A Railway Tour of the Western Provinces

"When you're going through hell, keep going." - Winston Churchill (attributed)

There is a rhythm to things. A persistent turning. A cycle that carries the future into the past and then dredges it back up again smelling of steel and iron and progress.

This is something that I have to believe, or else I wouldn't be sitting on richly upholstered leather and clutching a jawbone between the nervous fingers of my left hand. I wouldn't be eying the window of my compartment, listening to the wheels thrumming from below the carriage.

For every action there is a consequence that feeds it. For every history: a new generation to wear it on their skin.

I rub my forearm and the twinge there is mostly habit. It's time that's bruised; not me.

Somewhere overhead, smoke is puffing out in gouting clouds, muddying the air around the train. I can hardly tell. The view from my window is clear and I lean up against it, my free hand making prints on the glass.

Outside, the scenery trundles by.

Blackened earth, ripped and livid with magma-scarring extends as far as the eye can see. I can make out the occasional dottings of homes (squalid, charred pockmarks against the horizon) and the occasional writhing dot of a person. None of them approach the tracks. The borders of the Western Provinces end on both sides of the railway line.

The route cuts a narrow slash of extraterritoriality down the center of the Provinces. For various reasons, this has never been protested. The natives find tourism to be titillating and encourage it wherever they can. Immigrants, on the other hand, stare with haunted eyes at the sleek serpent-body of the train. Just for a moment, it reminds them of who they once were.

And then it's gone.

No one emigrates from the Western Provinces. They are a closed circle. A terminal destination.

I am merely passing through.

It is a matter of international law that any person who lands in the Provinces must stay there. This was the only demand made on the treaty that allowed the trains, and for this reason all passengers are encouraged to keep their windows closed.

I stand up and open mine. Just a little. The outside air comes blustering in, dry and sulphurous, and I let the rotting-egg stench of it fill the cabin. It billows around me, holds me with insubstantial arms. I think about that for longer than I want to and my throat tries to close up, but I breathe deep and remind myself that I am alone here.

My fingers rub the jawbone, tracing the jagged lines of its teeth.

Mostly alone, I amend.

A meal cart rolls by outside, marked by its distinctive chiming. My door is shut, but my stomach grumbles all the same. Simple fare, bagged and waiting, passes me by. I have my own grilled cheese, badly burned and crushed in foil, waiting in my travel pack. I have only recently begun teaching myself how to cook, and the results are middling at best, but they're a little way that I'm affecting the world around me. I take all of those that I can get.

Something passes by under the wheels and I jolt. It's not one of the immigrants. They're not allowed the easy way out, and besides: the borders of the Western Provinces are absolute. Instead it's just some quirk of worked iron and time, but it almost causes the jaw to slip from my hand.

I grip it so tightly that the teeth dig. A trace of blood spills from my fingers. Just a thin ribbon. Only enough to stain the yellowed enamel.

I flinch and the jaw skitters away from me, bouncing across the carpet to rest against the seats opposite.

Mechanically, I fish an adhesive bandage from my bag and apply it to my hand. The bleeding continues, but out of sight and into a gauze pad. The jaw bone looks back at me, a dismantled grin.

I try scrubbing at the places where my blood stained it. I use a cotton ball first, and then my shirt when that fails. I am not able to scour it clean. Suddenly my eyes feel heavy and my fingers weak.

I imagine a light touch on my shoulder. I shiver and look away.

The laws of the Western Provinces are very precise on matters of alchemy. A part equals the whole. Always. A talon is a bird. A rock is the earth. A drop is a stream. And my blood is me.

It's indelibly worked into the jawbone now: a circuit completed. I feel something inside myself shift and I stand, gathering it up in my bandaged hand, and go again to the window.

The train is passing through a more populous place now. A village, perhaps. The suburbs of a small city. I see chain stores and apartment buildings and grocery markets all built from piled black obsidian. I see the gallows and the pressing beds and the whipping posts where the natives who work in the public sector are just coming back from their lunch breaks. I cannot see the faces of the immigrants who have been chained at their stations.

I can imagine their expressions, though.

I remember what my own face looked like when I knew you were coming home.

I lift the jawbone.

In my mind's eye, I can see myself flinging it away. I can see it turning in circles once, twice before landing beyond the tracks. I can feel the lurch as my citizenship changes.

It might be worth it, I tell myself.

I lower the jawbone.

Outside the window, another object flashes past me. Thrown from the train, it bounces once on the lip of the tracks and then tumbles down the shallow hill into the Provinces. Others follow it.

People buy their tickets to sight-see, but they board the train intending to leave souvenirs.

I watch as knucklebones and vials of spit and locks of hair cascade from neighboring windows. Their owners (at least, the ones that are still alive) will feel the brimstone puff of translocation shortly. Those that are dead will awaken again to a different sort of afterlife.

In the distance, I think I see one of the natives look up from the rack that he is carefully tending and tip his black leather cap at us. Then he is gone, blurred and hidden as the village passes us by.

I shut the window.

I am alone again with a jawbone, my own blood, and a bandaged hand.

Wheels turn and the future carries me into the past.