Published here for the first time in English, "Where the Trains Turn" won first prize in the Finnish science-fiction magazine Portti's annual short story competition and then went on to win the Atorox Award for best Finnish science fiction or fantasy short story.
I don't like to think about the past. But I cannot stop remembering my son.
Emma Nightingale prefers to remain grounded in reality as much as possible. Yet she's willing to indulge her nine year-old son Rupert's fascination with trains, as it brings him closer to his father, Gunnar, from whom she is separated. Once a month, Gunnar and Rupert venture out to follow the rails and watch the trains pass. Their trips have been pleasant, if uneventful, until one afternoon Rupert returns in tears. "The train tried to kill us," he tells her.
Rupert's terror strikes Emma as merely the product of an overactive imagination. After all, his fears could not be based in reality, could they?
"In this long novella, the details are presented meticulously, building characters and atmosphere layer on layer."--Locus
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About the Author
PASI ILMARI JÄÄSKELÄINEN is well known in his native Finland for his fantasy and sci-fi narratives and has twice won the Kuvastaja Fantasy Prize given by Finland's Tolkien Society and four times won the Atorax Award for Fantasy. He is the author of The Rabbit Back Literature Society, teaches Finnish language and literature and is the father of three sons.
Read an Excerpt
Where the Trains Turn
By Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, Greg Ruth
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2014 Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
All rights reserved.
If it's in any way possible for You, please make this somehow un- happened! I'll give you anything!
A typical child's prayer; directed to any sufficiently omnipotent Divine Being who chances to be listening
* * *
Not since my girlhood have I bothered to read books that contain invented events or non-existent people, were they written by Hemingway, Joyce, Mann, Blyton, Christie, Jansson or any other of the millions of literary talents in this universe— I prefer unquestionable facts, and to relax I sometimes like to read encyclopaedias. It's hard enough to cope day by day with what presumes to be my own everyday reality; to stir and feed imagination with fiction would just make me lose my sense of reality altogether. It's pretty fickle already, my understanding of which part of the things I remember has actually happened and what is composed of mere empty memories which never had a reference in the historical continuum that's called objective reality.
I don't like to think about the past, because it mixes my head up and makes my bowels loose and gives me a severe migraine to boot. But I cannot stop remembering my son. That's why I still often sneak with a spade to the graveyard of my memories and dig up pieces of my life with my son Rupert. Of his peculiarly fatal relationship to trains, of his brilliant days of success and happiness that made me so proud, and of everything else.
For the sake of my son I write down these thoughts, seek him from dream images, from memories, from everywhere. Perhaps I'm afraid I'll forget him; but could I forget?
I hunt my memories, examine them, turn and twist them, and try to understand what happened and why; for Rupert's sake I consider the eternal logical circle of cause and effect and my own part in it, trying to get some sense out of it, as painful and against my nature as such an effort always has been to me.
* * *
Even as a girl I understood how important it is to live in a world as logical and sensible as possible. I never let myself be ruled by grand emotions, and yet was quite reasonably happy (or at least fairly unruffled most of the time), and then just I, out of all the world's expectant women, became Rupert's mother.
Even as a baby he was restless, probably had nightmares, poor thing, and quite soon it turned out that my blue-eyed son Rupert was not a very sensible child. He let loose a mental chaos; even for a child he was extremely irrational. By and by he made an actual art form of his addiction to irrationality. At five years old for example, he had a strange mania to mix calendars and set all the clocks he found to a wrong time. When he turned seven, I bought him a watch of his own, a golden Timex. He liked it, very much indeed, and wound it up regularly, but always it was an hour or two fast or slow, sometimes even more.
More than a couple of times I was seized with a feeling that I had been caught in the middle of The Great Irrationality Circus where Rupert was a pompous mad director. Even looking at him made my head ache.
I miss him every day. Sometimes I still go to the window in the middle of preparing dinner and perhaps imagine seeing him in the backyard, the silly old owl that I am, just like decades ago, in another time, another life:
Rupert was playing on the backyard. Like a whirlwind dressed in a sun- yellow t-shirt and blue terry shorts, he flew from here to there: from the tree stump to the currant bush, from the bush to the old puffed-up rowan that had been just sitting in the middle of the backyard very likely since creation, and on again to the nervously trembling top of the tree. From there the boy kept chatting to the birds flying by, to the clouds, to the sky, the sun and to the tree itself.
I repressed my urge to run out and yell at Rupert to come down to the ground at once on pain of a severe punishment before he would fall and break his slender fledgling-neck and spoil the whole beautiful summer day by dying and becoming one of those stupidly careless kids the curt news- in-brief in the papers always told about.
I turned my back to the kitchen window. "Where do you plan to go today?" I asked Gunnar. My emphatically civilized tone reflected my inner turmoil as little as possible. I poured out more coffee for my guest. I always made him coffee, although I knew he'd actually have wanted cocoa. I did have a tin of cocoa behind the flour bags on the upper shelf, but that was for Rupert—grownups, according to my opinion, ought to drink coffee or tea.
"I don't know. Where ever we fancy."
"I do know: to the railway, as always. I can't figure what you actually see in those railways," I muttered.
"Is it really so inconceivable to you?" Gunnar asked with a strange expression on his face. "That your son has a yearning to be close to the railway? And that the sound of a train quickens his blood?"
I shook my head, embarrassed. I couldn't figure what he was after. I waited for some kind of an explanation, but he just smiled his irritating Mona Lisa smile, and I did not feel like muddling my head with his riddles.
He sat at the kitchen table, erect and altogether faultlessly upright, slim and polished. He was well-featured but slightly pale (as was Rupert). The almost feminine elegance of his slender limbs and graceful movements didn't really lessen his distinctive masculinity, which flowed from somewhere deeper in his personality. He wore perfect greyish tailor-made suits and even his ties probably cost as much as an ordinary off-the-peg suit. Now he had on a smart copper toned tie, given as a Father's Day gift on Rupert's behalf a couple of years ago. The man looked what he was—a Very Important Person in a big firm, with more money in his pockets, power and contacts than any single person ever really needed.
"Perhaps we'll leave then," he said. He went to the hall and stopped for a moment. "I'll bring the boy back before evening. Round 17:30, as usual. Well, Emma, enjoy the silence. Are you going to do anything special today? It's a good day to drive to town and go to a movie for instance."
"Movies I'll leave to little boys, that's who they are made for," I said. "You know I don't care about movies."
"Yes. I just tend to forget it," Gunnar admitted. He seemed a little annoyed at his absentmindedness. "I'm sorry."
Gunnar flashed me a somewhat feeble smile and left (the time was 11:14, so they had well over six hours for their railway outings).
I sensed in Gunnar a certain subsurface hardness and even ruthlessness that success in the financial world undoubtedly called for. I knew he could be rather cold when necessary, so I could appreciate that he had always without exception treated me politely and kindly. His kindness, however, had a reserved tone, as if he were attending to a very important long term business affair with me, nothing more or less.
Which in a way he was, too: he paid me more than fair maintenance (making it possible for me to be a full-time mother) and once a month spent a day with the child I had born from his seed. We had nothing else in common. Between us there were no shared memories, chocolate boxes, kisses, lovers' quarrels or soft words, just easy little compliments: Well, Emma, you look quite pretty today in your beige slacks! Now and then I found it difficult to believe that only eight years back we'd had intimate intercourse with each other. But Rupert of course was a rather concrete evidence of it, thus believe I must—we both must.
That evidence, or his own part in the boy's existence, the man had never even tried to question. I knew of course that he liked to appear a perfect gentleman, a kind of modern blueblood (and with one's noblesse oblige), but still his correctness bordering upon the noble was a bit amazing, considering the unconventional circumstances of the child's conception.
From between the orange kitchen curtains I watched how Gunnar called the boy down from the tree, caught him in his arms from a trustful leap and took him away in his thunder-coloured BMW.
My stomach was hurting nastily, though my menses were still days off. I didn't like to let Rupert out of my sight. From the very moment I had felt the first faint kicks inside me, I'd also started to fear losing my child in some totally unpredictable manner (as irrational as the feeling may have been), and that early fear never fully let go.
Once a month I was unavoidably left alone, the house became quiet, and I became uneasy. I lived with Rupert every day. I chose, bought and washed his clothes, I ate with him, I listened to his troubles. I woke him up in the morning and tucked him up in the evening. I had subscribed to Donald Duck comics for him. I applied sticking plasters to his cuts. I measured and weighed him regularly and kept a diary of his development. I took snapshots of him for the family album. A couple of days before I'd baked him his seventh birthday cake, which we two had (for once not caring about the consequences) eaten the same day, and I had held his head above the toilet when he had finally started to puke. Nevertheless I felt like a terrific outsider when I thought about the outings Rupert and Gunnar had together. They seemed to mean so much for the boy, sometimes more than all the rest of his life.
And why was that?
One could easily have imagined that a successful businessman like Gunnar would have taken the boy from one amusement park to another and ladled into the boy's bottomless gullet ice cream helpings the price of a bicycle and deluxe pear lemonades and special order hamburgers and generally used all the tricks made possible by money to treat the boy like a divine child emperor. So lightly he could have afforded even to fly the boy once a month to Disneyland to shake hands with Donald Duck; so easily he could have with the power of money made the child's whole home environment seem like a furnished cardboard box. He could well have filled the pockets of his son with absurdly big allowance and bought him the moon from the sky and had two spare ones made.
But nothing like that from Gunnar; the larger-than-life moments of Rupert's life were created in a quite different way. Once a month the man simply arrived with a packet of sandwiches and a bottle of juice or perhaps a couple of gingerbreads in his pocket and took the boy to look at rails. Railways, tracks, those that trains use to go from one place to another. Not the elephants and giraffes and monkeys in the zoo, not the newest movie hit, not the dancing clowns, not the new wonderful toys in the department stores. To look at the rust coloured railway tracks, that's where he took the boy: they searched on the map and in the nature for always new railway sections and walked the hours of their day together along the tracks doing nothing special, they just walked and enjoyed each other's company and stopped for a while to eat their sandwiches and then went on, and when the boy came home, I saw him simply tremble with restrained happiness and excitement and satisfaction as if he had seen at least all the wonders of the universe and met Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and a thousand speaking gingerbread reindeers as well.
I had sometimes tried to ask Rupert about it. He made my temples throb when he started to speak like a preacher about the Wonderful Smell of Railways and how it actually contained all the world's secrets.
I knew well enough when I was not in my own territory, not even close. Besides, it was after all a question of something shared between the two, father and son, which wasn't really my business, so in spite of my vague forebodings I thought best to let it be.
Until Rupert came home from such a track excursion hysterically sobbing and shaking, white as a washbasin, as if he had met eye to eye with the Children's Own Grinning Reaper himself and had to shake his bony hand.
* * *
I knew at once that everything was not all right when I lifted my eyes from the flowerbed I'd been scraping, and saw them returning already at 3:25.
I had my hands full coping with the situation. To start, I chased Gunnar off, bleeding with scratches as he was. I acted purely from my spinal cord, as mothers always do in such situations; acted with the rage of a dinosaur in a white summer dress. Gunnar tried to explain: he could not understand what had come over the boy, he'd just been carrying him piggyback and stepped on the bank as he'd heard the approaching train, and suddenly the boy had gone completely crazy on his back and started to tear Gunnar's hair and face and to scream unintelligibly like some rabid, drooling monkey.
If Rupert had come home thoroughly scared, Gunnar was just as terrified. He behaved like a dog that vaguely understands he's being judged for complicity in some Very Bad Thing and knows for certain that he'll get a bullet in his brain.
I almost felt sorry for him.
The dinosaur in me felt no pity, it attacked. I yelled at him till my lungs hurt. I probably hit him, too—at least his nose suddenly started to bleed.
He shook his head perplexed, stepping back and forth on the backyard, dabbing his nose with a handkerchief and nervously straightening his suit, covered in grey dust, having for once lost his relaxed erectness of carriage (for which I, for a brief moment, felt maliciously pleased). Then he glanced quickly at me, turned his eyes somewhere up, at Rupert's window I suppose, and started to speak: "If I have caused trouble, I'm sincerely sorry. If you want, I'll leave. But I have to say that with the boy I've always felt that for once I'm involved with something larger than my own life. You know what: he will yet do something significant, something wonderful, something which neither of us now can even dream about. I have an instinct for those things. And if he—"
I told him to be quiet and leave my backyard (although not quite in those words), and he obeyed. As Gunnar, defeated, got in his car and drove away, the dinosaur was gratified—it had won.
I had no idea that I'd never again see the only man in this life I'd ever allowed to push his male protrusion inside me: about half an hour later he would be crushed to death together with his car and his wiry bird boned being would be transformed to a mixed metal-and-bone paste (I know, because I later went to see the photo the police had taken of the accident scene).
But that shock was still to come. Now I had to compose myself so that I could go and calm down Rupert who, piteously wailing, had run upstairs and locked himself in his room.
I went up the stairs and knocked on Rupert's door. "Let me in!" I ordered, my cheek at the door. "What's got into you?"
"The trains," came a trembling whisper from the other side of the door. "The trains!"
"What about them?" I tried to keep my voice calm. I strained hard and realized suddenly that I'd been trying to see through the chipping white painted surface of the door. Just like that x-ray-eyed Superman Rupert admired, it struck me. Well this was how it went, this was how Rupert made even me behave irrationally! (I had always felt a deep antipathy towards that red-caped clown who wiped his un-holed arse with logic and credibility and, besides, provoked children to jump out of windows with bath towels on their neck.)
I wondered whether my poor child had on his face a foolish maniacal grin, and a sudden horror stabbed my ovaries. Had my worst fears now come true in this dreadful way? Would my son end up for the rest of his life in a little boys' mental institution, where he would be dressed in a little teddy bear patterned straightjacket?
I heard a choked request: "Mummy, please go and look out of the window."
I did. A cold bit of flesh pretending to be a heart was slapping in my breast and I felt faint. I looked out of the round window in the upper hall, where sweaty houseflies kept buzzing in competition in the shady afternoon light.
"And then what? What should I see? Your father? He had to leave already. He may phone you later. Or you can phone him."
"Do you see a train there?" asked a wan voice. "It didn't follow me here, did it?"
Finally I got Rupert convinced that there was no train on the backyard, not even the smallest inspection trolley, and he let me in his room and, after a long stumble over his words, started to tell what it had all been about.
Excerpted from Where the Trains Turn by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, Greg Ruth. Copyright © 2014 Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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