short story by Juan José Arreola
original title “El Guardagujas”
The foreigner arrived out of breath to the deserted station. His large suitcase, that nobody wanted to carry, had worn him out to the utmost. He wiped his face with a handkerchief and with his hand shading his eyes, looked at the tracks disappearing on the horizon. Breathless and pensive, he checked his watch: exactly the time when the train should leave. Someone, out of who knows where, gave him a gentle slap on the back. Turning around, the foreigner found himself facing an old man with the vague appearance of a railwayman. He was carrying a red lantern, but so small it looked like a toy. He looked smiling at the traveler who anxiously asked,
-Excuse me, has the train already gone?
-You haven't spent much time in this country?
-I need to leave immediately. I must be in T. tomorrow.
-It appears that you are completely unaware of things. What you should do right away is look for lodging in the inn for travelers, and he pointed to a strange, ashen building that looked more like a prison.
-But I don't want lodgings. I want to leave on the train.
-Rent yourself a room immediately if there are any. In case you can get one, rent it by the month. It will be cheaper that way and you'll receive better service.
-Are you crazy? I must get to T. tomorrow.
-Frankly, you ought to abandon yourself to your fate. Nevertheless, I will give you some information.
-This country is famous for its railroads, as you know. Until now it has not been possible to organize them properly, though great things have been done regarding the printing of time-tables and the dispatching of tickets. The railway guidebooks cover and link all the towns in the nation. You can buy a ticket to the tiniest and remotest of villages. All that's lacking is that the trains follow the indications contained in the guidebooks and actually pass through the stations. The inhabitants of this country do hope so. Meanwhile, they accept the irregularities in the service and their patriotism prevents them from showing any signs of displeasure.
-But, is there a train that stops in this town?
To answer in the affirmative would be equivalent to committing an inexactitude. As you yourself can see, the rails exist, although they're a bit broken down. In some towns they are simply indicated on the ground by two lines of chalk. Given the current conditions, no train is obliged to pass by here. But then nothing would prevent this from happening. I have seen many trains pass by in my life and have known some travelers who were able to board them. If you wait patiently, perhaps I myself will have the honor of helping you board a luxurious and comfortable wagon.
-Would this train take me to T.?
-And why do you insist that it has to be precisely to T.? You ought to consider yourself satisfied if you can board. Once on the train, your life will effectively take some course. What does it matter if this way is not the one to T.?
-It's just that I have a valid ticket for T. Logically I should be conducted to that place. Isn't that so?
people who have taken precautions, acquiring great quantities of tickets. As a general rule, those with foresight buy fares for all points in the country. There is one who has spent a real fortune in tickets.
-I believed that to go to T. a ticket was enough. Look at it.
-The next stretch of national railroad is going to be constructed with the money of one single person who has just finished spending his immense capital in round-trip tickets for a railway route whose plans, that include tunnels and bridges, have not even been approved by the engineers of the firm.
-But the train that goes to T., is it already in service?
-And not only that. In reality, there are many many trains in the nation and travelers can use them with relative frequency, while taking into account that it's not a reliable and fixed service. In other words, on boarding a train, no one expects to be transported to the place he wants to go.
-How is that?
-In its eagerness to serve the citizens, the firm must resort to certain desperate measures. They circulate trains through impassable terrain. These expeditionary convoys take, at times, several years to complete their journey and the lives of the voyagers suffer some considerable transformations. Deaths are not uncommon in such cases. But the firm that has anticipated everything, adds to those trains a chapel wagon and a cemetery car. It is a source of pride for the conductors to deposit the cadaver of a voyager luxuriously embalmed, on the platform of the station written on his ticket. On occasion, these trains are forced to run routes where one of the tracks is missing. All of one side of the wagons shake deplorably from the wheels striking the sleepers. The voyagers in first class (it's another provision of the company) stick to the side where there's a rail. Those in second class suffer the blows with resignation. But there are other routes where both tracks are missing. There the voyagers suffer equally until the train is left totally destroyed.
-Look, sir. The little town of F. grew up because of one of those accidents. The train was crossing impassible country. Ground by the sand, the wheels wore down to their axels. The voyagers passed so much time together, that out of the obligatory trivial conversations grew close-knit friendships. Some of these friendships soon turned into romances and the result has been F., a progressive little village full of naughty children who play with the rusty remains of the train.
-My God! I wasn't made for such adventures.
-You need to go about tempering your spirit. Perhaps you'll get to become a hero. Don't believe that opportunities are lacking for voyagers to demonstrate their courage and their capacity for self-sacrifice.
Recently two hundred anonymous passengers wrote one of the most glorious pages in our railroad annals. It happened that during a test voyage, the driver noticed, just in time, a serious omission by the constructors of the line. In that route, a bridge was missing that should have spanned an abyss. Well the driver, instead of putting it into reverse, appealed to the passengers and obtained from them the necessary effort to continue on ahead. Under his energetic direction, they disassembled the train piece by piece and carried it on their shoulders to the other side of the abyss, that still held out the surprise of hiding a rushing river in its depth. The result of the exploit was so satisfactory that the company directors permanently renounced construction of the bridge, resigning themselves to giving an attractive discount to those passengers daring to face the extra inconvenience.
-But I must arrive in T. tomorrow!
-Very well! I like that you don't give up your plan. I see you are a man of conviction. Get yourself a room at the hotel for the moment, and take the first train that stops. Try it at least. There'll be a thousand people blocking your way. When the train comes, the voyagers, irritated from waiting so long, pour out of the hotel in a tumult and noisily invade the station. Many times they provoke accidents by their incredible lack of courtesy and prudence. Instead of boarding in an orderly fashion, they intentionally smash each other. In the end they prevent anyone from boarding of the train and it departs leaving them all piled up on the platform. The voyagers, worn out and furious, curse their lack of breeding and spend a lot of time insulting and punching each other.
-And the police don't intervene?
-They tried to organize a police corps in each station, but the unpredictable arrival of the trains made such a service useless and extremely costly. Besides, the members of this unit very soon demonstrated their crookedness by devoting themselves exclusively to protecting the departure of wealthy passengers who gave them in exchange for this service all they were carrying. It was therefore resolved to establish a special type of schools where the future voyagers receive lessons in courtesy and adequate training. There they teach them the correct manner of boarding a train, even if it is moving at high speed. Also they provide them with a kind of armor to prevent the other passengers from breaking their ribs.
-But once on board the train, is one then overwhelmed with new difficulties?
Relatively. I only recommend that you pay careful attention in the stations. It could happen that you believe you have arrived in T. and it would be just an illusion. To regulate life on board the crowded wagons, the company sees itself obliged to resort to certain measures. Stations exist that are purely appearance built in the middle of the jungle and carry the name of some important city. But it's enough to pay a little attention to discover the trick. They are like theater sets and the people who appear in them are full of sawdust. On these mannequins, it is easy to distinguish the ravages of the outdoors, though at times they are a perfect mirror image of reality, wearing on their faces the signs of an infinite fatigue. Fortunately T. is not too far from here. But for the moment, we are lacking direct trains. Nevertheless, it shouldn't exclude the possibility that you arrive tomorrow, just as you wish. The railway organization, although deficient, does not exclude the possibility of a non-stop trip. You see, there are people who have not even realized what's happening. They buy their ticket for T. The train comes, they get on, and the next day they hear the conductor announce: “We have arrived in T.” Taking no precautions whatsoever, the voyagers get off and find themselves indeed in T.
-Could I do something to make sure that will happen?
-Of course you can. What we don't know is if it would be of any use. Try it by all means. Get on the train with the fixed idea you are going to arrive in T. Do not deal with any of the passengers. They could disillusion you with their travel stories, even denounce you to the authorities.
-What are you saying?
-In virtue of the current state of things, the trains travel full of spies. These spies, voluntary for the most part, dedicate their lives to fomenting the constructive spirit of the company. At times one doesn't know what one is saying, talking simply to talk. But they realize all the meanings a phrase may have, as simple as it might sound. Out of the most innocent comment, they know how to draw a guilty opinion. If you manage to commit the slightest imprudence, you'd be apprehended without further ado, to pass the rest of your life in the prison wagon. Or they'd oblige you to get off at a false station, lost in the wilderness. Travel full of faith, consume as little food as possible and don't put your feet on the platform in T. before you see some familiar face.
-But I don't know anyone in T.
-In that case, double your precautions. You will have, I can assure you, many temptations along the way. If you look out the window, you risk being tricked by a mirage. The windows are provided with ingenious devices that create all kinds of illusions in the minds of the passengers. It's not necessary to be weak to fall for them. Certain apparatuses operated from the locomotive make you believe through noise and movement that the train is moving. While the train remains at a standstill entire weeks, the voyagers watch captivating landscapes passing by through the glass.
-And for what purpose?
All this is done in the healthy interest of diminishing the travelers' anxiety and to eliminate as far as possible sensations of relocation. It is hoped that one day they will give in completely to chance in the hands of the omnipotent company and that it will no longer matter to them knowing where they are going nor from where they are coming.
- And you, have you traveled a lot by train?
-I, sir, am only a switchman. To tell you the truth, I'm a retired switchman and I only appear here now and then to remember the good old days. I have never traveled, nor do I want to. But the voyagers tell me stories. I know that the trains have created many towns besides the village of F. whose origin I referred to. It occurs once in a while that the crew members receive mysterious orders. They invite all the passengers to descend from the wagons, generally with the pretext to admire the beauty of a certain place. They speak to them of caves, waterfalls or famous ruins. “Fifteen minutes for you to admire the grotto or whatever,” says the friendly conductor. Once the voyagers have gone a certain distance, the train runs away at full steam.
-And the voyagers?
-They wander bewildered from place to place for some time, but finally they gather and establish a colony. These untimely stops are made in suitable places far from civilization and with sufficient natural resources. They abandon their selected lots of young people with above all plenty of women.
Wouldn't you like to pass your days in a picturesque unknown spot in the company of a young girl?
The old man winked and kept looking at the traveler mischievously, smiling and full of goodness. At this moment, a faraway whistle was heard. The switchman gave a hop, looked anxious and began making ridiculous and chaotic signals with his lantern.
-It's the train? asked the stranger.
The old man started running for his life along the rails. When he got a certain distance, he turned and shouted, -You're lucky! Tomorrow you'll arrive at your famous station. How did you say it was called?
-X, answered the traveler.
In that instant, the little old man dissolved into the morning light. But the red dot of his lantern kept running and jumping recklessly between the rails to meet the train. From the depth of the landscape the locomotive was approaching like a noisy apparition.
Translation from the original Spanish by Jill Hartley