The eleventh response in the One Lovely Blog Award Series is to Laura Eno's flash fiction, "Midnight Train" (go read it!). The image of her train stuck with me evoking this darker imagining.
The conductor held the corroded iron cage with the three white dreambirds twitching inside as their ethereal glow reflected off the steel of the Coast Dreamlight's engine car. The train began to roll out of the station with a mournful whistle. Claire's husband, the thief, watched from behind the conductor as the train gained speed. She felt the dreambird with her essence battered as the conductor turned. She still remembered his corrosive words, burning distasteful things, as he stopped her, refusing to return her and her Ellis's stolen dreambirds.
The cars picked up speed, chugging away. She would survive feeling weak and shaken as she did now with her dreambird's frightened captivity. The loss would deepen when the bird was consumed, but she'd live unlike Ellis, her son, whose last two birds moved farther away with increasing speed. Not thinking, just moving, Claire ran beside the train, leaping to catch the cold iron bars of the ladder beside the black caboose. Slipping inside, the screech of the metal wheels on the track receded as the seal on the train's door deadened the sounds.
Running through the coach seats, gaunt faces in the dim light watched her with their black eyes absent the light of the dreams they must have sacrificed. She bumped the seats as the train swayed on the tracks leaving angry murmurs behind her. She passed through a lounge car, the seats mostly empty, and the narrow hallway between the first class cabins. The breath rattling within her ribs a pain suffusing each gasp, she pulled on the door to the engine. On the other side, the train's ceremonial ax, reddish tinged light reflecting off the glass display.
Swoosh. The conductor held a nozzle leading into the engine's dream box, a thick plateglass window flickering with the red light of the consumed dreams. Two birds left within the cage. One of them must be hers because the pain of consummation hadn't pierced her yet. A single bird left from Ellis's flock.
"What are you doing here?" asked the conductor. "I'll need another dream for your fare." The conductor pointed the nozzle into the cage.
"No," screamed Claire. Ellis's life worth no more than a coin toss.
Stu, Claire's husband, reached out to grab the corroded bars of the cage. The conductor yanked it back out of his hands but the flaking iron crumbled in Stu's hands. The two dreambirds, wings fluttering madly, squeezed through the hole in the cage, black lines on their breasts where the jagged iron cut through them. The birds flew out the engine door into the dark night.
"Lilith," said Stu shaking as he fell to his knees.
_Who was Lilith?_ wondered Claire. She clenched Stu's shoulder. His essence momentarily unshielded, she glimpsed a vision of a woman in the midst of passion, her back arched. Blood and a dreambird's white down feathers coated her smile.
"You monster." Claire released Stu, her hand feeling unclean. "How did you hide your adultery?"
Stu looked up at her, his eyes unreadable.
"You cannot ride without payment." The conductor rested the dreambox's nozzle on Claire's chest.
Claire backhanded the nozzle. She twisted away from the conductor, jarred by the train's sway to fall against the wall, her elbow breaking the glass over the ceremonial ax. She wielded the ax, looking down at her free hand and then at the conductor's nozzle as he approached. She brushed the back of her hand against the nozzle, letting it latch onto her hand, becoming lightheaded. She yanked her hand, pulling the nozzle out of the conductor's hand before setting her hand on the back of Stu's neck. Bringing the ax down, she severed her arm with a clean sweep. The nozzle grew warm consuming Stu. She pressed the stump of her arm against the dreambox's iron casing glowing with Stu's energy as she cauterized her wound before jumping through the door of the engine to roll through the grasses.
Claire stood up, a hand braced against a valley oak as she watched the Coast Dreamlight snake down the tracks. Two dreambirds alighted on her shoulders. Time to go home.