Henrietta’s mother is an engine driver and wants her daughter to become one too, but Henrietta prefers the buffet car. She can see her future self there, all grown up in a waistcoat with her hair cropped short, smiling as she dispenses tea and spoonfuls of powdered milk. She feels at home among the plastic plates and formica tables, the thin sandwiches and the drinks in cartons. Another girl might dream of other trains with silverware and fresh white tablecloths, a meat or chicken or vegetarian option served on a china plate, but this train is not like other trains, and Henrietta doesn’t want to be anywhere else.
This evening, as the sun is swallowed by the horizon, Henrietta is helping out. It’s easier to forget what they left behind them when she has something to do, easier to not think about what might still be seeping through the night after them. She loads up the little trolley with the jug and the teapot and the collection of worn, chipped, cups, and pushes it through the carriages.
“Would you like some warm milk?” she asks those passengers who eyes are still wide. “Or some chamomile tea?”
They hesitate, picking nervously at their feathers or stretching atrophied muscles below thick white fur. Even those who always make the same choice pause before answering, as if they need to know there is a choice to be made, even if that choice is between nightmares and the memories that still flicker in front of their open eyes when they can no longer distract themselves. Whatever they choose, the train keeps going through the night, its great tentacles beating on the coastal rocks. The drivers swap shifts to schedules written in a different world, a world where there were stations and return journeys and homes that didn’t fly through the night on rails.
Henrietta would like to pour out tea every night, but there are more people than there are jobs to do on this train so there’s not much work given to a girl not yet twelve. She does her sums on fogged windows, her tail wrapped around her like a hug, and practices her reading on tattered novels and the old timetable books her mother keeps in the cab. She’s not sure how long it’s been since her pen ran out, but it feels like a long time ago.
Sometimes, Henrietta’s scaled green legs itch with worry. Maybe the flood-metals they have been running from for so long will finally catch up with them, she thinks one night, curled up in her reclined seat with her blue blanket pulled up to her chin. Or maybe one day they’ll run out of money for supplies. They don’t need much; just food and fresh water, and to stop every few days by the water to allow the engine to feed, to suck in fish from the rivers or to scoop prawns from the great lakes, but she’s old enough to know that money doesn’t last forever. And no-one knows if they have a destination, let alone how far it is, not even the drivers.
At dawn, Nils comes through the cabin shaking a bell. Blankets are thrown off, and heads emerge uttering words Henrietta’s mother would prefer she doesn’t know yet. Nils is officially the ticket collector, but everyone only had one ticket, and they were bought and checked a very long time ago. Nils has pointed, furry ears and big black eyes.
“Scheduled stop in one hour!” he announces, ringing his bell between each word. More groans. “Please take all valuables when you leave the train.” Satisfied he’s delivered his announcement to these rows of passengers, he moves on to the centre of the carriage where he rings his bell and repeats it all over again.
“We get the message,” someone grumbles, but most people are looking for shoes or hats or sunglasses, or squinting out of the window to see if they can see a town on the horizon. Pulled back curtains let the early morning light in, and Henrietta stretches her legs and her arms and her tail, yawns at the ceiling, and starts to think about what to wear.
Henrietta owns two dresses and a pinafore with a blouse, which she keeps in a bag under her seat. She’d prefer to wear trousers but they never have space for her tail. She has no shoes either, no shoes would fit her feet—but she doesn’t mind that. It’s one of her jobs to keep her clothes clean, and she does her best but if she doesn’t wash them they begin to smell and feel itchy, and if she does they fade thin and grey quicker. She decides on her best dress, the blue one with tiny yellow stars all over. Shutting the door to the tiny cubicle, she washes herself quickly at the basin because a queue is building up, before putting it on.
When she gets back to her seat she can see the town coming into view; houses with steeply sloping roofs, jetties heavy with boats out into the bay. Henrietta’s mother will need to stay behind to help with the maintenance so she counts out coins carefully for Henrietta and makes her repeat a shopping list back to her until she has it memorised: a tin of toothpaste, two new washcloths, a piece of cotton large enough to make Henrietta a dress and herself a shirt. If there’s enough money left over, Henrietta can buy herself a pencil and notebook and a small bag of candies.
Henrietta descends the small wooden staircase from the front carriage—there are no platforms here, no platforms and only rails when the train brings them. She feels nauseous. She walks not towards the town but towards the sea, sucking in the salt air between her teeth. Around her the passengers gather, stretching their muscles, practicing walking again. To pass time on board, they play cards and read each other’s fortunes and swap books until they’ve read each of them several times. Some of them exercise on the metal platforms between the carriages, using spanners or cans of food as dumbbells, pulling themselves up on the bars and clinging on as the engine makes an unexpected turn, its huge tentacles flying through the air, picking up one length of track from behind and laying a new one in front.
They do their best, amazingly well under the circumstances even, but all of them feel their muscles wasting day by day. It’s hard not to let apathy and then depression set in. Even if they don’t let themselves remember, they’ve still lost everything. They’ve lost their homes, their suburban houses with little square gardens and their apartments above noisy taverns. They’ve lost their little shops where they sold vegetables and baby clothes and fireworks and books. They’ve lost their winding city lanes and open squares and they’ve lost even the sky above their heads; it’s not the same sky here and it always moves away so fast.
And now here they are at the edge of a town which is not theirs, with other houses and other apartments, and people who are not like them—but are perhaps like the people they once were. They walk tentatively towards it, worrying—as they worry so often when the train stops—that perhaps it is here, in this pause from their desperate journey towards survival, that they will finally fall to pieces.
Henrietta won’t fall to pieces. She knows that by now, even though it sometimes feels like she’s going to. Once she gets into a rhythm, once she starts moving her heavy legs and putting each foot on a cobble so her claws curl over the end, it gets easier.
The people here are human all over; their skin black or brown or so pale you can see the veins through. None of them have scales or feathers or wings or tails, but they don’t stare. Henrietta thinks she remembers a time when everyone was like that, a time when her legs were brown not green, when engines ran on coal or diesel or sparks from the wires hung high overhead, but it seems like someone else’s dream so she tries not to think about it too much.
Up the main street, Henrietta finds the shops she needs, checking and comparing prices like she’s been taught. At the fabric shop she chooses a green cotton with tiny snails printed on it, and it’s measured and cut and folded into a paper bag by a woman with flame red hair and wide green eyes. Henrietta thanks her and thinks that she can use the bag for drawing or practicing her letters.
The engine blows its whistle twice when it’s time for them to board, and even though she knows they won’t leave without her, Henrietta begins to hurry, down the cobbled streets, below the balconies billowing with laundry that jut out over the shops, over the stone bridge across the river, and back down to where the engine is looking full and happy, well fed and well maintained.
It’s only when she’s back on board that the nausea sets in. Too much time on still ground leaves her uncomfortable, and she ends up perched on a dining car stool, her head between her knees, until Adria Price brings her some peppermint tea. A little later, her mother comes up and stands beside her, placing a clawed hand on her shoulder. Henrietta’s mother doesn’t talk much—she never talks much—but her hand is heavy and comforting and Henrietta knows it means love.
Some people on the train don’t really talk at all, and some of them talk a lot, as if they’re unable to stem the flowing words. There’s no-one in between—except maybe Henrietta herself, and she doesn’t really count because she’s only a child. There are no other children on the train. Her mother says that’s because all the other people with children left earlier, before the flood-metals came. Before everything changed. Henrietta tries to believe her, just like she tries to believe that she never had a brother, only an imaginary childhood friend.
The train continues along the edge of the rocky continent. They’re following the coast south to where the air is colder and the storms are more frequent, where the wind whips sea spray across the carriages and even the salt air is not enough to stop ice gathering on the rails. They stop when they need to, for supplies or to clear the rails, but mostly they push on. Henrietta sketches portraits of her fellow passengers onto the outside of her paper bag, and then borrows a penknife from the couple who sit in front of her to gently cut it open so she can use the inside as well. Through the window she can see the engine’s tentacles flying through the rain, their tops wrapped tightly around the sections of track they pull up and then place down. Henrietta’s heard of places, times and places, where the rails were laid and all the train had to do was move along them, times when predefined tracks covered the world. Now there are only a few lengths of tracks left so they have to make the best of it.
In the morning, the flood-metal catches up with them. Henrietta had woken early and now drifts in and out of sleep, her head against the window, her blanket pulled up to her chin. Her mother is driving this shift, so the seat next to her is empty, and Henrietta takes advantage, stretching out her feet luxuriously. The first sound is one she could write off as one of the inconsistencies of rail travel, a track laid a fraction of a second too late, or a bump in the ground it runs over. The second envelopes her, loud enough to consume everything in its path, a high pitched, impossible sound, just out of reach. A sound that brings back memories. Half memories, long buried memories, that shatter and burst into flames all around her.
Henrietta’s first thought is to scream. To scream amid the now awake and moving passengers until someone comforts her. But she’s almost twelve and too old for that, so she kicks off her blanket and turns to the window. She grabs the strap and lowers the glass down into the door, standing on her seat to lean her head out all the way even though her mother says it’s dangerous. It’s early light and the sun is glowing behind her, spreading light over the beanfields and the little copses of trees that dot the landscape. And in that early light are the flood-metals, glowing and silver-blue, sweeping across the beanfields behind them. Henrietta blinks, willing it to all be a trick of the light, willing her memories to not come flooding back.
The flood-metals are not metal like the metal the engine is made of, the parts of the engine that are not flesh. The flood-metals are something that is not like anything else. They are a cold slow tide that seeps through the cities like pooling water. They do not burn like fires or drown like floods. They melt. They melt and they change.
Most people on the train never talk about them. Those who do usually say they are magic, though Henrietta’s also heard people say they were sent by the gods. Henrietta’s never seen a god, but she’s seen a few sorcerers; two of the people on the train were sorcerers even, before the flood-metals rose up around their staffs and melted them into their ever-advancing flow. So magic is more likely, she deduces. Perhaps they were caused by a sorcerer’s experiment gone wrong; perhaps it was a game or an act of wrath. She’s not really sure how bad it was when the flood-metals changed her; she feels comfortable in her own skin, both the smooth skin with hair and the thick skin with scales, and she likes living on the train even if it feels cramped sometimes. But every time she tries to open the closed doors in her memory she has to slam them shut quickly before anything gets out.
She knows that in the early days, some of the passengers flung themselves from the train, down to the angry sea and the jagged rocks below. The train could not stop for them. But that hasn’t happened in a long time.
The train speeds up, racing away from the flood-metals behind. The clack-clack of the coupling rods speeds like a panicked heartbeat, so fast that Henrietta can’t calm herself by counting them like she normally does. The wheels scream as they turn on the tracks. They turn inland, racing across the plains where grass cedes to desert. It’s risky this way; the engine will need food at some point, and they will all need water, but Henrietta’s mother knows what she’s doing.
They’ve survived this long, after all.
Around her, the other passengers are beginning to panic. Some go very quiet, while others edge round Henrietta in the aisles, their hands and voices quick and loud, arguing with each other and with the world. Henrietta wonders if they can outrun the flood-metals forever, or if it would be a relief to just slow and let them take . . .
No! Henrietta remembers not fighting, a very long time ago. She remembers being young and tiny and scared and how her brown and fleshy legs, human legs she had then, just didn’t seem to work. She has not been that person in a very long time and she is not going to be today.
Henrietta stands up and tries to determine where she is and where she should be. It’s hard, when you’re on a moving train, to think yourself still and understand yourself in relation to all that is around you, but Henrietta closes her eyes and knows exactly where she’s meant to be.
Henrietta may like the dining car best of all, but when it comes down to it she’s an engine driver’s daughter. She opens the window again, stretches her body through as far as she can without falling. The sand in the air stings as it blows against her face. She looks behind her and sees the shimmer of flood-metals on the horizon. Then she looks forward and yells to the engine above the noise. She doesn’t know if it will understand her words, but she can only hope the urgency in her voice will break through.
Just as she’s wondering whether to give up hope, one of its large tentacles flips backwards and wraps tightly around her waist, so tightly Henrietta worries she won’t be able to breathe, but she curls her own tail around it and hangs on.
Through the air she sweeps, the red sand blown against her skin like a burn and the sky empty overhead. Henrietta knows that she will likely not survive this, that soon the flood-metals will reach them, that their endless desperate flight had to, always had to, have an end, but she has to try.
Perched on the engine, she feels small and helpless. The tentacles never cease their rhythm, flying past her with lengths of track, building as they go. The train speeds and the tentacles fly, and she’s just a small person with green scaled legs and a lizard tail, sitting on top of a large engine, gripping the little bit of life she has left.
She thinks. She thinks quickly. She’s not here to tell the train to go faster—the train is going as fast as it can. She’s not here, either, to steer it, because her mother is steering and her mother is the very best at what she does. But she knows she needs to be up here, not down in the carriage waiting for the flood-metals to take them all. If you know you need to be somewhere, then you must be needed there.
The train takes another corner. They only have two pieces of track that are curved, one in each direction, so in order to take a corner the train has to work very hard, picking up the curved piece of track as soon as the train’s last carriage’s wheels have left it, and laying it directly in front. It’s a slow turn and yet there’s so much speed and frantic movement that it feels as if they’ve suddenly jerked left. But at last they’re moving back towards the sea, alongside the sea, while the flood-metals, now diverted inland, do not turn.
They do not turn yet. Henrietta knows they will soon enough.
Henrietta stretches her neck up, and her shoulders, as much as she can without falling. She looks out across the sea, as the train turns and runs alongside it, and she gazes at the little flecks of white atop the waves, and she looks far into the distance. She remembers, distantly, going down to the rocky little beach by the river, near the footbridge, but she doesn’t think she’s ever been into the sea.
She knows, distantly, that there are other lands out there, far across the sea. She’s fancied she’s seen them faintly, seen tips of distant mountains rising like shadows through cloud. But she has never thought of them as somewhere she could ever go. They seem like places from a story, not places with real people and real land and real hills and towns and bridges over rivers.
The flood-metals have turned and are already gaining on the train.
Henrietta asks the engine—with tugs and motions as much as with words—to lower her and it lowers her to the window of the first carriage and she bangs on the window until a confused passenger opens it, and then she leans her head in and yells to all the passengers.
“We need to get the tracks on top of the train.”
Everyone stares at her. They don’t move. She wants to tell them to stop being idiots, but she suspects that won’t help, so instead she yells again, tells them to get the tracks up to the roof.
Even in an upside-down world where everything has changed, the idea of tracks running on the train is too much for some of the passengers. But enough of them rise to the occasion, reasoning that no-one has come up with a better idea and the flood-metals are gaining on them so fast, so fast. They clamber out between the carriages and they help the engine with its tentacles manouevre track after track onto the roof and with whatever rope they can find they tie them down on top of the carriages. And then they uncouple all but the front carriage.
It’s no choice at all really; whether to take the terrible risk of being in the first one, not even sure if it will float, or to sit and wait for the engine to return, only able to hope that the flood-metals won’t catch up. But people need to have a choice, and so they choose their carriage, Henrietta yelling at them from the front to hurry.
The train is at the edge of the water. It’s not moving. Henrietta inches forwards, taking care to be gentle against both its metal body and its squid body. She’s lying on her stomach, her arms spread across the wide curve of the engine, being sure not to fall. She strokes the rubbery skin gently, while her legs grip warm metal.
Henrietta once asked, years ago, if the train was happy, and her mother told her that it is, because if it didn’t like it then it would just stop, and nothing they could do to make him go further. She remembers this now, as its tentacles seem to droop sadly by its sides, as the train stops—and the train rarely stops, and only at a town. She wonders how the train feels about being squid, or the squid feels about being train.
“You’re scared, I know,” she says. “I was scared too. I wore a blanket for ages to cover up my legs and my tail so I didn’t have to believe what had happened. As long as you run on land, as long as you run on metal tracks, you can be the same engine you always were. But we’ve all had to cope with this change. Becoming something different. And maybe . . . maybe you can be squid and train. Squid live in the water, right? And trains on rails. Maybe you’re more than any of them because you can do both.”
The train does not move, does not respond.
Henrietta takes a deep breath and whispers all the words of encouragement she can find in herself. And slowly, just very slowly, the engine edges off the land and into the water. Henrietta feels the muscles of the train below her tighten in fear and then relax, relax in a way they haven’t in a long time, perhaps in forever.
The engine is remembering something.
The engine is remembering home.
Below, the passengers in the first carriage scream as they hit the water, and behind them others run to the shoreline in terror, watching the train that has saved them vanish into the water. Henrietta screams too, a quiet desperate scream at the back of her throat. She has killed everyone. She has killed them all. She has killed her mother. She has killed everyone she remembers ever knowing.
She barely watches two tentacles reaching back, pulling up the back of the last carriage to hold it out of the water. Henrietta imagines how heavy it must be, the wood and metal carriage, the track lengths tied to the roof and the terrified people below, and she feels every muscle in her body begin to ache in sympathy for the engine.
Using all the strength in its tentacles, the engine, this squid train, moves across the sea, across this wide channel that is open before them. Land becomes visible quite early, but reaching it is a whole other matter. It grows so slowly in the distance that Henrietta worries they might not be getting any closer at all. There’s not much she can do, not much anyone can do, except gently encourage the engine, this hybrid of flesh and machine, melded and meshed together by the flood-metals just like all of them.
They leave the passengers, the carriage, the soaked-through lengths of track, upon the shore, and travel back. The return journey is faster, and because they know now the journey is survivable and the flood-metals are travelling ever closer, the passengers have to draw lots to sit in the next carriage.
The engine pulls the carriages, one after another, across this channel of water, a channel that Henrietta would once have thought of as impassable. As they connect up the final carriage, Henrietta things she can smell the flood-metals on the breeze that travels across the land.
The engine is tired, so tired, by the time they reach land, struggling to hold up the carriage behind, but somehow it manages, and then moves slowly forward. The earlier passengers have set up the tracks to guide the exhausted train out of the shallow water and onto the beach. Water drips from the carriages which are spread across the sand.
Henrietta buries her face in the train’s thick, rubbery skin and says, “It’s okay, you don’t need to go anywhere else today”.
Today, just for today, they don’t need to go anywhere. The flood-metals may too cross the sea, one day, but they’ve fallen far behind, and even Henrietta, standing atop the engine, cannot see their glimmer. Today, just for today, they sit out on the black sand and light a fire and share a meal. Henrietta takes plates to those who are too exhausted to get their own. The engine drinks deeply from the sea, and having rested, catches quick-jumping fish.
The next day, they travel again. The carriages are still damp but most of their possessions have dried out in the sun. They’ve all been through worse, much worse, in any case. They travel through the day in this strange land. They see villages and farms but don’t approach them, not just yet. And when darkness falls on all of them, Henrietta pulls her blanket around her and walks slowly between the rows of seats, balancing as she crosses between carriages. The wind catches her hair and fans her blanket out like a cape. Most of the people are pretending to sleep, as if by pretending hard enough they could make it so. Perhaps they are thinking about the past and wondering about the future, wondering if the train will ever again be able to pause for more than a few hours, if they will ever get far enough away, or if the flood-metals will catch up with them once more.
Henrietta doesn’t think about that. She doesn’t think about the past and the future. She puts a lot of effort into not doing. It’s the only way you can get through. You can cope with having lost near everything, and with the prospect of losing the little you have left, if you have nothing to compare them to. She opens the door of the engine cab carefully, quietly, and her mother shifts on her seat to make just enough room for her daughter and wraps her wings around her, nuzzling her gently with her hooked yellow beak as if she were still a little girl, as the train travels ever onwards, the purple sea crashing along the rocks of the coast.
Andi C. Buchanan lives among streams and faultlines, just north of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Winner of a 2019 Sir Julius Vogel Award in the Best Short Story category, their fiction has been published in Apex, Kaleidotrope, Glittership, and more. You can find Andi on Twitter @andicbuchanan or at www.andicbuchanan.org.