General Fiction posted August 17, 2017

This work has reached the exceptional level
A memorable dawn in a small town

The Track

by dracofelsinensis

Miguel liked to sit in the station and imagine. He had been fascinated by the rails as a young boy, especially where the track crossed the road, and by that wooden sign which was there to warn people. He had often drawn it in the back of his exercise books or in the sand when playing on the beach.

It was exciting, like two crossed swords, that shape you get if you open a pair of scissors as far as you can. He liked it when the railway came to life after a long silence: the warning sound from the driver, the clank of the wheels in the distance and the rumble as the train rolled slowly by. Not that it happened very often now, sadly.

He thought of all the people who had arrived from Montevideo and the west of the country over the years, the summer tourists, yachting enthusiasts, men visiting the refinery or the fishmeal plant on business, students and servicemen coming home on leave to be greeted by loved ones on the platform. Not any longer. There was only the occasional freight train now: all passenger services had been withdrawn over four years ago, early in 1988.

So the station was all closed up, like a ghost town. The coaches that covered the 200 km or so to the capital were reliable and comfortable enough, but it wasn't such an event, going off on one of them. They left without fuss at all hours, though he did sometimes hear the growl of the departing 01:30, if he couldn't sleep.

This reminded him that it was time to get back to work. The little port town was filling up fast, even though it was the middle of winter, ahead of the big event early the next day. There was plenty to do, and mother and Maria needed his help.

Pizza and beer were selling well, back at the café. He noticed two large Americans, both with big cameras and beards. Going over to take their order, he greeted them and found out that they were airline employees, which meant cheaper travel round the globe, something useful given their expensive hobby interest of chasing the moon's shadow. With them was a serious-looking young man from Belgium: Miguel tried to break the ice by praising the Belgian soccer team, 3-1 winners over Uruguay in the last World Cup, but the man simply nodded and smiled back weakly. Then there was an English academic who spoke good correct Castilian, though it was his first time in the Americas. Miguel brought them some beers and they all drank a toast to cielos abiertos - clear skies.

The TV and papers had talked about the eclipse for weeks and one article claimed that a local retired professor had been working on the exact timings and angle of elevation over several decades. Apparently, which locations fell under the shadow, and for how long, depended on how much the Earth slowed in its spin on its axis, which it had been doing increasingly since early in the century. Miguel looked again at the map of the calculated path and realized that the coastal part of the Republic was lucky, as it had the best chance of seeing something, with the sun a fraction higher in the sky, at 3 degrees up, because it would rise earlier. The town really was right on the track this time, trains or no trains.

Of course, there were the naysayers. Uncle Gianni was one of them. "Those people on TV, they just talk to fill the time and earn fortunes. 'Expert' this and 'Professor' that! It was the same with that comet, twenty years ago. What was it called? Cotec or something like that? They promised us it was going to be like the fireworks at the Fiesta Nacional but in the end it was just another damp squib. It'll be the same this time, you'll see! Total eclipse? Total fiasco, more like!"

"You don't need to be a professor to work it out," he continued. "Look, there's cloud here in winter, the dawn sun will be very low in the sky, so you'll have the murk over the sea in your sight, and you've got under three minutes to see the thing before it's gone forever. And it's not fair on the little ones, raising their hopes with all that project stuff they've been doing in school. Those teachers ought to know better."

Miguel had smiled. Gianni was tired of life; that was his problem. And the takings at the café didn't depend on the weather: the tourists were here anyway and needed to be fed and watered, cloud or no cloud.

He set his alarm, double-checked it and got out a thick pullover, his light binoculars and the special Mylar filter glasses that had been handed out to everyone. He reminded himself that a very special train was coming down the track and would be passing through their town, for the first and only time, on that last day of June, and he wasn't going to miss seeing it for anything.

He awoke before the alarm, as he usually did, and quickly got ready. Then he knocked on Maria's door. No answer. So he knocked again and heard a groan from his younger sister. He let himself in. She was groggy and grumpy, turning away from the pale light of the bulb on the landing, saying that she just wanted to sleep forever, as she'd been on her feet all day and there had been loads to clear up, and it would all be on TV later anyway.

"Oh come on, Maria! You won't regret it, I promise you. I tell you what: you get ready and I'll bring you up a strong coffee and a nice pastry, if you promise you'll come to the beach with me. The sky's quite clear, I can see a few stars, so we could be in luck!"

This seemed to persuade her, so she turned back over and stared at him:

"All right, you win ... but this had better be worth it!"

People were up and about in droves, wrapped up in jackets against the cold. There were large groups of school students, pairs of adults with dogs, foreign tourists, all heading for the beach and the clear horizon to the northeast, where there was some low cloud in an otherwise fairly clear sky. In the half light, Miguel noticed the two Americans, who had set up their telescopes and cameras on the balcony of a small hotel, a great vantage point, and they waved back, recognizing him and Maria from the café. Then he saw the Belgian and overheard him talking with two girls, astrophysics students who'd come up from Argentina.

Already only a crescent, with its horns pointing upwards and to the left, the sun duly appeared shortly after 7:45, as long announced by the dawn chorus. But the birds soon became anxious, squawking and making short, panicky, darting flights from branch to branch, as it got darker again. A few dogs barked and looked up at their owners. The sun went behind a cloud, to groans from some of those assembled. Miguel noticed some workmen getting ladders and tools ready to resume renovating a skeletal chalet behind him, waiting for the second dawn as if it were just a normal day. Incredible! Didn't they realize what they were witnessing?

"Here she comes!" shouted one of the Americans. The light dwindled further but he couldn't see much because of the cloud. People's faces took on a strange appearance. It was as if someone was turning a dimmer switch right down. Then, bang on time at 8 o'clock, with the accuracy of a Swiss railwayman's watch, the shadow came, bringing applause from the kids, as the last light was squeezed out and darkness settled over them. There was the sound of shutters clicking on cameras. Running her hand through her uncombed dark hair, Maria was transfixed by the scene, her mouth open, hoping like him that the cloud would just shift a little.

Time stood still. Then, with less than a minute of the predicted totality to run, the eclipsed sun reappeared. Miguel was ready, his handy binoculars focused on it, feasting his eyes on that strange, pink-red dried blood colour of the prominences visible above the edge of the eclipsing moon. A jewel of light appeared at the top left and turned into a fan-shaped set of beams of light. "The Diamond Ring!" shouted an Englishman, "The Diamond Ring!"

Then came an even more astonishing phenomenon, the fastest he had ever experienced in his life. He had taken his binoculars off the re-emerging sun, anxious to protect his eyes from any damage, and something made him look west. A terrifying tsunami of light was racing across the land towards them at a diabolical speed! Maria grabbed his arm tight and he felt as if it would knock them off their feet as it passed. He flinched and, in an instant, the trailing edge of the moon's shadow was gone, rushing off eastwards out to sea, where it would cross the Atlantic and finish somewhere below South Africa; and light returned, leaving a beautiful shining path across the water in an ever more bright and clear sky. The crescent of sun was pointing downwards now and the seagulls were soon flying around happily.

Later that afternoon when there was a lull, after they'd dealt with the late breakfasts, then the lunches, and many of the tourists had started to return to Montevideo or Punta Del Este or even go on to Chuy and southern Brazil, Miguel noticed that Maria had gone off for her break. Mother had made him promise that he would always look after her and he sensed that she might need him, knowing where he'd likely find her. So he ran to the station, where he found her sitting on a bench on the platform, sobbing, as she had done after father died.

"There, there! Tell me, what's the matter?"

"I don't know ... it's just everything, I suppose. I feel so ... trapped here."

"Trapped? You mean working at the café? Or here in this town? Or just life generally?"

"Sorry, Micky ... I'll be all right in a moment. You know, when the shadow was over us ... I wanted it to lift me up and carry me away to somewhere, anywhere, like a train. Now it's gone ... and there won't be another one for two hundred years!"

He could almost understand her reasoning. She must be overwrought by all the visitors, the weird double-dawn and the eclipse. She would have glanced at the article in the paper, where it said there wouldn't be another total eclipse visible there until "that impossible year 2192".

"Wouldn't it be great if we could have an eclipse every year, like a fiesta. I almost wanted that wave of light to sweep me out to sea. Crazy, I know! That's why I sat here, I suppose, hoping a train would come down the track and take me off to the capital, or somewhere. Do you think they'll ever bring the passenger trains back?"

"Come on, let's get you home. You just need to lie down for a while. Mum and I can do whatever needs doing. You deserve some time off, anyway."

When Miguel bought a newspaper the next day, partly as a souvenir, as well as pictures of the eclipse and all the spectators and coverage from places along the track of totality and to the west of it, he saw a short article about time. Apparently, at midnight on June 30th, the organization responsible for measuring and standardizing time had added a 'leap second' to their clocks, to keep them in line with the Earth's rotation. Imagine that, one second compared to all of eternity!

Pays one point and 2 member cents.

Artwork by meg119 at

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