Thursday, May 03, 2012

Southern Serves the South

A snip from A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (Mercer University Press - The Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction, 2012):  Beside the rails, Pip drew himself to his utmost height, balancing on his bare toes, feeling the coming palsy of earth in his feet and legs as the locomotive bored forward through the molasses-heavy afternoon, tearing away the tethers of sleepiness that held the town until, like the suddenly-freed inhabitants of a pent-up anthill, men spilled from stores and children skipped to the brink of the rails and a woman in a local milliner’s hat that resembled something grown on a tree, fungal and yellow and decorated with green piping like a caterpillar parade, rushed full tilt toward the station, her husband carrying a shiny silk bag that was not a valise but would do.
            The metal face of the train with its bright Cyclopean eye and its smokebox and clanging bell thrust itself into Pip’s sight, and again he was as astonished as if he had never seen such a vision in all his born days and forgot everything but the hurtle and rising aria of the train that made his own chant seem silly and childish.  He did an awkward half-split, jumbling his hands in the air.  The monster took no notice but plunged, vaulted, and dived over the slight rolls of the land, shaking the earth as easily as a hound shakes a kitten, spewing cinders and smoke, drive wheels pounding and somersaulting over Emanuel County, so swift and thunderous that it seemed nothing in the world could cry halt! to such an extravagance of force.  High as a house, the engine swooped down on Pip, hissing and hooting in his face, in his very being, turning him inside out, ringing him like a bell.  The sun clanged in the sky, the earth quaked, and the pistons of the train shot out steam as they rhythmically proclaimed the company motto—Southern Serves the South, Southern Serves the South, Southern Serves the South.  Who could stand against such a beast or rein it in?  But there they were, the aloof, cool kings of the cinder-trail, the fireman and engineer, as calm as if they had not been handling the mysteries of coal and power and locomotion but had been helping set up a board table under a rustling tree, getting ready for a Sunday supper after church.
            Brakes sparked the air, and the long squeal of metal against metal signaled a stop as boxcars and tank cars and engines and caboose swayed on the tracks, straining at couplings.  It was like trying to keep a town on a steep hillside from plunging pell-mell into avalanche; like holding down an epileptic string of stores and houses that were starting to seize.  The whole long street of the train wanted to crash together with a roar and a magnificent smash-up and a Jericho clash like ten-thousand cymbals.  The cars wanted to roll sideways, doors shooting open, hobos cannonading circus-style through the air, and those riding the rods beneath the boxcars screaming bloody murder as the brakes screeched and let off fireworks.  

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.