The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Clickety-Clack

Lush green leaves with saw-toothed edges brush the top of the skeleton train.

It comes from nowhere, and goes there, too, speeding by in the night, billows of steam rising to join the clouds.

And the tracks go clickety-clack.

Little Stevie March waits in the shadow of a bend, just past the old stone bridge that is slowly crumbling into the rushing water below. He’s heard the stories, but that’s never the same as seeing for yourself. So he sits, scarf tied against the cold, nibbling the cheese he filched from the kitchen on his way out, closing the door so quietly no one else in the house so much as rolled over in their beds.

His ears perk, but it’s only the wanderings of a rabbit–hopefully a rabbit–through the bushes. A yawn nearly splits his face in two, and his eyelids grow heavy.

But there…there it is.

Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack.

Quickly, he scrambles to the edge of the tracks, the wind whistling down a tunnel of trees to make him shiver. Muddy shoes dug into the ground, little Stevie March prepares to jump.

Black as soot, dusty, rusty, the skeleton train rounds the bend. The windows of every carriage glow, the light flickering across the trees, and beneath the roar of the engine, Stevie can just make out the sound of the tracks, thumping like his own heartbeat. For a single breath, he thinks of turning away, it’s coming so awfully fast, a blur, and one mistake will leave him a smear on the grass that will rot away with the end of summer.

But he does jump, fingers closing around metal bars, cold and rough with age. Gasping, thrashing, kicking, he hoists himself to the platform between two carriages, standing still as the world rushes past.

And he opens the door.

The skeletons are dancing to violins played with bony hands. Goblets of wine–hopefully wine–slosh with the rocking of the train. All of them are grinning.

“A flesh-child!” cries one, pointing. It has no fingernails. “Welcome, flesh-child! Join the dance!”

“Yes, join us!” the rest cry.

And when they talk, their jaws go clickety-clack.

The train is like no train Stevie has ever been on, not to the city or to visit the aunt his mother doesn’t like, but won’t say so. Real crystal chandeliers swing from the ceiling, plush purple velvet covers the seats, but no one is sitting.

“Tell us your name, flesh-child,” says one, wrapping bleached-bone fingers around his wrist, pulling him into the throng of ribs and elbows. A single long, blonde lock of hair clings to her skull, just behind her forehead. The ragged remains of what was surely once a pretty dress drip from her shoulders.

“Stevie,” he says, laughing because the stories were true. Really true! “Stevie March, ma’am.”

“No need for manners here, Stevie-child, but you must dance, for we are the stuff of night and dreams, and the moment is gone all too soon!”

They spin and whirl, smiling toothlessly, snapping their fingers to the beat. Clickety-clack.

Beyond the windows, mountains and oceans and the square shadows of towns whizz past, sleeping, undisturbed by the passage of the skeleton train. Word must spread to the other carriages, for soon this one is packed so full Stevie can hear the bones scraping against each other, and he has to repeat his name over and over for the newcomers.

Stevie slips, quick as a fish, through a gap between bones and winds his way along the train, through now-empty carriages, past tables full of empty goblets and plates of strawberry tarts and paté. The soles of his shoes squash food into the lovely rug, fallen there because of course the skeletons can’t really eat it. Perhaps they can’t even taste it.

“A flesh-child!” comes the familiar cry when he steps into the compartment at the very front of the train. A navy blue coat with brass buttons is fastened tightly over this one’s ribs, a smart cap with a peaked brim perched jauntily atop a skull round and smooth and thin as an eggshell. “To what do we owe the honor of a visit?”

“I’m Stevie. I heard the stories and wanted to see for myself.”

“Aaaah. Pleasure to make your acquaintance. And do we live up to the tales?”

“It’s even better. No one told me about the dancing or the violins or the food.”

The skeleton grins. Well, he was grinning anyway, but it seems to Stevie that the smile widens, just a bit. “We know how to enjoy ourselves here on the skeleton train, for what is the point, if not joy and revelry?”

“I’m…I’m not sure.”

Ahead, the sky is pink with the first flush of dawn. In that fancy coat, the skeleton’s shoulders fall ever so slightly. “But morning always comes,” he says, the words hissing through the spaces once filled by teeth.

“Why does morning matter?” Stevie asks. The compartment is quiet. Under the floor, the tracks go clickety-clack.

“You’ll see. Go back to the party, little Stevie.”

The party is still a chaos of strings and bones, of rattling laughter and merry jokes. Squeezed by a window, Stevie watches the sun rise over a lake edged with weeping willows in their heaviest throes of sadness. The woman with the lock of blonde hair sits beside him, her cold, smooth hand on top of Stevie’s warm one.

“My daughter wakes up early,” she says, staring at him through empty eye sockets.

“Oh?” It’s an odd thing to tell him, but they’ve all been so welcoming, it’s best to be polite. “Do you miss her?”

The woman doesn’t answer.

She simply fades away.

Rays of light stream in through the windows, plates and forks and goblets drop to the floor, and Stevie is alone. He’s never heard this part of the story, but they are all gone. Up and down the train he looks in vain for any skeletons left on the skeleton train.

The chandeliers blow out, the violins are silent. Outside, there are no towns or mountains or rivers by which to chart, only a blank whiteness, as if the clouds have fallen to smother the train.

Which is just as well, for there are no maps. In fact, the only thing that tells Stevie the train is still moving at all is the sound.

Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack. Clckety-clack as the train chugs on, rocking gently back and forth. It’s cold on the skeleton train without the music and the laughter. It’s lonely without the dancing. It’s empty without the land rushing past the windows.

But the seats are still very plush and soft, and Stevie curls up in the corner of one, hugging knees to chest and trying not to wonder what happens next, or think about his parents waking up from their warm bed to find him gone.

He does not dream, and even if he did, he has no one to dream about, no way to bring back even one of the skeletons.

“Flesh-child. Flesh-child.” Thin fingers curl around Stevie’s arm to shake him awake. “It’s about time you went home, isn’t it?”

Stevie blinks. The train is clean, tables crammed with goblets freshly filled. The sky is dark. The violins await. “Can I go back?”

The chandelier’s light bounces off brass buttons thick and round as coins. “Of course you may, now that you know the truth of the skeleton train. Go back, and do not forget to dream of us. Stand between the carriages, I’ll slow it down, unless you want to become one of us before your time.”

“Thank you.”

In the tiny space between compartments, the wind howls, the tracks are loud. The train slows to a crawl, and as Stevie prepares to jump, the music begins to play.

He lands heavily on a bank of grass and rolls down, down, into the river with a splash. The skeleton train is already out of sight, but just ahead is the old bridge, its stones crumbling into the water.

Soaking wet, shaking from the chill, Stevie drags himself out and up toward the road. What a sight he’ll be to his parents when he gets home, though perhaps that doesn’t matter now. He wraps his arms about himself for warmth, but his teeth still chatter.

Clickety-clack.

One Response to “Clickety-Clack”

  1. Cat York says:

    I love this. Your descriptions are haunting and beautiful.

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