Steam Engines

A nearing steam engine chugs a heavy whiff of black smoke and from its archaic megaphone bellows a deafening, unforgiving horn.

Its pace slackens and it screeches over rusty rails as it infinitesimally, albeit distinguishably, comes to a halt.

The milieu of the paltry surrounding station is that of an isolated, inviting tranquility. Smoke from the engine digresses under the command of a ubiquitous monsoon breeze in the direction of the deserted platform; its half-empty vending machines, a menial water fountain with a single arc of water that dances more in obeisance to the strong gale than to its powering electric current. A garden of unkempt topiaries that have outgrown their stipulated shapes flutters under this seemingly monarchial breeze and its fawning minion; the engine’s smoke.

The smoke then diffuses and whirls into an inscrutable vortex, and in spite of its negligible size, blows with considerable celerity in the direction of an isolated house in the corner of the station.

This house is no larger in width than that of the single compartment attached to the steam engine, its height flattened adherently by its seemingly rectangular appearance.

The windows – the two placid eyes of the house, are wide open as curtains from within prance along with the rest of its vantage’s habitat in aggressive submission to the breeze.

The right window peers into the interiors of a kitchen that is in incontrovertible disarray: its electric stove glows with a fiery spiraling orange; above it a boiling cup of milk quivers with its contents as white bubbles pop and resurface over its thin meniscus. Unwashed dishes are piled on the large metal sink, its two taps dripping consistently and their faucets soaped by irregular lather.

The floor is unkempt and littered by astray polythene bags that reek of rancidity, molding slices of stale bread, broken pieces of a china plate, and a yellow glove still wet and coated with a fresh layer of dishwashing soap.

A light drizzle now begins to descend the greying sky and amenably taps against the windowsill with a harmonious patter.

The left window dashes lightly against its sill as it gazes into the bedlam of a room: white sheets on the bed disheveled by its previous occupant’s conspicuous restiveness, an alarm clock lying headfirst on the floor, its glass cracked underneath.

The remnants of a contiguous empty wardrobe are sprawled on the bed: unpaired socks, white male undergarments, a white shirt, two variegated ties and a faded pair of denim jeans.

Outside, the doors to the modest train finally squeak open. A young woman exits it with her purse, her air that of stifled pain, her eyes swollen from recent tears.

In the house, the only sounds of gentle pitter-pattering rain and boiling milk are then shadowed by the sonorous click of a key’s metal against its lock: the knob to the front door clicks and twists, opening to the woman and a blast of gushing wind.

She hurriedly strips her heeled footwear and locks the door behind her.

The woman’s reddened eyes ransack the house instantly; swallowing in its familiar yet newly unkempt details with an almost muted expectancy. She then sheds her arm of its purse and places it on an askew chair in the living room – contrarily to the rest of the house, a clean space. Its television however, is still blinking the images of a black and white movie to an uninhabited sofa in the semi-dark.

Her eyes narrow and eyebrows slightly furrow as she darts across the hall into the bathroom, her hands wrapped around an adjacent pillar as she anticipates movement. There is none.

She then cranes her neck into the kitchen, greeted by the container of now burnt milk. She rushes to flick the stove off, and the zealous orange dies to a coal-like black.

Her fingers viscerally dash against the scathing metal of the milk’s container, and she immediately reels back in reflexive shock from the burn.

Her bare feet meet with an unprecedented broken piece of china on the floor, and she gasps in silent pain as she dabs the sole of her right foot to feel a dark, thick splotch of blood on her finger.

She winces as she places her foot back on the ground, wets a cloth and wraps it around her burned hand, and walks to the only unsearched room in the house; unperturbed by the trail of blood leaking from her foot.

The finality of the empty sight of the bedroom takes her by surprise, and she lets out a debilitated, languid whimper.

Her weight leans towards the door and her head rests against it, her eyes threatening to tear again.

For a lingering moment she is frozen in her position, her heart almost immovable and her eyes fixated on the clothes on the bed.

She then peers at the back of her foot and finds it in a small puddle of her own blood. She strips her finger of its cloth and eyes the burn; the area swollen to almost double its size. She shakes her head in unison with a breathless sob and limps out of the room, the physical pain only a momentary distraction from her heaving heart.

She extracts a first-aid box from an overhead shelf in the bathroom and dabs her wound in alcohol and cotton. She then wraps her foot in a thick bandage and heads to the kitchen. Now wary of the broken china, she limps to the refrigerator and ties two cubes of ice against her finger with the cloth.

A raging thunder brings to her notice that the no longer gentle drizzle has grown into a full-fledged, redoubtable storm. She walks to both windows, shuts their doors and pulls their blinds until the house is inundated in the resulting lightless dark of a monsoon rain.

She hobbles back into the kitchen and sweeps the broken plate together and throws its pieces away, throws the polythene bags of stale food in the trash can and washes the dishes with her unmatched dishwashing gloves.

She walks back to the room and opens the cupboard next to her bed to reveal endless rows of a multihued sanguine wardrobe.

She sheds her shoulders of a wet grey overcoat and places it over a hanger, unbuttons and removes the shirt underneath and hangs it adjacent to the coat. She undresses herself of her trousers and folds them neatly into a corner of the cupboard. She strips her undergarments and places them over an already heaped load of clothes in a laundry basket. She reenters the bathroom and turns the faucet to the welcoming jet of thick water.

She splashes it against her face, and after evading her own reflection for long enough, she finally eyes the mirror and stares at herself.

Her face contorts and her lips quiver as her disheveled semblance stares back at her, its piercing eyes only a shallow facsimile of their past liveliness.

She suddenly splashes her face with a newfound aggression. She rigidly wipes her mouth of its lipstick and scrubs her face to remove its primer and foundation; her forehead frowns as she scowls at herself in taciturn, hateful soliloquy. She is scraping, digging at her skin, trying but only futilely to afflict as much physical harm possible with trimmed fingernails.

She glares at her now bare, sorrowful face and feels a hiccup shake her body as it rattles out of her throat. She places a meek hand on her reflection and stares at her eyes, looking for solace and assuagement within them.

She finds neither.

Her lean, petite frame bends as she edges towards the sink, drained of all energy and happiness.

She frenetically reaches for the chain attached to the sink and clogs the drain. She places her head inside the concave surface and lets the consistently flowing water wet her hair and face as it fills the basin.

The water pools around her face and suffocates her as her head lightly bobs in the water, its movement constricted both from her consciousness and her body’s rigidity.

Finally, the burning sensation of breathlessness reaches her lungs, and an unendurable pain shoots through her as the asphyxiation begins to drastically dwindle the oxygen content in her body.

Her face then shoots out of the basin, and she is heaving deep gasps of strangulated parchedness for a full breath of fresh air.

Her eyes are still red, its shedding tears masqueraded by accompanying drops of tap water that accumulate at the curve of her lip.

She unclogs the sink and wipes her wet face with a napkin.

Her eyes now purposely meet with their image, and she paws her reflection.

Her long fingers trail her face, sprawling from the frown lines on her forehead to the diminutive cleft on her drawn chin.

Her features then twist from despair to that of a callous sneer, and her right palm slaps across her cheek, its sound an unequivocally painful reverberation across the bathroom.

She slaps herself again once, twice, thrice; her loosened hair disheveled only further from every impact.

Her mouth trembles and erupts in another sob, her face droops in fatigue from her self-afflicted harm.

She hunches over the sink, rubs a splash of cold tap water over the disproportionate red handprint on her cheek, switches off the light and exits the washroom.

She walks to the latter side of the bed, and runs three jaded fingers over a velvet maroon tie. They curl around it and hold it to her nose. Her eyes gradually close as she inhales deeply the unwashed smell of sweat and a masculine scent peculiar to only its possessor’s.

She drapes the tie over her bare neck, knots it with clumsy fingers that she had for years so expertly used to tie around a fully clothed chest. She peers at herself in the mirror, and a momentary nostalgic smile fights its way to the surface, but it perishes before the blink of an eye.

She then places two shivering hands on the estranged pair of jeans. She runs her touch over its fabric and clasps it by its edges to hold it against her nude, painfully heaving chest.

She hugs it to her body tightly, her face torn in despairing bereavement.

An involuntary yawn escapes her parted lips as tiredness from the day’s tribulations get the better of her. She then painstakingly lies on the distorted side of the sheets, curls into a ball with the jeans tightly gripped between her fingers, and droops into an unrestful stupor.

 

Her eyes flash instantly open in response to the startling sound of a gunshot. The jeans still held by her shaky hands, she races as fast as she can, out of the bedroom and to the source of the sound.

The living room rumbles with the sound again, and now completely conscious, she establishes the canned quality of the recorded sound from the black and white movie. She heaves a breath of half-hearted relief and places an outstretched hand above her chest.

Her heart is still pounding, her head throbbing dully as she reduces the volume to the television and then limps out of the room. Her cheeks are wet with residual tears that had dribbled down her eyes and sedimented on her face during her slumber. Her body is chilled by its unnatural exposure to the unwelcoming climate of her cold abode, yet her mind jostles this to an insignificant corner of her mind as a negligible triviality.

 

In the kitchen still wafts the odor of ruined milk, concocted with the heavy aroma of detergent and her own deodorant. She holds the milk’s container with a muslin cloth and pours its burnt contents into a mug. She opens a lower drawer and pulls out a box of coffee powder, drops from it three teaspoons into the mug and stirs it absently.

Although her finger has returned to its original size and her foot is no longer bleeding, both wounds ache with an identical dullness.

She holds the mug to her chest with one hand to keep her torso warm, and in the other is still the pair of old jeans. She walks towards the closed window of her kitchen and pulls the blinds open until through only a tiny rectangular strip of vantage is the surrounding railway station visible.

She perches herself on the window’s platform, drapes the pair of jeans over her crouching body and curls towards herself until her knees are tightly wrapped within her arms.

She is halfway through her first sip of the coffee, when she not only winces from the deplorable taste of burnt milk, but also its conspicuous sugarlessness. Her eyes reflexively ponder the shelves for the round jar of sugar, but her vision recedes back to her cup, then to the window and the promising vantage of an empty station, welcoming of more steam engines and with them the prospect of her passenger.

She forces down another sip of coffee and finds a serendipitous, intangible succor in its bitter taste.

She gazes out the window again; searchingly, painstakingly, her lips pursed and eyes burning as she scours the empty station for an amenable sight.

Five minutes pass before the proximal sound of a chuffing engine, riding uphill as it whistles its way to the station’s platform.

Her pupils glimmer with anticipation and a desperate, indescribable yearning that pains her chest and tightens her throat.

Yet the doors to its only compartment never open, and the train scrolls over its rails, chugging its way out of the station as if it were never in it to begin with.

Her face is crestfallen, and she cringes through another sip of her piping beverage.

 

Rain pounds against the windowpane as an hour passes by in this futile patience, her eyes lighting up with expectancy while her breath fogs up the glass every five minutes a steam engine passes. The train halts for thirty seconds, front doors uncompromisingly rigid, and passes through the station in an unhurried, almost jubilant pace.

Until finally, for the first time since her own arrival, a train’s doors bounce open with a resounding metallic clank, and her eyes widen in desperate hope.

Ten seconds pass – twenty seconds – and time in itself grows dilatory as her expression darkens until her face grows ashen from torturous anticipation.

She first catches sight of the large conductor’s cap, covered in black smoke and remnants of charcoal.

Then the man walks out, his apparel greased by the engine’s fuel and his face almost completely caked with a layer of black grease.

Disheartened and woebegone, the woman lifts herself from the window and closes the blinds behind her.

She cups her still half-full mug in her hands and walks to the living room, seats herself on the couch and stares at the television screen with vacant eyes.

The dark figures on the screen blur into a single, fuzzy image as her thoughts elsewhere are adrift in their agony.

She drains an excruciatingly long sip of her coffee and licks her lips before the biting cold of the liquid runs down her throat and sends a chill through her spine.

After a few moments, she decidedly places the mug on a coffee table and returns to her room. She unbuttons the ironed white shirt on the bed, drapes its broad shoulders over her own, folds its sleeves and buttons it over her petite body underneath. The shirt sags around her torso from its relatively oversized length. She holds a segment of the loose shirt and places it against her cheek, closes her eyes and breathes in the familiar, comforting, homely scent.

She then tugs the jeans and wears them over her long legs until they reach her waist. She zips them shut; the denim still nonetheless just as loose as the shirt. She then reenters her wardrobe’s expanse and finds a leather belt. She passes it through the jeans and buckles it until it is relatively more comfortably fitted around her waist.

 

As she pulls the jeans higher up her hips, she sits on the sofa; holding the mug in one hand and the remote control in another.

She swaps through channels and stops at the flicker of her once favorite advertisement. The sight of it makes an unprecedented chuckle exit her parted lips; and she finds solace more in the fact of her momentary mirth’s existence than its cause.

Taking one last sip of the coffee, she settles into the cushion, sniffles as she grabs a part of the shirt’s loose sleeve and holds it closer to her face. She stifles a pained sob, tucks a tuft of hair behind her ear and wipes her eyes. The unrest in her shaken body redoubles as the advertisement ends. She increases the volume to the television and continues to stare at its screen with a gradually returning sense of uninterested impassivity. A colossal bolt of lightning cracks through the sky and immediately frightens her, almost shadowing the distant sound of a steam engine chugging over its rails, exiting the platform and continuing its unending journey through numerous identical stations; halting at all, but opening to none.

*

 

Aditya S. Pendyala