by Cheryl Murfin
I don't know why I remember the silence the moment a train nearly ran us over. Still, every now and then the dense, blanketing soundlessness of that moment wraps around me and I am there – standing on the train trestle watching the shadow of that big black Burlington Northern engine slide down my body with the actual engine right behind it.
“What should we do today?” I asked my grandfather as we finished our bowls of oatmeal that morning.
Oatmeal was a ritual for my grandfather. Every Monday and Thursday he stood by the stove stirring a new pot, making enough to last the next few days, the old tin double boiler getting crustier and crustier with the re-heating each day until the new fresh batch was made.
My grandfather loved the last day of this cycle when he got to scrape the dried caramely dregs of oatmeal from the bottom of the pot and then bring them to life with an ample hit of half and half. At the other end of the breakfast table by grandmother sat eating her eggs and toast.
“Remember your cholesterol, Thom,” my grandmother, who was twice the size of my stick-thin grandfather, would gently pester.
“Fishing?” my grandfather turned to me, skirting right over her health tip.
He had a twinkle in his eye, a mischievous spark that meant he was chuckling inside. With his bushy eyebrows and beard it could be hard to miss that spark as it curled along the upturned corners of his mouth, but I never did. I loved my grandfather’s smile.
“That sounds fun -- just don’t take ‘em too close to the tracks,” my grandmother warned. “They’ve been changing schedules I think.“
She was a worrier. On any given day you’d find her wringing her hands on her wide apron as my grandfather marched off with ladder and branch cutters in hand to, she feared, break his neck pruning a tree; or, with a gas can in hand headed, she was sure, to lose his leg riding around on the rickety old riding mower. With her children grown, keeping my grandfather alive was my grandmother’s life work.
Under his beard I saw my grandfather’s lip curl a little wider and under his breath he offered and appeasing “Yes, mama.”
My grandfather knew the train schedule like he knew how to drive – backwards, forwards, in good weather, and bad. From his office perch on the second floor of my grandparents old clapboard house he watched as engines and boxcars crossed the train trestle that spanned the watery gap between Bud Inlet’s West Bay and the reservoir-size lake-let of West Bay Park. The park was a brief walk downhill from my grandparents house.
With his red and green plaid beret crooked to one side of his head my grandfather balanced three fishing poles over his shoulder and walked with my sister and me along the spit beside the tracks. He hummed an old Episcopal hymn – A Mighty Fortress is Our God - while Tami, my grandparents’ loyal cream-colored mutt trotted beside, stopping every now and then to sniff or pee.
Tami was short for Tam O’Shanter. My grandmother once told me she was named after my grandfather’s hat which once had a red pom-pom on top of it but which the dog ate soon after they rescued him from the pound. Completely ignoring my grandmother’s warning, we made a beeline for the train trestle.
The canal running underneath it was clear and sparkling and, according to my grandfather, contained our supper. As we walked across the wooden ties, I peered down at the water flowing below. It made me a little dizzy, so I held my grandfather’s had tighter as we advanced to the middle. Tami ran back and forth across the bridge scouting for birds, returning every now and then to my grandfather’s side.
In the middle of the trestle, my grandfather opened his tackle box, fished out a worm and expertly set my sister’s hook. She jumped down and settled herself on trestle tie a few feet below the bridge. Then my grandfather turned to my pole as I crouched beside him. He grabbed the fattest worm in the jar and started to weave it through the tiny blue hook. The dog barked frantically behind him, chasing a gull I was sure. Just as my grandfather was about to hand me my pole, my sister let out a sound that started like a deep hack but rose quickly to a high-pitched scream wrapped around at word:
My grandfather and I looked up at the same time as the shadow of the engine barreled down on us. I’m sure there was sound -- he screeching of breaks; the whistle being pulled; my sister shrieking; the dog yelping. I am sure my grandfather screamed as well as he whirled around in one movement, grabbed me and jumped over the side the bridge.
But all I heard was silence. All I saw was the slow motion blur of a moment stopping time. The sky was blue. There were no clouds. The wood of the tracks was oily black, the bolts rusty and dark. The blood on my grandfather’s hand from the hook he’d imbedded in it was bright red as it flew by my face. I starred at that red as we floated down, down, through the air.
We were flying. And through all the colors the only sound was no sound. We hit the water with a hard splash. Luckily it had rained just a few days before and so the channel was deep enough to absorb our fall from about 20 feet above.
In my memory, my grandfather is treading water with me in his arms. I cannot swim. He is holding my head above the water. In reality, he was likely standing in water that was chest high and holding me to his chest in a bear hug. In the water the sound returned, the train rolled to a screeching stop on the trestle, it’s cowcatcher exactly where we’d been sitting seconds before. The water all around us rustled swiftly making a “shhh, shhh, shhh sound.” My heart raced, my body shook, no sounds came out of my mouth although I felt like I was screaming. My sister was still wailed from her perch on the tie below the trestle. My grandfather held me tightly.
As the train engineer leaned out the window and started to throw angry insults at my grandfather, I missed another sound. Tami was not barking. And that’s when I found my voice:
“Tami! Tami’s dead!” I cried.
We tread water for what seemed like forever until the engineer wound down, the train moved forward and into the distance, and my grandfather hefted me to his other hip and waded out of the water. He set me down, got on his knee at my level and looked me in the eye.
“You’re ok,” he told me.
Matter of fact. My sister came running over to us and he did the same to her:
“You’re ok,” he old her. “We’re all fine.”
He picked up my pole and my sisters – his pole and tackle box were likely entangle in the train front. He grabbed my hand and I grabbed my sisters and we started moving back along the track. I was calming down but still hiccupping when I remembered the dog.
“But Tami,” I cried. “Poor Tami! She’s gone!”
My grandfather put down the rods and stuck his two fingers under his tongue and whistled. There was a split second where our worst fears were realized and in the next second our relief and joy. In the distance, we heard Tami barking.
She came running toward us from the other side of the trestle, something dangling from her mouth. A fish. How she got it, no one knew, but it was still alive, flopping angrily in her clenched jaw.
“Guess they did change the schedule,” my grandfather mused, wrenching the fish out of the dog’s mouth. That twinkle. That smile.
Then, conspiratorially, “Maybe we shouldn’t tell mama.”