Short selection from The Iron Tracks

It has been forty years since I first harnessed myself to those racehorses known as trains. Were it not for my weariness and certain women, I would never leave the confines of the stations, which I've also learned to love. There are stations where you find excellent sandwiches, superb coffee, and even a moment of true rest. Crowded platforms sometimes give way to silence, but often, I must admit, my stations are crammed with rushing people, and baggage, and the smell of chemical fertilizers. You would be better off standing outside and waiting for the next train.

My annual route is circular. Actually oval. It begins in the spring, rounds off, and finishes at winter's end. It's a route with endless stations, but for me there are only twenty-two. The rest are of no consequence. I know my stations like the palm of my hand. I can reach them with my eyes closed. Years ago a night train skipped one of my stops, and my body stirred at once. I trust my body more than my mind. It detects error on the spot.

Every March twenty-seventh I take the morning train from Wirblbahn and begin my journey. I prefer the morning train to the afternoon express. Express trains make me dizzy even now. The night before my departure Istay awake and stand by the window, awaiting the verdict. If the sky is clear, I know that thisyear my travels will go as planned, and people will be friendly. But if the sky is low and dark, it is clear to me that the year will be a mess, thugs will harass me, and my profits will be small.

I hate superstitions, but what can I do? In recent years they've clung to me like leeches. I live by signs, by codes whose meaning I alone know. It is hard for me to justify this, but the truth cannot be denied: certain people arouse within me the will for life and joy, and others, often unintentionally, grind me into the dust. A taxi driver who tells me, "I knew you'd arrive today, so I refused a fare and waited for you," revives me instantly. True, taxi drivers are fond of me, because I give them something extra, but not only because of that. Sometimes they sit in the buffet with me for a good hour, recalling what I told them during my past visits, and laughing at all the new anecdotes. In their hearts they know: I belong to their tribe of poor souls.

At seven in the morning I am ready with my valise at the Wirblbahn station. Every time I leave this place or return, anxiety seizes me. My legs weaken, and pressure builds in my gut. Only two tranquilizers can subdue such an attack. Because of this anxiety, and for other reasons, I have sought to change the starting point of my journey. Until now I've been unable to do so. I will explain: in flat Wirblbahn, which is nothign more than a row of warehouses, a few watchmen's huts, and a wretched inn, in this accursed place, my life ended and I was reborn. The Germans brought our train to this remote station and left us here. For three days we had been bolted inside. On the third day, the train stopped moving. The wings of death had departed, but we didn't know it. We were already captive to visions of death. The next morning someone released the bolt, and a stream of light washed over us. That was our return to life. I still feel the light on my body. As of that morning my strange new life began. Sometimes it seems that everything springs from that morning. Neither death nor rebirth is glorious. That morning the people were not joyful. They remained where they were.

For me Wirblbahn is a mute chapter. A believer makes his lips speak in any situation. But paralysis grips me every time I remember that return to life We were twenty-four in all, a few dead people, and two children, in whose eyes the light had dulled. They sat in the doorway of the railroad car. They legs dangled and they asked for nothing. The plain was broad and looked, for some reason, like a giant rectangle that had been divided into large squares. The spaces between the square shapes were empty, barren, for everything that grew had been cut down. Here, it turned out, stood the warehouses where we were going to work.

A man touched my arm and said, "This is not bad, but too late." He immediately returned to the railroad car. I remember his face and the sound of his steps. His steps are still with me, so that I imagine hearing them even as I am embraced by a good woman. Wirblbahn is a wound that won't heal. I sense it on hot summer nights, a wound that lurks in secret and suddenly flares up. I was certain that it was a dormant ulcer, but in recent years I've discovered that the memory of Wirblbahn is what causes this pain in my stomach to gather strength. Oddly, this only happens to me in the summer and only at night. Once I manage to drive the sight of Wirblbahn out of my head, the pain stops.

Nevertheless, I am compelled to return here every year. I stay in the inn for two weeks, and on March twenty-seventh, I set out. If I found someone here it would be easier for me. But there's scarcely a living soul. The few guards are asleep or drunk, the owner of the inn is deaf. During the war he fought on the Eastern Front. That is where he lost his hearing. He is not ashamed. He hangs pictures of himself at the entrance. He was a platoon sergeant.

A few years ago I saw a man loitering in the courtyard of the inn, and I was certain I was seeing one of my rivals, someone who had come back to life here like me. This was of course an illusion. No one returns here, just me and the shadows I bring with me. Here desolation reigns forever. What am I doing here? I keep asking myself. That's how it is every year.

Introduction to Appelfeld's Iron Tracks



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