I used to live in a house across from a long stretch of railroad track. I could hear it, at night, lying awake in the dark. Freight trains. Not the kind anyone rode. When it was far away, it would be just a wail, almost like the cry of an owl, but longer, airier. Lost. No such phantom when it got close. The thundering, the squeal of metal groaning on the tracks. The whistle in the dark.
The whistles aren’t all the same, did you know that? Each one is different. The pattern of long and short, the number of repetitions. My favorite came less often, its tune a lonely, mournful half step down. Forlorn.
I cannot think of the train without thinking about the chimes. We had a wind chime, just outside my window. A big one, with a rich coppery voice. That was how I fell asleep every night in that house. Listening to the wind song and the tree frogs in the spring and the trains.
You could see the tracks, if you were looking for them. Fifteen minutes from the house, the road crossed them in a bridge, so you could look down on the cars full of coal rushing past underneath your feet. Then it bent so we followed it again, just visible darting through the oak trees.
Somewhere it disappeared, so I never knew how far it went.
Sometimes coming home, it would be ahead of us. And we were faster, and would chase and catch up to it, until we turned into our drive, and then the train would be going on, still thundering.
I have never ridden inside one.
Whenever I was downtown, and I happened to cross an empty track, I’d look where I placed my feet. On the hot, rusted-red metal? On the soft, sturdy tie? No trains came there. Not often. Not anymore. But I felt them. I felt the rush of wind they made when they passed. I heard the roar and the screech, wondered where they were going. It was like the furtive energy in the air before a lightning-storm comes rolling in. You can feel it, feel it there. You can feel the pulse inside your head, pulling at you to run, wherever it’s going, to howl like a wolf, to soar.
And then I had crossed over, gone on my way, while the rails lay behind me, shimmering in heat and sun.
Where do they go, the trains that no one rides? What have they seen, leafy trees hiding them from sight? They are like living ghosts, or wood nymphs of the cities, things that belong to other places, other times. They have their own sort of mystery, their own kind of beauty, the great, heavy, metal beasts. If they could speak, what stories would they tell me? Would they say a word? Or would they keep their secrets, under the iron skin?
Is it the whisper of unknown places, of danger and scrapes and unpredictable adventures that is their own kind of magic?
One of my peculiar thank-yous to Tryep’s Possibly Mythical Stories for a post I happened upon telling his own stories of trains.
Sometimes you don’t remember what you’ve forgotten to miss.