As a kid, lying in bed on tepid summer nights, the wind blowing through the half-opened window, I would listen for the night train. She was not some mystical ghost machine chugging eternally through the night. She was as real as bones. Her nightly cargo was coal, brought down from the mountain, the fruit of dangerous labor. My brothers would sleep through her nightly run, but she probably found her way into their dreams. I would just lie there most nights, awake and waiting, a trend that would follow me throughout my life. Awake and waiting.
The whistle came soft at night, but it set the dogs to barking. There was no speed behind her. The night train had no desperate schedule to keep. Just a steady chug down the line. Her movement over the tracks was rhythmic, a steady rattle broken by the intermittent sound of her wheels passing over rail welds. Rattle chug rattle chug rattle chug ka-thunk, Rattle chug rattle chug rattle chug ka-thunk. To me, it was a comforting sound, an industrial lullaby, a dream ballad of steel and steam.
I would listen to her fade in and my eyes would close as she faded out. At that age, I had little knowledge of industry, or the coal line, so the train was a thing of infinite possibilities. Some nights I imagined passengers waiting at lonely stations lit by a single light, heading home after their long, wiling days of work or returning to the family homestead after many years away only to find it altered nearly beyond recognition. Some nights I envisioned her carrying packages, boxes all wrapped up in brown paper; gifts and baubles finding their way to some expectant child or a lonely collector. I could hear them snipping the strings and tearing through the paper, seeking the treasure within.
And on some nights, I thought of the circus like the one I had seen in that movie about the orphaned little elephant who could fly, he could fly, he could fly. I wondered where the circus would stop and what amazing creatures would be on display. Gryphons and Chimaera, strange and fascinating amalgams displayed in their dangerous glory. Cerberus and Fenris, their jaws dripping saliva, terrifying the curious young visitors; children cowering behind the legs of their parents.
When we moved from that country house to the dull place in the suburbs, I would drum out the rhythm of the train on the wall, remembering how it used to stir my imagination. I would think of Mr. Dark from that Ray Bradbury story. His carnival of wonders that fulfilled all your greatest desires for a price. I wondered what possession or desire would be worth my soul. Thoughts of the night train brought dreams, fantasies, snippets of stories, things that would later fuel my passion.
But it was never the same as it was when I was a young child, lying in that small room surrounded by my five sleeping brothers. The train was a thousand miles gone and it would be nearly a decade before I heard another. As an older boy, though, it stirred more than my imagination, it triggered a great wide longing, both for my youth and for freedom from a life of peer-generated torment. The train would cross the country, from turntable to turntable, station to station, rail yard to rail yard, a great snaking course across rivers and canyons, through and around mountains, from ocean to ocean and back again. Free like the wind, but steady on course, rolling along at pace, traversing awe-inspiring landscapes, rolling forward into the dusk and into the dawn. Rattle chug rattle chug rattle chug ka-thunk, rattle chug rattle chug ka-thunk.