I walk out of the forest. It seems an easy thing to do. I enter a railway switching yard—the one beside the safety compound. It’s submerged in fog, so I can’t see clearly, but I know it must be the right one. Where else could this be? Grey fog and steel rails in the darkness. Nearby, oily gravel rail beds, creosote-soaked railway ties, a discarded railway spike.
In my childhood there was a train derailment near my home, and I remember taking a railway spike as a souvenir. It was an exotic treasure, and I used it as a paperweight. But the one I find here—despite being the same kind—seems like a facsimile, hardly important. Why is that?
There’s a pack of cigarettes in my pocket. I don’t smoke, so I must have got it from 743. Inside the box is a lighter. I sit down on one of the rails and light up. It’s completely silent, and after a few drags I notice the small, crackling sound of the tobacco burning. It’s the scale model sound of a much larger fire. I need to hold the cigarette some distance from my face—unfortunately I didn’t bring my reading glasses—to observe the orange glow pulsing and winding through the burning end. I see it as a small city viewed from very far away at night, as from an airplane. Perhaps that’s what it is. If so, it must be a very hot city. Too hot for humans to survive, if scaled to proportion.
Having given some thought to my cigarette, I notice now that a train is upon me. How did it arrive so unexpectedly? The locomotive’s three headlights are surprisingly bright. Its engine rumbles loudly. Should I run? Where is this train, exactly? All these rails seem to crisscross one another, and I’m not sure from which direction the train will arrive. I can’t tell even if I’m between two different tracks, or two different rails. If I knew I was between two different tracks I would feel safer. There’s no telling where I am, so it’s probably best to stay put, I think.
The train passes, perhaps two lines behind me. Very close, but far enough. I sit and feel the ground rumble. I concentrate on the sound of the wheels, clicking across the segmented rails.
At the same time, I consider a small city at the end of a cigarette.
“Switching Yard” is an excerpt from The Ocean Container, a novel (Ninebark Press, 2017).