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September 26, 2022

From the End of the World: Four Scenes after Henri Michaux, IV

By Terence Kuch

IV: "... an arm, a body part, and at the end ..."

Even from inside the train I hear sirens from above, reverberations. The car I'm in is crowded. Most people appear to be going home from the centre ville, as am I. Some of them glance upward nervously. Others concentrate on their newspapers, or pretend to. Perhaps they read the same paragraph three times, not remembering, even after that, what it says. The train jolts gently, left and right. When the subways opened in New York they inspired a craze: couples on the dance floor would jiggle left and right, as if in a swaying car. It was the latest thing. Here, we're blasé; no dance. At least, when we dance we don't pretend we're on the Métro; we pretend we're in bed.

To my left, two men and three women are reading the same newspaper: its owner, a man over his left shoulder, and a woman over his right. Two women are staring at the pages he is unintentionally holding up to them. Everyone tightly clutches a briefcase, umbrella, purse. Not that these incidentals are worth stealing, or, if stolen, worth shouting "Stop, thief!" making a spectacle of oneself. The scene would be embarrassing, the malefactor laughing and flipping rude gestures at the victim as he runs away. And then the police would politely speak with one, even more rudely, but so disarmingly put one couldn't possibly complain. At the thought, I brush my hand past my wallet, now deep in my suit jacket pocket. It is still there. Money from my shop on the wrong side of Montmartre where I sell a few trinkets to tourists who've missed the short way back to their hotel, or are trying to escape one of the hunting-packs of street artists.

We arrive at Père-Lachaise. This is my stop. I intend to dine at home tonight, 'dine' being a poor word for opening two or three cans and sometimes heating their contents. I had a wife, once. After she opened the cans she always heated the food, I will say that in her defense. The platform is very crowded. Those on the edge appear agitated. I see mouths open, most moving up and down, some sucking at a difficult but expressive vowel. Arms reach toward us. All seem to want to board. Perhaps an earlier train has broken down, or two earlier trains. A few of us shuffle warily toward the doors. The train slows, stops. The doors open.

Suddenly there is a crush as I attempt to leave, a wave of arms, legs, heads attempting to board, not waiting for us to disembark. There is a kind of football collision, American football, that is, as practiced in the Dutiful Republic: people crashing into each other, unnecessary roughness where officials cannot see. Behind the mob, toward the center of the platform, I see a Métro policeman shouting futilely. I am no heavyweight, nor young any more, but two men directly behind me are both, and thanks to their vigorous shoving I am shortly on the platform in front of them. Having served as their ram, they push me into a pillar and go their way, only to be caught once again by the surging crowd not four meters to my left.

I cling to my pillar so as not to be smashed down onto the tiles under this mob. Looking around, I see that the entire platform is filled with people trying to move one way or the other. Some are still making for the train, others are attempting to climb the stairs to the street. Neither is making progress, but still they shove and scream. The conductor is waving and shouting as more and more passengers crowd onto his train, late-comers grasping and throwing back to the platform those who have entered just before them. The train doors are hopelessly broken now, as they try to close and angry hands clutch and tear at them. Finally, the conductor shouts over his PA system that the train will leave in three minutes. Will absolutely leave in three minutes. The doors must be clear or people will be hurt.

One minute. The struggle to gain the cars continues.

Two minutes. I notice that some in the lower portion of the cars no longer struggle, as they appear to be crushed by the weight of those on top of them, who are being crushed in their turn -- and so on.

Three minutes. The train starts up. The struggle to get on, or to stay on, intensifies. The train picks up speed. It is about to leave the station, to shed unwanted cargo against the walls of the tunnel it is swiftly approaching.

Just at this point the overhead lights go out. For an instant, everyone in the station is silent. In the darkness I hear thudding, squishing, sides of cars scraped clean. Then the train is gone, down the tracks toward Menilmontant.

After only a few seconds the emergency lights click on, but they shed light only feebly on this hell-pit of writhing inhumanity. The emergency lights cast entirely new shadows, too, and from new angles. These lights show more clearly where walkways ascend to the surface, and that is where the crowd now turns its attention. A few in the walkways wave arms in a gesture of No, shout something I can't hear but is quite apparently a warning against trying to ascend. They are overcome, trampled down or swept away in the surge. Suddenly, a voice behind me. I turn my head and recognize my neighbor Louis. I think he is remarkably calm in the circumstances, but then I see his eyes, his round and staring eyes.

"Well, Alphonse," he says, "What do you think of it?"

Before I can answer he is swept away by the crowd.

Later, perhaps only a minute later, those who led the charge up the steps return, bloodied, reeling, collapsing. But they are overwhelmed by hundreds of others who seek the surface, who want to die, if that is their fate, in the air, the fresh air they remember from the morning, perhaps in the nearby cemetery, lying down among the stones, grasping at the cool earth.

But they do not fare any better in their quest. Within a few minutes, bodies are stacked high in the walkways, but yet others rush and push to join them. From exhaustion, then, those who are still alive begin to stand still on the platform, or sit. Quiet returns; it is too quiet. The people now realize that, when the overhead lights went out, the air circulation equipment must also have failed. A stench of panic pervades the stagnant air.

Nothing happens for several minutes. But then the emergency lights flicker and dim, brighten again, dim even more. They go out entirely. All wait expectantly, but there is nothing to expect. Sounds now have a new character: instead of anger, fear. And the odor of fear. Instead of words, noises of ripping, tearing. The ballet of struggle. A woman screams. Another. A man. I am still clinging to the pillar, but now there is a movement of panic coming my way. I clutch the pillar more fiercely, but it is larger around than I can grasp. There is crawling, probing, reaching, tearing.

Even now a few cling to the old hostile politenesses. I hear "Pardonnez-moi, Monsieur, Madame! Pardonnez-moi!" as a burly man shoves two people to the tiles and pushes onward through the sea of flesh.

Whatever hands there are to find, find me. I am stripped from the pillar. I fall. I regain my feet. I grope for the pillar but it is out of reach behind me. I am carried further from it. A sudden rush of people carries me several meters in only a few seconds. All my attention is on keeping my balance, when I let out an inadvertent shout as I, along with others, am carried over the platform edge onto the tracks.

There are fewer here than on the platform. I feel the tracks under my feet. I push, shove, find a little free space and run, stumble and fall. I am heading for the tunnel. I am going to walk to Menilmontant -- not too far to walk; perhaps the others will not think to do this, or perhaps they will not have the strength. Even though it is completely dark I can tell the way, for all I need to do is follow the cross-ties under my feet.

In a few minutes the sound of my breath comes back to me sooner than before: This must be the tunnel. I hear shouts of "Alphonse! For God's sake help me!" perhaps only in my mind. These shouts become faint. I press forward, leave others behind, or beneath my running feet. I push off from the walls on either side if I crash into them. At the price of a few scrapes and stumbles, I am making good time.

The noises of dying are behind me now. I try to remember how far it is between stations on this line; less than a thousand meters, surely. Even bleeding and without water I should have no trouble reaching Menilmontant. And what if that station has also suffered the same cataclysmic breakdown? Well, I have to try; there is no other choice. Besides, Menilmontant is a smaller station, where there will have been fewer people. Perhaps they have found a way out, or help has come.

I look ahead into the darkness, continuing to navigate by the tracks beneath my feet. I see a cold light, very faint. Is this rescue? Electricity of some kind, anyway.

The light grows stronger, now glaring, blinding. I feel a rush of approaching air. It is returning. The train

"Alors," me demanda mon voisin, "que pensez-vous de cela?"
"-- Et vous?" dis-je, car il faut être prudent en ces pays.


END


From the End of the World: Four Scenes After Henri Michaux, Part Four, was first published in Linger Fiction in 2010.

Article © Terence Kuch. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-08-08
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