As long as Hyushik could remember, the old steam engine had stood opposite his uncle’s house. It was visible from anywhere in the living room; all you had to do was look out of the window.
Hryushik visited his uncle every summer, because that was when his mother stopped trying to pretend that she could stand him, and took off somewhere or other after dumping him at his uncle’s. Hryushik didn’t mind all that much. He didn’t like his mother any more than she liked him, and his uncle’s house was fun.
For one thing, it was quite far out of town, and you could see stoats and other small animals scurry across the overgrown garden in the early morning or evening. For another, his uncle had worked all his life for the railways, and the house was near the old, abandoned little station where no trains ever stopped any longer. And the steam engine was there.
It was a very large old engine, with a huge black boiler and a chimney stack which still bore a band in faded yellow. It stood on a short section of track which was closed off at both ends with mounds of wood and earth, the rails sinking into the ground and weeds growing over the bottoms of the wheels. It wasn’t all by itself; there was a small freight wagon, little more than a rust-red box on wheels, on the track behind it, coupled to the engine with hooks and fraying hoses. Hryushik didn’t really care much about the wagon, since all it had inside was what looked like decades of accumulated trash and dust. He was only interested in the engine.
Hryushik had always been fascinated by trains, ever since he’d been just old enough to know what one was. He’d loved to watch the old movies on television, where the chuffing iron monsters pulled out of stations trailing dense clouds of smoke and steam. And though his mother had said that the old steam engines were noisy, dirty and sent cinders back down the train to burn holes in your new clothes, he’d been fascinated by them most of all. He’d been bitterly disappointed when he’d discovered that they had all been retired, and the only trains these days were pulled by what looked like shoeboxes on wheels without any character whatsoever. So he thrilled through and through when he saw this real engine at last. That it was a dead, cold husk meant nothing at all.
Fortunately, Hryushik’s uncle, Utkonos, didn’t really care what his nephew got up to, and left him to himself. “Just don’t go cutting yourself open on rusted cans or something,” he’d warned the boy once, long ago, and that was all. Hryushik had mostly obeyed, and the few scrapes he’d acquired had never been bad enough that he’d needed to go to anyone for bandaging.
Utkonos wasn’t a bad man, but he had other things on his mind than his sister and her tendency to dump her kid on him every year. He was a widower, so he didn’t have a family to worry about, and could afford to concentrate on his job. When during the summer the boy was with him, he’d give him a packed lunch before leaving for work in the morning and trust that he’d find him in one piece on returning in the evening. And, unlikely as it seemed, that was how it happened always.
The reason for this was, of course, that Hryushik didn’t go roaming all over the countryside; he always went straight to the old platform, and to the old steam engine. Earlier, he’d been too small to climb up the iron steps into the cab of the engine, but last year he’d become tall enough. And the very first day of his stay with his uncle, he’d rushed off to climb into the engine.
And it was so fascinating! Even the very first time Hryushik peeked into the cabin, still holding on to the handrail alongside the steps, he knew that this was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen. All those pipes and levers and gauges, and the wheels just asking to be turned round and round; that large, squared hole in the middle, with a metal lid hanging half open! Those curved oval windows to left and right, so much more interesting than the windscreen of his mother’s car, stained by bird droppings as they were! And there were the two seats, one on each side, the upholstery torn and the stuffing spilling out, but still grander than a throne to Hryushik. When he pulled himself on the left hand side one, he could imagine himself leaning out of the window, like the engine drivers in the pictures he’d seen, watching the track as the train he was pulling roared round a bend. The glass tubes in their holders were broken and the faces of the dials cracked, and the big levers, when he tried to move them, were stuck fast in place with dirt and rust; but to him they were all his to do with as he wanted, and he was driving the train off to the journey of his life.
That night he went to his uncle’s little library, and after poking around he found a book on steam engines. It wasn’t a children’s book, so he didn’t understand much, but there were plenty of pictures of various types of engines, and once he found the sort that looked like the one at the station, he spent his time avidly looking at all the pictures of its parts, and the cabin, and he read what he could understand of which was what lever and gauge, and what it was supposed to do.
It was the next day when he was sitting in the engine’s cab that it first happened. He’d leaned as far out of the window as he could, his right hand on what he’d read was the regulator lever, and his mind’s eye was filled with smoke blowing overhead and scenery rushing past. When a voice said, “Slow down!”, he, therefore, took a moment to understand that it wasn’t something he’d just imagined. A voice had actually spoken to him.
“It’s been a long time I’ve been waiting for you,” it said.
Hryushik turned so fast that he almost fell off the seat. There was a man standing beside him; a man in dark blue overalls and a battered, shapeless cap. The man looked at him and shook his head.
“Don’t jump like that,” he said, “or you’ll hurt yourself. It’s easy to hurt yourself in here, what with all these things.” He patted a wheel to demonstrate.
Hryushik’s mouth opened and closed several times before he could speak. “I wasn’t doing any harm,” he said. “I didn’t do any damage to the engine. I was just playing, that’s all!”
“No, no,” the man said, shaking his head and smiling. “You don’t need to worry. I wasn’t trying to chase you away. I was just wondering how much longer I’d have to wait until you got in at last.”
“You’ve been waiting for me?” Hryushik asked uncertainly.
“Waiting and waiting,” the man said with a sigh. “I’ve been waiting for you since the first time I saw you standing by the platform looking up at the engine, Hryushik. That was years ago.”
“You know my name?”
“Oh, I know everything about you.” The man sat down on the right hand side seat, and leaned toward Hryushik, resting his elbows on his knees. “I knew you’d come up here sometime, only not when.”
Seen close up, he was quite an old man. His short beard was white and white hair straggled out from under his cap. The skin of his face and hands was wrinkled and spotted, but his eyes were sharp and clear.
“Where were you watching me from?” Hryushik asked. “I’ve never seen anyone here, and I’ve come so many times.”
The man grinned and pointed down at the metal floor of the cab. “Here,” he said. “I’ve been right here all along. And you didn’t see me because I couldn’t show myself to you.”
“You mean...” Hryushik frowned, disbelievingly. “You mean you’re a ghost?”
The man shook his head impatiently. “No, no. There’s no such thing as a ghost, young man. Do I look like a ghost, whatever that might be?” He didn’t. His clothes, the strands of his rough white hair, the spots on his hands, all looked perfectly real. “Here,” he said, holding his hand out. “Feel.”
Hryushik felt his hand. It was warm, dry and utterly solid. “So who are you?” he asked.
The old man looked at him silently for a while. “Think,” he said at last. “You know it already, just allow yourself to say it out loud.”
Hryushik blinked, and suddenly he knew. “You’re the...this engine?”
The man nodded, smiling. “That’s right. And now you’re wondering how I can be here, talking to you like this. Well...” He turned for a moment to look past Hryushik out of the side of the cab, and for an instant the landscape outside blurred again, and the boy felt wind rush through his hair. “Well,” the man continued, “you’re the one who made me.”
“All these years you’ve been yearning, haven’t you? Some other boys, they might do it for a day or a week, but nobody else has ever done it like you, on and on, year after year. Sometimes...when you want something enough...it comes into being. It becomes alive.”
Hryushik blinked at him in confusion.
“Each time when you came, when you stood there looking up at me, I became a little more alive. Before that, I’d merely been a mass of cold iron. But then you came, when you warmed me to life with your longing. I began to relive the memories, the vibrations of my wheels on the rails, the blaze roaring in my firebox, the superheated water in my boiler, the smoke rushing through the tubes and out through my chimney. And I began to remember, too, the things I’d seen, that I’d done and been through during all those years when I was steaming along the tracks, not rusting here by a crumbling platform in a station that no longer even has a name.
“When you went away, even though it was only to that little white house across the field there, I began losing my identity, to forget who I was and slip back into cold, dead iron. But this was the thing – I never fully forgot, never completely went away. I was mostly gone, but enough of me was left that when you came back, I wouldn’t have to start over again from the very beginning.
“So each time you came, I grew a little stronger, just a little. I became more alive, more able to take a shape that you could relate to. And today, the final little thing happened, when you came up here, and brought me fully alive. And,” he said, “there you are.”
Hryushik hadn’t understood everything the man had said, but he’d managed to get the idea. “You’ll be here always?” he asked.
The engine-man shrugged. “How can I say? The moment you go back, I may vanish again. But I think I’ll be here if you keep coming.”
“I’ll keep coming,” Hryushik said. “You can depend on it that I’ll keep coming.”
Over the next days, Hryushik discovered a world he hadn’t known existed.
The train man - “Call me Engine if you want,” he said – showed him the controls, taught him which wheel and lever did what, what the gauges and tubes would have shown if they hadn’t been cracked and jammed. He took the boy down to the track and, crouching next to the giant iron wheels, told him about rods and pistons, and how the flow of steam could drive the engine in one direction or the other. He told him about the mechanics of fire and steam and vapour, and how they powered the entire engine, allowing it to drag along a train weighing hundreds of tons at a hundred kilometres an hour. And for a wonder, Hryushik, who found it difficult even to thread a shoelace into his sneakers without missing a hole here and there, somehow found no difficulty in understanding it at all.
But his favourite time was when Engine sat with him in the cab, which he knew now to call a “footplate”, and talked about his experiences, and all the places he’d been, and how it was often difficult to get there.
“Hills,” Engine said once. “I like hills, to look at. They’re nice from a distance. But it’s bloody murder to climb them, I tell you. Each slope needs a different steam pressure, and the fireman has to slave like a machine to keep the fire loaded properly, because the heat and the pressure have to be just right. If there’s too much steam pressure you have to blow off the extra, and that wastes coal and water. But that’s still better than if there’s too little. One time there was this new fireman, thought he knew it all, he loaded too little coal while we were climbing up a long slope.” He raised an eyebrow at Hryushik. “So, from what I told you, can you tell me what happened next?”
“The engine stalled,” Hryushik said promptly. “You were stuck till you could raise steam.”
“That’s right,” Engine nodded. “Exactly. You know it, but that idiot fireman, who was supposed to have been trained, didn’t. We had to stay there on the slope until we could raise steam pressure again. Bloody embarrassing, I can tell you, apart from throwing the whole schedule off. That’s why I said hills were bloody murder. Give me deserts any day – the track straight as a ruler, and you never saw anything as pretty as a desert at night, I’ll bet.”
“I’ve never seen a desert,” Hryushik said.
“You’ve missed something. The red desert up north, that’s the best. Especially at night, when the moon’s shining down, and when you’re passing the old ruins – that desert is full of old ruined forts – you can almost see the camel caravans going through the gates, can imagine princesses sitting in tower rooms looking out over the desert, waiting for their lovers. And then the bridges across the great rivers – some of them are so long they look like they’re merging into the sky, and you feel as though you’re driving up into the stars, on a bridge spanning the Milky Way.” Engine sighed. “Of course it didn’t last.”
“My mother says steam engines were dirty and noisy,” Hryushik replied.
Engine nodded. “There are lots who said that, and they weren’t all wrong. In any case, we did a lot of work, and it wasn’t all just routine pulling around of people and goods either.” He paused, his fingers tapping on his knee. “There was the time we went to evacuate the people during the riots down south.” He snorted. “They called it ‘rioting’, but it was nothing less than organised mass murder. We went down there taking loads of relief supplies – food and clothes, old blankets and mattresses that people had donated. But even as we were pulling into the station, we saw it was crammed with people. The platforms were stuffed with them, they were spilling on to the tracks, and as soon as we had finally managed to get to the platform that they rushed the train. There were people literally hanging on to the handrails by the sides of the boiler and sitting on the fenders on the front. When we left the station we had to go at less than half speed to make sure nobody fell off. And, really, you don’t want to know the things they had been through, those poor people. But,” he added, “we saved them all. Not one was lost on the way back.”
“It was a wonderful thing you did,” Hruyshik said, looking around at the engine and imagining the people hanging on desperately, the men and women and the little children. For a moment he could almost glimpse them, hanging on to the sides of the engine. “A great thing.”
Engine shrugged. “Humans. They made me, so I did as they told me to. I could never imagine why they hated themselves so much, though.”
That was last year.
This year, things had gone wrong even before they’d started.
“Your uncle’s being transferred,” Hryushik’s mother said, the day she dropped him off. “He’ll be leaving this autumn for another place. So make sure you don’t make trouble for him. He’s busy getting his work in order.”
Hryushik felt a fist catch hold in his gut with cold fingers and twist. “You’re too old to come here anyway,” his mother said. “Next year I’ll see if I can find a summer camp or something for you.”
Hryushik didn’t want a summer camp. He didn’t want anything but Engine. But his mother had already driven off, without a backward glance, leaving him standing by his suitcase.
The second thing that went wrong was when he arrived at his uncle’s place was the sight of huge yellow machines hulking around the old station.
“Oh, those,” Utkonos said casually. “They’re planning to tear down the old place. The railway is going to build storage sheds there. They should have done it long ago. Criminal, really, to let this valuable property lie idle for so long.”
“The engine,” Hryushik asked. “What about the engine?”
“They’ll scrap it, as far as I know,” his uncle said. “I think they’re taking it away tomorrow.” He poured a glass of soft drink for his nephew. “I take it you’d like to rest?”
Hryushik did not want to rest. It was already late afternoon, but he slipped out at the earliest and ran out to the old station. The construction crew had put up some tin sheets as barriers, but there were plenty of gaps, and he squeezed between them and on to the platform.
It seemed a totally different place. The demolition work hadn’t really started yet, but the ancient brick station house which had stood, silent and abandoned, at one end was already mostly gone. The metal shelter that had kept rain off the heads of waiting passengers had vanished too. What was left looked as though it was waiting to be eaten by the hungry yellow jaws of the waiting machinery.
It was Sunday, and therefore there was nobody except Hryushik on the platform. He ran to the engine, for once not looking where he was going, uncaring of his own safety. The engine and the lone wagon were still there, but they looked as though they were diminished, somehow, awaiting their own turn to be ripped apart and consumed.
“Engine,” he called, desperately, scrambling up the steps to the footplate, certain that there would be no reply. “Engine.”
But Engine was there, holding out a hand to pull him up. “Hryushik. How tall you’ve grown!”
“Engine,” Hryushik said, desperately. “They’re going to take you away and...scrap you. My uncle said so.”
Engine shrugged. “I suppose it had to come sooner or later. I’m just lucky I had the chance to be alive, and for that I have to thank you.”
“But they’re going to kill you!”
“Well, they haven’t yet, have they? We still have some time together – this evening, if you want.” He slapped the fireman’s seat. “It’s been waiting for you impatiently.”
Hryushik got on to the seat. He’d gained a lot of height during the year, and it was no longer as high for him as it had been. Nor did the levers and wheels seem quite as outsized as before.
“It feels good to be back, doesn’t it?” Engine said. He grinned. “You’re looking as though you just got back home after a long, long journey.”
“That’s right,” Hryushik said. “And I don’t want to go away again.”
“You never did,” Engine said. Dusk was falling fast, and he hummed, moving around the footplate, doing things which the boy couldn’t see clearly. “Right from the start you never did, Hryushik. That’s why this is happening now.”
“Happening now? What do you mean?” Hryushik looked around. Suddenly, it was as though things were wavering and shifting. There was something strange, something that wasn’t quite as it had been before. And whatever it was had nothing to do with the hulking yellow metal predators all around. “Engine?”
“You don’t get it?” Engine pointed. “Look at the glass of the windows, the dials. Can you see it?”
And Hryushik suddenly realised what it was. The dust-opaqued windows were now clear; he could see the glimmer of a star through one. The glass of the dials was no longer cracked. Even the glass tube that showed the water level, which Engine had only told him about, was back in its holder. It was as though the engine was being readied for a place in the museum, instead of the scrapyard. He glanced quickly across at the blue-overalled man with the white beard.
Engine nodded. “You’re bringing it all alive again, boy. First it was me, and now it’s the whole engine. And it’s not just the looks, either. Try the firebox door and see. Be careful that you don’t burn yourself though.”
“Burn myself?” But even as Hryushik moved the lever that opened the firebox – it moved easily, when he’d never been able to shift it before – he saw the dull red glow of a fire inside.
“Care to go for a trip?” Engine asked. “All I need is a fireman, and you know enough about the job now to make a fair apprentice. There’s the shovel behind you, and the tender’s filled with coal.” He touched the long regulator lever with his mottled old hand. “Get off that chair and get to work. We’ve got steam to raise.”
Hryushik turned and picked up the shovel. The load of coal was light in his arms, so light.
Nobody ever saw Hryushik again. The police was told, but after a perfunctory search gave up. After all, his uncle really had other things on his mind, and his mother was glad enough to have the burden of taking care of him removed from her life. They all finally decided he’d simply run way, and reminded themselves that this wasn’t the first time something like that had happened, either, and it wouldn’t be the last.
The railway authorities never found the little train - a steam engine and an old goods wagon - that had been slated to be scrapped, and had mysteriously disappeared the night before it was due to be taken away. It was impossible for anyone to have stolen it, because it was a huge, heavy engine and a big enough wagon, and because the track was closed off at both ends. The police searched much more thoroughly for it, but they didn’t find anything, either. It was sometimes mentioned as a footnote in books of modern mystery.
But sometimes, people say, when you’re in the red northern desert, you can hear the sound of an old steam engine roaring along, and you can even see it, the blaze of its light carving a tunnel through the darkness, as it hurtles past the old forts where camel caravans pass, and in whose towers princesses sigh for absent lovers. You can, even, sometimes see the red glow of the firebox, and the sparks that come out along with the smoke from the chimney. It’s not a ghost, they say, this train of an engine and a wagon, but you will never catch it, because it’s on a trip which will never stop, never end.
And, sometimes, they say, if you look up at the night sky, you’ll see it there, leaping across the Milky Way, crossing the bridge to the stars.
Perhaps they tell the truth. Perhaps they lie. Perhaps they are just mistaken.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016