Peter Weber takes readers on a surreal train trip in which the natural and human worlds collide with the mechanical across landscapes as varied as Tokyo and Berlin.
I was clouds transforming, a sinking billow. I wanted to stretch out; I threaded and spun myself across the ground floor to the tracks. In times of haphazard, interrupted sleep, I had always used the train station as my sleeping pill. The new ice-white high-speed train stood before the waiting passengers with its windows closed, a foreign being. No one knows what goes on inside its smooth skin. These creatures are called Schlingerlings in common parlance, after the nameless white snakes that fill the nets of industrial fishermen—they curl up when touched and secrete a slime that conducts electricity. The white animals slither around, juddering, and are promptly dumped back into the sea without examination.
“The future is dry.” Sentences like this one were written in red letters on the side of the train. The cleaning staff waited on the platform wearing coveralls and red caps. They had pushed hip-high wheeled glass vessels onto the platform and spaced them out at regular intervals: little aquariums, the so-called passenger chambers. As the thick train doors slid open, passengers leaked out: big-eyed creatures that herded themselves into a liquid, balls with bright spots for eyes, many of them red-veined. The whole outpouring contents of the train were guided away before one could distinguish more closely; there was a crush of people before the doors. The staff now began to ready the train for the next journey: they cleaned the cars with vacuums and fans, dried off seats and aisles, reopened curtains. New passengers stormed the cars before the car-cleaners had even finished their work. Most of the seats were occupied immediately, but several rearrangements were necessary before everyone gained his rightful reserved seat. Those who were shooed away lay down in the aisles—the coveted plastic seats were long since taken, and many a tender core customer had thrown himself into an upholstered hull in hopes of sprouting wings. I found one last free seat in the smoking section of the end car, and likewise encased myself in plush and pastel. As the doors automatically closed and the air-conditioning blew in a breeze of levelheadedness, ruffled feathers smoothed. Placidity spread as the train departed—whoever encamped here, it is well known, belonged to an elite who could now imagine themselves flying on an invisible carpet.
The Schlingerlings were now on their way, driven by the control system. They kicked up dust and white flakes; near the tracks I saw switch operators with colorful hats, bright-capped russulas—they dusted the trains with spores and pollen as they rushed by. As soon as our train was in motion, we drove through tubes, and the russulas were replaced by little tricholoma with white fruiting bodies that stood in circles on the embankments along the high-speed lines. Long ago they were called witch rings, but now they’re known as wind-and-whirl gardens. As we reached cruising speed, it became clear to me that this was an elevated railway. Indeed, that this elevated train was a tool for instruction and training. Most of the passengers were new in the subjects conveyed here: Believing, Gleaming, Gliding. The train conductor, who was in charge of instruction, did not need to check tickets—for him the fact of participation in a telecourse was guarantee enough. Whoever telephoned, watched television, and was ready to telefeel rode free. He also made sure that the blinds were rolled down and the children and toddlers were hooked up as required; he switched on the little screens in the backs of the hull seats and dipped the littlest ones into flickering plasma, which pleased them greatly. My seatmates began, as the situation demanded, to telephone, while leafing through brochures that showed all the newest devices. Several people spoke with our instructor about their ambitions and their educational goals: I’d like to develop down, I’d like to become a bumblebee, someday I’d like to add feathers to the operation.
“Open the lap shops!” the conductor called ceremoniously when we reached top speed, and flounder-flat screens were taken from purses and traveling bags, flipped open, bedded down in the pleats of pants, and plugged into the seats. Sedulous fingers soon raked through tepid fingerbaths, lathering the soapy water, creating the much-touted gliding markets. Since I had brought no device, I made do with the little screen in the back of the seat, stuck two little buds in my ears, and was soon sitting atop the Zugspitze. I flew, caressed by sounds, through the oncoming landscapes. All of Europe’s main train stations emerged along this one visual track: Milan’s jawbone station, the Leipzig railhead, which had swallowed many of the pulsing smaller cities’ stations under one magnificent roof, the Dresden, Magdeburg, Thuringia, Eilenburg, and Berlin train stations. I saw Belgian, French, and Franco-German stations, as well as the junction station, in which Schlingerlings approaching from all directions have their speeds measured. This junction station is made entirely out of glass and was operational before construction was even finished. The true junction station is in Tokyo, however: a rich Japanese man had a slanted deep freezer containing a frozen hill and ski lifts built in the city center; on its other side was a palm-lined beach. We brushed past villages newly overshadowed by grand teleguidance structures, where I cottoned to the fact that we travelers were meant to sharpen the edges, that the Schlingerlings are part of a vast emery machine that gives a new shine to the facades before they are quickly sprayed over with a sheer, all-conducting fever, to sleep as if rooted there.
I awoke freezing, in a cold spring amid the click of voices. The children were wide-awake, bent over tiny devices. They dove through quickly changing images, traveled through endless pleasure. A dark, drawn-out tone sent the travelers grumblingly to bed. We flew, yet remained standing at the same time. The grown-ups lay dully in their seats—all the trainees slept with eyes open in front of the still-running screens, they let their jaws drop, lost saliva. A cool liquid gathered in the aisle and tremblingly swelled. I discovered neither wings nor feathers, but a kind of webbing between the fingers of my seatmates, and the beginnings of gills under their ears. Their skins were scaly and yolk sacs lay scattered here and there.
I was not sitting in flight school, but rather in the public fish hatchery; I wanted to get off as soon as possible. The conductor, who had noted my restlessness, led me gently to a comfortable private compartment that he called “the traveling room”; here I laid myself on the bed. Instead of a window, the newest model of flat-screen television hung on the wall.
All night I surfed through the fish television. I educated myself drowsily, and coldly hoped. Finally an anesthetist came through the screen and into the room: “Do you smoke? Do you drink? Have you eaten recently? Are you traveling alone?” He gave me an amusing drink, and other figures visited my bed. They covered me in green and pushed a bulb in front of my face that dropped tiny crystals between my eyelashes and behind my nose; I already began to feel the desired dark-red sleep filling my mouth. “He wants to get off, he must be rolled up right away!” I heard spoken from a great distance. They swaddled me in ever-round tones and let me lie.
From Bahnhofsprosa © 2002 by Peter Weber. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2015 by Anne Posten. All rights reserved.