The Iron Caterpillar

Strange phenomena can strike such dread into human hearts that I ask you to believe in the one that knotted the stomach of the young diver named Paolo, who noticed the haze of the tunnel when he was returning from a day of fishing . . .

Shortly after stowing his fishing gear, mask, snorkel, and flippers in a big, army-green sports bag, and proudly hooking the day’s catch of black jacks and red snappers onto the steel tip of his harpoon—which he immediately placed on his shoulder like a bayonet-tipped rifle—Paolo set off on the steep road that led up from the shoreline and connected with the derelict railbed at the base of the cliff. He walked alongside the rusty old tracks for more than half a mile before reaching the entrance to the abandoned and sinister railroad tunnel that had been bored long ago through the monstrous mass of La Corniche. The sinking sun lit up the immense blue sky with its fiery rays and sparked improbable glimmers of life in the bulging eyes of the fish impaled on the harpoon. Cars sped along the macadam road, one as shiny as the next, and in their mad velocity they created a curious whooshing symphony that was amplified by the overhanging face of the mountain. The crash of waves against the sides of the concrete jetties responded intermittently.

The haze, which drifted out in fine spirals of white smoke from the rock-rimmed mouth of the tunnel, was unusual in such a setting. It was quite rare, in fact, to observe this kind of atmospheric condition, a sort of thin, gauzy haze, around this particular tunnel, and until then few people had witnessed it. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the phenomenon had been known to occur before at this location. Many odd stories persisted, because the local residents regarded the haze as a fateful omen. According to their superstitious accounts, the emergence of smoke from the tunnel of the little train always meant death for someone in the village.

This was the spectacle, at once disturbing and fascinating, that Paolo confronted when he came upon this singular place that everyone took care to avoid after nightfall. Motionless, and as if dumbstruck, our man began to contemplate the tunnel from which a set of rails, crumbling with rust and dotted with spiny tufts, still extended. It was a vestige of the Réunion railroad, so resplendent from the end of the nineteenth century until the thirties. But now it was no more than a stony orifice swollen with unspeakable woes and awful desolation. And now the lair of the train was belching out a toxic, pestilential breath that gradually enveloped its surroundings.

“The little train is taking its revenge!” So the wise and grizzled elders of La Grande Chaloupe would say in their soft Creole to anyone who cared to listen.

From the fearsome and unnerving gash incised long ago in the massive outcropping of La Corniche, the villagers now seemed to await only one apparition: the bobbing head of the gigantic worm that had eaten away at the cliff . . .

Who among the older generation had forgotten the decades when this ironclad caterpillar, the little train of Réunion, held sway over the perimeter of the island and facilitated everyone’s journeys? Sometimes the elders smilingly recalled how its smoke would blacken the clothing of passengers imprudently dressed in white. But it was such a pleasure to climb aboard the gleaming cars of this mechanical beast, then to watch the countryside glide rapidly by and glimpse the sparkling waters of the ocean! Yes, it was such a delight to ride the little train that no one ever held a grudge against it. Even the fatalities it occasioned over the years of its history were forgiven, and that’s saying something! The widely adored machine was absolved of the crimes it committed against the human race. The mania for traveling by rail became so absorbing that everyone forgot the martyrs of the railway construction, including the three who perished in 1880 in a dynamite explosion at the tunnel site, as well as the eight others who were killed by the collapse of a truss supporting the Petite Ravine viaduct. People even forgot all the unlucky victims, including many children, who were crushed by the terrible Creusot-model locomotives . . . mutilated bodies along the rails, along the years.

The steel idol thus exacted its tribute of human lives without arousing either horror or reproach on the part of the islanders. They loved the little train to a fault; they could easily sacrifice a few of their own to it! Let it be noted that nothing on Réunion could go faster: it was the god of speed!

And then came the era of its decline, so swift and inexorable: The Route de la Corniche, an unthinkable engineering feat, was constructed between the ocean and the mountain. The island’s automobiles, until then miniscule parasites, soon became carnivorous ants bent on destroying the cult of the little train, its iron rails, its metallic soul. The little train gave up the ghost in the face of the multitudes rumbling along at breakneck speed on the road’s macadam surface. The train’s previously glistening rails and its rustproof steel bridges were dismantled and sold to the highest bidder. The stations once lined with enthusiastic and colorful crowds of passengers, so full of life in those days, soon became disquieting, sepulchral ruins, where only wild dogs and a few vagrants would ever venture. A shroud of neglect settled over these abandoned buildings, and their very existence gradually faded from memory. And yet those who claimed to know swore that the little train itself had survived. Sheltered in the tunnel where the shrill clamor of its steam-powered whistle echoed long ago, it still lives, and it broods over the harshness of its disgrace . . . It waits! It waits! It yearns for the day when it will recover its lost supremacy and exact its revenge against the humans who shunned it . . .

“The little train is taking its revenge!”

That remark of the elders came back to Paolo as he watched the strange wisps of smoke wafting out of the old tunnel, and his terror shot up several notches. A grove of tall filao trees, rustled at times by a chill breeze, beguiled the human ear with a murmuring lullaby that made Paolo almost forget the true music of the sea he had heard all through his day of fishing.

Then the haze spread further, slowly extending its tentacles over the surrounding slopes and penetrating down into the bottom of the ravines, as far as the heart of the mountains. This was no ordinary ground fog! Seized with panic at this sight, Paolo decided to get away as fast as possible from this place so steeped in sorcery and freakishness.

Just as he was retreating, he suddenly seemed to discern, through the tunnel’s large lateral airshafts, the subterranean movement of something enormous. He also heard a drawn-out screeching noise that was both bizarre and singularly repulsive, like a scaly skin scraping against rock. At that moment Paolo observed in greater detail the shape that was visible through the apertures in the tunnel. He saw advancing through the tunnel a form so colossal that it almost completely blocked the airshafts. He had the sense of a giant creature slithering within the tunnel, a sort of reptile or sea monster that brought to mind the distinctive posture and motion of conger eels or giant morays in an undersea grotto. The beast’s gleaming skin seemed to be made of dragon scales.

Paolo didn’t avert his eyes when the monstrous caterpillar wriggled in its burrow to place its head at one of the airshafts. Paolo immediately caught a glimpse of the creature’s eyeball. What a strange eye this glossy, fuming beast had, this monster of the tunnel! A huge, bulbous eye that suddenly emitted a burst of light as radiant and startling as a flashbulb…

Fortunately, at the urging of his father, who was holding his hand, Paolo had just enough time to put on his best smile. He would now have to climb onto the train, which was patiently awaiting its final passenger. And it was with real exuberance that Paolo dashed toward the tunnel and into the maw of its terrible, inconceivable serpent.

***

Description of an old black-and-white photo sitting on Paolo’s nightstand:

We see Paolo as a small child, holding the hand of his father, Francisco. They are on the platform of an overcrowded train station, and each of them has a bag resting at his feet. Behind them is an expanse of smoke. The image of a superb locomotive is vaguely distinguishable in the background. In the photo Paolo is wearing a most extraordinary smile, because this is the first time he’s taken the little train. Paolo’s father, on the other hand, has a frozen expression, perhaps because of the overly bright flash of the photographer’s camera . . . The day was particularly fine!

"Chenille de fer,” from J. William Cally, Kapali, La légende du Chien des cannes et autres nouvelles fantastiques créoles, L’Harmattan, 2005. © Editions l’Harmattan. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2012 by Paul Curtis Daw. All rights reserved.