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The Train to the Ends of the Earth

 

The train picked up speed as it entered St. Petersburg. It was an old steam engine powered by burning coal, the type that's hardly seen anymore, and its trailing smoke smelled acrid. On the platform of the Finland Station, passengers raised fur-covered heads as the train sped by. They saw only a blur of dark green trimmed with gold. Although they strained to read the name of the train or its destination emblazoned on the side of the cars, they could not decipher the lettering. Later, there was some disagreement as to whether the train's speed had blurred the words, if the letters had been in some unrecognizable alphabet (a professor at the University of St. Petersburg suggested Sanskrit, but an Indian tourist said it could be Khmer), or if the words had morphed from language to language so quickly they could not be read.


The train whistled as it left the station. Eyewitnesses gave various accounts of the exact sound of the whistle—the Station Master (who was subsequently fired for his failure to account for the identity of the train) compared it to the screech of Kazakh hunting eagles, but the Indian tourist described it as the bell his mother rang long ago to summon him to dinner. However, the effects of the sound were identical. Longing awakened in all who heard the whistle. The Station Master, who never wanted to travel beyond his station, burned to jump on the next train and let the tracks take him where they willed. The day the railway terminated him, he reserved a second-class kupe on the night train to Moscow, where he transferred to the Volgograd-Amu Darya line through Ashgabat, Urgench, and Dushanbe. He sent his wife a sole postcard, of the Registan in Samarkand, a postcard that took six months to reach St. Petersburg and was postmarked Ulan Baator. This story was published, along with other tales of the train, in a slim volume titled Neozhidannyi Poezd: Gorodskaia Ckazka, or The Mystery Train: An Urban Legend, by Dmitri Vladimirovitch Sukhanov, a Moscow University anthropologist specializing in folklore.


After Finland Station, the train raced through the dark suburbs of St. Petersburg, past hulking concrete block apartments, birches with patchwork trunks, and brightly painted dachas shuttered for winter. An icy wind off the Gulf of Finland buffeted the cars. The train then, it was said, jumped the tracks and veered toward Lake Ladoga, crossing snow-covered hills. With a great blast of its whistle (in warning or expectation) it sped down the lake's banks and onto the frozen surface. The ice moaned under the weight of the train and huge cracks splintered. But the train did not fall through.


In the middle of Lake Ladoga, a jeep delivering supplies to Valaam Island braked. The jeep's driver, Nikolai Ivanovich, rubbed his eyes. Whenever the ice was thick enough, he drove to the island, and knew that hallucinations could appear in the headlight's reflection and in the whirling snow. He'd seen an entire village squatting on the ice, smoke spiraling out of chimneys, and a sled guarded by soldiers in uniforms from the Great Patriotic War. But the train was like no hallucination he'd seen before. Nikolai Ivanovich smelled the smoke, heard the ice fracture with the sound of breaking bones. That evening, tossing back vodka at a mainland bar, he told the bartender he'd seen a pale face haloed with blonde hair peer through a window. He swore the woman held his gaze, then kissed her fingertips and pressed them against the glass. He left that night to follow the train, seeking her luminous face. Two months later, another truck driver told the bartender that Nikolai Ivanovich had died from drinking bootleg vodka or a car accident, or so he had heard.


In the Transfiguration Monastery of Valaam Island, the train's whistle interrupted morning vespers. The rattling of the train's passage overturned a candelabra with burning candles in front of the Monastery's holy icon of the Lady of Valaamskaya. Father Ioann (who had taken an oath of silence fifteen years ago) ran out of the chapel, threw open the wrought iron gates of the Monastery, a scream stopped in his chest. The train crossed the road and disappeared into a copse of trees. Smoke swirled above the treetops. Before him, the ribbon of the icy road unraveled, offering stories that begged to be learned and told. He bellowed as the wind whipped stinging snow in his face. The leaded glass windows of the chapel quaked. He muttered old folktales his mother had told him of Baba Yaga and her chicken-footed house and disappeared into the snow. Much later, rumors reached the Monastery that Father Ioann traveled far and wide, telling tales to children in marketplaces and public squares.


That night, the train rushed northeast, crossed Lake Onega and the city of Arkhangelsk. The train's whistle interrupted the sleep of the Arkhangelsk residents; they stirred, rolled away from their partners' warm bodies, and their dreams changed to vivid color, to images of forgotten pyramids in steamy jungles, high balconies with cheering crowds below, and roulette wheels stopping at the number betted on. According to reindeer herders in the Kanin Peninsula, the train entered the Barents Sea and headed north. Scientists studying narwhales sighted the train in Franz Josef Land. As they watched the train climb into the green fingers of the aurora borealis, they were overcome by the desire to swim with the mammals they studied. Only one scientist returned to Moscow. He told of his comrades diving into the sea and frolicking with the narwhales. Then they, both men and beasts, vanished into the steel-gray depths.


This is the last of the reports.

 

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LORI SAMBOL BRODY lives in the mountains of Southern California with her husband and two daughters in a house that once was a meat locker. Her short fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from Tin House's Flash Fridays, New Orleans Review, Mojave River Review, WhiskeyPaper, and Atticus Review. She can be found on Twitter at @LoriSambolBrody.


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