Amos Cobb wrenched his boots from the trainyard mud, and the earth gave a sucking sound. Everything was slowed by the weather. The freight train full of tractors was late moving out and the commuter train hadn’t come in. Over the passengers waiting on the platform, the lamps sizzled and buzzed, while hailstones drove at a hard angle under the tin roof. The weather was nothing new: it was terrible or beautiful, and usually it was terrible when there was outdoor work to do. There was always outdoor work for Amos.
He lifted a thigh-high boot; he put it down in the muck. Doing one thing at a time kept things under control. Felling for the lumber companies and blasting in the granite pits had taught him to take his tasks slow and not let his thoughts crowd him. Otherwise, there were accidents. He was rutty and bearish and marred already, one half-finger lopped off in a sawmill, and he was only twenty-five, though to other people, he didn’t seem to have an age. Vermonters said he was like a rock—strong, big and sturdy, nothing to look at—and no one had met a young rock. Now sulphur from the coal dust lined his nostrils. Soot and slush commingled on the ground. But Amos, working for the railroad tonight, wasn’t distracted by the weather.
Tomorrow, he’d be up in the hills, dredging the cold lake for the float-away parts of the Shaw Browns’ dock, which had surely come apart in the storm. He could see the family, the kid and his dad, waiting on the platform for the late train from Princeton to arrive and deliver the mother. Of all his jobs, caretaking their summer cottage was the softest. Summer, even on a night like this, was a cushy season, even when he had to shovel-feed a freight train because June hail had clogged up the chute.
A stale wind blew from the coalhouse, which stood on stilts twenty feet high and spanned the length of the spur track. Climbing the ladder on a fine night, Amos would have seen the valley carrying away the Lamoille River through the quartzite foothills of the mountains and the railway tracks edging its banks. But he might not have noticed, because the scenery was always there. Vermont never changed much, which was one of its graces and the principal reason that, despite the weather, the cottagers travelled north. Vermont moved slower than the human mind, and educated people like the Shaw Browns got sick to death of their minds. Vermont didn’t change except in storms, when the mountains disappeared. When the weather passed, it changed right back again. Halfway up the coalhouse ladder, in the driving hail, he could see only the fouled yard and the freight train steaming up, and beyond it the kid and his dad, who looked grey underneath the lamps.
Amos was still like any other man, except that he was big. The kid looked up to him because he was big, but that would pass, and one day Aubrey would look down on him; it was a subtle but inevitable divide between summer and winter folk.
Amos had paused on the tenth rung. Under him was the locomotive. The hail played on the train like a toy monkey on a tin drum. Like any other man, Amos couldn’t see inside things. He couldn’t see the conductor complaining of the weather while screwing down the pop valve hard—too hard, because the gauge was busted. Or the arrow that pointed to one hundred and fiftyfive pounds, though in reality the pressure had topped three hundred. He couldn’t hear the conductor mutter to himself, “If it says it, you better believe it. Give it another yank. Goddamn summers in Vermont . . .” Like anyone, he couldn’t see much till, under the mounting load, the locomotive blew up.
The conductor died in an instant: he had his head sliced off. The train’s steel skin burst like a pickling bottle, and sheets of metal shucked like cornhusk. The firebox end of the engine rocketed into the coalhouse; the cab end disappeared. Black hail and iron, coal dust and coal chunk and disfigured steel tore across the yard, and a hundred thousand rivets shot out of the train’s iron body and into the nearby woods. One low-flying spike pierced Amos’s jaw and carried on through the back of his head; a searing darkness entered his skull, and the light in his left eye was snuffed. An awesome force threw him off the ladder to the ground, but equally strong and mysterious, the earth stood him up again.
Blast followed blast. The engine’s coal stock exploded, then the tractor oil in the freight car ignited, then the coalhouse went up in flames.
The first blast propelled Aubrey, who was slim and fragile and only eleven years old, right past his father’s arms. He landed hard on the concrete platform. A bulb shattered above him and cut him just over his eye. As he lifted himself, the second blast brought him down again. He reached out his hand to break his fall, and a glass shard sliced his thumb.
His father leaned over and said, “Your head is bleeding.” He offered a hand to help him up, but Aubrey was too distracted to see it.
“It’s not. I’m not,” he said, his heart pumping so hard it wouldn’t let him feel anything else.
His father withdrew his hand.
Aubrey pushed himself up alone. Across the tracks, the coalhouse was burning. The night was bright with fires. He tried to open his eyes wide, but the slanting rain and hail, mixed with drips of blood, stung his eyeballs. “I can’t see Amos,” he said.
“Amos?” asked his father, as if Amos were insubstantial.
Everett Brown wasn’t thinking of the handyman. He was already concerned for his wife.
“He was there. On the coalhouse ladder. Is he dead?”
“I don’t know.”
“Go help him, Father.”
“You’re bleeding. And your mother—”
Everett turned round in circles like a weathercock in a cyclone. His wife had stayed behind to convalesce in Princeton and was now travelling north to join her family for the holidays. The slightest exertion could put her back in bed for weeks. He looked past the inferno towards the darker valley, expecting to see the lamps of her train twisting along the river. There they were: two dim lights gleaming in the distance. They grew brighter and bigger, then stopped, and then diminished. The headlamps were pulling away. Ruth’s train had been radioed and diverted to Montreal; she would cross the border to Canada, leaving her husband and child behind.
“I’ll find us a car,” he said.
“To take us home. Your mother’s not coming. And this is no place . . .” He didn’t finish his sentence as he started to walk away.
“Don’t go,” said Aubrey.
Father called back, “Wait here.” Aubrey leaned over the platform and spat. Soot had stuck in his throat. His tongue—he had bitten it hard—was bleeding too. He wiped his mouth and pulled his shirt sleeve, no longer white, across his forehead.
Beyond the tracks, the coalhouse, which resembled an Iroquois longhouse on stilts, was burning fast. Already the volunteer fire department had sounded the horn and a ring of villagers, wielding buckets of water, had gathered around the nearby sawmill to stop it igniting. It was too late for the coalhouse. The big log braces on the south end had given way—the fire eating quickly to the heartwood— and the house bowed on its knees. The ladder, detached from its moorings, lay blazing on the ground. Near it, something moved. Even in the jittering shadows, Amos was unmistakable.
Aubrey lowered himself onto the tracks. The heat on his face made his skin contract, and his dried eyes stung with rain. As if hell-bent on self-immolation, he ran towards the burning coalhouse. Meeting a wall of heat and light, he felt his head could break in two. He half-closed his eyes and kept running.
“Amos,” he called.
It couldn’t be anyone else. He’d risen to his feet. He was standing up. He was giant.
Amos placed a hand on Aubrey’s head to steady himself—if he’d given him his weight, he’d have crushed him. The two of them, weird in the firelight, resembled some grafted and newly made thing.
Everyone transformed in the firelight. Like a dwarfed drunk, a toddler slumped against a wall. Two ladies in wide, long dresses were pitched like tent poles, one against another. A frenzied boy called his border collie’s name, then stood pointer-like with hand to his ear, trying to hear a dog’s whine over the human crying. Down on all fours, a man groped through broken glass, feeling for his spectacles in the dark until someone led him, blind, off the platform. A policeman’s lips appeared to stretch into his megaphone as he pleaded with the panicked or stupefied people to step away from the fires.
The fire horn was audible in the hills, and farmers and doctors and veterinarians—because there weren’t enough doctors— were rushing through the weather in their one-horse buggies and Fords. From every town with a weekly paper, reporters and their cameras arrived. Headlights and lanterns stretched down the road and the parking lot overflowed. Burly farmers were rounding up the injured. Their tough wives stood on the porch of the railway hotel, waiting to wash and stitch wounds. There were people on the move everywhere now, not just train workers and passengers; the hills had emptied, the population descending into the small village of Greensboro Bend. The police chief, taking the megaphone from the junior policeman, spoke to the crowds: there were body parts to find amongst the rubble.
Aubrey stood by Amos. Beside them, the burning longhouse. Coalhouse. Aubrey struggled to remember where he was. So near the fires, his brain was lava, and the hard rain seemed to burn. Hailstones matted in his hair, then melted. He imagined hell was a railway station, but he was wrong to imagine that Amos thought so too, or that Amos was thinking anything.
“Can you speak?” asked Aubrey, who believed if someone could move it proved he was alive—that was obvious—but if he could speak, it meant he would stay alive.
As Amos nodded, he lost his balance and his hand slammed down on Aubrey’s head. The two of them stumbled but didn’t fall. Aubrey dug his feet into the mud and Amos steadied himself.
“Can you walk?” asked Aubrey.
Amos put one foot in front of the other, and they walked heavily across the yard towards the railway hotel, where the injured were gathering. Pausing on the porch, Amos leaned hard against the banister. Then he stood erect again, and, with Aubrey’s help, walked in.
Men, women and children, tribal with mud, sat on the lobby floor with their backs to the walls. Behind them, soot blackened the wainscotting. With a sewing needle and cotton thread, a large woman was pulling together the flesh of a child’s arm. A man rising from a chair left small red berries on the pale upholstery. Red tassels hung from an overhead shade, a single extant bulb, not shattered by the blast, aggravating the coal dust in the air.
Everyone was hurt and wet and scared, but when Amos entered, people crossed themselves and looked away. They must have felt spared. Amos was huge, and the red tassels grazed his hair. The light shone down through a hole in his skull and poured out an opening in his jaw. There was a strange absence of blood.
From the outer dark, Aubrey heard his father shout, “Taxi! Taxi!” as if this were New York City. Then Father called his name: “Aubrey! I’ve got a ride!”
Aubrey, being an obedient boy, stepped away from Amos, and as he did, Amos fell. The tumult of camera bulbs, like a nightmare of morphine syringes, glassed the tiled floor.