Freight Train! (right click to save file)
The town was built because we anticipated the train, but as its odd-angled edges, blacker than all the sin in hell, forced their way over the unfamiliar tracks, all of us except our young men fled into our homes.
We did not see a hint of its smoke last month, as the months-long blizzard slowed, and the flat ground beyond our noses emerged from the white fog to reveal a landscape blanketed, swamped, immersed in the refuse of a frozen cloud.
We did see the shadow of the drunk prophet, which was as good as seeing the shadow of the smoke of the train’s seething engine. He came to us as a dark hulk of a pile of skins, creatures shot and stripped in his Westward progress, their limp flanks steaming at his shoulders.
The human shape within did not unfold to us for quite some time. We watched him from noon, staggering through the fields, seeming to sway without drawing nearer. Then, as dusk fell over the glowing land in the mid-afternoon, he was upon us.
“Pray the sun don’t come out,” he told us through jagged, sunworn lips which seemed about to fall off. He stood in the street, knee-deep in snow, swaying the same as when he walked to us from the horizon. His crooked jaw continued moving in a slow rotation after he finished speaking.
“You don’t look like a man to say much about prayer,” we replied.
He sneered, then said, “You might be right. Anyway, the sun will come, pray or not, and I hope to be drunk when it does.”
With that, he trudged on toward the saloon, seeming to know exactly where it was, despite the fact that the sign had been whitewashed in the blizzard. He spotted it like a buzzard spots a carcass before it even dies.
We watched him go. The proprietor of the saloon followed him in, ready to sell, beginning a weeklong transaction begun which would bring a small fortune into our town, right before we lost our sons.
“Train’s coming thisaway,” he said, throwing a satchel of money onto the bar, “reckon this’ll keep me drinking until then?”
“Track’s been built a hundred miles south,” said the bartender, taking the satchel in his hand and peering in, wide-eyed, at its contents, “but I reckon this’ll keep you drinking until hell freezes over.”
“Looks like hell already did,” the prophet replied, throwing his thumb over his shoulder, gesturing toward the town outside.
He took his first drink on Wednesday, and by Friday we were all drinking on the fruits of his satchel. The money was enough for him to buy the whole town, which in a way was what he did.
As we fell drunk, he began a warning, which sounded to our drink-fuzzed ears like a rhapsody, “when the sun comes with its warmth, when the snow falls from your streets, there will be a set of tracks waiting for the train, and when the train comes, the town will be a town of old men.”
One of our young men, under the influence of the prophet’s gifts, brought a guitar and began playing a stark tune, and the prophet sang an ode to the train which would come.
The proprietor leaned on the bar, watching, worried. The words of the song danced through the saloon, twisting in the air, growing, echoing, turning the horrific image of the locomotive into a romantic notion, and the young men joined the song, and it expanded and repeated until its nightmarish words resounded throughout the town.
By noon the next Tuesday, the sun crackled through the winter atmosphere, and the snow turned to water and fled the town, and a rusted pair of metal tracks emerged along the street, and their genesis lay beyond the view of our eyes, way out east, far past the horizon where they converged. The snow remained to our West, obscuring their destination.
Wednesday morning. A distant clatter. The steady chug-chug of the furnace fires. The metallic twist of the wheels. The pillar of smoke and fire from the engine. The train roared our way from the East at a blistering speed, sprinting across the prairie, its dark pounding form closer and closer. Its searing coal heart thumping, grinding, raging our way. Then it was upon us. The mothers fled. The fathers with their rifles waited behind shuttered windows. Children under beds.
There was a rush to the street from the saloon, where the boots of our young men trampled into mud the last traces of the blizzard. We knew this because we heard their slurred, boisterous chatter from behind our doors, saw their shadows flit across the strips of sunlight on our floors, heard the slosh of steps and then, when we fathers could bear it no longer, we burst into the street.
Our doors flew open and we charged out to follow our young men, but the only sure trace of them lay in the swirled, blended sludge between the saloon doors and the middle of the street. The train was gone, along with its tracks, along with the prophet, along with our sons, along with the sunshine.
Then it started to snow again, and, under the cover of icy black clouds, a cold wind rushed in, and the town began to die.
Story by Ian North
The old prognosticators do what they always do. They ache and talk about what it means.
Lazarus McGinty starts off about his knee, The sucker feels like it’s gonna blow, the man says, like it’s on fire.
Elijah Blart replies, and my elbow’s flatfooting to some tune I cain’t hear.
And they sit on the porch and look across the town. In late fall, heat waves drift across the street, cutting everything into a mosaic.
Some storm brewin somewhere, says Lazarus.
Yessir, replies Elijah.
The earth shifts a little under them. A fart squeaks out from under Elijah. He cackles, Sounds like it’s done been brewed.
Lazarus, who does not smell nor hear nor see much, does not laugh.
Some time passes. Lazarus sees his knee explode. Well I reckon it weren’t doin me no good nohow.
Elijah’s arm falls off at the elbow. yessiree, I reckon the weather’s bout to do somethin wild, he concludes.
The ground shifts underneath them again, then cracks open. Fire spits up from the depths. Molten rock bubbles and advances.
Time does not allow them further comment. The old men watch a volcano rise from the earth, and they feel wonder as their pain takes its meaning, then consumes them.
Story by Ian North
You are dry and your skin feels like parchment against this wind that blows hot against your left shoulder. You have been walking for days and this neverending breeze, comfortingly warm at first, has been taking all your moisture away. What is the term for when the sweat dries as it is formed? Perhaps wicking or just evaporation. You are unable to concentrate enough to remember.
You are travelling on foot, rhythmically stepping in time to old songs in your head, hymns and drinking songs blending into one another. You carry a canvas duffel bag and wear the faded black clothes still smelling of the tobacco that ran out three nights ago. There is a dog that is always somewhere on the periphery of sight. He has been eating the food scraps you leave, but you do not trust each other enough to get close.
You are following the telegraph poles. There is no road, just smoother dirt, and no trees. Rocks large and small stand all around, oblivious to the desert wind. Patches of low, tangled scrub stretch everywhere. You think the telegraph poles might be ash, from the mountains you came from, each made from a whole tree.
The dog begins to bark from somewhere up ahead, and the noise furrows your brow. It is not yet noon and your neck feels like deer pelts, curing. The telegraph poles seem to dip and vanish in the distance, from about where the sound drifts to you. In under an hour, you reach the dog, and he stops barking.
You are standing at the edge of an abrupt break in the desert; a canyon. The telegraph wires stretch directly down, dipping onto a roof amongst stores and homesteads. This town, your destination, nestles tightly between the cliffs. You zigzag down the rugged path, and the dog does not follow, preferring to hunt for lizards and scavenge away from people.
When you reach the canyon bed, you step onto soil and see that the land down here is good. A shame, you think. You walk amongst the buildings ignoring the stares as wives pause from sweeping their porches and children break away from games. You walk until you reach the gate of the largest building. You do not have to wait or knock as the mayor steps out swiftly.
“Weell, this must be im-por-tant in-deed.” He scans the crowd that has been forming behind you. His voice is like an unoiled hinge. “It takes three days by horse and you seem to have per-am-bu-lated alone.” You let his statement sit in the air for a beat or two before you answer, softly, with the only message you have been given.
“In twelve hours, this town will be destroyed.” A flicker of annoyance crumples his forehead as he thinks of a response, but you turn away to face the townspeople. With your voice raised so each word reverberates from the cliffs, you repeat yourself.
“In TWELVE HOURS your TOWN will be DESTROYED.”
Now that you face them, they see your dusty clothes for what they are. They notice the pale presence of your once-white preacher-collar. You walk back through the town, silent as the crowd jostles and questions and accuses. You climb the jagged path and, at the top, you sit on a smooth rock, watching the town, waiting to see the people follow you out. Below, your shadow stretches unnaturally large.
Your message is heavy, as messages go, and all afternoon and into the evening, you hear fragments of worried arguments and scorning laughter. It seems only a handful understood the fervour in your voice. Three families and an elderly couple started down the track, following the wires to the next town. Then the blacksmith with all the tools his cart could hold, after that four children, dirty and some bearing bruises. The townspeople that reached the top had asked questions, and you answered with what you knew. Most of them had seen the look in your eyes and known enough.
The stars come out in the cloudless sky and the moon rises, waning. The time has almost come. The desert wind fades to cool stillness. Without moving your head, you see the dog is nearby, sitting and watching. The taverns are filled to the balconies with people pretending it is just another day. Lanterns and fires sparkle defiantly in the street. A figure about the size and shape of the mayor steps away from the festivity and seems to look at you and raise something shiny; a glass, perhaps. You can feel his unheard curses amidst the shouting and the songs.
You listen now and a noise like a steady wind begins to drown the sounds of revelry. The noise rises, but the bushes do not move and the dust is not stirred. The sound gets louder. This is how the message is fulfilled, how the words that were spoken are made real. The sound is coming from one end of the canyon. It does not stop getting louder. You do not feel any great emotion as the dark water begins its work of destruction, its cleansing.
You and the dog watch as the fires are extinguished and a dark shadow takes their place. The fast-flowing river does not reflect a single star. The roaring of the flood is the only sound. You feel no pity and no hatred. You are Jonah. You are Noah. At first light you will leave.
Story by Chris Knight
At the End of that Cord (right click to save file)
At dawn tomorrow
The snap steals my sorrow
Oh lordy lord
At the end of that cord
I loved my dear lady
She gone yesterday
I played by the rules
Cheater took her away
May justice be swift
And God take me quick
Oh lordy lord
At the end of that cord
I followed her there
With a blade in my pants
I laid her to rest
In the dust and the ants
May the earth have its way
When they take me away
Oh lordy lord
At the end of that cord
I went to my preacher
For some kind of help
He called the sherriff
Said I’s going to hell
May the Lord hide his face
When I meet my disgrace
Oh Lordy Lord
At the end of that cord
If I meet my maker
When my neck finds its place
I’ll tell him she killed me
And the noose gave me grace
Oh lordy lord
At the end of that cord
I met my grace
At the end of that cord
Music by Jonathan Kotulski
Words by Ian North
Exactly the opposite of Jesus, the prisoner lived in limbo for three days, then they strung him up there and he died for his own sins, and permanently.
He had lived in a neighboring town, and came to us tied up and surrounded by an escort of lawmen. They had the dirt of several days’ long ride mixing with sun-cracked skin on their faces, and seemed bored. Lyle himself swayed on his horse, head drooping to the side, snot oozing out of his nose.
“No wonder they ain’t lookin at im,” one of us said.
“He looks like he’s dead already,” another replied.
“What a sad sack,” said another.
“What an uninteresting fellow,” concluded yet another.
Still, despite all our disinterest, we watched him all the way to the sherriff’s office, where he was checked in and locked up. We only had a few chances left to learn anything about him, since he was to be executed at dawn. So Carl meandered over to the jail to strike up a conversation with the deputy.
“Well howdy, deputy.”
“Not too bad.”
It went on like this for some time, Carl trying a soft approach, which the deputy did not catch on to. Finally, Carl tipped his hat and moseyed off. The deputy paid no mind when Carl rounded the side of the building and headed toward the back window.
He saw the prisoner sideways on the cot, heels planted on the floor, head leaning against the wall, hat tipped low over his eyes.
“Howdy, there,” said Carl.
“hmm?” no movement accompanied the grunt.
Carl picked up a stone and pitched it at the prisoner’s head. It struck him on the cheek. He didn’t move until the rock stopped wobbling on the floor. Finally, he tipped his hat up. He was bleeding a bit. Carl didn’t mind.
“Can I do something for you, sir?”
“Yeah,” said Carl, “you gotta pay for the use of our gallows.”
“You can’t hang there for free.”
The prisoner placed his hat back on his head. Carl tossed another stone, which was quite a bit larger. This time, the prisoner grunted when hit, and sunk deeper into the cot. Realizing that he had just knocked the man out, Carl left the window quickly and came back to the saloon with his report.
The next morning, seeing his wound and the fact that he was unconscious, the sherriff postponed the hanging for a day. Lyle came to that afternoon, a little groggy. Carl meandered back around to him.
“You. Get the Hell out of here.”
“Easy. You’d be dead if it weren’t for me.”
“Rather be dead.”
“Hm. Hey, stranger, what’d you do to get landed in here?”
“Confessed my sins.”
“To a lawman?”
“What do you care?”
“Just bein friendly.”
The prisoner looked up at Carl. The blood had been cleaned from his face, but there was no feeling in his expression except fatigue.
“Who’d you confess to?”
“To a preacher. He embellished for a lawman.”
“Yeah. Now let me be.”
“What’d you tell the preacher?”
“Nothing I aim to repeat to you.”
The prisoner put on his hat and reclined again, hoping to be knocked out so he could rest. Carl looked around for stones, but decided against it and, seeing that he was getting no further, he sauntered off.
That night, as we tried to sleep, a dust storm howled into town. It pelted our houses, whipped against our windows, and rattled every roof. The gallows creaked, moaned, and, after screaming like a dying woman, collapsed.
The next morning, the prisoner looked relieved to see Carl at the window.
“Howdy,” he said, before Carl had a chance to speak.
“Howdy,” Carl replied.
“Hey, stranger, you mind finding another stone to pitch at my head?”
“Uh, I ain’t sure…”
“There are stones out there, right? I heard ’em rattling in the wind last night.”
Carl, realizing that the prisoner suddenly needed his services, used this strange leverage to try for some information.
“Yeah, but I don’t gotta throw one. I mean, I can, but I need some facts first.”
“What’d you do?”
“Confessed my sins to a preacher.”
“What sins, in particular?”
The prisoner put his hat on, laid his head back and rested. Carl waited for more, and he finally drifted from the window, unsatisfied.
We worked on the gallows all day, and finished the repairs just as night fell. We heard a rumbling in the distance, but we paid it no mind. It sounded like a trick of some far-off wind. As we found our way home, the mountains seemed to grow blacker than the clear night warranted. We blinked, rubbed our eyes, and kept walking.
Back in our homes, it was easier to ignore the black stain crawling toward us, and we went to sleep without hearing the growing clatter.
The front line of ants hit around two that morning. They clambered over and through everything. Their movement built into a cacophony of tiny feet upon the walls and the dirt and our floorboards and we added to it with our screams. We all swatted and ran around, but the ants moved under us like water, not biting nor minding us at all.
When their line reached the prisoner’s cell, we heard a scream like that of a woman. It erupted amid all our cries, but it rose above them, splitting through every other sound, bathing the town in its horror before it gurgled and ceased. As the ants cleared out, we rushed to see what had happened to him.
Through the window, illuminated in moonlight, the prisoner curled like an armadillo on his cot. His whole form was trembling. We couldn’t see any marks or bites on him. After shouting a few inquiries at him, we saw that he was in no condition to respond and went back to our homes.
The next morning, when they tried to bring him out to be hung, they couldn’t pull the prisoner out of the knot he had made of himself. His fingers gripped his ankles like they were welded together, and it quickly
became clear that he was in no condition to die.
He didn’t respond to any sound all day. He left his lunch untouched. By the late afternoon, he began to unwind, but we were no longer in any mood to execute this poor fellow.
Carl, however, felt that this might be the time to make an inquiry, so he headed over to the window at dusk.
The prisoner’s face was at the bars when Carl arrived, and it surprised Carl so much that he almost fell over.
“Whaddya do that fer?” asked Carl, regaining his balance.
“Will I be hanged today?” the prisoner replied.
“Today’s almost over,” Carl replied, “it’s too late for a hanging.”
“I want to tell you something, since last night my wife finally left,” the prisoner said, wobbling on his feet.
Carl tried to look like a concerned friend, but his eyes twinkled like a thief as he said, “Go ahead.”
The prisoner confessed to Carl, who hovered over him like a priest, memorizing details to report to us as we waited in the saloon. Carl buckled and fell a few times, pulling himself back up to the window.
Toward the end of his speech, the prisoner broke off, “so, after last night, it is finished. Nothing more will happen. She screamed and broke something inside of me, and her spirit is now gone.”
When it was over, Carl said nothing to the prisoner. He wobbled his way back to the saloon. We sat him down, gave him a drink, and gathered around.
“What’d he say?”
Carl threw back his drink, looked around, and repeated the prisoner’s story to us.
Story by Ian North
Weather Report (right click to save file)
Weather Report: Today
the sun peeks once, twice
leaving us a silver veil of ice,
a silver veil of ice,
the breezes are gray,
the clouds shiver away
The Breezes are Gray,
the clouds shiver away,
and chill the leafless limbs,
chill the leafless, leaving the people,
with broken jokes
and sultry whims
Weather Report: Later This Week
it will rain, it will rain, it will rain
judgment fire, judgment fire,
blood will spill,
blood will gel,
o bloody hell
Judgment Fire, Blood Will Spill
burnt blood will turn silver gray ash
and flake away, and flake away,
silver blood ash
will flake away
like the snowflakes today
Song by Jonathan Kotulski