Literatura que desafia.
In the far northern part of the state of Paraíba lay a train cemetery. It looked like any other cemetery: deserted, silent, and somber. Arthur could almost feel the atmosphere of sadness that so often surrounds rows of gravestones, marking the final resting place of so many people.
However, this cemetery was for trains. Although it contained no gravestones, the enormous machines formed a labyrinth. Click. A photo. Click, click. Two more photos of a rusty, pinkish train dating back to 1892. It must have been red at some point in its coal-propelled life, but, little by little, time had sapped its color.
Arthur was fascinated. He had not even known that places like this existed. It was surrounded by ancient machines, cacti, and miles of desert. His pictures were lovely, especially with the contrasts in the sun, which emitted its light over the land and made it almost golden. Click. A photo of a train that, with a bit of imagination, he swore had a melancholy face, as if it were nostalgic for the days when it spewed smoke into the air and carried passengers to all parts of the state. Click. This photo album would be a high point in his career.
However, he was not there simply to put together an album. He liked going by himself to places like this. When the clerk at the hostel where he was staying mentioned the cemetery, he felt his pulse quicken. He imagined a place from the last century, containing reliquaries of an age forgotten or ignored by most people. He did not hesitate to ask for a map. Now that he was here, he had no regrets. As he walked among the abandoned, forgotten trains, he tried to imagine the stories behind those colossal machines. How many people had they carried? How many urgent situations had they helped resolve? How many couples met during the long trips? How many people died while laying down the tracks?
In the final analysis, he concluded, cemeteries were about memories, not the dead. People do not go to a cemetery to visit the deceased, he thought, but, rather, to relive memories of those they once loved. From behind his camera lens, Arthur tried to imagine the heyday of one of the train cars he singled out, rotted and covered with fungus. He smiled as he pictured a scene from the Far West, where the hero, mounted on a galloping stallion, caught up to the train and leapt onto it. He knew that such a scene never took place in Brazil, but it fit the mood.
His smile vanished, however, when he heard something move behind a cactus. A crow that had been perched on one of the train cars rose and flew over his head. The sudden beating of its wings gave him a start, making him jump back. His foot stumbled on a stone and he staggered backwards until he came up against another car. The sound of the hollow metal of the old locomotive startled dozens of other crows, which took flight in unison. With his heart racing and his mouth agape, Arthur watched them above, but it was not until the sound of their wings faded in the distance that he managed to laugh at the situation. He looked back at the cactus, but nothing was there.
He had already spent too much time at this cemetery, he thought. The whole place had a decadent, macabre air. The sun, which marched inexorably across the sky, began to throw shadows that grew ever longer on the arid ground, making the atmosphere even more somber. Arthur took a few last photos, then stuffed the camera in his backpack. It was time to go.
That was when he realized that he did not know where he was.
With so many rusted-out machines lying around, discolored with the passage of time, they all seemed to look alike. He had taken a bus from the small city of Tucunhas as far as the dirt road that led to the cemetery, then grabbed a ride in a rancher’s cart to his destination.
“When you’re ready, just come on back to this road and walk to the end, I’ll pick you up and take you back,” the rancher said. Now Arthur did not know where the road was.
As he searched for the way back, he slipped between one car and another at an angle, coming out on an open plain. The desert stretched as far as the eye could see. A gust of wind caught him by surprise, tossing sand in his face. He could not make out the road he had used when he came. However, he did see some train tracks, which lay no more than ten yards away. Confused, the photographer approached them. They were new tracks, with hardly any signs of wear, that looked like they had been placed there only a few months ago. They seemed to come out of nowhere and went on to nowhere, converging on the point where the horizon met the sky.
The sound of someone grunting behind him gave Arthur the second fright of the day. He took a deep breath and turned around quickly to look, taking a step to the side and almost tripping over the track. From the space between the two cars he had passed moments earlier came an elderly man, carrying a large bag with scraps of old metal. He wore a jean apron with suspenders, the kind that Arthur thought no one anywhere had used for decades.
Astonished, the curious traveler was at a loss for words. He had not seen this man around, even though he had spent more than three hours ambling through the cemetery. For his part, the scrap metal scavenger caught a glimpse of Arthur while moving from one train car to another.
“Good afternoon,” he said with a grunt.
“Good afternoon,” Arthur replied awkwardly. He assumed it was illegal to scavenge scrap metal from a train cemetery that served as a tourist attraction.
“Are you lost, son?”
“N-n-n-n-no.” He paused as he took some more pictures.
“Oh, photos,” the man said, grunting again. “You young people always come here taking photos.”
Another gust of wind put an end to the conversation, so the old man turned to head towards another train car. Something about him bothered the photographer, but he could not say exactly what it was. A few seconds later, the old man grunted again, while Arthur kept on watching him, incredulous.
“This place is a junkyard that people like to call a museum. Or, sometimes, a cemetery. So that’s why there’s always some kid like you coming here to take pictures. Always taking pictures.” He put a few more pieces of rusty steel in his bag before continuing. “So many beautiful places to see, and, still, you all come here to see this lousy dump of old junk, disturbing the peace and quiet.”
“Do you live here, sir?”
“Yes and no, my child. It’s a long story.” The old man spoke without turning around, gesturing with his free hand, as if he felt disdain for every word he directed at Arthur. The young photographer could not hold back a smile. The scavenger was just a tired old man who wanted to finish his daily round. Arthur put the camera away and put his backpack on again, looking relaxed at last. Then he remembered the train tracks to his side.
“Are these tracks recent?”
“That depends. Recent is a notion that changes, depending on whether you’re young or old, my child.”
“So is there any train that still goes through here?”
“Oh, yes. It comes twice a day, at six in the morning and six at night.” The old man looked up toward the sky for a few moments, squinting his eyes and shading them with his hand. Then he turned back to his work, saying, “It’s about to arrive any moment now.”
“A train that’s still operating in this desert, who’d have imagined!” Arthur exclaimed. This trip was turning out to be even better than he had expected. To top off his visit to the train cemetery, he had a golden chance to catch an old train back to the hostel and arrive like a gentleman of yesteryear. He wished he had brought a hat in his backpack.
He checked with the elderly scavenger to ask if the train went to Tucunhas and whether it stopped near the cemetery. The old man, who said his name was Eugene, confirmed that it did.
“It stops right here, you just have to flag it down. It chugs along real slow, it’s so old. One good kick and I bet I could derail that big piece of junk. It would make for some great scrap metal,” he said, grunting once more.
No sooner had Eugene finished speaking than he disappeared into the cemetery. The sun began to hide behind the mountains when the train appeared on the horizon, spewing out black smoke from the chimney at the head of the line of cars. It came so slowly that it took more than ten minutes to reach the cemetery. Arthur flagged it down, and the giant machine ground to a stop with a deafening burst of steam.
It was a real Iron Horse, a truly majestic machine. Arthur could see that everything Eugene said about it was a lie. Like the tracks, the locomotive was in excellent condition. It was black and shiny, its polished surface glittering in the sunset. It did not even show any rust. When he climbed the steps of the car, he saw the red curtains through the windows; incredibly, they were in pristine shape. He opened the door and entered, aware that his mouth was hanging open in amazement. Inside, everything looked exactly like something from an earlier century, but preserved as if brand new. Arthur took his camera out of his backpack and starting snapping pictures right and left as the train began moving forward again, heading slowly toward Tucunhas.
He did not notice how much time passed while he took photos of the train’s old cabins, colonial curtains, antique wood furniture, and even the lovely landscape outside. But he did note that the train, which had come from some distant place and apparently did not pass through many inhabited locations, was almost empty. He hoped he would run across a tourist, even another photographer like himself, to exchange some ideas. But he got so immersed in taking pictures that he only broke out of his mesmerized enthusiasm when the locomotive began surging ahead. From one moment to the next, the train’s slow, monotonous march forward suddenly picked up speed. The trees started to look like mere blurs. He remembered the times he took the subway in São Paulo, and now the locomotive seemed to be moving with the same velocity.
Then he realized that he had already walked through three cars without seeing a single person, not even a tourist or curiosity-seeker. Deserted; nobody was there.
The first thing that occurred to him was to ask the engineer what was going on. He also wanted to know how much more time it would take to reach Tucunhas. He had trouble walking, trying to keep his balance as the cars whipped along at high speed. He finally reached the engineer’s cabin and opened the door. There was no engineer; there was not even a control panel.
His heartbeat froze. He looked out at the landscape. He had never seen these surroundings before. He did not know where he was nor where he was going. Then it dawned on him: apparently, ghosts were not simply beings that frequented cemeteries, as expected. He was inside a ghost train.
Back at the train cemetery, the police were leaving to go back to the city. Eugene watched the red and blue lights of their car moving along the dirt road, receding farther into the distance. This was the third time they had come here. It was always the same story: some kid had come to the cemetery to take pictures, then caught the six o’clock train and disappeared. The police would come soon afterwards trying to locate the missing person, but without success.
The old man did not understand why they did not see the tracks, nor why they never came over to ask him any questions, but it did not bother him. When they visited the cemetery with their blinding lights and search dogs, Eugene would cower in his dilapidated shack and wait for them to leave. Sometimes the dogs even came sniffing inside his shack and looked him in the eye, but apparently the police could see nothing, so they left.
With his shoulder bag jangling with pieces of rusty metal, he set out again for the tracks. In the distance, he could see the train approaching. It was an ugly old thing, much inferior to the fine machines he had been accustomed to driving years ago, around eighteen hundred… and what? He had forgotten. He had been here for so many years that he was not even sure any more.
He waited for the rattletrap to arrive. He thought about Sophia, his beloved wife. He missed her greatly, wishing he could embrace her once again. The train might carry him to her, he thought. But when the machine stopped alongside him, with its wheezy blast of steam, he did not have the strength to climb up into it. Something held him back, something that had always held him back over all those years. He looked up at the door to the train car, its handle beckoning him. Then he turned around and retraced his steps back to his shack, muttering some curse.
Maybe tomorrow he would try again.