River Rye by Mahmoud Sharif
In the railway station, on the platform, I was standing, waiting with my luggage beside me and an eagerness to board. I was alone. I could not see afar for the drizzling snow blurred every little thing around me. Through the wait, with every passing moment, little puffs of steam blew out of my mouth. I looked around, under the snowfall, and in the flurry I could distinguish the mounds of snow on the ground. I could see the tall lamp post over me shedding light through the falling snow. It was dawn, I looked up but the sky failed to be seen. I pictured a sky with no clouds, a sky with no birds, a sky with no sun. The wind was rising and falling, flapping my coat, swaying the trees.
The city was Halifax. I turned around, stepped aside, glanced at my watch, at the platform covered in snow, then back at my watch. I could see the train before me through the snowfall, a line of wagons chained together, clad in yellow and blue. All the doors were shut.
This would be a week-long trip all the way to Vancouver, which would take me far away, through various regions and time zones, crossing earths and lakes, a journey into the Rockies and the Prairies, the lowlands and highlands, the trenches and foothills, the rivers and streets; all the way to the end, to the last station, where I could finally escape.
I sat on the bench. Unnerved, I stood up, turned around, glanced at my watch, and then sat back. I glanced at the gate, the exit door and the building, searched for people and life amidst the falling snow, but found none. ‘The train would be full’, that’s what they had told me. The station would be bustling with activity. It would be hard to find seats. But it was only me, me with the drizzling snow and my luggage; there were no ticket controllers, no hostesses, no passengers. Only me.
A melody played.
It came from the station’s speakers. It consisted of a major key followed by a minor key, followed by four flat keys. Major, minor, flat, flat, flat, flat. Major. Minor. Flat. Flat. Flat. Flat. It hung in the air for nearly a minute.
The train doors swished and opened at once.
I boarded the car, stepped into a vestibule, turned right, then walked through the aisle, skirted the rows of turquoise seats, trod the brown carpet until I found a row of two seats facing two other seats, with a wooden table between them. There, I placed my luggage up in the rack, and slouched on the seat right below, gazed through the window at the falling snow. I watched the platform, smooth and uneven, and noticed that traces of my footsteps were gone.
If one seeks the spiritual kingdom, he should stay and cherish his own home. But if one feels the gloom inside of him, the tentacles gripping his mind and the spiritless life tormenting him, he should leave home. I was running away from the harrowing plight, from fingers pointed at me, from the gloom inside my head, laying the blame and holding me responsible for every little sin. Alas, they are right and I am wrong. I had to leave.
The train horn blared.
It was a long, raspy and grating blast.
All the exterior doors slid close.
I could hear a sound hissing in the background, it came from the ceiling. It was the ventilation supplying the cabin with fresh, cold air.
There was a burst forward, slowly, the train moved. The wheels clacked and rumbled on the track. I took off my coat, gloves, and knit cap. My shoes and socks were soaked; my feet were wet. It was slow at first but shortly after, the speed mounted, and deep down, in my belly, between the guts and the lungs, a spasm of pain unsettled me. I felt the bumps on the rail, the cramps in my stomach, and a vile sensation of sickness. It was an urge to purge the queasy feelings out of my belly.
The train rolled on the embankment following its lane, rolled on the trestle bridge, over the frozen river stream, over the marshes, through the woodland, the snow covered fields, the listless farms, the coniferous forest, and the deciduous trees. Here and there, a broken tree lay on the ground. The cabin quaked, to the left and to the right while moving forward. The outside world was devoid of life – no people – no cars – just a solid blanket of snow over the vast expanse of land.
The train covered ground; it swept into the landscape, then entered towns. We skipped roads, dim-lit houses, parishes, convenience stores, and gas stations. No one was there. The train passed through the towns of Truro, Amherst, and Moncton. The train stations were abandoned. I saw empty platforms, vacant parking lots, and closed gates.
The temperature dropped. I felt the freezing cold, then wrapped my coat around my arms and chest. The evening came, and through the window I looked upon the ashen sky. The sun set down with tarnished colors. Through the window, I saw the meadow, the hazy skyline, and the fir trees obscured by the fading sunlight.
All lights went off. Darkness permeated the room. The train followed its track through the night, unabated.
I gazed at the window. It was pitch black. I could see neither the stars nor the graceful glow of the moon. Darkness covered it all. I saw neither colors nor gradients, nor a hue or a tint. The window was black. Black, as if we were travelling in space. Black, as if there was no window. Black, as if my own eyes were shut.
I slumbered in my seat.
I woke up an hour later.
Darkness sealed all the windows inside the cabin.
The lights in the cabin flickered. Spasmodic lights switching on and off, then on again.
I felt the cold. I heard clanks and clinks.
I heard the ventilation hissing inside the room.
I heard distinct sounds. A sigh, a tap on the door and clumping shoes.
I was sitting, stuck there in a captive gaze, listening to the shuffle behind the doorway. In the ceiling, the neon lights flickered.
The doorway in the foreground swooshed open.
An old man was standing there.
He had grey eyes and a cold gaze; he was staring at me like an owl, eyes transfixing me with no particular intent. He had a square shaped face and wavy, silver hair that reached his neck. He stepped forward.
He came to me. Silent. His shoulders leaned back. I noticed his thick eyebrows, the wrinkles on his cheeks, and his flat nose. He was wearing a white coat, white trousers, and white shoes.
The lights in the room dimmed, then flickered.
He came, the gap between us narrowed. He came, skirting the seats, unruffled by the quaking car. He followed the aisle, staring straight at me, his head brushing the ceiling.
The stranger stopped next to me, then sat on the seat right in front of me. He rested both arms on the table. He stared at me as I stared at him.
In the night, the train rushed through the tracks, under the firmament. It was just the two of us in the wilderness, lost somewhere in space, forlorn and forgotten, in the midst of the winter, inside an empty train. I pictured the train drifting on its journey, taking straight lines and oblique courses in the never-ending world of mystery.
“Are thou ready?”
I froze, unable to breathe, unable to move or to speak. He had ogling eyes and a gruff voice. I could scarcely see the shadows outlining his face.
“Are thou ready?” he said.
Silence was my response. The weight of confusion had muzzled my lips. I waited there, wheezing, my hands trembling under the table. He had broad eyes with large pupils and cornea.
I noticed a mole on his left cheek.
“Ready? Ready for what?” I said.
The stranger answered,
“I am the Angel of Death. My name is Azrael.”
His skin was of a pale greyish color. I had to endure a queasy sensation inside my belly. It felt abstruse and chaotic, tense and senseless. He sighed, raised both eyebrows, leaned forward, then said,
“Thy destination will not be Vancouver. I will accompany thee to thy fated journey. Your time on earth is due. I’ve come to take you with me.”
I felt a drop of sweat roll on my back. The tension mounted, the shivers spiked.
“You can’t escape your fate; your journey in this train will end. Your last station is the Gate of Redemption before the Hereafter. So, are thou ready to come with me?”
He leaned back on his seat, eyeing me.
I leaned forward, drooped, laid my forehead and hands on the table, and spread my fingers. My eyes were shut. The train followed its track. I listened to the wheels scraping and squeaking on the rail.
A few minutes later, I reclined, then sat straight. He was still there.
“I have made peace with myself. I’m ready to leave, to go where you will take me, over the sun, and beyond the sea, where the world has its end. I’m not surprised for I knew that my final days were close. I’m ready to go with you, but before we leave, please grant me a final wish.”
“And what might that be?” The spirit of Death asked.
I said, “Give me some time to write a farewell letter to my wife, and, and please hand it, hand it over to her.”
“Thy final wish shall be granted.” He answered with panache.
Thereafter, we remained seated. Azrael stared through with his grey eyes.
The ventilation wafted in the background. It supplied a steady stream of air, a susurrating sound whispering in my ears, a cold breeze of indifference. In this sublunary world, all things come and go, disappear as they appear, but one thing that we all share is the inherent ability to remember sounds, and to associate those sounds with memories. Little by little, this sound in the background recalled memories of a distant past.
Grief, scars, and regrets carve a life of mystery. A life of delusion and introspection. Forever intertwined.
I nodded, stood up, trudged the aisle, stepped into another car, and then reached the dining coach. A few steps away, I walked to the coffee counter, brewed coffee on my own since there was no else around, and there, in that same cabin, I leaned on the scarlet couches and pondered while sipping the bitter drink. I dawdled there for a while watching the ceiling, listening to the hum of the air circulating.
I stood up, poured the drink in the sink, and then walked away, to the business coach. I found bunk beds, then lied down on the lower bunk. With time dwindling, a myriad of confusion lingered in my head. I spent the night there, tossing and turning. I didn’t fall asleep until nearly dawn.
When I awoke, we were in Montreal. It was the stopover I was expecting, but the train didn’t stop. It hadn’t stopped in any of the stations along the journey. The train rushed on the tracks, in silence.
I stood up, and rinsed my face in the lavatory, returned to the lounge, then caught sight of his back. He was sitting in the same seat, aloof, staring through the window. I came and sat in front of him. He smiled for the first time – revealing a perfect set of teeth -, then handed me a pen and parchment.
I looked at my wrist, watched the ticking clock, the twirling seconds, the languid delusion, the disk which distorts reason and wisdom. The watch awoke me to reality, the hands spin but yet movements are hindered, and time dawdles forever.
On the parchment, I wrote.
Mahmoud Sharif was born in Somalia and now lives in Montreal, Canada. He works in a telecommunications firm. Writing is his passion, and his way to relay the unseen, untold and unheard. He is influenced by authors such as Knut Hamsun, Haruki Marukami, and Jorge Luis Borges. Mahmoud evokes the themes of solitude, social rights, and the bizarre. His fictions have appeared in the Sleepy House Press and Ricky’s Backyard. When not writing fiction, he is editor-in-chief of a tech magazine. You can follow him on twitter @marcusmontreal.