The waiting room on the other platform melted away and he looked at the sky through its roots: creosote soaked sleepers thinned and contorted reminding him of burned out matches ; some birds, fallen asleep on a pile of sand, dreamed of autumn rains ; reeds floated on the stinking odours of the bog; the banks of ther Mures smouldered with greenish, pale flames whilst Morgan le Fay became entangled in the clouds on the far horizon.
In the coolness of the office, stripped to the waist, a peaked cap on the back of his head, Station Master Pascu puzzled out crosswords.
Forgotten in the vaults of heaven, the July sun darted its rays at the back of Matei, the pointsman's neck pursuing him as he walked from sleeper to sleeper. Matei was coming from the watchman's hut. He had a five litre plastic container in his left hand and a wicker basket full of eggs in the other. His jacket was unbuttoned and, underneath, his chest was covered here and there with tufts of reddish hair. Skinny like a horse, State property, he panted from the bottom of his belly at each and every step. He was full of drowsy, hazy thoughts which struck every nook and corner of his mind. He stopped. He put the wicker basket onto the gravel between two sleepers and raised his finger to his lips. It was only then that the handkerchief dressing his fingers could be seen. He warmed then with his breath, turned his head somehow out of fear, then, took the wicker basket and, off he went.
Life would have kept its own monotonous course if Matei had not left the watchman's hut all in a flutter. He entered the station master office, his jaw like a rag, and when he streched out his hand to greet the other, his hand was trembling.
- What is it?
- Nothing, boss.
- I thought again...
- Not that. I gave it up. You know, the ulcer...
- You're shivering as if you'd seen the devil - remarked Pascu.
- I have... - chuckled Matei, the joke working as the other priggishly returned to his puzzle squares with the peakcap almost on the mape of his neck.
A smell of tobacco stained the air.
- Tomorrow I must carry an oil can - he managed to say, but, even this was mostly meant for himself, in case he should forget. The railway regulations were tough and the signal had to be lit up overnight.
- You cold have slept at the watchman's hut. Who told you to come on such a scorcher ? - said Pascu and he spat dry phlegm at the black floor.
- Yet, you smoked, boss.
Pascu was idly turning his head when his cap rolled off and into the middle of the office floor. Matei was standing still by the booking office, his eyes only betraying his heart beats.
- You could have put down the can and the wikler basket. I can see that the way up here has almost killed you. What made you do it, I wonder ?
Matei didn't budge. He was just staring speechless. One more time Pascu sized him up and a few moments later, stood up, picked up his cap and puzzled, went out on the platform. A gust of wind, escaped from who knows where strained itself, toosing about the leaves of an aspen bush; a hen's clucking was heard; inexorably the heat rolled along the rails, choking the horizon in a transparent curtain of light: at the edge, two metal lines joined and rose to the sky in an infinite staircase. The sun was everywhere - an ill and forgotten sun.
He came back, cursing. The pointsman might have got a touch of sunstroke, he told himself. He resumed his weariness with passion. Several more minutes elapsed. In the office, Matei's panting breath was in the air.
At long last, Matei put his baggage on the floor. Pascu idly turned to him.
- I say you've been drinking again!
- I didn't, boss.
- Then what's up with you ?
- The heat, ha... ?, concluded Pascu and laughed nodding his head.
And yet, if something's gone wrong with him ? - he asked himself. He looked again. Maybe, it was sunstroke, after all.
- The watchman's hut ! - he winced as if whipped and flung himself out onto the platform again.
Shaddowing his eyes with his hand, he gazed at the horizon to mark out the watchman's hut as usual. The hut, really a three quarters of a meter square room, was covered with red tiles. He squeezed his eyeballs until they ached and gazed at it once more.
- Blasted heat, he grumbled, and went back to the colness of his office.
For a moment, Matei was tempted to smile satisfied. But, Pascu's staring look cut out the impulse.
- It's hot, goddam' hot.
- It's hot, boss.
Silence had fallen asleep in a torpor on their shoulders when a sparrow began shrieking through the chestnut trees implanted in the platform. Pascu threw the puzzle magazine over a pile of tickets. Matei continued to lie flat on the floor, the same indefinite look in his eyes.
- It's hot, I say !
- It's hot, boss.
- I better fill your toy with gas - he said, and went down to the cellar. A rattling of metal cans was heard and silence flounced out, out of its wits.
- It has cooled a little - said Pascu, moving outdoors. I feel like going for a ride. You told me your roof's leaking, I want to check it and make a report. You'll sign it, too. Maybe, I can also manage to get an oil stove. I think I need one. You know how it is, in summer you should provide for the winter.
- Right now ? - exclaimed Matei in a dreadful tone, pointing his finger South to where the watchman's hut was supposed to be.
The station master put on his blue shirt with the Railway insignia marked upon it.
- Right now ! - he said, determined and suddenly the hut with its red tiled roof loomed in his mind.
He went out on the platform. Still the hut was there. And it was smouldering in transparent flames. That meant he had seen nothing but an optical illusion before. He looked towards the village, tilted because of the heat. The tilted roofs didn't mean a thing to him. Not even the spires with their hanging leaves of the three churches in the centre of the village. He was not a believer, but he wasn't an atheist, either.
- Come on, let me help you carry the oil can !
Matei made no reply, and stayed put. He didn't stir a foot. Pascu found him in the same position, slouching, his limbs stiff, and his look turned inward. He sized him, more irritated by himself who rejected all investigations ; then, he seized him by his hand and dragged him out.
The heat also struck him on his hape and for a second he remained motionles, glaring at the sky. He locked the door, grabbed the oil can and, followed by the pointsman, he took the railroad towards the watchman's hut. Matei followed dutifully and subjected his hands in his pockets.
Aproximately ten minutes later, he started cursing his resolution. The shirt stuck to his back, his throat was parched, and Matei kept silent.
Only their footsteps could be heard kicking, now and then, the gravel between the sleepers. At times, a cabbage white butterfly ventured to take its flight in the sultry air and, after several flutterings, dropped, suffocated, among the blades of grass.
Pascu blinked several times. It seemed as if his sight became blurred. He turned to Matei. He was apparently walking, aimless, a dry look on his face and levitating somewhere in front of them. Matei stopped and bent towards the left rail. The iron was slightly dented and imprinted as if by huge teeth. He wanted to call for the other, but he was somehow afraid. Still, he took another dozen steps. Again, the same imprints. It also seemed as if the distance between the rails was not standard. The heat, he told himself, shouldn't make a mistake. Matei was waiting for just one mistake and he would tell the whole village that the station master has grown mad.
- It's hot.
- It's hot, boss, it's hot.
Then ran across a portion of distorted rail like spat out chewing gum. Pascu wanted to take it in his hand for closer examination but finally changed his mind. He was annoyed at Matei's lack of reactions. This one was stopping impassively forward as if he saw nothing around him.
Yet, maybe, he saw it too, but he is expecting me to say something and to make a fool of myself. He stepped forward.
- Surely, Matei, you haven't forgotten the reason why you get your wages, have you ?
- I haven't, how can I forget it, boss ? Ha, ha, ha !
- Rail gauge, well fixed rails, lots of sleepers ...
- Sure, boos, that's what I dream of in my sleep. Deformation profesionnele, or whatever they call it, ha, ha, ha...
Matei stumbled over a portion of rail, but he immediately regained his equilibrium and quietly plodded on. Matei looked at the two metal lines which became lost on the horizon. Nothing was missing. And yet, every now and then, they were coming across large portions of iron rail. Matei stumbled again and this time ended up streched out on the ground, his peak cap rolling downhill.
- But, what about this sleeper ? - asked Pascu, putting down the oil can and trying to lift the sleeper.
- What sleeper, boss ? - asked Matei, smiling.
He would have liked to tell him that it was nothing, but he restrained himself. Anyway, he had an advantage over him. He felt Pascu completely at a loss and smiled again. Pascu jumped over the sleeper that was over the rails and helped Matei get to his feet.
- I thought you stumbled over the sleeper.
- The sleepers are properly set, boss.
- Yes, yes, they are well set. Now, come on !
They started to walk. Pascu quickly turned his head. He was in search of firm ground. But, there was no sleeper there. He turned again. The sleeper was there.
- Blasted heat !
- Did you say something, boss ?
- It's quite hot !
- Surely, is !
He squinted at Pascu. His face was impenetrable. Drops of sweat oozed from under his cap. I must hold tight - said the pointsman to himself once more. Matei seemed to him to be growing with each step. He tried to spot his feet but saw a waving transparent screen instead, just like that on the sky-line. He looked to where he knew his eyes should find them, but it got so dangerously close that it seemed it threated to cave in upon them. He closed his eyes, cursing the heat.
The sleepers had grown, too. Am I melting myself, I wonder ? - he shuddered. Matei was striding beside him with an air of indifference. He streched out his hand to touch him.
- Where is your peak cap ?
- Over there, answered the man, pointing somewhere ahead of them.
The peak cap was upside down, and Pascu thought it looked like a huge, blue mushroom, unexpectedly grown between the rails.
- Just mind your step, will you - he cried out imagining his companion tripping and falling down in the menacing valley stretching out in front of then. Pascu scowled at the sight of the valley that came out unexpectedly. Nothing in the straight and parallel lines would have let you guess its presence and still, there it was, the valley.
- I won't fall, 'cause I'm not drunk, grumbled Matei. You're hot, boss.
He took off his peak cap, wiped it on his jacket tail, dusted it off and then placed it back on his head. The valley started swelling and, a few steps further, became a hill, Matei perched on the right rail, keeping his balance while stepping on it. Pascu stopped all of a sudden. He had run across some missing sleepers and an immense hole under the rails. He helplessly tried to catch sight of the pointsman, but, the fact that the other one has just decided to walk on the rails like a child, made him stop and consider the matter.. He was deadly sure that what he saw, the pointsman also did, only that, ... only that it was all an illusion, a miserable optical illusion. No hole was to be seen anywhere, the rails were in their place, the gravel as well, the rails were meeting the sky-line, in the distance as usual.
Still, he got on the left rail. It was like "knocking on wood" against the evil eye or hexing. He started whistling a tune "Hey, tram..." A few seconds later, a raucous sound was heard in his throat. He gave it up and went down on the sleepers.
The boss is out of joint. Thank God, I didn't lose my balance right in front of the hole, otherwise he would have caught me thought the pointsman and he started whistling, too.
Pascu was walking on pins and needles. His pretended high spirits vanished making place for his thoughts. The idea of a nervous breakdown began to torture him. He cocked his eyes to the horizon as if looking for help. His first thought was to stop, but with Matei by his side, he couldn't. Suddenly, the horizon turned white and approached rapidly. It was a huge mass of painfully dazzling white. He waited for the other to say something, to show his surprinse as it was obvious he had seen that, too, but he said nothing. He seemed not to care.
Pascu tried to whistle, several times. There was no trace of saliva in his mouth, and he was dying of thirst. He opened his eyes, wide, wheeling them round like a Yogi, but the horizon continued to float softly towards him, self-confident, knowing it would swallow everything in its way and that nobody could stand against it. Several times, he stepped off the rails, almost spraining his ankles.
Silken spider threads floated idly past him. In front, still more floated towards him just like horizontally falling snow. Three or four stuck to their blue-violet garments, leaving on them stains reminiscent of pigeon dirt. Pascu made an attempt at wiping them off, somehow disgusted, but the sticky strands of web stubbornly persisted becoming one with the thick fabric. He looked ahead of him at the cloud which was getting thicker and was on the point of swallowing him. It was as if millions of spiders were spinning on the horizon their endless flying cobwebs.
- What a summer, observed Pascu.
Matei breathed with difficulty. He used to gasp that way when his heart beats were uneven.
- What a summer, he said eventually, closing his eyes.
A stand of web caught in an eyelashe and Matei hardly managed to get rid of it. Another one violently penetrated into his mouth, and nauseatedly he spat it out. Maybe, we should' t have ventured on such a road. Had his boss really wished to see the hut, he should have gone by himself. But regrets were now out of place. There was no turning back.
- Ow, exclaimed the station master.
He wished he hadn' t uttered a sound, but the surprise rather than the pain, made him do it. He fingered his face just where he felt the sting. A few blood drops stained his fingers. Another bite could be felt on his ear. This time, Matei surpressed his laugh. He also felt a violent pain. In a flash he raised his hand to his face. There was nothing but a fragment of cobweb. They looked at each other.
- Hasn't rained for a long time, now, said Matei.
He could surely do with some, answered Pascu.
A new sting this time on his hand, took him unawares ; the pointsman started to grumble. His look followed his sleeve downwards. He opened his mouth, but was speechless. The fabric had cuts all over it. He looked again ahead and just in time raised his hands to protect his eyes. A few cobwebs hit the palms of his hands, scratching them. Pascu flung himself down, his face against the ground, squeezing himself between the sleepers. The other did the same, but a cobweb still managed to graze one of his eyelids.
For a while, they could hear nothing but their own breath. Then, the uproar began. It was a weak uproar. Dull blows on their clothes and caps. They buried their faces in the gravel hidding their hands beneath themselves.
- I should have told you, long ago, rumbled Matei, his face buried in his hands. But the other one couldn't hear. The uproar sucked in all other sounds.
"I could have at least untethered the dog", thought the pointsman. The image of the tethered dog was touching. He kept it chained to make it fierce. To be a good watcher at the hut. What if I die ?, he asked himself and he made a cross with the tip of his tongue on the roof of his mouth.
Pascu's mind was blank. But his wasn't. The idea of having left the station unattended observed him. "Maybe Mat looks at me and laughs." A stray thought forced him to raise his head. His eyes filled with the tattered fragments of sticky flimsy cobwebs.
- It should have rained long ago, boss.
He jumped to his feet. Here and there fragments of cobweb were floating in the air.
- I' m so thirsty, I think I'll go mad, said Matei in jocular mood, feeling hot all over and yet have the creeps.
He had said it to please Pascu and was delighted at the way he'd done it.
They resumed their way in silence. Before that, nothing had happened. Or, it seemed as if nothing had happened. The horizon looked surprisingly clear and amazingly close.
This chap mocks at me thinking I went mad cause of the sun, thought Pascu as he squinted at the pointsman.
"I got it, I wish to God he wouldn't", thought Matei, as he eyed the station master suspiciously.
Their eyes met.
Translated by Delia Poenaru