Something has been calling me away from all the places that never deserved to be my home. I remember that steady droning wail under the deafening demands of life back home. The voice grew hoarse and faint before I found the courage to follow it and now, I’m sitting in the rear seat of a passenger carriage belonging to some highly renowned railway. The name of the railway eludes me, as does any recollection of my journey here. Gone too is the voice. Now there is only a jolting quiescence, the vengeful refusal of conversation from a lover who lost interest in what they wanted to say long before they stopped begging for an audience. It doesn’t hurt my feelings but it will if I think about it too long, so I take a moment to investigate my surroundings instead.
Rows of green leather seats fill the carriage, each one as wide as the interior, and there is no walkway. Still, the seats are occupied. How could we have gotten to our seats without a walkway? It only makes sense that we were suspended midair while some beautifully synthesized machine assembled the prefabricated pieces of the carriage around us. I imagine the process in my mind for a moment and, yes, it makes perfect sense. Only the door at the head of the carriage challenges my theory; each passenger could have entered through it and climbed over the seats. How silly though, because that door obviously serves as a way for railway employees to bring us refreshments. It has no other purpose. Comfort comes with these revelations and I finally stop worrying about how I came to be in my seat.
It is only partial comfort though, as I begin to suspect that something followed me here. It is possible that I boarded this train to avoid any further pursuit. Briefly, I am made aware of its stalking presence as its form takes shape in my mind, manifesting itself as a large cat, a leopard perhaps, with blue fur. I see through its eyes. It crouches in nearby foliage, watching the door at the head of the carriage. Our thoughts are linked in this moment and the beast understands that it cannot enter the door because it is for the serving of refreshments only.
Gently, the carriage bobs with the departure of the train and three women chirp and giggle excitedly in the seat ahead of me. They are wearing coats that match their luggage, both of which are branded with the logo of an airline that I’m sure I’ve seen but can’t quite recognize. The design of the logo is unstable. Its form is incoherent and begins shifting when I attempt to focus on it. Sunlight strobes into the carriage as we roll beneath the porous canopy of the surrounding jungle. Haunting and familiar scenery pours over me when I lean to look out the window.
Spaghetti, I think as the railways assume the twisting, multi-tiered composition of highways I’ve seen in the past. My carriage is positioned on the higher rails and through clearings in the canopy I see a patchwork of jungle and desert sprawling to the horizon. Below, a thick mist laps at the monolithic stone pillars supporting each railway. Various sub-layers of canopy ripple in the wind, briefly exposing the ramshackle buildings of the city below. The floor of the city is not visible and I’m not sure one even exists – just a bottomless tangle of steel, stone, vines, huts, fog. Long-abandoned carriages litter several defunct rails, mechanical beasts left to lie where they died. There are people here too. Sight of them is sparse, but I sense a bustling population of tourists and merchants pumping through the veins of the dense, verdant heart below. This place, wherever it is, seems like a roundabout journey on a steel track and suddenly I feel trapped in the where I was and where I’m going. The train is nearing the edge of the city. I sink into my seat.
The women sitting ahead of me turn around and ask about my trip. “It’s my second time taking the full trip on the railway,” I tell them. Somehow, I know this to be true. Buried somewhere deep in memory, that past tries to crawl out but I won’t let it coincide with my current journey. Explanations of their sponsored travels ensue. They say they are ‘influencers’ paid by airlines and social media platforms to photograph their travels and boast their exotic lifestyles on the internet. Distributors of envy and unrealistic goals. Scam artists as well, I conclude, when they disclose their scheme of finding mansions or beachfront properties for sale, pretending to be interested buyers, attending the auction events, and sneaking around the property to pose for photos. I’m almost jealous, but such a lifestyle would not suit me because I am too honest or perhaps too cowardly. Pondering which one is closer to the truth seems self-destructive, so I return to looking through the window and their voices fade.
Our conductor’s voice crackles through a speaker, directing our attention to the man in the abandoned carriage two rails over. He is on his knees, grieving over a corpse which he bathes with handfuls of water. The conductor sounds like a tour guide pointing out some scene that we should feel privileged to bear witness. I find his tone to be an offensive juxtaposition to the wrenching solemnity of the funerary ritual, but the other passengers photograph the scene with their phones. Slipping into a panicked rage, my heart begins pulsating until the only sound I hear is my blood desperately trying to kick its way out of my eardrums. Damn them, I think, I want off this train, please, dear gods. In a short moment, the throbbing in my head is quelled by the whining of brakes as the train slows to a halt at a platform hobbling on bamboo stilts alongside the tracks.
Standing on the platform, I watch the train disappear around a bend into the jungle, immediately inaudible once it is out of sight. It is raining now, though I don’t recall when the rain began or how I exited the train and everything around me is draped in silence. Even the rain is mute. Blue fur peaks through the wind-tugged leaves in a nearby tree. Our senses fuse, and I can hear the same distant weeping that the beast hears. I follow the sound, making my way to the abandoned carriage, late for a funeral I was made aware of only moments ago.
Vines and moss have invaded the tracks I walk along but they shy away from my feet as I approach, then gently creep back into place at a safe distance behind me. I am mesmerized by the process. Even small flowers retract their petals completely, only to bloom again once I have passed. I feel somewhat guilty, as though I have caused a great disturbance for the timid flora that makes its home here, and I shamefully turn to witness their rebirth. Hundreds of petals unfurl in spotty sunlight behind me, colors that can’t settle into a conceivable spectrum at first but finally come to rest in hues and tones I can make sense of. I spot the blue leopard standing in the distance, frozen mid-step, following the very path I am walking, yet the plants have stayed fixed in their positions beneath its paws. Vague outlines of vines and flowers seep through its fur and I am now aware that the beast is incorporeal – a shifting presence somewhere between this jungle and my own thoughts. Fixing my gaze on the ghostly being, I begin walking backwards and it follows me once more. It keeps a strict distance and gives no sign of apprehending me. I am confident it would have done so by now if it wished to. I turn back around to discover that I am now standing at the door of the abandoned carriage, a door which holds no purpose now that the carriage has come to rest here. I reach for the handle and take a reassuring glance at the beast which still lags behind at a precise distance. My fingers meet the rusted lever of the door and the weeping from inside falls silent.
Inside the carriage – though not actually the inside of a carriage, but instead a small clearing in a forest – I sit on a stump near the man and the body. I have questions for him, and though the weeping I heard before has ceased, he seems to disregard my presence altogether. He cups water in his hand from a nearby stream and lets it trickle from his fingers onto the body while lightly bathing it with the other hand. Waiting in silence through the stranger’s mourning, I roll a cigarette with unidentifiable herbs and mosses scattered around my feet, though I have no intention of actually smoking it.
“You must wake up,” I hear through a veil of half-sleep, “this part is important.” His accent is foreign to me and he speaks softly with a kind serenity that mimics the hospitality of the forest around us. My eyes open and the mourning stranger is in front of me, leaning down in the dusty strands of daylight, smoking the cigarette I half-consciously rolled. Smoke from the cigarette clings to his body and sinks to his ankles where it gathers and thickens instead of dissipating into the wind. Beside the creek, the body lies on its back with its wrists and ankles bound in freshly harvested vines. We lift the body and step into the creek as I am aware, for the first time on my journey, of my bare feet which now rest on the smooth pebbles of the creek bed. Smoke from the cigarette spreads across the creek’s surface as the stranger steps in and we lower the body into the water. Fully submerged under the wispy layer of smoke, I do not see the body disintegrate but I feel the grainy, chilled water rush between my fingers and over my palms.
“Why was that so important?” I ask with my hands still in the water. The sensation is calming and I swirl my hands under the water as the smoke begins to clear.
“Sometimes a person needs to be taught how to let go of their past,” he says.
“Was that my past?”
“No, that was mine. Sometimes it is comforting to have a little help when you let go,” he says as he smiles at me before stepping out of the creek. “Well,” he says after a long pause and turns his head toward the entrance, “I’ll leave you to it. Good luck.”
Stepping out of the creek, I look toward the entrance, instinctively following the stranger’s line of sight, and see the apparition of my past approaching. As it gets closer, I can sense its fatigue and it can sense my submission. To confront it. To help it disappear.
Once it reaches me, the beast falls at my feet, collapsing into an exhausted heap on the smooth stones of the creek’s shore. I kneel next to it and run my fingers across its half-imaginary fur as I realize that my fearful obsession of it is the only reason it exists. It is forced to follow me around, but only as a thought – an idea. It is powerless to help me in any present moment, and blamed for the imagined shortcomings of my future. At last, I excuse the beast from its presence here and its breathing slows to a stop. I begin weeping with joy, relief, and perhaps a little sadness just as a train full of tourists rolls by, two rails over.