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Ghosts in the Machinery

Posted by christinkeck on June 27, 2013 at 7:35 PM

In the history of transportation, why are there always “ghost” versions of conveyances? Since mankind has used something besides his feet to take him to other places, we have had stories of ghost conveyances; horses, carts, trains, cars, trucks—all have their ghost counterparts, which usually loom out of the darkness to signal something important—death, or perhaps even redemption. It doesn’t seem odd we might imbue humanity with ghostliness—it is humanity’s way of dealing with something that isn’t acceptable sometimes; but why do we also suffuse our transportation with the same personification of the soul? Do we really believe that modes of transportation can “die” and wander the earth seeking justice or resolution? Or are these methods only adjuncts to the human side of death—a way for the dead to get around in the afterlife? Judging from the numbers of stories about ghost transportation, it’s not clear whether conveyances or those who drive them are the ghosts.

      Before mechanical contraptions were used for travel, we used horses—they did our work, they pulled carts, they were ridden by people. We found out early on how sensitive and responsive horses were, how loyal they could be to their owners or riders. It’s easy to see why we would personify them, give them souls that could survive disasters and come back when we needed them or to warn us of danger. They could do this in life, why not in death? A ghost horse, phantom Horse, the riderless horse, the Headless Horseman on his ghost horse, seem almost a natural extension of our own fear of death as expressed in fiction. We loved our horses. So they could not die, not really. Not the very good ones, anyway—or the very bad ones.

      Of course, these stories might be found in greater numbers out West in the US, but many cultures have stories of ghost animals. There are ghost horse stories from Japan, China, Spain, Africa and our own native Americans. A ghost horse, good or evil, is not a severe stretch of the imagination.

      But horses gave way to other conveyances. We have ghost ships, ghost carriages. And one of the most popular versions, the Ghost Train. We even called trains “Iron Horses” for a long time—and still do. What qualities we attributed to ghost horses migrated right on over to locomotives. There are countless tales of ghost trains, some which run silently with no lights, some of which are long and black without markings, the shadows of lost souls in their passenger car windows; some of which are white and scream as they pass a crossing. Unlike horses, however, ghost trains in this country are rarely good omens. More often than not they signal a death is coming. Sometimes this death is the horrible result of stalling one’s car on the tracks at a crossing, or they are taking a person out of this world into the next. Ghost trains have also appeared all over the world, particularly in Japan, where trains are symbolic as well as convenient.

      The Ghost Train offers a unique view of death, justice, redemption and the afterlife, one that is a modern view of an old dilemma for mankind. Ghost Trains take the fear and distress of death, crime and guilt, and serve it with a side of mechanical reality for those who need the extra boost to help them accept the inevitable reality.

      It is a dark, moonless night, and John has been up to no good—he has decided to rob a train scheduled to stop at this Depot, and has placed dynamite on the tracks just around the first curve. People are going to die when he detonates the charge, but too bad. There is always collateral damage when someone is Up To No Good.

      John waits at the depot in the shadows watching its few straggling passengers. There is an older man of past importance but now fallen on hard times, who is traveling to beg forgiveness from a good-hearted daughter and spend Thanksgiving with his grandchildren, whom he has never seen. He carries a package, gifts for the kids, and prays his daughter will not shut the door in his face when he gets there. There is a woman with two small children, running away from an abusive husband; their solemn faces still carry the residuals of bruisings inflicted recently. They have hope in their eyes, and a meager $30, carefully purloined from the household allowance over several weeks, to start their new life with new names in a distant city. There is a young girl, pretty but no longer innocent, trying to find a new life after losing her entire family in a flood. A soldier home from the war, eager to see his girl, an inexpensive ring in a velvet box in his pocket (he doesn’t know it’s worthless glass, and it doesn’t matter.) Last there is a salesman with his sample case, bone-weary of life on the road, but bound to it like a slave to keep his mother and sister out of the poorhouse. Just these few passengers wait in the dimly lighted Depot to board the train. All of them have motives that are sympathetic, noble in many ways. None of them deserve to die. But when the train derails, they will be crushed, or maimed for life. John does not care. He has only one concern: there is a mail bag on the train, just two cars from the passengers, which has quite a lot of money packed below all the letters and packages. And he will have it; if these few have to be eliminated for him to get it, so what?

      He watches from the shadows as they wait to board. While he counts the minutes lost in thought, he is interrupted by an old, Old Man wearing a worn, white suit, who has stepped up to him from somewhere in the depths of the station. John is startled—he hadn’t seen this man waiting with the other passengers and can’t imagine where he has come from; the Old Man’s eyes are deep black, almost all pupil, and they penetrate. The Old Man wants to chat, but John does not want to listen. He must press his detonator at the right time, and that will mean carefully watching and counting the minutes when the train leaves the station. He is alert and nervous. And the Old Man annoys him.

      The Old Man is not deterred, however. He seems intent on telling John a story—a story about the Ghost Train. It comes through this crossing sometimes—it’s black, and silent, except for its peculiar, high-pitched whistle which sounds a lot like a woman crying. It always comes the day before a terrible disaster, and waits at the station for the dead to board, then screams away into the night on phantom track, not to be seen again until the next disaster. It hasn’t been around for a while—not since the bridge collapse of ten years ago when fifteen people died. Before that, it had been only a couple years since it had been seen, the day before a big fire. Before that, the Old Man couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen it, but it had been there every time there were a lot of deaths.

      And the Ghost Train had come in last night. Very late—or rather, early in the wee hours of this morning—just before John had shown up to lay his dynamite on the tracks ahead. Hadn’t John seen it steaming silently on the spur by the depot? Couldn’t he see it right now? It was still there, waiting; a black, misty aura rising from its boiler, an eerie, reddish light glowing from the conductor’s window, all the blinds pulled down and dark, and no markings of any kind! There it was—sitting right there—couldn’t he see it? Didn’t it make him shiver with dread?

      But no, John can’t see it. He will see it, it is inevitable that he will see what awaits him at some point—but not just yet. He is still unredeemable. The Old Man shakes his head in wonder. Why do they never see it? Why can’t they see what is coming for them?

      The answer is because if they did, they might change their ways.

      And that is not going to happen.

      John snaps at the Old Man for telling stupid tales and turns away from him so as not to see the penetrating black eyes any longer. The old white suit seems to shimmer in the darkness as the Old Man totters away, nodding a little as if to say yes, yes—it’s always this way. They never see until it’s too late. John checks his watch impatiently.

      And when John looks up again, there is no trace of the Old Man anywhere. The other passengers seem completely unaware of the conversation they have just had, even though John actually raised his voice at the Old Man once or twice; they have not looked up from their own silent ruminations to take any note of it. And John checks his pocket watch—it’s nearly time for the arriving train to roll in and pick up its load of passengers. He is on high alert now.

      As if cued, a whistle can be heard from far down the tracks. It’s a high, piercing whistle, and it almost sounds like a woman crying. John looks out the depot windows and sees a faint pinpoint of light off in the distance. Soon he will feel the rumble in the soles of his boots as the train brakes to a stop, and he can see the passengers stirring, taking note of the new sounds; they begin to gather their belongings to themselves in preparation.

     The train pulls into the station. It squeals as it stops, the heat from its boiler puffing out around the engine in a huge cloud, which makes the night air shimmer. The woman and her children are the first to board, carrying their cheap cardboard suitcases. Her little girl drops a flower on the platform from the limp bouquet she carries, and her mother helps her up the steep steps to the carriage. The older man is next with his valise and his package under his arm. The young girl, everything she now possesses in a cloth sack tied with a drawstring, salvaged from the mud and debris she had to sift through when the dam broke, holds the rail to step up; the soldier carrying his small rucksack goes next, then the salesman with his sample case and his tired eyes. All board one by one, and find seats in the darkened car. A porter helps them to their places, takes their tickets and assists them with their burdens.

      John does not board. He will allow the train to leave the station, then run as fast as he can down the track a ways to where his detonation plunger is hidden in a group of scrubby bushes, and where his horse is tethered to a tree, and when he sees the train round the first bend, he will push down on the plunger and make the dynamite explode; the tracks around the curve will buckle and warp, and before the train can stop it will slide off of them, twisting in the air, and fall over onto its side into a small ravine, where he will slide down on the loose gravelly soil and pluck the laden mailbag out of the car behind. Then he will scramble back up the side of the embankment to his horse and ride away. No one will find the damaged tracks and the derailed car until morning. No one at the Depot will hear anything, because the Depot is closing now that these last few have boarded, and the ticket agent has already climbed into the caboose with the other employees; he will ride with them to the next stop, where he will go home to his breakfast, and then to bed.

      John smiles. This is working out just as planned. As he watches the last of the passengers find a seat, a faint glimmer of white catches the corner of his eye, and he looks aside—the Old Man he was talking to earlier is standing by the tracks, also waiting to board. Or is he? He is standing by the stairs, surely, but that’s not the same train—is it? This train now looks a bit different—it’s darker, and there is no light on the front, no numbers and letters on the engine. It’s totally black, and makes no sounds at all. No puff of steam. No small ticks as the engine cools. No clicking or clacking noises as the wheels are rolled back and forth to engage the cams; yet, the door is open, and the Old Man in the white suit climbs up the steps to board, and disappears into the blackness of the doorway. The windows of this train are dark, unlit.

      John looks again, but now, all he sees is the Other Train—the Real train—with all passengers seated in window seats, looking ahead, being attended to by the blue-coated porter, who walks slowly to the front of the car. John shakes his head. He hopes the Old Man drops dead on his way home, for trying to scare him with his stupid story about black trains. Obviously, he has given John a powerful suggestion and his mind is just running away with imaginary visions. It only serves to make John more determined in his evil-doing.

      And so he does not wait for the real train to leave the station before running. Instead, he dashes now—jumps across the tracks to the other side, and into the scrub on the siding to get to the detonator sooner, but in the darkness and in his haste he trips and falls, rolling part-way down a small rise before coming to rest against a large rock. He smacks into the rock hard with the shin of his left leg, breaking the bone in two places.

      His scream shatters the night. When he feels his leg with his hand, he brings it back sticky with blood and sharp bits of bone.

      This can’t be happening! How will he get to the detonator? How will he blow up the tracks? How will he get the mail bag, get on his horse to ride away? He is nauseated, shaking, in shock now—and losing blood fast from the compound fracture—with no way to alert the passenger train, which has begun its chugging, whistling journey already, picking up speed as it leaves the station. Even if he could scream loudly enough for the conductor and engineer to hear, the whistle would drown it out—the whistle that sounds a lot like a woman crying—the whistle that seems to be getting louder and louder as the train leaves him further and further behind—how can that be? How can the whistle sound louder? It should be getting fainter, not louder—his brain, despite the pain and shock he feels, is at least able to process that fact.

      And what’s this lump under his back? What is this hard, metal thing pressing into him—in the darkness he gropes around for identification—it feels a lot like a metal bar. He has fallen not onto a rock, as he first thought, but has shattered his leg on the hard iron rail of another railroad track—one that apparently runs parallel to the main line, one he had no idea was there.

      Now he is as confused as he is sick and in pain—the fog of both are making him see things. No, he thinks. This is not possible. There were no double tracks. There was only the one track. There was no Old Man in white suit. There were only those sad, rag-tag passengers boarding in a darkened depot late at night. There is no black train without markings or lights in the windows, and it is not bearing down on him silently and fast, piercing the darkness like a knife, the scream of its whistle so loud he can barely think. This is not happening.

      They find his body around three o’clock the next afternoon lying on the siding just past the front of the Depot, his leg bent beneath him. The skin of his leg is not torn and bloody, only broken and not even very badly—though it appears to have been dislocated below the knee as he tried to crawl up the embankment to get away from something—something that left long streaks and ruts in the soft sandy soil—it almost looks as if he was dragged on a sledge or a wheeled cart had tried to stop before hitting him. Yet, there is no cart, and no sledge. And he was not hit. Or did not appear to be hit. There are no impact injuries, only the broken leg. What is more disturbing is the look on his face—as if he had died suddenly in great fear--a look that displays pure terror. The sheriff and railroad inspector and ticket agent scratch their heads in wonder. How could such a minor injury make a man look like this? They come to a conclusion that he must have died from heart failure when he fell. Perhaps an animal frightened him. Or a snake.

      They shrug and load the body on the stretcher and carry it back up the embankment to the depot, covered with a canvas tarp. They load it onto a coach that has come from town to pick up the disembarking passengers and the load of wire and mechanical debris that was found blocking the track a little ways down the line. It wasn’t clear what this was or why it was there—it appeared to be a broken wooden box, with a plunger like for a dynamite detonation set up—but no dynamite was found, and the wire was too old and rusty to have served as a good conductor anyway. Perhaps this man had been trying to remove that debris so last night’s train wouldn’t hit it and derail.

      The coach-driver shrugs and smiles at his passengers as they climb up onto the buckboard seats to be taken into town: A young girl with a pretty smile and curly black hair and her new diploma in her suitcase; a trim, fresh-faced woman seeking a job as a school teacher. A salesman with a sample case and new-minted hope in his eyes for making his fortune; a soldier who has survived the war and is coming home to marry his sweetheart. And an older man with his two happy grandchildren in tow—coming back from a wonderful holiday on a ranch where the kids rode horses and picked wildflowers and the man and his daughter reminisced about their lives together. It seems like a happy group.

      The driver adjusts his hat—an old, white hat that matches his old, frayed white suit and contrasts with his penetrating black eyes. Maybe he’d tell them a story on their trip into town.

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