"This really happened. It didn't have to happen, but it really, really did."
A train station dominated the center of town. It occupied a neat building that squatted to one side of the village's only paved street, a twisted avenue covered with bricks and lined with concrete curbs. Leaning over the main thoroughfare, a score of rectangular storefronts presented all the goods and services to be found there, a smattering of bakeries, cobblers, haberdasheries, grocers, pharmacies, mechanics and professional services. The village boasted both a doctor and a veterinarian, though both men served the needs of an entire district and sometimes more.
Few people remained in the village or the district, after all. Most had left for the war for one reason or another. Some had gone to fight, some to work, and some simply to die. Those facing the latter fate also sometimes fled, taking with them only what they could carry. At any rate and in any case, the population of the town dwindled, such that only the very old, the very young and the infirm remained. Oh, the women remained, too, waiting patiently for the return of husbands, sons and fathers, but labor so dominated their lives that they had little time to spare for the cafe or coffeehouse.
Therefore, the streets idled emptily most days. The local burgomaster owned the town's only automobile, but not even he could find petrol for it, any longer. It sat parked outside the municipal building opposite the train station, where it collected bird droppings and dust. Nobody strolled the sidewalks while gazing through grimy store windows. Nobody loitered on the stoops of the pharmacy, where the only soda fountain in the district could be found. Nobody played loud music from the phonograph inside the bookstore, because nobody lingered to listen.
For good reason, too, since Russian lines advanced westward daily, and since one could often hear their artillery thundering across the distance of countless kilometers. If true thunder warned of violent downpour, then this thunder warned of violent defeat.
As the wind that precedes a flood, alternately gusting and sucking before it, trains chugged back and forth along the steel tracks that twisted through the village. Rolling eastward, these trains carried weapons, ammunition and fresh troops to feed the looming tempest. Rolling westward, they carried another cargo entirely, bearing it safely away from the destructive threat of freedom presented by the same.
Each train that passed through town rattled the windows of Old Herman's humble home. Owing to the fact that his back acreage abutted the tracks directly, he often found himself sitting at his kitchen table beneath the window there, watching and counting the cars as they clatter-clanged across the joints in the rails.
Fifteen flatcars that morning, he counted, all headed east and carrying heavy tanks bound for the front. Twenty-six boxcars that afternoon, he counted, also headed east containing anything from hygienic paper products to ammunition. Herman thought the latter seemed more likely. Thirty-two flatcars in two trains that evening, he counted, both headed east laden with canvass-covered artillery and crates of shells.
Some time during the night, yet another transport rolled through town, this one headed west and comprised of twenty cattle cars. As this mechanical monstrosity worked its way along the tracks, the old man sat up in his bed, fetched a kerosene lamp from his nightstand, and then rose to light a match in the coal-burning stove that warmed his bedroom. Using the match to light the lamp, in turn, he held this light high to cross the room, exit the door, and find his way along the hallway to his kitchen.
There, he sat beneath the blue light of a distant, aloof moon, and he counted the cattle cars through a narrow gap in the shutters. He knew they would not be filled with cattle, though they were obviously heavily laden. The engine huffed and puffed and chugged to maintain way, but old Herman detected the sounds of malfunction in that bestial mechanical effort. His ears perked to hear steel grate against steel, and he sat straighter beneath the window, his good eye pressed to the narrow opening. Eventually, he determined that the engineer had purposefully slowed the train to stop in the village, a rare but not unprecedented occurrence.
Once he satisfied himself that the cars had come to rest alongside the station platform, Herman guessed they would remain there until morning. Shaking his head, he extinguished the lamp and returned to bed, where he formulated a plan for tomorrow's unexpected labors, such that sleep eluded him long past the moon's descent beneath bare, frosted treetops.
The following morning, he dressed warmly and waddled along the muddy road toward Main Street, absently swinging a large, knotty stick that he carried for protection from stray dogs. Though less than a kilometer distant from his front door, the walk seemed long and arduous to Old Herman, whose rheumatic and arthritic hips and knees protested every step. Confounding the difficulties of his passage, a rising wind and icy snow flurries worked against him. His blurry eyes watered and his stinging nose oozed wetly.
After he made his way to the paved sidewalks of Main Street, he progressed more rapidly. Chin tucked to avoid the cold, old Herman acknowledged the occasional greeting with a stiff toss of his head. His feeble breath boiled and billowed out of his nostrils and through his teeth, rasping into and out of his lungs with each respiration. His bony shoulders hunched against the cold, while his spine curved beneath the crush of nearly eighty burdensome years of life.
Old Herman turned off the paved avenue and into the courtyard of the train station. In better days and happier times, the circular drives and cramped lots of this courtyard should have teemed with stylish sedans and country cruisers. Now, it teemed with snow flurries and slushy drifts. His footsteps sounded hollow and insistent atop the concrete, as he crossed the little open space behind the building's curbside façade to enter into the station depot.
Inside, he found a palsied steward sleeping on one of five benches. No passengers awaited arrival or departure, and the ticket booths were long abandoned.
Waving distractedly at the snoring steward, Herman crossed the interior of the building until he could exit onto the platform. Alongside this, the night train crouched patiently, its lone engine breathing steam and hissing softly. A black monster forged of iron and wood, the engine and its twenty cars sprawled beneath the sun's dull first light. From within the shadowed confines of the cattle car, Herman heard a low, continual moan of human discomfort and unrequited need.