November 2010


Charles Voortrekker had lived his entire life in the small towns of the Alberta-Saskatchewan-Montana border; few could recall any family members (and even then it was a dim recollection at best) and he was known to react violently to intruders and any suggestion that he leave his hometown. Needless to say, the man’s sudden appearance–famished and sunburned–to the crew of a survey station on remote Kerguelen Island in the southern Indian Ocean was a cause for some puzzlement to many, Smithson most of all.

As Smithson delved deeper into the records, similar cases emerged. A gentleman who lived in and refused to leave the village of Gatteville-le-Phare, near Cherbourg in France, who was known to disappear for months at a time. Rescued by a New Zealand navy cruiser from a castaway hut on the desolate Antipode Islands; died before he could give an account of how he came to be there.

A Vietnamese woman who refused to travel inland or to visit relatives in America vanished, only for her body to be found in the Peruvian Andes.

A Hawaiian man who reacted violently when family tried to convince him to move off the Big Island. Vanished, only for some of his personal effects to turn up in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

The only thing they had in common? They were all antipodal points, on opposite sides of the globe.

“It’s just a plant with heart-shaped seeds,” Clyton said. “Nothing to get excited over.”

“Clyton, since when do I tell you how to pilot your boat?” Ash said. “I know my herbs and my history. Heart-shaped seeds, structure similar to asafetida and fennels, resin with a rich odor…no living plant has those properties.”

“Congrats, then,” Clyton said. “New species. Give you twenty bucks to name it after me.”

“No!” cried Ash. “This isn’t a time to be funny, Clyton; it’s a time to be awed. It’s not a new species. It can only be silphium, the miracle plant known to the Greeks and Romans…and it’s been extinct for 2500 years.”

Dennis Baily had purchased the watch in 1920. He’d come into five dollars as a reward for alerting a farmer that his barn door had broken and helping to round up the scattered animals before a thunderstorm. His parents had urged him to save the money, but Dennis had his eye on a young lady in town, and spent the money on the watch and other bits and pieces needed to make a presentable, if cheap and plebeian, outfit to wear when calling on her.

Muriel Donegal, impressed, agreed to marry him. Dennis then wore the watch on special occasions until 1947, when he died of a heart attack while trying to start a tractor. His son, James, took the watch as a memento and wore it daily even as the farm was sold and the family moved into Cascadia. It became such an element of his daily routine that James refused to leave the house without his father’s watch on his wrist. That same watch, left on a nightstand, was also the first indication that he’d suffered a stroke in 1980. His only child, Henrietta Baily, was left the watch and wore it on special occasions like family gatherings. When she married in 1984, it was on her wrist.

Much wrangling went on among her children about who would obtain the cherished heirloom afterwards. Henrietta maintained that it ought to be shared, but the family valued it too much for such a solution to stick; the squabbling intensified to a fever pitch in 2010 when Henrietta was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Not bad for a trinket that was mass-produced and retailed for a dollar…

Imię Nazwisko was obviously not the man’s real name, but the one that had been used to publish and record his music in Wilhelmine Germany. Rave reviews of concerts had appeared in music publications before the war, but the number of surviving works by Nazwisko was vanishingly small due to the tumultuous 20th century history of the region in which he lived and worked. Most of his sheet music was burned during the battles for Poland, leaving just a few player piano rolls, wax cylinders, and gramophone records that had been shipped to audiophiles elsewhere.

Orris had painstakingly tracked down and transcribed–by ear–all Nazwisko’s surviving recordings save one. He’d also digitally reproduced and distributed what recordings he could, on the grounds that Nazwisko had unfairly been denied a place in musical history due to the privations of history. But that last recording…

The Vartafluß Symphonie had been recorded in Posen in October 1918 for distribution on gramophone record. Due to the war, only a handful of master copies were made with an eye toward postwar distribution, but the dismembering of Germany after the war and Nazwisko’s death or disappearance after 1919 meant that this never came to pass. The composer had carried the sheet music with him to an uncertain fate, leaving just a single copy of the work: a master belonging to a reclusive audio antiquarian.

Orris was determined to see it recovered, pirated, and shared with the world. Even if it meant bending the law.

“That’s not what I heard,” Kellie said. “I heard that if you’re in Sunset Park at sunset, it lasts for hours. Way longer than it should. But you can only see it if you’re there and never leave.”

“No way,” Randy said. “That wouldn’t work. The earth’s going ’round the sun, so sunset can’t last longer in the park than at school. Doesn’t make sense!”

“I heard it from eighth graders,” Kellie asserted proudly. That put the information firmly into the realm of possibility, if not certainty.

The others whispered among each other.

“Well?” Kellie demanded.

“We’re gonna go check it out,” Randy said. “Tonight. And if it lasts longer than my dad says it should, you win.”

People often camped out in the tunnel between the two stations, often panhandler but occasionally musicians. Sandy’s ears had been trained by years of darkness and frequent trips to Carnegie to pick up on the players’ skill level in a heartbeat. The tunnel’s acoustics required careful placing and phrasing to make the music fill the space and not get drowned out by crowd noises or its own echo. Even the tap of Sandy’s cane could affect the entire venue.

Most of the time, sadly, the music wasn’t terribly good. The panhandler players tended to set up near the middle of the tunnel, where there was a lot of foot traffic but an overhead alcove ruined the acoustics. Many played out of tune instruments, which was understandable given their circumstances; what was less forgivable was the lack of skill too many of the players demonstrated. It was clear the Sandy that they’d come into the instruments without an idea of how to play them, and while aimless saxophone noodling was enough to part a few islanders from their quarters he held to a higher standard. Only the players that knew what they were doing had a go at his wallet.

Today, though…the violinist was divine. They were located in the acoustic sweet spot, allowing rich, resonant music to flow over the passersby (who, from the sound of it, ignored this rare privilege). The player had been essaying Bach at first, but then broke into a much more contemporary, lilting melody as Sandy approached. It wasn’t a classical piece, or even a contemporary piece…no, it was an original. An original he’d heard once before.

“Jessie…is that you?” he cried.

As the attendant gave Jeremy his ticket and the change from his thousand-ruble note, his hand brushed the cash register. A vision sprang into his head, clear as day: an employee slyly opening the till and pocketing a stack of bills.

Jeremy sighed, and pulled his glove back on. “Always something bad,” he muttered, and pushed through the turnstile into the museum proper.

Bypassing the indoor exhibits, he strolled outside, where an impressive array of armored tanks and fighting vehicles were arrayed along a semicircular path. This was Kubinka, the great tank museum of Russia and the former Soviet Union, and every vehicle here had a story to tell.

“And they’ll all be tragic, horrible, wretched things,” Jeremy muttered. Military things always were. He recalled a visit to the Smithsonian, pressing his palm against the Enola Gay and witnessing a blinding flash and ever-expanding fireball.

There was nothing for it, though. Jeremy reached into his pocket and produced a dog-eared sheaf of photocopies. An article on the top detailed the tragic fate of one Jeroen Schoenborn, accused of disabling his tank at Kursk in an act of cowardice, later tried and executed for the same. Painstaking research had led his grandson to Kubinka, where most survivors of that great battle could be found.

And he’d touch them all, regardless of the pain it’d cause, to learn the truth.

The secluded beach at Phak Trang was often the star of such expat stories, catering to tourists and thrill-seekers who craved an escape from the commercialized beaches that littered the South China Sea for something pure and undisturbed. Phak Trang was said to be the best-kept secret in the province, a sheltered cove with beautiful gypsum sands, calm waters near the beach, and surfable waves further out. It was a modest hike from the nearest access road, but cabbies in the various resort towns were always ready to arrange dropoffs and pickups, though none of the local guides would go there, forcing seekers to rely on hand-drawn maps circulated by expats.

Many people who had been swore by the place, but it also had a tragic air: swimmers and surfers who went to Phak Trang had a tendency to disappear. Certainly, the deaths–noted as hashmarks on a crude sign near the beach–lent an aura of danger to the place. The US Consulate in Surat Thani held that these accidents–which had accounted for 8 citizens 1960-2010–were due to treacherous features of geography, like the cove’s fierce riptide, and the occasional local banditry.

Ask a local cabbie, though, and a different story would emerge. Not shy about sharing it, with paying fares at least, they maintained that Phak Trang was a point at which spirits could enter the world of the living when the tides were right. People who vanished might sometimes have been killed by the riptide, the cabbies conceded, but more often they were abducted by vengeful spirits or fell through the pale into an otherworld beyond imagining.

“Look at that rusted-out piece of garbage,” Neil said, examining the DC-3 hulk with a jaundiced eye. “Why don’t they clear it away?”

“Nostalgia, probably,” Gus replied. “Midwestern Airlines is the reason this airport’s here.”

Neil twirled one of his loader’s gloves. “There comes a time when you just have to let it go.”

“Let it go?” Gus said. “Midwestern Airlines was the first company to fly commercially west of the Smokies, the first company to run airmail to regional airports, and the first company to introduce first-class service!”

“What are you, a tour guide?” Neil sniffed. “Not many tourists out here on the tarmac unless their gate’s full and they need to be walked in. And even then they’re too grumpy to listen.”

“I started out working for Midwestern,” said Gil. “Worked for them for two years before they went bust and were bought up in ’85. They made all of us sit through a training video talking about how the company started with just a single Curtiss Jenny barnstormer and built it into the third-largest airline in the country behind Pan Am and Republic.”

“Two more airlines that have done just as well,” said Neil.

“Bah,” said Gus. “I don’t think forty-five counts as old, but you kids today make me feel it. Don’t think there were any airlines at all before the ones you flew to Disney World on.”

Course, the Grand Traverse & Western railroad was as much tied to its time as anybody else. When the tracks were first laid down they stimulated the entire region’s economy by allowing fresh-cut logs another route south other than the river, moving manufactured furniture south to Chicago and bringing tourists north to Grand Traverse Bay. Little cities sprang up where the GT&W crossed other rail lines, with main streets and businesses springing up near rail depots like weeds. The line was at its peak between the wars, with plentiful rolling stock surplussed from the old USRA.

After the war, though, things took a turn for the worse. The interstate and highways began to link together many of the destination previously served by rail; thousands of trucks chugged along the route, each stealing a little more from the GT&W’s coffers. Passengers increasingly drove or flew to their destination, leaving the passenger cars GT&W was required by law to maintain mostly empty. Many rail lines reacted to the pressure by consolidating, but no one was particularly interested in merging with or acquiring the GT&W, viewing it as an unprofitable spur. The last train thundered down those tracks in 1980.

Most of the rail depots were torn down in the years that followed, and the downtowns around them withered as the commercial nuclei moved toward the highways. Rusting and overgrown rail lines came to be seen as an eyesore, and were pulled up for scrap. The ties were sold as building materials; it wasn’t unusual to see them lining gardens or even fashioned into toolsheds. In time, the graded rail areas were turned into paved trails.

Decades later, with diesel prices on the rise and an increasing number of Osborn and SMU students picketing against “anti-green” policies, the decision appeared particularly shortsighted.

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