The Tunnel


By the time I heard about the collapse
of the railway tunnel in Solway,
they had cleared the tracks of rubble
and removed half of the hillside,
or so it appeared from where I was;
I had only ever seen the other end
where long strings of empty hoppers entered
and emerged again brimming with coal
bound for the Bull Run steam plant.
Those banal grey-and-blue CSX diesels
mixed in with the faded scarlet-yellow-blues
of the now defunct Chessie System,
they never appealed to me, but the black,
simple black stallions of Norfolk Southern

ensnared my imagination. I knew them all:
GP35s, SD50s, and U-boats that hauled
coal to the Kingston plant, and the switchers
that idled at the narrow ends of freight yards.
The moment you touched one of them,
its behemoth rumble overtakes you heartbeat.
But never did any plastic-and-brass models
whining around the scaled-down track
reproduce the exhilarating encounters
with those earth-shuddering monstrosities.
My interest in modeling waned soon,
at an age when toys went out of fashion,
girls, girls, girls in my head, on the radio,
that my dad took for trash and said as much.

So when I gave friends tours of our new house,
I would lead them down into the dry basement
where my father's layout had begun to prosper,
the finest silt of pine sawdust on mountains
with pipebrush firs and spruces a thin cover
of neglect, silence that was always there
though side-by-side concentration had hid it.
I never let out a word about the hours
I'd spent daydreaming about that same scenery.

Many years later, on the shoulder of 62,
I gaze down on the newly-formed embankment,
its orange soil laced with grass seed,
the gently sloping retainer walls,
memorizing the perfect concrete entrance.


Driving us to Knoxville in a downpour,
my brother is taking greater care
than when I was helping to teach him:
he'd always approach a stop too quickly,
and my right foot would press against the floor
as if to brake the car; but none of that now.
He veers off onto 62 at the fork.
"You always go this way?"  "Yeah, it's faster."
I wasn't so sure, but he was. "By how much?"
"About two minutes."  "Huh," I say, turning
to look right, where the tunnel would emerge
from its cove. Still somewhat struck by his
unsentimental practicality,
I go about rehearsing my own reckless

driving, with him in the car and not,
careening down the highways and highway
extensions between my national lab
summer job I'd spent smashing glass
capillaries to examine the concave innards
and the intro bio class I couldn’t have
cared less about. Only time had mattered,
only one kind of time, at least until
being woken on the couch by our mother
collapsing from a blood clot in her lung.

The road's curve brings me to see myself
standing down on the tracks, fearlessly gazing
about the amphitheater of green
around the tunnel—and there it is!

But in winter rain everything is
a turbid blue-tint watercolor gray.
On the slope, the grass has grown and matured,
but now down the middle run great washes.
Of that eroding water I can't see even a trickle
veiled behind the splattering downpour.
I know this rain's not a cleansing one.

Back on the tracks, the brilliant hue of green
has disappeared from the imagined slope:
again the grass has yet to germinate
under a cold overcast autumn sky.
From the dark depths the oscillating eye
of an engine illumines the left wall,
and after I have skidded to a halt

on the ballast it breaks to the surface,
pulling its load confidently forward.
With the earth shuddering, I cower when
the triple-throated horn, droned for the next
grade crossing, makes the cove ring,
the treeline shatter with dissonant strains,
and my ears numb.  When the last car is past,
I step down from the retaining wall and stare
into the unyielding dark, wondering
what or who I might encounter in there:
cave crickets and pale blind salamanders
that skitter away and then crowd around
like souls of the departed, helpless shades
of talcum-gray, shadowless, nothing more.

It's not fear that prevents me from walking in,
but the knowledge that I cannot ever truly see
the rough-hewn inner surface without having seen
it before, before I had known the new facade.
Then, a hint of motion, across the tracks.
I see an old woman, thin, her cropped hair
brown with silver streaks, my grandmother,
arranging daffodils in a glass vase,
then sitting down at the table to paint
the flowers suspended in the sun-
fractured glass. I cross the brick patio
and approach, slowly but not noiselessly
as loose bricks cluck against each other.

"Come here," she says, putting down the brush,
"sit here with me."  I settle on the bench.
On the paper she has finished the background
(a simple blue wash of sky) and the blooms.
Before I can caress the cold satin petals
or the paper's rough grain in my mind,
she says, "Would you like to finish it for me?"
She places the paper, brush, paints, and water
in front of me.  Leaning forward I turn
the vase slowly to realign the flowers,
but one slips, its submerged tip caught on
and loosed from the inner glass surface.
A wash of numbness holds me still
as I recall my bafflement at her

well-meant gift shortly before she died:
a watercolor sketch of gnarled toads
in mottled sunlight on the darkening floor
of a forest. Who was I to finish it,
who had painted only a flashy mural
of athletes on my junior high's wall
and monotone pastiches of grotesque
demons on metal bands' album covers?
Now even less certain of myself,
I move to replace the tilted flower,
notice the shadows have shifted.
                               Seeing this,
she says, "This sunlight is an empty wind.
See how it leaves everything untouched?
Are these not the same flowers as before?"

She stands up, her shadow passing across me,
"Here, you can slide over. We'll trade places."
The rough paint on the bench presses into
my palms as I start to move to the side.
Suddenly I am staring at the orange soil,
at eye level above the retaining wall,
and it is sprinkled with the blue-green specks
of fertilizer, what I couldn't have seen
from the shoulder above.
                       As was inevitable,
a cluster of pines cuts into the view.
Just then I feel like explaining my craned
neck to my brother would be more awkward
than the next few minutes of customary,
hereditary silence. So I say nothing.

—Douglas Basford