In Garshin’s original story, written in the 1880s, Semyon is a veteran of the Russo-Turkish War who takes a job as a railroad track-walker, which means he lives with his family in a hut near railroad tracks and is responsible for maintaining a certain portion of the rails, including such things as clearing away snow in winter. His neighboring track-walker, Vasily, likewise lives in a hut, some six or seven miles away.
In my revision, the job and its duties are brought up to date in terms of modern technology, and put in an urban setting: Vasily and Semyon, a veteran of Afghanistan, are now Metro track-walkers in Washington, D.C.
Semyon Ivanonv was a track-walker. His apartment was ten blocks away from a metro station in one direction and twelve blocks away in the other. About four blocks away there was a cotton mill that had closed the year before, and its tall chimney rose up darkly. Many of the retail shops along these blocks had closed the year before too.
Semyon Ivanov’s health had been completely shattered. Four years before he had served right through the war as assistant to an officer. The sun had roasted him, the cold frozen him, and hunger famished him on the marches of forty and fifty kilometers a day in the heat and the cold and the rain and the shine. The bullets had whizzed about him, but, thank God! None had struck him.
Semyon’s unit once been on the firing line. For a whole week there had been skirmishing with the Taliban, only a deep ravine separating the two hostile armies; and from morn till eve there had been a steady cross-fire. Thrice daily Semyon carried a steaming coffee and his officer’s meals from the camp kitchen to the ravine. The bullets hummed about him and rattled viciously against the rocks. Semyon was terrified and cried sometimes, but still he kept right on. The officers were pleased with him, because he always had hot coffee ready for them.
He returned from the campaign with limbs unbroken but crippled with PTSD. He had experienced no little sorrow since then. He arrived home and soon after his father, an old man, and his little four-year-old son had died. Semyon remained alone with his wife. They could not do much. It was difficult to work with an aching mind. They were upside down on their mortgage, and could no longer make the payments, so they started off to seek life in new places. They stayed for a short time near the base in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, then went to Dale City to stay with family but nowhere found luck.
Then the wife went to work at Walmart, and Semyon continued to apply for jobs all over DC. Once he happened to ride the metro, and at one of the stations the face of the station-master seemed familiar to him. Semyon looked at the station-master and the station-master looked at Semyon, and they recognized each other. He had been an officer in Semyon’s battalion.
“You are Ivanov?” he said.
“What are you doing here?”
Semyon told him all.
“Where are you going?”
“I cannot tell you, sir.”
“Idiot! What do you mean by ‘cannot tell you?’”
“I mean what I say, sir. There is nowhere for me to go to. I must look for work, sir.”
The station-master looked at him, thought a bit, and said: “I might have something for you, soldier. You are married, I think. Where is your wife?”
“Yes, sir. I am married. My wife is working at Walmart in Dale City. We are living with her sister.”
“Well, there is a position as track-walker open. Go to Human Resources and fill out an application, then I will speak to them on your behalf.”
“I will be very grateful to you, Sir,” replied Semyon.
He went to HR and filled out the application, and soon was being trained. In a month’s time, he and his wife had rented a studio apartment. It wasn’t much, but it was warm, and it was theirs. Semyon rejoiced. He began to think of saving money, of someday purchasing a car and a house.
He was given all necessary gear—an employee ID, a key for the switchboxes, flashlights, a radio, a yellow safety vest, a tool belt with hammer, screw-wrench, crowbar, bolts, and nails, a hardhat; they gave him two books of regulations and a timetables for the trains. At first Semyon could not sleep at night, and tried to learn the whole time-table by heart. He learned to look and listen for the tiniest hint that the rails were trembling or the rumble of the train could be heard. He even learned the regulations by heart, although he could only read by spelling out each word.
It was summer; the work was not heavy; there was no snow to clear away, and, especially in August, the trains ran light. Semyon covered his sections twice a day, examining the rails, screwing up nuts here and there, keeping the bed level, looking at the water pipes. Then he’d go home to his own affairs. There was only one drawback—he always had to get his supervisor’s permission for the least little thing he wanted to do.
Semyon and his wife were beginning to be bored as the weeks passed, and they spent evenings in their tiny apartment. Semyon commenced to make the acquaintance of his co-workers, the track-walkers on either side of him, especially. One was a very old man, whom management was always meaning to relieve. He scarcely covered his assignments. The other track-walker was a young man, thin, but muscular. He and Semyon met for the first time on the line midway between stations.
Semyon held out his hand. “Good afternoon,” he said.
The coworker glanced askance at him. “How do you do?” he replied; then turned around and made off.
They ran into each other occasionally, and once Semyon said, “Young man, you are not very talkative.”
The man said nothing at first, then replied: “What is there for me to talk about? Everyone has his own business. Go your way, I’ll go mine.”
However, after another month or so they became friendlier. Semyon would go with Vasily along the line, sit on a ledge, smoke, and talk of life. Vasily, for the most part, kept silent, but Semyon talked of the house he once had, and of the tour he’d passed in Afghanistan.
“I’ve had some problems recently,” he would say, “but things are getting better. My luck is changing, Vasily Stepanych.”
Vasily Stepanych knocked the ashes out of his pipe against a rail, stood up, and said: “It is not luck which follows us in life, but human beings. There is no crueler beast on this earth than man. Wolf does not eat wolf, but man will readily devour man.”
“Come, friend, don’t say that; a wolf eats wolf.”
“It came into my mind and I said it. All the same, there is nothing crueler than man. If it were not for greed, it would be possible to live. Everybody tries to screw you.”
Semyon pondered a bit. “I don’t know, brother,” he said, “perhaps it is as you say, and perhaps it is just God’s will.”
“And perhaps,” said Vasily, “it is waste of time for me to talk to you. To put everything unpleasant on God, and sit and suffer, means, brother, being not a man but an animal. That’s what I have to say.” And he turned and went off without saying good-bye.
Semyon also got up. He called, “Why do you lose your temper?” But his co-worker did not look round, and kept on his way.
Semyon gazed after him until he was lost to sight in the cutting at the turn. He went home and said to his wife: “Arina, my coworker is a little off, he might be a sick man.”
However, the men did not quarrel. They met again and discussed the same topics.
“What sort of life is there for a poor man in studio apartment here or there? The cannibals are devouring you. They are sucking up all your life-blood, and when you become old, they will throw you out just as they do husks to feed the pigs on. What pay do you get?”
“Not much, Vasily Stepanych—$12 an hour.”
“And I, $13.50 an hour. Why? By the regulations the company should give us $15 an hour, but there have been budget cutbacks. Who decides that you should have $12? Or I $13.50? Ask yourself! And you say a man can live on that? I was at the main office last month. The General Manager passed through. I saw him. I had that honor of seeing his expensive suit. He had an entourage. He came out and walked the cubicles like a celebrity. I’m not going to work here long. I’m leaving.”
“But where will you get a job, Stepanych? Here you have a decent job and a roof over your head.”
“Decent job! My supervisor is a drunk. And a bully. Last week, I was twenty minutes late because I had a flat tire on the way to work. He wrote me up!” Vasily kept silent for a while, pulling at his pipe, then added quietly: “It’s not right. I should have punched him.”
“You are hot-tempered.”
“No, I am not hot-tempered, but I know what’s fair. Yes, one of these days, I’ll kick his ass. And I’m going to complain to HR too. The rules say we cannot be written up if we call when we will be late, unless it’s excessive tardiness. And I’ve been late once. ONCE.”
And Vasily did complain to HR.
Three days later, metro was opening the new Silver rail line, running from Maryland to Dulles Airport. VIPS from all over the Capitol area—DC, Virginia, and Maryland mayors and governors and members of the WMATA board; all those who were part of funding the regional transportation network—were coming to ride the new line, on brand-new metro cars too.
It was necessary to put everything in order. The tracks were inspected over and over again; the gravel beds were leveled, the cars carefully examined, stations painted, and orders given for the platforms to be spotlessly clean. Semyon worked overtime every day for a whole week. He put everything personal in order too; got his uniforms dry cleaned, and even got his hair cut. Vasily also worked hard.
Two days before the Silver line opened, the supervisor found Semyon, and asked him, “Where is Vasily Spiridov?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is he the one who filed a complaint against me?” the supervisor asked, waving a piece of paper.
“He is.” Semyon watched the man turn and walk back down the track, and thought, “There is going to be trouble.”
A short time later, Semyon saw a man walking toward him, along the line. It was Vasily. His nose was bleeding.
“Where are you going?” cried Semyon. “What happened?”
Vasily came quite close. He was very pale, white as chalk, and his eyes had a wild look. Almost choking, he muttered: “Not to the main office, that’s for sure.”
“Vasily, you must file a complaint.”
“No, mate, it is too late. See! He struck me in the face, drew blood. So long as I live I will not forget. I will not leave it like this!”
Semyon took his hand. “I am giving you good advice. You will not better things…”
“Better things! I know myself I shan’t better things. It would be better for me not to do it, but one must stand up…”
“But tell me, how did it happen?”
“How? He showed me the paper, asked if I’d file the complaint. I knew he’d be mad when he found out, so I had done everything by the books, did my job perfectly. I said he’d been unfair to me.”
He immediately cried out: ‘Here we are trying to get the Silver line open, and you complain about getting written up. Once. The General Manager will be here, and mayors, and governors and you are bothering me with this.’ I lost patience and said something—not very much, but it offended him, and he struck me in the face. I stood still. I did nothing, just as if what he did was perfectly all right.”
“And what about your job?”
“I don’t know,” Vasily said, and collected himself. “Good-bye, Ivanov. I do not know what I will do.”
“Maybe you should see a lawyer.”
“I will think about it.”
They bade each other farewell. Vasily was absent the next day too.
On the big day, Semyon got to work early. Vasily was nowhere to be found.
Then the General Manager and all the VIPs boarded at Largo Town Center and rode to Metro Station. They all got out of the metro train and held a press conference.
Semyon heard on the radio that his section of the track should be cleared; they would come through soon. He took a last glance around; all appeared to be in perfect repair. Then he saw someone walking further down the tunnel. Semyon began to look more attentively. What did it mean?
There was no time to investigate. He walked to a station and climbed the platform. He watched the train full of VIPs pass. He heaved a sigh of relief. Now regular metro traffic would begin.
Then he went back into the tunnel, walked a little ways, and saw a man was squatting on the bed of the line, busily engaged in something. Semyon continued to walk quietly toward him. He thought it was someone after the nuts, which secure the rails. He watched, and the man got up, holding a crow-bar in his hand. He had loosened a rail, so that it would move to one side. A mist swam before Semyon’s eyes; he wanted to cry out, but could not. It was Vasily!
Semyon scrambled against the wall, as Vasily with crowbar and wrench began running headlong toward him.
“Vasily Stepanych!” Semyon said, when he stood before him. “My friend, give me the crow-bar. We will put the rail back; no one will know.”
“Give me your radio,” Vasily said, raising the crowbar. Semyon removed it from its holster and handed it over. “And your phone.” Semyon took it out of his back pocket and handed it over. “And your keys and tool belt.” Semyon removed them and handed them over.
Vasily turned and began running. Without looking back, he disappeared into the tunnel.
Semyon ran down the tracks, and soon stood before the rail which had been torn up. The next train would be along in two minutes, full of passengers. And he had nothing with which to stop it. No radio or phone; no key to change the switches, no way to turn the green light to red.
He could not replace the rail and could not drive in the spikes with his bare hands. It was necessary to run, absolutely necessary to run, to find someone or something. “God help me!” he murmured.
Semyon started running toward the station. He was running almost mechanically, blindly; he did not know himself what was to happen. He was out of breath, but still ran, falling once, and nearly touching the third rail. He was at the station opening when he heard the quiet, even tremor of the rails. His strength was exhausted, and he knew he’d never make it to the station manager’s office in time. He came to a halt.
“Oh, Lord! Have pity on innocent souls!” In his mind Semyon saw the train strike against the loosened rail with its left wheel, shiver, careen, and hit the tunnel wall.
All those sitting in the train now, never dreaming of danger. “Oh, Lord! Tell me what to do!…I must flag them somehow.”
Then an idea came into his head, literally like a ray of light. Pulling off his safety vest, he removed his white work shirt. He drew his pocket knife out of his pocket. He buried the knife in his left arm above the elbow; the blood spurted out, flowing in a hot stream. In this he soaked his shirt, then held his arm out, waving it. It was a red flag, the way trains used to be signaled to stop.
He stood waving his flag. The train’s light was in sight, coming through the tunnel. Would the driver see him? And heed him?
The blood kept on flowing. Semyon pressed the sides of the wound together so as to close it, but the blood did not diminish. Evidently he had cut his arm very deep. His head commenced to swim, black spots began to dance before his eyes, and then it became dark. There was a ringing in his ears. He could not see the train or hear the noise. Only one thought possessed him. “I will not be able to keep standing up. I shall fall and drop the flag; the train will pass by me.”
All turned black before him, his mind became a blank, and he dropped the flag; but the blood-stained banner did not fall to the ground. A hand seized it and held it high to meet the approaching train. The engineer saw it and slammed on his brakes.
People jumped out of the metro train and collected in a crowd. They saw a man lying senseless on the platform, drenched in blood, and another man standing beside him with a blood-stained shirt.
Vasily looked around at all of them. Then, lowering his head, he said to the transit policemen arriving: “Cuff me. I tore up the rail!”