by Marjorie Salzwedel
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Staring at his wrist communicator, the pitch of his voice changed to an alarming urgency, “Engine 99 is due along any time now at full speed. Their radios and their cell phones have malfunctioned. The satellites report that some imploding force has cut out their communication system. The train has accelerated. It is on a collision course and cannot be stopped. We must hurry to get as far away from these tracks as we can.”
The conductor glanced down again at the phone messaging, yet kept motioning with his other arm for them all to keep running. Almost out of breath, he announced, “This freight train, which is mostly empty, is hauling canisters of some kind of fuel, very toxic. If so, the air will be deadly. We must hurry to the safety of the railroad’s roundhouse.”
It wasn’t long before the conductor again spoke to the troupe about the weather forecast. “A cold front is moving in and will turn the wind in our direction. But it won’t take us long to reach the place. It’s run on automation these days. I have the numbers to open the gate so we can go inside.”
“How could this have happened?” Jack inquired, as they all began to jog behind the conductor who was sprinting.
“People working on the computers are like people everywhere, bound eventually to make mistakes. It happened as the probabilities indicated.”
In less than an hour, they saw the outline of a grove of trees in the distance.
As they were jogging now, at a comfortable pace behind the conductor, Jack looked over his shoulder and saw Miranda behind them waving her arms back and forth across her body as she started to slow. He caught the hateful look in her eye as she stared defiantly at the back of the conductor shouting “Stop! Stop!”
The conductor turned and walked backward. Everyone slowed.
“Why should we follow you? She said. “You’re just the conductor. You are not the full authority of the railroad. You cannot make us go with you.” She paused, and then turning round to those who were behind her, waved her hands across her body again to get their attention, and shouted, “Wait. Where are the clowns? Dennis and Clarence are not here. They are doing the smart thing. They’ve stayed in the caboose.” The circus people behind her moaned, altogether, as if they were a chorus.
“You will be safe in the roundhouse,” the conductor said.
“We don’t know that for sure or what’s out here in this wilderness. There could be wild beasts and storms. I’m going back to where I’ll be comfortable and safe. I don’t believe this poppycock story about Engine 99. Everyone these days are always making up stories. I am sick of tall tales.” She took a breath and stopped.
“You are making a mistake,” the conductor said.
“Those of you who want to be safe and comfortable can go back with me to the caboose. I don’t believe that there is another train coming along those tracks. We have not seen another train in the last five years on this route. And, if there would happen to be a train now, the authority of the railroad would stop it. Our stranded circus train can be seen for miles. This is a wide open prairie except for that grove of trees ahead. Why should we cross this prairie when we cannot see this so-called roundhouse at the end of these decrepit tracks?”
Everyone was watching Miranda. There was a moment when all was quiet. Not even the gentle breeze they felt made a sound as it brushed them like soft fingers.
“Your only chance of saving your life is to follow the rules of the railroad,” the conductor said.
“There’s hardly anything left of these railroad ties! They’re centuries old. Why should we believe that there is actually a roundhouse? We would be better off going back to where the clowns are lounging and enjoying themselves.” She turned and walked away from the group.
“This is the only way to save your lives,” the conductor shouted through the microphone. His words resounded through the prairie air with the ring of authority.
“Isn’t anybody coming with me?” Miranda bellowed, looking back over her shoulder.
Two stragglers at the back hurried to join her going toward the tracks.
The conductor bowed his head for just a moment. Looking up, he took his microphone to his lips.
“You will be choosing death.” The conductor shouted. “It will come soon if you go that way.”
At the sound of his words, the two followers returned to the group as they resumed their jogging toward the grove of trees.
Jack didn’t know what to say. He was thankful for the return of the stragglers. But, when he looked over his shoulder again he was grieved to see Miranda’s lonely form silhouetted against the moonlight. A few minutes he turned again. This time he saw the magician hurrying after her, and behind him, the puppet master racing to join them. Then, as the ringmaster kept turning, he saw the two booth attendants running to join them. Jack thought his heart would break.
The silhouettes of the five of them became smaller and smaller in the twilight. Jack prayed that if the train were to come in this hour that it would come before the dissenters reached the caboose.
In that instant Jack thought how God must grieve for mankind.
In their dismay over Miranda, those faithfully following the conductor slowed as if they were hesitating, and many of the performers stole frequent glances over their shoulders at the tiny group of rebels going toward the snake-like silhouette of their circus train.
“Come back,” the conductor shouted through his microphone. His magnified voice bellowed through the air, certain to reach them. “You still have time.”
The seamstress and the strongman hurried through the crowd to be up in front with the conductor. And next, every member of the Ivanovich family moved forward with their split-second timing around the folks that had slowed. The trapeze artists all stayed behind Jack and Ida. The strongman, carrying Marietta, the midget who tired easily, hurried over to the other side of the conductor. These moves affected the rest of the group who quickened their pace. The motorman and the brakeman hurried alongside the crowd keeping up with the conductor.
The ringmaster’s eyes filled with tears as they crossed the prairie toward the trees. The parade of circus cars followed. In the diminishing dusk, the full moon becoming brighter, like a giant lamp, reflected its light upon their faces.
The conductor turned again and hollered again through the microphone for the benefit of those back a distance, “Keep up,” he shouted. The unicyclist pedaled faster on the path alongside the track.
Jack and Ida moved as in a dream. The breeze was sweet, and like gentle fingers, the wind rustled through their hair like a father’s hand.
The group was silent except for the steady thump of their feet on the weather-worn rails and on the road alongside. More than an hour went by before the distant sound of a train whistle pierced through the air, jolting their senses. Jack almost lost his footing, but Ida held on to him on one side, as the conductor instantly grabbed his other arm. No one slowed. The caravan of circus cars following them alongside the track suddenly moved closer to the company of circus folk believing now that they were all running for their lives.
The conductor kept up on the latest bulletins from the railroad. “Engine 99 is an empty freight train. It had one motorman, the brakeman and one back-up man on board before they jumped out onto one of the soft embankments alongside the tracks. With broken bones and minor injuries, they have now been rescued. This runaway train, on automatic, is mostly a string of empty cars traveling faster than usual and cannot be stopped. A glitch somewhere led them onto the wrong switch of tracks this morning.”
The earth rumbled under their feet. None of them slowed. The horn wailed continuous now, though faint in the distance. When they glanced over their shoulders, they saw the freight train crossing the horizon like a black tornado.
“Stay out! Get out!” They all shouted as they kept glancing back. When the horn blared nonstop like a faraway siren, the band of humanity held their breaths and stopped. All of them turned toward their circus train. Ida, in a loud and panicked voice, pleaded “Oh, God, God, please, let them be out of there.” These were her prayers too late as her words burst audibly from her lips.
Jack’s soul was heavy with disbelief and grief as he stared and gasped. The shadow of Engine 99 accompanied by the sound of simultaneous thunderclaps plowed into the caboose and into the rest of the circus train as quick as a bolt of lightning shears a large oak tree in half. The impact threw the cars of both trains high into the air like splinters of wood rising from a bonfire.
In that single instant, the silhouettes of the two trains looked like an accordion opening and then closing with its bellows ripped to pieces. In bursts of flame, cinders rose high into the wind. The terrifying sound reverberating through the air like cannon fire.
The onlookers were filled with grief as they witnessed the most certain deaths of the clowns, the fortune teller, the magician, puppet master and the booth attendants. They felt a sudden bond of love with all the circus family, born out of this loss. Their sorrow and contrition washed over them, and their openness for atonement was like a baptism.
Following behind the conductor, they continued to hurry to safety. The trees ahead reminded Jack that when he was a small boy he had been ill for months until finally his mother carried him outside where he wanted to have the strength to walk again. He remembered seeing his dad across the lawn under the trees holding out his hands to catch him. Jack walked across the soft grass as fast as he could and rushed into his father’s arms.
When the circus troupe entered under the canopy of trees and saw the edge of a building, the ringmaster’s voice burst forth, “We’re at the roundhouse!” They all stopped as they reached the corner of the structure. Jack looked at the inscription of the official logo of the railroad.
The conductor, using his password, opened the gate.
The lion tamer pressed against the conductor’s arm. “I heard the trumpet of the elephants, but not the roar of the lions.” There was sadness in his voice.
“The lions are safe in their cages coming along the path here,” the conductor pointed to the caravan as it neared.
As the group standing there looked back one last time, the dust still rose from the site of the catastrophe. They sobbed and then became quiet when they saw the circus handlers with their animals move alongside them and enter the gate.
Jack held Ida close as he grieved for those who were surely lost. His spirit was weak with sorrow, as if a knife had cut through, and the wound was too deep to heal. He needed a few more minutes to look back across the prairie. Everything about his life with the circus was clear to him now. Though it had given him joy so long ago, he had let it become commonplace when his bones began to ache.
They were amazed at the flawless geodesic structure of hexagons in a construction material Jack had never seen before and thought that the building must be immense.
“It’s perfectly round,” the conductor stated. “Everything is symmetrical inside, the structure supported by triangular, hexagonal and rectangular grids all fit together to make a perfect sphere. And in balance, all that fits in has a connective symmetry of its own. When you are inside a while, you will be renewed by the wonder of it.”
Jack saw that the wind had shifted, and the smoke now was headed toward them. It wouldn’t be long before the scent of fire would waft over where they stood. Yet, the ringmaster was not afraid. He felt serene standing there with Ida and the band of circus performers as they waited for the conductor to tell them what to do.
“There are many different sections inside,” the conductor said. “We have come upon this one. We must go through now. It is time to go on.” And as Jack and Ida and the others stepped up to the entrance, the conductor’s voice became soft and gentle.
“You will find it similar to what you already know, yet it has its own light. It is the light that makes all the difference.”
Copyright © 2007 by Marjorie Salzwedel