Crossing

~ Jennifer Quail

It is winter. It is always winter.

Marie-Eve has never seen a train on the tracks. As long as she can remember it has been a dead spur, leading somewhere forgotten in the distant hills. Sometimes when Maman is not watching her she stands on the tracks and stares north into the hulking, ancient Laurentian Mountains. Papa says the trains came once, but Maman says they have not come in years. She wonders if she could walk to the mountains, or if they would always remain on the horizon. She never tries.

She never sees a train, either, until the first night she sees the woman.

She does not know what woke her, at first. Someone, Maman or Papa, moving in the kitchen? Or the wind rattling the door of the barn?

She slips from under the covers and pads to the window, the floorboards rough and cold beneath her bare feet. Outside there is a light on a pole above the railroad crossing, casting a sickly green-gold pool to warn the drivers who rarely pass of the trains that never come. Marie-Eve peers out, waiting, not knowing for what. Only knowing it is coming.

The woman walks into the light from the shadows somewhere near the house. She wears a dark, heavy, men’s coat and her boots leave deep treaded tracks in the snow. She stops at the edge of the road, where the tracks are level with the pavement. She waits.

A pale circle of light appears in the southern darkness. The train arcs up as if springing out of the ground at the horizon. It races across the frost-bitten rails, black and sleek with the glowing cyclops eye of the engine lamp slicing into the night ahead.

The woman stands, hands crammed deep in the pockets of her coat, watching as the train rushes out of the gloom. Marie-Eve can feel the whole house tremble and she’s sure Maman and Papa will wake, or in the barn across the tracks the cattle will start lowing. If it were day they would scatter across the fields, she’s sure, tripping over the jagged corn stalks that stubble up through the snow. They’ve never seen a train here, either.

The long, dark engine rolls past the house but while the floor shakes and she can see the steam hissing from the wheels, Marie-Eve can’t hear the engine’s rumble or the creak of the brakes. There is no light from the cab, though she thinks she sees a dark shape moving from one side to the other, a form that might be at the window looking back. The whole train is dark, not just with lights dimmed or shades drawn, but painted deeper black than India ink and all the glass darkened, too.

Marie-Eve presses her nose to the window, straining to see the woman between the cars. She should be able to see shadows at least in the pool of the lamp. But a light, the head lamps of a truck coming around the curve, slices across her vision and she has to blink.

When she can see again, the train and the woman are gone. The truck thuds across the grade crossing and disappears, gone up the road, and there are only the tracks gray with frost and the empty pool of lamplight.

Marie-Eve tells her Maman about the train, but not the woman. Maman says Marie-Eve was dreaming, that she’d heard a truck passing on the road, carrying milk cans from the dairy twenty kilometers east to the town twenty kilometers west and in her sleep imagined the rattling was a train. Maman says in the winter it’s easy to imagine things, even in your sleep. It is convincing, for now. Comforting.

So much so Marie-Eve does not tell her, or Papa, when five winters later she awakes one night and sees the woman waiting for the train again.

This night, she is in the kitchen, the oil lamp bathing the ice box and the wood stove in a flickering greasy gold. The shadows make Papa’s old hunting coat look as if someone is hanging inside it on its hook. Maman left her glasses on the drain board and the reflected glow makes them look like solid disks of shiny metal. Marie-Eve does not dare turn on the electric light. They will not notice a sliver of the pate-de-lac-St-Jean is missing when it’s cut for tomorrow’s supper, and she will sleep better without quite as much an ache in her stomach, she thinks. But better not to wake them anyway.

Marie-Eve moves on tip-toe, listening to the house breathe around her. Papa says the faint creaks and moans are the dry boards, the wind, but in the dark like this Marie-Eve likes to think she can hear the frost prickling across the walls outside and crackling the window glass.

She thinks she hears the soft padding of feet above her, Maman perhaps going to Marie-Eve’s room. The noise is like someone moving to her window, at least, and she blows out the lamp. Now there is only the green-yellow outside from the light at the crossing and she is alone in the dark, frozen as surely as the ground outside. She leans over the sink, pushing back the flour-sack curtain, and looks.

She jumps when the shadow moves from the porch, out of the dark corner into her line of sight as if coming from the door. The woman wears the heavy man’s coat, her hands driven deep into the pockets. Her boots leave deep, treaded tracks in the snow. Marie-Eve can see puffs of white where the woman breathes in the knife-sharp cold. But while she can hear the sighing crackles of the frost on the walls and the rush of blood in her ears, she does not hear the footsteps crunch in the snow.

She feels the train approach but does not hear it. From the kitchen, she cannot look down on the tracks, so she cannot see the length of the train, but as the long, black engine glides to a stop she sees the movement in the cab, a figure behind the darkened glass. The figure moves closer, but she cannot see a face, only shadows swathed in deeper shadow.

The shadow, she is certain, looks out at the house.

Now she feels the thrum of the engine deep in her chest, and her mind wills there to be sound, but there is only the usual winter night murmurs. She can’t see the woman at the crossing, but as the long locomotive begins to move, she looks for the footprints in the snow. When she looks up again, the train and the woman are gone.

She goes back to bed, still hungry, but at least no one has noticed she is awake. The next morning, before breakfast, she stands on the tracks, staring north, but there are only the distant shadows of the mountains, ancient and empty and too far to reach. There are no footprints in the snow but her own.

The third time, Marie-Eve is fifteen, and she is not in the house. Maman is in the hospital in Chicoutimi, an hour away, and Papa is tired. The chores are late, because they are late getting home to the cold house, but the chores must be done. Someone has to go to the barn with the bucket of hot water to thaw the pump and make sure the cows that have not yet been sold can drink.

Marie-Eve lugs the steaming pail to the wellhead, her breath rasping as loud as Maman’s did before she went away. The cold burns into her lungs. Her coat is too small but it can last another winter if it must. It is thin, too, so she thinks that the prickling of the skin of her neck is only the wind brushing its chill hand over her. She will be back inside soon, she thinks, and looks back to the house. There is an oily gold glow from the lamp in the kitchen, but the stirring of an upstairs curtain tells her Papa has gone up, leaving the light for her.

A rush of wind makes the door of the barn rattle on its hinges. She checks, but it remains firmly latched.

When she looks back the woman is walking from the shadow of the porch, her hands buried deep in the pockets of the heavy coat.

Marie-Eve turns without thinking to the south. A pinprick of light is growing, from the size of a star to the beam of a penlight to the glow of a torch to the lamp of the locomotive cutting through the darkness so sharply she thinks it could be a solid blade. From outside, without the safe thickness of glass between her and train, there is a depth to the black cars that has its own gravity. She wants to fall towards them, as if they are a train-shaped void and she is standing on the edge, looking down into some unfathomable abyss.

Something in the abyss moves and she realizes the woman is gone.

Marie-Eve drops the bucket and starts to run, and the train starts to move. The streamlined edges of the cars blur into the darkness, and she cannot say where the cars ends and their shadows on the snow begins. The silence pulls the sounds of the night, even her panting breath, into the train’s wake.

Her boots sink deep, the snow turning slick under her weight and she trips. Her hands burn with the dry cold through her threadbare gloves as she pushes herself back to her feet. The light has gone out in the kitchen, the curtain upstairs is still, and Marie-Eve stumbles to the tracks, skidding up the raised bank until she stands between the rails, looking north. There is no sound, but a vibration shudders up through the soles of her boots, a rhythm like distant iron wheels on steel rails.

She might have stood there all night if the milk truck hadn’t clattered around the curve, and an absurd fear of being caught in its headlights’ beams sends her scrambling back to the house.

Papa sells the last of the cows after Maman dies. The corn stalks after harvest stubble the field, waiting to be plowed under in the spring. Marie-Eve cooks, and makes the long drive to town when the old truck doesn’t freeze up and when the roads aren’t iced. She thinks, more than once, about driving away for good, but Papa stays, and she can’t leave him alone. And in some part of her mind, she cannot imagine leaving the house. If she leaves, she sometimes thinks when she’s lying in the dark listening to the frost creep across the walls, then the house will somehow cease to exist.

Or perhaps she will cease to exist anywhere but the house.

One night, the winter after she takes Papa to the hospital in Chicoutimi for the last time, Marie-Eve hears a sound like the barn door banging on its hinges. The only thing inside it now is the plow the farmer who leases the land has stored there until spring comes, but she pulls on Papa’s old coat anyway. Her boots creak into the cornflour-dry snow and her breath steams with every stabbing-cold breath. She shoves her hands deep in her pockets and trudges out, across the tracks.

The light stabs out of the south and the ground trembles as she steps into the green-gold pool of the light at the crossing. Marie-Eve turns, because now she hears the high, keening whistle of a locomotive cutting through the night air. The black engine slices past, pushing the darkness aside like a plough turning earth. The wheels shrill with the brakes as the train rolls to a stop before her and Marie-Eve looks up at the platform between the first car and the engine. The figure in the cab turns back towards her, and through the glass of the door she sees that it is shadow on shadow. Within the cars behind it are more shadows, she can feel the weight of them moving and pressing the train on to the north. Marie-Eve looks, but the mountains are shadows, too, black on black horizon.

When she turns back, she can see the house between the train cars. A curtain at an upstairs window stirs. The greasy gold light of the lamp goes out in the kitchen. Behind her, she hears the clank of the bucket as it’s dropped in the snow.

The train’s wheels start to turn, and Marie-Eve hears a rattle of a truck in a distance.

Marie-Eve reaches for the platform, stepping up, falling forward into blackness as the train lurches towards the mountains.

Marie-Eve stands on the tracks, staring at the Laurentians looming on the horizon. She wonders if she could walk along the tracks and someday reach the mountains, or if they would always stay just ahead on the horizon. Or would she be struck by a train?

She has never seen a train, but Papa says they came, once.

Maman calls from the porch. It’s getting dark and the cold is crackling across the ground, so sharp Marie-Eve thinks she can hear it. There is a faint tremor in the rails, but Maman says the trains never come any more.

It is winter. It is always winter.

 

Jennifer Quail is a writer of fantasy, horror, and mystery, a wine-tasting consultant, trivia geek, and owner of two of the world’s cutest dogs. In December 2019 she achieved a lifelong dream of appearing on Jeopardy! without embarrassing herself in the process. She enjoys travel, art, and excessive amounts of coffee.

Find more at authorjenniferquail.com.

 [ issue 2 : spring 2021 ]