By edward j. rathke
meet me at the lighthouse
He opens his eyes and the cabin is empty but for the woman who sits an aisle away facing the window. He looks up and down the aisle then says, Did you hear that? She does not respond so he says it again, reaching after her attention.
Someone said something.
What did they say?
You didn’t hear it.
She turns back to the window and he stares through the glass. On either side, the water spreads beyond the horizon, meeting the shore only meters beyond the periphery of the tracks. He stands, stretches, and walks up and down the train, through the long corridors and carts. All is silent and so he hums, keeping himself contained, giving space and dimension to his body within the empty train.
He wanders up and down the stairs but finds no one. He exits and climbs the ladder to the top of the train, but no one. The faintly lit sky hangs without interruption or aberration. No color or stars or sun or moon, only the vastness of space-time in all directions canopied over the endless ocean bisected by the shore and its train.
He returns to his seat near the woman and asks where they are going.
She does not look at him, The White Hotel.
Then it’s real, he leans back.
I guess so.
I thought I dreamt all of this
You’ve been asleep a long time.
He laughs, short, only a breath.
The train speeds across the tracks and the perpetual jostle and rumble of the machine rocks him to sleep over and over again.
She stares into the sky, into the ocean, for hours and days. She stares until she must blink and then she stares more. When the rain comes, she counts the drops against the glass and connects them in transient constellations.
The train powers through the storm that lasts countless moments to find the sky unbroken, the ocean unchanged. No waves and no stars, only deep water and endless space, the train crossing continents of time.
The man takes pencil and notebook, and draws the woman staring out the window. He draws as she stares for ten minutes, then one hundred, and one thousand more. He draws her always the same, even when she moves, as if motion holds no significance. In the picture, there is only the girl’s face and the glass. Her eyes open beneath heavy eyelids and thick eyebrows. Her upper lip thin and her lower thick, pouted against the knees she rests her chin on. Her cheek pressed to the glass, keeping it cool or warm depending on the moment.
The air moves slow but there is no dust or reference for the passage of time. Everything remains constant on the forever train. The shadows always long, the ocean always still, the sky always half lit by nothing. Even the consistency of motion defies movement and change. Unbroken, he times his heartbeat by the buckle and clang of the wheels.
Ten minutes pass.
One hundred more.
And a thousand and a thousand more.
Why are you going, he says.
She does not turn, The same reason everyone goes.
We’re the only ones on the train.
She nods, sighs, Why did we want to forget.
He pulls his knees up and matches her posture, stares out the window, and says, I remember everything. Not only my life, but everything. When we’re born we know everything. All of history’s inside of us, all the collected memories of a million generations of life, but we forget them the more we become people. Identity forms and the collected memories fall away as if there’s no room for both. But that never happened to me. I remember both. Even the memories I haven’t lived of potential lives I could have had, and memories of the future, they’re all in me and I can’t forget. I need to forget.
How do you remember the future?
I think I died a few years from now. I keep waking up to my own death at a lighthouse, and then I wake up shaking, feeling the pain in my chest.
How did you die?
I was asleep, at the lighthouse.
The rain continues and nothing changes. He draws her but no longer watches her. He draws her from memory, or by using the previous sketches as reference. He experiments with style, breaking his pencil, removing the graphite, and sketching as if it is charcoal instead, the graphite crumbling into the dark grey image on his paper.
The storm returns after a thousand thousand minutes and she says, When did you say you died?
A few years from now.
How long have we been here?
I know you’re counting. I can hear you.
Billions of heartbeats.
6,501,952,335. 36. 37. 38. 39.
She nods but he does not see. They both stare out their window, him facing the direction the train comes from and her the direction it goes.
Why do you count your heartbeats?
I thought you never forgot.
Maybe we’re getting close.
She smiles and he laughs. She looks at him and rubs her eyes, adjusts to the distance, to the change in light. She blinks again and again, trying to focus on the blur so near. When she can see him, he is looking at her.
I drew your picture, he says.
I heard you. You drew it many times.
Maybe a thousand times. I can draw it with my eyes closed but I feel like I haven’t seen you in years.
She smiles and looks down, stretches her legs, letting them fall to the floor.
When do you think we’ll get there?
She pulls at her eyebrows, I thought we’d be there a long time ago.
Is this part of it?
Maybe there is no hotel. Just the train.
What do you know about the White Hotel?
She sighs, You’re the one who remembers everything.
It’s a great Victorian House on World’s End. It’s where everything is forgotten and nothing remembered.
She nods, So I’ve heard.
Why do you go?
She turns back to the window, I’d rather not talk about what I don’t want to remember.
What’s your name?
Soon I won’t have one.
But you have one now.
You sound like you’re having second thoughts.
I think I died.
You said that.
A long time ago.
I thought it was the future.
It is, but it’s the past now, too.
She nods, Because you remember.
She closes her eyes and listens to the scratch of graphite and the hum of the lights in the cabin, the creak of the tracks, and the breathing of the perpetual engine. She listens to him cough and brush the excess graphite from the paper, creating memories of her even now, near the edge of the world.
edward j rathke is a wanderer. He has appeared in Grey Sparrow Press, Absent Willow Review, Foundling Review, and Bartleby Snopes. More of his words may be found at edwardjrathke.wordpress.com.