While the World Is Asleep

‘About a passenger on a train who, in the night, while everyone else is asleep, sneaks onto the roof of the train.’

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 through the downpour and onto the train. Through the large windows I watched the last of the travellers 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 against the fogged window by the light in the aisle behind my seat. Beyond the platform I could see that the clouds were starting to break, and the countryside began 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, pale in the moonlight, when finally I woke. Now there was not a cloud in the sky. In the passenger car the train was nearly silent on its track, and the compartment was filled with the sonorous rhythm 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; since nodding off nobody had taken the seat next to my own. 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, the window darkened by the dim light inside the car, above the aisle. Again I stood, and I left my bag and coat folded underneath my seat and tread softly down the aisle of the swaying compartment, entering the vestibule at the end of the car. I slid the door shut, ensuring that 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 betwixt the differing pressures on either side, and as the wind greeted me with a thunderous 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 were not at all obvious, and I considered the possibilities while the train shot through the field like an arrow through time, wobbling imperceptibly from some height above at which it assumed a steady grace. The sensation slowly rose in me that the train was moving with such speed indeed that it had slowed the passage of night; the next moment the world around me had frozen. I now had all the time in the world to claim the present moment as my own, if I so chose, and this included the opportunity to entertain my impulse, to climb atop the train car, more seriously. It was then I realized that everybody had fallen asleep so that I could be alone with this moment; that the journey had been contrived so that I may have the confidence of choice. For there was a choice before me: I could, easily, claim these thoughts ludicrous and surely not my own, find my way back to my seat, and wake up in another town as if that had been the plan all along. But what if I lay hold of this occasion, and use it as right now it seemed fit to do? Somehow this was the choice that had been given to me, without reservation nor thought of 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 on to 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 kicked up by the train’s hurtling progress through the night. Who was I to deny their presence? I gave in to their weight and stepped forward, farther out onto the bridge.

My hand rose to grip the railing as I closed my eyes to the world around me, and I desired only to feel the cold steel wrapped in my palm. I breathed deeply, cancelling out all that pulled my attention away from my awareness of the train, and the train alone. I acquainted myself with the extent of its lateral motion as it shifted along the track, and I picked up on the vibration of its engine: 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 in 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 flowing 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 wide 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 before I decided to lift my head; the wind held me down and made the task difficult. I was still intimately focused on my body’s contact with the train, and because of this, 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—its purpose just the same as what caused the moon to brighten earlier, aiding my step. As I entered the train it was just me and those elements of the night which conspired to keep a little piece of that illicit moment hidden, 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, 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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