Su Nadeau: “Juniper,” a short story for Haunted Passages

 

THE TWELVE-THIRTEEN TRAIN DERAILED on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. It was the only one that passed through this way. This meant Lupon and Wren devoted their time to clearing the wreckage so each train had the opportunity to wreck on its own.
A quarter after noon on Saturday the train was heard before it was felt. Lupon built his yard out of necessity—the trains piled up and needed to be put somewhere. Stacks walled acres and they rattled like haunted wind chimes. Saturdays meant freight trains, often larger than the passenger cars, that were unable to pass.
A yellow legal pad was on the kitchen table and Lupon made notes in pencil. His and Wren’s home was built from the salvage. It was a single train car; they’d ripped out all of the seats and replaced them with a small bed Lupon purchased in town. The table set, dishware, and cookware were all taken from the dining car. The plates and small, electric griddle all had the emblem of the train company and stark script that announced the year the company established.
The train’s horn sounded twice and Lupon and Wren knew where to stand for their own safety. Lupon said it was best behind the stacks to avoid shrapnel and rocks the train might dig up. The tracks were laid alongside the river. Freight engines were flat and snub-nosed. There was a catch that sounded like a clap of thunder to signal the engine caught its edge and capsized. By then, the earth was hardened and smooth from previous wrecks, there was a squealing, grating whine of metal hitting earth hitting metal and destroying steel. The train shrieked, toppled, and was silent.
When the reverberations in their legs and along the earth subsided, Lupon nodded. His hair reflected the sun and appeared amber. Wren drove the forklift behind Lupon. Lupon was a biped and the same height as Wren, though he was unlike any man Wren had ever seen. His hair was short, soft and an inch long from his toes to scalp. Only from the elbows down was Lupon’s skin exposed and it was moon-colored and decorated with sunspots. A long scar cut from Lupon’s left elbow to wrist.
Wren parked the forklift near the newly crashed engine and followed Lupon as he made his notes. It was a freight engine.
“Do you see a number?” Lupon asked.
Wren had not. Their jobs were routine—Wren saw the conductor in the front of the car had been horribly disfigured. Lupon clicked his tongue when he heard the news.
“Usually four-person crew for a freight,” Wren said.
“Only three last weekend.”
“That we found.”
“True.”
The train had turned on its side and the front-most cars crumpled into one another and split and the steel and metal splintered in dangerous angles. Lupon had sketched a rudimentary train on his notepad. Three cars in a row before Lupon bumped down. He made notes where things could be salvaged and resold, what scrap they could use to build, and what was waste. Later, they would find places to store it.
“Here’s one,” Wren said. She pointed several feet from the train where a body had been thrown. Wren checked the pulse and shook her head.
“Two more.” There was the unpleasant situation of the bodies. Lupon made austere, industrial caskets and sent them off to the undertaker. Lupon maintained a long correspondence with the Governor and other authorities. Robust legislation was written and Lupon provided testimony in a trial that lasted two afternoons. The proposed regulations were dismantled and useless to stop the train companies. The Governor remained a friend. Even with the routine crash, train travel soared. Wren was terrified after she’d observed her first wreck.
She’d asked, “they didn’t care?”
Lupon said, “An inspector came for the first few years. Lived here for a time as well.”
It was clear to Wren the inspector loved Lupon as she did. “And?” Wren asked.
“It was ruled operator error.”
“Each time?”
“I assume,” Lupon said.
“And the inspector?”
“The case closed.”
Lupon and Wren walked the length of the train and then went around to see its underbelly. Some of the axels and wheels had been displaced and lost. It was Wren’s favorite to walk on this side and that close to the train. From the underbelly, the heat from the tracks and train permeated. Opposite the tracks, the earth dwindled and stopped at a river that was wide and moved slowly. It reflected a cloudless sky and a collection of geese floated not far from shore.
“Salvageable?” Lupon asked. He pointed with the eraser of his pencil to a section of the train that warped.
Wren moved closer, the train radiated warmth, and Wren nodded. When they finished checking over the train, the two worked in tandem. Wren followed Lupon as he pointed and gestured. Lupon’s strength was unparalleled. He hoisted one half of the train while Wren got the other with the forklift—one of Lupon’s creations. A large counterweight hung on the back which was difficult to navigate. Wren knew where the wreckage should go. The forklift was easy to learn if Wren went slowly and moved material that was no longer delicate.
The engine was moved first. It was a few minutes’ walk to bring the engine where it needed. Wren drove in reverse and she lowered the engine only when Lupon said. It was crucial for Lupon to clear the tracks as fast as they were able—even though they both knew it would be several days before another train came. As they moved cars, another body was unearthed and it was unrecognizable as a human, but its mess was clearly organic. Wren’s throat flickered, but she was dutiful in moving its contents into a container to be stacked with the caskets.
When they’d finished, Lupon would phone the coroner. Even though it was several years in the routine, the coroner did not come unless called.
The cars were moved and stacked in accordance with the notes that Lupon had made. The decisions were Lupon’s alone and Wren did not care much what Lupon did with the wreckage. It was a labyrinth to Wren. A few swallows and a flock of finches nested in the scrap yard.
The birds understood it was pleasant to sing no matter the circumstances and they did sing. It was the birdsong that Wren followed to Lupon. She’d escaped and was left with nothing. Along the river, Wren wandered for what felt like an endless amount of time. It was years ago, but Wren remembered it clearly. That day, Wren was awed by the train yard and how the walls of scrap seemed to rise out of nowhere. The acreage of the yard seemed to expand on its own.
All those years ago, Wren went through stacks of sheet metal, iron, and steel. None of it was art. The stacks were useless to her. When Wren felt she understood the size of the place, she was reminded she was wrong. It recalled the museum of Wren’s childhood. The one she spent years roaming endless turns and was always surprised it continued and she didn’t care for the contents at all. She was only there because those she cared for cared. Though Wren wouldn’t admit it, she was a captive in the museum. She lived in a small home in the museum and was forced to perch at strange angles. A placard was labeled Sanctuary.
When she left, she found Lupon in a lawn chair with his body exposed to the sun. Lupon was covered completely by hair except from his elbows to his wrists, as though he had rolled his sleeves up. Wren went down to Lupon out of curiosity and was grateful Lupon was never curious about what Wren left behind. It didn’t take long until Wren was completely in love. Wren regarded Lupon and, since it was the first time she’d spoken in days, her words came in short syllables. “The moon went down. I followed it here.”
“I am the cause,” Lupon said.
“That is dangerous?”
Somewhere nearby, there was bird song. It was the rain that trickled in. Water beaded in Lupon’s hair and then disappeared as it went.
The first time he kissed Wren was on her long and slender neck. It was never discussed, but Wren operated the forklift because her hands and feet were broken and arthritic. Her arms, hands, and fingers were crooked and did not function as they were intended—it was the reason she was kept as an exhibit at the museum. Lupon sometimes called Wren his bird. Wren assumed it was because of her name, but Lupon said no. It was Wren’s body and the way it was crooked.
Lupon said, “There is something avian about it.”
Wren considered her hands. They were bent and ugly and when she held them out to look at her palms, the fingers bent out and away from one another. If she was a bird then she was built backwards. The cut of her fingers bent the wrong way for flight.
“Don’t look so concerned,” Lupon said.
It was what it was.
Lupon brought Wren around the yard that first day, he said, “it seems to change all of the time.”
“Oh?” Wren said.
“Yes, just yesterday you could see the river through here.”
“And today?”
“Well, look.”
It was mostly what looked like trash. Lupon held Wren’s hands one at a time and kissed each broken knuckle. He did this every night until Wren’s fingers and joints straightened.
“Thank you,” Wren said.
Lupon continued as the weeks went by. Wren accepted and did not question Lupon. This was their home. This was their love. Lupon was the sea that sheltered them. Lupon stopped when Wren’s fingers were swept back and shaped as wings against her frame.
“My bird,” Lupon said.
Later, Wren understood. Lupon did not have the capacity to heal. He only corrected the way in which she was broken.
For years they went through the routine. Now, they moved the freight train and when it was clear from the tracks, the sun had gone down. Grain had been stored in temperature-controlled cars that Lupon had salvaged. Wren admitted her hunger and said she needed to stop. A light rain fell. Lupon worked in all weather.
“Why don’t trains ever pass without wrecking?”
Lupon tossed a row of seating into a heap. Somewhere birds made noises and the wind whistled between branches.
Wren said, “the only trains that pass by crash.”
“Right.”
“So if the trains don’t reach their destination, then why bother?”
“I wish I knew.”
“What would you do if they stopped?”
Wren regretted the question as soon as it was asked. Lupon’s eyes narrowed and his tongue slipped across his bottom lip.
“Should be a train today,” Lupon said.
When Wren rested, Lupon took over.
“I can help,” Wren said.
“You have.”
“I’m resting.”
“Good.”
The forklift was part of Lupon. He drove it at all speeds and knew the angles needed. Alone, Lupon stacked the passenger cars and observation car—which was completely obliterated—in a corner.
Wren said, “I think I’ll make dinner.”
“Okay.”
“Will you eat with me?”
Lupon stopped the forklift and scratched behind his neck.
“We’re ahead of schedule,” Wren said, “tomorrow is Saturday and we’ll have almost three days. We can break this train down, then tomorrow’s, and the days after we will organize. The same as always. It’s good to eat.”
“There’s something I want to finish.”
“Then finish.”
“Thank you.”
Wren turned and Lupon put the forklift in drive. The door to their train was difficult to open manually, but Wren built a small lever to pry the doors more easily. She braced her weight and the door stuttered in its frame. Wren closed the door only to keep the bugs out. Screens allowed the windows to be open and there was the clanging of work that could not be seen.
The train car was long and their bed was closest to the door. Wren’s belongings were in the corner opposite. Their small kitchenette, sectioned by an island that used to be the food car’s bar, was beside Wren’s possessions. An electric pump drew power from a generator and let water flow from the tap without much pressure. A small griddle and hot plates were turned on and Wren took out ingredients to make a simple meal of pasta and vegetables. Neither Wren nor Lupon took much joy in cooking. They ate simply and made their food last and donated what they didn’t need.
They had two of everything—bowls, mugs, glasses, silverware. They had argued about whether to use the observation car for their home or to use a traditional train car. They settled on the observation car after Wren insisted. It had two floors, though Lupon never went upstairs, which infuriated Wren, but soon became her own solace. Upstairs, the windows were total. It was beautiful in winter to watch the snow slowly blot out the world. Better in summer to be beneath the stars and moon—which seemed to hang lower every night.
Wren warmed sandwiches in the press. Their generator thrummed quietly enough that the heavy wind often drowned the sound. Lupon came when Wren called. There were patches of gray in the hair around Lupon’s cheeks and beneath his shoulder blades. His hair had thinned around the thighs. Had it really been years since Wren met Lupon? They unwrapped perfectly cut vegetables catered to the train companies and dipped them into ground mustard.
Wren asked, “When did you start?”
“Living?”
“Here, yes.”
“Forever. It feels like anyway.”
“And your parents?”
Wren was surprised to learn they were no different than her own family. Lupon did not say whether or not he had siblings.
“Do you see them much?”
“The trains don’t stop.”
“I suppose not.”
Lupon dunked a cucumber spear and then cut another. Wren put an arm around Lupon’s waist and Lupon moved his chair closer. He pressed his lips to Wren’s forehead.
After eating, Lupon was tireless in his work, he moved steel and lifted giant axels with ease. Wren followed him on the forklift so Lupon could unload what he carried. It was not clear to Wren what was guiding the reorganization only that it was fast and direct work. Lupon moved quickly and seemed to know exactly where the piece he needed had been placed.
In the morning, Wren woke alone. Thick, gray clouds moved overhead when Wren went out to the yard with a cup of coffee. Lupon shouted a greeting over the sound of machinery. Wren wedged the mug of coffee between her thighs and put the forklift in drive.
They moved between train and scrap and Lupon shouted directions and Wren was hypnotized by the work. Lupon operated a chainsaw when it was necessary. The burnt smell of metal intoxicated them both and their ears rang with the screaming whir of the machine. All matter of trains ran off the tracks and collided with Lupon’s yard. It didn’t matter if it was high speed, commuter, or freight. Remnants of each were present throughout. The slight variations of each marked the stacks like the lines of a tree. The faint blue over silver over gray and striped with blue, rusted from the bottom up. The rust was spotted and patched over steel like moss.
“Should be a train today,” Lupon said when it quieted.
It was Saturday. Saturday should be a passenger car—folks going to the mountains for the weekend or trying to. Wren and Lupon waited for the train to derail—it was fifteen minutes behind schedule. Trains were never late. Lupon eyed the tracks. Walked out into them, Wren raised a hand, but knew Lupon was safe and put it back to her side. She moved two steps closer. She tried to appear casual, but her fingers bent the wrong way for pockets.
Wren followed Lupon out onto the tracks.
“Do we have the time right?” Wren asked.
“I’m certain of it.”
“Has this ever happened before?”
“A train has never been this late,” Lupon said.
“And we have the days right?”
“I checked.”
Wren shifted her weight, “a schedule change then.”
“The trains have always been regular.”
“I’m sorry.”
“We both are, but the trains should be relied on. They have always been regular.”
Wren opened her eyes wide, hoped that Lupon knew he was both deeply accepted and deeply cared for. They shared a silence with one another for a long while, the noise of rain grew but wasn’t yet felt.
Lupon folded his arms, “I found this place the same as you had, I imagine. When I came this way it was not thick with debris. Only a single train had crashed.” Lupon said the name of a conductor. Wren was disappointed to recognize it as a man’s name. “It was his train. He refused to tell me what caused the wreck but he asked for my help.”
“You agreed?”
“What choice did I have?”
Wren didn’t see it that way and said nothing.
“We worked for a day and a half without stopping.” Lupon referred to a steam engine. “When we finished a week had gone by. We collapsed and folded into one another.”
Wren’s throat and belly shuttered in an accordion motion.
“We hadn’t even slept through the night when another train came through and derailed. We went to work at once. The trains kept coming.” A shrug of the shoulders. “We saved some individuals, but it was clear none of us would ever be the same. Eventually,” Lupon spoke the conductor’s name, “left. He couldn’t bare it any longer. I felt I had little choice in the matter. I was unaffected by it all. His leaving, I mean.”
“Of course,” Wren’s voice whispered.
“A train came right after his leaving. It was good to have something to do.” Lupon continued to speak. “I’m trying to say that I think that’s all this is.”
Wren moved closer to Lupon, and her tongue was flexed and her cheeks drawn in. She admitted she didn’t know what Lupon meant.
Moths fluttered for cover from the rain. The dizzying flight of moth’s always appealed to Wren because it recalled her years to learn how to hold a pen and practice her letters. The natural slope of cursive mimicked her own body.
Lupon took Wren’s broken hands and traced each arthritic knuckle with his index finger. He removed Wren’s glasses and kissed the eyes, then he pressed his tongue to Wren’s eyelids and sucked gently. Wren’s body trembled and was chilled.
Ducks tread water in a small lip by an overhang created by an upturned tree. Fog stuck in the branches and dulled the brazen reds and maroon of industrial buildings across the river. Wren flexed her fingers and let the webbing of her hands feel the breeze before she made fists.
Lightning appeared in a splinter above them, but Lupon did not squint. His face relaxed and his lips parted, “I’m saying this isn’t permanent.”
Wren’s heart chirped in uneven beats. They strained their ears for the sound of trains and only heard thunder.

 

 

Su Nadeau is fascinated by soups, bread, and humans. He is a special education teacher and MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. Su’s work can be found in Entropy, Yalobusha Review, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere. Follow him on twitter @sunadeau.

Image: flickr.com

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