly. It existed. Yet, it was none of my concern and I was powerless to stop it. If it was to happen, it was to happen. The train-track was now my guardian and I trusted it. It was calm and silent. I felt sure that it must have accumulated great wisdom over the course of its long life. It wouldn’t make any rash decisions.
Two or three hours after nightfall, I realized that I needed to rest. When you are walking inside a train track there is no need to stop just because of darkness. Dusk creates no special problems in terms of safety and there is no need to map a route. Nevertheless fatigue is universal and I hadn’t stopped since daybreak. Reluctantly, I began to consider the best posture to use when sleeping on metallic plates. As I did this, however, I hit upon an unexpected piece of luck. Under the faint light of the moon, I made out a pile of crushed cardboard boxes lingering in my path. There were also the ashen remains of a small communal fire. Discarded around the fire were multiple trampled cigarette butts and three empty vodka bottles. The presence of this refuge told me a few things. I now knew that I was not the first person to travel along this train track on foot. How much time had passed between our pilgrimages was very hard to judge, however. The boxes had dusty surfaces and carried musky odors. They hadn’t been disturbed recently. The most crucial deduction I could make though, was that this track had long since ceased to be a channel for the passage of trains. Its current purpose was more slippery and harder to decipher. At least, though, there were also no human remains. Nobody has died here, I thought.
The walking had made me hungrier than I had anticipated. So I slumped on top of the flattened boxes and ate about half of my supply of bread and all of my tuna. Afterwards, I settled down to sleep. The feeling of the smooth, straight track below me was comforting and I slept dreamlessly. The rats were now far closer to me in the waking world but dreams are not subject to physical laws. Out here, it seemed, the rats could crawl around my body as much as they liked, but they would find no routes that ran into my head.
A movement awoke me just after dawn. I opened my eyes and was surprised to see that a sickly greyhound missing hair on his back had wandered over to me. He was licking the brine out of the empty tuna can and looked up at me as I stirred. This was a solitary dog and he had been solitary for quite some time. He focused on me briefly but didn’t seem to know what to make of me. His eyes were dazed and my existence barely registered. He limped past and then he moved on. We could do nothing for each other. I am still young but every dog that was walking on this earth on the day I was born is dead now, I thought. Then I moved on.
I was surprised at how easily my body seemed to have coped with sleeping rough. Grabbing an apple from my bag, I sprang to my feet and began walking again. I walked for four hours before I was unexpectedly blocked. Suddenly, the track was engulfed by a great expanse of gloomy water. Even more surprisingly than this, there was no tunnel. The track just continued underwater. I considered the implications. Is the train that travels on this track waterproof? Surely that was impossible. The only other idea I could think of was that this lagoon was new. This also seemed unlikely because the metal track in front of me was rusted beyond recognition as a result of the time it had spent in the water. This, in turn, meant that it was improbable that even a mysterious nautical train could stay attached to it. It was lunacy to believe either explanation.
I decided to focus on more immediate concerns. The track ahead seemed to dip suddenly, so that within five metres the entire entrenchment was submerged. This would allow me to easily swim out and over the red brick wall. I strained my eyes to see further but the water was murky and so while I could make out that the track continued to slope down, I couldn’t tell exactly how far before the view dissolved into darkening blue.
When did I last swim? I wondered. I had no answer for myself. It would be impossible to follow the track now. Even a great swimmer wouldn’t get far without diving equipment or gills. I wondered if I should remove my clothes but decided against it. It was a warm day and they already smelt of yesterday’s sweat. I simply took off my old trainers and threw them up onto the ledge. After this, I waded forward a short distance before swimming upwards until I was level with the top of the entrenchment. Gasping for breath, I clambered up onto the ledge to look at my surroundings.
This water turned out to be the bank of a desolate estuary that widened into the sea about five hundred metres to the west. The sea seemed as if it were dead, it was almost completely still. It looked more like mist than water. Escaping from it, the shore was made up of rough patches of grass and thistles that decorated gentle sand dunes. There was still no civilization in sight. Nothing even suggested modern intrusion. All that was left for my mind to latch onto were some oddly shaped animal bones. These were strewn across the emptiness like Paleolithic tools. Sadly though, they had clearly been broken at random by the sea and never passed through the hands of any skilled huntsman. I could see the scene. I knew what my huntsman’s justification had been. Passing by one evening, he’d considered each of them in turn. He’d decided that the selfish sea had spoilt them for him. Then he’d moved on.
I scanned without success for a sign of the reemergence of the train track. If it continued straight it would move onwards into the depths of the sea. So, I reasoned that perhaps this was the point at which it finally turned. I twisted my neck, but I couldn’t see anything on the other side of the estuary or in any other conceivable direction. It might be buried under the sand or it might be destroyed. Maybe it leads below, to some forbidden abyss or netherworld. Whatever its fate, it can’t help me now, I decided. And that was that, and so I moved on.
My feet were beginning to go numb and so I paddled to the coast where my trainers had landed. I knew it would make sense to walk away from the sea using the bank for guidance, until the estuary shrank into a river. There I may well find the forgotten grounds of a settlement. This would be a place that, eons ago, my Paleolithic huntsman had sensibly founded by the river. I could then observe, with a smile, how people had recognized the wisdom of the ancients and returned there in modern times. I could see how they had prospered and created a humble, self-sufficient fishing village. I could go to the town hall where elderly ladies would offer me biscuits and coffee. Inside, there would be a fascinating display of the bones, which my huntsman had chosen to collect. The head of the village, a short man who possessed great charm, would then give me a fascinating tour. He would explain how the huntsman had meticulously fashioned these bones into knifes and spears.
I didn’t do that, though. It was an empty future. The train track had decided that I was ready to make my own choices. I trusted it. It wouldn’t be careless enough to hand me over to this unknown water that had swallowed it so pitilessly. This misty water was no guide.
Is that true though? I wondered. The water and the track could be old friends. Their meeting could have been a cordial moment of intimacy when a sacred torch was passed on. Or, perhaps it was the track that was the rogue. Here it deviously entered the water as some toxic, foreign agent, before mercilessly corrupting its natural essence and murdering the crabs and fish.
No, I decided. My intuition had been correct. The bind had been broken. I turned away from the estuary and backtracked slightly as the sand turned gradually into grass. I surveyed the choices ahead of me. This shall be no man’s path but mine, I thought. I began to zigzag and skip from field to field. I gazed upwards. A magnificent flock of birds formed an arrow and darted overhead in a show of support. There were no clouds in the sky. The world is a bigger place when there are no clouds in the sky, I reminded myself. As I traveled further from the water, the grass became healthier and looked happier. I should have left years ago, I thought. I am one hundred people. I am a brave explorer, revered the world over. I am a reclusive, alcoholic drifter who many believe to be insane. I am the champion of an outcast clan and their most prized fighter. I’m a universally despised gypsy fortuneteller who has predicted the downfall of countless powerful men. I am an enigmatic poet. I am everybody. There is no limit to who I am. I can walk left and I can walk right. My journey along the train track had been composed of dry yellows but I now found myself in lush greens.
Once, long before, I had overheard an old man in the Wing as he read a picture book to the children. It was called “How to Draw a Star.” In this story god was merely a painter. From the day I listened to that man onwards, I had been content and made peace with religion. I imagined some detached deity looking upon the earth objectively as an artwork. He had no empathy or concern for its creatures. That was fine. It was something I could understand. The one thing I could never understand, though, was why god had chosen to draw the things that I could see around me. They lived but were lifeless. On that day, I was suddenly released into the freedom of the fields by the wise train track and in some other realm the train track shook hands with god. I saw the world as it truly was. This was a wonderful picture.
Onwards I traveled, in no particular direction. The air was alive, but it offered no resistance. I picked ripened raspberries from the bushes and squeezed them under my tongue, sucking down the juices. People are no longer happy because they don’t go outside and they don’t exercise, I thought. I carelessly devoured the rest of my stored food. I felt sure that my newfound freedom would save me. Rationality still festered in my skull, however, because I knew that this happiness was bittersweet. I knew this would all come to an end when I reached people.
A few more hours of euphoria passed, but sure enough, people beckoned. Over a hill to the east, a hundred or so tiled roofs huddled together and ripped into the skyline. I had found civilization. This was a modern town. It had only one road going in and only one road coming out. I sighed. My identity would have to be nailed down now. But nailed down where? My mind had lain dormant for so long it was impossible to tell how it might emerge from its slumber. Long ago, when I entered the Wing, I had felt my personality fall out of me and sink back into the mud. It had become meaningless. I could be everybody over the course of one day. Now though, I knew that soon my nature would have to dry again. What type of man am I to be now? I wondered.
If I was to be engulfed into a collective consciousness then I didn’t wish it to be this one. The town was worn down and somber. The tarmacked streets were so grey that the dark metallic drains were welcome. They offered variety for my eyes. People moved with their heads down. So, although I probably looked out of place, nobody glanced at me for long enough to discover this. All eyes averted all eyes. Most of the homes were identical single-floored sheds crammed closely together. Why would god draw this? I thought. The town appeared poor, but as I caught a view inside one of the houses, I was surprised to see functional electricity cables. The cables seemed to be powering a large television. This single-room home had no furniture to speak of. There were only beige blankets, which lay crumpled on the floor. These were vaguely positioned to give the best possible view of the television. It was the shrine and focal point of the room. The people weren’t home. I didn’t know who lived here and I didn’t know if they liked living here. They were out. What are they doing this afternoon? I asked. I had no answer for myself.
I closed my eyes. Countless years before, not far from where I stood, my Paleolithic hunter had wandered into a cave. He had picked up a piece of charcoal and skillfully drawn a horse with eight legs upon the wall. The extra legs were designed as illusions. They gave a sense of the horse’s movement. Now, god had drawn this town but he hadn’t managed any illusions and nothing was moving.
© Copyright 2016 umbungoumbungo. All rights reserved.
Short Story / Fantasy
Short Story / Children Stories
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