Rumbling Over Steel
by Ute Carson
BrillantFlashFiction Magazine, Issue 3, September 2014

I love trains, the slow local and the 200 mile-an-hour express. I have traveled on all sorts of trains over the years. As a child I fled westward from the advancing Soviet army with my family atop an ammunition transport.

There was the old steam engine chugging from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo on a narrow-gauge rail line with village women carrying chickens and lugging baskets of farm produce. My face was soot-smeared with coal dust blowing in through the open windows.

I have shivered in air-conditioned compartments and perspired next to antiquated radiators. I have savored sumptuous meals in elegant dining cars and munched on snacks on wooden commuter benches. Decades ago, on a trip from Stuttgart to Istanbul I bedded down in a luggage rack strung like a hammock above the compartment seats. And once in a sleeper from London to Glasgow, I was awakened with morning tea.

A whistle, a hooting, and the wheels begin to sing on tracks that look like ladders stretched end to end along the ground. In Ukraine a station master in a red cap motioned with his hand signal as we passed through his little town, a herd of sheep on the left, an onion-shaped church steeple on the right. An elegant lady wrapped in fur stepped down from a first-class car in Turku, Finland. And in Italy students jumped onto the caboose of our departing train in the nick of time.

A train ride is a journey not a trip. I hear foreign languages and meet strangers. We trade stories. I can retreat and read or watch the world outside roll by as in a movie. The rocking, clanking and rumbling over steel lulls me and stirs my imagination.

One fated day more than fifty years ago on a long-distance train from Hamburg to Bavaria there she was across from me, nestled in the slightly worn, faded red upholstered seat, her brown hair harnessed in a ponytail, one elbow protecting a backpack next to her. Her legs were tucked under, her bare feet sticking out from frayed jeans. She pretended to be reading. I eyed her over my wire-rimmed glasses. My hunch was that she was a student like myself.

She yawned and announced to no one in particular, "I need to stretch." I joined her in the narrow corridor along the outside of the compartments. We talked as we peered through the smudged window at the countryside whisking by. The journey lasted five hours, long enough for us to share a little about our lives. Unlike me, she disliked trains and felt cooped up on long stretches. She preferred flying.

But by the time we reached Munich we were on a first-name basis and had exchanged addresses. She allowed me to hold her hand for an extra moment as I helped her off the high iron steps of our rumbling-over-steel matchmaker. We agreed to continue our conversation at the university library a few days later. The rest is history.

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