The train to the end of the world has looped back to Reykjavik so the professor of Icelandic studies can leave. We watch him from the window, his tweed jacket curled over his trouser belt, waving off photographers. Professor Gunnarson joined us because his partner left him for another man and the end of the world seemed better than living alone. But after two years, a different life bloomed in his mind: His house morphed from a crowded flat with bottles of empty brennivín to a cottage surrounded by lupine. He was sure that his partner would come back, and he reminisced about the dark, sweet bread called rúgbrauð, explaining how stale pieces are simmered with raisins.
To qualify as passengers we had to promise to do the right thing when we came to the end of the world. If it was ice, we’d die quietly, like Arctic explorers who left letters for their wives in the snow. If it were fire, we’d burn without moving, like monks, protesting famine and war. And if it were the beginning of the world, we’d embrace the big bang.
Over two thousand people applied for this journey and a hundred and fifty were chosen. We were interviewed in Switzerland and put up in private houses where hosts, impressed by our bravery, prepared elaborate meals.
What is your marital status?
Do you have children?
Do you have any food or drug allergies?
Why do you want to go to the end of the world?
Most of us wanted to go to the end of the world because we’d been unlucky in love and the end of the world seemed better than the world we were in. But we didn’t mention this on the questionnaire because we’d thought we’d be disqualified. The professor wrote he hoped to find an unknown language and I wrote I’d studied geology and wanted to see new rock formations. In truth, I’d discovered my husband sleeping with a neighbor after he trampled my garden because she was allergic to flowers.
The train has a mechanism that allows it to glide over ice floes, tundra, mountains, and ocean. If it finds unknown countries it can shoot out new tracks, and if it comes to countries at war, it lurches to a stop and turns around. It’s thrilling to fly over star-shaped canyons, gossamer waterfalls, and turreted cities. At the beginning of the trip, we couldn’t wait to reach the end of the world. During the day we looked at the countryside, and at night we watched the rushing dark. But over time, we became afraid of what we’d find at the end of the world. Whenever the train stops, we hold our breath. When the train moves on, we breathe again.
Some of the new countries are like countries we’ve known—farmland and shanties, cities in states of reinvention or decay. As we pass through towns, people wave as though they know us, and we wave back until the town falls away like sun through leaves. We’ve seen horse-drawn carriages, ancient motorcars, peasants with flocks of geese. They greet us in a language we’ve never heard, and race by the side of the train with loaves of bread. Once, a woman offered me a quilt with embroidered violets. It reminded me of my garden and I held out my hands, but a strong wind blew it away.
Sometimes we have a sense of having lived in these towns, loved their children, known their lives. But soon there are more towns, and the last one fades without a trace.
We thought we would reach the end of the world in a few months, but the more time went on, the more we began to dread what we’d find. Whenever the train stopped, we grew more and more frightened until we felt it turn around and lurch forward. Soon a traveling circus from Bulgaria asked to leave, and then others began to leave one by one. The Captain said leaving was an error because there were atrocities in modern civilization that rivaled the end of the world.
Like what? said the professor from Iceland.
Like cannibalism, said the Captain.
We were appalled, but the Captain was unfazed. He went on to remind us that shelter, water, and food were priorities in descending order and that we always should know where north is.
At night we entertained ourselves by cooking elaborate meals like the ones that had been made for us in Switzerland. We stayed up late, telling stories. The Captain told us how he escaped avalanches, rafted the Amazon, rode camels in the outback—his voice deep like the rumbling of the train. The rest of us had never had adventures and had to make things up. Stories about make-believe buffalos who stampeded through our houses. Games of musical chairs where the goal is to stay standing.
The Captain sleeps in the engine room, empty except for his bed and a computer that will stop when we reach the end of the world. The rest of us sleep with each other. For a while I was with a man who’d run an elephant refuge in Botswana. His touch made my body feel like lace; but he left because he remembered a woman in Gaborone. Now I sleep with a welder named Hendrik from Belgium.
At night Hendrik and I watch the dark as though it’s chasing us. His lovemaking is practical, as you might expect of a welder. I miss the elephant rescuer, but imagine that Hendrik will protect me from whatever we’ll find. Yet his memories of Belgium are morphing from despair to a breathtaking pageant in his mind. His dark apartment has become a loft and his welding a kind of sculpting. He misses crêpes, crenellated towers, and cones of pommes frites with mayonnaise.
But I can’t leave, he says. I never break a promise.
I tell Hendrik he should only stay if he wants to. By now seven cars are empty, and we’ve never judged anyone who left. But he starts to cry about losing face, and I knock on Rosemarie’s compartment for brandy.
Rosemarie is small and comes from Ethiopia. When we met on the train we were amazed because we’d lived in the same walk-up apartment after we got out of college. On summer evenings, we used to eat ice cream on the steps and one night she told me she was going to Venice to be a filmmaker. I thought she meant Italy, but when she sent pictures of her house by the water, I realized it was California. Now I tell her Hendrik is in trouble and we rush to give him brandy.
After we help Hendrik to bed, Rosemarie and I talk in the corridor, the only place we ever ask each other why we stay. Our reasons are vague and always come down to not wanting to find jobs again, the exhaustion of apartment hunting. Is it really apathy that brings us here? We joke that we’re like spies in movies who use corridors on trains to exchange secrets.
I get into bed beside Hendrik and dream about a neighbor I used to see in the supermarket after my divorce. Keep in touch, she always said, as if I lived in Siberia instead of downstairs. Every time I saw her, my sadness lodged in my pocket like a stone. When I got home, I set the sadness down with my groceries and hoped it would go away. But it only pretended to disappear. This morning it’s on my chest, and Hendrik is moaning in his sleep. I leave and have breakfast with the Captain. He came from Nebraska, I came from Illinois, and we’ve bonded over low skies and flat plains. We agree that if you see them from a distance, the earth and sky seem stitched together as though they’re the end of the world.
His big hands never stop cutting up steak and eggs while I tell him my dream. He says when people don’t live out their adventures, their dreams become the mercury wings da Vinci strapped to a lizard to create a dragon. The silver wings rose and fell, but the lizard could never fly.
And this is why, he says, the dreams of people on the train are frozen rivers. We think we want adventures but run from them. The Captain, on the other hand, has crafted a life of adventure like the Arctic explorers who left letters in the snow, apologizing to their wives for not being good husbands. Except the Captain has never needed to apologize because he’s never promised anything. He’s lived freely, defiantly, answerable to no one. His dreams, when they come, are raging currents where he slips past the event horizon. He says the end of the world will be his final adventure.
I tell him Hendrik may leave, and the Captain says he’s already guessed and it was bad judgment of me to get involved. He also says—not for the first time—that he’s never thought of sleeping with anyone on the train, even though women kept asking for tours of the engine room.
Theo, I say, using his name. They were interested because you weren’t.
He takes a big gulp of coffee and smiles.
It would be a disaster to pass through a war-torn country, but the computer can sense revolutions and today the train turns from a flaming city. We stop breathing as long as the train is still and breathe again when we feel the lurch. The train shoots new tracks to a city where buildings have low stoops, reminding me of those summer nights when Rosemarie and I sat outside. Soon the buildings become tiered houses, like favelas I saw in Brazil, and then we’re in an open prairie with violet flowers. It’s a country we’ve never seen, but Rosemarie looks out the window and says she’s sure she saw Willa Cather in a beige coat. I say she’s imagining this and we argue, while Hendrik sinks in his seat. He’s had a bad night, dreaming about his father who stretched his arms all the way from Belgium, rattling the end of the world and telling Hendrik he deserved whatever he found there. We ask Hendrik what the end of the world looked like, and he says it was moist and full of ferns, far back in time.
While we talk the train snakes along a river to a shantytown, then to a prairie with high grasses, like the prairie I grew up in. It stops, and we wait for the lurch. But the train keeps standing still. We realize the moment has arrived: we have come to the end of the world.
Hendrik puts his face in his hands. Rosemarie and I start to tremble. The Captain’s boots thunder through the empty cars.
From the windows we see grasses bending in the wind and beyond them, a town with clapboard houses. We’ve been warned that towns might hide something dangerous and no one wants to get off. But the Captain says fear is pointless: if the town hides something terrible, we have no choice. And if it doesn’t, judging from the look of the houses, no one will kill us. He adds that being frightened of strange territory comes from the cave days when you’d probably get killed by another tribe. Rosemarie asks how he can possibly lecture at a time like this, but the Captain ignores her question and goes on to remind us that we must always know where north is.
Outside we feel a breeze like morning’s breath and the deep heat of summer. It’s been so long since we’ve felt sun that we forget to be afraid and stand still in the warm light. Then, a woman in a gingham dress and two men in overalls rush toward us, speaking a language none of us understands. Children follow and run through the empty cars while more grown-ups climb up and stare at the frozen computer in the engine room. A wheelbarrow appears and people bring our luggage to a two-story house with braided rugs. In sign language they say it’s the only empty house in town and ours for as long as we want it.
Soon, they make us a feast in the town hall with chicken and peas and mashed potatoes and milk, but not a drop of wine. A man next to me winks and signs that he’ll show me the town bar. After the feast we walk through dusk to a bar with amber lights and he points to an office where he’s the town doctor. He says his hobby is woodcarving and gives me a wooden-beaded key chain. The next morning Hendrik leaves, sure he’ll find his way to Belgium. But the rest of us keep our promise and stay. There are shops to take care of and town meetings to go to and a whole new language to learn. Children still play in the empty cars where they find necklaces, photographs, a circus master’s top hat—whatever departed passengers have left behind.
Sometimes I walk to the end of the world. The earth and sky are stitched together, just as I imagined as a child. The seams are transparent and when I touch them, they’re soft, pillowy, and give against my hands. I’d like to lean against them, but I never do, because no one knows what lies beyond them.
All of us are startled by our new lives. Rosemarie is living with the town dressmaker. I’m living with the doctor in a house with abundant gardens. The Captain has married a widow with a teenaged daughter who runs wild and stays out late and won’t listen to anything he says. Sometimes he comes over and asks me what to do about her and I tell him I don’t know. He puts his head in his hands, tries not to cry, and says he thought it would never come to something so utterly ordinary. When he starts to weep, I make him walk to the static horizon where the earth meets the sky.
Take heart, I tell him. We’ve come to the end of the world.
Rumpus original art by Madeline Kreider Carlson.