Way late at night Will had heard — how often? — train whistles jetting steam along the rim of sleep, forlorn, alone and far, no matter how near they came. Sometimes he woke to find tears on his cheek, asked why, lay back, listened and thought, Yes! they make me cry, going east, going west, the trains so far gone in country deeps they drown in tides of sleep that escape the towns.
Those trains and their grieving sounds were lost forever between stations, not remembering, where they had been, not guessing where they might go, exhaling their last pale breaths over the horizon, gone. So it was with all trains, ever.
Yet this train’s whistle!
The wails of a lifetime were gathered in it from other nights in other slumbering years; the howl of moon-dreamed dogs, the seep of river-cold winds through January porch screens which stopped the blood, a thousand fire sirens weeping, or worse! the outgone shreds of breath, the protests of a billion people dead or dying, not wanting to be dead, their groans, their sighs, burst over the earth!
Tears jumped to Will’s eyes. He lurched. He knelt. He pretended to lace one shoe.
But then he saw Jim’s hands clap his ears, his eyes wet, too. The whistle screamed. Jim screamed against the scream. The whistle shrieked. Will shrieked against the shriek.
Then the billion voices ceased, instantly, as if the train had plunged in a fire storm off the earth.
The train skimmed on softly, slithering, black pennants fluttering, black confetti lost on its own sick-sweet candy wind, down the hill, with the boys pursuing., the air so cold they ate ice cream with each breath.
They climbed a last rise to look down.
“Boy,” whispered Jim.
The train had pulled off into Rolfe’s moon meadow, so-called because town couples came out to see the moon rise here over a land so wide, so long, it was like an inland sea, filled with grass in spring., or hay in late, summer or snow in winter, it was fine walking here along its crisp shore with the moon coming up to tremble in its tides.
Well, the carnival train was crouched there now in the autumn grass on the old spur near the Woods and the boys crept and lay down under a bush, waiting.
“It’s so quiet, whispered Will.
The train just stood in the middle of the dry autumn field, no one in the locomotive no one in the tender, no one in any of the cars behind, all black under the moon, and just the small sounds of its metal cooling, ticking on the rails.
”Ssst,” said Jim. “I feel them moving in there.”
Will felt the cat-fuzz on his body bramble up by the thousands.
“You think they mind us watching?”
“Maybe,” said Jim, happily.
“Then why the noisy calliope?”
”When I figure that,” Jim said, “I’ll tell you. Look!”
As if exhaling itself straight down from the sky, a vast moss-green balloon touched at the moon.
It hovered two hundred yards above and away, quietly riding the wind.
“The basket under the balloon, someone in it!”
But then a tall man stepped down from the train caboose platform like a captain assaying the tidal weathers of this inland sea. All dark suit, shadow-faced, he waded to the centre of the meadow, his shirt as black as the gloved hands he now stretched to the sky.
He gestured, once.
And the train came to life.
At first a head lifted in one window, then an arm, then another head like a puppet in a marionette theatre. Suddenly two men in black were carrying a dark tent-pole out across the hissing grass.
It was the silence that made Will pull back, even as Jim leaned forward eyes moon-bright.
A carnival should be all growls, roars like, timberlands stacked, bundled, rolled and crashed, great explosions of lion dust, men ablaze with working anger, pop bottles jangling, horse buckles shivering, engines and elephants in full stampede through rains of sweat while zebras neighed and trembled like cage trapped in cage.
But this was like old movies, the silent theatre haunted with black-and-white ghosts, silvery mouth opening to let moon-light smoke out, gestures made in silence so hushed you could hear the wind fizz the hair on your cheeks. More shadows rustled from the train, passing the animal cages where darkness prowled with unlit eyes and the calliope stood mute save for the faintest idiot tune the breeze piped wandering up the flues.