The father1 arrived at the station two hours before the train was supposed to leave. He left the house when the sun had only just risen, 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 and 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 sweet flatbreads. For a minute the father felt sad, and he cried out in a frail tenor:
“Ivan! Ah Ivan!”
But the workman was far away and did not 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, a wide, calming azure above the iron roof. At first he sat leisurely on the bench, pleasantly sensing that he was 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 take a careful 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 a 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 for a bit by the ticket office, but, since the office was closed and there was nobody there except for him, he went to the platform.
The platform too he found to his liking: it was long, clean, businesslike, tarred in some places, and in others covered with asphalt—just what is needed for big and important business. Shiny rail tracks ran from it in various directions, keeping 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 is 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. That is why he stepped off the platform onto a path, onto 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. 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 is him, who, if only he desires, could fly to this or that corner of the world. That is 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 his 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 appears, it really was sleeping. No smoke, no rustle—very much as dead. And there was nobody aboard. Now was his chance to stick out a hand and carefully stroke its very wheel. The father did just that, although 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—there is an old woman 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 am sweating. 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 my congregation could see me now—a priest, and look what he is up to. But then the father realized that all this was 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 until the train was to leave. 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,” thought the father 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. If one was to approach it from the other side then one would be hidden from the station. The father grabbed a rail, started to climb, but slipped. He flushed and spent a long time shaking his head, 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 stern, thoughtful tone, in which he would normally speak about mysterious science and its wonders. And, already feeling himself a little like a scientist, he casually stroked something with his hand. But, in actual fact, he did not understand anything at all, he only believed: the manifold parts of the machine, the unclear relationship between them, arrows, numbers, levers—it all spoke of a great enterprise, of difficult and arduous 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 way of his human nature and respect for science. “That’s quite something they’ve come up with! This—this is something! Remarkable,” said the father and looked askance with contempt at the little bag and umbrella. When he first bought the umbrella he would read lectures about it, but now even it did not seem to him very important. Of course it is nothing compared to what we have going on here. He touched a lever—nothing. He touched another—suddenly something gave out a loud hiss, and the engine somehow mysteriously came to life. Somewhere something was hissing. He turned his head around, bent down—hissing. The father grew pale, and his heart began to beat: thump-thump—what if the driver comes, what would he tell him? He carefully pressed something—the hissing definitely stopped, but it started shaking: raz-raz, raz-raz. This is even worse. He glanced helplessly at the umbrella and pulled a lever—something pushed him back, and then forward, and then stood him up straight on his feet spread out wide. The father did not get to celebrate having been saved, he looked outside: everything was swimming by; a telegraph pole was swimming by, 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 nothing to grab onto, everything has become so confused. The father turned something and the engine leaped 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 has 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 had stopped beating a long time ago—how he remained alive the father did not know himself. After he untangled himself from his hair there was no hat, there was nothing. 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 has been lowered down somewhere, and the father and the engine are flying upwards—upwards.
“Oh God!” There is a lad near a herd. “Hey lad, lad!” There is a watchman, the watchman is waving a red flag, his face pale with horror. “Hey watchman, watchman!” And again there is nothing, and the earth is up above, and bushes are rushing overhead.
It is becoming clear now that this is all a trick, that this cannot be happening—otherwise, what are the flatbreads? The umbrella and the flatbreads. But where are they?
“My flatbreads! My flatbreads,” mutters the father, twisting his face from tears. 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 slipped once—what joy it was when he slipped—slipped!
“Fool! Vermin,” the father scolds himself forcefully, 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. 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 clanging, the trees flying past, the tremors, the swaying of a tired body, the shreds of thoughts still running through his mind—it is all blending into a single feeling of an unstoppable, terrible, rabid flight. Everything in him is being emptied, everything is being frozen and blown out by the wind. Is it he himself that is rushing forward, or is it the engine that is carrying him—he does not know.
And this is no longer a train engine. That engine was left at the station, but this—this is something deaf and relentless, pushing out from somewhere down below in its terrible nakedness. 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 recovers his senses and cries out in a strangely inappropriate voice, a voice in which one hails a cab: “Stop!”
And then he curses in words just as strangely unsuitable:
“Just stop, you fool. You fool. You beast. You beast.”
And again he freezes, absorbed by the feeling of the terrible, rabid flight. And he stands, swaying, so crushed and bewildered; his head is dangling helplessly, and the dusty wrinkles on his face are darkening timidly and pitifully. The wrinkles of pleasant laughter, quiet pleasures, 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, when only black waves and storms lie ahead, a faint, intermittent glimmer of the last thought of those sweet flatbreads, now far away.
Translator’s Note: A priest. In Russian: “Батюшка,” a dated variant of the word “father,” which is also used to address priests. ↩