The Father1 arrived at the station two hours before the train was supposed to leave. He got out of the house just at sunrise, traveled thirty miles through hemp fields, forests, and meadows, and now smelled of hemp, flowers and odorous roadside dust. The station smelled of coal, oil, and sun-baked iron. The workman, who smelled just like the Father, and, furthermore, of horse manure, as well as tar, sharply turned the carriage on its two back wheels, adjusted the seat and left, and the Father was left alone with his little bag, umbrella and rich cakes. For a minute the Father felt sad, and he shouted out in a frail tenor:
“Ivan! Ah Ivan!”
But the workman was far away and didn’t hear him. And suddenly, happiness overcame the Father, and this was because he was alone in such a strange and unusual place, and it was also because he was traveling to the city, and because of the clear, cloudless sky which calmed him with its blue light coming over the iron roof. The first thing he did was to spend some time leisurely sitting on the bench, pleasantly sensing that he is already in command of that complex and curious thing they call the train and the railway; but because there was not a soul on the station he dared to carefully take a peek into all the places around him. He took a peek into the buffet: there was a long table there, covered by a marbled oilcloth, and on the oilcloth flies were crawling around. Respectfully he took a peek into the telegraph room: there was also nobody there, and the machine was tapping something out by itself, letting out a long, white ribbon. The Father shook his head, cleared his throat, and said:
He stood around in front of the ticket office but since the office was closed and there was nobody there except for him he went to the platform.
The platform he also found to his liking: it was long, clean, businesslike, tarred in some places, and in others covered with asphalt—just what you need for big and important business. Shiny rail tracks ran from it in various directions, keeping the precise trail of countless thundering trains; and if one went in one direction then one would arrive in one unknown corner of the world, and in the other—in another corner of the world, just as unknown and mysterious. This thought agitated the Father to such an extent that he almost ran back to the ticket office, but it was still closed and there was not a soul around. Still too early.
“Remarkable! Remarkable!” said the Father importantly, even sternly, and energetically shook his head, causing roadside dust to fall unnoticeably from his hair and clothes. It’s likely that because this dust has softened the rustle of his clothes, his movements were made soundless, and only his large boots with hobnailed heels made loud taps as he walked, which were almost indecently loud. For this reason, he stepped aside from the platform onto a path, onto the soft, rustling sand. There he saw the train engine. It was a large, black, dirty engine. It stood on a reserve line and looked as if it was sleeping—but, clearly, it was only pretending to. In all of its motionlessness and silence it seemed like the real overlord of these parts, a severe, iron monster, full of hidden power and limitless, unstoppable ambition. That’s him, who, if only he desires, could fly to this or that corner of the world. That’s him, who, with thunder, rumble, and whistle, rushes day and night atop slippery rails, screaming, dispersing crowds, running over the careless and lighting up green and red lights all along its path—he, the motionless, dirty wad of iron, an incomprehensible tangle of wheels, pipes and levers.
“Remarkable!” said the Father with emphasis.
And over his head, the sky was blue and boundless, and was calling him somewhere.
But, it seems, it really was sleeping. No smoke, no rustle—very much as dead. And there was nobody aboard. There was an opportunity now to stick out one’s hand and carefully stroke its very wheel. The Father did just that, though not before putting some spit on his hands, as if he was afraid of burning himself. And then some more spit…
He looked around nervously—an old woman is walking across the path, staring at him. He frowned, pretended to straighten his beard, took out a blue checkered handkerchief and proceeded to spend a long time wiping his face: let the old woman think I’m sweating. Turns out he really was sweating—dirty streaks of sweat and dust were left on the handkerchief. The tricked old woman left, and the Father was overcome by an intolerable urge to wink at somebody. He winked and laughed: if only people could see me now—a priest, and look what he’s up to. But then the Father realized that all of this is very serious and not at all funny, and the ticket office might be open already. No, still closed, and still an hour and a quarter left till the train leaves. A watchman walked across the hallway and looked at the Father; the Father gave him a nod of his head, and the watchman bowed.
“Polite people, learned, not like our lot”, the Father thought approvingly and, filled with courage, went straight over to the sleeping engine. And now it appeared to him in some way like a kind, calm horse, and the Father spoke to it in the same tender way as he would to a horse before work:
“Well, well, get some rest, get some rest. Soon you’ll carry us again brother.”
The engine remained genially silent. Coming over from this side you cannot be seen from the station. The Father grabbed the handle, began to climb, but slipped. His cheeks flushed red and he shook his head for a long time, sprinkling dust and smiling into empty space. He took a moment to think, then placed his umbrella and his little bag on the sand, then picked them up again, and again put them down, and, pulling up his robe, carefully climbed up. There were only three steps but to the Father it seemed as high as a belfry.
“Remarkable. Re-mar-kable,” said the Father in a thoughtful, stern tone, in which he would normally speak of mysterious science and its wonders. And, already feeling himself a little like a scientist, casually stroked something with his hand. In actual fact he didn’t understand anything at all, he only believed: the manifold parts of the machine, their unclear relationship with each other, arrows, numbers, levers—it all spoke of a great enterprise, of difficult and trialing thought, of something considerable and very promising. And it was especially pleasant that he himself, a rural backwater priest, was somehow involved in all of this—by his human nature and respect for science. “Yea, that’s quite something they’ve come up with! This is really something! Remarkable,” spoke the Father and looked askew with contempt at the little bag and umbrella. When he first bought it he would read lectures about it, but now even the umbrella did not seem to him very important. Of course it’s nothing when compared to what we’ve got going on here. He touched a lever—nothing. Touched another—suddenly something gave out a loud hiss, and the engine somehow mysteriously came to life. Hissing somewhere. Turned his head around, bent down—hissing. The Father went pale, and his heart began to beat: thump-thump—what if the driver comes, what will I tell him then? Carefully he pressed on something—the hissing definitely stopped, but it started twitching: raz-raz, raz-raz. This is even worse. Helplessly he glanced at the umbrella and pulled a lever—something pushed him back, and then forward, and then put him back straight on widely spaced out legs. The Father didn’t have time to celebrate having been saved—around him everything was swimming; a telegraph pole is swimming, and, looking back, there were the umbrella and the little bag swimming away.
It strums, rumbles, jerks, snuffles heavily and rolls around—a pure beast. And there is nowhere to grab onto, everything has become so confused. The Father turned something and the engine jumped forward, like a cat, and it began to sprint at such a pace that the wind started howling in his ears. And again he turned something else, yanked the wrong thing. A wild, deafening whistle sounded above his head, a roar even, something terrible and utterly unbearable. At least before this he was traveling in silence, but now he’s raised a roar over the whole world.
“Oh God!” the Father began to pray. But there was no prayer for such a case! “Oh God! Oh God!…What next?”
He stuck out his head. The wind ripped the hat off his head and his dusty hair began spinning around his face, going into his mouth, beating against his eyes. His heart has stopped beating a long time ago—how he remained alive the Father didn’t know himself. After untangling himself from his hair, neither the hat nor anything else remained. There was some forest. An insane forest, relentlessly rushing back, straight into a bottomless pit.
“Oh God!”—a bridge…And now the bridge is gone, all gone. And the earth was lowered down somewhere, and the Father and the engine flew upwards—upwards.
“Oh God!” Over there is a lad near a herd. “Hey lad, lad!” And there is a watchman, the watchman is waving a red flag, his face pale with horror. “Hey watchman, watchman!” And now there’s nothing again, and the earth is above him, and bushes are rushing overhead.
It’s becoming clear now that this is all on purpose, that this couldn’t all just happen by itself—otherwise, what are cakes? The umbrella and cakes. But…where are they?
“My cakes! My cakes…,” mutters the Father, twisting his teary face. It was happiness, it was paradise, it was a feeling of boundless, incredible bliss when he held them under his arm. Why did he have to nose around, why did he touch things, why did he climb aboard? He lost his grip once—what joy that was when he lost his grip!
“Fool! Vermin,” the Father scolded himself with conviction, while also adding: “Re-mar-kable!”
It thunders, it rumbles, it stares at him with its white dials, and, wrapping him in iron, carries him somewhere, carries him on. There, once again, a red flag darts past, like the tongue of a flame—that means danger, that means terror ahead, terror. The end.
And the Father can no longer see, can no longer hear, can no longer think. The clatter of the wheels, the clinking, the trees flying past, the tremors, the swaying of a tired body, the shreds of thoughts still running through his mind—it’s all blending into a single feeling of an unstoppable, terrible, rabid flight. Everything in him is becoming hollow, everything is freezing and being blown out by the wind. Is it he himself that is rushing forward, or is it the engine that is carrying him—he doesn’t know.
And this is no longer a train engine. That engine was left at the station, but this—in its nakedness this is something deaf and relentless, pushing out from somewhere below. Neither prayers nor curses have any power over it for it is utterly unyielding, and it gives the world that terrible and unusual appearance, the appearance of the world seen through the eyes of a man passing away.
For an instant, during an unusually powerful jolt, the Father came to his senses and shouted out in a strangely inappropriate voice, a voice in which one hails a cab: “Stop!”
And then he cursed in words just as strangely unsuitable:
“Just stop, you fool. You fool. You animal. You animal.”
And once again he freezes, absorbed by the feeling of the terrible, rabid flight. And he stands, swaying, all crushed and at a loss; his head dangles helplessly, and the dusty wrinkles on his face are darkening senselessly and pitifully. The wrinkles of pleasant laughter, quiet pleasures and grief for the sick.
It is empty, dead, and perhaps even peaceful in the din and rumble of the torrent carrying him away. And, faintly twinkling, like a quiet distant glow of a lighthouse with only black waves and storms ahead, the last thought of those rich cakes, now far away.
- A priest. In Russian: “Батюшка”, an informal variant of “father”, which is also used informally to address priests.
- In Russian: “Премудрость!” The root of the word is “мудрость” which means “wisdom”, with the full word meaning deep wisdom, but in this context of an astonished rustic priest it means something between ingenuity and trickery/sorcery.
- In Russian: “Еду.”, which translates to “I’m on the move”, or “I’m traveling”. The single word phrase used in this context gives it a slight comedic effect which is better rendered as something like “I’m off.”