ALOFT A Short Story by David Persyn The rich, acrid smell of brewing coffee and the heavy scent of frying bacon teamed with my wife's gentle, insistent call, pulling me from the warm nothing of sleep. Breaking the crust of yesterday's dust to open my eyes I became aware of my surroundings; the pale of pre-dawn peeked through the east windows of our camper trailer. I moved my head just enough to focus one eye on Ramona's face, framed as every morning by the floating mass of tight dark brown curls, her slight overbite exposed by the grin that mornings invariably brought. "Time to get up for WORK," she piped, voice rising on the last word like a mother holding out the promise of a treat to her child. I grumbled my way out of bed and began dressing while looking out at the tracks of the main line with my tool car, water tank car, and material flat just beyond. I scanned the horizon for a hint of clouds. "Going to be another hot one," I said, not awake enough for more than small talk. Ronnie (a childhood nickname for Ramona) chirped her way through breakfast, happily outlining her day's agenda for me. Most of her list was made of housekeeping chores, and she was looking forward to baking. I was still amazed after more than a year of marriage, how much she loved keeping our house. Picking up the lunch Ronnie had packed, I stepped outside to start my motorcar. I breathed deeply, feeling caffeine and the cool morning air chase away the last of the sleepiness. The pleasant start of my day made the yellow Fairmont motorcar seem light as I wrestled it onto the rails of the house track just outside the red flag that protected my outfit cars. The little two stroke engine putt-banged to life on the second rotation of the crank, and I stepped the hundred yards to the phone bungalow to get a mainline permit from the dispatcher. The mountains of the Kootenai canyon looked as indigo cardboard cutouts layered against bright pink glass while I rode the eight miles to where I had left off the day before. The Kootenai canyon winds its way from Troy, Montana for about thirty miles and ends just east of Bonners Ferry, Idaho. There are few accesses to the canyon, and the only way to see it all is to float it or to ride the rails of the Burlington Northern main line. Arriving at the motorcar setoff closest to my jobsite, I cleared the track and surrendered my permit to the dispatcher by radio. Picking up my climbers, belt, line tools, and insulators, I started the short walk to the first pole; best to do as much as possible in the cool of the morning and save my dawdling for the hot afternoon. Track along the river consists of a series of cuts through ridges and fills to eliminate some of the curves caused by a meandering river. I spent the morning on a fill more than a mile long, looking forward to a stretch of pole line below a cliff where it would be shady in the afternoon. I climbed the next pole in that direction, hand over hand, until I belted in above the crossarm. This was a pole railroaders refer to as a "blackjack" or "black banana"; wherever my gaffs pierced the pole a trickle of creosote bled and ran, black and staining as if it was blood of the Devil's own heart. The shadow I cast was a dark green blob in the water of the Kootenai almost directly below me, and this short shadow told me I should break for lunch after finishing the change of insulators on one more pole. A screech brought my head around. At first, just for an instant, I thought it was the sound of steel wheels grinding around a sharp curve; the fear of being hit by an unseen, unheard train has never left me. After only a second I realized it couldn't be a train without the sound of locomotives pulling the river grade. I looked around for the source of the screech and another drew my attention toward the south, where I saw a large bird soaring orbits around the yellow-white ball of the sun. My eyes adjusted to the brightness and the bird became an eagle.
His head and tail were white; a bald eagle. His flight took him low enough for me to take his measure against the trees of the opposite riverbank. I swung around the pole as I tracked him, spellbound by his skill. He caught an updraft from the rocks of the fill downstream from me soaring ever higher until he was once again orbiting the sun. His wings folded closer to his body and he plunged, spiraling steeply into the river, nearly disappearing from sight before springing back into the air. He flapped his way over to the same rocks again, catching his current and repeating the process. On the eagle's fourth stoop, his wings made an even sharper flapping sound than before as he lifted clear of the water carrying a shining silvery trout. Droplets of water cascaded from bird and fish to split the sun into hundreds of dancing rainbows. The eagle gained altitude, banked, and turned toward me; to my delight and awe he glided to the top of the pole next to mine, one hundred twenty feet away. The short distance robbed the eagle of his smoothness as I could see his wing tip feathers splayed like a pianist's fingers, making tiny jerking corrections in his flight. He stalled, holding the fish in one talon as he settled onto the pole top with the other. Unconcerned, he regarded me for a moment before bending over the still wriggling trout. Raising talon and fish to meet his hooked beak, he tore a filet of meat from the trout's side, flipping his head to swallow it in a flurry of little nibbles. I reached slowly into my tool pouch and felt for the Salted Nut Roll that Ronnie had thoughtfully put there. I had company, so I unwrapped the treat normally saved for after lunch.
The eagle watched me open the candy, favoring first one eye, then the other, alternating to a rhythm only eagles hear. Settling on his right eye, his head took on a curious cant as I bit into the bar. I held it up in offering and he answered by making and eating another filet. We munched and watched each other until the crumpled wrapper fell and startled the eagle into flight, passing a few feet over my head, close enough to feel and hear the whuff, whuff of wind against feather. He flapped his way to another updraft and I watched as he soared higher, farther, becoming a dark speck against the pale blue. A train whistled in the distance and when I looked back the eagle was gone. Years have passed since that day so the eagle lives now only in my memory. Railroading, too, is part of my past. Ronnie and I are divorced. Remembering my eagle of that hot July afternoon is special to me because he and Ronnie came into my life for an instant, carrying me aloft to the heights they soar, and then were gone, leaving me earthbound. THE END David Persyn may be contacted at email@example.com or Check out his homepage.
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