End of the Line

Six days a week, at the exact same time, the locomotive slices through the stillness of the landscape. Neither the trees nor the hills take note; only the cow watches the train go by. From his cab, the engineer waves a hand in greeting and the animal responds by swishing her tail back and forth, which also serves to fan her udders. They've been repeating this ritual for years, but the engineer knows that today is the last time. He's retiring tomorrow. The idea of a future free from the drudgery of getting up at six every morning makes his mouth water. He'll have time to tend the tiny patch of grass by the door of the house he's finally paid off. He'll be able to take vacations during low season, at the discounted prices he sees advertised in the paper. He'll no longer have to try to motivate himself every morning by repeating that work is a source of dignity, or to endure the presence of his assistant, a sullen, stingy man.

The engineer pulls out of the station, his head filled with endless plans—most of which are actually feasible. He pays no attention to the winding tunnels leading to a series of rundown suburbs or the buildings lining the tracks, crowned with neon-lit advertising. He isn't taking pleasure in his final moments, or thinking that he'd never again be in charge of the locomotive's throttle or the air pressure gauge. Without realizing it—his mind wandering through a nap-filled future—he drives the train past the urban sprawl and toward a landscape where various shades of green and the intermittent smell of manure prevail. When he sees the cow in the distance, he instinctively reduces his speed, noting his assistant's look of disapproval. As he nears the cow it occurs to him that simply waving is not enough and that, given the circumstances, he really ought to do something extraordinary, like stopping the train right in front of her. He knows that's against policy but, much in the same way that for thirty years he's been incapable of breaking the rules, today he just doesn't see himself having the heart to comply with them. So he slows down, his eye on the speedometer's needle until it comes to rest at zero. Slowly—trying not to jam his spine and set off his chronic back pain—he climbs down onto the tracks. With the faltering steps of a man unaccustomed to seeing his feet when he walks, he crosses the field toward the cow. The animal, having sensed the train halting, stops swishing her tail. She turns her head to get a better look at the engineer, who gingerly—as if rather than a cow she were a lion—reaches out a hand to pet the animal. The ruminant lets out a moo that scares off the swarm of flies normally clustered around her eyes. She glances at the train. Despite the distance she can make out the thin spiral of smoke trailing up from the sullen assistant's cigarette. At the windows, passengers shout, demanding that the engineer get back there immediately. They have no time to waste, they say. This is unacceptable, they protest. They'll file complaints, they threaten. A more patient minority, however, looks on as a man who—judging by his uniform—must be the engineer hugs a cow for what seems quite some time and then, having finished, returns to the train with the satisfaction of a man who's done his duty.

Copyright Sergi Pàmies. By arrangement with Acantilado. Translation copyright 2007 by Lisa M. Dillman. All rights reserved.