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ARREOLA, Juan José

The Switchman


“But at the moment we don’t have any through trains. Nevertheless, it could well happen that you might arrive at T— tomorrow, just as you wish. The management of the railroads, although not very efficient, doesn’t exclude the possibility of a nonstop journey. You know there are people who haven’t even realized what is going on. They buy a ticket for T—. A train comes, they get on it, and the next day they hear the conductor announce: ‘We’re at T—.’ Without making sure, the passengers get off and find themselves indeed in T—.”

“Could I do something to bring about that result?”

“Of course you could. But it’s hard to tell if it will do any good. Try it anyway. Get on the train with the firm idea that you are going to reach T—. Don’t talk with any of the passengers. They might disillusion you with their travel tales and they might even denounce you.”

“What are you saying?”

“Because of the present state of things the trains are full of spies. These spies, mostly volunteers, dedicate their lives to encouraging the company’s constructive spirit. Sometimes one doesn’t know what one is saying and talks just to be talking. But they immediately see all the meanings in a phrase, however simple it may be. They can twist the most innocent comment around to make it look guilty. If you were to commit the slightest imprudence you would be apprehended without further ado; you would spend the rest of your life in a prison car, if they didn’t make you get off at a false station, lost out in the jungle. While you travel, have faith, consume the smallest possible amount of food, and don’t step off onto the platform until you see some familiar face at T—.”

“But I don’t know anybody in T—.”

“In that case, take double precautions. There will be many temptations on the way, I assure you. If you look out the windows, you may fall into the trap of a mirage. The train windows are provided with ingenious devices that create all kinds of illusions in the passengers’ minds. You don’t have to be weak to fall for them. Certain apparatuses, operated from the engine, make you believe that the train is moving because of the noise and the movements. Nevertheless, the train stands still for whole weeks at a time while the passengers looking through the window panes see captivating landscapes pass by.”

“What object is there in that?”

“The management does all this with the wholesome purpose of reducing the passengers’ anxiety and, as far as possible, the sensations of moving. The hope is that one day the passengers will capitulate to fate, give themselves into the hands of an omnipotent management, and no longer care to know where they are going or where they have come from.”

“And you, have you travelled a lot on trains?”

“Sir, I’m just a switchman. To tell the truth, I’m a retired switchman, and I just come here now and then to remember the good old days. I’ve never travelled and I have no desire to. But the travellers tell me stories. I know that the trains have created many towns besides F—, whose origin I told you about. Sometimes the crew on a train receives mysterious orders. They invite the passengers to get off, usually on the pretext that they should admire the beauties of a certain place. They are told about grottos, falls, or famous ruins: ‘Fifteen minutes to admire such and such a grotto,’ the conductor amiably calls out. Once the passengers are a certain distance away, the train chugs away at full speed.” “What about the passengers?”

“They wander about disconcertedly from one spot to another for a while, but they end up by getting together and establishing a colony. These untimely stops occur in places far from civilization but with adequate resources and sufficient natural riches.

Selected lots of young people, and especially an abundant number of women, are abandoned there. Wouldn’t you like to end your days in a picturesque unknown spot in the company of a young girl?”

The little old fellow winked, and smiling kindly, continued to gaze roguishly at the traveller. At that moment a faint whistle was heard. The switchman jumped, all upset, and began to make ridiculous, wild signals with his lantern.

“Is it the train?” asked the stranger.

The old man recklessly broke into a run along the track. When he had gone a certain distance he turned around to shout, “You are lucky! Tomorrow you will arrive at your famous station. What did you say its name was?”

“X—!” answered the traveller.

At that moment the little old man dissolved in the clear morning. But the red speck of his lantern kept on running and leaping imprudently between the rails to meet the train.

In the distant landscape the train was noisily approaching.