While The World Is Asleep



This is a story about a traveler who, when faced with an otherwise uneventful journey on a red-eye train, finds opportunity to make the most of a moment given to him.

The train horn whistled, but it did not rise above the sound of the wind howling and the smack of fat rain drops upon the platform. Those who had said their goodbyes remained in the shelter of the terminal while silhouettes blurred like the intentions of strangers hurried across the pavement and into the train. Through the large windows I watched the last of the travelers hop aboard as I sat soaked in the passenger compartment. I paid no mind to the crowd lingering in the terminal: even on a clear day I would not have been searching for a familiar face scanning the row of cars in the hopes of seeing my resigned form one last time, thrown into relief by the light in the aisle behind my seat. My attention drifting beyond the platform I could see the clouds starting to break and the countryside begin to shimmer in the lively darkness of a rain-soaked night. My gaze dropped and settled upon my knees, and I did not wait for the train to chug into motion before I pulled the brim of my hat low down over my eyes and fell asleep, wondering if the sodden atmosphere that hung above the station brightened at all as my melancholy disposition withdrew from the scene and my consciousness faded.

Fields of long grass, copses of trees and low-lying brush were streaming past my window underneath the moonlight, miles of track already behind me when I finally awoke. In the passenger car the train was nearly silent on its track, and the compartment was filled with the sonorous rhythms of deep sleep and gentle snoring. The lack of motion in the seats surrounding my own silently suggested that it was but an early hour of the morning—maybe around three or four. I had been asleep for a healthy stretch, and I had needed it. I stood up in a half crouch to peer around the compartment, and observed it was only half full: everyone had found adequate room to settle in for the journey, and since nodding off nobody had taken the seat next to my own, either. I settled back down and my gaze fell against the back of the seat before me. I rubbed the sleep out of the corners of my eyes. My thoughts wandered to the rum flask I knew was found somewhere in the folds of my coat, but I abstained from searching for it. Instead I had the desire to leave my compartment and breathe in the dewy air of the countryside. It appeared endless beyond my reflection, in the window darkened by the dim light inside the car. Again I stood, and this time I left my bag and coat folded underneath my seat, and tread softly down the aisle of the swaying compartment, entering the vestibule that ensured the other passengers would not be disturbed when I unlatched the outer door. I glanced behind me, and through the window saw no shadows set astir by my passing. I leaned into the door made heavy beset the differing pressure on either of its two sides, and as the wind greeted me with a thundering roar and snatched wildly at my clothing, what I held onto was a hope that I would be able to find a way onto the roof of the train.

The idea was simple, but the means to accomplish the feat not at all obvious. I considered its possibility while the train shot through the field like an arrow through time, wobbling imperceptibly from the height above at which it assumed a steady grace, while a sensation slowly came over me that the train was moving with such speed that it had slowed the passage of night, and that the world around me had frozen; if this were so I now had all the time in this world to claim the present moment as my own, if I so chose. It was then I realized that everybody had fallen asleep so that I could be alone with this moment, and that the journey had been contrived so that I may have the confidence of choice—for I could, just as easily, claim these thoughts ludicrous and surely not my own, and find my way back to my seat to wake up in another town, as if that had been the plan all along. Could I indeed lay hold of this opportunity, and use it as it now seemed fit to do? The choice had been given to me, without reservation nor thought to waste. The moon, in her soft, full glow, seemed to brighten when I noticed her presence, as if desiring to let me know that she would provide surety to my step, just as she had done for so many daring and doubting individuals before who had recognized the moment for what it was—their own—and had chosen to grab onto it, in the realization that they could. The spirit of these adventurous few began to press upon my back, whispering in my ear above the wind stirred up by our hurtling progress through the night, and who was I to deny their presence? I gave into their weight and stepped slightly forward, farther out onto the bridge.

My hand rose to grip the railing as I closed my eyes to the world around me, desiring only to feel the cold steel wrapped in my palm. I breathed deeply, cancelling out all that pulled my attention away from awareness of the train, and the train alone. I acquainted myself with the extent of its lateral motion as it shifted along the track. I picked up on the vibration of its engine, and in my mind's eye I followed these reverberations as they passed from the front car down to the third, where they travelled up my legs, through my arms, and back to the steel of the rail I gripped so tightly. Again I breathed deeply, encouraging a new sensation that was starting to build, that the train was not moving. When I felt ready I opened my eyes, and saw the world fleeting by: I didn't know where it was going, or why it was moving so quickly, but that was none of my concern. Resolve had long since laid claim to the core of my being, pushing fear to the outer extremity of my thought, though it lingered like a jungle cat prowling a fence, looking for a way in. In my mind I reinforced the boundary, and the animal disappeared behind a cement wall.

The climb itself was easy, and as I surmounted the car I stayed low, my belly pressed flat against the roof of the train as if glued. When my feet left their hold I began to kick the air, pulling myself farther forward, little by little; the moments between each forward lunge were slow and tense. Eventually my feet found surface on which to relax, and I breathed out a sigh of relief, closing my eyes and resting my cheek upon the cool exterior of the train—this gentle beast—which had neither bucked nor protested as I climbed onto its back. My arms and legs were spread out on either side of me as I lay, and I listened to the train rumble and steadily gobble up the ties of the track like it was forever hungry for more. Several minutes passed by before I found the strength to lift my head—the wind held me down and made the task even more difficult—and because I was still intimately focused on my body's contact with the train, when I did finally look up I experienced the dizzying sensation that it was indeed the world which was whipping by, disappearing out of sight behind me with a violent whoosh, while I and the train remained still. From my vantage I could see the sunrise beginning to thread along the horizon, far in the distance across the plains, and I watched the bright swell of day on fast forward, as if the train and I were racing toward the dawn, eager to see its full beauty. When it spilled across the fields in pink and gold brilliance its warmth washed over us in waves, and I felt such emotion well up inside of me that tears flowed from my eyes. I slapped the train with my palm, hollering and urging it on with loud whoops.

When I eased myself back down onto the bridge, the wind aided my descent by pushing on my shoulders, as if eager to sweep away all evidence now that the moment was over—for my protection, I fancied. As I entered the train I kept a little piece of that illicit moment hidden within me, tucked away and sheltered from all suspicion. I flattened my hair and took several deep breaths of the still air inside the vestibule before finding my way back to my seat. A few people had woken with the light of the sun in their eye, and the girl across the aisle from my seat had earphones in, and was reading a book on her phone. As I settled in, my thoughts found their way back to the flask in my coat, and my fingers rummaged through the folds. I wanted to share the moment I now held within me, and I decided to reach out across the aisle to offer a drink to the girl: with a gesture I suggested she use the plastic cup beside her, in which she had been served a beverage earlier. She accepted, but looked at me strangely, and I realized it was not at all possible that I had rid myself so easily of this feeling of windswept amazement which still hummed in my limbs: no doubt, relative to her own experience of the past several hours, I looked irreconcilable, guilty of harbouring clandestine knowledge right there where I sat. She did not mention anything, though, but offered me thanks, along with a smile.

“To sunrise.” I said. She laughed.

“And secrets.” she said. Together we raised the drink to our lips.

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