Since the end of the war, I have been on this line, as they say: a long, twisted line stretching from Naples to the cold north, a line of locals, trams, taxis, and carriages. The seasons shift before my eyes like an illusion. I have learned this route with my body. Now I know every hostel and every inn, every restaurant and buffet, the vehicles that bring you to the remotest corners. I can sit in a buffet and imagine, for instance, what's happening in distant Hansen, how the snow is falling there and softly covering the narrow lanes. Or Café Anton, where they serve warm rolls in the earliest hours of the morning, with coffee and cherry jam. In these godforsaken places such pleasures beckon me, exciting my memory for days on end. I have long since learned that in the end, thoughts, however noble, vanish like the wind, but fresh rolls, homemade jam, not to mention a cigarette, have a taste that stays with you for days. Often just the thought of Café Anton is enough to drive a pack of evil thoughts from my mind. I love those tiny, remote places. Large cities, I avoid like the plague. They fill me with dread. More grievously, with melancholy.
Others may possess spacious houses, shops, even warehouses. I have an entire continent. I'm at home in every abandoned corner. I know places you won't find on any map, places with a solitary house, a single tree. When I first began to travel, I would get lost, confused, stuck. Today with one telephone call I'm out of the maze. I'm familiar with every kind of rural transportation, which drivers work on Sundays and holidays, who is prepared to risk a snowstorm, and who is hopelessly lazy. In short, who is a friend and who is not.
In marvelous little Herben, about which I shall have more to say later, my regular driver Marcello awaits me on April fifth. When I see him from the train window, happiness rushes through me, as if I were returning to my lost hometown. He has been waiting for me on that date for more than twenty years. While I am still standing in the carriage door, he rushes toward me, takes the valise from my hand, and ushers me into his cab. From little Herben we drive to a place called Upper Herben, a two-and-a-half-hour trip. During the drive he tells me everything that has happened in Herben, about himself and his friends, and of course his ex-wife, who has been squeezing alimony out of him for years. Thus it is every year. And in this repetition lies a strange hopefulness. As if our end were not extinction but a sort of constant renewal.
The trains make me free. Without them, what would I be in this world? An insect, a mindless clerk, or, at best, a shopkeeper, a kind of human snail, getting up early, working eight or nine hours, and in the evening, with the remains of his strength, locking up and going home to what? A disgruntled wife, an overgrown, ungrateful son, a stack of bills. I detest those somber places called houses. I board the train, and instantly I'm borne aloft on the wings of the wind.
A train is by nature heavy, even clumsy. But in open spaces, when it gains speed, it transforms itself, defies gravity, and soars. At night that soaring has a special quality. You sleep differently. During the first years that ride would make me dizzy, give me palpitations. Today I board the train like a man on his way home. If the dining car is comfortable, I sit there, and if not, I find a window seat. Empty cars amuse me. The thought that I'm alone in a car oddly pleases me. I maintain one rule: no sandwiches and no thermos. A person sitting on a train, nibbling a sandwich and drinking from the lid of a thermos, is lower in my eyes than a beggar. I'm willing to spend five American dollars for a cup of coffee, on condition that it is served to me. Simply being served a cup of coffee staves off my depression for a whole hour.
Another matter, the music. In recent years they've installed loudspeakers in the dining cars. I love music, but it must be soft. I loathe drums. They drive me mad. In my youth I fled from classical music as from funerals, but gradually I learned to appreciate it. It's a subtle potion. Once you submit to it, you can't live without it. After an hour of string quartets I'm a new man. The music soothes my nerves, and I respond, if I may say so, quietly and without self-pity.
When I enter the dining car, I listen to what the loudspeakers are playing and check to see who the waiter is and who the other diners are. A coarse-looking waiter is likely to drive me from the car, but if his face is kind, I try to win him over. I slip him a bill or two, and he turns off the drums and puts on a classical station. The old-timers recognize me. They know they'll be rewarded.
A heated railroad car with good music is better than any hotel room. Hotels spread melancholy and despair. Not so trains. They can intoxicate every one of your senses to the fullest. To be honest, my competitors, my enemies, also infest the trains and force me to maintain great vigilance. My competitors are short, thin men whose quickness is not that of youth, but of those who fear for their lives. They are terrified by the open platform. They see me, and in a flash they take cover under awnings and disappear onto the first train. Like me, they're experienced creatures of the tracks.
Often I'm tempted to approach them and tell them that I, at any rate, have no interest in this rivalry. For my part, I am prepared for any compromise, for any division of territory. On one condition: no further competition and no animosity. I said I am prepared to compromise, but in fact I have done little to raise the subject with them. Years ago I bumped into one of them in the dark and said, in our language, "Why do you run away from me? What harm have I ever done you?" He was so startled that he went pale and said nothing. Since then I haven't exchanged a word with any of them. I do know one thing: they are not many. Six or seven in all, and they apparently follow the same circular route that I do. Once I found one of them in an empty car. He was curled up in his coat and clutched his narrow valise with both hands as if holding a sleeping infant. I wanted to wake him and invite him for coffee, but I thought better of it. You must not rouse a man from his slumber.
True, from time to time, I am oppressed by sudden fear, inexplicable revulsion. These moods, or whatever you want to call them, used to paralyze me. More than once I have locked myself away in a remote hotel because life suddenly seemed dark and without purpose. The winter in these regions is gray and long, and in the morning it is too depressing to get up. Once I spent two weeks in bed because it seemed to me that a new war had begun. A confession: I like to sleep during the day better than at night. The thought that the world is frantically going about its business while I doze in a big bed, wrapped in three soft blankets, is charged with a hint of revenge.
Over the years I've learned to master some of my fears. Today I get up and without hesitation step over to the sink and begin to shave. Shaving, I have learned, is an activity that arouses optimism. Time at the sink restores the desire for travel and the memory of gliding on wheels. The minute I step onto a train, my life opens up, I walk upon solid ground.
Were it not for my work, I would never leave the confines of the stations. Everything is available on the train: excellent music, glorious views, and, on occasion, a woman. There is nothing like love on a train. Sometimes it lasts only a station or two. The main thing is that you'll never see the woman again. Of course, sometimes you get entangled, and you suddenly have, aside from your valise, a sluggish creature who keeps demanding coffee and cigarettes. Thus I repeat to myself: love for two stations and no more. Fleeting loves are beneficial and never painful. Love for a station or two is love without pretense and soon forgotten. Any contact beyond that pollutes the emotions and threatens to leave behind recriminations. Women, I regret to say, don't understand this. They do themselves a disservice, and me too, of course.
I said love of this kind is soon forgotten, but I take that back. My memory is my downfall. It is a sealed well that doesn't lose a drop, to use an old expression. Nothing can deplete it. My memory is a powerful machine that stores and constantly discharges lost years and faces. In the past I believed that travel would blunt my memory; I was wrong. Over the years, I must admit, it has only grown stronger. Were it not for my memory, my life would be different--better, I assume. My memory fills me up until I choke on a stream of daydreams. They overflow into my sleep. My memory is rooted in every one of my limbs: any injury strengthens the flow. But in recent years I have learned to overcome this. A glass of cognac, for instance, separates me from my memory for a while. I feel relief as if after a terrible toothache.
Excerpted from The Iron Tracks by Aharon Appelfeld. Copyright © 1999 by Aharon Appelfeld. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.