Part 2: The Lonely Train / by charles desrochers

            The first light of day set the dust on fire, bathing the tribe in a yellow and green glow while they prepared to set off, moving their tents back to the carts and collecting their well pumps. As it turns out the spot was a good one and the caravan's water reserves were filled to the brim. Jarvin kissed his children and wife before leaving them in their quarters and made his way to the giant, who was loosening his bones for the pull ahead of him.

            “Almost ready, old friend?” asked Jarvin. The giant continued his routine and nodded his head.

            “It was a good night. We won’t be in for many of those in the coming months.” He posited to the colossus, who nodded again. Jarvin stepped up to his perch atop the first cart near waist high to the giant and readied his tools: binoculars, compasses, and gave the signal to push off. The giant picked up the rope, and with a roar from both the being and the metal behind him, the snake set off.

            Hours past and Jarvin could tell the colossus was well rested. They were moving at a pace near double to the day before. It was steady and strong with him noticeably less tiresome. Black still dripped from the giant’s brow but no more than the sweat on Jarvin’s own face in the heat. He was dutiful to look to his tools and mark their location, finding monuments and landmarks in the distance to help him navigate. In the distance, a half day's journey away, lay a series of bricks that were dark and indistinguishable. Jarvin checked it against his map and said nothing of it to the giant until it came closer. The horizon tends to play tricks on the mind and the fact that he could did not mark it on any of his parchments and notes meant nothing until he knew it were more tangible, but the thought of steering his company wrong is always a fear of a chief, though it rarely happened.

            Later that day he found it to not be an illusion of the dust but a reality. It was not a chain of rocks or mounds but another train. As the giant pulled closer Jarvin could make out the metal cages and boxcars, with smoke rising from the front stack. By the end of the day the party reached the train. The engine felt warm to the touch. The pilot’s cart was empty. A half filled teacup sat on the dining table atop white cloth but there was no sign of any life. The air felt used inside his nose. The desert had a distinct lack of smell, like nothing had lived, loved, or slept in it for eons. This train had a smell. Different musk and perfumes filled each compartment as Jarvin made his way to the tail of the living quarter carts but with each one he found there to be nothing at all.

            He stood and stared at the near 20 boxcars. His caravan was only commissioned to carry its load and for the giant to drag these goods as well was too much for Jarvin to ask.  There was no reason for him to concern himself with the contents. It was a pointless exercise and would be a waste but the sun began to set behind train and Jarvin instructed the tribe to make camp for the night. Under no circumstance, he said, were they to enter. They had no need for the engine, it would fail and need repairs the party couldn’t perform without studying the piece first, and he had hoped that by his example there’d be no need to scavenge the abandonment.

            That night the camp wasn’t as jovial as it normally was. The families didn’t unpack their tents and sleeping bags. They intended on sleeping in the carts for the night with fires near the doors for warmth. Word spread through the snake of why the train was abandoned. Some believed food had run out and the party wandered away to forage while others believed there to be a dark presence within its boxcars. Jarvin lay atop the giant’s chest in front of his lead trolly. As it’s lungs ballooned and collapsed with his breath Jarvin looked to the sky to count shooting stars. Not a peep came from his tribe; even the fires seemed to burn with less life than normally. The giant moaned in slumber, resting his weary muscles for the next day. When they were younger the giant would go out into the wild with Jarvin to explore whenever they felt something out in the endless dark around them. He was a brave lad back then, it comforted to know that the giant came from the darkness and made him unafraid to find what else lay in the shadows of this undiscovered lands.

            Tonight he was restless. He’d try to clear his thoughts for the days coming but like lightning the train would flash into his mind. The more he tried to concentrate on their route or his family the more the abandoned train would worm its way until it was all he could think about.

          He found himself standing next to it, running his hand along the cold metal ridges of the box cars. It wasn’t the cold that worried him, it was the lack of life, the death that clouded the entire train that put him on edge. He wandered two cars back and stopped in his tracks. Something he hadn’t felt in a very long time, fear, the fear that comes over a person when they don’t know what lurks before them. The kind that a person feels when they wander the woods and know that somewhere amongst the brush and trees is a pack of wolves biding their time for the kill, but until that point they stay quiet and unseen to their prey.  He tried moving his foot forward but they refused. He wanted to move his hand to the handles of the cart but they stayed frozen by his side.

            Sweat began to run from his brow, over his eye and down his cheek. Once it crossed his lids he couldn’t tell if he was crying with this fear or if it was the sweat that was still running down his face. He hated his paralysis; old age would take his mobility but not yet. He clenched his teeth and flexed his muscles with all of his might but still they wouldn’t budge as if bound to him with straps and buckles, a prisoner. Try all he could but still there was nothing. His limbs refused to listen to what he had to say as his head quivered with struggle.

            With one more effort he willed his feet to shuffle just one step forward but they refused as well until from next to him he heard the lightest of whimpers, a squeal like a pin prick in the air darting off the train and his caravan.  He snapped his head to one side then the other but there was nothing. He turned around to see what was behind him but again there was only the night’s cold air.  The noise had come from him.

            From his camp he could see the giant’s eyes blinking curiously at him. The squeal must have woke him and now he made his way to the abandoned train to see what had frightened his friend so. In just a few of his long strides he made his way to Jarvin and knelt down beside him and stood at him with worried eyes.

            “I’m fine,” said Jarvin, “Just nerves is all. Go back to resting.”

            The giant shook his head.

            “Go now,” Jarvin implored, “We’ve a long day tomorrow and you need your strength far more than I.”

            The giant leered at him with his violet eyes and stood tall, towering over all around him and struck a mighty pose with his fists clenched in the air and arms bulging.

            “Right, right, right,” said Jarvin, “I forgot how strong you are.”

            The giant fell back to eye level with his friend and hardily snorted his nose. Jarvin chuckled. He always knew when Jarvin was feeling melancholic and new exactly how to lighten his mood. All of the day-to-day worries slid away thanks to his friend but he knew there would come a time when the gentle colossus would be gone, either dead or too old. He’d like to think that there would always be a place in his life for him but that may not be the case once the caravan stops running, or even worse, what will happen to his friend if he were to fall first and leave him to the caravan without someone who knew him more than their means of transportation.

            “What do you suppose is in this train?” asked Jarvin.

            The giant’s shoulders shrugged. He sniffed the air with wide eyes until they closed slightly, inquisitive with a sent from further down the old train.

            “Something worrying you over there?” Jarvin asked.

            The giant stood up and walked cautiously to the back of the train until he reached the last box car and bent down with his knees pointing up and hands on the ground. Jarvin made his way to the back but he knew that they shouldn’t be adventuring as if they were children again. Situations tend to have more serious repercussions the older one gets. His father would come to their rescue whenever the giant would become stuck between rocks or Jarvin had twisted his ankle but there was no such help now.  All they had was one another and if both were going into danger then they had both proceed with caution. Once a chief needs to rely on his tribe he ceases to be the leader, the rock for which others to lean on. Theirs was a peaceful tribe but with harsh rules regarding the chief- someone who cannot help himself cannot help the whole.

            Jarvin reached the last boxcar’s door and found the giant to be growling. His eyes were slits pointing sharply to his mouth, vibrating along with his body. Jarvin walked to the handle and stuck out his hand only to have the Giant dart his vicious gaze to him.

            “There’s nothing to worry about,” said Jarvin, “We open it, make sure there’s nothing dangerous and then we can go to bed knowing the caravan is safe.”

            The giant’s eyes rolled back to the door and he leaned forward so that most of his wait were on his hands like a lion readying to pounce. Jarvin grabbed the handle and clenched it tight, looking back to his friend who in turn nodded his head and growled louder.

            With a deep breath and exhale Jarvin pulled on the handle as hard as he could, slamming the door into itself so that the car was as wide open as possible. The giant came to his feet, holding out his massive hands to catch whatever may have been in the cart waiting for them to come. The chief almost didn’t want to look, he was still terrified of what may be inside but his friend gave him the courage to do what he thought was best. The swing to open the door was so mighty that he had turned around, his own poncho flowing in the wind and blocking the view of the open cart until he came back around to see the giant waiting in his readied stance but nothing was emerging from the cart.

            The two waited a moment. In their minds there was to be a great battle between giant, man and beast but the seconds rolled by and nothing. The same empty filled the air as before and nothing, not even dust was coming out of the box car. It was Jarvin who first budged, straightening his knees out and inching to the cart. The giant stayed where he was, close to Jarvin. They peered in but there was nothing.

           It was dark and the night’s moon was too dim to illuminate the dust around them, so he stared into the back of the car, into nothingness, waiting for any semblance of life to justify the feeling that had brought him to look to the train in the first place. But there was still nothing.  He took out his torch and lit it, shining it to the back but found nothing, just an empty cart at the end of an empty train in an empty world. Once he had shined the light into every corner it could reach he was satisfied and believed that his thoughts had indeed gotten the best of him that night. Like when he was younger he had imagined creatures that were impossible, knowing full well that with the exception of his old friend that none such things existed.

            He climbed out of the cart and jumped to the ground.

            “Nothing, friend,” he said, but the giant was still curious. He sniffed the air and leered once again as he slowly inched his head closer  and closer to the cart.

            “Do what you will,” Jarvin said, “but don’t complain when you’re tired and sore tomorrow. I don’t wish to hear it.”

             Jarvin began to walk back to his lead cart, shrugging off the cold that he was suddenly feeling. He pulled his poncho closer to his body and shivered, spitting out clouds of frozen breathes when in the distance a great bark came from the cart, snapping his head around to look at the giant. He could barely make out his outline closing the door and with great steps gallop towards him. With his paw swiping down Jarvin was scooped up and brought to the head of his caravan. The giant moved swiftly, kicking up wind and  dust in their wake while the sharp points of his feet darted over the trams and fires. He placed Jarvin into his post at the lead cart and took the rope to his shoulder. With a great “AARRRGHH” The giant pulled as hard as he could and in less than a moment the snake was moving as briskly as Jarvin had seen it in decades. He turned to look at the other train as it moved further and further away into the distance, expecting to see some great danger but instead he saw nothing, just a dead husk.

            “What are you doing?” Jarvin yelled, “People are trying to sleep!"

            The giant paid no attention to his chief and continued to move feverishly into the night until the sun rose. He threw the rope down and looking past Jarvin moved to his trough, grabbing the hose to pour himself water.

            “Old friend, what has gotten into you?” yelled Jarvin, but there was no response. 

            “I do not know where we are and I will need a moment to get our bearings!The night was dark and I could not see.

            The colossus looked to the chief with stern eyes before going back to the front and again lifting the rope to his shoulder. He stood impatiently waiting for Jarvin to move back to his perch but he refused. The giant’s patience quickly ran thin as he grabbed Jarvin once more and put him atop the perch himself and pulled off. Jarvin knew it was pointless to argue with him at this point so he took out his tools, searching through binoculars measuring time with hourglasses and checking them against his charts and maps until finding where in the vastness of the badlands they were exactly. The giant moved so fast and with no breaks that it took nearly all day to get a general sense of where they were. They had done this trip hundreds of times and were not too far astray, but still off course and towards the windswept fields. They would lose a day to go around or they could push on and be back on track in a half day’s time if Jarvin paid close attention to the monuments and steered them correctly.

            As before, the giant stopped his march when the sun went down. The tribe poured off of the caravan and headed straight to the front to confront the two.

            “Jarvin! What’s the meaning of this day? We hadn’t stopped for rations nor even readied for the day’s travels.” Yelled an old woman.

            “How are we supposed to cook and eat if we cannot build a fire to do so. Would you like us to go hungry?” yelled another man from the back.

            Jarvin looked to the giant, who was so tired that the ground around him was covered in his black sweat and he almost disappeared into it. The giant looked to him and, rather than the stubborn determined eyes of before, were softer yet disturbed ones. He could tell that there wasn’t any fight in him.

            “We wanted to try a new route,” said Jarvin to the huddled crowd, “Just because we’ve made this journey so many times does not mean that we may become complacent with it’s method.”

            A younger man, Canter, the husband of his daughter Mika, came out from the crowd.

            “Well?” he asked, “did we make any time?”

            Jarvin looked to his readings and back to the crowd. “Yes, but we now need to go through the dust storms. The crowd erupted in disapproval but he soon tried to calm them down.

            “A half day at most,” he said, “we will be through and then we may take the rest of the day for food and pleasures. I swear. Now, take to your carts and ready for the night and the next day. We will not stop until we are through the dust.”

            The crowd began to disperse but Canter stayed to speak with Jarvin in private.

            “Jarvin, with respect, was this your plan or his?” he asked.

            “He and I are partners, just as you with my daughter and I with her mother. Our decisions are as one.”

            “Very well.”

            Canter bowed and tended to the family. Jarvin thought of the analogy he had used, 'He to his wife.' 

            Truth was that Jarvin barely spoke to his wife, not for resentment’s sake but the two had their duties with him as Chief and her as the Tribe Mother and the two roles rarely crossed save for the night’s campfires. Jarvin knew one day Canter would be the chief if he wished so he allowed him to enjoy the company of his daughter while the two had time to spare. In the meantime Jarvin went to the giant to see how he was feeling and if he could figure what had startled him.

            The giant stood at the water spout pouring gulps into his mouth and onto his head, washing the black sweat off of his body. Jarvin hadn’t seen him work so hard in a very long time; he worried.

            “That was good timing, friend,” said Jarvin.

            The giant put the spout down and moved to his trough where food had been prepared and dumped for him. The giant took a scoop with his hand and came to sit next to Jarvin, holding out his palm for him to stand on. He lifted Jarvin atop his shoulder and the two stared into the horizon and watched the sun slip slowly into it’s pinks and greens and yellows. The giant ate slowly and Jarvin sat in silence next to his great head.

            “I did not see anything in the trailer,” Jarvin finally said after minutes of silence, “Did you?

            The giant shoveled the last bit of food into his mouth, licked his hands and nodded his head, grumbling in agreement.

            “I searched all over the cart. There was nothing in it, I’m sure of it.”

            The giant turned his head to face him with his eyes rich in purple and expressing a wary heart. Jarvin took his hand and pet what seemed to be the giant’s cheek lovingly.

            “Our time’s coming to a close soon isn’t it?” asked Jarvin. The giant closed his eyes and nodded, “Mhm.”

            “My lord,” said Jarvin, “Where did all of that time go. Weren’t we young once, in the cave, playing games and laughing?”

            The giant turned to face the sun once again as it’s top dipped into the earth and vibrant colors of it’s setting disappeared.

            “I suppose I’ll have to teach Canter to navigate soon,” said Jarvin.

            The giant’s head swung in disagreement to the notion that the boy would be telling him where to go and when to stop. He was gentle and loving but stubborn after all. He wouldn’t listen to such a novice.

            Jarvin laughed, “Just for a little. We need you to help him and then I’ll procure an engine for this tram and the two of us can relax in our old age. I’ll fashion a cart twice your size so that you may finally rest and we can laugh once again like in the old days.”

            The giant slowly closed his eyes and let out a great sight, “Mmmmm.”

            “Yes, that would be great, old friend,” said Jarvin as he leaned his head onto the giant’s.

 

            The morning after saw the two standing at the front of the train upon the great wall of dust and sand in the windswept land that they were about to journey into. Jarvin turned with his oil can and went about greasing the wheels before the harsh trip. The dry dirt crushed under his feet as he made his way down the caravan and checked in with the members of each cart.

            He walked to the third cart and yelled, “Vashti!” to his wife before she poked her sun kissed head out of the porthole, “Are the children ready for the trip?”

            “Aye, they are, dear” she said in return. One by one he hollered and called to the occupants of each tram until finally reaching the last cart. He often felt sorry for the tribesman that found themselves so far back but such was the reality of a train.

            “Ulrich,” he called out, but heard no answer.

            “Ulrich,” he yelled again, “Janda!” and still nothing came from the cart. He finished dropping the thick oil onto the bearings of the wheels and went to door to knock.

            “Ulrich, Janda, we’re about to break off into the dust,” he shouted, “Is your family ready?”

            He stood at the door and heard a rumbling in the cart but no response to his question. He knocked once more and the scuttling stopped. Jarvin didn’t have time for such nonsense as it would take the better part of the day to get through the storm if he were to steer them even slightly off course. He grabbed the handle to the door and began to twist when a commotion came from inside.

            “Ready,” a voice said.

            “We’re pushing off, Ulrich. Is your family not set?” shouted Jarvin through the door.

            “Family set,” the voice said.

            Jarvin didn’t recognize the voice. Ulrich’s was a booming one that echoed joy and hearty tales through the campfire. This was light, ethereal and in a way mischievous.

            “Can I come in?” he asked.

            “No,” said the voice in return, “We are set. Janda sleeps. Please go.”

            Jarvin let go of the handle and took a step back from the camper. He looked through the windows to see if there was motion or not but it was not his place to barge into carts unwanted. He grabbed his oilcan to return to the perch. With every crunchy footstep he took away from the last cart of the train the preasure in his mind eased and he relaxed. Surely Ulrich was sick, he thought. The night’s have been colder and he is prone to his drink. Wind blew past his ears and a metallic thud thundered from behind him. He turned to find where the noise came from but nothing out of the ordinary could be seen, save for the door of the last cart being left open.

            Jarvin swiveled his head and steadied his eyes to see what had come out, if anything but heard and saw nothing. He placed the can onto the floor and took one step back to the cart and with that the door violently shut itself. In an attempt to steady himself, he thought that it must be Ulrich recovering from his drink. On the mornings after he’d drink his duties were later to begin and slower to start so he was willing to give poor Ulrich the benefit of the doubt if that was the case.