The Man of the Railway
Yuichi Gotō straddled the train tracks like the Colossus of Rhodes. Despite his arthritic back, he stood tall. In one white glove he held a bullhorn, and in the other, a Swiss pocket watch. He held these things with purpose; the tools of his trade. He was honored to belong to that impeccable machine, the triumph of his nation - the Japan Rail.
Now and then, the wind enticed the petals of cherry blossoms to dance around his head in hypnotic circles. He ached to preserve the moment, this beauty, forever - to put it in a pickle jar and pull it out whenever it was needed most.
He found himself drifting back to the days of diesel, when he only came up to his father’s pockets and he had to crane his neck to glimpse the passing engines. The ground trembled under their weight like earthquakes. That might, that magnificence, had compelled him to become what he was today. The new models, with their streamlined contours and purring voices, commanded no respect.
Only a few meters down the tracks, the sounds of jackhammers and welding torches waged war against the serenity around him. The construction had made it necessary to cut the power to the P.A. system, and he was keenly aware of the responsibility that fell on his shoulders. He brought the bullhorn to his lips.
Attention! The Tokyo bound train will arrive at platform two in one minute. That’s one minute. His voice, curt and sure, echoed off the walls of the station.
Precisely forty-one seconds later, the dull hum of the approaching train reached his veteran ears. Nothing like the haughty roar of the retired diesel engines.
He confirmed that the construction team had moved well outside the danger zone and the perimeter was free of debris before he stepped off the tracks. As the train rolled into view around the row of cherry trees, he put away his pocket watch and gave the signal for All clear with a wave of his yellow flag.
At exactly 7:35, the train glided to a stop. Although he couldn’t see them, he could hear the trop trop trop of dozens of commuters marching into the impossibly crowded cars. Bottled together inside, they became something less than human, and yet also something more. They were the blood of the city and the railway tracks were the veins. Every day, millions of them were whisked to and from the districts of Tokyo, as if driven by the pumping of a monstrous, hidden heart.
A whorl of petals frolicked in the wake of the departing train. Gotō remounted the tracks and kept his eyes on the watch, but his mind was dancing with the blossoms. All the while, the machine-gun cacophony of the construction team penetrated deep into his skull.
With growing irritation, he watched a female janitor on the platform above sweep fallen petals into a dust pan. As soon as she left, a gust of wind undid her work.
He thought about his wife; the bitter look of her eyes when she thought he could not see her. Love, he had come to understand, blooms but once, and he had seen firsthand how swiftly the blossoms can fall. So comforting, then, the blossoms of the cherry trees, which return every year with the same clockwork precision that governs the Japan Rail. Yet the blossoms only linger a week or so before they disappear. Sixty-eight times he had watched them bloom and die.
A cold shadow crept into him. How many more times would he be able to see them? Ten? Twenty?
A deafening blast of sound cut through the air as a massive, dark block bore down on him. In its center were two circles of intense light. All at once, he became aware of the screaming brakes, the construction crew with mouths working frantically, words lost in the mayhem. One of them rushed forward, grabbed him about the chest, and threw him out of the way. Gotō, still paralyzed, was as heavy and useless as a corpse. They toppled onto the ballast together as the train came to a jarring stop, the wheels inches from their tangled legs.
The fall was too much for the old railway man. A pain more severe than he had ever known shot through every nerve of his body. He struggled to focus on the agitated faces of the gathering crowd, but an impenetrable fog had enveloped him. Then the fog became a cyclone of pink petals. They whipped through the air above him and covered the land below. Soon he was engulfed by a vast, velvet ocean.
The petals continued to pile up until they were crushing him. In a panic, he realized he was drowning. But suddenly, something from below pushed him to the surface. A stretcher lay under him, bearing him above the rustling waves like a raft.
Barely visible beneath the veneer of petals, a nearby glint of gold caught Gotō’s eye. He reached into the sea and lifted it out, groaning at the pain. It was his pocket watch. All that remained of the glass casing was a few broken shards jutting out from the rim. Yet the hands persevered. As the stretcher pitched and swerved over the waves, he stared into the face of time, counting the seconds, the minutes, and the hours in their waltz into oblivion.
Jude Coulter-Pultz writes flash fiction, contemporary fantasy, and science fiction; is working on becoming a full-time writer. In the meantime, he teaches English at a university in Tokyo, Japan.
Japanese life and culture are the primary influences in his work. He is especially fascinated by the traditional Japanese art aesthetic and Japanese folk stories.