Walking into town

Mid-morning, and a thin scrim of cirrus softens the sun just enough to make it possible to see the whole disc – not like on a cloudless day when you can’t see anything but aureole, an acetylene rip in the sky or on the retina. Soft is the only word for this light filtering through the hemlocks and glistening on the wet trunks of beeches. Though maybe it’s not the light that convey softness so much as the shadows with their indistinct edges. Everything is feathered.

The stream is full of voices and I begin thinking about the insane, their laughter that contains so little of joy and even less of mirth. When Jesus said by their fruits ye shall know them, he might have meant, “See if they know how to laugh about themselves.” They say asylums are packed with the only begotten sons of God. What makes a person so willing to believe the unbelievable? Perhaps nothing more complicated than boredom, or a dissatisfaction with the existing flavors of sky. But to want the whole world to taste of me . . .

Just as I reach the bottom of the hollow a westbound train comes through. I head along the tracks toward town with the train thundering past: more than a hundred flat cars, each bearing two cargo containers, a larger one atop a smaller. I’m almost to the bend by the time the last car passes with its blinking yellow light in lieu of a caboose. In the silence that follows I hear chickadees, and something else – a lovely liquid birdsong I can’t quite place, coming both from the mountainside to my left as well as from the trees above the river.

An hour later, after finishing my errands, I return to the tracks a slightly different way, taking a pedestrian footbridge over the Little Juniata and following the path up past the train station. This is the way I used to come 25 years ago walking to and from school, but I don’t think I ever really stopped to admire these four giant sycamores before. What’s now a well-groomed acre with a gazebo was then a scruffy, grimy place littered with broken beer bottles, and the sycamores as well as the one stone monument were painted up with graffiti. Now they stand clean and beautiful, and I long for a camera to capture the splay of enormous mottled limbs against the sky.

The empty space at the corner where the old hotel used to stand is now a parking lot for a new business with offices in the building right behind it: G&R Excavation and Demolition, “The Excavating and Demolition Experts,” as it says on their trucks and equipment. Was it they who tore down the old hotel where they now park? Whoever it was, I remember the way they left that three-storey, cast iron fire escape standing for several weeks after everything else had been removed. This was just last year. I remember standing at the end of the street and looking up at those lonely zigzag stairs to nowhere, with the end of the mountain rearing up behind. It would have made a great cover photo for a book of selections from Via Negativa, I think.

As I walk back along the tracks, another train comes along. Odd – the last two times I walked into town, at the very same time of day, there were no trains at all. This one consists of chemical tankers and boxcars, which are more and more enjoyable to watch these days because of a growing tendency of urban street artists to use freight trains for their canvases. It goes way beyond gang tags, although I admit a certain fascination with calligraphy so stylized as to be unreadable to all but its authors and their immediate neighbors. It occurs to me that the apotropaic sign may signify, but it does not speak. It refuses dialogue of any kind, like the bloody handprint that wards off the Evil Eye.

Some boxcars I’ve seen recently feature clearly representational drawings, even whole murals. I wonder if this growing trend reflects simply poor security at train yards, or whether the anonymous artists are deliberately trying to share their works with a vast, unknown, transcontinental audience? The one really striking artwork on this particular train is a large, humanoid duck with a boot for a head.

It’s a little before noon as I start back up the road, and the sun has just made it down to the stream at the deepest part of the hollow. On the slope above me I hear again that mysterious birdsong I heard earlier, along the tracks, and remember who sings it: tree sparrow. One day late for Valentine’s Day. There’s a certain admixture of joy and wistfulness that spells longing to me, and the tree sparrow’s song has it. But how much does that impression owe to the music itself, I wonder, and how much to knowledge of the fact that this courtship song is not merely out of season but far from the permafrost and muskeg that originally shaped its notes?

I stand for half a minute recording the event in my pocket notebook and enjoying the play of sunlight on the stream fifty feet below. Whatever made me think its murmur was lacking in mirth?

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